It was dark across the board.
It was always dark.
Delgado rubbed his bald head and scanned the dead console before getting up. He crossed the room, avoiding the trash can positioned under the drip in the ceiling, and popped into the kitchen. The linoleum counter, decked out in a pattern of stylized atoms and swirling starts, had long ago refused to convey any luster. He wiped a rag across it out of habit and noticed that it now shunned any appearance of cleanliness as well.
Pouring himself a cup of coffee from the only new appliance in the house, he read the time from the pink stove’s manual clock. Little hand on the ten, big hand on the six, red hand pulsing at the nine over and over like it always did. Seconds had long ago ceased to register in this place.
“I left the service for this shit?”
His question died in the fluorescent light of the aged kitchen.
“Join the weathermen: Learn the truth.” His arms waved in the air, conjuring up the truth of the ancient Gnostics then dashing it away in disgust. “Learn a bunch of impossible nonsense is more like it!”
He slumped back into the converted living room of the post-war ranch house, absently nudging the trash can. It sloshed in sympathy. He gazed upon the ripples and said, “Here I am at the ass end of top secret. It’s late on a Friday night … I’m here in LA and instead of … I don’t know … partying with the low-lifes … anything really … I’m doing monitor duty.”
He flopped into his chair and examined the dead display. A map of the United States lay stretched across old plywood. Tiny lights poked through the board at every city. It looked like a kid’s science fair project. This was where monitor duty began and ended. This was the job. After six months of the most bizarre tactical training, this was it. Delgado wrinkled up his nose as if he had just smelled something rotten, fishy. A new drop in the bucket gave a defensive “Bowip.”
“This is a test. This has got to be some kind of long range test,” he looked up and said to the camera he imagined was recording him. Impatience and anger covered his face. “Well I’m not abandoning my post! I don’t care if nothing ever happens! I won’t be derelict in my duty! A marine never doubts his mission! Even if that thing never lights up, I’ll keep looking at it’s dead ass.”
An accusing finger pointed at the board, he struck his most defiant and patriotic pose. His drill Sargent would have been proud.
Without any fanfare, a single small light blinked on. The strong young man tilted his head like a confused puppy, and dared a glance at his fingertip before pulling his hand back.
The light flickered a bit, then stayed on as Delgado stepped around the bucket and sat down in the chair. After a quick scan of the room, he went through his training. A light meant activity. There was a protocol for activity.
He reached for the red Lucite phone with the single button. North Florida. He’d report North Florida. He mashed the single red button. The hotline phone poured out loud static into his ear. Seconds later it dangled by its curled cord as Delgado raced down the low hallway. He got to the end and knocked on a dark wood door.
“Belatran, wake up! We’ve got a hit and the hotline phone is down.”
Behind the door came a grunt followed by a single word. “Where?”
“Hogstown Florida. Ever heard of it?”
Sheets rustled behind the door then an older man with slicked back grey hair poked his head out. “Fuck,” he said, his eyes bloodshot and puffy but filled with shock. As if in a daze, he wandered down the hall, still in his boxer shorts and black socks.
After he hung up the red phone, he reached under the front lip of the map-board, with its single red light in North Florida and pulled up. Old hinges complained as the board lifted and opened to show a nest of wires. The wires were all hooked into the board at one end and into a strange device no bigger than a brick at the other.
“What the hell?”
Belatran held up the device once it was free of the wires. It looked to be a smooth and solid chrome brick, showing no signs of the previous connections. “Training’s over Delgado. This is the most advanced technological device on the planet and it just told us that we have a job on our hands. Time to get cracking.” He tossed the device to the young bald man, who juggled it like it was radioactive.
“What about the map thingie?”
He smirked. “That thing? Hazing ritual. Every weatherman has stared at that thing for a year before getting the full scoop. The ones that give up we cut. Keeps out the quitters and malcontents. We only have so many staff slots.”
Belatran had his head in the box of wires as he spoke. “At nine months, you got off easy.” He looked at the contraption. “Then again, you were the only one to have a light turn on, and that means the hard part’s just getting started.”
Delgado’s face screwed up. He and the bucket stood side by side in the middle of the room, both equally equipped to handle the paradigm shift. “So you are saying this whole thing is made up?”
The bucket caught another drop of water with an equally questioning “Bwoip!?”
“No.” the answer came out in an apologetic sing-song filtered through years of Pal-Mals. “This is really the office. That air conditioner on the roof really leaks and all the things you thought were fake-out training exercises were actually true. And on top of all that, we’re deploying, which means I need to install your upgrades on the Jet in route. So it’s all more real than you thought, especially the stuff you thought was crap.” He lowered the map back into place and pointed. “Except the phone. That hasn’t worked since Nixon.”
The younger man shook his head. “Nixon? Wait… what do you mean ‘upgrades?'”
Wandering down the hall in his shorts, Belatran said, “Pack your shit. We’re going to Hogstown.”
The door slammed, leaving Delgado standing in the converted living room stunned to silence.
“We have a Jet?”
“Bouip!” the bucket reported, catching yet another drop. Delgado looked at his refection resolving from the dying concentric ripples in the water bucket. The man who stared back looked resolute, but he wasn’t quite so sure
Goldberg found that he was staring at the ceiling. Just above his head, a box fan propped open a window. Long ago, the window had lost the ability to remain open unaided and in the summer heat, the fan was both permanent and necessary. The lazy morning air was not inclined to wander in the window without encouragement, even though it carried less weight after dropping its dew. The sound of the fan was a welcome balm on Goldberg’s mind as he stared at the tongue and groove ceiling and the peeling whitewash.
The light on the ceiling held a hint of green from its ricochet off the trees outside as well as the yellow of the low sun. There was no recollection of waking up for Goldberg. Just like any other day it just sorta happened. One moment he was asleep, next moment he was awake, usually looking at exactly what he’s looking at now. Just like any other day.
His mind soaked in the hum of the fan and the grooves of the ceiling, piecing his life back together. It stumbled a little when it got to last night. Up to that moment things went together in smooth blocks and straight lines, even the messy bits. But last night wanted to fit in like a blob of goo in the midst of the odd order of Goldberg’s existence.
‘Must have been a dream,’ He thought. ‘It wouldn’t have been the first evening I’d erased forever by smoking and drinking with Dan. That’s much more likely.’
He lay back and kept staring at the ceiling, watching the light move as the air outside found motivation enough to rustle the foliage. ‘So wait a second,’ he thought. ‘What if she really is here? What if I turn my head and see her? Does that mean it all came true? Do I want it to be true? I mean, my life may be pretty mediocre, but at least it’s predictable. How could I handle all that, dating someone actually…capable? Challenging even?’ He let it linger without mental comment.
After more moments watching the light play on the old wood plank ceiling, a cramp in his back and pressure from his balder forced the issue. With a quick motion, he rotated his feet and sat on the edge of the bed. He looked over his shoulder before he had a chance to give it any more consternation.
Joy Winter’s dark, tousled hair was strewn across the other pillow, obscuring her face. Her pale shoulder peeked out from under the thin white sheet as her curves propped it up in all the right places.
He looked at it as if it were a crime scene. What had he done? This was an irrecoverable act. The Rubicon.
Then she stirred and looked up at him through the strands of hair. “Hey Tiger.”
Speechless, Goldberg finally noticed his nakedness and his brain stripped gears – wondering if it would be a deal breaker to put last nights slightly used underwear on in front of this beautiful creature.
Long fingers came up from under the sheet and brushed her hair back. She was smiling. “Can you hand me the hair scrunchy? I think it landed over there someplace”
“Oh! Uh, sure.” He recovered it from a heap of clothes and tossed it over, covering himself with old shorts.
The beautiful girl mumbled with a smile. “Mmm. Early. You sleep OK?”
“Uh, huh.” He shook off the cobwebs of disbelief. His life had just taken a very dramatic turn. Best, he thought, to try to roll with it. “I – I’m just an early riser. Thinking of getting coffee and stuff. You?”
She pulled the covers up a little and said, “MMmmh. Slept so well, ‘m considering extra innings. You wore me out.” Her bleary eyes looked through the mess of tussled hair. “Can you get a paper if you’re going out?”
He pulled his shorts on and said, “Sure. You will be here when I get back, right? You aren’t some dream?”
“Of course I’m a dream,” she said, grinning a sleepy grin, “but I’ll be here. You just try to get rid of me now, Mr. Goldberg.” She rolled over and snuggled into the pillow.
Goldberg made to go, feeling like the luckiest man alive.
The white van pulled onto a remote road spitting gravel from the tires and splashing sandy mud up from a rut. A few miles down, it pulled off the side of the road and rolled to a stop, partially covered by some low scrub brush. The morning light came sideways through the branches and turned the ground from the gray of night to the orange of fallen pine needles mixed with sand and the occasional leaf. Heavy dew soaked into this orange ground clutter, pacifying its explosive potential. If nature and weather ever allowed it to bake dry, the very ground here would become as flammable as a match
“This place safe Bee?” Mr. Aye said, peering out of one of the van’s square rear windows. In the middle bench seat, the small woman worked one strong, tan shoulder free of the black coverall of the infiltration suit.
“No, but it will do for now… unless you want to go back.” She pulled her other arm free and shrugged the top of the garment down around her waist exposing a body as hard and efficient as a fine dagger.
Mr. Aye scoffed. “No. Here’s good.”
The driver rolled down the window as the two in the back changed into street clothes. Half way through the driver tipped his head and said into a mic. “Yes, Mr. Loveless, hold on.” He hit a button and said into the back, “Loveless wants to talk to you.”
“I told him I’d talk to him in person, Carl,” Bee said.
In the front seat, the thin man just shrugged. “Boss wants to talk to both of you and said, and I quote, ‘Later is no longer an option I am going to put up with.'”
“Fine. His prerogative, but if this invites more problems, I’m charging him extra.” Bee and Aye both grabbed their headsets and fed them over their ears. Bee checked a readout on her watch and said “Line secure. Bee and Aye here.”
“So, you went with the wet option. The option of absolute last resort? Not the most…”
“Sir,” Ms. Bee cut in, “it was our only choice. The Collector made us. He saw our faces. He would have known something was up and… Mr. Loveless, with respect, I tried to talk to you about this contingency. It wasn’t as much of a longshot as you wanted to believe, given the erratic behavior exhibited by the mark. That’s why we brought the equipment in the van.”
“Yes, I know. I’m just unpleasantly surprised.” A sigh came through the channel. “I’m not comfortable with surprises like that. And we seem to be running into quite the string of them. I don’t like it. This is an unexpected complication inside the already unfathomable situation. That I, of all people, have had my computer systems compromised by this ‘Collector’ character…” Quietly, he added, “This isn’t right.”
“I understand, Sir, but we went over this with my cyber-security guys. By the look of things, the guy was hitting sites at random. I really don’t think he knew what he had and we never found evidence that he cracked that wacky encryption you put on what he copied. As for, his attack, he was either very skilled, very lucky, or had inside info. We are as good as it gets and he simply found the hole.” Bee’s hands flopped down on her lap. “It happens. That’s why you hired my team.”
Alexi Loveless’s breath drew short. “Nothing ever ‘Just happens.'” He barked. “Actions are always reactions, and I am certain I have no moles in my outfit. Everything has a precursor, including treachery. Everything, that is, except our current problem it seems. I’m sorry… problems.” Again, the channel carried the sound of Loveless’s warbled breathing. “So, tell me Ms. Bee, are these problems solved yet?”
“Almost. The incendiaries are set for six thirty. Half hour. It will look exactly like a gas explosion, but we needed it to reasonably coincide with The Collector’s breakfast schedule for the cover story to wash. And we wanted to be away from the scene when it happened.”
The line went silent for a moment before Loveless spoke. “Let me get this straight. We are waiting for a dead guy to wake up and have breakfast? Bee, I need information! Send someone to take pictures at the scene. Carl can drive them. Use the sedan, it’s out that way.”
“I don’t recommend it, Mr. Loveless.”
Loveless’s voice went cold. “I don’t care. I will not operate in a vacuum. I need data! Aye, for all his shortcomings, has done recon before. Send him back.”
“You think he should return to the scene of the crime?”
“What I think is advisable doesn’t exactly hold sway anymore, does it!? I think that we shouldn’t have had to kill the guy and destroy the property in the first place – it’s counterproductive and sloppy, but now that we are in that situation, I want to know how it happens, and who, if anyone, tries to interfere. You think your plan is foolproof, but I see many flaws and unknowns. The only way to cover that is with people on the ground observing. Taking pictures and making notes and you have the experience to do it right. I’d send Carl, but he’d miss something.”
“I will send Mr. Aye.”
“Good! Maybe he will think twice before screwing up and getting a civilian killed for no reason.”
“I am on this call, you know,” Mr. Aye cut in.
“Good! Listen and shut up. I’ve paid you well, Bee. I expect you to keep your people in line and carry out my wishes. If you can keep them from fucking up, that would be a plus.”
“Your wishes are starting to become expensive for you.”
“I noticed. So far, we’re all liability and no payoff. Get me my pictures. Everyone going near that thing for the next hour and a half.”
“Fine. Aye will go, but you and I need to talk, Mr. Loveless.”
“That’s probably a good idea. You know where I am. And Mr. Aye, try not to kill anyone this time. I’m sending Carl with you to keep your ass in line.”
The line went dead and Ms. Bee and Mr. Aye took off their mics. Bee tilted her head toward the driver’s seat. “Hey Carl, where’s that contingency car we left out here?”
Up in the driver’s seat, Carl sat asleep at the wheel. Aye slapped him on the neck and he startled.
“Nice to know you are paying attention,” Ms. Bee said. “Get us to the contingency vehicle. Your boss has sent you and Mr. Aye to do recon.”
“Can’t Aye do recon solo?”
Mr. Aye growled, “What? You got a date or something? Just drive the fucking car.”
Ms. Bee shook her head as Mr. Aye turned back around. The van rocked out of its parking spot and drove away.