Monday, January 30, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Four

The car could drive itself, of course. But in case some Coal Creek APCs popped up, I wanted a human on the wheel. Andrevich had grown up in an area with old cars kept running mostly with prayer, so he was quite a good driver. Unlike me, that is. I'd never bothered to learn, and the Networks had arranged for transport all my adult life.

We found the Tidal Motel pretty easy. Calling it a shithole would be insulting to legitimate shitholes -- this place had to be a hundred years old, and looked like it. The white and teal paint was fading, cracked, and gone altogether in some areas, exposing the bare, rotten wood underneath. Ugly.

I checked with the thin, greasy guy behind the bulletproof glass in a shed at the top of the parking lot with an "Office" sign. I asked for the Global News backup crew -- he stared at me blankly for a long moment.

"You must mean Jeb," he finally drawled. "Boy always told me he was a freelance Network guy. Never did believe him. Hey, you're that dude from the news program, ain't you?"

"Dane Phoenix," I said, shooting him the old charming smile. "Where can I find -- Jeb, you said?"

"Hey! Hey, Helen!" he yelled. "Come on out here, woman! You gotta see who's at the window!"

I shook hands and signed autographs for The Thing Called Helen. She was the manager's wife, and she was 250 if she was a pound. Finally, though, we got a room number out of The Power Couple -- 407.

You'd expect room number 407 to be on the fourth floor, right? I know I did, and the Tidal Motel did, indeed, have four levels. Andrevich and I would have climbed the rickety staircase all the way up, had he not noticed room 401 from the second-floor landing.

"That... Well, that makes no kind of sense," I said, heading down the dark hallway. Room 407 was between 406 and 409. Of course. I was starting to think this entire hotel was designed as an elaborate, unfunny practical joke.

I knocked on the door. Nothing. Andrevich then pounded on the door, and he's much stronger than I am, so that got an immediate response. We heard shuffling, cursing. A few seconds later, the door opened, and I was sure we had the wrong room.

The guy in 407 looked like a full-on train wreck. He was younger than me -- maybe 28 -- but in much worse shape. He looked like he hadn't slept or showered in at least four days. His brown hair was longish, greasy, and plastered to his skull with what I hope was just sweat. He wore an old bathrobe, no shoes. Just as I was about to ask if we had the right guy, he looked me in the eyes and smiled. He still had all of his teeth, at least.

"Mr. Phoenix," he said. "Pleasure to meet you. Sorry for my appearance -- wasn't really expecting anyone to come by today."

The guy looked like shit, sure. But when he spoke -- I don't know. He came across as intelligent. Not like how he looked at all.

"You weren't told to be on standby?" I asked. I was feeling more than a little odd standing outside in the hallway.

"Oh, sure. But you gotta understand, Chief, being told to be on standby ain't shit. 99 times out of 100, that means sit back and collect pay. Last time I actually had to do standby work was... well, back when you were still fighting, big guy," Jeb said, nodding to Andrevich.

"Well, we need you now. How soon can you have your equipment ready?"

"Give me a few minutes to get cleaned up. Like, fifteen. I'll meet you over at the cafe across the street, yeah?"

I was just grateful to be out of the hall and away from the Tidal Motel. The Surf Shack Cafe wasn't much better -- definitely wasn't cleaner -- but at least I didn't feel like the building was collapsing. Andrevich and I took a table in the back, and I ordered the only thing on the menu I was pretty sure wouldn't kill me, black coffee. I never considered coffee a monumental request, but it still hadn't arrived when Jeb strolled into the cafe fifteen minutes later.

He was cleaned up considerably now, wearing jeans and a shiny, synthetic button-up shirt. He had a black bag over one shoulder. As soon as he sat down at the table, three mugs of coffee suddenly appeared.

"You gotta understand, they like locals," he said. "You and your buddy are making them nervous."

"Because of who we are?" Andrevich asked.

"What, celebrities? Nah, man," he said. "I doubt the folks who run this place have watched a network feed in 30 years. They don't like outsiders, is all."

He wasn't joking. The entire time we were in the cafe -- 20 minutes or so -- the guy behind the counter never stopped staring. It was more than a little creepy.

As we talked about the job, I noticed a few things about Jeb, the redneck one-man backup crew. First, he wasn't really a hick or a local, just tried to pass as a bit of both. I detected a hint of an accent whenever he spoke. South Africa? Accents tend to get a bit muddled these days. Everyone sounds like they're from Omaha or Kansas City or something. You'd never really guess I grew up in Holland unless I told you -- I sound like I grew up in a cornfield, like everyone else does.

Another thing I noticed about our new crew member -- he *really* wasn't a Network guy. Not a bit. At heart, he was a total ICP. Or at least he would have been, if the corporation-backed Networks hadn't wiped out the Independent Content Producers years ago. Before Jeb was even born.

It had come down to money, and the Networks realizing that while they had more of it, they wouldn't for long. So they'd thrown what they had at lobbyists in dozens of countries, and essentially made broadcasting non-Network content a felony. The US government got the Federal Entertainment Commission out of the deal, a steady flow of license revenue right to the Treasury. License fees were too high for independents to afford, so competition from the smaller guys died off extremely quickly. All history.

Of course Jeb would be an ICP. They were still around, they were just way underground and had tiny audiences. Freelance work? That was the perfect cover to have high-def cameras and a transmitter around your crappy hotel room if the Federal cops came calling.

But one thing about ICPs -- at least, from the few underground broadcasts I'd seen, they were competent and good under fire. I'd seen one of them report on a riot outside Umbra's Kyoto office years back, and I have to admit, the camera work was outstanding. So I knew Jeb would have the equipment and skills to get my transmission to the Network servers in Dallas, and that was all I needed.

I tasked Jeb with finding a place to shoot incognito, where Umbra's thugs wouldn't come looking, but that didn't look like shit. He said he'd work on it and call when he had a spot -- we'd meet there at first light.

I called Ryan in Dallas and woke him up. He was pissed off at first, but when I told him that breaking this story would really fuck Umbra over a barrel, he brightened up. Probably helped that I'd done the story the Network wanted me to do, and this one didn't mean I wouldn't cover Andrevich's award. This story was in the A.M., the ceremony was in the P.M.

Of course -- and this bit you know -- I never made it to the ceremony. The ceremony didn't actually happen. I'm not sure they cancelled it, but I am sure that no one showed up -- the reason being obvious.

As we really didn't have anywhere else to go, and the neighborhood was low-rent enough Umbra wouldn't drop by, we stayed put. Jeb, of course, left to do his prep work, but just him coming by to talk to us seemed to give Andrevich and I enough cred to order. Not that the waiter was happy about it, but he did let us put in an order for breakfast, and eventually even brought us the food. After that, we drank a metric fuckton of coffee and waited around for Jeb to call us. The coffee was, surprisingly, pretty damn good.

According to my screen, sunrise was scheduled for 6:18 a.m. At 6:10, my phone chimed in my ear, and I took the call. It was Jeb. He gave us an address, which I scrawled down on a napkin and gave to Andrevich -- I still wanted him on the wheel. Paranoia, I guess.

The big New Soviet was being an amazingly good sport about all of this, and I was thankful. I'd seen what happened when he got angry. He'd put quite a hurt on those Coal Creek bastards, and I wasn't in any real hurry to find out what that beat-down had felt like. But looking at him now, across the table as we paid the ridiculously low breakfast check, he looked calm, happy, -- amused, even.

As you know from the broadcast, Jeb picked a shopping mall that was just opening for breakfast. I thought it was a stupid choice. At first, anyway.

"You mentioned you had some Umbra PMC problems, right?" Jeb said, catching the look on my face when I arrived.


"Trust me, this is what you want. Plenty of people milling around. Makes for good shot composition, but it's also --"

"Safer," I said, catching on. "Coal Creek is less likely to try something to stop us in a crowded, public area like this."

So Jeb set up the shot, and I have to admit it looked pretty good -- even as those... things... started falling from the skies.

You remember how it went from the original broadcast. I'd already dropped the bombshell -- that something huge was up there. I'd shown the pictures from the lab, told everyone I was pretty sure it was an alien spaceship. Yeah, sure, I didn't know that yet. Fuck it, I'm a reporter. You want facts, go to a damn schoolteacher. Speculation is part of my job, has been since I can remember.

Anyway, I was just about to talk about where it would likely make planetfall -- China or Japan's airspace. That wasn't my idea. The little scientist, Jeff -- he'd done the math on that one. As we found out seconds later, he was close. Well, kind of close.

Thinking back on it now, I might have it figured out. They must have seen my network feed -- and I do mean *them*. Up there. I don't claim to know anything about how they think, but I'd wager they saw their ship on the feed and traced it right back to me. That makes sense, because a few seconds later was when the first shell hit.

Here's a little confession from me to all of you. When the hit came, I didn't connect the dots right away. Taiwan had been making angry noises of late -- my first thought was of them. Hawaii was well within their conventional missile range -- you know, the big systems we'd sold them during the China War? Yeah. Seems dumb now, but I was sure they'd decided to go Pearl Harbor on our collective asses. When that mall crumbled, I hit the ground.

'Course, they weren't missiles at all. They were pods. Carriers of some indeterminate material, strong enough to laugh at heat. Pressure. Impact. Any of those niggling little problems of being shot into our atmosphere.

The network feed cut out right then. It wasn't interference, as many have since speculated -- no, Jed plowed into his setup when he dove for cover. Smashed it right up. So you didn't see the size of the projectile that had just leveled a shopping mall. You might have seen one in your town that day. If you didn't, let me fill you in -- it was only about a foot around, a perfect sphere. And it wasn't a weapon. It was a transport.

Of course, I wouldn't have seen the pod to describe it to you, had I not still been hanging out with Vladimir Piotr Andrevich. Remember, the thing was buried in what was left of the front quarter of a shopping mall -- one that had certainly had people in it. Most of them were probably dead, but there was at least one guy still breathing. And shouting for help, as the situation turned out.

As soon as he heard the man yelling, Andrevich was on it like Action Man. Jeb was right behind him, sprinting over piles of junk. I would have been more than happy to stay where I was, in a tiny ball on the pavement, but Andrevich yelled at me to help them out. I dragged myself to my feet and joined them, helped them pull what was left of a coffee bar off some poor 18-year-old surfer kid.

He was pretty banged up, and we were helping him away from the wreckage when I saw it. I didn't know what it was at first, of course. I figured it must have just been some piece of crap for sale in the mall -- people will buy anything. But it pulsed, a bright flash. And just after the light from that first pulse faded, the thing opened neatly at the center of the sphere, the top half falling away.

Nothing happened for a second after it opened. Then, as I watched, those... *things* started slithering madly out of the ball. The best I can think to call them was worms, though that's not exactly accurate. They were each a couple, maybe three inches long. They were black, so they stood out against the white remains of the coffee bar. There seemed to be hundreds, and they were fast.

Andrevich saw them at the same time I did; neither of us said anything. He just grabbed the kid as if he weighed nothing, not 150 pounds. He chucked the surfer kid over his shoulder and was off like a sprinter, me and Jeb on his heels.

"What the fuck are those?"

I think it was Jeb who yelled that, though I'm not sure. Could have been anyone -- I was just focused on getting my ass out of there. I chanced a look over my shoulder as I ran for the street, and immediately wished I hadn't.

The worms went after the weak first. The poor fucks stuck in the wreckage couldn't get away, couldn't run. The worms didn't swarm -- a single worm picked each target. One second, they'd latched onto a poor, helpless person -- the next, that unfortunate motherfucker was twitching and bleeding out. I wasn't sure if it was because the initial targets were already injured, but it only took each of them couple of seconds to die.

We were moving fast -- adrenaline -- but the worms were already swarming out from the wreckage, and they were a fuckton faster. I tried to think of some way to escape -- maybe get into the car and lock the doors, slam on the power and get the fuck out of there.

Even as I had the thought, I saw it wasn't going to work. A car near ours had its windows up, doors locked, and it didn't matter. Worms had gotten inside somehow anyway, and the two occupants of the car were spraying blood all over the inside of the vehicle.

"Keep running!" I yelled, though that was probably unnecessary. Andrevich and Jeb were ahead of me, and weren't slowing down. Even with the 150-pound teenager on his shoulder, Andrevich was really eating up the distance, and Jeb was keeping right up with him. I was the slow one, the liability -- and it looked like I was going to be the one bitten and killed by those... whatever they were.

The thought didn't make me stop running, though. If anything, it gave me a burst of power like I'd never felt, not even on speed. I was almost about to catch up with Jeb when it happened.

Helicopters went silent before they became obsolete a few decades ago. I think it was a People's Liberation Army design from the China War, but after that, the rest of the world's militaries got them. I had seen them float over my granddad's house as a kid -- Dutch Army training flights, I think. They were fast, sleek, and silent. One of those helicopters -- a massive cargo model -- dropped down right in front of Andrevich and Jeb, and the side doors flew open. I could see Jeremy and Mischa inside, waving us toward them. The helicopter didn't land, just hovered a few feet off the pavement. I poured on the last bit of speed I had, then jumped. I felt hard, metal deck slam into my chest, felt hands grab me and pull me in.

In less than a second, we were climbing, the chaos below us getting smaller by the second. I pulled myself into a sitting position. As I looked around, I could see Andrevich, the kid, Jeb. The rest of our crew was there -- it was the chopper they'd used earlier. The one I had felt bad for saddling them with rather than springing for hoppers for all of them. Turned out that saved our asses.

"We're heading to Honolulu Airport," Jeremy said as he and Mischa slid the door closed. I looked up -- Meg was flying the chopper.

"Where did you learn to fly one of these things?" I shouted up to her.

"Israeli Army," she yelled back, throwing me a grin.

"It was in her file, if you'd bothered to read it," Jeremy said.

Ah, same old Jeremy. Always the producer. I smiled a little.

"What's at the airport?"

"Flight for all of us to Dallas. We'll figure this shit out there," Jeremy told me.

"Andrevich? Jeb? You good with that?" I asked.

"I'll go along for the ride. And our young friend here is unconscious," Andrevich told me.

"Should we take him to a hospital or something?" Jeb asked.

"Entire island's chaos," Reg said. "Better chance of that in Dallas."

We did make it to Dallas, eventually. But not right away.

When we landed at the airport, the Marines were waiting for us.

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