night.blind: 03.1.1: 30 June 2005: Paul Hughes.
24 July 2005: Paul Hughes.
Netta White was a good wife.
"Boy Warren," she pointed the kitchen knife at him, "you ask
me again, I'll beat your eyes uncrooked, you hear?"
She hated carrots, but Milo, home not even a day yet from harvest,
loved them. She chopped another, more forcefully than
need be, carving faint lines into the block.
"Taters is dirty, Netta."
"Th'ain't taters, old woman," but Netta looked down and noticed
that she'd chopped a carrot without washing it first.
She was preoccupied-- Milo hadn't come home from the Grange
yet, and somewhere at the back of her mind, something dark and
prickly tickled. She felt ill.
"Milo home from harvest yet, Netta?"
"No-- Yes. He's home. Just gone a vis'ting next
"You've got t'have a good corn broom, Ne--"
"Don't you start with that broom shit, old woman!" Netta
slammed the knife down to the block. Trouble is, her finger
was between the knife's airborne position and its resting place
on the criss-crossed wood. She yelped out at the flare
of pain and watched as blood welled up from the point where
her left index fingertip was suddenly three millimeters shorter.
She bundled her left hand into a dishrag to prevent any more
special seasoning on the chopped carrots.
Boy Warren looked a green shade of brown. He didn't have
a stomach for blood, could barely stand the sight of spaghetti
sauce. God had given him a different kind of brain.
"Just a cut, boy. You sit down next your gramma and don't
think about it. Just a little cut."
The dishrag wasn't exactly soaked through yet.
"Mama..?" It was quiet. Gentle. Her son's
simple mind broke her simple heart daily.
"Ma, you tell Warren about that broom while I get this finger
Louisa Black-White's eyes lit up as brightly as her age and
conditioned allowed, her unnaturally-straight top plate of teeth
and jagged bottom row shining out. You could have parked
a truck in the smile-lines around her eyes, some of which had
formed back when her folk still had to sit in the back and shit
someplace else. She pulled her corn broom close, held
it out to the boy.
As Netta climbed the stairs up to the bathroom and the Band-Aids,
she heard a fading monologue: "Take yuh god-damn Swiffuhs..."
She was worried about Milo.
* * *
Milo was a little worried, himself.
There was something behind Rockland's black eyes as they looked
at Milo's brown suit, a flicker residing somewhere between recognition
She returned his salute, tripped over a word or two before:
He held the salute until she dropped hers. He surveyed
the fruit salad and scrambled eggs of her uniform. "Major
"Jesus. Just--" Her mouth worked over concepts she
couldn't yet vocalize, a big mouthful of saltwater taffy.
He caned over to a utilitarian office chair and watched her
follow. She sat beside him, not behind the desk.
"It's-- I never--"
"Mmhmm." He couldn't help but smile. "Long time,
"We've been here for--"
"--and I never made the connection." She reached to the
desk and palmed a glasstop. "'Milo' White?"
"Lotsa niggas named White, sir. No reason for you to know
we was neighbors. No reason for me to know whatever this
is was under the Grange, neither."
"But what-- You weren't 'Milo' back in the service."
"Ya'll called me 'Whitey.' Ain't nobody called me Milo
in the service."
"Jesus." Rockland slumped back into her chair, heading
shaking to the rhythm of a million neurons sparking to life.
"Now you gonna tell me what this place is, or should I just
go home? Wife'll be worried."
"Whitey, fucking cover me!"
29 July 2005: Paul Hughes.
Second Lieutenant Milo White threw himself over the baked-mud
bricks of a crumbled wall older than most American states, the
blunted edges of the bricks knocking into his near-empty stomach,
and strafed the clear expanse of dust and sand beyond the wall's
edge with more than a handful of his remaining rounds.
A half dozen hands flew up to secure a half dozen helmets on
a half dozen heads as rocket fire responded.
The figure to Milo's left disregarded the explosions and poured
himself around the wall's remnants, picking his targets left
and right, dispatching them one saddam, one shot. A stream
of bullets encouraged his feet to dance as he slammed down against
the next outcropping of bricks.
"Crazy fucking--" Captain Sabra Aliyah grunted something non-English--
"German." She checked her magazine, which was nearly empty.
There was nothing for it, now; they were pinned down and needed
to get out, one way or another. The weight of her special
cargo pressed into her flak tunic, but she didn't want to deploy
"Let's go. White, Cleary, Bennigan, Stanhope-- Move!"
As she thrust around the wall's edge, White opened up on the
unseen enemy, controlled bursts. Aliyah immediately felt
at least three insurgent slugs pop into the first layer of her
spidersilk armor, and one lucky hit kerranged off the top of
her pot, knocking the helmet off and leaving one side of her
regulation-length black hair free-flowing. An intricate
internal mathematics and probability routine, instinctual at
that point, punched the numbers, and she rotated to ten o'clock
and put a bullet through the forehead of a sniper atop a building.
Another. And another. And a dry ratchet as her rifle
emptied, clanging the magazine into the dirt. She dropped
the rifle and withdrew her pistol.
Bennigan, always a lumbering waste of a soldier, bought it on
the run, his considerable weight falling to ground in her path.
A swift bend and she snagged his gun, kept on running.
Cleary and Stanhope made it to the second wall without incident.
She turned to see White running after her, backward, his laser
sight sweeping forth and back in search of a target. She
didn't look long; bullets sung around her, not a solo act, but
a great symphony.
The second wall afforded a little more cover than the first;
it was what remained of two walls joined together. She
skidded down into the cozy corner formed by their joining.
She could smell the silk of her armor burning with fresh bullet
Harris Stanhope was holding a glove to his face, and blood sopped
through the fingers. At her gaze, he shook his head, indicating
that the wound was superficial. Bennigan was dead behind
them, Cleary was untouched, and White--
The sound of his scream only hastened her visual appraisal of
Not twenty feet away, Aliyah looked fast enough to see White's
right leg scissored off by a burst of fire. The man stumbled
forward on one leg and fell with a sickening thump to the ground,
leaving half of his leg an inconsiderate distance away from
home. Blood jetted out from the stump, and White rolled
into a fetal position, attempting to keep it in.
"Leave him." The voice was calm, composed, his accent
as disquieting in its subtlety as it was quiet. "Get that
weapon ready, soldier."
Aliyah turned to meet the bluest eyes drilling into her.
Colonel Karsten Nacht, the first man to the second wall, cut
a gaze into and through her. "Deploy that weapon, Captain.
Leave the nigger for dead."
09 August 2005: Paul Hughes.
Time segments in the swift brutality of war. In less than
the space of one inhalation, an enemy bullet sheared off the
bridge of Cleary's nose, entered his skull above his right eye,
and bounced around for a while in the bone and steel confines
of his head and helmet before exiting through his throat.
The right side of his face peeled off deceptively easily, leaving
his bare, untouched eye to hang, confused, while the meat of
him fell to the dirt. In less than the space of an exhalation,
Karsten Nacht saw Cleary die, disregarded the event, and knocked
Aliyah against the wall, bloodying her lip. He popped
the releases on her ruck and pulled three slender metal tubes
and a composite box from the pack.
"Stan!" Nacht barked. The newb was staring at Cleary's
fractured form. His head snapped up.
"Cover fire. Don't let them flank."
The young man nodded and took the edge of the wall.
Aliyah let her lip bleed as she checked Bennigan's rifle.
Empty. Lines of red tacked down her chin and dripped to
her breastplate. The camoflage routine struggled to outpace
the arrival of new color, adjusting the scarlet to dust.
It finally gave up.
"Need help assembling that, sir?" The bite to her
voice was a mouthful.
"Anschlag." Nacht screwed another barrel into place.
"Just get your switches in place. Stan-- You hear that?"
"Sir?" Stanhope sent off three more slugs at the approaching
"Get your fucking phones on!"
Stanhope came down from the wall's edge, his rear hitting the
join of corner securely. His rifle between his feet, he
slid both thumbs behind his ears, activating the nerve cutoffs
implanted there. The cacophony of weapons fire and battle
language stopped abruptly. He looked to see Nacht aim
an inquisition at him, and he gave the thumbs-up, signalling
that he was ready.
Nacht locked the third barrel in place and screamed up the spinner
She wasn't watching him, so he grabbed her shoulder. Thumbs-up
He shut his ears off, left then right. So much of battle
is sound-- situating incoming fire, ricochets, air support and
radio comms. He'd had to teach himself to step into deafness
without losing his resolve.
Nacht threw one look at his remaining command, each huddled
against the wall's bottom, hands over ears, although they'd
already done as much as possible to protect themselves.
He knew they'd have a hell of a hangover, if they actually got
out of this.
He spun up the infrasonic weapon, checking the output as it
began to vibrate. The enemy would first hear a roar like
an aircraft engine, lowering swiftly to a disconcerting feedback
loop, and then they'd hear nothing at all. It was ready:
3.7Hz at 200dB. The weapon's violent shaking had stopped;
Nacht had matched resonating frequency with its carbide exterior.
Nacht stood and pointed the infrasonic gun over the wall.
09 August 2005: Paul Hughes.
Drei Drehbeschleunigungen-- bilden Sie sie Zählimpuls.
Shot one: he swathed the focal point across the base of the
largest building, the vantage point the most effective of the
snipers had chosen. The structure gave a confused shriek
as fifteen feet of its bottom support splintered into a cloud
of dust and hyper-resonated grit. It tumbled the subtraction
after a microsecond of air support, the four new bottom corners
slamming home on the glassy surface, bursting bricks outward
into a heap. There were bones and blood in that mess.
The first sub chamber started to crack. As it blackened,
Nacht ejected the tube, and the second mechanism slid into place.
Shot two: the brand-new pile of rubble was low enough to reveal
three heavy troop carriers and one fuel truck that had until
the screaming began been shielded by the building's mass.
Enemy combatants ran toward the trucks, and one started to jerk
forward, its electronics confused by the new sound of war.
Nacht aimed the sound gun at the fuel truck. It was a
brilliant explosion, leveling five and one-half of the surrounding,
smaller buildings. He ducked beneath the wall's edge in
time to save most of his eyebrows. He saw Stanhope frantically
snuffing a dollop of fire from his silk.
The second chamber was a dark gray. Jettison and reload
and over the wall again.
Final shot-- make it count.
He adjusted the output field to maximum range and fed it a five-second
delay. An athlete of considerable quality, Nacht bent
into a twirl, the gun held before him, and swung it as hard
as he could in the general direction of the majority of the
fire. That majority had been reduced exponentially.
The weapon pirouetted over the wall, watched by a dozen tearing
eyes from six hiding spots, under bricks and through the shattered
windows of the rubbled huts. The gun reached critical
in mid-air, in mid-spin, and the shockwave was immense.
If Nacht's team hadn't turned off their ears and been shielded
by what little cover the junction of walls could provide, they'd
have been jellied. The enemies were.
Picking himself off the ground, Nacht thumbed his nerves alive
and listened for any incoming fire. He couldn't imagine
that anyone still in the expanse of cracked rock and liquefied
meat would be able to pull a trigger, but still, he listened.
Silence, except the wind, because some things are constant;
some things ignore the trivialities of war and life.
His stomach lurched a little, and his temples throbbed.
Even with the nerves off, he knew he'd feel the infrasonic aftereffects
for hours, days. Every molecule connecting every piece
of him had just been jiggled a little out of line.
He stood, looked over the wall. Aliyah and Stanhope did
The exposed face of the wall had been powdered six inches thick
from the shockwave. The village was gone. The snipers
"Shit. Whitey!" Aliyah ran.
Nacht grabbed a handful of powdered mud and watched it drift
lazily in the wind. He turned to see the woman drop to
White's side, hands moving over him in inspection.
The newb beside him cleared his throat, worked his jaw, which
could feel for a time after an infrasonic exposure as if it
had been punched out of place. "Sir," Stanhope nearly
whispered, "what now? Should we get their guns?
We don't have--"
"Can't touch those guns now, unless you don't want to keep your
White was signaling a feeble thumbs-up from his grasp on the
desert floor. Aliyah applied pressure to the stump where
once he'd had a leg.
Nacht had no great feeling for the jew or the nigger, but he
had to respect the man's ability to deactivate his ears while
bleeding out. Had to respect the amount of focus it took
to remain conscious and cognizant enough in the middle of that
firefight to see that the scream was coming.
He turned to Stanhope. "Help her tie off that leg.
Then we walk."
12 August 2005: Paul Hughes.
The mission had been simple enough, but sometimes "simple" really
means "eight of your men will die."
Babylon had had growing pains.
Day by day, the definition of "Middle East" blurred as further
as the boundaries that now stretched from between the Black
and Caspian, the Mediterranean, the Red and the Arabian, and
all the gulfs within. We can attempt to gauge civilization
with salt water and mountains, but once the rot has spread,
once the idealism has metastacized and cities begin to disappear,
sometimes the old rules are overwritten and deeper desires emerge.
Once the mujahid had leveled halves of the oldest cities, problematic,
proud nations had softened their resistance to the idea that
evil does in fact exist, and some of the most potent exists
under the direction of gods.
Babylon was our name, not theirs, for the place that had once
served as a cradle and had now become an obsolete wasteland.
Oil? Nobody really depended on it anymore. Once
that displaced sense of purpose really hit home (to the insurgents
and to the eco-warrior nuts alike), the world suffered from
some identity crises. One crisis was fundamentalist cohesion.
The other was the international police force required to fight
"Can we--" the newb's face was a sickly shade of gray.
"What do we--?"
"What?" Nacht had little patience for Americans.
His dual citizenship meant that he hated himself every other
"The leg. What do we do with--"
"But what if--"
"By the time we get back to the world, it'll be weeks rotten."
Nacht exhaled smoke. No bullets, but plenty of cigarettes.
Babylon was one of the few places on the planet where you could
still legally smoke, and the rich, potent tabak stung his eyes
in a lost lover's embrace. "He'll be dead before we--
you-- can carry him a mile."
White, in and out of consciousness, but in enough at that moment
to overhear, scoffed.
Nacht threw his cigarette butt at the detached leg, where fire
struggled against the wet of blood and reflective edges of eleven
thousand grains of sand, groaned for purchase on the composite
legging, but smoldered off a surrender.
"Where to, sir?" The jew still had the burr to
her voice. She sandwiched the propped White with Stanhope.
"The Riyadh glass zone begins about twenty clicks--" he noted
the sun, the shadows, the internal mechanisms of direction,
"--that way. That'll put us within IPF pickup range."
"Lot of bad ground that way, Colonel." The newb broadcast
his newb fear like a pair of plaid pants in church.
"It's all bad ground. Start walking."
* * *
18 August 2005: Paul Hughes.
She didn't scream when they raped her. Didn't scream when
they killed the other IPF hostage hanging next to her, a swift
pop pop pop of three stabs through the ribs and into her
heart. Didn't even scream when they hefted the chains higher
in the pulley, ratcheting her arms out of shoulder sockets, leaving
her to hang in sparking, flaring, flesh-stretched agony.
In fact, she didn't scream at all.
Sabra Aliyah had been taught to focus fury.
It had been bad ground for three days, worse ground for four.
By the end of the first week, Whitey dragged along behind them
in a makeshift sledge, his leg stinking and the tendrils of
rot rapidly spreading higher, they had started to wonder if
Riyadh actually existed at all, or if the entire world had devolved
into the scrubby, harsh sea of dust and nothing that lay to
Through it all, they never swapped characters. The maniac
German seemed almost chipper as he walked ahead of the mules,
and his eyes only downcast a marginal degree when he'd smoked
the last of his tabak. The mules dragged on, first carrying
White between them, then gladly swapping carry-power with pull-power
when an abandoned "farm" (the dried skeletons of two goats the
only true indication) had yielded enough lumber and aluminum
siding to construct a rough A-frame for everyone's favorite
amputee. Aliyah maintained her grating verbal conflict
with Nacht. Stanhope didn't say much; his face often broadcast
the confused, shrugging acquiescence to duty typical of the
once-eager, now-in-the-shit soldier. White tried to lighten
the overall mood with strings of jokes about one-legged men,
but once the stink got bad, he shut up, as if even opening his
mouth would allow a taste of his impending death, the cloud
of stink a tangible thing, coating tongue and scratching down
The corpse hanging next to Aliyah didn't yet have that aroma,
but it would.
"You want this?"
She didn't answer. The interrogator licked the blade with
a tongue laced with the scars of a dozen other tastes.
Add cannibalism to the list of transgressions.
"Answer me. Do you?"
Maybe it was the firming of her jaw, maybe the bead of sweat
that escaped from the tangle of her eyebrow to roll down her
cheek, but introduced to, wined, and dined on Aliyah's silence,
the interrogator turned back to the dead hostage and gutted
it, the coils of gut and meaty flap of more intricate organs
slapping wetly and ungently to the floor. Aliyah didn't
turn from the scene.
"You do." There was a smile across his animal face, stippled
as it was with blood fresh and old, merging neatly into the
orthodox beard, abstract, impressionist. "You'll die before
you tell me."
This time, she smiled. If she'd enough, she'd have spit.
Something flared behind the saddam's eyes. He tried again.
"Name, rank, company." At her silence, he motioned to
his colleague, who leaned farther back against the chain, lifting
Aliyah off the ground a little more, suspended solely on skin
and muscle, her bones floating around in bleeding, torn crevaces.
"Why are you in Babylon?"
There was a scream from somewhere-- she assumed there was a
hall. She assumed the scream came from down it.
The timbre hinted at Stanhope. She hoped he wasn't dead,
but wasn't even sure if he was the one who'd screamed.
The blow bomb had erased an indeterminable amount of time from
her internal logs.
"IPF? What was your outsource?" He looked over her
body, hung as it was like a side of beef. "Betak?"
At that, she tried to disguise her unrest, but wasn't entirely
The interrogator let half a grin pull at the side of his mouth.
"A Jew." The pull released, and his gaze was icy.
"In my homeland. A Betak Jew." His fingertips worked
over the friction-taped grip of his blade. "We have a
place for you." A nod to his companion, and the chain
released, spilling Aliyah to the hardmud floor "We have
better men than I am for animals like you, praise Allah."
A great shattered chunk of Sabra Aliyah's life had begun.
* * *
24 August 2005: Paul Hughes.
Young Harris Stanhope woke up feeling like the ass print on the
business end of a white thong. Many things were wrong inwardly
and outwardly, but he decided that his first priority should be
to stand. Decontextualized as he was from setting, he switched
to a harsh critique of theme: his hands were tied behind his back,
and the weight of his torso had numbed them to the point of pins-and-needles
confusion. Sensation was distant, fuzzy; he could sense
but not feel that his knuckles had rubbed off against the hard-packed
mud of the floor.
His legs still seemed to work, so he kicked them to one side,
attempting to roll on to his front. He only succeeded
in wrenching his face and chest into a puddle of tepid vomitus,
presumably his own, on the floor. He shook as much of
the clumpy gray strands from his chin as he could, looking not
unlike an overheated dog dribbling foam from distended jowls.
Stanhope finally got himself rolled over, hitching his legs
and ass up into a caterpillar stance. Instead of inching
forward, he levered himself to standing, thankful that his ankles
hadn't also been tied together.
Upright, blood started to reinflate his arms. As far as
he could tell, he still had all ten digits. That tell
might change once sensation returned. He grit his teeth
against the flare of pain replacing the fuzzy nothing in his
arms, only to find that several teeth were loose.
There wasn't much to look at, wherever he was. It was
the kind of jostling, disconcerting black that calls into question
just about everything we take for granted: we exist, we exist
here, and this is what we do here. There was no here yet--
and he didn't know if his eyes could adjust to that black, because
there was no trace at all of light. Stanhope had never
been fond of darkness or uncertain expanse. He tried not
to panic, almost entirely succeeded as he focused on working
feeling back into his arms, taking note of specifics as they
returned from their fog: his restraint was plastic, tie-cuffs,
two together. Even before his arms were back to full readiness,
he began the systematic swiveling that would eventually weaken
the cuffs. He wondered if he'd have enough eventually
to work with.
Stanhope tried to begin to piece together what had happened,
but there weren't many pieces with which to form a coherent
scenario. They'd been on the edge of the glass zone outside
of Riyadh, well within friendly territory, but... He couldn't
remember. He didn't remember meeting anyone, friendly
or unfriendly. Just images of dragging Whitey, not a simple
or rewarding task, but Milo was a good guy, always treated Stan
with a respect the newbie barely deserved, and he had hated
to see the second LT with one leg, rotting apart under that
The way the sun reflected off the glassed desert... That
eats a part of a man. To walk across the afterbirth of
a war decades gone, trying not to slip. To feel (or at
least suspect the feeling) of free radicals bombarding internal
organs, knocking molecules out of place, spinning off cancers
he wasn't at all sure the mini-Harps IPF soldiers wore could
He'd gotten into this mess for all the old reasons: he wanted
to go to college, and soldiers were guaranteed pussy.
In his fourteen months of active duty, he'd already forgotten
why he'd wanted to go to college, and the pussy hadn't been
forthcoming. He'd had a quick tip-stick with a private
in a utility closet while in offload in Eindhoven, but his memories
of that action were sullied somewhat by a fresher memory of
that same private being shot in the face by a child with a zip
gun in Kirkuk. He tried to remember her name, but all
he could remember was the way her face looked with one side
gone. He'd taken the kid apart at the neck. Oh,
His dad had told him stories of The Way Things Used To Be, which
apparently was an era in human history when the United States,
unbeholden to a corrupt group of united nations, had Gotten
The Job Done, which apparently meant kicked ass and took names.
He thought of the way things were now, the thrown-together International
Police Force, and wished he'd served with his dad in the first
wars of the century, the nuke and grin wars. It had been
a simpler time. People had been religious.
He didn't mind serving in an international force-- Aliyah was
a great captain, and something about her silent background,
the skill with which she dispatched targets with a chilling
ease, made her the subject of many non-action actions.
She was Israeli, so he knew not to ask about family or hometown
or anything beyond the weather, and most days, not even that.
Once a country disappears, its people anger easily.
He considered the cat-and-mouse relationship between his Captain
and Colonel Nacht. The guy seemed American enough, but
there was this startling streak of something underneath the
surface. Something uniquely brutal and animal and-- German.
Libraries had been devoted to the relationship between the Israelis
and the Germans, and Stanhope saw daily the evidence that all
was not well in international relations.
And Milo-- he was about as American as you could get, more experienced
in the shit than Stanhope, but a genuinely nice guy, about as
nice a son of slavery you could drag across glass. He
hoped White was still alive, where he--
The door opened, and Stanhope went blind.
* * *
03 October 2005: Paul Hughes.
"Sie sind wach."
"Wo bin ich?"
"Safe, jetzt. Seien Sie ruhig."
"Sprechen Sie Englisch? Meine deutsche Rede ist... rostig."
"Again." Karsten Nacht's diction was clipped and brave.
"Where am I?"
Hands the size of slabs of beef loosened the restraints on his
wrists. The exact form and substance of the man above
him was obscured and glared away from the piercing examination
lamp mounted on the ceiling, a great mountain of a man assembled
of shadows and other senses: a primordial sweat, the bristle
of wiry hair on his forearms, the rustle of drapes of fabric
struggling to contain him, a hovering mystery of tabak and sand.
Underneath it all: blood.
He moved on to unbuckle a leather patchwork across Nacht's chest,
down to release his ankles. His hands were amazingly maneuverable
for their size, each finger a sausage, both palms plains crossed
by gouges of scar.
"You're safe. That's all that matters."
Now free, Nacht sat up and swung his legs over the-- operating
table. There was little light in the room aside from the
glare of the overhead, but he could see a simple array of medical
equipment, some functioning, the constituent beep-boop-beeps
thereof wondering into him whether he'd been wounded.
The pile of man who'd released him was gathering an electrical
cable in loops around his arm.
"I don't re--"
"Blow bomb outside Riyadh. You won't remember."
"And this place..?"
His captor-- if that's what he was-- released a sound between
a grunt and a chuckle, something so compelling yet inhuman that
gooseflesh prickled to life on Nacht's arms.
"We've been tracking you for months. An opportunity presented
itself to bring you in, and we took it."
He was like a cloud, that man, a nighttime cloud sliding over
the moon, obscuring it completely. He nodded into a corner
and the lights lifted up, the overhead dimming in response to
the growing warmth of undimmed visibility. As the lights
grew in strength and settled at what passed for normal, Nacht
took in the group gathered in what he now recognized as most
definitely a surgical suite.
The two men guarding the door wore the unofficial rag uniforms
of the Mujahid. There were other desert-brown faces in
the group, other bundles of hate holding antique weapons and
growing beards, but the majority of the assembly, which numbered
in the dozen by a quick headcount, looked disconcertingly like
Nacht himself: blonde edging toward white, blue eyes flirting
with colorlessness. Fresh-faced youngsters of the master
He soaked in the information and threw a few theories down his
internal hallway of logic, but he couldn't think of any good
reason why real people would be working with vermin.
"We worked for your father, and his father before him."
The mountain stuck out a shovel hand. "I'm Sepp Bahlow."
His grip was cold and enveloping. His gaze was.
Nacht slid off the operating table to stand, but his knees were
liquid. Bahlow caught him mid-fall, and he felt like an
infant in that grasp.
"Sit. You need to regain your strength. You had--
Nacht's hands instinctively swarmed over his front, sides--
nothing out of place. Then the left, the head, the new
edge of hair and windrow of stitched flesh. They'd been
in his head.
"What did you--"
"IPS tracking implants." It wasn't convincing, but it
came from a face that wanted to convince. "Hanna Junge."
She saluted as she stood. He thought of all the ways he'd
like to make her scream.
"We've much to discuss, and a long trip ahead of--"
"Where are my men?"
Bahlow for the first time grinned. "They'll be taken care
06 October 2005: Paul Hughes.
"Your wife needn't worry. She'll be here soon, in fact."
Milo took that news with a hearty scoop of salt, his brow furrowing
with the confusion and barely-contained undercurrent of fear
that the completely-decontextualized human broadcasts.
"Why would my wife come here?"
Rockland's eyes didn't do an effective job of concealing a quick
glance at the black glass of the wall. "You're safe, Whitey.
Your family will be safe here, too."
"What is this place?"
Rockland cleared her throat. "What's the last thing you
remember about Babylon?"
"The stink of this leg." His palm landed on and almost
caressed the top of his reduced limb. "After that, Eindhoven
Station. They said I'd been left for dead out there."
"The friendly rags got to you after the rest of us were--"
A scene played out across her face, one composed entirely of
a quick blink and wet eyes. Her fingertips joined the
stage, pulling her collar closer over a scarred neck.
"After the blow bomb."
"I heard about what they done to you, Cap. Heard 'bout
the concentration camps. All over the news, but they said
everyone of you was dead after that. I never thought I'd
lay eyes on you again, after coming back to the world.
And all this time, all this time, we're neighbors? How's
that even possible, Cap?"
His questions rattled over her as her mind replayed two words:
concentration camps. The base unrest returned, the memory
of abject horror as the world watched and did nothing.
That Whitey had been left for dead, Stan nearly killed in an
almost-botched rescue attempt, and Nacht... What had happened
to Nacht? And what had happened to her in the space between
the torture and her rescue, or had it been a rescue? Had
it been nothing more than signing away her life to a system
in which she no longer believed?
"You remember Burwell?"
"Fell off the map."
"What do you mean by that?"
He was rendered silent and confused for a moment by the inquiry.
"It just-- Everyone knows. Garfield County fell off the
map. Headlines for months. Jus' gone."
"What happened there?"
A shrug, and a needling internal resistance. He felt more
uncomfortable at this line of questioning that an any point
during his time in the Grange, above or below ground, and the
realization of that fact was as disconcerting as the sensation
itself. "Why, I don't know, Cap. It's gone.
Been seven years now, almost eight."
"But you don't know what happened there?"
"Ain't no one knows that, I guess."
"Some people do, I promise. I'm one of them, for the most
part. And I know that right now, you're starting to sweat
in the small of your back and on your palms. You feel
uncomfortable, but you don't know why. You try to think
of Garfield County, and your mind slips around it. You
just can't concentrate on it. If I said something to you--
something like Burwell--"
He visibly flinched.
"--you'll react against it. Your mind won't allow you
to focus in on that concept. Burwell. Why do you
suppose that is, Whitey?"
"Would you like to?"
He considered. He thought that maybe saying yes would
be forfeiting his life, even if he couldn't directly coalesce
that thought in the confused, somehow blurry engine that was
his mind. He nodded.
"The official designation of this structure is Superblack Outpost
Remote Viewing Agents Twenty-Four Location En Ee Six Six Hitch.
Most of our people just call it the Grange. We have a rolling
staff of two dozen psychic viewers whose job it is to watch
over the world and make it safe. Part of that job is to
keep people from thinking about Burwell, Nebraska. Right
now, some of our most powerful viewers are broadcasting a core-dispersal
thought process into the entire population of the greater midwest
and select non-locals to keep what happened over in Garfield
County a secret."
It was a lot to take in. Milo felt like checking his ears
to make sure none of it was leaking out. "Suh-- Psychics?"
"We call them Majestics, and there are twenty-four of them.
Usually. We have some slots to fill right now."
"What happened in... Burwell?" He had to test the word
out. The score was barely passing.
"Since you're a part of the family-- and we'll discuss that
later-- I'll tell you."
Milo felt a large integral part of his sense of reality begin
to slide forever away.
13 October 2005: Paul Hughes.
"You know we have two governments. Well, one--"
The slab of door opened neatly to reveal the slicked Director
of HR and his rabbit-like secretary. Talking and walking:
"Sab, we're-- Shit. Sorry."
Susan grabbed Nagel's shoulder and started to direct him back
out the door. She'd thought the impromptu goodbye unnecessary
at its outset. "Sorry, Major General."
"No, it's fine." Rockland looked over White, noting the
path his eyes traced over Nagel and Susan, wondering what lines
of inquisition the appearance of two more Grange employees spun
to life in that already-charged farmer's brain. "I'm just
welcoming our latest acquisition, Mr. Milo White."
"Dante Nagel, Director of Human Resources." Hands shook.
Milo didn't like men with soft hands, but he could forgive on
account of firmness.
A corn syrup silence pervaded the room. Two standing,
two sitting, one confused as all hell.
"You're on your way?"
Nagel convinced his gaze away from the unnatural, knobby pantsleg
of Milo's subtraction.
"Should be able to catch the flight. Shopped and loaded
"Diapers?" Rockland almost allowed a grin to play across
her face, remembering Elijah's shitty, productive infancy briefly
before the memory was clouded by interim heartbreaks.
"And then some. Should we be..?" He cocked his head
not unfriendily toward the farmer.
"You'll meet with Whitey when you get back. He's in the
circle; don't worry."
Milo was struck by just how incommunicative some communications
"We'd better go." Susan pulled a sleeve back over a humble
wristwatch. Milo thought she was beautiful in a fragile,
awful way. He didn't think he'd see her ever again, for
no good reason at all.
"We'll check in through M-21." Nagel tossed a dossier
onto Rockland's desk. "Some reading material for while
"Maybe. Keep the kids in line. And don't offer this
guy fringe benefits until I talk to him." Nagel patted
Milo's shoulder and accepted Susan's opened door. "Later."
He turned back. "You know it, Em Gee."
If futures can manifest themselves as ghosts and suspicions,
all four souls there at that moment felt the heavy, razor-edged
atmosphere of something about to go horribly wrong.
The door dilated, clipping such suspicions neatly off at the
"How about we get your family here before we proceed with orientation?"
"Y'ain't gonna hurt 'em..?"
"Whitey," Rockland leaned in. "We're family now."
* * *
"Ain't need no gas." Netta White looked at PFC Aaron Belmont
through approximately four inches of open door. One finger
was wrapped in Dollar General bandage; another was poised over
the trigger of the 30-30 she held concealed along the wall.
"Ma'am, I know--" Belmont had a hand extended palm-out in what
he hoped was a soothing gesture. He had good eyes, and
his good eyes looked into the shiny reflecting plate of a hurricane
lamp hung on the kitchen wall almost directly in line with the
door. The silvered surface revealed his hand, Netta White
blocking the crack of door, and the rifle she held. "We'd
just like to come in and talk to you for a bit."
"Need no gas, need no comp'ny, neither. You boys go back
to that grange."
"Milo home, Netta?"
The voice came from somewhere in the kitchen not reflected in
the lamp. Belmont thought it sounded like it'd come out
of the world's oldest woman-- or man. At a certain age,
the distinction becomes troubled.
Masterson was restless. "Hey, maybe we should just--"
"He ain't home yet, old woman. Maybe these grange boys
Belmont took the opportunity during the moment Netta turned
her head to address the old woman to kick the door in, knocking
her squarely on the forehead. She stumbled back as he
walked in, ripping the rifle from her grasp.
"Fuck." He muttered under his breath as he ejected five
rounds from the gun. "Ma'am, I'm not here to hurt you
or sell you gas." He threw the rifle across the kitchen.
"You need to come with us."
"Where's the boy?" Masterson looked from Netta, who still
held her hands to a forehead that would be bruised, at the very
least, to the world's oldest woman, who was--
Louisa Black-White dropped Masterson to the floor with one swift
blow. Belmont stood in disbelief: an elderly woman had
just knocked his friend out with a broom handle. A broom
handle. She tottered on legs as thin as saplings.
"What the fuck you done to my boy, motherfucker?"
Belmont took the broom blow to his stomach in stride.
Too many Saturday nights spent in the drunk bay had afforded
him a certain measure of protective padding. She
arced the broom back for another swing, and he deflected that
blow with his wrist, managing a grasp on the shaft through the
sting. She wasn't strong, just old.
it!" Untangling her brittle, ancient fingers
from the handle was difficult. They snagged like
vines. Frustrated more than angry, he popped his
bean gun from his belt and shot her, ever so non-lethally, in
the face. At Netta's scream, he gave her a head tap, too.
stunned women, separated by ten feet of cheap linoleum, have
a century of decades, and the secrets men only share with their
mothers and wives, each writhed in their own ways, one like
dancing, one trembling in anger. Belmont couldn't
tell which was the crazier, but he knew they'd both be out of
commission for thirty-to-forty-five minutes, according to the
gun's specs. He shot them each again before kneeling
down to Masterson.
buddy was out cold. A large welt was inflating on
his forehead, sliding down neatly under his buzzcut perilously
near his temple. Belmont checked Masterson's ears for blood,
plied open his eyelids. No indications that he'd
be anything other than alive when he woke up, which Belmont
hoped was soon. Three bodies on the floor seemed
three too many for such a small kitchen.
slipped another tupper of beans into his gun. Two
out of three-- the boy had to be hiding.
slinked into what appeared to be a living room as casually as
possible. "You here, Warren White?"
boy wasn't in the living room, unless he had pancaked himself
underneath the collapsing bottom of a decrepit sleeper-sofa. Belmont
catalogued the lives on display in that room. There
were a lot of doilies. A rich tapestry of Kente cloth
over the sofa. One of the oldest panels he'd ever
seen, stapled to the wall, the screen dusty and sheened with
the yellow lacquer of countless cartons of cheapest cigarettes. He
could imagine people now long dead watching Friends and
Seinfeld on that machine, people watching the towers
fall, the string of assassignations, maybe even Garfield. The
fingertip of dust he swiped from the television's surface was
thick and charged with static history.
paused at the glass photo displays. He was about
to allow his eyes to scan elsewhere when one image caught in
his field of vision. It was a photograph of Mr. Milo
White in the garish quick-flage BDU of the International Police
things struck him:
Mr. Milo White, Nebraska sorghum farmer, before he became a
Nebraska sorghum farmer, was in the IPF.
Mr. Milo White, in the IPF, was in a photograph. In that photograph,
he stood next to the unmistakable battleax em gee of the Hitch
Grange, Sabra Rockland.
Belmont took a blow to the skull and fell to the living room
Warren White had taken up arms, more specifically, his grandmother's
broom, and mimicking the action he'd watched through her eyes,
knocked the invading diesel delivery guy the fuck out.
Warren, a special boy, a scary boy, walked calmly to the kitchen
and sat down between his grand- and mother. He'd
hid underneath his bed, just as Ma had told him to. Hearing
the commotion below, he'd snuck downstairs only to find the
diesel guy staring at Pa's war picture. Nobody's s'posed to
stare at that war picture. Ma had told him. People
who stare at war pictures too long lose their legs in the deserts.
chest started to hitch. He was scared and alone. Shook
Ma's shoulder, but she only groaned a little. He
knew he shouldn't cry, but he'd done something terrible wrong. He
tried to shove the pieces back together, but it wasn't no use. He'd
broken the broom.
transition from despair to fury is simple. It's a
logical progression, especially if the person transitioning
barely possesses any measure of logic or progress. Warren
White, sobbing on the kitchen floor, thinking his Mama and Gram'ma,
dying or dead, two strangers splayed with knots on their noggins
and guns, oh, they had guns, and Pa says guns ain't for Boy
Warren, but the guns is so close, he wanted to touch that gun
there, but the grip on the broom-half tightened, and something
simmered. He was confused and needed to walk, like
Pa told him to do, just walk it off, boy, so he took that broken
broom handle and walked next door to the Grange. Pa
would know what to do.