Chapter one starts here
More banging, louder this time. “I’m coming, damn it! Hold your horses.”
He opened the door and almost got a fist in the face. “What were you going to do next, break it down?” he yelled at the soldier who’d been about to knock again.
The man stepped back and was brushed aside by another soldier. “Bennett Sanders?” Bennett nodded and his protest was cut off before it began. “From now on, you’ll do as you’re told and speak when you’re given permission. Is that clear?”
“Looks like I woke up in the wrong damn country this morning.” Bennett was almost too angry to care what the response was, but when the soldier grabbed his shirt and pushed him roughly backward away from the door, violence from these people was, in an instant, within the realm of possibility.
“Okay, men. Spread out.”
“What the hell’s going on? What are they doing?”
The soldier whipped around and glared at him. “They’re searching. You might be hiding someone. Didn’t you read the info?”
“Yeah, I did. But you could have just asked me.”
“And if you’re hiding someone?”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Bennett gave up, frustrated. Arguing wasn’t going to get him anywhere. “Hey! What are you doing with my stuff?”
His duffle had been dumped out on the couch and a soldier was pawing through his belongings.
“Tell him to take his hands off my stuff. It’s none of his damned business what I take with me.”
“Clothes and personal items only. The computer isn’t personal. It stays here.”
“It is personal. My whole life is on it. My writing. Everything. I can’t just leave it here. Someone might steal it while I’m gone.”
The soldier who seemed to be in charge grinned. “You aren’t going to have any time for writing, believe me. And I wouldn’t count on coming back.”
The bald statement hit Bennett like a fist. It was the difference between speculating about something that might never happen, and being faced with the reality. But he couldn’t lose his computer. “If I’m not coming back, then I have to take it.”
When he reached out for it, his hand was knocked away. The soldier snatched the computer from the couch and dropped it on the floor. While Bennett watched, horrified, he slammed his boot heel into it. “Okay, take it with you.”
Bennett backed away. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. It felt like one of those videos where soldiers broke into houses in far off countries and destroyed stuff randomly—just because they could.
“I thought you were so hot to have it.”
What could he say? Half his life had just been destroyed, right in front of his eyes. Bennett stared blankly at the soldier, his mind numbed by everything that had happened in the last half hour.
“No? Okay, let’s stop playing around. Keep your mouth shut and put everything back in. Let’s go, let’s go!”
* * *
Do they seriously think I’m going to try to escape? Walking to the truck, his duffle slung over his shoulder, a soldier walked on each side of him with another one following. He climbed in and found he wasn’t the first one to be collected. The truck was half full already. Bennett sat on one of the benches and dropped his bag between his feet. The three soldiers who’d brought him out were already gone, undoubtedly on their way to another capture. I’ve been captured. By the enemy. With the loss of his computer, everything of importance to him had been abruptly stripped away. He felt himself slipping into a new mindset: a prisoner. Maybe if the asshole hadn’t crushed it underfoot, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but that one act, so deliberate in its arrogance and power, made him wonder if it was the model for what he had to expect from now on.
He couldn’t even summon up any more indignation. He closed his eyes and let himself drift, aware, but not really paying attention as more men climbed into the truck. For a little while, at least, it had nothing to do with him.
“Okay, that’s it for this batch. Let’s go.”
The voice was almost simultaneous with the truck’s back gate being slammed shut. The sudden noise jerked Bennet back into the present. Two soldiers with rifles occupied the seats next to the tailgate, their weapons held to block anyone trying to approach it. Bennett thought it was unlikely that anyone would try. It wasn’t just the rifles. He’d be surprised if there was anyone not in a state of shock. He let his glance slide over the faces of the men opposite him. Shock and fear. That’s really all it took. Had he tripped the one soldier’s temper, or was intimidation a standard part of the operation?
He looked out the back just in time to catch a last glimpse of his house, already looking abandoned. They hadn’t even given him time to lock the door behind him. Did it matter? If anyone wanted to get in and the door was locked, all they’d have to do was smash it in. What he’d seen in old newsreels of foreign occupations, and bad movies had given him only a glimpse of the possibilities. He looked down at his duffle and let his eyes roam over the collection of backpacks, suitcases, and even a plastic garbage bag, that the other men had brought with them. It was possible that this was now all any of them owned. His mind refused to go any further with such speculations. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes again, and leaned back against the wall of the truck.
He hadn’t given any thought about where they might be going, and when the truck stopped in the high school parking lot and they were ordered out, he found himself only mildly curious. It was an unexpected destination, but at least it wasn’t an open field surrounded by barbed wire, and he was grateful that his memory had waited to bring up that particular image. They were herded through the front door, accompanied by a contingent of armed soldiers that had been stationed by the front entrance. There were no rifles in sight now, but the soldiers all wore sidearms, and Bennett had the vague thought that he should be worried about it.
As they trudged up the stairs to the second floor, the familiarity of his surroundings warred with the strangeness of the circumstances. He’d taught in some of the classrooms that they passed as they were escorted along the hallway. He straightened up from the slouch he’d fallen into and looked around. Most of the doors were open. In In every room, cots, each one with a pillow and a folded blanket at the foot, took the place of desks. They stopped at room 206, and all Bennett could think about was that he’d never taught a class in this room.
“Okay, men,” someone said, as they filed in. “Pick a cot and put your belongings under it. The rules are on the blackboard. You’re free to walk around on this floor. The stairwells are guarded, so don’t even think about trying to leave. You’re here to work, and the daily assignments will be posted on the blackboard last thing every evening. You’ll be taken down to the cafeteria for meals. Lunch is in a couple of hours, so I hope you have good appetites.” The soldier grinned at them. “We’ll be taking attendance every morning when you get up, when you come back from work, and before lights out. It’s gonna be just like school, kiddies.”
And then the soldiers were gone. Most of the men, Bennett included, stood like abandoned objects, the decision of which cot to choose momentarily too difficult. Bennett shook himself, scrunched his shoulders up and down, and headed for the row at the back of the room. He dropped his duffle, shoved it under the cot closest to the windows, and sat down. So this is it. We’re workers. The questions started popping up. What kind of workers do they need? All I know how to do is teach. Will they care, or do we just get assigned randomly? He shut it off. Too many questions and no way to get any answers. Yet. He’d be patient. There really wasn’t any choice. Be patient or go crazy.
Lunch was a typical school food. Had the cooks also been absorbed into the R & C world? If so, meals weren’t going to be anything to look forward to. But he didn’t hear any complaints. It occurred to him that they’d all been pretty quiet. But that couldn’t last. Once everyone had gotten over the shock and absorbed the current reality, they’d probably start complaining and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. After lunch, they went back upstairs to room 206, 14 very subdued men, accompanied, just as they had been going down, by two armed soldiers. Bennett came to the conclusion, not a difficult exercise, that the only time they wouldn’t be under guard was when they were in this room.
Crappy food or not, the meal seemed to have brought a few of the men back from wherever they’d gone into hiding in their heads, and a couple of conversations started up as soon as they were left to themselves. There was no way not to listen in, and Bennett tried to pick up any information he could. But the talk was mostly questions and complaints, just as he’d figured., They were all desperate to know what was going to happen to them, but nobody had anything to offer except guesses. As a conversation near him came to a limping halt, one of the men lay down on his cot, his arm over his eyes. The other one wandered over to Bennett and stuck out his hand.
“Hi, George Grodin. I guess we’re stuck in the same boat.”
“Yeah, I guess we are. Bennett Sanders.” Bennett gave the hand a brief shake.
“Any idea what the hell’s going on here?” Grodin shifted back and forth and Bennett noticed that his hands were clenching and unclenching. He hoped the guy was just nervous and not looking for a fight. He probably outweighed Bennett by about 80 pounds and looked like he worked out regularly.
Bennett shook his head. “If you read that paper they dropped off, you know as much as I do. All I can do is guess, just like everyone else. We’ll be working. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. At least we won’t be sitting around twiddling our thumbs.”
“Yeah. I get antsy if I’m not moving. You know? D’you think there’s any chance of getting out of here? I mean out of town. My ex is expecting me to visit my daughter this weekend. She’s gonna be pissed when I don’t show up.”
“Are you talking about escaping? Not a good idea. Remember that stuff about necessary force? I wouldn’t be surprised if that means a bullet in the head.”
Grodin squinted as if he was in pain. “Do you think they have real bullets in those guns?”
Bennett couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. Grodin was lacking something upstairs, for sure. “They’re military. I’d guess that if they’re carrying guns, they’re loaded. With live ammunition.”
Grodin nodded, looking sad. “Not much point in trying to see my daughter if it’s just gonna get me shot.” He wandered off to a cot on the other side of the room, and Bennett gave a sigh of relief. He lay down with his back to the room, hoping that would be enough to discourage any more attempts at conversation. He drifted in and out of a light doze, coming alert at the sound of a large number of feet. Turning over, he saw two newcomers, and two soldiers on their way out the door. The new men stood there for a minute, looking just as lost as he and the rest of the first batch had been, before claiming the remaining cots. He hadn’t bothered to count the cots, but now he saw that there were 16 of them. He tried to remember how many rooms there were on this floor. Was every unattached man in the town going to be housed here? Sooner or later, he hoped, he’d run into someone he knew and would actually be willing to spend some time with. But right now, he just wanted to be left alone. He rolled back onto his side and shut his eyes.