(Copyright David Anthony Kearns. All rights reserved. For entertainment of the reader only, commercial use in any form prohibited.)
Nov. 17, 2014 Kissimmee Florida – Tim Stanton sat inside the roadside café diner with Sean Cogswell eating pumkin bread and gator tail.
“Already? He said that?”
“Yeah, he did, Tim.”
“You’re thinking it’s hot air, too soon?” Tim said flatly.
“Maybe it’s like you and Gus said. He’ll need to sweet talk me, so he can take some of that defense money from the Space Coast. They want to open a Savante industrial complex between Atlanta and Macon when the neural network gets the full nod,” Sean said.
“He told you about that? He was that open with you?”
“Naw, my guy Hernandez is looking in on things for me about the bill making it through the House. This is pork payoff,” Sean said.
“You may have to vote for all of that, so he doesn’t doubt your loyalty,” Tim said.
“Yeah, Timmy, uh, I don’t know man. I’m hearing some wicked things about this Bubbling business,” Sean said.
“I know but, THAT’S going to happen, with or without you. The shear tonnage of force behind that has mass, inertia. It can’t be stopped …it…”
Tim exhaled. He needed to calm down. With only his eyes and an annoyed expression, Sean had quietly reminded Tim, that he was the senator, and he would decide.
“Sorry, Senator. Look I meant no disrespect, you vote your heart. But from the plan’s perspective, my advice to you would be to sidle up to the guy. I mean, that’s the big game, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Sean said. He looked outside the limo and shook his head.
“You look tired, Seanny. What’s up?”
“Keep having these nightmares,” he said.
“And Afghanistan. I keep thinking about Ryan, and his son, Kyle. The boy looks so much like him now. Just breaks my heart the kid wants to go into the Marines. I don’t know what to say to him. He keeps emailing, texting me, tweeting,” Sean said.
“Talk to him. He looks up to his uncle, what’s wrong with that?”
“Goddamn it, Timmy. I wasn’t any kind of hero over there. I was as chicken-shit as they come. Training took over and saved my ass, nine times out of ten,” he said.
“What about the tenth time?” Tim said.
Sean leaned back in his seat and exhaled long and hard. “That? I don’t know what that was, and I still don’t understand it. I walked into a building filled with insurgents and walked out without a scratch. But, it wasn’t like it was me, it was like there was some force; like I knew where everyone would be,” he said.
“You remember when you told me your brother would talk to me at some point after he died?”
“I said that?”
“Yeah, the night we cremated him.”
“I guess so.”
“Maybe he talked to you, just at the right time. Maybe he speaks to you when you really need to hear it,” Tim said.
“I need to hear from him now. What do I tell Kyle? I mean we got this mess in the Philippines now, Pakistan is coming apart, Central America? Ryan would not want Kyle anywhere near all this,” Sean said.
“Hey, one thing at a time,” Tim said leaning across and grabbing Sean’s hands.
“That’s more of your training coming through,” Sean said, “How’s that going?”
Tim pulled out a white poker chip and laid it on the formica table-top.
“Thirty days. I get a green one next,” Tim said.
“What’s it like?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“If I hadn’t done it, I’d be dead in a year. I keep reminding myself this may not look like a war zone as you know it, Sean, but it is. Everything we’re finding out? Last week, Wellington and his wife came back with this data from this college in Christchurch, a list of additives they’ve found in cigarettes made since 2011?”
“Did you know Lyons-Kinnerly was putting crack fucking cocaine in the damned cigarettes?”
“No way,” Sean said.
“Way way. The mashed leaves go through a soak of some sort, and apparently that soak includes cocaine in solution. Of course there’s a Mexican brand without the crack, but uses the same process. The active in that soak? Crystal meth,” he finished.
“That’s an expensive process,” Sean said.
“Yeah, with malicious intent and a huge profit. Two birds, one stone.”
“So, what? Beer..?”
“Who knows? Tip of the iceberg.”
“What about the FDA?”
“Pfhhhhh…What about ‘em. C’mon Seanny. You know I started thinking about this and started asking myself about your brother’s behavior at the end, and how emotional he got, how much he was drinking and smoking. You know he smoked LKs?” Tim said.
“Timmy, Ryan was bi-polar,” Sean said.
“And I’m an alcoholic, and between the two maladies, there’s about a pendejo’s difference,” Tim said.
“I don’t know if this is something I can tackle just now, Tim. I wouldn’t even know where to start,” Sean said.
“Just focus on the plan, Sean. And drink wine if you must. So far the Kiwi and Aussie brands are coming up clean. As far as big tobacco, that will come out in The New York Times next week. Then it will be the FDA’s problem; that is if anyone will listen.”
“So, this is them,” Sean said.
“Seanny, what you will learn after looking at it for a while is, it’s always them. It has been them, it will go on being them, and it’s only going to get worse,” Tim said.
“You sound just like Ryan,” Sean said to this before asking; “Do you trust this guy, Wellington?”
“Why, because he’s a Kiwi?”
“Like your brother, on some of these things we go with our gut,” he said. “Now I better get back to the hotel before your man in the limo starts to wonder what’s up.”
“I hear you,” Sean said.
“Seanny, just remember one thing about your brother,” Tim said as he stood up.
“He didn’t kill himself; he allowed himself to be martyred,” Tim said. “There’s a big, big difference.”
Sean nodded. Tim was right. He needed to remember that.
Nov. 15 2014Dulce, New Mexico
Jennifer Epstein and Gus Torrence walked down three flights of stairs into a sub-basement fortress owned and operated by the U.S. Air Force. Gus was very nervous. Jennifer assured him through smiles that everything would be alright.
In front of them was a colonel named Epps. He used a card key to open a door into a spare looking room filled with light, a single table and three metal chairs. On their left was an enormous mirror.
Epps began by opening two dossiers.
“Dr. Epstein is cleared to be here but I don’t see that you are, Dr Terrence,” Epps said.
“Colonel, Dr. Torrence is a specialist in mechanical engineering structures, I thought he could …”
“That’s likely not the sort of expertise we need here,” Epps said.
“Well, in that I don’t know why I am here either, I thought of the best and brightest scientist engineer I knew when you called me,” Jennifer said.
“Camerdyne has been brought in to diagnose a problem for the Air Force, I can tell you that, but first, I need to ask Dr. Torrence a couple of question,” Epps said.
“That’s fine, shoot,” Gus said.
“What is your association with a Mr. Ryan Cogswell,” Epps said.
“Dr. Torrence, let me assure you, you are in the heart of a U.S. Air Force facility which is hyper-secure and miles from anywhere familiar to you. The way this works is, I ask…”
“Ryan was a co-worker who lived a couple of streets over from me in Indian Harbor Beach, Florida. I surfed with him a few times. Nice guy. I was sad to hear he had committed suicide,” Gus said.
“Did you know his brother, the U.S. senator?”
“Decorated Marine to boot. I was proud to hear he’d been elected.”
“Do you know Senator Cogswell?”
“Never met the man, personally,” Gus said.
“Yet, you say you are proud,” Epps said.
“I’m proud because I voted for him. He promised to do his part to clean up Washington. I was proud that family had a reason to experience a little joy after the death of Ryan, as was everybody who lived in Indian Harbor Beach, and Melbourne Beach, and everyone who knew him at Camerdyne, Colonel,” Gus said. “Does that answer your question?”
There was a long pause. Epps stared at Gus for a full ten seconds then closed the dossiers.
“What we have here, what I am about to show you, is some type of exposure which has had a seriously deleterious effect on some of our personnel,” Epps said.
“Out this door you will come to a hallway. On your left you’ll find a series of cubicles each of which opens to an individual cell, each of which contains one airman. No ranks will be revealed, hopefully, no family questions will be asked or answered. You have note pads at your disposal in the first cubical. You will be able to hear them, should they decide to speak, take down their stories, whatever information they give you. We need your impressions on whatever it is they may be suffering in a report, in five days. You’ll be given two hours in the Hall of …of ..”
“Of what?” Gus asked.
“Nothing just a little nickname they give it now, the Hall of Horrors. You’ll see,” Epps said. “Oh and, uh, Dr. Torrence, you’ll need to submit to a full lifestyle before you leave today,” Epps said.
“Yes, sir. You’ll be notified within sixty days, about your new clearance. Is there a problem with that?”
“No but, I had hoped y’all could get me back home by at least nine eastern standard,” Gus said.
“You, don’t expect a full lifestyles polygraph to be an extended affair, do you Dr. Torrence?” asked the officer somewhat menacingly.
“No, not at all,” Gus said.
“Good it, shouldn’t take anymore than an hour, two at the outside. Now, if you will…”
He escorted them into the Hall of Horrors and the two took up their seats before the first cubical. Gus noticed a pair of dark sunglasses next to each of the note pads.
“What are these for?” Gus asked.
“In case you need them, sir. I really can’t answer any questions at this point as it will skew what we’re trying to do here. So, listen to what, if anything, the airmen say; write your impressions, write a report, for which you will be paid handsomely,” Epps said.
“There’s a room at the other end of the hall, where I will wait for you with your confidentiality agreements,” he said and walked off.
The lights went on in the room before them. A man in an Air Force styled pajama and a bathrobe jumped from the bed and approached the window.
“How many times are you going to ask me these questions? My name is John Stearn, I am the pilot of the space vessel Collossus, I am thirty-five years old, Dr. Epstein. Doctor Torrence, no I do not know what materials the ship was made from precisely.
“We were a week out heading toward Zeta when something went wrong…”
“Slow down, slow down,” Jennifer said.
“From my perspective this is like the five-hundredth time you have asked me these questions, I am trying to jump ahead,” the man said approaching the window now in a frenzied fashion.
“Tell us about the propulsion system,” Torrence asked.
“The system is classified, which is what I told you the last time you asked me that,” Stearn said.
“Okay wait, from your perspective, this is the one hundredth time?”
“Are you people deaf, as well as stupid? It’s more like five hundred,” he said.
“I am sorry, airman,” Epstein said.
“No, I am sorry. Please forgive me,” he said.
“How long, did it take you to reach five hundred times telling us this, Airman Stearn?”
He stopped in his tracks. He was stumped. Soon the broadest of smiles crossed his lips. He looked like a boy who had just won the soup-box derby.
“That, was a good question, Dr. Epstein. Thank you,” Stearn said.
“Asking me a question you haven’t previously asked. And the excellent thing is, see? I don’t know the answer! Can you believe that!?”
“Doctor Epstein I just have to say I am a sucker for a woman with big brown eyes, did you know that?”
And now he was lost. He was just standing there with an enormous smile on his face.
“I love you,” he said, looking through the glass at her. “I really do love you, a lot.”
Gus clicked off the “speak” button.
“What the hell is this, Jen?”
“Quantum effect of some sort. Did you see the way he knew our names?”
“Maybe he’s psychic?”
“Maybe this is what psychic is all about?”
Jen pressed down the speak button but Stearn was undressing. He started singing Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You” so Epstein cut off the sound again.
“What the hell did he mean by Zeta?” Gus asked.
“Gee, Gus, I don’t know, the constellation Zeta Reticuli?”
“Could be Kathryn Zeta-Jones, for all we know,” Gus said.
She clicked the speak button, and Stearn smiled still undressing, singing Olivia’s smash hit.
He stopped, looked up at her and said without prompting; “yes, Zeta Reticuli, Dr. Epstein and I do honestly love you.”
“Okay, thanks,” she said, letting go of the speak button. “God this is weird, that was like my favorite song in seventh grade. I had a boyfriend…”
“He wants you to speak to him again. You’d better, he’s getting ready to take off his underwear Jen,” Gus intoned.
The sound came on and Stearn said, with a wry conspiratorial smile; “Martin Schroyer, Martin Schroyer…yeah, baby!”
The airman was writhing and dancing around the room, thrusting his pelvis back and forth, saying “Martin Schroyer, yeah!”
“Please don’t take off your underwear, airman,” Jen said.
“That’s not what you said last time, Dr. Jennifer Epstein,” the airman said.
“Jen, look at the glass, it must be a foot thick. Why would that be?” Gus asked.
“See if the airman knows,” Jennifer said.
“Airman what can you tell me about this glass?”
“From what they tell me, that is leaded-plexi with a titanium alloy in the mix, Dr. Torrence. It is there for your protection, as I must have told you now, like a hundred and ninety times,” Stearn said.
“It is there to combat some of the effects we are experiencing in here. I’ll be with you in a moment,” the airman said wandering over to a stainless steel john in the corner of the cell.
The airman, now naked, proceeded to urinate while continuing his song.
“You should back away from the glass at this time and please do not forget your eyewear,” he said holding up a finger.
The sound came like a wave down the hall as both scientists donned their glasses. It felt as though the earth was about to split open. Lights flashed from the other cells reflecting against the back of the hall. Neon bulbs in the facility dimmed and grew white hot in waves.
Laughter, the howls of hell, screams erupted from every cell, including the one occupied by Stearn. Inside his cell he seemed to levitate and twirl in the center of the room. Images flashed on the walls, monsters of indescribable horror in strobe succession appeared and disappeared like pop ups in some child’s book from the underworld. Some whirled with him in a dance, reptiles, dinosaurs, snakes, creatures that looked like lobstrocities, faster and faster in a cyclonic tornado of mayhem.
A green, electric wind smashed against the window. It seemed a paw-print of a bloodied, fanged beast smeared the glass, but the image soon evaporated.
Then, as soon as it began, the storm was over. There lay Stearn in the center of the room, naked.
“Sorry about that,” he said wiping spittle and vomit from his nose and mouth.
“John, can you tell me what happened to you out there,” Epstein said again.
“Jenny, so concerned for your fellow human being. This is what I deeply admire about you, darling.”
“Please John, try to concentrate,” she said.
“Tell me you love me again, Jenny,” he said.
“I love you, John. Okay?”
He rolled on his back still humming Olivia Newton John.
“Call me Johnny, like you did last time. Say, “I love you Johnny,’” he said.
She looked over at Gus and clicked off the speak button.
“He’s reliving this particular moment, over and over,” she said.
“Like that movie, Groundhog Day,” Gus said.
“Probably name the scenario after the movie, yeah,” she said. “In these other frames of reference, I must have tried everything to get him to talk, and over the course of it all, from his perspective, he bonded with me,” she said, wiping a tear from her eyes.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Gus said.
“So horrible,” she said, letting out another tear or two. “It’s just so fucking horrible. They must have gone into deep space at light speed then back again some other way. They must have done it poorly…and…quantum corruption, embolism, temporal shift”
“He’s waving again. He wants to talk to us,” Gus said hitting the speak button.
“Jenny, c’mon,” Stearn said.
“I love you Johnny, now please can you…”
“You guys shouldn’t stay here too long, okay? Gus? Get her out of here as fast as you can,” he said.
“Because freaking Plexiglas won’t stop you from catching this, whatever it is. You can get sick too, okay?”
Gus clicked the speak button again but Stearn just waved his middle finger at them.
“This monkey isn’t talking to you anymore, doctors, so good day now,” he said.
Gus moved to press the speak button again but in a micro-second, Stearn had sprang from a prone position, moved a distance of twenty five feet across the room and was standing right in front of the glass.
“Get her the fuck out of here now, Gus!” he screamed. Stearn reared back and slammed his fist into the glass as hard as he could, sending a shudder through the room and putting a dent in his side of the screen. The dent began to heal itself. Stearn’s wrist sustained a compound fracture.
The two got up and backed away.
“Thanks for stopping. See you next time,” Stearn chimed sweetly.
The thunderous sounds and catterwalling began again within all of the thirteen cells, only louder than before. Lights, winds, sounds of every imaginable creature, extant and non. Someone was screaming a litany, a roll call of violent conflicts into the future.
“War with the Chinese over water rights, Antarctica 2019. War on mars with Europa, 2037 over archeological and mineral resources.. War with reptile nation on the moon for rights to the ice reserves 2038…war, war war war!”
They burst through the exit at the other end of the hall and slammed the door behind them. Jennifer held her chest, and nearly vomited.
“Well that was quick,” said Epps nonchalantly.
“You want us to go back?” Gus said.
“Not necessary. My job was to give you up to two hours if you chose to stay. You actually lasted longer in there than most of the staff,” Epps said.
“You should call that the Hall of Heroes, for what those people have been through, Colonel,” Gus said.
“You are not to tell me anything about what you witnessed or experienced. We can’t read you into this fully, until you are vetted for it,” Epps said.
“Would you like a glass of water, Dr. Epstein?” he asked in mock chivalry.
“Yes, please,” she said, taking a seat.
“Make that two, if you would please, Colonel,” Gus said with disdain.
Epps left the room.
Gus was about to speak with Jennifer openly and she could sense it. Her eyes darted to the large mirror beside the table. They were being watched and recorded no doubt.
Gus merely sighed.
Jennifer realized that those people in those cells were hopeless cases. The Air Force couldn’t do anything for them, and they likely had as much information to make their own determinations about what had happened to them as they were ever going to get. Having her and Gus here was more about testing her and Gus, than anything they could learn about the effects of deep space travel.
She took her pencil and wrote two letters on the pad ‘SH’, then erased them.
Safe House, thought Gus. He looked at her questioningly, and she nodded. They were on the same page. They should not discuss anything about this until they reached the safe house, in Palm Bay, Florida.