Fahrenheit 52

What Happened at Fort Crawley

G-Man entered the 32-digit access code into the kiosk for a second time, and then tucked the paper he'd scribbled it on back under the passenger side sun visor of his truck. He'd entered the same code so many times before that knew he probably should have had it memorized by now. But it wasn't even 8 AM, which he thought was a pretty good excuse, all things considered (it was literally 32 digits long). G-Man took a long sip of his iced coffee, grateful that they still used plastic straws at this particular store. His coffee was more Irish cream than caffeine today, which is probably why he still felt so hung over.

The gate took forever to open, as usual. G-Man always imagined a team of tiny ants working together to pull the huge metal gate open wide enough for his truck to pass through, which helped him not to get annoyed at how long it took, because, c'mon, they're just ants.

An orange safety light flashed twice on the gate post. G-Man shifted his pickup into gear and rolled slowly into the fort. He was always careful during this part. The trailer jostled as he cleared the spike-strip at the entrance. In his head, he repeatedly reminded himself not to reverse, as if he might suddenly decide to. It was like the feeling he got with heights -- nothing was stopping him from just... jumping over the edge. That was one of the main reasons he stopped working construction. At least landscaping was on the ground. G-Man tapped the plastic blue rosaries dangling from his windshield and thought about his grandmother's face.

No one else wanted the Fort Crawley job, so G-Man came here every other Tuesday, all by himself. For one thing, the place was huge. He'd be here all day to get the entire fort mowed and trimmed. He didn't even know why the government paid them to do it -- this place had been abandoned for years. But the size of the job wasn't the real problem. It was that you couldn't get a cell phone signal anywhere near the fort. Everyone had stories about it. Apparently, in the 80s, the military did all sorts of weapons research here. Robots and satellites. Cold War stuff. But then they suddenly shut it all down in the early 90s, once the Soviets collapsed.

Guess they forgot to turn everything off, thought G-Man, not for the first time.

To be honest, G-Man liked the radio silence. He always brought along his old portable CD player, which still worked pretty well, as long as you fed it AAA-batteries every 90 minutes. His sleeve of rap-metal CDs on the passenger sun visor always kept him good company. Also, it was a little luxury to know that no one could call him or text him while he was here. To top it off, the fort had a great view of the Vine River and the little town across the way. Sometimes G-Man would stop in Little Bighill after finishing up at the fort. They had a great pizza joint with an Asteroids arcade machine in the back. His stomach rumbled. He knew it was way too early for lunch, but he made a mental plan to stop at Mrs. Pizza Slice later on. G-Man removed the remaining butterscotch pastry from its plastic wrapper and wolfed it down before taking a final sip of coffee.

G-Man parked near the row of barracks buildings. He went around back to get the tractor down. He released the hitch and the trailer's ramp slammed into the gravel. G-Man thought he heard something move behind him, but then shook it off and continued to unload his equipment. Sometimes he'd see deer grazing inside the grounds, so it was probably just something like that. He was supposed to keep an eye out for any holes or breaks in the chain-link fence surrounding the fort. But it was 40 feet high, with barbed wire at the top. No one was going to climb that thing.

The first time he took this job, G-Man poked his head against some of the windows in the abandoned buildings. It was super creepy. He saw papers and furniture scattered around, like everyone just spontaneously disintegrated one day. He decided to peek into a window under the big "golf-ball"-shaped building. Electrical and computer stuff were inside, with blinking lights on some of the machines, almost like they were still running and operational. He rubbed the window a bit with his sleeve to get a better look when he saw something, inside the building. G-Man was sure. Something moved inside there. He looked again, quickly, and decided it was just his imagination, even though he was thinking of those horrible aliens from that space movie about aliens. He stopped looking inside the buildings after that first day.

G-Man hopped up onto his tractor and switched it on. He was already sweating. He removed his headband and poured iced water on it from his blue thermos, dabbing his neck before tying the bandana around his head again. The fort's huge radar dish, as well as the giant "golf-ball" building next to it, usually cast a helpful shadow that he'd try to stay under as he mowed the grounds. G-Man glanced up at the radar dish. It flashed red lights every few seconds, presumably to help steer away errant prop planes that might get too close on their way to the shore with their fluttering advertisements towed ehind them.

G-Man started mowing.

For the most part, G-Man could just space out while sitting on the tractor. He mowed in large straight lines that nearly stretched a half-mile in some places. There were only a few trees in the center of the fort that he'd have to navigate. There were also a few old trucks scattered about that were easy to avoid. And then there were the robots.

There were a few of them scattered about. They reminded him of toppled-over scarecrows, except they looked more like grasshoppers or dogs than people. Their canary-yellow narrow bodies seemed to resist rust and the salty-air from the ocean. But their narrow metal legs, which looked like the spindly legs on a lobster, were collapsed and often bent in strange directions. Lobster was actually a good analogy, because a few of them seemed to have a fifth leg, with a claw at the end. G-Man wondered if this was actually their neck, with the pinchy claw for a head. He was extremely grateful that these creepy robots were mere skeletons now. He gave them a wide berth with his tractor, and the grasses grew tall around their bodies, long enough to grow that little grain-husk bit at the top, a height that most New Jersey grasses never reached.

After completing a long pass along the western fence, G-Man noticed a strange tuft of long grass in an area he'd already cleared.

His neck prickled.

Then he calmed down, because he saw one of the robot husks nearby, in an uncleared section of grass. He must have just spaced out and swerved the tractor last time. Cause there was no way that the robot could have... he shook off the thought and kept going.

But when he came round that way again, the robot wasn't there. It should have been directly in his path, and it wasn't.

He switched off his tractor and took off his headphones. The cicadas were back this summer, after 17 years in the ground, and their cries swelled in G-Man's ears. He thought again about what he saw inside the golf-ball building that first day.

The hydraulic hiss stopped his breath.

G-man turned and saw the yellow robot. It creeped towards him on pincer legs. Then he heard another. The second robot was directly in front of the tractor. One of its legs was missing, like a three-legged dog. Its claw-head snapped at him, with a sound and strength that G-Man knew could break his arm or leg instantly if it caught him.

He fumbled with his keys, trying to turn the tractor back on. He managed to do so, right as the robots reached the tractor, but G-Man jammed the thing into its highest gear. He clipped the three-legged robot as he raced away, knocking the thing over. He turned and saw it struggling to get up, like a turtle on its back.

More robots had stood up in the fields. And they all seemed to be looking for G-Man. He repeated his grandmother's name over and over again. By the time he got to his truck, there were six robots stalking him -- six that he could see. He knew about velociraptors, after all. The dangerous ones were the ones you didn't see. G-Man leapt off the tractor and nearly dove into his truck. He left his CD-player on the tractor. He left his thermos, too. And then he decided to leave the entire tractor behind. That was a job for his boss to deal with. G-Man hit the ignition and spun out in a drift as he raced away from the barracks towards the north gate. Luckily, on this side, he didn't have to enter a code into the kiosk to open the gate -- just press a button, which he did, repeatedly.

"Please, please, please, please..."

The ants were moving extra slow in opening the gate. G-Man kept looking back to see if he was followed, and he was was. The six robots were still creeping in his direction. One of them started to pick up speed, like a horse galloping.

The gate finally opened wide enough for his truck, but the orange safety light wasn't flashing yet. G-Man didn't think about it. He sped through the gate and his front tires instantly exploded as he hit the spike-strip in second-gear. The back tires popped next, and the truck spun out of control, careening into a ditch along the side of the entrance road.

G-Man slammed his hands into the wheel and cursed. He looked and saw the gate was still open. He tried to reverse but the truck was stuck. G-Man hopped out, and then reached back in to grab the piece of paper with the access code. He ran over to kiosk and entered it frantically, nodding his head as the gate closed on the robots. The first robot reached the gate and stuck its claw-head through, snapping at him.

G-Man let the paper slip from his fingers and it fluttered away into the woods.