I was stuck outside the exhibition hall at the fairgrounds with two creepy black-clad men while a flying saucer lowered in the sky overhead. It was not a good situation.
The reedy-voiced man who’d tranqued me punched on the keypad by the door until it beeped. Then he pulled the door open and held it ajar. Meanwhile, the other man dressed in black drew a steady bead with a snub-nosed pistol of a sort that I didn’t recognize. I was crouched alongside the sidewalk where I’d landed after heaving off of the gurney. I’d managed to free my wrists from the zip tie, and I held my grandad’s old pocket knife tight in my right hand. And over us all, a saucer at least a hundred feet across spun in a lazy kind of way.
Then lots of things happened all at once.
The fucker that’d captured me swung the door wide and said in a quiet voice that somehow carried, “I believe that you will find inside more agreeable than outside, Mr. Carpenter.”
The fellow with the gun started squeezing off shots into the air towards the saucer.
A beam of light so bright I could see it in broad daylight shot out of the bottom of the saucer and started a slow sweep towards us.
“This is your last chance, Mr. Carpenter,” the man at the door said as the beam of light licked along the sidewalk.
I would like to tell you that I ran through the open door with that fucker because I’d rationally decided that I stood a better chance in a fight against him than I would against what I reckoned to be an entire goddam spaceship filled with aliens, but I don’t think that’s what made me decide to go into the building with that bastard. No, the truth is that I was even more terrified of that thing in the sky than I was of the son of a bitch that apparently had made a habit out of tranquing me. I sprinted through the door.
As I ran into the building, I turned around in the doorway to cast a final, terrified glance back at the drama above and behind me. That poor jerk with the pistol started wafting up into the air like a burger wrapper on the wind. He was shooting as he floated up toward the saucer, but it didn’t seem to do any good. Something that looked like a hatch opened up on the belly of the ship, and the guy with the gun bobbed towards the opening.
Beside me in the doorway, the reedy-voiced man pulled something the size and shape of a garage door opener out of a jacket pocket. He pushed a button on it, and above us there came a boom. At first I thought the flying saucer had artillery or something, but then I realized that meaty, bloody bits of what used to be the man with the gun were falling from the sky and splatting onto the sidewalk.
The man who had chased me around in his little black car pushed me the rest of the way inside the exhibition hall and slammed the door shut behind us. Inside the building, electronics by the door handle let out a beep and a light commenced to flashing with a steady red throb. Then there wasn’t a sound inside the exhibition hall other than a light fixture buzzing overhead in time to its fluorescent tube’s flickering. Then that thin, reedy voice broke the silence.
“We will be safe in here while we do your Reading, Mr. Carpenter.” He smirked at me as he said it.
Now, if you’ve been following along with me so far, you probably realize that I’m a felon on parole. I didn’t get that status by being a choirboy. I know how to handle myself in a fight. Still, I was scared as hell of that fucker in the dark clothes, even though my rational brain knew that I’d taken out bigger men than him. I told myself that I could beat him if I could just get a fair fight, and I tried hard to believe that. Of course, one thing I knew from my prior criminal activity that’s in the public record is that fair fights are for suckers. It’s best to take someone in an unfair fight where you have the advantage, but I didn’t reckon that I’d have that chance while I was trapped inside his headquarters, or whatever it was he’d turned the exhibition hall into. I decided that I would have to take my chance with that bastard as soon as I thought I had any advantage at all.
I hefted the knife in my right hand, opened the blade up again to have it ready, and said, “I ain’t gonna be Read, and I ain’t gonna do anything else with you, either.”
The man gave me a fake looking little smile and took a small step towards me.
“Oh, you will be Read, Mr. Carpenter. You will do your duty as a citizen, whether you want to or not.”
I thrust my knife in his general direction, and he retreated again.
“You’re going to have to tranque me again to do it, and I seem to recall you telling your buddy that you’d already given me the maximum daily dose of that shit.”
He smiled at me again. God, I hated that smarmy smile.
“There are other ways of compelling your cooperation, Mr. Carpenter. There are . . . unpleasant approaches that we can take, but perhaps you will be more cooperative if I explain to you why this work is so important.”
“I reckon you’d best tell me what this here ‘work’ is if you don’t want me to gut you like a fish.”
We stared at each other for a few tense moments. The light overhead flickered and hummed inside the exhibition hall, but everything was deathly quiet outside the thin metal walls. I knew the hall from fair-time, when it contained long rows of tables along the length of the building showing off garden produce, crafts, and other 4-H projects, with nooks and crannies built around the perimeter with tables and partitions to hang clothing and quilts. The tables remained, but they were covered with equipment and materials that didn’t look to be from any child’s 4-H project. I had my back to the main door on one end of the building. He was smirking at me from between two of the long rows of tables that ran the length of the building. My adversary gestured to the far end of the hall where there were restrooms that I couldn’t quite make out in the darkness.
“I believe that there are answers to your questions at the other end of this structure.”
“I believe that you’d better’d start giving me answers right here.”
He nodded and picked up a strange device that looked like the lovechild of a satellite dish and a water gun.
“The remote Reader isn’t as powerful as the Chair, but it will give us both some idea of what the Visitors were doing with you in their most recent experiment,” he he said as he pointed the device at me.
I started to lunge at him with my knife, but before I could get to him a wave of recollection hit me and my mind buckled under the weight of the memories.
I remembered jokes about “probing” and Paul going missing. I remembered Ralph and I hauling up Hinkle Mountain in the driving rain, trying to run past a saucer just hanging there in the sky. Then I remembered . . . after. Long, delicate things that weren’t fingers were pushing needles into me, all over me. I tried to scream. I tried to fight. It didn’t matter. There was always something moist and fleshy gripping me. The creatures ogled me with enormous eyes atop oversized, lumpy heads. They had too many arms or legs or whatever they were, each tipped with snakelike tendrils that grasped and groped. Those serpentine digits seemed so frail, yet they could pick me up and hold me in contorted positions to expose whatever part of me they wanted to put their needles into. And then they’d jam the needles into me again, and I would scream into the dull gray haze that surrounded me. Those creatures would flip me over and twist me and dangle me to get to every inch of me. The worked from my head to my toes along by back, then they worked back up my front, with me howling with the pain and the terror the entire time as they pushed slender, burning shafts into me. Before they were done, they’d stuck needles into every part of me more than once. There were always more needles, some shooting stuff into me, others drawing God knows what out of me, and all of them dripping of something that stunk and hissed.
Then the haze lifted and I was screaming in the exhibition hall. The man was smiling at me as he put the thing he’d called a “remote Reader” back down on the table.
“So, as you can see, Mr. Carpenter, these are not memories you wish to retain. I can help you get rid of them if you will cooperate.”
He looked confident, almost smug as he spoke. I didn’t like that attitude from anyone, especially someone that apparently made a habit of tranquilizing me to “Read” my memories. Even though I was panting with exhaustion and terror, I took a step toward him, leading with the tip of the knife.
“Seeing as you shot me with a tranquilizer dart, seems a little odd that you want me to cooperate with you now. Why not just ask me to cooperate from the get-go?”
He held his hands wide and open as he retreated further along the building, but he kept smiling in that ominous way as he answered with that sliver of a voice.
“How do you know that you didn’t cooperate for your other Readings? Just as the Visitors remove memories of what they do to you, it is necessary for us to remove your memories of our work. To do otherwise would risk the Visitors learning of our endeavors.”
“Who the hell are these ‘Visitors’ you’re talking about?” I was pretty sure that I knew the basic answer to that question, but I would need to know more to protect myself from those . . . things.
“The Visitors are the entities that have been conducting experiments on citizens such as yourself. They attempted to capture my colleague a few moments ago. They cannot enter this building while the doors are secured.”
I growled at him and waved the knife.
“No shit, Sherlock. But what ARE these Visitors?”
“That is the question we seek to answer with Recorders such as yourself, Mr. Carpenter. For reasons we do not yet understand, the Visitors have been conducting experiments on citizens in this area. The subjects of these experiments do not possess memories of what was done to them by the Visitors. In order for us to better understand the Visitors and their intentions on this planet, we have placed devices into the hippocampi of their experimental subjects. These devices record the experiences of the citizen as they are used as a test subject by the Visitors. My colleagues and I must periodically collect the experimental subjects to Read the data collected by these devices. That is why it is imperative for you to cooperate now.”
That fucker was smiling at me like he’d just explained everything crystal clear.
“You’re going to have to do better than that, you lousy son of a bitch.” I yelled at him as I waved the knife and started to come at him in a crouch. He retreated further into the darkness along a table that held some sort of gigantic bulletin board instead of the birdhouses built by kids it held last time I was in the building.
“I am not sure that I understand what you mean, Mr. Carpenter.” His tone remained level and about as solid as the sound of one of those whistles you can make with a blade of grass held between your hands.
“What you need to understand is that I’m going to go find a doctor to take your goddam device out of my head. And I’m going to go and tell every reporter in New York or DC or somewhere big and important what it is you’ve been doing to people like me.”
He shook his head but never stopped smiling his terrible smile.
“No, you will not do any of those things, Mr. Carpenter. Not if you want to stay alive. Just as my colleague’s enhancements self-destructed before he could be taken by the Visitors, your device will destruct if it is removed.”
“You expect me to believe that you’re going to blow up my goddam head if I go to the doctor?” I tried to sound brave, but I was pretty sure that the bastard would blow off my goddam head for any of a number of reasons.
“Oh, it would not be a large explosion in your case. For our Recorders, it is only a small explosion. To your medical professionals, it will appear to be an aneurysm. This self-destruction will occur if removal of your device is attempted or if you exit the geofence we have erected to constrain events involving the Visitors to this region.”
He gestured to the bulletin board beside him. There was an enormous map of the Ozarks with a red line drawn around the perimeter. Inside the redline was a forest of pins with green heads clustered around where my hometown is. Other green pins were scattered around southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, and a sliver of Oklahoma and Kansas, all within the red boundary. Outside the red line were yellow pins in locations that I knew corresponded to Memphis, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and Chicago.
“As you can see on the map, Mr. Carpenter, a boundary has been set around this geographic region. If one of our Recorders is taken beyond the boundary for more than four hours, the device will self-destruct and the Recorder will perish of an apparent aneurysm. This prevents both the Recorder and the device from being captured.”
Crap, aneurysms. That sounded too familiar, I thought as I remembered Paul’s lady friend turning up dead in Memphis. I tried not to let on like I was worried, though.
“Why the hell are you trying to keep all of us people in the hills? What kind of good does that do? Those damn saucer things can fly wherever they want.”
The man shrugged in a stiff sort of way.
“For reasons we do not yet understand, the Visitors have a particular interest in the citizens of this region. On the five occasions a Visitor craft was sighted elsewhere, we discovered that they were pursuing a test subject which had fled the area. By keeping the test subjects within this region, we avoid the challenges that would arise if the Visitors were seen in a more populated area.”
“Sounds like both you and these Visitor bastards are treating us like lab rats. I don’t reckon I’m going to help you. I wouldn’t so much as piss on you if you were on fire.” I tensed to prepare to lunge at him with my knife.
Maybe he knew I was about to start the fight, because at my proclamation he turned and strode fast to the rest of the way to the restrooms at the far end of the exhibition hall. His steps echoed off of the cold concrete floor. Before I could get to him with my knife, he rested a hand on the door to the ladies’ room and turned to face me once again.
“I understand that you are reluctant, Mr. Carpenter. But there’s one more item you must see before you make up your mind.”
“My mind’s done been made up,” I shouted back as I pursued him through the darkness with cautious speed.
He pushed open the door to the ladies’ room. The light was on inside, and there right there between the door stalls was someone slouched into what looked like a dentist’s chair that had been jerry-rigged into a torture device. All around the chair were mechanical arms tipped with needles and circular blades and what looked like pliers. Blood and other fluids dripped from the implements and stained the concrete floor.
I had to know who was in that chair. I inched forward to get a better look, even though I had to go clear to the water fountain by the janitor’s closet to get a decent view. I realized, too late, that my position placed my back to the closed men’s room door, but nothing jumped out at me as I peered into the restroom and looked the victim in the chair.
The chest was heaving, so the poor person was still alive. There was a thick, matted beard, and the fella looked to have been beaten up real bad even before he’d been put into the Chair. There were no visible restraints, but the man walked into the ladies’ room as if the poor soul sitting there was no more threat to him than a baby kitten. He grasped a handful of the victims hair and raised his head up so that I could see the face.
“We’ve finished reading your colleague, Mr. Carpenter. Either you cooperate with us, or we will discontinue him.”
Goddammit. That poor bastard in the chair was Paul.