He’s not sure why he smiles when he does this. Stifling a laugh makes him feel a bit ashamed – the laugh, not the stifling. But he can’t help himself; the look of terror on people’s faces when they’re in desperate situations almost always produces unintentional comedy.
Reilly Rhoades has seen something like it five times now: He flies into an area trying to find his search-and-rescue target, locates the person needing his help and, if he thinks there’s time, he hides and hovers before swooping into action. Every time it’s something funny. So far, he’s seen two pairs of peed pants, one sobbing plea for mercy, one irrationally assumed lotus position – apparently ready to accept death with peace and grace or something – and, this time, a freaked-out laughing fit.
Gar Steinmeister has been lost in Rocky Mountain National Park for three-and-a-half days. He was hiking somewhere southeast of Estes Park and north of Longs Peak on June 13 when he got separated from his two buddies. The trio of twenty-something weekend adventurers were off-path geocaching – an elaborate game of treasure hunting facilitated by the Internet and global positioning coordinates – when Gar wandered off the trail. He thought he’d seen something gleaming in the sunlight near an outcropping of rocks. That’s when he fell into a hole concealed by dead tree limbs on old brush. When he woke up about two hours and twenty minutes later, he noted dried blood on matting the thick black hair on the back of his head and what he figured was about eighteen inches of ash beneath him, likely collected in the ravine thanks to runoff after the wildfire in this area six years ago. After struggling to his full five-feet, five-inch height, wincing at his sprained right ankle and trying to crack his neck after lying awkwardly on his backpack, Gar realized he’d lost his GPS receiver. The next day he found the faceplate and two of its AA batteries about fifty feet up the hill from where he’d landed.
Rationing his energy bars and bottled water was easy. Sticking to his limits proved harder by the third day, so he started to venture a few hundred yards beyond his makeshift camp to look for berries or a stream where he might fish. It was difficult to stay put as hikers are trained, but the ankle and the sciatic pain in his lower back settled his internal argument – it really wasn’t a fair fight though, he lamented. He’d had to endure two straight nights of rain and cursing himself for forgetting his thermal blanket and a second jacket. He’d been restless and impatient since his second night, but the pain, hunger and desperation were making him think the third day was about right for acting in more of a self-preservation mode rather than sticking to that textbook written in some office with a parking lot off a street corner just a few blocks from a grocery store behind an apartment complex not unlike his, one with a nice, soft bed and blankets and a shower and a TV and a fridge.
He had to get home.
He had to act.
But first, he had to figure out how to get around. With plenty of old wood lying around it didn’t take long to find a walking stick. So after packing up his gear, but making sure to leave a clue he’d been there and headed north, Gar struggled forward in search of water, a clearing or, better yet, a trail.
Gar embarked shortly after 7 a.m. and hiked at a profanity-inducing slow pace for six hours before finding something of a clearing. It wasn’t wide enough for him to even consider clearing some ground for a signal fire; it was really just an area where a couple dozen trees had fallen, probably because of bark beetles’ voracious appetites. After wrenching his aching ankle for what felt like the fifteen-billionth time on another clump of dirt and falling to his hands and knees, Gar thought “Why can’t these stupid mountains be more flat?”
That made him laugh at himself. For twelve hysterical minutes. Then he flipped immediately from laughter to seething anger and threw his walking stick with disgust. Even his throwing form – which he thought was way too sorority-girlish for someone as athletic as him – made his face hotter with anger. But he wasn’t the only one in a foul mood on that mountain. From behind the boulder he hit with his stick came a low growl.
Gar rolled onto his backside, knees in front of him, facing the sound of the growl. Instinctively he slid his pack off one shoulder, then the other, never taking his eyes away from their scan of the area he thought was hiding a mountain lion. For what seemed like the rest of the afternoon but was really only about ten minutes, Gar sat there running contingencies through his mind, which was fuzzy from fear, hunger and exhaustion. “What can I use to defend myself?”
“Why don’t I carry some kind of protection?”
“What’s in this backpack?”
“Do I try to stand?”
“Do lions back away if they see you’re bigger than them?”
“Or was that bears?”
“… Or hyenas?”
With that, the nearly insane laughter returned. “C’mere hyena! Come get me! C’mooooon! Look at me, I’m stan – ugh – standing up! Woo-hooo-ooo … see me now?” he danced sideways shifting his weight between his feet. “Got this backpack on my head … I’m waaaay bigger than you now … Whaddaya gonna do now? Huh?”
Another growl; longer this time. And some rustling, this time at eight o’clock on Gar’s left. That made Gar stop laughing. But only for a second. He spun on his heel to face the new direction of his adversary and started laughing again. “Oh, you’re stalking me, huh? Looks like you’re gonna kill me and eat me. So you might as well come do it. Let me fight ya, though. … COME ON!!!!! Bring it!”
As he continued laughing, Gar heard another sound from behind him. It only made him giggle more heartily.
Reilly doesn’t need a long time to assess what’s going on. From above, it’s easy to see both the crazy, laughing guy and the mountain lion skulking just twenty yards beyond him, in the trees. That shameful smile curls up the right side of his mouth again as the thrill of a life-and-death instant looms ahead of him. It’s the same chuckling excitement he gets watching his mother panic after his brother runs, screaming into the house after wrecking his bike and skinning his knees. What is it that makes him grin and giggle in the face of panic or tragedy? Whatever it is, it helps clarify Reilly’s thinking.
He quickly assesses his options, which aren’t all that numerous. He could go after the cat, maybe make it mad and risk his own life as well as Laughing Boy’s. Or he could swoop down and offer the guy a hand getting out of the situation. But how long should he wait? Hovering and leering is the only kind of “reward” he could have for volunteering for this kind of rescue mission.
A short growl-turned-roar ends the (sick?) voyeurism. Reilly shoots up and out of the trees, slows to reorient himself toward the ground at a about one-hundred-twenty-five feet up, and careens out of the sky as quickly as a he can at a forty-five degree angle to the ground. As he feels his ears grow cold while rushing through the air, Reilly extends his arms, hoping to time the maneuver just right – unlike his classmates, he can’t wait to take geometry in his senior year – and tackles Gar around the midsection. He hits Gar’s left side first and wraps his arms the way he wishes he could for the football team, then aims himself upward again, climbing the other side of a wide, imaginary “U” and using the momentum to pull the two of them upward and out of harm.
As they clear the treetops, Reilly yells, “Hold on! Don’t move!” Gar, suddenly more serious and aware than he’s been for days, doesn’t listen well and jerks his head around to get a good look at the lanky kid holding him, wearing a World War II bomber jacket, period-matching goggles and scarf streaming behind his neck, and hints of shaggy brown hair sticking out of a leather crash helmet.
“Are we flying?”
“No. I’m flying; you’re trying to get dropped. Hold still.”
“Wait, how are you doing this? Where did you come from,” Gar says, twisting his neck to get a better look at Reilly’s face.
“Would you stop moving? I’m trying not to drop you. You see how far up we are? I – ngh – barely have you now. Just shutuptillwegetbacktotheground!”
Reilly feels Gar starting to slide out of his grip. He knows it’s not something he’s going to be able to stop. This flight has become a controlled crash, and he knows he has to, at the very least, get closer to the ground so he doesn’t kill Gar with the drop.
“Ufff – hey, help me find a spot for us to land. Quick,” Reilly spits, trying not to exert too much energy in the usually simple act of talking.
Gar is too freaked out by everything that’s happened in the last three minutes; he can’t find a clearing.
“I … I don’t … see any …” he stammers.
“It’s OK … Ngggh … I see something,” Reilly says, trying to re-adjust his hold on Gar, who instead slips farther down. Reilly’s hanging on with all he’s got. Instead of having Gar around the waist, slung over his shoulder, the way he grabbed him from the mountain lion’s sights, now they look like they’re hugging in midair. Gar’s jacket has ridden up to the point it’s making it hard for Reilly to see through his fogging goggles. They’re still about two hundred feet up. Reilly decides to speed up and let gravity help so they’ll get to the ground faster. And at the last second, he’ll try to pull up so their landing isn’t quite so hard. If he times it right, this will happen just as he finally loses his grip on Gar.
“All right, get ready. Brace yourself; this is going to be a hard landing.” Reilly says. “You ready?”
“Not really, but do I have a choice?”
“Short answer: No. Here we go. Try to roll when you hit.”
Just as they slam into the ground, Reilly turns them sideways so neither lands on the other. His left elbow skids on the grass first. He tries to tuck and roll into his left shoulder but his momentum rolls him too fast onto his back for an instant, then flipping heels-over-head. In mid-flip, he tries to pivot away from Gar and ends up lying on his stomach after rolling from his right side. Simultaneously, Gar hits the ground and slides forward on his right forearm, then his elbow and hip. He feels like he’s dislocated his shoulder.
Reilly lies face down for an extra couple of minutes, trying to gather himself. Gar just groans, looking up at the sky through a million billion pine needles he somehow missed, reeling at all that’s happening in just a few minutes. “Is this real?” he wonders.
“Just stand there with your arms out and brace yourself,” Reilly says while starting into the air. He loops upward, around and back down to build momentum and hook his arms under Gar’s.
Lamenting how long it took them to figure out the best way to get around and the short flights that amount to little more than two-man jumps, Reilly notices how quickly the sun is falling toward the peaks. He feels a little more frantic about finding a back-country highway where a passerby could find the lost hiker, not just because he knows Gar hasn’t eaten in almost a day, but also because he has to fly home to Nebraska – in the dark.
Having been power hopping for the last five hours, Reilly is tired, too. At least there’s no mistaking which direction they need to go – with the sun dipping down, it’s easy to put it at their backs, knowing eventually they should reach the edge of the Front Range and, if it’s still light enough, be able to see out over the plains.
Reilly wishes he could gauge how far they’ve come or, for that matter, how far they go every time they leap. Maybe they’ve gone 10 miles, maybe 20; it’s just hard to tell. Gar thought he saw a trail about an hour and a half ago and got excited, thinking he knew which trail it could be. It wasn’t a trail, though, just a clearing near a stream where a couple of trees had fallen and started rotting. That took Gar down another notch from bummed to depressed. Reilly finds it odd that a guy who not only survived a mountain lion attack, is on his way to being rescued and is getting a view of the mountain that only birds see, but also is guaranteed to have a once-in-a-lifetime story nobody’s going to believe.
More than anything, though, Reilly wants to rest his aching shoulders and arms. He figures he’s had at least three “second winds” when he felt like he broke through what he compared to a workout barrier. Going out for basketball a couple years ago helped him understand that phenomenon. He had to lift weights to get into better shape and found that he’d hit a wall about ten minutes into his workouts. But he pushed through it every time and found it easier to lift after surmounting those aches. This time, though, he doesn’t think it’s possible to get a fourth or fifth wind.
Reilly can’t go on like this much longer. Already, he feels his arms giving out on Gar too soon.
“Hey, what’s that over there?” Gar says, pointing excitedly about twenty degrees to the right of the direction they’re taking.
“Ha-haaaaah!!! You did it, man,” Reilly says. “I think it’s … yeah, yeah … that’s a trail!
The pair land a couple hundred yards from the trail, just in case someone’s out there. Of course, Reilly thinks, if we do find people, how do I explain looking like the Red Baron?
“Let’s hold up a second,” Reilly says, doubled over, with his hands on his knees. “I need to catch my breath.” He doesn’t need that long, but he wants to listen for people. “Why not just tell Gar to see if anyone’s around,” he thinks, following that with “Yeah, right. He’s not stopping for anyone.”
Reilly pulls off his bombardier helmet and goggles, thinking at least that’ll help him dodge a couple of questions if people are on the trail. But at this time of night, most experienced hikers already are camping or heading for their cars at the trailhead.
Sure enough, the trail’s quiet. That’s fine with Reilly. He can let Gar walk the trail alone for a while as he flies ahead faster than he could if they were together. He wants to know how far they have to go. He wants to find a trail marker so he can figure out where they are. At this point, he wants to get home more than anything.
It’s something Reilly hasn’t allowed himself to think about for the last several hours. With it getting dark, a pang of fear – no, more like foreboding uncertainty – clenches his stomach. He’s never flown more than a few miles at night. Yet here he is, a couple hundred miles from home facing the prospect of having to get back to Western Nebraska without the benefit of being able to see much of anything at all. Sure, he can follow car lights on Interstate 25 going north into Wyoming, then east on I-80 from Cheyenne, but having driven that route plenty of times, he knows once he’s about 15 miles outside of Cheyenne, there’s not going to be a lot of cars on the road at all. Then he’ll be faced with being in the middle of nowhere, in the dark and not knowing if he’s really going the right way at all. Maybe he can lock onto one car and follow it as long as it doesn’t turn off the interstate. And if it does, he’ll just have to hover and wait for another.
Yeah, that’s a good plan, he tells himself. But that will work only until he gets to the little Nebraska town of Kimball, which is where he would turn off the interstate and follow a state highway northward. On a Sunday night, he knows, he’ll be lucky to find one car to follow – and it’ll get more sparse the later it gets. Reilly knows if he screws up and doesn’t follow a car closely enough, if the one he’s following turns and he doesn’t realize it, or if he just veers off too far, he could go a hundred miles in any direction without knowing where he is. And he’s not familiar enough with other parts of Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado or even Kansas to be able to get home in a reasonable time, even in daylight. If he’s not home by midnight or earlier, his mom is going to start worrying and wondering what he’s up to. If he’s not home by morning and late for school, he’s really going to have some explaining to do.
Reilly has been thinking long and hard about telling his mother about his ability, but just isn’t sure how to start the conversation. She’s already been through a lot in the last few years – some of it due to his anger issues and occasional rebelliousness, but mostly from the divorce and trying to be the lone breadwinner for Reilly and his little sister Constance. More than anything, though, Reilly’s not sure how anyone would react to seeing a person actually fly. Well, he footnotes in his mind, other than Gar and the few others he’s saved doing his mountain rescues. But they’ve all been lost out in the woods for hours or even days – and who knows? – maybe they aren’t fully in command of all their faculties. Maybe later on they won’t even believe what happened to them, thinking they must have been delirious. At least that’s what Reilly’s been counting on all this time.
That line of thought snaps Reilly back into paying attention to where he is on the trail and he wonders if, while he’s been spacing off and worrying, maybe he missed a trail marker. He slows a bit, glances back under his feet and doesn’t see any markers. But the shadows are starting to get longer and the sun glare from that direction makes it a little tough to see. That makes Reilly think he’d better figure out where they are and get back to Gar before it’s too hard to see. He wills himself to speed up and focuses his attention a little better, the way he’s learned to quickly scan all over the road while driving.
He smiles a bit thinking about how excited he was a year ago to finally have the chance to get behind the wheel of his mom’s 1995 Chrysler Cirrus. How he was going to have freedom and independence to get anywhere he pleased. If he’d only known … .
A minute or so more, and Reilly finally sees a trail marker. They’re on the East Longs Peak Trail. That’s one of the bigger, more well-traveled trails! For the first time since Reilly did his near-death voyeur thing, he actually feels hope warm and expand in his chest. This rescue mission will be finished soon.
Reilly vectors upward to get a better angle on the trail and see if he can tell how much farther they have to go, following the trail as much as he can with his eyes. But it goes northeast around an outcropping, obscuring his view beyond a couple miles. Still, he thinks, we’re on the right track.
With a few darting glances below himself to make sure he doesn’t lose sight of the trail, Reilly arcs upward, leaning his head back to feel the warmth of the setting sun and extending his arms down in an “A” with his palms out. He allows himself to enjoy flight for a brief second, if only to remind himself what a gift – and not always a burden – this strange ability is.
As he completes his backflip, corkscrews around to face southwest and levels out to be parallel to the ground, Reilly speeds up and scans for Gar, finding him rather quickly.
“Wooooo-hoooo!!” Reilly screams as he drops to the treetops and zooms in toward Gar. “We’re on the the East Longs Peak Trail! We’re gonna get you home!!”
Gar’s eyes grow wide and his mouth falls agape, Reilly’s shouts still echoing off the mountains. “Are you serious? We can do this, can’t we? We can really do this!”
As Reilly pulls his legs down to land in a rapid jog – mentally noting this may have been his best landing yet; was it because he wasn’t thinking too hard about it? – Gar nearly tackles him, whooping and hollering like a seven year old in a bounce house. “We’re gonna go home!” Gar shouts.
Until now, he still hadn’t been sure it really could happen. Tired, hungry and well past exhaustion warmed over, he had been resigned to thinking all this business about a flying kid was some strange imagining just before succumbing to the elements.
But this … this dive-bombing teenager coming at him like a cruise missile yelling such great news … this has woken him up to the hope so apparent on Reilly’s face.
As they hike the last few miles out of the wilderness, Reilly realizes he’s missed out on the chance to actually get to know Gar. The rescuer has been so focused on his own distractions, irritations and impatience that he’s all but ignored the rescuee, who probably needed someone to talk with after all he’s been through alone.
“So are you in college or have you graduated, or what?” Reilly forces.
“I’m 29; I’ve been out of school for a looong time.”
“I can never tell. … So do you live around here or what?”
“Kind of. I’m from Lafayette. Born and raised.” Reilly doesn’t know Colorado all that well, but he recognizes that name from Interstate signs just north of Denver.
“You work there, too? What do you do?”
Gar looks at Reilly askance. “Why are you so curious all of the sudden? You acted like you were annoyed to be rescuing me a while back. Now you wanna be my bud?”
“Wow, you’re direct. … um … I guess … I wa-”
“It’s cool,” Gar says with a wry smile. “S’part of my job, I guess. I’m a reporter for a suburban paper. Trying to work my way up. Hopefully I can get the attention of somebody at one of the Denver papers. Only thing is, covering school board meetings and car wrecks isn’t gonna do it. I need a big story.”
A fleeting moment passes – the kind of moment both later will wish they would have been quicker to seize – before the bulb lights simultaneously for Gar and Reilly.
“No,” Reilly says at the same time Gar starts with, “You –”
Gar looks at Reilly with his eyes wide and filled with visions of his future. Reilly looks back with fear. His first thought is to just fly away. Gar’s on the right path now, right? Why should he stay? But he stalls, trying to recall what personal details of himself he’s given: His first name; the grade he’s in in high school; the fact that he’s from Nebraska; and the fact that his grandfather flew as a bomber crewman in World War II. It’s not much, but this is a reporter; Reilly knows he doesn’t know enough about reporters — real-life reporters, anyway — to know what they can and can’t dig up on people. All these thoughts line up behind his fearful eyes in the time it takes to blink twice.
He stays, thinking — no, hoping — that he’s been around Gar long enough to think he can trust him.
Gar recognizes both the fear and the glimmer of earnest hope. And those dreams he glimpsed vanish before he can latch onto to a single one of them.
He knows he can’t betray this kid who saved his life a few hours ago.
“This kid …” he thinks to himself, pushing through the gossamer in his mind, forcing words into a concrete, focused thought. “He’s got his whole life ahead of him.” The undeveloped hint of a thought, somewhere in the back of his mind, tells him he’ll have plenty of opportunities to write about Reilly someday anyway. These thoughts, too, move at light speed.
Gar feels the upturned right corner of his mouth relax. He stretches his neck upward as if he’s going to clear his throat, then lowers his gaze back at Reilly.
“No, you’re right,” Gar says, reading Reilly’s thoughts. “I need to keep waiting for my story.”
Reilly says nothing, still reeling.
“There’s no story here,” Gar continues. “I mean, who’d believe it anyway? At best, people would think I’m crazy. … Y’know … I have no proof.”
Reilly continues to weigh the pros and cons of flying away.
“I mean … heh … maybe if my camera phone’s battery wasn’t dead,” Gar says trying to cut the awkwardness with a little humor.
Reilly shoots him another look of horror, then turns his head forward and up. Gar realizes Reilly’s thinking of simply abandoning him.
“No, wait. You don’t need to take off. I’m not going to tell anybody anything. Seriously, no one would believe it. And I don’t think my health insurance covers mental illness.”
The second attempt at humor works; Reilly’s face cracks with a slight smile.
“OK,” he nods. “Cool.” He hopes maybe they can just drop it here and now.
“Seriously, how could I do that after you saved my life?”
“Yeah, I mean … I can’t pay back selflessness with selfishness, can I? I mean in a way, I had to trust in somebody who had no good reason to help me; now you’re going to have to trust somebody the same way, right? … I mean, you kind of have to know that’s implicit in what you hope to achieve even before you take off looking for someone, right?”
“You say ‘I mean’ a lot.”
Gar laughs. “That’s good. You’re sharp. … Comes from being a writer, I guess. Always editing myself, y’know? And right now, I’m really trying to get the first draft right.”
“All right, let’s … I don’t know … change the subject,” Reilly musters, trying to get the tone right in his voice.
“OK, but you’re going to have to come up with the topic. Otherwise anything I say will sound like I’m fishing for information.”
All Reilly can think to say is, “Yeah …”.
Gar lets the silence settle in. Five full minutes pass before either of them thinks of something else to say.
Finally, Reilly asks what Gar if he should do more to protect himself. “I mean,” he starts with a chuckle, “do you think the government would try to kidnap me or my family or … all of us?”
“Yeah. I do. And you probably have to be careful about not only being seen but being tracked.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you have a cell phone? Or worse yet, a GPS device?”
“A phone, yeah, but I haven’t used it outside of the area close to home. Why would that matter? You think they could monitor where I am?”
Gar rifles through the news morgue in his mind. “Not track you in real time—I don’t think—but if they find out somebody out there can fly, they can start checking phone or GPS data reports. Law enforcement has used cell phone records to triangulate the location of kidnappers, and the Patriot Act — and possible abuse thereof — allows the government free and easy access to all that information in the name of preventing terrorism. And if you think they won’t first look at you as a threat, you haven’t been paying attention to the news.”
“And if they don’t lock me away or try to dissect me, they’ll want me to be a weapon, won’t they?”
“I think you’re properly paranoid,” Gar says, knowing that this time the humor’s not enough to soften the blow.
“Maybe not enough.”
“My dad’s in the Air Force in Colorado Springs.”
“Does he know what you can do?”
“I don’t think so,” Reilly says, thinking frantically. “He hasn’t been around much since he and my mom got divorced when I was twelve.”
“You have to keep him in the dark. Completely. Who else knows what you can do?”
“So far, nobody. At least I think nobody. I haven’t really been doing this very long.”
“You think? You don’t know? If there’s a chance, you have to find out. How did you end up being able to do this?”
“Well that’s the odd thing, because I think it’s a genetic thing and I think maybe my dad can do it, too.”
Gar can’t help but imagine the feel of his laptop keys beneath his fingers. “Why don’t you fill me in on everything?”
“Start with the genetic,” Gar says, wondering how it’s possible for flying ability to be inherited. He catches himself and momentarily ponders how ridiculous it is to think even have that thought.
“Well, my grandpa didn’t tell us too many war stories, but the one he did—his Big Hero Moment, he called it—he told over and over again,” Reilly says. “It got to the point where it was a big joke with all of us cousins. We all have the whole thing memorized.”
Reilly tries to make his voice sound like that of an old man, but at 16, that’s a bit difficult to pull off. “‘We was stationed in Solerno, Italy, from ’43 to two months after the Krauts surrendered.’” he mimics. “‘I’d flown enough missions, I coulda come home, but that danged Hitler had me so burnin’ angry I’da flown a plane acrost the ocean with a sky fulla flak by myself to drop a bomb on his greasy head.
“‘I wanted to be a pilot but bein’s I was only 17 when I enlisted and hadn’t growed up enough, I was too little. And you had to be a big, husky cuss to handle the controls of a B-24 Liberator. So’s they stuck me in the side as a waist gunner, runnin’ fifty-cal at anything I seen. I was good at it, too, maybe a little too good. They counted me as havin’ shot five Messerschmitts outta the sky, but I only counted four. Either way, they lef’ me in the waist even after I started growin’ a bit more toward the end o’ my first tour. I thought I shoulda got a chance to go learn how to be a pilot, but between needin’ me too much as a gunner and the fact that it woulda taken too long to put me back to flight school, I stayed in theater.
“‘About five sorties into my second tour —”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Gar interrupts. “You HAVE to stop with the impersonation. You’re killing me.”
“Oh all right. It’s just that’s how I remember him talking. … Where was I? Oh yeah, he said people started calling him their good luck charm, ’cause his plane, the Belle O’ the Ball, had made it home every time. It got shot up quite a bit, ‘but she was a faithful lady, let me tell ya.’”
Gar gives Reilly a sideways glance, left eyebrow arched at his slide back into his grandfather’s voice.
“Geez, you don’t let me have any fun,” Reilly says. Continuing with an exaggeratedly normalized, announcer voice. “On the sixth mission of that second tour was what he called his Big Hero Moment.
“They were supposed bomb oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, on May Thirty-first. There were, like, 450 B-17s and B-24s from the Fifteenth Air Force on that mission alone. Fourteen of those bombers were shot down by flak and enemy air support, but the Allied bombers and all their fighter escorts shot down 38 German fighters. Grandpa said he picked two of ’em off.
“Wow,” Gar says, equally impressed with Grandpa’s shooting and Reilly’s memory of the story.
“Yeah, this is why I loved hearing that story. But just before his plane was supposed to drop its load, a German fighter dropped in on Grandpa’s plane, coming in at eleven o’clock, machine guns blazing. The pilot and co-pilot were shot—the co-pilot died immediately, and the pilot’s left arm got all chewed up—and the Messerschmitt kept strafing Grandpa’s plane. It was one long burst, with bullet holes from the front of the fuselage along the side and across the left wing. It got one of the engines, too. The other one on that wing caught fire, and with holes in the wing, fuel was leaking. Grandpa said he saw everything except the pilots getting hit. He thought he got a couple shots on the fighter but wasn’t sure. After he couldn’t see it anymore, all he could do was look at that wing. He said the bombardier tried to get into the cockpit but couldn’t because they started spinning and falling.
“That’s when Grandpa said he started focusing on that wing—he said he was trying to will the flaps up so somebody could pull it out of the dive. It was all he could do—he was totally helpless. But that’s when he said he could feel the skin on the back of his head tighten and his ears pull backward—he compared it to the way a dog pins its ears back. It was like he got all extra-focused”
“What? What does that have to do with anything?” Gar asks.
“Just hold on, I’ll get to that,” Reilly says, extending his hands in front of him, palms down, as if he’s telling the ground to calm down. “When he felt that tightening in the back of his head, a warm, almost electric feeling started buzzing in the middle of the back of his head, then spread out, kind of oozing down his spine and up over the top of his head.
“After that, whatever he wanted to happen to the plane happened. The flaps went up. But just as they started pulling up out of the dive, half that left wing snapped off!”
“Are you kidding me?” Gar momentarily forgets all he’s seen in the last day; his journalistic incredulity takes over.
“He has pictures. They were supposed to be classified, but he hung onto three of them. They’re from right after they landed; the ground crew’s still cleaning up, you can see the bullet holes, medics are pulling guys out of the plane, and there’s a couple guys standing there looking like they’re just shaking their heads, looking at a one-wing plane at the end of the runway—with its landing gear down! And Grandpa said the fact that you could tell it was at the end of the runway was the key thing, because there was no other time that planes would be there—not during training and not even if guys were ‘joyriding’—which they weren’t officially allowed to do.”
“How did they manage to land with a wing like that?” Gar asks, looking into the sky, trying to visualize a crippled bomber impossibly flying.
“There’s where it gets even crazier. They didn’t just land. They delivered their bombs, turned and climbed up and away from the flak, then went south another four-hundred-some miles and landed in Italy,” Reilly says with pride. “After they had leveled off, Grandpa made his way toward the cockpit. He stood on the skinny catwalk in the bomb bay when they dropped the bombs. He said being in the middle of the plane when it suddenly lost all that weight helped him keep it under control. He was positive, by that time, that he was flying the plane with his mind. When he got to the cockpit, he stood behind the dead co-pilot and the severely wounded pilot, finally persuading the pilot to let go of the yoke and stop fighting his control of the thing. The pilot passed out from all the blood loss and shock of a gunner flying the plane with his brain.”
“So what happened once they landed?” The questions come quickly and naturally for the encyclopedic reporter. “You said the Army—or I guess at that time it was the Army Air Force—classified and buried evidence of what happened? Did your grandfather get debriefed, interrogated, studied? What did they do with the plane? What did other people on the crew say?”
“I don’t know,” Reilly says, crinkling one side of his nose. “I wish I’d thought to ask, well, any of those questions.”
“Are any of the other crew members still alive?”
“Dunno. Really, I never thought to ask.” Reilly shrugs. “I used to think it was just some crazy tall tale he used to tell. But since I started experiencing that same back-of-the-head feeling and learning how to fly, I’ve thought more about what he said when it was going on, not really anything afterward.”
“So you have that same sensation when you fly?”
“Only when I first think about taking off. Then it’s all just me thinking about flying.”
Gar closes his eyes and squints as if trying to conjure an old newsreel on the back of his eyelids. Cocking his head back, he finally says, “It sounds to me like your grandfather was using telekinesis—moving things with this mind.”
“You make it sound like that’s a term that has already been defined and is real,” Reilly says, dismissing the idea that this ability can be classified.
“Well, it’s a term that’s been thrown around by everyone from fiction writers to carnival ‘mentalists’ to actual brain researchers,” Gar says, only half-sure of the last group he mentioned. He’s a bit puzzled by Reilly’s sudden hint of defensiveness. “What … um … what about your dad? Did you say he had some kind of ability like this? I’m guessing he could be from the Vietnam generation?”
“No and yes. Well, mostly a ‘no’ on the first part. He said one time he fell off a ladder while he was painting our house when I was little. But he didn’t crash to the ground; he ended up in a position like he would have if he’d have fallen on his back. But he was just floating a few inches off the ground until he put his arms and legs under himself.
“But that’s the only time he ever said anything about this … whatever it is.”
“He didn’t talk about it, didn’t have anything happen in Vietnam?” Gar pushes.
“Oh, yeah,” Reilly remembers the other half of the question. “No, he was actually in some kind of administrative position over there. He didn’t fly helicopters or planes, wasn’t an infantry guy. He was only in on the very end of it and says he basically wasn’t ever really in harm’s way at all. So it didn’t come into play there, and he never really said anything else about being able to fly or move stuff without touching it or anything.”
“And did your grandfather ever have anything else happen after the bomber incident?”
“No,” Reilly says, already beginning to tire of all the questions. This is why I shouldn’t ever let anyone know about this, he thinks.
“So your grandfather had one major display of this power. Your dad had one minor manifestation, and that’s it, huh?” Gar thinks out loud. “So how are you able to control your ability and use it repeatedly?”
“Well, how do we know it’s even the same thing?” Reilly challenges. “I mean, Grandpa moved stuff with his mind. He wasn’t flying, really. He just happened to be inside something that was flying. And with Dad—that almost doesn’t count. And maybe it didn’t even happen. Maybe he just made it up for the sake of a starry-eyed little kid.”
Gar knows he’s risking total shut-off by pushing the issue, but it’s not the first time. “Those would be excellent points—if we didn’t have the evidence of what you’re so obviously capable of. You can do something that, as far as we know, no one else in the world can do. And the only two people close to that ability just so happen to be your father and grandfather. Even if it’s only anecdotal, we canNOT ignore what they say they’ve experienced.
Reilly purses his eyelids, sets his jaw and thinks if he were a cartoon character, he’d have those tapering, black squiggly lines above his head. He knows there’s at least another forty-five minutes of walking until they’re home free. He considers reminding Gar and taking off, figuring he’s close enough and on the right trail. But the fact that he’s never been able talk to anyone about his flight power keeps him on the ground—even if it means having to endure the interrogation of his new reporter friend.
Is that the right word, Reilly wonders. Maybe. It’s at least worth sticking around to find out.
It would be nice to have a friend who knows.
To say that David Gilliam lived for video games would not be accurate.
But it would be close.
David came from a broken family—something that gave him common ground with his best friend Reilly Rhoades. But while Reilly chose to get involved in as many school activities as he could, diminutive David became reclusive. If he couldn’t trust his own parents, whom could he trust? Nobody, he reasoned. But he felt like he could trust Reilly—at least until just before their junior year ended, when Reilly suddenly became quieter, more withdrawn. David asked him why but Reilly always changed the subject, leaving David to assume it was either something he’d done or something about Reilly’s parents. That’s what always put David in a bad mood, anyway.
Money was always tight for David and his dad. George Gilliam worked two jobs and was slowly renovating their modest 1930s-era ranch-style house, even though David thought its rooms were too small and his dad had to spend way too much of his nonexistent spare time patching the crumbling walls. Between his main job as a foreman at the sugar factory and his extra hours washing dishes at the worse of Berglund, Nebraska’s two diners, George didn’t have a lot of time to go to David’s school events. He was adamant, though, that David needed to apply his full effort to becoming his graduating class’ valedictorian. He insisted that his second job was important because he was saving money for David’s college account and keeping David from having to have a job with all the distractions from homework that it would bring. “I don’t want you ending up like me,” he’d always say.
The problem for David was that his dad never actually asked him what he wanted. But that was his dad’s way—always lecturing everyone about how they should act and what they should do. It’s what drove David’s mom away when he was seven years old and what kept David on edge whenever he was around his dad. He didn’t want to give his dad any reason to start yelling, because when he did, he didn’t stop until well after David had slammed the door and left the house for a cool-off walk.
Those walks one day about a year ago led David to Chuck Dender’s house. He didn’t know Chuck that well—red-headed, freckled and slightly overweight Chuck was a year younger and almost as private a person as David. Chuck was exuberantly hauling his brand-new ZCube video game system from his parents’ silver Ford Taurus wagon into his house. He saw David stomping by and stopped him. “Check it out, man: I just got a ZCube! Wanna help me break it in?”
David, with nothing better to do than make his father wonder where he was, said “Sure. But I’ve never played before.”
“That’s cool, neither have I,” Chuck said, motioning with his head for David to follow him in.
That it was the first time David had been in Chuck’s well-kept, cream-colored, two-story house didn’t matter to either of them. They didn’t do much talking after getting the game console hooked up, other than exclamations like “Whoa! Did you see that?!?” and “Ha! I got him!”
The boys played super soldiers in “Ultimate Kombat Wreckage” for four hours and forty-seven minutes (the game had a time counter likely meant for parents to use while monitoring kids’ usage, but it was more of an onscreen badge of honor for David and Chuck) before David figured he should get home and face an even angrier father.
He didn’t have to worry much, though, as George Gilliam had gone to his second job, come home and headed straight to bed in the time David was gone.
Playing UKW at Chuck’s house never got old. The boys tried other games but always went back to the war-simulation game. David invited Reilly over to Chuck’s house several times and, while Reilly picked up the game pretty quickly, he didn’t become as fanatical about UKW as David and Chuck.
When the boys found out about ZCube 3.0 and its new real-time online game play, both started saving their money. For David that meant refocusing on his grades. Playing UKW at Chuck’s had led him to ignore homework and study time, causing more frequent and louder confrontations with his father. It wasn’t as if David was failing—his grades still were good, just not perfect. In a move unlike his previous pattern, George decided to increase David’s allowance if his grades improved. So David hit the books a little harder, played games a little less and taped a magazine ad of the ZCube HD 3.0 to his dresser’s mirror.
After two months and some Christmas-gift money from his mom, David had saved enough for his own ZCube 3.0 HD Deluxe Warrior pack, which came with “Ultimate Kombat Wreckage II: Battleplan,” a wireless headset for online play and two wireless controllers. Chuck had gotten his own set of gear for Christmas, and because of the online play, the two were able to face off from their own homes.
The new version of the game had piqued Reilly’s interest, and he had started hanging out at David’s house a lot more often so he could play. The two had become a lethal terrorist-battling combo in the game, able to anticipate each other’s moves as they wound their way through enemy training camps and urban hostage rescues. And when they linked up with Chuck, the trio found themselves able to compete with almost anyone in the larger online community.
They even started competing in tournaments by logging onto a UKW website and choosing times they would be playing the game in an online “war zone.”
David started to think they were ready to try going to Local Area Network parties where they would take their consoles to a central meeting place, then plug in and play alongside dozens of other gamers. If they did well at a UKW-authorized LAN party, they could play themselves into the official tournament and become eligible to win actual cash and prizes—all this just for a game they already loved playing!
The biggest problem was that the nearest LAN parties were in Cheyenne and some of the cities along the Front Range of northern Colorado. This was just too much of an advanced idea for middle-of-nowhere western Nebraska. David figured out a way to get to a tournament site, though. Chuck had finally gotten his driver’s license and could borrow the Taurus, and David and Reilly could chip in for gas.
But that was in early May, around the same time Reilly had stopped coming over to play UKW. David was aggravated that Reilly would just stop playing without much of an explanation. He had started to trust and believe in Reilly as a true friend. “Yeah. So much for friendship,” David thought.
He let his irritation with Reilly spill over to his relationship with his dad, too, yelling and arguing even more. He was just so angry that he’d finally found something he wanted to pursue and people were letting him down. Again.
David had to switch to the single-player mode and learn how to advance through the game on his own. It didn’t take him as long as he’d thought, especially because he had come to know some online players pretty well. In single-player online mode, players didn’t do as much exploring of the virtual battlefields. Instead they would talk to each other via their headsets and assemble massive groups of virtual soldiers to engage in shorter but bigger battles against enemy armies. David thought maybe he didn’t really need anybody anymore—at least not in person, face-to-face.
No more getting let down. He liked that.
If SoldierOfFortune85 or Gwaazaag13 stopped playing, it wouldn’t matter that much; there was always somebody else to take their places. Even Chuck had faded into the vast online community. He didn’t play UKW much anymore, having met a blonde girl named Carrie from neighboring Havenwood at a speech and debate meet. She was a gamer, too, it turned out. She played the music game GlamRocker, and it wasn’t long before Chuck was making horrible music with her online and in person.
David didn’t mind much. He became a loner—thanks to Reilly and Chuck abandoning him—and rushed home from school every day to play the ZCube until he fell asleep hours later.
After finding his son asleep on the floor still wearing that headset and drooling on that wireless controller, David’s father had had enough. He first threatened to take away the ZCube altogether, but he was afraid that would send his all-black-wearing son even further into the weirdness he’d embraced. So he grounded David from playing for a week.
David had had enough. While his dad was at the diner on a Friday night, he broke into George’s bedroom, found his ZCube gear and headed for Chuck’s house. He persuaded Chuck to let him stay the night and lobbied hard for them to go ahead with their plan to hit a LAN party in Cheyenne. It wasn’t until David shoved the phone at Chuck and told him to call his girlfriend to have her tag along that Chuck agreed.
After they got to Cheyenne, David told Chuck and Carrie they could leave whenever they wanted; he wasn’t going back. He didn’t have much of a plan beyond that, other than trying to find somebody whose floor he could crash on until he figured it out.
“So … you’re not going to say anything?” Reilly asks, knowing the answer but wanting one more confirmation.
“No, man, I told you … we can stick together until just before we get to the trailhead, then you take off and I walk outta here like I’d been lost and just found my way back on my own,” Gar says. “Nothing more complicated than that.
“I’m sure there will be media—my own paper included—that will be all over me, wanting details, and that’s fine. I can talk about how hungry I am, how tired my legs and feet are and how hard it was to figure out which way I was going. I won’t even have to lie.”
“OK, good. Thanks,” Reilly stammers. “It’s weird. I … I guess now that somebody knows about me, I kind of want to keep talking. But these might be the last few minutes we ever talk. … There’s so much I want to squeeze in.”
“It’s all right, man, I can give you my e-mail address and phone number.” Gar digs out his wallet and pulls out a beaten-up card with the Lafayette News-Clarion logo. “Call me whenever. I can’t imagine what it would be like to keep that kind of a secret to myself.”
“Well, you’re going to have to now,” Reilly pounces, throwing in a smile and a friendly shove.
After the chuckles die down, Reilly lifts off, floating about three feet ahead of and above Gar, spinning to face him. “I’m gonna scout ahead a bit to see how far we have to go.” The sunset is almost complete, and Reilly thinks to himself that it probably seems even darker down below because of how the mountains make for a high horizon. He flies up to just above the treetops and peers eastward. He sees a couple of lights and drops down: They’re only about three hundred yards from the trailhead.
Reilly shoots back to Gar and says, “I guess this is it, dude. We’re almost there. I even saw a couple of lights.”
“Seriously? That’s amazing. … I still can’t believe I’m alive and actually going home. Thanks. Thanks a … thousand million times over.” Everything from the last few days seems to be hitting Gar all at once. He starts welling up. “I’m gonna live! I’m really gonna live. I just … I didn’t think … Wow, I actually have no words. That may be a lifetime first!”
“It’s OK, man, you’ve been through a lot,” Reilly reassures, playing the strong one of the pair one more time. “You sure you have strength to make it the rest of the way? ’Cause I think now’s a good time for me to get scarce.”
“Yeah, it’s cool. I’m good. I might just run,” Gar says with a hop on his dead-tired legs. “Or … not.”
“I could hang just out of sight, to make sure.”
“No, it’s all right, actually. Besides, you said you still have to fly back to Nebraska in the dark. You’d better get going.”
“All right. … Well, um, thanks for keeping me company and, uh, y’know … giving me something to do on a Sunday when the Broncos aren’t playing.”
“Hey no problem. Let me know if you’re bored again and I can try to get lost someplace different,” Gar grins, lightly slapping Reilly on the back.
“All right, cool. The way the team looked after last season, that might be mid-October. Heh.”
“You really should get going, though, it’s getting darker every second,” Gar offers, sliding into a mock parental voice. “You have school tomorrow, young man!”
“OK! OK! I’m going!” Reilly lifts off and drifts to the left of the path. “Thanks for listening! I will call!” And with that, Gar once again feels the icy grip of aloneness on his spine. It’s not as bad as before, though, he realizes. With a smile, he starts to think about getting back to his life. He’ll worry about processing the knowledge of a flying boy sometime later.
Despite his new friend’s protestations, Reilly does circle back behind Gar just to make sure he’s safe. He sees Gar amble up to a couple getting into their car in the trailhead’s parking lot. The woman jumps up with a shriek and gives Gar a hug. Reilly chuckles at how stiff and uncomfortable Gar looks in response.
He lets his eyes’ focus go soft as he thinks back to the first time he spied on Gar, and how different things are now. A pang of regretful guilt stabs as he thinks of the perverse thrill he’d felt while watching someone who’s now his friend deal with mortal danger.
He pushes the thought out of his head, cinches his goggles into place, throws forward his left arm and flies faster in the direction it’s pointing, as if reaching out to grab what lies ahead of him.
The cold of rushing through the air makes him feel more awake than he has in hours. Finding a highway, Reilly orients himself a couple hundred feet above it, high enough to be out of sight and low enough to see the road. He decides to push himself faster still, discovering that he can’t look straight down at that speed because everything rushes by in a blur. Instead he bends his neck back and looks farther ahead, which lets him focus better and anticipate the adjustments he needs to make.
He watches the road curve and bend ahead of him, moving north into Estes Park. He goes a little higher to escape the shining lights of the little resort city. He remembers that he needs to take a hard right in the middle of town, where U.S. 36 crosses with U.S. 34, which he follows down a canyon. He reminds himself of the tall, sheer rock walls of the canyon and stays directly above the highway all the way down, not really able to tell in the dark if he’s in a closed or open portion of the canyon. Amazingly, he can tell a slight difference in the frigidity of the air once he’s out over the lower foothills; it’s not much, but it is warmer air.
Reilly flies high over Loveland at the base of the foothills and easily finds the north-south Interstate 25 at the eastern edge of the city. He takes a peek at his watch, glad he got the one with the glow-in-the-dark face last week, and figures it’s only been about a half an hour since he left Gar—pretty good time considering that driving that span would have taken more than twice as long.
Just as he starts looking away from his watch to hang a left and “merge” onto the freeway, Reilly catches a glimpse of light out of the corner of his right eye. Just as he turns to look, the nose of a midsized passenger jet is closing in on him fast—so fast and close that he sees the shocked eyes of the co-pilot. In that frozen frame, he jerks straight upward as if he has a harness attached to his belt. A fraction of split second later realizes he’s not safe yet: The plane’s tail is almost instantly upon him. Before he knows he’s doing it, Reilly pulls his legs forward, knees up to his chest. He’s a cannonball diver in desperate need of a pool. The momentum of the move spins him ever so barely out of danger.
Shocked and shaken, Reilly loses his concentration and starts to plummet toward the four lanes of traffic below. What he will later only be able to explain as self-preservation instinct gives him just enough ability to right himself, then slow his descent to a minor crash behind the meticulously landscaped trees of a California-clone a shopping plaza.
Lying on his stomach, Reilly shakes uncontrollably for a few moments, more than a little freaked out by the fact that there’s a relatively busy airport out here near the interstate.
He pulls himself up to his elbows to look around and get his bearings, finding the familiar yellows and reds of fast food restaurant signs. “Oh yeah, food.” The sudden reawakening of his long-starved stomach pushes the plane to a back corner of his mind. “Well, I’m on the ground anyway, might as well hoof it over there and grab some grub.”
After the predictable, familiar, yet supremely satisfying meal of chemically enhanced, lab-perfected mystery meat and potatoes, Reilly wanders back out toward the interchange, perplexed as he has been for the duration of his meal that he didn’t hear the plane’s engines. He listens intently to the road noise where a major highway crosses an interstate, wondering if that’s enough sound to drown out a plane. He takes to the air and listens as the traffic sounds meld with the air rushing under the earflaps of his helmet. It’s pretty loud, he figures, but loud enough for me to miss a jet?
Questions about aerodynamics and acoustics give him plenty to occupy his mind for the next 80 minutes as he follows the roads home more easily than he expected.
He decides he’ll need to visit an airport sometime and try to find out whether jet turbines are quieter when one is facing their front ends. And he decides to do some research into whether planes are noisier for people at street level because the engines’ sound waves are bouncing off the ground, thus perhaps doubling the sound because of the reflection. “Who can I ask about that?” he wonders, but not for long.
David took command at the LAN party.
“Ultimate Kombat Wreckage II: Battleplan” included a mini-game that helped train newbies how to play. It let gamers practice GPS targeting, shooting, climbing over barriers, throwing grenades, laser sighting, map reading and hand-to-hand fighting. At LAN parties, the mini-game was used both as a warm-up and as a quick way to see who had the most skills. That, in turn, allowed the party’s organizers to put together combat teams with majors, captains, sergeants and specialists.
Most who attended were specialists. The way the game was set up, specialists could be the team’s experts in demolitions, heavy machine gunnery, infiltration and sabotage, sniper shooting, or the good-but-not-great-at-everything “ranger” category – a designation that irritated David’s dad when he saw it onscreen: “A ranger is one of the most highly skilled, highly trained fighting machines produced by any branch of the military,” he said on more than one occasion – mostly because his younger brother was a ranger who saw combat in the Gulf War.
David often played as a ranger when he first got the game, but at the Cheyenne LAN party, his skills earned him the rank of captain.
Chuck and Carrie stayed around for the first couple hours, watching as David led a strike team into a generic Middle Eastern city to find and rescue a group of journalists who had been taken hostage by extremists. Chuck found himself missing the game play and astounded at how good David had become in the months since they’d last played side-by-side. Somehow David had even figured out how to spot suspicious activity that hinted at roadside bombs and made his disguised team’s taxi driver avoid them. Chuck was about to ask Carrie if she’d mind if he tried to jump in and play(he had his game gear in the trunk “just in case”), when she started running her left hand up and down the back of his neck. The gentleness of her touch was hypnotic: all she had to say was “I’m hungry” and they were soon gone.
David didn’t notice.
He was leading seven specialists into a mosque where he was sure the hostages were. This was one of the most dangerous parts of the mission: The soldiers would have to shed their robes in favor of their all-black commando uniforms and silently scale a 450-foot-tall minaret in the dead of night. Then they had to go back down the counter-clockwise circular stairs inside the minaret and assess their options once they reached the bottom, with its access to the rest of the mosque. David was impressed with his team members’ skill at rope climbing and stair maneuvering: For him these were simple tasks, but they took a while to master with the ZCube’s eight-button controller.
Once everyone was at ground level inside the mosque, they had to rely completely on their night-vision and infrared sighting gear. Taking out the first two guards was simple enough with the game’s futuristic, soundless stun guns. Having the first room cleared made it easier for the team’s sighting specialist to take off his backpack and unload and deploy its contents: a silent-running, radio-controlled camera on wheels. With it, David’s team could conduct reconnaissance remotely and begin developing a plan to get through the mosque. While the “driver,” who went by the name ReBUS, was doing his thing, David uplinked with a satellite and circling Predator drone to obtain heat signatures within the building and pass them to everyone on the team, complete with the layout of the mosque. He was just in time, too – within seconds of him receiving his first scan results, he saw that there were two people heading toward the room where his team had set up.
David made his character sprint toward the door and drop into a baseball slide just as the men were opening the wooden door. In what looked like one motion, he shot up at the guards then sprung to his feet to pull them down and into the room. He let their stunned-stiff bodies fall onto his to minimize the sound of their falls. One of his alert teammates, Aaron24, jumped in and grabbed the rifles they were carrying to make sure they didn’t make any extra noise, either.
The satellite imagery showed a cluster of people huddled in a small room across the sanctuary, to the north and east of their position. ReBUS drove his RC car that direction. The satellite revealed that, indeed, all five hostages were in that room, with four guards inside the room and another six outside. The car maneuvered into a spot that revealed one of the inside guards likely was wearing an explosive vest connected to a deadman’s switch in his right hand: if something happened to make the guard let go of the switch, like getting knocked out or stunned, the vest would detonate.
That complicated matters.
David had everyone check their onscreen menus to review the weapons and gear they had brought with them. Most of them were carrying the same things: their stun guns, battery packs, sidearms, night-vision goggles, satellite-linked micro-computers, climbing spikes, flash-bang grenades, Tasers, knives, tear gas, mini-rebreathers, C4 and detonators. Smeeg-ul17, the hand-to-hand specialist had nunchuks and throwing stars. The heavy weapons specialist DougDug had heat-seeking rocket-propelled grenades, and Arvid the medic had an emergency kit. JustJ0e was the communications specialist whose pack was used to boost everyone else’s signals, and Thorrr0682 carried various spares of everyone’s common gear. The ranger Aaron24, who had caught the rifles from the guards after David had stunned them, also had a powered grappling hook and microfiber cable. ReBUS, the “driver” specialist, had some other high-tech gadgets, including a rubber-coated ball that protected a small but powerful set of stereo speakers connected to a 1-gigabyte flash drive.
The last couple gadgets on the list gave David an idea.
First he had JustJ0e help ReBUS route his micro-computer to base, then go to the Internet and download a sound file of a Muslim call to prayer so he could then upload it to the speakerball.
“Thorrr, Smeeg-ul and Arvid: I want you to crawl along the west and north walls while JustJ0e, DougDug and ReBUS go along the south and east walls,” David ordered with authority beyond his 16 years. “Aaron, you and I will complete the pincer by going middle and up, but not right away.
“When we’re in position, I’ll send a ‘green’ to your comm visors. ReBUS, that’s when you roll out the speakerball and hit ‘play’ — hopefully that’ll flush out most of the outside guards. We don’t move ahead until we get all four of ’em. As soon as they’re down, Aaron and I will head out to the middle of the room. Aaron, you’re gonna to use that grappling hook to pull yourself up under the the big dome and just hang and wait. I’m going to stand right under you and start yelling for the guards in the room to come out. Flanker teams, you and me are gonna to pick off five of ’em, but watch out so you don’t get the guy with the explosive vest. I want him to come toward me. I’ll back up to draw him out – even thrown down my gun, but it’s just to sucker him into place. Aaron, once he’s past where you’re hanging, drop down and grab him from behind and you hang onto that detonator with all you got.
David paused and swallowed hard. “Here’s where it’s gonna be tricky. Right as you’re making your move, I’m gonna shoot him and try not to hit you,” he continued. “You have to come around on his right, ’cause that’s the hand he has the switch in; I’ll aim for his left.”
Aaron thought about questioning him, but figured the idea was just innovatively crazy enough to work, so he fanned out and stretched his fingers and got ready.
Waiting for everyone to crawl into position provided enough time for David to start second guessing himself, but he took turns taking one hand off his controller to rub his eyes and steel himself, then called up the command menu and scrolled through to find “shout at enemy” so he could click on it when the time was right. The enemies, after all, weren’t actual people he could communicate with through his headset mic; the team was playing against the computer, so they had to use automated game commands to interact with the bad guys.
As both flanker teams settled in, David gave the signal to ReBUS to hit “play” on the speakerball. Even though the improvisation probably would have made more sense in the real world, the diversion worked. Out came guards from the hallway to the sanctuary area, where the specialists’ stunners did their job with cold efficiency. The interior guards came out more quickly than the gamers expected, so David and Aaron had to rush to get into place. But Aaron got himself hoisted into the open air under the dome and waited as David centered himself in the room and clicked the “shout” selection.
It took three more ‘shout’ clicks to get coax out the big guard, who rushed right at David’s character. The other six soldiers sneaked into the room he’d just left and began freeing the hostages to evacuate them just in case Aaron and David failed to get the drop on the explosive guard. That relieved David of some pressure; the mission would be a success regardless of his final actions.
Nonetheless, he took a couple steps backward as the guard – in English – shouted at him to drop his weapon. The characters were face to face in no time. A quick thought ran through David’s head: “Don’t glance upward, he’ll see Aaron.” That made the left side of his mouth curl up at the realization he was taking the game a little too seriously: as if the guard really could see his eyes. “Duh,” he laughed inside his head.
Refocusing, he got another idea. He made his character grab for the guard’s right hand and start grappling with the bigger man. He knew it wouldn’t take long before it was two on one and the guard would be overpowered. Sure enough, Aaron’s character jumped in and surprised the guard from behind. David took that brief distraction to hit B-A-B-C on his controller to pull out his Taser and shock the guard into submission.
Their mission complete, the guys in the room threw off their headsets, dropped their controllers and jumped out of their chairs. “Yeah!!!” and “Woooo-hooo!” were the cries that filled the room.
After some high fives, Aaron, who looked like he might be 24 – hence the name, walked up to David. “That was some unbelievable game planning on the fly, man! Where’d you learn how to do that?”
“I don’t know,” David replied with more humility than Aaron thought necessary. “I guess I just play the game a lot and think about all the gear that’s at our disposal.”
“Dude, that was brilliant. You gotta come with me; there’s some more UKW guys I want you to meet,” Aaron grinned, slapping David on the back. Now this was what it was like to be appreciated and understood, David thought as he followed the frenetically text-messaging Aaron out the door and around the corner.
They walked about a block east, with David noting how dead downtown was. “It’s Cheyenne. It’s Sunday,” Aaron laughed. “What’d you expect?”
David heard an engine rev, then tires squeal. A pair of headlights and matching fog lights on the dark SUV that rounded the next corner blinded David enough that he almost couldn’t see the truck run a stoplight. As he instinctively took a step toward the storefront of Hillinger’s Clothiers and away from the street, he felt Aaron grab the back of his shirt. He was pushing David toward the curb just as the black Chevy Tahoe was screeching to a stop right in front of them.
A backseat door flew open.
“Hello, David, we hear you’re quite the soldier.”
Shoved into the vehicle between Aaron and a big blond-haired guy in a black suit, David started to yell and struggle. The men in the back grabbed his arms. He saw another dark-suited guy turn around from the front passenger seat, grab his left leg and use his forearm to push both of David’s kicking legs into immobile submission. David saw a flash something metal as the front-seat guy moved something from his left to his right hand. Then David felt a sting in his left thigh.
Everything went black.
David woke up hours later, staring up at a single compact fluorescent bulb in a gray, eight-foot-by-eight-foot room. The concrete walls matched the concrete floor. The air felt stale, recirculated and a little too warm. He sat up from an olive green cot and noticed a pile of clothes in the corner. There was a drab gray t-shirt, about two shades darker than the room’s non-decor, a black pair of sweatpants and white socks. His shoes were gone and there were none to replace them. That was his first hint that he was a prisoner: He’d heard that jails and prisons don’t allow inmates to have shoes with strings because they could be used to harm themselves or others.
That realization sent a jolt of fear up David’s spine and made his vision go a little fuzzy at the edges.
“Where am I?!?” he yelled, leaping to his feet. “Let me outta here!!” He pounded with both hands against the windowless door. He kept pounding and yelling for fifteen minutes before crumpling into the corner closest the door, sobbing. He didn’t know why he was here, where here was, or even what time or day it was.
Then he remembered getting jabbed in the leg and wondered if that was real. He checked and found the puncture hole. Then he looked all over his legs and arms for more and found another two beneath a plastic bandage in the crook of his left arm. He was pretty sure someone had stuck an IV in him while he was out.
David tried remembering anything since blacking out in the mystery men’s vehicle. There were a couple of hints blurred, flashing lights and zig-zagging color, and indistinct, faraway, echoing noises. He thought they reminded him of waking up while riding in his dad’s pickup late at night as a kid, when the sound of the radio and glints of neon lights momentarily overwhelmed his senses before he was fully conscious.
Looking around the room, David tried to find something – anything – that could give him a hint of where he was. Nothing looked out of the ordinary … at first. He checked the corners, thinking they were the most logical spots for a closed-circuit camera. Finding nothing there, he moved his cot around the small room to help him reach the tops of the walls. He ran his hands along the walls until he found it – a hidden camera concealed about a foot to the left of the far corner from his cot, behind a piece of plastic made to look like the wall.
He knocked on it first, noting it wasn’t nearly as solid at the rest of the wall. Then he tried to find a way to either peel away the covering but couldn’t enough of a surface to pull. So he picked up the cot and started stabbing at the two-by-two-inch window with one of the cot’s legs. On the seventeenth try, he knocked loose the one-way plexiglass.
Excited by his success, David slapped the cot back to the floor and scrambled up to take a look at the camera. It was simply a tiny, dark eye staring back at him. He couldn’t see anything behind it. No light peeking through from another room; just darkness. There wasn’t much room, but David figured he could slide one or two of his thin, nimble fingers in between the camera and the sides of the hole. He started wiggling it loose but couldn’t pull it forward.
“Let me outta here!! You can’t keep me here! I have rights!! Who are you!!” he demanded.
He hopped off the cot and picked it up again to start slamming at the exposed camera when the door swung open with grinding-hinge creaks and squeals.
“You destroy that government property and you’ll be in SERIOUS trouble, young man.” Filling the doorway was the frame of a large man, standing at least six-feet, four inches tall, dressed in green-and-brown digitized camouflage and tan combat boots. He had huge hands. A patch over his left breast pocket said “Garvin.” He had gray hair cut so sort it looks like stubble, creases in his face that suggested a perma-frown, and piercing blue eyes that glared a hole through David’s forehead.
“You settle your scrawny little butt down right now,” Garvin said. “You’re a guest of the United States government, and I’ve got an offer for you.”
“What you, kidding me?” David shot back. “You kidnapped me!”
“Son, the actions of my colleagues may not have been the most polite way to get your attention, but it was necessary for someone with your talent, which is needed in service of your country.”
“You couldn’t just ask?” David said with more than a note of sarcasm in his voice.
“When it comes to top secret missions requiring asymmetrical ‘talent scouting’ techniques, no … we don’t just ask,” Garvin said.
“Top secret? You serious? What would you want from a scrawny high school kid with average grades, weak ankles and … and … and bad acne?!?” David was trying to keep his cool and act more tough and streetwise that he was. And he thought maybe it worked when Garvin gave just a hint of shock at his attempt at smart-aleck banter.
“Just get those clothes on and be ready to come with me in two minutes.” Garvin slammed the door shut and turned what sounded like a big lock.
“This is ridiculous,” David muttered. “Why me?” He was genuinely befuddled by the choice, convinced he had no skills useful to the government whatsoever.
After a quick change, David sat down on the cot and leaned his head back against the cold wall, staring at the ceiling and running through his head every thought he could – all at once, trying to guess what was so useful about him. He didn’t get the time to settle on anything, as Garvin gave a half-knock before cranking open the door. “Let’s go.”
David stepped out the door to see a long, thin corridor in either direction, with a low ceiling: Garvin’s head almost touched it. The light was yellowish and sickly. He didn’t see anyone else in the halls and could hear a distant hum.
As they walked, David noticed at every corner was a three-foot metal bridge connecting what seemed to be separate parts of the building, as if it were built in modules.
He also noted that the corners also had flexible plastic material at every corner, with clear plastic “windows” that allowed quick glimpses outside the modular buildings. After passing the first couple corners, David wasn’t sure of what he was seeing, but by the time he passed the third, he was sure he’d seen giant steel springs, more that a foot in diameter, supporting the structures. Beyond them, but not by far, he could see what looked like stone walls. As if the building was right up against, or even inside, a mountain.
After two left turns and then a right, Garvin led David into a low-lit room that looked like it might be one entire module of the building complex. About a dozen people that David couldn’t see too well sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by computer monitors practically covering three of the walls. Some showed maps of the U.S. and Canada, with multi-colored dots all over them. Others showed various other parts of the globe, with more dots. Some had what looked like wavelength scopes, but most showed various game-play scenes from Ultimate Kombat Wreckage II: Battleplan.
Garvin hit a switch and the room brightened, but not fully. David could finally see that the people sitting in the middle of the room all appeared to be playing UKW. They didn’t look much older than him.
“What we have here is a part of our top secret project: Operation Digital Deception,” Garvin said. “It’s a well-kept secret that this video game was developed for the U.S. Army, with its input, and by developers following strict orders of what to include. When people go out online and play this in multi-player mode, we’re monitoring the best of the best thanks to a series of identifiers embedded in the game. When we see someone who can master the game as those people and you did, we recruit them.”
“Recruit?” David interrupted. “Did your recruiting of these guys include kidnapping, too?”
“As I was saying, sometimes our recruiting methods necessarily include forcible interdiction,” Garvin said, sounding a little weary, almost as if he was not so much tired David’s attitude, but because he’d had to answer the same question numerous times. “Your participation in this program is voluntary from this point forward. You can tell me you don’t want to take part, and we will return you home with no memory of anything that happened in the last 14 hours.
“But I would encourage you to listen to the rest of my briefing before making up your mind.”
“Okay. … Go on.”
“We are attempting to create soldiers of the 21st century: Those with enough high tech resources that we can all but ensure victory. The research done in conjunction with your play of this game – which from here forward I will call a simulation – provides us not only with feedback but helps us develop field and remote commanders who can see the battle truly from above the battlefield and assess and execute mission actions in a much more efficient and well-informed manner. In the future, some of you could be trainers and instructors at West Point. You may even be given the opportunity to enlist and study there so you can become a true, virtual field commander. We’re looking into remote command of field assets in a way similar to our Unmanned Aeriel Vehicles like the Predator and the Reaver. You could be one of those remote controllers.”
“I don’t understand,” David said. “You still haven’t told me why you had to kidnap me.”
“Would you have come if I showed up at your little LAN party and started chasing you down with the same spiel a standard recruiter does? Would you have signed up if I’d given you a stress ball or a pen?
“Well … probably not. No.”
“But what about my family? They’re going to be freaking out at me just disappearing.”
“We have that covered,” Garvin said. “Your parents will receive letters and other correspondence from you indicating that you were sick of life as it was as a student, and wanted to see the world. So you joined the Army. No, it’s not a perfect alibi, but by the time you are finished, it will have become convincing enough both from our point of view and yours.”
David thought for a moment. “Okay, so where are we? What if I decide I do want to leave?”
“You would have to be specially transported from this secure location, more information about which you do not need to know.”
“I still can’t believe all this secrecy – even you guys being responsible for the content of the game.”
“We are responsible for keeping the nation – and in many cases, the world – safe,” Garvin said. “That means we have to stay three steps ahead of the bad guys. And for that, we’ll do whatever it takes to be prepared.”
“Yeah,” David said. “Yeah … I guess you will.”
Opening his eyes enough to let a little light hit his pupils, Reilly is glad it’s Sunday so he can sleep in a little.
It’s not, he realizes, jolting himself to a sitting position, then darting his head halfway back around to see the clock radio on the nightstand to his left. “What time is it?!?” he yells to no one and everyone in the house despite the fact that he’s milliseconds from finding out on his own.
8:06 a.m., he reads at the same time his mother yells up the stairs, “A little after eight. You up yet?”
Reilly fires out of bed, his right eye still crusty and blurry, grabs the first pair of underwear, socks and a t-shirt he can grab from the little chest of drawers he made in shop class as an eighth grader, and heads down the stairs. Every other year of his school life, he’d have already been in full summertime mode, but because of a blizzard that shut down half the state for three weeks in February, he and the rest of the 143 students at Berglund High School are in make-up mode.
“Do I have any clean jeans or shorts?” he yells while rushing down the stairs. He jets past his mom and the breakfast table she’s set, right into the tiny house’s one bathroom to start a shower.
Joan Rhoades – still calling herself that rather than switching back to her maiden name only for the sake of convenience – cocks her head to the right, peering around the corner like an on-scene TV new camera operator, trying to adjust her focus at the blur that appeared to have been her 17-year-old son. She looks down at the eggs, toast and juice that already have returned to room temperature and shakes her head. The corner of her mouth curls upward and her eyes narrow to a smiling, wistful squint as she remembers feeding Reilly scrambled eggs with one of those fat little multi-colored plastic spoons, making airplane noises and waving it all around before it “landed” in his toothless little mouth – only to have most of it spit back at her because he liked making the airplane noises, too. That was just a few weeks ago, wasn’t it? No, she snaps herself back to the present, now he’s almost grown, ready to leave the house and start making decisions on his own. Is he ready for all that, she wonders with a pang.
“I tried three times to wake you up but you were dead. How late were you out last night … and where were you?” she says with a voice loud enough to be heard through the vinyl, accordion-fold door to the bathroom and over the sound of the running water.
Reilly absorbs the third shock of this brand new morning – the second was the cold water he forgot to avoid when first cranking the faucet handles – suddenly everything in Colorado comes rushing back to him. His brain is foggy, at best, with only three-and-a-half hours of sleep to work on.
“It was pretty late. Sorry,” he yells in his Mom’s general direction. “I was just hanging with a friend. We … kinda got lost in what we were doing, jumping from one thing to another.” He smiles to himself, proud that he could come up with the corny non-explanation that technically allowed him to avoid lying to his mother. He hopes he won’t ever have to do that.
“Well, you’d better hurry up, school starts in fifteen minutes,” Joan says, torn once again between the fact that she’s already late for her 8 a.m. job as the secretary for Wamsley Insurance and wanting to help the son she feels she’s already let down in so many ways. “You want me to drive you to school?”
“No, it’s OK, if I run, I should make it,” Reilly says, shutting off the water and reaching out the mildewy plastic shower curtain for a towel in one, sweeping motion. “Do I have any jeans in the dryer?”
“Yeah, I left your stuff for you to fold last night,” she says, immediately heaping more mental coals on her own head for the cheap, needless guilt trip.
“Thanks, Mom. … Hey, aren’t you supposed to be at work by now?”
“Just leaving. Wanted to make sure you got up, though, sleepyhead,” Joan says, picking up her purse and digging for her keys. “You’re going to bed a lot earlier tonight, okay?”
“Gladly,” Reilly says, throwing open the door to reach for clothes dryer facing it. He grabs some his favorite 501s, jumps into them and hops the few steps back around the corner to kiss his mother on the cheek just as she’s leaving. “Did Connie already leave?” he asks.
“Twenty minutes ago. You’d better hurry it up. … Love you.” She stands on her tiptoes to reach her six-foot-two son’s cheek and gives him a half hug, then reaches for the screen door’s latch.
“Love you, too,” Reilly says as she walks toward her faded red 1989 Chevy Lumina, stepping away from the door then glancing out the kitchen window with his peripheral vision to make sure she’s in the car and not coming back to the house for some reason.
So Reilly flies up the stairs – really, no faster than if he’d run because he has to be careful of corners and the pitched ceiling at the top. Their “three-bedroom” house has roughly the same square footage of a three-car garage. Joan’s grandparents built it in 1919 when they were among the first settlers of Berglund and lived in it all their lives. Reilly has often lamented that people back then built their houses so small – mostly because their winter heat came from the fireplace in the center of the house. That was also the reason the second-floor bedrooms didn’t have full ceilings.
Reilly bumps his head at the top of the stairs for 453rd time.
As he’s putting on his shoes, he realizes he can vault over the short banister just past the edge of his bed and drop straight down to the bottom of the stairs.
This is so cool, he thinks, wondering what it will be like when he has his own place someday and won’t have to worry about hiding his ability from other people in the house. Just as he starts daydreaming of a two-story loft with a spiral staircase he wouldn’t use, Reilly snaps himself back to the issue at hand, checks the clock, and sees that it’s 8:21.
In four minutes, he’ll be tardy. And he has to run 12 blocks to get to school.
Or does he?
After wolfing down the toast and a couple gulps of O.J., grabbing his backpack and locking the front door, Reilly runs around the back of the house, toward the ditch that runs behind their detached garage, which is really more like a ready-to-collapse shack that only spiders and wasps dare to enter. A grand, old cottonwood tree hangs over the garage and reaches up more than forty feet to join with others to form a canopy along the ditch.
Reilly tries to glance in all directions as he walks toward the back of the garage, looking to see if anyone else is around. No cars, nobody else outside so far as he can see. Once he’s more secluded in the shadows, he looks more carefully. Still nobody.
With a grin stretching across his face, Reilly fires into the air, through the canopy, up and up until he can see the entire town beneath him. Still worried about being seen, Reilly counsels himself. With only one cropduster flying through the air once a year around here, and the extremely rare medical helicopter, people just don’t have any reason to look up, he thinks.
Bending down from the apex of his flight and back toward the ground, Reilly trains his eyes on another tree grove half a block from Berglund High School. He descends a lot more slowly than he took off, for fear of living a scene from any number of dumb movies where some guy from from one tree branch to another, straddling it in delayed pain while all the males in the audience laugh while groaning sympathetically.
Easily avoiding such a landing, Reilly hits the ground in an easy jog. “I love flying” Reilly says to himself, fully awake and exhilarated mere minutes after waking up.
“Oh, man, I shoulda timed myself.” Glancing at his watch, he has roughly a minute-forty to spare.
Once inside, Reilly heads to his biology class first and notices David’s chair is empty.
Going to school in June has any number of drawbacks for Reilly, but chief among them is the heat. The Berglund High School building is 106 years old, and no school board in all that time has seen fit to have air conditioning installed. Reilly, sitting in a pool of his own sweat, reminds himself that most years the AC isn’t needed in May because it’s not hot enough yet, and when school starts in the fall, there’s always the “heat schedule” which allows the students to get out at 1:30 p.m. for the first couple weeks, if necessary.
It’s of no consolation now.
No one’s happy about being in class in mid-June. Several farm families have gone ahead and pulled their kids from school because they’re needed too much at home. Reilly wishes he had that excuse. Or could at least get away with ditching the way David apparently has.
Between his aggravation about being in school when half the class isn’t, the constant thoughts of the previous day’s adventure, the lack of sleep, every muscle in his body being sore, very little food consumption in the last eighteen hours and thoughts of how he’s going to talk to his dad, Reilly has no answers when Mrs. Arthur, his English teacher, asks him to give three examples of gerunds.
“Uhm … ‘The,’ ‘An,’ and … uhh … ‘A,’” Reilly says, his face growing hotter knowing that’s wrong. He hears titters and chuckles from behind him as Mrs. Arthur corrects him. “No, those are articles,” she says disapprovingly. “Please pay attention, Mr. Rhoades. Miss Sabrine?”
“’Sleeping,’ ‘stumbling,’ and ‘failing,’” Kelly Sabrine, the class president and all-around better-than-anyone principal’s daughter, says with a curled lip and darting look of disgust at Reilly.
“Very good,” Mrs. Arthur says without missing a beat. “And, Mr. Rhoades, can you tell us what other form those same words can take?”
“Excuse me?” Mrs. Arthur says, flitting her eyelashes about and sitting up in her her chair, truly surprised.
“No. I can’t. And I’m probably not going to today, tomorrow or the rest of this stupid, lame school year,” Reilly blurts. Some other part of his brain has taken over speech function and is ready to let everyone know just how aggravated he is right now.
“Present participle,” Wendy Franklin interjects, needlessly stabbing her raised arm into the air.
“Oh … okay … yes, yes, that’s correct, Miss Franklin,” Mrs. Arthur blinks, turning away from Reilly, her body language indicating she’s shutting him out of any further class participation. Which is fine with Reilly, who looks out the window to his left and huffs.
After class ends fifteen minutes later, Wendy sidles up to Reilly on their way to their lockers. “So what’s up with you,” she asks, swinging her hip into Reilly’s and smiling the smile that makes Reilly’s heart skip a beat, regardless of his mood.
“Oh, nothing. I’m just tired,” he says. “Tired of being here. Tired of learning junk I’ll never use. Tired being stuck in this town. Do you know how much more is out there, just waiting for us to explore?”
Wendy pulls her head backward an inch, staring forward and wondering if she should answer with something snarky or follow Reilly’s somewhat-out-of-character macro view of life. “Yeah, like what? What should we be doing or seeing or living right now?” she volleys.
“Like, hiking in the mountains in Colorado, maybe. Have you ever done that? It’s beautiful up there. I was th-” Reilly stops himself from revealing he was there just the day before, noting in the back of his mind he needs to wake up and be more careful.
“You were what?” Wendy continues while opening the door to go outside and across the street to Berglund Elementary, where the lunchroom for everyone in the tiny school district eats.
“I was thinking.” Reilly saves himself. “I was thinking maybe some of us should take a camping trip down there or something. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
“Yeah, ‘cool’ being the operative word. I bet it’s gotta be twenty degrees cooler up in the higher altitude, huh?”
“Yeah,” Reilly says with a look on his face that Wendy interprets as daydreaming. But Reilly’s thinking back to Sunday, wondering if he even noticed the temperature up there. Then he remembers that heat is never his problem when he’s flying – it’s staying warm. “Yeah, at least twenty degrees.”
“Hey, have you talked to Chuck today?” Wendy changes the subject, her words dripping with a gossippy tone.
“Haven’t seen him. Is he ditching too so he can play UKW with David?”
“No, that’s just it. He’s here, and David’s not. They went to some kind of video game tournament or party or something in Cheyenne, and David just took off. Told Chuck and Carrie they could leave without him.”
“Did they look for him or anything?” Reilly can’t imagine David doing something so independent – he’s so needy most of the time.
“Yeah, they saw him jacked in with a whole bunch of other gamers. He had his headset on and totally ignored Chuck and Carrie. They left for a while to eat or something, came back and he was gone. They asked around and no one knew where he went.”
“Doesn’t Chuck have lunch the period before us?” Reilly asks, calling behind himself as he jogs ahead.
“I think so, but –” Wendy offers too late as Reilly is gone ahead of her. She puckers and twists her lips sideways, hoping she didn’t just mess up her chance to eat lunch with Reilly.
They’ve danced a weird dance most of the year: Going on a date one week, then hardly seeing each other for the next two, almost as if he was avoiding her; then they spent a lot of time together for about two months before Christmas. They even started holding hands; she thought maybe they’d become boyfriend and girlfriend, but then he rarely called her over the holiday break. He’d get kind of weird and withdraw a lot more often in the spring. She told herself maybe it was his family’s problems that got to him a little more on some occasions than others. They both were chosen to be servers at the junior prom, allowing them the rare-for-sophomores opportunity to go to the dance. She kissed him at the end of the night, and she could swear as he walked away, he was quite literally walking six or eight inches off the ground.
Wendy wrote it off as some kind of mirage because she’d been awake for 20 hours straight.
Now, two months later, things were just as weird between them, and Wendy is wondering how much they’ll get to see each other at all once summer vacation finally starts.
Entering the lunchroom, she sees Reilly talking and gesturing excitedly with Chuck and Carrie as they’re heading for the exit door.
Yep. Another day with unanswered questions.
Reilly, having gotten no clearer information from Chuck or Carrie, takes a glance toward Wendy, wishing he could sit and eat and talk with her. He misses the intoxicating lilt of her voice and the way her blue eyes capture and somehow enhance the light that hits them. He thinks back to the smile she gave him in the hallway. Is she still interested in him after all his hiding from her as he freaked out about his flying ability? Is she still waiting for him even with all his ducking her to practice flying? He indulges the regret for only a second before remembering that he’s now probably not going to get to talk to his dad today at all. But all that has to take a backseat to finding David.
Reilly runs out the elementary school’s doors and starts heading down the street in the direction of David’s house. He knows there are probably dozens of eyes following him wondering what’s going on. He can’t afford to be seen charging toward the trees that could hide his take-off. It’s not that long of a run anyway – David lives about halfway between his house and the school.
Five blocks later, Reilly starts to round the corner of David’s street and sees a police car in front of the Gilliam house. David’s dad is in the front yard talking to the one Berglund cop on duty during the day and a guy in a dark suit.
George Gilliam is the first to notice Reilly running toward the three adults. He points toward the teen, and the other two turn their heads. Suddenly everything’s in slow motion for Reilly as he suddenly realizes something that could be very bad. He thinks about turning around or running straight ahead, pretending not to see them. But it’s too late.
Maybe he can just force the conversation to stay the way he wants it to go.
But he can’t.
“Hey, Reilly,” George yells in his direction, as Reilly is still two houses away. “Where were you yesterday?”
Reilly chokes down the nervousness, his brain buzzing with a thousand first words but can’t finish any of the sentences they might start. So he says nothing as he closes approaches David’s dad, the cop and the stranger in the suit.
“Reilly, you know Officer O’Neil, right?” George Gilliam says. “And this is Agent Schuster from the FBI. They’re trying to help me find David. Have you seen him? Were you with him yesterday?”
“N-no, I haven’t seen him. I just found out from Chuck about where they went last night and ran here to see if there’s something I can do to help find him.”
“And where were you last night, son?” Schuster asks. Reilly had hoped they’d just let that angle drop. No dice. And what’s with calling him “son”? “Who does that?” he wonders.
“Yeah, are you sure you weren’t with them,” George presses. “You play that game all the time, too.”
“Used to,” Reilly says too quickly, realizing he has nothing after this. “I-I don’t play it much at all anymore. In fact I can’t remember the last time I did.”
“So where were ya last night?” O’Neil asks.
“I was on my way back from hiking with a friend.” Reilly says. He really did think about lying but couldn’t come up with anything good. So maybe some incomplete truth will help.
He’s counting on the fact that in western Nebraska, saying you’re going hiking is shorthand for hiking up Scotts Bluff Monument, the only interesting, hike-worthy geographic feature for miles in any direction. If he gives no more information and they mistakenly assume that’s where he was, hey, at least he didn’t lie. During his parents’ divorce, he got so sick of the lying he made up his mind to be as honest as possible. But he’s finding out the older he gets, the harder that becomes.
This time, his ploy works because he doesn’t try too hard by changing the subject. For a split second, everyone just stands there. Reilly’s relieved his gamble worked.
George lets out a long sigh. “Wyoming State Patrol doesn’t have any leads and Schuster here’s trying to find out who hosted the LAN party. But they’re having a hard time tracking down the people who rented the storefront.”
“And Chuck didn’t have a name?” Reilly asks.
“Nope.” O’Neil says. “He said he just went where David told him to go.”
“Waaaait a minute,” Reilly says. “I bet I know how David found out about the LAN party. There’s a message board in the Z-Cube Online interface. I’ll bet if I log in, I can find somebody who knows something.”
“It’s a lead worth following,” Schuster says. “Let’s go. Where to you live?”
“He’s close by,” George interjects. “Why don’t you guys follow him, and I’ll make the last couple of calls to my bosses to let ‘em know why I’m not coming in.”
“Yeah, follow me,” Reilly says, running sideways slowly enough at first to let the cop and the fed catch up. “You won’t need to drive.”
At Reilly’s house, the lawmen watch as he deftly navigates far more screen and navigation prompts than they’d even come close to understanding. While looking for the message board, Reilly throws on his headset and opens a second window to see if anyone in the region is online at the time. He connects with two and asks if they know anything about the Cheyenne UKW LAN party from the day before. The second guy, who goes by the screen name ReBus, says he was there.
“Where was it?” Reilly asks excitedly. “Did you see a short, high school kid there? He was probably wearing all black; he has a shaggy emo-kid haircut that’s all black and –”
“Dude, you’re describing half the people there,” ReBus interjects.
Reilly lets out an exasperated sigh, trying to think of something more unique. “What was his screen name?” ReBus asks with a tone in his voice that makes him sound a little too much like a know-it-all tech support guy.
Reilly kicks himself mentally for missing the obvious. “Spastic DaveTastic,” Reilly replies, bemused all over again at the ridiculous nom de guerre.
“Oh, well, YEAH, I know that guy,” ReBus yells into his microphone. “He was wicked awesome! I was on his team, and he came up with this totally amazing plan to get these hostages out of this Muslim church place –”
“You were on his team?” Reilly interrupts. “Did you talk to him after the game? Did you see where he went? Was he with anyone?”
“Hm. Lemme think … After the game, everybody was jumping around, all excited. I looked over toward where he set up his gear and … I think I remember seeing him talking to this older dude who was there. He was like older that college age and, like, built, not like any of us too-fat or too-skinny gamers. … And after that I don’t remember seeing either of them anymore, which sucked because then we had to get new team leader and a new ranger and we got smoked the rest of the night.”
“Wait,” Reilly says. “You said he was talking to some guy and you ended up missing two guys from your team? Was the guy you saw David talking to – was he your ranger?”
“Oh, yeaaaah,” ReBus says. “Probably. I didn’t think about that. But it makes sense.”
“What’s going on?” Schuster demands, grabbing Reilly’s shoulder. Reilly waves him off with his left hand in a dismissive “halt” gesture.
“Who was that?” ReBus asks, not used to there being more than one person on any one headset in the network.
“ReBus, do you know anybody connected to whoever organized the LAN party? The whole reason I’m asking is because David’s missing. I don’t think anybody’s seen him since you last did. I’m David’s friend, and his dad, the cops and even the FBI are trying to find him. Do you know where the LAN party was held last night?”
“Whoa, are you serious? How’d you get the FBI involved so quick? From what I’ve read on the Net, they don’t usually get invol-”
“Just a second, just a second,” Reilly breaks in as his mother and George Gilliam open the screen door.
“What’s going on here?” his mother demands. “Charlotte across the street called me and said there’s all kind of crazy things going on over here. Police? And, and whoever you are.” She points at Schuster.
“Mom, hang on. David’s missing, we’re trying to figure out some things, and I’m talking to a guy who might know something.”
Turning his attention back to ReBus, Reilly asks “Do you know anything that can help us find David? It’s like he totally vanished.”
“Um. Yeah, lemme think. I live in Eaton, Colorado, and drove up but I know a couple guys who might know the people who rented the space for the party. I can make some calls.”
“Okay, hang on a second, I’m gonna fill in these cops on what you just told me.”
Reilly’s summary is welcome by the impatient men who have stood over his shoulder, hearing only half of the conversation. Schuster advises Reilly to have ReBus reach out to his contacts and give each of them his cell phone number to call with any information, telling them that he’s going to start driving toward Cheyenne and hopefully they’ll get back to him before he gets there.
Reilly relays the message and tells Schuster, “I’m coming too.”
NOTE: Charlotte across the street saw weird things, refer back to this and Reilly’s flying.
“I don’t like the idea of babysitting,” Schuster says. “But you know all this video game talk and could be useful. If you’re going to ride with me, I gotta find a form for you mom to fill out. Stay here.”
“Like I’d go anywhere else …” Reilly snaps back, irritated by Mr. Take-Charge FBI Suit, who runs down the street to his car.
“Reilly, we need to talk. How did all this happen?” his mother asks. “And why aren’t you in school?”
“Mom, I went for half the day and then heard about David being gone so I came to talk to George and these other two were with him. I found out about the LAN party and thought I could get on my Z-Cube and find out something. And I did.”
With those last three words, Joan Rhoades sees a flicker of the little boy Reilly used to be. The sparkle in his eyes reminds her of countless other times when he’d do or make something and look to her for approval: The look on his face saying, “I did a good job, didn’t I?”
More than anything, she wants to hug him for being so mature. “Good. You did a good thing helping your friend.”
“So can I go and keep helping?” Reilly feels like he’s pleading.
“Hold on. I need to think,” she presses her temples and leans her head down, breathing deeply. “This is all just so crazy.”
Schuster, having pulled his car up to the Rhoades’ house, gives a tap on the door and enters. Reilly can’t remember a time when this many people were crammed into their crackerbox of a house. “Here’s that form, ma’am. It basically says you’re transferring temporary custody to me and that I assume responsibility for your son while he’s assisting me in this investigation.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Joan says with an arched right eyebrow.
“It’s just a formality and a legal necessity in our lawsuit-happy society,” Schuster offers.
“So if I sign this, I can’t sue you if some Colombian drug-running kidnappers happen to shoot my son while in your custody?”
“Well, uh …”
George jumps into the conversation, “If it helps, Joan, I’ll keep an eye on Reilly while we’re there.”
“Actually, Mr. Gilliam, I need you to stay here in case your son comes home, and if he doesn’t, you need to be working with Officer O’Neil on any other angles.”
“But it’s MY son you’re looking for,” George says, leaning into Schuster’s personal space while pointing back at his own chest. “I should be going with you to help look for him.”
“At this point, we’re only going to Cheyenne to follow this one lead, then I’m coming back to confer with you and drop off your son’s friend.” Schuster’s jaw is firm and his face serious as he darts his eyes back and forth between George and Joan. “Am I making myself clear?”
“Sure,” Reilly says, grabbing the form from Schuster and waving it in the air before presenting it to his mother. “Let’s just get going so we can find David. That’s the whole goal here, isn’t it?”
George straightens up, takes a step back and pulls his chin into his neck, a bit dazed by everything whirling out of his control. “But …”
“It’ll be fine,” O’Neil says, patting George on the back. “Let’s you and me go find some of David’s friends at school and talk to them some more.”
As they exit the house with George still muttering his protestations, Joan tries to speed read the consent form. She’s never been good with these and all their gobbledy-gook, even working for an insurance company. To her, it’s all just fodder for filing. She decides to take Schuster’s word and signs the paper. “Your cell phone charged up?” she asks Reilly.
He flips open his phone to check and thinks to himself that it should be since he left it plugged in for the entire time he was in Colorado. “Yep,” he says, flipping it shut and back into his pocket in one motion.
“Okay, then I want you to call me every once in awhile to let me know how you’re doing and where you are. Got it?”
“All right,” he says. “Love you.”
“I love you,” she replies, looking him directly in the eyes as if trying to tell him something mind-to-mind.
With that, Schuster and Rhoades get into his plain blue, rented 2004 PT Cruiser.
Schuster makes little small talk to start the three-and-a-half hour drive. That’s fine with Reilly, who happily nods off.
The next thing he knows, Reilly is being shaken by Schuster, who alternates between tugging the teen’s upper left arm and lightly backhanding him on the chest.
Reilly blinks his eyes a couple dozen times, wipes the drool off his mouth and chin and looks around. They’re approaching Cheyenne.
He looks at the car’s clock. It’s 4:12 p.m.
“Time to wake up and look alive,” Schuster says. “Your gamer buddies came through. I got an address where the LAN party was last night and a name of the guy who organized it. He’s meeting us down there.”
After driving by Wyoming’s capitol building, Schuster heads into downtown and easily locates the empty storefront with the help of the rental’s GPS unit. Waiting outside are a tall fat, guy with and a short, skinny guy. Neither look like they’ve shaven for two weeks, and they may have been wearing their clothes that long, too, from the looks of it. The tall guy, with his blue basketball shorts, raggedy-looking brown hiking boots and plain black t-shirt looks like he was the one driving the beat-up looking silver Dodge Stratus. The skinny guy’s wearing skater shoes, white shorts and a home-white Dallas Cowboys jersey with a 21 on it. “Deion Sanders?” Reilly thinks to himself. “Is that the last time this guy bought clothes?” Then he remembers they’re gamers, and it suddenly makes sense in an odd way.
Schuster rushes to speak with them. Reilly, still a bit sleepy, wanders up behind the trio to hear the big guy say, “Yeah, when we were cleaning everything up early this morning, we noticed two consoles and bags still sitting here, like they were abandoned. But we couldn’t imagine anyone just leaving their gear.”
“You still have it?” Schuster asks.
“Yeah, we even left it plugged in and logged on, trying to find out whose stuff it is. The one, we found out, belongs to your guy, DaveTastic – we just talked to his dad, too. But the other one looks like it was bought right before it was brought here. It still has the basic 256-meg memory card in it.”
“What does that mean?” Schuster asks.
Reilly tells him any gamer he’s ever known upgrades to at least a 4-gigabyte memory card to store their game progress. “Can I take a look at it?” he asks.
“Yeah, tha’s cool,” the short guy says.
The four go into the old building which looks like it could have been one of the first few built in Cheyenne more than a century ago, and then was remodeled repeatedly. It never lost its old smell, though.
The big guy pulls the chain on a single lightbulb hanging from the middle of the biggest room, which has the storefront windows on the south side. Reilly jumps onto Aaron24′s console and navigates to the online area, finding Aaron’s profile in 30 seconds flat. He finds only one “friend” in the system, somebody named Garvin. He tries checking Garvin’s profile and finds nothing except what city he lives in: Colorado Springs.
“Well, a fraction of a lead is better than nothing,” Schuster says, grabbing for his CrackBerry. He thumbs the tiny keys, muttering “Garvin, Garvin, Garvin.” While he’s searching, the phone rings. “Excuse me,” he says, ducking back outside.
Reilly keeps searching until Schuster comes back in and says, “Thank you gentlemen. You’ve been most helpful. We’ll be in contact if we have any more questions.”
Shaking his head as if he still needed it to wake up, Reilly stands up straighter, as if he refuses to budge from that spot. “We’re not done here yet,” he says. “We still have to find out what they know about this Aaron guy, and whether we can take David’s console home for him; we don’t know what time any of this went down …”
“It was about 11:30 last night,” the skinny guy says.
“Let’s go,” Schuster says a little louder, moving toward Reilly like he’s going to drag him along. “Something just came up.”
“Wha – wait a minute; we’re just going to leave?”
Schuster does grab Reilly by his right forearm and pulls. Reilly complies and heads out the door. He looks back and says “thanks” with his other arm in a palms-up shrug.
Schuster pushes Reilly into the car like he’s just been arrested, then goes around and jumps into his seat. He takes off is a burst of squealing tires and unimpressively revving engine noise.
“Don’t say anything,” Schuster commands and he power locks all the car’s doors.
Once they’re well away from downtown Cheyenne, Schuster reaches under his seat and before Reilly knows what he’s doing, the FBI agent slaps a handcuff on Reilly’s left wrist, then follows the extended chain with his hand about a foot, making sure it’s not caught on anything else between Reilly and the other end of the cuffs, which are locked around the steel support leg of the driver’s seat.
Reilly’s face gets hot. “What’re you doing?” He yanks on the chain, he’s stuck.
“Young man, I’m not any ordinary FBI agent. I’m actually a special liaison to the FBI from the U.S. Air Force on special assignment. I found out where David is. You need to sit tight for a while until I can safely pull over and give you something to make our drive a little easier for you to take. Don’t try signaling other cars and don’t go for your phone. Just sit tight and everything will be okay.”
Stunned, Reilly does as Schuster ordered, quietly panicking. But as they merge from westbound Interstate 80 to southbound Interstate 25, he feels composed enough to start looking for options. Does he just go along for the ride and hope maybe it was actually these guys who took David just like they’re taking him? Does he wait and try to run? Does he try talking and getting more info? He decides to try that first.
“Where are you taking me? Did you take David, too? Where are we going?”
“No talking. Don’t make this difficult.”
Reilly’s grandfather comes to mind for some reason. Maybe it’s the panic: He thinks about his grandfather and how panicked he must have been in that B-24 bomber. With more clarity than he’s ever thought of that story before, Reilly thinks about his grandfather controlling an entire plane with his mind. “I only control my own body when I fly,” he thinks. “What if I can move things with my thoughts, too?”
Keeping his head locked in a forward-looking position, he glances down and left, setting his sights on something small for his first experiment. He picks one link of the handcuff chain to focus on, stares at it and imagines it moving, pulling apart enough to break the chain. He’s surprised at how quickly and easily that happens.
Instinctively, he pulls back in his seat, swinging his head to gaze out the right window. He’s careful not to pull on the chain and have it fall apart. Not yet, anyway.
Focusing his eyes ahead along the highway, Reilly decides on experiment number two. He settles on a Super 8 Motel billboard. He pushes the thought of the billboard snapping backward, breaking the wooden support legs. As he envisions it, the billboard breaks and he shoves himself – surprised but not that surprised – deeper into the back of his seat.
A new idea comes to mind, and Reilly handles his thoughts with care, the way he’d handle an egg or a newborn baby in his hands. Except now he’s trying not fully think his plan, afraid that if these fuzzy, coalescing hints of ideas are allowed to become “official” thoughts, everything will happen too early.
He spots the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” road sign a couple hundred yards away and – while noting that’s an awfully dull brown sign for “Colorful Colorado” — decides that will be the perfect spot to make things happen. Maybe there will be jurisdictional confusion among the ambulance drivers and state police from Wyoming and Colorado. Maybe that’ll buy him some more time.
Spotting the exact place where the pavement changes, the precise spot where one state ends and another begins, Reilly allows his thoughts to focus. It’s almost as if he had been keeping a camera lens blurry on purpose, but now, as he deftly cranks the lens around and brings everything in crystal-clear focus, the PT Cruiser suddenly bounds and flips rear-over-front, twisting in mid-air and slamming down on its left side, coming to rest on the shoulder, half of it in Wyoming, half in Colorado.
Dizzy, with his knees, elbows and head hurting, Reilly pushed the passenger door up and open, climbed out as fast as he could and eased himself to the ground along the PT Cruiser’s angled hood. Cars on both sides of the Interstate screeched to stop, their drivers rushing to the site of the crash. Still wobbly on his feet, Reilly’s panicked idea faded in the light of sensibility. He had thought about taking off and flying away as fast as he could, but too many people were around him in a swarming instant.
The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that he could escape a lot easier once he was escorted away to a hospital. Plus he might need the medical care, after all.
“This is an accident scene,” he reminded himself. “There’s no way anybody could think different.” Reilly was as safe as he’d been all day.
Shaking his head and regaining his bearings, he thought about his would-be captor. He tried to go around the car to see how Schuster was, but too many people were already there, trying to figure out how to help him.
“What if I killed him?” The thought stabbed Reilly in the stomach and gave him that nauseous tingling feeling at the back of his jaw. He barely had enough time to take two steps backward, whirl around and throw up in the weeds along the side of the road.
It wasn’t much of a heave, since he’d had very little to eat all day. But it felt like his own ankles were going to come up that direction. He had intended to only make the crash look bad, not really be bad.
Staggering again to his feet, Reilly tried again to get to the other side of the car, but got pulled back by a man and his wife, who insisted that he could have internal injuries and made him lie down. “You could be in shock,” the lady said.
She was right. Everything started spinning faster and faster. The last thing Reilly remembered before blacking out was hearing from the car, “I got a pulse! I got a pulse!”
The droning sound of his ambulance’s sirens woke Reilly. His eyes didn’t want to focus as he half-opened them. He coughed four times and suddenly felt pain in every extremity, not bad pain, really. Just aches like he’d played tackle football for an entire day.
He tried to sit up but found himself strapped to the stretcher. He cranked his head around as much as he could, looking for someone to ask where he was. A short, middle-aged man was at the far end, beyond Reilly’s feet. He looked like he might be in his forties, balding and a little thick through the midsection. He was wearing a uniform with dark blue pants and a light blue shirt.
“What’s … what’s going on,” Reilly struggled to say.
“You’ve been in a car accident, son. You’re on your way to the Cheyenne hospital.”
“Son.” The simple, off-handed word first made Reilly flinch in his mind. “Why’s everybody gotta call me, son?” he started to think. That reaction flipped the switch for him and made every moment of the day flood back into his head at once. He knew where he was and what was going on.
Reilly squeezed his eyes together and thought he needed to call his mother and simultaneously wondered about the ambulance guy’s uniform while also thinking about what happened to Schuster, along with “where are we now?” It was the last thought that found his voice.
“We’re close; you weren’t out for too long,” the emergency worker said, anticipating Reilly’s next question.
“I gotta call my mom. Can you get to my cell phone in my pocket? Do you know what happened to the other guy? He tried to kidnap me.”
“What? He’s on his way to the hospital, too. He was telling people you’re his son when we were loading you up and they were cutting him out of the car. What do you mean he was kidnapping you?”
“It’s a long story, but you’re saying he’s okay?”
“I can’t say that; I don’t know. But he was talking. Is he your dad?”
“NO,” Reilly shouts, suddenly worried about his freedom and safety all over again. “You’re not in the Air Force are you?”
“Huh-uh. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I thought the uniform was–”
“Oh, heh, the colors. No, that’s just standard for the ambulance company. Now why don’t try to calm down and you tell me what this is about a kidnapping?”
Reilly gave a rambling description of everything that’s happened throughout day – except for the telekinetic manifestation. “I don’t want to be anywhere near that guy. I need to call my mom.” He was starting to feel frantic.
“Okay, okay. Just wait ’til we get to the hospital. It’s just a few minutes. You need to sit tight, okay?”
Reilly took a deep breath. With it, his mind cleared enough for him to think he should try to move something else with his thoughts. He wanted to test this new ability and see what else he could do.
He decided to try something small and unnoticeable. His gaze fell on the latch to one of the many supply cabinets across from him.
Looking at it for a few seconds, he pictured the latch opening imperceptibly slowly, just enough that whatever contents happened to be in it could come spilling out and looking like an accident.
It happened just as he imagined. And he got slight headache from it. He rolled his head the other way on the gurney as the ambulance turned right at what felt like a sharp corner. The emergency worker started cleaning up the mess.
Reilly closed his eyes as all the commotion started around him upon arrival at the hospital, with more doctors, emergency crewmen, nurses and police swarming around him. He could feel his breathing speed up despite his attempts to block out everyone around him.
The cacophony died down when he was wheeled into a more private ER bay. “Finally,” Reilly thought, “I can open my eyes.”
He jumped back when he saw he was with a nurse, the guy from the ambulance, a cop and somebody in an Air Force uniform.
“Why are all of you in here?” he demanded, his voice hitting an octave it hadn’t since he was seven.
“We need to ask you some questions, son,” said the Air Force man. “You were in a car accident with one of ours.”
“I know! He kidnapped me! And I’m not your son! Or his!!”
“We’ve made some calls and found that your mother signed over temporary custody. I don’t see how you can call that kidnapping.”
“Please, do you have to do this right now?” the nurse jumped in. She was a petite African-American woman with blonde cornrows pulled into a pony tail. The look in her eyes made Reilly feel like she would protect him. “I need to examine this boy. You can back up to that corner and talk to him, but if you get him riled up, you’re out of here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the cop. The Air Force officer just glared, first at her, then Reilly. He glared back, wondering if he could move people with his mind.
“Do you realize, major,” he said, having remembered what the oak leaves on his uniform stood for, “that we wrecked as we were leaving town? That custody form was only meant for Schuster to take me to Cheyenne and back. So why were were heading south?”
“No, I didn’t realize that. I don’t have the custody form. Schuster told me about it on the way over here.”
A chill ran down Reilly spine and his shoulder muscles tensed so much that his right arm started trembling. “So, what, he’s okay?”
“He might have a broken his collar bone and dislocated his hip. Big gash on his head, too, but he’ll live.”
“What did he tell you?” Reilly could feel his face melt with fear. The cop noticed and smirked, making Reilly feel like a two-year-old.
That made Reilly feel less guilty for what he planned to do next.
He noted the standard Glock 22 pistol in the cop’s hip holster – and the safety.
Setting his jaw and mashing his top and bottom molars together, he mind-pushed it to the “off” position.
“Schuster said he needed to take you in for some questioning,” the major said. “And once we decide you’re healthy enough, I’m gonna finish his job for him.”
Split seconds after Reilly squeezed the cop’s trigger from across the room, firing a .40-caliber round out the bottom of the holster and into the floor, screams erupted throughout the building, and both the major and the cop instinctively went into a crouch.
Reilly started for the door, but had forgotten how gimpy his legs were and stumbled. As he grabbed the handle and got it pulled halfway open, he noticed people running in all directions. A grip like steel started crushing his left shoulder; he buckled and hit his already sore right knee on the edge of the door.
The pain, the anger and the fear mixed together in a storm of mental fury. Jutting out his jaw far enough that his lower front teeth were clenched in front of the top row and glaring up at the major, with the cop just off his hip, Reilly could feel the fierceness of his focus erupting out of him. With heaving “Hyuuuahh!!” Reilly shoved his arms forward and, without touching either much larger man, threw them fifteen feet across the emergency-room bay. The crashing sounds of their bodies hitting the cabinets and sending all manner of medical supplies flying could hardly be heard over the alarm and screams outside the door. Not that Reilly stayed long enough to hear much; he disappeared into the crowd and limped his way out the door with dozens of other people who were far less sure of why they were running.
He tried to stay in the safe middle of the throng long enough to find a place from which to launch himself, but the grounds were too wide open – nowhere to hide, even for a second.
Then he saw his newest would-be captors ambling out the hospital’s emergency entrance and realized they could be useful. As they half-ran under the ambulance carport, Reilly focused on the rain gutter around it. Just as they began to emerge from its shadow, the gutters came crashing down on them and, with a pent-up rage-powered nudge, knocked them to the ground – hard.
The noise and commotion was enough to turn every head in their direction – every head but one. Reilly turned his toward the clouds and fired himself into them.
Once he was several hundred feet in the air, Reilly let out a primal scream of frustration for a solid ten seconds. Shaking in frustration, clenching his teeth, looking straight down – even though he couldn’t see through the brewing late-spring afternoon storm clouds – Reilly struggled to focus on what his next step should be.
He knew he needed to call his mom, he wanted to fly to Colorado Springs to talk to his dad and maybe see if he could shed some light on what the Air Force was trying to do, he wanted to find Schuster and fly him somewhere isolated to grill him on David’s location, and he wanted to let David’s dad know what little he’d been able to find out. And he wanted to go to a hospital to make sure he was okay; his left leg was killing him. At least flying took some pressure off it.
Closing his eyes, Reilly took a deep breath. His thoughts started to organize. He needed to talk to both parents, but his mother was the contact he needed to make most urgently. “The Air Force guys know about Mom,” he thought, “and they’ve already showed they don’t mind just grabbing people off the street. What do they think we are, terrorists? How could this be legal any other way?”
Digging into his pocket, Reilly grabbed his piano black LG flip phone. But just before flicking it open with his thumb, he thought of what Gar had said about being trackable when he was flying. Not knowing whether triangulating his location included being able to figure altitude, he thought maybe he should hit the ground somewhere in Cheyenne, since that’s the place where everybody chasing him knew he was. “They didn’t see me fly away, did they?” Reilly wondered. He decided it didn’t matter: he needed to land and call his mom – and fast.
After angling eastward a good mile or so, Reilly figured he was safe to try to dive back into the clouds and look for a place to blend in beneath them. On his way down, he discovered he could see the ground pretty well just before he broke through the last layer of cumulonimbus cover. Deciding it made sense to stay hidden as long as possible, he rode an updraft back into the quickly organizing weathermaker. A storm was not what Reilly needed in the immediate future, but it proved temporarily useful.
Peering through the white-gray cotton candy, Reilly saw that he’d flown near the edge of Cheyenne. Angling over to the southeast, he found the ribbon of Interstate 80, with its several welcomingly large truck stops. “Perfect,” he thought, pushing downward and faster toward the back side of the Sapp Bros. Truck plaza. The landing was less that graceful as he remembered almost too late that he didn’t want to put weight on the leg he usually liked to land on, stuck out his left leg too late and crossed them about a foot off the ground. After a skid, a slight pull back up to uncross and slow down a bit more, Reilly dropped the flight concentration and bumble-stumbled to a stop. At least he didn’t fall. He cracked a wry smile at the fact that he was noting the smallest of victories on this supremely messed up day.
He started to round the corner to the side of the building and immediately heard far more diesel truck noise mixed with jabber from a radio station that was being pumped through the truckstop’s loudspeakers. He rolled his eyes and turned around. Stepping through the weeds, dirt and assorted litter from all the pre-packaged wrappers that blow out of every vehicle that stops at Sapp Bros. as soon as the drivers pop open their doors and get them caught in the unrelenting Cheyenne wind. He found a spot behind a Dumpster that made a decent enough windbreak that he could talk on his phone without it picking up too much noise.
Reilly paused to think if there was any other reason he shouldn’t call his mom and didn’t come up with any. As he looked up her cell phone number in his phone and hit “send,” he took a deep breath: He was about to give her a heart attack.
“Reilly, where are you!!” she half-shrieked.
“Mom, you have to listen. I have a lot to tell you and you need to get ready to hit the road. In fact, are you at home? And is Connie with you?”
“Okay, while you’re listening to all this, you’re gonna freak out, I know it, but you need to be calm and start packing a bag like you’re going on vacation.”
“I don’t -”
“Just DO it, Mom. It’ll make sense in when I’m done.”
“Honey, you’re being weird-”
“Mom, you have no idea, okay. Listen: The FBI guy isn’t just FBI. He’s some kind of related … um … connected somehow to the Air Force and the FBI.” Reilly starts talking faster. “Anyway, he got a call on his cell phone and said he knows where David is, and then he handcuffed me to his car and we started driving toward Denver.”
“What?!? Where are you now? Is he there? You let me talk to him right now!”
“No, Mom, I got away.” Reilly pauses. He wishes his mom would keep shouting because it would make his next sentence easier to blurt out somehow. But she stays quiet. “Mom, I got away because I can move things with my mind. I just think about something happening, and it does. And I guess that’s how I can, um … fly … too.”
Thunder rumbled not far enough away. The wind whistled through the assorted junk behind the truck stop. But all Reilly heard was silence.
“Mom? You still there?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here. A-are you sure about all this?”
“Well … yeah, I wrecked the car we were in on purpose, and,” he sighs. “I’ve been able to fly for a few months now.” Tears erupted from Reilly’s eyes. “Mom, I wanted to tell you but didn’t know how.” It all came to the surface – all the fear, uncertainty and guilt from hiding his secret from the one person he’s always been otherwise close to for his whole life. He sobbed.
“Honey, it’s okay. Shhh. Shhh. It’ll be all right,” Joan said before turning from sympathetic to serious. “I knew this day would come.”
Reilly snuffled. “M-what?!?”
“Well, after your father and grandfather, I suppose it was inevitable. Now why do I need to pack a bag?”
Reilly wants to find out what else she knows about his family.
“Mom, there was another Air Force guy and he knew that you signed that temporary custody form. That makes me think they’ll come after you and Connie now that I got away from them. That Schuster guy’s been to our house. He’s hurt after our wreck but I think they might send other people. And somebody told me they can track my cell phone, so I think we probably shouldn’t talk too long. Oh, man, what do we do? Do we need to think up some kind of code or something like in the movies? Wait, can they listen to our calls or just track the signal? ‘Cause if they can listen, I just told ‘em everything! Crap! What do we do?”
Joan took a little odd comfort that as much as she’d earlier lamented how grown up Reilly was becoming, at least he was still young enough to still need his mother for advice when the chips were down.
“Honey, listen,” she said. “You know where you need to go and who you need to talk to. Do it fast. I’m going to, um, … yeah, I guess we’d better not tip off anyone. Who knows what’s possible? I’m going to take Connie to the sister of the friend whose house we were supposed to go to for that Christmas party last year. Do you remember that?”
“Yeah, that’s a good one.” Reilly chuckled. He recalled vividly the fiasco that party plan had been. His mom worked with Carla Bavelman, whose sister, Andrea Steiger, had been Reilly’s fourth grade teacher. Andrea was all set to have a big Christmas party for all her teacher colleagues and the insurance agency where her husband worked with Carla and Joan. But because school was out for the holiday break, Andrea’s thirteen-year-old daughter Sasha had been babysitting all day for some parents who were Christmas shopping. She’d forgotten she was supposed to be the responsible one and got caught up in playing a game of “stuff crayons up your nose,” and the tapered piece of a Cerulean Blue broke off and got stuck. The party got canceled because Andrea had to take her daughter to the hospital. Needless to say both Andrea and Sasha were both rather embarrassed for quite a while.
Reilly was amazed that his mother could think of that so quickly. But then he’d spent his whole life being surprised by her. He always thought her filing job was too far beneath her capabilities.
“Okay, then. You know what to do and where to contact me. But don’t do it until you know you’re safe to do it.”
“And I suppose you’d better shut off your phone, just to be safe.”
“Right. Okay. … Mom?”
“I’m … I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t even know what I can do! If I stop to think about anything, I’m gonna freak out.”
“You know what, honey?” Joan said. “I’d be worried more about you if you thought you knew everything. I read somewhere once that only a fool has no fear and –”
“That was in that comic book I showed you last week,” Reilly noted, feeling a little vindicated.
“Hm. Thaaaat’s right. Well, maybe you’re not wasting your money on those stupid things after all. And you know what? Maybe reading all those hero stories can help you. What would Superman or Batman do? Looks like you’re a real-life superhero. Approach it that way. Be brave. I know you’re smart enough to handle all this yourself. So do it. I believe in you.”
A sudden, bounding warmth went supernova inside Reilly’s chest. Knowing that his mom was not only understanding about his confession of his abilities, but confident in him to handle things? It made him feel like a man.
He pursed his lips, said with confidence, “I can do this. I will. Thanks, Mom. You’re awesome. I love you.”
“I love you, too, honey. Now be careful and call me as soon as you can. I’ll be praying for you.”
Reilly held the “End” button the extra few seconds to shut off his phone and stared at the screen after it went black. He could feel his heart beating hard. He could feel the coolness of the air as he took each deep breath. His head felt as clear as it had all day. His eyelids slid over his down-looking eyeballs and pulled them up to reveal a forward-looking glare of determination.
It was finally time to head south and find his father.
“Can somebody open a flippin’ window in here?” David’s eyes burned when he closed them. Watering behind his eyelids, they were tired from fourteen straight hours of simulation training.
He had quickly adapted to calling it a simulation instead of a game because after the first three hours of getting yelled at while he was trying to learn the controls and on-screen reactivity, it wasn’t nearly as fun as playing Ultimate Kombat Wreckage.
Garvin had scaled back the drill-sergeant routine around noon, seeing that David had begun to figure out the play of the simulation. But he kept hanging over David’s shoulder until mid-afternoon, when he had finally annoyed David enough to throw down his twelve-button controller and refuse to play anymore until Garvin moved farther away.
“There are seven hundred screens in this room, including the five-foot one my simulation is on, and you can’t find a place to stand where I don’t have to hear the whistling of your nose hairs?” David shouted, his back still to Garvin.
Garvin had chuckled at that and backed away to a desk behind another bank of computer workstations. He noted on a yellow legal pad the command presence in David’s voice. He liked the fact even this early in the process, David was beginning to work toward control of the entire situation around him. He was communicating with Garvin with exactly the kind of verbal patterns that reacted to best. He was learning the right buttons to push – both with the simulation and with people.
This was yet another example among enough to fill a textbook about top-level gamers: They may have displayed little or no social or physical acuity, may have seemed timid when around others, but when they would cross that threshold into playing a game with an idealized, for more physically skilled avatar, they exhibited leadership qualities to rival the best of any battlefield leaders he’d known in 30 years of service. They were more sure of themselves when they didn’t need to actually look anyone in the eye.
It was an interesting little phenomenon Garvin had stumbled upon – military leaders who weren’t good with people, but didn’t have to be. It went against so much of what he’d been taught in Officers’ Training School. Was it the games that made them good or did the games give them the one tool they’d been missing? That was a question he’d scribbled in various forms at the top binding of every one of the 133 legal pads he had filled while conducting his observations of gamers. In the use of four iterations of the simulation software he had overseen over the last thirty-two months, Garvin had witnessed an even dozen gamers perform at OTS-level tactical skill. In a report to his commanding officer, Garvin wrote that some of his test subjects had second-lieutenant level brains but the physical skills of washouts.
David appeared to be yet another interesting subject. He had picked up the controls and figured out the sim constructs in a day. Yet the scrawny kid looked like he couldn’t lift the bar on a bench press.
Garvin’s little combat wing of video-game commandos certainly didn’t look like anything resembling the public face of the United State Air Force. But that’s why he had been assigned to they Cheyenne Mountain Directorate. The “city within a mountain” outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, had become the home of top-secret, experimental military projects. Originally built as a Cold-War emergency headquarters for top brass – including, if necessary, the Commander-in-Chief himself – the base was built 2,000 feet inside a granite mountain in the tectonically secure center of the continent. Its 25-ton blast doors were designed to protect inhabitants from nuclear, chemical and electromagnetic attacks. But that was for weapon technology of the sixties. Tour guides at the facility often said modern intercontinental ballistic missiles could easily turn the site into crater. For years earlier, though, the North American Aerospace Defense Command was housed at Cheyenne Mountain, making it the most mysterious and potentially important base in the U.S.
In recent years, though, the cost of housing NORAD as well as the new post-9/11 Northern Command at Cheyenne Mountain was undercut by a more technologically advanced command center on the other side of Colorado Springs, at Petersen Air Force Base. Cheyenne Mountain remained on “warm stand-by” and was used for training and full-system backup for Petersen. It remained a “no hat” base that was home to members of U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard as well as the Canadian military. The unpublicized use of the base, hinted at just so subtly by the Naval tour guides, was the unironically named “Area 51.”
Garvin had come to know the even-more-closely guarded part of the building as his own personal skunkworks. It was there that he was conducting half of a project that he intended to become the future of on-the-ground combat for every branch of the U.S. Military.
He found it particularly funny how so few of his video gamer “recruits” objected to, or even questioned, the fact that they saw no sunlight for weeks after being sedated and taken deep into the mountain. Apparently, even before being recruited, they had become so used to their virtual lives that they didn’t even miss the outdoors. The yellow light and recirculated air bothered some, but they seldom gave a thought to the fact that they had no windows.
David Gilliam, though, was a kid from the wide-open nothingness that was Nebraska. He certainly noticed his cramped quarters. And he wasn’t letting it go.
“I can’t breathe in here,” he shouted. “You stick us in front of this game simulation all this time and don’t let us take a walk outside? We’re prisoners, aren’t we?”
“No, you’re not prisoners, drama queen,” Garvin insisted for the eighth time since waking David the day before. “There’s no outside to speak of. Not now.”
“What does that mean? Are we on a ship or something? Is that why this building is built so weird?”
“You can’t. Go. Outside. Period,” Garvin said. “Just drop it.”
David muttered something behind his hands as he rubbed his eyes some more. Dropping his arms and letting them flail from the elbows down, in a gesture of exhaustion, David demanded to be taken to his room. Except he called it his “cell.”
Garvin had considered letting him call it a day, but that one last bit of disrespect was pushing it too far. This kid needed to understand who was in charge.
“You can retire to your quarters as soon as you get through that urban combat zone without getting your man shot,” Garvin snapped.
David let his head flop backward and rolled his eyes. “I got through six other levels, already! What do you want from me?”
“I want to you get our soldiers home safely. And you’re not getting that done yet.”
“I just learned how to play this game today!” David collapsed into his seat, not wanting to push Garvin farther and get stuck having to take on a tank or something.
Picking up the controller, David angrily set to work. His soldier was outfitted with standard infantryman gear. His “training” mission was to get from one end of a battle zone in the middle of a Middle Eastern city to a clearing that would serve as an emergency landing zone for a Blackhawk helicopter to pick him up.
David nudged the thumbstick on his controller forward and quickly hit all the buttons he dared to, just to make sure he knew which button did what, such as raise his rifle, shoulder it and grab his sidearm, crouch, jump, punch and kick. He stayed away from the buttons that would allow him to pull the trigger on his gun, toss a grenade, throw a knife and send up a flare. He checked the satellite-linked head-up display inside his helmet’s visor. The map showed him the path he needed to follow: two blocks north, three east, four more north, a slight jog northwest before another four blocks east to the LZ.
David stared at the two-dimensional route map and had a thought. He’d tried four times to get run the gauntlet and found too many snipers and street-level gun toters. He wanted a new perspective.
David angled his view upward and looked at the buildings he’d been trying to run beside and realized most were of a similar height, connected in block-long chunks, and between three and four stories in height. He realized if he could get to the rooftops, he would have much less traffic to fight through. First, though, he had to get into a building.
Pulling a long silencer out of a pocket on his vest, screwing it onto the barrel of his rifle and flicking on the flashlight mounted just above and behind it, David set out to cross the first street. As he’d done the last two times he played, David doubled back behind the building where the simulation started, went to the west end of the block and lobbed a grenade at an abandoned car across the street. With the diversion catching everyone’s attention, he was free to sprint back to where he started and cross the first street. He ran forward down the block toward the first doorway he could find, one connected to a building that had boarded-up windows. Kicking it in, he lowered his rifle and let the flashlight illuminate the room. As he’d assumed, it looked abandoned.
David found the stairs and headed up to the third floor. It took him a while to find the access to the roof but climbed up and out. From there, he found it quick and easy to carefully run and crawl his way up and over the first five blocks. He found a fire escape to get back to the ground but before heading down, he checked for snipers, from his own sniper position. He found one and and squeezed off a round toward a window down and across the street. Looking around some more, he saw nothing. He knew he needed to hurry because the sniper likely wasn’t alone. He needed to get down the fire escape and disappear. He jumped from the last landing and hit the ground in a roll.
Sprinting across the street, David’s avatar hid in an alley doorway just as four gun-toting men rounded the far corner. He waited for them to walk deeper into the alley and performed a flurry of button combinations that made his character crouch, roll into the alley, raise his rifle and cut them down. Up and moving faster, he found another fire escape and scaled it. From there he was able again to move freely across the rooftops until he needed to make the little jog to the northwest. To get to that rooftop, he’d have to fire his grappling hook and ride a zipline down there. Doing so would expose him more than at any other spot along the way.
David decided he would have to send the signal for pickup right away, rather than getting to the LZ and waiting. By exposing himself to enemy fire at this point, he would probably be chased and in danger all the way to the rendezvous point. He might even need some air support.
Regripping his controller, David took a deep breath and leaned forward. He set his avatar in motion, firing the grappling hook and sliding down from the four-story roof to the top of a two-story merchant’s building. The street below was lined with sellers of all manner of wares and thus crowded with shoppers and enemy combatants. Just as he thought, gunmen started drawing a bead on him as he neared the end of his zipline ride. He hit the rooftop and immediately started sprinting toward the north end of the building and dove behind the short three-foot-wide access door that led down into the loft above the market. Bullets started chipping at the masonry beside and behind him, as gunmen started shooting upward from the street. And at least one shooter with a rifle from the last building was firing from above and hitting David’s small bit of shelter.
David made his soldier grab a grenade and clench the ring at the end of the pin in his teeth, then roll around to face his shooter. He popped out from behind the stairway entry and fired several shots toward as many windows as he could, then ducked back behind the doorway. After waiting a moment, he repeated the actions then sat and waited to see if anyone was still targeting him from above.
Concerned that people would be heading his way from inside the shop, David decided he couldn’t wait to see if he’d hit the sniper. Grabbing a smoke grenade, he pulled that pin and flung it behind him, in between his position and the sniper, forcing that shooter, if he was still there, to fire blindly. David would have to take his chances at getting hit by the random fire. Then he grabbed the grenade hanging from his mouth and pulled it away from the pin in his teeth. Throwing it a little right and behind himself, down toward the street, David counted to two, then rolled his avatar left and to his feet. Circling around the stairway entry, he aimed straight for the edge of the building and ran as fast as he could, hitting the key combination for a leap from the edge of the building just as the grenade exploded.
The concussion from the blast was just enough to push David’s soldier the rest of the span to the next rooftop, albeit in an ungainly way. Crashing onto that roof, David got his avatar up and running eastward. On the way, he angled over to the north edges of the buildings and used up the last of his three grenades every block or so, tossing them toward the ground in hopes of keeping followers at bay.
Sniper fire began to rip the air around him as he neared the last building, forcing David to put his man to the ground and crawl the rest of the way until the Blackhawk could swoop in and lay down cover fire.
At that point, though, so many enemy gunmen were firing their direction, the chopper was in danger of being hit by a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, and the pilot radioed to say as much. He informed David that the best he could do was drop a line and fly toward David’s position.
David knew he had one chance to snag that line, clear the level, and most important to him at that point – go to bed. He blinked twice and saw the Blackhawk coming toward him. Just to help a bit more, he turned around and sprayed bullets from his right to his left and back. Near the end of the return arc, David hit a man with a SAM on his shoulder, then turned around and jumped to grab the cable.
The screen flashed blue and red with the word “SUCCESS” in white, bouncing off the top, bottom and sides of the screen. David let out the breath he’d been holding for the last half-minute, loosened the iron grip he’d had on his controller and rocked back in his chair.
“Good thinking, soldier!” Garvin said. “You can go to bed now. We’ll do it all again tomorrow.”