Chapter 11A Chapter by Domenic Luciani
Zach and Beck finally meet. Plus there's a bit of a twist at the end.
Eric Manuszewski stared vacantly at the thousands of monitors stretched out before him. Every single one of them was showing a blank screen. Scratch that, they couldn’t have been blank: every so often he could see the faint shadow of a person like white noise on a TV. There was something clouding the camera, and he couldn’t see anything. His eyes darted around, scanning every monitor in the room, but they were all the same. He picked up the phone and called another observer, Marlo, who was downtown.
“Hello? Eric, is that you?” Marlo answered.
“Yeah, Mar. It’s me. Listen, is there anything weird going down on your end?” He asked, holding his breath for the answer.
“Weird? You mean like this freaking huge fog cloud that came out of nowhere? You mean like that?” She sounded frantic, and rightly so.
A few weeks ago, this would have been a mild inconvenience. Traffic comes to a stop, people might be distracted for a few minutes, but in the big picture, everything would be totally fine. However, the past couple weeks had been particularly odd. Steven Vitello was arrested, Beck Huxley had sabotaged an entire floor of the MedTech labs, and the observer in charge of the therapist’s offices was reporting a drastic increase in cases of dreaming in the citizens. On top of it all, his brother, who was supposed to observe and attest to the remarkable functionality of the city, was here just in time for everything to go wrong. Eric wiped his hand over his face and sighed, then remembered Marlo was still on the phone.
“Do me a favor and call the traffic board. Tell them to shut down the streets.”
“I already did. What about you? What are you going to do?”
“Someone’s gotta call the chairman and tell him about this.”
“You sure you’re not overreacting? I think we can handle a little fog.”
Eric hesitated, wondering if maybe she was right. The chairman was likely to suggest doing something drastic, like mobilize the entire police force and clear the streets or something. For one thing, Eric did not want to upset the natural order. Sending in an army might cause people to ask questions or even be afraid, which would make an observer’s job very difficult.
“You might be right. But I have a feeling it’s not just the fog, like there’s something else going on. . . .”
“What do you mean?” Marlo asked, sounding a little worried.
“It’s nothing,” Eric said quickly. “Just a feeling, I’m probably just being paranoid. Anyways, tell the boys over at maintenance to crank up the humidifiers or whatever it is they do so we can get rid of this fog. I can’t see a damn thing on the monitors.”
“I’m standing right in it, and I can barely see my hand in front of my face. It’s really pretty freaky. I’ll let you know what’s going on if I find out anything.”
“Alright, thanks. Bye.”
He hadn’t told her, but maybe he should have. He thought about what would happen if he told the chairman what he had seen, but he did not want to picture it. A few hours ago, before the screens had all gone dark, Eric had been watching Beck Huxley.
In fact, he had been watching Beck and the two children with him for some time now. He himself had gone to Steve Vitello’s apartment, and he alone conducted the search. He had found the hidden room Steve had kept behind a closet, as well as the pages of notes that he had written about his time working for MedTech. Those were particularly interesting because it appeared that Steve had slowly developed a psychosis from handling the ‘human subjects’. Some of the earlier notes, Steve had thought he was going insane, hearing voices and cries coming from boxes.
What Eric should have done, what it was law to do, was turn over the evidence of Steve’s insurrection to the chairman. However, he had not, and he did not intend to do so. To hell with the chairman: he said wanted to know how this society would work, but he was only interested in reaching perfection. Eric was much more interested in the imperfections, and so when he found the notes, he had hid them away in the safe back home.
Now he had seen something even more interesting. Beck Huxley had moved into Steve’s apartment. Eric had ignored pretty much everything else and focused on watching Beck. He had been alarmed when Beck returned the first night covered in cuts and bruises. He was furious with whoever had ordered the attack on the cargo ship, but he did not allow it to show, for fear that they would find Beck and arrest him. He had been unable to stop Steve’s arrest: his offenses were too public, too traceable. The evidence against him was unquestionable. If Eric had stepped in at all, he very well might have lost his job.
Steve was gone now. It was terribly unfortunate, of course it was, but there was nothing to be done about it. What troubled Eric now was the fact that the last thing he had seen on the monitors before the fog descended was Beck and his two children, Tyler and the girl who wasn’t in his files, leaving the apartment. After that: nothing.
Eric trained his eyes on the monitors, hoping desperately for a glimpse of the one man he wanted to talk to, but could not bring himself to confront.
And then disaster.
Eric could feel the tremors from the explosion halfway across the city. He saw it on the monitors and his eyes widened in horror. Panic set in. Was anybody hurt? How much would it cost to repair? How quickly could it be repaired? Should he risk allowing people to see it, or should he have the entire district roped off?
He could have dealt with the fog without telling the chairman, but this was another matter entirely. He took out his cell phone and dialed the number for the chairman’s office. His hands were shaking.
“Hello, chairman’s office, how may I help you?” Answered a woman.
“This is head observer Manuszewski; I need to speak with the chairman immediately.”
His jaw dropped as he glanced back at the monitor. The destruction was unimaginable: rocks and enormous shards of metal were lying all over the place. The fissure itself, at the narrowest point, was as wide as the length of a pickup truck. At the widest, it was probably three times that. But the fissure was not what had caused his jaw to drop.
There, among the debris that cluttered the area, three tiny figures were darting towards the opening. Eric put his phone down and went to the consol, tapping at the buttons to zoom in on the picture. Sure enough, there was Beck Huxley and the other two, running for the fissure.
Eric got on the desk phone and called the police headquarters, not waiting for any sort of response and yelling at the first person who answered: “Gate 6, someone get there now! I need Beck Huxley alive and unharmed.” He knew how these people operated. If he didn’t specify something, they would assume leniency was optional.
After a moment, a voice on the other end said, “We have Huxley, but the other two escaped.”
Eric checked the monitor and became infuriated as the fog returned and blocked out the cameras again.
“Go after them. They can’t have gotten too far. Use helicopters if you have to, but remember, don’t hurt them. I cannot stress that enough.”
“Yes sir, we’ll get right on that.”
Eric hung up the desk phone and grabbed for his cell. Thankfully, he was still on hold. Quickly, he attempted to devise the best explanation for these events, but he could not hope for much. This single act might ruin everything they had worked towards for the last seventy years. How the hell was he going to pull this one off?
The chairman answered the phone with a solemn hello and Eric’s mind went completely blank.
“Hello? Eric, answer me.”
“Uh, yes, sorry sir,” Eric said hastily. He bit his lip, hoping inspiration would hit him.
“Well, what is it?” the chairman asked impatiently. Eric could hear him tapping a pen on the edge of his desk.
“Sir, there seems to be a situation going on in the city.”
“Yes, I am aware of the fog. What are you going to do about it?”
Eric felt like he was back at the training facility, being given an impossible problem and asked how he would go about fixing it. He clenched his free hand into a tight fist. “Sir, it appears that the citizen, Beck Huxley, recently attempted to escape the city. We managed to catch him, but his son and a girl who was accompanying them managed to get out. We’re looking for them now. In the meantime, there was some severe damage done to the city wall. We’re not yet sure of the cause, or who was behind it, but we need to focus on getting it repaired as quickly as possible.”
“I see. Interesting. Well, I trust you can handle this little problem yourself. Just make sure your brother, the journalist, doesn’t find out. I will inform Mr. Bowler of the news.”
That was it. The chairman hung up. Eric exhaled deeply, not understanding what had just happened. He had expected the chairman to be furious, or even to fire him on the spot, but he had not. In fact, the chairman had seemed nonplussed, or even that he had expected the news. Eric stared at his cell phone in disbelief. What did the chairman know?
He looked back up at the monitors, all frosted over. The police would probably have Beck locked up by now. Pulling up a chair, Eric contemplated sitting down and figuring this all out; what he needed was some time alone to think. However, he seemed to think better of it, and instead grabbed his coat off the back of the chair and left headquarters.
He took out his cell phone again and called his brother.
Zach was lying in bed when the phone started to ring. He was on his stomach, sprawled out with limbs hanging off the mattress and the sheets in a twisted mess. It was late afternoon, but Zach had not moved all day. His tablet was filled with notes on everything from the architecture to the drinking fountains, and yet he had nothing. Inspiration had refused to come to him in his hour of need. He only had another full day in the city, and then he would be sent back home.
If he didn’t have anything substantial by then, he was screwed. The deal was off, and there goes his paycheck and all the fantasies about moving into a bigger apartment.
Zach moaned into a pillow. The phone was on the nightstand not two feet away, and yet it felt like an enormous waste of energy for him to grab it. Whatever, he had to take a piss anyways.
He snatched the phone as he rolled out of bed, his robe falling open, revealing that he was not wearing anything underneath.
“Hello,” he mumbled, finding the bathroom light switch and flicking it on.
“Zach? It’s Eric.”
“Oh, hey. What’s up?” Zach flipped up the toilet seat with his toe.
“Listen, there’s something pretty big going on right now and I need you to stay where you are.”
A light went off in Zach’s head. “Uh… yeah, sure. Okay.”
“Thanks. I have to take care of some things then I’ll head right over.”
“Alright. I’ll see you in a bit then.”
Zach hung up, feeling the familiar buzz of a good story welling up in his gut. He dressed quickly, throwing on the clothes he had been wearing the day before. Honestly, if his brother had really wanted him to lay low, he shouldn’t have called to tell him so. Curiosity was like a virus, and Zach would not be satisfied lying around the apartment all day when something, possibly noteworthy, was happening outside.
He whipped open the blinds covering the window and his smile dropped instantly. The fog blotted out everything and he could not even see the building across the street, or even the street itself. He opened the window, thinking that maybe there was something wrong with it, and immediately the fog boiled over the frame and into the bedroom. Zach closed the window quickly.
“Alright, this is freaky.”
He slipped into his shoes and headed out the door.
Zach rode the elevator down to the lobby, but when he stepped out, he was met with an unexpected onslaught of people. Dozens of them were hanging out there, trying to wait out the fog. Many of them had worried looks on their faces. Zach took out his tablet and snapped a picture of a man holding his wife and staring out the lobby window.
Outside was just as awful as Zach thought it would be. He couldn’t see ten feet in front of him and quickly lost track of where he was.
He swore he must have been walking around for at least an hour and a half in the fog before he found someone who had anything interesting to offer.
“Yeah, there was an explosion over that way. I didn’t see it myself, but a buddy of mine said that a whole chunk of the wall is gone.”
“A chunk of the wall? No kidding?” Zach said, trying to contain the excitement in his voice.
“I’m serious, a whole chunk. I heard some guy got arrested, too.”
Zach thanked the man and then half ran in the direction the explosion allegedly had occurred. Also, he was willing to bet his bottom dollar that the one who had been arrested was Beck Huxley, the guy who had been Steve’s accomplice. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, it was just a feeling.
The sun had more or less gone down by then. The only light now came from the fog, practically glowing in the moonlight, and the streetlamps like tiny orbs of fire floating in the vast emptiness. Sentinels in the dark.
He was disappointed when, fifteen minutes later, he could not get within a hundred feet of the gap in the wall. Yellow tape stretched around the entire area, and police patrolled the lines. Zach went around hoping to find a way through. But it was no use. He tried taking a few pictures, but most of them came out looking like he took a shot of a big white wall. Rolling his eyes, he was about to resign himself to the title of unluckiest man in the world when something caught his eye.
A figure had emerged from the shadows and was headed towards him. It was not a police officer: the build was way off. No, it was probably a woman. Petit, yet fairly tall, and with a great tangle of hair, that much he could make out.
As she came nearer and her features became more distinct, Zach frowned in confusion. The woman wore a red dress and her hair was blonde as summer dandelions. She batted her eyelashes at him as she approached.
“Uh…can I help you?” Zach asked, glancing around to see if she was intending for someone else. Something seemed very strange about this woman, he noted. It was not her face or her dress, or her radiant hair, but something in the way she carried herself. There was a confidence in her stride and the way she held her head high when she walked that she seemed out of place. Zach could sense a certain regality in her poise and for a moment he felt intimidated by her.
“Yes you can, actually,” the woman said. A small note of seduction tingeing her voice.
Zach felt his pulse quicken, and for the first time he was glad it was foggy, so that no one could see him blush.
“Look, if you’re lost, I really don’t think you’re talking to the right guy,” He said.
“I’m not lost,” the woman said. She walked up to him, their faces only a few inches apart, and smiled. “But I think you are.”
“What do you"” But she was already turning away. “Hey, wait!” He called after her.
She seemed to float across the landscape, and Zach could swear the fog was parting for her. Heavy wisps of white vapor curled around her delicately but never touched her.
Zach was mystified. He followed her, unsure of what else to do. There was something remarkably calming about her presence, as if Zach was meant to follow her. By now he had decided that their meeting was not by chance, and she was not mistaking him for someone else. Wherever she was taking him, he knew that it would be where he needed to go.
An overwhelming sense of peace washed over him. He took a deep breath and smiled without truly knowing why.
The woman in the red dress led him far off the beaten path. What few people Zach had seen so far had all but vanished completely. The streetlamps also became fewer and farther apart.
“Where are we?” he asked, glancing about for some landmark that he could use to figure out their general location. The woman did not answer. She stayed about three meters ahead of him at all times: just close enough for him to see her, but far enough away that she was unclear. He gave up on finding something familiar. He was positive he had never been in this part of the city before.
Finally, the woman climbed a small flight of steps to the front door of an odd building. The building was odd because it seemed to be made entirely of concrete. There were only a few windows near the top, but other than that, it looked like an enormous gray shoebox.
“What is this place?” Zach asked from the bottom of the stairs.
“You’ll understand once you go in.” The woman nodded towards the door.
“Who are you though? What do you want from me?” Suddenly, Zach’s phone rang. He took it out of his pocket. It was Eric, no doubt calling to ask why he wasn’t in the apartment. Zach silenced the phone and thrust it back in his pocket. The woman was gone. He spun around; looking down the street in every direction, but it was as if she had simply vanished. He had not even gotten her name.
Well, he thought, I’ve come this far. Might as well head in. He walked up the steps without looking back and entered the building.
Zach had not been sure of what he would find, but it certainly was not this. When he walked in, he found himself in a small, dimly-lit lobby. Several people had been walking through, but now they all stopped and looked up as if they had been expecting him. One man who looked like a doctor because he was wearing scrubs came up to him and asked: “Are you Zach Manuszewski?”
“Yeah . . ?” Zach said slowly.
“Please, this way,” The man said.
Zach was led through a pair of steel-gated doors that opened one at a time. “Where are we, a prison?” He asked.
Suddenly Zach knew where the man was taking him. He understood why the woman in the red dress had led him here, and it felt strange, like in the old mythologies when the planets would align. Something was starting to click.
There were more doors and hallways and stairwells that led down, down, down. The place was a maze. What did a perfect society need with a prison in the first place, let alone an elaborate one?
Eventually they came to an enormous round steel door with a crank on it like a vault. The man wiped a card across a panel next to the door and watched as the whole contraption swung outward with a great gust of wind. It made a screeching noise as metal ground against metal. The room beyond was little more than a dark abyss. The man turned and looked at Zach. Clearly, this was as far as he went.
Zach gave the man a quick nod as thanks. He understood the point of the madness, but he had not quite yet caught on to the method. Why was this man helping him? Who was the woman in the red dress?
The door slammed shut behind him and he was completely alone. The door had opened into a long, dark hallway with prison cells on either side. Zach slowly made his way down the corridor, crossing his arms over his chest to block out the cold air.
This place gave him the creeps.
He called out, “Beck?”
He tried again, and this time a voice, low and raspy, echoed through the prison. “Yeah?”
“Where are you?”
A hand stuck out from the between the bars a few yards down and waved to him. Zach walked over and peered into the cell.
Beck Huxley sat with his back against the bars. Zach could not get a good look at his face, but his hair was a mess and his clothes were tattered. He wondered what Beck had been through to achieve this worn and battered look.
Zach crouched down on one knee and said, “You’re Beck Huxley?”
“Yeah, what’s it to you?” Beck responded. He was not brushing Zach off, but sounded genuinely curious.
“My name is Zach Manuszewski. I think… I think I’m here to help you,” Zach said. He had been unsure of it until then, but as soon as he spoke the words he knew it was true.
Beck turned around and Zach saw for the first time Beck’s haggard face. It was covered in scratches and bruises and there was a swelling above his left eyebrow. His eyes were recessed deeply into his skull and surrounded by dark rings.
“How do you think you can help me, huh?” Beck growled. “Can you get my son back? Can you burn this damn city to the ground? What can you do?”
Zach was taken aback. He had not expected Beck to be so bitter, but in retrospect it was understandable. This was how a real human would act.
“I can probably get you out of here,” Zach said, thinking about the people who had let him in. They could probably do it.
“No. I need to stay here for now,” Beck said.
“What about your son? Don’t you want to help him?” Zach said, fearful that Beck was losing hope.
“He’ll be fine. I have to trust that he’ll know what to do. He’s old enough now. As for me, you might be able to get me out of this cell, but after that we would both be screwed. The police are all over the place right now. We wouldn’t last ten minutes if we tried to escape. No, it would be better for everyone if I just stayed put.”
“Beck, do you have any idea what’s going on here? Do you know where you are right now?”
“No, not that. I mean this city. Do you know what it is?” Zach asked. He was not sure if he would regret what he was about to say, but at that moment he could not have cared less.
“What do you mean?” Beck asked.
Zach went right up to the bars. “This place"this city, this building, everything"it’s all a lie.”
Somewhere in Beck’s mind, a memory surfaced. Duncan had told him the same thing before he died.
“None of it is real. You people are like ants in an ant farm. Bowler, you know that guy? He’s got this whole place rigged with cameras and they’re just watching you"watching everybody. It’s some sort of test facility, like a prototype. They wanted to make a perfect society without any prejudice or judgment or all that other crap. It’s all fabricated.”
“We are all rats in the maze,” Beck said slowly, the words beginning to make sense. In some recess of his mind, he had always known this, but had chosen to believe it could not have been true. To believe that nothing you made was your own doing, that the air you breathed and the food you worked to buy were all put there by someone else, how could anyone live like that? The news hit him hard, but this was no time for mourning a life which was never truly his. There might be time for that later, but now he had the future ahead of him. He was damned if he let Bowler, or the chairman, or anyone else have their hand in it.
For the first time, in what might be his entire life, Beck was thinking clearly.
Zach had no idea what was going through Beck’s mind. He still thought Beck’s refusal of freedom was an act of hopelessness.
“You can’t just rot in here,” Zach said. “There’s got to be something else you can do.”
“There is nothing I can do,” Beck said, steadfast. “But there is something you might be able to do.”
“What do you mean, ‘organize’?”
“You probably think that everyone here is brainwashed, and maybe there’s some truth to that, but we are still human. We will listen to reason if it’s presented the right way.”
“You’re asking me to start a revolution, aren’t you?” Zach said, suddenly fearful that he was finally in over his head. “No. There’s no way. I’m not Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, people don’t exactly flock to me. I can write fine, sure, but I’m terrible in front of a crowd. Besides, I’m leaving tomorrow anyways, and how do you know people would even listen?”
“Unfortunately, all I can say is that you have to trust me. You want to help? This is how you do it. Get involved, or go home.”
“It can’t be done, I’m telling you,” Zach said defiantly. He was almost ready to give up and leave when a voice spoke from behind him.
“It can be done, Zach.”
Zach spun around; expecting someone to be directly behind him, but the voice came from inside the cell opposite Beck’s. A figure came into the light and put his hands on the bars. Zach’s eyes widened as he recognized the figure. His face was even more battered than Beck’s but he could still tell without a doubt who it was.“Beck’s right. If you want to help, this is the only way,” Steve Vitello said. “And I can tell you how to do it. That is, if you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty
© 2012 Domenic Luciani
Added on April 5, 2012
Last Updated on April 5, 2012
Forest of Men
AboutThat is my real name, and that is really me in the picture. Like Patrick says, I'm not in the witness protection program. I mostly write books and stories. I like fantasy, or fiction, but if.. more..