“Jackson Maplethorp huh?”
“Yes sir, hundred and fir-“
“Yeah, I get it. The question is; can I call you Action Jackson? You’re thinking No but I love nicknames and I’m kind of your new supervisor.”
Jackson stares at Asher adjusting the collar on his steel blazer and making sure the dimple is centered in the herringbone tie. Behind his eyes he’s clicking through the words to keep his world running for the day.
“C’mon, I promise to only shorten it to Action if I’m in a hurry. I will never, under any circumstances, call you AJ.”
“I still don’t-”
“So we’ll work on it. Let’s go. Grand tour time, we call this the Flight Deck. And, yes we’re aware that we’re an eight story concrete building but a guy’s gotta dream.”
Jackson follows Asher down the three steps from the elevator platform to the bleach-white enamel floor rattling with each foot clicked across its gloss. Asher hops the entire drop and charges to the center of the floor. Jackson takes each stair and tries not breaking into a sprint to keep up.
“I mean, are we supposed to call it the Pit? It seemed a little played out.”
Before Jackson can answer Asher is ambushed by elbows to the shoulder which he returns to each lab-coated suit rushing around the Flight Deck like it was the middle of a stock exchange. Asher returns each elbow, laughing at jokes with the staff. Jackson watches him, picking up names as Asher rolls through the gauntlet reminding the lab coats whose sister he could do unmentionable things to and who owes him a naked lap for walking out on his tab last boy’s night out. Jackson follows him through the crowd, trying to decide if he looks more like the class clown or the most effective supervisor of all time. Asher stops, making it to the other end of the floor and jabs his elbow into Jackson’s shoulder.
“Oh, the elbow thing is kind of our fist bump, these science geeks can be germophobes, especially considering…and always say Be Safe, that’s an important one.”
“Yeah, I could see that. When do we get this thing rolling?”
“Patience Jackson. Hey Hailey!” a short lab coat with shoulder length auburn hair spins in the far corner of the Deck and starts clicking her stilettos across the white to meet them. “This is my new babysitter Jackson, he’s getting ready to let me call him Action Jackson.”
“You can’t call him that.”
“Really? I’m half-ass the boss and think it’s more than appropriate to call a white guy Action Jackson in the twenty first century. Now finish giving him the tour, I’ve got to go have a talk.”
“Ash, are you really? Maybe just focus on today and give her some more time?”
“Nah, we’re close to getting it sorted out. Jackson, Hailey will finish up the last bits of your intro. Try to get in her pants, see if you can get any further than these amateurs, back in five.”
Asher walks away from the pair standing in the middle of the rushing crowd on the Deck. Jackson watches him rush across the floor without getting in anyone’s way, convinced he is now working for a self-obsessed ass moving too fast to know what he’s doing. Hailey jabs Jackson with her elbow.
“He didn’t do the tour yet, did he?”
“We came downstairs.”
Asher jumps back up to the elevator platform and claps at the lab coat crunching traffic patterns and exhaust output. The coat tosses him a brown bag and bottle of Kettle One. Asher shakes the bag at him.
“The beef, right?”
“Extra peppers and red sauce with blue cheese. Good luck. And I bought a bottle for myself too.”
“Good deal, it’s not like you can finish it.”
Asher punches in the code for the door to the right of the elevator and ducks in, his steps clicking swiftly then slowing to a careful stop at the lone door at the end of the tight hallway. He lightly knocks, adjusts his tie, and walks into the room of solid walls with an exhausted blond chained to the bunk.
He knows this isn’t going to work, no matter how much he wants it to, needs it to. And he has eight thousand things screaming in the back of his head to get done.
He walks over to the chair across from the bed and sits down, looking for the girl on the bed to undo the knot she’s twisted herself into, knees to her chin and forearms going white from squeezing her shins.
“Some of the staff told me you started to talk a little this week. Not to me, but that’s good.” He holds up the paper bag. “You aren’t eating so we did some stalking via your debit card. Misto’s, med-rare beef with extra peppers, red sauce and blue cheese on the rye roll. I had one of the coats from Environmental pick it up.”
He sets the bag on the floor just in front of the bed, she doesn’t flinch. She only stares, her eyes taking in the air outlining him. He grabs a plastic cup from on top of the mini fridge he’s sitting next to and pours some Kettle One then sits it next to the bag.
“This is really hard for you- Screw it, it’s not like this was going to work today.” He reaches for the pocket inside his blazer and she presses her spine further into the wall, He pulls two cigarettes out and lights one.
“This one’s regular,” he tosses the other next to her on the bed. “that one’s got some hydroponic the coats grow in a maintenance closet. I know the circumstances are shit but eventually you’ll have to believe me, we come in peace.”
He stands and her eyes follow him up, it’s the most she’s moved during the visit.
“We’ll be out of the office today. So if you don’t hear us you haven’t been abandoned or anything. Maintenance will still be here hanging out, they won’t bother you, they don’t know the code for the door.”
He walks to the door and stops halfway through it, tosses a book of matches onto the mattress next to the girl.
“The fire system is set to tolerate smoking but will go off if you try the Buddhist monk protest, alright?”
She only stares. Asher leans his head onto the slim side of the door, letting his mental exhaustion bleed through for a moment.
“You know, the truth is I kind of need you. We haven’t even spoken but you know me better than anyone out there.” He laughs. “You’re the most honest relationship I have. Be safe, eat something.”
He shuts the door and straightens his jaw, picking up speed coming out of the hallway back onto the Deck. Hailey is showing Jackson the seismic monitoring station. Jackson stops Asher before he can speak.
“You’ve had a civilian captive for two weeks?!”
“Closer to three. And if I want moral perspective I’ll ask someone who doesn’t work for the organization running GitMo.” Asher turns to the crowd of coats busy at their stations. “Ladies and Gentlemen! Blood is in the water! Place your bets!”
The Coats drop their clip boards and jump from their desks, they start ripping the workstations at the center of the Flight Deck towards the walls and stake out a square perimeter in the middle of the room. The Coats start digging through their wallets and waiving cash, shouting the names of bars.
The white tiles on the ceiling fold back and a rectangular glass cage drops onto the polished Flight Deck. A Coat from BioRythym is vaulted into the cage by two colleagues who then toss over five fish tanks which he sets in a row along one side of the enclosure. They are labeled with the names of the bars the group has been calling with cash in hand. SharkHouse. DUM & Sons. Jolt. 714 Co. Fader. The Coat in the cage then catches a cooler of Styrofoam cooler taped shut and five gallon jugs of water while he’s yelling at his accomplices to slow down on the tosses or he’ll make their left testicles carnivorous. Jackson looks at the scene, confused as all hell when the Coat from BioRythym pulls a live octopus from the cooler and starts slapping them into the fish tanks, pouring the water from the jugs through the mesh of the closed lids.
A door pops open on the elevator landing and forty men in unzipped white biohazard suits come rushing down on to the Deck. Leading the charge of the rowdy lemmings making their way into the crowd Morehouse is smiling through his beard, waving a thick wad of bills and a small plastic bag.
“Thought you were going to start without us.” He tosses the baggie to Asher.
“Never buddy. Morehouse, this is Jackson, soon to be Action Jackson.”
“I like it. Ben Morehouse, Head of Maintenance. Always nice to have some new blood. Speaking of which, fresh crop in that one.”
Asher fishes a small brown slab out of the baggie and Jackson immediately jerks his head back from the smell. Asher pops the whole thing into his mouth and tilts his head back, eyes closed.
Asher slams a finger into Jackson’s face and keeps chewing.
Hailey leans over to Jackson.
“Never interrupt him when he’s eating. He’s a diva about that one.”
Morehouse chimes in.
“You can’t really blame him. It’s the only thing he can taste. I make jerky for the guys every Game Day since we have to stay around here clean up while the rest of you go on your little field trip. I always make one piece for Ash, that piece has to sit in habaneros from my garden and soy sauce for 10 days.” He points at Asher, still head back and zoned out. “It would make any of us go straight to the hospital and he has to concentrate like that just to taste the freaking thing.”
Asher finally swallows and puts his head on Jackson’s shoulder like they just finished making love.
“Life was really shit until Morehouse came along. As always, you’re the man.”
“Thanks.” Morehouse hands Asher a stack of cash four inches thick. “Me and the boys, the usual.”
“You got it, but I still say you guys are jinxed.”
Hailey takes Jackson by the arm and starts leading him towards the tank.
“Maintenance always pools their money and bets on Jolt and hasn’t won the entire year. It just gives them an excuse to watch them on the surveillance monitors. Have you seen the cocktail waitresses over there?”
“I flew in forty five minutes ago.”
“Oh, well, a couple shots of tequila and I’d pretend to be wasted enough to go home with them. C’mon.” Hailey begins working her way next to the cage. “We’ll get a good spot to pop your cherry.”
Asher stands on a desk and raises his hands to the crowd, yelling at each other about how stupid their bets are. Jackson watches them crawl on top each other, making the arguments echo in the concrete of the Flight Deck.
“Ladies and Gentleman, and I mean barely, welcome to our one-sided cockfight! As a slight change of procedure allow me to introduce you to the newest member of the team; Action Jackson!” He points to Jackson, glaring at him from the side of the cage. “As new blood please saddle Mr. Action with all wagers!”
The crowd rushes Jackson, practically pinning him against the wall of glass. Jackson is frantically trying to keep the money bunched in his fingers according to which bar the Coat screams at him while throwing the bills. Hailey hangs tight beside him, pressed into his side helping him with organization until Jackson’s hands are full and the crowd is back to their spots around the cage.
“Hailey, now what the hell?”
“Now hang on to all that and watch.”
She points Jackson to the cage and he stares at the octopi until he notices the Coat from BioRhythym scaling the wall again, looking back and nodding to Asher, the Coat throws a live octopus from the cooler into the cage, it lands in the middle of the floor opposite the fish tanks.
Asher walks up to the cage and bites a small chunk off the back of his thumb, the spot healing before any blood can come to the surface. He pulls himself up the rim of the cage and lifts the lid, pausing for aim and then spitting the speck of skin at the lone octopus out of water. The fleck sticks to its head and is scooped up by a tentacle and placed into its mouth.
The octopus stays there for a moment, sprawled on the floor of the cage. The Coats wait.
Then it shudders.
It twists itself into a ball, arms wrapping around its head feeling for something familiar.
It’s up on the tips of all eight legs. A Coat yells SharkHouse and someone from Maintenance tells him to piss off.
It shoots across the cage, through the fish tank second from its right, glass and ink hit the glass in front of Jackson. Hailey talking into his ear.
It then goes all the way to the right, the glass flying and no sign of the bait occupying the first two fish tanks.
The tips of its arms tap the floor and then it’s gone, the three standing tanks blow, carrying the momentum into a wave of glass and stained water against the side of the cage.
The octopi from the tanks are vanished, the loner scoots along the floor on the back of its head, its mouth forward, the beak open as the arms draw themselves across it, giving up the last bits of the bait.
Asher stands with his face practically against the side of the cage, eying the octopus. The crowd is loud with gloating, the losers throwing office supplies at the winners. One of the Suits from Maintenance yells across the noise.
Asher twists his head, just a couple degrees to the left.
The octopus is on its arms and runs to the center of the cage. It drops to the floor, arms straight out in each direction. The arms arch backward, grab the top of its head in eight spots and peel the body in even slices into the open mouth at its bottom. The organs drop as the bloated stomach explodes sending chunks coated in black ink bouncing off the cage walls. It’s all Jackson can do to stare at the inside of the cage painted with rampage. Through the ink made thick with bits of the bait the Coats on the others side beating it for losing their money or yelling that drinks are on them.
A Coat jumps and yells;
“I told you assholes! Fader baby!”
The cage raises back into the ceiling and the tiles fall across into place. Hailey immediately snatches the wads of cash out of Jackson’s hands.
“I better take care of the distribution.” She turns her head and shouts at the outstretched hands “Greedy asshole children! Get back to Ash.”
Asher has appeared behind Jackson and surprises him with an elbow to the shoulder.
“Let’s go Action.” He signals to Morehouse who follows the pair to the elevator. Asher starts pounding on the ceiling. “House, did we ever get those new speakers ordered for this piece of shit?”
“Yeah, they’re coming from Germany. It’ll be another couple of days.”
“That blows, damn European craftsmanship.”
The three men hop into the elevator. Morehouse is giving Asher a hard time about rigging the elevator’s stereo to play Birdy Nam Nam, Asher inisists it’s the best elevator ride that he’s ever had with his pants on and Jackson is staring at the space between them hoping an explanation for what the hell happened will be coming soon and swearing off sushi for the time being.
They step off the elevator and Morehouse stops Asher pointing back at Jackson, only one foot out of the sliding doors.
“Oh,” Asher looks at the new recruit. “that was a little exercise we do to help get everyone warmed up for the game.”
Morehouse goes back and leans on the elevator doorway. Jackson, trusts Morehouse, he seems as in charge as Asher without the ego.
“So, that may have been a little confusing. You’ll see that what we do is hard to stomach, for me, for Ash, especially for the Coats. They’re lab geeks. They’re not trained like you to disconnect that sympathetic part of their brain. We have to do things like that, it tricks them into thinking this all too warped to actually be happening.”
“And that’s pretty tame really.” Asher is still looking at the speakers, expecting them to come on at any moment. “You should’ve seen the Gators.”
“That’s not a nickname, is it? You mean… whatever that was, with alligators?”
“Yeah, it was pretty intense. We switched to Octopus because it’s pretty cheap and you would not believe the shit you would have to do to get six polar bears a month.”
“And you can control them? The killer one, you made it eat itself?”
“Yeah, I can do that with all of them we make. It’s like sort of…well a drone really. With a really interesting self-destruct button. That’s how we make sure these things never get out of control.”
Asher puts a hand on Jackson and gently pulls him out of the elevator into the parking lot occupying the first floor beneath the building. The lot is lined with three charter buses, the one nearest the back is tagged with red car chalk.
Tequila Research Institute
Jackson watches Morehouse stroll through the lot, going through a mental checklist of what’s about to happen. He’s trying to stick closer to Morehouse, he seems more stable and not likely to have the ability to manufacture a killer octopus. Jackson is tightening up his own ratchets as well. The office setup had thrown him off, made him forget that this assignment was described to him as ‘brutality, well-choreographed’ by his liaison. He had started to see people instead of what they were, not soldiers but operators, the brains behind a machine. A machine, Jackson assumed, whose gears could grind whole populations under their teeth. The Coats rushing around on the flight deck were caffeinated geniuses with tech two generation ahead of anything Jackson had seen. Asher was some kind of phenomenon that at least played detached enough from humanity to do real damage. Jackson had seen the outcome of high functioning teams isolating themselves from pesky things like emotional consequences. This is how war crimes happen.
“Hey!” Morehouse chucks a penny at Jackson, shaking him back to the moment. “Go with Ash.” He points at Asher standing at a doorway in the wall of the parking structure. “I’ve got to get the Coats loaded and out of here and then I’ll be driving the trailer in there to the Game. And son?”
“Be sure that you watch. Not because it’s fun or easy, because it’s important. Be safe.”
“You too.” Jackson steps through the door, into a slender concrete stall holding a large pickup and what looks like an armored horse trailer and meets Asher who is standing at the double doors at the rear of the titanium box.
“You’re not, just stay out here and don’t huck guts all over the place. Morehouse will stop liking you if he has to clean your protein shake out of his parking spot.”
Asher opens the doors and there are four men chained to each side of the trailer. They are in the clothes that they were presumably snatched off the street in. Each of their limbs is cuffed on short chains to the skeleton of the trailer. The men just stare at Asher as he walks in, fear in their eyes, waiting to hear something, anything about the pains or silence the next moment has in store.
“Yeah guys, this is the big speech. Jackson, shut the doors and don’t open them until I knock.”
Jackson looks at the doors as he closes them into each other and quickly flips up a curtain hanging over the left door’s window, remembering Morehouse’s words. Jackson stands at the rear of the trailer and watches Asher pace up and back before settling near the front. Through the cracks of the concrete door frame come the cheers of the Coats rushing from huge freight elevators into the running charter buses as Asher looks down the rows of men, none of them daring to speak as the buses shake the ground running away from the scene as if they could see the interior of the armored box.
“The big speech is that you’re not worth a big speech. You douchebags are the definition of shit as far as humanity goes so your trip on this planet is ending, quick. The only thing I can promise is a wild ticket out of existence. Sorry if that wasn’t the drama you hoped for…” Asher locks eyes with the man at the front left of the trailer, thin muscle underneath a yellow soccer jersey “but I’ve got vodka on ice in the car.”
Asher rolls the cuff on his right sleeve almost to the elbow. His eyes still with the soccer jersey.
“Don’t squirm, this is what the end of the world feels like.”
Asher lunges his jaw into his wrist, pulling at the meat until it starts to tear away from itself and he jerks his head forward so his mouth can find a more solid purchase in his forearm. He tilts his head back until its vertical, his neck throbbing as he takes in as fluid from his wrist as he can manage. He rips his hand away and the wound is gone before his arm can straighten. His mouth is tight and cheeks are full, the men in the trailer are screaming. In a swift lurch swings his head forward, making sure to hold back his tie as a burst of green tinted pale dives from his mouth. Jackson watches the muck hit the floor of the trailer and bounce upward in eight equal portions and hit the men square in the face. The liquid climbing through their lips and up their nostrils, diving around to their ears and sneaking into their tear ducts. The chained men try to dive towards each other, held only by their restraints. They collapse as Asher walks past them, slamming down onto their knees with their faces trying to figure out new ways to scream, make any sound it can. Asher knocks twice and Jackson pops the doors open, making sure to pull the curtain on the left door back into place.
“Assholes.” Is all Asher says as he heads to the door in the concrete parking stall. “Let’s go.”
“I’m fine! Don’t be a Miriam, we’re late.”
Jackson climbs into the driver’s seat of the Yukon and starts the engine. Asher is in the back and opens the bottle of Smirnoff, taking a long pull as the Yukon hops onto the street. Jackson starts checking the directions spitting out of the GPS as he speeds in a drawn out zag through the grid of streets. Asher passes up the bottle, running the neck along Jackson’s cheek.
Jackson keeps knocking the bottle away. Asher isn’t really noticing, he checking the GPS and other displays from his spot in the back seat. He just keeps shoving the tip of the bottle into the hinge of Jackson’s jaw as he tries to keep the Yukon steady while watching his own GPS for the directions through the foreign three-story city.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, you can’t catch it from bottles. Hell, we could even make out if you got really desperate for cash or something.”
Asher reaches up and spikes an unopened bottle of Smirnoff into Jackson’s lap.
“Hit a fresh one if it keeps your panties out of a wad.”
“Mr. Asher, I don’t really get down like that.”
“It’s Asher, or Ash, and you better start ‘getting down’ Action. We literally own this city. How else do you think we can get away with Game Day once a month? Now take a goddamn drink. You’re gonna need it, the Coats are usually lit to the point of body shots by the time the buses get there.”
Jackson, takes a drink and then looks around the interior of the Yukon for the ringing phone Asher is pulling out of his pocket.
Asher starts punching the controls on the back of the center console, Jackson sees Birdy Nam Nam pop up on the stereo’s display and understands why the elevator’s speakers exploded as the bass hits faster than any human heart should pulse. Vodka rattles around in his mouth as he hits the stretch of Sunshine Ave that the GPS says he should scream down until the city falls away.
Jackson is half paying attention to the machine gun belch from the speakers and half straining to hear what Asher is shouting into his cell from his sprawl across the back seat, not laying off the Smirnoff during the conversation. Asher is screaming that something isn’t his fault. Something is moving inward or inland. His eyes are sharpening in the rear view mirror, Jackson can see that his boss is getting pissed and wondering how often that happens, and what size of a bloodbath that constitutes.
Asher hits a button on the console and the radio cuts out.
“I said Like Everything Else! Like the time you got crabs asshole! Like the time you thought moving Game Day to Singapore was a good idea. Like the time you thought eat their hearts and there’s less of a problem.”
Jackson checks his head on the last bit. Asher just sighs into his phone.
“Shit. Nothing. Just keep me posted and don’t wet your pants until I say so. We can handle it.”
Asher hangs up the phone as Jackson pulls into the drive of a small one-story building ten miles gone from the city limits. He turns the Yukon toward the buses parked behind the building but Asher corrects him.
“We’re in charge, go curbside.”
Jackson pulls to the skinny drive in front of the building and parks. The two get out and go through the doors, walking past the table taking cover charges and into a crowd of the Coats waiting at the doors separating the lobby from the guitars dancing in octaves washing through every crack of the building. Hailey bursts through the rest of the Coats.
“Action Jackson isn’t used to drinking and driving, cut him some slack.”
Hailey grabs Asher and he does the same to Jackson, dragging him through the doors into a wide open bar with banners strewn from the ceiling, still dripping with thick fake blood.
Night of the Living Dead Party
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Jackson is pulled through the crowd of Coats mixed with the young and sweaty, dressed in black and neon, throbbing to the guitars and watching the TVs situated around the rim of the ceiling showing what he hopes the civilians don’t recognize as real-time surveillance footage from the downtown streets just outside the Flight Deck. He can’t even acknowledge the girl with M’s on her hands brushing his crotch as he’s rushed past in Asher’s grip, his eyes locked on the screen showing Morehouse pulling the trailer up to a bar front with a flat sign angled out over the sidewalk below.
The chain of people rushing through the crowd stops. Hailey shoves Asher onto a long string of tables shoved together through the middle of the bar, climbs on then pushes him down flat against it while the Coats howl and lift their drinks. Jackson works his way around to Asher’s head while Hailey helps two of the shot girls roller skating around the bar in zombie makeup onto the table with him. They ditch their trays of red and green filled plastic cups and begin to skate on the table towards Asher, then over him and past each other, stopping only to flaunt for the crowd.
Asher looks over at Jackson.
“You look like a man with some questions.”
Jackson looks at the skaters in shorts and bras splashed in red. They’re playing to the Coats, one of the girls stops and strafes an analyst from Geothermal with a squeeze bottle of fake blood.
“They’re here to keep me distracted. The octopus bet was where we drop the trailer off, now the Coats bet which bar the assholes will go to first.”
Jackson’s eyes point to the TVs.
“Official surveillance. The civies think it’s a film project.”
“I know I’m pressing my luck.”
“The phone call? There’s a floating prison that’s gone rogue and is heading inland up the Mississippi river. The part where I went spastic? I can hear the alien that turned me, sometimes I get tripped up and say what he’s thinking.”
Jackson lurches forward trying to hear the pieces of the sentence still hanging in the air, one of the shot girls is taking a break sitting on his stomach, the music screaming through the flashing lights.
“Don’t worry…shit goes south…Six Gun Handcuffs…government tracks…-satellite loaded…nukes…take us all down. Smile Action…at least you’re not going out sober.”
Asher knocks the neck of his bottle against Jackson’s and the new blood drinks watching the screen showing the trailer doors swing wide, realizing what brand new chaos tastes like.