Hot Iron: Part 8 (Conclusion)

15.

Walters’ SUV careened around a corner. Barnet and Sarah followed, tires screaming. Pistol fire barked and flashed beneath the droning helicopters above. Every few seconds divots appeared in new places as an NCPD SWAT sharpshooter took pot-shots from a chopper. Sirens wailed and echoed to catch up from a side-street. Squad cars ramped downward to glide, level, with the sedan. More shots rattled off from the SUV. A squad car, swerved, side-swiped the sedan. It rebounded sideways, slammed a pole, and disappeared behind them.

“Shit!” Barnet said, glancing backward. “This has gotta’ stop.”

He slapped a new magazine into his pistol and the sedan ramped over a bridge’s apex, caught air, crashed down with a chirp of and groaning metal. A cruiser pulled ahead to PIT the SUV.

“No! Damn it! No!” Barnet yelled futilely. “We need to follow–” He dialed his phone, “Connect me with your supervisor immediately!

“This is bad,” Sarah said. She spun around a corner. The Squad car easily bridged the distance between her and the SUV. “If he PITs that truck we’ll never find Kennedy.”

Barnet wasn’t listening. He spoke a mile a minute, each word as important and urgent as the next or last. “This is Special Agent Garret Barnet with the NSA. I am currently in pursuit of a black Suburban headed South-West through the city. Your people are following. Tell them to back off. Follow but do not intervene! The suspect is holding an agent hostage and we need to–”

“Garret!”

The cop’s car lurched forward. It nudged for the SUV, hit air instead, almost spun out of control. Sarah jerked left to compensate. The squad car recovered, pulled ahead again. It edged up against the blown out rear-tire of the SUV.

Barnet muttered, “Oh shit,” ceaselessly.

When it came, they were too shocked, stunned. The call never went through. The PIT did: the squad car surged forward with a vengeance. Its supercharger whinnied with high RPMs beside the scraping metal and asphalt that cut a path through the city. With a seething hatred, the squad car lurched again. Barnet was conscious of a sustained “no!” chorusing from he and Sarah. The panel above the mangled steel rim depressed. Sparks vomited sideways. The mangled rim sheered in half, threw Walters into a fish-tail. The cop followed through.

Walters’ SUV three-sixtied through traffic. It smashed and bounced off cars that swerved to avoid it. The impacts threw it back around, shifted its gravity with reckless abandon. The gnarled rim caught a pot-hole, deformed. The truck’s gravity shifted. In a blink, it was on its side. A fountain of sparks formed along the sides of the vehicle as it slid along its roof. It smashed a parked car, momentum still strong. A moment later it was flipping up, over, and down the parked car. It finally came to a stop, upside down, in front of the car, its wheels still spinning but its body inert.

Sarah skidded to a stop before it. She and Barnet were out, flashing their badges at the dozen uniforms emerging from the fleet of police cars around them. They ordered the cops to stay back, rushed the overturned vehicle with their pistols drawn. Walters clawed his way out, bleeding and bruised. A gun in one of his hands scraped the ground for leverage, his other hand clawed forward.

Barnet kicked Walters’ pistol away, yanked the dazed man up, “Where is she, you asshole!?”

Walters swayed, reality spinning around him. Barnet straightened his face, put his gun to his head. Walters began a slow rise to laughter, his head shaking, “You aren’t getting shit from me.”

Barnet sneered, “We’ll see about that.”

With a single move, he pistol whipped Walters unconscious.

Kennedy sensed something had changed. The last two hallways were empty. Something had to have cleared them. Some sort of event had taken place, and as far as she could tell, had taken Walters’ goons with it. She led Melissa, carefully, along cheap, wood-paneled corridors. The place felt like a trailer-home from the seventies; only a step above being homeless with décor more a begrudging obligation than a luxury.

They moved deeper through the place and windows appeared beside a staircase that lead downward. With an outward look, Kennedy suddenly understood why the place seemed so odd. It was a large warehouse, not unlike the one she’d read had exploded, save it didn’t smell of fish. According to the mostly-vacant parking lot outside, and the thriving, industrial landscape around it, she guessed the building wasn’t used for anything official.

She crept down the stairs ahead of Melissa, voices uttering low words from behind a sheet-metal wall. One said something about a car-chase on TV. Melissa panted terror. Kennedy moved her into hiding behind a stack of thick-wood crates. Behind them, a maze of corridors and rooms were constructed from sheet-metal dividers. Ahead, just past the packed storage area, light shined from an open, roll-door.

She could almost feel the waning sunlight. Still, where would she go from there? She couldn’t risk waiting for Barnet or the cops, nor hot-wire a nearby car– that hadn’t been on the med-school curriculum, unfortunately. She’d have to flag someone down for a ride, or find a place to hide and call Barnet. Any waiting would expose her though, and there was no assurance against encountering one of Walters’ goons while hitch-hiking.

No, even if she made it past the two voices ahead, she needed something immediate. Mobility, certainty, something to ensure she and Melissa could go as fast and far as possible to get away. That left only one option, whether or not it was possible remained to be seen.

She knelt beside Melissa, handed over the pistol from her waist-band, “Melissa, I need you to help me. I know you’re scared, but we’ve to gotta’ get out of here. If we stay, they’ll kill us.”

Melissa nodded, took the gun with trembling hands, “I’ve never fired a gun in my life.”

Kennedy frowned, tested the weight of the AK in her hands, “Neither have I, but maybe we won’t have to.”

“What do I do?”

Kennedy peered around the stack of boxes at the sunlight, “Just stay hidden. If I get in trouble, help me. Can you do that?”

Melissa pulled herself together, swallowed hard, “Y-yeah. I can do that.”

Kennedy breathed, then started forward. She advanced through the storage area for the sheet-metal dividing wall and the double-wide opening between her and it. She flattened up against the wall, leaned out to peer around it; two men sat just beyond it in an office on either side of a desk. They faced away from the door to stare at a wall-mounted TV as a news report showed footage of an ongoing police chase. She saw the black SUV, instantly knew it was Walters. She scanned the two men, spotted a carabiner of keys latched to one’s belt loop. They dangled through his chair above a black car-remote.

Her confidence peaked. She moved like wind, quiet, fast. Her rifle butt rose, slammed the man with the keys in the back of the head. The other turned to pull a pistol. She turned the AK on him.

Slow. Left hand,” she ordered. He pulled the gun out backwards. “On the floor.” He tossed the gun over. “I swear if you make one move I’ll murder–”

A click sounded behind her.

“Someone’s outta’ their cage,” a voice said. “Put it down.”

She didn’t budge. Her rifle was trained on the man. The keys were in reach. She could end this if it weren’t for–

“I said put it down!” He ordered with a fast step forward.

A pistol barked. Blood sprayed from his torso. The other man dove for his gun. The AK sputtered and recoiled. More pistol rounds echoed through the small area over the AK. At point blank, Kennedy littered the man with enough ammunition to carve a large hole out of his body. Melissa was suddenly behind Kennedy, her nerve regained.

She breathed exhilaration, “Are you alright?”

Kennedy fished for the keys, fought them off the last man’s pants as he stirred, “Yeah. Let’s go.”

They sprinted outside, hit the panic button. A Civic in the parking lot honked and flashed its lights. The pairs sprinted to the car, dove in just as distant rifle rounds began to chatter after them. The car fish-tailed from the parking, rear-window exploding. A man chased it to the edge of the lot, but tore away at break-neck speed, careened around a corner, and disappeared; Kennedy and Melissa with it.

16.

Barnet and Sarah returned from a local holding area run by the NSA. Walters was in custody, and so far, not talking. He would though, the NSA interrogator would make sure of it. By the end of it, Barnet would know where Kennedy was being held, and the NSA would know everything Walters did– including his underwear size, if they desired.

Neither of the agents thought much of the Civic parked in the Dentist’s usual spot as they entered the building. They’d missed the shattered window, too preoccupied with plotting their next move. They ascended the stairs to the safe-house, moved through it, but stopped, dumbstruck to find Kennedy tending to Melissa’s bruised and cut face. She sat beside her brother, his hand in hers. She didn’t even flinch when Kennedy swabbed alcohol at her wounds. Melissa was just glad to yet live.

Barnet involuntarily rushed and hugged Kennedy; a grievous breach of protocol. Sarah was quick to redirect his shame before protocol took precedent, “We picked up Walters and were trying to get your location from him.”

Kennedy replied distantly, “We made it during the chase. I saw it on the news.”

There was a long silence. Barnet finally broke it, “I’m glad you’re alright.”

Kenned shrugged. That was the end of it.

She did eventually retell of the warehouse and the events there, but that was as far as she’d go. The job wasn’t over yet, not by a long-shot. She still had two patients to care for, one in better shape than the other, near ready to come out of her induced coma. The other though, had days of work and monitoring left before he could even be considered for it.

A week after the short-lived kidnapping, Kennedy arrived at the safe-house to find the others yet to make it in. Mendez was still drugged too heavily to do much more than sleep and sip water. Currently, she was occupied with the former. Kennedy did her level-best to remain quiet, wishing not to disturb the injured, young woman.

She went about her usual routine of checking vitals, charting, and rehanging banana bags. Once finished, she whirled around to find a stocky, balding man had sneaked in behind her. He seemed to want to make his presence known though, given his bearing. He wore polyester rags, liberally called a suit, his face was pinched in a perpetual scowl. Kennedy didn’t need med-school to tell her he was an asshole.

“Can I help you?”

He flashed an NCPD badge, “I’m Matthew Roberts with NCPD’s Internal Affairs division.”

“That supposed to mean something?” She asked combatively, certain he wasn’t allowed in.

He waddled over, “I’m here to check on Officers Mendez and Torres to ensure they’ll be ready to face indictment for their botched operation.”

Kennedy’s eyes narrowed. Unlike Roberts, she was aware of two, crucial things; one, at its heart, Hot Iron was meant to suss out a mole; and two, no-one in the NCPD was supposed to know either of the two officers were alive.

She faked out the cop. It was too obvious. She needed to act, and fast.

She stiffened up as if suddenly fearing his authority, “Okay. S-sorry. We just aren’t supposed to have anyone in here.”

She moved for a drawer across the room. He stepped before the two officers, surveyed them with a wide sweep of his eyes. He made casual conversation more forced than it should’ve been, “And how are they, doctor?”

She almost corrected him, didn’t. It was all the more evidence he present for something impersonal. She stepped beside him, drew out a large dose of something in a syringe.

He eyed it, “Everything alright.”

“Oh yes,” Kennedy lied. “Just a little something for the pain.”

He nodded. She turned, jabbed the needle into his neck, and flooded his veins with sedative. He was awake long enough to fumble for his gun. She forced it away, snapped his wrist with an expert move. The gun fell to the floor. Roberts went with it, hit harder, louder.

***

Kennedy sat in bed, reading a Scientific American about psychology and burn patients. She’d gotten authorization to awaken Torres soon. If Barnet had been truthful– and considering they were now sleeping together, she doubted he’d lie– it wouldn’t be more than a few days before both officers were moved back to the ICU. With them, any black marks would be removed from her license, and more thank likely, she’d be commended for capturing Roberts. That was, again, if Barent’s sentiments had been sincere, and again, she doubted he’d lie.

Her phone vibrated along the table beside her. She answered it habitually, “Hello?”

It was Kevin. “Kennedy, don’t hang up!”
She rolled her eyes, “What d’you want?”

“I just wanna’ get my stuff back,” he said quickly.

She sighed, “Kevin you left your shit here and I threw it out. Call here again, and it’ll be the least of your problems.”

She hung up the phone and returned to reading.

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Hot Iron: Part 7

13.

The guy was built like one of those Harley thugs from street-gang movies. In other-words, a brick shit-house that might’ve given Juan Torres a run for his money. That is, until he was slammed backward against a wall of shelves by the tiny, blonde NSA agent. Barnet watched with an almost sick satisfaction, smirking at the debilitated pain in the guy’s face. Sarah pressed a gun to his head with one hand, twisted his testicles with the other.

“Kieran Walters, asshole! Where is he?”

“Bitch, I… don’t know who you’re… talking about,” he said an octave higher than expected.

She gave an angry twist, “Tell me, or I rip ’em off!

Barnet was leaned against a car a few feet away, its hood open. He crossed his arms, casually, “You might wanna’ do what she says. I’m not sure she can do it, but personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing her try.”

“Sick fucks, both of–” A twist and a sharp inhale cut him off. His voice was even higher, “Alright, alright.” Sarah released him enough to speak. “I seen him come in here. He wanted a fleet of SUVs. Yah. And when I asked him to sign the paperwork, he dropped a briefcase full’a money on the table.”

Barnet moseyed over, “We’ve found the fleet, all twelve of ’em.”

He spoke through curled, nicotine-stained lip, “What about the last one? Thirteen?”

Sarah readied to squeeze again, glanced back at Barnet, “What d’you think?”

“Walters seems like the type to account for this.”

They exchanged a glance and looked back to the guy for an explanation. He shrank away as best he could. “The guy… Walters… didn’t know, but I had trackers in the trucks. Just in case… something happened.”

He grit his teeth, fearful of another twist. The two agents had a silent conversation of tilted and raised facial features. Finally, Sarah looked back, “Give us the tracker’s I-D frequency, we pretend this little infraction never happened. We’ll even keep your parole officer from hearing about it.”

“Yeah?” She raised an eyebrow. “And I can keep the money?”

Barnet shook his head pitifully, “The NSA doesn’t give a shit about Walters’ money, or yours, just quit jerking us around.”

The guy swallowed hard, nodded. Sarah released him, but kept her gun up. It followed his half-limp around and into a nearby office. He sat behind a desk, nursed himself with a gentle hand and typed with the other.

“Fuckin’ bruised ’em, I think.”

“Poor baby.”

He switched out hands to scribble down a series of letters and numbers on a memo pad, then tore off the page for Barnet. He went back to cradling himself, with both hands this time, “That’s it. Feed it into any GPS monitor and it’ll show up the next time the truck starts.”

“Why the wait?” Barnet asked.

He shrugged, breathed carefully, “I dunno. That’s just always how the system’s worked…. I’d say I wish I could offer more help, but we’d all know it’s a lie.”

Sarah safetied her pistol, slid it into her hip-holster, and stepped away. Barnet moved to leave, nodded at the guy, “Best to get some ice on ’em before too long.”

“Yeah. Right. I’ll do that.” The door to the office shut. “Asshole.”

A bucket of ice water splashed Kennedy’s face and torso. She choked and coughed, gasping for air and spitting out inhaled water. Walters’ fingers nursed his wounded neck as she shook water from her face, opened her eyes to see him lean in at nose-length again.

“That wasn’t very smart. Try some it again, I’ll strip you naked and feed you to my men.”

Her eyes burned with hatred. Her emotional control had returned in full-force, and was currently tempering her fear into active hatred and undeniable logic. “No. You won’t. Not if you ever hope to get anything out of me. My guess is, until then, you’ll keep me as safe and sane as possible. Otherwise, you. Are. fucked.

Walters straightened from his lean and began to laugh. He looked back at one of his men, “Maybe I was wrong about this one. Maybe she is a smart girl.”

Walters nodded to the man. He stepped to a nearby door and threw it open with one hand, the other clasped around a Kalashnikov. Someone was thrown toward him. He dragged them in, forced them forward at rifle-point. The person stumbled, hands bound with rope and mouth gagged with a swath of cloth.

Kennedy’s eyes widened at Melissa Fannon. Juan Torres’ bombshell sister looked like hell. She’d passed the point where any amount of time could make her look whole again, no matter her skill with make-up.

Walters smiled with a sadistic satisfaction, “Now, my bows, they’ve already had their way with this one. I figure though, you’re a… medical professional, took an oath to “do no harm–” He felt at his neck with a sickly wince. “And my guess is, that extends to this–” He knelt down, grabbed Melissa by the back of the head, “this poor, cowering creature here.” He threw her head forward, stood up, and pulled a gun from his hip. He stopped between Kennedy and Melissa, gun aimed at the latter, “Now, she doesn’t know where they’re holding her brother, but you do. You can see where this is going, I imagine. In case you don’t, let me just say, I have no problem killing her to get you to talk.”

“What if I don’t?” Kennedy asked, eyes locked on Walters’.

He cocked the pistol’s hammer, “Maybe we should find out.”

Kennedy grit her teeth. Walters hesitated. Melissa’s eyes were stuck in a traumatized stare. She’d clearly been through something. Kennedy hoped, whatever it was, Walters was lying about it. All the same, she was at a loss. If she gave them the information, they’d have no use for her anymore, and they’d kill her. Then, they’d kill Melissa, raid the NSA Safe-house, kill Mendez, Torres, and whomever else got in the way.

She looked up at Walters, “How do I know you won’t kill us afterward just for the fun of it?”

Walter’s head tilted in agreement. He knelt to match his height to hers, eyes boring holes into her own, “Well, I suppose, that’s just the risk you take.”

Kennedy inhaled a sharp breath. Her stomach churned. “Alright. No games.”

She took a breath, and relayed an address. Walters immediately ordered his men to ready up over a two-way radio, put the man in the room on guard and left. It was only a matter of time before he realized the address was a fake. With any luck, the real NSA safe-house next door would intervene.

14.

Sarah’s sedan pulled into a space a few places down from the Dentist’s car. He’d been and gone since lunch, and was currently inside working on one of his patients. Barnet and Sarah eased from the car, neither much in the mood for talking. They still had to get upstairs, begin monitoring the GPS signal, and hope, when it registered again, it would lead to Kennedy… and that she’d still be alive.

They pushed into the building as a vehicle rolled up behind them. They ignored a shout as four doors opened. The building door shut, and Barnet’s mind blocked it out. He was too focused on finding Kennedy. Upstairs, they had only the vaguest sense that something was off. A loud crash sounded, but given the place below was a bar, it was neither uncommon nor alarming.

Sarah took a place at her laptop, keyed in the GPS ID the ex-con had given them. Barnet stood before the two, scarred patients with his arms crossed. His thoughts were only of Kennedy and an undeniable guilt at involving her. She’d only been gone a few hours, but she could be dead by now, maybe worse. In his line of work, death was quick, simple, with no time for undue suffering. More often than not though, guys like Walters excelled in make suffering a deranged art. He didn’t want to admit any of it to Sarah, as her hope kept him going, but his own was a facade that could easily disintegrate if not careful.

Kennedy Hart. She shouldn’t be here. She was a nurse, not an agent. Hell, she hardly had a life outside work. To think it might be over so young, so needlessly, wounded him. He may not have put the gun to her head, but he’d damned sure put her in position for Walters to. He and the Agency– the NSA, that was prepared to disavow Barnet’s entire operation if things went sideways and the wrong people found out what was going on. Barnet wasn’t even sure anymore, not really.

He’d sussed out what he could from what he hadn’t known. Hot Iron had never been solely about locating and eliminating Walters. That was the one thing he’d lied about. The NSA was intent on taking Walters in, interrogating him with prejudice, and getting everything from him they could. They’d charge him in a secret court, and shove him in a cell so deep underground he’d be dead a decade before anyone learned he’d been caught. In the meantime, they and the other acronym agencies would use whatever they’d learned to forward their own, particular agendas.

It made him sick to think of it. Half truths and white-lies. That was what he’d given to Kennedy. There was no way to avoid the guilt. He’d been as honest as he could be, told her enough to know to keep herself safe, protect her job from the people holding it hostage. It wasn’t enough. It never could’ve been. He doubted full-fledged field-training would’ve put her in the right place to take on Walters. The man was a trained, ex-mercenary on a warpath. The entire CIA hadn’t been able to keep him leashed, even then the NSA hadn’t been able to catch him. What hope could Kennedy have in his hands?

It was on Barnet’s watch that Kennedy had been hit and captured. Her T-boned Taurus was still being combed for clues at the crash-site. What a waste of effort and time. It could’ve been better directed elsewhere, at finding her, at squeezing every last resource the agency had to do so.

“It’s in,” Sarah said.

Barnet nodded. Another crash sounded below. Four doors slammed shut outside. An SUV ground to a start.

“Hold on, we’re getting something,” Sarah said, the screen before her triangulating with a progress bar.

Barnet heard doors slam and suddenly knew.

“It’s–”

“Here.”

His pistol was out, legs pumping for the building’s entrance. He threw himself through the office-door, bounded down the steps, then crashed through the building’s entrance. Tires squealed as he burst outside. His pistol rose, barked rounds. The SUV’s rear-window shattered. A tail-light burst. Sarah was out behind him, diving into the car. Barnet aimed one last shot, blew out a rear-tire on the SUV. It fish-tailed away over metal grating asphalt. Three tires screeched, whipped it around a corner. Sarah threw the car through a reverse 180, door open. Barnet reloaded as he jumped in. Rubber burned and peeled away after the SUV, the force slamming the doors shut.

They blazed through an intersection. Sirens blared and began to scream along behind them. They galloped forward, engine whining, pursuing the wounded truck. Barnet leaned from his window, fired wildly into the rear of the truck. Blood sprayed a window and someone in a rear-seat slumped sideways, dead from a stray round. Another person turned around.

“Down!” Barnet yelled.

He shoved Sarah beneath the dash. She fought to keep the car straight, blind. A Kalashnikov chattered, and spit ammunition and shell casings out the back window. Divots danced across Sarah’s hood and windshield. A double triplet of fire shattered the window over them. The sedan chirped and barked, weaved to dodge more fire. It died for a reload.

Barnet was up, “Keep it steady!”

He took a deep breath, aimed at the figure in the backseat. It fumbled with a new magazine. Timed slowed. Barnet breathed, squeezed. Blood and brain splattered from an exit wound. It spit across seat-backs and the windshield, threw the SUV into a frenzy as the driver struggled to wipe it away.

Time resumed. Screaming sirens and the squeal of sparking metal sounded over the bark of Barnet’s gunfire. The truck threw itself around corners, used its fish-tails to dodge the shots. A helicopter thumped into view overhead. Squad cars behind them suddenly surged forward to come even with them– the cops would have run their plates, deduced what was happening. The day’s earlier events assured everyone knew the NSA and FBI were hunting someone. The chopper pulled ahead with a bloodthirsty vengeance above, then sank like a stone to cut off Walters’ SUV.

The chase diverted into an alley, rocketed out the other-side into heavy traffic.

Walters ducked in the front seat, phone to his ear, “Kill them. Line them up and kill them both.”

The man in the room before Kennedy thumbed his phone, shoved it into a pocket. He advanced with his rifle on her. A hand grabbed Melissa, threw her at the far wall across from Kennedy. She knew what was about to happen, had only one chance to stop it. She was a nurse, knew human anatomy better than most. She’d have to put it to the test. But how? Could she? She was sworn to help people, but this was different, wasn’t it?

The man unlocked her first cuff. She had to wait until she was up. She couldn’t risk not having full leverage. There were a million ways to kill a person, probably more. Most of them she’d seen, either as attempts, or eventual successes. They all required both hands.

“Beside her, now!” Her second hand came free and he pulled her up.

Nothing mattered now except survival.

She straightened to step forward. His rifle was low, its butt even with his diaphragm. It wouldn’t take much. She moved to step. A fast grip and heavy jolt; the rifle-butt slammed his diaphragm. He fell back, breathless. She wrestled the rifle away. A heavy jerk broke it free. A moment later the butt crushed his throat. A crunch, and he was dead, spinal cord severed.

Kennedy’s chest heaved from the effort, mind still reeling. A flit from Melissa forced her into action. In a flash, she was beside her, rifle in hand, fighting knotted rope at her wrists. She freed the gag from Melissa.

“Y-you k-killed him,” she said, traumatized.

She fought the rope, “These knots. The rope’s too tight.”

“He h-has a kn-knife,” Melissa said, eyeing the body.

Kennedy hurried over to search him, found a pistol and a large survival knife. She slid the pistol into the waistband of her scrubs, then sliced through the binds on Melissa’s wrist.

“Ready?” Melissa nodded. “Stay behind me. We’ll get out of here. I promise.”

Hot Iron: Part 6

11.

Kennedy’d felt foolish about her state the moment it was gone. She knew why it had been there, even that it was foolish at the time, but it had overwhelmed her. Paranoia and professional fears were the obvious roots of things; fearing the NSA was betraying her was overwhelmed by the fear of going against them. That was, of course, to say nothing of the ethical lapse required to do what she’d done. She’d be unable to compartmentalize for once, do her job as expected.

Kevin would’ve thought it a win, but it was a loss no matter what way Kennedy looked at it. Her emotions had overwhelmed her to the point of physical illness. She’d lost total control, become a subject to the whims of her own self-involvement. She didn’t like it. Emotions could help to heal people, but when they got in the way, they killed. It was one thing to have a bed-side manner, it was another to let it override everything she’d worked to become and trained for.

Stuck in evening traffic on Michigan Avenue, she had no choice but to consider it. The start-stop pace was enough to make anyone painfully introspective– or outright hostile– and she was merely another of its victims. She watched the left lane creep by as someone in a new, sleek BMW head-banged to metal older than him. Even from the angle she could see the glow of the windscreen’s in-built HUD that was even more excessive and unnecessary than the slick chrome and LEDs lights glowing in its sockets and undercarriage.

She rolled her eyes and let her beater idle forward. Reaching the north end of Neo-chicago these days wasn’t easy, especially when night-shifts immersed her the combo traffic of eager, homeward bound commuters and booze-thirsty tourists and clubbers. She could’ve taken any number electric, public shuttles or elevated light-rails, but traffic was the only procrastination a governmental body still allowed. That, and there was no telling when she might get to work and suddenly find she wasn’t needed and was sent home.

How she’d gotten where she was remained a puzzle. At least in regards to Barnet and the NSA’s requirements. The only satisfactory answer Kennedy had managed to suss out of things was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. How many other people could say the same for their jobs? Then again, how many of them were being extorted by the NSA to do as requested or end up jobless and charged for treason? She was certain the answer was low enough there couldn’t even be a support group for them. These days, that was saying something.

It was another half-hour before traffic crept along far enough for her to break away onto another, high-traffic avenue. Thankfully, this one was less crowded, allowing for a low speed cruise to take the place of inching forward between stop lights.

She accelerated through one intersection for another, the road almost completely empty. Scattered headlights in the oncoming lanes ensured she wasn’t, in fact, dreaming. The NSA safe-house was only minutes away. No doubt when she arrived she’d be just in time to catch the meeting with the NSA’s specialized med-staff she was now in charge of.

A check of her watch said she was later than expected. She revved up through a yellow light. A horn wailed. Her head turned right. An SUV’s headlights bore down on her. Her passenger-side crumpled, T-boned. Her belt lashed tight, whipped her back and forth. She had the vague notion of spinning before her head hit the steering wheel and everything went black.

Time passed in gaps, flashes. Black SUVs and masked figures encircled her. Her head swayed, feet heavy. She absently clutched the cell-phone scanner. An unmasked face appeared with familiar, darting eyes. Commands were issued, orders shouted. Gun barrels rose. Kennedy’s finger tapped at the scanner. Kieran Walters raised a weapon. A burst of blue light engulfed her. Her body seized, and she lost consciousness. Walters’ men pulled her from the car, shoved her into the backseat of his SUV.

Across town, Barnet was standing before Torres and Mendez, looking down with something akin to sympathy. Except, he wasn’t sure it was sympathy. There was the definite twinge of pain, like a paper cut, but a sickened bile beneath it said he felt less for them than something else. Hopefully, it would reveal itself before–

“Hart’s scanner just went off. Signal’s Incomplete.” The blonde woman said suddenly from beside him.

She handed a tablet over, incomprehensible Morse code scrawled over it. “What do we know?”

“Police scanners are going haywire,” she led him for a computer hooked across the room. Above it, a large, flat-screen television flared on and mirrored her actions. “I pulled sat-images from the phone’s last GPS hit.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Barnet was staring at a bird’s eye view of the crash scene. A fleet of black SUVs had encircled another buried in the passenger-side of a small four-door sedan. The sat images honed to a high-resolution, and Barnet left all doubt behind. Kennedy’s blue Taurus was totaled, the driver’s door still open. Between it and another SUV, two figures were pulling a third, limp figure away to stuff it into an SUV.

Barnet tossed the tablet, felt for his gun at his hip, and began back-stepping from the room, “Call NCPD; tell them to shut down all roads out of the city. Get the FBI to shut down the back roads. And have our ground units sweeping. I want choppers in the air now!”

“I got it. go!”

He sprinted from the office, bounded along the stairs, then burst out the front door for his sedan. Its tires squealed from the parking lot.

He dialed his phone to speak to the woman remotely, “Sarah, I need an address.”

A pair of black choppers suddenly whizzed past, nav-lights blinking blue and red and under-belly spotlights flaring on to swivel about beside their nightvision cameras. NSA sharpshooters sat before each open door.

Their low flight nearly drowned out Sarah’s reply, but he caught enough to know where to head. His car slipped and squealed around corners, screamed through lights, wound and weaved through traffic with a whining supercharger. His phone rang as he approached the scene; a dozen police cars and a fleet of ambulances and fire-trucks had already cordoned off the intersection to re-direct traffic.

“Barnet,” he answered.

“NCPD has a location on one of the fleet vehicles. It’s in an alley not far from you, West–” His car screeched a 180 for the location. “Air units believe it’s abandoned, but advise to approach with caution. The FBI’s already sending in a team.”

“Sarah, tell them to hold position. I want bomb-sniffers out before anyone gets near it.”

She affirmed his order. He fish-tailed around a corner, accelerated for the nearby alleyway. A few unmarked box-trucks were already in position on one side of it. Barnet skidded to a stop, jumped out with the car still running.

He flashed his badge, “Who’s in charge.”

A man in a full tac-gear hung back as his team advanced on the alley, “That’d be me. Special Agent Roy Cullen, HRT.”

Barnet saw men moving through the alley. “Pull them back. Pull them back now!

“I’m going to have to ask–”

“There may be a proximity armed bomb in that vehicle. Tell your team to–”

Barnet’s next words were lost. A fireball lit the air with a blinding flash. The truck’s panels and windows erupted outward with it. The shock wave blew Barnet and Cullen sideways. Glass from shattered windows along the street rained amid pulverized brick-dust and crumbling debris. Car alarms whined blocks away.

Barnet landed more than a dozen feet from where he’d stood. Cullen lie ahead of him, a few feet away, unconscious from the blast’s concussion. Several of the box-trucks had overturned, mounds of gathering rubble piling atop them and Barnet’s car. A section of building came loose from above, landed with a crush of metal and a burst of dust. The dust engulfed his vision and he passed out.

12.

Kennedy eased back to consciousness, tried to reach for her head, but found her arms cuffed behind her. Sharp pains stabbed at all of her nerve-endings, forced her to cry out. Her lips pulled tight against duct tape slapped over them.

Light suddenly flared through tar-thick darkness, made her eyes leak tears. She was blind for a full minute, her breath in ragged bursts from her nose as heavy steps approached her with angry breaths. She blinked away water, focused her eyes against the light. A silhouette appeared before her, the floodlight redirected to reveal it properly.

Familiar, short-cut, graying hair and an unmistakably European-something face appeared atop a tall body clad in a leather riding jacket and t-shirt and jeans. Kennedy’s eyes widened, her face white. If she hadn’t been gagged, she might have vomited in pure terror. Instead, she merely squeaked, panted through her nose above the tape.

Kieran Walters leaned forward at nose-length, “You know who I am.”

It was a statement. She knew that. She also gathered he was aware of her association with the NSA. She swallowed hard. Then, with a solemn nod, reaffirmed his statement. A lightning hand gripped either side of her face. It squeezed at her upper jaw, directed her eyes to his.

“Then we’ll skip the small-talk.” His grip tightened. She squeaked terror again, afraid her teeth would crack. He spoke slowly, enunciated each word to inflect more intimidation and malice than Kennedy thought a human could. “Where. is. Juan. Torres?

She shuddered, shook. The stabbing nerve-endings sent shocks through her body. Knives stuck into her heart and lungs, made each breath like swallowing razor blades. He released her face, tore the tape away with a loud riiip! She sobbed incomprehensibly, vaguely saying she didn’t know. Walters balled a fist, hit her like a Mack truck. Bruising was instant. The tight pull of swelling said it would last. She tasted blood from her a split lip. It leaked from along her chin, hot, wet.

Her stomach lurched, and her face involuntarily stiffened up. She needed to remain collected, calm, wait to get the upper hand, and stay alive long enough for Barnet to find her. Neither panic nor hysteria would help her. She did her best to still her trembling limbs against the lingering effects of the stunner’s charge and the bruised wounds Walters had caused.

She sniffled away the last of her tears, “I’ll n-need a p-pen… and a free hand.”

Walters nodded at someone in the room’s darkened recesses. A man stepped forward with a pen and pad of paper. Walters took it, knelt to undo her cuffs and freed both of her hands. She rubbed her sore wrists as he stepped back. With a deft hand she wrote in miniature script, then handed over the pad and kept the pen.

He squinted at it, “Three-Thirty-one fukyerself la—”

She lunged, pen out, aimed for his jugular. It speared his neck to a stream of blood, but no spurt. Kennedy internally panicked. She’d missed.

Walters stumbled back, “Fuck!”

The man in the shadows sprinted over, his rifle on her. She spit at their feet, “Go to hell, asshole!”

Walters tore the pen from his neck with a grunt, “Bitch!”

Blood leaked through his tense fingers, kept pressure on the wound. He stepped forward, hit her hard enough to knock her unconscious again.

Barnet eased up from a cot in a mobile relief-center; a tent on the edge of the explosion zone. He checked himself to ensure he was intact, found only minor scratches and a thick coat of soot and dust. He stumbled for a tent flap ahead, passed sedated and burned FBI agents and others groaning in pain and shock. He stepped out to find fresh, morning sun streaming down on a new day.

The tent was an eye of order in an otherwise chaotic storm. It had been setup across the street from the initial explosion, in the mouth of the opposite alley from where the truck had been. Fire-trucks lined the whole city block, still soaking smoldering ruins and fires that seemed to want to flare up or spread incessantly. The din of countless uniformed officers, plain-clothes and suited FBI agents, and a myriad of EMTs, doctors, and fire-fighters criss-crossed the open spaces between emergency vehicles and tents.

Barnet paused in the thick of things to get his bearings; Kennedy needed to be found, sooner rather than later.

“Garret!” Sarah jogged up, dressed in a sharp suit and looking more masculine than usual. Her tie flapped behind her, “Garret, you’re alright!”

He felt himself over again to make sure, “No holes, anyway.”

She breathed relief, “Thank Christ. Listen, we’ve got Intel on the fleet Walters was using.” His senses honed enough for him to take in the information. “They’re registered to a local rental company operating out of the city’s East-side.”

His mind lagged to see her point, “It would’ve been easy to falsify the information to rent the vehicles, Sarah. I don’t think–”

She waved him off, “Right, but the owner’s an ex-con with prior felonies. He’s on his lat strike. More than likely, he’d have been given big money to keep his mouth shut. But if we squeeze him, he might give us something.”

His mind sputtered to work as he watched fire-fighters flood the ruined block with ultra-jets of water. His eyes met Sarah’s. “It’s our only lead?” She gave a nod. “Then you drive. I’m… not sure what they gave me, but I feel like I’m back in high-school.”

She led him through the sea of people to her car, “Are you sure you want to do this? I can deal with one ex-con.”

He thought of Kennedy at Walters’ mercy and gave a resolute shake of his head. “No. I won’t let this go unanswered. It happened on my watch. If it weren’t for me, Kennedy wouldn’t even be a target. She shouldn’t have ever been a part of this in the first place. The agency made a mistake with the way this was handled. I aim to see she doesn’t pay for it and gets back in one piece.”

They slid into Sarah’s black sedan. She started the car, hesitated with a long look to Barnet. Emotions played over her face for a moment. When she finally spoke, it was with a grave reservation at her own words. “Garret, you may have to accept…” Bile scorched her throat. It was almost unbearable to think her own thoughts, let alone speak them. “Walters might’ve already killed her.”

“No,” he reasoned firmly. “If Walters had wanted her dead, he’d have killed her on the road. He needed her alive. He wants something from her.”

She put the car in gear, “I sincerely hope you’re right.”

Short Story: A Lost Cause?

The Paris Incident… what more can be said that hasn’t been already? Everyone knows how it started, everyone knows why it went to shit, and everyone knows how the Americans– the biggest bulls of them all– were silently and willingly castrated. Jesus Christ, we were so stupid.

To understand why Lemaire’s death had such little effect on us, you have to understand where we’d come from. Then, once knowing that, you’d have to understand why we did what we did.

When Lemaire died, and Paris went up in flames, we watched with the rest of the world, petrified just like them. The difference was, we could mount no revolution of our own. Funny thing about being the one with the biggest stick– when its turned on you, you’re pretty well fucked. Blue-collar, white collar; didn’t matter your shirt-color, if you’d found a place to bitch about things, you were jailed before the broader ‘net heard your complaints.

But like I said, you have to understand where we came from. It started decades ago with the first, foreign terrorist attack this country had seen. It wasn’t just a tragic occurrence for us. Other places in the world were used to that sort of thing. Not us. Between the IRA, the middle eastern sects, and the average, everyday nut-jobs Europe was rife with those attacks. Paris, London, Berlin, hell even Belgium and Sweden had felt their fair share of the dirt being kicked up by those fucking jihadists to the south.

Us though? We weren’t like them. We had security, sanctity, sovereignty, and in them, peace of mind.

So when that first attack hit, it was more than just a pin-prick in our overblown ego, it was a god damn gaping hole in the balloon. Unfortunately, that balloon was also our heads and what we did after, even if for the best of reasons, made sure of it. When the time finally came for us to face our demons, we realized we’d left ourselves powerless.

For decades we’d heard from ultra-leftists about the “erosion of freedoms,” while the right pitched its agenda as the “protection of rights.” It was all just rhetoric meant to hide what people were really afraid to say; we were becoming slaves– either to our government, or the corps that eventually took over. We were all chained to 9-to-5s, rising taxes, and crippling debt. Not even the best and brightest of us could escape after college tuition went through the roof. For the first time in history, we started seeing cities– literal cities– go belly up from outrageous debt and unyielding corruption.

So we did what any first world nation would, printed more money and gave it out by the bucketfuls to people whom promised to protect our economy. Ha, yeah, bullshit. What most did was take the money and run. Turns out ol’ Steve Miller was right after all, but our Billy-Joe and Bobby-Sue were Wall Street and the Financial industry. The difference? They didn’t so much shoot a man after robbing his castle as knock us down and trample our faces in mud as they ran roughshod over our country and economy.

So what we eventually had was a whole country of people terrified from a blow to their ego, scraping to get by after a near-totally collapsed economy. Understanding that makes it easier to understand what came next, and led us to our… current, predicament.

It became obvious about a decade after the first attack– the only attack, really– that our freedoms were eroding. Even as the politicians called for increased security, safety, and freedom, they forced laws past that tightened their grip around our throats and our own belts. They bludgeoned rights and freedoms with repeated attempts to pass harsher and more ambiguous laws, gave total power to acronym and police agencies. The shit storm that hit the fan when we later found out– shockingly– that power was used for all the most malicious purposes, was too little too late.

Whod’ve thought, right?

All kidding aside, what we had was a country of pissed off, desperate people too poor, hungry, and terrified to lift themselves up. More importantly, they clutched for anything and everything that even remotely resembled security– you know, that bygone illusory thing we’d always thought we’d had. So when the corps came in to downsize the police force, clean-up the borders, and take-over the already-corrupt justice system, who’d have thought it could get any worse?

No-one. Why? Because we’d never seen such atrocities committed by our own people, let alone against our own people. We were simply naive; a country too young and juvenile in mind to realize we should be careful of the silver spoon fed to us, lest it contain arsenic and cyanide. Instead, we swallowed it whole, gorged ourselves on lies, empty promises, and rhetoric and propaganda that would have shamed the Nazis. All of that, in the hopes that everything would “get better soon.”

The eternal why is simple really, we are naïve, both as a country and as a culture. The English empire has spanned millennia. Even most, legal orders of European countries were hundreds of years older before they fell. Comparatively, we were short-lived. It made us that much easier to conquer. Hearts and minds were a hell of a lot more effective than guns and bombs, and most of corp execs knew that. We didn’t. So they promised everything our hearts desired, and the return of peace of mind through it, and we didn’t hesitate.

In a matter of months, the US police forces were eliminated by various sects of corporate security. The Military went with them. Soldiers were given a choice to stay on with one of various corporations or leave without a second consideration. The Navy was outright eliminated, air superiority a given from the Warhound-Raptors patrolling the skies and coasts in flocks. More to the point, we relinquished any hopes of self-defense in a bid to keep foreign execs happy.

The State and Federal Governments stuck around a little while longer than most civil services to “ease the transition.” More bullshit. What they did was pass a whole slew of laws all that pretty much eliminated the bill of rights and nullified the constitution. Why? They were all bought and paid for. Every last one of them held positions in corps, received weekly checks from their payroll. We learned that the hard way when the last of the governments dissolved– and we clapped and hooted and hollared about it.

And then there was silence.

Fucking deafening silence.

Media outlets went off the air, the ‘net went down, and all but a few vehicles were banned from the streets and skies. Conventional vehicles were outlawed to fatten the corps’ bottom lines through public transport and electric vehicles. The only thing we really owned anymore was our debt– hell from what I hear, even our sperm and eggs aren’t really ours anymore. It belongs to the corps now. Everything. All of it’s just waiting for some reason to be cut off and sold off to lower our life-debts.

I can’t even really be angry. Not really. I’m just disappointed. Our country had so much potential, such an unbelievable beauty and spirit. It seemed nothing could crush it except us. Then we did. Our streets turned into mostly dilapidated, abandoned memories outside inner-cities. Homes are gone too, everyone stuck in corp-owned buildings, prisons, or risking the elements hiding on the cities’ outskirts. None of those is a viable option to me, not really, but I take what I can get.

So, just like yesterday, I’ll slip into my boots, strap on my armor, grab my rifle and go to work. Maybe today someone will stand against us. Maybe I’ll be forced to gun them down. Then again, maybe not. Maybe we’ll be faced with another person standing beside them. Then another, and another until the whole damned country’s ready to die to take back what’s been stolen.

If not, I’ll just go lick the hand that feeds me again. I’d rather bite it, but I’m not gonna’ let it beat me into submission like the other inmates and homeless unless I’ve got a damned good reason. I may have a gun, but really, I’m just another wage-slave with armor in place of a suit.

I don’t know if it matters, or if it really could– you know, to be one who stands up. All I know’s the older I get, the more I start to wonder; are we really a lost cause?

Short Story: Think Deeply

The bomb threat at the Oakton Memorial Hospital had been called in by an anonymous tip. Whether or not it was credible, the two-thousand odd doctors, nurses, M-As and other people inside were evacuated. A whole city block was cordoned off. Police blockades re-directed traffic or otherwise halted it whole for two blocks further on all sides. Someone had estimated, if the building went, its parking garages at either side and a few of emptied businesses might go too.

The chaos was already well under way when the Emergency Response Squad arrived. The new-age SWAT team was more an army than a police force, privately funded by many of Oakton’s large corporations to relieve the local, municipal government’s pressures. In truth they were free-agents, authorized to use any and all force necessary to eliminate threats. Unlike police, they were not a government agency, and were free to do any of a number of sordid things– like kill without the petty worries of justice, due process, or the pesky amendments protecting the obviously guilty from being presumed as such.

In short, ERS was everything American Police wished to be with none of the obligations that kept them in check.

ERS was rarely called in, though. OPD didn’t like having its toes stepped on, neither as an entity nor as as individuals comprising that entity. Even so, they couldn’t handle a threat of this nature alone. Recent years of poor press and tension between citzens and the department had festered a growing resentment. Among other things, it kept many would-be peace officers from joining.

OPD gracefully bowed to ERS, this time. In request for aid, containing the situation and keeping panic from spreading, ERS’ crack-squad were sent in. Their ingress across Oakton from its outskirts was unmistakable. They rolled in like an army in freshly armored sleek, blackened APCs with angry looking cannons. The vehicles were all thick, steel-plated angles and cylinders with tires enough to crush even the largest of vehicles that got in their way. Enough of the pseudo-tanks were able to form an impassable wall around the hospital’s entire city-block.

Captain Abraham Logan stepped from an APC. As acting leader of the ERS battalion, he had complete autonomy. His ultra-thin, kevlar and graphene-woven, black uniform and tac-vest gave him all the menace of SWAT combined with the next-gen tech of an army more advanced than the US’s own. The comm-link in his ear was satellite-guided, good for up to a thousand meters under water, or a mile of concrete on all sides. It connected him with ERS dispatch that had twenty-four hour access to public and corporate satellites to monitor situations in real-time.

Equipped with thermographic and night-vision, A-R glasses, Logan could see in the dark while overlaying his GPS-tracked location on a map of the hospital to one side of his vision. In combination with the Explosive Ordinance sniffers embedded in small, microscopic points around his clothing, he was almost singularly useful. His own stubborn will and battlefield experience would keep him and his people alive so long as they listened.

He led his group to the doors, their hi-tech gadgetry enabled and their comm-links active. Their AR glasses even had small cameras to keep ERS-dispatch aware of the teams’ surroundings. They presently showed Logan and his team breaching the facility with expert movements, their voices short, punctual.

“Cut the lights,” Logan ordered through his comm.

An ERS dispatcher, linked to the city’s power grid and the Hospital’s auxiliary generators, did as instructed. The lights went out. Gleaming, sterile white and warm wood paneling turned to dark silhouettes and blackness underfoot. It was almost blinding. The team’s AR glasses faded up their night-vision, and the way ahead was clear– albeit a little more gray-toned than usual. The active sniffers on Logan’s suit tracked scents of plastique and something most certainly lethal, but unidentifiable.

The team moved in sweeping caution, to a stairwell. They burst through its entrance to follow the stairs downward for a basement boiler room. Silence beneath their collective boot-steps sent a chill down their spines. Even Logan, war-hardened as he was, shuddered from the cold. He hid it from his team, led them further down in silence. The E-O trail was hot, as a faint, green line on the AR at their eyes.

They slipped into the bowels of the hospital beyond the stairs, angled for a morgue spanning half the basement. This was where they kept their dead. Everything said it. It was cold, morbid, and overpoweringly sterile smelling. A slightest scent of death though, still remained– as if it could never be scrubbed for its eternally continued presence.

Once more they readied to breach and entered the morgue. The team’s chill shudder returned in full force, caused a pause to their advance. Night-vision revealed steel surfaces of counters, tables, and gurneys both empty and filled across the morgue. Bodies atop them tainted the air further, the stench increasing each second the air warmed from lack of cooling. Even if Logan had given the order to engage the back-up power for the room, he doubted it would undo the odor around them.

He fanned the team out across the room. Behind them the door swung closed with a click. They advanced through the long, wide morgue and autopsy area. Logan followed the AR sniffer trail toward small doors equally spaced along the back wall. Body storage was six high, twenty wide, and according to the faint-outlines on thermal-vision, mostly full.

Logan was too preoccupied with the sniffer trail. It led to a door in the center of the storage unit. He pressed a pair of fingers against a panel there that was still active, likely powered by a back-up battery. Over the course of a minute, the door swung open. An empty tray inched outward. In its center sat a curious looking bomb; tall, wide, but hollow with a glass protrusion atop it. Through it, there was the undeniable stir of vapor mist.

Logan set his rifle aside, reached for the bomb.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” an old-man’s voice echoed over the room. The men and women rubbernecked. “Don’t fret. I’ve been gone a while now. You on the other hand…”

The door they entered from hissed, locked. Ventilation covers snapped shut across the room. All at once, the other hundred-and-nineteen doors on the storage wall opened. The scent of over a hundred bodies doubled the team over, Logan included. A few people passed out, overwhelmed by a mix of Methane and Vomit.

After a few moments of retching, Logan regained his feet, “You sick bastard!

“Death is a funny thing, Captain,” the man’s voice replied over the PA speakers. “It does interesting things to a man. For instance, it causes a reaction of decomposition that, when mixed with bloating, makes one able to literally explode their guts around the room. The problem of course, is that we are dead when we gain this lovely ability.”

“You sick fuck, these are people!” One woman shouted. She sprinted for the door, breath held, tried to pry open it.

“Ah, ah, ah,” the voice said. “You’re locked away, you see. Were I in your position, I’d make peace with that.”

“Fuck you!” Logan shouted. He suppressed a dry-heave.

The man sighed as though a teacher disappointed with his pupil, “Now, now, Captain, we all have to die sometime. As I said, the body does interesting things. One which I have discovered, and which no one else knows but I.”

“Let us out of here you bastard!” The woman screamed as she booted the door.

“No,” the man replied simply. “No, you are to be the statement which reveals my discovery.”

“What the hell are you talking about, psycho?” A man shouted upward at the room.

“You see, I’ve discovered something many men don’t realize they already know about a dead body,” he paused dramatically, as if it meant all the world to his phrasing. “What I’ve discovered, dear friends, is that a body can create a powerful statement after the consciousness inhabiting it leaves.”

“You son of a–”

“And many dead bodies, Captain,” he said without interruption. “Can create a very powerful message.”

“You son of a–”

A sound came from behind Logan. A buzzing that shot up a thousand Hertz to scream with a high-pitch. Two blocks away, the earth jolted and trembled with a nearby explosion. Dirt and debris filled the air. A cloud of smoke and dust covered the distance between ground-zero and the furthest cordoned areas. The shock-wave blew out glass from every window for a mile. Shards rained through Oakton as precipitous drops that fell from the heavens.

When the dust settled, it took two weeks for ERS and OPD to count the dead and injured– most from the effects of the shock-wave. The crater where the hospital had been was kept roped off for months. Various crews worked day and night to restore power, water, and sewage to the effected areas.

Through it all, ERS and the various news outlets worked to locate the man responsible. When the team’s final moments, recorded by ERS’ dispatchers, finally leaked to the web, the world began to speculate. His statement, it seemed, was lost in the tragedy of the moment. That was, until a few amateur sleuths discovered a single phrase whispered in the final half-second of audio.

Buried beneath sounds of methane igniting, bodies being torn asunder, and cement cracking was the man’s voice; “Think Deeply.