The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt XVI

By Wil Forbis

Click here for Part XV

"Me?" Tom gasped. "I'm a piece of the puzzle? I don't who you are, I don't know what's happening here, and I'm supposed to answer your questions?"

"Perfect," replied General Blake. "Then why don't you come with me? We'll answer each other's questions."

Tom was reluctant to go anywhere with the imposing military officer. But when two of Blake's men stepped forward, one to each side of Tom, he realized he wasn't really being asked.

The General turned and headed for the door. Tom and the two assistants followed, and behind them marched the other soldiers. Ted Rully sat silently in his bed and watched. Soon he would be alone again with only the chirping sounds of his monitoring equipment keeping him company.

Outside the room, Blake led them into a curious environment. They were in a hallway comprised of a loose plastic tube. It was tall enough for a man to stand in without leaning, and made a crunching sound when walked upon. The material was slightly transparent, though with a greenish tint, and Tom could see moving shapes, people, outside. They appeared to be in a natural setting with trees and foliage in the background. After a few moments Tom's mind clicked and he realized that this place appeared very similar to the military area Reginald had described in his telling of the madness that had infected his unit.

The group reached a fork in the tube and Blake directed them to the right. Ten more feet down and they arrived at a large metal door. Through the tube, Tom could see that it was part of a larger structure, a white one story building at least thirty feet across and Lord knew how deep. One of the men next to Tom stepped up, removed a card with a metallic strip, like those newfangled credit cards everyone in Delsburgh used, and swiped in through a slot. On a small keypad next to the door he punched in a code and the door slid open. The group stepped into the building.

It was dark inside, except for the twinkling lights of computer screens and fancy looking equipment. The room was a hubbub of activity with at least twenty men speaking into walkie talkies or tapping on keyboards. It had the look of an air traffic control tower, each man doing a precise task that was needed to keep the machine running smoothly. Most of the men were staring into the glittering text on their computer screens, ignoring the rows of dozens of video monitors that rose out of the of the floor in the middle of the room. Each monitor showing a different site. Tom stepped forward and his eyes ran over the images present on each monitor. And he was horrified by what he saw.

It took a few second for him to recognize what was on the screens. But he realized he was familiar with all the locations being projected. They were all areas of Honey Bluff: Reverend Rully's church, the flower shop, the crossing of Main and Route 15, The Good Ship Lollipop, the Hurly auto yard, Duke Haffert's property, and on and on. On almost every screen were acts of violence and terror that chilled Tom's soul. Mutants feasted on the remains of children near Nell's flower shop. Broken down cars were scattered across Main street, blood seeping from underneath their tires. A screaming woman ran down Dalton way, five stumbling creatures, some whom Tom recognized as old friends, chasing after her. On the porch of Aplonski's drug store, lay the body of Bill Miller, a look of shock and disbelief imprinted on his still open eyes. Inside the Rully Church, Tom saw the Reverend, his wife and ten or so parishioners, huddled in the pews a look of fear in their eyes. Each screen was another blow to the very existence of the town of Honey Bluff, the place where Tom had been birthed, grown to manhood, left to make his way in the world and returned to when the world had spat him out. It was the bosom of his life, and while just a week before it had been a place bustling with activity, with friends chatting over lemonade, with families going out on picnics, with children running eagerly into his shop for an ice cream sundae it was now an ugly wasteland of fear and death and blood.

Tom felt his legs go weak and give out from underneath him but before he could fall to the floor the two military officers beside him caught his arms. His eyes went moist and he felt like he'd been punched in the gut. He couldn't understand how all these men could stay there, hardly paying attention to the chaos of the screen and act as if they were not the least bit interested. Tom closed his eyes to the horror and lifted his legs of the ground to make himself more of a burden to the men supporting him. He wanted them to drop him to the ground where he could curl up in a ball and block out everything he'd seen. But the men, each owning a pair of biceps the size of Tom's thigh, held him aloft. Tom opened his eyes, just in time to see General Blake step before him. The burly man's form blocked out most of the video screens.

"Of course," Blake said. "How careless of me. We should have known what you would see here would come as quite a shock."

"W-h-what's happening?" Tom stammered. "What's happening to my town?"

"It doesn't look good," Blake replied, indicating to the screens with a nod of his head. "But you're not seeing the whole picture, my friend. What is happening in your town is going to be the tool that guarantees the security and safety of our country for eons to come."

"THOSE PEOPLE ARE DEAD!" Tom shouted, pointing and the array of corpses that could be seen from the video monitors. "They. were . my. friends."

"Yes, they are." The General replied. "But they were walking dead anyway. They - we - were all living on borrowed time."

"What are you talking about?" Tom muttered through clenched teeth. He felt strength return to his legs and he righted himself. The two men beside him did not release their grip on his arms.

"Surely I don't need to tell you the challenges our country faces," said the General. "Terrorism, rogue nations, third world malcontents. All the enemy needs is to get its hands on one weapon of war - nuclear, biological - and our entire way of life goes down the shitter!"

Tom blinked, baffled.

"We can fight back, of course," Blake continued. "We have the most awesome arsenal of weapons one nation has ever had in human history. But even we are limited. Even we cannot face down the very real possibility of the rest of the world turning against us. We simply do not have the manpower, even if we drafted every United State's citizen to this very righteous cause. But.what if we had the ability to turn our enemy's citizens against him - against each other? We could literally fend off the world without losing a life of our own."

"That's mad," replied Tom. "You've clearly popped your cork and started to fizz over."

"They called Einstein mad, my friend."

"So you caused this?" demanded Tom. "All this is your doing?!"

"We caused nothing," came the General's sharp reply. "We discovered this. We studied this. But you -you are the one who spread this virus to your townspeople."

"I don't.. I don't understand." said Tom. "I didn't do anything."

"The military has known about this disease for years now," Blake explained. "Scientist saw early indicators of it in your swamps over a decade ago. They saw the reptiles taking of the traits of fish, and swamp rats with amphibious tongues. We saw these creatures gain abilities beyond their means, but we also saw them collapse under the strain. They would go mad, turn cannibalistic or even eat themselves. Instantly we knew this could be the groundwork for a weapon of great promise. But we never saw it spread to humans. Until."

"Until what?" Tom pleaded. "What happened?"

"You happened," replied the General. "Or should I say, your 'magic' gumball machine happened. Suddenly people were turning left and right. And we saw just how effective our weapon could be."

"But I didn't do anything!" Tom screamed. "Someone gave me the gumball machine. A man. A man who just walked in one night and pushed it on me."

"Yes, we've heard that's the story you've been peddling. In fact there is a Loeher Distribution as you claimed. But they don't sell gumball machines. They're in the printing business, copy machines, that sort of thing. You should have done a bit more research to flesh out your story."

"IT'S NOT A STORY. A man. a man came into the shop and tried to sell me the machine. I wouldn't take it, I was close to bankrupt. But the next day the danged thing just arrived. I wanted to send it back on the spot, but my customers, they all wanted to see it. One thing led to another and. I dunno, everybody just loved it. I couldn't break their hearts by getting rid of it. That's what happened."

The General scratched his chin. His face made clear that he was truly confused as to whether Tom was telling the truth. But it also seemed clear he didn't really care. Either way, he'd been delivered a weapon of great promise. Something that could ensure military superiority until the end of time. A weapon whose ability for total destruction was only matched by its ghastliness.

Blake turned away and looked at the scenes of chaos flashing across the computer monitors. The barest hint of a smile crossed his face. He looked back at Tom who was staring at the floor in a meager attempt to avoid the sites on the screen. Blake grabbed Tom by the chin and jerked his head up so he could not look away.

"We always expected it to happen. Eventually we knew it would spread to people. So we've been watching your town for a long time. Installing camera's in your street lights and in your forests and swamps. Watching and waiting."

The back of Tom's throat curdled, like he was going to throw up, but nothing came. "It was you I felt in the forest. when we were looking for Ted and Tricia."

"I remember that," Blake agreed. "For just a minute, you had us shitting our pants. It seemed you like you were on to us."

"And it was you who found Ted. after Tricia had given birth."

"Indeed, we knew that would be a spectacular case. The transference of the disease through childbirth. But her prodigy is alive and well in our laboratory. We've high hopes for him."

Through watery eyes, Tom stared at the pile of monitors again. The images continued to flash and Tom began to recognize where the cameras had been placed. Some were obviously mounted at the tops of telephone poles. One was in the downtown statue of the founder of Honey Bluff. One was somehow built into one of the chairs of Bill Miller's Barber shop. One was in the only working stoplight in town.

But now there was even less movement on the screens. Many of those had been alive before had now been felled. Only mutants trudged through the street. A few fought like dogs over the scraps of meat that had once been human. Others muttered or howled into air, expressing some primal forlorn appeal to regain their lost humanity. Others seemed intent on extinguishing themselves by pounding their head against the brick walls of the downtown buildings. The madness that had fueled them to become unstoppable killers now was taking a personal toll; turning its bloodlust inward.

Reverend Rully, his wife and several parishioners were still in the church. The doors had been blocked of, either with piles of pews, or boards and nails. The Reverend himself stood at his podium giving a sermon to the gathered group of worshippers. Each of them had a Bible open to the chapter from which the Reverend was reading, each of them focused on his words, hoping to block out the terror that had befallen them. What could these people, the most religious of the town's inhabitants, be thinking, wondered Tom? Was this the apocalypse? We're the dead returning from their graves to walk the earth? Would they be saved in the final rapture, ported up to heaven by the grace of God? Or was there some seed of doubt in their hearts, doubt for their professed fate that would doom them to an eternity of damnation.

The doors to the church had been receiving and repetitive pounding as things outside attempted their way in. Finally the door gave way, crumbling into splinters of wood. And then they were inside. Ten, perhaps twenty of the creatures - things that in a previous existence had once attended the very church for every Sunday service and then retired to Tom's ice cream shop for a malt and a gumball. People who had offered up their wallets to save Tom's store on that wondrous day not so long ago.

The Reverend turned, eyed the creatures crossly, and then went back to his sermon. He at least seemed confident that there was nothing he could experience on earth that could not be made up for by the delights in Heaven. Most of the gathered mass also held their ground, though two people began sobbing uncontrollably and fell to the floor. Though Tom could not hear what the Reverend was saying he gathered that now the man was offering a prayer, and his constituents joined him. The mutants from the outside closed in, spreading out to ensure no one slipped past. One man through down his Bible and ran to the side of the church, struggling with the boards that had been nailed across the door. Two of the larger mutants headed towards him.

The Reverend continued his prayer, closing his eyes and looking up to the heavens. En masse, the creatures attacked. Leaping over the pews, choosing a target and going for the throat. Three of them targeted the Reverend knocking him on the floor and soon having his torso separated from his legs. Other creatures attacked the other worshippers, who, aside from the three who had lapsed, held their ground. Tom could almost her the continuation of the prayers as it rang in their heads as an attempt to block out the pain of being devoured alive.

"Good Christian people," the General said, nodding approvingly. "They die proudly for their country."

"Is this it?" Tom asked. "Are you done? Everyone is dead. Are you finished?"

"Not quite," said Blake. "Now comes the most interesting part. What happens to these creatures when they are the only things that are alive? Do they turn on each other? Do they turn on themselves? That's the question we seek to answer."

"And then what." Tom asked. "What happens when you have your answers?"

"These men aren't paid to sit around playing tiddly winks," barked the General. "We have here some of the best trained fighting officers in the world. "They'll go in, clean out whatever remnants need be removed and bury the dead. The people dying here are patriots. But their sacrifice will ensure our way of life for centuries. I think it's a small price to pay. isn't it?"

Tom had felt the burly military guards to each of him loosen their grip in his arms over the previous minutes. His feet were now firmly on the ground and he was no longer so wounded by the horror of what appeared on the screens. With a quick burst of energy he leapt forward and swung his fist. It connected with Blake's jaw, sending the General's face reeling to the side and toppling his body backward against a seated soldier who was typing away at a computer terminal. Both men crashed to the ground, bringing several blinking computer screens and a desk with them.

The response of the two officers who stood to each side of Tom was immediate. One came up behind Tom and slung an arm around him, forcing Tom's throat into the crook of his elbow, sharply cutting of air. Another came up to the front, landing several blows to Tom's solar plexus. Tom tasted blood as it excavated out his mouth in phlegmmy chunks. His knees buckled and the first man released him and let him fall to the floor. Once there he received a series of kicks, noticeably to his groin, that sent shockwaves of pain flying up his nervous system.

Tom rolled himself into a ball in a meager attempt to protect himself from the blows, and he was surprised when they quickly stopped. He felt two powerful hands grab him by the shoulders and lurch him into the air, dropping him into a chair. He opened his eyes knowing full well what to expect. The bloodied, enraged face of the General Blake was before him.

"YOU!" shouted the General. "I've done nothing here but show you the utmost generosity. I even foolishly decided to spare your life from the onslaught of your own town. And this is how you repay my charity?" The General wiped a spatter of blood onto his hand.

"You didn't do me any durned favors," Tom replied. "I'd rather die where I lived than spend another second looking  at your ugly mug."

"That can be arranged," the General said. "Washington!"

From the back of the room, a figure stepped forth. A figure Tom was more than familiar with. Reginald Washington. Reginald looked at Tom's bruised form on the chair, but his face did not betray any emotion. Blake muttered into Reginald's ear and Reginald signaled to the two officers who'd been guarding Tom. They picked him up and began dragging him to the door. Once again, one of them tapped the keypad and the metal blockade swung open. From there, Tom was walked/dragged down the plastic tube that served as a hallway. Down the confusing array of greenish corridors he went, eventually popping out in a open field. Military men hurried about, walking around three helicopters that were situated in the area. The men escorted Tom up to the opening of one of the air vessels and threw him inside. He hit the floor and felt his vision blacken temporarily, the result of the blows he'd so recently collected.

Tom heard the doors to the front of the copter open and slam. There was also the sound of scuffling as someone boarded the copter from the rear. He rolled over and looked up, seeing that his two guards were now starting up the vehicle from the pilots seat. He turned behind his to see Reginald sitting on seat looking at him. The black youth was pointing a pistol at him.

"Reggie," Tom muttered. "Good to see you."

"You shouldn't have pissed him off, Tom." Washington replied. "I was really hoping I could get you out of this alive."

"I don't get the impression you were doing me any favors, Reggie. There's no need to pretend."

"I don't expect you to like me, Tom. I wouldn't if I were in your shoes. But you would have been dead a long time ago if not for me."

Tom mused on the young man's words. It was true that Reginald had saved his life more than once in the night previous. But he'd returned the favor.

The helicopter lifted off from the ground. It rose up in the air and the military base below grew small enough that it looked like a child's toy. Then the copter shot forward, flying over farmland and forest.

Tom spoke. "So I guess you're with this crazy bunch, eh? I figured you to be to good for that."

"Just doing my job, Tom. I was sent in to watch the transformation first hand. There's some things a camera can't tell you."

"Pretty dangerous work," Tom said. "I imagine you can't be very high on the totem pole 'round here."

"Nice try, Tom. In actuality there are very few men Blake would trust to perform such a duty. I very well valued, my friend."

"What about your story? About seeing your unit killed by the disease. Any truth to that?"

"For the most part," Reginald replied, keeping the pistol trained on his prisoner. "I was much lower ranked then. But they discovered something about me that day, Tom. I was one of the few that could catch the disease and get over it. It passed through me within a matter of days. And then, even with repeated exposures, I was immune. That makes me very special. Only five known cases of such a thing."

"So why go along with this madman, Reggie? You don't really buy all this talk about the ultimate weapon, do you? Can you imagine what that would mean?"

"The truth is, I don't know if Blake is blowing bullshit or not," Reginald said. "A lot of what he says makes sense. But I know that I'm better paid here than I ever could be back home. In the military, people pay attention to what I say. I've found my calling if you know what I mean."

"At the expense of everyone else? At the expense of Duke? Or Brian?"

"I liked Duke," Reginald said. "Brian was quiet. But I'm not kidding myself. To Haffert I was just poor nigger, the type he'd probably been abusing since before I was born. Let's not kid ourselves, Tom. Duke was a character, but he was a bastard."

"What about everyone else in my town, Reginald?" Tom said heatedly. "People you'd never even met. What about me?"

"Like I said, Tom. I liked you. I did what I could. But I didn't grow up in Honey Bluff. I didn't grow up in a place where neighbors looked out for each other. I didn't grow up in a place where you could walk the streets at 12 at night. Where I'm from. things are different."

Tom held his tongue. He knew there was little he could say to convince a man so far down the wrong path. Instead he watched the clouds shooting past him as the helicopter flew forward. It was mid afternoon, Tom gauged, but an overcast day. After a minute the copter descended a bit and seemed buried within the clouds. Tom worried the pilots might go to low and hit something. Then he saw one of the two men up front look back at Reginald. In return, Reggie nodded.

"Well, this is it, Tom," Reginald said. "Time for you to exit." With that Reginald gave Tom a fierce kick sending the him toppling out the door into the open air.

Click here for Part XVI



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