Hoping over the fence was the least of my worries. I landed on the roof of the garage rather easily. That sounds like a herculean feat but the slope of the hill takes a steep dip just behind the fence and garage. I only had to leap about 4 feet up and less than 6 feet over. I was beginning to learn just how physically gifted I really am. And I landed softly, like my legs taking the brunt of the impact and absorbing it, barely making any sound at all.
Scanning the backyard was part of the plan, but I took the moment to glance around the neighborhood, at least as much as I could see. The houses fronting the street were oddly close together. The flicker and wash of police car lights parked in front of Auntie’s house cast weird flashes and shadows. None of the windows in the back of the house showed lights, but that might not mean anything. I could hear the crack and squawk of police radios. I almost could smell the coffee cooling in the evening breezes.
I almost guiltily looked over at Auntie’s house. I could see the back kitchen light on, glowing behind the drawn curtains. In my mind, I could see Mom and Aunt Sarah sitting at the kitchen table, eyes locked into that hard stare of Yankee determination, holding off the tears, gazing into their coffee mugs as if an answer might appear. I’d been missing for days. My skateboard had probably been dusted for fingerprints, shoved into some plastic evidence bag. They’d probably gone all over my room, looked into my computer for possible reasons I might run away or be kidnapped.
I felt very conflicted. I mean, I could bound over there, literally, and be up those steps in a flash. I could burst in through the porch door to the kitchen and be instantly surrounded by hugs. I could. Part of me was screaming that I should. I mean, if I could end their worry and anguish just by showing up there, shouldn’t I?
But the truth was I had a lot more to fight for than just making Mom and Auntie happy. I had to save Jack, too. And avenge my Pops. I could be really selfish and just go home and end the turmoil, but Stamos would get away, and take my Jack with him.
Silent as a stalking house cat, I dropped off the edge of the garage, hidden in the shadowy, thick summer lawn beside the garage. A passing car on the side street, two houses over, forced me to hold still, let the light and shadows dance around me. Then, when I felt comfortable in the darkness, I bolted. Eight quick steps from a crouch and I was beside the basement access. It was a double door built at an angle to the ground and house. Like the boys had said, there was a lock on the door. It was a simple key padlock, but someone had drilled out the part where the key goes in. At least I had to guess it was drilled out. However it was done, the hasp released with a simple tug and I quickly opened the doubled doors. Afraid of getting possibly locked in, I chucked the lock up the hill into the vacant lot, as hard and as far as I could. It struck a rock or something out there, making a brief, bright spark.
I stepped down into the basement access, fearing that every step was somehow heard. To me, every little crunch of dirt under my sneaks was like a brass band sounding a fanfare. I carefully closed the double doors, making sure that the one door with the extra strip of wood on the inside was on the outside, so if I had to bolt, at least the light outside would guide me to the way out.
Now these houses on our street are old. Like maybe revamped twice in the last century old. Going into my Aunt Sarah’s basement you see that the walls around the basement are mostly made of local stones, piled into the sides and filled in with some kind of cement. There are some places with brick, some with added cement smoothing things over, but the bones of the place are much like most of the countryside, riddled with stones. There’s like lots of rock walls around as well, like free standing yard walls.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I expected to find the walls of the basement were made of stones. And for that first part right around the basement back door, it was. There was a giant oil-burning furnace with its fuel tank and a dizzying series of pipes and electrical conduit and the pump motor for the forced hot water heating system. There were also three hot water heaters arranged in a row to the left of the back door. Aside from some snow shovels stacked in a corner it was surprisingly clean.
So, it’s a basement, and like it ought to reflect the footprint of the house itself. So, you’d expect a roughly rectangular space the shape of the house above it. Maybe like a few support beams, a staircase up, that kinda thing. That’s where things switch. There was a hallway, also of local stone, heading towards the street facing of the house. It had a door at the end, but I could hear sounds coming through the right side of the hallway. I carefully opened the door at the end of the hallway and poked my nose around the edge of the door.
The basement room on the other side looked kinda like you’d expect. The walls were finished, though, looking like a lot of work had been done. It had the laundry machines on the right, complete with a rack for hanging clothes, a deep utility sink, an open faced cabinet full of like cleaning and laundry supplies, even an old timey looking ironing board clamped to a wall with a folding out pair of support legs. There was even an open door to a downstairs toilet and a tool bench with a few power tools and such, all very neatly set up. All very normal, very Father Knows Best.
Now, it might seem like I’m focusing on details to keep from dealing with the pounding in my heart. To be perfectly honest, my senses were taking it all in, sorting it and deciding to process things later. Every instinct in my body was telling me to run like hell and to be alert to everything around me all at once. Scared, outta my head, you bet. Last time I was here, I was abandoned by Jack and his dad wanted my nuts, literally. And he was crazy enough, motivated enough and just plain scary skilled and strong enough to do it. I was just trying like crazy to keep it together. So as pleasant as the basement was, I felt naked, exposed, and simply powerless.
So, as I passed the tool bench, I grabbed up a heavy hammer with a long handle. The kind of tool that construction guys use to pound eight-inch nails deep into two by fours. The kind with that claw on the back end to pull nails, too. It felt good in my hand, a comforting weight I intended to use very soon. I walked around a central support made of stones, concrete and stout wood beams and found the staircase to the main floor.
But that wasn’t my goal. The room seemed to be wider in the front than the back area. And I quickly found out why. The house above had some kind of wider front facing than the back of the building. There was a slight passageway beside the wooden staircase. Oh, it looked innocent enough, with shelves full of food and other supplies built into the area under the stairs, but the metal door at the back of that passageway didn’t seem to have any original basement place to go.
And I could hear voices behind it. I felt my breathing was getting heavier and I took a moment to close my eyes, steady my breathing. My pulse was almost a roar in my temples. How I wasn’t discovered just walking around in these utility spaces was beyond me.
I tried to remember what I could of my last visit to this underground. I was understandably groggy, probably drugged, and wasn’t awake when I was brought in. So I had no idea what I might find behind that door. A lab sort of room that fit my memories at least, with those huge banks of computers. But the actual size didn’t fit with the size of the basement so far. Which meant, at least to my limited knowledge, that the room I was tied to a chair in must be somewhere under the back yard.
Which also meant that if Robby and Kenny had been down in here before, if they had somehow managed to rescue me from this place, they clearly hadn’t told me everything they knew yet. Once all this was over, I promised myself that the four of us would have a long sit down discussion.
Would it have killed them to at least tell me how to navigate down in here, ya know? I’m not asking for GPS coordinates or a map or nothing. Just a “right at the bathroom and go past the stairs would have been nice.
The metal door was a slider type, going into a pocket in the wall. There was no handle or lock, just a raised ridge of brass. A simple flick of the wrist and the door slid silently on its rollers. Beyond, the floor was polished linoleum. The walls were smooth drywall, and they ran to a second pocket door about half a dozen yards on.
No turning back now. As if I ever could. Beyond that door lay my one chance to save Jack.
I stopped at the second sliding door and put my ear to it, listening. At first, all I could hear was the whooshing of blood in my ears. And then, I heard him. It was like my hearing suddenly got some kinda of focus power up. I could make out their voices, even through the door. They seemed distant, but it clearly was Jack and his weirdo dad.
Cautiously, I slid open the door, just a fraction. You know, enough to sneak a peek. Seeing no one and no movement, I slipped thorough into another hallway. It wasn’t long, but seemed strangely familiar. A second such hallway extended to the left but I followed the straight ahead one. About twenty feet down the hallway came to a T intersection. The voices seemed to be coming from the left side so I padded into the right side area, sort of backing into it as I looked for a bit of cover.
The room I found myself in was very strange. Small tiles made up the floor, with the scent of strong antiseptic soap lifting up to greet me. The walls and tables and work stations in there were all stainless steel. The wall behind me had six large rectangular doors, also stainless steel and arranged in a 2 x 3 pattern, all but two of them sealed with padlocks on the large handles to the doors. It had a cold and businesslike feel, more hard science for its own sake than for anything positive. Lifeless. Kinda spooky.
From the edge of this horrible, dark yet shiny room, I looked across the hallway to see the same room I’d been tied up in before. The angle was different, but I could clearly see the banks of computer storage units, the chemistry lab tables, the shelves with books and beakers, glassware and other equipment. And I could also see the activities going on in there. As I watched the air conditioning kicked in, putting a subtle hum into the air, chilling me further. I had already been shaking with anticipation, worry, fear, you name a negative emotions, I was quaking with it. I took a deep breath and poked my head around the corner, observing. I forced myself to calm down, and let my senses guide me.
I listened intently, hearing all sorts of sciency sounds. Gurgling of liquids, the steady hiss of a gas burner, that weird electro-zappy thing with the climbing sparks. You know, the standard mad scientist shtick. I strained to hear past it all, picking out the voices.
I heard a sharp inhale of pain. Jack’s inhale of pain. I was tempted to rush around the corner and just attack whatever had hurt him. And while I did quell that urge, I had to poke my head around the corner and see what was going on. I could feel the muscles in my right forearm tighten as I considered using the hammer on something, or someone.
Jack sat in the chair that had been used to hold me captive. He wasn’t strapped down to it, but seemed to be enduring something. His eyes were closed, his hands gripping the arms of the chair so hard his knuckles were showing white through his tan skin. He was seated in such a way that he could see me if he only opened his eyes, allowing him to look past the figure between us. His father.
I could see that Jack had a set of tubes over his shoulder, clipped to his shirt. His so-called father was sitting across from him, wearing that lab coat of his. I couldn’t see what was going on, but apparently it was the cause of Jack’s discomfort.
“You have not masturbated? Hum? No nocturnal emissions?”
“No. None,” Jack replied, tight lipped. “You would have a record if I had.” He grunted mildly and I could hear a sort of wet sucking sound. The only thing I can compare it to was when I was 9 and watched a buddy’s dad use a shop vac to clean up some water from a backed up toilet. The hose from the vacuum made a slurpy, rubbery sound when it occasionally would bump flat to tile while sucking water up. That kind of sound drifted my way from the vicinity of Jack’s seat.
“Good. Good,” the old man practically cooed. I saw Jack wince some more and the tubes running over his chest jumped as though they were pumping fluid. Well, I guess you could say that the tubes moved like the shop vac did when making those slurpy noises. “A good harvesting. Hold still a moment and I’ll pull the catheter out.” I didn’t know what a catheter was at the time, but thinking back on it now sends chills down my spine.
Then Jack opened his eyes and we saw each other. His eyes flashed wider for a moment and the hoses jumped again. A look of shock passed across his face, but he quickly schooled his expression. Or maybe it was just whatever was happening that caused his look to shift back to resisting hurts.
“Any pain? Discomfort?”
“None more than usual. Will it be enough?”
“Oh, I think so. The data I already produced from young master Carver’s sample shows much promise. Very unsettling that he managed to escape. The fact that he has not shown up confuses myself and the authorities.”
“But, you will be able to use my sample for the serum?” Jack asked, squeezing his eyes as the tubes shook and pulsed. “Are the genetic markers present?”
“To a lesser degree. Oh, do not be offended. Your genetics weren’t superior to begin with. I have no way of knowing the details of your actual father’s background. And you mother was, shall we say, less than discrete in her choices. But no matter. You are of hardy stock, Jack. I should be able to produce at least a temporary serum based on your seed.” The tubes jerked again and Jack actually bared his teeth with pain. “Almost done now.”
“I have packed my belongings, as you have directed,” Jack said with some strain to his voice. I cringed inwardly. Had no idea what was going on over there, but whatever it was, Jack was maintaining his control, but just barely.
“Very good, my son. We shall be ready to leave in the morning. The computers have nearly finished compiling your data. The new storage system is ready and much smaller. It will take but a few weeks to get it operational. We shall be able to move past the vultures outside.”
“Will I have to remain comatose that entire time?” Jack asked. I suddenly realized that he was giving me information. He was actually getting his evil scientist father to divulge the whole plan to me. Supremely clever!
“Until I can reboot the chipset in your cerebral cortex, yes. You worry too much, Jack. Your body will be fine. And when you awake, we will be in sunny Dubai, safe from the Americans. You will have updated connectivity to match current technology. You can even start your garden again.”
“I hardly think moving to the Middle East is going to be safe. The turmoil in the region is not likely to end anytime soon. And the climate is hardly suited to most garden vegetables.”
“No, but our technology will find high bidders there.”
“Your technology,” Jack corrected, with emphasis on the “your,” wincing slightly as the suctioning noises tapered off. There seemed to be a moment when father and son stared at each other. I visibly saw Jack back down a bit, his shoulders moving closer together.
“Do not pick up bad habits, childe. That petulant tone is less than becoming. You spent far too much time with that Carver boy, I fear. I shall have to reprogram some of your personality engrams while you are in storage mode. Perhaps inject some of his DNA into you from the sample. Yes, perhaps I can engineer some gene therapy to give you some of the traits we need from his chromosomal structure.”
“Had things gone as you’d planned, I’d have spent more time with him,” Jack asserted. Then he grunted in pain, his eyes squinting shut and his head lowering slightly. The lab coat moved in such a way that I knew Dr. Stamos was manipulating something, and from the looks of it, something in Jack’s lap.
Uh, whut the fuck, over?
“Do not confuse what was with what is. That has led to many historic setbacks. My work alone was pushed back nearly 40 years when de Führer made his military mistakes. Learn from the blunders of history or suffer them repeatedly, Jack.”
Apparently, he finished whatever he was doing and stood up, walking away from Jack. He moved around behind him, taking the tubes from over Jack’s shoulder. I could see briefly that Jack had no pants on. I quickly ducked behind the corner again and realizations rapidly occurred to me. Apparently, some of Jack’s logical thinking had rubbed off on me, because so much fell into place for me mentally all at once.
First, those tubes had been somehow hooked up to Jack’s boy parts. Which by itself was, like, eww! Second, Stamos talked openly about genetics, harvesting and serums. Third, Jack had been ordered to pack his bags, mentioned moving to some place in the Middle East and that he’d have to be transported unconscious. Worse, he feared it.
It all was making no sense in my head yet, but I understood two things. One, Stamos had done something to Jack while he was awake that apparently he’d done to me or wanted to do to me while I was asleep (although I couldn’t figure out if that was real or just me jumping to conclusions). Second, they were preparing to flee.
Unconsciously, I had to cover my own mouth at the thought of Stamos doing sciency, vacuumy, bad things to Jack. And poor Jack had to sit there and endure it. How vile?! How gross!
“You should get ready for our trip, boy. I will set up this final serum batch. Combining your sample and the last of the RC – PC combination serum should sustain me long enough to get to our destination.”
“Will I dream?”
“What do you say?”
“Will I dream? While in storage.”
“Whether or not you dream is immaterial and unimportant,” Stamos said imperiously, as if scolding a poor student for the umpteen-squath time. “Our escape from here before these fools realize who I really am is paramount. Before they realize what you are.”
“What if the authorities search the house? They will find the lab.”
“We,” Stamos said, the sound of his voice seeming to move deeper into the complex, “will be long gone by the time their feeble American minds turn to us.”
“And the bodies?”
Bodies? He’d said bodies. Like as in more than one. With my back against that steel wall, my eyes shifted to the six rectangular doors in the opposite wall. I had to cover my mouth to keep from gasping as I realized where I was. This wasn’t just some kind of genetics lab. This room I was hiding in was a morgue! Those doors in the opposite wall, with the padlocks on them must be where the bodies were.
Things were already tense and horrifying to me. They had just gotten infinitely worse. Six locked doors, at least to my mind, meant six people were in there. And knowing a little bit about what Stamos did, my mind couldn’t help but think they were all kids like me.
In the news, lately, there’d been mention of the family of the town’s former mayor and their continuing quest to find their missing son. I remembered something about little Raphy Curak somehow winding up missing from his second story bedroom, the window wide open, several months ago. No sign of the missing 12 year old had ever been found.
I had to wonder, but I had no time to find keys or bolt cutters or stuff to go investigating. Still, the idea that there might be six dead kids laying in cold storage after Stamos had his hands on them chilled me even colder than the steel wall against my back.
“You may get dressed. I am going to load the rest of our material into the car. Have your bags ready to publicly carry to the garage.”
“Yes, Father,” Jack replied, and I risked a look around the corner. I saw the back of the old man, walking away from Jack’s position in the lab towards another passageway. He was dragging a luggage carrier with two stacked coolers, like he was just packing to go to the beach or a camping trip. I shifted my eyes to see Jack unbending, his eyes searching my way as his hands went through the motions of sealing up his pants.
I could see only his upper body over the lab table in the room, which parts of me silently regretted. It’s weird that I could still be interested in what was in his pants after knowing that the weirdo doctor had been doing things to him there and that there were likely kid corpses behind me.
I moved into the lab area as Jack wiped a tear from his eye. Obviously whatever had been done to him had more than just a little pain involved. I felt a strong need to use that hammer, suddenly. My feelings for Jack might still be bigger than I could understand yet, and certainly needed me to put names to, but I was definitely feeling very protective about him. It’s weird how a feeling of protectiveness can instill a need for violence on one hand and a great amount of wanting to cuddle and comfort on the other.
“You should not have returned,” Jack said as I got closer to him. His voice was low, but his hand reached out and he placed his fingers on my chest. Despite the coolness of the air and the cloth of my shirt, just that gentle touch was enough to warm me. I reached out with my hammer unencumbered hand and drew his slight frame against my chest. His arms took several heartbeats before they encircled my chest and he pulled himself tighter to me. For an eternity, we just stood holding.
At that moment, I didn’t need the labels or understanding of all the things spinning inside in my head. We were together again. Everything else didn’t matter.
“You okay, Toothpick?” I whispered against his ear.
“I have been better. You look horrible,” he replied. I grinned, realizing that the bruises on my face probably were kind of on the hideous side. Thinking about it now, I didn’t realize how quickly I do heal. It had been three days since Stamos had knocked me about ten yards into that wheel barrow and I’d bashed my noggin against the bookshelf. Still, I probably had purple blotches at my temple and cheek.
“Yeah, well. We can worry about that later. C’mon, we’re breaking you out of here.”
He backed out of our embrace and took two steps back from me. “Paul, I can’t. It is taking all I can do right now to not alert him to your presence. Why are you here? How come you haven’t contacted the police?”
“I was unconscious a while. Some friends helped me. Now I’m here to help you. How do I separate you from the computers?”
“It wont be enough. The internal programming…” he began, but faltered, suddenly unable to look at me. “Carver, everything I am is literally his. I don’t know how you can stand to be around me. The things he’s done…”
“Hey,” and I moved to him, grasping the bottom of his chin with my empty hand. He looked up into my eyes, reluctantly, a lot of stress evident on his face. “We can talk about all that later. Right now we have to move. There’s a plan, and for it to work, we have to disable the computers. How do I do that without hurting you?”
“There are three ways. One, would be to disable the radio antenna along my spine, into my brain. This will be difficult, since any tampering there might activate the charge at the base of my skull.”
“Charge? You mean…”
“20 grams of plastic explosives. Not enough to be enormously dramatic, but enough to damage me fatally.”
“Okay, didn’t know about that. That’s definitely out. What about the other two?”
“The wireless modem system has a significant range. Almost 50 miles. Disabling that will allow me to disconnect entirely from the computers and resist the internal programming.”
“I like that, how do we do it?”
“The transmission array is mounted on the roof, along the chimney.”
“Okay, and the last way?”
“Destroy the computer system here,” he said, pointing to the banks of electrical equipment behind me. “But, there is a danger in that. A sudden interruption of the system, even as he is preparing to deactivate me, well, it’s never been done. Much of this system has been running 15 years. It’s been added to and upgraded, true, but a lot of those additions aren’t exactly completely compatible.”
“Meaning that it’s never been shut down. And I don’t know how that will affect me if it’s not done right. Just smashing things might cause irreparable damage.”
“Okay, so we have to take out the thing on the roof.”
“Carver,” he said, his chin quivering in my grip. “I’m scared.”
“I’m terrified. I am. But we gotta do something now, Jack. Or you’ll end up being…”
“Shhh!” he said, putting his finger over my lips. “He wont be in the garage for long.”
“Then help me. We can both be free. We can be together again.” The harshness of my whisper seemed to galvanize him.
“If you destroy that one,” he said, pointing to part of the wall of computer cabinets, “it will desync the communications system. It might affect me, but it will keep the data systems alive while preventing the command and control system from broadcasting to the roof array.”
“Uh, simple English please,” I said, trying to smile.
“Killing that one will cripple the machine’s ability to influence me, and shut off the command links.”
“See, sometimes the simple way is best,” I said, walking towards the machine, hammer lifting in my hand.
“You’ll have to open the casing,” he warned. “The shell is titanium. Once you have the casing off, you can wreak havoc on the internal systems. They will be vulnerable. Just be careful. There is a lot of electrical energy in that unit.”
“Not a problem. I got a hammer. I’m practically Thor!” I said, playfully. I walked to the cabinet and looked around at the edges. Jack stayed put where he was while I examined the cabinet. My shivers had shifted to a sort of cold-skinned calm. I had a direction and a plan, so now I just had to do it.
For a moment, I thought back to my Pops. This must have been how he felt when he climbed into his plane before flying, knowing he was possibly going into battle. I took a deep breath, resolved.
The cabinet cover seemed to be held in place by two twisting latches on one side, with simple hinges on the other. The narrow gap between the cabinets just allowed me to slip my fingers in and pop the latch open. The top one was easy, but the lower one needed a little more effort. So I knelt down and tried. But it wouldn’t budge. I silently laid the hammer on the floor and used my now free hand to help wiggle the cabinet door, hoping it would help pop the latch.
“Why are you standing around? I thought I told you to get ready to leave,” Stamos said, coming back into the lab.
“Well, get moving!”
I think my heart actually stopped for a moment. I looked around for some place I could crawl to and hide. The only place I could get to easily was to slide under the lab table. I lifted my sneakers, sort of rocking onto my knees and pushed back with my hands so I kinda backwards wheel barrowed on hands and knees under the table.
Jack’s legs moved past my hiding spot, moving slowly, almost as if he were fighting the urge to walk. And that’s when I noticed where the hammer was. I cringed as I watched Jack’s sneakers step away. Because right behind Jack’s uncertain steps was the old man’s measured stride.
“What is this?” Stamos said, his legs coming to a stop beside the hammer. “Jack? What is this tool doing here?” He reached down and scooped the long handle into his ancient hand, his head coming almost level with mine. I could see the light reflecting off his thick bi-focals. I inched my way further under the table. My whole body suddenly went tight, a little shaky, as the adrenaline flow inside me went from dribble to Niagra.
Just when I thought he was about to look in my direction, Jack’s feet came back into view. Stamos stood up quickly. “Ooh! You startled me. You have been getting very good at treading lightly.”
“As you directed, Father.”
“Why is this tool out of place?”
“I was using it.”
“For?” Stamos prodded.
“I thought that the chair might have been damaged when Carver escaped. I wanted to have the ability to knock it back together, and possibly fix any other damage he might have done.”
“Smart lad. Well, put it back on the workbench on your way upstairs.”
Then the hammer fell and slammed into the ground, the handle flopping over in my direction. My breath stopped, my senses focused entirely on the tool as it lay on the ground. With a sort of rocking motion, I sat back on my heels, actually getting my feet under me.
“Are your hands slippery, my son,” the old man asked. And he bent over, to pick up the hammer, reaching deeper under the table than before. His face came level with mine, and recognition widened the yellowed parts of his eyes.
“You?!” he exclaimed, his hand half outstretched towards the hammer.