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The Practical Jokers
"Where the hell is that truck?" Chad yelled into the Bluetooth built into his motorcycle helmet. The tone of his voice blamed everyone else. All five frat brothers were exhausted. Kyle being the younger brother of the fraternity president could bitch to Chad about the mess he created.
"Forty-eight hours searching and nothing, not a clue where it is. What kind of cheap-assed trucking firm did you hire?" Kyle growled, tired and aching. He got no answer.
Kenichi on the leading motorcycle announced his needs. "My bladder is going to burst, and my stomach is eating itself. I see a truck stop ahead. We will stop."
Bringing up the rear, Chad saw the lights of a Dump-n-Run's Plaza. "All right, pull over, rest for about an hour."
He was last into the parking lot, his damn rice-burner back-fired twice before the motor stopped. He wished he had a big Harley like the others rather than his hand-me-down, cheap-assed, second-hand, rice-burner with the bad suspension and the broken exhaust that roasted his crotch. He'd be sterile for a month after this much heat to his privates. The search for Rusty took precedence over his discomfort. Still, he ripped the helmet off his head and stamped his boots, as if the ground was responsible. He was the one who shipped Rusty to the Castro Bondage Festival in a box that never arrived. Two days of searching and no sign of Rusty or the truck. It was his fault; not that he acted like he took any responsibility.
Jakeem and Jose, two of his frat brothers and fellow searchers, waited.
"Where are the others?" He demanded.
"Hosing the porcelain. We got told to wait for you. Now that you're here, we're going to drain the snake, unless you need help with that." Jose's English wasn't either subtle or nuanced. Chad never knew if he was sarcastic, blunt, or humorous. Jose turned and left. Jakeem followed.
Halfway to the door, Jakeem turned and pointed his finger at Chad. "Remember asshole; we aren't responsible for that truck driver's mistake."
Chad wasn't in the mood for bitching while pissing. He found a cactus back of the building and watered it. Tomorrow, it would die. He didn't care. Shipping frat brothers to inappropriate events was a fun, practical joke when it started. But, the scale of each joke escalated and overthrew common sense.
Parked on the side of the building was a black Moto Guzzi, a custom-made dream machine with case-hardened black metal fittings, blued steel frame, and black-on-black paint. Seeing it gave Chad a chance to talk himself down from a full-on, shit-fit temper tantrum. He composed his demeanor into what passed for civility and bonhomie by the time he reached the front door of the Dump-n-Run. Inside, He could see his buddies talking with the clerk, a pimply high school kid, probably arranging a joke at his expense. On the opposite side of the store, a State trooper sat. The trooper wore black leathers, black gloves which didn't make sense in the heat of the desert, and boots built with more metal than leather. In other times he might have seemed out of place.
Chad wasn't even at the counter when his stomach growled like a big black bear. His buddies shoved hot dogs into their mouths so they wouldn't laugh.
"What can I get to eat?" Chad asked, polite but brusque.
The clerk clutched his hands to his collar as if he'd just seen something horrible and needed to grasp at a string of pearls in terror; decidedly over-dramatic.
"I'm so sorry sir; I was just telling these fine gentlemen that two tour buses just came through and ate every veggie-burger and carrot cake in the place. I'm ashamed to say that's all I have, wrinkled, measly Danger Dogs. Meat isn't terrible. Please say you can eat a Danger Dog," he said, prompting a round of smirks and muffled giggles. Chad glared at him, fists clenched, neck and ears turning red. But, the kid wasn't finished.
"Old Man Crenshaw, the manager, pays me extra for all of the Danger Dogs I sell. That's what we call any hot dogs that are left over from the day shift--Danger Dogs. Personally, I think we should call them Little Boy Dogs because they look so shriveled and pathetic like little boys dicks from swimming in cold water, but I'm not allowed to tell the customers that--" he said in one pathetic, pleading, begging outburst. Gasping for air, he almost climbed onto the counter in desperation, hands clasped together, begging.
"Please sir, please don't yell at me or report me. I'm an orphan boy supporting a sick Mom and two siblings along with saving for my college fund and paying my sister's cancer bills. I want to pledge your fraternity next year. You're my idols. You're all that I want to be. Please buy a Danger Dog sir."
No one smirked or giggled. Even the coolers and freezers stayed silent, basking in the afterglow of the nuclear detonation of all confessional outbursts, a spectacle worthy of PT Barnum.
Chad backed away from the counter. "I'm sorry I asked. I'll go hungry,"
The Clerk smiled and passed him a large hot dog from under the counter. "Fresh from the grill, sir--" a pause and an excuse, "--They made me do it."
Chad's buddies celebrated with raucous laughter and hoots.
"Bastards," Chad smiled and put on an "aw shucks" face. "I guess I deserved that. I've been acting crazy," and unable to give an inch or hold his mouth added: "If only we could find Rusty."
The state trooper stood, walking stiff and awkward to the counter where he set his bottled tea. Kyle snorted as much in annoyance as hunger. He slopped mustard, sprinkled onion, and bit half the hot dog in one mouthful. His cheeks bulged, kid-like. The trooper glared at him. Kyle swallowed with some difficulty.
"If only you could find Rusty," the Trooper said. They all heard. "Y'all have a great big scavenger hunt going on; Am I right?" No answer. He turned to the clerk, motioned for him to step away, and faced Chad. "They tell me you're president of - - what should I call your crew of madmen? A gang? A posse? A pack of bloodhounds?"
Chad's eyes narrowed, his face turned hard. He stared back at the trooper. "We haven't committed a crime officer."
"That's not entirely accurate. You five have left a trail of chaos, traffic violations, and property damage over four states. That's not the antics of typical college boys on a drinking binge or silly girls on a scavenger hunt. No one can romp and stomp like crazed berserkers and get away without consequences. You need to take your behavior down a notch."
Chad bristled, resisting; "Are you ordering us?"
"Do you want to find your missing friend or be squashed like rats scurrying from a dumpster fire?"
"We're not finished. We still have to search north from Los Cruces to Albuquerque and Santa Fe."
"I suggest that you quit acting like jagoffs and let me join you. You can start by telling me about the missing truck." The trooper set a tablet computer on the counter and called up a database of police reports. Then he folded his arms and stared at them. Chad wasn't of a kind to give ground. He shifted, nervous, guilty, eyes darting left and right.
Kyle elbowed Chad aside and spoke through a mouthful of hot dog. "It's Rusty's fault. He started it. Before the semester began, Rusty painted every room in the Frat house a ghastly vagina-pink as a joke. It was truly puke-worthy. I told them not to make such a big deal of pink. I told them to paint him pink in retaliation. But no, Chad demanded satisfaction, something bigger." He swallowed and took another bite, again garbling his words between chews.
"So they packed Rusty into a crate and shipped him to the Castro Bondage Festival. The truck never arrived. We've searched every truck stop and gas station along the route and found nothing. No trace of that truck. I think that Rusty found a way to pay off the driver and disappear just to piss us all off." That wasn't altogether true. Kyle wasn't innocent and was justifying his role in the pranks. The State Trooper didn't care and ignored the details.
"Did you declare a living cargo or just nail the crate shut and send it away? That, in itself, violated the law."
The joke was exposed in all its inglorious stupidity. This trooper had them by the balls and was about to squeeze and squeeze hard. Jose threw his hands up. Kenichi shook his head. Kyle swallowed the last of his hot dog and grabbed a second dog. Chad just didn't care anymore.
"An online trucker picked up the crate 'no questions asked.' He was supposed to be fast and cheap. He should have arrived at the Castro Street Bondage Festival two days ago," Chad said.
"Any of you bother to get a Bill of Lading?" the Trooper asked. Three pairs of hands pulled zippers and searched pockets, nothing. At last, Chad unzipped a side pocket in his jacket and gave the Bill of Lading to the trooper who scanned its codes into his tablet.
"While I check, get yourself a hot dog and slushie. The desert does bad things if you try to ride through it hungry or dehydrated." The trooper took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket and put them on his face. He turned back to Chad who hadn't moved. "What are you waiting for?" Chad obeyed. The trooper typed several numbers from the Bill of Lading into the tablet computer. It beeped and started searching.
"How was your buddy dressed? Someone might have seen him out of the box," the trooper asked.
Eyes turned to Kyle. Caught off guard, he couldn't summon a lie that fast. "We, a, uh," He looked down, swallowed, and spoke, trying to hide from the truth. "I stuck him in a rubber worm suit."
"What's a worm suit?" the trooper yelled, the frat boys stared. Kyle blushed and didn't look up.
"It's latex, form-fitting, and makes someone look like an earthworm, uh sort of or a penis. Embarrassing. It's a bondage thing, with a hood, breathing holes," Chad's voice faltered into embarrassed silence.
"You should have followed that truck," Kyle blurted out, accusing.
"It was the same shipper you guys used last year on my birthday. He delivered me to the Ladies Garden Festival OK," Chad exploded, excusing.
The Trooper pointed at Chad. "You're what to Rusty, aside from President of the Fraternity?"
"Friends since grade school, We were champion wrestlers in High School together," Chad said, shifting, glancing down.
"And you," the Trooper pointed to Kyle.
"I'm his half-brother, on Dad's side. Mom lived next door. I'm two years younger."
"So neither of you were Rusty's lover, right?" Once again, Silence filled the "Dump-n-Run." It was a cruel question designed to stop accusations and excuses.
The Trooper held the computer tablet so they couldn't see the screen. He typed a message: "General, I have the key to the gang of fools that have been running all over the landscape. I have the leader under control. The rest will follow him. Make ready the conversion protocol and inform currently dragooned subject." With that finished, he gave Chad and his friends the information. They believed it came from the tablet.
"Your shipper had GPS in that truck. Its last signal indicates the truck broke down on the Jornada del Muerto."
"What's the Jornada del Muerto?" Kenichi asked.
"A hundred mile deathtrap that got its name back when wagon trains drove the Camino Real. The shit-for-brains you hired as trucker must have thought it was a shortcut. It's a nasty, hot death trap."
"Time is wasting then; Now that we know where Rusty might be. Let's ride," Chad said.
"Not so fast. The Jornada del Muerto is dry as Hell, nasty hot, and littered with skeletons of the unfortunates who tried to cross it. You can search it under my supervision, understand?"
"Really officer, you don't have to do that. We'll be safe. We promise," Kyle said.
"No! You guys bought your sense of safety at a clearance sale. We don't need or want five college boys dying in the desert. Either I join this little hunting expedition, or Y'all go to jail on seventeen counts of reckless endangerment in multiple states."
"You can't be serious," Chad said.
"I push one button, five police cars show up to arrest Y'all. Don't believe me, look out there." He pointed to the highway. Five sets of police blinkers flashed for several seconds.
A single word dropped from several sets of lips at once.
A chugging sound of the coolers filled the Dump-n-Run. The silence of guilt-ridden eyes trying to shift blame, half-formed thoughts seeking diversion, unspoken accusations flailing, and hidden recriminations stinking like turds between the five college men thundered through the building in soul-searing silence. Furtive moves betrayed the decision process - - fists opened and closed arrogant and doubtful, backs arched and shoulders squared, heads snapped sideways in shame, defiant thoughts flamed but not a word was said. More than one plan formed but only Chad dared to speak.
"We do as he says."
"Why? You wanted revenge, and Kyle did the deed," Jakeem stood, feet wide, arms folded, defiant.
"You go clean up your own mess," Kenichi snarled at Chad. He and Jakeem made for the door.
The trooper knew a rebellion when he saw one. He didn't wait for Jose to join the pair. He stepped in front of Jakeem who was a head taller and wider across the shoulders and glared.
"You're the cyclist who blew through five red lights to look at a step van on route 70. That's enough bad points to lose your license and in some states spend a few weeks in jail as a repeat offender. Stand down, young man. Stand down right now." That cowed Jose.
The Trooper turned to Kenichi. "And you, you little shit." The trooper took a breath, preparing for a fist that wasn't thrown. "When the tough arrives, you turn tail, chicken-out, slither back to your safe dorm room and leave the trouble for others to solve. You cluck like a hen, boy. Is this the ideal of brotherhood you pledged allegiance to?"
Kenichi's hands snapped to attack posture, ready to fight. Jose stopped him.
"Stand down, hombre. Finding Rusty is more important," he said, turning away from Kenichi and towards the Trooper: "What's so special about this Jornada del Muerto?"
The trooper stepped aside, slightly stiff-legged, ungainly, something not quite right. "It's a multitude of desert paths between Albuquerque and Santa Fe; hot as hell and mortally dangerous. Top off your gas tanks. Pack two gallons of water each, more if your bike can take it, and food that won't spoil in the heat. I'll wait in the parking lot."
As Chad grabbed his supplies, he watched the trooper move around the Moto Guzzi. A Moto Guzzi is customized to the driver, but this particular Moto Guzzi went beyond customization. The trooper's hands fit inside the handlebar's and became extensions, his boots clamped to the metal pedals, slots accommodated his knees, and the seat not only fit his hips but gripped them. No factory created that perfect a ride, not even Moto Guzzi.
The convoy of six motorcycles roared onto Interstate 25 with the trooper in the lead. He rode fast, over 100 mph, and hard, using lights and siren to dodge around traffic. Chad and his crew followed. Fifty miles north of Los Cruces, they left the interstate and rode toward the desert. A hand signal pointed to the beginning of the Jornada del Muerto. It was an atrocious gravel road.
Another dozen miles and the road turned to desert filled with cactus and then to drifting sand with red rock lining the berms falling off into rocky ravines. The temperature rose over a hundred degrees. They crossed a basin filled with creosote trees, mesquite scrub brush, and saw nothing ahead but desolate sand. Cellphone and GPS service ceased.
"That's why the truck driver got lost. We are in a no service area. The mountains ahead are named the Point Mountains because they pointed the way for Wagon Trains. The Apaches used the mountains to cover their ambush. They collected scalps just like the desert. These days, Alamogordo and Trinity are Northeast. White Sands is east. All three contaminated with radioactivity. A slower death than stroke or scalping," the State Trooper said.
"What the Hell was that truck driver thinking. He'd have to be stupid to use this road," Kyle said through the intercom.
"How is this a shortcut?" Jose asked.
Forty miles later, they came upon a wrecked van laying on its side at the bottom of a ravine. It was twisted and open. The wooden crate sat half-in, half-out of the back with the lid missing. Kyle stood on the top of the embankment shaking his head violently from side to side as if to deny the wreck's reality.
Chad ran down to the crate, yelling for Rusty, fearing he'd find Rusty lying dead in it. "He can't be far away if he got the crate open."
"Could he crawl to safety?" None of them saw a periscope rising from the sand about five yards from where they stood. Nor did they notice the pair of drones circling like vultures.
"He probably crawled away and died of sunstroke. It's your fault. You take responsibility for it and all those so-called practical jokes, asshole," Jakeem accused. Fists clenched, Kyle charged him. The State Trooper tripped him and stuck a knee in his back to hold him down.
"No fights on my watch," he said. Kyle stopped, and the trooper let him stand. Doubts about the Trooper exploded from his lips.
"You've been lying to us all this time. You know where Rusty is," Kyle accused.
The periscope rising from the sands still didn't attract their attention until it turned into a metal roof. Twelve soldiers in faceless, high-tech helmets and sand-colored camouflage stood rifles aimed at them. Their hands went up.
"Who are you?"
"What's going on?"
A soldier pointed at Chad. "Are you Chad Monroe?"
"How do you know my name?"
"We have dossiers on all of you. General Hawkridge wants to talk to you. Follow us."
But Chad didn't follow. He swung at the soldier. The soldier moved faster than Chad, grabbing him by the throat, lifting him off the sand, and holding him until his face turned an ugly red.
"Get in the lift sir, or I'll rip your head off and haul your lifeless body down to General Hawkridge. Am I clear, sir?" He threw Chad onto the floor of the lift. After that, no one resisted.
The door of the shed closed and the floor dropped like an elevator on an aircraft carrier. In a few seconds, a sliver of light appeared at their feet level and grew to reveal an underground chamber the size of half-dozen football fields. Several Moto Guzzi motorcycles resembling the State Trooper's cycle stood in a row.
At the far end, a highly decorated, four-star General waited.
"Good job, Trooper Wyatt," he said.
The State Trooper saluted.
"They raised one helluva ruckus across three States before I caught up to them at the Dump-n-Run eating Choke and Puke dogs," he said.
"Four not three, we searched four states." Chad's brain couldn't shut down his mouth. General Hawkridge glared at him.
"Think before you speak, boy!" the General barked. He surveyed the others who remained silent. Satisfied, he spoke again. "The facts are this: This base was secret until your hired truck crashed. The driver died. His head smashed out the windshield. We discovered Mister Wormy injured and unconscious. So we patched him up and conscripted him into service."
General Hawkridge stood aside to reveal Rusty.
Rusty was naked except for a metal cup that covered his privates. Although, that wasn't the most startling piece of metal on his body. A metal eyepiece held a lens for his right eye. The opposite ear was entirely metal and bolted to his skull. His right leg was metal from the knee down, and his left leg was metal up to his hip. Metal plating shown on his hands and arms.
"It was a good joke, guys. Got to give you credit. In fact, that stupid worm suit might have saved my body from being ripped apart in the crash. If the soldiers hadn't shown up, I'd have bled out. They salvaged most of me and fixed me up with these new, metal parts. There's so much more inside me, too," Rusty said. "Seems everyone who is assigned here volunteers for special ops. General Hawkridge and his men invited me to join."
"Do those implants hurt?" Jakeem asked.
"They enable me to interface and control machines. I feel more than human. I can do this." He stepped over to a motorcycle. When he sat on it, the machine clamped to his metal legs, and the handlebars closed around his hands. The seat reached up, gripped his hips. A shield swallowed his manhood and protected his stomach. The motorcycle started without keys, revved its gears, and jumped forward. Rusty rode through an impossible obstacle without slowing, skidding or falling.
"This is the deal; join us," General Hawkridge said.
"And if we don't want to?" Jose asked.
"I'll order the soldiers to beat all of you unconscious and convert you into municipal controllers. You'll operate things like urinals to maintain minimum water usage. I've been told it's a challenging math problem."
Rusty stepped off the motorcycle. His metal parts rearranged themselves for walking. "They hold all the cards," he said, a red flush of shame crossing his face.
"You sold us out," Chad snarled, accusing Rusty. Rusty stuttered. The State Trooper stepped forward, took off his jacket and revealed metal from his hands up to his shoulders and across his back.
"A year ago, a car crash nearly killed me. Both arms and most of my legs and spine are metal."
"And you want us to become like you?" Chad said.
"An opportunity to do something significant in life," the trooper answered. A sullen silence filled the group.
"And if we still refuse?" Jakeem asked. General Hawkridge smiled, smug and confident that he had the advantage. The truth was, he did.
"I think y'all met the Lieutenant who throttled Mister Monroe."
Kenichi poked the soldier's chest with his finger. "You're not such a big deal, bring it on."
"Stupid boy! I'm Nightmare incarnate," The soldier lifted his mask to reveal a metal skull with red eyes, holes for his nose, and steel fangs for teeth. The dreadful visage was like a black mask of despair and death. Kenichi stepped back so fast he stumbled over his feet and grabbed onto Chad.
Kyle, not the brightest of even the dim bulbs, tried a passive-aggressive tactic to gain some leverage. "How about a good last meal to think things over. I mean, Danger Dogs at the Dump-n-Run had to be the most pathetic last meal to decide our futures. Maybe an hour or two for a steak or lobster, a nice glass of wine, chocolate cake? How about it, General," he asked?
"Everyone asks for time, for knowledge, for enlightenment, but today, right here and now, there is only destiny and change," General Hawkridge said.
"What will you tell our families?"
"They'll be told you decided to join an elite, top-secret military unit," Hawkridge said. The young men did the silent conference with the eyes and the nods and the shrugging of shoulders.
They went to the processing area, removed their clothes, and received the metal privacy cup so they wouldn't stand completely naked. The processing room didn't contain motorcycles but five other-worldly, all-wheel drive, rover-style vehicles. Behind them was a framework with a row of emitters surrounding it.
"We aren't going to be soldiers?" Kyle asked.
"No, your assignment is extraordinary," General Hawkridge said.
A white-coated technician explained the transformation process.
"We encase you in metal, inject you with nanobots, and align the emitters," he pointed to an orange light, "that combine metal and flesh. It's completely painless."
Additional technicians placed metal shells like suits of armor over the Frat boys bodies and helped them into position inside the other-worldly vehicles. Under the radiation of the transformation device, their flesh and bone converted to living metal. Machine parts flowed around their bodies like a new skin, turning muscle to gears, tendons to joints, facial features to case-hardened metal, hands to flexible probes, and torsos into columns. The vehicles joined with their minds, integrated with computers, and gave them control of the metal vehicles.
Man recreated. Man enhanced. Man as machine.
Vehicles born of human flesh drove around the chamber in autonomous motions, learning new lives. General Hawkridge watched, admiring his new creations, envying them their mission. Humanity was too frail to create habitats on other planets but not these converted men; these automatons were nearly indestructible. In a month, they would launch into space, and 220 days later, they would soft-land on Mars and prepare a new world for humanity to colonize.
4400 words more or less
FUTURES YET UNKNOWN
Ten Stories by Dave Fragments
*An Alien serial murderer and a furry detective with fleas.
*Murder on a world with altered humans.
*Disturbing apocalyptic visions *Monstrous dystopian societies.
*A man on trial for betraying the human race to robots.
*Devils, demons and ghosts.
*Survivors of a plague war.
*Cyborgs trying to be human.
*Six friends in a strange sinkhole.
*The truth about a world drowning in rain, without sun, without hope.
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