It was too late to be driving. The entire world was reduced to twin yellow lines stretching to infinity beyond a cone of light. For a moment the world disappeared, the car swerved, and John Donalson was awake again, blinking and shaking his head, desperate to stay focused until he got home. The road curved ahead, and his stomach sloshed as he took the corner. How many drinks had he had? It was just a business meeting; he should have paced himself better.... He reached up under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Get home, get to sleep.... Tomorrow would be better. Had to be better: he had the contract now.
All he had to do was stay awake. Had to stay awake, had to—
Blinking, awake again. He slapped at his face, took several deep breaths, cranked up the air conditioning until the cold burned his skin. Couldn't be more than ten miles.
Lights appeared in the darkness ahead of him, bright and blue. It took John precious seconds to realize something was wrong: only red lights should be ahead of him. And then there was another car, a dark void behind two blinding blue points, screaming at him from the gloom.
And then John was floating, surrounded by a sparkling galaxy of glass, cut loose from the grip of the earth.
And then he was down, the seats above pressing in on him, the metal of his car shrieking and twisting as it skidded along the asphalt—
John snorted and sat up, the side of his face numb from pressing against the train window. “Whazza?”
“You okay there?”
It took John a moment to place the voice, a moment longer to adjust his glasses and recognize the face of his niece, Rachel Donalson. When he saw her, he felt a moment of painful disconnect. The chubby little girl he had half expected was instead a gangly, disheveled looking young woman.
“You were kind of twitching in your sleep.”
“Mmm, yeah.” John sat up and slid back on the bench. He ran a hand over the bristly stubble that was beginning growing on his head; he missed his old hair. “Where we at?”
Rachel sat down on the bench across from him. “About twenty minutes outside of Philly.”
“Where's your dad?”
Rachel looked over her shoulder at the other passengers, sending her dyed-red hair swinging. “Dunno. Said he was going to get drinks.”
“Oh.” John stretched and yawned. “Yeah. I remember that.” He tapped the side of his head. “At least memory loss doesn't seem to be one of symptoms of this thing. After-effects. Symptoms. Don't know the right word here.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, John staring out at the passing countryside, Rachel engrossed in her mobile. “So,” she said, “that explosion we felt back in Washington?”
“News on that. Apparently it's a government cover-up for something.”
John grunted and shifted to look at his niece; despite months of physical therapy, he still felt disconnected from his body. “And how's that?”
“Well, they're saying it was caused by a gas main explosion.”
John shrugged. That seemed like a good explanation to him. “How exactly does gas main equal cover-up? I mean, the system's pretty old, right?”
Rachel nodded throughout John's response, her speed increasing as she became more excited. “Exactly. An old gas main explodes and kills a bunch of people; what do you think city officials will do? They'll hem and haw for a few weeks, saying they have absolutely no idea what could have caused this, wait for it to all blow over, then issue a little report months later that basically says, 'Yeah, it was totally a gas explosion, but it wasn't our fault.' Now it's only been like six or seven hours, and they've already got a handy explanation and a plan to fix it. Nothing moves the government quite so much as a desire to cover its ass.” She twisted her mouth into a sarcastic grin.
John snorted. “Well, aren’t you the little conspiracy nut. Counterpoint: what about 9/11? They had that figured out pretty fast.”
“Who says that wasn't a cover-up?”
John folded his arms and raised an eyebrow.
Rachel shrugged and glanced out the window. “Okay, well that was different: they saw the fucking planes go in.”
At that moment Rachel's father returned, carrying two coffees. “Hey. Let’s try to keep it PG-13 here, okay?”
“You can say ‘fuck' in a PG-13.”
“You know what I mean.” He looked down at John. “You're awake. Good; didn't want to have to get you up when we stop.” He sat down next to Rachel and passed John a cup.
John took it, then looked at his brother. Reggie Donalson had always looked older, but the last memory John had of him was as an energetic man in his early thirties. Now he was middle aged, tired looking, his face beginning to hold on to the lines and creases of everyday use. For the first time, John was almost thankful for the car accident, for the long sleep that followed: he looked too young for thirty-seven.
“So....” Reggie glanced back and forth between brother and daughter. “How's it going? Getting to know one another a little?”
John nodded. “Rachel was just telling me about the government's big metro cover-up.”
“Really?” Reggie looked at his daughter and raised an eyebrow.
“Yup.” Rachel dragged the mobile onto the tabletop and put it in the middle of their little triangle. She gestured at it, and an emotionless reporter's voice began to list off statistics as the crater sprang to life, swarming with rescue workers. “—have rescued twenty-three people, who have been rushed to area hospitals. There have been sixty-eight confirmed deaths, though fire and rescue officials estimate an additional hundred people still remain buried in the rubble. The mayor has released a statement apologizing to the victims and their families, and stating his intention for a comprehensive reconstruction of the metro system, to be completed in the next five years. For AmeriNews, this is Maria Ruiz—”
Rachel gestured and the playback stopped, the image frozen on a bulky grey figure with a skeletal face.
“What's that?” John asked, pointing at the screen.
“Hmm? Oh, that's an EHUD.”
Reggie laughed. “You should hear her conspiracies about them.”
“But what are they?”
Rachel grabbed the mobile and began to poke and gesture at it. “Powered armor. Really cool, after your time, I guess.”
“They're Army, but Latterndale farmed them out for other uses.”
The name was familiar, but it took John a moment to place it. “Latterndale the President?”
Rachel shook her head. “Latterndale the Defense Secretary.” She passed the mobile to John. “Watch this; it'll explain.”
On the screen was a digital rendering of the EHUD, rotating in front of a black background. A woman's soothing voice began to speak. “The Enhanced Human Ultimate Defense, or EHUD armor system, is the future of soldier safety in the field. This armor system allows its wearer to become a one-person army, able to withstand any attack and pacify enemy combatants with minimal loss of life.”
The rendering faded and was replaced by a single black garment, similar to a wetsuit. Then, a tangle of braces, wires and thick bladders appeared over it, followed shortly by another black suit, reinforced by large mounds of armor. Finally, a carapace of lumpy grey slabs covered the entire apparatus. The finished EHUD stayed that way for a moment, spinning all the while, before being stripped down to the first layer and repeating.
The unseen woman continued. “The first component of the EHUD is made of a Gortex weave outer layer and a fiber-mesh-quilting inner layer. Between these two is a special gel, which becomes solid when force is applied to it. This gel allows for the absorption of impact forces, protecting the soldier within.
“The next component of the suit is the pneumatic sinus system. The P.S.S. works with the soldier's body to pump fluid and build up pressure, which can then be released to enhance movements and boost the wearer's strength.
“Over this is an additional layer of armor, consisting of ballistic gel like the inner suit, but also reinforcing joints and protecting the P.S.S.
“Finally, the last component consists of armored plates and further reinforcements to the overall system, cocooning the soldier within and protecting America's bravest and boldest on the battlefield. With the Enhanced Human Ultimate Defense armor system, a soldier will always be ready to face combatants, negotiate firing zones, or deal with battlefield rubble.”
The image of the EHUD faded and was replaced by the logo for the Department of Defense. “This video has been brought to you by the DOD and DHS.
John passed the mobile back to Rachel. “The government's gotten a lot more open since my time.”
Rachel shrugged. “It's all a smokescreen.”
Reggie sighed and shook his head. “Please, don't get her started.”
“I'm kind of interested.”
Reggie sighed and glanced warily at Rachel. "Alright, go for it."
She smirked. "Okay, so the EHUD program, its set up as an umbrella funding bill for military research. And out of it, we got the armor, some weapons, and tons of intel."
"But," Rachel leaned forward, her eyes widening with excitement, "if you actually read the legislation, there's all kinds of little pieces scattered throughout that give the army tons of leeway. Borderline illegal stuff. In the right context, it allows for civilians to be 'requisitioned' for experiments, genetic tampering, you name it. Basically, the whole thing is cover or making an army of supersoldiers."
"An army of supersoldiers?"
Rachel nodded emphatically.
"You've been watching way too many superhero movies."
Reggie whooped, and Rachel slumped back into a sulk. The laughter soon died, and the three lapsed into silence. John turned his attention to the window, watching as farmland transitioned to industrial parks, then to suburbs, and finally the city proper.
Then in the distance there was a flash of light from the sky. John squinted and made out a thin skyscraper, formed from gently undulating glass.
"SkyCrest," he whispered as he slowly smiled.
John and company stood at the window of his apartment, looking down the glistening side of the tower at the shopping center that stretched away thirty stories below.
"I can't believe I'm actually here," he enthused, fogging the glass. “I hate to say it, but that wreck may have been worth it all. All it took was life-threatening injury and ten years in a coma, and here I am!”
Behind him, Rachel snorted. “Beats working and saving up.”
Reggie turned his back to the window and took in the luxury apartment. "Have I mentioned yet how uncomfortable I am with all this? If the Army wants to settle, just give you lump-sum hush-money, okay, but setting you up with a house, a job? Seems sketchy."
"Two-star general's one of the principle investors here," John muttered. He also turned, sighing contentedly at his new home. "Besides, I've wanted to live here ever since the place went up."
"Yeah, well, I'm not going to stay long, alright? Just maybe three months, just 'til you're back on your feet." Reggie scuffed his shoe on the carpet. "Fancy twenty years ago doesn't translate to fancy today, and this place reminds me too much of my ex's."
"Speaking of fancy," Rachel interjected, "how'd they get this in here?" She was standing next to a stone-lined fireplace in the sunken living room.
John walked over to her and examined it, bending down and peering up the chimney. "Looks like it curves in; probably gets pumped out the core."
"Central Maintenance Core." He straightened. "Middle of the building's hollow; they run pipes and elevators through it, so none of the tenants has to see that stuff. I saw the blueprints at work, back before..." He trailed off, his thoughts jumping from 'work' to 'potential client' to 'business diner' to... to...
"Hey, John," Reggie called, his voice sounding strained, "Pizza should be here soon. Why don't you show us the rest of this place, huh?"
The afternoon burred by as John led is family around the apartment, taking in the real-life version of the home he had fantasized about for so many years. All it had taken was ten years since he had first seen the building--no, twenty, he had to get used to that lost decade--and a little piece of it was his.
They settled down to dinner. Conversation was touch-and-go at first. All John knew was out-of-date pop-culture and news, and Reggie was being his usual taciturn self, so it fell to Rachel to carry the conversation. In her teenage naiveté, all she wanted to talk about was herself; John didn't mind. His most recent memories of her were as a little kid, running around her parents' backyard in dirty jeans and flashing a gap-toothed grimace at anyone who approached her. Now he found her grown up, about to finish high school, cynical and strange.
“Right, well, so I'm in the government club," she explained, "and we mostly do social action kind of stuff. You know, hold rallies, spam Congressmen.... I wasn't really wanting to get into it, but my friend Rauolito talked me around. Summers I do campaigning in California.”
“That's all her mom's doing," Reggie said. "Actually got her some college credit, so I'm not complaining.”
“But, my God, are those people weird....”
They continued in this vein for about an hour, stopping when Rachel's mobile chirruped. "Oh, shit. I was supposed to call Wayne." She pushed back from the table and looked imploringly at her dad. "Can I take this?"
Reggie groaned and buried his face in his hands. "I guess I can't stop you."
"Thanks, dad." She stood and sprinted into the spare bedroom.
"Boyfriend?" John asked.
"Eh," Reggie answered.
“God, I feel old.”
“You are old.”
John turned away, caught his reflection in a piece of furniture trim. Despite Reggie's words, he didn't look particularly old. He was thinner than he was used to, the skin tighter around his eyes, but could still recognize himself through the rippling distortion. Looking so young, so vital, made him feel ashamed to have his brother taking care of him. “You don't have to stay, you know. I don't want to be a burden.”
“Who's going to look out for you if I don't?”
“I've got money coming in....”
Reggie sighed and shook his head, sending his elbows squeaking along the tabletop. “Look, I've already got one person in my life not listening to me, okay? Just let it happen.” He looked up, his eyelids purple and tired looking. "Please?"
John let it go. "I'm guessing you're not a big fan of Wayne," he said, trying to steer the conversation back to a place he was comfortable with.
"He's too old for her. Twenty-one, already dropped out of college, probably buying her alcohol."
This sentiment, coming from someone of his own generation, almost made John laugh. “You sound like mom.”
“Yeah, well...” Reggie stood and strode into the living room. “She was right about my marriage.” He flopped onto the couch. “You and Lucy, too.”
John froze in the act of standing and following. “Who?”
“Who, who? Mom?”
“No, you—you said—” John moved to stand in front of the couch. “You just mentioned someone. Who was it?”
Comprehension bloomed on Reggie's face, only to be immediately chocked out by confusion. “Lucy.”
John shook his head.
“Lucy. Your fiancé.”
“Holy shit.” Reggie rubbed his eyes. “They said there wasn't any brain damage...”
“I had a fiancé?” John felt numb. “I had a fiancé and you didn't tell me?”
“Hey!” Reggie jerked upright, his voice defensive. “You were supposed to know! I didn't think it was something I needed to spoon-feed you!”
John flung out his arms and snorted. “No, I've just been conscious for three months and never mentioned something this goddamned important. Of course I knew this vital bit of information! What else is no one telling me?”
Reggie pushed himself to his feet. “There's nothing to tell! I just thought you were stressed, I don't know! It was a rough three months.”
“I-I—” John clapped his arms to his sides then raised them again. “I have no idea what's going on here! I don't even know her name!”
Back to the couch; Reggie laid his head back and rubbed his eyes again. “So you have no memory of her?”
“I have nothing! No girlfriends, no fiancés, no Lucys!”
“Her name was Lucille Dawkins—”
“And three months of silence didn't raise any red flags?”
“You were dead for ten years! That raised way too many fucking flags!”
John moved his mouth for a moment, but couldn't form any words. Rage was flaring up inside of him, tempered somewhat by intense guilt. Reggie was right; there was no reason to be mad at him. The last three months--the last ten years--had been hell, and he should be forgiven for not picking up on one small detail of John's life.
But forgiveness was too much at the moment. John took a deep breath, tried to calm himself, then turned and stormed off to his bedroom. The childlike act only served to intensify the anger.
A new mattress lay on the room's built-in bed, glowing white in the moonlight. There were no sheets, but.... He collapsed onto the bed. He was too angry, suddenly just too tired. There was too much to think about, too much to figure out. He just needed sleep....
When he awoke he was in another room. The bed had changed, was bigger, with controls and tubes and wires encasing him and trailing away across the floor. Beyond the mechanisms of the bed, blurry without his glasses, were white walls and pastel curtains. A woman in a paper mask and blue scrubs approached him, materializing from beyond the blur.
“Colonel Udarian? Can you hear me? Brian?”
Fear coursed through his body, and John tried to pull away. He couldn't move. His body was reacting sluggishly, barely moving.
“Calm down, sir; it's okay.”
It wasn't okay. Why was he in hospital? Why couldn't he move?
“Hey, Brian, it's okay. Your wife will be here soon. It's okay....” She moved closer, adjusted something in the tangle of tubes.
John immediately felt calmer, felt something like contentedness flowing through his veins. The panic was gone; he was able to think clearly. He was in hospital. He was injured. He wasn't Brian Udarian, whoever that may be. The last thing he remembered was a pair of headlights, the sensation of flying, the upside-down road falling down at him—
A hand touched his shoulder and the hospital room collapsed into darkness. He could see faint moonlight outlining an arm, followed it up to the silhouette of his brother's face.
John clasped Reggie's hand. “Thanks for pulling me out.”
Reggie nodded. “I know you'd do the same.”