I was thumbing on a stretch winding through the Cross Timbers when old bald Clem – that was the name stitched into his coveralls – rumbled up in his flatbed. He snarled at me through wooden teeth, asked if I wanted work. All I had in my backpack was half a box of Cracker Jacks; I was flat broke and didn’t know what I was going to eat tomorrow, so I said, “Sure,” and started to walk around to the other side of the cab.
“You dumb bastard,” he growled. “Get in the back.”
So I climbed up into the bed and clung onto a rail and watched the road snaking back to where I’d been and wouldn’t ever be again. It was one of those long, gray rides, so I snuck out my Jew’s harp and whiled the hours away as the trees whipped past.
Clem finally eased off the main road and stopped at a checkpoint where a guard in black glasses looked us over, searched my pack, and unchained the gate to let us in. The dirt road led deeper into the forest, to another checkpoint where I got the once-over again, and even deeper into the trees, and then it opened up into a wide clearing surrounded by concrete bunkers and ramparts, like a little fort in the middle of the woods.
As soon as we got there two guards pulled me off the truck. They held me at bayonet point and tied my hands behind my back, then gave me the pat-down.
“Say, what kind of a place is this, anyway?”
Clem, who’d been standing around eating my Cracker Jacks and chatting with the men, came over and belted me in the stomach.
“Yer gonna find out soon enough, you bum.” I don’t think Clem could open his mouth all the way. He’d just growl at you through his cruddy teeth and a big vein would wriggle across his head.
They dragged me into one of the bunkers and dumped me on the floor. Then one of the guards untied me, locked me in, and threw a banana at me through a slat in the door.
The building was longer than it looked from the outside; old mattresses lined the walls and it stank to Heaven. I wasn’t alone. A little light was coming through some high barred windows and I could see guys sitting around Indian-style in their underwear, smoking pipes and playing solitaire. None of them seemed to notice or care I was there.
I was too beat to think much and was more hungry than anything else. I decided to peel into that banana before it turned out to be an illusion. It might as well have been; the damn thing was half brown on the inside. I just sat on the floor staring at it awhile until one of the others spoke to me.
“That’s as good as it’s gonna get, kid. I mean, it ain’t gettin any yellower. One of these jerks’ll steal it if you don’t swallow it now.”
A bearded man in a loincloth had come up to me. His arms and chest were hairy and Chinese tattoos covered him everywhere else. He looked like a sailor on shore leave and grinned like he had been expecting me.
“Just close your eyes and you won’t even know it’s bad.”
He was right. A rotten banana hits the spot if you don’t think about it.
The sailor introduced himself as Casper.
I told him my name and asked him what I’d gotten myself into.
“It’s a kind of a crazy work camp.”
“What kind of work?”
“Breakin rocks, minin dirt, pissin through the hole in a rollin donut - who knows – just whatever the jerks in charge says for you to do that day.”
“What, you sayin we’s in jail?”
“See, all those jerks out there with the guns is big millionaires and high society types just havin fun on the weekends. Just kickin fellas for kicks. That’s why they all got the sunglasses and joke shop mustaches on, so they won’t be recognized. It’s like a dude ranch for em.”
“Sheeit, I ain’t about to believe all that.”
“Sadists, the whole bunch – textbook cases of demensha precocks. Not that I blame em at all.” I asked him what he meant.
“Everybody’s a sadist, kid, get hip to it. Wouldn’t you beat some guy’s face to a bloody pulp if you could get away with it?”
“We all just been picked up for vagrancy, more likely,” I said. This is when I started to realize Casper here was a little nutty in his head; but I liked the guy anyway.
“Yeah, sure, we’re prisoners, kid, but this place ain’t no prison. It’s a sort of a scientific research joint doin stuff for the government, testin out little electronic devices and usin jerks like us for lab rats.”
“I thought you said they were just shovin us round for kicks.”
“Yeah, sure, but that’s just on the side. Main thing is, they’re testin all this new prison security stuff out on us. See, each new guy comes in, he gets a little bug stuck in his neck - a transmitter. Then they always know where he is, and even if the guy escapes, they can zap that little bug in his neck and fry the brains out of him. That’s what happened to all those zombie drips over there,” he said, pointing to the Indians still sitting smoking and playing solitaire, not paying us any heed.
“You mean you’ve got one of those things in you?”
“Hell no, kid,” he grinned. “Too hard-headed. Too thick-skinned. I’m bulletproof. They broke the little blackhead gun they use when they tried stickin the thing in me. Couldn’t get it into my neck or my arm. See, they used to put the bugs in guys’ arms, but then these two crazy jerks from New Mexico sawed each other’s arms off and got over the wall. So they started stickin the bugs in the back of their necks – didn’t figure a guy’d be willin to chop off his head just to be a free man again.”
“They going to put one of those things in me?”
“Sure thing, soon as they get your measurements. They’ll take about a week givin you endurance tests and recordin your biorhythms and heart rate and blood pressure and all that jazz, and then they lay you out on a table and stick it in.”
“Ain’t there some way I can get out of it?”
“Sure as hell is. I been workin on an escape plan ever since they canned me. All I need is an ace cat to help me pull it off,” he said, slapping me on the back and giving me that Hawaiian vacation grin of his.