Read Ex-Purgatory: A Novel Online
Authors: Peter Clines
And then, six blocks from work, his car died.
He was cutting over to Lindbrook when the engine coughed twice. The car lurched three times. The radio sputtered and went dead. George had just enough time to pull over before it stalled out. As it was, two of the cars behind him pounded their horns at him for slowing down.
He turned the key. The first time the engine made a wheezing noise. The second time the starter clicked twice. The third time the car did nothing.
George pulled out his phone and checked the time. Twenty-seven minutes until he was late. Again. He pounded the steering wheel. The car lurched and his heart leapt, but it was still dead.
He got out of the car and looked around. He could look for help and maybe get it in time to drive his car to campus, or he could start walking and hope the car wasn’t ticketed or towed. There weren’t any street signs in sight to give him a clue what would happen.
The car had stopped in front of a café that wasn’t open yet.
The next building toward campus was a Denny’s that looked pretty much empty through the big windows. One door back was an Army recruiting office with its lights on.
He decided to go Army.
Lieutenant John Carter Freedom stood by his desk and looked over his post. The recruiting office was a masterwork of marketing. Enough wood to feel homey but enough stark office furniture to seem formal. There were several posters but lots of open wall space. A portrait of the President hung in the back, flanked by an American flag on one side and the Army’s on the other.
Freedom settled into his desk. It was a fair-sized desk but his legs barely fit beneath it. He was a very large man. Just shy of seven feet tall and 331 pounds as of his morning weigh-in. His office chair creaked and trembled whenever he moved, as if it was about to collapse.
He hated it.
was a strong word, and he prided himself on not using it often. There were ideas he hated, like cowardice and betrayal, but he tried not to use the word in a more specific sense. When he’d been in Iraq and Afghanistan, he never hated the people there, even the people he fought against. While some officers prided themselves on whipping their soldiers into a frenzy of emotion and adrenaline, Freedom counseled them on duty and honor. Do what needed to be done but never blindly hate your enemy. That was their way, not the American way.
But, Lord, he hated the desk and the chair. Hated them with a passion.
He knew it was transference. That’s what the Army counselors had called it. What he really hated was himself. He hated failing, and the desk was a constant reminder of how bad he’d failed and the fall he’d taken from it.
Twenty-three dead soldiers. Nineteen men, four women. Three staff sergeants, eight sergeants, seven specialists, a corporal,
and four privates. Seventeen of them on their first tour, six on their second. Freedom had spent the past year learning every possible combination of those twenty-three men and women.
The court martial had been fairer than he’d expected. A general discharge had been discussed. In the end, he was taken off the front line, given a reduction in rank and a new career branch. And a desk facing out onto one of the most boring streets in North America.
Two other desks faced each other across the room. Each held a man in an Army Combat Uniform. Neither of them had chosen this assignment, either. One sorted and arranged paperwork, clicking his pen while he did. The other watched a television mounted in the corner.
Barely ten minutes into the day and Harrison was already lost in the recruitment video, tapping his fingers in time with the simple music score. It looked more like a sci-fi film, even when the Army banner flashed across the screen. The latest thing from DARPA—an armed and armored exoskeleton. On the screen the huge battlesuit stomped across an open field. Its armor plates were red and blue, and an American flag was stenciled across one shoulder. An M2 machine gun was mounted on each of the robot’s arms. It turned to look into the camera with large white eyes.
It was impressive, but Freedom believed in men over machines.
Adams was a quiet man. Good soldier, very driven and single-minded. He wasn’t supposed to be there in the office, either, but he accepted it and threw himself into the work. He went at the paperwork each morning like a machine. The only bad thing Freedom could say about Adams was the man kept clicking his pen. He’d write for a few minutes, then hammer on the button for a few seconds like he was back in weapons training doing trigger exercises.
Freedom knew the pen noise wasn’t that bad. No one else reacted to it. Harrison never even noticed it, and the man hated random noises. He said they threw off his internal tempo.
No, it gnawed at Freedom because he was already on edge. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in ages. He kept having stress
dreams. Nightmares, almost, where he was still a captain but he was surrounded by the bodies of the people he’d failed.
Dead bodies that walked. That fought. That tried to kill him.
Something moved on the edge of his vision and the electric eye chirped. He looked up. So did Harrison and Adams.
An older man stood at the door. Not old, by any means, but older than the usual people who came into the recruiting office. Freedom guessed he was in his mid thirties and in decent shape for a civilian. He had brown-blond hair that needed to be cut and an old bomber jacket covered with stitches, as if it had been patched and repaired dozens of times.
He shook his head. The man’s jacket wasn’t leather and it wasn’t patched. It was just a trick of the light.
“Can we help you with something, sir?” Freedom asked.
“Hi,” said the man. “Sorry to bother you, but my car just died out front. I don’t suppose any of you have jumper cables or something like that?”
Freedom glanced at Adams, already back to his paperwork. The pen clicked three times to emphasize it. He looked over at Harrison, already watching the television again. “Harrison,” he said. “Help the gentleman out.”
Harrison glanced from the television to the man and back to Freedom. “Yes, sir, Lieutenant,” he said. His eyes jumped back to the screen.
“Thanks,” said the man.
Freedom gave a polite nod.
The man took a few steps and craned his head around to look at the television. “You see that?” said Harrison. “That, my friend, is the future of armed combat. Nine feet tall, fully armored, and it can throw cars like softballs. Its hands are Tasers. Those are fifty-caliber machine guns on the arms. This thing’s a walking tank.”
On-screen the patriotic-colored machine tore apart a concrete bunker, then the film cut to a shot of it throwing what looked like the wrecking ball from a crane. The footage played for another minute before the loop started over. “It’s some kind of robot?” asked the man.
Harrison shook his head. “It’s battle armor, man. Full-on Japanese
sci-fi stuff.” He gestured at the screen and grabbed a set of car keys from his desk. “That’s just the engineering team testing it out. Another few years, you’re going to see dozens of those on every battlefield. They want to start cranking ’em out by 2017.”
On the screen, the battlesuit was blasting away targets at a firing range. Someone with a sense of humor had set up pictures of monsters instead of the usual black silhouettes. The shots punched softball-sized holes in each target.
“Wow,” the man said. “That’s pretty impressive.”
“It’s going to be out here next week if you want to see it in person,” said Harrison.
The sergeant nodded. “Yeah. Kind of a pain in the ass, to be honest. The project head got some bug up her butt, insisted they had to bring it out here to Los Angeles for a demonstration. Put her foot down and wouldn’t budge until they agre—”
“Sergeant,” Freedom said without looking up. He put a certain emphasis behind the word and Harrison shut up. No need to discuss such things in front of civilians.
Across the room, Adams worked the button of his pen again and again and again while he went through his paperwork. Freedom closed his eyes for another moment. When he opened them, he saw the man giving the pen an annoyed look.
Thank the Lord, thought Freedom. It’s not just me.
The man looked back at Harrison. “Does she ever miss?”
He tipped his head at the television. “The woman in the armor. It looks like she always hits.”
“What?” Harrison looked at the screen again. “That’s not a woman.”
“Pretty sure,” said Harrison. “Why would you think it’s a woman?”
Freedom looked at the screen. The battlesuit was androgynous, but he couldn’t shake the sense the civilian was right. He tried to put his finger on what it was about the hulking exoskeleton that made him so sure the person inside was female.
Then he shook it off. Like it or not, the suit would be here in a week. He could find out then. “Sergeant Harrison,” he said, “would you please get a move on and help the gentleman with his car?”
“Thanks again,” said the man.
“Not a problem, sir,” Freedom told him.
“If you get by your car, sir,” said Harrison with a wave, “I’ll drive around.”
The man headed out and Freedom realized why he’d looked somewhat familiar. He looked like the man from his dreams. The man who helped him fight the walking dead.
Outside, George popped the hood and glanced at his phone. If they could get the car started in the next five minutes, he could still make it to work on time.
Two minutes later Harrison pulled around the corner in a hatchback. The car whipped past George, then backed up into the space before him. The sound equipment in the back bounced as the rear of the car bumped up onto the sidewalk. The hood popped open. Harrison climbed out and dragged a long set of jumper cables out from behind the driver’s seat. “Sorry about the lieutenant,” Harrison said as he connected the cables. “He’s kind of had a stick up his ass since he got this job.”
“He didn’t seem that bad,” said George.
Harrison shrugged and walked the other end of the cables over to the Hyundai. He stepped past George and clamped them onto the car’s battery. “I get that he’s pissed about being busted down and stuck here,” the soldier continued. “I mean, I was supposed to be in the Army band and they gave me this. Adams isn’t supposed to be here, either, but you don’t hear him taking it out on everyone else. Ready to give this a try?” He gestured at George’s car.
George slid into the driver’s seat and Harrison dropped behind
the wheel of his car. Their eyes met and the soldier gave him a thumbs-up. The hatchback’s engine rumbled. George twisted the key. The starter clicked, the engine coughed once, and his car heaved itself back to life. The radio popped on and a string of Spanish came out of it. He was pretty sure the deejay was swearing. Then the voice faded away and a Beyoncé song rolled out of the speakers.
Harrison unhooked the jumper cables. “Good deal,” he said. “You probably want to drive for at least fifteen or twenty minutes, let the battery build up some charge.”
“I would,” said George, “but I’ve got about six minutes left to get to work.”
“Good luck, then,” said Harrison with a grin. He gathered up the cables into a rough ball and shoved it back behind the driver’s seat. “Might want to get your alternator looked at.”
“Thanks again.” George gave him a wave and pulled out. The car lurched once, reluctant to leave its resting spot, and then slid into the lane. The engine grumbled a few times, but he made it to work with seconds to spare.
GEORGE SIPPED SOME
more milk and wrinkled his nose. The taste was off. The smell, too. He wondered if someone behind the scenes at the dining commons had let it sit out and get warm.
Lunch had been a dry cheeseburger. The salad bar had helped dress it up, but in the end it was still a sub-McDonald’s burger. The tater tots were good, at least. The server had given him an extra ladleful of them.
He’d spent the morning hauling trash out of the dorms and down to the dumpsters. The first weekend was always one of the roughest. On the plus side, most of it was dry trash, though not as dry as his burger.