Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I Can't Think Of A Witty Title...

Yeah, it's been a while since the last update. I still haven't done the reveiw of T3, and I have a new custom 'Joe to show of. But right now, I have chapter 8 of E.H.U.D. In the last draft, this chapter was much shorter and featured later in the novel, but with this draft I decided to use it to flesh out the universe a little, expressing some of the day-to-day consequences of the apperance of a group of super-powered terrorists. Also, I set up something in this chapter that won't pan out until book three, but which I felt was essential to establish.

Other notes: I ask everyone, please, please leave comments. Also: I found out recently that when pasting in text from MS Word, Italisized words don't stay that way, so I appologize for any confusion that made on the last few chapters...

Chapter 8

John was in his office, hunched over his desk, slowly circling a stylus in the air over his computer monitor. He reached out, highlighting a joist on the plans he was working on. He used the stylus to nudge the joist a few inches, and then ran a stress test on the design. The building held, so he switched back to blue-print view and stared at the plans for several minutes.
John’s current project was designing a new building for the Hemermin Museum of Sculpture and Three-Dimensional Art. It was a project he greatly enjoyed; the client had few requirements and offered a great deal of freedom, pointing out that John’s final design would itself be three-dimensional art.
Leaning in closer, John stared down at the reflective floor in the main exhibition hall that the client had requested. No matter how hard he tried, John couldn’t get the light to play exactly as he wanted it to. He had tried several different types of material, and had moved the room’s primary window all across the wall over the entrance corridor, but the light just wasn’t illuminating the statues the way he wanted it too.
He rotated the view until he saw the building from the side, and then pulled at the center of the floor, bringing down by about three quarters of an inch. He was a bit worried about this move; the client had asked for a “sea of glass” and had specified that it had to be perfectly flat, but making the floor concave was the only way to get the proper illumination. John rendered the plans and ran them through a lighting simulation. The digital sun ran through its daily track, visible from all angles through the window. The light shifted and moved around on the floor, but reflected up and lit the undersides of the statues that John had chosen to fill the mock-up: The Thinker, David, La Pieta, The Sproing. It was beautiful, but not quite perfect. John switched back to a normal view of the plans and added a band of reflective material around the edge of the roof. Then he went back and ran the light simulation again. The sun bounced off of the floor, and any light that wasn’t caught by the statues came down behind them, via the reflective strip. Perfect.
John wrote up the changes he had made, re-ran the simulation, this time recording it, and sent both the list of changes and the recording to his client. Then he saved the project, closed the program, and turned his attention to his real obsession of the morning.
He opened up AmeriSearch and typed in the president’s name. The results he got were the same ones he had gotten on his last break, over an hour ago. He sighed and sat back in his chair.
Ever since the world had woken up that morning, there seemed to be only one thing anyone could discuss: last night’s attempt to assassinate Isaac Latterndale. John was no different than anyone else; he also wanted to know exactly was going on, and why. So far, however, the details had been scarce. Once the news of the attempt became common knowledge, and after a reporter on the radio had accidentally mentioned Merv Lemlin’s parting letter, Eli Rosencrantz had promised that the White House would be offering an official statement at some time that day. “’Just give us enough time to get our lies straight,’” Walter had quipped.
While John was interested in the story as much as anyone else, there was also a personal side to his desire to know more. After being apart from history, and missing the great goings-on of the world for fifteen years, John felt that this was his time to get immersed in the issue, to find out the facts and become immersed in the debates; this was something he could tell his grandchildren about.
And now, after waiting an hour for just a little bit more of the story, nothing.
John absently rolled his chair back and forth a few times, and then checked his e-mail. No reply from the Hemermin Foundation yet.
With nothing left to do, John went back to his design program and opened up his personal project. Various sub files flashed across the screen as the computer loaded the complete architectural files of Johnstown, the massive construct John had been working on in his free time for the past two months.
The file finished loading, and John looked in awe at what his hands had wrought. Over a mile and a half high, the central tower of Johnstown was an engineering miracle. For the first two weeks at Cohen & Associates, John had been running various tower designs through computerized stress tests, building the tower higher and higher. Unfortunately, the highest he was able to get the tower, using practical materials and methods, was about four thousand feet. So John got creative, stretching the base of his tower to be half a mile in diameter, with large vaulted interior domes spreading the weight of the upper floors. He then shifted the internal structure from a pre-loaded traditional lattice-work of cross-beams and stacked floors to a massive pile of dodecahedrons, each connected to each other and to a central column by a collection of shock absorbers. The joints of the dodecahedrons were also made out of shock absorbers, allowing the entire building to warp and flex in strong winds. True, the dodecahedrons required an interesting system of elevators to service them all, but on the whole, the building was a marvel. Around the central tower were twelve smaller ones, each slightly under a mile high, connected to the central tower by long wings, sweeping down from the outrigger towers and then swooping back up to connect with the main spire.
A few people had come by John’s office while he was working on it, and had commented favorably on it. But even though John enjoyed the praise, he always felt slightly guilty, because he knew that while some of the work was his, especially the design for the shock absorbing system, the tower had actually grown out of someone else’s work. Specifically, it was an outgrowth of SkyCrest Apartments.
After only a week of working with C & A, John had found himself going through the company’s network, looking over files from past jobs. Everything was there in the network: the original customer specifications, sketches, schematics, digital renders, and, if available, photos of the finished buildings.
He had quickly found his way to the SkyCrest project, and had started studying the blue prints. The building was quite unique; it was nothing more than a thin concrete tube, with a basement and twelve floors of space, including the fitness center, lobby, and some stores. Everything above that, all the residential floors, were just prefabricated units: two five-apartment semi-circles with points to attach to the elevator system, pushed together and stacked around the core. John’s first experiments with changing the building had been to get it significantly taller, but when his experiments started to collapse in the stress-tests, he had been forced to change the design, leading to his eventual inclusion of the dodecahedrons.
John broke from his reverie and touched a dodecahedron’s floor panel. The image zoomed in on the panel and slowly rotated it. John touched it again, and then pressed delete on his keyboard. He then went into free-draw mode, and sketched out several long, thin panels and designated them as “Reinforced- Aluminum Crossbar.” He then placed several of them in the shape of a pentagon and placed shock absorbing material between them, so they formed a complete panel. Then he placed it back into a dodecahedron, tested it, and then applied the change to all of the dodecahedrons.
After a few moments, John’s thoughts slipped back to the SkyCrest files, and then to some of the other files he had seen while looking around. There were several museums, bus depots, the capitol of some small country that he had never heard of. But what interested John most was a file marked “Presidential Nuclear Disaster Survival Bunker.”
When John had tried to open the file, a warning had popped up, telling him that the information inside was classified and not to be discussed with anyone outside of the company, on threat of termination of employment, as well as stiff legal penalties. John had indicated his assent and the message had been replaced with plans for a massive underground compound. Above ground was a heavily-fortified two-story bunker, with a small reception lobby and a freight elevator. The elevator went down for almost one hundred feet before reaching more of the building. The first floor underground was a processing station, with several smaller elevators and a large area labeled ‘Detoxification Center.’ Below that were residential areas, with sleeping arrangements for about fifty people, and beneath that was a kitchen. The building continued down for several stories, including practical things such as huge storage rooms, air processing equipment, and water recycling centers. There were also some strange things: an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an arcade, and an art gallery. But what John found at the very bottom of the building was the strangest thing of all.
Filling the entire bottom floor was some sort of clinic, and, like most of the rest of blue-print, included furniture and equipment. But this was very strange equipment. Gene sequencers, cold storage modules, three super computers, and ten gynecological exam tables. John stared at the plans for several long minutes, trying to comprehend what on earth all of this was for. Eventually, he had given up, closed the file, and tried to ignore it.
John’s computer beeped and he came back to the present. A message had appeared on his desk top; Hemermin had answered. John checked his e-mail and smiled. His changes were approved, and he was now finished with the project. He closed down the file for Johnstown, opened up the Hemermin Museum, exported it as a finished plan, along with several 3-D renders, and then sent it all back to his client for final approval.
Then John opened AmeriSearch and checked for more news on the assassination attempt. There, at the top of the page, was the official White House statement on the events of the previous night. John eagerly clicked on the link, and read the statement.
“At approximately eight fifteen last night, a man claiming to be Merv Lemlin, Private first class of the United States Army, deceased, entered into the World Peace Banquet being held here in the White House, and attempted to kill President Isaac Latterndale. While this man did not succeed, he did kill and injure many guests and security personnel before being killed himself. Despite the High Security precautions at the banquet, the assailant was apparently able to bypass security using what can only be described as supernatural powers. Several prominent scientists have reviewed footage from the banquet and have been unable to determine how the attacker was able to perform the acts he committed. A recording of the attack is now available at the White House website, although I must warn you that it contains disturbing images, and it is not recommended that anyone under the age of eighteen view it.
“Immediately before beginning his attack, the mysteries assailant made several allegations against the president, accusing him of approving and overseeing an illegal human experimentation program on American citizens. The assailant also sent several documents concerning these allegations to leaders of the senate. After rigorously examining these documents, experts working for the Central Intelligence Agency have verified them as being fabrications, and that evidence suggests these documents, as well as the would-be assassin, were sent by a foreign power to terrorize the United States.
“President Latterndale would like to reassure his fellow American citizens that he will not be pushed around by these terrorists, and that he will be unwavering in his quest to discover who these people are, and what the source of their mysterious powers is. Thank you, and good day.”
As soon as he finished reading the press release, John clicked on the link that would take him to the video of the attack. The video was edited together from four different video sources: three cameras on the White Houses’ closed-circuit system, and one from a news crew that had been allowed into the banquet. With the constant shifting between angles, and of course the contents of the video, John was sure he was watching a Hollywood fabrication. He almost laughed as a soldier was jerked into the air and exploded in a shower of gore. This was preposterous! Did the president really think he could fool the American public with such a flagrant lie?
John left his office and went to find Walter. Walter was always the first one to know interesting facts, and he probably already knew the names of the director, producers, and actors in the president’s farce.
“No,” Walter said, “it’s authentic. All they did was edit the sources together, so we could see the best angles.”
“Yes, but what this Merv person did was impossible!”
Walter shrugged. “I know. But last night they had the original news video on YouTube before they edited it. I was halfway through watching it when they pulled the video, but it showed the same stuff. The president’s covering up something, but it’s not what Merv did to him.”
John sat down in the one spare chair in Walter’s office and shook his head. “I can’t accept that this is reality. What he did was—was firmly in the realm of science fiction. Maybe—I don’t know, maybe this whole thing was faked from the beginning, and even the original news video was faked, to make all this look more real.”
Walter picked up a knick-knack from his desk and absently tossed it from hand to hand. “It is pretty hard to believe. You know Donnie, the new intern?”
John nodded.
“He’s spent all morning trying to convince everyone that this is the first sign of the Apocalypse, and that Merv will recover and become the Antichrist.” Walter raised an eyebrow, making it clear he didn’t believe Donnie.
John shrugged. “That means nothing to me.”
“Oh, right, I forgot.” Walter spun his chair around a few times and stared out his window, still playing with his knick-knack. “It really doesn’t matter what religion you have, I guess. We all have to deal with proof positive of the supernatural, now.”
“Or proof positive of a big conspiracy.”
Walter let out a bark-like laugh. “I bet you all those crystals-and-pyramids nuts are having a field day with this.”
John didn’t reply.
Walter continued to spin in his chair. “Huh?”
John still didn’t respond.
Walter stopped spinning and snapped his fingers at John. “Whoa, hey, are you there, buddy?”
John shook himself and looked strangely at Walter. “A big conspiracy.”
Walter stared blankly at John. “What?”
John smiled broadly and gestured frantically. “There’s some sort of big conspiracy going on. Have you seen that bunker design on the network?”
“Yeah, I was the head of the team on that one.”
“Really? Well, anyway, the threat of nuclear war dropped to almost nothing after the Soviet Union broke up, and preparing for World War III became unimportant. So suddenly this president, apparently one of the most controversial presidents in the last… forever, commissions this top secret bunker. And at the very bottom, the most protected place in the bunker, is a clinic with three super computers. Do you know what super computers are used for?”
Walter looked like he wasn’t exactly following John’s train of thought. “Computing… superly?”
“For doing the complex calculations involved in manipulating the human gene sequence!”
“Yeah, the gene sequencing machines were a bit of a giveaway there.”
John shook his head in frustration. “That’s not important! So anyway, Latterndale arranges an assassination attempt, with the most off-the-wall, bizarre assassin he could think of, survives, and blames a foreign country. Tensions rise, it starts World War III, and the president hides in his bunker till it all blows over!”
“And the gene sequencers?”
John nodded. “He’s already extended out into his third term. He wants power, and he wants to keep it. So,” John pointed dramatically at the ceiling, “he keeps himself alive through cloning!”
Walter didn’t respond for several seconds. “That’s your theory?”
Walter fell back into silence. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“He would harvest the clones for organs, raising them in nutrient-rich hyper-wombs so that they would grow fairly quickly and just have developed organs, the rest would be mostly dead—“
“That—That violates just about everything I remember about genetics from biology class.”
John sat back in his chair, and neither man talked for several log moments.
“Allright,” John admitted, “that was a pretty stupid idea.” He scratched his head. “So what’s your idea? How do you explain what happened last night?”
“That’s the best part, I don’t need an opinion. Unless another event like this happens, I’ll just let the philosophers and scientists work it out.”
“Yeah, I guess I’ll do that, too.” John glanced around the room, and noticed a clock on the far wall. One seventeen. John stood up to go. “Well, I better get back to work. Keep me posted on any new assassin news.”
“Oh, wait; there was something else I wanted to talk to you about.”
John stopped. “What?”
“You know Susan, in accounting?”
“Yeah, what about her?”
Walter grinned wolfishly. “It just so happens that her sister has agreed to go to dinner with me tonight.”
“Congratulations. What does this have to do with me?”
Walter’s grin disappeared. “She only agreed if I would be willing to make it a double date with Susan, and Susan’s a bit… Well, you know her.”
John edged closer to the door. “Yes, I know her. I want no part in this.”
“John, please.” Walter gestured helplessly. “I really like this woman, and the only way she’ll agree is if we double date. And you can’t double date without a date to… double with…” Walter trailed off. “Okay, I can’t think of anything witty to say, but please, I need this!”
“No, not after last time.” Two weeks before, Walter hade arranged for John to go out with a woman named Doreen, who Walter claimed to know from college. She and John had gone out for dinner, and then to see a theatre festival being held in a nearby park. John had spent the whole evening trying to think of things to say, but was always to shy to actually start a conversation. For her art, Doreen kept staring at her watch every few minutes, and shortly after arriving at the festival, she had wondered away from John, and he didn’t see her again. Since then, Walter had tried to set John up with one or two other women, but John had steadfastly refused. And he had no intention of accepting now.
“Oh, c’mon,” Walter insisted, “you already know her. She has a great personality, and she’s really funny!” As he talked, Walter made little hand gestures, as if trying to illustrate his point.
John tried to hold in a laugh, but it was too strong, and ended up coming out through his nose. “I’m sorry, but if I had to describe Susan, the word ‘funny’ would not be used in any context.”
“Okay, so she’s not actually all that funny, but you never know. You might actually like her.”
“That’s what you said about Doreen.”
“So I was wrong once.” Walter stared at John with large, woeful eyes and a protruding lower lip. “Please, John, you’re my only hope. I don’t know who else to turn to.”
John sighed. “Don’t you have work to do?”
Walter sighed and arranged his chair in front of his computer. “I guess you’re right, I should get back to work. After all, what is there for me, outside of work? For I am doomed to a life of perpetual bachelorhood. There shall be no true love in my life.” He faced his computer and typed morosely for a while. “Hey! Now they’re saying Merv was an alien!”
John reached for the door. “Fine, I’ll do it. But never ask me for something like this again, understand?”
Walter’s face split into a wide grin. “Oh, thanks, you’re a real life saver. I knew I could rely on you!”
“You also get my snack-room clean-up duty next week.” John was out the door before Walter had a chance to reply.
After going back to his office and finding no new messages, John went down to the accounting department, and asked Susan if she had any dinner plans for the evening. She smiled awkwardly and told him that yes, she did now, and what restaurant the plans were for. John worked through the details with her, and then hurried back to his office, as quickly as he could.
John went through the rest of his day, his fears alternating between the bizarre unknowable things Merv Lemlin had been reported doing the previous night, and the date he had to go on that night. John didn’t know why, but finding a girlfriend didn’t seem all that important too him. He knew most of the guys at the office were already married or hoping to get that way, but none of that interested John. The best explanation he could think of was that Luc was the only person he was ever meant to really, truly love, and since he had missed his chance with her, there was no reason finding someone else. He didn’t really believe that explanation, but after what had happened last night, he, and the rest of the world with him, weren’t sure what to believe anymore.
At four-thirty, John shut down his computer and left the office. Walter tried talking to him on the elevator, but John ignored him. They’d have plenty of times to talk at dinner that night.
John was halfway across the street when he remembered that the parking garage he usually used was under reconstruction, and that he had had to park almost a mile away. He sighed and grumbled to himself as he took off his jacket and loosened his tie. It was the second hottest day of the year, and now he would have to hike to get to his car.
After going what felt like at least two miles, John checked his watch. It was now almost five, and he said he would meet Susan at six. John looked around, sure that his alternate Garage must be nearby. When he couldn’t find it, John reached for his cell phone and flipped through its menus, trying to find the GPS feature that would allow him to find his car.
Just then, John felt a gentle tug at the back of his mind and he spun around, frightening several of the pedestrians around him. There was the garage. John smiled and headed towards it.
When he was just two blocks away from his destination, John happened to look up and notice a tall Oriental woman passing by, wearing a long coat and a pair of dark sunglasses. John’s eyes were drawn to the woman’s face. He didn’t recognize her, and he quickly looked away.
But he was certain that he knew her.
John looked back up and watched the woman as she continued down the street. He couldn’t describe it, but he had that same sure feeling as when he had thought up the name Allen for his computer; like a deep memory, half-forgotten, but coming back to the surface. As soon as he thought that, John saw an image of this woman, covered in grime and wearing a thin paper gown, yelling at him emphatically. John’s mind returned to the present, and he saw the woman walk around a corner and disappear.
He glanced quickly at his watch and shook his head. He would barely have time to get home for a shower before having to go out on his date. He sighed and jogged to get across the street in front of him before the “walk” signal shut off.
John was in the middle of the street when the image of the woman, again wearing the paper gown, popped into his mind. He didn’t know where the woman was supposed to be, or who she was, but he felt tense and unsafe, as if they were about to do something dangerous together. And it wasn’t just the two of them; there were other presences in his mind, others caught in the life-or-death struggle that suddenly filled his mind… And there was Allen…
A car honked, and John gasped, realizing that he had been standing in the street, blocking traffic. He checked his watch again. Apparently, he had been standing there for quite some time. He continued to stand there, staring at the garage he was parked and thinking about the woman. A moment later, one of the blocked drivers rolled down his window and cursed loudly at John, breaking him out of his reverie.
John turned around, and went around the corner where he had last seen the woman. The street was filled with people, but not the mysterious woman. John looked down the street for a while, but still didn’t see her. He glanced at his watch again, then once more down the street, and then started back on his way to his car.
There. Out of the corner of his eye, John saw the woman leaving a large building, probably a bank, and walk down the street in the opposite direction of where John was headed.
After one last bout of indecision, John put that night’s date out of his mind and followed after the woman.
She kept a brisk pace, and made frequent stops and side-trips, following no particular course, and sometimes circling blocks several times before moving on. John wondered more than once if she knew she was being followed, but he decided against that; there were hundreds of people out on the street at this time of day, and John noted that some of them had stayed with him and the woman for quite some way. But, one by one, the other people in the crowds made stops, or got on the subway, or simply walked off, only to be replaced by new people. In ten minutes, no one was left who had started out their route back where John had.
After walking for about fifteen minuets, the woman stopped abruptly outside a small drug store. John was so engrossed with following her that he didn’t notice she had stopped and would have run into her if she hadn’t moved from in front of him and gone into the drug store. John stopped and stared after his query, wanting to follow her inside and maybe start a conversation. Instead, he took this time to examine his motivations for this cross-town trek. He checked his watch again. 6:45. There was no way he could make it to dinner now; he had broken a promise for no more reason than idle curiosity. But was it really just curiosity, or something more? Sure, this woman was beautiful, but John wasn’t particularly attracted to her; in fact, there was a part of him that feared and even hated this woman. He couldn’t explain why, it was just a gut instinct, again like anything involving Allan. John ran the last half hour through his mind again: Strange hallucinations, blacking out with no memory of what he had been doing, that strange, tickling voice at the back of his mind. And this woman, this strange, scary woman. John was satisfied that at least his following her wasn’t due to any lusting on his part. But the question still bothered him. Why?
The door to the drugstore opened, and the woman came out and walked briskly away before John had a chance to see what was in the large bag she was now carrying. John was about to check his watch again, and then realized there was no more point in it. He was now committed to following this woman, no matter what personal qualms he had about it.
The chase continued, and each time they stopped at a pedestrian crossing, John would try to look over the woman’s shoulder to see what she had bought. John thought it wouldn’t be too hard; he was nearly a foot taller than she was. But she always shifted in such a way that he couldn’t quite tell what she had. It was almost like she knew he was there, and was trying to block his view. At the third stop, John was finally able to make out what was in the package. A dozen roses, arranged neatly in a plastic tube.
The “walk” signal turned on, and John followed the woman across the street. He now felt guilty. The woman was probably going to see someone in the hospital, or was herself supposed to meet someone for romantic reasons. What was he doing out here, stalking this woman? And yes, he told himself, it really was stalking her. He had no idea who she was, had no connection to her except for an overactive imagination, and now he was bending his whole life around her. How would she react if she knew John was following her? Or did she already know, already have the feeling that someone was following her, and was just biding her time before spinning around and dousing John in pepper spray?
Another question popped into John’s mind. What would Walter and Susan do to him tomorrow? John smiled ruefully. His coworkers’ anger didn’t frighten him half so much as this woman’s mere presence did.
He almost turned back then, lamenting the hour he had already wasted on this hike, but feeling sure he shouldn’t continue it, when he felt another tug at the back of his mind. John sighed and continued on after the woman.
Another hour passed in silence as the woman kept her steady pace for mile after mile. She had done away with her erratic path and was now walking straight, block after block. John stayed about ten feet behind her the whole way, sometimes staring around at architecture, sometimes at the people he passed, but most of the time at the back of the woman’s head. He glanced around again, and noticed that they were no longer downtown, but working their way towards a suburb. John briefly felt panic rising within him; he was following this woman to her home! What would he do then? Stand in her driveway all night and take up where he had left off tomorrow morning?
John slowed down and was about to begin the monumental trek back to his car when the woman suddenly stopped and passed through a small gate in the stone wall lining the street. John was surprised to see her go. He walked towards the gate and looked in. To his even greater surprise, John found he knew this place. This gate led to the back entrance of the cemetery where John’s grandparents were buried.
Why would she be going into a cemetery? John had just walked through the gate and into the large green yard when realization suddenly hit him. This woman was out mourning a departed friend or relative, and he had followed her, and was now intruding on a very private moment. He felt disgusted with himself. What was he thinking? So what if he thought he knew her, this was just wrong; he had already ruined Susan’s evening, and now he would ruin this stranger’s evening.
After taking one final look at the woman, who was now bending over a grave some twenty feet away, John turned and left. He had just gone back into the yard when he felt someone bump into him from behind. The woman ran past him, muttering to herself.
Or maybe not to herself. It sounded to John like she had said: “Check the grave, ****it.”
John stood in stunned silence, not sure what to do now. He did want to know who this woman had come to see, and even though it wasn’t any of his business, the woman apparently wanted him to know.
John distractedly scratched his elbow, and then went back into the cemetery. It wasn’t hard to find the grave; there was a pile of bright red flowers lying on top of it.
John approached the grave and studied it for a moment. It had one of those flat stones, and was virtually invisible from any angle except directly above. John knelt and read the name on the stone.
Jonathan Michael Donalson. Dated fifteen years ago, today.
John gasped and fell over backwards. His breath sped up and he was soon hyperventilating. He reached up and covered his mouth, trying to slow his breathing. Tears streamed down his cheeks. This was where he was buried… This was the place his parents had chosen to put to rest his… no not his remains, but someone’s… This woman did know him …
After ten minuets of writhing in the grass, thoughts and fears and hopes swirling through his mind, John stood, picked up a single rose, and walked numbly back to his car.
And with each step, one question was pounded deeper into his mind: Who was she?

A fire crackled merrily in the fire place, but it did nothing to raise Johns spirits. He sat slumped over on his couch, staring blankly at the rose sitting next to him. All the way back to his car, John wondered why he had taken the rose; he had even thrown it away twice, trying to convince himself that he had no right to it. But for some reason, something inside him told him that the woman had known that John was following her, and that the rose was somehow for his benefit, as if she were trying to tell him something, giving him a clue that only he understood. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand the clue either. And besides, if she had wanted to talk with John, she had had ample opportunity to speak with him. No, there was something else going on here.
And suddenly John realized what that something else must have been. As he continued to gaze at the fire, he thought back to his meeting with Dr. Polmelroy, back when he had first awakened. He had mentioned someone, a marine if John remembered correctly, whose body had been confused with his and, presumably, been buried in his stead. Maybe that woman had known the marine, and when the whole messy business had come out, had gone to see her long lost... whoever he was to her. John felt hope surging through his body. Since he was mistaken for the marine, the woman may have visited him in the hospital and he must have somehow made memories of her there. And that might have been why she hadn’t raised an alarm when she saw John at the cemetery, or if she had noticed him before then. She knew he was the poor confused soul who she thought was… was…
The name wouldn’t come. John stroked the rose and twitched his foot while he thought. It started with a ‘U’… Udarian… As hard as he tried, John couldn’t remember Udarian’s first name, if he had heard it at all.
One way to find out….
John felt his stomach twisting, and he glanced at a clock on the wall. He hadn’t eaten in nearly twelve hours. Well, he hadn’t been willing to eat before, consumed with guilt over that days’ actions, but now, with this new theory that perfectly explained everything, John felt absolved enough to have a quick snack. Taking a final deep breath from the rose, John put it down and walked into the kitchen. He shuffled through the cabinets until he found a box of crackers. He went back to the couch, ate a handful, and then called out to the computer, “Allen: Perform search for persons. First name: unknown. Last name: Udarian. Limit search: Deceased. Date of death: Today, fifteen years ago. Read first result.”
There was a brief silence while Allen performed the search, and then a loud beep when the results came back. “One results found: Udarian, Brian. Deceased.”
Brian, that was it. Yes, John was sure now that Polmelroy had mentioned the name. Swallowing another handful of crackers, John pulled himself to his feet and shuffled over to the nearest wall screen. Allen was displaying a military public records site. At the top of the page was a picture of Udarian. John was surprised at how much alike they looked. That must have been why the woman couldn’t tell that John wasn’t Udarian. Under the picture were displayed all of the basic facts of Brian Udarian’s life: full name, date of birth, rank at time of death, blood type. There was a link at the bottom of the page to access a complete synopsis of Udarian’s career, but when John clicked on it he was informed that the page was restricted, and he needed to use a Marine Corpse serial number and password to proceed further.
John wasn’t surprised or particularly concerned; this was private information, and really none of his business. He was about to shut down the search and have dinner when he felt a presence in the back of his mind. But instead of closing down all his thoughts or all but a few, this presence just slid through his memories, gently prodding some, completely bypassing others. John reached for the small keyboard under the screen and began to type the numbers that where appearing in his head into the first login field, and then type the name “Allen” into the second field. The presence instantly retreated from his mind, and the page reloaded, showing a detailed review of the life and career of First Sergeant Brian Udarian. John briefly skimmed through the beginning of the article, but got bored and jumped to the end. He stopped when he saw his own name mentioned, and began an in-depth reading.
“- following a collision with civilian John Donalson (22), 1SD Udarian was admitted to the Walter Reed National Army Medical Center, where he was given treatment for three hours before dying at 12:17. However, due to a clerical error, among other factors, he was not reported as…”
John read the next few sentences but then stopped. Certain phrases in the next paragraph jumped out at him, despite his best efforts to ignore them. “-maimed beyond recognition… multiple compound fractures… steering column bisecting chest cavity-“ There were even a few pictures. John swallowed and looked away. No wonder his parents couldn’t tell the difference between his and Udarian’s body…
John decided once again to close the page and have dinner—well, maybe he would skip dinner after seeing those pictures, when he noticed another link stating “Further Information Classified.” John couldn’t think what further information there could possibly be; the article was rather comprehensive. And from what he had read, the sergeant’s career had been rather dull. What would be classified?
Another dialogue box appeared, informing its reader that to proceed further without proper authorization would be considered virtual trespassing, and would be a felony, with a minimum of ten years in prison. Feeling particularly brave, John ignored the warning and re-typed “Allen” into the password field. The box disappeared, replaced by an entirely new window. John perused the article briefly, not quite believing what he read. The new article went on for pages, documenting Udarian’s extensive service in the Gaza War.
That was impossible.
When he had gone to visit his family for the first time after awakening, John’s father had told him the war had been only a year ago, when Udarian was long dead and buried.
A sudden image flashed through John’s mind. He was in a large plaza, with dilapidated buildings on all sides. Standing before him, dressed in thick slabs of camouflaged armor, was a man that John instinctively knew to be Brian Udarian. Armed men streamed into the plaza, shooting all variety of weapons at Udarian as he swung around, returning fire at his tormentors. John looked around inside this… Vision? Memory? And found that he, too, was wearing the armor, and that enemies were firing at him. Despite the hail of bullets, he didn’t feel anything; the armor was holding up. Udarian mowed down wave after wave of enemies, but they eventually overpowered him, knocked him down, pulled off his helmet, gouged at his exposed face with knives, fingers, rifle butts. Udarian shrieked, “John! John, help me *******it!”
He ignored the pleas for help, feeling rather good about himself for doing so. Another armor figure approached him, also oblivious to the dangers of enemy fire. Following his instinct again, John knew it was the woman he had followed. And now he had a name: Naomi.
He’s dead, John seemed to say.
We should have killed him years ago, Naomi seemed to reply. This has gone on long enough.
It’s almost over. John knew that he wasn’t talking about Udarian’s pitiful screaming, however. More important things were on his mind. Allen says things will be happen quickly after this.
What’s the signal, just in case?
John didn’t respond. There was a loud snap, and Udarian fell silent. A rose. On my grave.
As soon as this thought passed through John’s mind, he felt again the dark presence, shoving its way in, destroying memories, shattering reality, driving him to the floor, into the darkness…
John blinked. He was still standing in front of the computer screen. He couldn’t quite remember what had just happened… He was reading about Udarian’s death report, and-- and there at the bottom of the page was-- Nothing. The article ended. John scrolled quickly to the top and noticed something he hadn’t seen before: the name of Udarian’s wife. Naomi. Next to the name was a picture of the woman that John had been following. John did another search, this time looking for Naomi Udarian. She was a little-known luggage designer living in Paris, who occasionally came back to the states to visit her husband.
John sighed contentedly. All mysteries solved. He followed her because he somehow recognized her from his time comatose, and she hadn’t complained because she knew who he was. John walked back to his couch and picked up the flower. All had turned out well, and he no longer felt guilty for stocking the wom—Naomi.
He whistled as he walked into the kitchen and prepared supper. Walter may be mad that he stood up Susan, but all in all, John felt that the evening had been worth it.

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