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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter IV (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 18,000 words and is wearing a bib to control all the drooling.)

Unfortunately, Jack and Bobby wouldn’t tell me anything because my security clearance was too low.

Phoenix was a very bizarre place to work, and there it was again, coming over the hill outside the massive compound. There were actually seven buildings at Phoenix, but all I ever saw the inside of was the main one. The compound was set up so that the main building formed the locus in the centre, the others neatly and evenly placed around the outside. Each building was fairly broad and covered a good amount of ground. The main one was the tallest, at five stories. The others were of varying heights but all about the same size in terms of the foundations. They all were covered with dark glass on the outside, which made all the buildings look black and reflective, like dark pools of water, or a really shiny chocolate bar.

I drove up to the gate, knowing that the security guards were likely to let me in. When I worked there before, they always provided employees with a special password, one which identified us individually and could be used if we lost our pass card. I didn’t think there was even a chance that mine was still active after two years, but as Phoenix was in reality a government facility, I thought there might be a slight chance that someone bollockeds it up.

As I approached the guardhouses I frantically tried to remember it. “Chess?” “Cheese?” I knew it was something that began with a “C” but the sheer terror of being within sight of this madhouse had scrambled my brain.

While I worked at Phoenix, there was a rumour circulating around that anyone who left the company had their brain scrambled a bit so that all the memory cells containing Phoenix were wiped clean. The process wasn’t supposed to damage other memory or brain functions, but like all technology of an advanced and new nature, they said the device wasn’t as precise as it should be and that some previous employees, in particular Charlie Callas, had bad reactions.

On the day my resignation took effect, I walked down to the Personnel department for my exit interview. Janis and Jimi were waiting there, along with Bruce Lee from security. There was a large metal device on wheels that stood next to them, humming menacingly. It had lots of lights and buttons and a cap shaped metal piece at the end, hanging from a coil of cable.

“Last day, Earl,” Janis said, in a very serious tone.

“Been nice knowing you, dude,” Jimi added, with a slight nervousness in his voice.

“Be like water, my friend,” Bruce added with a smile and a slight bow.

Janis rolled her eyes because Bruce said this about five times a day, whenever some profound statement was required. The rest of the time, he was pretty laid back and had a goofy sense of humour.

“It’s time,” Janis said, with deep sense of finality.

She pointed to a chair, directly under the metal cap thingy. I dutifully sat down in it and closed my eyes. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and looked up. The “cap” was alight, a bright bulb in the center of it. Janis handed me a clipboard with a long form with extremely tiny print on it. It was so small, I couldn’t make it all out, but part of it appeared to be in Japanese.

“Just sign there, Earl,” she said, pointing at the line at the very bottom. “It’s a form indicating that you won’t reveal any information about the Phoenix Corporation to anyone on the outside, that you won’t attempt to recreate any of the technologies or innovations, etc. etc.”

“Or we’ll have to kill you,” Bruce added.

“Stop kidding around, Bruce!” Jimi chided him. Bruce snorted a laugh and went into a mock pose of attack that was quite impressive looking for being done by a man of 64, although all the denizens of Phoenix seemed younger than they should be. Jimi once suggested that it was because of the energy given off by Walt’s life support device.

It’s pretty standard,” Janis finally added.

“What… no brain scrambling?” I muttered. Janis rolled her eyes.

“Has Duane Allman been telling that story again?” she exclaimed.

I signed the form, said my goodbyes and that was that.

Suddenly, the password came to mind.

“Checkers!” I thought to myself.

However, there would be no need for it. As I pulled up to the gate, I realised it was wide open. I craned my head to look in the guardhouses, but they were empty. No sign of life could be found in them at all. It was a sight I’d never seen before in all my time spent here.

“Has everything been moved to another site?” I frantically asked myself. No, that didn’t make sense. Phoenix had been in the news just a month ago when they donated a large sum of money to a local charity. They did this on occasion to keep up the front of being a private firm, ostensibly involved in marketing, securities, bonds, and even some retail chains in the southeast. Mama Cass was even at the ceremony, having lost 80 pounds from her days in the Mamas and the Papas and being considerably older and wearing an extremely dark wig and sunglasses. Also, she went by the name Sophia. She handed out an enormous check and stifled a smile as one of the local high school bands, just by coincidence, belted out a slightly out of tune version of California Dreaming in the background.

I slowly drove past the gate, wondering if this wasn’t some sort of new drill. As I eased down the lane towards the main building, I kept expecting a horde of angry guards to pop out of the ground with semi-automatics and Dobermans large enough to bite the fender off of my Maxima. I pulled forward steadily but slowly, doing no more than 10 MPH. The large central building began to grow in my windshield as I approached, but still no one was to be seen. The phalanxes of cameras were still posted outside the building and down the drive and just about anywhere you could put a camera and still leave room for people to walk and drive about. Strangely though, they were frozen in place, pointed down to the ground, whereas normally they would have moved back and forth in a steady dance, as though tracking a rather dull tennis match.

I pulled into the main parking lot and parked in a space marked “Visitor.” There was no use trying to pretend to be an employee now. I figured that if the entire population of the facility were hiding just out of sight, I could at least pretend to be clueless and perhaps catch a break.

The sun was high in the air on this November morning. Since it was Monday, the place should have been teeming with security personnel, groundskeepers, gardeners, secretaries running errands from building to building, and camera-repair personnel, who were kept constantly busy keeping the army of surveillance equipment in working order.

I got out of the car slowly, so as not to attract attention. That would have been impossible though as mine was the only car in the lot. The place was emptier than an MK Dons league match. It was emptier than a Jeffrey Dahmer appreciation banquet. It was almost emptier than, well… emptiness.

I decided to chance walking up to the main entrance. I carefully glanced around and then slowly made my way up the central pavement, taking care to look around nonchalantly as I went. I watched the cameras, to see if any of them main any sudden or even subtle movements. I watched the pavement and grass, lest something pop put of it sudden-like. I watched the building, lest some sort of death ray streak out of it, and I knew for a fact that they were working on adding a death ray to Walt’s arsenal just before I left. I even looked up at the sky, because I read once that when people are surprised they almost never look up, and also just in case a sudden swarm of paratroopers decided to drop in on me.

Nothing… There was no movement at all except for the occasional bird in the distance. The air was cool but not particularly chilly for November. The main doors loomed ever closer. The grass was not as green as it usually was, as the gardeners constantly pumped chemicals into it to keep it looking just slightly greener than natural grass ever gets. In fact, it looked as though it had all gone just a bit off, not so much as normal grass a month and a half into autumn, but still not normal for here. The sky was relatively clear and quite blue. The cameras continued to stare at the ground like the lead guitarist in a shoegazing band.

I reached the front door, nothing having happened still. I assumed it would be locked up but it opened electronically, just as it always did. I paused for a second. Did I really need to do this?

There are points in our lives where we find ourselves in situations and wonder just what on earth led us to get that far in the first place. I’m told that skinny dippers have this sensation, just as the large church groups suddenly pull up to their secluded swimming hole and immediately start disembarking the students and senior citizens. I’ve also been told that fraternity pledges have had the same sensation, right about the time one of the upperclassmen mention “snipe hunting.” It’s even been relayed to me that some women have had this feeling, just after their engagement to Tom Cruise, but that magazine writer could have been lying about how much access he had to Katie Holmes.

At this point, I was feeling much like someone who was stark naked, sopping wet, and surrounded by gawping teenagers and their grandparents. I knew just how secure this place normally was, and how secret the contents. I was fully aware that it would be nothing for the government to vaporize me and deport my wife and child and anyone else who knew me to a secret island chain in the Pacific, although good luck them tracking Nuffy down, that was certain.

Yet here I was, standing on the threshold of a highly secret government building, masquerading as a business firm. I had driven and walked at least a half mile from the main gate to get to this point. I was as vulnerable as a person could be on dry land and not surrounded by tigers, crazed suicide bombers, or a presenter at the American Rap Music Awards. Clearly, I was out of my mind to be here.

So there was nothing left for it but to walk inside.

The second door opened up as well but I couldn’t believe my eyes once I saw what was behind it. Whereas there was normally a very large waiting room in front of the third set of doors, the one that led directly to Walt’s greeting station, now there was nothing. No plush chairs and sofas, no televisions suspended from the ceiling, no copies of People, Sports Illustrated, Redbook, and Field & Stream strewn about the mahogany coffee tables; there was nothing. Even the third set of doors was gone, replaced by fresh-looking drywall and a rushed layer of slate grey paint. I marveled at all this, even as I suddenly realized how much the place used to look like the waiting room to my doctor’s office.

I looked up at the ceiling where there were usually about a dozen cameras. They were all gone. Even the metal rods and brackets that held them in place were nowhere to be seen.

I had nowhere to go and no one to whom I could ask what had happened.

I tried all six of the other buildings and found the same thing there.

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