Friday, 17 March, 2017 – Ann Arbor, Michigan
Kate hasn’t had money to go out, nor any people to go out with, in what seems like forever. But now she’s had a couple paychecks—and they are much nicer paychecks than what she was used to the last couple years—and she can actually afford to have a night out with the boys from her new office! Walking into Leopold’s Brewery with Ulrich, Jon, and Saed is like a dream come true. As they pass through the big heavy wooden doors and the sound and smell of the place strikes them, Kate feels herself grinning and she can’t stop. Leopold’s is one big room with a long wood and copper bar at the back left. It’s filled with huge long rough-looking wooden tables with bench seating, lit by candles every few feet down the length of each table, rustic wall sconces and a big chandelier in the middle of the room that looks like it was made by a hundred fairies with a roll of copper, a sheet of galvanized steel, a bunch of little welding torches, and fifteen minutes to work. There’s music playing from speakers in the corners, people talking everywhere, a waiter carrying a tray of pitchers, and nobody sitting alone. It’s just like heaven.
Unfortunately, although most tables are no more than half full, there aren’t any empty tables remaining that have an empty space large enough to seat the four of them, plus Neal, Brian, and Chris who are right behind them. There is, however, one table that is empty except for two young men sitting across from each other near the middle of it. Ulrich walks to them briskly.
“Oh shit,” Jon says, hurrying after him while Saed, of course, elects to stay with the lady.
Ulrich stops quite a bit too close to the two young men for their comfort. They look up as he looms.
“Guten Abend,” he announces looking down at the pair. “Wenn du dich nicht bewegst, werde ich meinen Stiefel so weit in deinen Arsch legen, du wirst Leder an der Rückseite deines Mundes schmecken.”
One of the guys frowns but the other one looks like he wants to attempt communication. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I, um, don’t—”
“He’s just asking if we could have this table for our party,” Jon says quickly, scampering up to them. “Sorry, he was just hoping we could all sit together for his party. You know, it’s his first day out of the pen.” Jon reaches up to pat Ulrich on the shoulder. “It’s OK, big guy!” he says slowly. “Remember what we talked about, OK? Just breathe in and out. You took the meds, right?” Ulrich looks down at him and makes theatrical breathing noises, his eyes wide with Teutonic fury. “Thanks!” Jon says as the two guys decide to find other seats. “Thanks a lot!”
“Damn, big guy,” Jon says to Ulrich as they all sit down, “I didn’t know you could actually speak German!”
Ulrich grins hugely. “I know some songs, too,” he says. “For later.”
“Can’t wait. OK! Garcon! Three pitchers of your lovely Golden Lager if you please! And seven glasses, and they better be tough ones!”
“Oh,” Kate says in a small voice that nonetheless carries quite well over the background noise. “But I don’t really—drink beer. Actually, I don’t really drink at all.”
Her three companions look at her as if she has just announced that she is from Neptune and prefers to breathe ammonia. Even Jon is stricken speechless. Ulrich leans back and makes a sound like a truck transmission failing. After an uncertain moment, Kate realizes that he is laughing.
“I’m sorry,” she says, looking around the table.
Light, sound, scent. Chris stops a couple of steps inside the double doors to Leopold’s and lets the impressions of the place wash over and through him. It’s a large place, lit deliberately dimly. The air is visible with smoke, although there is a sophisticated filtration system that includes two large air bladders that run the length of the building up in the exposed rafters that support the roof. One of them is just now inflating rapidly with air. It makes a loud but low-frequency whump sound, and someone shouts “Opa!”, then laughs at his own joke.
There are nearly sixty people in the brewpub already, but that is less than a quarter of its capacity. None are sitting alone: all are in pairs or larger groups, talking loudly or quietly, shouting, laughing. Behind the copper-surfaced bar, one of the bartenders spins a coin on the polished surface, while two customers watch.
This building is much older than the current business, dating back at least one hundred years. It was originally used for some kind of manufacturing or automotive repair work. When the new owners converted it to be a brewpub, they stripped off the inner wall coverings to expose the century-old brick walls, and removed the ceiling to expose the heavy wooden beams and rafters that support the roof.
At the back of the large single room, there is a twenty foot wide glass wall with glass doors, enclosing a room that is deserted now and locked. Beyond the glass barrier large metal brewing tanks gleam, copper and steel.
The whole establishment is alive with the energy the good cheer, comradeship, joy.
Neal has stopped and is looking back at him.
“You coming? Everybody’s here, man.”
Looking up, Kate sees Chris standing just inside the door and immediately clamps down mental controls on herself like a rider on a skittish horse. You are not going to make a fool of yourself again! This is ridiculous anyway! What the hell is wrong with you? And don’t tell me it’s your brain tumor! Brain tumors do not fall in love!
It does not help Kate’s composure that, as Chris stands in front of the doorway, the whole magnetic field of the Earth bends around him, its red and blue lines shimmering in the aether and warping around him to draw big neon arrows that point at him flashing on and off, complete with helpful text messages like Hey Kate, This Is Your Guy! Maintaining her iron-willed control in spite of the Earth’s magnetic shenanigans, Kate manages to meet Chris’s gaze with a calm and aloof expression, like a black-and-white 1930s movie starlet with a long cigarette holder and a bad attitude.
Actually, the moment he glances her way she grins at him like an idiot. Chris only nods, smiling in a pro forma kind of way as he glances at the table, then walks straight to the bar instead.
Kate has always believed that she could not feel attracted to a guy with her own hair color. It has never happened before. Guys who are as light-complected as she is have always seemed insipid to her—although it has more than once occurred to Kate that she should probably not try too hard to follow any lines of ‘reasoning’ behind this feeling. But in any case this time is different. Chris is just as pigmentationally challenged as she is, and in addition looks as though he has never once in his life set foot in the sunlight. Yet she is as aware of his presence as if the young Mel Gibson had just walked into the room. In fact, she is aware of his approximate position even though he is currently twenty or thirty feet behind her and to her right, standing at the bar.
Kate finds her own behavior utterly incomprehensible. Chris is good looking, but not shockingly so. By the standards of an earlier era, which Kate is just old enough to remember, he would be kind of scrawny. Even in today’s world Chris seems quite average of build, as well as height, as well as everything else. So why does she go nuts every time she sees him? What would she says if some hypothetical girlfriend asked her why she has fallen so madly in love? Oh, you should see him! He’s so average! The only outward aspect that is at all unusual is in the planes of his face. A little sharp-featured, a hint of some toughness of character or spirit. Also in the slightly surprising color of his eyes: so definitely blue, so unlike her own blue-gray.
Actually, there is also one other thing which is not a matter of appearance, exactly. It’s his voice. Kate tunes out the guys’ conversation—they’re talking about politics or something—and thinks about this.
Most people do not seem as sensitive to tone of voice as Kate is. She feels as though she always been unusually attuned to sound, perhaps because of the piano and singing lessons that her mother got for her as a child. Or maybe it was the other way around, and her mother bought those lessons for her little girl because she saw that Kate was so attuned to sound. In any case, where most people sound—how to describe it?—flat, plain, sloppy, thoughtless: the sonic equivalent of slouching—Chris’s voice, without being especially powerful or flashy, nevertheless sounds perfectly tuned, modulated, refined. In a world of kazoos and tin whistles, Chris is a Stradivarius.
Smiling, Kate slowly becomes aware that someone is standing in front of her. She looks up to see Chris, holding two wide glasses and looking down at her.
“I saw you didn’t have a beer,” the Stradivarius voice speaks softly, but nonetheless mutes all other sounds with its elegance. “So I thought you might like to try their gin. They also have a distillery here. It’s supposed to be very good.”
The big glasses are filled with oversized ice cubes and clear liquid, with slices of lime in the liquid and sprigs of mint leaves on top. The guys have somehow managed to leave a space for Chris directly opposite her at the long table.
“Oh! Um,” Kate begins brilliantly. “Yes! Thanks! That sounds great!”
As Chris takes his seat and places Kate’s drink in front of her, she gratefully accepts it and focuses all her attention on the lovely big glass, trying to ignore the act that all the guys have suddenly stopped talking and are staring at her again.
“So, Mr Walker,” Jon says, his voice easily cutting through the Friday evening din of the tavern, “what do you think of old Triple AI so far?”
Leopold Brothers’ is Ann Arbor’s original—and still most popular—micro-brewery. The atmosphere inside is warm and straightforward: ancient wooden-plank floors, enormous bench-tables made of wood that the Leopolds are very proud of having recycled from something or other,—They got started years before the War, when people still at least pretended to care about such things.—and a bar made of hand-polished oak and copper. The big stainless steel brewing vats are just visible through doors at the back. They only brew a few different varieties, but it’s the best in town. Recently they have also started distilling their own vodka and gin. It surprises Jon a bit that the new guy Chris went straight for the gin. He’d half-expected the guy to be the type who would resist resist polluting his pristine mind with alcohol, but apparently not.
“I’m very glad to be here,” Chris says. “You have excellent technology, and I’m honored to be able to work with you all, and under Mr Williams.”
Ulrich looks at Chris quizzically.
“He means Rafi,” Jon explains. Then, to Chris: “We never use their last names because they’re all fake.”
“Noms de guerre“, Neal adds.
“Noms de merde“, Ulrich suggests.
Chris gives them all his best born-yesterday look.
“Pay no attention to these wise guys,” Jon tells him. “The top people in the company—”
“And Gabe,” Brian says.
“OK. The people who started the company, OK? They all have fake last names. Michael Smith, Gabriel Johnson, Raphael Williams, Haniel Jones, Nora Brown. They took their last names straight from the top of the census, in order.” Jon regards Chris. “This is your first job out of school, right?”
“Well, corporate bigwigs have been doing this a lot for the last few years. You know, since things really started going to shit. Usually it’s with bigger companies than this. It’s because of kidnappings.”
“It’s because the FBI started asking for a cut,” Neal says, lighting a cigarette, “instead of trying to stop the kidnappings.”
“Hey now,” Jon says, “don’t be a downer, Ducharme, we got a new guy here! We have to pretend to be cheerful until it’s too late for him to find a real job. But anyway, Chris, we’re glad you like the software, glad you’ll be working on it.”
“You also have very impressive hardware technology,” Chris says. “Some exceptionally powerful machines.”
“Will you make HAL 9000?” Kate asks him, a little impishly. She doesn’t normally feel capable of intruding when the engineers are talking engineer-talk.
“The computational power of a human-scale intelligence,” Chris says, focusing his lovely eyes directly on her, “is much greater than we understand. Possibly greater than we can understand.”
Jon looks at Neal’s cigarette. “Hey, Neal, what, um, brand are you smoking there?”
“Your favorite, I believe,” Neal says, calmly shaking one out for him. “Somebody Else’s.”
Ulrich laughs in the middle of swallowing beer, hard enough to spray some.
“Hey, god damn it Vortigern!” Jon recoils. “You’ll get it wet.”
“So, Chris!” Jon manages to say while lighting up. “Did you come here to work with Rafi? Like, learn from him or whatever? AI stuff?”
“No!” Ulrich erupts, slamming down his beer. “He came here to learn from you, Jon! About women!”
Chris looks at Ulrich without expression as the big guy laughs like a foghorn going off.
“It’s best to just politely ignore him,” Jon says. “Like when somebody farts. The group you have joined, Chris, is unfortunately manic-depressive. We have your comedians—” he indicates Ulrich and himself, “and we have your token downer.” He indicates Neal. “Only Brian here attempts to inject a soupçon of sanity into our strange brew.”
“Attempts and fails,” Brian clarifies.
“I’m not a downer, I’m a realist,” Neal informs Chris. “I have, however, sensed some serious pessimist vibrations coming from my next door neighbor here.” He looks at Saed and raises his eyebrows. “Unless I am badly mistake, Mr Isfahani?”
“Yeah,” Saed nods regretfully after a moment. “Something’s going on.”
“Something’s always going on, man,” Brian says, but he watches Saed as he lifts his beer.
Saed is dark-complected, dark-eyed, slender, typically Iranian. Unlike Ulrich, however, he is not a refugee of the War seven years ago but a native-born American. Both of his parents belonged to the small Christian minority in Iran, and both emigrated to America in their teens during the 1979 revolution, brought by Saed’s grandparents who feared for the safety of their families. Having grown up speaking Persian to his parents and English to his classmates, Saed is capable of speaking Persian well enough to pass for a native Iranian of either the Tehran area or the country around Isfahan, or like an expatriate Iranian who learned English too late in life to ever speak it very well, or he can speak English like a Midwestern American out for a drive in his pickup truck. Tonight, with about a pint of beer in him so far and already into his conspiracy theories, he is mostly sounding like an expatriate.
“Did anybody see the article about Palisades being shut down?”
“What the fuck,” Ulrich says, “is a Palisade? And why do we need them?”
“The nuclear plant?” Brian frowns. “Yeah, I saw that. It’s just being decommissioned. It’s pretty old, right?”
“Yes,” Saed nods. “But it was scheduled to be decommissioned next year. They just moved it up by a year with no explanation. The news didn’t even mention it.”
“Oh my god,” Jon says, making a shocked face. “This is it. The apocalypse!”
“Shut up,” Saed agrees. He glances around at the others. “The thing is, this isn’t the first one. Did you hear about Fermi a couple weeks ago?”
“I did hear about that,” Neal speaks up, frowning mildly with interest. “That was also for ‘maintenance’, if I recall?”
“Right,” Saed nods. “But I thought I remembered something, and I looked it up. They just did a major maintenance shutdown on Fermi three years ago. So that’s weird. You don’t do a maintenance shutdown that often on these things. That was the one that got me started.” He leans forward. “Well, today I found five more. Five! Cook just shut down for ‘maintenance’ a month ago. That’s way down in the southwest corner of Michigan, close to Indiana. It has two reactors, and they’re shutting down both at once. They never do that! And exactly the same thing at Dresden, LaSalle and Braidwood in Illinois, and one in Wisconsin. Uh—Point Something. Point Beach! It’s happening all over the Midwest, and it’s only happening in the Midwest. And it’s crazy. There’s no way they have that much spare generating capacity.”
Saed leans back and takes a drink from his beer mug, possibly a little taken aback by his own excitement. He normally prefers to project an attitude of sophisticated indifference.
“So you’re thinking,” Jon says, “that—what? Somebody knows something and they’re—shutting everything down as a precaution?”
“But then why just the Midwest?” Neal asks. “Are you sure you’re not just missing the news about other places?”
“Yes,” Saed nods. “Once I started looking it was easy to find them. I looked all over for other ones. There actually aren’t many out west until you get to California, but the east coast is thick with them. No sign at all of anything weird back east.”
“New Madrid fault?” Brian suggests.
“Wow, wouldn’t that just suck!” Jon says.
“No, no,” Saed shakes this off, “I actually thought of that! Some of these plants that are closing are five, six hundred miles from the fault! But there are two plants in western Arkansas that are twice as close—and they haven’t been touched.”
“It can’t be military,” Ulrich mutters. When he gets serious he sounds much less like an economy-sized Terminator. “You know,” he glances around at his colleagues, “I was just wondering ‘could it be FC?’ But why would they want the fuel?”
“Right, it’s not weapons-grade,” Jon says, “what would they want it for?”
“Yeah, nothing,” Ulrich shakes his head sadly. He prefers to see agents of the US Foreign Command behind every dark plot in the world—which means he’s correct about half the time.
They sit in thoughtful silence for a moment, drinking from their beers, soaking in the cheerful noise of the brew house. There is music playing, just a tape that one of the Leopold’s employees made, but it is not turned up very high, only adding a techno undertone to the tavern’s ambiance.
Chris has been making polite replies to Kate’s occasional attempts at small-talk, but now he is staring through the smoke-filled air to the dark windows at the back of the establishment and the gleaming half-glimpsed shapes behind them. He is mildly surprised to discover that, drinking cold gin and sitting in the bar’s warm smoky air next to his coworkers—he actually feels peaceful quite and content, as though he is exactly where he should be and he has nothing to worry about. He does not recall ever having had such a feeling before. And, while there is a trace of warning in his mind that excessive talk is dangerous, there is also a countervailing suggestion that it is important to fit in well among friends. When they are talking in a bar, one should talk along with them. So he has been half-listening to their conversation even while Kate has been ignoring it.
Maps and distances, fields of motivation and cascades of probability dance in his mind.
“Someone is protecting the lakes,” he says, but speaks so quietly that no one notices at first. Then Jon turns his head.
“What’s that, buddy? The Lake?”
“The Great Lakes,” Chris says. “Someone is shutting down all the power plants that have fallout footprints that can reach the Great Lakes. They are expecting the power grid to fail.” He turns and focuses his clear blue eyes on Jon.
“Well, uh,” Jon blinks realizing that after less than a week of working with this person, he of course has next to no idea who the new guy actually is. “That’s an interesting concept. It sounds like maybe you’re not talking about your garden-variety power outage?”
“No.” Chris does not smile. In fact, now that Jon thinks of it, he has never seen the guy actually smile or laugh at all.
“Whoever is doing this,” Chris continues, “is expecting the grid to go down long enough for the backup generators to fail, so that the reactors lose cooling capability and have to be scrammed, which would likely result in meltdowns. The nukes can’t keep the grid up by themselves, so they become a liability without a benefit.” He looks around at the others and then at Jon again. “They’re probably unloading all the fuel right now, but there’s no place to put it. Especially the fresh fuel. They can’t use the spent-fuel ponds because those will lose cooling also, and the fresh fuel would burn when the ponds boil dry.”
“So what can they do with the fuel?” He looks at Saed. “That’s what you should be looking at. It will be impossible to hide, so instead they will try to camouflage the activity with propaganda. They can’t possibly transport it all across country—and anyway, where would they take it? They think they don’t have much time, or they wouldn’t be doing all the plants at once, so they’re not starting a big construction project. They must be bringing in dry casks. They’re too heavy for trucks. Look for unusual train traffic. They must be bringing in thousands of them from somewhere, and they can only get one per boxcar. Also, they don’t want people riding on these trains and maybe seeing what’s in them, so they will be locked and guarded. That will probably produce local news reports. Finally, look at manufacturers of the dry casks. I don’t know where they are, but there can’t be many of them. Have any of their manufacturing facilities been expanded in the last few months? Expanded in a hurry. Whoever is doing this wasn’t expecting it, or they wouldn’t be rushing now.”
Chris stops, realizing that everyone, including Kate, is staring at him.
“Why the Great Lakes?” Neal finally asks quietly. “If they know that the grid is coming down, why not try to save the reactors on the east coast? Those are the ones they would need to be able to restart soonest. Or do you mean they’re only expecting it to go down in the western part of the country?”
Chris blinks. That part had seemed too obvious to mention.
“They’re not planning to re-start ever,” he says simply. “They’re expecting to lose everything for at least a generation. They’re trying to protect the Great Lakes region because that’s the best place to regrow civilization. They’ve already written off the east coast. Both coasts.”
After a long silence, Brian speaks.
“You mean—the Great Lakes because of the fresh water.”
“Well, everything,” Chris says. “Fresh water for agriculture, the lake network for transport, and then you’ve got iron, coal, and copper. Timber. A temperate climate. Human cultures always start near the water, but it’s always been on the ocean before, which means you also need a big river for agriculture. And then the ocean is a problem if you’re having violent tectonic events for a while. This time is unique because the latest glaciers left these big fresh-water lakes in a temperate zone. That has never happened before.”
“Oho!” Ulrich laughs, but he looks more worried than amused. “Now he is a geology expert!”
“No, it’s just—” Chris stops and frowns mildly. The feeling of certainty about that fact was very strong, as though it were something that everybody would know. But when he tries to find the thread of his reasoning, it isn’t there.
“It makes sense,” Brian says. “That doesn’t mean it’s all true. People have been expecting the end of the world for a heck of a long time. Well, we even had the nuclear war, finally, but we’re all still here. Or we’re mostly all here, I guess.”
“Ja,” Ulrich says sourly. “But that was the appetizer. If you liked that, you’re going to love the main course. All you can eat.” He looks at Brian. “So what are we saying? Maybe Saed has really found something, and Chris makes good deductions. Well, I can also say something.” He gestures alarmingly with his giant beer mug. “Whoever is doing this—it is not the Federal government or we would have heard about it all on Wikileaks before they started the work! Whoever organized this, and kept it out of the media, and kept it away from the Federal government, and kept it away from the state governments, and got the power companies to roll over without a peep. Whoever it is, they are not a dozen preppers with big beards and dirty pickup trucks! And yet,” he speaks more quietly, “I don’t have a clue who could do all of that?”
“Well I don’t care if it’s the Seven Society or the Better Business Bureau,” Brian says. “They still don’t know everything.”
“That’s true,” Chris says quietly. “They don’t.”
“Well!” Jon announces, standing up. “Gentlemen? You have succeeding in convincing me that there is not a single moment to lose!”
“What are you going to do?” Ulrich asks him.
“Get another round of drinks!”
Everyone agrees that he has the right idea, and Ulrich stands up to help with the carrying.
“So, you’re from the west coast?” Kate asks Chris when the guys start talking about politics again. Chris looks at her. They are now on their second set of G&Ts, and he certainly isn’t showing any signs of getting tipsy. Kate, however, expects that she will end this conversation by dancing on the table.
“Oh!” she laughs. “I mean the west coast of Michigan! Have you noticed how people are starting to talk that way lately? Half the time when they say ‘west coast’ they mean Lake Michigan! I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said Smitten with the Mitten!” She holds up her hand to indicate the shape of Michigan’s lower peninsula. “Isn’t that something? I don’t remember anybody actually caring about Michigan before, do you? In fact, before the War, I remember bumper stickers that said Will the Last Person Leaving Michigan Please Turn Out the Lights!” She grins at Chris then hurries to hide as much of her face as possible behind the big gin and tonic glass. Mayday, mayday! Girl pilot is babbling like an idiot! The voice from the Control Tower replies calmly. It looks like she’s running low on gin. Tell her to take another gulp, and then ask the young man a question about himself. Guys like that.
Kate takes another gulp.
“Anyway,” she says, “you’re from out west yourself, right? But quite a bit north of where I came from, isn’t it? I’m from the Kalamazoo area.” Shut up.
“Yes,” Chris says after a long moment. Probably to make sure that Kate isn’t going to resume talking out of control again, chattering faster and faster until she sounds like a chipmunk and finally hyperventilates and passes out. “I’m from a small town called White Cloud. About forty miles north of Grand Rapids.”
“Wow, that’s really out in the sticks, isn’t it? What’s it like?” Kate does not have to feign interest; she loves the idea of this brilliant engineer—she is quite certain that he must be about the most brilliant guy in the whole world—coming from someplace way out in the boondocks where he had to chop wood and carry water to get the simple homespun electricity needed to run his simple homespun computers.
“Yes, it’s kind of in the wilderness. It’s actually in the middle of a national forest, although that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. It just means the feds make all the decisions about who can do what with the land. Actually, it’s been a while since I was there.” Chris pauses for a moment, remembering. “The whole town isn’t even half a mile across,” he smiles. “And the biggest attraction is the pizzeria. I think the population is only a little over a thousand people. That’s only three times the number of kids in the high school, because the school gets kids from all around.” He sips from his drink and thinks.
“My father’s land was a quarter-section north of town, by a place called Diamond Lake. We grew vegetables, mostly, although he was starting an apple orchard.” Chris looks into his drink for a while, his eyes following the shifting reflections of warm light on ice.
“It’s at the edge of the wildest chunk of land in western Michigan,” Chris says. “If you were to walk north from our house, and go a little ways past the barns to where the forest starts, if you chose your direction just right, you could walk fifty miles and never see any sign of human habitation but a few dirt roads. Not even a light at night.” He sits still, his eyes now focused on much greater distances.
“Isn’t it scary sometimes, way out there?”
Chris thinks for a moment, then looks up at her with his pure blue eyes.
“Yes,” he says. “Sometimes it is.”
Kate feels such a wash of emotion that she doesn’t know what to say. She feels a vast depth of meaning concealed behind Chris’s simple statements.
“Do you ever go back?” she asks quietly.
“No,” Chris looks down at his drink and then up at her again. “I sold it. That’s how I paid for college.”
Chris looks down, breaking eye contact. He doesn’t like to talk about the past. Instead, he picks up his empty glass.
“Oh!” Kate beams. “Somebody needs a refill!” She jumps off the bench before he can object and grabs his glass, then, just as she is about to hustle away to the bar, glances down at her own. There is nothing left in it either, except a big lonely ice cube.
“Oh, my gosh,” she repeats in a small voice, then beams at Chris. “Well, it looks like we need two.” But, turning toward the bar she stops herself again, frowns at the drinks, and looks at Chris.
“What were these called again?”
“Well, gentlemen,” Jon announces, levering himself carefully out of his seat on the long bench, “I must excuse myself to go shake hands with my wife’s best friend.”
“Jesus, Jon,” Brian grimaces, glancing momentarily at Kate. Jon, moderately chastened even in his borderline inebriation, makes an oops, sorry about that face and then hastens toward the men’s room. Kate looks confused for a moment, then understanding dawns and she quickly lifts her glass to sip from it so she doesn’t have to choose between smiling and looking appalled.
“That’s not what I heard,” Ulrich calls to Jon’s back.
“And you, big guy,” Saed says to Ulrich, “give the marital problems a rest once in a while, would you?”
“It was a joke!” Ulrich looks hurt.
“Ah, yes,” Saed nods. “The Germans are famous for their sense of humor.”
“Really?” Ulrich is delighted.
“Yes indeed.” Saed smiles slightly as he raises his beer to take a sip—he is the only one of the group who sips beer—and Brian chuckles aloud, also raising his glass. Ulrich looks between the two of them, his expression changing instantly to a suspicious scowl, and decides to finish off his own beer rather than demand an explanation of his companions’ mysterious levity.
“I’ll go help Jon,” he says darkly, and leaves the table.
Brian puts down his glass and laughs out loud.
“You,” Neal informs Saed approvingly, “are such a bastard.”
“The thing is,” Brian continues explaining, “the FC doesn’t know a damn thing about anything the Chinese are doing north of the Guangs.” After hearing Saed’s latest conspiracy theory he has been emboldened to begin discussing his own recent ideas in military geo-politics.
“The Guangs,” Jon repeats, looking a little pie-eyed as he returns to the table. Ulrich, arriving behind him, has two more pitchers.
Brian makes a wry face at him. “Jon, do you ever read the freaking news? Guangxi and Guangdong. Southern China. The part that Foreign Command occupied during the War. Ring any bells?” He shakes his head. “Have another beer.”
“I though the new satellites could read the VIN off a car and look through the window and see what you bought from McDonald’s,” Neal says. “Have I been misinformed?”
Brian laughs, which he doesn’t do very often. Everyone likes the beer—well, everyone except Kate—but in Brian’s opinion the best thing about Leopold’s is the atmosphere. Long wooden tables made of wood reclaimed from elves and hollow trees or some damn thing. What’s important is that there is nice warm wood everywhere, lighting just bright enough to see your friends, a great big wood and copper bar where they spin a coin to see if you get beers at half price, and some kind of fancy air filtering system so that the smokers don’t completely fumigate the place.
Neal lights up one of his thin smokes and raises his eyebrows. Neal likes to act as though he is unconcerned with the crass real world, but he actually seems quite interested in the same kind of geopolitical news and prognostications that have been something of a hobby with Brian for the last few years.
“Well, they’re maybe not quite that good,” Brian replies, “but the thing is, the Chinese and Russians both are doing everything underground. There’s no way the FC knows what they’ve done since the War, but,” he shakes his head, “you want to bet your life that they haven’t been doing anything interesting?”
“Interesting,” Ulrich rumbles, looking into his latest beer. Thinking better of finishing it, at least for now, he looks across the table at Brian. “How the hell interesting can it be? If it gets too interesting they just get another flight of Auroras up their ass.”
It is not much of a secret that Ulrich has nationalist leanings for his old country, even though he was not yet ten years old when his parents came to the US, and now hates US Foreign Command with a passion. It’s not hard to hate an organization that rules two thirds of humanity with an iron—if often clumsy—fist. And it is not officially against the law, just yet. It is, however, against the law to express such hatred. Although the subversion laws have not been actively enforced since the immediate aftermath of the War, no one has forgotten about them.
“Look,” Brian says. He moves his beer mug back and forth on the glossy table surface. The wood may be reclaimed by free range Amazon rain forest fair trade pygmies, but the Leopolds have spared no expense to cover it with an eighth-inch coating of glass-hard polyurethane. “If you had an enemy, and, let’s say you’re looking at a line they’re defending. A big—border, or whatever. And you see there’s some areas where they’re really strong. What would you do?”
This discussion has drawn Kate’s interest now, because Chris has fallen kind of silent and because she has already resolved in her own mind that she is going to drag Chris to her apartment, make wild love with him, and have all his babies. How this jibes with the fact that she is dying of brain cancer is not yet clear to Kate, but she is confident that there must be a way. Smiling, she takes another sip of gin. It tastes like drinking men’s after-shave, like it should come out of a bottle that says Old Spice on the label. She loves it.
“I would smash them!” Ulrich shouts, loudly enough so that people from nearby tables look. “Break their strongest place, and the rest will be easy!”
“Thank you, Baron von Clausewitz,” Brian says dryly. “But those of us who want to win, rather than go out in a blaze of glory, usually want to strike where the enemy is not. Or, if it’s football, we say Take what the defense gives you. Which is exactly what the Chinese are doing.”
“Oh yeah?” Jon pipes up. “And what would that be, Nostradamus? The planet Nibiru?”
“It is a different planet,” Brain smiles. “But it’s not fictional. It’s got breathable air whenever you want it, Earth-normal gravity, Earth-normal temperature, plenty of water, and it’s three times as big as the land area of the Earth.”
“Mongo?” Neal suggests.
“Remulak!” Jon slaps the table top.
“It’s the oceans of this world,” Brian says. “That’s someplace the Auroras can’t go, so that’s where the Chinese have gone. With submarines.”
“Oh, we don’t have submarines now?” Jon objects. “We don’t have little things called aircraft carrier battle groups? They all sink or something? I didn’t hear about that.”
“Well you won’t hear about much if you only read the mainstream sites,” Brain says. “Like you won’t hear about the fact that a Chinese sub popped up next to the Kitty Hawk in the middle of an FC exercise in the Pacific. It was an exercise. Which means those guys are supposed to be pretending it’s wartime. And the Chinese sub got past the whole battle group, including two of our subs, and popped up within spitting distance of the carrier to just say hello.” Jon looks troubled by this assertion, but he doesn’t deny it. Now that Brian has mentioned it, Jon does, in fact, remember having noticed it briefly. He does not always stick to the government-approved sites. “And that was five years ago! Two years after the War.”
“And then, two years ago,” Brian continues, “they launched an SLBM from the middle of the Channel Islands.”
“That’s—near California?” Neal asks.
“Yeah, the scalloped part at the bottom that has Santa Barbara, L.A., and San Diego. In the ocean west of there. They got a sub right in the middle of the area, surfaced, and launched. We wouldn’t have known a thing about it except that some local news dweebs were shooting real-time video for some weather channel. And then the dot-gov sites all acted like Oh well, la-dee-dah we’ve seen missiles before and then they went back to covering Miley Cyrus’s Lick the Devil tour.”
“I liked that tour,” Jon says distantly.
“The thing is, that whole area around the Channel Islands,” Brian lowers his voice so it’s hard to hear above the background noise of the bar, “is a US Navy reserved area. Actually FC, you know, but they still call it US Navy. That’s where they test all the latest technology. They have listening fences on the freaking sea bed. One of those islands is where they train Navy Seals. Another one is where they practice shelling on-shore targets. The FC does half of their naval exercises in that area. I mean, it’s a big area, it’s like twenty thousand square miles. But its supposed to be the most secure piece of ocean in the world, and that’s where the Chinese sub popped up.”
“How’d they know it was Chinese?” Saed asks. “Why not Russian?”
“Some 4chan guys figured it out from the video, from the acceleration profile. It was a Ju Lang-3. It means Great Wave.” Brian smiles.
“Well, I guess they didn’t hit anything!” Jon fake-grins.
“What they did,” Brian says, “was demonstrate that they can hit any weapon system in this country before we can get it off the ground. Bomber fields, ICBM silos. With a depressed trajectory SLBM launch, from the west coast, the east coast or the Gulf coast, a Ju Lang-3 can hit anything in this country inside of six minutes. We can’t launch the bombers or the ICBMs in six minutes. Not even close. What it means is that, for the last five years, they’ve been able they can do a counterforce strike against anything we’ve got here, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.”
“So why haven’t they done it?” Saed asks.
“Well, I don’t really know. Possibly because that would still leave the whole FC out there? Although I’m not sure those guys would actually care. They would probably be happy to turn northern China into a lot of glowing holes in the ground, though. In fact, if the Chinese nuked the Congress for them, the FC might actually like that!”
“Are you trying to cheer us up, buddy?” Jon asks. “Because, if you are? You’re seriously blowing it.”
“Yeah, OK.” Brian finishes his beer, apparently somewhat to his surprise, and leans forward on his seat. “The thing is, the reason I care about this stuff—I want to know what’s going to happen. You know?” He looks around the table. “I want to know when—” he takes a deep breath, “when the next war is coming. Isn’t that what everybody wants?” He looks around the table. Neal nods, raising an eyebrow. Jon looks at his beer. Saed says “It wouldn’t hurt.” Ulrich scowls and says “I’ve been thinking it’s going to be next week for the last five years. I guess I’ll be right sooner or later, but it would be nice to improve the accuracy a little.”
“Well, I think we’re getting down to it,” Brian tells his audience. “Something else happened just yesterday evening, and there hasn’t been a damn thing about it on the dot-gov news sites. In fact the samizdat sites only carried it for a few hours last night. I think those guys are even nervous about this one. You know how the Chinese have been getting feistier lately about claiming the Yellow Sea? That’s the little piece of water between northern China and the Korean peninsula. Well, what happened was that two nights ago, a destroyer called the Fitzgerald was cruising around there on a show-the-flag kind of mission—and they collided with a container vessel. It killed a few sailors, trashed the vessel. They were lucky to keep it afloat.”
“I heard about that on MSNBC!” Jon exclaims.
“Yeah, well then I guess it must be real then, huh? What you didn’t hear is that there was no other vessel in the area except that container vessel, and that the Fitz lost all its electronics five minutes before the crash.” Brian looks around the table.
“You’re saying they EMPed them,” Ulrich says.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”
“What is ’emped’?” Kate asks.
“E.M.P.” Ulrich tells her. “Electromagnetic pulse. He’s saying they just tested a weapon that can fry military-grade electronics from a distance.”
“No, no,” Brian says. “Testing a new weapon is something you do on a fishing boat on a lake in Tibet. When you do it on an active duty Foreign Command warship—I don’t think that’s called testing.”
“What’s the point, though?” Neal asks. “Why let the FC know what they can do?”
“That is—” Brian frowns, “exactly what I’m not sure about. If it’s some kind of warning—”
“It’s not a message for Foreign Command,” Saed speaks up. “The FC probably already knew they had something like this. It’s a message for everybody else. The Koreans, the Japanese, Vietnamese, Malaysians, Phillipinos.” Saed looks up from his beer, his dark eyes scanning his friends. “They’re telling everybody in their own neighborhood that it’s time to choose sides.”
Kate looks out the bus window at the passing lights and side streets and smiles. A night out with the boys. This is the kind of thing she dreamed of when she was working for PMS, and the kind of thing that never would have happened unless the boss wanted to coax her into the back room to show her his rock collection.
But that’s all passed now. And you wouldn’t want it to come back, would you? No, certainly not. No, that would not do at all.
She didn’t actually try to drag Chris back to her apartment. It wouldn’t have worked, and it’s not something that she would actually be comfortable with just yet in any case. Especially not if she is, in fact, sick.
Kate looks out at the passing street lights. It’s nice here in the center of town because most of them are still working.
It’s all fine and well to tell yourself that there’s no need to worry, but the reality is that in this world, even when something good happens, you have to know that you are always on very, very thin ice. And when you’re on thin ice, you do not want to start break-dancing.
Two stops before Kate’s the bus slows to a crawl but then starts accelerating again when no one wants to get off. It’s one in the morning, the last run for this bus line. A few years ago there would have been plenty of people still on the streets at this time of night, but now people seem to be going home earlier. There have been rumors on some of the samizdat websites about murders, or so Kate has heard. She doesn’t have a jailbroke floppy with which to read such sites, and doesn’t intend to get one. She has enough troubles of her own without going out of her way to read about every creepy thing in the world.
And maybe you have too many troubles of your own.
Kate sighs. It’s true. If she wants to keep this job, if she wants to have nights like this in the future—well then she can’t be hallucinating things and having all these weird episodes, can she? And that’s what the medicine is for, isn’t it? The doctor doesn’t think she’s sick with cancer, the doctor thinks she’s sick in the head. And maybe he’s right. That would be another explanation for all the weird stuff that has been happening to her lately, wouldn’t it? And if he’s right, then she should feel good about it, shouldn’t she? In that case the pills will control it, and it means she’s not dying.
But she can’t help feeling just a little nervous about it, doctors or no doctors, prescriptions or no prescriptions.
Terrific. So you’re afraid of taking the medicine, and afraid of not taking the medicine.
Kate sighs again and watches the empty city sweep by.
Even in the half-light from the street lamps outside, it’s not hard for Kate to find the bottle of pills. She left it standing on the table by itself when she came home this morning before leaving again to go to work. She walks over to the apartment’s little dining area and turns on the ceiling light, even though only one of its silly candle-flame-shaped bulbs still works, it does at least provide enough light to scare away the cockroaches. She has wanted to get more bulbs to replace the four burned out ones but has no idea how to find them. Kate approaches the table, and picks up the bottle.
OK, you have had misgivings but you know this is the right thing to do. This is the only way to stop these crazy thoughts from coming into your head. You had a nice time with Chris tonight, didn’t you? You want him to be interested in you? Well, he’s not going to be interested in a nutjob whose getting crazier every day. It’s up to you to start getting better.
Kate picks up the bottle a little cautiously, as though it might explode, and walks into the kitchen toward the sink, scowling as the last cockroaches scurry out of sight at her approach. She turns on the faucet to let the water run for a while. She is going to want it to be nice and cold if she is going to swallow one of these things. She remembers the instructions. One twenty milligram pill per day, with or without food. Still frowning, she applies pressure to the childproof cap, and removes it.
This is what you need to get better. No one wants a girl who’s having mental problems.
Kate looks into the bottle in the faint light, preparing to pour one of the blue pills into the palm of her hand. But the pills inside the orange plastic bottle are not pills. They are smooth blue maggots, writhing and squirming over each other in their eagerness to get inside a human body where they will be able to hatch, and feed, and reproduce.
With a choking cry, Kate throws the bottle into the sink. Many of the maggot-pills spiral into the garbage disposal in the rushing swirling water from the faucet, but not all, and not the bottle itself. The ones that have landed on the sink bottom but not in the water are still moving. Making little weeping noises, but not allowing her eyes to so much as blink lest she miss one of the damned things, Kate grabs her dish washing brush and pushes the blue maggots into the stream of water and down the drain, and then the entire bottle as well, and jerkily reaches to turn on the garbage disposal. The brittle plastic of the bottle shatters in there, sounding like glass shards flying around. Horrified, Kate realizes that one could have stuck to the brush and turns it quickly to examine it, leaving the disposal on. There is nothing to be seen, but she hurriedly opens the under-sink cabinet drawer and throws the brush away anyway. The glass-shard sound gradually changes to just grinding, like she has dumped sand in there, and finally sounds more or less normal, although Kate is in no shape to judge. At last, her hand shaking, Kate reaches over the sink to turn off the roaring garbage disposal and then the faucet as well. She stares at the sink for a while, but nothing happens.
Moving back to the table she pulls out a chair and sits down, her movements as jerky as if she were a mannequin with an inexpert master. Leaning her head on her hands in the anemic light, she begins to quietly weep.
Kate expects that it will be a long time before she can sleep, but she is quite certain that no matter how much insomnia she may suffer she will never be going back to that clinic.