John gone, p.34
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       John Gone, p.34

           Michael Kayatta
 

  Missing Signals Preview

  Felix snapped himself awake as his left hand began to slip from the roof rack. It had been five hours now; they had to be getting closer. Losing his grip now would mean losing the van and probably worse, his life.

  The vehicle ran across another bump in the road and Felix’s hands tightened. He pulled himself forward against the sixty-miles-per-hour wind and leaned his ear against the metal below him. The voice he heard was muffled, but some of the words came through clear: dead, teeth, don’t panic.

  It wasn’t supposed to have been like this. That’s why he’d brought the ratchet straps and carabineers. He was supposed to be safely hooked in place, not clutching the roof rack’s sun-hot metal with bare, tiring hands. But the straps he’d purchased had torn almost the moment the van first accelerated, of course, only minutes after that poor sixteen-year-old had been blindfolded and led inside.

  The van drove over a large hole in the road and Felix’s body raised into the air before thumping back down against the vehicle’s top. He stabilized himself and listened through the roof again, hoping the noise he’d made had gone without raising suspicion. He pressed his ear against the metal. The voices had stopped speaking, and soon, he felt the van do the same.

  Passenger or driver, Felix thought quickly. Right or left?

  Felix began to roll left just as he heard the creak of the driver’s side door. Shifting quickly, he spun his body to the right edge of the roof and hung it there, as far off the side as he could. He heard the driver’s footsteps connect with the ground outside of the van.

  Just tug at the rack, Felix thought, holding his breath. That’s what made the noise. Take a quick look, and get back in the car.

  Felix didn’t need the driver not to look at the roof, just not to look very hard. If he could stay perfectly still, there was a good chance of going unnoticed. Worried, and a bit paranoid, he looked to the sleeve of his suit, the only part of him visible to the driver. His arm looked like the dirty, rain-spotted van beneath it. Good.

  He’d found the chameleon suit hanging in Harvard’s Engineering and Applied Sciences lab when he’d broken in a month ago. He’d been searching for anything that might have helped him with today’s plans, and finding such a convenient invention had been even more than he’d hoped.

  Unlike the invisibility prototypes Felix had seen in the 70s, this one didn’t rely on cellular mutation or a composite metamaterial to refract photons. The suit he’d found was just a network of gyroscopic, pinpoint cameras displaying the world behind him in front of him and vice versa; a simple concept perhaps, but an astounding feat of precision craftsmanship and engineering nonetheless.

  The final effect was impressive--even to Felix who’d seen all nature of things--but not perfect. The edges of his body’s form showed a slight curvature, and the material could bunch if its wearer wasn’t careful.

  It had been difficult taking the suit from Harvard; Felix knew these things were generally the children of poorly paid scientists, birthed over countless years of tireless research. Still, his guilt had been the hardest part of taking it. The lab’s security code generators operated from the same algorithm they’d used when he’d still been a student, and the man caught on the university’s security tapes was technically dead, sure to provide no match against a current police database.

  The driver’s footsteps paced in the dirt alongside the van. Felix imagined the person was busy looking up at the roof, wondering what had bumped against it. Hopefully, the reality was much too farfetched for he or she to suspect. Much to Felix’s relief, the driver reentered the vehicle a few moments later satisfied, perhaps, that nothing was amiss.

  The van jerked forward suddenly, nearly knocking Felix to the ground. His fingers were already sore against the center bar of the roof rack, but still managed to silently pull him back above the vehicle where he did his best to remain stiff and still.

  Forty-six minutes passed, and the van finally slowed to a halt, kicking a cloud of brown dirt around its tires as it wheeled to a stop. Felix raised his head and peered out at the barren countryside they’d parked in, similar in climate and flora to where he’d been taken at the beginning of his own time with the Company.

  He scanned the horizon for the large silo he remembered housing the lab’s elevator, but failed to find it. There was, however, an old farmhouse nearby, and a slight, blonde-haired woman with a white lab coat standing dutifully in front of it.

  The side door of the van pushed open and Felix moved quickly to the center of the roof. Footsteps landed against the ground below. He raised his head an inch and craned it forward, just enough to see a blindfolded teen being led out of the van by a shorthaired man in a bright red t-shirt.

  “Dean,” the man said, removing the wide, black blindfold from the boy’s face, “I’m going to leave you with Jennifer now. You’re in good hands.”

  “Hello, Dean!” the blonde-haired woman exclaimed in an chipper voice. “We’re so excited to have you with us. I’m sure you must be just bursting with questions, and that’s what I’m here for: to help you out with anything you need!”

  “I could use some sunglasses,” the boy said, shielding his eyes from the burning afternoon light.

  “Here,” said the man in the red shirt. “You can take mine.” After handing his glasses to the boy, he shot him a loose, playful salute and climbed back into the van.

  Felix slowly crawled to the opposite side of the roof and lowered his body halfway down its side, waiting for the last possible moment to drop. If this woman, Jennifer, was still facing the van by the time it left, he’d be easily noticed and all of his plans would be for naught. For now, his fate rested with fortune.

  The van accelerated. Felix held his breath and dropped his body from its side. His long toes narrowly avoided the back left tire as it noisily rolled past his feet. Jennifer and Dean were already moving toward the farmhouse, their backs turned flatly at Felix and the road. They hadn’t noticed him. The plan could continue, for now.

  Felix took a careful step forward and began to walk quietly behind the pair as they moved, matching his footsteps to theirs and listening to their conversation unnoticed.

  “So, Dean, I read in your file that you specialize in hyper-efficient fuel and propulsion,” Jennifer said. “How exciting! I’m glad my friend noticed your work at the state science fair before you made the mistake of wasting your talents at some silly college.”

  “I’m still not sure what you think is worth the kind of money you guys want to pay me,” Dean said. “And was all this spy stuff really necessary to get me here?”

  “Have you thought about what you’re going to spend your paycheck on yet, Dean?” Jennifer asked happily.

  Felix struggled to keep himself quiet. Oh, this is just sickening.

  “I think I’m going to fund my own research,” Dean answered. “I want to be able to work without grant money. Public, private, it doesn’t matter; it all comes with a price. That’s what my dad says, anyway. I also want to make sure my work gets to people, to change the way we travel and power our homes without someone telling me where or how to use it, you know?”

  “Oh, I think that’s wonderful!” Jennifer said. “Maybe you’ll let us help you with that dream after your time at the facility is up. Don’t be afraid to tell us about new projects and ideas you have, okay? We’d really like to know all about them.”

  I imagine you would, Felix thought.

  Jennifer stepped onto the house’s front porch and pulled a small key from her pocket. After sliding it into the deadbolt lock above the front door, she edged it open.

  “Is this the facility?” Dean asked.

  “Oh, no, dear,” she answered. “Where we’re going is much nicer. I promise.”

  Just a little further, Felix thought. He kept his eyes locked to the back of Jennifer’s head as he approached her. Don’t turn around. Let me get just a little bit closer ...

  As Felix stepped through the d
oorway, he gaped at the large metal cylinder at the farmhouse’s center. He’d forgotten how impressive Company elevators were.

  Jennifer stepped toward it and held her hands up to the metal. A sweeping line of green light ran over her eyes and palms. The cylinder split apart to a spacious room inside, decorated modernly with a set of angular furniture colored starkly in black or white.

  Welcome, a soothing, prerecorded voice played from an inside speaker. Please take your seat. Descent will begin shortly.

  Jennifer smiled and gestured the awestruck teen in her care to enter. As Dean stepped forward, Felix made his move. Throwing open the front of his chameleon suit, he pulled a plastic pistol grip with a disposable camera mounted to its top from the breast pocket.

  “Excuse me,” Felix asked loudly. “Can you look here for just a moment, please?”

  As Jennifer turned to see who’d spoken, Felix squeezed the plastic grip. Two thin darts connected to red and black wires shot at her chest from beneath the camera, piercing her coat and skin. The disposable camera on top of Felix’s device flashed and fifty milliamps of electricity passed into her chest through the wires.

  “Thank you,” Felix said nicely. Jennifer collapsed to the floor.

  Dean ran into the elevator and yelled at it frantically, “Close! Please, close!”

  Felix hooked his hands beneath the arms of Jennifer’s body and dragged it between the elevator doors. He dropped her there and stood straight, eyeballing Dean before continuing. “You. Kid. Out,” he said.

  “What ... what are you?” Dean asked in a quivering voice, backing his body against the far wall of the small room.

  “Just a man,” Felix sighed, remembering the bizarre appearance his chameleon suit must had given him. He lifted the trim flap down his sides, unzipped the suit, and stepped out from it. Beneath, he was wearing the same clothes he’d worn on his first trip to the labs over thirty years ago, a white, short sleeve, button down shirt and gray dress slacks. A thin, black backpack strapped around his shoulders was the only new addition.

  “What did you do to her?” Dean yelled. “What do you want?”

  The elevator’s speakers played loudly. Please step fully inside of the elevator so descent can begin. Thank you.

  “As I said just moments ago, if you’ll recall, I want you to get out,” Felix answered. “Leave and forget this place. Go back to school and take employ as an underpaid university research assistant like a normal kid.”

  “No,” Dean replied nervously. “You have no idea what’s at stake here. I have to--I have a job to do here. You have no idea how much they’re paying me for my work!”

  “Let me guess,” Felix said, rolling his eyes, “six million dollars.”

  “No, they offered me thirteen.”

  “Of course they account for inflation,” Felix mumbled.

  “What?”

  Please step fully inside of the elevator so descent can begin. Thank you. The doors began to close and open against Jennifer’s left ankle.

  Felix kicked at Jennifer’s leg and her errant foot flopped past the doors to the inside of the elevator.

  “Here’s a free math lesson for you,” Felix said quickly. “Six million is equivalent to thirteen million when the dollars don’t exist. Now get out!” He grabbed the teenaged boy by his shirt and circled him toward the door. Raising his foot high, Felix kicked Dean’s back, launching the boy from the elevator onto his face.

  “You’ll thank me for that kick some day,” Felix said as the elevator doors closed with a thud. He backed from them and sat on the white leather couch behind him. His head dropped immediately into his hands. For the next few minutes he sat in still silence, looking into the darkness his hands held cupped around his eyes.

  He’d tried to avoid being rash in coming here; he’d taken the required time to think his actions out properly, extrapolating possibilities and charting contingencies. But preparation, he knew, could only take one so far. The hypothetical would always be radically different from the reality, and one thing he’d not accounted for was the dread that had taken hold of him as soon as he’d walked into the elevator. It had been the moment he’d realized he was once more delivering himself into the predator’s lair, and once more by his own volition.

  Even Dante wasn’t stupid enough to go back, Felix thought.

  Ten minutes later, Felix shook or, at the very least, suppressed the last of his reservations. There wasn’t much time left. He stood from the couch and leaned over Jennifer’s motionless body. With gentle precision, he removed the darts from her chest. Their tips slid easily from the shallow wounds they’d made in her skin. He placed two fingers against the side of her neck and pressed firmly to check for pulse.

  Good, he thought. She’s alive. Time for phase two.

  Felix packed his chameleon suit into his backpack, and removed a small vial from the bag’s side. The container was made of a thin but sturdy plastic, an imitation glass more resistant to stress than Pyrex. He held it up to one of the bright LEDs on the elevator wall and peered through its translucent blue contents.

  “I’m glad you didn’t break like the ratchet straps,” he told it. “Otherwise, this would’ve been quite the brief adventure.”

  Removing its foam cork with care, Felix stuck his finger inside the vial and scooped out a large dollop of the gel within. Slowly lowering his hand beneath the couch, he rubbed the substance into a thin layer along its bottom fabric.

  “You just wait there until I’m ready for you,” he told it.

  Prepare for arrival, the elevator played.

  Felix stood and wiped the remaining residue from his finger between the couch’s two leather cushions. Satisfied that he’d cleaned his finger as best he could, he corked the vial and pushed it down inside his pocket. Jennifer’s body twitched as the elevator stopped. Felix moved himself above her as the doors slid open.

  The room they revealed was nearly identical to the hub he remembered from his old lab, and the familiarity almost broke his composure. Employees with differently colored badges shuffled through the space in front of him, walking hurriedly past the same bare furniture, holding the same clipboards, wearing the same lab coats, and ignoring the same oddly spaced, anonymous doors lining the outer wall. Only the faces were new.

  Felix moved his right hand behind him and wrapped his fingers around the cool handle of the homemade gun he’d placed in the waist of his trousers.

  “Oh my God!” Felix suddenly yelled as loudly as he could. “I think she’s had a heart attack!”

  ###

  Still reading? You can find Missing Signals (book two) and Company Men (book three) at the same place you found John Gone. You can find the author on Twitter @mikekayatta or check out www.johngone.com.

 
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