Thursday, August 9, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Ten

When our wheels touched down at DFW, you would have never suspected the city was in the middle of an alien invasion. Yeah, I was comfortable calling it "alien" by that point. It's weird -- logically, we all kind of knew that's what was going on. All of us were aware that these things were coming down from space, but no one was using the word "alien." I have no idea why. I guess we thought if we didn't say it, it wasn't happening.

And in Dallas, it was hard to believe it *was* actually happening. Real humans -- obviously not aliens posing as humans -- met us at the plane. They were from the Federal Police Force, Dallas sector. They were all smiles when they saw heavily armed Marines pouring out of the transport.

"Finally," one of them said, beaming. "We've been waiting for reinforcements from Sam Houston for hours now."

The man who said this was young, maybe twenty-four. His shoulder rank insignia showed he was a watch Lieutenant, in command of at least a hundred other Federal Law Enforcement Agents.

"That's not us," Keller said, shaking the man's offered hand. "We were just at Hood."

"Oh," the Lieutenant said, frowning. "Hood's a no-go. Comms say we lost it hours ago."

"I can definitely confirm that we did," I said.

"Wait. I know you, right?"

It took me a second to realize the watch Lieutenant was talking to me. Even when I did, I wondered "how would he know me?"

Yeah. That's fucked up, right? One day of complete chaos had turned my brain into meat sludge. I hadn't forgotten who I was, exactly. I'd just forgotten that, more days than not, I was talking to the nation on the biggest news network in the whole damn country. To be fair, though, it had been a hell of a day.

"Dane Phoenix," I said, putting on the smile again. Felt like it had been ages. I had to actively think about how to *be* Dane Phoenix, how to act and talk and speak in the manner Dane Phoenix was known for. The reason was simple: I hadn't been Dane Phoenix since the cameras went off the air in Honolulu. I'd been someone else. Someone new. And this new person was someone I didn't really know -- or rather, a weird combination of two distinct people I didn't really know.

"Mr. Phoenix, sir. Welcome back to Dallas. I can arrange a ride to Global for you and your crew," the watch Lieutenant said.

I looked over at Keppler, who nodded.

"Looks like this is where we part ways," he said, reaching out his hand. I shook it.

"I'm going to hold you to that story you promised me," I told him, grinning. We both knew I was joking. My chances of that were slim.

The watch Lieutenant led us -- all of the Global employees, plus Jeb and the surfer kid -- to a waiting Federal Police transport. None of us talked much as the transport lifted off and slowly hovered away from the airport. We were all glued to the windows.

There was a sort of sick fascination that had taken hold of all of us -- we just had to see how bad Dallas had gotten it. Curiosity. Morbid curiosity. That was all it was. We'd seen Honolulu -- a huge, modern city -- reduced to rubble, then quickly abandoned. We had seen Fort Hood evacuated, ceded to the invading alien forces. So it was natural to wonder how fucked up Dallas would be.

Shocked doesn't begin to describe what I felt as we flew away from DFW along the old I-35 corridor. It wasn't the carnage or chaos. It wasn't dead bodies jammed along the roadway that surprised me. It was the complete and utter lack of anything along those lines.

The area surrounding the airport looked perfectly normal. It was past midnight, but there were still vehicles down on the roads. None of them seemed in a particular hurry to get anywhere, either -- traffic was light, moving along just fine. Just another day. No evidence of alien invasion, of metal spheres falling from the sky and unleashing hell. Light traffic. It was in-fucking-sane.

As we swooped low through the skyscrapers in Far North Dallas, I started to wonder about Ryan, and the whole phone-not-working thing. Dallas looked unscathed so far, but Ryan's phone had simply... well, stopped existing as far as the Umbra servers were concerned. Other phones in the area seemed work -- Jeremy had been able to get in contact with one of the twins before we got to Dallas.

So what was up with Ryan's phone? Last I heard from him, he was trying to keep me on the air before the Federal Police shut us down. When I hadn't been able to get him on the phone, I'd assumed they killed him... but Umbra's servers would have compensated then. They would have at least played a message saying the phone was no longer active. They hadn't. So what had gone down in Dallas?

As we approached downtown, it still looked like "nothing" was the answer to that question. Dealey Plaza looked just the same. Apart from the fact that it was dark out now, I didn't see anything different than I had when I'd been there two days before. Odd.

I wanted to ask the pilot some questions, but we were in a police transport, commonly used to detain and ferry criminals around. We were separated from the driver by armor plating and bulletproof glass. He could have talked to us on the transport's intercom. He didn't. We never saw anything but the back of his head. When we landed at Global, he just flipped the switch to open the door.

Once we were all out of the transport, he simply lifted off. We never once spoke to him, never even saw what he looked like. When the watch Lieutenant said he'd set us up with a ride back to Global News, he meant exactly that -- a ride. Nothing more.

The lobby doors at Global are secured -- of course -- but every one of us but Andrevich, Mischa, Jeb, or the kid could open them. Jeremy placed his palm against the sensor, and we heard the whirring and clicking of the door's locking system go to work. Easy. Just like it had a thousand other times, the door popped open.

Unlike every other time I'd been there, the lobby was dark. Empty. It was well past midnight, but normally, the office was up and running 24/7. Not so anymore -- there was no one around downstairs. There should have at least been security, so we waited for a few moments in case the guy was walking his rounds or something. Nope.

Elevators still worked fine, though. We crammed into one car and headed upstairs, bound for Ryan's office. No one said much. No one really even suggested we go upstairs to Ryan's office -- I think we just all understood that was where we should be going.

I'll admit it. With the empty, darkened lobby, and the fact that I couldn't get him on the phone... I expected Ryan to be dead. I figured we'd walk into his office and find a corpse, or worse, nothing at all. The whole night had taken on a horror-movie vibe.

It snapped back to an even weirder sense of normalcy when we cleared the door to Ryan's office, though. He was just sitting there. Same place as usual, behind his desk, going over whatever the hell it was he looked at on his computer all day. Strangest thing. When you've got yourself steeled for a dead body or a missing person, a guy sitting at his desk can freak you right the hell out.

"Oh, look. You've brought everyone in the world," Ryan said dryly, looking up from his desk.

I suppose we looked pretty odd. To be honest, though, I didn't care about how we *looked*. I just wanted to know what the fuck was going on around here. I said so.

"You're going to have to be more specific," Ryan answered, sighing. "Rather a lot has happened here in the last 24 hours or so."

"I tried to call you about a hundred times," I said, exaggerating to make my point.

"Yeah, that. Phone system fried itself. About half the phones in the state went tits-up when Umbra turned on its defense network," Ryan said.

"What defense network?"

"Maybe you've noticed, with your keen journalistic skills and all, but things here in Dallas are a little less chaotic," Ryan said. "Especially compared to the part of the world you've just come from. The city has Umbra Dynamics to thank for that."

Umbra. The huge mega-company that owned damn near everything. "If you have it, Umbra gave it to you," their ads constantly reminded us.

"How did Umbra manage to protect this city?" Andrevich asked, but only because he got to the question first. It was on my mind.

"No one's talking," Ryan said, shaking his head. "But I did some legwork. There are four other cities with major Umbra R&D facilities. Amsterdam, Shenzhen, Bogota, Mogadishu, and Dallas. None of them were hit, and electronics went crazy in all five. We saw lights. Way up in the sky, maybe 25,000 feet. But that's it."

"Some kind of shield," Jeb said. It wasn't a question. "I've read... things. Rumors about Umbra and directed-energy projects."

"Which network would carry that story?" Jeremy asked, raising an eyebrow.

"None that you'd be familiar with," Jeb told him, winking.

Undergrounds. ICPs --Independent Content Producers. I fucking knew it. I pegged Jeb for an illegal broadcaster the second Andrevich and I met him. Kid had a hell of a rebellious streak. Good for him.

So Dallas and a few other cities were safe, at least for the time being. But I wondered how Ryan had *really* come by that info. The guy wasn't a journalist, and never had been. He was a manager -- a good one, but still -- not a researcher or an investigator. I'd find out that answer soon enough.

"So, what are we supposed to do now?" I asked.

"Essentially nothing," Ryan told me. "We're off the air indefinitely. It's not just us -- all the networks are shut down."

Even then, that seemed like a horrible idea. People everywhere -- those of them still alive, anyway -- would need information. Would need to know what the fuck was going on. That was the media's job. That was our whole reason for existing.

"For now, we lay low. Go home," Ryan continued. "Wait for..."

He didn't know how to finish that sentence. I don't blame him. I wouldn't, either. He just trailed off, and it was briefly silent.

"Um, Ryan," Jeremy finally said. "None of us live here, boss."

"Yes, Jeremy, I have thought of that," Ryan said, sighing. "The network has a block of suites at the Hotel Palomar. I've gone ahead and set them aside for you folks. There aren't a ton. Some of you will have to double up."

And that was it. That was all he told us. Sure, we talked for a few minutes after that. But as far as any sort of useful information, that was all he gave us.

I wasn't one of the ones who had a roommate. Of course. That goes without saying. I was the talent, the number one network draw at that point. My suite was, accordingly, freaking huge. And I was all ready to put the king-size bed to use -- couldn't remember the last time I slept -- when there was a knock at my door. It was Jeb.

"Hey," he said when I let him in. He was grinning like a lemur. "What say we go get into some major, major trouble?"

* * *

Ten minutes later, we were in Jeb's car, cruising North. OK, we were in *a* car -- Jeb didn't own one, here or at home.

"It's stolen," he said before I asked, nodding his head in response to the unverbalized question. "Hotel parking garage."

"Jesus, Jeb," I said, shaking my head. "Why didn't you just check one out from the network?"

"Network vehicles have locators. If I wanted Umbra Dynamics to know where we were going, I'd have just called them up and told them."

"Umbra Dynamics?" I asked. "What do they have to do with anything?"

"Oh, you know. Not much. They just bought out Global News early this morning," he said.

"I don't believe that," I said, scowling.

"Not just Global, either. A handful of others, too. Lungshan bought the rest."

I had a hard time accepting that. Sure, the Networks were huge corporate entities, but they were supposed to be their own animals. If Umbra and Lungshan controlled all the news, how was any accurate information supposed to get out?

Then it hit me, and hard. Information *wasn't* supposed to get out. They'd bought the networks to shut them down, choke off the flow of news to the people.

I started to say something about it to Jeb, but he just nodded. He already knew what I'd just now figured out. He's a sharp guy.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"The suburbs," he told me, winking. "There's someone there you need to meet. Someone insane." We drove along the old US75 route for a few minutes. I saw town names go by -- Richardson. Plano. We pulled off onto surface roads. The street signs went from blue to green, and the houses started getting lower. Older. Streetlights were few and far between.

"These houses must be a hundred years old," I said.

"One fifty, give or take," Jeb told me, nodding.

"Are we in the ghetto?"

"No, but you can probably see it from here if you squint hard enough."

The streets wound back for miles. Tons of low houses. Few vehicles. Old garages not wide enough to house the smallest commercially available transports. Not the ghetto -- but not far off.

"Town's called Garland," Jeb said. "Used to be middle class, then lower middle, now... this. Well inside Umbra's supposed shield. What do you think Umbra would want to protect out here?"

It sounded like a rhetorical question, so I didn't bother to answer. My silence didn't seem to bother Jeb at all. He just kept driving us deeper into the darkened neighborhood. Dark, but not abandoned. Several of the houses we passed had lights on, even at this late hour. There was no one outside on the sidewalks, though. Made sense. I can certainly say I wouldn't want to be out in this neighborhood after dark.

"We're here," Jeb announced, stopping the car.

We'd pulled up outside a house that, to me, looked no different than any other we'd passed on the drive. It was different, though. I could tell that as soon as I stepped out of the car -- it stank.

I don't know what the smell reminded me of, but it wasn't good. It was sharp and obviously unpleasant, but also familiar in a way I couldn't place.

If the smell bothered Jeb, he didn't let on. He just walked right on up to the front door and raised his hand to knock. Before he did, though, he turned back to face me.

"Don't make any sudden moves or loud noises around this guy," he warned. "He's jumpy, and I know for a fact he's armed. Heavily."

I nodded. I kept my hands out at my sides, palms facing in front of me, and slouched my shoulders a bit. Nonthreatening stance. I'd perfected it years back -- you never knew when you'd have to interview some nutjob dictator in a tiny South American country. Jeb went ahead and knocked on the door, which opened seconds later.

The guy definitely *looked* crazy. Like, textbook definition. Long black hair, long black beard, even *glasses*. In this day and age. The green eyes behind the glasses darted constantly, quickly. He looked jumpy, sure, but I got the definite feeling he was expecting us.

"Get in the house," he spat before Jeb could speak.

Somehow, I was prepared for the inside of the house to be completely different from the outside. I expected smooth, modern, clean. I expected decent lighting, computers tucked away in spotless corners, running scenarios and probabilities.

I got none of that. The front door opened up into a dirty living room. A third-hand couch was pushed up against one wall, and there was actual trash... well, everywhere. I hadn't seen papers since I was a kid, but there were piles of them just hanging around. I was slightly disgusted.

"Who's the cover boy?" the guy who answered the door asked. He was looking at me, but obviously talking to Jeb.

"Dane Phoenix. You remember -- the reporter I told you about."

"Network," the man scoffed. "Umbra drone."

I'd been about to offer my hand. I got the impression it wouldn't be a good move, so I just stood there.

"Dane, meet Richard Graves," Jeb said with a long sigh. "Weapons designer, and *former* Umbra drone, himself."

"Uh, hi." It was all I could think to say.

"You bugged?" Richard spat. His eyes stopped darting around and immediately locked in on mine, sizing me up. I saw his hands twitch at his sides.

*He's crazy. Paranoid at best,* I thought, keeping my palms out and open.

"Why would I be bugged?"

"Umbra owns your damn network now. They've been trying to get surveillance here for months. Tried everything else -- why not a quasi-celebrity?" Richard said, grinning.

"He's not bugged, Richard," Jeb said, sighing. "If you know Umbra bought his network, then you know he's off the air."

"Sure. *Currently,*" Richard said, sneering. "But you journalist types are all alike. I'm including you in that, Jeb."

"Look, " I said. "I don't even know what I'm doing here. You want me to leave? Fine with me. This neighborhood gives me the fucking creeps anyway."

Richard looked at me for a long moment, squinting his eyes as if he was performing some sort of microcellular analysis. After a few seconds, his eyes opened to a normal aperture, and he shrugged.

"Ah, fuck it. World's ending anyway, am I right? I assume you're here about the worms."

That got me paying attention. The field Lieutenant had said Dallas had been unaffected. Ryan had said the same -- nothing had landed here, just lights in the sky. So how did this guy in the ghetto know about the worms?

Richard might have been crazy, but he was perceptive. He noticed my surprise, smiled big and wide. He had awful teeth. Just awful. Near as I was aware, Umbra employees could get that fixed on their first day of work, if for some reason it wasn't corrected earlier. Simply put, no one had bad teeth anymore. Except this guy.

"Umbra told you about the shield, right? Protects the whole metro?"

I nodded.

"'Fraid not. I mean, there is one, but they didn't get it up in time to stop the worms. Or the big cat things. Not at first," Richard said. "Not until the aliens contacted them and *told* Umbra how to activate the shield for the first time."

"For the first time?" I asked.

"Shield was a prototype," Richard told me. "They'd never gotten it to work until today."
My mind was throwing up red flags everywhere. Aliens contacting a mega-corporation... to tell them how to thwart the alien invasion? Umbra making a power grab on a society that seemed headed down the tubes anyway? And a guy, very nearly a hobo, knew all this? When no one else did?

Richard might have been a borderline homeless drifter, but he was perceptive. He saw the doubt on my face.

"Yeah, yeah. Crazy guy doesn't know shit. Except this -- I can prove all of it."

I seriously doubted that, and I said so.

"Of course you doubt me. I might too, in your position. But I'm the guy who destroyed the initial worm infestation," he told me. "Right out there on the street behind you. And I can show you exactly how and why I knew what to do."