Everybody headed upstairs. TJ said, “You should get off at the second floor and see the doc. He’s been askin’ about you, let him see about your memory and all that.”
Fuck that. I wasn’t heading for the second floor, or the fifth. I was heading to the roof.
I had to get out of this goddamned madhouse. I wanted to get up there, to look out, to see what exactly was holding us in. TJ followed me, trying to tell me that we had done all this before, and that I myself had declared that there was nothing to see. He did not seem surprised when, after hearing this, I still insisted on going up.
Five minutes later we were ten stories up, standing among the silent air-conditioning units and the bird shit, looking out over the red and green figures loitering in the yard below. The wind picked up, garbage blowing around with it, fluttering paper plates and food wrappers. The trash was starting to pile up against the western fence like a snowdrift. And among all this, the inmates, clumps of red and clumps of green, huddled in conversation. It looked like the world’s shittiest Christmas pageant. It had been a mild (uh, mid-November?) day but up here, on the cusp of evening, it was goddamned freezing. I didn’t care. I paced from one ledge to the other, scanning the landscape. The pulsing grip of a panic attack was slowly squeezing around my brain.
Past Dave was right—there was nothing to see. A fence, another fence, and then the town. There were a few white tents set up outside the gate, but there were no guards walking along the fence with rifles, nothing.
That’s not enough. That’s not enough to fucking keep me in here. Why am I still here? Jesus the smell of that girl’s burning hair …
I asked TJ, “Where are the shooters?”
“The guns, man. The snipers or whatever who shot that kid. They didn’t shoot from the asylum, it’s too far away.”
I stared off toward the asylum, the big, depressing mossy gray brick box sitting nestled among some trees next to a smaller identical box, as if they had a bunch of those bricks left over from the main building but not enough to build another whole one. No sign of men with rifles on the roof over there. Or anyone, really.
TJ pointed to the sky.
I followed his finger, to where the birds circled lazily overhead. I shrugged. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”
“Man, talkin’ to you…” He smiled and shook his head. “Like you a time traveler. No, wait, it’s more like you’re a caveman they just unfroze. ‘What is this strange devilry, future man?’”
He pointed up again.
“Sniper drone. Three-three-eight-caliber rifle mounted under an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Computer-assist targeting, can put an antipersonnel round into your brain from a thousand yards out. Did assassinations in Afghanistan, a lot neater than the Hellfire missiles that’d take out the Tango and the entire kid’s birthday party the Tango was attendin’ at the time.”
I looked up at a pair of tiny black crosses drifting below the clouds. I liked it better when I thought they were vultures. He continued, “Not that it don’t have the missiles, too. Them drones, they look tiny up in the sky but on the ground they’re pretty big, almost as big as a real plane, and those Hellfires it’s got under the wings, if we stood one up here it’d be almost as tall as you. If things got outta control down here, drone could launch one down into the yard and take out thirty of us in one shot.”
“‘Unmanned’? So this place is being patrolled by robots?”
“No, no. Remote control. Somewhere there’s a dude sittin’ at a console, cup of coffee on his right, jelly donut to his left, and on his screen is a black-and-white shot of this hospital turnin’ around and around real slow. He can go to infrared at night. Switch to thermal in case there’s too much fog or if we get clever and try to create a smoke screen for cover. Maybe he’s lookin’ at us right now. Wave to him. But don’t make any threatening moves, man can zoom in so that your head will fill his screen. Gun barrel is stabilized by computer, automatically compensates for vibration, wind speed, everything.”
“Okay, okay.” I ran my hands through my hair, thinking. “Okay, so, the operator is down there in one of those tents? Like, uh, if we could get somebody over there and beat the shit out of him…”
“No, no, we been over all this before. Drone operations is several states away, in Nevada, believe it or not. The 17th Reconnaissance Squadron. Creech Air Force Base, just outside of Vegas. And even though it’s eighteen hundred miles or so from here, he hits his little red ‘fire’ button, the command reaches the drone point-seven-five seconds later.”
“Fuck.” I bent over at the waist.
Breathe. Just breathe.
“I know, right? Weird to think that all the taxes you and me ever paid wouldn’t even replace a broken wing on that shit. Just try to calm down, alright?”
“Okay, so there’s two of ’em up there?”
He nodded. “I’d say one’s a spotter, probably set to scan the whole grounds at once, the other’s got the guns—”
“Okay, so how about we—”
“And before you ask, no, we can’t all rush the walls at different spots at once to give ’em too many targets to hit. They got ground-based hardware outside the fence, unmanned units called Gladiators. Just look like little Jeeps only with no place for a driver to sit, guns mounted on the back. Between them they got sensors in the ground that detect vibration, they got motion detectors, body heat sensors, lasers, all that shit. Anything bigger than a bunny rabbit tries to sneak through, somethin’ bad will happen to it. And no, we don’t have any way of tunneling out. Even if we had equipment—which we don’t—and the means to do the work without the UAVs noticin’—which we also don’t—where do we tunnel to? We got no intel about the situation out there, other than the fact that the damned REPER command center is right over there. I mean I know the geography and you probably do, too, but even if we could find an exit spot with nice, soft dirt, one that’s secluded, and not too far away, how do you know you don’t pop up right into a patrol? Six weeks of diggin’, wasted.”
“There’s that word again. REPER. You ever hear of that in your life before this week?”
He shook his head. “Nope. But when shit went bad last week and the CDC pulled out their people, this REPER took their place. You see the gear on those guys? Hazmat suits tricked out with Kevlar, modified M4s with targeting HUDs in their damned faceplates. You think they came up with that gear overnight? Shit, each of those suits probably cost half a million bucks. That’s specialized equipment, and all these dudes know exactly what they’re doin’. They sweep in and suddenly they’re in charge. They’re ordering around us National Guard like we answer to them, and nobody says shit otherwise. They tell me to stay behind and I’m like, bullshit, I’m gettin’ on that chopper. But guess what? Here I am. Never seen anything like this.”
I walked back across the roof, to look out at the rear of the building and the little strip of woods that from up here looked like the end product of a Brazillian bikini wax. Smoke rose in the distance, maybe somebody else’s house on fire. I heard no sirens.
TJ followed me and said, “You know, this conversation is a lot more discouraging the second time ’round.”
I said, “But there’s nobody here. That’s what I can’t get over. The whole operation on this side looks like it’s staffed by like two people. So what, it’s all just the drones and sensors and shit?”
“Well, yeah, they tryin’ to keep down the infection risk. They don’t need people like me swellin’ the ranks of the infected. And if you ask me, the automated shit seems like it’s workin’ just fine. You saw that kid try to climb the fence.”
From behind us a female voice said, “You should write down everything he said up to now, so he doesn’t have to do it all again if your brains get scrambled next week.”
Hope had joined us on the roof.
I said, “I just don’t accept that there’s no way out of this place. I mean it wasn’t built as a prison, right? It was built as a hospital. No way they’ve covered everything.”
Hope laughed, and to TJ she said, “It’s so funny to see him go through the five stages again.”
I said, “The what?”
TJ explained, “It’s the same for everybody they dump in here. First it’s the confusion, right? ‘What’s happening, where am I?’ That’s stage one. But then you go to stage two: pissed off. ‘How can they do this to us, man? I got rights.’ Okay, then there’s stage three. Defiance. ‘I gotta get outta here, there’s gotta be a way out.’ Stage four is the depression. ‘Why me, man? Boohoo. I wanna go home, I wanna see my girl.’ Then hopefully you land at stage five, which is, ‘we got to make the best of this situation, and be smart.’”
“I really made it all the way to stage five before?”
Hope said, “Oh, no. You stopped somewhere between stage two and three.”
12 Hours Until the Massacre at Ffirth Asylum
John’s head was pounding.
He tried to call Amy back, but she was ignoring him. He had a sick feeling that began around his navel and extended all the way up to his scalp. No doubt that was partly due to the huge egg breakfast he had eaten at sunrise to help absorb some of the vodka and Crown Royal he had flushed through his system, but the feeling was mostly due to the fact that he had clearly hit one of his patented Rough Stretches. Those bits of his life where every string of shitty luck converged into one horrible knot that everybody blamed him for. As if he had chosen things to work out this way. No, Amy, I did not just decide to bring about the apocalypse this month.
Times like this, you just gotta disconnect from the world and ride it out. It was a process he and Dave had, the two of them rarely hitting low points at the same time, one always there to cheer the other up and to pull them off the sofa to go hit the “town” (Dave always made air quotes around “town” when referring to Undisclosed, since the party train only ran through two bars and Munch’s trailer.)