Prisoner #14229 was lead by armed guard to the center of the commons area where a lone table had been set up. There were two chairs on opposite ends and a official-looking man in a black suit was patiently waiting in one of them. Before him on the table was a single piece of paper and a pen.“Sit.” It was an order.The prisoner complied. His ankle shackles against the metal legs of the table made a sound like steel teeth gnashing on iron bones.“Every federal prison,” the official began without preamble, “is on a list. This list was created in direct response to the over-crowding situation currently plaguing our penal system.”The official recited this by rote. He was a pale, gaunt, balding bureaucrat whose shiny pate reminded Prisoner #14229 of Chap Stick that had last been used by a slobbering idiot. “As mandated by Amendment 28 of the United States Constitution, every prisoner in a facility selected by national lottery is to be drafted in service to their country. For too long the brave men and women of our armed forces are called to duty while convicts, such as yourself, remain safely sequestered behind bars, all courtesy of hard-working, tax-paying citizens. Well, not any more.”The official slid the piece of paper and pen across the surface of the table to the prisoner. “Sign this.”Prisoner #14229 politely declined.The official continued. “Be aware that failure to sign this release subjects you and your family to immediate execution. This release authorizes remuneration upon completion of duty and will grant you a full pardon for all crimes, as well as funds to set you and your family up in any non-NATO country of your choosing. Consequently, you will be permanently banished from returning under penalty of death.”The official uncapped the pen and held it out to the prisoner.Prisoner #14229 complied. He'd been incarcerated since age nineteen following a conviction for the brutal home invasion attack on a neighboring family. High on bath salts at the time, his brain synapses were exploding like nuclear pop rocks. The family returned early and found him naked in their living room. Father and son were butchered after witnessing the ravaging of mother and daughter. He then set fire to the house. When the police arrived they found him blood-soaked and unconscious in the front yard. Mother and daughter survived and that, as they say, was that.Now forty-three and one of the longest serving convicts on death row thanks to shyster lawyers and their legal maneuverings, he was awaiting a date with the electricchair at the end of the month. Until the official arrived.“The terms are quite simple. You will be taken by plane to a designated zone anddeployed. Your objective is not complete until all combatants are eliminated. You will not be given any weapons, you will not be given any supplies. Your survival is based upon your ability to survive. If you attempt escape, your family will be executed. If you fail to engage the enemy, your family will be executed. If you eliminate non-combatants, your family will be executed. If you are killed the agreement is null and void. Do you understand the terms as I have explained them to you?”Prisoner #14229 understood.The official nodded to one of the guards standing behind the prisoner. “Sweet dreams.”It was the last thing the prisoner heard before the butt of a rifle rendered him unconscious.****The military transport plane was a Boeing C-17A Globemaster III operated by the NATO Heavy Airlift Wing based in Hungary, under command of the United States Air Force. In addition to the 34 inmates restrained in the cargo area, one hundred members of the AF Special Operations Forces (SOF) sat in silent vigil.Prisoner #14229 woke to the thrumming of the plane's 4 Pratt & Whitney F-117- PW-100 turbofans, capable of propelling the 585,000 pound bird at 515 miles per hour. His head hurt but otherwise he was okay. He acknowledged the presence of the other inmates. These must be the non-combatants, he mused.A voice came over the intercom: “We are 10 minutes from the DZ. That's drop zone for the uninitiated. You are strapped to a seat-pack parachute. Two armed members of the SOF will position you at the open rear cargo hatch. You will then be ejected. Your seatback parachute will engage automatically. A red cabin light will signal your 10-second warning. Green for go. Stand by.”The plane began a gradual descent, canting 15 degrees to starboard. The shackles around the inmates arms and legs released. Any last-minute thoughts of escape were quelled by a hundred Mk23 .45 caliber pistols trained on the prisoners. The cabin interior glowed red. The rear cargo hatch lowered like a ramp leading to infinity. Prisoner #14229 felt the suction of cold air buffeting his back as the plane leveled out. The roar was deafening. Gravity gripped his gut, eager to pull him through the gaping maw behind him.The cabin interior turned green.One by one the prisoners were dumped into a maelstrom of shrieking, turbulent darkness as the C-17A birthed them to their fates. Earth and sky converged, then took turns being the visual point of reference; up and down became side by side. Prisoner #14229 tumbled and rolled and dropped towards the world, at times leading his open chute and then the reverse. The nylon material struggled to apply the terminal vertical speed needed for effective deceleration.At last the ground revealed itself miles below his dangling boots. Expecting to see a patchwork quilt of farms and fields, he was immediately confused when an urban tableau of buildings appeared beneath breaks in the clouds, shimmering through the gauzy plume like geodes in the retreating light of the sun. The night sky around him was peppered with the silhouettes of his fellow jumpers.“Alright, gentlemen,” a voice in his headset said, “there is an altimeter secured to your harness. When it reads 100 feet you need to keep your knees and feet pressed tightly together; bend your knees slightly and keep your muscles tense so your legs don't collapse when you hit the ground. Keep your hands on your harness, not in front of your body to brace your fall, otherwise you will fracture your wrists. Gather up your chute after touchdown or a sudden gust can grab it and drag your sorry-asses for miles. Happy landings.”It wasn't, in fact, happy at all.His collision with the ground was a jack-hammer assault by concrete boxing gloves delivered simultaneously by all the pugilists who ever lived. His bones felt like tuning-forks made of rebar, resonating in steel drums filled with ball-bearings. He tucked and rolled and was hauled across sod, then shrubbery, until finally ending in an entangled heap at the base of a tree. His chute enveloped him like a nylon cocoon.The Eagle has landed.As he lay there staring up at the sky, taking inventory of the various levels of pain that swaddled him, Prisoner #14229 heard someone approach. Heavy breathing and under-breath profanations preceded the ungainly shadow.About to be trampled, Prisoner #14229 groaned.“That you, Starkey?” Rough hands began inspecting his face for familiar features. “Hey, this ain't Starkey.”Prisoner #14229 suggested his new acquaintance put a little distance between them.“No worries there, fella. Glad you're not D.R.T., that's all.”“D.R.T.? What's that?”The shadow sat down beside Prisoner #14229. “Dead Right There. A lot of these guys don't survive the drop, you know.”“Were you on the plane?” Prisoner #14229 asked. He was working to free himself from the chute's bridle-like harness.“Not this one,” the shadow man answered. “Been here over a year.”They were in a park surrounded by monolithic skyscrapers. Not your typical conflict zone, which he mentioned to his acquaintance. There was a noticeable absence of urban clamor; traffic noise, the sonance of footsteps on sidewalks, murmurings of disembodied voices, all silenced. Even the wildlife was muted. It was a graveyard with towering tombstones; giant oak and elm trees were the floral arrangements. Dead Right There, indeed.“Where are we?”The shadow man, who Prisoner #14229 eventually learned was named Emory Townes, looked at him with bewilderment. “This is Ground Zero, son. You don't know about Ground Zero? Jeez, boy, how long were you in the joint? This is where the end of the world began.”****Epidemiologists were baffled by the sudden mass onset and divergence of the variant of Lewy body dementia, which is the most common type of dementia. Lewy bodies are abnormal clumps of protein found in the brains of people who suffer from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Fluctuations in lucidity, visual hallucinations and Parkinson's type tremors and rigidity are the unique symptoms.By 2010, five years after the outbreak, it was global.“You're telling me the entire world is an insane asylum?” Prisoner #14229 exclaimed aloud. “Why aren't we infected?”“Probably the same reason not everyone gets the flu or migraines. I've heard theories that people who still have their appendix are safe, but who knows. Do you still have yours?”Prisoner #14229 said nothing.The human appendix is thought to be primarily involved in immune functions. In early years of development it produces immunoglobulin A antibodies. Perhaps that was why he was chosen for this mission.“Yeah,” Emory said, “I do, too.”Other members of the team began wandering over, a few still tethered to their chutes. Prisoner #14229 had no interest acquiring an entourage and he grabbed Emory roughly by the forearm to get his attention. “Listen, you need to take me to your hideout or shelter, whatever you call it.”Emory said, “Yeah, sure. No problem.”With dawn fast approaching, they had to move while enough shadows lingered to provide them cover. Then a thought occurred; he turned abruptly to Emory. “What prison are you from?”“USP Pollock in Louisiana. You?”“Federal Corrections Institute, Berlin, New Hampshire.” He then added: “Death Row.”“Double life sentence for first degree murder myself. Maybe I should know your handle since we're comparing dicks.”Prisoner #14229 gave him the only name he answered to; his number.It was morning by the time they reached the wrought-iron gate separating the park from a once busy metropolitan street. The echo of their footfalls bounced off the concrete walls of the steadfast buildings. All manner of transportation sat empty wherever the drivers left them; on the sidewalks, tangled together in intersection embraces, or sitting neatly in their respective parking spaces. A line of city buses sat in queue before the ornate entrance of an elegant hotel like a giant centipede.“So where are they?” he asked.Emory shrugged. “They're around. Not as active this early in the morning. We may come across a few here and there, the ones who no longer possess higher brain faculties. I don't know where they hang out, though.”“You never followed them?”“Course I did. They just never stay in the same place. Their minds don't work that way anymore. They seem to move randomly. You know, aimless-like.”They crossed the block and headed uptown. Before they reached the end of the street, a chorus of high pitched squeals and catcalls began emerging through the broken windows and doorways of abandoned businesses. From several floors up, trash, office equipment, furniture, then multiple streams of urine began raining on them, galvanizing them to quicken the pace. As they rounded the first corner, the commotion behind them intensified, now accompanied by the urgent tread of many footsteps rushing in pursuit.“This way,” Emory said. Ahead lay a subway entrance, partially blocked by a dumpster that had been tilted over onto its side. There was just enough room to squeeze through to the stairs leading to the transit platform below. Leaping the turnstiles, Emory guided them down the darkened tunnel, passed deserted subway cars and a seemingly endless collection of rusted grocery carts.Up at street level was the unmistakeable sound of battle as the psychos met the team of parachuting convicts who had been following from the drop zone. It was difficult to tell which side was winning from all the shouting and screaming. Prisoner #14229 didn't waste time dwelling on the matter; the diversion would give them the opportunity to reach sanctuary and he needed to reconnoiter in order to plan his escape. If what Emory told him was the truth, that this dementia plague was worldwide, then he had no family left to barter for his freedom.The agreement was null and void.“Who is Starkey?”“What?” Emory asked between gasps of air.“You were looking for Starkey when we met.”Emory paused to catch his breath, bent at the waist with hands on his knees. “He's my brother-in-arms. Met him a few months back while on a supply run. He left for the park last night when he heard the plane. He never returned so I went to fetch him.”Approximately fifty yards down the line there was an access door set into the wall of the tunnel. Emory explained this had been used for maintenance on the tracks. He and Starkey set up camp there since, for whatever reason, the psychos were apprehensive about the dark.“In a lot of ways, they're like children. Scared of shadows, quick to tantrum and difficult to reason with,” Emory said. He pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door, then motioned for Prisoner #14229 to enter.It was a 13' x 25' storage closet that smelled of oily tools and greasy rags. On the back wall was a long workbench covered with hand-drawn maps of the park and crudely rendered weapons; shanks made of toothbrushes, pipes with nails driven into the ends and shoelaces studded with slivers of metal. A fluorescent light hung above, casting a sickly light on the area. The remaining walls were obscured by dozens of posters of The Beatles.“Have a seat,” Emory said as Prisoner #14229 turned to face him. In his hand he held a length of barbwire threaded through the broken handle of a hammer. “I need to prep you for surgery.”****Emory Townes was a surgeon at the United States Penitentiary, Pollock, where he was convicted of performing fatal organ harvesting procedures on prisoners. The black market business was quite lucrative and he was a very greedy man. While serving double-life sentences, his replacement would often seek Emory's counsel, under the watchful eyes of prison security, that is. He gradually earned extra privileges, primarily assisting in triage surgery since there was never an end to prison violence and never enough doctors to stabilize all the victims piling up in the infirmary.“Pull up your shirt and do it...very...slowly.” He snapped the barbwire like a whip and it raised a welt along Prisoner #14229's left cheek.Exposing his midriff and the lack of an appendectomy scar, Prisoner #14229 asked, “Is this what you wanted to see?”Emory was visibly relieved. “Good, that's good. Take a seat over there.”Prisoner #14229 sat on a metal stool and appraised the posters. “Starkey. That's a nice touch.”“Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr,” Emory said with pride, removing bungee cord tie-downs from a nearby toolbox. “The drummer for the greatest band ever. I played their music all the time in the O.R.”He had Prisoner #14229 hobble himself by wrapping a bungee cord around his ankles, then Emory used another and repeated the process around his wrists. To finish it off he looped a third cord tightly around his neck and secured it to his wrist restraints. Satisfied that he was properly trussed, Emory walked over to the workbench and began setting out rudimentary surgical equipment.“I'm afraid there is no anesthetic available. Once I begin there will be a very short window to remove the vermiform appendix before you go into shock and die. Or if it is inflamed and you develop sepsis, you die. Either way, you die. Did you know that the appendix can be successfully transplanted into the urinary tract to rebuild a sphincter muscle and reconstruct a functional bladder? No? There is increased demand for this interesting little tube. As an added bonus, the lymphatic fluid can be extracted and synthesized into an antigen to treat the effects of this dementia pandemic. So all in all, with your sacrifice comes hope for billions! Take comfort in that.”Prisoner #14229 struggled valiantly but in vain. “YOU'RE INSANE! THIS WILL NEVER WORK!”Emory pulled up his own shirt to expose the small scar on his lower right quadrant. “It does. I've already tested it on myself. Unfortunately, the effects are short-lived. Thankfully, the penal system is filled with potential donors and they seem quite content supplying me with them. Now be still. This won't take long.”But it did take long for Prisoner #14229. In fact, it was quite some time before he was D.R.T.
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