Fifty people go to sleep in their own beds and wake up in a compound in the middle of the jungle. Men and women from all walks of life with only one thing in common—none of them know where they are or how they got there. Alex is a paratrooper. Yael is a mathematician. Max is a law professor. They can’t leave— a lethal barrier surrounds the facility, but no one knows if it’s there to keep them in, or to keep something out.
The compound is comfortable and provides for all of their needs. There’s a warehouse with DNA coded locks. Only Barbara, the doctor, can open a fully stocked operating room, and only Alex can get into an arms room with enough weapons to outfit an infantry platoon. There is enough food and other supplies to last for decades, but nothing to tell them who did this to them or why.
For Alex, it’s an intriguing mystery—anything is better than digging foxholes in the desert—but he and the others don’t realize that time is running out. On the other side of the barrier lies a horror beyond imagination, and the barrier is about to come down.
Read the first three chapters below!
Alex was killed at 11:43AM. Not quite lunchtime, but close enough. He was stepping out of his armored personnel carrier when a string of pops erupted from the crest of a nearby hill, accompanied by a cloud of dust raised by muzzle blasts. His MILES gear started to buzz, indicating a hit, and Alex lay down on the ground and waited for the end of the engagement. When it was over, only he and Private Haag were left by the disabled APC while the rest of their squad pursued the fleeing Blue Force soldiers into the nearby town.
“Turkey or Spaghetti and Meatballs?” Haag asked, fishing two MREs out of a box under the bench seat.
Alex frowned as he set his rifle down against the treads of the armored vehicle.
“Seriously?” he said. “That’s all those assholes left us?”
“Sorry, Alex,” Haag said. “I’ll take whichever one you don’t want.” Alex felt sorry for him. Haag had enlisted at seventeen, and the Army was no place for a kid. Especially OPFOR, which was a shit assignment, usually reserved for misfits and troublemakers. Alex was grateful for the four years he spent in college before enlisting. He hadn’t graduated, but at least the experience had given him enough maturity to cope with his misery.
“I hate them both,” Alex said, giving the kid a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “You pick.”
“Thanks!” Haag said, smiling. He took the turkey and handed him the remaining pouch.
“No problem.” They sat against the shadier side of the armored vehicle, where the metal surfaces were not quite hot enough to cook eggs on, and prepared their meals.
“Cherry Kool-Aid!” Alex said, taking the drink pouch out of the bag. “My favorite.” He fumbled with the canteen, trying to not get any sand inside the cap. The Mojave desert was one of the dustiest places on earth. Arriving soldiers were told to expect to leave their tour of duty with at least a quarter inch of sand sitting at the base of their lungs. Between that and the unbearable heat, it was just about the most miserable chunk of land Alex had ever laid eyes on.
“How’d you do on the test?” Haag asked, chewing on his turkey breast.
“I didn’t have time to get to my name on the damned board,” Alex complained. “And I missed breakfast trying. I think I did well though…it was a great test. I can’t believe how deep it was. All those puzzles and shit. You?”
Haag was about to answer, but then noticed something and pointed. “What do you think they want?”
A Blue Force humvee was approaching their position slowly. A gunner stared at them from behind a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the roof. Alex knew it was Blue Force because it wasn’t modified to look like an enemy vehicle, which meant it wasn’t OPFOR, and it lacked the orange flag of a range controller. Blue Force had no business interacting with Opposing Force casualties, so this could only mean trouble.
“Well…we’re about to find out.”
The humvee pulled up next to the APC and Alex got a good look at the five men inside. Marines, faces covered in perspiration, caked dust and sour expressions, all glaring at him and Haag with apparent enmity. The gunner, a sergeant, leaned forward over the roof.
“You two rag heads got any chow?” he asked. One of the marines inside the humvee tossed an empty cigarette carton and some crumpled candy wrappers out the window. They landed at Alex’s feet.
Alex wanted to stand up before replying, but he couldn’t think of a convenient way to set down his canteen and Kool-Aid pouch without spilling some of the precious powder.
“We’re eating the last of it,” he replied. “Why?”
The sergeant grimaced. “Because we’re hungry, and you’re dead.”
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Alex said, as sternly as he could manage. As an OPFOR trainer, he was technically in a position of authority, though in practice he was just another rankless grunt in the desert. “You’re certainly not allowed to ask us for food, and racial slurs aren’t appropriate, even if they don’t technically apply.”
“What?” The marine seemed confused.
“You called us ‘rag heads,’” Alex explained. “We’re not real Arabs, but even if we were...”
“Fuck you,” the sergeant cursed, his face contorting into a grimace. “Couldn’t hack it in the real world so you washed up here, and you think you’re big shit? We risk our asses overseas and you sit here in fucking California and shoot blanks all day!” There were chuckles from the other marines, some of them with a nervous undertone. They were anticipating trouble, and that wasn’t good.
“We go where we’re sent, Sergeant,” Alex said. “Just like you. No need to get personal.” The man was probably sore about his unit losing an engagement. OPFOR spent more time in the field than any other unit of the military that wasn’t deployed overseas, and unlike deployed units, the opposing force was never idle. There was a standing joke in Fort Irwin that if the military wanted Blue Force to have a real chance at winning, they needed to give OPFOR more vacation time.
“You’re nothing like us,” the Sergeant said.
“Alex did a tour in Afghanistan,” Haag said. Alex looked at him and shook his head. There was no point in engaging these men in an argument. They were tired, demoralized and just looking to vent. It was best to just let them.
“A whole tour?” the sergeant said with a sneer. “That’s great for your boyfriend, but how ‘bout you, Princess? How many tours you got? Or’s all you got is war games? War games don’t make you a real soldier.” Again, chuckles, but the nervous undertone was gone.
“Well,” Alex said. “You’ve shot your load. Now move along before someone sees you.” Despite his higher rank, the sergeant appeared to be in his mid twenties, no older than Alex. Hopefully, he was mature enough to realize there were consequences for the actions he was contemplating.
“Go fuck yourself,” the sergeant shouted, and kicked the seat in front of him. The humvee lurched forward and sped away, bouncing on the rocky ground.
“Welcome to Opforistan!” Alex shouted after him. “Enjoy your stay! Assholes!” By the time the humvee disappeared behind a nearby hill, the dust from its wake settled, leaving them covered head to foot in a layer of light brown filth.
“Wonderful,” Alex said, trying to blow the sand out of his mouth and nose. “Same fucking shit every day.” He had managed to cover the canteen, but in doing so he had spilled most of the Kool-Aid mix.
Haag was no better off. He stared at his ruined meal and looked like he wanted to cry.
“It’ll be alright,” Alex said. “Just scoop out the top layer and eat the clean parts underneath.”
The young soldier brightened. “Yeah, that’ll work.”
After they finished their lunch, Haag went into the APC and emerged with a plastic trash bag.
“Good man,” Alex said, tossing his garbage inside.
“I’ll get the crap they tossed too.” Haag walked over to where the marines had dropped their litter and scooped up the wrappers while Alex started over to the hot side of the APC to relieve his bladder. He turned to look at Haag before rounding the vehicle’s corner and noticed that the kid was about to pick up a small white cylinder that had been stirred up out of the sand by the humvee’s tires.
“Haag!” he screamed, turning to run towards the young soldier. “No! Don’t!” Haag turned to look, holding the cylinder in his left hand.
The flash of bright light made Alex cringe away from the explosion just as the thunderous crack slammed into him, leaving dead silence in its wake. A cloud of white smoke drifted where Haag had stood. As Alex ran towards him, the young man’s screams started to edge out the ringing in his ears.
There was blood everywhere, flowing mostly from the ruined mass of cloth and flesh that had once been Haag’s left hand. The young soldier was clutching the mangled wrist, thrashing in the sand, his eyes pressed shut. Blood leaked from his left ear and his shirt and pants on the left side where plastic shrapnel had shredded his skin.
“Holy shit!” Alex screamed, fighting down panic. “Hold still! Hold fucking still!” What was he supposed to do? He wasn’t a medic.
“Fucking do something,” he muttered, slapping himself on the forehead. He remembered his first aid training. He reached under his shirt and pulled off his belt with trembling hands, then fought with Haag to get a hold of his left arm.
“Dammit, Haag, let it go! You’ll bleed to death!” He wasn’t sure if the kid could even hear him. Haag had been a lot closer to the blast, and Alex could barely hear himself over the ringing. Managing to get a hold of the wounded arm, he applied the tourniquet, tightening the belt as much as he dared. When he was done, his hands were drenched in warm blood.
“Hang on,” he shouted. “I’ll be right back.”
He ran over to the APC and jumped inside, heading straight for the driver’s seat. As his slippery fingers fumbled with the earphones and mic, he realized he barely knew what to say. He had used the radio many times before, but his mind was blank.
“Any call sign,” he shouted into the mic as he searched the vehicle’s instrument panel for the plugger. “This is two two zero india, I need a medical evac, repeat, medical evac! I have one man down, artillery simulator explosion. Grid coordinates to follow.” He knew there was probably more he had to say, but he couldn’t think straight.
Almost immediately, a voice replied. “Two two zero india, mike echo five five two, received. Holding for grid.”
He found the plugger and the button labeled “Mark” that converted his GPS coordinates into a military map grid number. “Mike echo five five two, two two zero india, grid is as follows…” He read the grid number, then repeated it.
“Two two zero india, mike echo five five, grid received. ETA to your position is ten mikes.”
“Mike echo five five, two two zero india, received, standing by.”
Dropping the headset, he ran back to Haag, who was still thrashing in the sand and screaming.
“They’re on their way, buddy!” Alex shouted. “Hang in there!” Why the hell did Haag pick up the artillery simulator? The base was littered with thousands of them, discarded duds from decades of training exercises. Had the kid fallen asleep during the orientation at OPFOR academy? Alex could still remember the pictures of mutilated limbs and burn scars cycling on the projector screen.
For what seemed like an eternity Alex knelt over his friend, trying to comfort him in any way he could, until at last he heard the thrumming of a helicopter’s rotors in the distance.
* * *
Lieutenant Campbell found him in the hospital waiting room a little past midnight.
“Specialist Meyer,” he said, smiling. “Just as I thought.”
“Bill,” Alex said, without looking up. He was exhausted, though he didn’t want to leave until he learned about Haag’s condition. The kid was still in surgery, where he’d been for the last ten hours. To make matters worse, Alex’s head was pounding so bad he was tempted to ask one of the doctors for a morphine shot.
The lieutenant did not take offense at the breach in protocol. He sat down next to Alex and leaned back in his chair with a long sigh. He was a very tall, powerfully built man around Alex’s age, the only other person in the platoon with a college education. Though Campbell had actually graduated, and done so with honors. The two got along more than was proper for an officer and an enlisted soldier under his command, and Alex had caught more than a few breaks as a result.
“Man, my head is killing me,” Campbell said.
Alex nodded, rubbing his temples. “Mine too. Long day, Bill. Very long day.”
“It could have been longer,” Campbell said. “Sergeant Medlock had a hissy fit. They weren’t supposed to let you on the medevac with Haag. He said you were AWOL.”
Alex looked up, alarmed. “AWOL? That’s bullshit! Come on, Bill, you know that’s a load of—”
The lieutenant waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. I took care of it. Medlock can be an asshole.”
Alex smiled. “Officers aren’t supposed to say things like that about their platoon sergeants.”
Campbell chuckled. “Yeah, but I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. And if you do, I’ll send you to Leavenworth.”
“It’ll be between us. Thanks for fixing things.”
“What are friends for? Anyway, how are you holding up?”
“I’m fine, I’m just worried about Haag. Why the hell would he pick up that simulator?”
Campbell shrugged. “Shit happens. People space out, don’t pay attention. I saw a guy burn his leg to shit trying to get a missile simulator out of a bent launch tube. This fucking base can be more dangerous than the war.”
“I just hope he’ll be okay.”
“I spoke to a doctor on my way in,” Campbell said. “They’re trying to reconstruct as much of his hand as they can. Lucky bastard is right handed, did you know that? I don’t know why he used his left to pick that damned thing up, but that’s at least one thing he can be thankful for. That, and he’s going home with disability pay, unless they can somehow fix him up good as new.”
Alex nodded. “Thank god for small favors.” A part of him was envious, but he shrugged it off. One more year, and he could go home in one piece.
“Listen, Alex, you need to go to the barracks and hit the sack. Medlock isn’t going to cut you any slack tomorrow, and we’re still in the middle of our rotation. Haag is going to be in surgery all night. They’re flying in doctors from San Diego Naval Hospital to take over when these guys have had it. You’re not doing him any good here.”
“Yeah, I guess. If I can sleep with this fucking headache.” He stood up, stretched his tired arms and followed Campbell to the elevator.
“I’ll drive you back,” the lieutenant said. “And I’ll pick you up at 0600 tomorrow. One of the bimps is heading out from the motor pool, we can catch a ride to the camp.”
“Thanks, Bill, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Campbell flashed a toothy grin and said, “I do. You’d be rotting in prison.”
With the rest of the unit still out in the field, Alex was alone in his room that night, which was just fine with him. He had always been a private person, and having to share his living space with three other people was one of the things he hated the most about Ft. Irwin. Not that he got to sleep there more than a few nights a month. The rest of the time he was in a sleeping bag in the desert, hoping a coyote would climb in to exchange body heat.
“One more year,” he muttered bitterly as he waited for the clanging pipes to bring him his hot water. After a long and relaxing shower and some Tylenol, he set his alarm clock and lay down. He was asleep within seconds.
As soon as Alex’s eyes were open, he started to panic. There was no noise from the alarm clock, which meant he had overslept, a fact confirmed by the bright light shining through the windows. There was no way Campbell could save him from this, not without putting himself in a very awkward position.
Sitting up, he searched for his slippers by the foot of the bed as he rubbed his eyes. He was groggy, a lot more so than he usually was when he woke up late. The floor was cold and smooth, not the cheap abrasive rug his feet had been expecting. Blinking away sleep, he looked around, utterly confused by what he saw.
Alex was not in his barracks.
“What the hell?” he said, eyes darting from one unfamiliar detail to another. His first thought was that they had taken him while he slept and put him in prison for going AWOL. He was in a good sized room, about fifteen by ten feet. The walls were a pleasant off white color and looked like they were made of plastic, with interlocking molded panels like the inside of a commercial jetliner.
He was lying on a small but comfortable bed under a white cotton blanket, directly beneath a large window made nearly opaque by frosted glass. A clear partition towards the far end of the room separated the main chamber from a bathroom compartment complete with shower, sink and toilet. The facilities looked modern and attractive, not at all like he would have expected to see in a prison. There was a flat screen monitor on the wall at the foot of his bed, probably thirty inches or so, and a plastic shelf stuck out from the wall on his left to make a desk. A small leather chair stood nearby.
For a moment, Alex couldn’t move as his mind struggled to make sense of what he was seeing.
“Where the hell am I?” he whispered, finding comfort in the sound of his own voice. That, at least, was familiar. He climbed out of the bed and searched the strange plastic floor for his slippers, but they weren’t there. Looking down, he noticed he was not wearing the same clothes he had gone to sleep in. Instead of his army issue underwear, he wore clean white cotton boxers and a beige t-shirt, both of which fit perfectly.
Feeling dizzy, Alex sat back down, reaching for the desk to steady himself. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, all the while trying to calm his racing mind. How long had he been asleep? He was groggy as hell.
“Okay,” he said, raising his hands in a calming gesture. “Okay. This isn’t jail. So what is it?” Opening his eyes, he stood up and once more took a good look around the room, picking up several details he had missed the first time around. There was a door with a small handle where the knob should be, with two more semi-opaque windows on either side. Next to the door there was a green pad, rectangular and about the size of a credit card. A small red LED glowed ominously just above it. Walking over to the door, he pushed the pad with his finger. There was a harsh sounding tone, like the sound the computer in Star Trek made when the crew did something they weren’t supposed to.
“I guess I can’t leave,” Alex said. “Maybe this is jail after all.” Surprisingly, that made him feel better. He had been more scared than he realized, and the idea of being in a military prison was the devil he knew. Responding to an intense need to relieve himself, he crossed into the smaller compartment and used the toilet. The flushing sound was strange—the whirring of a motor followed by suction, like an airplane toilet.
“Not a bad cell at all,” he said. “I even get a TV.” He started to accept the idea of his incarceration. Once that happened, he began to get angry.
“Fucking Medlock,” he growled. “What a dick.” It wasn’t fair. His friend was almost killed, he had stayed with him, gone to the hospital. Wasn’t that what he was supposed to do? And what about Campbell? He said he had taken care of it, hadn’t he?
“Fuck Campbell too,” Alex said. “Two-faced jerk off.”
Only he knew none of that could be right. Taken to jail? While he was sleeping?
He decided to stop trying to figure it out, at least for the moment, and see what else he could find in his strange cell. There was a dresser on the far side of the door just below the window. Opening each of its three drawers in turn, he found an assortment of clothing. There were a lot more t-shirts and boxers, perhaps twenty of each, along with several sets of army combat uniforms in digital pattern camouflage—just like his own, only brand new. Removing one of the shirts, he was surprised to see his name above the right breast pocket. The other pocket had the usual “U.S. ARMY” patch on it, above which were his airborne wings. The patch of velcro on his chest, where his rank insignia should have been, was empty, as was the area on the shoulder were his unit patch belonged. The prison theory was starting to make sense again, despite the bizarre way in which he was brought here. They had obviously stripped him of what little rank he had as part of his punishment.
Only—wasn’t he entitled to a hearing first?
Faced with the option to wear clothing, he noticed that the room was a little chilly, so he put on one of the uniforms, which fit him perfectly. He found three pairs of brand new combat boots in the bottom drawer, and these were his size as well. After he was dressed, he noticed a speck of color under the uniform shirts in the second drawer, and rifling through the fatigues he was surprised to find an assortment of civilian clothing underneath. Mostly t-shirts, sweat shirts and jeans.
He frowned, wishing he had seen those first, but didn’t bother to change now that he was dressed.
“This is a very strange cell,” he mumbled, closing the drawers. Turning to the bed, he noticed that the frame below the mattress was solid, and that there was another green pad near the top. This one also had a red LED next to it. Walking over to the bed, he knelt down and examined it closely. The pad was identical to the one by the door except for a tiny hole in its center. Alex touched the pad with the tip of his finger and heard a milder version of the negative tone the door had made. Why put a locked compartment under his bed?
He was about to turn away when he had an idea, and pushed the pad again, this time placing his finger firmly over the tiny hole. There was a brief mechanical sound and a very mild pricking sensation as something pierced his skin. It didn’t hurt at all. He was barely aware of it. Another, more positive tone emanated from the device, and the little LED turned green. A drawer slid out from under the bed. Alex gasped in surprise.
The drawer was almost as big as the bed frame and contained a trio of M4 carbines resting in form fitting foam. Next to the rifles were a large knife and two handguns, along with several loaded magazines for each. On one side of the drawer was a large square pocket filled with tactical gear: vests, holsters and other load bearing devices. The M4s were similar to his own issue rifle, but they were the M4A1 full auto variety, usually reserved for special forces and civilian DOD contractors. They were brand new, with all the latest bells and whistles. Rail covers, holographic sights, fore-grips, tactical flashlights, single point slings—his mind reeled as he tried to take it all in. What looked like three fully loaded magazines turned out to be three stacks of seven, layered on top of one another.
“Holy shit,” he whispered, taking out one of the rifles. Before he realized what he was doing, he had the upper receiver separated from the lower and the bolt assembly out and on top of the bed. It left black spots from its lubricant on the white sheets.
Everything was as it should be, or at least appeared that way. He looked down the barrel and didn’t see any obstructions, then reassembled the weapon and put it on the bed.
“This is no god damned jail,” he said, then noticed a small white paper in the corner of the large drawer. He picked it up and turned it over. There was something typed neatly in its center:
Alex stared at the paper for a while, struggling to make sense of it. He thought about the possibility of being in some bizarre reality show, but quickly dismissed it. Too many legal issues. Then another thought occurred to him—what if he were involved in some sort of military psychological experiment? That certainly made a lot more sense. Most people weren’t aware of the extent to which a person signed away his or her civil liberties when joining the military. They could certainly pull off something like this without much risk of repercussions. But why him?
He sat down, leaning against the wall at the foot of the bed and rubbed his face, surprised to find several days worth of stubble. Looking towards the bathroom compartment, he noticed a mirrored medicine cabinet above the sink. He was willing to bet he would find a razor or electric shaver inside, along with other toiletries. As he shook his head in frustration, his eyes wandered to the pad near the door, and he noticed that the adjacent LED was now green.
His eyes widened and his heart began to beat faster. The door was unlocked now, there was no question about that, but what would he find on the other side? Would there be others? Why had it only unlocked after he had accessed the weapons?
Driven by fear, he scrambled to his feet and knelt above the drawer, scooping out a chest rig and holster. The straps on both were perfectly fitted, requiring no adjustment. He filled the rig with six magazines, holstered one of the pistols and sheathed the knife, then slid the drawer closed. The LED turned red again.
Taking the rifle he had previously examined, he inserted a magazine and chambered a round, then clipped it into a sling and approached the door, weapon ready.
When he pushed the button, the door clicked and swung open, momentarily blinding him. He waited until his eyes adjusted, then, trembling with fear and anticipation, he stepped outside, prepared for anything.
The first thing he noticed were people, lots of people. They were standing around, some talking, some yelling. No one seemed to present an immediate threat. He was the only one armed, at least as far he could see. There were strange little buildings all around him, dozens of them, everywhere he looked. Risking a brief glance back, he saw that the room he had stepped out of was actually a building identical to the others. All seemed to be made of—or covered in—beige plastic.
The humidity took a bit longer to notice, but when he started to sweat, his eyes wandered beyond the houses and he saw trees, some of them palms, and he heard the sound of waves breaking in the distance. An ocean? With the sun high overhead, he immediately realized it was far too cool to be midday in the Mojave desert, and too wet.
Some of the people noticed him. A few stood and stared, others backed away. A woman screamed and ran behind one of the buildings. He lowered his weapon, letting it hang in front of his chest, suspended by the sling.
A young woman was walking towards him, glaring angrily. Despite the overwhelming array of sensory data his mind was struggling with, he noticed how pretty she was and he focused on her face, tuning out all else. Her eyes were best described as feline, set amidst a light spattering of freckles that enhanced her elfin features. Wavy auburn hair with a trace of highlights swayed in a warm breeze as she approached. She wore a dark blue denim skirt and an orange t-shirt, her feet swathed in white tennis shoes and ankle high socks. She appeared to be younger than he was, though it wasn’t always easy to tell with women.
“What the hell is going on here?” she demanded, stopping just a few feet away, her hands on her hips. The way she glared at him made it clear she wasn’t the least bit afraid.
He opened his mouth. “I…”
Her eyes narrowed, but she said nothing.
“I don’t know, I just…”
Now her eyes widened in an angry flash as her foot twitched, almost stomping the ground.
“What the hell do you mean you don’t know? You kidnapped me from my home, my family, and you don’t know? How dare you! When my father’s lawyers—”
“Miss, I have no idea what—” Alex tried to say, but stopped when she raised a hand to strike him.
His muscles tensed and he instinctively reached for his rifle, but she lowered her hand and stepped back with an awkward expression, as though she only then became aware of what she was doing. With a final glare that betrayed the slight sheen of moisture in her eyes, she spun around and stormed off defiantly, disappearing around the corner of a nearby building.
“I see you met Yael the Jewish princess,” someone said. Alex turned in the direction of the speaker and saw a pleasant looking older man with a heavily wrinkled forehead and wispy white hair. “I’m Max.” He held out his hand.
After a brief hesitation, Alex shook it. “I’m Alex. What did you call her?” His brain hadn’t yet caught up with the rest of him. It was a strange sensation, almost like a waking dream.
Max smiled. “Oh, nothing. She’s a little more upset than the rest of us. She’s been screaming a lot, demanding things. Not the most popular person here.”
“Popular?” he said. “What are you talking about? What the hell is going on here?”
“So you really don’t know what happened?” Max said, raising an arm to lean against the building Alex had come out of. “You’re the only one so far to…well….” He motioned at Alex’s rifle.
“I just woke up a few minutes ago,” Alex said. “These weapons were under my bunk, in a locked drawer. I didn’t know where I was, I thought maybe…is this an army base?”
“Locked?” Max asked. “With a DNA pad?”
Alex frowned. “A what?”
“A DNA pad, it’s like the other green pads but it has a little hole and it pricks you.”
“Yeah, that was it.” Sure, that was it, perfectly normal, not at all as though he were stuck in some bizarre alternate reality.
Max nodded. “A few of us have them, but yours is the only one so far with guns. Come.” He motioned, then started to walk towards a clearing between buildings. “I’ll show you around.”
“How long have you been here?” Alex asked, following behind him. “What is this place?” He glanced around, noticing many people staring at him nervously. Each person he saw was as different as the next, a seemingly random assortment of men and women of all races, though the majority were Caucasian. Their clothing was as random as the people themselves, an eclectic mix of casual and formal attire of varying styles. Alex was the only one in a uniform, at least so far. If there was any sort of pattern, it was that most were young, in their twenties or less. Though he did notice a few older people besides Max.
“This is my second day,” Max said. “But I’ve been here as long as you have, I just woke up earlier. It seems we all got here two nights ago. The last thing I remember was falling asleep in my apartment. As for what this place is, none of us have a clue.”
“Where are you from?” Alex asked. He studied the strange little houses as they walked past, looking for some sort of pattern to their arrangement. He couldn’t find one. It seemed as though they had been dumped haphazardly in the middle of a clearing. There were no foundations. Each building sat right on the grass or the sand, depending on where it had been deposited. They looked like plastic Airstream trailers, except that they weren’t trailers at all. No wheels.
“Los Angeles. I’m a law professor at UCLA. What about you? You’re a marine?”
“A soldier,” Alex explained. “Army, paratrooper. Not a marine.” He remembered the five marines in the humvee and grimaced. If they hadn’t come seeking trouble, Haag would never have found that artillery simulator, and then none of this would have happened.
But then, what did this have to do with Haag? If there was one thing he was certain of, it was that this was no military prison. Still, he couldn’t help but feel that there was a connection to recent events, if not to Haag’s accident, then something else. Or it could just be his mind trying to hold on to his prior notion of reality.
“Ah,” Max said apologetically. “I’m not versed in the nuances.” They walked across the clearing, and Alex saw a beach past some of the buildings to his right. Clear blue water lapped the orange sand gently, leaving a residue of froth between waves. A massive building, much wider and longer than any of the others, stood by a patch of trees to their left. Looking around, Alex noticed that the surrounding forest—or more accurately a jungle—was dense enough to make passage through it difficult. A range of craggy mountains rose above the trees beyond the beach, their rough surface furred by a thick cover of vegetation.
“I call this the warehouse,” Max said, motioning towards the long building. “It’s a storage facility. So far we found food and other supplies, but there are many doors we haven’t been able to open yet. I’m hoping you’ll get us past one more.” It wasn’t much taller than the other buildings, which made it hard to gauge its size accurately, but Alex estimated it was at least a hundred feet long.
“Warehouse?” Alex demanded, losing patience. “Doors? What the hell is going on? Why are we here?”
Max smiled. “Son, if I knew that, I’d have told you already.”
“Don’t you have any ideas? You’ve been here over 24 hours!” The man’s casual attitude towards their predicament was starting to get on Alex’s nerves.
“It’s too early to start hypothesizing with any degree of certainty, but…”
“Max,” someone said from behind them. “Max, another one’s awake.”
Alex turned and saw a young man walking towards them. His eyes widened as he noticed Alex’s rifle.
“What the hell?” the man asked, coming to a stop about ten feet away. He looked a bit older than Alex, pleasant looking in a peculiar Eastern European way, with sandy blond hair and dark stubble with a few specks of premature gray.
“It’s okay, Reynard,” Max said. “He’s okay. Tell me, who is it? Anyone interesting?”
“Yes,” Reynard said, moving closer. “A woman in her thirties. Says she’s a doctor. A surgeon.”
Max brightened. “Excellent. Go talk to her, bring her here, see if one of the pads will pop for her.”
Reynard frowned. “Don’t you want to do it? I mean you’re better at it, I don’t even know what to say.”
“Nonsense,” Max said, shaking his head. “What is there to say? Tell her about the warehouse. When she’s ready, show it to her.”
“Okay,” Reynard said, started to turn away, then stopped, looking at Alex. “You’re a soldier? Don’t you know what’s going on here?”
Alex shook his head. “Sorry, no. I just woke up.”
Reynard nodded, but narrowed his eyes slightly, as though he didn’t quite believe him, then walked away, presumably to find the doctor woman.
“You seem awfully calm about all of this,” Alex said, turning back to Max. “Aren’t you scared? Worried?”
“I was,” Max admitted. “Scared, that is. I’m still worried, but whoever brought us here seemed to take great pains to make sure our needs were met. I live alone, so it’s not like anyone is going to miss me while I figure this out.”
“This is crazy,” Alex said, his frustration starting to get the better of him. “I feel like I’m in some ridiculous television show. Doesn’t anyone have a cell phone or a radio? Can’t we find out where the hell we are and get out of here?”
“No,” Max said. “No radios, at least not yet. There is a computer terminal in my quarters. I mean we all have computers in our cottages, but those are self contained. Mine looks like a communications terminal, webcam and all, but it’s not active, and no one can figure out how to turn it on.”
Max shrugged. “What would you call them? They’re obviously domiciles, and each of us has one.”
“Yeah, I guess, but…”
“Come,” Max said, placing a gentle hand on Alex’s elbow. “Let’s go see the warehouse.”
They walked around to the forest side of the building, where large double doors swung open as Max pushed through them.
“No pads on the outside,” Max explained.
Inside the warehouse was a long corridor, lined on each side with five doors. Each door had a green pad next to it, complete with glowing LEDs, most red, some green. At the far end of the corridor was a single door, and Alex realized that the chamber beyond had to be at least a quarter of the building, judging by its exterior dimensions. There were eleven doors in all, including the one on the end.
“We’ve opened three so far,” Max explained.
“What is in them?” Alex asked.
“Two of them have food. One has nutrient powder canisters. Two table spoons makes enough for a filling meal when mixed with water—there were instructions. We haven’t had time to do an accurate count, but I’d estimate that with proper rationing there’s enough to keep fifty people alive for several years, if they can stomach it. It’s not very appetizing. There’s a dispenser in your cottage. You can come here to get more powder when it runs out.”
“Fifty people? Is that how many there are here?”
Max nodded. “That’s how many cottages there are. Forty one…sorry, forty two, have come out thus far. Hopefully the rest are just sleeping off whatever drugs were used to knock us out.”
“What about the other rooms?”
“Dehydrated food in the second, enough for a year, if rationed, and tools in the third. Wrenches, screwdrivers, that sort of thing. It’s almost like the tool section in one of those big hardware stores.”
“How big are these rooms?” Alex asked.
“Here, I’ll show you,” Max said, walking up to a marked door. “So far, once the doors are unlocked, they stay that way unless the one who opened them in the first place locks them again.” He pushed the pad, and the door slid open, disappearing into the wall. Once again, Alex was reminded of Star Trek. The open doorway revealed a room stocked with large plastic drums. It was a little bigger than the room he woke up in, and the drums took up all available space.
“That’s the powder?” Each drum was labeled with the words “Nutrient Powder” and a date, presumably the powder’s expiration. If the dates could be trusted, they had well over twenty years to use the stuff. His mind rebelled, not able to accept that he would be here for another day, let alone twenty years.
“Hold on,” Alex said. “Why are we messing around with this warehouse when we should be getting the hell out of here? Is this an island? Have you looked around?”
Max shook his head. “If it is an island, it’s very big. But we can’t leave. That was one of the first things I tried. There’s a barrier.”
“A barrier? But I didn’t see any walls or fences.”
“It’s not a wall. It’s…” Max hesitated, licking his lips as though trying to figure out how to best phrase it. “You’ll see soon enough. It’s hard to explain. I’ll show you when we’re done here, if you want.”
“Fine,” he said, grudgingly. “So what do you want me to do?” He had not given up on leaving, but there didn’t seem to be a reason to hurry. It wasn’t reasonable to assume that someone would go to all this trouble to bring them here if they could just walk away. Unless that was the purpose of the experiment…to see if they would just accept their fate or try to fight it. Even the experiment theory was starting to wear thin, though. The army could get away with experimenting on soldiers, but so far, he was the only one in uniform.
“Just go to every door and use the pad. Avoid the green lit ones.”
“Okay.” He walked past each of the doors marked by a red LED, touching its pad. Some of the pads had tiny holes like the one below his bed, but most did not. Each buzzed negatively as he tried it, until he got to the door on the end. Its pad had a hole, and when he touched it, he felt that slight pricking sensation and heard a positive chime. The LED turned green and the door slid open. Behind it was a short corridor, less than five feet long, and another pad-protected door.
“Impressive,” Max said, nodding appreciatively. “The big one. Let’s see if you can open the inner door as well.”
They stepped into the corridor, and Alex touched the pad. Once again, there was a pricking sensation, followed by a positive tone, followed immediately by another tone. This one wasn’t harsh, but still sounded negative. Whoever had chosen these tones knew what they were doing. The meaning of each sound was easily understood.
“That’s odd,” Max said, rubbing his chin. “I’ve never heard that sound before.”
“Oh well,” Alex said, mildly disappointed. Despite his confusion and frustration, he was curious to see what was in the big room.
“Maybe it takes two people,” Max said. “One to open the outer door, and another to open the inner one.”
“Maybe,” Alex said. “But I want to try something else first.” It was all the Star Trek references going through his mind that triggered the idea. “Go back to the hallway for a minute.”
“Why?” Max looked confused.
“Maybe it works like an airlock.” There were pads on both sides of the outer door, which made sense if someone was meant to close it while inside the corridor.
The older man brightened. “Yes! That’s an excellent idea!” He backed into the main hallway. As soon as he was out, the outer door slid closed. Alex touched the inner door pad again, and this time a positive tone sounded and the LED turned green.
As the door slid open, Alex’s eyes widened. Stepping into the room beyond, he let out a deep breath.
It was a large room, over thirty feet on each side, filled with weapons, ammunition and other military equipment. He quickly counted thirty M4 carbines before he lost track, each as well equipped as the one he was carrying. There were also pistols, machine guns, belt fed grenade launchers, even a rack of anti-tank rockets. Ammunition cans were stacked almost to the ceiling. Along a far wall was a shelf unit filled with black plastic boxes marked “NVD,” which stood for “night vision device.” Behind a rack of pistols, he saw the distinctive barrels of .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifles. Unable to fully process what he was seeing, he grew faint and grabbed a nearby wall for support.
Whoever brought him here had given him an arsenal, and for reasons he could not yet understand, that scared the shit out of him.