Thirty minutes out of San Francisco Nick Aubrey had had enough. He liked to think of himself as a peaceable man, but if he didn’t change seats soon he was liable to kill somebody. The plane had reached cruising altitude and the cabin lights were out. The flight attendants had been up and down the aisles dispensing pillows and blankets like kindergarten teachers at nap time, and white noise from the enormous jet engines provided a familiar lullaby to the very important big boys and big girls resting before their next busy day. Conditions for sleep were nearly as good as they were going to get on a transcontinental flight, and if only the two loud business boys up in First Class would shut up, maybe Nick could get some rest.
It was true that running into Monty just before the boarding call had set Nick’s nerves on edge. Set his nerves on edge? Scared the living piss out of him was more like it. Freddy Kruger, right where you least expect him. And Monty’s smirk had made Nick angry too: it was obvious that he had planned to be on this flight all along. On the other hand Nick’s adrenal system was so cooked that the effects of this chance encounter with his own personal Antichrist had already worn off by the time Nick took his seat in the first row of the business section, just behind the bulkhead, and stretched his feet before him. After all, he reminded himself, soldiers who cannot train themselves to sleep during lulls in the battle eventually die of exhaustion anyway.
Monty was only three yards away—out of sight, in First Class—but Nick was simply too spent to give the man another moment’s thought. Rather, Nick might have been able to put Monty out of his mind if it weren’t for the for the blow-hards in seats 4A and 4B blabbing on with Monty— beyond the curtain that separated first from business class like a paper-thin bordello door— about Internet stocks and founders’ shares. Monty’s conversation with these power-dorks was so inane, so Gee-whiz-Business-Week, that Nick could only assume Monty was taunting him. Screw this, Nick thought, and headed west. Towards the back of the plane he found an unoccupied spot—a vacant aisle seat, with another empty seat next to it. Against the window, separated from him by the two empty seats, there was a balding man wearing a light business suit, perspiring. Nick had the feeling that he knew the man from somewhere, but couldn’t place him. In a minute it came to him: it was the funny little man from Palo Alto, the one who had given Maceo a package and left after a short, odd conversation.
“Anybody sitting here?” Nick said.
“I’m not going to stop you,” the man answered. It wasn’t a red carpet, but so much the better. Nick was interested in rest, not chat.
He quickly stowed his things, then slouched down into the aisle seat and tried to make himself ready for sleep. It was pointless, of course. For the first few hours after the quake he had been in shock, but now he was slipping into after-shock and guilt was already starting to gnaw at him. He had not told the police about the two people who fell. He had not even gone over to the edge to make sure that they had not miraculously landed on a ledge or clung to a branch. As soon as Nick landed in Boston, he decided, he was going to have to report the incident to the police. Nick’s eyes had been closed for about half a minute when he heard the voice from his right.
“How are you going to do it? LSD in my Coca-Cola? Sodium Pentothal in an oxygen mask? Or were you planning to put some of your nanomachines into me and watch me turn into a robot?”
Nick opened his eyes and looked to his right. The man was huddled against the window, with his legs curled up. He looked pale but defiant, as if Nick had him cornered but could not make him surrender.
“Say what?” Nick said.
“Save it,” the man said. “You’re here to drug and kidnap me. So do it.”
It took Nick a few seconds to comprehend that the man was not joking and that he, Nick, was sitting next to a bonafide crazy person who was afraid for his life.
“My name is Nick Aubrey,” he began, cautiously. “I’m no kidnaper. I’m just a washed-up computer geek. . .”
“A computer geek who just happens to be an expert in nanotechnology,” the man sneered.
Clearly this conversation wasn’t going to be easy. Nick drew in his breath, paused a second to collect his thoughts, and tried again.
“OK,” Nick said. “Suppose you help me out. I’ve forgotten your name?”
“Sure you have. I’m Peter Barlow, remember? The guy you’re supposed to slip a mickey finn? But you can call me whatever you want, Mister Aubrey. Or should I say Herr Aubrey.”
Yes, Peter Barlow. Crazy Peter Barlow, Maceo had called him.
“Hey, Peter, no need to be alarmed,” Nick bluffed. “I forgot your name but I remember you. You’re Maceo’s friend; I’m Maceo’s friend. We’re friends. Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
“Maceo’s friend? Bullshit. I know why you were with Maceo tonight.”
“To see what I look like. How are you going to kidnap me if you don’t know what I look like?”
“Why do you think that I want to kidnap you?” Nick said.
“You want to kidnap me,” Barlow said, “because I know about your cabal. I know about the computer chips and Gulf War Syndrome. The CIA hand in hand with the Butcher of Baghdad. You need to find out how much I know. Do you really think I don’t know what ‘brain dump’ means? You want to wire me up!”
Play along, be careful, Nick told himself. Crazy people sometimes did crazy things.
“How do you know all this?”
“As if you didn’t know. I was stationed in Iraq, remember, with a CNN technician job as cover. Until you busted the play. You do fine work, too—it’s not easy to fool the people who invented disinformation, but you pulled it off. Now everybody thinks I’m crazy. Ollie North and Aldrich Ames and now you. Another sterling product of the Langley Home School for Traitors.”
Ollie North? Aldrich Ames?
“Do you think I’m in the CIA?” Nick said. This was too weird.
“I know a Company joke when I hear one, Herr Aubrey. Aubrey, Burgess, Carr, Delcourt. You think I never saw that film? I was with the Company! So I know about the Company and I know about the Corporate Fellows. I know about the Emverk Alumni Association.”
Jesus Christ, Nick thought. Who put the LSD in my Coca-Cola? Was this coincidence or was it fate? Was Barlow an angel sent to enlighten him, or just a random nut?
“What do you know about Corporate Fellows?” Nick asked, unsure whether he wanted to hear the answer. “What do they have to do with Emverk? What film are you talking about?”
Barlow ignored him, and his face took on a look of even greater venom and disdain as he spat out the next words:
“I know about Orson!”
“Orson? Who’s Orson?”
“Shut up, asshole, and listen. I told everything I know to Iraqi intelligence. You probably never thought a loyal soldier would do that, did you? You can kill me, but they’re gonna get you.”
This was classic paranoia. Nothing that a shot of thorazine couldn’t handle, but Nick didn’t happen to have any thorazine on him. The best he could do would be to see if he could get the guy calmed down long enough to make a break for the flight attendants. He would tell them that they had a delusional person on board and let them handle it.
“Honest to God,” Nick said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. But maybe I can help you. Maybe I can get the captain to land and let you off. You can escape whoever is hunting you.”
“Very funny,” Barlow said. “Escape. I know about your biometrics lab. You’ve got me scanned into your system. You’ve got my fingerprints, voiceprint, DNA, PETscan, brainwave patterns. You’ve got my credit card records, cable TV records, grocery store records. You know what I watch, what I eat, where I go, how much money I have. Cameras in ATM machines recognize the lines in my iris. My image is in the public domain. Escape, ha! As if you wouldn’t scan for my voice on the telephone. As if every video camera in the country isn’t programmed to recognized my face. As if you couldn’t find me in ten seconds! You’ve got a simulation of me in your lab, predicting what I’ll buy next, say next, think next!”
“Calm down Peter,” Nick said. “I’m concerned about privacy too. You’re concerned about the government turning into Big Brother? I am too.”
“Privacy! Privacy? Privacy is a bogus concept. It’s more archaic than the Roman gods. Government is a bogus concept. Who has more power, the President or Bill Gates? Microsoft controls the CIA, everybody knows that. Gates bought it from Reagan.”
OK, Forget the angel hypothesis. This here is a classic random nut.
“But I don’t work for Gates or Reagan. Here,” he said, withdrawing his wallet from his pocket and offering his laminated identity for Barlow’s inspection. “This is who I am. A fellow traveler, just like yourself. Only I bet I’m deeper into MasterCard than you are.”
“MasterCard! MasterCard owns the National Security Agency! You think I don’t understand the 3D face scanner in every store? That I don’t know about mass suicide and the spaceship behind the comet? Government is not big brother; MasterCard is Big Brother! Disney Is Big Brother. Microsoft is Big Brother. Orson is Big Brother. You are Big Brother.”
“Peter, I am not Big Brother.”
“Go ahead, tell me I’m lying. You have gesture analyzers that can tell whether I’m lying by the look on my face. Come on, tell me I’m lying. Tell me, you bastard. Then fucking kill me. I don’t want to live in a world without freedom. Escape? Fuck you. Escape to where? Your satellites encircle the globe. There are no degrees of freedom left.”
Nick looked up and saw a stewardess walking down the aisle towards him. If he could find a way to signal her. . .
“Another one of yours, coming for back-up?” he heard Barlow say.
“Listen,” Nick said, turning to face him. “I’m a good guy. I don’t know her, I am not going to hurt you, and the only Orson I know is Orson Welles. ‘We will sell no wine before its time.’ You’re frightening me. Please let me help you. Do you take any medication? Maybe you’ve forgotten a dose or two?”
“Save your breath,” the man said. “You’re no good guy, and I’m a dead man. Do you hear me? I’m a dead man. You can’t touch me. You can’t plug my brain into your system. I’m dead already.”
Then, before Nick realized what was happening, the man flashed his palm towards Nick, showing him something small.
“Here’s my medication,” he sneered. He put his hand to his mouth, bit hard, and swallowed. Then, with a sick but somehow serene smile Barlow turned and kneeled in his seat, looking beyond Nick towards the aisle of the jumbo jet. He took a deep and labored breath, then called out above the dull roar of the engines, “If I may have your attention please.”
As Nick looked at the man, amazed, he could see others turning to look at him as well.
“Give me your attention. Please, I do not have much time. Let me have your attention.”
Here and there a few lights went on. Nick noticed that the man’s hands were trembling.
“My name is Peter Barlow. I am going to die in one minute. This man sitting next to me has murdered me. He works for Hussein Kamel, of the Iraqi Defense Ministry. The Iraqi secret weapons is not nerve gas. It’s tiny robots to control our minds. Gulf War Syndrome is only the beginning. I have left proof and a plan for the cure on a diskette with a friend in California. Cincinnati Tuskeegee Bikini. LSD. MK-ULTRA. The radical uprising. Radicals. Free radicals at forum. Stop them. This man is a murderer.”
With a sudden jerk of his arms, as if impersonating Boris Karloff in The Mummy, Barlow reached across the empty seat that separated him from Nick. Nick flinched and tried to put his hands up to protect his neck—he was sure the man was going to throttle him. But instead Barlow’s hands now rose to his own throat, and he began to convulse, sending something small and flat flying from his shirt pocket onto the intervening seat. The convulsions momentarily ceased, and, with his hands still clutching at his own throat, Barlow toppled towards Nick, like a mast snapped in a gale. As passengers all around began to scream, Barlow lay across Nick’s lap, his head dangling in the aisle, with a ghastly grimace stretched across his blue-tinted face.
©1999-2010 John Sundman.