Part 5: untitled at the moment
Recap: John escapes from the lab and learns about his new powers. He can send out a shockwave–of what, he doesn’t know–and he can connect to electronic devices. He escapes, but where will he go?
The sky is different in the States than it is in Afghanistan. There is more green in the blue whereas, above the dessert, there had been more gold. The sun also feels further away. I don’t mean that in that it’s cooler here—although that’s true, too—but the Sun seems to have gotten further away. In the dessert, under the weight of guns and uniform, the sun always beat into you like a second heartbeat. Now the celestial body seems far away. I easily lose track of time.
Nights pass with cold drops in temperatures. The moon is slowly waxing to full and it’s making me itchy. Although I am a week out from that compound, I have no idea how well they can track me. What if they have a tracker-boy? What if they’re just waiting around the bend? What if this is all some sort of sick game?
My hands shake on the wheel of the car—this one a Hyundai Accent I picked up outside of Tucson. I had dropped the Versa as soon as possible and been picking up a new car every night. A Versa then an Outback then an Escalade and so on…
The cars change each night. I keep on driving. Sometimes I’ll consider sleeping, but I don’t feel tired anymore. I just feel the buzz under my skin that, slowly, I’m accepting as a part of me. I should probably sleep. Remaining awake leaves too much time to think.
What am I?
What do they want?
Another couple of hours of aimless driving and I’m somewhere near the Blue Ridge. Mists cling to the mountain tops and glow orange in the early light. Trees lean over the road in welcome. Birds circle with migration stirring in their wings. Winter is coming, I remember—it’s feels so long since I’ve last experienced seasons—and I can’t keep driving until road runs out. Time reinstates itself with brutal force.
Eventually I pull over at a diner, which is tucked at the base of a mountain and surrounded by rusty 18 wheelers. The sign advertises the ‘Best Pancakes this Side of the Mason-Dixon’. It makes my stomach growl something fierce. Apparently a 28 year old is not meant for subsistence living off of poptarts and gas station hot dogs.
I park the Accent between two empty cabs. Fear thrills through me as I realize I have to leave the car and I plan to stay in one place for more than two minutes. The buzzing is loud inside my head. It’s reassuring and terrifying. My hands glow on the wheel, the car itself beginning to talk to me through the connection. It’s low on gas. The oil needs to be changed. The rear-left tire has less air than the rear-right.
I pull my hands back as if burned. My breath is coming in gulps I can hardly regulate.
“Breathe, John: Breathe.” I remind myself, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing it in the reflection of the windshield. Seeing the manic smile of all those men in that crazy, fucking lab on my face as well. I begin laughing but it’s only so I don’t cry. I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to stop.
Within 10 minutes, I regain my nerves. I’ve lived in high stress situations before. I have, quite obviously, survived every single one of them. It’s only top priority I take this one step at a time and the very first step is to get some food at this backwater diner.
The diner is like every diner. It has vinyl covered booths that line a wall perforated with windows. There is a long bar that stretches the majority of the width and includes a bored waitress smacking her gum behind it. By the cash register, which is directly in front of the door and on the long bar, is a case of baked goods. Judging by how some look fossilized, I’m not too sure the ‘baked fresh!’ sign draped over the top has any credence.
Given the inhabitants of the parking lot, the inhabitants of the diner pretty much match their ride. Trucker caps peek out over red plastic booths. More grisly men are at the bar, bent double over their bowl of chili. Two other waitresses, one much older and one much younger, expertly weave between all the tables with a coffee pot at hand. The youngest one catches me in the doorway—a plain white t-shirt filched from a gas station and the uniform pants I couldn’t find a better replacement for. She smiles and I give her a small nod.
“You can have a seat anywhere,” the older waitress informs me from across the diner. The younger one blushes and darts back to coffee duty. I just nod again and make my way to the far end of the bar—it will be easier to keep an eye on the door and it’s also the closest seat to the emergency exit.
The waitress behind the counter doesn’t necessarily jump to life as I sit down, but she does move some. A thin hand runs through her dusty brown hair. She fixes her apron a little with well manicured hands. I’d place her age at around 40, but I could be wrong. I’ve never been good at judging ages. Her name tag informs me that her name is ‘Simone’.
For a minute, I feel like I had when I woke up in that water-filled chamber. My whole body tries to crowd in on itself. There is a nervous trill of unadulterated fear ricocheting through my nerves. I keep casting a glance over the crowd, waiting for someone to raise a gun or charge at me. However, the diner remains placid and the normality of this diner seems to slough off some of the fear. It reminds me of home, in a way, and so I settle a little deeper in the stool, only casually glancing around once every ten minutes.
Simone eventually leaves her position by the wall and sashays up to me. She leans forward, the white button down uniform opening a little and revealing a larger swathe of olive skin. While I’d be tempted under normal circumstances to sneak a peek, these extenuated ones make it easy for me to ignore the show. “I’d like the Lumberjack’s breakfast,” I order, reading the item from the list of specials pasted on the back wall, “And coffee and orange juice and—“ Simone had begun to step away to grab the coffee but my voice drags her back. I slide a few bills across the greasy counter, all creased from being jammed into my pockets. After leaving the lab, I had been penniless—I stole way more than I would care to remember and I even hacked an ATM. Then I realized the universal act of keeping emergency money in the car and I swore to subsist off of that—no need to drain some poor bloke’s bank account at the atm.
“I’d like to pay up front.”
Simone’s face suddenly shutters closed. I see a few of the other truckers in the vicinity swivel in their seats to stare. I clear my throat. “I have somewhere I need to be,” I explain vaguely but I can already taste the foot in my mouth. I wait to hear the wail of the siren or the tak-tak of a machine gun, but all I hear is the scrape as chairs resume their original position. Simone only nods, taking the crumpled bills and walking to the cash register.
This is definitely not going to be as easy as I had thought.
The Lumberjack’s breakfast was everything I had hoped for and more. Two juicy sausage links, a heaping helping of bacon, and so many eggs that the plate was difficult to find even after 5 minutes of devouring the food. I should have been embarrassed with the soft, happy noises I was making as I ate, but I could care less. This was the first proper food I’ve had in weeks.
The younger waitress who had been refilling the customers’ coffee when I had first walked in has slowly and cautiously sidled up beside me. Her skin has some color left over from the summer, but she is, overall, very fair. Her hair is a light blond and her eyes an icy blue. She looks out of place in this diner of truckers and woodsmen. Like some fairy wandered from the forest, curious to live among men.
She asks if I want my coffee refilled even though I clearly have only drank about half of the cup. I’m about to oblige her anyway, ask her to top it off, when I see a pinprick of red light track along her arm. Suddenly my heart jumps to my throat. The world spirals into complete disorder.
On instinct, I grab her and throw both of us to the ground. The coffee pot explodes on impact. Someone in the restaurant screams—I think it’s Simone—and the distinctive whir of helicopters becomes abundantly clear.
“W-what’s going on,” the petite blond asks, tucked beneath my arm and beside the bar. Her eyes are wide and frantic. The pupils are blow. I’m about to tell her that it’s going to be okay when my sixth sense feels the itching sensation of the sniper’s sight. I roll away, closer to the booths that occupy the center of the diner. When I return to the crouch, I see the blond still staring frantically at me, but her eyes are unseeing. There’s a small hole on her forehead and so much blood and brain matter behind her.
The message is clear. They don’t give a shit about who’s in the way—they’ll get me no matter what.
Now I know heroes in these sort of situations are meant to rise up, hands above their heads, and take the bullet like a man. But these men—these men I’ve seen. They’d riddle me with bullets. Then they’d kill the witnesses. I run for the exit because I want some of them to follow me. Maybe then the diners have a chance. Maybe then no one else has to die.
The bullets pelt the wall, always a few centimeters behind me. I shove the emergency exit door open and start another alarm that blares through the restaurant. The reinforcements for the sniper have yet to make it to the diner. I can feel them closing in. The sniper must have gotten here ahead, hoped for a clean shot, and then called for backup when that failed.
Am I really not that important?
They at least could have sent a full squad…
(and they didn’t have to shoot that girl. They didn’t have to shoot anyone but me)
Importance or not, I dart across the road to the dense undergrowth beyond. This time the bullet clips my shoulder and a scream passes my lips before I can regulate it. I push on. The trees are green and brown blurs as I pass them. The world is one loud engine roar. It reminds me of Afghanistan—running through cities filled with insurgents, searching for those men I was meant to save. It reminds me of the blood and sweat that never washed away. I’m picking up speed, gaining speed. I fail to notice that I have begun to glow.
I run faster than I ever have before.
The men in uniforms continue to the diner, the sniper walking with the Commander. The footmen have evacuated the premises, a few have given the Project XB205 chase but have failed to make contact. Project XB205 has taken to his abilities quite well.
The Commander regards each of the customers, lined up and kneeling, with a vacant glance. Many are bowed under the press of guns at the base of their skulls. Others are bleeding profusely from fighting their handlers. There are a few still in the restaurant, life lost in the capture. It’s all negligible really; the Commander was given only one order: Capture Project XB205.
Something distracts the Commander’s attention as he looks towards the forest, hoping to discern Project XB205’s unique spectral discharge from the rolling green. The distraction comes in the form of a dark skinned woman, apron torn from one shoulder in her struggles, who stares at him with hateful eyes. She tries to spit at his face, but the blood in her mouth weighs it down and it dribbles down her chin. “You fucking monster,” she hisses.
The Commander turns his head towards the accuser and only smiles at the compliment.
“Kill them all.”
Project XB205 can hear all the gunshots, even as he pushes on running as far away as possible.