The Grange: Part Three.
by Paul Hughes.
updated: 03.1.11: 13 October 2005.
The Grange: Part One.
The Grange: Part Two.

forum: night.blind: The Grange
a collaborative fiction.

......... ....... .....  

night.blind: 03.1.1: 30 June 2005: Paul Hughes.
          Netta White was a good wife.

          "Pa home--"

          "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 door."

          "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 fixed up."

          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.

          He saluted.

          There was something behind Rockland's black eyes as they looked at Milo's brown suit, a flicker residing somewhere between recognition and fear.

          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 General..?"

          "Jesus.  Just--"  Her mouth worked over concepts she couldn't yet vocalize, a big mouthful of saltwater taffy.  "Sit.  Please."

          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, sir."

          "We've been here for--"

          "--seven years?"

          "--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."

night.blind: 03.1.2: 24 July 2005: Paul Hughes.
          "Whitey, fucking cover me!"

          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 it yet.


          "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 craters.

          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 his situation.

          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.  "But, Colonel--"

          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."

night.blind: 03.1.3: 29 July 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 enemy.

          "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 mechanism.  "Aliyah?"

          She wasn't watching him, so he grabbed her shoulder.  Thumbs-up for ready.

          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.

night.blind: 03.1.4: 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 same.

          The exposed face of the wall had been powdered six inches thick from the shockwave.  The village was gone.  The snipers were dead.

          "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 hands.  We'll--"

          "He's alive!"

          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."

night.blind: 03.1.5: 09 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 it.

          "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 day.

          "The leg.  What do we do with--"

          "Leave it."

          "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."

* * *

night.blind: 03.1.6: 12 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 each horizon.

          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 his throat.

          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 successful.

          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.

* * *

night.blind: 03.1.7: 18 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 sun.

          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 prevent.

          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, Babylon.

          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.

* * *

night.blind: 03.1.8: 24 August 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."

          "Who's 'we?'"

          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 race.

          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-- an operation."

          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 of."

night.blind: 03.1.9: 03 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?"

          "Don't know."

          "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.

night.blind: 03.1.10: 06 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 yesterday."

          "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 could be.

          "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 I'm gone."

          "New hires?"

          "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."

          "Be safe."

          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 knees.

          "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 know--"

          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?"

night.blind: 03.1.11: 13 October 2005: Paul Hughes.

          "Ma'am, just--"

          Whoomph.  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.

          "Stop 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.

          The 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.

          "You okay, buddy?"

          His 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.

          He slipped another tupper of beans into his gun.  Two out of three-- the boy had to be hiding.

          "Warren?"  Belmont slinked into what appeared to be a living room as casually as possible.  "You here, Warren White?"

          The 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.

          Belmont 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 Force.

          Three things struck him:

          One: Mr. Milo White, Nebraska sorghum farmer, before he became a Nebraska sorghum farmer, was in the IPF.

          Two: 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.

          Three: Belmont took a blow to the skull and fell to the living room floor.

          Boy 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.

          Boy 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.

          His 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.

          The 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.


copyright 2004-2005 Paul Evan Hughes.
Paul Hughes is the editor of and the founder of Silverthought Press. He lives in Philadelphia, NY. His previous works include enemy, the winner of the 2002 Booksurge Editor's Choice award, and An End, the 2003 Independent Publishers Book Award winner for Science Fiction.  Besides the collaborative night.blind project on, Hughes is also finishing the third piece of the silverthought trilogy, broken.  For more information, please visit: