SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
Detroit, Michigan March 1, 1957
The irony of joining a union so soon after the debacle in Chicago was not lost on Brock. But this was the UAW, one of the most powerful unions in the country, and the benefits and pay were nothing for an honest laborer to sneeze at. If he lasted the first year, and he had little doubt he would, his bonus would outstrip even the hazard pay the Army had shunted his way after his most harrowing super-ordeals.
He liked the work, too. Manual labor suited him, as did the efficiency of the assembly line, a point-to-point system of men in near-perfect tune with the automation, a precision-dependent work regimen that was perfectly suited to the muscle-memory mindset of a soldier. And indeed, most of the men he shared the line with were veterans, too, though it was unlikely any of them had ever faced Captain Panzer, the Human Tank in the North African desert, or fought the Rising Son in the sky over Hiroshima as Little Boy did his dirty atomic business below. For their benefit, Brock invented a backstory for himself that included storming the beach at Normandy, fighting at Market Garden, and surviving Bastogne, all as a regular grunt.
Every so often, he’d hear a couple of the other men discussing General Public, wondering what had become of him, or swapping stories–mostly secondhand tales retooled to support the claim that they’d been there–about accompanying him on wild exploits.
“He saved my ass at Guadalcanal, I tell ya,” one man would say.
“How could he? He was in the ETO then, leading my squad on a raid against the MechaKraut!” another man would argue.
“What, you think he can’t be two places at once?” a third guy would ask. “He’s freakin’ General Public!”
“I hear there’s more’n one of ‘em.”
“Nah, that’s a lot of malarkey. They broke the mold makin’ that guy.”
“I hear he broke it himself, just to keep them from makin’ more.”
“It’s just an expression. You think he came outta a mold, like he’s Jell-O?”
“Sure turned to Jell-O in Chicago, didn’t he?”
And with that, they’d grow mostly silent, kind of morose. Even the ones that poked fun at the guy in the ridiculous outfit (“Ain’t even regulation colors? What makes him so special?” “Uh, everything about him, ya ultramaroon!”) seemed disturbed at his disappearance. Apparently, he’d underestimated the impact of the living symbol of their harsh struggle and ultimate victory in the face of evil suddenly losing his shit and vanishing into the wind. If life back home could break the General, what was going to become of them?
“What’dya think, Stone?” someone would inevitably ask as he sat silently in the breakroom, just taking in the chatter with a bemused half-grin. “What become of the General?”
“Maybe his job was done. Ever think of that? Maybe he just wanted to come home, settle into a nice normal life out of the glare of the public eye. Find some peace, start a family. Isn’t that why you guys did it?”
They’d get quiet again, a couple of them nodding, a few others shaking their heads.
“He coulda said something,” someone would say.
“Ah, he didn’t owe us nothing. Stone’s right. Guy gave plenty. I say wherever he’s at, God bless ya, Pubby! You done right by this old soldier.”
Words like that, when they reached his ears, were better than any medal.
Every so often, he and a few of the other vets–the ones with the heaviest combat experience–would get pulled off the line for a special detail. It usually had to do with a clean-up in the crash test room, or occasionally an accident during a test run of some new experimental vehicle or another, the thinking being that men who’d seen much worse in combat wouldn’t lose their lunch over a chimpanzee or human cadaver that had just been turned into a hundred-plus pounds of ground chuck.
Brock never said no, but every time, he prayed it wouldn’t be an ape of any kind. The very first time he’d had to pull the limp remains of a dead chimp with absolutely no say in how his life turned out from the crumpled wreckage of a Vanderbuilt Shadow sports coupe, he’d found himself right back inside that Austrian mountain lab, with the helpless ape-boy strapped to the table waiting for the horrors to come. At least that time, he was able to save the animal-man. On the Vanderbuilt test floor, not so much. So as he made his way with a couple of his workmates to the exterior test field, a Jeep-ride away from the rear facility entrance, he found himself chanting his strange new mantra, “Please be a corpse. Please be a corpse. Please be a corpse.”
As they came upon the scene, Brock knew this wasn’t the normal test-crash scenario. The way the vehicular wreckage was strewn far and wide, the fact that there were medics and nurses at the site performing what amounted to battlefield triage, the evidence of more than one or two “test bodies” and more than likely actual collateral victims told him that something had gone terribly wrong here. He imagined the only reason they hadn’t heard it all the way inside was the roar of their own machines. He also knew that there would be visits from legal after this, papers to sign, sworn oaths of confidentiality in this matter. And he would sign them dutifully and without protest because all he wanted was to keep a low profile and this job.
A couple of men were running around barking orders like a two-headed dog, both acting like they were fully in charge while not challenging each other’s authority. One of them, balding and sweat-stained, his expensive suit smoke-blacked and blood-spattered, his threatening cigar aimed like a weapon at whoever crossed his field of vision, was Carlton Fuller, company president. Brock recognized him from the portrait and accompanying bronze bust in the lobby. The other, in full dress regalia, a bloom of medals on his puffed-out chest splayed like peacock feathers, Brock recognized from his other life. General Beauregard Flagstaff, formerly Colonel Flagstaff, one of Dwight D.’s most trusted advisors during the war. A real bastard, who clearly brimmed with simmering resentment every time he’d had to defer to the wishes of the honorary super-officer General Public. Technically, Public never outranked him, because the title had more to do with image-creation than any actual position of command, but time and again, Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur and the others had happily taken his lead, largely because Public got battle-tested results, and in no small part because it took the heat of potential operations failure off of them.
When he spotted the civilian workers approaching, Flagstaff puffed up even more, and Brock was sure the big man was in danger of providing a secondary explosion by spontaneously bursting from his own skin.
“Fuller, what is the meaning of this? Why are these men here!”
“They’re our designated clean-up crew, General. You got a problem with that?”
“Yes I do! This is a military exercise, and it’s our job to not only clean this up, but to keep as tight a lid as possible on what happened here. And that means not bringing in another half-dozen looky-loos to get a gander at this godforsaken mess!”
“No, General, what this is, or was, is a commercial test of an experimental technology for the purpose of securing a government contract. You are guests here, and this disaster is completely our responsibility. My responsibility. I appreciate whatever help your men can provide, of course, and believe me when I say, the Vanderbuilt board wants this to get out even less than you do, and we’ll do everything we can to ensure that. Won’t we, boys?”
With that, he turned his attention directly to Brock and the others. But mostly to Brock. His eyes fixed him with a laser-like stare, his face a mask of phony camaraderie and genuine impatient expectation.
“That’s right, sir,” Brock said, nodding solemn agreement. Luckily, his own carefully cultivated obsequiousness in the face of authority figures served him well when he had to knuckle under and make them look good. Brock certainly didn’t fear, and didn’t even particularly respect, the so-called authority that a uniform or a title supposedly imposed upon a man, knew that these separations between individuals were arbitrary and frequently decorative, relying entirely on a tacit agreement between multiple parties that such distinctions did in fact exist. His main reason for bowing to the whims of leaders, be they worthy of respect or just petty tyrants-in-training, was expediency. The quicker he said yes, or appeared to acquiesce to their expectations, the sooner he could get on with the job at hand. Sure, part of it was duty, but the larger portion was simply a means to lubricating the engines of progress and forward motion.
“See, General. I may be no more than a businessman, but I run a tight ship. Just like you. My men are loyal and true. Just like yours.”
Also, in this particular instance, in light of his history with Flagstaff, a despot in military finery, helping Fuller look good came with its own minor reward.
“Let’s get to it, boys,” Brock said, taking charge without a second thought. “Jessup, Ralston, you take the West end of the field. Any debris too large to be picked up by at least several men, tag it for automated retrieval. Everything else, sweep toward the center and create a pile…”
“Hang on a sec, Stone,” Jessup chirped. “Who made you boss?”
“I did,” Fuller said, and gave Brock an approving nod that seemed to come from a place of sincere, if noncommittal, admiration.
A young junior executive ran up, breathless. “Sir, the technicians are having some difficulty retrieving the…” He glanced at Brock and his team and carefully considered his word choice. “…essential materiel.”
“What’s the problem?”
“The cockpit pod’s more or less intact. But the hatch lid fused in the heatblast.”
“Can’t we burn it open or something?”
“So far it’s resisting all their best efforts, sir.”
By the time Fuller turned his head to say something to Brock, he was already halfway across the field, approaching the scorched and blast-twisted metal pod.
The lab-coated techs were working feverishly, the ground around them littered with broken bits of wrenches, screwdrivers, crowbars. Now they were trying to burn through the hatch cover with some kind of superheated torch.
“You’re just welding the welding,” Brock said, his voice steady and commanding, trying his best not to make them feel like assholes.
“You got something better, worker-bee?”
The snippy tech stepped aside with a “be my guest” flourish. Brock cracked his knuckles and stepped forward. He had a moment of self-doubt before he put his hands on the thing. He’d torn the hatches off Panzers with his bare hands, punched through cockpit glass on Kamikaze jets over Midway, but with the chemicals out of his system, what made him think he could do this now?
“Hands? Is that your plan? You think we haven’t all tried that? Thing is, all that steel and glass is still cooling down from a toasty 1000 degrees or so.”
“I have gloves,” Brock said, and pulled his work gloves from his back pocket.
“I hope they’re made of lead.”
Brock placed one hand on the steaming glass and the other on the jagged metal lip where it once met the body of whatever kind of craft this was and gave it a tentative tug. Nothing. Not even a millimeter’s budge.
“How much oxygen you figure he’s got left in there?” one of the techs asked rather casually, lighting a First Strike off the side of the pod.
“Does he even need oxygen?”
“He…?” Brock murmured. “You mean there’s someone alive in there!?”
“Someone? Arguable. Something. Yes. Alive? Eh, that’s a question for a higher authority than me.”
Great, Brock thought. Another dead ape. But that did it. Not on my watch, he thought. Not if I can do a damned thing about it.
He took hold of the heat-fused hatch edge and pulled with all his might, feeling the gloves start to sizzle, feeling the burn right through them, smelling the mixture of leather and flesh as they sizzled. Wondering, will the gloves fuse to me like this hatch to itself? He tore the gloves off and went again, and this time, something moved. There was a terrific rending of steel and popping of glass, but even so, it was barely a hairline crack when he reached the limit of his exertion. Ignoring the pain in his fingers, he took a deep breath–not as helpful as he’d hoped, with the air full of smoke and reeking of jet fuel–and went again. This time, the edge started to curl back and someone behind him, maybe Jessup, let out a low wolf-whistle.
“Holy shit, he’s doin’ it!”
Another foul breath, another tensing of his shoulders, another reaching all the way down to the core of his being to do what he did best. Or used to. And what he’d always done best, really, was persevere. Against the odds, in the face of brutal, unrelenting elements both natural and manmade, he’d been the steadfast uncompromising rock, the true spirit of the American fighting man, beating the odds, cheating death and laughing in its face. His vision went red from the pain and the exertion and he saw MoMo again, the helpless creature in chains and in pain, saw the faces of the half-starved and half-dead children at Dachau, saw the terrified Londoners trying to make it home from the corner shop as V2’s rained on quaint, cobbled streets. Saw the faces of all the people he’d saved and all those he couldn’t and screamed from the memory and the moment, a bellow of rage and despair and defiance that mingled with the whining shriek of resistant metal and the angry crackle of splitting super-thick glass as the hatch buckled and gave way and he twisted it free and hurled it without thinking, sending it spinning toward a cluster of soldiers who managed to scurry out of its trajectory just in the nick of time.
“What were you in a past life? Circus strongman?” the formerly snippy tech asked, crushing out his cigarette and giving Brock an approving clap on his aching back.
“Goddamn hero, this one!” Ralston said.
“Screw that, Stone. Yer a goddamn superhero!”
“I hate to burst your bubble, boys, but whether he saved anyone’s day is still up for debate,” the tech said, peering into the shattered interior of the ruined cockpit.
Brock looked over his shoulder and what he saw made him shudder all the way down to his rock-solid core. The thing in the pilot’s seat was neither man nor beast, but a little bit of both, a grey-fleshed mass of scar tissue and stitches with milk-glass eyes, looking very much like one of the crash test cadavers, but without the mummy-wrap of bandages that were used as much to hold them together as for a kind of discreet acknowledgement that hey, this guy was human once. But this was no ordinary corpse because in spite of its many injuries, past and immediate, in spite of the metal strut through its torso and the chunk of instrument panel protruding from its cheek and the right arm hanging loosely where the forearm had snapped in half, this test subject was moving, trying to free itself with a kind of flailing determination, but no hint of panic or pain. The wild-rolling eyes, lifeless yet strangely mischievous, fixated briefly on Brock, or maybe something just behind him.
“Did I do good?” it asked in a dry, terrible rasp that turned Brock’s shudder into a cold fear-spasm.
And then it got worse.
“You did very well, mein junge,” said a voice from behind Brock. “And we’ll have you back in fighting form in no time.”
Cold fear became hot panic, and Brock stiffened in place. He knew that voice. He’d heard it in his nightmares.
From the cockpit, the crash test monstrosity grinned idiotically and gave the Nazi at Brock’s shoulder a twitchy, spastic thumbs-up.