Hospital rooms weren't exactly the best environment to put one's mind at ease. The lights were always a little too bright - the trappings a little too white - and they tended to smell of antiseptic. They were always too cold, and footsteps could be heard echoing up and down the halls at all hours of the day and night.
Benjamin Wallace was trying to recall how he had gotten there and, subsequently, trying to figure out why it was so hard to think. He was also trying to figure out why he felt so dizzy, and even downright sick. His right arm felt weird - but, then again, his entire body felt weird.
The man stole another quick glance around the room, and finally noticed a vase of flowers on the stand next to the bed. There was a card hanging from it, but he couldn't quite get his body to cooperate enough to reach out and take it. It was safe to assume, however, that it was from his wife - their neighbors back in Grape Creek, after all, didn't care for them much, anymore.
That was a rather bitter thought, really. Benjamin had been born and raised in the little Texas town - hell, he'd known some of his neighbors since he'd been a little kid. It was amazing, though, given the climate of fear that had been whipped up across the nation over the 'Red Menace', how little it had taken to get long -time friends to turn on him. They had only been rumors - he had never even met anyone from Russia, let alone spied for them. That didn't stop the resulting suspicions, though, and he simply wished that Madeline hadn't had to suffer for it.
She had been the one to leave the flowers, Wallace thought to himself, as he stole another glance back at the vase. That only made him more frustrated at the fact that his arm wouldn't quit hurting or feeling weird long enough for him to grab the card so he could actually read it. It would have been some comfort. That train of thought, however, was quickly derailed by a small, but insistent knock on the door.
"Mister Wallace?" the nurse asked as she opened the door and stepped inside. She was a young little thing, and Benjamin couldn't help but feel slightly indecent at the fact that he had nothing more than a couple of sheets covering him.
"Ma'am," Wallace greeted in return, giving a faint nod, and as much of a polite smile as he could muster. He was about to ask her how he had gotten here, but didn't get the question out fast enough.
"I need to change your bandages, Mister Wallace," the young woman stated. "I apologize, but this will probably hurt some - they'll have to be changed a lot until you're all healed up from your surgery."
'Surgery'? That just raised a hundred more questions in Benjamin's mind, and he almost didn't notice the fact that the nurse had lifted his right arm up just a little. His attention was very quickly drawn, however, by the distant, throbbing pain in the limb as the bandages were being unwound.
"Looks like you're healing well," the nurse remarked as she worked.
Wallace turned his head just a little, his curiosity piqued by the statement. It was then that he discovered why it was that his right arm hurt so much - why it felt so weird.
Most of it was gone.
"On a scale of one to ten, how is ze pain?"
Benjamin didn't hesitate for long before answering with a strained, "eleven."
The doctor just looked at him for a moment - seemed to appraise him. It was difficult to tell, though; the man had a gaze like Antarctic ice - sharply cold, and seemingly impenetrable. If the eyes were the portals to the soul, then this man had locked the windows, and closed the shutters tight. His expression revealed nothing as he clicked his pen to write a note on the patient file on his clipboard.
"Zhis happens often?" the Medic questioned, adjusting his round -rimmed glasses briefly before lifting his gaze to look at Benjamin, again. The Texan almost wished he hadn't.
"Every now and again," the Engineer replied, "usually not this bad, though." No, it was usually just a tingling - or perhaps a dull ache, at worst - not the sharp, crushing sensation tormenting him as he sat on the exam table in RED base's infirmary. It was a terrible feeling, and not just because of the physical agony; it was a reminder of what had happened.
It had happened lightning fast - but, at the time, it had felt like slow motion. The metallic crack of the jack giving way had been almost deafening, and the Texan's brain had scarcely processed the sound before over a ton of steel had come down on his arm. For a moment, nothing felt different, and the redhead had caught himself wondering if he had lucked out, and the truck had just missed him.
His hopes were dashed, however, as the initial shock faded, and was rapidly replaced by the sensation of the crushing, stabbing pain shooting up and down his arm. He reflexively tried to jerk the limb towards his body only to discover that, yes; it was well and thoroughly pinned to the concrete floor. The man couldn't hold back a scream of pain, or the tears starting to sting at his eyes. There was nobody in the house to hear him, though - not with Madeline and the kids out of town for the day. They wouldn't be back for hours.
To top it off, the garage door was closed to keep out the heat of the day, leaving him well out of sight of any passers -by. That did not, however, keep the man from trying to yell for help as loudly as he could, in the hopes that anyone walking by might hear - if there was anyone walking by.
No help arrived, though, and Benjamin's voice was getting hoarse. Really, why would anyone in the little town answer the pleas of a 'dirty Commie'? He was left, however, with a clear view of the clock hanging in his garage - left to watch as seconds became minutes, and the minutes dragged on to well past an hour. It hadn't taken even that much time for the fingers on his right hand to start tingling, and burning, before feeling chill, and then completely numb.
By the time the second hour was rolling around, the redhead's arm was not only still in agony, but the rest of him was starting to hurt from lying on the concrete floor. It was hard to find a comfortable position when one's arm was pinned beneath a truck. He tried to comfort himself with the fact that his wife would be home in another four hours, and if he had managed to stay alive for two, then he'd surely last until then.
The most difficult thing, by far, had been trying not to pass out. Benjamin's vision had started to go gray around the edges once or twice - but he had managed to snap himself back to attention. He was glad he did, because he finally heard the sound of someone outside. He could hear a basketball bouncing on the sidewalk, drawing closer, and when it was right in front of the driveway, the man felt as though he'd used all the breath in his lungs to manage one last, hoarse yell for aid. Apparently, he had used a little too much air in his condition, because everything went black.
Whoever was outside must have thought to open the garage door and peer in, though. How else would he have woken up surrounded by doctors?
"Herr Wallace," the RED doctor said, snapping the Texan out of his thoughts and back to base's infirmary - and its caretaker. "Vhat methods of pain control did your previous physicians prescribe?"
The truth was they had tried almost everything. "Morphine," the Engineer started. "Worked for awhile, but once the post -op pain was done
well, it didn't do much." He gave a small, tense sigh, trying to focus on the question, and not the throbbing pain in his right arm - in flesh and bone that no longer existed. "Codeine," he continued. "They tried ice packs, heated pressure bandages'n even massage." None of it worked, though - not very well, at least.
"Vhat about an electric current?" the German inquired, his tone and expression unreadable. The only indication of concern (or, perhaps, morbid curiosity) was the content of his question.
"Heard some of th'docs in Dallas mention somethin' like that," Ben said with a little shrug, trying to seem politely indifferent. It was difficult to get his hopes up after such a long string of disappointing failures, and he was a little wary. After all, Doctor Engel wasn't bound by most of the ethical restrictions that were imposed on physicians working outside of the company.
The Medic gave a little nod, and quietly excused himself for a moment. He walked over to one of the infirmary's many supply cabinets, and unlocked one of the drawers to remove a hinged metal box. He brought it over to the exam table, and set it down before undoing the hasps, and opening the lid.
Benjamin couldn't help but peer inquisitively at its contents - a black plastic box with dials on it for regulating electrical current (frequency, amplitude, amps, volts - a rather complex setup), and four leads with electrodes on the end of them. The little device didn't look terribly intimidating - the amperage rating printed on it didn't go anywhere near high enough to be fatal. The Engineer was still wary, but growing increasingly curious as the box and its leads were removed, and set on the table.
"Well, Doc," the Texan started, "I must admit you have me stumped."
"Zhese are fairly new, Herr," Engel replied. "You might even say somewhat experimental. It's a TENS unit - transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. Zhey have shown promise in trials vhiz ze treatment of chronic pain."
The Engineer couldn't help but wonder if that was what the doctors several months had been referring to. He had never heard them use the term 'TENS', though, nor had they attempted using one of the things. The man tried to tell himself that maybe those 'promising trials' were new enough that the doctors wouldn't have had reason to even consider a TENS.
"It's painless," the Medic continued, "but it might be a little uncomfortable. If you vant to try, zhat is."
Benjamin didn't hesitate for very long before giving stiff, pained nod. At that point, he wouldn't have minded if the leads were jabbed right through his skin - it couldn't have hurt worse than his arm.
"Alright, Herr," Engel said with a little nod of his own. "I'm going to need you to take off your glove, bitte."
"I'm going to need you to take off your shirt und glove, bitte," the Medic stated, adjusting his glasses just a little as he picked the stethoscope up from the supply cart to drape it over his shoulders.
Benjamin had managed to avoid taking off either his shirt or glove thus far. He had stalled some - trying to strike up small talk, trying to distract the doctor. It was a foolishly futile gesture, he knew - but, anything to delay the inevitable. He couldn't dodge the Medic forever, though, and the intake exam was, he had been assured, very necessary. No sense making things too difficult for someone just trying to do their job. He still hesitated, however, before complying with the German's request.
The Texan was still hesitant, however - taking his time in using his left hand to un-tuck the sleeve from the thick leather work glove covering his right. Engel just stood there waiting patiently - or impatiently - it was hard to tell. Benjamin cleared his throat somewhat awkwardly, and hesitated for just a moment more before carefully tugging the glove free, and setting it on the exam table. The doctor's gaze shifted to the redhead's right hand, but, given his expression, he seemed unfazed by the steel appendage.
"Your shirt, bitte," the Medic said, raising his eyes once again to the younger man's face.
Benjamin wasn't sure whether he should be relieved or unnerved that the doctor made no comment on his hand - seemed to be ignoring it, altogether. Regardless, he did start to unbutton his shirt, causing the German's gaze to be drawn right back to his hands. As subtle as the doctor was trying to be, it was obvious that he was watching - observing how the joints of those metal fingers extended and flexed.
Once the Engineer had his shirt off, however, there was considerably more to see. Engel glanced once more to his metal hand, and his gaze drifted up the length of the prosthesis to where it terminated, at mid-bicep. The rig was heavy - considerably heavier than a human arm should be - and the redhead had compensated for it by attaching a harness that spread the weight between both of his shoulders.
The Medic hesitated only a moment before inspecting the harness - checking, no doubt, to see if the padded leather was harming the skin. "Vould you mind," he started, "taking zhis off, Herr? I vant to make sure it's not causing any irritation."
"Uh," the Texan started, still somewhat wary of the prospect, "sure doc." It didn't take him long to get the buckles of the harness undone, and the straps slid loose. Once the weight was off of the tops of his shoulders, however, it all pulled at what remained of his right arm.
"I can get you somezhing to rest your arm on, Herr," the German offered, no doubt noticing the way his patient's weight shifted as the harness was removed.
Benjamin, however, just shook his head. He didn't really want this to take any longer than it had to - and, besides, "it don't hurt, s'just a bit uncomfortable. Starts t'ache if I leave it like this for an hour or two, though."
The older man gave a small nod, a gesture that didn't seem to match his cold expression (or lack thereof) at all. The Engineer wasn't sure whether it put him at ease, or only made him more wary. Regardless, he tried to keep still as the doctor checked over his skin. The man seemed satisfied, at least - then again, the harness had been specifically designed to prevent the sort of irritation that was being looked for.
"Everyzhing looks good," Engel said with another nod, leaning back just a little to stand up straight, again. He did steal another glance, however, to the thick, circular, metal base plate that the prosthesis attached to. The plate was also thoroughly attached to what remained of the Texan's flesh and blood right arm. "I don't see any signs of infection," the doctor started, "but I vant to double -check your lymph nodes, and ze bloodvork to be certain."
Fortunately for the Engineer, everything seemed to check out - he had no swollen lymph nodes, no inflammation - nothing at all, really, that would indicate an infection of any kind. He would also have been lying if he said he wasn't impressed by how professional the Medic was. The man only asked for medically necessary information; whether there was any pain or numbness, where and how the base plate attached, and a list of all of the materials in the arm - and their approximate percentages.
An x-ray was taken as well. Once the doctor had checked the placement of the hardware - felt reassured that there was no immediate danger of the bone degrading or fracturing - his focus seemed to leave the metal prosthesis entirely. The rest was, in truth, a very standard exam - temperature, height, weight, reflexes - that sort of thing. A little blood sample was taken at the end, and that was that.
Now, the Engineer had only to go back to his job, and that seemed simple enough.
Benjamin's job was not as simple as it had seemed.
It had started off innocently enough - he was an educated man, and one with a talent for making things - so the Department of Defense had been happy to offer him a position. The job description, he realized, had been vague enough that he should have had a number of second thoughts about taking the work. He was supposed to be helping to develop technologies that would help protect American soldiers on the battlefield. It was a subject that a number of organizations had a budding interest in as the patriotism and zest of the second 'Great War' faded into the paranoia surrounding a considerably colder conflict with Russia.
There were dozens of hypothetical scenarios to defend against - a growing fear that the Soviets would launch an invasion on America, or one of her outlying posts. They couldn't, of course, be left with inferior defensive capabilities if the Reds did attack.
The Texan had quietly wondered if half of the government's fears were even founded, but there was no harm in helping to save a few lives, right? The pay was extremely good, to boot, and he only had to be away from his wife and daughter for a couple of months - only a few days at a time. His job was made doubly easy by the array of resources his employers gave him access to.
Benjamin had started his work in the engineering and implementation of ballistic-resistant materials - specifically, anything that was lighter in weight than steel. He had managed to make some considerable strides with some ceramic materials, and had been starting to consider other, lighter things when his project was suddenly changed.
He was pulled from ballistic-resistant materials - and placed on a project for weapons and ammunition specifically designed to negate it.
The Texan had felt a small sense of pride, before - hearing of a life here and a life there that the new materials had saved in a skirmish or two. He could not feel that same pride, however, when he began receiving reports of how many lives his work had taken. It wasn't much longer until he had handed in his notice.
His employers had at least acted as though they had taken his resignation graciously. There seemed to be only a mild disappointment that he was leaving. Just as well - Benjamin had little reason to stay. He had saved up a considerable amount of money from the work he had done (a large chunk of change for someone all of thirty -eight years old) , and he simply couldn't continue in the direction the job had wound up taking him in.
He had to keep the nature of his work a secret, of course - but that was perfectly reasonable. It was a term that Madeline was well aware of, and she'd only given him a little humorous chiding in regards to his secrecy.
In truth, Ben was happy to be leaving the job - he would have more time to spend with his daughter - and his wife had a baby on the way. Really, it was easy enough for him to pick up work fixing up cars, tractors, and the occasional busted appliance for folks back home. It was a good, honest living.
It also gave him the chance to get back to personal projects. When Annabelle was at school, and his wife minding the chickens out back, he could get back to the parts and blueprints in the garage. Between working on cars and other projects for the neighbors, Benjamin had been spending time on his own devices. Most of them were rather simple, really; more consistent heating on the toaster, an electric timer on the oven, and a prototype for a better cutting torch.
It was while the redhead was making that prototype that he got an anonymous message; it was a 'request' to stop his inventing work - but, it sounded more to Benjamin like a thinly-veiled threat. At first he wondered if it was some sort of cruel prank - maybe someone from his old job that was feeling a little spiteful.
The Texan at least, however, wanted to finish his cutting torch. It would certainly make his repair work a lot more efficient and, really, a cutting torch wasn't the sort of thing that the Soviets could steal and weaponize. He also had the feeling that the DoD wouldn't spend a bunch of taxpayer funds to stop him from making a simple torch.
He was wrong.
It was scarcely a week after his torch was finished - mere days after Jonathan had been born - that he had a rather unpleasant surprise. There were sirens outside of Benjamin's garage, where he was working. His first thought was that old Mr. Caruthers across the street had had another heart attack. He hadn't expected the sirens to draw even closer - for three police cars (Grape Creek's entire force) and the county sheriff's truck to pack onto his front lawn.
Benjamin only had time to take a step away from the engine he was working on, before all of the car doors had flung open and he had three guns pointed at him - all but the sheriff's.
"Put the guns down," the latter insisted. The city officers only reluctantly complied - though they kept their pistols in hand.
"With all due respect, Dean," Benjamin started, turning to face the sheriff, and keeping his hands well in sight, "what th'hell is goin' on?"
"By order of the federal government," the sheriff started, his tone disinterested, as though he wasn't too thrilled about the whole ordeal, "you are to be brought before a loyalty committee. You will be held at the county jail until such a time that the committee is ready to process you." It sounded as though the man was reading from a script - like he'd repeated the words so many times that he had it memorized.
"You can't be serious," the redhead started - even though it was obvious by all of the guns that he was.
"Sorry, Ben," the sheriff muttered, taking a few steps forward as he almost casually pulled his handcuffs from his belt. He knew he wouldn't have a fight on his hands.
The redhead practically bristled, however, when Madeline opened the front door - he didn't want her to have to get involved in this. It didn't take but a moment for their daughter to slip out beside her mom when she saw the cuffs go on. The girl had no compunctions in running right up to the sheriff and giving him as much of a kick in the leg as a six year old could muster.
"I thought you and daddy were friends, Dean!" she yelled indignantly. "Why are you being such a big jerk?!"
The scowl that Annabelle had leveled at the sheriff could have peeled paint, and it stayed firmly in place even as her mother walked over and (only just) managed to shoo her inside. She waited right inside the front window, though - peering through the glass with an accusing glare.
Madeline, of course, demanded to know what was going on (with considerably more grace than their daughter). The sheriff tried to reassure her that someone had called in a tip and that, really, this was a formality. He insisted that they didn't know for sure that anything suspicious had actually happened, and that most people who wound up going before loyalty committees were acquitted.
The woman didn't seem reassured - especially when one of the city police took Benjamin by the cuffs and rather roughly started pushing him towards a squad car.
Officer Dresden was someone that Benjamin had known for years - but, the man wasn't being at all gentle, and was looking at him as though he'd run over his dog. He was also, the redhead thought, much rougher than necessary in getting him seated in the back of the car.
It was only after Dresden had gotten into the car and started the engine that he said, "you're in serious shit, Wallace."
The older man sighed just a little, shifting a bit in his seat to try and take some pressure off of his cuffed wrists. He knew his 'captor' was a patriotic man, but he had never imagined he would be so zealous.
"I ain't done nothin' wrong," Benjamin insisted calmly - if a little indignantly.
"Save it for the committee, ya fuckin' Commie," Dresden practically spat in reply.
The redhead offered a small, defeated sigh in return. He wasn't going to be able to talk any sense with Dresden. He only hoped that the sheriff hadn't gone off the deep end, as well.
He didn't get to speak with Dean, though - he was put straight into a cell when they arrived at the county jail. First, however, he was told by one of the deputies that he stood accused of selling military secrets to the Soviets - a very serious crime that could fall within the boundaries of treason.
It was rather difficult for the redhead to get any sleep that night - not when he knew that Madeline was home alone with both the kids, and they were probably worried sick. There was an unpleasant thought floating through the man's head, as well - the realization that he might be waiting a long time to see a committee. Worse, he could be found guilty of whatever injustice had been concocted against him, and never see his family, again.
By morning, Benjamin had finally managed to get to sleep on the little jailhouse cot. It was a lonely cell block - nobody was there other than himself and the town drunk. The latter had passed out some time ago, so at least it was quiet. His restless sleep was interrupted, however, by the sound of a nightstick rapping lightly against the cell bars. The redhead only just managed to pry his eyes open before sitting up to see who was there - Dean.
"Ben," he greeted, giving a little nod. "Y'all got a phone call."
The redhead's first thought was that it was his wife - but, no, she would have called sooner. The warden had, no doubt, not been keen on letting personal calls through. He just nodded in return, though - waited for the sheriff to cuff his hands before opening the cell door.
It was definitely not his wife on the phone. The voice, however, was all too familiar.
"Mister Wallace," it started, steady, and even, and business-like, just like Benjamin remembered his boss. Somehow, the Texan wasn't surprised to hear the man's voice - nor was he remotely pleased. He didn't want to land himself in hotter water than he was already in, so he tried to keep his own tone calm.
"Sir, to what do I owe the pleasure?" Benjamin asked, trying not to sound too snide. "Are you the one that set this up?" It certainly seemed like it.
"That's an awfully nasty accusation coming from someone in jail for being a traitor to their country," the man on the other end of the line pointed out. "We miss you an awful lot back at the Department, Mister Wallace-"
"If you think I'm returnin' t'that outfit, y'all got another thing comin', sir," the Texan stated. "Y'all are a bunch of two-timin' snakes."
There was a rather mirthless, unnerving chuckle from the other end. "I wouldn't dream of asking you back, Mister Wallace - not after that nasty little surprise you left in your last set of plans. Don't try to tell me it wasn't intentional, either. Do you have any idea how many man-hours we lost because of your little 'omission'?"
Benjamin couldn't help but chuckle just a little at that. He knew that the lack of proper targeting system on the guns wasn't solely due to his early departure from the project. It was entirely possible, in fact, that he had intentionally left the blueprints incomplete.
"I'm glad you think this is funny, Mister Wallace," the man on the other end stated. "I don't think you'll be laughing when you have to explain to your wife and daughter why you're going to go to a federal penitentiary."
The Texan went dead silent at that - felt his blood run cold. "Y'all waited an awful long time before springin' this," he started, his tone back to low and serious. "I retired months ago. If this was about the targeting system, I figured I'd have heard from you sooner."
"The incomplete plans were a minor nuisance, all things considered," the redhead's former boss noted. "We are much more concerned about the ramifications of your current work."
"Sir, I been fixin' cars and the like for folks in town," Benjamin stated matter-of-factly. "I hardly see how that's a 'seditious' activity."
"I'm talking about your little 'side projects'," the other man stated. "You have two options," he continued without the slightest pause. "You can stop with your little 'side projects' - stick to fixing what's broken - or you can take your chances in front of the loyalty committee. I'll be honest, Mister Wallace, your chances of passing the review are not terribly good."
The Texan had been afraid of that. Really, his old employers could simply make up whatever evidence they wanted - nobody would take his word over theirs. "Fine," he murmured. As much as he loved his projects - loved being able to create something useful with the knowledge he had - it wasn't worth destroying his family. "I'll just
stick t'fixin' things."
"Good," the redhead's former boss said. "Hopefully we won't be hearing from each other again. Have a good day, Mister Wallace."
There wasn't another word before the line went dead. Benjamin just held the phone for a moment, though - hesitating before he finally hung up. It was only a few minutes later that the gravity of the conversation sank in - when the Texan fully absorbed the fact that he very well could have wound up rotting in a prison or, worse, at the end of a noose.
He couldn't quite stop himself from breaking into sobs - from covering his face to try and hide the tears. He felt like the luckiest man alive when Dean walked in and undid his cuffs.
That feeling wasn't going to last.