by Robert P. Kaye
Ethan stepped outside on the morning of the third day of the Incident, circumnavigating a wad of damp blankets and cardboard, the shucked cocoon of a denizen of the street and a reminder that a mere shrug of the earth could reduce an entire population to similar wreckage. The faint bite of urine tingled in the cool air as he made his way to the far edge of the portico. A gust of freezing drizzle sprinkled his face as he approached the plastic ashtray positioned well away from the back door of the Emergency Operations Center — the EOC — the city’s high tech cathedral of disasters. Breaks like these allowed him some perspective; the cloud-shredded views of distant mountains proof that each individual constituted an infinitesimal molecule trapped in a vast ocean of events.
He lit the last of the three cigarettes allocated to each twenty-four hour period, more than three the reputed threshold to addiction. This one tasted of fine burgundy aged in smoky barrels, the neurotransmitter rush a peek into the abyss. Sleep deprivation contributed to the not unpleasant hyper-reality reminiscent of college experiments with acid.
So far, the Incident comprised no more than a series of practical jokes that nobody could guarantee did not emanate from some obscure Fed agency fucking with them. A “penetration test.” Or, as somebody called it, “foreplay before cyber rape.” So far, Ethan was having a blast, though it wouldn’t do to admit this inside.
“Mind if I bum one?”
Ethan stifled his startle reflex. Nobody had joined him on the sidewalk for days, even the grizzled old cops converted to nicotine patches, energy drinks or yoga, unwilling to leave the bunker for fear of missing something. Emergency junkies one and all. “Sure thing,” Ethan said, shaking out a coffin nail — he loved the archaic lingo.
The man selected a cigarette as if they might vary in size or taste as Ethan scanned him for a badge, detecting not even a lanyard. On the second day, an alphabet soup of outsiders — FEMA, FBI, HSD, NSA — had descended upon the EOC. This guy looked like one of the grey suits who’d evicted Homeland Security from the secure conference room, sealing the doors, creating a bunker within a bunker. The man’s grey disheveled hair, rumpled suit and loose backwards-twisted tie set him apart from the rest of the team, all apparently twenty years his junior and capable of running a marathon in formation while juggling knives betwixt them. This man looked desiccated and brittle. The Boss. “So — how’s it going in there?” Ethan asked.
For the past three days, an unidentified “Bad Actor” — Ethan used to laugh at the term, picturing some hapless Saturday Night Live alumnus butchering King Lear — had sent untraceable text messages calling their shots:
19:00, lights out on Broadway, two minutes. Upon the hour, bang! the designated neighborhood darkened. Power restored 120 seconds later.
08:30, rush hour break, Spring to Pine, ten minutes. In mid-commute, traffic lights gridlocked for 600 seconds before resuming normal cycles.
21:00, Sesame Street + Playboy Channel, twenty minutes. At the appointed hour, Big Bird and Oscar replaced the image of a panting threesome, observed by the fine men and women viewing porn together on the gigantic plasma screen. Ethan erupted in laughter in appreciation of the intruder’s comic timing, but he chortled alone, everyone else’s sense of humor evaporated.
“You want to know how it’s going?” The grey man lit up, squinting and baby coughing at the first bite of smoke. “Read the press releases.” He aimed two fingers at Ethan’s chest and leaked smoke through lips thin and puckered as an old scar.
“I write the press releases,” Ethan said. He had since the second day, when a FEMA high rafter bat asked him to sleep on site instead of rotating with his less creative Public Information teammates.
“I know.” The suggestion of a smile said, I’m messing with you.
The thrill of recognition almost misdirected Ethan from the adroit avoidance of his question. He decided to take another run at it. “Any closer to ID-ing the perp?” he said. ID-ing the perp? Ethan groaned inwardly at the lingo marking him as a civilian TV viewer instead of an insider. He chose not to react to the man’s cocked head and bemused smile. The best way to cover a gaffe was to move forward. Never look back.
He held his breath.
The man shrugged, drew another puff. “I shouldn’t.” He raised the cigarette as evidence and examined it as if posing for a circa 1954 ad in Life magazine. “Those guys would give me no end of shit,” he gestured to the glass, “if they weren’t working their asses off. You’re a bad influence, my friend.”
My friend. Ethan waited. He’d heard an ex-special ops guy say that time and silence constituted the best interrogation technique ever devised. The plastic ashtray, cabled to a support pillar, had a design like an upside down hypodermic needle. Butts inserted into the small hole in the neck dropped into the locked base to frustrate scavengers — effective, if mean spirited. Ethan missed old fashioned ashtrays with raked sand, like tiny beaches, which lent an air of luxury to the act of smoking and facilitated the recycling of used tobacco.
“I’m a fan of your work,” the man in grey said. “You’ve got some chops.”
“Thanks.” Pride unclenched within until he recalled Twain’s observation about the only three types of people susceptible to flattery being men, women and children. “Not a lot to write about, is there?”
“Therein resides the art.” He stabbed the ember of the cigarette toward Ethan’s chest like a practice stroke toward a dart board. “This you know.”
Ethan took a chance and extended his hand. “Ethan Solvanger.”
The man craned his head to peer through the building glass, which admitted light, but did not permit its escape. They shook — a brief catch and release. “Call me Laramie,” he said.
“You from Wyoming?” Ethan asked.
* * *
On the fourth day, the under-edge of downtown felt post-apocalyptically deserted. It took Ethan a moment to recognize the steady state of a normal Sunday afternoon, not the aftermath of some unnoticed disaster visited upon the land while the attention of those inside remained hyper-focused elsewhere.
The spillways on a dam upstream from the metro region had opened six hours before, the dispatched crews requiring thirty-three desperate minutes to find the right manual shut off valve — three minutes after the automated floodgates closed under unauthorized remote control. Things had tipped serious, the unnamed bad guys demonstrating virtuoso mastery of a portfolio of threat vectors. Legions of Chinese, Korean, and Ukrainian hackers flailed against firewalls day and night to no avail, while these characters had their god-like fingers poised above the right buttons, driving the cybersecurity gurus inside nuts.
Laramie stood in his usual spot.
“So how’d you get into this particular branch of show business?” Laramie asked after they lit up.
“The 2004 Pacific tsunami,” Ethan said. “Working as a dive instructor at a resort in Thailand. I was twenty meters down with a party of tourists and the wave lifted us maybe five meters in a big ellipse and set us back in the same place like puppets on strings. Wiped out most of the town, but the resort was OK.” He recalled the feeling of suspension from a tether bent around a point in space, plucked by a force deep within the earth and hundreds of miles away. The wire still resonated. “The power — you know?”
“Yeah.” Laramie shrugged. “I know.”
“I stuck around to help out.” Ethan made sure he curtailed any blather about Rachel, his girlfriend at the time and a fellow dive instructor. She’d run to the roof of the two-story guest house and watched the water rise almost to the top, the walls shaking like paper in a typhoon. The surge subsided, leaving her unharmed but unable to trust the world even on a sunny day. “Guess I got hooked.”
“Emergency management is like crack cocaine,” Laramie said. “Irregular intervals of intense stimulation surrounded by vast spells of boredom. Hard to quit and hell on the personal life.” He took another puff, lizard eyes narrowing against the smoke and chuckled. “If you’ve still got one of those.”
“Love it,” Ethan laughed — he wasn’t sure why. Maybe in appreciation of Laramie’s exquisite detachment. “Any progress?” He gestured inside.
“All under control.”
“Really?” Ethan’s spirits lifted in a way that revealed a surprising level of desperation.
“Yeah. Just not our control.”
“Yeah.” Ethan laughed, trying to sound convincing. He’d continued the dive, enjoyed the tropical fish and the coral though he’d seen it all many times before. The shifting plates of the earth seeming to fuse the reef’s beauty into supernatural clarity. Nobody had ever asked why he hadn’t headed back right away, perhaps assuming that he hadn’t identified the nature of the wave. But he knew from the instant it passed through him.
* * *
On the fifth day, at 02:33 hours, Ethan contemplated lighting his fourth cigarette. The filtered air inside the high tech womb of a building had turned septic with frustration. Ten minutes before, he thought he heard the soft echo of somebody crying over the snicker of keyboards and crackle of keyed radios and it sounded too much like Rachel on the other side of the bathroom door.
At midnight, the Bad Actors — they still had no better handle — shut down the regional power plant, as declared via text message, which, for the first time, omitted a resumption deadline. The plant remained offline for an excruciating forty-three minutes and thirty-seven seconds, while debates raged over what kind of ransom note they’d receive — piles of money or release of prisoners or withdrawal of troops or whatever. No such demand arrived.
Ethan’s press release blamed the outage on a fictional substation fire and cascading computer-triggered shut downs — not his best work. A few bloggers speculated about possible connections between recent incidents, but nobody added things up correctly. The situation had become too absurd even for the conspiracy freaks.
A couple strolled down the sidewalk slicked by rain, the rail-thin man clutching a bottle in a paper bag, supporting a woman in a beret and quilted purple nylon coat like a walking upright sleeping bag, the two giddy and unstable as young lovers, each step a near miss at tipping over. A disturbance of shadows indicated a deal in process under the steel bridge where little crack vials crunched underfoot in the mornings. The air smelled of ozone, stoplights reflecting off puddles like broken glass. For a moment, Ethan felt submerged in a giant fishbowl, awaiting a shake. He thought about how anything suspended in water describes an ovoid in response to a shock wave, returning to approximately the same place it started. Unless something impeded the transmission of force.
“You gonna light that?” Laramie said, materializing behind his shoulder.
“Haven’t decided,” Ethan said, striving to project calm.
“Mind if I bum another?”
“Be my guest.” Ethan handed him the pack and watched him light up, Teflon coated and bullet proof. “Laramie” had no personal stake in this city, as far as Ethan knew. But then neither did he, though he’d lived here for half a decade. He’d taken this job because it involved disaster management, the nearest ocean over a thousand miles away. He could walk away at a moment’s notice.
Two men rounded the corner of the building, rolling swaggers indicating they’d forgotten this was a cop shop. One wore a watch cap and puffy coat, the other a jean jacket and blue bandana with a fringe of greasy hair and an overgrown goatee.
“Hey man,” Bandana Man pointed a crooked finger to the pack in Laramie’s hand. “You wanna give me one of those?”
“You wanna fuck off?” Laramie asked with a slouching grin.
Bandana Man drew himself up to full height, his pockets big enough to contain a knife, or a gun. And if they did, all the cops inside wouldn’t do them any good. The air seemed to offer resistance, as if strained through a regulator. Ethan had the urge to bolt down the street.
Bandana Man inspected Laramie’s slumped frame and grinned, thoroughly unintimidated. And then something — perhaps a shadow swimming in the depths of the blank glass — caused his predatory leer to fade. “Jeez, dude,” he said. “I’m just asking. You don’t have to be rude.”
“I don’t have to be anything,” Laramie said.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here, man.” The guy in the watch cap plucked Bandana Man’s sleeve. “These dudes are probably cops.”
“You didn’t have to be so goddamned rude,” Bandana Man said over his shoulder as they hustled away. “It’s uncalled for.”
“I wouldn’t have minded if you’d given him a smoke,” Ethan said after the pair cleared the end of the building.
“You’re running low and we just received another candygram.” Laramie handed back the pack. “They’re shutting down air traffic control.”
“Christ,” Ethan said. “Can they do that?”
Laramie deployed his universal shrug. “How can they do any of this shit?”
“What’s the plan?” Ethan said, the gravitational tug of panic testing its grip.
“Ride it out.” A bemused smile arrived on Laramie’s face, as if he’d hooked Ethan up to a galvanic response meter, watching the needle. “Same as always.”
Ethan allowed the moment to pass. “I’m supposed to fly to LA over the holidays,” he lied. “Maybe I should drive.”
“Maybe you should.” Laramie laughed and tapped the ash off his cigarette, which broke apart as it fell toward the cement.
* * *
The threat ended as suddenly as it began, the predictive text messages ceasing without a moral, explanation or parting comment, like an experiment concluded without the scientists sharing their results or showing their faces. Flights resumed, traffic lights functioned and power remained steady. River levels remained constant. Technically, the Incident lasted another day as Ethan scanned news outlets and blogs to see if anyone connected the dots. Nobody did.
The NSA pulled out first. The doors to the conference room remained shut.
Ethan barely puffed to make the cigarette last, knowing Laramie and his crew might have already departed. The morning light already felt a little warm. After this he would quit once and for all. Back away from the edge.
Laramie exited through the door — the only time Ethan had observed him doing so. When offered the pack, the older man raised his palm. “They’ll give me a ton of shit as it is. You should quit too.”
“Why’s that?” Ethan thought of Rachel, who’d taken a flight back to the States about a week after the tsunami. They’d never really talked, not that they’d had much chance as Ethan threw himself into the recovery in large part to avoid facing her. They’d discussed marriage just a month before, how many kids they’d wanted, that shit. He had no illusions about who had abandoned whom.
“Weakness in any form is frowned upon,” Laramie gestured to the blank glass walls, “if you want to work for us.”
Ethan recalled the instant of the wave, the instinct to panic, bolt for the surface, risking an embolism or whatever. But he’d hesitated and the energy swung him up and around like a hand rocking a cradle, the wave only dangerous as it rose up out of the sea like some quick monster, impeded by the edge of the continent. If he’d been in the guest house with Rachel it might have hit him full force. Scrambled his DNA. Wrecked him.
He’d finished the dive, pretending not to have recognized the obvious. Remained at sea, disconnected, and somehow been OK, then and ever since.
“I just quit anyway.” He shrugged, drew a last puff and dropped the cigarette down the neck of the skinny plastic ashtray. He wadded the pack into the hole, but it did not stop the thread of smoke from within. He had the odd sensation of return to a beginning, waiting to be lifted.
ROBERT P. KAYE’s stories have appeared in Monkeybicycle, Per Contra, Staccato Fiction, Green Mountains Review, decomP, Cicada, Danse Macabre, Snake Nation Review, Pindeldyboz and elsewhere, with nominations for Pushcart, Best of the Web and Story South prizes. His novel Taking Candy from the Devil, about failure, coffee, Bigfoot and trebuchets, is published online. Links to these appear at www.RobertPKaye.com together with a blog about the collision of technology and literature.