New York City

Thursday, Before sunset

The bosses were sending him to headquarters. Standing on the sidewalk in front of a steel-and-iron building, Josh let his key lead him to where his car had parked. It was an hour before LockDown.

A beautiful February sunset painted the clear sky above Manhattan hues of orange and pink. Getting into the standard SSGI vehicle, the lean young man set his home coordinates and let the car make its way northwards along bustling city blocks towards the Great Central Functional SafeZone. People of all stripes and colors were hustling their way to wherever it was they were going to spend the night, mindful of making it into a bunker or functional SafeZone before the last ray of sunlight left the sky.

Josh had nothing to complain about and everything to be thankful for. He had an interesting job. A company that took care of him. Permission to Reside in the Great Central fSZ was a luxury. His car was a luxury. And the five-day trip to regional headquarters in Washington he would be taking in two weeks was the luxury of all luxuries. He was going to take the Tube. He was going to stay in a fully-fledged real-life SafeZone. It was definitely something to write home about. And if he played his cards right, the Firm would send him on more trips. Maybe to Europe United. Maybe to global headquarters in Asia.

A hulking metallic structure came into view. The Perimeter Guards had already started fanning the walls out into the massive dome it would become for the night. Josh’s car eased itself into the maw of the fSZ’s West Gate. As he passed successfully through the checkpoint, his shoulder tingled momentarily where his SSGI Subcutaneous Chip was implanted. The Firm would have to work on that uncomfortable user aspect.

The fSZ structure continued to form as the sun slid steadily down the Western sky. This was also something the Firm could potentially figure out. Surely there must be a better way to secure fSZ’s without having to erect and dismantle these prison-like domes of metal day after day. If only energy could be cheaper, or they found a way to reduce the energy consumption of forcefields. Functional SafeZones could be upgraded to full ones. Maybe with a stronger partnership with the United Arab Confederation — now that they had a government — they could find a way.

Josh’s thoughts were interrupted by a beep from his Great Central Intercom unit, alive now that he was inside. He answered.

“Hey Bingo, what’s up?”

“Are you in?” came a cotton drawl at the other end. Bingo was probably hung over again. In the early evening. Josh didn’t know how his friend and neighbor managed not to lose his Permission to Operate in the fSZ.

“Yeah, I’m in,” Josh said. “Just came in through the West Gate now. North Café?”

“That’s right.”

“Alright, bro. See you in a few.”

The North Café wasn’t too far from Josh’s apartment building. After a few blocks, his car parked, then he got out to walk. Car access was limited; debris was strewn across some of the city streets, and makeshift homes and establishments had sprouted in the most unlikely places.

Josh hopped over a few fallen blocks of concrete as he made his way to the café. The last metal panel of fSZ overnight protection hissed into place, and soft perimeter lights glowed on, giving him the impression of being underneath a giant upside-down metal bowl. A siren blared, signaling the closing and sealing of the gates. Josh breathed the same sigh of relief every denizen of an fSZ learned to heave whenever LockDown was successfully achieved. They would be safe from the nasty things, at least until daybreak.

When Josh got to the Café, which simply were plastic tables and chairs arrayed in what had been an apartment building courtyard, Bingo and the rest of the gang were already waiting for him with the special rum.

There was a round of hellos and hand-slapping. Bingo — inordinately thin, with a shaved head and small goatee — waved from the head of the table. They had started without him on some bootleg beer, and their glasses were already full of special rum waiting to be consumed. Josh began to speak after he poured himself a glass.

“Friends and neighbors, I’ve been promoted,” Josh announced, beaming. “And they’re sending me to DC for a week.” A cheer went up among the small group and the clink of glasses clattered. His friends were already tipsy.

“Congratulations, Mr. Orsini,” Rick Sloane said, slapping Josh on the back. He was genuinely happy for his friend. Rick hadn’t yet gotten to associate level at The Wealth Management Group, but he was fairly confident that it would only take a year or two, and he would be taking Tube trips every month. His day would come. Hell, he would one day end up with Permission to Reside in a SafeZone. He took a drink. “Wow, this stuff is good — from the Carribbean?”

“You bet,” Josh replied after having taken a long swig. It had gone straight to his head, as liquor was normally difficult to come by. But Bingo knew how to keep him well-plied for special occasions.

“So our little Josh Orsini is a Deputy Director now, is he?” drawled a raven-haired woman to his right. Smiling, Fanya Moore flipped her hair and laid a hand on Josh’s shoulder as she took another sip of smooth rum.

“Yeah, Fanya, he’s big Deputy Director Josh Orsini now,” laughed a lean, bearded fellow sitting across from them. Barry Maputi had his arm around a petite, mousy-haired woman. Ellen Lawson was less gregarious than Barry, but always had a jovial smile on. “Congratulations, Josh,” she said.

“Aww, guys,” Josh said, feigning a blush. “I’ll always be just Josh. Thanks for coming out — I know things are pretty hairy these days.”

“Yes, just the usual political intrigue and back-stabbing at Monsanto,” Fanya purred, inching her hand up to massage Josh’s neck. “But nothing to worry about.”

Bingo rolled his eyes from across the table. He didn’t trust the dark-haired siren. But Josh insisted she be included in these things. “That’s right — nothing to worry about. Our caravan routes still work, no matter who is stabbing whom in the back. We’re still feeding everyone and their mutated grandmothers with THE BEST ULTRA-FORTIFIED FOOD IN THE WORLD. So what’s the new job about, little bear?”

Josh leaned forward awkwardly, trying to shrug Fanya’s hand off without offending her. She was clearly already drunk, and drunkenness did not agree with her at all. Josh picked at some savory snacks on the table and said, “Well, it’s still the same negotiation thing, but I’m helping the Director out directly with bigger contracts.”

“So a big deal’s coming up in DC, huh?” Rick asked, probing.

“If I told you, Rick, I’d have to kill you,” Josh joked.

“Alright, alright,” conceded Rick, laughing. “Everyone who feels a tickle in their shoulder twice a day knows that SolarScope Global, Incorporated is in bed with the government, anyway. So your ‘negotiations’ are pillow talk.”

“Well, SSGI has got a huge board meeting in a couple weeks on the sidelines of the Global Authority meetings in DC,” Barry interjected matter-of-factly, “So Josh is going to be privy to them. He’s part of the Big Show now.” Ellen glanced sideways at him. “What? We have a massive DC team covering the whole week. It’s no secret.” Barry just raised his eyebrows and sat back in his chair, nursing a second glass of the precious Mount Gay liquid, having downed the first.

Maybe the rum wasn’t such a good idea, Josh thought to himself. “Speaking of shoulder tingles,” Josh said, eyes starting to sparkle, “are you guys okay with the deltoid implants? The subcutaneous technology needs a little refining, but I mean, it’s not as invasive as…” A collective groan arose from the group.

“Aw Josh, quit geeking out on us. They work — that’s all that matters,” Barry said.

The conversation webbed out and touched things happening in the outside world and celebrity gossip. Barry had the gift of wide friendship and a big mouth, so this group of friends was always entertained. Josh tuned out and thought again about the deltoid chip, his mind just barely registering what Kiki Forrester had done this time, and with whom, and how young he was.

Then the topic came back to the creatures. Josh blinked and looked up.

“This is the best one yet!” Barry waved his hands excitedly. “Though these are just rumors…”

Barry glanced around the now crowded café and leaned in towards the group. “There have been reports — sightings of creatures. If it’s possible, they’re growing… uglier. They usually look like leprous linebackers — big solid motherfuckers, right? But still like overgrown football players with skin diseases. Well some of the creatures seen in BunkerLand Brooklyn and outside fSZs in Long Island recently have been a few feet taller than the usual six or seven foot or so — maybe they’re ten feet tall. And they’re uglier.”

“Uglier how?” Fanya asked apprehensively. She looked suddenly sober, Josh thought.

“Instead of beefy hands like the normal creatures, they’re starting to have claws, people say,” said Barry in a lower voice. Everyone leaned in. “Their heads have grown bigger, into their shoulders. So they have no neck. Like they’re wearing helmets, or have hoods or something. Their skin is scaly, not flaky. And their eyes… Their eyes are like the eyes of snakes, or crocodiles.”

There was silence around the table as people blinked and looked at each other. Barry was grinning expectantly and Ellen looked amused. Fanya wore a look of undisguised horror. Josh shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Bingo just looked thoughtful. And John seemed to be unruffled, as usual.

After a moment, Rick broke into the stillness, declaring simply, “I can’t imagine it.”

“Aw, Rick!” Barry said, “You ruined the atmosphere! It was a good story, though, right?”

“Are there pictures?” Asked Fanya.

“No pictures — yet,” replied Barry.

“Can we please change the subject now?” Rick interrupted. “This is getting depressing and boring. We’re meant to be celebrating Josh’s success, not scaring him out of taking a Tube trip to DC, where anything could happen to him once he leaves our safe haven.” He grinned at Josh, then took the conversation in a different direction. “Has anyone heard what’s showing at Times Square these days? There’s a new thing out…”

Josh laughed, visibly relieved. As his friends returned to chatting about entertainment for the rich and famous, he allowed his thoughts to drift in an alcohol-induced haze. He shrugged Fanya’s hand off of his knee and began to enjoy the inane conversation. He would worry about all of the things Barry said tomorrow.

Chapter 4

Seattle, Washington State

The University of Washington fSZ

Thursday 13h12

Hannah Itsuko had just finished lunch when she remembered that the hot pink system square she needed was sitting on the passenger seat of her car. The petite environmental studies PhD candidate sighed and made her way slowly to her battered car, which had parked just inside of the West perimeter of the fSZ. Coming out of the Guthrie Center for Pacific Northwest Flora, she made her way down Grant Lane. The sky had clouded over, turning the light orange shimmer of the University fSZ forcefield into a blue-gray hue.

Just beyond the perimeter that hummed along the length of 15th Avenue NE, Grant Lane turned into NE 40th Street, which stretched westward. The pockmarked street was flanked by ruined buildings and rubble, and two or three stooped figures in tattered clothing shuffling silently about, fishing in piles of windblown trash. Hannah felt sorry for them. It began to drizzle lightly, and she cursed herself for forgetting to bring her umbrella. Functional SafeZones did not protect against rain. Within seconds, the clouds converging from direction of the Pacific Ocean thickened quickly and swirled overhead, threatening to spill sheets of rain. The gray sky above seemed to hold its contents, however, and continued only to drizzle, though the winds picked up. Hanna whispered a silent prayer of thanks and hurried the last few feet to her car.

As she unlocked her vehicle, something made her look up. One of the gritty hobos that had been hunting for trash in the distance began to stir. His or her shuffle — Hannah couldn’t tell — turned into a distinct churning of legs. The person was running towards her, and something was pounding along behind it. A creature. In near panic, Hannah took a few steps to a perimeter comm box and slammed on the blue button, calling for the campus Perimeter Guards.

One of them answered.

“I’m at the end of Grant Lane, and someone needs help –”

“We are aware of the incident, Miss. Unfortunately, we are unable to take action.”

“What do you mean, you can’t do anything? Help him!”

“We are terribly sorry, Miss. We simply cannot do anything.”

The grimy man outside of the forcefield ran on. Hannah cried and slammed the comm box off.

Grabbing a stone from the ground, she ran a few feet forward, right up to within inches of the forcefield. If she threw it, she would probably miss, and hit the man instead. She cried tears of frustration and let the stone fall limply from her hand. She shouted. “Come on, come on! You can do it!”

The creature was gaining on the hapless human — a bearded man with dark skin — who was now running as fast as his emaciated frame would allow. He was running directly towards her, screaming for help. Hannah stood rooted in place in horror as the creature came into focus. It must have been six or seven feet tall. It was garbed in shapeless cloth and had papery skin that seemed to flake off. Several other students had come out to gather behind her, watching in silent horror from a safe distance. They were all silent.

“Come on!” Hannah shouted again. Why was she the only one shouting?

The two figures quickly approached the forcefield, and before anyone could give a shout, the desperate hobo hurled himself full force towards the perimeter only a few feet away, towards Hannah. The girl began to reach out her arms, but the forcefield gave a deafening, thunderous sound and, suddenly, the poor man that was entering the sFZ exploded into tiny, sizzling pieces.

Shocked by the blast, the bulky creature stopped short five feet in front of her. It looked like an oversized, disease-ridden linebacker. The thing looked her in the eye for a split second as its barrel-sized chest heaved, and then turned to flee.

The girl stood rooted to the spot. Of course. Of course that’s why no one else was encouraging the man.

The Perimeter Guards could have shot the creature. They could have done something, damn it! They just didn’t want to.

Tears began streaming down Hannah’s face, trailing a path along the crisp bits of flesh that speckled her cheeks, and mingling with the rain that had begun to fall in earnest. Someone moved in from behind her and pulled an umbrella open over the two of them. The person tugged at Hannah’s elbow, leading her back to the safety of the buildings before the storm broke out. Hannah pulled away, wanting to stay outside.

Standing back without speaking, the person sheltered the shaking girl with his umbrella. As Hannah continued to stare at the retreating creature, she ignored the tiny flecks of burnt flesh and drops of blood that had spattered her. The rain would wash it away; it wouldn’t wash from her memory the contorted, haunted face of the dark man who had been zapped to bits, and the piercing, dark eyes of the creature.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” boomed Professor Emir el-Aziz, beaming. With a, deep voice, he addressed an eager crowd in one of the smaller auditoriums. “Congratulations. Thanks to the team’s hard work, we have finally completed our equipment procurement and secured the necessary energy permissions to resume operation.” There was a clattering of applause and few cheers. Dr. el-Aziz continued. “We have even managed to secure three new pieces. The wars have been devastating. But one ray of light has been a technological advance that comes from the defense industry, and its benefits will reach us as well. Through a partnership between MedTron-Mueller — as you know, Europe’s top medical research equipment manufacturer — the International Association of Neuroscience, and SolarScope Global, a new neuro-imaging technique has emerged.”

Eddie stood in the back of the room, leaning his lanky frame against the back wall. The stout man with an unkempt beard who stood next to him leaned over. “Direct imaging technology. I knew it. I had to keep it a secret, but I knew. We get priority on all three beauties, buddy!”

“What? Direct imaging! You didn’t tell me? I’m the Robin to your Batman, Keith! How could you not trust me?” Eddie whispered back, joking.

“What? Stop making medieval references,” Keith Hamilton shot back.

Eddie suppressed a laugh. “K, they’re turn of the century, not medieval!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mister I-am-a-nerd. All of this esoteric knowledge,” Keith’s shoulders shook with silent laughter.

“K, you’re insane. But you did get us priority. I will drill you later, Mastermind. Hush now, I’m trying to listen.” They turned their attention back to Dr. el-Aziz.

“…to attend briefings as scheduled on the Fliegerlied-8, ZORBA and ID-17. I hate to be a wet blanket, but because of the pre-operational meetings all day today, we do have to wait until Monday to properly resume research. Again, thank you for your patience and dedication. You can put the portable brain scanners away now. We are back online.”

The room erupted into a cacophony of talk as the crowd dispersed.

“I can’t believe you made me miss the most important announcement of the century!” Eddie said incredulously. “What are these meetings?”

Keith laughed, belly shaking. His voice was surprisingly high for such a large man. “A series of orientation meetings start in half an hour. New lab layouts, equipment and safety protocol, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And Team Fear gets to start learning how to use the new equipment. High five!” As corny as it was, Eddie couldn’t help but slap Keith’s open palm as they shuffled their way towards the door.

“Come on, sir — I’ll let you save your explanations for the group. I need a caffeinated sweetwater.” The two scientists — one lean and one rotund — looked like the number ten walking off towards the office they shared with the rest of the Fear Research Unit.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON STATE

Thursday

20h30 PST

“That’s great!” Len said from the kitchen. She popped her head around the corner of the door. “When will you start using it?”

“Tomorrow.” Eddie sat on the couch, leafing through some notes. He put his things down, overcome by the impulse to go to the kitchen and wrap his arms around Lennie, who was shaking powder out of a bag into a steel container full of water. “Can I help you with that?” He whispered into her ear.

She laughed, tickled. “It’s fine, Ed. I’m fine. Just need to add water and slosh it around and dinner will be ready.” Lenina dumped the empty bag of Ultra-Fortified Meatloaf into a bin to bring back to the Commissary. With one hand, she mixed the powder and water together with quick clangs of metal and with the other, she held Eddie’s arm closer to her. Eddie kissed her neck and kept talking.

“They’re going to make the announcement tomorrow about staff housing.”

“I hope we get it. You know they only come out at night, but you let your commute stress you out too much. You’re never out too early and you’re never home too late.”

“I know, dear but you know… You can’t be too safe. I wish you’d accept the position at the school medical center. You can just focus on the PISD and E-PISD cases at the functional SafeZone. You don’t have to spend all your time in BunkerLand.”

“Eddie, we live in BunkerLand. We’re BunkerFolk.”

“You know what I mean.”

Eddie stepped back as Len turned around in his arms. She kissed him between each word. “I. Have. To. Do. This.”

Eddie sighed, then, frustrated, just held her close. She risked her life every other day helping the people traumatized and affected by run-ins with Creatures and the losses of loved ones, ranging from the most “normal” of Post-Incident Stress Disorder cases to the extreme ones. But half of the time, she worked from her Bunker office around the corner. It would be safer if Len just moved her practice full time to the University functional SafeZone clinic instead — that is, if their number came up on the housing lottery.

He changed the subject. “Yeah — the new Residences are fully fitted and everything will be ready for move-in by the end of next week.”

“So — new imaging technology and potentially a couple spots in the fSZ? Eddie, my love. We might have a lot to celebrate tomorrow.”

“Indeed we will. This is why we’re having a special party at the lab. We’ll party like it’s 1999.”

Lenina laughed. “I love you.” She pulled Eddie towards the steel table and proudly held out a container full of gray paste. “Now let’s eat this Ultra-Fortified culinary masterpiece of mine before it gets warm.”

I’m an Accountant. I tell stories using lines of various sorts in two and three-dimensional space. Sometimes my stories surprise.