Learn more about Ned Crickmore
Given Name: Ned Crickmore Age: 44 Home Region: Pawpaw Plains Favorite Food: Potato skins with no bacon
A thirst for vengeance drove Ned to leave his family farm and become a Conductor, but now he's not sure if revenge is what he's after. He earned his nickname from his constant questioning regarding the location of his pet pig, Mayhew. All he wants is to be reunited with his beloved pet.
When he's not on the rails, Ned enjoys gardening and will often cook meals for his friends using vegetables he grew himself.
I don’t think most folks who wind up running the rails mean for it to become their lifelong career. I sure didn’t. I never wanted to leave the farm in the first place. My father had inherited the land from his father, who had inherited it from his father, and so on for generations. The Crickmore Farm hadn’t been profitable until my father took charge of it. Folks spread rumors that my father had made some kind of deal with the devil, but I knew his success was the product of hard work. And some day, if I worked just as hard, I would inherit his business.
But to get there, I had to pay my dues, and that meant I grew up working the farm for free. The other local boys got paid six dollars an hour for their work, but I had to shovel shit for the promise that one day this would all be mine.
It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I took a liking to the animals; we had more than just the dairy cows. My favorite was a swine named Mayhew. My father told me Mayhew had been born the day before I was. I never believed him, but it seemed the old pig had taken a liking to me, and I’ll happily admit that by the time I was sixteen I considered Mayhew a friend.
I remember one particular night I cried my heart out to the old pig after I’d been stood up by my prom date. No girl in town wanted to date the farm boy whose best friend was his pet pig.
Around the time my father was preparing to retire, he brought me in to his office and said he needed to tell me something. Something about Mayhew.
“The old pig?” I asked, trying to swallow my concern. Father just nodded gravely. Turns out my father had made some kind of deal—not with the devil, but with a shady character calling himself the Stranger.
Turns out this Stranger promised Father the farm would become profitable so long as Father kept a powerful artifact hidden away. The Stranger called it a “Century Vial.” Father didn’t know what it was, so he fed the thing to Mayhew. And now the Stranger had come to collect his artifact, loaded Mayhew onto a train, and vanished into thin air.
I never wanted to leave the farm. It’s in my Crickmore heritage to be a farmer, but I wound up running the rails, hunting the Stranger. I don’t trust the Railroaders—I hear they get some kind of power from their relationship with the Stranger—but if working for them gets me closer to the Stranger, I’ll do what it takes.
I’m going to get my piggy back.
I’d been riding the rails for nearly eight months, with still no sign of Mayhew.
Oh, there were stories, alright. “Man on the far side of James Park saw a pig in his garden, and the thing disappeared ‘fore he could chase it away.” “My friend’s friend knows Andrea Harperdeen, who said she was coming out of a fashion boutique in the Heights, when a pig nearly knocked her off her feet.” “A cousin of mine worked on a train with a conductor who claimed a time-traveling pig nearly got him eaten by a T-Rex.”
I didn’t put too much faith in any of the stories I heard. Mayhew had always been a mild-mannered pig; he wouldn’t dream of foraging in a stranger’s garden, or knocking over a lady. And I figured the story about time travel must have been completely made up.
That Mysterious Stranger had taken my pig, and left behind a trail of tall tales. Hunting him down was tiring, frustrating work, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I never would be. When I got Mayhew back, I’d take him back to the farm, take over the family business, and get on with my life in peace.
One evening, after tying down my train, I met an interesting fellow at a bar in James Park. The place was dingy, but the man was wearing a sparkling clean white lab coat. And despite being indoors, he also wore dark sunglasses. There were no other seats available, so I sat down next to him at the bar and ordered a drink and loaded potato skins. I asked the server to tell the chef to kindly leave off the bacon bits.
When the appetizer arrived, there were bacon bits on them.
Never one to waste food, I offered the potato skins to the man in the lab coat.
“I don’t accept food from people I’ve just met,” the man said.
“That’s a might strange policy to have,” I said. “Sounds like you’ve got yourself some enemies.”
“You could say that.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of a pocket inside his coat and lit up.
“I don’t think they’d take kindly to you smoking in here,” I said. I know it wasn’t my place, but I hate to see someone breaking the rules.
“I don’t think you have the right to tell me not to do whatever I want,” the man said without looking at me. He took a long drag on his cigarette. I looked at the bartender. He didn’t seem to notice the cigarette. I shook my head and took a deep swig from my drink.
“What’s wrong with the potato skins,” the man asked. I didn’t feel like answering after his outburst, but if my father taught me anything, it’s that a Crickmore is always polite.
“There’s bacon on them,” I said.
“What’s wrong with the bacon, then?” he asked.
“I don’t eat it.”
“Everyone eats bacon.” The man ashed his cigarette onto the bar. It was too loud in the room to hear ash hit wood, but I imagined a tiny sizzle when it landed.
“Not if their best friend is a pig,” I said, raising my glass to my lips. I was tired of being polite.
The man turned toward me, and for a brief moment, I could see into the folds of his lab coat. I saw the pocket that held his cigarettes, and in another pocket, I saw the hilt of a firearm. “Now that might be the first interesting thing you’ve said,” he said.
“Interesting is a word,” I said. I could tell him about Mayhew. I could tell him about the stories about the time-traveling pig I’d heard on the rails. Or, I could finish my drink and head back to my train.
I tilted my glass, drained the last of my beer, and slapped my Tocium on the counter. “I’ll leave you to the rest of your evening,” I said.
As I stood to leave, the man looked me square in the face. Or I think he did. I couldn’t tell, on account of the sunglasses. “You’re Ned Crickmore,” he said.
Now that stopped me in my tracks. But only long enough to say, “Well, then. I guess word gets out fast, when a man leaves his farm to hunt down his pig.” I didn’t want to talk to this man anymore. Something about him made the hair on my neck stand on end.
I turned around to leave, and then I felt the muzzle of a gun pressed into my lower back.
“The thing is, Mr. Crickmore,” the man said, his cigarette breath curling around me from my ear to my face. “I think I’d like to join you in the hunt for your pig.”
I remember feeling something white hot where the weapon was pressed against me, and I remember suddenly feeling drowsy—like if I didn’t fall asleep right that second, I would die. I fought the feeling for as long as I could, and then it felt like I was falling backwards into myself.
“Congratulations on being reintegrated, Mr. Crickmore,” I heard a low voice say. It had an electric quality to it, like the person speaking was talking into a microphone. I opened my eyes and was immediately blinded by fluorescent lighting.
“Where am I?” I asked groggily. The last thing I remembered was the man in the lab coat at the bar, and suddenly feeling sleepy as I left.
“The Johnson Group Research Foundation,” said the voice, which I now saw belonged to a man sitting at a desk behind a glass wall. It wasn’t the man from the bar—no, this person had shaggy red hair and an unruly beard—but he did wear a similar lab coat. I supposed he must be a lab technician.
As I looked at him, I slowly awoke from my daze. The man at the bar held me at gunpoint, and then I fell asleep. It must have been some kind of tranquilizing weapon. I felt the remnants of a strange dream fleeing from the front of my mind, and for some reason felt like I’d just been inches away from Mayhew, my pig.
“Sit tight, Mr. Crickmore,” said the scruffy man. “The Researcher will be in momentarily.” He left and I stood from my padded seat to better investigate my surroundings.
It turned out the lab tech was not the one behind the glass wall—I was. There were four glass walls around me, a glass ceiling above me, and polished black floor beneath me. Set into the floor at one edge of the cube was a stair case leading below the floor. I peered down the passage way to see a black door—the only indication of how I was put into this observation tank. I tried the handle. Locked. I climbed back up the stairs and turned my attention to the room outside the glass, hoping to find hints at why I was brought here.
The room outside the cage was cavernous. It must’ve been fifty feet or more from one glass wall to the wall of the outer room. Along one wall were more desks, computers, sinks, cabinets, and the only entrance to the room. Lining the sides of the room were dozens of cylindrical metal tanks with small windows set in their fronts. Pipes and tubes of various colors rose from their tops in tangled arrays leading in all directions, creating a web that hung over the center of the room before disappearing through holes near the ceiling. The overhead lighting cast a dramatic shadow of the webbing onto the floor, creating the eerie sensation of being an insect caught by a giant spider.
Sitting at the back of the room were two giant, identical machines. Each was narrow, perhaps only four or five feet wide, and from where I stood, I could see they stood out several feet from the wall. Both reached from the floor to the ceiling and appeared to be made of the same polished black material as the floor. At the center of the machines’ front faces were shallow ovular indentations. In the machine on the left, I saw various belts and diodes on wires hanging limply. And in the machine on the right, I saw a woman. I leaned against the glass wall to get a closer look at her.
She was strapped in to the machine and appeared to be asleep, though she wore a grimace on her face. I watched as the pulsating lights on the machine’s interface changed colors when the woman occasionally jerked her head to the side. Whatever nightmare I found myself in, trapped in this observation tank, seemed she was trapped in one far worse.
I looked to the empty machine and massaged the back of my neck with one hand, suddenly aware of a stiffness I hadn’t noticed before. I shivered.
And then I remembered what the lab tech had said: “The Researcher will be in momentarily.” It only made sense that he meant the man from the bar. Up to this point, I’d managed to stay calm. But the unsettling sight of the woman, the foreboding presence of the web of tubing, the unyielding mystery of the cylinders, and the not knowing how I fit into all of it—all of it came crashing into me at once.
“H—hello?” I said, raising my voice. And then I began to panic. “HELP!” I shouted. “Somebody help me, please!”
I didn’t ask for any of this. I’m not the type to stick my nose where it isn’t welcome. All I wanted was to be a good farmer. To take over the family business and live a quiet life on the farm. But then…
This was all that damn Stranger’s fault.
It had to be.
The mysterious bastard came calling and stole Mayhew, knowing that any farmer worth their salt would chase after a lost member of his herd—let alone a prized pig and lifelong friend. Something in his deal with my father must’ve gone sour, and the Stranger was hellbent on ruining the Crickmore name. And when I didn’t give up my chase, he must have paid off the Johnson group to kidnap me.
That had to be it.
“I’m done looking for the pig,” I lied. They had to be listening to me. There were probably microphones built into the floor. I looked around, not sure where they would have hidden the video cameras. “Just… Just let me out of here, please!” No response. “Just let me go back to my farm, and I won’t meddle with your business. I won’t even tell anybody about any of this! Please, just let me out of here!”
I crossed to the other side of the cube, thinking I’d try pounding on the door at the bottom of the steps, but before I could reach the stairs, I saw a sudden movement in the corner of my eye. The door to the lab outside my prison flow open, slamming into the wall next to it, and a hulking blond man rushed in. He looked wildly to his left and right, then focused directly on me.
“You!” he shouted, pointing at me. The sight of him sprinting toward the cube was enough to make me take several steps back. “We get you and girl out.” He said with a thick accent as he reached the desk the lab tech had sat at.
“You—what?” I was dumbstruck. Had they actually believed me? I fought to stifle a laugh. “You’re really going to let me out?” I asked.
The hulking foreigner rifled through the papers on the desk, checked under the computer keyboard, doubled over to search under the desk. He was looking for something.
“Of course,” he said standing up straight. “That why Stranger send me.”
And suddenly I felt like I was going to vomit.
I struggled to regain my composure. I didn’t think the situation could get any worse than it was. But now it wasn’t enough to simply keep me locked up? The Stranger had to send this… This…mercenary after me? To kill me, probably.
Apparently unable to find what he was looking for, the mercenary let out a sigh. “We don’t have time,” he said. The man grabbed the chair the lab tech had used, hoisted it over his head and swung it at the glass wall in front of him, causing a raucous fwunk to reverberate inside the cube.
“What the hell are you doing?” I shouted. He swung again. And again.
“It okay,” he grunted between swings. A crack began to form and crawl up the side of the wall.
“NO, STOP!” I pleaded. It was no use.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We… Get… You… OUT.” And with one more ferocious strike of the chair, the wall shattered. I fell and scrambled backward on the ground, desperate to avoid the shards of glass raining down. When the chaos had ended, the man paused to catch his breath and discarded the dented rolling chair. He stepped into the chamber and extended his hand to me. “Help me get girl,” he said.
“I’m not helping you with anything,” I spat, swatting his hand away. “I know the Stranger paid you to kill me!”
“Friend, you—” He was interrupted by an alarm blaring in the lab. The man tugged at his hair, obviously frustrated. “We have no time!” he said. “Am here to save you, not kill! Stranger man is not enemy. People who put you here is enemy. Now help me wake up girl!” He grabbed the front of my shirt and lifted me to my feet. “Am Tobias,” he said.
Before I could decide whether I trusted Tobias, the door to the lab swung open again. The scruffy, red-headded lab tech entered, brandishing a pistol.
“Stop!” he shouted. Tobias turned toward the door and began running. The lab tech fired his gun into the air. “Final warning!” he said. But Tobias didn’t stop. He scooped up the dented chair once more, and hurled it toward the door, striking the man directly in the head. He fell over and didn’t move.
I decided I trusted Tobias.
We rushed to the sleeping woman in the machine.
“How are we supposed to get her out?” I asked, raising my voice over the drone of the lab alarm. I found a dormant touch screen display on the side of the machine. It lit up at my touch. The screen read:
COGNITIVE PROSTHESIS ACTIVE
SIMULATION IN PROGRESS
I didn’t know what that meant. I’m a farmer. But I’ve seen movies before, and in those movies the shiny computer was always the anser. I started to say as much when I noticed Tobias working to yank off the belts keeping her in place.
“Tobias, wait!” I said. I threw my hands in his way, to halt his progress.
“Why you stop?” he asked.
“We don’t know what’ll happen if we just yank her out of there! Haven’t you seen movies before?”
The woman began to stir.
“Look,” said Tobias. “She waking up. Is fine.” He attempted to pull her out again, but I stopped him.
“Or maybe you’ll kill her by waking her up too quickly!” I said. Tobias snorted and threw his hands up.
“Just make it fast,” he said.
I nodded and returned to the control panel. I poked and prodded at the screen, accidentally bringing up all kinds of menus and buttons I didn’t understand. I heard shouting and looked towards the front of the lab. Reinforcements had arrived.
“I deal with,” said Tobias, cracking his knuckles and striding toward the security guards.
I started pressing every button that appeared on screen. The machine appeared to control the entire room, as one button press caused the lights to flicker. Another made the web of tubes above lurch and shudder. A third, and a mechanical whirring roared to life over the sounds of the siren and the yelps of the men Tobias mowed down.
“WHAT YOU DOING?” he called to me.
“I DON’T KNOW!” I called back.
I heard a rush of gas and turned to see the windows on the mysterious cylinders lining the lab had opened, releasing billowing clouds of mist.
Finally, the machine display read:
ENDING SIMULATION IN: 10… 9… 8…
“TOBIAS,” I shouted. “I THINK I DID IT!”
The belts restraining the woman released and I managed to catch her as she fell. It was becoming difficult to see through the mist as it filled the room.
“HANG ON!” I heard Tobias say behind me. Within seconds, his arms emerged from the fog and wrapped around me and the woman. A sensation like TV static filled my field of vision and I felt the floor disappear beneath me. The cacophony of the lab fell silent in an instant. Moments later, a new floor rose up under me.
I opened my eyes and found we were still surrounded by mist, though it was quickly fading away. We stood in the cabin of a strange locomotive. The front windows were coated in condensation, probably from the mist that followed us from the lab. On the floor in front of us lay a woman with short, snow-white hair. She was propped up on one elbow, with her other arm extended outward at an angle, like she was reaching for something. Her face was frozen in a look of horror.
And standing above her was the Stranger.