August 7, 2011
1600 Pennsylvania Ave
The stroke of this pen will kill millions.
A sudden burst of birdsong filled the office: the first calls of the day.
He hesitated, the pen poised to strike. He wished he could ask how it had all come to this. Who let this happen. What could be done to stop it.
The time for questions had ended.
He'd had his chance and, like his predecessors, he'd chosen silence; it was the only path with any hope offered.
Besides. In the heady days before his inauguration, when euphoria was sweeping the country, the tiny coda in the three-page report had seemed more like a parting practical joke from the outgoing administration than any real threat.
It was too late to beg at the feet of Mercy. He wished he were still innocent.
The birds continued their early morning chorus.
The sheet of paper in front of him had passed through many hands, been analyzed and deconstructed by the sharpest minds. Even as it was forwarded on to the next expert with a sickening shake of the head from the last, he had held onto a bottomless sense of hope. Not until his most trusted adviser put her keen eyes to it and read with increasing terror did he plumb the depths of that hope and find it wanting.
That had been only yesterday. His wife had retired early, unable to find for her sadness any cure better than restless sleep. He had stayed up. Perhaps if yesterday never ended, today would never come. Last night he had been scared, yes, distraught, yes, horrified by the promise of the future, undoubtably, but he had still been ready to fight. Today he felt ... nothing.
The birds went on singing.
It was a single page, only sixteen lines long, but it would defeat him: it and the pen. And the ink.
The ink is blood red. He shivered.
He was not alone.
They surrounded him. As he sat in his chair, staring at the simplest and most bureaucratic of weapons, they stood. Impassive. Shoulder to shoulder, giants in khaki.
The walls of his office rose immense; his desk stretched endless in front of him. In a room he was used to dominating, he'd never felt so insignificant. He huddled in his chair. A speck of mortal dust.
There was no pretense here—these were no faked, black-suited politicians or aides. They were soldiers: a military force bent to the purpose of a stronger opponent. They knew it, and now he knew it, too.
He lingered over the piece of paper. Perhaps if he closed his eyes, or just refused to sign it, they would vanish.
His hesitancy provoked no response. No human cough to hurry the proceedings. No barked order forcing him to dash the pen to the paper.
They hadn't even threatened him. Or his family. They didn't need to.
He looked at the pen again. A pink ballpoint.
If it was contempt, it was most exquisitely expressed. He would have to sign his name to the document with the humblest of instruments ...
When he thought of his name, that it would be on the document forever—however abbreviated that forever may now be—the President finally broke.
A teardrop reached the paper before the pen nib did.
August 7, 2011
Blood had dribbled from his mouth and was starting to crust, but Ruud van der Veldt did not cry. He didn't have time.
A voice was blaring from tinny laptop speakers. A scruffy, unshaven man with wild eyes was staring out from the screen. He was talking, but neither Ruud nor his grandfather was paying attention.
"One more piece, Oupa, just here." Ruud touched the last strip of exposed flesh on his torso. He spat another bloody mouthful into a bowl.
His grandfather nodded and tore off more duct tape. The old Afrikaner was biting back a comment. He was taking this hard.
"We all agreed, Oupa. This is the best option—probably our only option, in fact."
"If this fails others will try," the older man replied.
God knew, Ruud didn't want to have to do it—but inside he was glad. Glad he hadn't backed out, glad he would play his part. And by God, he was going to play it and blow it out of the water—or, more correctly, out of the sky ...
The scratchy voice from the laptop filled the room. The man on screen was gesticulating and his mouth was moving but not in sync with the sound.
"Later on, guys, we'll talk about things you can do to prepare for December 22 next year—but now I'm gonna continue our series about the man who risked everything to warn the world about the threat we face. Folks, we're up to part three, and tonight we're going to hear about the efforts of the American government to shut down one of their own—"
Ignoring the webcast, the old man smoothed the tape over his grandson's skin and the wires crossing it.
"This is an old man's mission, Rudi," he said. His eyes shone with pain as he touched the bulky canisters strapped across his own back and stomach.
"I value your life more than you do, it seems—"
Ruud opened his mouth to protest only to be silenced by a look from his grandfather.
"Everyone does what he needs to do to protect his home. Your elders gave you the gift of life—your gift to your elders should always be a life lived. They give it ... you treasure it. The living—"
"—are the hearts of the dead." His grandfather's favorite saying: it was a beautiful sentiment but that was all it was.
And anyway. Age was immaterial. That was why he had agreed to this plan, this act of war. Age had not dictated who could and who could not do their task. That had been the first thing the group rationalized. When the list of possible candidates was whittled down, it was obvious—painfully so to the old folk—if the plan was to work both old and young would be needed to execute it.
The web feed was cutting from one grainy shot to another, the voiceover drawing some connection between the images, which focused on a youngish man speaking on a panel forum.
His grandfather eased a loose t-shirt then a woolen sweater over Ruud's head. Despite the pain from his do-it-yourself dental surgery, Ruud's ever reliable stomach rumbled. There was little point eating lunch today, and he had been too busy to think of breakfast. Besides, that meal, too, had seemed pointless.
His stomach rumbled again loud enough for his oupa to hear.
"Let's at least try to act normally," the old man said, tearing a hunk of loaf. "We don't want to give anyone the impression anything is amiss, do we?"
He might have been discussing a day on the farm, but Ruud heard the fear. He knew better than to laugh at it. If his grandfather had spent a lifetime looking over his shoulder, he'd had good reason. With his special gift of knowing, Hans van der Veldt contributed an essential ability to the scheme. If they were about, he would know. Because he always knew—had always known—when they were coming.
Suddenly Ruud was overcome with a need to put his arms around his grandfather.
Hans had already suffered in this life—the loved ones he'd lost, the violence of politics, the powerlessness of abduction—yet nothing had broken his will, his defiance, his love of life and all those who shared it.
The explosive devices they had attached to each other made one last hug impossible.
Here they were, ready to explode, eating sandwiches like nothing important could possibly be happening today and then—there it was. The moment when Ruud might, for the first time in years, let down his guard. Cry.
His chance was cut short; his grandfather stiffened. On screen the man had jumped out of his seat and was ducking in and out of the frame. His voice still came through strong, though. Ruud and Hans were all attention now.
"This is it, folks. It's been an honor to serve you, but the jig is up. As I speak—can you hear that? As I speak they're ramming my door."
His tone was urgent but matter-of-fact. He spoke over the sound of breaking glass and deep, rhythmic pounding. He reappeared on screen, shuffling sheaths of paper.
"Ah ... I can't see them yet, but we all know what they want. There's nowhere left for me to go, but one of you out there—one of you, I know—will take up the mantle. Remember the plan, guys. If you believe, remember the plan, stick to the plan—"
A muffled crunching, picked up by microphone and broadcast across the internet, stopped with a drum-splitting squeal. The laptop's speakers crackled with distortion.
The man stood in profile. His jaw hung open. It was impossible to know what he was seeing.
"They've breached the door, they've breached the door." His shoulders rose as he took a deep breath and fixed a penetrating stare on the camera.
"Stay strong," he said, "or, as I've learned to say here, kia ka—"
The screen was a blur of military fatigues as the man was jerked beyond the scope of the camera lens. It went black. The feed had been cut.
Ruud's grandfather shifted. "Rudi," he said, "contact the others. Quickly. It's time!"
Ruud snatched the cellphone from the counter. The message was preset. He hit send and the little sending animation flickered on the screen. "It's done, Oupa."
His grandfather put a hand on his arm, his smile broad and pained. "I'm proud of you, Rudi."
Ruud wrapped one hand around a detonator; with the other, he clasped the old man.
Against a whirring hum, he heard his grandfather whisper. "This will be the greatest moment of my life."
The old man squeezed Ruud's hand when a familiar whistling started in his head and the room began to disappear in a coruscating light.
Come on, bastards! N ot this time. Never again.
August 7, 2011
The bird calls were dying out.
As he lifted the pen from the page and stared hard at the name in front of him, the President was already asking forgiveness from the crowded nation—no ... the crowded planet—in his mind, crying out for vengeance.
At the same time, just two blocks away, a man carrying a brief case was leaving the District Building. His ID had already given him security clearance to the floors that housed the state adoption Information Department.
His rifling had been thorough and meticulous. He would leave no prints, no hair fibers, no sloughed skin cells—but who would know to look for those clues anyway? The one file he had wanted was where they told him it would be. One file no one would notice was missing ...
Except, someone did notice.
Madeleine Fawbert had thrown herself into her work after her husband died two years before and when she arrived at her office early on Sunday morning, her sense of disquiet was overwhelming. Somehow she knew exactly where to look to test her feeling of unease.
Her keycard gave her access to a restricted room and her eyes went straight to the cabinet where one particular file had been deliberately buried nearly a decade ago. A drawer was ajar. Not by much—no one else would have noticed.
She refused to panic.
Instead, she nudged the drawer in, backed out of the room and shut the door. She went to her desk, sat down, made a few calls and checked her email. Then, when she had a grip on her fear and an hour had passed, she reached for her smartphone.
She prayed she did not make any mistakes with this call.
The phone rang only three times before a sleepy voice answered.
"Walter? Hello, it's Madeleine ... oh, sorry, did I wake you? Yes, it is early, isn't it? Silly me. Say, I was just going to catch up with some paperwork today but I can't really bring myself to touch it. I've been thinking a lot about Bill and, well, it would be nice to talk to someone. I'd love to take you up on that breakfast date if you can spare the time. Meet me for coffee in our usual place?"
He'd agreed—there was no way he wouldn't. After all it was the day he had been preparing her for.
She only hoped their conversation hadn't sounded too stilted to tip off any surreptitious listeners.
Because like the President, the Afrikaners, and the stranger who had disappeared from the internet, Madeleine Fawbert knew exactly what was at stake today.