by Kaushik Ghose
He decided that the panic he felt was left over from a nightmare. His eyes were open and his heart was racing. It was very cold. Blue and red lights were flashing on the ceiling, filtering through the blinds. He sat up in bed and craned his head to look through the slit that passed for a window in his over-priced studio. The slit overlooked a dark alley between the apartment building and a vacant warehouse. There were two cop cars jammed into the alley below, facing each other. The front doors were open, blocking the alley, and nobody seemed to be inside. The clock said 3:00am in large blue digits. Chad hated waking up at that odd hour.
It would take at least another hour to fall asleep, if at all, and then almost immediately, it would be time to get up. He turned on his side and closed his eyes. He knew how this was going to play out: he would lie there, on his side, still, with eyes closed, fast awake for an hour. Chad got up in frustration, put on his glasses, sipped a little water and pulled out his laptop. No internet. He fiddled about. His router was down. He flipped the switch to the bedside lamp. The power was out. He slipped the computer back into its case and turned round and looked out the window again.
The cop cars were still there, strobing the alley. There was a shotgun lying on one of the front seats. The panic flooded back and swept his mind into a torrent of conclusions. With a firm certainty he knew what this was. He had seen it on television before, except now he was probably ON television. The police had cordoned off the block. Either there was some emergency like a gas explosion, or there was a "situation", like where a guy with a gun was loose in the block and they were trying to contain him. Chad's mouth went dry and his pulse raced. Maybe the killer was in the apartment.
A small part of his mind struggled rationally against the tide of emotion. It seemed a bit drastic to assume a crazed killer was loose in the apartment. But the wave of emotion continued to course through him. His mind began to plan escape. He was on the fourth floor. There was netting on the window, which he could probably rip out, but the fall down on to the alley did not appeal. On the plus side there was a shotgun. Not that he would know small details like how to unlock it, how to hold it and how to fire it.
Chad rolled out of bed and grabbed clothes from the closet. A quick scan of the studio in the flickering illumination of the strobes showed that that the main door was intact. The gunman could have come in and shut the door, but the latch and the lock would be broken. Things seemed to be as he had left them before turning in for the night. He went out into the dining space, pulling on his clothes, and grabbed his wallet, keys and cell phone from the table. No reception. He rummaged in the kitchen drawer for a flashlight before cautiously opening the front door.
The hallway was lit harshly by the emergency lights. His neighbor's door was open. Chad's mind raced ahead again. The gunman must be in there. Chad wanted to sneak into the stairwell and make a dash for it, but his conscience told him that he should check on Mr. Lee. He snuck up to the door and peered in. He could see through to the large window on the other side. It was smudged with a layer of soot, but Chad could see glimpses through it. The city was on fire. A flickering yellow glow rose above the city line, casting buildings in silhouette. Chad began to consider that his problem was probably not a gunman.
Chad glanced over the studio. Mr. Lee had simply vanished. The bed was unmade, but everything else was in order. The door hadn't been forced. It was also cold. The power had been out for a while. He went back out into the hallway and took a survey of the other apartments on the floor. They were all unlocked and their situation was eerily identical, each pointing to a hasty and very complete exit. In the middle of his survey Chad began to feel faint, his vision blurred and he sat down on the floor. There was an increasingly loud ringing in his ears.
Chad started. He was back in his studio, sitting on his bed. He felt very hungry. He decided the excitement, and the subsequent denouement, on an empty stomach, had made him pass out for a moment. He grabbed a bowl of cereal and some milk from the refrigerator and ate a little. His panic had subsided and his mind had come to a more even keel. He considered his situation. The fire was still far away. There was no indication of imminent danger. It was very odd that everyone had been evacuated and he had been missed. It was not so odd that he had slept through it all: he was a sound sleeper, except for the waking up in the middle of the night. But the fact that he hadn't run into another living thing so far began to nag him.
Then there was the question of the fire itself. From what he could see through the sooty window, the whole city was ablaze. That, and the fact that all his neighbors had vanished in the thick of the night, pointed to something a little more momentous than a gas explosion that had taken out a block or two. High on Chad's list was some kind of terrorist attack. Perhaps even a dirty bomb, which would account for the evacuations. Chad felt his panic making a slow come back. He decided action was remedy. He would check the apartments on the other floors and then venture outside for a quick reconnoiter of the neighborhood.
Chad grabbed a rucksack from the closet and filled it with some food. He went to fill a water bottle at the tap and found that there was no running water. He had no bottled water himself, but he remembered a crate of sparkling water in the kitchen next door. He took some spare batteries for the flashlight and stepped out of the apartment. He debated whether to lock the door and in the end, decided not to. It would be the only apartment with its door closed and that would make it stand out.
On the way down the corridor to the stairwell Chad popped in and swiped a brace of bottled waters from the kitchen next door. He didn't think they would mind. He paused for a second to watch the mesmerizing glow of the city through Mr. Lee’s window before starting for the stairwell door.
As Chad pointed his flashlight at the door, he saw, in the circle of light, the door handle start to turn. Chad's hair stood on end. This would be the first person he had seen since waking up. And Chad fervently hoped this was a person. Chad's mind was running away again and this time it was conjuring up a zombie holocaust. For a second, Chad paused to consider this new found propensity of his mind to create details and scenarios. He found it odd. All his life he had been a very collected person. It was this steadiness and reliability that had gotten him his job at the agency, his security clearance, and the trust of his boss at the weapons division.
The door swung open and a flashlight blinded him. Zombies rarely used flashlights. Chad raised his hand to block the beam and peered into the darkness of the door. The person pointed the light away. In the reflected glow Chad saw that it was Dr. Esser.
"Healy!" She exclaimed. There was a hint of relief in her voice. "I'm glad I found you! The moment we discovered you weren't evacuated with the rest we began looking for you."
"Why is the city burning? What happened?"
"It was an attack."
"Who did it? How did they hit the whole city?"
"You're not going to believe this, but it's probably extraterrestrial."
That had not been on his list.
"We better go back to your apartment. I'll try and tell you what's going on." Dr. Esser let the stairwell door swing shut and herded Chad back into his apartment.
"It's not clear...", she began, then stopped and looked across to Lee’s apartment. "It would be better to close the blinds" she muttered, and pulled on the cords to shut out the flickering glow. She came back and sat on the sofa. "It started late last night. NORAD detected several targets entering near-Earth space. The targets entered Earth orbit and then dropped bombs over every population center we know of. The bombs were remarkably crude, basically fuel-air bombs, but very efficient in reducing our population. The aliens are still in orbit. They've also completed destruction of our satellites."
"How do you know all this?"
"We were briefed. Dr. Healy, most of our conventional forces are wiped out, as is most of the population. Only our hardened forces, underground and located in remote areas, are intact. The political leadership is dead, as best as we know. There is a General Forrest from NORAD who's currently in charge. He's set up shop at a bunker under Arlington station. His troops are combing the city for survivors. He's especially interested in defense contractors. He's heard rumors of an Earth-to-Orbit particle beam weapon we have in development and he wants to use that against the aliens. That's how he found me."
Chad was about to open his mouth, but then the training kicked in. He noticed that Dr. Esser was watching him very carefully as she spoke. Chad had been about to say that it was actually a laser. A fission powered laser. It was messy, noisy and broke often. And there was the radioactive waste. But the agency had fried a satellite in geosynchronous orbit with it. The story the brass told the funding agencies was that they had a new quick response earth-to-space missile that could be launched from submarines. Not many people knew it was a laser. Chad wasn't very good at this part of the game. He liked tinkering with the optical systems, but he didn't like the cloak and dagger stuff. Chad tried hard to remember what he knew about Dr. Esser.
"Particle weapon?" Chad asked. He was sure his stalling was obvious but he needed to collect his thoughts. This exact situation -- alien invasion, followed by interrogation by a party without clearance -- was probably covered in the manual, in great, nauseating detail, with an exact play by play of what to say, and what to do and how to do it with objects found in the average kitchen, except who reads that thing?
"Yes, Forrest thinks it is vital that we get hold of the weapon and use it to strike against the aliens. I was hoping you knew something about this device. You work on the weapons team, don't you?" Dr. Esser was watching his eyes very carefully as she said this.
Chad didn't know Dr. Esser very well. She was part of the radar team. For some reason her clearance hadn't checked out, and she did semi-classified work related to target acquisition. Things that were reasonably public, related to NORAD's suite of radars tracking near-Earth objects. Dr. Esser was definitely not someone who was supposed to know about work on a nuclear powered laser and who could be talked to about it.
"I'm sorry but I really don't know what you are talking about."
Dr. Esser suddenly got up and went across to Lee's apartment. She parted the blinds to peer out. Then she returned to the studio. Chad noticed that she left the blinds a little open, so he could see glimpses of the fire outside.
"Look, I know you aren't supposed to talk to me about the project, but look around you Dr. Healy! The world is ending. Those rules don't make any sense. We need that weapon."
"Take me to Forrest then."
Dr. Esser's expression changed, but it was unreadable. Was it relief? Did it harden?
"It's dangerous out there. I'm ... expendable ... but we can't risk you. We're sure they are scanning the surface for signs of life. There haven't been any bombings for five hours now, but we think they are targeting people when they find them. We think they have flocks of drones patrolling the bombed out cities. If you give me the information, I can take it to Forrest. It's safer for you to hide out here -- it's a fair distance from the city: They are unlikely to come looking this far out."
"What information are you looking for, anyway?"
"Anything about the weapon you can give us. Where is it located? How big is it? How to operate it? What's its range? What can it take out? If you have access to the plans, that would give us a chance to build more of them and try and fight the aliens. Anything, Chad! Anything!"
"Say this weapon existed, what makes you think you can operate it, let alone build one? Who do you have there that has expertise in this kind of thing?"
"I don't know Chad, I'm just a foot soldier! I'm sure Forrest has a plan. At this stage we have to try everything and anything! Chad, we're wasting time."
"You need to take me to Forrest."
Dr. Esser shook her head. She gripped his arm. She was strong. "Chad! It's impossible. I just barely made it here, in the dark. We're forbidden to use flashlights for fear we will draw attention to ourselves and where we are going. If you go out, or we go out together we are very likely to be found. It is better I return alone."
"If they have inter-stellar travel and if they are after our planet, they probably have infra-red cameras. Not using your flashlight probably didn't make a difference to your detectability. You should actually have used your flashlight. It would have improved your odds by making your trip faster." This kind of social blundering came naturally to Chad. This time, he said it with a bit of relish. Dr. Esser gave another one of her inscrutable looks. For a moment, her grip got tighter, and Chad got the impression she was going to hurl him out the window.
"Look, suppose I have the information you need. How are you going to remember what I tell you? If I write it down in a note book for you, what if you ... don't make it back? How will Forrest know? How will I know? If this information is so vital, wouldn't it be better that I went with it to Forrest?"
Dr. Esser looked at Chad, and then looked out the window. Chad looked at the flicker of the city too. He stared for a while. There was something odd about the flickering of the fires behind the city line. Something oddly repetitive, like one of those looping animated gifs people used to put up on the Internet, back in the day.
A strange fragment of gossip floated up into Chad's mind, breaking into his reverie about the burning city. Office gossip was that Dr. Esser's security clearance had been denied because her husband was Chinese. At that time, Chad didn't know who Dr. Esser was, but he remembered being mildly outraged when he heard about it, thinking that was horribly racist of the government. But then, it was only a rumor and who knew how much truth there was to that. Government contractors love to gossip, especially when being paid by the hour.
Another thought percolated up into his consciousness. "Doesn't the army have field radio? Didn't they give you one? The units must be talking to each other. Surely you have a way of getting a message to Forrest!"
Dr. Esser looked at him with what looked to be resignation. "Yes, they gave me a radio. But I can't use it unless it is extremely vital. We're afraid that they'll trace the signals and attack the head quarters."
"Doesn't finding me constitute a vital reason? Shouldn't you tell Forrest you found me?"
"Is it so vital? Dr. Healy? You say you don't know anything about the weapon. How do I know you're the one we are looking for? What if we're risking revealing Arlington base for nothing?"
Chad started to reply, when he began to feel dizzy again. He grabbed the side of the bed to steady himself. Dr. Esser got up and grabbed a bottle of water from Chad's rucksack. "It might be the hypoxia you must have slept through when the bombs dropped. A lot of the survivors are having fainting spells. Drink this".
Chad opened the bottle and began to sip from it. “How did you know I had ...” he began, but then stopped, his thoughts drifting off. He looked across the corridor, to Dr. Lee's sooty window. He stared at the curious, repetitive dance of the city flames. He started to make a comment about the looping dance of the flames when fatigue overwhelmed him. He leaned back on the bed and closed his eyes.
When Chad opened his eyes next, his clock told him it was 6:00am in large blue digits. His neighbors were talking. He strained a little to hear them. The conversation was a little bizarre. One of them said, "The oxytocin cocktail is making him unstable." The other one said, "That's a risk we'll have to take. He needs to keep it together for a little while longer." He decided it was time to find a new lease. He did sensitive work, and the spooks in the back office would freak out if they found out his neighbors did drugs.
Wait, they weren't talking about Oxycodone; they distinctly said Oxytocin. Oxytocin was the trust hormone that led to bonding between mother and child, and between mates. It had been in the press lately because a group had been able to influence human behavior by spritzing the stuff into people's nostrils. It made them more trusting, or pliant, or something. It was a strange thing to abuse.
Then Chad's awakening was complete and he remembered what had happened. His heart gave a jump. It was Dr. Esser, and someone else, speaking. Some one else was here. He stirred from his bed to better hear the low conversation. The voices suddenly stopped.
Dr. Esser appeared at the door. "You passed out. How do you feel?"
"Who were you talking to? Who's here?"
"I was on the combat phone, with Forrest"
"Really? I thought there was someone else in the room, like next door."
"Chad, focus, please. Forrest says the aliens have changed their positions. They might have been able to locate our reserve forces. They might be preparing to flush us out into the open. You need to help us." Dr. Esser was looking straight into Chad's eyes. It hurt.
Pure sympathy and compassion swelled from deep within him in a deep ache, searching for a target, something to form on. It settled on Dr. Esser, and the invisible Forrest. Chad felt a strong, irresistible compulsion to help her and Forrest. To help this rag-tag band of survivors, fighting against the invading alien forces that had barbecued his brothers and sisters.
But at the back of his mind, a little shadow of suspicion lingered. The implausible outlandishness of the scenario just didn't leave him. The mist of suspicion wavered, shimmered and slowly took a more concrete form. "I need to think for a second" he said to Dr. Esser. He got up and walked towards Mr. Lee's soot smothered window. He flipped open two blades of the blinds with his fingers and stared at the flaming city outside. He watched the flames carefully. Very carefully. He was sure now. It was a simulation. It was a projected image, maybe on a large screen set up a few meters on the window. Maybe they had a mirror and were projecting the image from the ground floor.
He fought with himself briefly. The strange urge to help grew stronger and stronger. He turned back to face Dr. Esser. "Do you have a notebook and a pen, or something?" Dr. Esser scrambled in her backpack and produced a notebook. Chad sat down and started to write. "These are the general specs. What you really need is in a server in Langley. I don't know how you'll get the files, since the internet is down. But these are the credentials. The actual device is in a small underground bunker I'm pointing out in this sketch. How you are going to get it in operation, I don't know."
Dr. Esser grabbed the notebook and scanned the notes. "Thank you Chad!” she said. “You are right, it's probably too dangerous to try and get back to Arlington base. I'll risk sending a scan of this over the radio." She turned the combat radio over and took photos of his scribblings. Then she busied herself with composing a message.
Suddenly, Chad was moving. He was running. He dashed down the corridor and slammed against the stairwell door. He opened the door and stumbled down the stairwell, falling down half the stairs. He swung the door out at one of the floors and stumbled into the corridor. For a moment he blacked out. He knelt close to the floor and waited. Slowly everything got brighter. He looked up into the corridor. It was all lit up! It was the regular lighting! He looked out of the big, clean window in the corridor. There was the city-line, as it always was, silhouetted against the sun which was rising over the fog. Birds were flying in the sky. In the distance he saw flickers. Many, many tiny flickers. People going to work, driving down the highway.
One of the doors opened -- yes, all the doors were closed, on this floor, as they usually were in an apartment complex. A man emerged. He was wearing a suit and a tie. He was carrying a laptop bag and checking his phone. He glanced at Chad for a second, then headed for the elevator. Chad pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked at it. Reception was normal. Chad dialed a number. It went straight to voicemail.
"Boss, this is Chad. We've got a problem. I think Dr. Esser is a spy. She and her buddies put me through the most bizarre con you'll never believe. They're fishing for information on the laser. I think you should contact the Feds. Also, you should lock access to the server until we figure out what's going on: I gave out a few of the decoy codes we'd agreed on, but once they figure out they are in a dummy system, they might find a way to get into the more secure parts. I'll be coming in soon."
Chad glanced at his phone as he was about to put it away. It was puzzling. It looked different. He stared at it. It was an army radio phone. It was the phone Dr. Esser had been using. He looked up. The lights in the hallway had gone out. The harsh emergency lighting had come on again. And all the doors looked funny in this light. The doors looked like they were all open. Chad looked out the window. The city looked a little odd now, now that the sun had risen further. The fog looked more like wisps of smoke drifting over the buildings, over the shells of buildings. Were those the insides of floors he could see? And those birds, they were bigger now, and sparkled in the sun, and they were swooping and turning over the ground, as if they were looking for things, as they drew closer and closer.
END(C) Kaushik Ghose 2013