Hello and welcome. Name's Matt Williams. I'm a island boy, born in the big city but moved to the West Coast about six years back. I've been writing speculative fiction and sci-fi for almost fifteen years, and as of seven years ago, began to pen things that I considered worthy of sharing. My inspirations are wide and varied and can't possibly be contained within one page, my subjects of interest are history, humanity, science, society and the ties that bind us. I hope you will enjoy what I have to offer here...
The light dimmed the moment he stepped through the archway. A slender corridor, walls tiled in white. Some crates had been moved into this section, the crews clearly hoping to economize on space since the cave in. He looked ahead and spotted another archway, pitch black inside. A faint echo of breathing coming from within.
That had to be it. The room that held Kurzweil’s bunk.
The syringe felt warm in his hand, even slippery. He was sweating through his palms and it was making it harder to keep a tight grip on it. He could feel his heart beating heavily and his breath going short too. His tried to step into the hallway but his feet refused to move.
Why can’t he do this? he asked himself. Molya was far more skilled at these sort of things. At least he thought he was. Jacobs had certainly alleged as much. And the way he seemed armed every time he saw him. Shouldn’t he be the one slipping his superior a needle in the dark?
Several deep breaths were needed before he could take the first step. He could feel the sweat forming around his collar and collecting under his arms. The stifling air didn’t improve that much either. The cool breeze that seemed to move periodically through the tunnel didn’t extend to this section, it seemed.
And then there was the smell of the place, the rich musk and years worth of dust that rose to meet him. Once more, he had to wonder just how long these tunnels had been in disuse. When was the last time people had pored through them, used them to link back and forth across the megacity? Had it even been that back then, or was it still a mere collection of urban centers, linked by nothing more than the old highways?
Considerations for another time, he thought. As welcome as a distraction would be right now, he needed to focus. He was inching up on the doorway and could hear the sound of breathing much more clearly. Kurzweil was asleep, no doubt exhausted from days of panic and crisis. A lucky thing too, he hadn’t waited very long before heading in. Holden wanted to get it done as quickly as possible, before he had a chance to chicken out.
He reached the archway finally. The darkness within was beginning to resolve itself, growing slightly brighter to his eyes. He looked back the way he had come. It seemed so bright that way now, every body that wandered by looking like scarcely more than a mottled shadow. He hugged the wall. No telling how they might react if they saw him down this way. He doubted Molya had briefed them on the matter of this little coup. Yet another reason why Holden was doing this instead of him, he ventured.
Things resolved themselves a bit more when he stepped inside. Tiny little status lights glowed red, green and orange around him. Various non-networked electronic devices that there had been no room for elsewhere. He had never seen so many in one place, not outside an antiquities shop or museum. He paused for a moment and wondered if any of them might be a motion detector. Just how paranoid was this man, that he might think one of his own would try to sneak in in the night and kill him?
Nothing appeared to be reacting to his presence, no alarms, no change in the lights, nothing at all since he had stepped into the room. And by now, he could see the cot on the far wall. Underneath the shiny exterior of a thermal blanket, Kurzweil’s slender frame could be made out. And he was snoring now, loud and long. He was enjoying this little bout of shuteye. A good thing, since it was going to be extended by quite awhile.
He could feel a change come over him. He wasn’t terribly apprehensive anymore, afraid to move forward or back. Now it was just a matter of getting to the target undetected, the sensation of walking on broken glass as he slipped across the tile floor. The only he could think of, the only thing that mattered, was not getting caught. Everything else had moved to the back of his mind where it would stay until the job was done.
Just a few more steps… The sound of his snoring was practically deafening. This close to him, with the syringe shaking in his hand, he could think of nothing else. Just the sound of his breathing, and how he needed it to stay even. Last minute worries, he knew. Would the drug kill him accidentally? What if he administered too much? Had the dose been calculated for him? What if it wasn’t enough?
Focus, he told himself. He couldn’t stop now. Slowly, he knelt down to the floor. One knee flat, the one bent and placed smartly. He inched himself just a bit more in the direction of the cot. Arm’s reach of the blanket, enough room to extend the syringe and plunge it into the meaty part of his leg. That seemed like the safest bet
Okay, this is it. He was as ready as he was ever going to be. It was now or never. No turning back. He lifted the edge of the thermal blanket and pressed the syringe forward.
And paused. There was very little light to see by, but underneath the blanket, he saw the unmistakable sign of a sandbag. The crisscross contours of the bags fibers and the lettering on it giving it away. He removed the syringe, slowly raised the blanket an inch more. Another one like it below, and several above, simulating the shape of a man.
Something closes around his neck and squeezed hard. Holden instinctively reached back and lost a hold of the syringe. It clattered on the floor as he was pulled up, the grip tightening around his neck.
“I knew that son of a bitch was in Jacob’s pocket,” Kurzweil said into his right ear. “After I’m done with you, I’m gonna take care of him too.”
Holden tried to scream, but the only sound he could emit was a strained cough. He tried shifting to his left, towards where his hand connected to his bracing arm. Too quickly, Kurzweil pulled him around and refashioned the grip. He tried to draw breath but couldn’t, the grip had closed around his trachea and was cutting off all air.
Every second felt like an eternity, but it only took a few seconds before he could feel himself growing faint. His brain being denied blood flow and oxygen. Panic and the dull sensation of sleep began to fight for control. Quickly, the latter was winning out.
“That’s it, go to sleep, boy. It’ll all be over soon.”
Holden reached for Kurzweil’s arm one last time. His fingers tapped against it feebly and then fell to his side. His legs began to give too, putting him even more at the mercy of Kurzweil’s grip. The last bit of light faded away as his eyes drew shut. His knees gave out, and everything went black…
Somewhere in the distance, he heard a thunderclap.
He felt a hand pushing at his shoulder. He felt the harsh stab of pain in his throat. He rolled over and tried to clear it. Several painful convulsions followed. The hand pushed him again, urging him to roll further. All he could feel was the terrible ache and the sensation of cold coming through his hands. He managed one final roll and landed on his back.
More pain, and a sputtering cough. Several deep breaths followed as his body fought to refill his lungs as many times over as possible, like they feared they’d be denied air in the future. He opened his eyes and waited for the blackness to peel away.
“Holden? Holden?” a voice said from over him. He could hear it now, the ringing noise in his ears. He was having a hard time making out the voice thanks to that interference. He blinked several times and saw the dark shape above him. He recoiled and drew his hands up to him.
“It’s okay,” the voice said, terribly distant. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
He kept blinking, hoping it make the dark blob visible to him. He couldn’t see the features, but he recognized the profile well enough. Few other people he had met in the last few days were constantly in possession of a weapon.
“Molya?” he said, weakly. The image nodded. “What happened?” He put his hand to his ear again, could barely hear the sound of his own hand cupping against it. “Did the tunnel cave in?”
He heard a tinny noise, like laughter. Molya reached down to take a hold of him and hoisted him up. After a few painful movements, he set him down against a wall, his body landing in against a cot. Molya’s hands came near his face next, his fingers snapping in front of his eyes. He recoiled again.
“Good, you can see me,” he said. “Now I want to check your hearing, okay?”
Holden could only nod. He heard several ticks coming from his right ear. Molya’s hand moved in front of his face, then several dull ticks in his right. He wasn’t sure he was hearing anything at all, could have just been the sound of his heart, or something snapping inside him. At any moment, he felt like a million bones could break and he might crumple. His body exhausted from too many days of close shaves…
“Okay, looks like your left ear has suffered some damage. I’m sorry, he didn’t leave me much of a choice.”
“And you’re also in shock. It’s okay, it’ll pass. Do you remember where you are?”
Holden looked around, thought he didn’t really have to. “Yes… Kurzweil’s room.”
The tinny sound again. “Right. Do you remember what happened?”
That one Holden had a bit of difficulty with. There was a terrible interrupt, something black and painful he couldn’t reach. Everything before that was clearer, depending on how far back he went.
“He was sleeping… He wanted me to… go to sleep.”
“That’s right,” Molya replied, nodding. “He tried to put you under with the ol’ Sleeper Hold. Luckily, I got to you before he could snap your neck. Sorry about your ear, but he tried to use you as a shield. I had barely a second before I could get a shot off.”
Holden was about to disagree. He hadn’t said anything about a hold, what was he talking about? He remembered the syringe, and how Kurzweil wanted to give it to him. Or was he supposed to give it to Kurzweil? Somehow, the two things seemed interchangeable.
Then he noticed the others in the room. Two armed people pulling something from the floor. He saw where Molya was looking, caught sight of the face with the terrible look of shock burned into the eyes.
He recoiled again. Kurzweil’s face, a frozen expression in rictus. Below his left eye, a small hole with burgundy coming from it. On the floor beneath him, more of the same, but blacker in the dim light. He breathing accelerated and he felt the need to ball up. Molya reached out and put a hand on him.
“It’s okay, Holden. I’m sorry you had to see that. But you have to know, he was trying to kill you. It was you or him, and I chose him.”
Holden drew several deep breaths. “Why?”
“Lots of reasons. Because my superior wouldn’t have wanted it. Because he ordered to kill you, in effect. Because he was being a total prick.” He grinned, then turned deadly serious. “And because he wouldn’t have stopped at you. He wasn’t thinking clearly anymore, and that’s the only thing that’s going to keep us alive down here.”
Holden closed his eyes and shook his head. That’s not what he meant. He wanted to know why Kurzweil would want to kill him. What had he done? Why was it down to one of them? Molya didn’t seem to have that answer though. He quickly moved on with things.
“I’m giving you this,” he said, placing a new syringe to his arm. “It’ll stop the pain, help you gather your wits. You’ll need them, because as soon as you’re awake, we’re moving out.”
“No…” Holden breathed. Not another injection. Not another sleep. He was tired of sleeping. Tired of waking up. Tired of being forced to remember. He wanted it all to end, one way or the other.
Holden stood up from the cot and loomed over him. He straightened the blanket over him and smiled.
“It’s okay, William. When you wake up, this will all seem like a bad dream.”
Bad dream, he thought. He wasn’t afraid of bad dreams anymore. It was waking that he was afraid of. The bad dreams could have him…
Molya reached into the case and took hold of the hydromorphone. He raised it to the light and studied it for a moment, examining the dense liquid contained within. He had seen injections like this one so many times before, usually as he was on the receiving end of one. He never knew it to look threatening, not when it brought relief of the pain.
Touching the pad the rear, he watched a bead form at the tip. A small ray of light pierced the mass and began to drip slowly down the point. There was no shaking it, it simply did not look like an instrument of death.
“So… it’s death then?” Kurzweil whispered. Molya shook his head.
“Even if I gave him the thiopentothol, he wouldn’t survive here alone. Not with all the injuries he’s sustained.”
Kurzweil smiled. “Not without someone here to watch him.”
“And there’s no way you’ll peel off an asset to look after him.”
Another smile, and a shrug. With the loss of Jorka and with Jacobs in a coma, they both knew that leaving an agent behind to babysit a comatose body made about as much sense as bringing Holden along. The full weight of the realization hit Molya; he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or weep. Holden wasn’t being given the option of living at all…
“You do realize this is in cold blood,” he said.
“What’s the difference?” Kurzweil replied. “Killing is killing. All that matters is that it is necessary.”
Molya sighed, lowed the syringe. “Is it, or are we just upset at the loss of one of our own?”
“One? We’ve lost two, one dead and one put out of action. And all because of an asset whose value is questionable at best. We’ve already wasted untold resources keeping him alive and we haven’t even taken to the field yet.”
“That’s precisely where Jacobs felt he’d be of use to us. If we…” Molya groped around for the proper word. “…eliminate him as a going concern, before we even get out there, we might regret it.”
Kurzweil took a step closer to him. His eyes had gone from appearing distant and cold to hard and burning. Molya knew before he even said a word that the debate was over.
“I’m already regretting asking you to do this,” he said. “So let me be clear. This is an order. Do it now and be done with it. I’m sick and tired of babysitting this man, and I’m tired of losing valuable people. Now’s the time to cut the dead weight. Do it now.”
Molya scowled and placed the syringe back in the box. Kurzweil appeared ready to say something foul until Molya grabbed the service pistol from his other hand. His attention was now fully shifted to Molya’s left hand, where he needed it to be. After chambering a round, Molya turned his eyes to Holden, redirecting their exchange once more.
“Fine. But if I’m to do this, I won’t be insulting the both of us by pretending to be merciful.”
Kurzweil closed the med kit and put it aside. For the first time in days, he appeared pleased, or at the least less aggravated.
“Good man,” he said. “I knew I could count on you.”
Molya nodded. “Shall I take him away? Do it somewhere private?”
“That’s best,” Kurzweil nodded, his face suddenly looking haggard and sleepy. “I think the grunts have seen enough death for the time being. Use one of the service tunnels, and make sure the body stays out of sight.”
“Yes, sir. Shall I give him a few minutes before breaking the news?”
“No need. The sooner of the better. Besides, I’m sure he’s dreading the result of this conversation. Making him wait would seem… cruel.”
Molya would have smiled if the irony of that statement weren’t so blatantly cold. He was sure that in Kurzweil’s mind what they were doing was the merciful option. In a way, it was. But under the circumstances, small mercies seemed rather pointless. Did it really matter how he spent his last few moments when at the end of them, he would be getting a reinforced shard through his skull?
Kurzweil yawned just then. Molya could see the fatigue spreading through him. With the crisis of the past few days abating and the little matter of justice squared away, his mind was being bombarded by his body with demands for immediate rest. He was hoping for as much.
“Sir, why don’t you get some shuteye. You’ve been on your feet for days.”
Kurzweil looked at the so-called grunts who were still busy with their preparations.
“We can manage just fine, sir. We’ve only got a few more hours before we deploy. You’d be a lot more useful to us rested.”
Kurzweil sighed and nodded. “You’re right. I know I can trust you to keep an eye on things.”
Molya returned the nod. “Just as soon as I’m done with our guest, I’ll make sure everybody’s doing what they must.”
They took one last look at Holden together. The man appeared to have turned into a little ball in the corner. Between nursing his wound and being overcome with the prospect of death, he seemed like little more than a lump of flesh now. As useless as Kurzweil seemed to say he was. Whatever life Jacobs had breathed into him in the past few days had been effectively drained.
“Alright. Well, good luck to you.”
Kurzweil patted him on the shoulder and left, making his way to the barracks room where his bunk was stowed. Molya waited until he was out of the room and pocketed the pistol and the small item he had fetched when Kurzweil was distracted. Slowly, he walked towards Holden, hands in both pocket. When he came to Holden’s side, the lump of a man looked up and finally and met his eyes, just barely.
“I’m going to sit here for a few minutes,” he whispered. “Just keep listening to me and try to look freaked out.”
Holden frowned at him, his eyes buggy from an excess of adrenaline. Asking him to appear frightened seemed pretty redundant right now. Still, he was listening, which was enough.
“I don’t know what Jacobs sees in you. Frankly, I don’t care. He seemed to think you might be the difference between success and failure. And I was never one to question his judgement.”
Holden appeared to calming. Not good. Letting him know he might make it out of this was perhaps bad strategy. But even Kurzweil had wanted to avoid any unnecessary cruelty, so he continued.
“In a few minutes, I’m going to pretend to give you this,” he reached into his pocket and pulled out the syringe. “It’s a thiopentothol solution. After I, ah, give it to you, I need you to fall over and act like you’re sleeping more soundly than you’ve ever slept. Do you understand?”
Holden nodded anxiously. “Then what?”
Molya looked over his shoulder. “And then I hand you this syringe, you walk into the other room, sneak up on my sleeping boss, and give him the syringe for real.”
Holden seemed to process that and eventually breathed a sigh of relief. Molya slapped him across the face.
“Don’t you dare look happy you fool. As far you’re concerned, you’re about to go to sleep and you don’t know if you’ll even wake up. Because if you blow this, that’s precisely what’s going to happen.”
He produced the gun from his other pocket just to be sure he got the message. The sudden look of terror indicated as much.
“That’s better. Now… I’m giving you the drug. Just hold still now and when I tell you, start counting backward from ten.”
Molya took hold of Holden’s arm and pushed his sleeve up. He poked the syringe through the skin but didn’t press the tab. His eyes looked left and right just to make sure no one got too close.
“Okay, start now.”
He withdrew the needle point, and Holden obliged and started counting.
“Ten… nine…” Molya slapped his arm lightly.
“To yourself, fool.”
Holden nodded. Eight… seven… six…
Molya stood up slowly and peered down at him until he reached the end.
…three…two…one. That’s when Holden slumped back and closed his eyes. He let his arms go limps and let his mouth fall open. It wasn’t hard to perpetrate a coma. All he had to do was let his fatigue and the relief of knowing he was going to live wash over him. The rest took care of itself.
“Good…” Molya whispered. “Now hang on to that until I come and wake you.”
Holden could heard his footsteps as he walked away. In time, he couldn’t distinguish them from the din in the background. Lying there, completely inert, he began to feel like real sleep might actually overtake him. But he tried his best to stay awake. If he woke up before Molya returned, his cover would be blown.
Ironic, he thought. Staying awake so he could feign the deepest sleep. How little sense the world made anymore!
It was a pattern William was becoming too familiar with. The ebbing darkness, the slow entrance of light. The pain and horror of waking into a world that had become worse than his nightmares, though the line between them was becoming increasingly blurred. This time, when he opened his eyes, the only difference was his surroundings. That and the general tension that had filled the air since he last woke from a long sleep.
Slowly, his eyes resolves to take in what was around him, his memory doing its best to catch up. But things had become so episodic of late, it was hard to know what constituted a waking memory and fragments of a bad dream. He seemed to remember hearing about someone dying, and the face, and the eye… which was real?
His surroundings certainly seemed real, even if they were altogether new to him. The long tube had been replaced what appeared to be an enclosed room. Broken and dirtied tiles decorated the floor, and the walls seemed to be designed in the same pattern, though most of the tiles appeared to be missing.
Adjacent rooms appeared to be connected through stone archways, but he was not able to see what went on in those. Mainly, he just heard the din coming from all sides. People bustling back and forth, orders being shouted and large crates and boxy equipment being moved in a hurry.
The only other feature he could see was a tunnel that appeared to descend into another area. But unlike the open archways, this one was all but filled by debris. The step also appeared darkened with a maroon puddle.
Oh God, he thought. Panic began to rise in him and his heart began to pound rapidly. Something else was coming back to him now. The memory was broken up, episodes of blackness permeated by quick, sharp flashes of something terrible. He could feel an explosive force shoving him, draining his lungs of air. His lungs drained again, and his breathing grew frantic as he tried to fill them.
“Hey, he’s up!”
Someone yelled this off to his right. He looked in the direction of the noise and saw Kurzweil standing there, his expression as dour as ever. Somehow, it seemed reassuring though, the fact that he could recall seeing that expression before. Anything revealed to be accurate at this point was confirmation that he was still alive, and sane. His breathing began to slow and the aching in his chest faded. Within seconds, whatever it was that had stricken him seemed to fade like all the other inaccessible moments he had experienced. He was grateful for that much…
More words passed between Kurzweil and the man standing next to him. They leaned in close and seemed to be whispering conspiratorially. Whatever it was, Kurzweil did not appear to be too happy, and William was suspecting that he was the source of that displeasure. They pulled apart after a moment and William was able to catch the last statement with some clarity.
“Get Molya over here, with his kit.”
The other man nodded and took off out of sight. Setting his sights on William again, Kurzweil walked over and kneeled down beside him.
“How are you feeling?”
William was about to answer in the positive, but realized he hadn’t taken stock of his own situation yet. A strange thing, but he had become instantly concerned with his surroundings upon waking, that and the horrible feeling that had overtaken him. He looked around to make sure he still had all his limbs, to his stomach where his previous injuries had been. Everything seemed in order, even the aching pains in his stomach appeared to be better than before. He still felt uncomfortable getting to his feet, but that didn’t seem like too much of a concern right now.
“I’m fine… I think.”
“Good,” Kurzweil said firmly. “Because I need you up and working, otherwise you might find yourself on the business end of my boot.”
“I’m… sorry?” William said.
“You should be. I’ve already lost two people because of you. And since one of them happened to be your biggest fan, that doesn’t exactly bode well for you now, does it?”
William frowned and scanned the room again. Panic was beginning to creep up on him again, but not because of Kurzweil’s implied threat. Something about what he had just said was bringing that terrible something into focus. He could remember something being said… somewhere… someone dying. His heart lept into his throat when he realized who he must have meant
“Dear God… not…”
“Jacobs?” he asked pointedly. “Lucky for you, he’s just in a coma. Still, him being down is somewhat of an immeasurable loss for me right now. No, I’m afraid this crew lost its chief medic, the same one who saved your ass in the first place. Did you even learn her name?”
William searched his memory. The broken mosaic wasn’t exactly yielding much in the way of answers, especially under such scrutiny. But remembering the one woman he had seen since they brought him here wasn’t that difficult. He was sure he could even come up with a name, provided he concentrated.
“Jorka?” he said, searchingly.
“That’s right. She was the one who stabilized you long enough for us to drag your ass in here. We were shorthanded with all the wounded coming in so Jacobs had to take special care of you. Still, had she not performed that initial checkup, you’d be dead right now. Bet it doesn’t sit too well with you, knowing her death’s on you.”
More panic. William couldn’t focus under the weight of his accusations and the terrible recollections filling him. His words turned into a stuttered idioglossia.
“I – I – what – I don’t – ”
“Yes, I know you don’t remember. But rest assured, had Jacobs not insisted on going back for you, she’d still be alive. And he’d be up and running too. Like I said, that makes two people that I’m out of because of you.”
“I didn’t –”
“Yeah, I know,” Kurzweil interrupted. “You didn’t ask to be saved, did you? Not the first time and certainly not the second time. But like it or not, keeping you alive is becoming a full time burden that I can no longer afford. Which leaves me with a tough choice…”
William’s eyes went bald. Suddenly he was aware of the gun Kurzweil was holding. It was smaller than the one Jacobs had shown him down below, but no less threatening now. Things didn’t get any better when Kurzweil drew himself up, the gun rising to be at the same level as William’s head. William took a deep breath and closed his eyes. If this was going to be it, he would face it with what little dignity he had left.
And he waited… and waited some more…
“Boss?” he heard another man say. He opened one eye and saw Molya standing behind Kurzweil, a medical kit in hand and a blank look on his face.
“Boss? You called for me?”
“Yes,” Kurzweil said. “Let’s talk a moment…”
William watched their backs as the two men stepped away from him and went into the adjacent room, leaving him to ponder some rather pointed questions.
Foremost amongst them was, what the hell just happened? More importantly, will I even live to see tomorrow? And most important of all, do I want to? He could only assume the men were contemplating similar questions in the next room…
“What are you talking about, sir? I thought we needed him.”
“Andrew was of that opinion, but Andrew is in a coma and won’t be getting up anytime soon. That, and the fact that we lost Miranda, coupled with all the time and resources that have been used keeping this guy alive, makes me think he’s no longer worth it.”
Molya rolled his eyes. Before, he had been relieved to know that Jacobs was alive, albeit in an induced coma. Now he sorry the man was unconscious at all. Dealing with this sort of thing seemed beyond him, even if he was now the second in command.
“Do we have to make this choice now? We leave in less than twenty-four hours.”
“And because of him, we’re leaving short a medic and my second in command. And since he’s still not in the right shape to travel, I can’t see why we should waste more food and medical supplies to keep him here.”
“Boss, you don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Sure I am.” He opened up the med kit and presented it to Molya. “I’m asking you to make a choice, since you’re an unbiased party in all this. You can give him the hydromorphone, enough to make sure he never wakes up. You can give him the thiopentothol and put him under until we get back.”
He slammed the case shut, put it down by his side, and raised his other hand to offer up his service gun. “Or you can be merciful and conservative and just put one between his eyes. You’re call. I’m asking you to make it.”
Molya took a deep breath, tried to marshal his thoughts. What was being asked of him seemed far too severe, regardless of the circumstances. He eyed the options before him again. Which one could he honestly say he approved of most?
His hands worked in tandem now, one over the other, over the other. His feet shuffled sideways, his right hip having seized up and making it nearly impossible to walk in a straight line anymore. He kept his head craned to the left, keeping the green light in his line of sight. His steps were interminably short, but he could see them getting closer. Rattling around in his field of vision, the green lights formed wild streaks.
Though it was hard to tell, the lights appeared to be growing dimmer. He felt his chest getting heavy too, his breathing getting labored and his heart pounding in his ears. All outside noise faded as this alone consumed his attention.
“Oh no.” He slowed his pace and put a hand to his stomach. He could feel a terribly sick feeling there, biting pain and a slew of warmth that felt unnatural. There was even a lump beginning to form there as well, one that was very sensitive to the touch.
His cauterized wounds were opening inside of him. Unless he got to help soon, he would bleed out in a few minutes. The knowledge brought his feet to a complete stop. His hip hit the wall and he could feel himself sliding down the floor a second later. Despite the warm surge in his stomach, he was beginning to feel very cold.
His eyes settled on the green glow again, what would have been his salvation. A tired, broken laugh escaped his lips. How could they have left him behind? Was that Simon’s life somehow more important than his? He should have guessed as much. Simon was intrinsic to their plans to reboot the system. He was just being kept on as an outside advisor.
That made him laugh too. How strange was it that he had chanced upon them entirely by accident? And how comical was it that he had lost them now? How could he not laugh at such circumstances? In reality, he had lost nothing by being left behind. If anything, he was right back to where he was, dying alone in the cold, cold night.
And the green lights continued to dance. Waves and waves of energy streaking across his darkening field of view…
* * *
And then, there were fields of data flowing. Blue numbers against the cold black background. The last vestiges of the worldwide network being breathed back to life. The green light grew too, extending its tentacles to the grids of numbers and multiplying them further. Holden watched and felt something he hadn’t in some time. The blackout that had followed the Crash seemed to be in the process of reversing, and he was bearing witness to the whole thing.
Was he witnessing the salvation of the entire system, or was this just some cruel, taunting vision? How could this be happening now? He had no way of knowing.
And just like that, the piercing lights blinked out. At all corners of his vision, things began to grow warm and bright again. He could feel it spreading through him. After days of night, the sun was rising once again. He could see fields of green spreading out before him, landscapes dotted with trees, entire fields of tall grainy, stocks.
“Oh… not again.” A quick look around confirmed his worst fears. He was flanked by buildings, wooden panels painted in red. Grey cement lining the foundation of the walls. He was back on the farm, just outside of where he had witnessed the terrible bloodbath.
He set his small boots into the muddy, hay strewn earth at his feet. He could feel the presence of others, specters of men moving about doing things unseen.
“Son,” a benevolent voice said from beside him. He recognized it and grew afraid. “You mustn’t dottle out here. You’re needed elsewhere.”
He breathed heavily and felt words that were not quite his own leave his lips.
The man knelt down next to him, his hand over Holden’s shoulder. He pointed off in the distance, to a far point in the field. Holden followed the line of his finger to see where he was indicating. But in the strange, glowing light, all he could see was a swaying field of sameness. Golden-brown, and not much else.
“I don’t see anything…”
“There,” he father said with emphasis. He strained harder to see what he was pointing to. There, amidst the tall grasses, moving like a snake in the grass… He could see it, but mainly because of the absence it was creating around it. Wherever it passed, the stalks fell apart and became an emptiness in an otherwise full field. And just as quickly, the absences disappeared, sealing shut behind the intruder that caused it.
“What is it?”
There was no answer. His father’s hand tightened on his shoulder and he felt the other take him by the bicep. He was spun around a second later, the face staring into him not his father’s or any he recognized. It was barely even human.
It’s right eye was entirely synthetic, the gold scrawling on the inside indicating the company name. He recognized it… The jawline was fixed in a way that looked entirely artificial, the metal insets at the side indicating that it was surely loaded with implants. He barely had enough time to take it all in and grow afraid when it began to speak to him.
“You know…” it said, the voice crackling and synthetic. “Only you can find them.”
“Them?” he asked, looking back to the field. All he saw was the one disturbance, no others. But the stranger insisted.
“They are out there, William. Only you can find them. You have to stop them.”
He felt the words insinuate themselves into his mind. He could feel the truth of it, the knowledge that whatever was out there was dangerous and well hidden. He couldn’t see how he could stop it, whatever it was, or why he would want to try. But he knew the man meant what he said.
Something else came into his mind just then. Three people, their faces appearing in his mind and stirring up curious feelings. Marta, Jana, and Robert. He knew these people, could feel that they knew him too. Where were they? Why was he thinking of them now? Did he need to find them too? Did he need to find them first? Was that what he was thinking?
“Do not let that distract you,” the stranger said, as if sensing his thoughts. “You cannot help them now. You must focus your thoughts on finding them and ending them.”
A wave of cold struck him. He looked the stranger directly in his one human eye. “What do you mean?” Something about what he’d just been told made him angry, he couldn’t be sure why. “What did you mean by that?”
“You need to move, William. You need to keep moving.”
“What did you mean?!”
* * *
“William! William, wake up!”
Holden’s eyes snapped open. Green light flooded in, and something terrible that was growing around him.
He looked up at the source of the noise, the direction of the hand that was shoving his shoulder. Jacobs was looking down at him, something terrible burning in his eyes. Green glinted off of gold there, something terribly familiar about that.
“What… what’s happening?”
Jacobs didn’t reply. Reaching out with his left arm, he grabbed him beneath the elbow and yanked hard. Holden felt himself being thrown to his feet.
“C’mon! We need to get out of here!”
Holden fell onto Jacobs shoulder and began shuffling his feet forward. Their momentum was entirely due to Jacobs, he simply did his best not to stumble and fall flat. Holden could scarcely believe it. They seemed to be gliding over the ground with terrible ease. Were he awake enough to appreciate the situation, he might suspect that Jacobs had some physical enhancements he wasn’t aware of.
“C’mon, William! We’re almost there!”
He could sense where they were moving. The path he had been tracing seemed to be only partly correct. Proceeding perpendicularly from the green lights, they headed into the dark, a hole darker than the rest opening up before them.
“Steps!” Jacobs yelled. He realized what he meant a second later when his feet began to kick the stoops of the mounting stairs. He pulled them up as quickly as he could, but the effort was causing him pain and slowing them down.
“Were almost there,” Jacobs said.
“Yes, you can, William. Just a little bit further.”
It took all he had left, but he managed to get his feet up and over the stoops a few more times. All the pain, all the added strain Jacobs was feeling having to push them along. But in time, he was rewarded when the last step came and no others seemed to follow. Holden was hoisted over this last one just as the noise behind grew into a crescendo. He felt Jacobs arms break free of him, as if he had been tossed. His legs fell out from under him and he felt cold stone come up to reach his face a second later. His stomach wailed at him. He had landed hard.
“Jacobs…” he moaned. He rolled to his side. A strange, grainy texture seemed to moving against his skin. Many hands descended to meet him.
“Jacobs!” he repeated louder. The hands seemed to be repositioning him, and when he looked back to where he had come from, he saw that the stairs had caved in. Dust and debris had been thrown everywhere behind him. His heart sunk when he realized the last of it. It wasn’t Jacobs who had hurled him forward, it had been the cave in itself. Lying at the mouth of the stairs, Jacobs body was strewn out and bleeding. Whatever had thrown him free had taken him full on in the back.
“Oh God, no…”
“Take er easy,” a new voice said. “You’ve been through hell just now but you’ll be fine.”
“He better damn well be, after Jay went back for him.”
“Shut up, we already lost one!”
Holden eyes drifted shut, the last words barely registering. In his state and with all that had happened in the last few minutes – or could it have been hours? – not much making sense to him. What had just happened? What had he seen before Jacobs pulled him out? All he knew was that someone had died, and strangely, he might at last be joining them soon…
Jacobs moved away from the door. Molya poured through it with that same fluid motion that Jacobs himself had shown so many times before. They took positions over Simon, one at his head and one at his feet.
“What’s going on?!” Holden repeated.
“William,” Jacobs said, reaching down to grab a hold of Simon’s stretcher handles. “We need to move, and we need to move now.” He hoisted up with a grunt. “You might want to make yourself scarce too.”
Holden grabbed his side. The aching had been coming back thanks to all the exertion and all this talk was making him nervous. He anticipated that whatever was going on would involve something… uncomfortable.
“Why?” he asked. “What’s happening?”
Simon was now hoisted between them. Jacobs looked in Holden’s direction and motioned with his head. Holden cleared away from the door obligingly. Simon’s head bounced as they moved him, the black boxes they had thrown in around him bashing against his limbs.
“Just trust me when I tell you to follow us. I’ll explain as soon as we’re topside.”
“Topside?” Holden’s face went cold. He hadn’t been up there since… He wasn’t sure his body would oblige him. “Why… why do we need to go up there? What’s wrong?”
They had already cleared the room. Molya and Jacobs both grunted from the effort of keeping Simon’s body and equipment secure on the stretcher. He wasn’t sure, but he suspected he heard Simon making noise as well.
“Follow us, William, don’t fall behind!”
The words echoed from the hall. Holden looked back into the room, the vastly empty room, and wondered if he shouldn’t just stay behind. What could be threatening them that they had to get out? A flood? A bomb? He didn’t see how that was possible. But then again, he still wasn’t one-hundred percent sure where they were. Old tunnels, abandoned tunnels. Who knew how these networks were laid out? And in the time he was contemplating all this, they were rapidly getting ahead of him. In the darkness of the tunnel, how hard would it be to get lost behind them?
“Holden!” he heard echoing from down the tunnel. They sounded pretty far now. He took a deep breath and pushed himself through.
The green light was the only thing to see by, but he still couldn’t see Jacobs or Molya anymore. All he heard was the sound, the grunting and groaning of men trying to be careful as they moved fast. Putting one hand to the wall, he pushed ahead and tried to keep up. They weren’t moving that fast, but he doubted if he could really keep up. His side was giving him all kinds of resistance.
And still he pushed. The cold tiled wall was making a chill run through him. He could feel precious body heat being sucked away through the contact of his palm to the unforgiving ceramic. He could see a small pile of green lights up ahead, what he hoped was a marker of some kind. The tunnel was barely visible anymore, but at least he had these things and the wall to go by, knowing that he would not stray over the edge and fall on the old tracks. Any accidents like that would be sure to split his insides open and send him back into a world of pain.
And speaking of pain, his side had reached a crescendo now. The mere effort of moving his right leg forward in tune with his left was becoming an agonizing burden. His own grunts seemed to be drowning out those of Jacobs and the other two. He couldn’t remember the last one he could hear over his own.
And then it hit him. He couldn’t hear them anymore! He paused as the knowledge flooded him with a new and terrible chill. He waited and held his breath, hoping that his own silence might bring them back.
Nothing. Nothing but the pounding of his heart in his ears. He moaned weakly, wishing he could still that too long enough to hear better. But it didn’t matter. If he couldn’t hear them now, he was too far behind to hear them at all. They had lost him!
“Jacobs!” he yelled. “Molya! Simon!” He could hear the helplessness in his own voice. The pathetic feebleness. He had lost his way, and whatever was coming was sure to get him now. And all because he was too weak, too wounded and too cowardly to keep up. He felt his knees beginning to buckle and the cold floor beckoning him. The pain was working away at his midsection too, making crumbling up into a ball seem very appealing.
But the green lights, what looked like the end of the tunnel. Those had to mean something. They weren’t just to provide illumination, they were absolutely useless in that. The ones he had spied down the other way, they had been placed to mark doors, hadn’t they? It seemed rational right now, but that could be nothing more than a farfetched hope. He desperately wanted to lie down, to rest, to fall into a deep sleep. But he could die here too. What could be done against all that?
Holden’s eyes came to rest on the face. He was sure he could see some movement there. The slightest twitching in the cheeks, the lips trembling now and then. It was almost as if he were dreaming. His skin looked terribly pale too. He imagined it felt cold and clammy to the touch.
From his other side, Jacobs kneeled down and smiled.
“What’s the matter, William? Haven’t you ever met a novus before?”
Holden retracted his hand. His eyes widened, surprise and understanding filling them at once.
“You mean… he’s –”
“That’s right,” Jacobs interrupted. “He’s a fully functioning post-human. What people in the business referred to as a Nexus. The living entity that monitors the bahn for a specific area.” He raised a finger. “Unofficially, of course.”
Holden uttered a noise akin to a laugh and shook his head in his disbelief.
“I’d heard, but I never thought they might actually exist. I mean, the controversy alone over adapting a human being to do this work…”
“Well, given the sheer volume of data that goes around the world in a day, it was either this, or a fully-functioning AI.” He looked at Holden coolly. “We both know what Congress said about that.”
Holden swallowed his misgivings and touched Simon’s face. The young man twitched, sending Holden back, but then settled down. Whatever dreams he was having, or visions the goggles were feeding him, were clearly keeping him calm.
“Is he even aware of where he is?”
Jacobs nodded. “Relatively. Ever since the bahn went down, he’s been in a state of shock. We’ve had to bring him down slow, feeding him bits of information when we thought he could stand it. He’s been apprised of just about everything now, but we still need to discuss what we plan to do about it.”
He looked up at Holden, who was still in awe of the young man. He smiled.
“I think you’d agree, letting him know the full extent of the damage right away would have been shattering.”
“Yes, of course,” Holden replied, oblivious to what Jacobs was implying. Were he able to truly pay attention to Simon and him at once, he would have realized he was referring to the way he had broken the truth to him too quickly. And he might have realized that he and this… Nexus had something in common. Alas, all he could think of right now was the fact that he was actually looking at one.
A real Nexus, he thought. The pinnacle of man-machine interface. At least, that was how the old promotional vids had put it, years back when the concept was being pitched to him and everyone else in the development world. And how close had they come? The technology was there, but as far as he knew, the whole thing had been buried before anyone could attempt some genuine trials.
“Either this or an AI,” Jacobs had said. He knew exactly what that meant too. Ever since the passage of the Minsky Laws, which forbade the development of artificial intelligences, those who were closest to making the breakthroughs had had to come up with something else. For years, rumors abounded what they had switched over to. Some said they were working on creating a living construct program, others that they were trying to perfect MMI.
Oh Jesus, he thought, full realization striking him at once. The project hadn’t been buried at all, it had just gone underground! With AI’s banned and the government dragging its heels on human trials for MMI, the developers must have been growing desperate, thinking their research would be next on the chopping block. And that’s probably when ATF or whoever the hell had made Simon had come for them. They offered them a way to complete their trials, to produce a real life living man-machine. How shrewd. He admired that. It’s exactly what he would have done had he been in their position.
“Bet this is a bit of a wakeup for you, isn’t it… seeing something like this up close?”
Holden looked up at him. There it was again, that ever-so-slightly harsh tone. He could ignore it no longer.
“What is that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“It means that individuals like yourself rarely to get to see all of the outcomes of your work. If you knew where it all went, you might think twice before constantly trying to move the outer edge. But I guess you got an eyeful of that these last few days.”
Holden felt something well up inside of him. Something he hadn’t felt in days. He couldn’t keep the edge out of his voice.
“Are you saying I’m to blame for what’s happened?”
Jacobs shrugged. “Was Einstein to blame for the atomic bomb? Was Alfred Nobel to blame for bombs or modern artillery?”
Holden’s face went hot. He could stare at him and wait. Eventually, he shrugged again.
“All in how you look at it, I guess. Just saying, I doubt they would have been in such a hurry to push the envelope if they’d known what came of it.”
“You mean what others did with it…” Holden countered. Jacobs smiled coolly.
“Like I said, all in how you look at it.”
Jacobs broke their stare first and looked back down to Simon. Though he was nowhere near placated by any of his answers, and almost sure he was putting some responsibility for the Crash at his feet, he looked back at him too. He looked so strangely peaceful, so distant too. Almost like he was completely unaware of what was going on around him.
“What are you feeding him?”
Jacobs looked at him quizzically. Holden indicated the goggles.
“I mean, what kind of info are you feeding him? How do you keep him docile and entertained now that’s he’s unjacked?”
“Ah, yes! That…” He reached gently for a small black box above his head, the one located next to his monitor. He lifted it a mere inch, careful not to disturb the electrodes that connected it to the goggles.
“What the guys in the industry call ‘White Noise’, endless series’ of digital information fed by through his VL set. For him, I imagine it’s like watching some TV show over and over again. But since he can’t be without the endless stimulation of bits and bytes going back and forth at the speed of light, it’s enough for now.”
Holden went inert for a few seconds, at least as far as all outward indications were concerned. His mind needed a moment to process one last realization. He forgot Jacobs and Simon for the space of those few heartbeats.
He means to start up the bahn again, he concluded. He needs a Nexus to go about rebooting the entire system, otherwise it will just crash again. Yes, that seemed to make sense. Anyone not specifically adapted to handle the overflow of information would surely be helpless. It was simply beyond the abilities of a regular human human mind and a conventional interface. And then there’s the matter of the virus. Whoever interfaces with the bahn again will have to be able to neutralize it, assuming it’s still out there.
But that would mean his circuits were insulated or adapted against all known forms of cyberwarfare. Again, made sense.
But… there’s only one place… at least in the NAFTAS…
“Oh….” He said, the last of it dribbling out of his mouth. “We’re going to Virginia, aren’t we?”
He saw a smile spread across Jacobs’ face. It was the smile of a proud teacher or father. Clearly, his conclusion was right on the money.
“Is this why I’m coming?” he said next.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… is this my chance to atone? Or do you just want me along because of technical expertise?”
Jacobs’ smile faded. Once more, he seemed to get it in one. Or at least close enough to the mark to give Jacobs some pause. He cleared his throat, making his reply as gentle as possible.
“I need your expertise, yes,” he started. “Anything else… well, that’s between you and you alone.”
Holden flared. “You’re not answering me. I want to know just what the hell you blame me for!”
Jacobs looked a little miffed himself now. His looked about ready to jump to his feet when a knock came at their door. Jacobs looked up issued a stern command.
The door creaked open. Holden began the slow and painful process of trying to turn around to see who was walking in on them. He got around just in time to see the face of Molya, his face looking graver than before.
“What is it?” Jacobs asked.
“Problem sir,” he replied, his tone grave too. “You’re needed up top.”
Jacobs jumped to his feet and quickly crossed the room. Again, Holden was impressed with the speed at which he did it. His feet seemed to have built in springs that made his movements very quick and gazelle-like. One second he was crouching several meters away, the next he was at the door and next to Molya’s face, whispering in harsh tones.
“What’s going on?” Holden asked after a decent interval. Jacobs turned to look at him, his ire gone and a new look of deep concern painted on.
“Holden… we do indeed have a problem…”
“One condition,” he said. “I don’t want to be killing anyone. If I help, it’s strictly as a civilian. Is that alright with you?”
Jacobs frowned. “You’re telling me you’ve never had occasion to fire a weapon in your life?”
“Just the once,” he replied with a grimace. “And it’s not something I want to repeat.”
“So I’ve gathered. But you can’t tell me you don’t want to see the people who did this to your fair city destroyed.”
“Maybe,” he admitted. “But not by me. You guys look like the professionals. At base, I’m just an engineer.”
“A bloody rich engineer.”
Holden waved flippantly. “Take away the money, all you’ve got is a technical specialist. That’s the way I want to go if I’m going to help you.”
Jacobs smiled and lowered the weapon, cocking the weapon and removing the magazine from the top. He slaps the respective parts down next to him and then reached behind him. In a quick blurr, he produced a sidearm that was about as big as the one Holden was carrying earlier. Though this one looked like an old military model, far less grisly than the one he’d been shooting off.
“Fine by me. But once we’re out there, you will carry this on your person at all times. I’ll also want you suited up in body armor. No one on our team is going out there without protection.”
Holden looked around the confines of the room. “Body armor?”
Jacobs smiled. “I don’t imagine your industries were involved in the development of much weapons were you?”
Holden shrugged. The myriad relationship between contractors and official holdings was a bit complex, and development of new technologies tended to trickle to just about every area of the market.
“No matter. I’m sure you’ll love it. In the meantime, take this.”
He put the gun in Holden’s hand, placed his other on top. It was lighter than the automag was, a lot sleeker too. He turned it sideways to get a better look at its assembly. It was almost square when he took into account the components in front of the trigger. The handle felt molded to fit his grip, almost like it was an extension of his own hand. All in all, it was quite pleasant feeling.
“Get a feel for it. When feel up to it, you might want to get in a little target practice.”
“I’d prefer not to have to use it.”
“Of course,” Jacobs said, standing up. “But in case you did, wouldn’t it be better to know you could hit what you’re aiming at?”
Holden chuckled and nodded.
“Good. Hang onto to it for now. Don’t worry, its unloaded so you can keep it close by without it going off in your pants.”
Holden chuckled. “Am I to sleep with it?”
“Do as you like. So long as it doesn’t keep you awake.”
He knew what that meant. Time to go back to his corner and sleep some more. Time to rest, heal, and summon the wherewithal to do what was being asked of him. Maybe when he awoke, there’d be even more in the way of answers. As difficult as they were to absorb, they were far better than the frightful possibilities his mind kept coming up with…
* * *
“How you feeling?”
Holden ran a hand over his face, trying to rub the feeling of numbness and disorientation away. He had slept well enough, or so it seemed. But looking into the plate of K rations, sitting by a newly kindled fire, he had to admit that he felt less than spectacular. The pain was diminished at least, that much he was grateful for.
“Well?” Jacobs repeated.
“If feels like I have wads of cotton where my brain should be.”
Jacobs nodded. “That’d be the Hydromorphone. Great at helping you sleep, terrible waking up from. Did you dream?”
Holden wasn’t sure. About all he could remember from the previous night was some cloak and dagger deals and lots and lots of guns. What happened after he curled back up on his sleeping bag and slipped off was a big black hole. He shook his head.
“Ah well, you must have slept good. Molya says you snore.”
That made him frown. He didn’t like the idea of someone watching him while he slept. But from what he remembered of Molya, he was sure he wasn’t too crazy about it either. Perhaps he ought to be grateful that someone was keeping him safe, at least.
Over the fire, the metallic can began to whistle again. Jacobs quickly snagged it off it’s tripod and poured from it into his cup.
“No thank you. One cup’s enough.”
“Suit yourself.” He turned to woman next to him and filled her cup instead. Holden had been noting the way she had been looking at him all breakfast, but hadn’t said a word. He was sure she looked familiar somehow, but couldn’t place it.
Finishing with his tray, he placed it neatly at his feet and eyed the bottom of his empty cup. A small black circle of detritus had formed there. He had been told that the strange liquid they had served him was coffee, but something in him still protested at this definition. Where he came from, it wasn’t black as tar and so overpowering. But again, he was glad for it.
Small mercies. Waking up alive, safe, and not having to worry where his next sustenance was going to come from. The thought of it made him feel suddenly guilty as he stared at that black ring. Guilty for ever suspecting these people of meaning him harm, guilty for ever finding fault in what they gave him, and guilty that he was enjoying such comforts while others died alone in the cold night…
“Shall we get to it, then?”
He looked up with a start. Holden was standing now. His stray and cup sat beside the fire in a small pile.
“Get to what?” Holden asked.
Jacobs smiled and looked at the woman seated next to him. She looked away like she was either uninterested or had no desire to get dragged into things.
“How quickly we forget. There are still introductions that need to be made.”
Holden searched his memory but came up empty. Again, the previous evening was somewhat of a blur to him. Reaching out to him, he provided some ballast while Holden got to his feet.
“Just follow my lead, things will become clear when we get there.”
Holden scoffed. “You’re quite the fan of cryptic explanations, aren’t you?”
After several grunts and a moment to steady himself, he was on his feet, and both men began the slow, assisted process of heading down towards the other end of the platform.
They had walked several meters before Holden felt the need to make conversation. The going was slow, and thus even a small distance felt like it took interminably long. Luckily, he still had plenty of questions and began with the most obvious.
“Where exactly are we?”
“An old maintenance tunnel,” Jacobs replied casually. “At least that was its purpose before Exigencies took it over. On the map’s, it’s the same as it ever was, but no transit employee has been here for years.”
“What about that train?”
Jacobs shook his head. “Hasn’t levitated since we arrived. Had to keep it here to justify keeping the tunnel in operation though. Unused tunnels have a way of drawing the attention of penny-pinching bureaucrats.”
“Ah,” Holden said, not entirely satisfied. “But where are we in relation to…”
He began waving vaguely upwards.
“Where we found you?” Jacobs asked. Holden nodded. “I’d say we’re about under Atkinson and Bletchley right now.” He stopped for a moment and looked up at the ceiling. He waited for a moment, listening and breathing in the stillness. “Yes, if this were the old days, the number 199 would be screaming by right about now. Mag trains make little noise but the air currents they stir up in these tunnels sound like a sonic boom.”
“You sound like you speak from experience.”
“Of course. I spent a few weeks down here many years ago. Part of our training consisted of finding our way through our more… challenging safe houses.”
Of course, he thought. How else would he be able to find his way in the dark? Jacobs started to move again, prompting Holden to follow. It was quite a while before he would ask anything else.
“How many people do you have here?”
Jacobs made a thoughtful noise. “You mean people like me? Agents? Or all told?”
Holden stammered out a few syllables before he could reply. “All told, I guess.”
“About twenty, I think. The civvies stay topside for the most part. They provide cover for our activities down here. To anyone passing by, their just another bunch taking shelter in a hovel. In exchange, we made sure they get the protection they need. As long as one of us is up there, making a show of strength, no one tries to take it from us.”
Holden’s thoughts drifted to the men who had attacked him, how his gun went with them after he had fallen. A disturbing possibility became apparent just then.
“Aren’t you worried there are armed thugs out there that might try to come by? If they see people up there, someone protecting them, they might assume that there’s something worth taking here.”
Jacobs shrugged. “Of course. But until we’re ready to move, there’s not much we can do but sit tight and keep watch.”
Holden accepted that. What else could they do? Given all that had happened, and the absence of any real help coming to them, what else could people do but hunker down and see to their own? When all else failed, all that really seemed to matter was where your next meal was coming from, and whether or not anyone was trying to take it from you. He was beginning to understand that now.
Holden looked up quickly. The light was failing them, but at this end, he and his men had dropped a series of what they called glow sticks every few meters that provided enough illumination. He could just make a door to their right and it seemed Jacobs was looking in its direction. Jacobs began to inch towards the wall again.
“It’s alright,” Holden said. “I can stand.”
“Yeah, I think so.” Holden let go of Jacobs shoulder. The other slowly moved away and reached for the door. He turned around. Holden caught a sight of his pupils, glowing eerily in the green chemical light. He nodded in Holden’s direction.
“You ready to meet the last member of the team?”
Holden nodded back. The door slid open. A meager amount of illumination trickled in from the platform, but ended mere inches beyond the front step. Another blacked-out room. Holden sighed.
Jacobs stepped in and began to disappear into the blackness. “Come on. Step in, light will be on in just a second.”
Holden took a deep breath and limped through the door. The doorway shut as soon as he was through. He spun around as quick as he could but could see nothing. Was it automated, or had Jacobs snuck behind him without him noticing?
“What’s going on?”
The lights came on as soon as the words left his mouth. Jacobs was now standing on the opposite side of the room, another wall mounted switch next to him.
“How did you do that?”
“Not the thing to be focusing on, right now,” he said flippantly. “Look down.”
Holden did as he was told and looked down to a small assembly on the floor.
It was a stretcher. Battery packs and what looked like fluid-filled pods surrounded it. And in the middle, hooked up to each of these boxes, was a man… if he could really be called that.
The entire backside of his skull looked to have been replaced by titanium plates. Numerous outlets were mounted in these and he recognized the configuration. They were optic outlets, the kinds meant to accommodate terabyte connections. He had others along his body, but these appeared to be medicinal connections, which made sense since they were the ones connected to the fluid tanks.
He looked next to the man’s face. His cheeks were sunken and his lips looked paper thin. His hair was also the color of graphite, ashen and grey. But it was what he had around his eyes that drew the most attention. They were covered with what looked like a set of display goggles. His arms, such thin and wiry things, were crossed in front of his chest. At the top of the stretcher, a small display tab beeped gently, his heart rate and breathing represented by dancing lines.
Holden approached carefully, worried that any serious vibrations might harm him. Even in his current state, he felt like a giant when confronted with this… individual. Carefully, he lowered himself to one knee and eyed him closer. The enhancements were familiar enough, but not in this kind of configuration.
“What is this?” he asked.
“This…” Jacobs said with dramatic emphasis, “is Simon. I’m sure he’s glad to meet you.”
They walked maybe forty paces, all of it in the dark. Holden stayed close to Jacobs, fearing he might fall off something if he weren’t careful. Their steps produced vast echoes, metal clanking against metal. Many times he wanted to ask where they were heading, but staying upright consumed all of his attention. How was Jacobs finding his way without any illumination?
They turned finally and Jacobs deposited him against a sidewall.
“Stand here,” he said.
“Where are you going?”
“Bringing some light to this conversation.”
He waited. Jacobs made no sound as he wandered off somewhere. Once again, he seemed to be slipping into the night and finding his way without trouble. He only heard something the instant the lights came on.
All at once, the walls became visible. Cinder blocks and thick grey paint, some old conduits and piping running up the walls and across the ceiling. But the real interest was what had been stacked against them. Endless crates, drag green, one on top of the other. Yellow painted letters denoted the contents, telltale alpha numeric which told a grim picture.
“What is this place?”
“The armory,” said Jacobs, standing near the gear box that sat against one wall. “It’s where we came after all this happened, after all the power went down and we had to improvise.”
Jacobs nodded, stepped away from the wall to one of the open crates. He undid the latch and popped it open, revealing a set of small canisters and oblong devices. They sported the same color and lettering as the case, tiny versions of the larger print.
“It’s kind of our thing, preparing for the unlikely and making sure something’s done once it happens.”
Holden looked around at the lights and shook his head. Nothing about this seemed believable right now, not after everything he’d seen up above. They were fluorescent units, the tubes that hummed down at him. He recognized the design from childhood. Those required power, and every public utility in the area had already gone down.
“Where did you get the power?”
Jacobs pulled one of the oblong devices out of the case. The print on the side said MK 85 Frag. “Beg your pardon?”
“The wattage,” Holden said, taking a seat on the nearest case and waving above him. “You must have emergency generators somewhere down here. Where did you get them?”
Jacobs smiled. “All you see here and you focus on the lights? Aren’t you going to ask me where the weapons came from.”
It was Holden’s turn to smile. “Weapons are easy. Even I know that and it’s not even my business. You shop in the right parts of the world, they’ll provide you with enough weapons to outfit a small army for the price of a groundcar. But electrical generators, that takes real clout.”
Jacobs nodded approvingly. “Your quite right about that, but wrong about the rest. Private cells feed this room, running underground. Installed long before the grids were all networked. Real analogue. We have places like it stashed all over the world. Power, supplies…” he put the grenade back in the case and closed it. “And weapons. Everything we might need.”
“For this, Mr. Holden. For the eventuality of the end of the world, as we know it.”
He took several steps closer to Holden, his hands poised at his sides. Holden felt suddenly nervous to be around him. He feared what his explanation for all this might be.
“You’re… some kind of agents, aren’t you?”
“Some kind, yes,” he said calmly. “Officially, we’re part of the ATF. Or at least… we used to be.”
Holden had to search his memory for familiar acronyms. For obvious reasons, his mind was running a little slower than usual.
“Anti-terrorism.” he concluded. “Isn’t that part of Interpol?”
“Close, UNSC,” he said, throwing out a more familiar acronym. “As you may know, ATF is divided into five groups, each one more clandestine and classified than the last. ATF5 was known as Contingencies, for obvious reasons. Their job was to prepare for a wide range of security and defense possibilities. Our group,” he pointed to himself, “was classified ATF6. We were known as Exigencies. Our job was to prepare for when Contingencies failed.”
Holden hung his head and nodded. He was a bit relieved. Part of him suspected these men might be terrorists themselves, or just people who had designs on becoming the biggest force on the block. Somehow, they always seemed to pop up wherever things went bad, men with guns who began making all the rules. He was also relieved that he could understand what was going on here at last.
“So you boys showed up here when things went bad then?”
“No. We were here before it happened. Where Contingencies goes, we generally go as well. They came here tracking the suspected terrorists who did this. We followed and got in place, since there was a high probability that Contingencies wouldn’t catch them in time.”
Holden looked up at him again. “This… could have been stopped?”
“This time, perhaps. But it was judged that sooner or later, someone would get through. The global networks present a very tempting target, Mr. Holden. And there’s no shortage of people who think it would fun to take a run at them.”
Holden shook his head again. “Who?”
Jacobs looked off and shrugged. “Anarchists, terrorists, regressionists… Apocalytpics.”
He said this last word with particular emphasis and was looking back at him when he did. Holden had never heard that name before, not as a proper noun at any rate.
“What do they want?”
“To end the world, plain and simple. Not surprising really. Some people have been counting on the world ending ever since it began. They spend their entire lives waiting for the signs and hoping that judgment will soon come.” He stood back up, began to walk back to the crates again. “Others… others try to move things along by making the signs happen themselves. They don’t feel like waiting for the end of the world to come, so they make sure it comes to them.”
“Some people don’t like to wait, Mr. Holden. Some people can’t stand to think that things won’t happen in their time. You can relate, I’m sure.”
Holden frowned. If he could stand up again, he might like to look Jacobs in the eye. He couldn’t help but feel like he was being accused of something. But there were more important things to discuss at the moment. He was within an inch of having all his questions answered, he couldn’t get distracted now.
“So… what are you going to do?”
“You mean what are we going to do now that the Crash happened?”
Holden was tired of sitting and stretched to peer over the crates that separated them now. He caught sight of the back of Jacobs head. He had opened another, he could tell, and was busy sorting through the contents. A fresh cigarette was hanging from his lips, small clouds of smoke rising above his head.
“Its quite simple, really. We’re going to do our jobs.” He produced an archaic looking weapon from the case, held it up beside his head and cocked it. “We’re going to find the men responsible, and kill them.”
Holden licked his lips, eyes focused on the weapon. Another old automatic, something from the pre-Jump era. For a moment, he had forgotten what Jacobs said. Recalling it meant understanding the implication behind it…
“So… you know who they are.”
Jacobs hummed affirmatively. “Contingencies knew for years before they made their move. It was how they were able to track them to China, why we followed them there and camped out in the countryside for months. Unfortunately, they do the things the old fashioned way, these men. Very analogue. And very well connected. We were just about to close in on their last known whereabouts when our latest intel put them here, in the north-east.”
Holden couldn’t stand any longer and was forced to sit back down on the crate. This coincided with Jacobs approaching footsteps. Slowly, methodically, he rounded the obstruction with the gun held high, the cigarette burning between his lips. Holden might have been afraid if the display weren’t so damn impressive.
“And then what?” he asked.
Jacobs removed the smoke from his lips with his left hand. “That’s where you would come in.”
Jacobs flicked the smoke and hummed again. “Like I said before, men like you helped build the global network, made it what it was. You alone oversaw the most of the developments that made the world a wireless nexus.”
Holden laughed. “You read the business pages.”
“Not so much, but you don’t have to to understand your legacy, Holden. You pushed very hard to make sure things would happen as you and others wanted them to.”
There it was again, that undertone of accusation. Someday, he would have to ask him about that.
“So you want me to rebuild the world once you’re done saving it, is that it?”
“You and one other.”
“Other? What other?”
Jacobs smiled and dropped the spent cigarette on the floor, crushing it with the tip of his boot. “First, I need to know where you stand, Mr. William Holden. If you agree to help us, it will mean leaving the relative safety of this place. It’ll mean arming yourself, most likely. And in the end, you might be called upon to do some things other people would consider… unpleasant.”
Holden looked downward again. He knew what that meant.
“I might have to kill somebody.”
“If pressed, yes,” Jacobs nodded. “Might be someone trying to kill you, might be one of the terrorists themselves. That’s something that needs to be worked out ahead of time.” Jacobs knelt now, holding the weapon between both his hands. He looked ready to present it, to Holden of all people. He went on:
“Since we specialized in dealing with the unknown, we insist that anyone who deals with us know everything they need to in advance. In return, we need to know that if the kill shot presents itself, and we can’t take it for whatever reason, that you will. We need to know that you will be willing to pull the trigger.”
He pulled the gun away a fraction of an inch. “If the answer’s no, then say so now. No one will think any less of you? But if it’s yes, then for your help, I promise that I’ll make every resource we have available to help you find your family. When this is all over?”
Holden felt a new wave of strength take him over. Breath filled his lungs and he felt a fire in his belly.
“When would we leave?”
“Not yet, not until you’re recovered. Plus there’s the matter of the other guy. He needs some prep time too.”
He moved the weapon in Holden’s direction again, presenting it will all the pomp and ceremony he could muster.
“So, Mr. William Holden. What will it be?”
Holden eyed the gun. His hands began to tremble.
They stood there for a second, him and Kurzweil. Both men seemed to be waiting for the other to talk, or something else to break the silence. It was the kind of strained stillness where they were both thinking the same thing. They knew what needed to be said, but neither particularly wanted to.
In time, Kurzweil stood up. He gave one last look to Holden, then Jacobs. He snorted, then turned to leave. In those few gestures, the two of them had experienced an entire conversation.
Okay, been given a clock, Jacobs thought. By the time he returned, Kurzweil expected him to have an answer, one way or another. If their guest wasn’t going to keep, then the same rules applied as before. They would have to move on, just the four of them…
Jacobs checked the various pockets on his vest. He found what he was looking for over his right breast and pulled it free. He still had some from their trip to the East, the label said Zhong Nan Hai. He took the one that stood out between his lips and pulled it clear. A quick search of his other pockets located the torch. He popped it on and lit the Hai’s end.
He took several puffs to steady his nerves. He was reminded momentarily of the time they had all been in that commune outside of Lagos, chasing down the suspected members of the Krakh Nachala cell. That was the last time he had been given a clock, asked to get answers from an unwilling suspect. He remembered how well that one had gone as well. After hours of “questioning”, both chose to take the easy way out and had bit down on their dentants. Within seconds, their bodies became saturated with incendus and turned into piles of unidentifiable ash.
That outcome was one he would like not to repeat ever again. But the mistake there was clear. He had taken the pressure he was under and transferred it to his subject. Though he suspected Holden wasn’t carrying any dentums or other suicide implants, the basic outcome would be same. Push too hard, too fast, and the subject would break and be useless.
Walking over to Holden, he placed the smoldering Hais between his lips and sat down beside him. Prying it loose to take another puff, he held the pack in front of Holden face and offered him one. A sob was all Holden could manage for a reply.
“Don’t smoke huh? Yeah, not too long ago, it’d cost you an arm and a leg in fines just to light up one of these.” He looked up at the roof and waved his hand around vaguely. “Guessing enforcement isn’t much of a concern now though, is it? Hell, the only law left up there is ‘don’t get killed’. Everything else is… pretty pointless.”
Holden sputtered but didn’t reply. He couldn’t tell if he was getting through to him just yet. Their last interaction had buried him under several layers of distress. Finding his way through them was going to be tough. Perhaps a little moderation of his earlier, direct approach was in order.
“I think I owe you an apology,” he said. “It was my hope to be honest with you. To let you know what was really going on. I never meant to deprive you of hope. Whatever else you planned to do up there, finding your wife and family is a noble goal.”
Holden sniffled, but he was sure he detected some trace of movement from his yes. He looked closer…
“I’m also sorry if I put you on your guard. Truth is, we also know who you really are, William Holden.” That got a reaction, a slight cock of the head as Holden stiffened. “Don’t worry, we’re not planning on hurting you, sir. We wanted to know who you were because… we need your help. And if you help us, maybe we can help you.”
A few more sniffles, then a muffled word. “How?”
Jacobs took another long haul of the cigarette and tossed it. The small flame disappeared, tiny embers breaking loose as it tumbled across the platform and into the dark.
“Well, even if we can’t expect any help from our old friends in the middle of town, there have still got to be emergency services operating in other districts. New York, Jersey, DC, Boston… Where did you say she was last?”
Holden sniffled and answered promptly. “Albany.”
Jacobs nodded. Not quite on their route, but odds were good the chaos was more confined up that way. It would take several days travelling by foot. One look at the dead train down the length of the tunnel was all the confirmation he needed to know that the mag tubes were officially out of operation.
“That’s a bit of good luck there, sir. Once this is over, we can head up that way, reconnoiter and look for them. Given its size, it’ll be harder for people to get lost in that district. Hell, there might even be some kind of services going on up there.”
“You think so?” said Holden hopefully. Jacobs nodded ambivalently.
“No guarantees, but odds of emergency personnel getting mobbed drop substantially once you step outside of these here areas. I can remember back in the days of my defense training, everyone always said how volatile these places would be in the event of an attack, so many people crammed so close together.”
He looked over at Holden, saw him starting at him now. The look in his eyes was reassuring, like some measure of hope was growing there. He was glad for that, and for the fact that he didn’t have to lie to give it to him. Like he said, no guarantees, but the odds were better. It was all anyone could count on at this point.
The expression quickly changed to one of confusion. “Who are you, anyway?”
Jacobs smiled. Yes, he hadn’t exactly been sparing on all the hints. First there was the medkit he’d used to patch him up, then he had managed to let that bit about his training slip. Since they already knew his identity and were asking for his help, perhaps it was time he divulge the small matter of who they were.
“Before we get into that, I need to know… can you help us, William? A man in your position was on intimate terms with the world as we knew it. Pretty soon, that technical expertise is going to come in pretty handy if we want to rebuild. You might say we were pretty fortunate to have found you. In the first place we were just planning on punishing the people who did this.” He waved upwards again, once more indicating the crashed lands that lay above. All the rubble, all the dead machinery and lost people…
“But when we found you, we realized the stakes had gotten that much higher. In a way, you helped us to see to tomorrow, what needed to be done once we’d settled up with those responsible.”
Holden looked to be processing all that, but eventually gave up and shook his head. Yes, he was still dealing with some rather heavy emotions, and all of Jacobs cryptic words were probably not helping.
“Who… what… what are you –”
Jacobs chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. “Maybe I should just show you. You probably wouldn’t believe me otherwise. You feel up for a short walk?”
Jacobs was already on his feet and extending his hand. Holden looked down at his stomach and shook his head.
“I know, it’s against doc’s orders, but I promise it’ll be worth it. Plus we can’t really move him right now. He’d never forgive us.”
Holden frowned again. It would be a pain, for sure. But he had demanded answers. A little walk seemed like a small sacrifice to pay for a clear answer instead of all the mysterious hints this strange man was offering.
“Fine,” he said, taking Jacobs hand and pulling.
“Easy there,” Jacobs replied, moving in closer and using his other hand to pull him up. The entire process was agonizing and Holden didn’t feel too steady once he was up, but Jacobs was there to lend a stable shoulder. Step by step, they began making their way down the opposite end of the corridor, away from the exit and the only source lights, into the dark…
“First off, you should know that things aren’t quite the way they looked when you first stepped out. Truth is, they’re worse…”
Holden held his breath and waited.
“The city center was supposed to act as a rallying point, emergency generators, supplies, medicine – a rallying point for police and emergency services to gather, hand out food and water and make sure people didn’t turn on each other. Every major city has got one, or at least that was the idea back when the authorities planned it… way back when.”
Holden felt the anxiety growing in him. He began to rock back and forth impatiently.
“A few days back, that was exactly what happened there. Police units and medical personnel were there, doing what they could. But when they realized things were way worse than what they’d prepared for…”
He stopped. His voice seemed to catch in his throat. Holden suspected they now shared the same dry lump, the one that was making it impossibly hard to speak the truth.
Swallowing hard, Holden completed his thought for him.
“There’s no one there is there?”
Jacobs sighed. “I’m afraid not. We were in a spot to watch the place a few days ago. Some personnel showed up, they realized they were alone and no one else was coming, and they left. They couldn’t get transmissions to their bases, no orders or supplies from anyone. The mobs quickly closed in, and they were forced to run.”
Holden released his pent up breath. His eyes grew damp at the corners.
“They left what they had, some old gas-powered generators, fuel cans for cooking. Those who showed up got into it with other people who wanted these things. They fought, things got ugly, and some pretty big fires erupted. The flames burnt themselves out a day or two ago, or so we heard. Now, there’s nothing left there but embers and burnt out husks of buildings.”
Holden nodded and swallowed a terribly dry lump. He felt totally deflated, as if someone had hit him in the chest with an impact hammer. Strange that there could be anything worse than the feeling of impending death, but he had found it. He had thought he’d known what losing all hope felt like, but apparently he hadn’t. Not before tonight. It was one thing to think he would die before he could find Marta and the kids. But knowing instead that there was no way he could reach them…
Jacobs stood. “I’ll give you a minute. I thought you should know the truth.”
Holden sucked air and felt his eyes grow warmer. He wanted to yell expletives. He wanted to tell Jacobs to go to hell for telling him. He wanted to stand up and tear someone’s head off. But he could barely catch his breath now. Every inhalation was forced, coming back out in a series of low gaps punctuated by flowing tears.
All he could think about was Marta, Jana and Robert, trapped somewhere. It was all he could do not to think that they were already dead. With everything going to hell and no way to defend themselves, how were they to prevent the worst from happening? They had only tried to kill him, but if the crazies got a hold of his family. They would surely kill Robert, but keep Marta and Jana alive to…
He couldn’t think of that. They had to be alive. Somehow, somewhere, they had to be held up, with some measure of supplies to keep them going. They had to! He began rocking back and forth, telling himself this over and over.
“They’re alive… They’re alive… They’re alive…”
“Will somebody shut him up?” It was the man carrying the carbine saying this. He gave the weapon a light shake and slapped the muzzle, like a warning. Holden stopped talking but kept on rocking back and forth. His side was beginning to ache from the expenditure and he could feel the bandages bunching up tight, but he barely noticed. Only the thought of Marta and the kids being somewhere safe concerned him now.
Jacobs saw what he was doing and ran back to his side. Placing one hand on his shoulder and the other on his thigh, he tried to gently lay him flat again.
“Easy there, fella. You’re not out of the woods yet.”
Holden tried to resist, but the pain grew too great and he had to submit.
“You’re still dealing with some serious internal scarring. You push yourself, you might open something up and bleed internally. We’re already short on plasma and I don’t want to have to go back in.”
“I have to find them! I have to find them!”
“Right. But, you can’t expect to find them if you’re dead now, can you? Lie back.”
Holden groaned and slowly obliged. His tears began to fade, the deflated feeling giving way to something worse. His body trembled with it, with the cold ache of bitter hate. He would make them pay, he thought. The scumbags who had did this to him, the bastards who threatened his wife and children. Even the men who claimed to be helping him now. Anyone and everyone who stood in his way. They would all suffer for this!
* * *
Slowly, Jacobs hobbled back over to the fire. His companions looked just the slightest bit annoyed with him, and for good reason. They were losing precious time, time which could be spent tracking down the targets. Instead, he was using it to break the news to their guest, which was only compounded by the fact that he would then need time to digest it.
He looked down at Kurzweil, whose eyes were now the same color and intensity as the flames. He tried reaching to him first, see if he could buy them some more.
“Just a little while longer, and we’ve got him.”
Kurzweil sighed. His reply was long in coming, which worried Jacobs.
“Once he realizes there’s no making it on his own, we’re sure to have his assistance.”
“And if he checks out instead, then what?”
It was Molya asking this, the gun poised in his hands irritably. Standing there inert didn’t seem to be agreeing with him. He seemed much more interested in using it on somebody. Anybody.
“He’ll pull through. Worse comes to worse, we can promise to return the favor.”
“That’s not what we’re here for,” Kurzweil said, quiet but emphatically. “Besides, I’d say he’s taking it pretty badly, wouldn’t you?”
Jacobs looked over at Holden, who was still sobbing on the floor. No, he was handling this in a less than heroic fashion. Perhaps he’d been too hasty in opening with what seemed like a perfectly honest gesture. Years of turning suspects had ingrained that in him, the knowledge that an opening dose of truth would pay big dividends in time. Of course it sufficed when dealing with the quasi-fanatical and criminally-minded, those who committed to a path and had doubts about where it would take them. But no provisions were ever made in their training for doomsday scenarios though.
“Just give him a little longer. I’ll get his cooperation.”
“You’re sure of that?”
Jacobs nodded to Kurzweil, looked back to Molya. “Why don’t you go check the perimeter, make sure it’s secure.”
Molya snorted, but obliged. Raising the carbine, he slowly set his boots to walking across the cold platform and headed for the stairs up to street level.
“One other thing,” whispered Kurzweil. “You need to broach the little matter of his identity… his true identity.”
“I know,” Jacobs replied.
Instinctively, his finger went to his eyelid. As he pulled the lower half down, the logo around his retina twinkled in the reflected light of the fire. Once in a while, the unit itched, doubly so whenever anything reminded him of its existence. That was the way it was with foreign objects though. No amount of time or advancement in the field could convince the body that they belonged there, as an extension of one’s natural being.
Kurzweil went back to staring into the embers, ending their conversation and leaving him alone to do what he had to. He looked back over at Holden.
A few more minutes, he gauged. Give him a few more minutes to wallow in hopeless self-pity, then offer him a choice. Already, he had made a mess of the man’s mind. Who was to say how he would react next? He could continue with the straightforward approach, setting him up with some hard realities and trusting him to make the right choice.
On the other hand, a helpful lie might be more in tune with what they needed. Once he let him know that they knew about him, and more importantly, what he could do for them. He was flying blind now; bound to a moment in which only what was expedient seemed to matter anymore. Such was life, it seemed, ever since it all went down…