Kerns sits on a bench in front of a Travelways Bus Lines station, an overhang shielding him from the pouring rain. He tosses his cigarette down and grinds it with his foot into the collection of stubs already flattened on the ground and walks over to the pay phone. Tom stands against the wall and listens as Kerns complains to the American Guardsman who answers that he's been waiting for over three hours now. He had been told to wait here and that they'd pick him up at 4:00. The Guard member tells him he's sorry, but there's been a delay; their people are en route and should be there any time. Kerns repeats impatiently, "Yeah, right. Any time" and slams the phone back into its cradle, returning to the bench. Tom calls his name. When Kerns starts to turn, he instructs him in low, conspiratorial tones to just look straight ahead. He says he's with the Guard and that Kerns made a big mistake in calling them on a public telephone. Kerns peevishly asks how he's supposed to know that. Tom tells him to shut up and listen and to obey his instructions to the letter. He is to get on the bus that is about to depart and not get off until it gets to Klamath Falls. Kerns protests that Klamath Falls is four hours back the other way. Tom states firmly that Kerns breached security, not them, and orders him to get moving. Kerns starts to pick up his duffel bag, but Tom tells him to leave it behind. Kerns wants to argue, but boards the bus without another word. Tom sorts through the bag and opens an envelope to slide out a photograph of Quinn along with several printed sheets bearing an American Guard letterhead. A light-colored van pulls up and its door rapidly slides open to let out a man who calls Kerns' name, his overcoat falling open to show the business suit beneath. Tom asks what he's going to do with the black hood he holds in his hands. Darkness descends as the hood is pulled over Tom's head.
A riverboat's loud whistle is heard as six men in hoods are jostled and herded onto its deck and lined up along the rail. The hoods are removed, revealing Tom along with five other recruits who are in their 20s, clean-shaven with closely-cropped hair. One recruit angrily demands what the hell they are trying to pull, complaining that he didn't sign up to be kidnapped. An officer dressed in the dark uniform and beret of the American Guard lashes him across the cheek with his baton, the arrowhead at its tip drawing blood. He informs him that he'll find out soon enough what he signed up for, adding that he will speak only when he's spoken to. He taps each one with the arrow as walks down the line counting them off, dubbing Tom Number 6. He says that whoever they thought they might be before tonight, they are no longer--that person is dead and buried. Here they are a number; they are who he says they are. He is the only person with a name here: C.W. Knox, from the school of hard knocks. "Gentlemen, welcome to hell," he intones.
A cocktail party is in progress on the pier, colored lights strung beneath the canvas tent protecting the festive crowd from the rain. Two young women in evening dresses laugh and wave at the men on the passing boat. Knox tells the recruits that there are two groups in this world: us and them. "We are the good guys, they are the enemy," he says. He stops with his arrow on the shoulder of Number 2, who has been responding to the women's flirtation, and asks if he's boring him. Number 2 answers that he was just showing his appreciation for the female form. He's sure Knox must enjoy the female form as well. Knox tells Number 2 that he's right--maybe he doesn't stop often enough to enjoy the scenery. He drops him to the deck with a painful punch to the kidney. Knox tells the recruits that the group out there is "them." It is a life they could have had, but chose not to, because "they" are lost, "they" stand for nothing. He promises that when he's done with them, they will be reborn. They will look at the world through brand-new eyes and rise from the land of the dead into a new life, which begins at the end of this river. His job is to get them there and to make sure that they are ready for what awaits them. He suggests that anyone who doubts that he can do that have a chat with Number 2. Number 2 groans as Knox pulls him to his feet by the collar of his jacket. Knox presses the point of the arrow to the back of Number 2's neck and reminds them that they will speak only when spoken to. When confined to quarters, they will remain in quarters. They will not talk to the crew or anyone else on the boat besides himself. He says they will bunk in pairs and counts off the line again. He instructs Jaxon to show them to their quarters and dismisses them.
Number 5, an earnest-looking young man with a blond crewcut, unzips his bag on the top bunk, sets aside a photograph of a red-haired woman and begins to study the printed sheets beneath. Tom sets his own bag on the bottom bunk and asks who he was before he was Number 5. He replies that he worked in a gas station. Tom asks for his name and introduces himself as Jimmy Kerns. The young man reluctantly offers his own name: Gary. Tom asks if the photograph is his girlfriend, and Gary anxiously reminds him that they said no talking. Tom points out that they bunked them together and asks if he always does what people tell him. Gary responds that he doesn't--if he did, he wouldn't be here. Tom asks if he has any idea where they're sending them. Gary shakes his head and says that the only thing he knows is that they told him to wait at a bus stop in the middle of the night. He wasn't expecting to be grabbed and bagged. Tom asks what he knows about Quinn. Gary responds fervently that Quinn is a great leader--if anyone can set this country straight, he can. He's surprised when Tom asks if he's met Quinn, and replies that no one meets him, not unless you're invited to join his team. He says that they told them all this stuff at the orientation. Tom reminds him that they didn't tell them they were going to be kidnapped. Gary concedes softly, "Yeah."
Sirens clamor as the confused recruits are rousted from their cabins and driven onto the deck. Blinded by the glare of a searchlight and the officers' flashlights, they are ordered to line up according to number. Number 2 yells, "What the hell's going on? It's got to be 4:00 in the morning." Knox demands, "Is that you, Number 2?" He tells Number 2 that when they first locked horns, he thought he wasn't going to like him, but over the last couple of hours he's had some time to reconsider and realizes that Number 2 is just a guy with an attitude problem. Suddenly friendly, he says he likes that and invites Number 2 to join him on the upper deck where he has something to show him. Number 2 smiles and gives the other recruits a small, stiff-armed wave before climbing the stairs. Knox asks if he's ever heard of the aurora borealis. Number 2 smirks that if it has anything to do with ladies, he's not only heard of it, he's been inside and all around it. Knox smiles broadly and pats him on the shoulder, saying, "I like you, son. You've got initiative." He says that the aurora borealis has nothing to do with girls, but it is worth seeing. He encourages him to come over to the rail and take a good long look deep in the water. Tom watches from below, suspicious of Knox's bonhomie but helpless to intervene in the sinister drama. Number 2 studies the circle of water lit by the spotlight and says he can't see anything. Knox encourages him to try harder. As Number 2 bends further over the rail, Knox chops him across the back with the side of his hand and tosses him overboard. Tom pushes past Gary to sprint for the rail, stopping short at the click of the rifle a few inches from his chest. Knox yells "Six!" As he starts down the stairs, he snaps "Learn this lesson. You will not have an attitude! You are not individuals! You are numbers!" Eye to eye with Tom, Knox says that the team is like a chain, with no room for weaklings. He says it is better to know the weaklings now before they have to depend on them. He asks if there are any questions. Tom stares unflinchingly back at him. With a barely perceptible smile touching the corners of his mouth, Knox says "Good answer." Jaxon orders them below. Tom looks back at the light moving over the surface of the water where Number 2 has disappeared. Shock and horror cross his face as he turns to follow the others.
Attired in dark blue pants and long-sleeved light blue shirts sporting an American Guard patch, the first three recruits stack their dirty breakfast plates on a counter and file out of the mess room. Gary pulls back his plate when Tom helpfully reaches for it. Tom tells him that whatever they thought they were getting into, this is way out of whack. Gary asserts that Knox is right--they can't have weaklings here. Tom protests that he killed him in cold blood. He says that it could have been any one of them. Gary tells Tom not to screw this up for him; this is his last chance of doing something that makes a difference. Tom asks Gary to tell him what he knows about the American Guard and what they told him at orientation. Gary says that orientation is exactly the same for everyone. They halt their conversation as Jaxon walks past the window. Gary says agitatedly that they shouldn't even be talking about this here. Tom lowers his voice and insists that their lives may depend on their talking about it. He argues that whatever they were told, they weren't prepared for this--to be murdered in the middle of the night. He asks how Gary knows everyone went through the same program. He also asks what they told him about Quinn. Gary responds that they told him exactly what it says in the pamphlets, that the American Guard came from his ideas, that he's a great leader, and that if you're good enough to make his team, he'll be there to welcome them all personally. Tom asks where is "there," where are they going, but Gary says he told him everything he knows.
After Gary walks out onto the deck, Tom opens the door to an interior hallway. He climbs most of the way up a ladder and peers into the pilot's wheelhouse, where Knox is engaged in a telephone conversation: "Right. It made quite an impression on the others ... Sir, you're right. Better they be prepared for what they're getting into." Tom reflects that people who play power games always have someone above them with more power than they have. "Every superior has a superior above him. Even within their own ranks, they clamor and struggle to destroy each other. In the ranks of the power hungry, there is no trust, only doubt and fear." The conversation over, Knox crouches to look down the ladder, but Tom has descended and moved out of sight. Tom ponders the fact that being outside the game has its advantages
Tom and Gary sit on the lower bunk, Tom writing in a small notebook. Gary warns him not to let Knox see it. Tom says sarcastically, "Oh, I get it. Now you're helping me." Knox steps through the doorway and orders them to get on their feet. His back briefly towards Knox as he gets up, Tom slides the notebook under the mattress of the upper bunk. Knox says they will arrive at their rendezvous point in one hour. They are to remain in quarters until that time. He pulls out the notebook and asks what's in it. He flips it open and reads: "C.W. Knox: Firm leader, good control of the men. A touch of sadism, maybe. Commitment to the ideals of the organization--strong. Someone to keep your eye on. Leadership qualities?" He closes the notebook and asks Tom if this is a joke. Tom says he just thought that he might learn something from him--he thought he would write some stuff down, take some notes. Knox tells him he has it partly right: The first thing he'll learn is that he doesn't take notes, the second is that if he does take notes, he doesn't get caught. As for Knox being a sadist, he just enjoys his work. He asks "You can understand that, can't you?" After he leaves with the notebook, Gary lets out his breath and asks Tom if he's crazy. He says he's lucky Knox didn't cut his head off. Tom quietly murmurs, "Yeah, I'm a lucky guy."
Knox orders Jaxon to get the recruits on deck as the boat slowly nears the dock. They are hustled along the lower deck carrying their duffel bags and loaded into a waiting military truck. Considering the armed Guardsman sternly watching them, Tom has the gnawing feeling that the insanity of the last 24 hours was just a preview. The truck follows its leading jeep through an opened gate protected by a guardhouse. A column of troops in the light-blue shirts of recruits jogs past in the other direction. Quinn puffs on a cigar and watches through the blinds as the new recruits disembark and are lined up beside the truck. Knox tells Jaxon to show them to their barracks and have them report to the hangar at 1800 hours. Over the loudspeaker, a course voice rasps, "Where the hell have you been? Dock time was 0900. You're an hour late! This is unacceptable! I want to see you in my office now!" A guard stands in front of the gate to the Commander's Compound, which is protected by a chain-link fence topped with coils of barbed wire. Knox barks at the recruits, "What are you losers looking at? Get the hell out of here!"
Knox enters a code into an electronic keypad and enters the compound. Quinn sits behind his desk with his back to Knox, a curtain of blue smoke filling the air around him. He tells Knox that his schedule called for him to arrive at 1300 hours. Knox reminds Quinn that he had some trouble with one of the men. Quinn asks if the new recruits are getting too tough for him. Knox tells him that this particular recruit will no longer be a problem to anyone and apologizes for the delay. Quinn dismisses him and is then irritated when he fails to leave. Knox asks if he is dissatisfied with his work. Quinn asks if he's losing his edge--is he getting nervous? Knox holds the notebook and explains that he found one of the recruits making these notes; he thought maybe Quinn knew something about it. Quinn slowly swings his chair around and beckons for the notebook. He asks which recruit, then dismisses Knox and contemplates the notebook.
The recruits are ordered to keep their eyes forward as they enter a large room in the hangar ornamented only by the American Guard emblem on one wall. Tom tries to reassure the jittery Gary after a door slides down behind them, leaving the five recruits alone in the room. The only sound is the steady click of Quinn's cane on the floor as he enters accompanied by another officer. Quinn stands erect in the front of the room and without preamble, begins his sermon. Behind him, slides are projected onto a screen. He states that insidious forces have taken over this country: social unrest, economic disaster, the cities are no longer safe. People stand idly by while America dies a sure and certain death. The Guard is the last line of defense. They will be asked to sacrifice, but what they build today will last for a thousand years. They will each be asked just one question: How far are you willing to go? The American Guard wants only those who are willing to make a full commitment, body and soul. They will ask them to fight, they will ask them to die, and they may ask them to kill. They operate around the globe and it is the willingness of their members to do whatever it takes that makes them effective. He ends by saying that the end justifies the means, then snaps a salute.
Knox sits near a burning candle on a table in the barracks and says that after a wonderful day in the woods, it's time to relax with a game of willpower. He tells them that willpower is the foundation of their success, more than brains or muscle. He asks what good a goal is, if you haven't the guts to get it. Jaxon holds his hand over the flame. Knox tells Number 1 to show them his guts. Number 1 holds his hand about five inches above the candle. Knox pushes it downward with the arrow and approves when he keeps his hand steady above the flame. He sees the fear on Gary's face and calls Number 5 next, asking how much he is willing to give to get what he wants--how much will he endure. Gary tries to stammer out a response and Knox tells Jaxon he thinks he needs a little help. Jaxon grabs Gary's wrist with a smile and forces his hand over the candle. Knox asks if he has the willpower to withstand what he will have to withstand to reach his goal. Gary suddenly jerks his hand free and pulls Jaxon's sidearm from its holster, pointing it at his back. Knox stands with his own pistol drawn in a stand-off. Gary frantically asks if Knox has the willpower to shoot and kill him. Tom tries to calm him, telling him it's just a test. Knox orders him to stay out of it. He tells Gary that he wins and should just put the gun down. Gary laughs and says "Yeah, right. No way" as he tightens his grip on the gun. Tom tells Gary that he's not a killer--no matter what, he's not a killer--and tells him not to do it. Gary lowers the gun. Jaxon pins him back against a bunk, the pistol aimed at his head. Knox orders Jaxon to put him in the Hole. Tom turns to Knox, angrily entreating, "Come on, man, he's sick!" Knox says that there's room for two in there. Tom looks him straight in the eye, defiant and unflinching, as he closes his hand firmly over the top of the candle.
Tom moves stealthily through the darkness to a position where he can look around the corner of a building and see the Commander's Compound. He watches through one lens of a binoculars as the code is entered into the keypad. After the guard moves off, Tom opens the electronic lock and enters the compound. Quinn's bedroom door is slightly ajar. Tom lunges at the figure under the blankets and tells Commander Quinn that he has some questions for him. Quinn and an officer step out from behind the door. Quinn says he believes that the questions are in his court. He switches on the light, revealing a gagged Jimmy Kerns lying in the bed. Quinn tells Tom that when he takes someone's place, he must be sure that he takes the person, too. He says the question now is, who the hell is he?
Tom sits in a chair in Quinn's office guarded by Jaxon, who stands behind him with his pistol drawn. Quinn asks if Tom knows the story of Abraham: God asked him to sacrifice his only son and Abraham was willing to do it. He says it's a beautiful story, except for one thing--God intervened and spared the child. He went for the Hollywood ending. He turns to Knox and orders: "Shoot him." Tom braces himself as Knox reaches down with his right hand. He jumps at the flash of the camera Knox raises to his face, followed by the whir of an instant photo being ejected. Quinn instructs Knox to send the photo up the line. He strokes the blade of a knife and tells Tom that he's now going to experience pain--pain that will seemingly last forever, but in time, mercifully it will come to an end. Jaxon moves purposefully around the chair. Tom asks Quinn if he doesn't think he should know who he is before he puts him to an end. Quinn chuckles and says he knows who he is: he's just another lost soul who's come to him for salvation. He just happens to have an over-inflated sense of importance. Tom says that may be true, but if Quinn has him killed, it just might be an end to his long and glorious service to the American Guard. Quinn leans forward and says he'll kill him right now. Tom calmly responds "No, you won't." Quinn walks around his desk, the knife upraised. Tom suggests that he might want to talk to his superiors before he stains his carpet. With the knife poised near Tom's throat, Quinn claims that he runs this operation. Tom tells him that he may run this operation, but they both know that he doesn't run the show, so he might want to check the photo before he makes the mistake of his career. Quinn asks what makes Tom think that anyone in the organization would question the murder of an insubordinate recruit. Tom guarantees that if Quinn kills him, he will find the answer to that question. Torn between anger and doubt, Quinn finally orders Jaxon to throw Tom in the Hole.
The Hole is a concrete booth with a heavy, latticed iron door. When the door is swung open, Tom is enraged at the sight of Gary lying on the floor unconscious, his face marked with numerous abrasions. Tom whirls around and demands what the bastards did to him. Jaxon grabs him by the collar of his rain poncho, his pistol beneath Tom's chin, and orders him to shut up. He backs him into the Hole and locks the door behind him.
Quinn sits in his office speaking on the telephone: "The man tried to kill me, for God's sake ... Yes. Yes, I hear what you're saying but he's my prisoner and I will deal with him my way! ... Look, if I can't conduct my operation without interference from-- ... I understand, but-- ... Who is this man? ... What do you mean it's not my concern? He's in my jurisdiction! ... Yes, sir ... Yes, sir. Absolutely. I will see to it that he goes unharmed ... Yes, sir ... YES SIR." He leans forward to speak into the loudspeaker microphone, "Knox. Get me Knox."
A jeep plows through the muddy water covering the dirt road and pulls to a stop near the Hole. Jaxon calls, "Six! On your feet! Let's go!" He says it's discharge time--Tom is free to go. He tells him that the shortest way out of there is through the woods. Tom guesses that the plan is for him to start running and take a bullet in the back. Jaxon gives his word as an officer and a gentleman: "won't be a bullet." He orders him to get moving. Tom tells Gary to hang in there before leaving him alone in the Hole. Quinn telephones his superiors to report that Veil was killed trying to escape.
Tom runs through the rain-soaked woods, keeping low and frequently looking back. Knox follows behind, an arrow ready across his bow. Tom slips on the carpet of wet leaves in his haste, but Knox's pace is steady and deliberate as he stalks his quarry. Knox stoops to examine a fern broken off from its stem. He catches a glimpse of Tom and sends the arrow flying, which buries itself solidly in the mossy trunk of a tree. Standing near the tree, he hears a sound and fires straight into the back of Tom's bright blue rain poncho. He kneels by his fallen victim, stretching out a hand to pull back his hood. Tom steps out behind him and asks if he's looking for the aurora borealis, decking him with a branch swung like a baseball bat.
Quinn eases his neck muscles and when he hears the door to his office open, asks without turning, "Is he dead?" Tom chambers a round in his pistol and asks, "Who, Knox?" He moves around the desk to roughly search and disarm Quinn. The Commander asks who he is. Tom says he's somebody important enough that Quinn had been given orders not to kill. He forces Quinn to acknowledge that fact and that they wouldn't tell him who Tom was or why they wanted him alive. Tom says that Quinn disobeyed a direct order, then he sent Knox out to do his dirty work. He asks how Quinn thinks that is going to look in his report. Tom says forcefully, "Rules make the organization, Commander. You know that. You wrote the book. Following orders is the principle that we live by." Quinn tells him they know he's run a perfect organization here for fifteen years. Tom asks if that includes a perfect operation in the jungle a couple years back. Quinn looks baffled and asks, "Jungle?". Tom presses him: "1993, four men hanged execution-style. You got a short memory for that kind of thing?" Quinn chuckles and says he knows every op they've run since 1980. He says if they had hung four people in the jungle, he would know it. He tells him it never happened. Tom quietly insists that he was there, but Quinn is adamant: "Not in the jungle." Tom asks what he means, "not in the jungle." Quinn says anything else is on a need-to-know basis. Tom grabs him by the front of the shirt and says that he needs to know. Quinn tells him that if he is who he says he is, he already knows too much. Tom steps back slightly and aims the gun at Quinn's chest, saying "Humor me. Give me your version." Quinn responds, "Not on your life" and folds his hands deliberately across his chest.
Two blacks cars speed through the gate and skid to a stop on the gravel, rapidly discharging armed men in suits. Tom hears their leader instruct them to find Veil. Tom tells Quinn, "That's right. Not on my life," and pulls him to his feet. Two of the men hurry towards the Commander's Compound. Tom takes Quinn at gunpoint to the Hole and orders him to open it. Gary asks what's happening and Tom responds, "We're resigning." He pushes Quinn inside, who confidently assures him that he'll never get away with this. Tom says he knew he'd say that. The two Organization men cautiously enter Quinn's quarters, pistols ready. Tom and Gary make their way through the camp, avoiding their pursuers by taking what shelter they can among the trunks of the pine trees, concealing themselves temporarily along the side of the truck and behind a row of garbage cans. Two of the Organization men approach a pair of Guardsmen and hand them a shirt to put their dogs on the scent. The dogs make anxious sounds in their throats and take off at a dead run in the direction of the barracks.
Tom and Gary reach the edge of a ravine behind the camp. Tom considers the rocky, swiftly-flowing river below and the barking dogs rapidly approaching. He grabs one of a pair of rubber rafts leaning against a building and tosses it over the side of the ravine, he and Gary scrambling down the steep slope after it. Tom pushes the raft over the last few feet of rocks to the water. Gary says there has to be an easier way out of there, but Tom yells for him to get in. As the dogs race down the slope, Tom follows Gary into the raft and pushes off, leaving the dogs at the edge of water, barking furiously after the disappearing craft. Four men in suits reach the top of the bank, the three subordinates with automatic weapons ready to fire. Their leader looks downstream, then shakes his head in disappointment.
Quinn starts to rise to his feet in expectation when he hears the leader quietly call his name outside the door of the Hole. He breaks off his movement, comprehending the leader's intention when he tells him not to get up. Two shots echo through the woods. Tom and Gary paddle down the river, their raft buffeted by rapids as they maneuver it around rocks and between massive boulders, the stony waterway through the forest taking them far from the American Guard camp.
Synopsis © 1996 Marge Brashier
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January 29, 1996