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T Minus: 022 Days 08 Hours 10 Minutes 31 Seconds
The Minus Faction Episode Four
Minn Ramsey spoke to God every day of her life. But it was only after blessed Preacher Martin came to town that God spoke back. And not just to her. To nearly every resident of Mountain Hide, usually on a Tuesday. It was a miracle, to be sure, given on account of their faith. It had to be. Because there was nothing else.
The town was nestled in a crook in the mountains of West Virginia, and while it started as little more than a backwoods dugout for moonshiners, it blossomed after the coal mine opened. But luck wasn’t on the community’s side, and some time after Prohibition ended the coal ran out and there wasn’t much of a reason for anyone to stay all the way up there, miles from anywhere, with hardly a decent road to the place. Decades passed and folks moved on until there were only enough tithing families to support a single church and only enough deposits for a single savings and loan. By then, everybody knew everybody else by their first names, and it seemed like a sin to leave, even though most wanted to.
But all that changed after Preacher Martin came. He didn’t seem like much at first—bald up top, a little soft in the middle, with a round nose and a pair of eyebrows that didn’t line up straight. And sometimes his voice seemed a bit off, like a record player running a tad slow. But otherwise he was the same as anyone. There wasn’t even a hint as to the miracle he carried in his heart.
Minn knew that’s how Preacher Martin was. Humble.
First thing he did was meet with each and every one of his parishioners—in private so it was more comfortable. He sat them down in his office in front of a big camera, almost like a projector, and when it snapped a picture of you there was a sound like a shutter run backward, and you could see stars in the lens. Preacher Martin took everyone’s picture that way, even the folks who weren’t regular church goers, and he wrote down everyone’s names so he could memorize them all later. He talked to folks about prayer and the Bible, about the town, about their job, their likes and dislikes, even their hopes and dreams. He was such a nice man.
But not long after he arrived, everybody got to see that Preacher Martin was more than just humble. He was blessed of God. And not like those false tent-pole healers that ran through Deerlick every spring.
When Brandon Federline, 26, was carrying on with a high school girl, just 15, God knew it, and He told Preacher Martin, who asked Brandon to come up before the whole congregation—practically the whole town—and confess his sin publicly so he could be forgiven.
Of course, Brandon wouldn’t admit it at first, not something shameful like that, criminal even. But as soon as he figured the truth—that God really was watching and that He had told Preacher Martin things only Brandon and the young lady could know—well, Brandon felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. He broke down right there and dropped to his knees. He brought Jesus into his heart and begged for forgiveness.
There were lots of tears and hugs and more praising God that day than any Minn could remember. And it wasn’t about Brandon. Minn knew lots of folks were still angry about that. It was the bigger truth. Preacher Martin was blessed. He hadn’t been in town two months and already he’d battled a secret sin in their very midst. Real sin. Born of the Devil. And he won.
And that was just the beginning. Every time someone found themselves dancing, or giving in to the temptations of the flesh, Preacher Martin would stop by, or ask them to come up to the front of the church, and he’d stroke his comb-over gently and everyone could see he had God in him. He cured people of the weed and got divorced couples to reconcile. And every Tuesday he rode through the town and delivered a personal message from God.
He even got Minn the job at Gelid Cold Storage. She only applied because God had told her to, but she didn’t like it there. She liked it better down at the bank. But God put Jaslynn Summers there, and not long after, the little bank got a big new client and millions of dollars moving through all the time, or something like that, and suddenly there was money around town. Roads that had been rotting Minn’s whole life got fixed, including the winding snake that led down the mountain. The town hall—still the original from 1924—got a new whitewash. Gelid Refrigeration Services, Inc. bought the vacant coal mine and moved in. And for the first time in a long time, things started looking up for the people of Mountain Hide.
That’s how Minn knew it was all for the best, even her job. God knew what was best for everyone. It was her place to follow His plan, even when it didn’t hardly make no sense.
Like with the deliveries. They were always at night, which seemed odd. It’s hard to see in the mountains at night. But then Minn figured it probably didn’t make a difference since everything was automated anyway. Gelid was a fancy outfit, and they had built the cold storage unit right into the mine. The company had installed brackets all along the walls of the long central shaft that ran to the lower level, all of it long since flooded with ice-cold water. It was a constant -2.3 degrees Celsius all year round, or so the computers told her, but the dissolved minerals kept the water from freezing solid. It was a natural, all-weather, fault-free freezer.
When a delivery came—which was rare—it always came off the back of a truck, and it was always the same kind of oblong metal container, like something NASA would make. The delivery guys would open the big steel door to the mine and leave the container on the yellow-and-black painted concrete pad with the blue-striped girders arching overhead, keeping the mountain at bay. The men didn’t hardly pay any attention to Minn. She guessed they were told not to.
Every now and then she’d wave, or she’d catch a glimpse of the red robotic crane in the ceiling, moored to the rock as it swung down like the hand of God and lifted the oblong container and mounted it on the appropriate numbered bracket deep in the dark water. The robot didn’t need to see, so there were no lights down there. It was silent and spooky, like one of those sensory deprivation chambers Minn had seen on Discovery TV, with nothing but the occasional drip of condensation.
And when it came time for a pick-up, the crane would get orders through the Internet. It would find the right numbered bracket, remove the container, and deposit it on the pad, cold and dripping. Later that night, the delivery company would come—it was always the same one—and a plain white semi would back into the lot. Men would hop out and remove the container and haul it away. Minn never knew where they were going or what was inside. She’d even signed some papers that said she wasn’t allowed to talk about it with anyone, which was silly. There was nothing to tell.
Minn’s job, if you could call it that, was to hang around and answer the phone that never rang and make sure there were no problems, and occasionally reboot the computers that monitored and controlled everything. Preacher Martin said it was to give Minn time to study so she could get her GED like she’d told him she’d wanted, but Minn never felt like studying, and she’d only told Preacher Martin that—in his office, that day he took her picture—because it seemed like the thing someone without a high school degree was supposed to say when asked about their “long term goals.”
In truth, Minn didn’t do much of anything, and some days she felt like she was only there for show, to make it look like there was more going on at Gelid than there really was.
But that was silly, she chided herself. God had told her to apply for the job, and He was looking out for her, she knew. He told Preacher Martin things about her no one could know. Things she did in private. Things no one else ever saw. Preacher Martin said it was okay as long as she wasn’t married, but Minn knew there wasn’t much chance of that. Not in Mountain Hide.
Sometimes she thought about leaving. She asked Preacher Martin if she could maybe get a different job, one where she made enough to save for a move, but God said it wasn’t time yet. He needed her where she was, and even though maybe it didn’t seem important, He had a plan. And it was extra super important—Preacher Martin always reminded her in that funny voice of his—that she never, ever go down into the mine. He even made her swear to it on his Bible, the big heavy one that zippered up around the sides and never left his hands. And that was fine with her. She didn’t like it down there anyway.
At the end of every shift, Minn walked across the lot from the temporary trailer that housed her office and strung the silver chain with the padlock around the links of the fence, lost in thought.
Minn felt something cold and hard being pressed to the back of her head. Was that a gun?
She heard a click.
It was. Minn froze. “I don’t have any money.” That was certainly true.
Minn did as she was told. A gaunt man in jeans and leather pushed her aside and pulled out the chain. It dropped on the asphalt. He had a shaved head. There was a tattoo on the side.
Minn didn’t need to see his face, or the tattoo. She’d recognized his voice right away. So she kept her eyes down. It was Jerrad. Shawna’s boyfriend. And right then Minn knew she’d done something completely horrible. Her face twisted like she might cry.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed softly. Only it wasn’t meant for Shawna’s boyfriend. It was meant for God.
More men appeared as the sun set behind the mountain. One of them, a plump, bald man with a white head like the moon, grabbed Minn’s arm and pulled her into the gravel lot behind Jerrad. The fancy stitched name on his leather jacket said Colt. She was pulled past the trailer and shoved toward to the console, sort of like an ATM, built into the wall next to the large steel door that sealed the mine. It was painted the same color gray as the mountain rocks that surrounded it.
Minn knew she was in trouble. She didn’t raise her eyes from the pebble-strewn asphalt. She pressed her arms to her side and hunched her shoulders. She wasn’t very big to begin with, barely 5’2”, but she wanted to shrink even smaller and slink away. Like a weasel.
Shawna’s boyfriend put the revolver to her head and Minn shook.
“I said open it.”
Jerrad Harbingen wasn’t from Mountain Hide. He was from Deerlick, down along the river, and he was a bad man. He ran with a motorcycle gang. Minn could only assume the other fellas were them. There were at least two more men behind her, judging from the sound of gravel crunching under boots. They all had guns. They were antsy. She could tell they were in a hurry. They looked around nervously. They were robbing the place. And Minn knew why.
God had told her not to talk about her job, not even to other folks in town. She’d signed papers and even swore on Preacher Martin’s heavy Bible. But she couldn’t help it. Her high school friend Shawna Bilken was making twice Minn’s salary working at a little boutique down in Deerlick. Minn had to listen to her brag all weekend about her job and her new boyfriend, Jerrad. He wasn’t much of a catch, what with being convicted of assault and all, but still, he was kinda cute—skinny with a bunch of tattoos, like a rock star. It wasn’t fair. And it wasn’t fair Minn had to be all alone up in the mine while Jaslynn Summers smiled and chatted with everyone and got to look pretty and wear lipstick down at the bank.
So maybe Minn talked up her job a little bit. Maybe she made it seem like a bigger deal than it was. The big robotic crane. The night deliveries. The secrecy. The oblong containers with the funny symbol on the side.
Like she was a spy.
But Minn had spoken out of vanity, and now bad things were happening.
Jerrad pushed the gun harder. “Open it!”
She’d said too much. Tonight there was a pick-up. The robot had probably already delivered the cargo to the concrete pad on the other side of the door. The plain white semi would be along any minute now. This was the only time Minn’s code could even open the door. The rest of the time the secondary locks were engaged and they kept her—and everyone else—out.
Minn glanced up at Jerrad. He didn’t like his name. He wanted everyone to call him J-Rad. That was the name stitched on the front of his jacket.
Minn walked to the ATM-like console and punched in her code. There was a beep and a loud click and the metal door swung open. Sure enough, the oblong container with the funny symbol was waiting, dripping wet on the yellow-and-black painted concrete slab, which sloped down at the sides for drainage. Along the chiseled stone to the right, a bank of electric generators blinked and hummed softly. The big girders arched twenty feet overhead.
Minn was pushed inside, all the way to the back near the shaft that plunged straight down to the water. She could hear the sound of the scuffle echo back to her. Minn was shoved against the left wall, all gouged and scarred from where the miners had chiseled and blown away the mountainside. It was cold and damp, just like everything else. She looked up at the red crane folded into its nook like a giant sleeping snake, a viper with blinking lights for eyes, coiled and ready to reach down and grab her.
And then she saw him. “Big Joe” Wompas. The leader. He had a full beard down to his chest and huge, blubbery arms. He reminded Minn of one of those big beach seals you see on the nature shows. Everybody stepped out of his way.
His pretty cousin was behind him. Edward George. Minn always thought it was funny he had two first names. But no one called him Edward, even when he was a boy. Everyone called him “Boygeous.” Boygeous George. And he was known to be a homosexual. But he was Big Joe’s cousin, so no one dared say a word about it.
Minn looked around at the men. Maybe they were all homosexuals. They were sinners, for sure. Bad men, through and through. She’d heard enough about Big Joe to be afraid. And it wasn’t just what he’d do to you for looking at him the wrong way. It was how the others would protect him, say he wasn’t there, that they had done it. It changes a person to know they can do anything and get away with it. It makes them mean in ways ordinary people can never understand.
Minn had heard how the gang caught a Mexican once and Big Joe had them all hold the man down and force open his mouth and put his teeth on the curb. Then Big Joe beat on the man’s head with his boots until the roots of the man’s teeth burst through his gums.
And now they were here, Jerrad and Big Joe, because of her. She’d been a braggart, and now she was being punished.
Minn curled into a ball. She wanted to cry. God would see what was happening. He would tell Preacher Martin and Preacher Martin would stroke his comb-over impatiently and make her get up in front of everyone and tell the truth. And then they’d look at her that way, like she was an idiot.
Everybody was always calling her an idiot. Her whole life.
The bald man, Colt, walked around the container. “Looks high tech.”
“See? Didn’t I tell you?” Jerrad beamed.
Big Joe wasn’t convinced. “It’s high tech. Don’t mean it’s valuable.”
“Then why would someone go to all this trouble to keep it quiet? To keep it hidden up here in the mountains like this?”
Joe Wompas had the voice of a lifelong smoker. “I dunno. But that don’t mean shit.”
Colt scowled. “How we gonna fit this in the truck?”
A drop of condensed water fell from the robotic arm hanging over the shaft. It flashed in the fluorescent lighting before disappearing into the dark. It was three seconds before the sound of the drip echoed off the rock walls.
Big Joe scowled. “Crack it open.”
“How the fuck should I know? Look for a button or a handle or something.”
The men moved clockwise around the large, dripping container as Boygeous George watched the open door. He was the lookout. He was nervous.
“Here.” Colt pointed to a handle, like on an airplane door, near the bottom. It said Emergency Release. He pulled it.
There was a hiss and an explosion of gas. Minn felt the tips of her hair freeze, and her eyebrows suddenly felt stiff. The gas, whatever it was, could freeze on contact. The rock underneath her got colder.
“Jesus, I can’t move my arm.” Colt jumped back clutching his left wrist in his right hand.
“Ha, you fucking moron.” Jerrad laughed.
Big Joe stared at the container as the metal sides retracted and folded into the module’s base.
“What is it?” Boygeous asked.
There was a long cylinder inside with rounded ends, bigger than a man and grayish white without any seams. Minn couldn’t tell if it was made of metal or plastic.
“Ho-lee . . .” Jerrad was on the far side of the cylinder, in front of the generators, staring at it. His face went pale in the dim light. “Joe, man, you need to see this.”
“What?” Boygeous turned but didn’t move. “What is it?”
Minn couldn’t see whatever they were looking at, but she could read the words painted on the side in black stenciled letters.
BEATTY, BRYSON 09-19HS8T7
ASSET CODE: BRICKBAT
USE EXTREME CAUTION WHEN OPENING
Underneath was the funny symbol: three circles connected in the center by three lines.
“Shit . . .” Colt was shocked.
Boygeous George shifted. “What? What the hell is it?”
Colt shook his head. He peered over the edge of the shaft. “What the hell is this place?”
Jerrad said quietly what all the men were thinking. “It’s like some kinda prison or something.”
Everyone shifted uncomfortably.
“Leave it.” Big Joe had had enough. “Get the fuck outta here.”
As the men turned to leave, Minn worried what would happen to her. She glanced to the door, wondering if she could run, and she saw a shadow standing behind Boygeous. Then she heard a sound she’d never heard before. It was smooth, almost like wet paper torn along a crease, but fast.
Edward “Boygeous” George fell to the ground in two pieces. He’d been cut clean in half. As his torso toppled over his legs to the concrete, the man standing behind him wiped his black blade clean on the sleeve of his dark padded jacket. It left a wet smear. His face was obscured by a glossy helmet. There was a swirling silver dragon on his chest. It seemed to glow in the dim light as if illuminated from within.
The men reached for their guns and the killer flexed his body with a jerk and electric arcs shot out in all directions. There was a shimmer, like the heat from sunbaked pavement, and Minn felt a shock wave. She convulsed a few times and started having trouble breathing. The machines along the far wall went dark along with everything else. Emergency lighting flickered on as the man in black began a terrible ballet.
Minn watched the black blade cut Jerrad Harbingen’s head in half. The top landed near her. She could see his brains, such as they were. Big Joe pushed the cylinder forward to open a path to the exit, but the escaping gas had frozen all the water and the cylinder slipped off the module’s base like a toboggan and fell against the wall of machines with a loud, echoing clang. Joe got off a couple shots in the flickering dark, but they only ricocheted off the rocks. Everybody ducked. Then there was the same sound as before and Big Joe’s arm fell to the ground, still holding his gun. He screamed and went to his knees. The man in black grabbed Joe’s face and tensed. Electric arcs danced over Big Joe’s body and his internal organs glowed as the fat from his belly exploded in half-baked blobs of pink and grayish-yellow.
Minn covered her mouth so as not to vomit as the man Colt, who had lost the use of his legs in the shock wave, yelled in fear and intentionally slid over the edge of the shaft to avoid being killed. Three seconds later he hit the water with a scream.
And he kept screaming. It echoed off the rock walls as the man in black sheathed his sword. He didn’t seem to care about Minn at all. Had he not seen her? He walked to the exposed cylinder resting at an angle against the silent machines, and Minn realized the emergency lighting overhead wasn’t flickering. It was clicking back and forth between white and red, like a silent alarm.
“I came as soon as I heard.” It was Preacher Martin. He’d been running. He was out of breath. He put his hands on his knees.
Minn sat up and smiled.
“Jesus fucking Christ!”
Minn gasped. Preacher Martin had just taken the Lord’s name in vain. And he wasn’t sorry. His voice seemed different, like any man’s. He stood there and looked at the bodies on the ground. Minn heard a truck approach.
“Please!” came a shivering scream. “P-please help me!”
Preacher Martin raised his hands into the air. “What the holy hell?” He wasn’t happy with the man in black. He was livid, in fact. But he kept his distance. “Is someone in the water? Jesus, you fucking knocked out the generators! Are you fucking stupid?”
But the swordsman ignored him. He only cared about the cylinder. It spun on the ice as he pushed it back onto the level platform. Minn could see the window, the one Big Joe and the others had been looking at. Her lips pursed.
There was a man inside, a big man with spiky hair, like a soldier. His eyes were closed. His arms were ridged metal from the shoulders down. He wasn’t moving. It looked like he was asleep.
Preacher Martin held his heavy Bible in one hand. He put the other to his forehead and stared at the silent equipment that ran along the far wall. “Do you have any fucking idea who all we have down there?”
The dark man ignored him. He was examining the cylinder, looking for signs of damage.
Preacher Martin pointed toward the shaft. He paused. He spoke softly to the man’s turned back. “Doctor Havek. You know that name? Pavel Havek?”
The man in black stopped. He turned to face Preacher Martin, his hands still resting on the cylinder. Minn could see the blood smear on his sleeve.
“The freezing water should act as a buffer, but personally I’d rather not run an unscheduled live test of the liquid nitrogen insulators. Would you? Without backup? On fucking Dr. Havek of all people?”
The man in black turned his helmet toward the silent machines, then stepped aside. Minn glanced at the lip of the shaft. She wondered what could be down there that would scare such terrible men.
“Thank you.” Preacher Martin stepped down the slope of the concrete pad, almost slipping on the ice, and flipped a large green switch on the first machine. “I need to reset everything. Just take your goddamned prisoner and get out of here already.”
“P-p-please!” The man Colt was slowly freezing to death in the dark.
The dark man spoke for the first time. The sound made Minn cringe. It was a dry, raspy voice, the voice of sickness and death, muffled menacingly by the man’s helmet.
“How many implanted tranquilizers are left?”
He had some kind of accent Minn didn’t recognize. Asian maybe. She heard beeping from the truck. An unmarked semi, same as always, was backing to the entrance.
Preacher Martin didn’t turn from the bank of machines. “All three. We haven’t used any. Until today he’s been down there in the cooler just like he was supposed to be. Some of us can still do our fucking jobs like we’re supposed to. What is it with everybody lately? First Fears and now you.”
Minn stayed tucked into a ball in the corner. She wanted to run, but she’d never get past the semi. She figured they were only ignoring her as long as they had bigger problems. But then what?
“I know you’re a grade-A sociopath and my voice won’t work on you, but this, all of this, it’s too much. If Control gets word that Special Assets can’t keep its shit together, Anders will have Maria liquidated and we’ll both have a boss who enjoys boiled skin as an appetizer.”
The man in black craned his neck like he was stretching for exercise. Or a beating. “Preacher . . .”
But he didn’t finish. Men appeared. With guns. Not revolvers and shotguns like the biker gang, but military rifles and things Minn didn’t recognize. There was a circular patch on their shoulders. It said Alpha Strike.
The dark man motioned them over and they began to haul the cylinder away. Then he turned to Preacher Martin.
“How long will we have once he’s revived?”
“Do I look like a fucking psychiatrist? Beatty’s been in an induced coma for eighteen months.” The first generator kicked on and Preacher Martin moved to the second. “I saw him once. His psychosis was advanced when he went under. He could be immediately unstable. Then again, you might have to push.”
That didn’t make the dark man happy. He clenched his gloved fists. “Then we will have to conduct a test.”
“A test?” Preacher Martin stopped. He turned. His last word echoed three times before it faded.
“PLEASE!” came the gurgling cry from below. The last of it went underwater.
“You know how much damage he caused last time someone poked him with a stick?”
The dragon-man simply stared at Preacher Martin in silence.
“Whatever. You wanna wake an unstable, hyper-strong, paranoid schizophrenic on the verge of success, be my guest. Just do it somewhere far away from here.” He motioned to the dead bodies all around. “I’m not cleaning up any more of your mess. As far as I’m concerned, Beatty should have been destroyed after that blood bath in Somalia. He’s too strong. Too unpredictable. I told Maria that—”
“Ha. Stronger than anything out there. Stronger than you.”
“Good.” The man with the dragon on his chest turned and walked toward the truck.
“Good? GOOD?” Preacher Martin stepped up the concrete slope and almost slipped again. He called after the retreating killer. “Wait . . . What do you mean good? Is the countdown in jeopardy?”
But the man didn’t answer. He simply followed the container into the back of the truck.
Preacher Martin raised his voice. “Who in holy hell are you going up against?”
The engine rumbled and the truck pulled away in a cloud of exhaust.
“Bah.” Preacher Martin turned and walked to the edge of the dark shaft. “You still alive down there?” He waited. But nothing came. “Didn’t think so.”
Minn was shivering. She couldn’t help it. Her back was wet.
Preacher Martin heard and turned around. “And then there’s you.”
His voice returned. He looked so sad, so ashamed of her. She didn’t understand. Why was he acting like this?
“Minnow Ramsey . . .” He shook his head. “How many times did I tell you? How many times did I say never, ever go into the mine?” He unzipped his Bible, the heavy one he always carried with him. “I’m sorry I have to tell you this, but God has no more plans for you.”
He pulled out a gun. As he pointed it at her, all Minn could do was worry about who would take care of her cats.