As Greta Brandt led them over to the nearest food line, Garrick reflected on the odd exchange between Miss Brandt and Obadiah McKeen. As with Dr. Crippen, he sensed something vaguely off-key about them, something he just couldn’t put a finger to. For one thing, McKeen had an odd accent, sounding vaguely Irish and vaguely Bostonian, and yet not like either one. And the manner in which he strung his words together had a peculiarly old-fashioned ring to them–which also seemed strange, since Obadiah McKeen appeared no older than thirty-five.
As for Miss Brandt, Garrick sensed she was somehow different too, though in a more subtle, indefinable way. He tried to put a name to it, if only to push aside a nagging feeling that something about The Institute for Advanced Reconstructive Surgery wasn’t quite right.
“What would you like?” Miss Brandt cheerily inquired, as they looked over the array of food being dispensed along the line.
“I’m still trying to decide,” Garrick replied, overwhelmed by the variety of foods being served along the way–everything from simple sandwiches to meals as exquisite as anything he’d ever seen.
“As you can see, you can have any kind of food you desire.” Her eyes twinkled. “Anything at all.”
Garrick managed a chuckle.
“Funny you should mention it. I was just standing here thinking about a place I used to eat at when I was a kid.”
“What place was that?” Greta asked, passing a hand over a glowing light, in the peculiar shape of an amoeba, and ejecting a serving of steaming minestrone soup onto her tray.
“Oh, just an old hot dog stand back in Houston. One I used to go to with my brothers when we were kids.” He nodded reflectively over the old memory, of times gone by, vaguely wondering why he should suddenly think of it. “Anyway, it’s gone now, torn down years ago. But I swear Old Man Hooper used to make the best-tasting chili dogs you ever ate, all smothered in onions and diced red bell peppers and‒” Garrick shrugged. “Sometimes I get a bit carried away,” he said, looking a little embarrassed.
“Not at all,” she replied sweetly, smiling at Garrick’s boyhood recollection as she waved a hand over another peculiarly-shaped light, ejecting two freshly-baked French rolls onto her tray. Strangely, she found herself increasingly drawn to this newcomer, almost as if she had always known him. Oh silly me, she thought, trying to ignore the sudden flutter in her heart.
But the palpitation remained insistent, even as she leaned in closer to the intriguing stranger with the alluring green eyes: “Please, tell me more,” she encouraged, enjoying the sound of his voice.
Garrick smiled too, all too happy to speak of the familiar even as they moved on down the line. “Well, those hot dogs were uncommonly good...big, meaty ones like you seldom see anymore. Two for a buck back then and more than enough for any twelve year old kid. And every order included one of those little chocolate-covered mints, so you wouldn’t smell of onions afterward. Somehow, those mints always made Hooper’s Hot Dogs seem kind of special. Anyway,” Garrick finished, glancing over at Greta Brandt, “you can tell I only ate at classy joints when I was a kid.”
Greta Brandt smiled attractively. “How would you like to have a couple of genuine Hooper’s hot dogs right this instant?”
“Sure,” Garrick replied, “whip me up a couple. And while you’re at it, toss in the key to Fort Knox.”
“You don’t believe I’m serious, do you?”
Garrick shrugged, moving on down the line. “Hey, this cafeteria may be high-tech, but there’s no way some fancy machine can recreate one of Hooper’s masterpieces.”
Greta suddenly paused, directing her eyes toward a trapezoid-shaped device embedded in the wall. “Hooper’s Hot Dogs, did you say?”
“In Houston, Texas?”
“That’s right. But Hooper’s doesn’t exist anymore–”
Greta Brandt seemed to ignore Garrick’s last remark as she stared intently at the device, her deep blue eyes momentarily transfixed. An instant later two hot dogs popped out, all smothered in onions, sliced red bell peppers, and piping-hot chili, each nestled in two crenellated white paper trays stamped in old-fashioned red script: ‘Hooper’s Hot Dogs’.
Garrick looked down at the familiar chili dogs, at the fondly remembered logo, and at something else: a foil-wrapped chocolate-covered mint, of the same brand he remembered from childhood.
“Well, I’ll be damned...”
Slowly, he looked up at Greta Brandt, once again sensing an eerie distance separating himself and the young woman, as if some invisible, but nonetheless real, barrier stood between them.
“Aren’t you going to take them?”
A deadly glint came into Garrick’s eyes. “I want to know what’s going on here. No machine I know of can perform tricks like that.”
Greta seemed not to hear a word as she gaily reached over and placed Garrick’s platter of hot dogs on her own tray. “Oh, but they smell so delicious!”
Before Garrick could protest, she led him out of the line and toward a nearby table, “Well, I’m not really one to explain these sorts of things. All I know is that The Colony has some sort of contrivance that can reproduce any kind of food you want. It’s recorded the menus of thousands and thousands of bygone restaurants, cafes, and diners from all over the world. It’s absolutely aces!”
As they took seats at a table, Garrick glanced down at the chili dogs again, two frightening replications of something that shouldn’t have been possible to replicate. At least, not by any known technology. He reached over and retrieved the mint, flipping it over. All the details where there, down to the last printed word. Yet, the mint company, like Hooper’s Hot Dogs, had long been defunct. That anyone would have taken the time to dredge up the menu of some long-vanished hot dog stand, or go to the trouble of recreating an exact duplicate of a foil-wrapped mint from an equally defunct candy maker, just so one patient out of a million could order them from a cafeteria line seemed disquietingly absurd.
Suddenly seized by an unnameable fear, Garrick grabbed hold of Greta Brandt’s arm. “What is this place–exactly!”
“But Mr. Fenstad–Garrick–surely everything was explained to you at Orientation.”
Garrick swallowed, trying hard to hold down a rising tide of fear. “No... I mean, yes... It’s just that I can’t remember everything that was said.” He rubbed his forehead, feigning a headache. Then he glanced again at the disturbingly familiar food on the tray. “I just want to know what’s going on here, is all. Nothing I’ve seen so far makes a bit of sense. All I know is that I woke up from a car crash and found myself here. A car crash that should have killed me six times over. And yet here I am, good as new. Not a scratch on me. At the very least, I should be sitting in a wheelchair right now bandaged from head to toe.” Garrick glanced about him, at all the milling faces. “In fact, nobody in this place shows any sign of injury.”
“You’ve had a terrible accident, Garrick. For some of us, full recovery can be...upsetting. Trust me, I know.”
Garrick swallowed again, realizing now that he was frightened. Frightened of something just beyond the horizon of his perception, something he sensed all around him, huge and maw-like, waiting to swallow him. Something he sensed he didn’t want to know–yet must.
“Is that how you ended up here–because of some terrible accident?”
He saw Greta Brandt’s eyes momentarily deepen, as if a shadow had passed over.
“In the beginning, yes,” she finally whispered, turning slightly away.
Whatever it was, Garrick had obviously struck a nerve.
Greta lowered her eyes.
“I’d rather not talk about it...not just yet.”
Reluctantly, Garrick released his grip on her, and grew silent once more. He sensed something horrible had happened to Greta Brandt, something even beyond that which had happened to him. Yet, here she was, young and pretty and so full of life.
“When will you be released?” he quietly asked.
Greta regarded him very curiously now.
“Are you absolutely certain you’ve attended Orientation, Garrick?”
She fluttered her eyes at him.
“Oh, how rude of me. Of course you have. After all, no one is ever released into the general population until they’ve been to Orientation. Otherwise, I just can’t imagine how anyone could accept the truth of this place.”
Garrick grew quiet once more as Greta dipped into her minestrone soup. As she ate, he quietly studied the people seated around him, searching their faces for any sign of the peculiar remoteness he sensed in her.
Yes, he thought, there was something...
Only–what was it?
“You really must eat something, Garrick.”
Garrick looked down at his food. Slowly, he reached for one of the hot dogs and took a bite.
Greta smiled at him.
“Anything like you remember?”
Garrick glanced up at her.
“More than you know.”
He took another bite of the chili dog, savoring tastes he hadn’t known since boyhood. And yet, each new bite brought him closer to the brink of some unnameable fear, some sixth sense of understanding that lay just beyond a shadowy boundary in his mind.
There was a scampering of feet past their table as a group of children rushed by, and for a moment Garrick’s fears receded like a dark tide. The sound of their laughing shouts and giggled retorts all seemed so normal, he thought, so everyday. But something kept nagging at the perimeter of his mind, gnawing at the raw nerve-endings of his sanity.
“Dr. Crippen...” Garrick started to say, then hesitated.
Greta looked up from her minestrone soup, her spoon poised between delicate fingers.
“It’s the strangest thing–but I’m sure I know him from somewhere.”
“Yes... Only I can’t quite remember where.”
She took a bite of her French roll. “Well, he’s certainly a strange little man, Dr. Crippen is.”
“It’s not just that. His face...I’m positive I’ve seen it somewhere...in an old photograph, maybe. Or a book.” He hesitated. “A book about,” he looked up at her. “famous crimes...”
Garrick finished his second hot dog in grim silence, fearing every remembered taste. Yet, deep down, an anger was building. He didn’t like mysteries. He didn’t like being kept in the dark when it came to one all important subject–his life. Where was he–really? Was he even conscious, or was he actually strapped to a bed inside some hospital burn unit, pumped full of pain-killers and mind-altering drugs? Somehow, he had to find out.
“I don’t feel as if I’ve been told the truth,” Garrick said.
After a long period of silence, Greta finally replied, “All I know is that we were all very fortunate to end up here, Garrick. In time, you’ll come to see that.”
Garrick looked across at her, his eyes a quiet plea.
“But where is ‘here’, Greta? What city are we in? Damn it, what state even?”
Greta lowered her eyes.
“It’s difficult to accept the truth, I know. To realize you’ll never see your loved ones again...”
On hearing that, Garrick thought again of Obadiah McKeen and the man in the Orientation line, who had spoken to him about being shot. Was that the truth? he wondered. Was he actually locked inside some sort of experimental insane asylum, full of deranged patients who believed they had been victims of imaginary street thugs and tomahawk attacks by Comanches? Had he lost his mind too, believing himself the victim of a terrible car crash when in reality it had never happened?
Could I be hallucinating? he silently asked himself.
Yes...that had to be it!
And yet, his mind refused to accept it.
Reluctantly, Garrick ceased his probing, knowing now it was hopeless. Greta Brandt wasn’t about to tell him anything more than Dr. Crippen had. Yet, somehow–someway–he’d been whisked away from the burning wreckage of an automobile crash and transported to this clandestine facility, which was probably located in some remote region of the United States, if not a foreign country altogether.
As to what branch of the government might be behind this kind of experimental facility he could not even begin to guess. At the moment, all he had to go on was the evidence of his own eyes and whatever he could learn from Greta Brandt–which was next to nothing. Whatever the case, the Institute was obviously a massive project, possibly run by the military, and involved untold thousands of personnel, government funding, and top secrecy.
But–all to what end?
Garrick looked again at Greta.
“Was it hard for you?”
“To accept,” he glanced around him, “‘the truth’?”
She nodded sadly.
“Oh, yes. Terribly so. As it was for most of us. But attending Orientation made it so much easier, knowing you’re not alone. That, and the Serenity medication, which we’re given daily. And, in my particular case...” she gazed off into the distance, “quite a few years of mental health counseling...”
Garrick started to ask what she meant by that when he stopped in mid-sentence, his eye suddenly transfixed on a nearby table.
“Is something wrong?”
He slowly parted his lips, as if to answer. But no sound came forth.
“Mr. Fenstad–Garrick–are you feeling alright?”
“That woman over there...”
Greta turned and looked.
“I’m certain I’ve seen her before,” Garrick muttered. “And those three children sitting with her. Something about them. In a newspaper I read…”
“That’s not really unusual. Everyone here says that about someone, sooner or later.”
“No, you don’t understand. I’ve seen them before. Not long ago. On television...”
Greta shot a warning glance toward Obadiah McKeen, as if to alert him. But he was looking elsewhere, and failed to notice.
“Please, Garrick. You really mustn’t get yourself excited. Perhaps I should escort you back to Dr. Crippen.” She reached for his arm, but he rudely shook if off.
“Wait a minute. It’s all coming back now... Two weeks ago, just before my accident, there was a story about a woman and her three young daughters. They were driving east to meet up with the woman’s husband, who had taken a job as a construction worker in another state. And then–and then somewhere along the way...they vanished.”
“It’s all coming back now. There was a nationwide manhunt for them...”
“Garrick, I really think you should come along with me.”
Slowly, Garrick turned around, his face ashen with fear.
“Five days later they found them in an abandoned barn...dangling upside-down from the rafters. All four...raped, tortured, and shot in the head.”
Garrick Fenstad rose abruptly from the table, knocking his chair over. “They’re dead...”
Greta motioned toward Obadiah McKeen, who had now taken notice of the situation.
Abruptly, the burly man started toward them, followed by two other men.
Garrick suddenly whirled, his eyes wild.
Uprighting a table in a fury of fear, he dashed across the cafeteria, frantically searching for escape. A moment later he fled through the open doorway just as Greta Brandt jabbed a metallic device affixed to her uniform: “Cafeteria 137 to Security! We’ve got a Runner in Corridor Q-19! Repeat: we’ve got a Runner in Corridor Q-19!”