Sunday, January 15, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Three

OK, I thought I knew how to drink, but that New Soviet fucking took me to drinking school and left me there. I assumed we'd get hammered -- at least a bit -- but I didn't expect to wake up in the fountain in the hotel lobby.

So, yeah. We drank quite a bit that night, and there's a certain point where I stop remembering what actually happened, but my plan worked. I remember that much, because it worked pretty early on in the evening. So I should have quit while I was ahead, but...

Anyway. Andrevich. He was smaller than I thought he would be. I mean, dude was massive, but he was shorter than me. I didn't see that coming. Still, for a guy nearing 50, he was in outstanding shape. He almost crushed my hand when he shook it, and I noticed he was sweating. Like, a lot.

"The heat," he apologized, waving one of his hands around to indicate... well, everything, I guess. "Not used to it. Where I'm from, it's much colder."

I just nodded. It was July in Honolulu -- of course that wouldn't be comfortable to Andrevich. Not with him being from Siberia, and all.

He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts -- likely to combat the oppressive heat. I could see his fight tattoos glowing blue on his arms, legs, and neck. He wasn't sick or injured, then. That meant I'd lost a bet. A colleague and I at Global had once figured he'd quit the fight game not because he'd killed that other guy, but because he was ill. Couldn't fight anymore. When I met him, though, I knew that wasn't the case. He looked like he could tear me in half with one hand.

"I just wanted to say, it's an honor to meet you, Comrade Vladimir. I've been a fan since I was a little kid," I said, smiling. The smile was an attempt to hide a wince at the crazy handshake, but thankfully, he let go of my hand.

"I, too, am a fan of yours. Your report on the Atlantic Rail scandal was fascinating," Andrevich told me. "Well, shall we get something to drink?"

I nodded. The bartender could smell the blood in the water, and he was at my elbow when I turned around.

"What'll you have?" I asked. I expected the answer to be vodka.

"Hmm. A Scotch, I think. Laprohaig if you have it."

I ordered a vodka tonic, and it was on. The first drinks only lasted a few seconds -- Andrevich's was gone before he even sat down.

"So, I hear you requested me?" I said.

"Indeed. As I didn't want to come to this thing anyway, I might as well use it as an excuse to meet someone I admire," he said. "I much prefer my retirement, staying at home and writing. I'm working on a book, you know."

I hadn't known that, of course. Books were a tough sell these days, but I was sure he'd do well with it.

"I was thinking about where we could do the interview. I know the heat down here is uncomfortable, and sweating like that won't look good on camera. But I was just up at Manua Kea --"

"The volcano?"

Was it? I thought it was a mountain.

"Yeah. It's much cooler up there. Not as cold as you're used to, but..."

"I like to train in the mountains, in the Urals. Good for the blood," he said, downing another Laprohaig. "And cooler weather...Well, that definitely helps. The interview is tomorrow night?"

I nodded.

"We can go up early, do all the prep work," I said.

Like I said, it didn't take me long to convince him. And then we started talking politics, something he was whip-smart about. In fact, the more we talked, I realized that Andrevich was a smart man. Possibly even a genius, but that could have been the booze.

Anyway, I don't remember much about that night, and I certainly don't remember how I wound up in the fountain. Hangover -- brutal. I didn't dare start up with the speed again, though, as I knew I was headed back up to the insane elevation at the Manua Kea site. My granddaddy's old hangover cure would have to work today -- greasy breakfast, lots of coffee, and mild painkillers. Smart plan. I was feeling quite a bit better when I met Jeremy and crew for the day's planning session. Apparently, granddad knew how to drink.

"OK, folks, let's get this knocked out quickly," Jeremy said to the four people in front of us. Two camera, one sound, I knew. I figured the good-looking 30-year-old woman who looked like she didn't belong around the others was on hair, makeup, and wardrobe.

"We're filming today at the top of Manua Kea, highest spot in the islands," Jeremy said. "I know you were all planning for warmth. That's not going to happen today -- weather says about 28 degrees for the high up there. Might want to find yourselves some coats."

I heard the crew grumbling, all but the wardrobe person. She just nodded, a short, curt little bob of her head. Her element, I guess.

"Good news, though, is that at that elevation, our link to Global will be instant. I plan to do the interview live," I told them. "So you'll have plenty of downtime."

No grumbling at that one, but no mumbled words of praise, either. Tough room, I guess.

Jeremy and I took another hopper up to the Observatory, but the crew was stuck with a helicopter that had to be 60 years old. I wouldn't have been surprised if the thing had seen action in the China War.

Andrevich and his people would also take a hopper. I'd paid for both of them, and you don't even want to know how much two round-trip hoppers ran. I could afford it, and all, but... I don't know. Maybe I could get the Network to reimburse me later.

Meg, the girl in wardrobe, was pretty good. My sizes weren't hard -- I knew she could pull them up on her screen. But even when I've had wardrobe people get the sizes right, they've messed up styles. Not so with this girl --classic-cut black leather jacket, neoprene combat-style shirt, dark gray pants, heavy black boots. Excellent. I'd have to figure out who she was and ask to have her work with me again -- good wardrobe people were tough to find, inexplicably.

Up on the mountain, Andrevich seemed to be comfortable in the below-freezing temperatures. He also seemed to not be hung over. Not in the slightest. That was annoying-- while I was feeling better than I had, I could still feel the damage from the night before.

"Dane!" he boomed, slapping a massive hand on my back. I managed to keep my feet, but I'm not entirely sure how. "How are you?"

"Feeling pretty good," I lied, trying to keep from coughing. That playful slap on the back had acted like a Heimlich maneuver.

What followed next was what you'd expect. Meetings. Those were about as interesting to sit through as they would be to recount. Jeremy and I met with Andrevich's PR person, then with the camera and lighting folks when they arrived. Upshot -- we'd film outside. The observatory had a small garden, and Meg was confident she and the camera guys could make it look good. The PR meeting was fine.Mischa, Andrevich's PR guy, asked that we didn't spend much time on what Vladimir had been doing the last four years. Fair enough. Mischa assured me it was boring anyway, and I didn't doubt it.

Andrevich and I ran through some old fight highlights after lunch. We picked out a few moments to use in the piece -- his first World Championship in 2072, his last title defense in early 2094. Easy. The interview was looking like a walk.

Tim tracked me down between meetings. He was red-faced and out of breath, which I expected. The guy wasn't in what I would call stellar shape, but he was running to catch up with me. Obesity and thin air didn't mix too well. I was surprised he didn't have a heart attack and drop dead at my feet, but he caught his breath back and started talking eventually.

"It's really close now," he panted, finally uncapping a bottle of water and drinking. "Near Mars."

"How soon will it be here?"

"I don't know for sure. Its speed isn't constant. It stopped near Jupiter for several hours. But we finally have measurements. It's bigger than we thought." [P] "How big?" I asked.

"Really fucking big. Surface area is about 270,000 square miles."

Shit. That did sound big, but I had no idea how big that was. Tim apparently saw my confusion.

"About the size of Texas. Little bigger. And it's at least twenty miles high."

"Are you sure about that?"

"Reasonably sure, yeah."

"What does that mean?" I asked. "I mean, what would happen if it hit the Earth?"

"Uh... that would mean no more Earth. Something that big traveling at speed? It would crack the planet in half, if we were lucky."

I thought he must be fucking with me. No way he could sound so calm, right? I mean, not if that was true. But even crimson-faced and panting, he didn't sound like he was in the mortal terror he should've been.

"You don't sound worried," I said.

"It's not going to hit. Neptune, Europa, Jupiter were all in its path. It went around."

"And you think it'll go around us?"

"I really don't think it would avoid all of those other bodies, plus asteroids, and not us. If we go under the theory that it's being intelligently piloted -- which I'm leaning towards -- that wouldn't make any sort of sense."

Of course, as you well know, he was right. The Object didn't hit us. But it didn't pass us by like Tim then theorized it might.

Anyway, the appointed time finally came -- 7 p.m. Central, which was only 3 in the afternoon in Hawaii. We were all set to go. Andrevich and I were sitting across from each other, the view down the mountain in the background. Reg, the lead camera, was set up. At precisely 3, he gave us the signal, and the interview went live.

I said this would be about what you didn't see, and it will. So I won't go into the interview, as you probably saw it -- especially if the ratings I saw later were any indication. It was smooth. Well, except for one small bit, about an hour into the program.

We were discussing the final title defense. I remember that well. My earpiece suddenly went live, and Jeremy was on the other end. It was way out of bounds to call a personality on-air. This was big.

"Dane. Keep talking. We've got a situation out here," Jeremy's voice buzzed in my ear. "Three patrol vehicles just landed outside. Not Honolulu PD or Hawaii State Police. Markings look like Coal Creek."

Coal Creek was a PMC -- a Private Military Contractor. I had no idea what they were doing there, but Jeremy provided updates on their movements throughout the last hour of the interview.

"They've locked off the perimeter. Guns are out, but fingers aren't on triggers."

Then, a bit later: "I just talked to them. The guy in charge says this place is in total lockdown. They're going to let you finish the interview, so keep going."

Finally: "As soon as you're off the air -- three minutes left, by the way-- they're going to escort you and Andrevich inside for questioning."

And, soon enough, they did. Reg signaled me as soon as we were off the network feed, and the doors leading into the garden opened. Six men in black combat suits -- body armor, tactical goggles, tech boots -- poured out of the doors and headed straight for us. In seconds, they had Meg, Reg, and Jackson and Celio (the second camera and sound guys) surrounded and headed back into the building. That left Andrevich and me in the garden with two of the PMCs.

They carried nonlethal weapons -- large-field tasers, foam guns. Federal law stated that only police and federals could carry lethal weapons in the U.S., but I noticed they had some of those, too. They both had pistols, old ones, probably relics from the China War or before. Probably used antique collection laws to carry them.

"You're filming here without permission," one of them, the taller one, finally said.

"We have permission," I said, smiling. "Dr. Timothy Miller --"

"Dr. Miller does not have the authority to authorize anything," tall guy said. "Mr. Andrevich. An honor. I've been a fan of yours for years. I apologize for this, gentlemen, but Umbra Dynamics has ordered the facility closed. Immediately. We will need to detain you for questioning, but we will make it as quick as possible."

*Don't rock the boat.*

I nodded to him.

"I understand," I said. "Can I contact my network? Let them know I'm going to be late?

"In time, after we've questioned you."

They led Andrevich and me to a small room somewhere deep inside the Observatory complex. Tim and another scientist were there, along with Jeremy. This second scientist was as thin as Tim was fat, and I guessed he made the fatal mistake of getting to the food machines after Tim. Without another word, the two PMCs closed us in the room, and I heard the door lock.

"So, Tim, want to tell me what's going on?" I asked, trying to keep the anger out of my voice. I doubt I succeeded.

"I'm not entirely sure," he started. "Umbra sent them. They must have read about the Object in my weekly report. I didn't even know they were paying attention to us up here."

"And me? Do they know I know?" I asked.

Tim shook his head.

"I don't think so. I never mentioned you or Jeremy."

"Anyone want to --" Andrevich started, then trailed off, waving his hand around the room to indicate "all this."

"Oh, sure. Sorry," I said, smiling. I'd have to be very careful about how I told him -- it wouldn't do to have the former Cage Champion of the World ripping my arms off. I suspected he wouldn't be too happy that I'd used his big comeback interview as an excuse to keep an eye on the Object situation.

"My buddy Tim here and his colleague -- sorry, I don't know your name -- have been monitoring something damn interesting," I said.

"Jake Cross," the thin scientist said. I did my best not to shoot him a poisonous look for interrupting me.

"Right," I said. "They picked up an Object coming toward Earth, what... three days ago, Tim?"

Tim nodded. He knew not to interrupt. Good man.

"I see," Andrevich said, nodding. "And my guess is that your superiors wanted you to cover my story more than this one?"

He had it dead to rights, but he didn't seem angry. His voice was calm, measured, as was his expression. I nodded, and he went on. "So you figured you'd talk me into coming up here, keep an eye on the story anyway? Smart. That's why I requested you. You're..."

"Not an idiot?" I guessed.

"So you've met the sports reporter Global wanted to assign to me, then," he said with a laugh.

Andrevich seemed cool, so I turned back to Tim.

"So what's the progress on the... you know..."

"Earthfall in six hours."

Christ. That was much sooner than I expected. I didn't think we were going to be out of there that soon, but I was wrong, apparently. I'm sure the PMCs would have liked to have kept us there all night, but that's not how it worked out for them. We left minutes later.

In the space of two minutes, Andrevich went from jovial, even-tempered, to agitated. I started to get worried, so I asked him.

"Vladimir? You OK?"

"Vladimir Piotr Andrevich does not get locked up," he said, snarling. "Does not like to be told what to do."

He was standing now, pacing the room. I wondered idly if he had claustrophobia.

The room we were in wasn't in any way secure. It wasn't a jail cell, or a holding area-- just a regular-ass room with a regular door. Before I could try to get him to calm down... Before I could even say another word, really, Andrevich was through the door. I mean, he charged himself right the fuck through it. One second he was standing back against the wall -- the next, he rammed through the locked door, turning it into effing kindling.

There were guards just outside the door, and seeing Andrevich tear through them was an insane blur of violent heraldic poetry. There were two of them, one on each side of the door, and before I could make it out of the room, I had to dodge one flying at me. He slammed into the opposite wall hard enough to knock him out, even through his helmet. Then I got into the hall and saw carnage.

The other guard was trying to raise a gun to Andrevich, who was having none of it. A quick, savage right uppercut was all it took. His knuckles connected with the guard's chin, snapping his bulletproof visor and knocking his helmet clean off, chin strap be damned. With his left hand, Andrevich caught the helmet by the broken strap, then swung it in front of him. I hadn't seen the third PMC yet. But Andrevich had. The newly liberated helmet collided with the oncoming PMC's skull, knocking him into a nearby open door.

Madness. In the space of the time it had taken me to get out the door, Andrevich had neutralized three much younger men, and done so easily. Other Coal Creek guys came at us, but it was all a blur. A blur of a pissed-off, older New Soviet, tearing through them like nothing. I lost count of the PMCs he knocked out (or possibly killed) before we made it outside, but it was a lot. He wasn't even sweating.

We fought our way outside -- OK, to be correct, Andrevich fought our way outside. Tim, Jake, Jeremy, and I just followed his wake. The New Soviet left bodies all along the observatory to the spot where our two hoppers were surrounded by the three patrol vehicles. When he finally stopped moving, Andrevich turned to us.

"I think it is time we should leave," he said, his voice a flat monotone.

"What about our crew? Your people?" Jeremy asked.

"Hmm. Suppose I should have thought to leave one of these guys conscious."

"I'm sure they're around here somewhere. We can look --" I said.

"We don't have time," Jeremy said. "The second these guys wake up --"

"They'll drop in on this place in force," Tim said, nodding. "I know this company. That's exactly what they'd do. You need to go. Get this story out."

That was something I knew I could do, especially now. Ryan would have no problem going to air with this one. Umbra Dynamics ran National News Network, Global's only real competitor in the States. A chance to royally fuck Umbra Dynamics? Ryan would be falling all over himself to jump at that one.

"I'll stay behind. Find our people. There's a backup crew in Honolulu. They're at the Tidal Motel. Find them and get this story out there," Jeremy said.

"I'll need data," I said. "Video. Something."

"I can do that," Jake said, bringing his screen online and tapping away. My own screen chirped -- a data transfer was in progress. In a few seconds, I had everything I needed.

"Umbra's soldiers will be looking for you," Andrevich said. "I will come along. Not to be insulting, my friend, but I don't think you could handle them in a fight."

"You're 100% correct," I told him. "Let's go."

I normally hated that the hoppers were on a programmed flight plan, but not that day. The control freak in me took a back seat. Jeremy and the scientists had us in our pressure suits and helmets in a minute flat, and as soon as we were in, the hopper took off. The flight was short, and there was nothing we had to do to make it safely to ground. I expected Coal Creek guys at the landing site.

Nope. Just the same bored local who had been there the day before, and earlier that morning. I wondered if he ever left the area.

"Other hopper?" he asked in a slow, monotone voice.

"Coming down soon," I said.

"K. Gonna have to charge an extra day. Don't have it back by midnight, that is."

"That's fine," I said. "You have my account info on file."

"Yep. Back by midnight."

I nodded and headed for the cars we'd taken from the hotel to the launch site.

"Shit," I mumbled.


Uh, yeah. There was a problem, and if I already wasn't feeling emasculated by watching this guy knock out several soldiers while I cowered...

"Um... Vladimir... I don't suppose you know how to drive, do you?"

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