Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I Can't Beleive I Forgot...

Wow. Yesterday was Yom Kippur and I forgot to say anything. Oops. Oh well, moving on...

A member of my Home Editing Team (my dad, specifically) was going through chapter five and noticed a slight problem with the end. Specifically, it was stupid. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can read chapter 5 in the archives. Anyhoo, I took his advice and changed the end of chapter 5, and the beginning of chapter six. I'm not going to post the changes, however, just describe them.

In ch. 5: The reason John was able to get into the basement was because he was accidentally issued an administrator-level access card. Management said they were going to sort it out immediately. (Enter... Bureaucracy!) John also decides to go to the doctor concerning his fainting spell.

In Ch. 6: John goes to see Dr. Polmelroy! he is told that it's just stress and he needs to get a job!

And that's all. As always, please start reading with the second-oldest post (don't read the first one!) and leave comments. Thanks, and have a good day.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I Wouldn't Trust Mistlethwakey Either...

I really have nothing to say on this one... no preamble, no nothing. Just some announcements.
1: Please leave comments!
2: Coming soon: custom action figures!
3: Coming soon: Sorry! The Movie!

And now on with chapter 19...

Chapter 19

Rachel sat in a stained, overstuffed chair in a dark corner of Wayne’s apartment, trying desperately to ignore the world around her; Wane was having a party. Music blared through the tiny space, people danced around wildly, occasionally bumping into her; the smell of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and other substances fought with the music for domination over the air, each trying to drown the apartment’s occupants in sensory overload. One young man, sitting on a couch next to his girlfriend, was inhaling a line of white powder; he undoubtedly assumed it was cocaine, but more than likely it was detergent of some sort. Rachel watched in disgust as the man snorted, than coughed and leaned back on the sofa, his eyes growing wide. With another small cough, he vomited, and the smell of his bile was added to the air of the apartment. And still, Rachel sat there.
She wanted to leave, wanted more than anything to be away from this place, but she had nowhere else to go. No one would take her, she had no money, she didn’t dare go to a shelter. Even the apartment’s two small bedrooms couldn’t function as sanctuaries for her; they were both taken up by couples discreetly having sex. On reflection, the fact that she knew they were back there rendered their endeavors rather indiscreet.
Someone called her name, and Rachel looked up to see Wayne sitting across from her, in the middle of kissing some nameless guest. When he noticed that she was looking at him, Wayne disengaged his tongue and called out, “Hey, Rachel! Go in the kitchen and get me another beer, okay?”
Rachel ignored him and curled up even deeper into the chair. She sighed and wiped idly at her right eye. She knew she wasn’t crying, but she wished she was. A week ago her life had been so good…
After she had found out she was pregnant, and Uncle John screwed up the negotiations with her dad, Rachel had spent the night walking. There was no destination in mind; she just walked. After several hours, she realized that she was headed in the direction of Wayne’s apartment. She thought back to the last thing that her father had said to her and, even though she was still angry with him, she didn’t want to burn all the bridges. In what she considered to be her only intelligent decision in the last week, she resolved to respect her father’s wishes and not to return to Wayne. Besides, what could Wayne do for her? He had gotten her into this situation, and he had already made it clear that he didn’t intend to support his child.
So, with no better destination in mind, Rachel went to her mother’s house. The walk only took a few hours, and she reached her destination just as the sun was coming up. She rang the doorbell and waited. And waited. And waited. After several more ringings, a strange man with bloodshot eyes and no pants came to the door. Rachel told the man who she was, and before the man could answer, Rachel heard her mother from inside the living room, asking who was at the door.
“No one,” the man said, slamming the door in Rachel’s face.
Rachel didn’t try the doorbell again. As usual, her mom was too busy with some man to take care of her daughter. With a resigned sigh, Rachel continued her trek.
A few hours later, she was at her best friend Tisha’s house. Both of her parents were away on business trips, and it was a school day, so Tisha said that Rachel could stay and have the whole house to herself for the day. Without any hesitation, Rachel gratefully accepted the offer.
She spent the next two days at Tisha’s house, eating, sleeping, talking with her friend. At one point, her dad called, but Tisha was able to convince him that she hadn’t seen Rachel in a while.
With the realization that her dad was looking for her, Rachel decided that she couldn’t keep running blindly from her problems; she needed a strategy. She didn’t need to think very long before a simple plan, inspired by her uncle’s suggestions of two nights before, came to her. She would get a job, rent a small apartment, try to get some decent savings before the baby came. As angry at John as she was, she had to admit that having her become financially independent was a good idea.
After another day spent trawling the internet with Tisha, trying to find a decent job and an apartment, Rachel remembered something that John had said in passing, just before he left her dad’s house. He offered to give her five thousand dollars and a ticket to anywhere in the states that she wanted to go.
Despite some initial hesitation, Rachel told Tisha about the offer, and Tisha immediately advised her to go to John and see if he was still willing to do that.
With a minimum of effort, Tisha was able to arrange for a taxi, and Rachel prepared herself to visit John. Twenty minutes later the taxi arrived, and Rachel went out to meet it. Then her plans changed.
Standing in Tisha’s front yard was Wayne. He told her that he had come looking for her, that he missed her, that he was sorry for what he had done to her, and that all he wanted was for her to return to him, to live with him. In time, they could even get married. He would be hers.
Rachel tried to resist, tried to stay devoted to her plans of a new life, but she realized that she felt just as Wayne did. They had created life together, they were connected. She couldn’t leave him. Besides, she needed somewhere to stay.
Her father’s words returned to her then. “If I hear that you’ve been seeing Wayne, be assured that that will be the last thing I hear about you.” And she realized that she didn’t care. Her father had failed her. She didn’t need him anymore. Maybe Wayne could step in and be the one person she needed. Maybe she would live under his roof now.
But she wouldn’t live with him unless he made some changes. She told him her demands: he had to give up smoking, drugs, wild parties. And most importantly, he had to stay with her. He had to give his all, had to be a devoted father to the baby, no matter what.
Wayne agreed immediately.
Despite some initial hesitation, Rachel abandoned her uncle’s offer of freedom, and bound herself to Wayne.
Three days later he spent his entire month’s paycheck, including the rent money, on a small bag of some popular new drug that Rachel had never heard of before, and announced that they would have a party to celebrate Rachel’s moving with him.
So now she sat in Wayne’s dark apartment, watching the debauchery that occurred all around her, and she began to regret her decision. She wondered if it was too late, if she could leave and see her uncle again. Well, it wasn’t as if Wayne could really stop her, if she were determined enough to leave him. But he might get violent if he thought that she were trying to leave him.
And of course, John lived on the other side of town, and she had no money for a cab.
And of course, John might not give her the money, or the plane ticket… She didn’t want Wayne to be mad at her if she had to come back to live with him…
“Hey!” Wayne called. “Still need that beer!”
Rachel watched as Wayne leaned over to the girl beside him and slowly sliding his hand underneath her shirt. The girl giggled and locked her lips onto the end of Wayne’s nose. Moments later, it was clear that Wayne had forgotten all about Rachel.
A plan formed in her mind then. She got up from her chair and walked into the kitchen; dodging around bodies and puddles of… she desperately hoped it was a spilled beverage.
She returned to the front room a moment later, a cool beer clutched in one hand. She stopped a few feet away from Wayne and stood patiently while he continued to fondle his guest. After a few minutes, he noticed Rachel standing near him and turned to face her.
“You got that beer yet?”
Rachel handed him the can of beer, and he began to slurp at it greedily. “Hey, um, Wayne?”
Wayne spluttered, lowered the can, and swallowed. “Yeah, what?” He sounded annoyed.
“I, uh, I was wondering if it was okay with you if I went and visited my uncle tomorrow.”
Wayne glanced back at the girl sitting next to him; she smiled sensuously and he returned the smile. “Yeah, sure whatever.”
“I, uh, I need twenty—no, fifty bucks for cab fare—“
The shock of possibly losing some of his precious money was evident in the sudden widening of Wayne’s eyes. “Fifty?!”
Rachel tried to mask the rage that she was sure would come out in her voice; Wayne could blow their rent on drugs and a party, but she couldn’t have fifty bucks. “It’s just a little to go and—“
“Money doesn’t grow on trees! If you want to see him so bad, have him come pick you up! Or get a job! I have a job! I spend all day—“
Rachel couldn’t hold it back any longer. She was angry at her father, angry at John, angry that she would spend her whole life being dependant on Wayne, raising his child, only getting his attention when he had no one else he could get in his bed. Her life was over; she wouldn’t go to college, she wouldn’t raise a family, have a rewarding career, make the world a better place. She would be little more than Wayne’s—Wayne’s—concubine! Unless she made a change. Unless she got away. Unless she showed Wayne how serious she was.
“What job? You spend all day getting high in the stock room at Wal-Mart! When you do work, you’re selling discount computers to some guy outside the back door when the manager isn’t looking! And then at night you come home and start ****ing anyone who’ll stand still long enough to take it!” She noticed the smile on the other girl begin to fade. “I have you’re baby, and you don’t seem to care! Your future! The one thing that will live on after you’re dead! And I gave up my family, my future, so that I could stay with you! And you were the one who said you couldn’t live without me! The one who said that you’d give up anything, if only we could be together! And when I ask for fifty *******ed dollars, you tell me I can’t have any! Why is that? Did all of our—and yes, I mean our, you’re supporting your kid on this one—money magically turn into cocaine? Where is it?!”
Wayne reached up and stroked Rachel’s arm. “Baby, you know I—“
Rachel jerked her arm away. “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! I gave up everything for you, and now I’m trying to get something back for me, and you don’t give a ****!” Spinning on one heel, Rachel angrily returned to her chair and tried not to cry.
But she didn’t give up hope. So what if Wayne wouldn’t give her any money? She could call Tisha and bum a ride of her. Or even call John directly,, and ask if the opportunity was still available. It wouldn’t be the most polite way to broach the subject, but what choice did Rachel have? Or she could even call the police and tell them about all of the drugs here tonight. She might get picked up in the raid, but she was still a minor, and she could claim John as her guardian and—
A loud BANG interrupted her thoughts. She looked up to see the front door smashed open and standing in the doorway, silhouetted by streetlights, a man in a business suit, talking on a cell phone.
The people nearest the door were just beginning to react to the man’s presence when the man shot out an arm and grabbed the nearest partygoer, twisting her wrist until it snapped, and then throwing her screaming through the front door. He then repeated this process several more times, until the people in the crowded apartment simply ran out the door, escaping into night and ignoring the man. During all of this, he never once let his phone conversation falter.
As the apartment quickly emptied, the man walked deeper into the front room. Rachel strained her ears, filtering out the screams and cries for help from the partygoers, and was just able to make out the man saying, “About as serious as Terstein’s threats of war.” Rachel was shocked to hear him talking about politics. The man took another step forward, entering the circle of light made by a small lamp sitting on the end table next to Rachel.
She gasped as she recognized who this man was. He was the same man who had unlocked her uncle’s door for her earlier that week; Secretary of Defense Robert Mistlethwakey.
All thoughts of leaving Wayne were quickly forgotten as Rachel tried to reconcile the image of the kindly old man, the same man who now stood before her, with the swiftly moving shadow that had picked up and slung around full size people over by the front door.
“On the contrary, not only is Terstein one of the greatest threats this country has ever faced, I think that the evidence against our mutual friend is unarguable.” Mistlethwakey noticed Rachel staring at him, and smiled warmly, waving to her.
Rachel had to make a conscious effort not to wave back.
“Where is John right now, by the way?”
The mention of her uncle’s name caused Rachel’s stomach to give a nervous heave, and she almost yelled out “I don’t know!”
Almost as if he could read her mind, Mistlethwakey shook his head and raised a finger to his lips. Then he turned away from her, looking in the direction of the couch on which Wayne had been sitting.
Rachel followed Mistlethwakey’s movement and was surprised to see that Wayne was still sitting motionlessly on the couch, although his little friend seemed to have abandoned him some time ago.
Mistlethwakey advanced on Wayne, who still did not seem aware of his strange, violent visitor. Rachel wandered what was wrong with him; he just sat there, a vacant expression on his face, his eyes unfocused and his body relaxed.
Then Mistlethwakey pulled a small pistol from inside his jacket. Rachel gasped and tried to disappear into the chair, but Wayne either didn’t notice or didn’t care; he still remained in the exact same pose that he had been in.
Rachel slowly opened one eye and looked at Wayne, finally noticing something she had missed earlier. He wasn’t breathing. For all intents and purposes, Wayne was dead. Even as Mistlethwakey raised the pistol ands rested the barrel against Wayne’s head, he didn’t respond.
“Hm? What?” Mistlethwakey said. Then he fired.
Wayne finally moved, jerking away from the barrel and collapsing into the sofa.
Rachel stifled a scream and tried to sink further into the chair, sure that at any moment she was going to die, hoping desperately that Mistlethwakey would choose some other target to attack next. But as her panicked gaze swept over the once full room, she came to the horrifying realization that only she was left with the gunman.
Mistlethwakey reached down and wiped the end of the pistol against Wayne’s jeans, leaving streaks of blood. When he was sure that it was clean, he returned the pistol to its hiding place inside his jacket. “Oh, no, you don’t need to get him.”
He smiled down at Rachel and held up one finger in a delaying gesture. “No you didn’t,” he said into the phone, and then paused. “Look, I’ve already contacted your local E.H.U.D. division; they should be arriving right about now to take Donalson into custody.”
Rachel felt another pang of panic. Was Mistlethwakey’s “Donalson” referring to her uncle, or towards herself? More than likely her uncle, based on what she had heard earlier in the conversation, but if he didn’t mean her, then why was he here, killing Wayne?
“Look, I’m sorry, but I have to go now. The E.H.U.D.s are there, they’ll take him into custody and evaluate him. I have to go.” Mistlethwakey snapped the phone closed and looked down at Rachel, smiling broadly. “I was afraid that he’d never shut up.”
Rachel couldn’t say anything. She saw the open door behind Mistlethwakey and wondered if she could make a run for it, could escape before he could catch her.
Again, Mistlethwakey seemed to read her mind. “I’m terribly sorry, Ms. Donalson, but I’m afraid that just isn’t possible. Besides, you’re forgetting that I have a gun.” He smiled and tapped the side of his jacket. “But don’t worry; I’m here to liberate you.”
Wayne’s body suddenly stiffened and jerked upright, then over balanced and tumbled off of the couch. Mistlethwakey immediately sat down in the spot occupied by Wayne, careful to avoid the globs of brain and skull covering the back of the sofa. “Now, you may remember that when you went to see your uncle a week ago, he told you to go to Tulsa.”
He paused, waiting for a response. Rachel quickly nodded, and he flashed a quick grin.
“That’s good. Now, I’m going to try to make this as simple as possible. I have with me tonight one plane ticket to the Tulsa International Airport, a flight that takes off in three hours, and five thousand dollars. You can have that and whatever else you can scavenge off of your friend here.” He gestured down to Wayne. “However, these gifts do not come without some strings attached. Once you get to Tulsa, you have approximately two weeks to settle in, find friends, and begin building that wonderful little government of yours.”
Rachel was so taken aback by what Mistlethwakey said that all of the fear she had evaporated. “What government?”
“Why, your small collectives, of course!”
“But… but why?”
Mistlethwakey’s smile faded, and he became suddenly solemn. “In approximately two weeks… the world as you know it is going to end. Every world government will collapse. All that will be left here is the president and a few scraps of the military. And the president won’t be able to reestablish his power unless a system exists for organizing people in such conditions.”
“And my school project…”
“Is exactly what is needed, yes.”
Rachel was somewhat flattered by his words, but she didn’t believe him. Even if some… some catastrophe happened, something that had the effects he predicted, her purely theoretical school assignment couldn’t actually work in the real world.
And again, he seemed to read her thoughts. “You don’t put enough faith in yourself, Ms. Donalson. You have a bright future ahead of you; all you have to do is try.”
Mistlethwakey suddenly stood, placed a large envelope on the couch that he had just vacated, and then headed off in the direction of the front door.
“Wait!” Rachel called out, her confidence partially regained now that she was sure Mistlethwakey didn’t intend to kill her. “Why did you have to kill him?” she asked, her voice thickening with emotion as she pointed to Wayne’s body. “He wasn’t the greatest guy, but…” She couldn’t finish the sentence. The shock of seeing him killed right in front of her eyes was settling in and, and… Suddenly, it didn’t seem to matter… A presence entered her mind, and she found parts of the last day slipping away… Wayne and the other girl… Wayne’s head exploding onto the couch… His body moving, seemingly under its own power, yet clearly stiff and dead…
And there sat Rachel, finding Wayne dead and large envelope on the couch, with no one else in sight.
And all she could remember was the command to go to Tulsa and prepare the world for the end.
She left Wayne, feeling a thrill of freedom as she left him behind, stepping out of the apartment and into a new life. She walked down to street level and was surprised to find a taxi waiting there, ready and already paid enough to take her to the airport. She got in, aware of the fact that she had no luggage, but not really caring about this fact. She ripped open the envelope and confirmed that she did have enough money to take care of any purchases that she would need to make in the foreseeable future. She was set and financially independent, at least for a few months.
But if Mistlethwakey was right, all she would need was enough for two weeks…
Just before she fell asleep in the back seat of the taxi, a thought crossed her mind: John should know about this. I should call and talk to him. He cared about me; the least I could do is let him know how I’m doing…
As soon as she had this thought, something else entered her mind. A dark, soothing presence, taking her mind, relaxing it, removing all thought of John, all thought of anything but sleep…
And the future soon to come…

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Happy New Year

Happy Rosh Hashanah, everyone! Woot!
Okay, I have no deep and meaningful things to say about it, but I figured it would be appropriate to mention it. Oh yes, for more Rosh Hashanah fun, see chapter 13, 'Again, No Witty Title...'
But, I do have chapter 18 ready. From this point on, the book will be hopelessly different; we now enter the endgame. Everything that has been set up before will now pay off, and the plot will begin shifting towards the next book... And yes, there's another trippy dream sequence. Get ready for a lot of those... include chapter 22, which is just one long trippy dream sequence....

Oh yes, and all of that stuff about the design for John's tower? It actually is important. It will end up being the one thing that carries over through all 6 books.

Anyway, on with chapter 18 and remember, COMMENT!

Chapter 18

John sat entranced in front of his computer monitor, taking in the majesty that was Johnstown. Over the months that he had worked at Cohen & Associates, Johnstown had grown from the central tower and its outriggers to become a massive wheeled city that encompassed nearly three thousand square miles of land. After the inner wheel of outrigger buildings, John had built a collection of relatively low buildings, only a thousand feet high, which extended out around the arc of the city, nearly touching each other when they came near the outriggers, and beyond these new buildings vast tracts of parkland. After the parkland came a ring of twenty-four towers which mirrored the outrigger, and immediately beyond them, connected by swooping wings, was a gigantic, thousand-foot high wall, flat on the inside but curving outwards on the outer-edge, and, at the very bottom, four-hundred feet thick. The wall was not for defensive purposes, however; it was hollow, made up of standard layered floors, rather than the dodecahedrons that made up the central spire. John didn’t know what practical purpose this plan could ever be put to, but he sincerely enjoyed designing it, and that was all that mattered to him.
A small window popped up in the corner of the monitor, announcing an incoming e-mail. It was from his current client, a British governmental bureaucrat- John wasn’t sure what her exact title was- who wanted a new office suite inspired by the Pentagon: the seven-sided Heptagon. John didn’t know if the design would ever be implemented, but he made it a point to not get involved in his client’s affairs. The message was short: The design mock-up presented that morning was exactly what was required, please continue on improving the rest of the blue-prints, and keep up the good work.
John closed the e-mail window and the Johnstown file, and then got back to work on the Heptagon.
While he worked, stylus in hand, hunched over his monitor, he listened to political talk-radio, streamed from the internet. He wasn’t sure exactly how his interest in it had started, but for the past few months, possibly since Maria Tumpuelo had killed herself, John looked forwards to listening to the news, hearing pundits rant and rave over what was wrong with the country, how the E.H.U.D.s were bringing about the fall of humanity, and how it was the other party’s fault.
Today, the station he was listening to was broadcasting live from an informal debate between Senator Terstein and a former White House staffer who refused to be identified, and spoke with a mechanically muffled voice.
Terstein was currently speaking, in the middle of a long rant. “—said before, this had to have had some planning behind it! The late President Latterndale couldn’t have been the one to start this! Maybe he introduced it, hidden in some bill, but he couldn’t carry this thing without presidential support! This program passed between at least two different presidents! Two presidents perfectly willing to suspend the constitution, at least for these poor souls, and to perform hideous crimes! And we know that Latterndale had no respect for the constitution! He stayed in term for longer than his two allotted terms—
“Which he did perfectly legally,” the other man said, his voice modulated and without emotion. “He proposed and passed a new constitutional amendment that allowed him to hold additional terms of office in the case of an emergency, so as not to disrupt emergency preparations with an arduous election season—“
“Who decides what constitutes an emergency?”
“A majority vote from both houses of congress, as well as a majority vote from the supreme court and the E.H.U.D. oversight committee—“
“People he could easily control to extend the emergency situation! A few well placed bribes and he’s in office forever! And don’t get me started on the E.H.U.D. oversight—“
“That too was perfectly legal!” This time, the voice seemed to have some emotion to it. John idly wondered why this person would keep their identity a secret; they were arguing for the current administration. “In years past, civilian politics have caused devastating delays for the military, both domestically and abroad. Giving a board the power to make split decisions that can save American—“
“Executive decisions to a body that has no executive right according to the constitution! An entire group of people completely above the law! What disturbs me most about this is that no one objected to it when it first came out.”
“If memory serves, you yourself voted for the Enhanced Human Ultimate Defense initiative when it came up for vote, senator. That includes the weapons spending, the armored divisions posted all over the country, and those operatives given freedom in enforcing our nation’s security measures.”
“That’s right, turn the tables—“
“You’ll notice I didn’t accuse you of supporting the secret parts, the experimentation. I don’t assign undue blame; you were in the dark just as everyone else was.”
“And that’s why we need to strike back! Under the guise of protection, our elected officials, those charged with protecting the constitution, put hidden legislation into action that made all of us responsible for this travesty! The secrecy must end! A clean sweep of the government!”
“Yourself included?”
“If need be!”
“We’re already getting honesty from Edgar Latterndale—“
“Who was not only a member of Old Latterndale’s cabinet but also his nephew! Don’t think I don’t know nepotism when I smell it!”
“Isaac Latterndale and his nephew never got along—“
“Then how is it they both ended up in the most exclusive club in the country?”
“Would you just shut up and let me talk?” John couldn’t help but snort with laughter. That last comment, in its dull, metallic voice, was simply hilarious. “Edgar Latterndale was not inside his uncle’s circle of trust. He only got his post as SecDef in Old Latterndale’s final term thanks to well placed allies, a lack of other qualified nominees, and a groundswell of senators to push through his confirmation.”
“Which I was thankfully against.” He took a long pause; John imagined him having a deep swig of water. “Look, nepotism or not, the way he got into office proves that there is a painful amount of cronyism on Capitol Hill, and it’s the people’s duty to make sure there is a change.”
“How long would you go for that change? Violence against the rightfully elected government?”
“If that government was elected under false pretenses, and unjustly abused their authority, then I believe that any action that will secure American liberties is justified.”
“That’s what Al Qaeda said—“
“Look, I’ve had enough of your mud-slinging! The American voice will be either heard or felt, and that distinction is up to quote-unquote President Latterndale! Furthermore—“
John turned off the radio; it was clear that any intelligent debate was over for the time being.
The work on the Heptagon continued for another four hours until the day finally drew to a close. John saved the file and closed it. He was about to shut off his computer when Walter entered his office.
“Hey, John. What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing really,” John replied, bending down to hit the power switch on his computer.
“Um, do you have anywhere to be immediately after work?”
The pleading tone in Walter’s voice unsettled John. “Why?”
“I was leaving early and I went to my car and, um… it won’t start.”
“And you have a date tonight.”
“Please? It’s only a few miles.”
John wanted to deny Walter’s unstated request, but there were hardly any public means of transport on the street these days, and he had to admit that he hadn’t been planning anything that night. Giving Walter a ride would be the nice thing to do.
Of course, John thought, smiling to himself, he didn’t have to do it completely for free.
“Allright, I’ll go get the car, you go get coffee. I’ll meet you in front of the Starbucks across the street.”
“Tall mocha, lo-fat creamer?”
“You have about fifteen minutes.”
Walter grinned ruefully. “Thanks, buddy.” He turned and trudged away.
“Nothing in life is free!” John called after him as he closed and locked his office.
Five minutes later, he was standing outside the Cohen & Associates building, heading towards his car. He glanced across the street and could just make out Walter standing sullenly in the long coffee line.
As John walked along the street, felling the chill in the air as December fought its way into the city, his thoughts turned to Rachel. He hadn’t seen her in over a week, and Reggie had told him a few days ago that she still hadn’t called. Reggie had even gotten desperate enough to go to Wayne’s apartment, but the young man had been too stoned to answer any questions. When Reggie called and told him all of this, John had been secretly relieved. If no one could find Rachel, maybe she was safe…
John snorted in disgust at his own thought. There was nothing to be safe from. Sure there were a few anti-government, Tersteinian demonstrations, and one protester had even been shot by Washington police on Monday, but that didn’t exactly make a devastating war. The little phantom-boy had been mistaken.
That thought caused John to laugh. The little phantom boy… he had begun to see things out of the corners of his eyes, small shapes, spattered with blood… everywhere he went, they followed. He was able to mostly ignore them, but… There was one now.
John spun to try to catch a glimpse of his hallucinatory tormentor, but all he saw was a thin man in a frayed and dirty jacket standing in the mouth of an alley.
The two men stared at each other for a moment, and then the thin man extended a hand towards John. “Hey, can you, uh, c-can you spare a few dollars?”
John took a step backwards. “I’m sorry, all I have is a card—“
The hand grabbed his wrist, and the man pulled himself close. John wrinkled his nose at the stench of alcohol and stale urine. “C’mon, man, just a few dollars?”
“I already told you, I don’t have any—“ John stopped as he felt a hard object jab under his ribs. He chewed his lower lip and quickly glanced down.
“Yeah,” the thin man said, smiling widely and nodding slightly. “C’mon, into my office, slowly.” The thin man led John quickly into the alley.
John looked around frantically, but there was no one near enough on the street to help him. He suspected the man didn’t really have a gun, just some sort of square rod; but he didn’t dare call for help, just in case the man was serious.
John’s assailant pulled him behind a dumpster and into a wide depression around a doorway, effectively blocking them from the street. Two men were already there, and they grabbed John and held him against the wall. The original assailant released John’s arm and backed away, revealing that he really was holding a small pistol.
“All right, let’s get hones here. Give us your ******* money, or I blow your ****ing head off. Sound good?”
John’s heart was racing, and he found himself growing dizzy from the amounts of oxygen he was now taking in with every lungful. “I-I’m serious, I don’t carry cash, just—“
The pistol smashed down across his face, shattering the left lens of his glasses and knocking the world out of focus. Only one thing stayed perfectly clear: the little boy. John felt the world slipping away; he had survived against all odds, and now he was going to die here… his biggest regret was that he had allowed himself to fall in love with Vanessa; now she would have to live through his death, just as Lucy had… What if he had gone to Lucy, let her love him, start a new life together? Would he still be alive now? What if, what if, what if…
The image of Walter standing in front of Starbucks, holding two coffees, and eternally waiting for his ride to come, popped into John’s mind. Without meaning to, he laughed.
“Oh, this funny, huh? This is all a ****ing joke to you?”
The pistol again smashed down on John’s face. He slumped in the arms of his captors, and then felt hands reaching into his pockets. From a log way off he heard people yelling, and he laughed. His brain disengaged from the seriousness of the situation, and he laughed. So what if he died? It would finally be over. He laughed, and laughed, and laughed… and then fainted…

John’s eyes snapped open, but saw nothing. He focused, and could feel the small muscles in his eyes shifting, and then everything slid into focus. He was in a large room, with a flat, concrete floor and smooth grey walls. He looked down and saw that he was wearing running shoes, boxers, and a t-shirt. He reached up to feel his face, and found that his glasses weren’t there. Yet he could see perfectly. Was he dead? No, why would he be dead? Bad things had happened, certainly, but it wasn’t any worse than what the others went through.
His thoughts were interrupted by a loud BEEP!, followed by a dull, metallic voice speaking over an intercom. “Subject Donalson, John M. Preparing final examination. Subject Donalson, are you ready to begin?”
Somewhere in his mind, John was aware of what this was that was happening, and he knew what he was supposed to be doing; but try as he might, he couldn’t remember any of those facts. He began to sweat as he realized that he didn’t know where he was, what was going on, who was speaking to him—
“Subject Donalson, are you ready?” the voice repeated, firmer this time.
“No,” John admitted quietly.
There was a whining rush of feedback as the person at the intercom sighed. “Come on, John, you’ve had three months to prepare for this.”
Panic fought its way up into the front of John’s mind. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to—“
“Sure you do. Just like we practiced, right? Now, can we please get started? I have five others to clear today, after you. Do me a favor, and do good, okay?”
John didn’t respond. He had just noticed three low doors on the wall opposite him.
The doors were segmented, the type that rolled p into the ceiling. John could feel something dangerous behind those doors.
“****. We can’t delay any longer. Sorry, John, but you’re on your own.”
There was another loud BEEP!, and the three doors began to roll upwards, small warning lights flashing over them. The lights and sound stopped, and there was a brief moment of perfect silence. Then the growling began. Slowly at first, but faster as they gained confidence, three humongous dogs lumbered out of the doorways. John could tell at a glance that they were half starved. Their skin hung loosely on their massive frames, their lips pulled back from their teeth, and their ears down.
John watched for a few more seconds, then turned and ran. The dogs barked, and an instant later John felt one slam into his back. He staggered, but was able to keep moving. One bit into his leg, and John stumbled, and was then knocked down by another jumping on his back. The concrete flew up to meet his face, and then the dogs were in, their jaws moving under the flesh of his back, teeth scraping against bone. John screamed in tortured agony, and was cut off as one of his lungs abruptly ripped and deflated. With a sudden shot of adrenaline coursing through him, John was able to pull himself over, feeling a shoulder muscle rip out in the process.
He stared up at the dogs, who were momentarily taken aback at the movement of their meal. The largest dog, holding a spongy, pink mass of lung, dropped his prize and lunged at John’s face. Despite the pain, John glared defiantly at the back of the beast’s open mouth, and felt a horrible jolt of pain as—
As the top half of the dog’s head crashed into his face, and the dog collapsed onto his body, pressing his open wounds onto the concrete. Warm dog blood seeped into his eyes, but John ignored it. He extended his consciousness, stretched his mind, and felt another dog off to one side. He focused in his attention, smaller and smaller, all in the space of a second, until the only thing in his entire world were two flakes of the dog’s mangy skin. He vibrated them, moving them with the movements of his mind, sliding them against each other faster and faster, as the grew hotter and hotter, glowing brighter until—
The dog yelped in terror as it burst into flame, it’s skin flaring up and disintegrating, it’s whole body coming undone in terrible heat.
Before the dog had even realized it was burning, John had done the same thing to the last dog, sending it loping off into the dark room, yelping ad rolling around, trying to put out the flame.
John pushed the carcass of the first dog off of him with his one good arm and then tried to sit up, but any movement sent pain shooting through his back. He screamed, letting out all his anger and pain, sensing the space around him grow brighter and warmer, feeling the dog’s blood on his face dry and harden. He relaxed, trying to sink into the floor. He gasped for breath, only one lung filling him, giving him life. He focused inwards, pulling his mind in on itself, moving his attention down into his body. He found cells, laying open and ragged in the open air, and gave them a jolt, a spark of life, feeling them close, seal, reconnect to their neighbor, grow large, split, grow again, continue, ever onwards and onwards. There was a painful pop as newly grown shoulder muscles shoved the loose bone into place, and then a tightness as a small area in his chest opened up, hollow, and then filled in with a mesh of thin membranes. John gasped, air filling both lungs now, giving him more energy as he continued to rebuild, to regrow…
A thunderous metallic tumult filled the room. Clapping. “Good job, John! Faster than the others! Much better! You’re ready for the field! Hey, Bob, did you see what John did?”
John closed his eyes as exhaustion washed over him. His stomach growled, begging for calories, for energy, anything to continue itself and its body. The smell of burned meat filled the air, but there could be no energy without spending energy, and John didn’t have enough to reach one of the dogs. His mind shut down, piece by piece, as his body went to work harvesting its own energy, getting rid of fat stores and other unessential parts.
There were other noises now: men coming in to put out the dogs, to remove their bodies, to remove John. But he didn’t care; he didn’t care about anything now except for sleep…

By the faint vibrations and occasional larger thumps, John knew that he was in a car. By the feel of the seat and the lack of leg room, he knew that he was in the back. By the thin grating in front of him, he knew it was a police cruiser. By the handcuffs pulling his arms behind his back and the still warm blood spattered on his shirt, he knew that something bad had happened.
“Um, what’s going—“
“Sir, I strongly recommend you don’t speak,” the driver said.
“But… but what’s going on?”
The police officer remained silent for several moments. “Could you elaborate on that question?”
John’s breathed faster, and he had to fight back anger; now was not an appropriate time for that emotion. “Why am I in this car? Why am I covered in blood?”
“Sir, do you remember placing a telephone call to the Philadelphia police about seven minutes ago?”
“No! Why would I—“ John’s throat clenched and he gasped. “It wasn’t a dream! It was some sort of… sort of rationalization! Oh, God!” An involuntary shudder passed through his body, and he sobbed slightly. The dogs in his dream had been—
The grating crinkled slightly as John leaned against it.
“Sir, I’m going to have to insist that you move away from the—“
“Yeah, o-okay…” John sat back up and sniffed loudly. “What… what happened?”
“Sir, do you know about your fifth amendment right to—“
“Yes!” John barked. “I can guess some of what happened! I killed them! The three muggers! There, I’ve incriminated myself! You’re off the hook! Now talk!” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, John knew he shouldn’t have yelled at the officer; it wouldn’t make the conversation easier.
But the officer seemed to understand what kind of confused turmoil John was going through because he said, softly and simply, “Eight minutes ago, we received a call from a man claiming to be John Donalson, who said he had killed three people and wanted to turn himself in. I got there, and there you were with the bodies. You insisted on being arrested; I read you your rights, and started back to the precinct. The whole time you seemed to slightly out of it, but just a minute ago—well, here we are.”
John crumpled into a ball and alternately sobbed and laughed hysterically. He was alternately repulsed and weirdly proud of what he had done, denying it and then embracing it. In a disturbingly short amount of time, he came to terms with what he had done, and tried to focus on other things. A moment later, he came up and leaned once more on the grating, staring fixedly at the officer’s ear. “You know, this is my first arrest? Squeaky clean my whole life, and then I go off and kill someone. No, three people. One was self defense, I know that much. I was being mugged.”
“Sir, you really shouldn’t—“
John snorted, and then fell into a brief moment of nervous giggles and then quick sobs. “You know, the whole Fifth Amendment thing doesn’t really help me. I was there with the bodies, covered in their blood. ****, I even turned myself in… How did they die?”
“Do you have any history of memory loss?” The officer nervously glanced at John from the corner of his eye, and then focused back on the road.
“Definitely.” John quickly told the officer about his coma and his complete lack of memories about Lucy. “Wait, wait,” he said abruptly at the end of his story. “One had the top of his head, starting at the jaw, ripped off, and two were burned to death, right?”
The officer chuckled nervously and sped up a little. “Yeah…”
John nodded and leaned back against the seat. He thought again about his first two days in the world, about remembering Lucy, about Shaun, about—Shaun was a police officer. John had brief hope, that someone could help him. Not that he knew what the help would be for; he killed those men, and he was surprisingly content to let justice be carried out against him. But a friend on the inside… No, Shaun hated him. But Shaun’s friend- John struggled briefly before he remembered the name- Norgent; he had told John that he could call him if he were ever in trouble. Well, that was taking what he said quite drastically out of Context, But John was willing to try.
“When do I get my phone call?”
“Not until you’re processed.”
“I really need to use it now.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t—“
“Just set your cell phone to speaker and call detective Fred Norgent.”
“Detective Norgent?”
“Yes, he’d be interested in hearing about this. Please, it’s important.” The officer didn’t immediately respond, so John tried another tactic. “I did turn myself in. Triple homicide and the arrest went without a hitch. I’m plea bargaining here. I behave as a perfect gentleman, you make the call, I talk for a minute, and then you never have to hear from me again.”
The officer held his silence for a few moments longer, and then relented. “Do you have his number?”
“Do you have my wallet?”
“Yes, I took when I checked you for weapons.”
“Business card. First pocket, left side.”
The officer hesitated, and then reached for the wallet.
Two and a half minutes later, the call was made, and afterwards John sat completely quiet in the back seat, a perfect gentleman.

Detective Roger Henderson sat at his desk, looking through the Philadelphia Police Department’s database on his computer, and trying to talk with tech support on his telephone.
“Yes, I’m aware that he’s in custody now, but it still says he’s dead.” There was a brief response. “That doesn’t matter; I can’t update it. Look, is it even up on your screen?” Another response. “Well, come down to my office! I need this done! This guy’s done a triple homicide, there’s a positive ID, and I can’t register it on his record!” The next response continued for almost a minute, so Detective Henderson checked AmeriSearch to see if there had been any coverage of the murders yet. “Yeah, well, if you’re not going to do your job, just quit and give us your budget!”
He slammed down the receiver and slumped back in his chair, his arms folded over his rather impressive belly. Every time he had problems with the database, the techs told him they would look into it, but it never helped. And now a problem with the database was getting in the way of an investigation.
Fortunately, it wouldn’t be much of an investigation. The perpetrator had turned himself in, and what had already come back from the coroner supported the guy’s story.
There was a knock at his office door, and Detective Fred Norgent poked his head inside. “Henderson?”
“Yeah?” Detective Henderson straightened up and then leaned forward on his desk. “What’s up?”
Fred walked into the office and lowered his face closer to Henderson’s. “You’re working on that triple that just came in?”
Henderson nodded.
“I want in on it.”
“Because,” Fred said, smiling ruefully, “I got a call from the perp while he was en route. He asked for my help.”
Henderson sat up so abruptly that his chair rolled backwards a few inches. “What? D-do you know him or something?”
“Friend of a friend. He actually knows Wendelferce a little better, but I don’t think he trusts him.”
“I don’t blame him. Shaun kinda… disturbs me, I guess would be the best word. Where is he, anyway? I haven’t seen him all day.”
“The E.H.U.D.s are doing exercises somewhere, and he’s out doing maintenance.”
“Anyway, about the triple—“
“We can’t really do anything until the database gets fixed. We weren’t even able to put the arrest into his file. He’s on record as being the victim of vehicular manslaughter.”
Fred nodded and then gave Henderson a brief summary of John’s recent history. “Anyway, after he called, I looked at his record. You want to know why it’s locked down?”
Fred came around the desk and saw that John’s file was already up on the screen. He pointed to a small green dot in one corner of the picture of a much younger John. “Do you know what that means?”
“It means he’s dead, but that shouldn’t lock the file.”
Fred lifted one side of his mouth in a smile and shook his head. “Look closer.”
Henderson did, and saw that there was a blue slash through the dot. “Okay. So what?”
“I double checked the new codes and saw that that one had been added about two years ago. It’s a security clearance indicator. You can click it to see more.”
Henderson clicked it and whistled respectfully. “Well, looks like our boy here has got some well placed friends.”
“It’s worse than that. Did you see what forensics said about the victims?”
“Yeah, I—“ Something that Henderson had read in the report clicked into place. “Oh, ****.”
“W-we have to hold him!” Henderson half stood and reached for his phone. “I’ll call in extra—“
Fred pulled the phone away from Henderson. “No. If it was just the murders, well… But with the clearance, he’s out. We can’t hold him. Despite what he did, if he decides to press charges, we could both lose our jobs, along with the arresting officer. And he’d get away with this, no questions asked.”
Henderson’s sat back in his chair and though for a moment. “You know him, right?”
Fred nodded.
“What’s your impression? Think he’s good people?”
Fred though hard on his response. He hadn’t known John that well; he had just met him that once. But he had seemed nice enough. He was quiet and reserved, yet he didn’t put up with Shaun, and Shaun was usually able to bully people. Plus, Lucy liked John, and Fred thought of her as a good judge of character. Of course, she had wound up with Shaun…
Then there was the phone call. John had seemed perfectly calm when he described to Fred what had happened. When he was done explaining, Fred had asked John what he expected him to do. “I don’t know,” John replied. “You just seem like the kind of person who can find justice in this situation.” Those words had put a kind of professional pride into Fred, and he had already promised to do anything he could and disconnected the call before he realized that what John had said at the end had been nonsense. Oh, well, it was too late now; he was committed to helping John, in whatever form that help might take. Maybe this answer might help.
“I think he’s basically a good person,” Fred concluded.
“Okay, he’s in an interview room now. You go talk to him, tell him what’s going on, that he’s got…” Henderson gestured at the screen. “Try to distract him. I’ll call Washington. We have to keep him here of his own free will for as long as possible. If he objects to this, well… we might have to keep him away from civilians.”
“I think all the evidence points to that.”
“Allright, you go, I’ll call. I hope it’s just nothing…”
“I don’t think we’ll be that lucky.” Fred reached down and picked up the preliminary coroner’s report that Henderson had recently received and then left the room in search of John.
Henderson glanced over the information on his screen one last time and, with a sigh of nervous recognition, put in a call to the Pentagon. As the phone rang, Henderson realized that this wasn’t going to be an easy case after all…

The boy sat huddled in the shell of an old building. All around him, he could hear bullets flying through the air, plaster and concrete exploding into shards, people screaming and then abruptly falling silent. Occasionally there would be the deep, bowel shaking boom of an explosion. He heard a woman calling his name, screaming, crying, and then cut off.
The boy tried to fight back tears, and move deeper into the cover of the wall. He tried to tell himself that he would be okay, that no matter what happened, he would live through this. No matter how bad the Americans were, they never killed children. They would raze his village to the ground, kill all of the fighting men, and maybe even kill the women, but they would never kill him…
But he had heard stories. One of the other boys said that he had seen soldiers in another village, wearing thick armor, looking like robots, killing everything. He hadn’t believed the other boy at first. After all, if everything had been killed, how could anyone have seen it and lived? But now the story stayed on the surface of his mind, sinking in deeper and deeper with every sound, every scream, every death.
There was another explosion, very near, sending cascades of dust and sand vibrating away in its shockwave. The boy felt a chunk of building material hit him in the back, ripping flesh, crushing bone. Involuntarily, he yelled, and then bit down on his lower lip, determined to make no sound, to be invisible, to survive. He pulled himself off of the ground, one arm dangling uselessly. He stood up on his knees and then collapsed back against the wall.
An instant later, there was a scrabbling, then a thump as a large man climbed over the wall and landed next to him. He vaguely recognized the man; just some person he had seen around town. The man gasped and swung his eyes wildly around, not noticing the boy. He crab-walked back into the wall, digging into the earth with scraped, bleeding fingers. He reached the wall and was about to fall down and collapse into a ball when he stopped and blankly ahead.
The boy was frightened by this change. As long as the man was frightened, as panicked as the boy was, he was partaking of the experience; he was real. But now… The man twisted his neck as far to the left as it would go, and then began to slowly sweep his gaze to the right, his eyes flicking rapidly up and down, not missing anything. When his eyes locked onto the boy, he stopped moving and collapsed, not breathing.
The boy tried to back away from the corpse before him, but he suddenly found that he couldn’t move. Nothing worked; no muscles shifted at his command, his eyes stayed locked rigidly ahead. Even the quiet, constant sound of his heart had stopped. All that was left was his mind. He could feel something, soft, smooth, dark and mysterious, moving into his mind, enveloping his consciousness, mirroring every sense, taking everything that he was, that he saw, heard, felt, and transferring it to some other source.
Against his will, the boy stood up, the dark presence controlling his legs. Stiffly, he left the shelter of his wall, watching out of the corners of his eyes as the buildings that he had known his whole life were reduced to rubble, collapsing under the weight of thousands of shards of metal, moving just under the speed of sound.
More than once, a bullet would pass close, intersect him, come to a point where it had to pass through him. Yet each time the bullet would disappear in a shower of iridescent powder, flowing around him on the breeze.
After several minutes, the boy passed through the worst of the fighting—no, the massacre—and came to an abrupt stop next to a pile of rubble that had once been a collection of restaurants. He stood there for some time, hearing the destruction and pain behind him, yet unable to turn around. Once, he heard someone—it had to be his father—calling his name, his voice thick with tears as he tried to find him. There was the rattle of automatic fire, and the voice stopped. The boy’s eyes welled up with tears, yet he couldn’t blink, couldn’t cry, couldn’t even breath, unless the presence told him to. And then the presence talked, or at least conveyed a message of some sort.
It’s all right. We’ll keep you safe. I’m sorry I had to do that, but… I’m as much a prisoner as you are…
The words didn’t reassure the boy, but the urge to cry went away and he suddenly felt calm. He knew that somehow his captor was changing him, altering his mood. He silently cursed the entity that now owned him, and repeatedly vowed revenge on whoever had done these things to his family, to his village… to him…
Eventually, the sounds of battle stopped, the winds blown by detonations and death faded away, and the world once more became still. All that was left of the village that had once been there was a thick layer of dust suspended in the air. While the boy stood motionless, staring off into the dust, he saw a shape coming towards him. It was vaguely humanoid, and as it came nearer the shape refined into that of an armored man, his face obscured by an emotionless mask inset with deep, dead eyes…
As the boy stared into the eyes, he felt the presence in his mind leave. The presence floated through the air, riding on electrical currents and solar rays, moving through the atmosphere until it reached its original home behind those eyes, bearing with it the boys memories… The presence reached down, and—
John woke up. He was still groggy, but he blinked a few times and focused on the small child curled up on the ground in front of him. John gave him a quick mental once-over, and found that he was physically sound. The boy had made it through all right; John was proud of himself for saving the child. He had always felt guilty doing these kinds of raids, especially ones in which he had to… recruit… the locals. His memories flicked back over the experience he had just been through. He saw through different eyes, felt through different bodies as he sent wave after wave of men to their deaths, unwillingly turning their weapons against their countrymen; memories and viewpoints slipping away as each body became too damaged to contain a consciousness…
But it was over now. John reached up and, with an effort was able to break the magnetic seal that kept his faceplate attached to his helmet. He let the plate fall to the ground and then spent a moment prying the slightly bullet-shaped helmet off of his head.
His top-most restraints removed, John knelt down in front of the boy. “Hey, you all right?” he asked, shaking the boy’s shoulder. “It’s okay; you’re alive.”
Before the boy had a chance to answer, John heard a high-pitched whistling sound. He looked up at another person a few feet away who was trying to struggle out of a helmet. Despite his exhaustion, John stretched out his mind and found that the other person was Naomi. You got Allen on the all clear? he seemed to ask.
Yeah. Old town center. See you in five, she seemed to respond.
Without another thought, John returned fully to his body and scooped up the boy. The boy whimpered softly, but John ignored him. He had just gone through a traumatic experience; he would be better after a few days.
When he reached the center of the village, John glanced around to check who was already there. Naomi, of course, who had come with him; Merv, always the first to arrive; Todd, who had probably started heading there as soon as he dropped, saving his precious calories for mental warfare, relying on his armor to keep his body safe. At that though, John felt his stomach tighten; he needed calories, too. Maybe they would get post-op snacks this time.
No food. Just wait.
John didn’t have to look to know that Allen was standing near him. Allen, the one who never seemed to get tired, no matter how much he used his abilities. Allen, the one who kept track of everyone, holding half of the battle on his own, while still looking after the rest of his flock. Allen, the one who had earned, again and again, his little army’s respect as their undisputed leader.
“Bad news folks; the cheese crackers weren’t loaded on the choppers today”
Well, there was at least one person who disputed Allen’s claim as leader: Shaun. He strode into the center of the ever-growing crowd of E.H.U.D.s, a wide smile plastered across his face, one arm lightly holding his helmet, the other wrapped fiercely around a high-powered rifle. John privately wondered why Shaun continued to act like he was their friend; he wasn’t a member of their squad, he wasn’t an E.H.U.D. He was one of the captors, the enemy. And every time he was alone with them, he kept the rifle while everyone else was consciously unarmed. Yet he always smiled, that same annoying, self-important, I’m better than you sorry freaks smile. If it wasn’t for that rifle…
Shaun continued to speak. “There’ll be food when we get back to base. First off; good job today. As some of you may have guessed, today was a practice run. All that stuff on the chopper was a load of bull****.” Impossibly, his smile widened. “But hey, it doesn’t matter. Reports from the general say that the war’s about to be over, so we can get back to protecting the folk’s stateside. Second off; I need everyone to collect any armor or ordnance you left behind. We’re going to wipe this place in… Donalson, what the **** is that?”
John blinked and followed Shaun’s line of sight down to his own chest, and the boy that he was still holding there.
“Orders were very specific—“
John felt the old rage building in him; that same rage that Shaun’s voice had kindled every time he had spoken in the past ten years. “I told you on the chopper that I wouldn’t—“
Shaun dropped his helmet and shifted the rifle closer towards a two-handed grip. “I don’t care what you told me. We have to—“
“No, we don’t…” the voice was quiet, reedy, not accustomed to being used. Allen. “You said this was a training mission. You put us here to test us… well, the general did…” He turned to look at John. “Your test is to kill the boy. Show complete loyalty to the program, above any personal conviction.”
John snorted derisively. “Yeah, that’s right. Visit the Temple and kill a kid on the same day.”
“That doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is here and now.”
“You actually want me to kill him?!” John’s mind had opened up to a lot of bizarre possibilities about the world after being drafted into the E.H.U.D. program, but this was not a changeable thing; Allen could always be trusted.
“No. I just ask you to consider the consequences of each course of action. You never know; the fate of the world could hang on this decision.”
“Shut up, Fendleton,” Shaun interjected. “No one asked you. Now, I am ordering you, Donalson, kill the kid.”
John stood at attention and tightened his hold on the boy. “I respectfully refuse to obey that order, sir. It is immoral and acting on it would be un-American.”
Shaun laughed and nervously shifted his grip on the rifle’s handle. “What, do you think this is the U.S. Army? The Marines? Air Force? No! This is the E.H.U.D.s! We belong to no country! We exist on the charter that created this company! Sure, we’re led by a U.S. military coalition, but we don’t belong to any group! The only chain of command here is the General, and anyone he orders around! And I’ve been ordered by him to order you to kill the kid!”
The boy in John’s arms whimpered and began muttering in Arabic.
“Shut him up, Donalson.” Shaun’s voice had become ice cold, and any joviality disappeared from his face. “You have one minute to decide. Then I kill you and the kid.”
A though drifted through John’s mind. There’re seventeen of us here, and more on the way… why don’t we kill him? John glanced over at Naomi, who lifted an eyebrow in a questioning gesture.
No, as much as John wanted to kill Shaun, kill the General, kill all of the overseers in the program, he knew they couldn’t bring of a successful rebellion. Shaun and the rest of the soldiers with him were wearing the armor, which was almost completely bullet proof. And if they tried to use their special abilities, Shaun would activate a scrambler, which effectively blocked psychic phenomena.
Now isn’t the time or place… but back at home base, we’d have an advantage…
John didn’t even bother to look at Allen. Yet again, he offered the best course of action. But what about the boy?
There’s no way to save the boy. We can’t keep him; he’s not a pet. And we can’t let him go… where would he go? His family’s dead. Killing him would be a kindness…
I can’t believe you’re telling me to kill him.
I’m not… I’m asking, ‘What future do you want?’ Do you want to be shot along with the boy? Or do you want to ambush Shaun here back at the base? Win our freedom?
I won’t kill the—
**** it, John! I don’t want you to either! But sometimes you have to make sacrifices to make a better future!
You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself.
Allen’s mind immediately retreated from John. That was one of the strange things he did sometimes. No one was sure what it was, but something would be said, and Allen would retreat, blocking off his mind and brooding. Fourteen years, and no one had been able to find a pattern in these silences.
Shaun was now counting. “…fifty-eight… fifty- seven… fifty- six…”
As much as John hated to admit it, Allen was right. What future did this boy have? There was nothing left of his village… And there was no point in John wasting his life on a pointless gesture to try to save the boy… All right, Allen; here’s a piece of my soul. I hope it buys the happy utopia you keep taking about making.
It’s a start…
“I’ll do it.”
Shaun cut himself off in the middle of fifty-four and the broad grin returned to his face. “Good boy.” He reached around his back, pulled a small pistol from his gear belt, and tossed it to John. In one smooth movement, John placed the boy on the ground and reached for the pistol. He felt a brief wave of fatigue as the pistol changed course and slid into his hand, but he swallowed a few times and continued with his task. Trying to hold onto his resolve, John slid a bullet into the chamber, released the safety, and leveled the weapon at the boy’s face.
The boy tried to shy away, tears beginning to stream down his face, but John immobilized him. I’m sorry, he told the boy. I’ll try to make this as easy as possible… He sent his mind into the boy, feeling a strange vertigo as he looked out of the boy’s eyes onto himself. He hooked himself up to the boy’s senses, making sure that the boy wouldn’t be able to feel anything, but that he would. He would have to murder this child, but he wouldn’t escape unscathed. He wanted to make sure that he felt the death, that the boy would mean as much to him dead as he did alive. He would never forget…
Several other presences touched his mind; the other E.H.U.D.s were connecting, remembering, learning once again to hate their captors, remembering the sins that they were forced to commit.
“Now, Donalson.”
The boy stared straight into John’s eyes, his face shifting between grief, anger, desperation, despair…
No. John would not do this. He could not. No matter how much simple, pragmatic sense it made to go ahead with this act—this murder—it was not right—
John’s right index finger, completely against the will of the rest of his body, momentarily tightened, and the world ended. There was a brilliant flash, and then a sudden intense pressure followed by… by… Oh, God…
When John’s mind returned to his body, he found himself on the ground, laying on top of Shaun, his fist smashing again, and again, and again into Shaun’s face, bones crunching, blood spurting into the air.
“Get the **** off me!” Shaun cried between fist falls. He tried to sit forward, but again John’s fist pushed him down, this time with a few teeth following moments later for added emphasis.
The air around the two combatants was vibrating with the distinctive pulses of a scrambler and, as John slowed the beating and took stock of what was happening, non- E.H.U.D. soldiers were rushing towards them, weapons at the ready to subdue him.
The other E.H.U.D.s stood at a distance, clustered around the body of the little boy whom John had… his mind kept slipping away from the thought. He hadn’t meant to… He would never be able to forgive himself.
You’re not the one who needs forgiveness…You didn’t pull the trigger…
You saw—
I pulled the trigger. I moved your finger. You’re free of the blame… Don’t thank me… there are worse things that I’ll need you to do…
John was about to protest Allen’s assertions when he suddenly realized that they had been communicating. Despite the presence of a scrambler in the vicinity, despite the distracting, all-encompassing buzz of that psychic cancellation device, John and Allen had been able to communicate.
Yes… But don’t tell anyone… not yet…
The soldiers reached John and dragged him off of Shaun. As soon as Shaun was free, he lumbered to his feet and, after finding his balance, struck John heavily across the side of his face. “If you ever touch me again,” Shaun breathed venomously, “I’m going to go home to that ***** and kill her with my bare hands.”
John smiled weakly. “You can’t hurt Lucy any worse than you already have.”
“Oh, really?”
At that point the conversation was interrupted by one of the soldiers who was restraining John. “Major Wendelferce?”
“I recommend that you see a medic, sir.”
Shaun reached up and gingerly touched his nose and upper lip. “Hmm… No, put Donalson into a pair of scrambler headphones, load him into a chopper, shut down the other scramblers, and have one of the men fix this. Shouldn’t take more than a minute.”
“Sir.” The soldier hurried off to fulfill his orders.
A moment later, a thick pair of headphones, emitting that same horrible buzzing, were lowered over John’s head. He could feel his body weakening, any energy that he had left leaking away as the buzzing drove deep into his head, unfocused his thoughts, sent his whole body vibrating to the rhythm of death…
Shaun sneered at John. “I hope you enjoyed your little revenge Donalson. If I have my way—and I’m pretty sure the general will agree with me—you’ll never see the light of day again. We may have put a lot of resources into training you, but that doesn’t matter. After what you did today… You’re too big of a risk, Donalson. You should have thought of that before—“
John tuned out the rest of what Shaun was saying; he was starting to ramble, and John wasn’t interested. Soon enough, Shaun wound down, and the soldiers busied themselves shoving John into one of the evacuation choppers that were touching down all over the remains of the village.
Just as he was being pushed through the side door of one of the choppers, John looked back and saw Allen and Naomi staring at him. Naomi’s mouth was pursed into a line of grim determination, as if it was taking everything in her not to attack someone the way that John had. But Allen… The only word John could think of to describe his expression was… pride…
In the next moment, they were gone. John was inside the chopper, being strapped into a seat, feeling the bottom drop out of his stomach as the chopper rose swiftly into the air… He sighed, lay back against the seat, and soon fell into an uneasy sleep…

…which was soon interrupted by the entrance of Detective Fred Norgent into the interview room. John sat up, shook his head, blinked a few times, and cleared his throat. “Oh, hey—“ his voice came out high and squeaky, so he cleared his throat again. “Hey, Fred, it’s nice to see you. Um, about how long was I asleep?”
Fred pulled out a chair and sat down, sliding a small packet of paper across the table towards John. “Long enough for the first coroner’s reports to come in.” He gestured towards the paper.
John reached towards them but stopped. “I assume you’re recording this conversation?”
“Of course.”
“So… you’re showing me evidence? You’re not getting a detailed statement?”
“In your first statement, you told us approximately how these three men died. Now that we have this report, well…” He chewed his lip for a moment, and then sat forward. “John, why did you call me?”
“I—I don’t really know, I just thought it was the right thing—“
“You asked me for help, and said that I would make sure that justice was done.”
“Yeah, and now I’m not really sure what that means.”
Fred nodded thoughtfully. “Okay, I have a question for you. Understand, of course, that your answer would be purely a volunteer effort, and that you’re not in any way required to answer it. My question is this: Do you know anything about your police record?”
“I always assumed it was spotless, but based on this question I’m going to guess that—“
Fred held up his hands to forestall a response. “That’s not important; that was all the answer I needed. Next question: What do you know about the E.H.U.D. program?”
“You know, it’s funny that you should mention that, I was just having a dream about the E.H.U.D.s.”
“Interesting. What I’m specifically interested in is, do you know about the new level of clearance created by the original program proposal?”
“I think I heard something on the news about it, yeah. The get away with anything clearance? Why?”
Fred took a deep breath and drummed his fingers on the table. “It turns out that you have that clearance.”
John didn’t respond.
“What that means is that legally, what you did was, until decided otherwise, an act in defense of the public good, and that your being arrested is tantamount to interfering with an officer of the law while he’s discharging his duties.” Fred stopped the tapping and raised an eyebrow in a questioning gesture. “Now, why do you think you might have been issued this incredibly high level of security clearance?”
John’s jaw moved for several seconds before he was able to find a voice. “The, the, uh… the military is trying to make amends for fifteen years spent in—“
“No, no, you told me that story before. It would certainly explain job contact, maybe, maybe explain an apartment, but this? No, I have my own theory on this.”
He reached out and picked up the coroner’s report. “I’d like to read you a selection from this, and see if you come to the same conclusions I did. Oh, but before we continue, I have to let you know that, as of about fifteen minutes ago, you are no longer under arrest, and in fact are free to leave whenever you want to. However, as your friend, not as a police officer, I’d like it if you stayed here for a while.”
“So, this really is being recorded.”
Fred smiled and began to paraphrase what was in the report. “Three subjects, all deceased. One subject was found with his head, from the mouth upwards, detached. Apparently, an extremely strong blunt force was applied to the back of the mouth, causing the head to rip off of the lower jaw. It is unknown at this time as to what this blunt force may have been. Subjects two and three were both burned to death. However, there were no signs of any form of chemicals used to exacerbate the fire, despite evidence pointing to an extremely hot flame. An initial autopsy revealed that both corpses were more heavily burned on the insides, with several organs reduced to charred ash. Again, there is no clue as to what started the fire.”
Fred flipped close the report and glanced up at John. “So, care to guess?”
With a rising sense of uncertainty, John slowly shook his head.
“Simple enough,” Fred said. “You’re an E.H.U.D.”
John knew what Fred meant, but he refused to acknowledge the thought. “That’s what you said was on my record.”
“No, John. You are an Enhanced Human Ultimate Defender, a genetically altered human with bizarre powers who is currently free from government enslavement, but who poses a serious risk to national security.”
“No, that can’t—“ Even as he tried to protest Fred’s statement, several similar conversations from the past six months came to the forefront of his mind. His brother, saying that it was strange that he was so physically fit after such an extensive coma… Walter and some of his coworkers, picking up on certain details of John’s life and correlating them to what the president said about the E.H.U.D.s… then the next day, Reggie again confronting him about this very possibility… and the dreams, all of those terrible, horrifying dreams…
“So what if it’s true?”
Fred shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. One of my colleagues has called Washington right now to ask for advice, maybe to see if they could send out an expert who could identify you.”
“So you don’t care if I’m one of them, one of the monsters that has the whole country scared out of its mind?”
Fred shrugged again. “I can’t see as if you had a choice in it. And as far as those killings today… From what you said, it was self defense.”
John’s face twisted oddly as he went through a sudden plethora of emotions. “No, only one was self defense. The other two… the other two I murdered.”
“No, the other two were the unfortunate victims of a strange power gone out of control, wielded by a man who didn’t even remember having these powers, and who turned himself into the proper authorities immediately afterwards.” He paused for a moment. “I am correct in that you don’t remember anything?”
“Just some weird dreams…”
Fred nodded and scratched at his beard. “Well, anyway, the point is, these deaths aren’t really your fault.”
“That’s what Allen said about the boy,” John said, remembering the dream he had been having just minutes before.
“Nothing. You were saying?”
“Oh, yes.” Fred took a moment to reorder his thoughts. “The point I was getting at was that ‘A,’ you shouldn’t feel guilty and ‘B,’ for the time being, you can’t be held or prosecuted for what you’ve done.”
“So I’m free to go?” John felt relief wash over him; his life wasn’t ruined, he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life locked away for some insignificant, panic induced event. Sure, he still regretted killing those men; they deserved second chances like everyone else. But now John had his second chance. And he never would have found out if he hadn’t called Fred, who spent the time and energy researching his case. Maybe it was a divine hand that caused him to call the detective.
“Um, not quite…” Fred muttered.
John’s mind stopped reeling off prayers of thanksgiving and snapped back to the present. “What?”
“You can’t be held, but Detective Henderson, the other guy on this case, believes that Washington is going to send someone out to verify weather or not you are actually an E.H.U.D. It’s a rather serious concern, and the Pentagon has made it very clear that they want the identities and locations of each and every super soldier. So, as your friend, but also as an officer of the law, looking out for the public good, I am asking you to stay here, under surveillance, until a representative from the National Security Administration, or the Central Intelligence Agency, or whatever, comes out to investigate our claim.”
“So, basically, I’m under arrest not because I killed three men, but because…”
“Because you were abducted and illegally experimented on, right.”
“Suspected of being abducted and illegally experimented on.”
Fred’s face split into an enormous grin. “So, you’re okay with this?”
John returned the grin and shook his head. “Not in the least.”
“John, please, we—“
“Tell you what. I really don’t want to spend the night here if I don’t have to. On the other hand, I can see where you’re coming from on this. So we’ll split the difference. House arrest. I go home, check in every few hours, and you send the federales to my apartment. Deal?”
Fred’s grin quickly faded and disappeared. “It’s not quite that easy. There’s another reason for you to stay here. If the… whoever they send out for this kind of situation gets here and finds out you’re not an E.H.U.D., odds are that your protected status will be revoked, in which case the triple homicide…” He let the sentence trail off, leaving John to figure out the implications of a negative result.
John laced his fingers together and rested his head on his hands. “You can arrest me just as easily at home as you can here. I already turned myself in once; doesn’t that buy me a little trust?”
“You also killed three people.”
“My question still stands.”
With a labored sigh, Fred pushed away from the table and leaned against the mirrored window that took up one wall of the room. “All right, legally we can’t keep you here. But reality will, I’m afraid. Your car is parked miles away, good luck finding a cab nowadays, and no, we won’t drive you home.”
“I’ll call someone for a ride.”
“No can do you only get—“
“John tilted his head to one side and looked at Fred.
“Right, right, not under arrest; I keep forgetting.”
“I’ll need my phone.”
Fred sighed again. “Yeah, fine whatever. You’ll get all your stuff when you check out.” He sounded rather bitter.
It took John a few moments of thought before he realized why. Even though Fred had told him not to feel guilty about the murder of the men, Fred still privately held him responsible, and letting John, a self-professed killer loose on the street, went against his moral code.
“Look, Fred, if it makes you feel better, you can set some officers outside my door to drag my *** back in if it turns out that I’ll have to take responsibility for my actions.”
“I’ll only feel safe if we have you here under guard.”
John’s understanding of Fred shifted. He wasn’t worried about a killer on the streets; he was worried about an E.H.U.D., a living super-weapon unleashed on the populous. He had fallen victim to the hysteria. Although, based purely on John’s actions today, it was some rather justified hysteria. John considered then giving up his struggle and just staying the night at the police station. Fred had already done his best to help him, to act as a friend, and John didn’t want to cause him any undue stress. Of course, spending a night in a jail cell, even if it were unlocked and relatively unguarded, would cause John undue stress.
“I’m sorry, Fred, but I can’t stay here. Go ahead and get me checked out, I’ll call someone and get a ride home, and if no one with a badge has shown up at my apartment, I’ll be back here bright and early.”
Fred sighed and glanced at his watch. “Yeah, I need to get home, too. It’s my son’s birthday this weekend, and we need to get decorations up.”
“I’ll grab him a LEGO set on the way over tomorrow.”
Discussions of a mundane and slightly humorous nature seemed to lighten Fred’s mood. “He’s into the Gigawatt action figures.”
“I’ll get him one of those then.”
“Yeah, all right.” Fred pushed himself up to a standing position and held the room’s door open for John. “We’ll go down the hall and tell Officer Fuentes about your security clearance, and she’ll start processing you out of here. Then I’ll go in and talk to Henderson again, and meet you out front, okay?”
John nodded, and they left the room.

When Fred entered Detective Henderson’s office, Henderson was pacing around his desk, the phone in one hand and a stress ball in the other. He looked up, saw Fred, and smiled.
“Ah, he’s here now,” Henderson said into the phone. “I’ll hand you over to him.”
Fred took the proffered phone and mouthed ‘Who is it?’
Henderson responded with ‘SecDef.’
Fred’s eyes widened with surprise, and he turned his attention to the phone. Detective Norgent speaking.”
“Ah, Mr. Norgent, so nice to hear from you. This is Secretary of Defense Robert Mistlethwakey speaking. I understand you’ve arrest John Donalson?”
“Well, that was just a mistake sure, and he has now been released.”
“Good job, good job. Henderson told me the details. I, uh, I understand that you previously knew John?”
“Yes, we met… oh, a few months back. Labor day I think.”
“Yes, yes, I remember now.”
“Excuse me?”
Mistlethwakey laughed. “Oh, John and I have known each other for a while, and he told me about the picnic that you all had.”
“You know John Donalson.”
“Yes, we’re rather good friends.”
Fred tried very hard not to yell. “You know him, you’ve interacted with him, and you didn’t realize he was an E.H.U.D.?”
“E.H.U.D. detection is not an inherent ability of mine. Besides, we have yet to determine that he is, in fact, an E.H.U.D.” There was a crashing sound in the background, followed by yelling.
“What was that?” Fred asked, thoroughly alarmed.
“I, uh, I believe that someone just rammed a car into a collection of trashcans.”
Fred blinked in surprise. “Are you on a cell phone?”
“Yep. In fact, I’m in Philadelphia, seeing to some private business.”
So Mistlethwakey was being told that one of his personal acquaintances was a threat to national security, and he couldn’t be bothered to stop running errands. “You do realize how serious this accusation is, right?”
“About as serious as Terstein’s threats of war.”
That statement deflated Fred’s sense of urgency to some extent. “So you don’t think that John’s actually an E.H.U.D.”
“On the contrary, not only is Terstein one of the greatest threats this country has ever faced, I think that the evidence against our mutual friend is unarguable.” Mistlethwakey’s tone changed from light and conversational to heavy and conspiratorial. “Where is John right now, by the way?”
“Just a minute.” Fred covered the mouthpiece and relayed Mistlethwakey’s question to Henderson. Henderson left and returned a few seconds later, quickly telling Fred what he had learned. “He has just left the building. Do you want me to go get him?”
“Hm? What?” Mistlethwakey seemed distracted. There was another sound, something that sounded suspiciously like a gunshot. “Oh, no, you don’t need to get him.”
“What was that? I heard a gunshot.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did!”
“Look, I’ve already contacted your local E.H.U.D. division; they should be arriving right about now to take Donalson into custody.”
This was going too far. “You don’t even know if he really is an E.H.U.D.!” Mistlethwakey was distracted, and he was calling in too much force. As much as Fred wanted John safely away, out of sight, out of mind, he didn’t want him killed.
“Look, I’m sorry, but I have to go now. The E.H.U.D.s are there, they’ll take him into custody and evaluate him.”
“I have to go.”
The phone went dead, and Fred looked up at Henderson, his eyes growing wide with shock.
“What? What is it?” Henderson was lightly bouncing on the balls of his feet in excitement.
“They’ve set a squad of E.H.U.D.s on John.”
Henderson stopped bouncing. “But I thought he was an E.—“
“Not those kind!”
“Oh. ****.”
That was all that needed to be said. They hastily put on coats and ran out of the room, trying to get to John before the E.H.U.D.s could.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Happy Pagan Tree Day!

First off, a breif moment of silence for those who lost their lives on the eleventh of September, 2001.

At first glance, this chapter is going to seem pretty superfluous. I mean, 12 1/2 pages of John going Christmas shopping at the Mall? But yes, it actually does have an impact on the story.
First: world building. It's important to know what effects the E.H.U.D.s and everything are having on the economy, right? You all remember what happened after... after that event eight years ago today... the market took a hard hit. Well, psychic super-soldiers and presidential assassinations (not to mention the car bombing mentioned in chapter six!) have a similar effect.
Second: This chapter works a bit more on the whole John/Shaun/Lucy thing, which is fairly important to the plot. (unless I'm wrong. I'll admit, I've never read this thing, so if you think it's a waste of space, leave a comment!)
Third: Chekhov's location. This mall becomes incredibly important later in the story, and especially in book two, so I want to have it introduced before it has to be used. (Don't know who Chekhov is? GO to tvtropes.org and search 'Chekhov's gun'!)
Okay, so that's all I have to say about this chapter.

The picture at the top there is a piece I did for a colored pencil class. Yes, it's based on Copper from The Fox And The Hound. Yes, I changed it a little (note the number of legs...). No, I have neither the time nor the inclination to change its layout. Just tilt your head.

In closing, I now have the official, full length title of this book, previously known as E.H.U.D.: Prelude to Apocalypse. The full title is, are you ready, American Inheritance: Trilogy I: Tales of The E.H.U.D.s: Book I: E.H.U.D.: Prelude to Apocalypse. Whew... That's five colons... And yes, I intend to fave five other books to finish this off, so get ready...

Now, onto Chapter 17...

Chapter 17

Ever since moving into Sky Crest, John had intended to go to the Philadelphia Metro Mall, but had somehow never found a reason to go more than about half-way through concourse that connected the two buildings. But with the winter gift-giving season approaching, he now had a reason to go in and explore. He was going to get something for Vanessa.
The previous evening, John had been in the Sky Crest fitness center, jogging and berating himself for failing to properly support Rachel. Reggie had called earlier in the day, looking for Rachel. No one seemed to know where she was; her mother hadn’t seen her, and she wasn’t at her best friend Tisha’s house. John had suggested that Rachel talk to Wayne, but Reggie had adamantly refused, insisting that Rachel had the sense not to go hanging around with Wayne. After several minutes of fruitless conversation, Reggie hung up, and John went to work out his frustration on the treadmill.
Four hours later, John was beginning to long for companionship, someone he could talk to, someone who could hopefully give advice and consolation better than John could. In the past, he might have hoped Mistlethwakey would be there, but now the only image in his mind was Vanessa’s face. They hadn’t known each other very long, but John was certainly drawn towards her, although he expected she didn’t feel the same in return. The speculation was rendered moot, however, when Vanessa arrived, and the two of them conversed.
Their first subject was Rachel, with John asking if there was anything he could have done differently, anyway he could have clamed Reggie and reunited father and daughter. Vanessa had been very helpful on this point; she had grown up with a sister who had gotten pregnant while in high school, and said that given time, the shock would wear off and all parties would find peace with each other. John had been there as a solid point for Rachel to hang on to, and even though she had turned on him and resented him, that was all that he could have done.
From Rachel, their conversation moved onto a discussion of religion; specifically, the celebration of ancient holidays in a modern world. John found it offensive that Christian rituals were intruding on the traditions of other cultures and that no matter where one looked, Christmas and Easter and other similar holidays were forced on the populace, be it through television, advertising, and in-store displays. Vanessa countered that traditional Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter actually pre-dated Christianity, and merely served the purpose of marking seasons and solstices. In their purest forms, they were secular holidays, and that no one’s culture was cheapened by celebrating them.
Vanessa’s point was well argued, and John agreed with her, leading to the conversation’s third topic: Vanessa’s plans for the holiday season. She reluctantly admitted that she had no plans beyond staying at home and possibly going ice-skating if it was cold enough. Mustering his courage and social graces, John invited her over to his apartment for a completely secular winter solstice dinner and, after the briefest of hesitations, she had agreed.
After that, the conversation spiraled down into small talk, eventually ending with John stumbling and being flung from his treadmill. Vanessa couldn’t seem to decide if this was something to be concerned about or to laugh at, but John wasn’t hurt, and the two amiably parted company shortly thereafter.
The next morning, John got up bright and early, ready to head off into the great secular temple of consumerism to acquire a suitable winter solstice gift for Vanessa.
Passing through the concourse that connected the Sky Crest to the mall, John was only mildly impressed. The concourse was open for about forty feet to the ceiling, with two floors of shops along the walls. Everything was antiseptic white, and the floor was almost blinding underneath the occasional skylights. It was nice, but it wasn’t different from any mall that John had ever been to before.
Exiting the concourse, John was momentarily distracted, first by a group of children who almost knocked him down as they ran by, and then by a large inflatable Santa that smiled crazily at him. John walked forward and continued to stare at the somehow malevolent looking balloon until he was stopped suddenly by a rail hitting him in the stomach. His head twisted to the front and he stared out along the length of the mall. Stretching out into the distance for nearly a mile, the building was certainly long. Again, John was only mildly impressed. It was a mean feat to make a building this long, but it wasn’t all that special; besides, he had gotten used to seeing it from the windows of Sky Crest’s fitness center. John glanced upwards at the ceiling, which was a large frosted skylight about five stories overhead. John lowered his gaze down along the walls, taking notice of the stores embedded there and the walkways that connected them. John sighed and let his attention drift. He had secretly been hoping that there would be something architecturally interesting about this place, but it was just an average mall. Then John gazed downwards.
He instantly stepped away from the rail that had stopped him. Beyond the rail was… nothing. The mall extended some two-hundred feet into the earth, with ten floors of shops along the walls, and many thin bridges criss-crossing the cavernous space. On the floor of the mall was a large food court, and beyond that, a small playground, a miniature golf course, and finally a massive arena with a stage at one end decorated for what looked to be a play of A Christmas Carol.
John stood and stared dumbfoundedly at the space all around him, amazed by the sheer size of the place. He had designed much larger buildings at Cohen and Associates, but none had had a space as big as this one. He began to quickly calculate the floor space available in—no, he needed to find out the average size of the stores—
“Can I help you, sir?”
A short man, dressed as a Christmas elf, had approached John. He glanced nervously at John’s slack jaw and unfocused eyes.
John blinked a few times and cleared his throat. “Uh, no, I-I’m just—I’m an architect, and I was just kind of blown away by, by—“
The short man nodded and smiled conspiratorially. “Yes, I had the same impression when I first saw it. Second largest retail space in the country, you know.”
“Yep. Was the largest, but they redid the Mall of America a few years back.” He snorted angrily. “Had to take the best stuff off brochures… Anyway, can I help you find anything?”
“I’m a Roving Information Elf, always here to be happy and helpful,” he said without emotion. “It’s what I’m here for.”
“Oh, well, in that case, I ‘m looking for a present for a woman I know…”
“Know how?”
“First date…”
The short man rubbed his chin and absently tapped his foot. “You’ll want something nice, but practical… this is hard…” he gestured out at the walkways lining the walls, which John noticed were largely empty. Along with the lack of people, there also seemed to be a lack of stores; only one out of three had lights on and security gates up. “Should’ve done this shopping last year; half the store closed down.”
“E.H.U.D. slump?”
“**** straight. No one’s buying anymore. This place was designed to accommodate some serious amounts of traffic, and now it’s almost completely dried up.”
“Yeah, unless you want a parking space.”
“For the last two years we had to shuttle customers in from other lots miles away.”
John whistled in appreciation for the difficulty that presented.
“No one’s going out and buying specialty goods; too concerned about the end of the world. I bet bulk warehouse stores are getting good business. But us… I used to own a great comic-book shop down on the seventh floor, but it folded right after Latterndale got shot, and I had to get this job to pay off late store rentals.” He sighed and stared dejectedly at his feet. “Anyway… Locket-cell.”
“New jewelry. It’s a small locket, flips open into a phone and automatically plays a slideshow on the screen. I was going to get my girlfriend one, but… well, you know.” He pointed down across the pit, to a point about half a mile away. “Electric Elegance, fifth floor, green section.” He noticed the confused look on John’s face. “There’s a small stripe on every support pillar in the wall. Look for the green ones.”
“All right, thanks for your help.”
“No problem,” the man replied, nodding and edging towards a harried-looking woman surrounded by four small children.
Glancing one more time into the great pit, John walked along the thin railing that separated the walkway from open air. About a hundred yards away was the thin glass shaft of an elevator descending from the ceiling. He moved towards it, but quickly changed his mind when he saw how many people were trying to use this one. Next to the elevator was a wide spiral staircase, hanging out over the void. John got onto the stairs and was quickly pushed downwards by the swell of people descending from higher floors. By the time he had descended two floors, the traffic had reversed, and the majority of the people were going back up to ground level. John had to be on constant alert, dodging between people and around groups until finally, at the point of exhaustion, he got of on the fifth floor underground.
Making sure not to get entangled in any groups of shoppers, John worked his way to the inside wall and then leaned against it, gasping. A woman in the uniform of a Roving Information Elf walked towards him, but John waved her away. He continued to lean against the wall for several minutes after his breathing had returned to normal; he was busy studying the shops on the wall across from him. There were clothing stores, jewelry stores, home media, furniture, occasionally toy stores, each packed. And then next to them… A hole. An empty store. And another and another and another… The E.H.U.D.s wouldn’t have to do anything else to get revenge on their captors; their mere presence in the public consciousness was killing the economy.
John pushed these thoughts aside and fixed a picture of Vanessa in his mind. He was there for her.
He managed to take three steps away from the wall when he heard a woman yelling his name. He turned and there, walking quickly toward him, was Lucy. She waved cheerily at him as she wound her way expertly through the crowds of shoppers. John forced a smile, and looked for a way to avoid Lucy. The last time he had seen her had been on Memorial Day, and he had hoped to keep it that way. Whenever they were together, she grew nostalgic, and talked about how great things would have been if they could have stayed together. Her attitude was beginning to wear on John, and he was almost grateful when Shaun confronted him about Lucy’s semi-romance.
“Oh, John, it’s great to see you!” Lucy swept John up into a big hug, and then inspected him from arm’s length. “How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m fine. How are you?”
“Doing good, doing good,” she said, nodding for emphasis. “So what are you doing here?” She gestured to a large inflatable snow-man set up in the middle of one of the walk-ways that crossed the pit. “It doesn’t seem like the kind of place you’d hang out.”
This didn’t seem like the place for truth. “I was just seeing the mall, you know? I’ve lived next to it for months, but never been in it.”
Lucy’s smile widened. “Well, why didn’t you say so?” She grabbed John’s arm and pulled him into a river of shoppers. “How would you like a tour?” John tried to protest, but Lucy continued. “It really is a great mall. It’s just slow. The economy should swing back up next year, assuming there’s no more terrorist activity. It’ll be great by this time next year.”
John smiled weakly and nodded, but noticed that Lucy was taking him away from Electric Elegance. “Um, where are we going?”
Lucy got into line at the elevator next to the stairs that John had just descended. “The best place to start is the food court. Get plenty of calories in us for the hike, hit all the highlights. Don’t worry; they have moving sidewalks in some areas.”
“I, uh, I don’t have much time—“
“It’ll give us a chance to catch up. We haven’t talked in months, and I’ve already had to go fifteen years without you. We need to keep in touch. After a good talk, we can get to that tour I promised.”
In less than five minutes, Lucy had brought up that sore subject. John wondered if he should just leave, reminding her that they were no longer engaged, that their life together was over, that he now found her obsessive and more than a bit annoying. But he couldn’t say that. It would crush her, and he just wanted her to move on, not cause her pain.
Lucy didn’t seem to notice John’s internal struggle; she kept talking, talking about the mall, and the economy, and what Shaun said that the police force was doing to curtail domestic terrorism. John nodded absently and occasionally muttered agreement.
After ten minutes, they were able to get into the elevator with about twenty other people. It was a large elevator, but with so many people it was crowded. Fortunately, John was able to stand next to the transparent outer wall and was able to see the whole mall rising above him as they were taken down into the earth. Moments later, the elevator stopped and they got out into the food court.
Lucy led John to a small Greek restaurant, which she claimed had excellent food, and ordered gyros for the both of them. Once they had their food, they sat down at a table in the middle of the food court, with an unobstructed view of the glass ceiling so far overhead. Only light and shadow could be seen through the glass, but John thought he recognized a large, dark mass as Sky Crest.
“What happens if someone overhead decides to spit down here?” John asked as he returned his gaze to Lucy.
Lucy didn’t answer. She sat rigidly in her chair, a mixed expression of anger and sorrow on her face. She took a deep breath and moved her plate away from herself. “I haven’t seen you since Labor Day.”
John didn’t know how to respond to this non-sequitur; she had seemed so calm and pleasant just a moment before. Too calm. It had been an act. “It’s a large city; the chances of—“
“Don’t feed me that bull****. I’ve been calling you, e-mailing you, texting, everything. It was a miracle that I found you here.”
“I never did texting, and… and… okay, yes, I’ve been avoiding you.”
“Why? Is—Oh, God, Shaun threatened you, didn’t he? He was going to an anger management class for a while, but he said—“
“No, he didn’t… well, actually, yes, he did threaten me, but that isn’t it. Lucy, do you love me?”
Hope glimmered in Lucy’s eyes. “Yes.”
“Well, I don’t love you.”
Lucy leaned back and looked for a moment as if she might cry.
“Do you love Shaun?”
“Yes…” Lucy whispered quietly.
“He does love you. Look, I’ve explained this before, but I guess you didn’t get it.”
“I did, but I thought that maybe you’d remember us, like when you remembered me—
“Just listen. I died fifteen years ago. I may be the man you once loved, but you’re no longer the woman that I loved. You’re the woman that Shaun loves. Marry him, be happy. I don’t want to hurt your feelings but, but… I’ve moved on. I have someone who loves me. That’s the real reason I’m here; I’m buying something for her. We’re not star-crossed lovers destined for each other; we each have someone else. We can each live our own lives.”
“But you coming back is our second—“
John reached out and grabbed Lucy’s hands. “No. If I had come back, and you were single, and we really had a way to exist with each other, then it would have been a second chance. But what about Shaun? This is his first chance; is it really fair to ruin his first chance for our second?”
“So if Shaun weren’t—“
“No. You love him; don’t let me ruin a good thing.” John pushed his chair away from the table and stood up, his gyro uneaten.
Lucy stared up at him, her eyes glazing over with tears. John felt a momentary pang of guilt. Lucy had always been the stronger than he was, able to calmly accept the death of her beloved grandparents without batting an eyelid. John’s death must have traumatized her deeper than she ever suspected.
“Can’t we at least be friends?” she asked desperately.
“No. I’m sorry, but I’m having a negative affect on you.”
“Shaun told you to say this, didn’t he? He’s forcing you to leave—“
John turned and began to walk away.
“No, don’t go!”
Lucy continued to call after him as he walked across the food court and back to the elevator that they had taken. People stared at them, but John ignored everything except the elevator. This was what was best for Lucy. She needed a reminder of what was reality, what was the present. John took it as a good sign that she didn’t follow after him.
After a long wait for the elevator, and an even longer hike on the walkway, John found himself outside of Electric Elegance. He picked out a cell locket, purchased it, and returned home, all the while hoping that he had gotten through to Lucy this time.