The Tethys Report (First 3 Chapters)

Chapter 1

I was in Bangkok—the hottest surviving city in the world—on my way back from work when Kraftberger found me. It was eight years after the 2069 catastrophic event in Afghanistan and I had been helping the Thai government with their flood prevention initiative.  Moving slowly through the knee-deep water filled streets near the blinking lights of Bangkok Tower—that enormous house for the elites overlooking the city, I was unsuccessfully avoiding the dead rats spinning and floating like dark logs. Sounds of heavy machinery made by the Neydis Corporation that served as automated trash and corpse collecting machines collided with splashing water mixed with the loud chirps of speech from the mass of Thais moving around me. As an enormous automated collector machine shaped like a cute cartoon mouse that Neydis Corporation was famous for lumbered by, the smell of death and decay, repulsive chemicals, and raw sewage enveloped me. After kicking aside a particularly large and bloated rat which was missed by the collector, I first became aware that someone had been observing me. I knew how Krafterberger operated, which is why I wasn’t surprised when he appeared at my usual bus stop, standing there waiting, not even looking at me.  He never looked at anyone directly.

With an air of idle indifference, he stood in front of the hydro-bus where I couldn’t have missed him—his legs standing on an elevated platform that kept him just above the dark dirty water, his field of vision permeating the scorching heat and humidity like two deadly snakes sifting through the fog.  In the unbearably humid heat of the Thai afternoons, the air takes on properties of a sponge; car exhaust, factory smoke, street food, all swirl together in the swirl of metropolitan mess.  The government had required people from the rural areas to take shelter years earlier when people simply started dying from heat exhaustion. The bodies often ended up in the river and surrounding overflowed areas causing problems for the elites of course, especially in Bangkok Tower the only people who would likely survive in that city.

Earlier that day, I had been discouraged with the hopeless task of protecting what little Thai farmland remained from the immense flooding that had overtaken much of the coast and some parts inland. The floods had marched violently inwards spreading poisonous saltwater from the ocean onto the fledging rice and soy fields. Things were looking hopeless because the waves of filthy water simply kept coming—always in greater amounts. The days of the Dutch solution were long gone. Circumstances had escalated well beyond that, and now my task simply was to try to erect barriers of all sorts to simply slow the water down from wiping out the people who lived outside Bangkok’s protective barriers.

The late-afternoon sky was thick with storm clouds and already I could hear lightning from the distance. The air was thick with the smoke of burnt oil and the combined sweat of twenty million humans living in an ever-shrinking space. The mandatory evacuations were inevitable but the only question left was: where would they go? Around me were people of all ages and status marching through Bangkok’s blight. Despite the scorching heat and intermittent rain, Kraftberger stood calmly among the throng wearing a suit—the water dripped off the fabric as though it was waterproof. He turned toward me as I was about to ignore him, pulling a long, thin cigarette out from the vest pocket of his shirt.

“Got a light Mister?” he asked, his head lowered downward, his dangerous eyes were somewhere behind the thick sunglasses perched above his salt-and-pepper moustache.  I avoided looking at his face though his eyes would never meet my own. He was completely bald and had a peculiar sounding voice—one that was somewhere between a whine and a squeak. Whenever I heard it, I found it to be both hypnotically intoxicating and inherently revolting—one I could not disengage from though I wanted to. His method of speaking was hard to trace. It had an almost feminine undertone which suggested a Southern accent but it was formal sounding too as though he learned standard English from a grammar book rather than a parent.

I merely slowed to a step.  Others pushed me from behind, and I saw that he was not making any effort to get on the bus so without saying anything I made a move to go up the stairs of the bus before the doors would close.  But a hand grabbed me from behind—a hand with a steel grip, and fingers like pincers.  The hand of the government was an irresistible one, it seemed.

“I just want to talk,” he said.  He said the last word with a honey-sweet tone of voice.

“And I just want to live my life—without you, and after what you’ve done to me, you can’t blame me,” I said in reply in a flat tone.  The grip relaxed slightly. Any emotion would give him an edge, and I didn’t want that.  Although I had been unable to practice science the way I had wanted to, I didn’t want him knowing about my pain of not being able to do the kind of research I had always wanted.  My career as a scientist may have been on hold, but thanks to the Thai government and the King’s generosity, I had found work putting my skills to use again.

“We need you Jake.”  Finally, his hand let go of me completely, and I relaxed—just a little.

“For what?” I said without turning my head.

“There’s someplace we need you to go to. We need a pair of scientist’s eyes to go with a special crew I’m setting up. That’s all. No one will get hurt. I swear.”

“I don’t want to do the military’s bidding anymore.  Why can’t you just find some other schmuck?” I said.  My voice had risen to a shout, and people were starting to stare.  A woman and her toddler had their eyes transfixed on us both.  They were holding hands.  The toddler, a little girl, had left her mouth wide open in puzzlement.  Below me the filthy water was splashing against my pants which had already been soaked a dark color. The bus passed by while making a massive dip in the water as it continued on with its massive wheels. Kraftberger took it all in stride, not making a move.

I smiled at the woman and put my hands together in a prayer gesture—a symbol of respect called a wai—and apologized in Thai before moving off in a different direction from where Kraftberger was standing.  He would have none of it, however.  Somehow, he got in front of me, and when I tried to move past him, he put his arm in front of me.  Although he was perhaps a good fifteen years or so older than me, and despite the fact that I was in pretty good shape, and despite what I knew was his distaste for getting his clothes wet, he was able to restrain me with that one arm.

I was about to resist—probably futilely—when he said, “Jen’s in danger.”

I stopped moving completely.  It was all the response he needed. Jen Li was a paleontologist who focused on marine life whom I met at Stanford.  We both worked on similar research, paleontology and geology often go well together after all.  She was brilliant and I quickly fell in love.  Then the incident in Afghanistan seven years earlier happened, and a scandal ensued.  Long story short, my career was ended as I took the fall.  A lot of people in Afghanistan died due to the incident and I never learned who the true culprits were. It was my choice. I didn’t take the blame for that bastard though, I did it for her.  She was entirely innocent, another pawn in the system of government funding, a cruel dependency where a scientist has no choice but to be misused by the military.   It didn’t matter much that I was completely innocent either but tens of thousands of lives had been lost and explanations were needed.  Kraftberger, the cockroach that he was, escaped unscathed however.  And so here I was; here we were.

“I wouldn’t have said that unless you had forced me to.  You made me tell you about her. You know that. Come on. Let’s just talk a bit. Please Dr. Bloom.”

“Where is she?” I said faintly.  There was a well of complex emotions within me that perhaps I did not fully understand.  I knew he was using me, manipulating the buttons of my thoughts and emotions—that’s what he always did so well—but I knew I loved her—would have done anything for her—even die.  I loved her you see. My only concern was that he was lying.

“She’s in Lake Victor,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper while looking down towards his view screen.  “We’ve got her working down there in Antarctica.” If there was a crew who had bugged both of our bodies with microphones, they would not have been able to hear his voice at that moment—even with all the audio enhancement in the world.  Perhaps he suspected that very scenario, for Kraftberger did not deal in the happy, pleasant world that you or I dwelt in, no, he lurked in the cold dark places underneath.  I was sure that he was directly responsible for at least ten deaths, and nearly certain that countless more had died or been killed indirectly by him throughout his dealings.  All in the name of liberty, perhaps.  It was also very likely that he could have me killed if he wanted.  He would never have done it himself of course.  Instead, he would had hired someone local to do it.  Why waste money on local operatives?  That was his style.  Get others to do the dirty work and then go home to the wife and kids and declare another victory for justice and freedom.

In Lake Victor?” I said incredulously. “The last I heard no one had penetrated the lake. The ice was still too thick despite the recent melting.”

“I can’t say much. As you know, we’re in the Shadow Zone now—all of Thailand is,” he said while focusing his vision vaguely on the sky. “The Russians were working on something down there in Antarctica.  They allowed her along with our team along to do some research, but we lost contact with her a few days ago.”

“You had her spying for you?” I said in a voice that was probably too loud. “Even after what happened in Afghanistan? Even after what you guys pinned on me?”

He ignored the questions.  That probably suggested that she was in fact spying for him, but perhaps she didn’t know it.  She was smart enough to know what kind of man he was—and what kind of jobs he would have for her.

“Why would the Russians want her along?” I said. “Your team is with her too, right? They couldn’t have been happy to have the Trans-Atlantic and Pacific Partnership forces involved in anything the Eastern Alliance does.”

“The Eastern Alliance isn’t always against TAPP and you know it,” he said. “We have some areas of cooperation.”

I already knew the honest answer though—she was the best, simply put.  That’s why the Russians would put up with her: she knew what the hell she was doing. But what I really wanted to know was what was down there.  Why would a Russian research facility in Antarctica want one of the world’s best paleontologists?  She was the foremost expert on Cenozoic and Mesozoic Eras, the period of when the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

“They found something,” he said with a hint of nervousness while looking around.  “We sent a group of scientists along with her—none were military. There was another scientist, one of the world’s most famous. He went to the site before her—before anyone. Come on Jake. I have said too much already. Let us go inside somewhere.”

“Who was it?” I asked.

“Dr. Alan Aspect.”

“I don’t believe it,” I said staring back at him.

As everyone knew he was the most famous physicist since Einstein and Newton. He also had a famous fall from grace which apparently caused him to disappear. There was a massive scandal created which may or may not have been his fault. “What in Gehenna’s name was he doing working under the Antarctic ice?” I said.

“Somehow he convinced the Russians into letting him go there early,” said the spymaster. “He went in before we got there. We are not sure where he is now. We have received reports that he somehow disappeared from the main team.”

This whole thing was very strange. Now both Jen and Alan Aspect were missing too? From a geologist’s perspective, whatever was down there was interesting in a scientific sense. Antarctica was a gold mine in terms of field data—especially now that more than a quarter of it had melted to reveal more of its secrets. But very few scientists could get down there, even if they had the resources to back them. TAPP would only fund projects that would benefit the military angle now. There was no reason the military would be interested in research that would yield few tangible results. It made no sense unless they found something that they could weaponize. Futilely, I tried to look into his sunglasses and the eyes turned away as always to get more information but of course none was forthcoming.  I knew he would say no more on the matter.

“Come on, I’ll buy you a beer,” he said. I knew from experience it would be anything but a friendly chat.

When he saw that I assented, however reluctantly, he quickly moved away from the bus stop towards an alley where the wind from the coming storm let up and I followed him. It may have been my imagination but I thought that I saw movement as others walked in tandem behind us. We walked through the watery streets while saying nothing with the only sounds being made by us were the splashing of the knee-deep water.  It was perhaps his first time in Bangkok but he navigated the roads and back roads as well as any native.  I doubted he would have used his Geometric Navigation Unit that most people used to find their way—it would have been too risky for a spy. Perhaps he had been scouting me well before this current meeting but I doubted it.  He would have certainly had me monitored and more than a few times I detected a few figures who seemed to share similar patterns day after day. None of this surprised me. What did surprise me was that he never had me killed.  I was a loose end after what happened in Afghanistan.

After having walked a little more than a kilometer through waterlogged sidewalks and constantly being splashed by traffic, we entered a seedy bar called Hanky Panky.  The water from the walkway flooded in and was quickly drained away by the vacuuming machines. Above me, perhaps a dozen semi-clad women were dancing on elevated platforms—the typical Thai fare in the red-light trade.  There were three or four men I spotted who didn’t seem interested in the performers and seemed too well-built to be average clientele but Kraftberger did not even slow down to greet them.  Instead, he moved towards the back of the large dimly lit room and the madam moved aside when we entered a door that led to a narrow hallway that had a left turn at the end of it.

There were sounds of debauchery from the rooms we passed and I started to wonder where he was taking me—not because I feared him killing me but because it didn’t seem to be his style.  Whatever his faults, he wasn’t a philanderer. Then I remembered an old saying of his.  “Go where they least expect it.”  I saw plenty of beautiful agents of his sent on dangerous missions, many not coming back alive, and he never once attempted anything scandalous nor did I ever see him crack a dirty joke or stare inappropriately at women like so many other government agents had.  He was dedicated to his mission and more than once while working with him I wondered what made him tick. Thailand was an important ally against the Eastern Alliance. It was also a battlefield of sorts as it had a major port for Western warships that went off to challenge the Eastern Alliance.

“We’re here,” he said before opening the door at the end of the hallway.  It looked as if it would open into a closet or very small room but instead it led to a small hallway and then to a much larger room.  A single naked lightbulb illuminated the room. There was an office inside in a room of perhaps twenty feet by twenty feet.  Tables, papers, phones, all were going off, quantum computers were humming along while the numerous liquid cooled fans were straining to keep up with the task of keeping the electronic equipment cool.  The men and women who worked in the office were mostly of non-Thai ethnicity, but I did see a few local looking people.  None of them looked at me as he led me to an office at the far end.

“Transfer to Bangkok?” I asked.

“Only just recently,” he said.  “Mainly to come see you.  My superiors have the utmost interest in this project, you see,” he said offhandedly.  He opened the rusted beige door and we both entered quietly.  He then lowered the shades to his office and locked the door.   I had my first look at the place.  It was a very organized-looking office that could have belonged to any professional—lawyer, banker or government official.  There were two differences: the first was that there were absolutely no family portraits or even hints of family anywhere in the office.  True, I reasoned, he could have just come up here temporarily but the whole time I knew him he never once indicated any family.  I was left with the impression that he was single and his job was his life.  The other difference was that there were perhaps five display screens illuminating various surveillance and attack drones as well as agents whom were spread throughout the world on various projects.  There was also a small arsenal of assault rifles, pistols and shot guns placed neatly on racks beneath the view screens. Near the guns was a small hatch where I supposed he could have escaped if the need arose.

I sat down in the chair in front of his desk.  He pulled out a long pistol from his vest pocket and put it down into an empty space on the rack next to the machineguns.  I knew from my training that it contained fourteen 9mm bullets and could accommodate a silencer at the end.  Before sitting down, he removed this and put it in a drawer under the rack.

He gave me a shrug.  “It was not for you,” he said. “I have to be careful—even here. I’m pretty high up on the food chain and with the South China Sea incident playing out, who knows what the Eastern Alliance would do?”

I said nothing to this and simply waited.  For some strange reason, I didn’t have any fear whatsoever.  Perhaps we knew each other too well.  That in of itself should have made me more afraid.

Taking out a Chesterfield cigarette from a case that was on his long desk, he lit it, took off his sunglasses, and blew a smoke ring that rose just between the both of us.

“Mind if I smoke,” he said in a voice that did not suggest a question but more like an afterthought.  I did not bother to answer. Pausing for a moment, he reached behind his desk and opened a refrigerator door and picked out a bottle of beer, opened it by using an ivory bottle opener and handed it to me. It was slightly warm Tiger Beer. I took a sip and waited.

“I—we—the government and I have a proposition.  We can take away the charges against you from that mishap in Afghanistan if and only if, you agree to our terms.  We are assembling a team as we speak to go down there and find out what happened and rescue our team if necessary.  Now, the Russians are being coy all of a sudden.  Either they know we were spying on them, or they think we sabotaged their plans. ”

“Why sabotage?  Did something happen?”  I thought of Jen, and my heart raced.  I guess she was all I thought about anymore.

“First let me ask: Are you in?  For me to tell you anymore means investing you with information that is classified.  I can tell you this information but if you don’t take this job subsequently, I’ll have to have you liquidated,” he said matter of factly.  His head made an ever so slight nod towards either the machineguns or the pistol—probably the pistol.  Why make a mess?

“Are you lying to me about Jen?” I said.

“No.” I belatedly realized the stupidity of my question.

“Have the Russians taken her?’ I said trying to mask my desperation to gather more information.

“All I can say is that she’s down there.  I honestly don’t know her condition.”

It was as good as he would give me and good enough for me.  I knew he wouldn’t lie about her being down there.  What I didn’t know was whether she was in danger.  He probably knew more about this than he would ever tell me.

“I’m in,” I said.  He made no response.  Instead, he took another puff of his cigarette and pulled back in his chair, his face emitting an expression of blankness that was almost Zen-like. Then the grin came. It was a crocodile’s grin to be sure. I was now under his employment once more.

“Good,” he said. “Let us proceed. We have reason to believe that the Russians lost contact with their research base on top of Lake Victor about the same time we lost contact with Jen who is underneath the station inside the actual lake.  For whatever reason, the Russians have not sent anyone down there to investigate—neither the station nor the research base.  That makes us suspicious.  We have been watching them very closely. Either they expected the loss of contact, or they know something we do not and are very hesitant to go down there and investigate.“

“Is it possible they didn’t lose contact with the research base and are simply lying to you?” I said.

“It is very, very unlikely because they know we could find out. I do not need to remind you that Antarctica is currently located in the Shadow Zone and that of course means that both we and they can detect what is going on. Unless they are stuffing penguins with message bottles, we are pretty sure we would know if they were communicating back and forth.  And just to note, we did take a look at the penguins,” he said this last in a dry voice that left no room for humor.  The man really did have the penguins looked at.  I would no doubt be reading some National Geographic someday about the mysterious disappearance of a cluster of penguins in the near future—that is if the publishing industry continued to exist in the near future.

“Why are the Russians down there do you suppose?” I said. “I thought they had shifted their resources to the conflict in the North Pole.”

“Beyond their publicly stated purpose of scientific research and the unspoken possibility of exploitation of geological resources that exist there?” he said waving his hand through the cigarette smoke. “I would say they found something interesting.  That was partially Jen’s job to find out.  What are they really up to? Unfortunately, we did not learn anything conclusive.  All she told us is that the lake underneath the ice is much larger than anyone imagined—much bigger than NASA’s satellite imaging indicates in fact and that there is something very, very interesting going on in that lake.  That’s all we know.”

“That’s a little vague isn’t it?” I said.

“Yes it is. But it is the best we can do.  Because Antarctica is in the Shadow Zone, communications are prohibitively difficult most of the time. That is where you come in.  We decided on a small team to go down there, under stealth, so the other governments will not know about what we are doing.  Anything larger will be noticed and it could raise tensions. It is a military team remember. They do not have scientific skills like you do, but of course that is what you are here for. You are trained in both science and special operations. We do not have a lot of other operators with the same set of skills. Your team will go down there, under the ice to assess the situation and get our team out. Basically it is a search and rescue operation.  That is it.” I knew the team would be special operators from various branches. If Kraftberger had put this much trouble into it, he would go all the way to ensure success.

“Are there any AI assault units going with us?” I said.

“No,” he said flatly.

“Why do you need me?” I said in exasperation. “I’m trained for some tactical operations but I’m still a scientist. If it’s a rescue operation then you need people who are strictly military.”

“The whole area I need you to go to is dangerous and complex. We nearly lost our entire team the first time and that was with guidance training before the mission. The whole area is a mess with the weather and conditions. I need you to lead the team down there—to help them navigate the area. I have been told that there were reports of snow tornados,” he said with a frown. I had heard that Antarctica had very difficult weather conditions—something beyond what anyone had predicted but I wasn’t aware of the current status. I did know that Antarctica along with Greenland, the last bastion of the cryosphere, which is the parts of the Earth where Mother Nature stores the ice. There was a huge differential in temperatures between these parts and the rest of the planet which meant extreme weather conditions.

“Moreover,” he said. “We have suspicions that there is a geological reason the Russians want to look down there.  Did they find something that could change the geopolitical calculus? We want to know. Who knows what is down there? We do not have eyes on it due to the recent shutdown of global satellites, and of course we’re too worried about our transmission getting hacked.” He looked genuinely perplexed as he said this. It had been on his mind for quite a while. “We need someone who can give us an expert first-hand look at the place and report back.”

“You mean you need someone who is an expert at keeping his mouth shut as well—someone who has proven himself not to say anything to pesky reporters or the like—and someone with top-secret clearance, which is in ever short supply?” I said.

“Yes that too of course,” he said. “But at its core, this is a search-and-rescue operation. Go down there with my team, help them find our people and get them out. That is what your number one objective will be. We need to know what our team down there knows. It is a very serious matter.”

I was convinced they were trying to decide whether it was worth it to launch a full invasion of the last continent. Anything they did was sure to be noticed and reciprocated.

“It all seems pretty simple on the surface but there are a bunch of unknowns aren’t there?” I said. “I’ll have to do some reading of the latest climate and geological reports of the area.”

Kraftberger nodded. “Yes of course but do it on the plane. We need to move quickly. The truth is Jake, we do not know what the hell is down there.  Until you came onboard, I decided on not sending anyone down there without the expertise of a geologist to provide support for our team.  There are also rumors that there are minerals—more than we thought at first too. But reporting the strategic value of the area is of secondary importance.”

“Of course you want to exploit those if they are there. No word on any raw materials or other discoveries?” I said with an sarcastic smile. “I’m sure it’s pretty ripe down there. Now that the melting of the ice is really underway.”

“No definitive reports and you know Command wants something definitive,” he said while blowing the smoke into the air. “You know how it is with Command.”

“That I do,” I replied bitterly.

“Any more questions?” he said looking me in the eyes with a hard, cool stare. It was the first time I had ever looked into his eyes—something I wasn’t sure he was even capable of. They were the cold eyes of a machine. No pity for the human race was located in those two orbs.

“How am I to communicate with you?” I said suddenly unsettled by his gaze. “If it’s Antarctica, the global communication systems via satellite are all fractured due to recent events as you know, and I’m sure any research channels will be easily hacked by hostile governments due to the inherent difficulties of being in the Shadow Zone.”

“You are to go in and come back to deliver a report in person,” he replied while still looking into my eyes as if we were playing a staring contest. There was some kind of scheme behind them that I couldn’t make out and inwardly I shuddered. “Of course we need to speak to each member of the team too. There are to be no communications. We cannot trust any of it getting loose. Even if there is an emergency, you are not to contact us—any of us, New Washington or Command, is that clear?”

“Yes, but what kind of emergencies could there be? Is there anything else I should know.”

“I never said it was simple,” he replied. “You as well as anyone know it is a dangerous complex world now.”

I said nothing in response to this. Life was so much harder for the everyday person with the recent fracturing of the Internet and banking and the fracturing of global markets. Buying even simple things like underwear and deodorant was a difficult and expensive task. Those who wanted to survive had to do their daily tasks set forth by the government. Like jobs, they were random things whose only reward were the bare essentials in life. This was the system in Thailand as well as other countries. Obviously not everyone had access to this system. The rest were left to their own devices. Who decided which group was in and which was out was probably left up to mysterious AI algorithms poorly understood by nearly everyone but the path back to human autonomy had long been paved over and obscured by deep brush.

“Now, there is one more matter I—” he started saying.

“No more murders of civilians,” I said watching his cool face as he waited patiently but with a slight tick on his right upper lip. He didn’t like interruptions. “I don’t want any of the scientists working down there getting hurt. Don’t make this like last time.  I’m not going to be the scapegoat for another one of your plans if it ends up being something like last time.” My tone of voice said I was serious. And at that point, I was pretty serious—at least I thought.  If Kraftberger had his doubts, I wouldn’t go. It was as simple as that. Jen was a big girl.  She could survive without me. At least I tried to tell myself that as a way of talking myself out of taking part in this mission. Of course it was a lost cause.

“There will be no murders of innocents,” he said while nodding rather woodenly. “But remember something. You will help me because if you do not, it is possible—maybe even likely Jen Li will die. There’s a possibility of alien life in that lake.”

“How do you know that?” I said.

He didn’t answer. Instead he gave a slight grin that said, Sorry pal, that’s all you’re getting today.

I stood up flustered with emotion.  Jen and I had experienced many real and synthetic memories together. The walks through the fields in Oregon, the trip to Paris we took, the wine drunk toasting to a dying world—it was the beginning of our relationship.  The kiss in Hong Kong—her hometown. That sinking city with all of its charm, all of its history, going down like Atlantis. We were there to witness and celebrate it all. All of these virtual memories we created together came down on me like a tidal wave. They had mixed together with my non-synthetic memories so much that I hardly knew that they weren’t real. Had Kraftberger somehow managed to access them? I knew Kraftberger would never exaggerate about her condition but I had guessed he was using her to manipulate me.  It was not odd for a spymaster to do this of course, but it wasn’t in him to embellish the dangers that would be faced in a mission.  He was mostly telling the truth, whatever the story for sending me in was. The part that worried me was what he was leaving out. That was where the danger was.

“Sit down,” he said.

I understood that he was sending me on a mission, ostensibly to help recover his team. What he really wanted me for was to get his military team down there through the treacherous area and report back to him what I saw using my expert opinion—something he hadn’t a clue about. He knew he could trust no other experts in my field, mostly because they could not be vetted nor had top-secret clearance. I also realized he may have had another reason for sending me down there that I might never find out.

“My god, what did you send her into,” I said in a tense voice.

“Sit down now,” he said pulling out a pen, and writing on a piece of paper as if I were a patient and he were writing a prescription.  He finished writing, tore the sheet of paper off, folded it, put it inside a manila envelope and handed it to me.  There was a view screen inside it. On the front there were three words written on the screen: The Tethys Report. The Tethys Ocean was an ancient body of water that had once existed between all the major land groups including Antarctica hundreds of millions of years into the past. There must have been a connection with my task, but it wasn’t obvious.

“Read this later,“ he said.

“What’s in it?’ I said sitting down.

“Some very important information about the mission,” he said.  “You’ll need it for your survival down there.” I was utterly astonished by what the mission had turned out to be but I knew there was no turning back.

“There are two main ways into the underground lake. One is directly under the Lake Victor station.”

“And the other?”

“That one is a bit riskier because it relies on a possible unstable section of the lake. There is a possibility the team already down there does not know about the second exit.”

“Why is that?” I said.

“Because it was discovered more recently and—” his voice trailed off.

“You’re worried about spies, aren’t you?” I said. “You don’t trust the Russians. The only question is do they know about the second way in?”

“The details of the und two ways in and out are in the report,” he said turning away in his seat. “Please read it yourself. There are of course other documents that will be crucial to your mission. Gooday Dr. Bloom.”

“This better not be like last time,” I said.

“It will not be,” he said facing away from me. “And remember if you do not help me, she could be in very grave danger.”
“Yes,” I said. “I understand that part but honestly I just don’t trust you anymore. I know you don’t trust me. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Why place me in a small team with highly trained military recruits when you could send in AI troops or a larger military force to ensure that things work out the way you want—or both. I simply don’t believe that you just want me there to advise them on getting through the terrain safely.”

He turned back towards me again and sat there for a while.  He was weighing something in his mind.  There was not even a bead of sweat anywhere on his face. He could even have been a cyborg.

“You will have to believe me if you want to help her,” he said while looking straight ahead. “It is possibly a dangerous mission. You know that. Antarctica now has one of the world’s most volatile climates and could perhaps be our next battle zone outside of the South China Sea. Now, I will have someone contact you tomorrow morning and take you to the last remaining airport here in Bangkok.  They will give you more instructions for when you get off the plane.  The truth is the others may not appreciate your presence. Your importance to me on this mission is to advise the team you are going with. Your importance to them will not be immediately obvious and they may see you as a distraction. Of course you know that area better than any of us since you have done your PhD work on Antarctica’s geology. That is what we need you for. Whatever help you can give them down there to let them complete their mission—that is what you need to be doing.”

“Down there?” I said.

“Inside Lake Victor of course,” he said.

“You mean the Russian station? That’s how we go down the research vessel in the lake, correct?”

“Yes, there’s a—portable research vessel we have inside the lake itself—that’s where Jen is now. The research vessel’s name is some technical word no one can remember but now it is simply called ‘the Turtle’ and it is a highly sophisticated structure that commands the latest technology. It was designed with some input from the Russians since technically they have been in that specific area for over a century. We managed to drill a hole through the ice with a highly experimental super drill that was specialized for ice penetration and deliver the vessel. This was made possible of course since this year’s record warming made the ice the on Antarctica the thinnest it has been in millions of years. Of course you do not need me to tell you this.”

“So you’ve actually drilled through the Antarctic ice sheet and delivered a research vessel inside?” I said. “It’s got to be at least a kilometer of ice or two still around the area of Lake Victor though I haven’t seen the latest updates. What crazy times we live in.” When I had first studied the area, most glaciologists and other experts believed it was still impossible to drill through the kilometer-thick ice that covered the lake. Apparently that was not the case anymore. Why hadn’t I heard anything about it? Of course I wasn’t surprised by this because the free flow of information had become severely constrained in recent years due to the Second Cold War. Now no one could get their ideas and information out without a great deal of trouble.

“Yes,” he said. “Find the Turtle and you’ll find Jen.”

I decided to ask a direct question: “Do the Russians really want us there?”

He looked back at me with a blank face. “Of course. They’re part of the original team.”

“OK,” I said. “Will the Chinese interfere with us? They are both big parts of the Eastern Alliance after all.”

“We don’t think any of them know—at least not yet,” he said. “Obviously, we do not want them knowing anything.”

Kraftberger was hesitating a lot. That meant they probably knew about the mission already, which was not reassuring. They had become less restrained about publicly pursuing their goals. With the Eastern Alliance on edge, thanks in large part to us, tensions were high between the Russians and the Chinese. The Chinese capture of Taiwan added to the mutual unease. The Russians didn’t want to be dragged into a global conflict if it wasn’t necessary and were furious with their Chinese allies. But those were just rumors. They had already supported each other considerably through the years, especially against American interest.

“There’s got to be something more to this that I’m missing,” I said. “Should I be worried about something? Maybe the possible alien life for instance?”

“Like I said, read the report.”

Kraftberger reached over and pulled out a piece of paper from the envelope he had given me and took out a single sheet of paper. He glanced at it quickly and without any words handed it over to me. On the top of the sheet it said POSSIBLE HOSTILES IN AREA and pushed his finger down on it several times. I glanced through the list and while most were terrorist groups and mercenary units whom I had never heard of, my eyes picked up one name on the list: the ‘Children of Gaia’, better known as COG. They stood out because they had been very active recently, both in cyberspace and attacks spanning multiple continents. Even the carefully censored news that I received in Thailand couldn’t quite suppress news of their activities. The paper Kraftberger had little useful data on them but knowing that they were involved was all I needed.

I looked up at Kraftberger’s eyes. They immediately shifted to avoid my own. The sunglasses had been off and his naked eyes displayed a hint of fear.

“That’s all Dr. Bloom.  Good day,” he said, moving back to peer at something on his desk.  I stood and backed away.

I walked through the city back towards my place as quickly as I could.  It was too dark to see so I took out the portable light and attached it to my head. The only other lights came from Bangkok Tower. I strained to see the highest point on the massive building but could not. Smog interfered with even its powerful lights. There were however sounds of laughter and music coming from all floors of the tower. As always the elites were enjoying the comforts of life, music, drugs, and companionship with the most beautiful women in Thailand. Around me, refugees both Thai and non-Thai struggled to move through the water, ever searching for a dry place to stay. Disease and vermin caused coughing and confusion in the darkness. Some of the human shadows around me writhed with illness and fell into the water without ever coming out again. There was nothing I could do for them. Only my mask and gloves saved me from a similar fate.

Back in my apartment, there wasn’t much to pack.  I had a lover, Tip, who had stayed with me for the past few weeks. My eyes seemed to tell her what my voice could not. She looked resigned in a way that only she could. She had been preparing the windows for another heavy storm. The outer blast protections were already up when I walked in. The wind was forcing them repeatedly against the wall causing a banging noise that did little to ease my discomfort.

“So you’re going, right?” she asked finally while rapidly running her fingers through her long black hair that reached her shoulder blades, as I was noticeably packing some things into a suitcase. I thought briefly of the time we met while I was working on the flood channels near her family’s home in the Northeast.

“Yeah,” I said without emotion. “I’ve got to go.”

“Will you be back?” she said while looking at her nails. They were pink, and I knew when she colored them that way, she was happy about something—maybe she had an announcement of a job she would be getting. My leaving had interfered with that though. She seemed forlorn. To be honest, I was too. The city was dying. The water would soon sweep everything away—all the buildings, cars and even people if they didn’t get out. They had perhaps until the end of the century. After that it would require a complete evacuation because the trend wouldn’t reverse for millions of years. The whole mess wasn’t their fault of course, but perhaps their Buddhist nature allowed them to accept things with a certain stoic wisdom.

“No,” I said flatly. There was no way to spruce that answer up.

Her face registered no surprise, but I knew things were not good. We had grown fond of each other over the time we spent with each other.

“Do you need any help?” she said getting up.

“No, don’t get up—thank you,” I said. “I’m leaving you all the money that I have right now. I’m giving it to you. It should keep you safe for a while. I’d like to give you more but I can only give you the money I have here now. You know I can’t access the American banks here—the Internet fracturing and all. Hardly any banks from the USA can make transactions with banks overseas anymore.”

She perked up a little. I knew she needed the money—mostly for her family.  She didn’t love me, but we were fond of each other. Sometimes that’s good enough to last even a lifetime.

I finished packing in less than an hour. I guess in a way, I had always been ready.  I sent word to a friend, Dr. Sanjay Patel to let my superiors know that I wouldn’t be coming back.  I had grown somewhat proud of my work to help fight the ever-rising floods. It would have been gratifying to have just stayed there—pretending as if Kraftberger and his Cold War battles had never existed.  Of course the geological work that I did could be done by others but I had a lot more that I wanted to accomplish to try to help the Thai people.

I sat on the bed, staring at the discarded newspapers on the floor. Most of the ones I had kept had been about the coming war in the South China Sea which everyone expected would happen but couldn’t quite imagine because the implications meant doom. I looked over the pictures of the warships, especially the USS Trump which had taken the lead in challenging the Chinese navy. In the background were several threatening Chinese and Russian ships as well as pictures of angry officials posturing for war. One of the newspaper articles I glanced at had been heavily underlined to emphasize that there were an estimated three hundred submarines, many of them nuclear capable on either side floating around the area—some on the Western side were completely controlled by AI, mostly likely by JANNUS.

Thailand was one of the last countries to have print news, which meant it was one of the last to allow anonymous consumption of the news. In other countries the reading of current events was tracked carefully. I hastily gathered all the newspapers together, took a lighter and burnt them out in the veranda which was hard going due to the rain being carried in by the strong wind.

Tip was working in the kitchen, banging things around to let me know she was not pleased at all. She was not happy with the choices I made. There was nothing else I could do though. My time in Bangkok was over. I came back into the bedroom with a sense of foreboding.  What would Jen say once she saw me again?  I didn’t want to even contemplate the possibility that the whole story Kraftberger had given me was a lie.  In fact, I knew I wanted this mission very badly—if just to see her.

I thought about my time with Jen for a little while.  It was back seven years before when I last worked for the TAPP government.  They wanted me for my advice on how best to keep the overflowing rivers that swept away entire cities after extremely heavy rains. One of the key problems was that the flooding happened after extended periods of drought, so I had to figure out how to channel an impossible amount of water away from most living areas where trees had been replaced by concrete.

I met her there on site.  She was really unhappy from the start of the assignment.  Once she found out the hopeless nature of the project she was working on, she immediately tried for other positions, both in the government and without.  I admired her fierce determination.  She was willing to give up a fairly good wage as a government contractor for her ideals and I was mostly along for the ride.

She was gorgeous and intelligent and despite the market limitations on apparel, she dressed in a sophisticated way.  Her face had an appearance of both fierce intelligence and wisdom and her eyes were able to switch gears from intensity to lightheartedness in an instant. Her right hand used to flick her shoulder length hair out of her eyes when she was annoyed. She was lonely out in the barren location where we were stationed in Afghanistan, and so was I—she was perhaps the only woman in the entire compound. She never let this dismay her though. She went into any situation head on.

We had the same intellectual pursuit: figuring out where life came from. It was as simple as that. I looked at the earth and the interactions with ancient life. She looked at ancient life forms themselves and tried to make sense of the ecology and path that evolution had taken. We both also loved to read literature. It was our escape from the tedious nature of our work. I was perhaps the only male who had read Maupassant that she had ever known.  She argued that the book A Life was romantic in its scope, but bleak in its outlook. I admitted it was beautifully rendered, but it features a jerk of a protagonist who caused misery to his lover—a dismal affair.

In our odd asymmetries, we made a perfect fit and had many philosophical discussions about life and love.  I held her hand to one of the mountain trails nearby and we made love under a sad looking olive tree with only a few hollow branches above us.  I proposed to her that night—I didn’t even have a ring and told her that I would find the best one once we got back to civilization—which was code for off the base and out of that job.  She said she would think about it, making a joke that she really meant she would think about it once she saw the size of the diamond I was to give her. But I still wasn’t sure how to take it.  When I awoke the next morning, she was sitting on a ledge overlooking the mountain range that eventually led to the famous Noshaq. I sat down next to her and found her gaze set on something. I looked over and saw it. In a mountain pass less than ten meters away was a snow leopard.

Things moved along just fine until the incident in Afghanistan happened. Hundreds of thousands had died because of the poisoned water. No one knew how it got there. All my work advising how to provide precious water to the parched lands had only caused harm, twisted by some unknown entity. I could not rule out my own government as the cause.

I tried my best to get out of the dangerous web—get us both out. We had never been involved—not directly. Politics required a scapegoat. I became an easy target. Kraftberger of course knew the truth that I was innocent. But he let her off the hook and she disappeared after that.  I saw her leave as she was far away, moving into a helicopter. She turned and locked eyes with me. She was with two men whom I hadn’t seen before. I looked at her as if to ask her, Where are you going? In response, she touched her stomach and chest before turning away.  When she left, it was as if a steel cable had violently tugged something away from my chest.  I yearned to go after her but I had no idea where she went. That was eight years ago.

After all my bags were ready, I relaxed on the cheap bed with Tip next to me and waited for sunrise, excited at the prospect of seeing her again.  I didn’t even consider the possibility that she could be dead already.

Chapter 2

I was awoken around 4 AM.  Someone came into my apartment and rudely turned on the light in my bedroom.  I looked over to see Tip still sleeping beside me. She had asked to stay until the very moment I walked out the door, and I relented.

“What the—”

The figure pushed my mouth hard, preventing me from talking or moving.  I got a good look at him.  He was big, had a bushy red beard and was unsmiling.  Despite the civilian clothes, he was clearly a government agent of some sort—probably a solider. He seemed a little too hot in his button-down shirt which had no tie but was soaked from the moisture and the cruel Bangkok heat.

“We’ve got a situation and I need you ready to go in two minutes,” he said while pulling the blinds on the windows down even tighter before peeking outside through the bare slit that was left. “The government will reimburse you for any expenses for things you lose. You are to be informed that your papers are now in order and everything is clear for you to return to the United States.”  He looked at me and waited for me to act.

Another man of taller than average height and no beard came into the room and stood next to the bearded one and said, “All clear.” The soldier with the beard seemed to be in charge.

I got up in confusion, trying to find some clothes to put on, and seriously thinking about canceling my deal with Kraftberger before realizing that, no, I probably couldn’t cancel it even if I wanted to.  This was a one-way street now.  Then I thought about her, and I put some resolve into putting on my socks.  I had to go no matter what.

Luckily, my bags were packed and ready to go.  I just had one thing that really mattered to me. It was a necklace attached to a rather rare specimen of Chert rock obtained by my Ph.D. advisor and friend from western Australia, Paul Rutherford. It was light colored, about the size of an eyeball, smooth enough not to be dangerous and to those who knew its history, priceless. It had probably been formed by the same phytoplankton that brought about the Great Oxidation Event that allowed more complex oxygen-breathing animal forms of life. Eventually humans would breathe this air and still do. It is quite possible that the earliest forms of life, something close to the Last Universal Common Ancestor touched this rock. LUCA was the ancestor of all life on Earth, from the smallest prokaryote to the most complex form the brain. Finding its identity was the focus of my entire scientific career. With great affection, I called the rock ‘Chertie’ and talked to it sometimes when I was bored, lonely or had no one else to confide in. It also helped that Chertie had experienced events far more significant than any in my life could compare to.

“Looks like we’re in a real mess now, Chertie,” I said to the rock in a soft voice so as not to arouse suspicions.

“What did you say?” said the bearded soldier.

“Just—I’ve left a real mess for the landlady.”

“Don’t worry. She’ll get paid,” he replied gruffly.

The landlady was a sweet old widow who had been paid for the month’s rent but not the next.  I knew Kraftberger would get to work on that.  Problems such as unpaid rent, raised questions, and questions caused problems. She deserved at least what she was owed.  She had given me a bracelet made by the people from her village in Isan, the northeast region. The bracelet was made of roughly three kinds of volcanic rock: rhyolite, basalt and beautifully polished obsidian. To my embarrassment, she had found out about my latest work for the Thai government and wanted to give me something of value. I was embarrassed because I wanted to stay low key and didn’t consider my work that important.

She got along with Tip too. The landlady and Tip would talk about life back in their hometowns and share gossip. I would let Tip stay in the apartment until the money ran out. She was still sleeping in bed when I left, and I gave her a quick wave which I know she didn’t see. We had been quiet enough to avoid waking her. I felt guilty for not letting her say goodbye while she was awake.

Like most residential buildings, the first floor was mostly useless due to the floods so we exited from the makeshift stairs leading from the second floor. Outside the street contained a single streetlight that illuminated the front of the building which was awash with trash. The lack of vehicles made it easy to spot the well-maintained silver vehicle with the custom-made tires designed to navigate the water.

We got into the car, and it started to rain.  The floods would be starting again soon. Perhaps that was why they were in a hurry. Bangkok is one of those cities that manages to feel dirtier after a long rain. It always intrigues me how water slides through the concrete streets and slips through cracks and places no one wants to unveil.

It was a good hour before dawn, but traffic was already picking up.  Despite the thick water and the squatting refugees from the coastal areas, carts and tuk-tuks were moving alongside cabbies, trucks and other vehicles.  Several times people slipped and fell amidst the large splashes of waves, only to get back up again and make their way further. I glanced at the mix of shabby and high-tech buildings of the city.  Smog, thick during that time, hung over the air like a morning hangover.  The heat was already unbearably hot and I wondered how many more years it would be before the city itself would have to be abandoned. I had told the government there was less than a decade at current trends.

The car was nothing special, but at least the seat could be adjusted.  I turned around and noticed for the first time that there were two people in the back seat.  They both looked like military from their flat expressions and serious eyes.  One of them looked very young which surprised me because I expected only experienced people to be sent on the mission. In any case, there would be no fun discussions on this ride, I thought sourly.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Shut up.  I’ll tell you when we get there,” said the bearded man. The other soldiers just sat in the passenger seat and stared straight ahead. There was no chit-chat.

“OK,” I said, raising my eyebrows.

Forget fun discussions, there would even be no casual chats about the weather even.  The usual process was to minimize the deadliness that the weather patterns had produced within the past decade with greater frequency. Oh look, today’s a wonderful day, those conversations usually started with. They ended up pretending reality isn’t reality for a while even though everyone knows what’s happening. It was all right, I thought.  At least the banalities would be disposed of.

We were up on the raised highway. No water blocked our path, so we were able to cruise fairly quickly. I looked out on the doomed city. The Chao Phraya River had swelled to enormous levels. Already the dinghies and short buildings along the river had been overtaken, looking like submerged boats. I spotted one woman in the distance who was on one the roof of one building, sitting on a plastic chair, wearing a wide hat while watching the river. Her hair fluttered in the wind with a wistful clumsiness. It must have been at least 120 degrees up on that roof, but she didn’t seem bothered by it. I wondered what she saw in the murky depths of the river below her.

We arrived at an airport which was run like a typical military no frills place.  There were Thai fighter jets stored along the side, and a few unmarked craft were waiting on the runways.  The Thai government recently ordered its military and police to have a two-mile cordon to block the constant protestors. They were mostly displaced farmers and other out-of-work people who had little hope of getting what they needed. Their eyes gazed at the passing vehicles that moved into the airport with looks of wonder and hate. I wondered what would become of them. There had been a bombing of the Thai royal family just two weeks before. This had been unheard of before. Now no one was surprised by it.

With a half-spent cigarette, Kraftberger was there waiting for us after we parked.  There was a look of impatience on his face even though we were there at an early hour. He had a habit of looking at his watch many times when he was angry or nervous. No one knew the time better than he did.

“You are late,” he said to my driver without much feeling.   Once you knew him like I did, you realized that everything he said was scripted more or less—designed solely for the purpose of getting some desired effect.  If he asked if you wanted sugar in your coffee, it was either because he wanted you to relax, or perhaps to murder you with some odorless poison.  Lucky for me, I knew he needed me for something.

“What’s going on?” I ventured.

“We have been getting some intel that the Russians are here and snooping around.  Maybe they are onto you. I don’t want you to screw up the whole operation.”

“Onto me? I didn’t even know I was onto something until a little while ago.”

“I would not want them knowing that. It may prove harmful to your health.”

“That’s touching of you,” I said in my mind.  I knew it was better to hold my tongue.  Kraftberger didn’t take jokes very well when he was upset.

“Good,” he said, mostly to himself.  “Jake, this is Hal ‘Red Beard’ McGrady. He’s the one leading the team” He nodded at a huge bear of a man who looked more like a gentle giant. He had the beard to go along with his chiseled face and long red hair. The military stopped being strict about their rules for the operators long before.

“Greetings,” said the man who had come to my room to pick me up.  “Just call me ‘Red’. You snore by the way.”

“Funny, you’re the first to say that,” I said casually.  Then I thought about it more.  “How long were you observing me?”

“Don’t worry.  I won’t tell your sweetheart,” he said without mirth.

I looked at our mutual ‘benefactor’.  “I told him that you had a personal interest in this Jake, and so he knows about Jen and you.”

I stood there dumbfounded.  What had just a few days ago been one of my most intimate relationships—and private for the most part—had become a briefing to a military strike group.  My apprehension started to grow.

“And this guy is Lance,” Kraftberger said pointing at the man who had driven me, “He is a no-nonsense type so don’t give him any trouble.”

“Howdy,” Lance said with a slight smile. “Pleasure to meet you.” After studying his face, I felt I had gotten him wrong. Before in the car, I had dismissed him as just another foot soldier. But it seemed that he was the kind of soldier who had more than a bit of thoughtfulness inside him. He was shy and respectful. He had a distracted look that said his mind was far away someplace—perhaps he had a sweetheart back home, or maybe he was just homesick and tired of traveling all the time. If that were the case, he chose the wrong profession.

“Pleasure’s all mine,” I replied.

“On that note, let me introduce you to the others in the group,” Red said.  “Hey guys, come here.”

At that moment, three men came forward.  One of them had been in the back seat on our way over.

“This is Alex.  He’s ex-special forces, at least the humankind and not one of those artificial soldiers who are replacing us,” he said indicating the first man.  He looked rather short but built like he could have been an artificial soldier.  His arms bulged and he looked like he ran about twenty miles a day or more.

“I was in Afghanistan,” he said. “Now the thing to realize is we’re all ex-special forces because Command only uses autoboots now—that’s our name for them—auto-charge, auto-repair, auto-destroy and last but not least, auto-fuckup.” The others snickered but underneath the sarcasm I could see that there was a fear of being replaced with technology. I also noticed that Alex refused to make eye contact with me and when he did it was for very short periods of time. It was as if he wanted to keep some thoughts hidden from me. I wondered if he were putting on an act of sorts. His smile came and went but it never touched his eyes which seemed to watch everyone and everything around him with the same cool calculating manner.

“The other two are Bret and Ross.  Two ex-jarhead snipers who got nothing better to do than go on these wild goose chases.”  The two tall, powerfully built men stood there, turning off their laughter as if by a switch.  They looked like football running backs—linebackers of death. They were excited and nervous, as if waiting for their name to get announced calling for them to go up on stage.

The one named Ross, a little later, pulled me aside and said, “Hey, if you get in the way, and put my team in danger, I’ll drop the dead weight, you know what I mean?”

I just looked at him with a blank look and said nothing.  To say I was having doubts was to make a huge understatement.

Kraftberger later explained to me how I was needed to evaluate and assess the geology of the site we were going to, giving me a bit more information than he gave earlier.  I was an expert on paleogeography.  My focus was on the supercontinent Gondwana, but while that interested me, I had worked with governments on natural resources, namely of the plebian variety: coal, copper, and so on.  These days, very few geologists were getting into this realm of research, so it was great to finally get started on something that interested me, even if I didn’t know exactly what it was yet.

“You have got to keep your eyes open and I want a full assessment of what you see down there,” he told me.  “Remember, besides the rescue operation, we’re particularly interested in what kinds of geological resources are available—think energy—oil, natural gas and so on, and also if there are any effective ways to exploit those resources.  But we are also interested in if there is some dangerous stuff down there—or something completely unexpected.”

I waited a while for him to elaborate, but he didn’t.

“What do you mean ‘dangerous’?”

His eyes rolled around as if searching for some stock phrase that would seem to say everything but reveal nothing new.  “Oh, you’ll know it when you see it.  We have lately found some evidence to suggest that there might be something down there to make a weapon with.”

“Uranium?  In Antarctica?”

“We do not know,” he said, turning away.

“Why all the firepower?  From what I’m seeing right now, this seems to me more of a military, cloak-and-dagger type of operation.  Anyone can be trained to look at uranium—if that’s what you’re really after, and at least someone not trained could take pictures of the material for later study.” I decided to try the question again: “What do you really need me for?”

And it was then that I think Kraftberger came closest to telling me the truth.   “Jake, we simply do not know what you will find down there, or if we’ll get another chance to see it.  This whole place looks simply unstable.  You are right though. I could get these guys to take pictures, but I want someone down there who is an expert.  I need not only someone who can take pictures but someone who also knows what the right kind of pictures are.  I need someone who can help advise my team in a real-time situation in case terrorists should get involved.  That is what you’re really going in for.”

“Did JANNUS have anything to do with this mission?” I asked. I knew it was a sensitive topic, but I wanted to try and get an answer. It was a risky question. JANNUS stood for ‘Joint Automated Networked Ubiquitous Systems’ and this artificial intelligence system was what the government used to handle their tasks, most of which had gotten too complex for any humans to run. It had been created by The Nile Inc., the world’s largest and most feared technology company. Everyone admitted that they made life easier but that they were too powerful.

A flash of anger and annoyance flashed across his face. “I’ve told you all you need to know. Do not go political on me now goddammit,” he said facing away from me.

It was as honest an answer as I was going to get. Even with this strange response, I felt that there was something else unmentioned that he was leaving out.  Indeed, later I would realize that he must, in fact, have known a lot more than he was letting on.

During our flight from Bangkok to Florida, I got to know Alex better.  He was the most intelligent of the soldiers and actually I learned one of the least gung-ho.  He talked a little of his days in Afghanistan, and how he still had dreams that haunted him, reminding him of the horrors that he faced.  He had to take nearly a year off from service in order to cope with the aftermath. We both expressed our disbelief that even with all that was going on, the government had forces there-albeit at a much-reduced presence after the political disaster I had been involved in. We bonded a little trading stories about our time there. It was good to have someone to share the horrors that I faced.

He told me a story of a woman he fell in love with while he served in Afghanistan. Her name was Khadija, the same name as the first bride to Prophet Muhammad.  He didn’t say where he met her, but it seemed apparent that she was some sort of outcast—perhaps left without a family due to the wars that had gone on.  He talked of her wonderfully acute intelligence, and how she would show her the traditional dances of Afghanistan when they were alone together.

“She was the most caring person I had ever met,” he said to me while we were flying on the plane.  There was joy and bitterness in his eyes. “My family now doesn’t care about me anymore but she did. Only her.”

“How did it end?” I asked feeling just a bit rude.

He didn’t seem to mind though. “It ended when I was called in to do a strike behind enemy lines.  Little had I known, but she was working for a faction that was resisting the government. I was simply a pawn in her efforts to extract information. She was killed and that was the end of it.” He pulled a long drag from his cigarette and exhaled then. There was something funny about that look. I got the feeling that he didn’t give me the whole truth.

“Did you do it?” I asked.

“No,” he said simply.

I waited. He began to speak again.  “Although I wasn’t the one to do it, she was actually killed just before the strike—a bullet through the head.  Through enhanced imaging via the satellites, I saw her body there and heard from the locals how she had cooperated with a brutal warlord.”

He stopped for a while. I could tell emotion was overtaking him. I looked away embarrassed that he would feel ashamed. I didn’t want that for him.

He continued again. “I searched for answers as to why she had done it, but always came out with conflicting accounts.  I think I blamed myself for this, and if given a choice would have taken her away from that village and tried to change her.” He looked out the window onto the dark clouds that had lost the warmth of sunlight. They looked like a frozen wasteland out there beyond the wings of the plane. “It happened when I was young and stupid—maybe ten years ago now. I’ve tried hard to forget it. Life’s a lottery of random chances. Plenty of people undeserving of punishment get the short end of the stick.”

I listened to the story with a quiet morose gaze at my drink.

“I still am in love with her, but I was later told not to tell anyone else about her—and of course all the others that died because of our presence there. She died to me that day. I knew she didn’t have any family left. They had all been killed. Later, I found her body. Somehow it had been remarkably undamaged. The assassin hadn’t even bothered to bury her properly, which of course is a grave offense. It was left to me to carry out the task. When I buried her, I erased her entire existence.”

“Except for you,” I said. “You remember her—even if no one else does.”

As a response, he just gave a sardonic grunt, got up and walked away.

While thinking about my conversation with Alex, I looked out at the window onto the thick clouds. Lance came over to talk to me.

“I don’t want to go to fucking Antarctica,” he said after a while of brooding. I knew he didn’t like me but he had something on his mind.

“You didn’t sign onto this mission,” I said plainly.

“Who the hell would?” he said rubbing his hands through his closely cropped dirty-blonde hair. “Two weeks ago, I was in Hawaii on some bullshit operation to keep the wave monitors over there safe. It was the easiest job and my contract with the government was slowly ticking by. Life in Hawaii was great—fantastic even. And now this. I don’t like this chickenshit mission one fucking bit. I’ll do what I’m told though.”

“Where you from?” I asked.

“I’m from Nebraska. My folks are dead but I’ve got a girl back there and some property. The weather is so hot we can’t grow a damn thing back there. My girl is trying to run the farm by herself and some weather refugees the government shipped up north.”

I looked back at him, waiting for what was really on his mind. He was nervously looking out the window. Several times he started and stopped what he was saying before he could finally voice what was on his mind.

“Look, I don’t want to die on this bullshit operation. I’ve got a month left on my contract then I’m done. The world can die for all I care. The way I see it, the Chinese already took out our carrier in the South China Sea. They just haven’t told us yet. The Eastern Alliance can have the Pacific for all I care. It’s not our business anyway.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning World War Three is about to break out and I’m getting sent underneath the ice on some bullshit operation right when it’s happening,” he said.

“You’d rather be in Hawaii?” I said.

“Fuck yeah I would,” he said without hesitation. “I’d be crazy not to. There’s still a lot of good land to be had over there. It will be there until I die at least. I want you to tell me something. Is this a suicide operations? Because I’m getting that feeling. And don’t bullshit me now either.”

“I don’t know what to tell you Lance—I really don’t.”

“Hey, tell me the truth. They said this is a rescue operation, right? But it doesn’t make sense.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Who are we rescuing this team from first of all?” he said. “I mean if the Russians really don’t want us there, why would they allow our people to study with theirs? And if the researchers are really in trouble, it’s going to take more than just our team to save them, right?”

“You have a point but I have no idea how to answer any of your questions,” I said. “I’m just as in the dark as you are.”

“What can you tell me then?” he said looking at me as if I were some worthless stowaway found on a boat.

“I can say that with me, your chances of getting through Antarctica improve by a lot,” I said but it failed to impress him. “I can also say that whatever is down there in that lake, it’s ancient.”

“You think there are some aliens down there?” he said.

“I don’t know, Lance,” I said looking out the window and into the clouded sky. “Honestly, I don’t have any information about aliens. I’m sorry.”

He looked disappointed and edgy.

“Hey look,” he said before getting up. “All I’m saying is that this whole thing stinks, all right? And if World War Three is breaking out, underneath that ice is the worst fucking place to be.”

“Actually, it could be a good place to be,” Red said interjecting himself into the conversation. “Isn’t that right Doctor Bloom?”

I shrugged.

Lance stormed off before I could get another word in.

At that moment, Red gave me a stern look.

“You don’t like me very much, do you?” I said.

Red ignored the question. “Is he right?”

“About World War Three breaking out?” I said. Red nodded. “I have no idea. Probably the nations are itching for it but they all know that they’re all doomed if they start it—ours included. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’ll be in the South China Sea. But I was about to say to Lance that being under the ice isn’t a bad place to be.”

“Why is that?” Red said.

“Because things will probably get nuclear really fast and that’s a pretty remote location to be at which means it’s safer than most others.”

“I admit I don’t like you but on this I’ve got to admit you’re right,“ Red said nodding and then shook his head. He rested his right hand on one of the uncomfortable metal seats in the cramped cabin and gave his thick red hair a quick sweep with his left hand. “Don’t be insulted. To me, you’re just meat that we happen to have along with us.”

“That’s a charming way to look at it,” I said trying to turn my head over and shutting my eyes.

“Make all the jokes you want,” he said. “I’m with Lance though. I don’t like this mission either. But I’m the chief and when I’m given a task, I carry it out. And when I give you a task, you carry it out. With no questions, understand?”

“That makes sense,” I said nodding without telling him what I really thought. My reasons for not wanting to be in the military anymore came forth front and center. I looked out the window again. The clouds looked the same as before. We were hovering over a nether world of doubt and disillusion.

“You really don’t know what we’ll find down there?” he said.

“Nope.”

“I thought you were the science guy,” he said. “Aren’t you supposed to know these things?”

“I know some things but nothing important,” I said.

“You’re joking again,” he said in disgust before he left me alone with my thoughts.

Chapter 3

After a quick stop in California, we arrived in Florida at a large air force base near New Tallahassee, and it was announced that we had only one night before departure.  A super hurricane was making its way north, perhaps one as big as the super hurricane that had finished off Miami. They didn’t give names to the storms anymore of course because there were too many of them and they had the problem of running out of names too quickly. Instead, the latest naming system referenced the storm’s force, region and date. Besides, the government was worried how people were coming up with informal names like the Storm of Judgement and Windy Apocalypse. They made the new naming system the most boring one they could think of.

The base was composed of some heavy material partially submerged into the ground to withstand the heavy storms which were now a constant. Highly automated machines were moving throughout the massive hangars but there were some workers who were mostly local people wearing drab uniforms made from the local Nile factory. A huge array of impressive looking drone fighters and attack machines were stationed at the base and I thought that if World War 3 did break out, this would be one component of TAPP’s forces.

Since he grew up in the area, Alex offered to take me around the city next to the base, and I agreed.  He drove a high-tech looking jeep that looked beyond the yearly salary of any soldier but I didn’t ask any questions. I welcomed his company, and no one else seemed to care.  So far, he was the only one who could stand me. The rest couldn’t care less what I did—just as long as I did it away from them.

There was a bar just outside the base perimeter and he offered to buy.  It was a shanty town located near the edge of the city-dome that formed New Tallahassee. I quietly acquiesced to drinking at the bar.  By nature, I was pretty introverted but when drunk, like most other people I opened up.  At first we talked of things most single men in their mid-thirties talk about: lost loves, famous drinking stories (which I didn’t have that much of, so I sometimes made these up) and where the world was headed.

“What’s getting you down, boss?” Alex said to me after finishing our second beer. “You look pretty depressed.”

“Besides this beer made of awful reprocessed water and the whole team not liking me because I’m a scientist—or whatever reason they want to think up?” I said smiling sardonically back at him. “At this point, I’m not really sure if they’re going to shoot me or whoever ends up attacking me.”

“How do you know anyone will attack you?” Alex said.

“I’m pretty sure the place we’re going will be pretty dangerous,” I said. “This whole mission was made out to be a pretty simple rescue operation but you’re not dumb enough to believe that, are you?” I asked him while looking him straight in the eyes.

“Nope. I’m not,” he said smiling and taking another swig of the beer. “Personally, I don’t know what to expect. I just know I’ll have to watch my back. Don’t worry though boss. I’ll watch your back too.”

“Thanks,” I said trying not to make a disgusted face from the beer’s taste. “Make sure neither Red nor Lance take a shot at it.”

He burst out laughing. “Will do. You know honestly, they just don’t like the mission—that’s all. It’s nothing personal. You’re just a living embodiment of what they’re tasked to do.”

“Oh yeah?” I said. “So what would they rather be doing? Patrolling some third world country near total collapse? I don’t get it. Antarctica’s not so bad.”

“You’ve been there right?” said Alex.

“Yeah, more than ten years ago. It was during my PhD work. The whole place is a cluster bomb if you know what I mean.”

“What do you mean?” Alex said while the grin faltered slightly.

“It’s the weather and the ground stability,” I said. “It’s gotten way more dangerous. That place and a few other spots like Greenland and northern Canada—those are the only places left of the cryosphere.”

“Cryosphere? What’s that exactly?” Alex said puzzled.

“Well, it’s supposed to be the frozen water areas of the Earth. But now that’s pretty much confined to the three points I mentioned.”

“Antarctica is one of them, right?”

“Yep,” I said in reply. “One of the last. To my knowledge there’s hardly any Arctic ice up to the north. That leaves Antarctica as the last real source. Though no one knows what’s going on in Greenland nowadays after the trouble.”

Alex looked at his drink. “I’ll say. What a fucking disaster that was. Now no one will even go ten kilometers near that place.”

“Yeah, well,” I said in a solemn voice. “Probably in twenty years Antarctica’s ice will be mostly gone. Even though it’s got a little less than a kilometer of ice by current estimates, the ice level is depleting so rapidly now. In twenty years time, this lake we’re going to in Antarctica will no longer be under ice.”

Alex whistled. “That fast? Jesus. The world really is screwed. And to think all that ice will slide right off into the ocean.”

“That’s right,” I said, taking another drink. “And no one can stop it.”

Alex absorbed this information though not in a way that I had expected. Instead he smiled inwardly as if some truth was verified. “Serves them right,” he said. I didn’t catch the meaning and forgot about it until later.

“Speaking of dangerous,” I said looking at the people in the bar around me. “Everyone here is armed just as well as we are.”

“It’s Florida,” Alex said shrugging. “That’s how folks are. We aren’t in the big city. Most of the people work for the Nile Inc.—most people call the company ‘Denial’. There’s a big factory nearby where they work. They make all kinds of shit there but the work is soul-sucking. That’s why they look so goddamned tired and bruised. And they all know they’ll get fired someday when the autobots take over.”

“Denial eh?” I said. “What do they do at the factory?”

“All kinds of shit—so I heard. Help the machines make stuff. All of it’s made robotically now with super high-tech machines—clothes, automobiles, you name it. But they still need some low-level maintenance and help with some production processes.” There were around ten others at the bar. They all eyes me with distrust. Presumably they saw Alex and recognized him so did not give him a hard time. Most of them looked jilted in some way. None of them seemed lucky in any way—and they knew it.

“So Kraftberger makes it sound like you know one of the people we’re going to rescue,” Alex said after a while.

“Rescue?” I said with a laugh. “Actually, she’ll probably end up rescuing us. She’s quite a person,” I realized that it was very likely that Alex had been far better informed than I was.  I didn’t want to deliberately deceive him, but I did want to learn as much as I could.

“Well that’s what I was told,” said Alex. “This woman scientist is in danger. They don’t tell me much, mind you, but this whole thing was supposed to go over to the Navy SEALS entirely, but command wanted this whole operation completely off the books.”

“Meaning?” I said.
“There could be some real UFO shit going on here,” Alex said in a hushed voice while looking around. I didn’t know if he was partially crazy due to his habit of wildly raising his eyebrows and articulating certain words or if it was just a tic of his. Most people seemed to have some sort of screw loose though so I didn’t pay much more attention to it.

“If it’s the usual Navy SEALS plus marines you’ve got a whole bunch of people who will remember what’s going on,” he said smiling that sarcastic smile of his. “But with us it’s different.  If the new improved artificial indolence enhanced Uncle Sam wants to pull the plug on this operation, only Kraftberger will know what’s up. That’s why we’ve been pulled from our regular commands for this ‘special’ outfit. You’re from that technical program the military had a while back—you’ve got technical skills.”

“Yes that’s right. I was in the STARS program—at least until that incident in Afghanistan.”

“Hey remind me what ‘STARS’ stands for anyway,” said Alex.

“Specialized Technical Assistance Reconnaissance and Stealth,” I said dryly while trying to put my proud face on. I had to explain the same information on many occasions.

“Stealth?” said Alex. “What do you guys got that we don’t.”

“Well we are in the supposed Second Cold War that could turn hot at any moment,” I said. “Some say it’s the Second Dark Ages.”

“What do you mean by that? The ‘Second Dark Ages’ seems pretty harsh,” Alex said.

I looked at him trying to see how interested he was. He seemed to be in earnest, which I thought was a bit unusual. Most people I knew really didn’t want to know the truth of what was happening. “Everything’s in decline. The land’s getting smaller, the global population is shrinking rapidly, people are getting poorer, no jobs, no food, no future, and all the remaining countries want to grab what’s left—even if that means taking from former allies. The idea was they could train a bunch of soldier scientists to help them with the more technical missions. The way command figures it, we need to have scientists embedded in the military groups—otherwise bad decisions get made. Ever since the Shadow Zone came about and no one could communicate safely with HQ, they wanted to make sure all units were fully prepared.”

“Why they hell would any military unit suddenly need some technical assistance? It doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Alex. “I mean I get why you would be useful. But would it really make sense to embed scientists that have military training into special operator units?”

I thought about how to answer for a while. Then my thoughts turned to Afghanistan. “The world’s gotten a lot more dangerous,” I said. “Back in Afghanistan, my unit was getting attacked all the time by various factions, even as we worked to secure enough fresh water to give to the people for drinking and farming since most of it had been dried up. I guess if I had no military training, I wouldn’t be able to survive very long. It’s sad to say. Others who do field work could get attacked by bandits, criminals, terrorists or desperados. There are so many former countries that have descended completely into anarchy. But of course the government still has its goals, right? That’s where we came in.”

“Is that right?” said Alex. “So really if any scientist wants to conduct research nowadays, they need to be armed and able to use the weapons they’re carrying?”

“Basically yes if they want to go out into the field,” I said. “Geologists especially need to do fieldwork. And sure we look at rocks and bones. We look at lots of stuff. But there’s still only so much that can be done remotely by drones. If I’m out on the field, it’s likely to be away from any government or police force—of the few that are left.”

“Did you have any guns in Thailand?” Alex said.

I thought about the question for a moment. It was both silly and understandable at the same time—silly because Alex had no idea about the culture over there. At least that was my belief at the time.

“No,” I replied. “I didn’t have a gun over there but I didn’t need one.”

“Well there you,” Alex said excitedly while throwing up his hands. “I prove my point. And why not? It’s a poor country that got hit by the flooding. Lots of people need food and money. Weren’t you ever worried?”

After a little thought and another sip of my drink, I said, “It just wasn’t that way over there. The people were friendly at best and functionally polite at worst. They knew I was over there to help them. I had official recognition of the Thai government to be there. I guess they just never thought to attack me. And I never thought it necessary to arm myself. I’m not even sure they would have let me to be honest. The culture was different I guess. Oh sure there were criminals, drugs and all the rest but I was never threatened directly like I was back in Afghanistan. I guess I don’t know whether I should have been more careful or not.”

“That is interesting and odd at the same time,” Alex said with a laugh. He had a strange look in his face, like he was weighing something. He noticed I saw the look and quickly changed it. “At least where we’re going there won’t be much crime.”

“But there may be terrorists,” I said.

“Oh?”

“Yes,” I said. “I was given a list by Kraftberger.”

“What was the list about?” Alex asked.

“Terrorist groups and mercenary organizations that may target our group,” I said.

“And?” Alex said in an anxious tone.

I finished the last bit of my drink, wondering if I should mention the contents of what was in the letter before deciding that Alex had probably gotten the same information anyway.

“One of them caught my eye,” I said.

“Which one?” Alex said.

“Children of Gaia,” I said. “I had thought that they were mostly based around the cities of the world, trying to bring down governments or make them go to war with one another. Nonetheless they were on the list. I guess the others weren’t really relevant either. Maybe Kraftberger was just trying to be extra-cautious, who knows?”

I looked back at Alex. There was an intense interest in his eyes. He was searching me as if to find out more details on a topic I could tell he had given thought to but seemed to be hiding.

“Another drink?” he said. I assented but eyed him with new caution. He knew something about COG that he didn’t tell me. I was determined to ask him about it later.

I tried a new beer, but it was still awful tasting. It was made with water that was far from pure—probably from somewhere in Florida. Alex chugged his down and wanted another. Before I could say anything however, he got up and went to the bar to order two more.

I sat and thought about the situation for a moment.  We were expendable—that wasn’t a big surprise.  What was a surprise was to know for the first time that the mission seemed to be much more dangerous than Kraftberger had let on.  The soldiers that went with us were chosen, not because they were the best, it seemed, but the least likely to be noticed.  When Alex came back with the beers, I asked him about his background. He confirmed my suspicions when he told me his background and what he knew about the others in our team.  Virtually all of his family was dead, and he had no love life, nor very many friends.  Even the soldiers he served with were dead, or they had long parted and may not remember or care much if he were to disappear.

“What about you Jake? Anyone in your family left?”

“I had a father—“

“As we all do,” Alex said with a grin.

“Yes, well my mother died early on,” I said slightly annoyed at his lightheartedness. “We were on base in Japan you see.”

“Ah, an army brat,” Alex said. “That explains the military connection.”

“Yes,” I said trying to avoid my beer. “I joined to pay for my education. Back then anyway, they allowed you to train as an officer in order to get funding for school.”

“I see,” said Alex who showed very little signs of being drunk. “What happened to your old man then?”

My mood darkened. I had been weighing whether to tell anyone about him.

“He died in a tsunami over there near the base,” I said finally. “He was out in a boat fishing when it happened—during his break of course. There was little pond just next to the ocean that he used to love to go fishing in. I was ten at the time.”

“Well, that is some heavy shit. I do confess, I don’t have a story quite that good.”

I reflected on his odd choice of words. It was probably better not to push the issue since he was likely drunk despite his sober appearance. He had drunk too much beer to be unaffected.

“Let’s talk about this mission why don’t we?” Alex said. “What do you think is going on?”

“I don’t know anything beyond what they’re telling us,“ I said. “You’ve been on it longer than I have.”

“Do you really believe them?” Alex said. “I mean really believe what they’re telling us?”

“Well, it’s very likely Kraftberger isn’t telling us everything,” I said. “But we’ll never know how much he really knows. I think he’d give us enough to carry out the mission however,” I said, not believing it entirely, however.

“So you know Kraftberger, then?” he said.

“I wouldn’t say I know him.  I just know how he operates sometimes.  That’s it.”  Then I gave a few details of our dealings together in Afghanistan. Kraftberger was the one who set up that operation.

“They say you know one of the scientists down there,” Alex said. “Let’s talk more about her.”

“Used to,” I said.  I didn’t really want to engage in on this topic—old memories, but he persisted.

“Did you love her?” he said.

“Whoa there, hoss,” I said while holding up my hands. “How much did they tell you then?”

“Just that you knew some brilliant scientist and that I was told she was cute,” he said smiling. He seemed to be intensely interested.

“Well that’s very true, we worked together,” I said while aware that I was opening up more than I would have normally. “She was brilliant and beautiful. How could I resist? But that’s where it ends. I don’t want to say much beyond what I’ve already said. I loved her deeply. I guess in a way she’s the closest person to me—living anyway. I know that sounds kind of sad but it’s true.“

He nodded  while looking me in the eyes, studying me. It was as if he were weighing some internal considerations but he didn’t pursue the matter and we all left to start preparing for our journey. I didn’t really have much stuff with me so for me it was easy.

Later that night, we decided to head to a small town outside of the air base where Alex had a friend named Janine whom he had known for a long time. I learned it was likely that Kraftberger knew nothing about her since she was not family in the formal sense but the two were clearly close once I saw them together. She had been managing an orange farm for most of her life. We still had a day before our plane left for the Falklands where we would hop on another plane to McMurdo base. I wanted to get outside of the military confines for a while, drink some alcohol at a local establishment for once instead of an on-base bar. We would rent one of the self-driving vehicles to take us back after we were too inebriated to drive ourselves.

Janine who was ten years older than Alex, wore tie-dyed shirts which I until then I had only seen in old photographs. Her brown hair was kept long and in tangled knots down to her shoulder and she had a penchant for giggling like a young schoolgirl when she got excited when she shook her formidable body. She was very hospitable to all of us and took us on a tour of her farm which produced mainly oranges but also tomatoes. It turned out that her farm was pretty dilapidated, and she said that she would have to soon foreclose on it.

“Here’s my bug factory,” she said showing us an inside of what looked like a greenhouse with selective shade in the interior. “This is mostly where I get my meat these days.”

“What kind of bugs do you eat?” I said looking at some of the flat glass containers that held the bugs.

“Oh mostly crickets, June beetles and some spiders. I sell those to people who like the taste.” She took a tarantula out of its cage and started petting it.

“You don’t eat those do you?” I said pointing at the massive spider.

“Who Billy the Eight Eyed Wonder?”

I nodded suddenly unsure of myself.

“Heavens no. He’s too cute. Besides, he’s my cute little friend. Well he’s not so little any more.”

“What do you feed Billy?” Alex said.

“Oh cockroaches, mostly,” Janine said. “And assholes who don’t respect my attitude. But he likes young chickens so I give him those on special occasions.”

“That sounds promising,” I said.

“It sure is,” she said taking a large cricket from one of the containers and tossing it into her mouth. Then her eyes grew wide. “Oh shit. I was supposed to save that one for my friend Alice. It’s her birthday soon and she loves them. I totally forgot. Oh well Janine, good thing you’re cute,” she said to herself while smacking herself in the head with her right palm.

A grinning Alex said, “The cutest one that ever lived.”

“Oh don’t bullshit me today kiddo,” she said flashing a grin.

“Here’s some bugs I give to my little lizard tiger over here,” she said pulling out some kind of lizard with a blue tongue that didn’t mind being handled by a large woman.

“What the hell is that thing?” I said.

“It’s a blue tongue skink,” she said smiling as the lizard’s tongue skirted her cheek. “His name is Stinky because he made me chase him through a pile of cow shit when he was young.”

“That’s a fantastic story by the way,” Alex said with a  laugh.

“What’s that area over there?” I asked, pointing towards the edge of the farm.

“Oh! Over there, that whole area is pretty much dead—can’t grow anything anymore,” she said. “The floods took it. The water brought all that salt in with it from the gulf. Pretty soon, I’ll have to pack up and leave. The only thing I can grow nowadays are these bugs and pot. And see that fence over there? That’s what they call an elemental control mechanism but it’s really just a strong”

“Where will you go?” Alex asked, alarmed.

“Wherever the wind blows me,” she said, sipping on some concoction of spirits. It looked and smelled like a Bloody Mary with an extra shot of vodka. “Hell, that’s how I met Alex here. We both wound up down here since our families had moved on from weather disasters in other parts of the country.” She laughed. She had a bulky frame, and it all seemed to be involved in the effort to produce the throaty laughter. Eventually, it deteriorated into gravelly coughs—probably from the soot that had penetrated the air from the city’s pollution. Even after the thick smog in Thailand, for which I had often worn a pretty heavy-duty mask, it felt that the air was spoiled there in Florida.

We sipped our drinks from paper cups containing fresh orange juice mixed with tomato juice and vodka as we rolled around in her tractor. The going was a little bumpy and we each nearly fell off several times after drinking too much. I hadn’t really drunk this much in quite a while, so it was both refreshing and slightly intimidating to be drinking so heavily. I knew it was an effective way to bond with the others.

Despite being slightly inebriated, the tour was rather depressing as there were few healthy looking plants remaining on her farm. “The damn saltwater from the gulf came in and turned everything to shit,” she said before taking a huge gulp of her Bloody Mary. I myself had a swig of a Bloody Mary of my own, thinking of how the tomato juice might be good to have before venturing off into the cold. The orange juice seemed to go well with the tomato juice for some reason.

“Why not move inland?” I asked. I knew very little about farming. I had studied ancient farming and wheat variants when an undergraduate, but that was all.

“The land’s not good,” she said with a frown on her face. “Plus, further up north, you start getting into hilly area and overcrowded land. It’s more crowded everywhere now though.” We all knew what that meant. People were moving more inland due to the assault on the coast by the ocean. Immigrants who had escaped the fiery hells of Central and South America and had been lucky to get past the border zone had flooded all parts outside the city. Many had no money and were simply getting by on day jobs. Education like the one I got was less and less attainable, even if you had the ability.

Of course none of that was true in the city next to us. New Tallahassee it was named. Because I had gotten official clearance again and had been temporary cleared of my crimes, I would have been allowed through the city’s heavily secured gates. The truth was I had hardly any desire to go and since the airport was outside the city, I hadn’t needed to. But there was one service I could only go there to get: the artificial echo-tracing of my long dead mother.

She took us to a local bar where a lot of the farmers and day laborers were drinking. Most of them seemed rather somber, sipping their drinks like it was medicine, making every swig count. It was a depressing place, so we took our leave pretty quickly.

“Say what boys, let’s head to a little place down near the lake where we can have a bite and drink someplace nice?” Janine said.

We both agreed. We wanted something more uplifting than the last place, not least since it would be probably our last warm American bar for a while. We were soon at the Sandy Beach Bar which looked like it was built a hundred years earlier. There was fish tackle everywhere and newspaper covers and various clippings from the past century. Newspapers from various human triumphs had been posted. The manned mission to Mars, the cure for cancer, the first driverless car, and of course the greatest scientific discovery of the century: the discovery of quantum gravity by Dr. Alan Aspect. He had disappeared shortly after his great breakthrough. In the newspaper headline, he looked young and triumphant with the evidence he had used to help prove his theory. It was a masterful triumph—the last piece supposedly that completed the Standard Model of physics. They say that when he passes, Dr. Aspect will be buried next to Ludwig Boltzmann, and like his predecessor, have his famous quantum gravity equation as his epitaph. I looked at that grinning proud face and wondered, what are you doing now Professor? What have you done to bring your talents to this trouble-stricken world?

“First round’s on me kiddos,“ said Janine. We both protested, but she waved away our efforts saying that it we should avoid contact with the locals because the government was not welcome in that area and we both looked like we were government men. Most of the people seemed at best wary of our presence and at worst outright hostile. “It’s not your fault. They just see the government as the enemy.”

“How do they know we’re government?” I asked. “I wasn’t even working for this government really until yesterday.”

Janine gave a laugh and rolled her eyes. “Because you look so well fed and free from Lyme disease and all the other ailments that roll through here like the Dismal Tide.”

“How do you know that?” I said while pulling an imaginary tick from my arm.

“Because everyone around here has something,” she said. “And as you well know, there’s no working hospital that they have access too. Look at this leg. It looks nasty don’t it? I’ve got some kind of worm growing inside it and it hurts like hell. That’s just one of my problems.”

“He’s new here,” said Alex. “He doesn’t know how things are around here. Most soldiers like us usually don’t come off base.”

“I’ve lived overseas for most of my life,” I said, suddenly uncomfortable. “Why don’t they have access to healthcare?” I felt stupid for asking.

“You really have been away, haven’t you kiddo?” she said with wide-eyes. “They’ve blocked the cities off and as everyone around here knows, no one gets in without a special residency permit. They’ll stop you at the door. Some say you get hit with a painful jolt if you try to so no one does—not anymore. We’re all left to rot outside making it by the best way we can.”

The waitress who had visible burns on both of her cheeks, probably due to sun exposure, brought us something that resembled a smelly deep brown paste which vaguely resembled beer and some roasted beetles.

The bartender in the back looked to be a man at least in his sixties but was probably younger than that. He was hunched over the bar with his right arm wrapped around his head and index finger dipped into his ear. He had a pained expression as if something inside were eating its way out. His eyes opened occasionally and focused on me. I saw mostly anger and annoyance in them but then there was a quizzical look as if I were someone new who had the answers to his problems. He had a gray beard that mostly came below the chin. His nose was round and red, tanned from countless days in the outdoors.

“That’s crazy,” I said. “I knew things were restricted but I didn’t know it was that bad.”

“Welcome to the new world, my friend,” Alex said, popping a beetle into his mouth and then tasting a swig of alcohol. He took it in without any complaint. Indeed he seemed to like the stuff. In the background, the song “It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles started to play.

“Hee-haw,” said Janine.

We got on the topic of the future of civilization for some reason.  We were of course very intoxicated at that point.  Alex asked me what I thought the future of humanity would look like and I told him that I thought civilization would end in the next decade or so.  He simply nodded and didn’t ask why but I told him anyway: war, the endless water and heat sweeping away the governments like they did recently in Egypt and Brazil, or the running out of energy.  All would feed off each other and mark the end of the human race.  Actually, humanity nearly bought it at the Mischief Reef incident, but somehow the crisis got averted—at least for a little while. The next world war would start in the South China Sea just like the last one had over a hundred years earlier, and it would happen any day now. The US carrier had been sunk, but of course the Eastern Alliance claimed ignorance, saying it was a third party. By some miracle, the formal declaration of war had not been given yet. Perhaps JANNUS had had second thoughts, or maybe whichever human was really in charge decided it would not be a great idea to send the world to a war that would certainly end in the destruction of all parties involved.

Alex talked about his time in Afghanistan and how all of his myths about goodness and humanity being shattered within about the first week of his time there.  I listened carefully as he recounted stories of bodies and blood.  Soldiers often do this with their buddies—especially while drinking.

He then told about his experiences in Nigeria. There the farmers and herders were fighting over an ever-shrinking area of land that would eventually disappear altogether. There were brutal, inhuman acts of viciousness on both sides. No one was a hero. He found his weapons and training useless. When two groups of people want to kill each other, they’ll find a way to do so. His commanding officer had issued Malthus’s famous essay—supposedly to explain to them the situation they were facing.

“What did they do to each other?” I asked.

“Who?” Alex said.

“The herders and the farmers,” I replied.

“They just killed each other in the cruelest way possible, man. You just wouldn’t believe it. The world is going to hell. It never reached ten billion. Now they say everything is shrinking and closer to five. We’re all going to be killing each other like they were for a smaller piece of shit land. Maybe Malthus was right. Maybe his time is finally coming,” he looked at me with a grin.

“Fuck Malthus,” Janine said drinking the swill as easily as Alex.

Alex laughed, and Janine frowned while looking down at her alcohol. She appeared strangely silent as if she were being reminded of something unpleasant.

“Well, didn’t they have the government to intervene? I’m sure you were able to break up the fighting somewhat?” I said.

“I don’t want to listen to this anymore.” Janine said. She stared at him in silence, her lined face full of worry. Her glasses were misty from a complex set of emotions I couldn’t read but she said nothing further.

At that moment, a girl dressed in a dirty tank top and shorts, perhaps thirteen or fourteen came into the bar and shouted, “Help! Fire! There’s a fire.” She slammed her flat palm against one of the tables and fell over. Janine moved over to help the girl.

“Where?” Janine said. If she was at all intoxicated, I couldn’t tell at that moment.

“Across the street. The pharmacy.”

“Oh my god,” said Janine.

“At a drug store? It’s probably not open this late,” Alex said.

“It’s no drug store, you idiot,” Janine said. “It’s a condemned building where all the kids who get high on that Contoxin shit hang out. The town’s been trying to keep them out of there but they never listen. They’ve got no where else to go. Are you two coming or not?” she said looking at us.

I looked at Alex and then Janine. We both had training for rescue operations.

“Let someone else do it,” Alex said. “You’re not going, are you boss?”

Janine moved outside to take a look. She didn’t have to go far before she came back.

“They need you two. There isn’t anyone else. No money means no resources which means major cuts in the fire department. None of their equipment works anymore. They’ll need all the help they can get,” Janine said in a determined voice. I could see the fear and concern in becoming more prominent in her eyes.

I didn’t wait to hear it again. I ran outside looking for the fire and I could see that Alex reluctantly came with. The fire was easy to spot. It was maybe twenty meters from the Sandy Beach Bar.  The ugly square cement building was four-stories and wasn’t the kind of structure that would win any awards for safety even before a fire. The blaze was on the second floor. There was heavy smoke coming from the windows on that level and through the dim light of the few streetlamps that were in operation, I could see dark figures on top of the roof. Some were shouting and at least one of them seemed ready to jump from the top.

“Someone needs to call the fire department, goddammit,” Alex said.

“They’re on their way,” a somber looking man with a handlebar mustache behind the counter said.

“They won’t get here in time. Shit!” Janine said while towards the building.

She was right. Already the blaze had cut off the kids who were on the floors above the blaze. It was easy to tell that it would soon reach them. We ran towards the building. Against the moonless sky, the burning building looked like an angry offering to an angry god. I was almost frozen in place by the spectacle. Through the light of the ever growing fire, I could see that there were about ten people on top of the building.

“Where the hell is the fire truck?” I said looking wildly around me.

I ran to the building. After checking the first floor, I cautiously eyed the stairs to see if I could make a run for it. I had figured that if the stairs were safe, they would have come down them already. I was correct on that point. The stairs were consumed by awful smelling smoke and felt like a blazing hell to my exposed skin.

“How are we going to get up there?” I said to Alex.

“Good question—a very good question,” he replied while backing off. Already the intense heat was making itself known.

I looked up at the ceiling which was made of plastered panels, mostly rotten and molding. It wasn’t very high and I spotted a gap in the ceiling that had a noticeable hole. There were steel beams crisscrossing the exposed area. With a little luck I calculated that I would be able to crawl through. I knew there wasn’t going to be much time if I made it.

“Alex, give me a boost,” I said pointing at the gap.

“You’re not going up through there are you?” he said with disgust. “You’re crazy.”

“it’s the only chance we got,” I said. “The elevators here haven’t worked for decades and the stairs are out of the question.”

“How do you know the fire isn’t burning just above the hole up there?” said Alex.

I gave him an impatient look and he moved into position.

“OK, your funeral,” he said shrugging. “I’m not going up there.”

The boost he gave me was more than enough to grip the steel girders. I swung my hands to figure out how to make it through. There was so much filth that I thought I would choke from all the dust and soot alone but somehow I was able to squeeze myself through the hole and make it to the second floor. An object just above the hole caught my attention. It was an old washing machine. Someone must have dropped it from above and it was responsible for the hole that I had crawled through. I pulled myself up and rolled onto the floor coughing hysterically and wondering if Alex hadn’t been right in the first place. Then I heard the cries, which crushed any doubts I may have had. Pulling my legs up, I kicked the washing machine out of the way to make the hole even bigger and headed towards the crying voices which were mostly coming from the floors above. I found two teenagers trapped in front of the stairs which had been blocked by the fire. I snatched them both and pulled them towards the hole and dropped them down as gently as I could. Their bodies were rail thin so they were easy to carry. They made it without much trouble. Luckily, Alex had stayed to help.

“Hang on Alex,” I said while barely holding back more fits of choking. “I’ll send more your way soon.”

“Hurry. You’d better get the hell out of there. The fire is spreading too rapidly,” he said.

I didn’t need to be told twice. The stairs going to the third floor were in bad shape near the stairs. I knew I would have to go through them. With all the force I could muster, I pushed the washing machine as close to the fire near the stairs as I could get it. The rusty bottom screamed as I pushed it, carefully shoving it in a way so as not to tip it over. With my hands futilely covering my face to get what little relief from the heat I could, I jumped onto the washing machine and leapt onto the stairs, keeping my hands above my head to avoid hitting the ceiling. My feet didn’t clear the handrailing of the stairs and I came crashing over. Bursts of pain flew through my body as I hit my right kneecap on the stairs. So great was the pain that I rolled around for a few moments before getting up and limping towards the third floor.

There were some more people and this time I gathered them around the window. The dirty glass windows were around one meter by half a meter—more than enough to send people through if needed. I knew once I kicked the window out, the fire would spread even faster however so I had to make it count. I caught a glimpse of something sitting besides one of the windows and ran towards it. With my hands, I felt out the object. It was the long-discarded curtain that had probably not been used for over twenty years but beggars couldn’t be choosers. I tide it together and pulled, satisfying myself that it would hole the weight of the children before picking up a rock and smashing the window. Instantly a breeze flew through the room and the fire roared even fiercer. Ignoring the fire, I used another rock to smooth off the glass that had been protruding and would prove dangerous to anyone climbing out. Precious seconds flew by before I was satisfied.

“Quick, get down there,” I said to the small dark figures. The kids simply stared back at me with a blank expression. Then I realized what Janine had said. They were probably under the effects of drugs and still in some kind of dream state. Even the threat of burning hadn’t completely pulled them out.

At that moment, a darkly clad figure appeared next to me and pulled on my shoulder. It was a person completely covered in some heavy dark fabric. It pulled off its mask and I saw with joy that it was Janine. She had come through the window.

“Miss me?” said Janine.

“You bet,” I said. “How’d you find me?”

“I got a ladder outside attached to a truck,” Janine said. “I forced the guy driving it to help us out. I heard you from all the noise coming from this floor.”

“Can you help me with the kids?” I said.

Without answering, Janine threw a glance at the area and immediately saw what had to be done.

“Come on,” she said. “We don’t need this curtain anymore. Just help me get them to the ladder. It’s still outside next to the window.”

“Is that going to be safe enough for all of them?” I said.

“I don’t know kiddo,” she said. “We’re thirty-five feet up. Might be rough but it’s better than burning.” She firmly grabbed the first kid and ushered him out. The others quickly followed and luckily the ladder held. I glanced to the bottom and saw that two figures who were probably firemen had assisted the children as they got down.

“I’m going upstairs,” I said.

“OK. I’ll do what I can to help out,” Janine said. I saw her checking the floor carefully to make sure there were no other children around before focusing my attention towards moving up a level.

The fourth floor was the last floor before the roof. The stairs were now completely useless.

“Janine, I’m going to make a jump for the fourth by climbing up the wall,” I said taking another curtain that had been lying next to the previous one.

“Got it,” she said. There was no argument because time was too short. “How can I help.”

“Give me a boost and then throw the curtain up at me. I’ll try to use it to get onto the fourth floor.”

“Why not wait for me to get the ladder to take you up there?”

“Can you control it from up here?”

“No. I had to communicate with the driver below. It’s operated at the truck level.”

“Then there’s no time. Let’s do it my way.”

She gave me a look that said she really didn’t like it but realized there was no other choice.

“OK. Ready?” she said.

“I guess,” I replied.

I had one chance to grab the windowsill above. It was five feet above my grip. Janine’s toss with my jump was just enough to catch it. My right knee groaned as it collided with the wall. Slowly I lifted myself up and Janine tossed me the curtain.

“Go back and raise the ladder,” I said before kicking through the window and jumping into the fourth floor.

The entire area was one huge room that had several staircases up to the top floor and only one set of stairs to go down. There were posters of Nirvana all over one wall. One of the pictures burning was of Kurt Cobain looking at the camera with a longing in his eyes. Despite the smoke and heat pouring from the stairs, a ring of around seven figures stood next to it, all of them children younger than eighteen. It was easy to tell they were children even in the darkness pierced by the sparkling light of the flames. They all remained motionless as if the danger would suddenly abate at any moment and they would be free to descend as they please.

“Hey kids, get the hell away from there,” I said in a strained voice. None of them responded to me and I pulled them one by one towards the metal spiral staircase that led to the roof. I noticed several pods in the room attached to some electrical machines. I had seen those before in a book about the new ways people tried to get high. The pods were some sort of stimulation machine provided by one of the big tech companies.

I was coughing like a madman while keeping as low as possible. I knew I would pass out soon. Moving as if in a dream, my consciousness was being affected by the smoke and the heat. Batting away an endless stream of sweat, already my skin was becoming irritable from the fire. I had inhaled too much soot and ash to be coherent. Occasionally, I took out a bottle of water that I had to keep my lips at least a little hydrated though I knew the kids would probably need some.

“Hey, move it. Keep moving. You can’t stay down there.” It was all I could manage as my voice was lost in the coughing and fits.

I received no resistance however. They all allowed me to lead them as if they were zombies—albeit the very friendly suggestive kind. On the roof there were perhaps five more, all looking equally strange and vacant. I gathered them together well away from the edge of the roof which had a very low guard fence. Any one of them could have easily have climbed over it and fallen to their deaths. This one tall and lanky girl who was probably fourteen or so fell over but I was able to put her back on her feet. She wasn’t heavy at all. At last I had to sit down as my knee was threatening to collapse if I didn’t give it any rest.

The bottom of the roof was covered with various pieces of garbage: broken glass bottles, cigarette butts, plastic containers, bird shit, bug shit, used condoms and an endless assortment of other items that had best not be mentioned. I flung it all out of my way and crawled towards the edge of the building.

What would we do now? The truth was I had absolutely no idea. I took out a bottle of water that I had with me and gave it to the kids who were severely thirsty before it ran out. It wasn’t nearly enough to meet their needs. Even though my nose was clogged with dust, I could smell their breath which had the odor of an open sewer.

I  pulled together enough energy between coughs to glance over the edge. The ground was about twenty meters below, much too far for a miracle. Looking over towards the back, I saw two curious figures in the dark shadows. One of them was looking up at me with binoculars. They both looked unlike the others I had seen so far in the area. They both wore military fatigues and I could have sworn at least one of them wore a hockey mask. They made no effort to get closer towards the building on fire. They simply observed. There was something else. They both had a way of standing with a certain cadence that suggested a military background.

At that moment, one of the kids collapsed. Like the others, she was rail thin and I could tell she was dangerously malnourished when I tried to lift her up again. I wondered where her parents were. I also wondered how we would get down from the roof.

A loud noise came to my attention. The sound of an engine spread through the air. I peeked over the edge of the building and saw an improbably scene. A large fire truck with a long ladder was barreling towards the building. I waved my hands to try to draw the driver’s attention and was unable to tell whether anyone saw.

The fire truck stopped on the side I was facing on the roof and the driver got out. I could quickly see that it was Janine and I gave myself the luxury of a smile.

She quickly moved towards the back of the truck. Soon the ladder started to move slowly and it extended towards the building.

Behind me I heard a crash that sounded like a roaring rapid and turned over. Part of the roof had collapsed and the angry flames took its place in the newly formed hole.

As soon as the ladder made contact with the roof I ushered the kids towards it, making sure there was no one left once they were all nearby. The unconscious girl I kept in my arms, not wanting to let her down for fear of losing her in the darkness.

I examined the ladder with the light from the fire. The rusty ladder was barely wide enough to allow me to crawl down at a very steep angle. It must have been at least fifty years old. A quick glance of my surroundings reminded me of two things: there was no other option besides the ladder and time was nearly out. The fire was already burning holes in the ceiling beneath me. The closest one was a smoking hole perhaps a meter from where I was at the edge of the roof. Four stories down, I could see people shouting and waving frantically at us. My eyes were watery and I had no hope of hearing anything they had to say.

                I don’t think that damned ladder can even hold my weight, let alone both of ours. In any case, I’m already nauseous from the smoke and heat and doubt I could do it on my own.

                A strong burst of smoke from somewhere assaulted my lungs and I nearly keeled over. Coughing constantly, I grabbed the girl tightly and inched my way down the ladder. I kept shifting her weight onto my left shoulder then my right. I was too exhausted to think of a better way to bring her down. I thought I heard someone shouting at me but I was in no shape to hear what the voice said.

I made it to about halfway down the ladder when the swinging of the ladder made it nearly impossible to crawl forward. I spared a glance backwards toward the top. For some reason the ladder had gotten stuck on the side of the building. Perhaps the support had given way and it had crashed of its own weight onto the building. That would be unwelcome news for us because it would make our situation a whole lot less stable. The ladder finally swung sideways and for a moment, I had to grab onto the side to keep myself lost the girl. Before she slipped off the side, I snatched onto her with my legs, holding her as firmly as pliers would.

I slowly lowered myself and the girl down the ladder though my back and rea-end were loudly disagreeing with the wisdom of the maneuver. My eyes felt like a thousand bugs were crawling over them but I dared not itch them lest I release my ever weakening grip on either the ladder of the girl I held in my right arm.

At last, my foot felt something on the ground. I saw a pair of hands belonging to someone. The face materialized from the fog and smoke: it was Janine’s.

“You all right honey?” Janine said. “Don’t worry I’ve got her.”

With great care, she took the girl from me. Both of my arms dropped to my side useless as I tried to breathe again. I saw that she had pulled the ladder away from the building.

“The other kids got out safely—thanks to you.”

“Thanks to you really,” I rasped before collapsing on the ground. “This firetruck saved us all.” The building was completely on fire now. Smoke had completely engulfed the entire structure. There was one other firetruck and it looked like one of those automated kinds.

“Where the hell is the fire department—the rest of it anyway?” I asked looking at the two meagre trucks and hardly any personnel.

Janine just shrugged and said,” Sorry kiddo. I can’t help you there. This town’s poor.”

I was on the ground, dividing my time between coughing my throat up and trying to swallow water which tasted like ash when I felt someone approaching from off to my right side. My knee hurt like a sonofabitch and so I simply rolled onto my back.

“You crazy bastard. You know Red’s going to kick your ass in?” said Alex. He had a mischievous smile on his face as if it were all a joke. I looked at him to see if he were truly crazy or if he had underestimated the severity of the situation. He looked away before I could figure out which one it was.

“Where the hell were you?” I replied.

“Come on, we need to get going,” he said while moving away.

“What about the girl?” I said.

“What about her?” Alex said.

“She’s got no ID,” said Janine while caressing the girl’s hair. Then she snapped her fingers. “Hang on kiddo. Wait a minute. Wait just a damned minute. I think I’ve seen her before. Her mom, if that’s who it was, lives in Lime City. She’s a pleasure worker for those rich bastards in New Tallahassee. I can verify it with my nano lens computer.” Janine looked intently at the girl’s face. She had her mouth hooked up to oxygen in the back of the truck.

“Lime city?” I said rolling onto my good knee again and then back up to my vertical self. “As in key-lime pie lime?”

“No. As in limestone. It’s an underground city in a huge sink hole,” said Alex.

“I got it,” I said nodding. “A city in a huge limestone cave—Florida’s famous for those. Hence the name. Can’t say I’d like to live in one though I must admit they are beautiful at times.”

“That’s Moira Jenkins,” Janine said nodding at the girl. “Hot damn I was right. The computer confirmed it for me. She’s a good kid.” She gently stroked the girl’s forehead and then her braided hair. Carefully she applied some kind of ointment to her skin on certain parts of her body which looked vulnerable to burns. The tie-dyed shirt was still singed from the fire.

“What the hell was she doing in that machine?” I said.

“What did you mean?” Janine said. “Where did you find her?”

“She was hooked up into some kind of pod,” I said. “It had greenish light on it or something. There was a goddamned fire all around her and she was sleeping in that thing.”

“She wasn’t sleeping. She was high on something,” said Alex.

“What?” I said in disbelief.

“Alex is right,” Janine said shaking her head in dismay, looking down at the girl. “It’s that new high that’s made by Contoxin. You can lie in there and not be aware of anything.”

“But why didn’t she try to save herself?” I asked. “The fire was going to kill her in a few minutes.”

“They don’t care,” said Alex shaking his head. “None of them care. They were high on drugs. With those pods it’s like taking drugs but without the chemicals. The stimulation goes directly into the brain from the computer.”

“That’s crazy,” I said looking back and forth between Alex and Janine’s faces. “I can’t believe anyone would do that. They just looked at me like I was an intruder when I watched them escape. I’m not sure the fire was an accident. What the hell is going on? Why has society gone this crazy. Look at her. How did she get this way? Where the hell were the parents? They aren’t around or don’t care.”

“That’s not true,” said Janine, scowling at Alex. “What you’re saying is just silly. Why don’t you cool it for a while?” She turned to me and then studied Moira’s face while casting a wary glance at her. “I knew the parents. They couldn’t do anything for her—that’s true. But there’s no hope for these young people here. A lot of them get high to escape reality. None of them are ever going to get decent jobs in the city.”

“New Tallahassee?” I asked. “I couldn’t even set foot in that city a few days ago.”

“Right. It’s a closed off city encased in a dome now. Very few can get in. I can’t get in,” Janine said. “Nor do I want to. No, I’ll die out here with the people I’ve grown up with. Even if it means I die sooner rather than later—whether it’s from the bad water, bad air or something else like these goddamned mosquitos.”

Janine’s face was animated with a mix of both anger and apprehension but then she took out a clove cigarette, lit it and smoked. As she puffed on the cigarette, she calmed down a bit and looked at the dying embers of the smoking building. She then tried to comfort Moira by murmuring something in her ear. The girl barely stirred and her willowy thin frame was quite a contrast with Janine’s very large body.

“She used to work part-time on my farm,” Janine said as she gently stroked the girl’s hair. “Of course once the floods and drought killed off most of my crop, I couldn’t pay her anymore. She was always the sweetest little thing.” Her feet looked like small tubes inside her jeans. The girl was way too skinny to be considered healthy.

“No family?” I said.

“Hey wait a minute,” Janine said. “I remember now. Her family sold her off to The Nile Inc. to be some masseuse for a fat cat in New Tallahassee. Only it wasn’t massages she was giving, if you know what I mean.”

“How can they do that?” I asked.

“They just fly ‘em right in with those drone things. Take’s ‘em there and back. The prettiest ones get all used up and then tossed out until the next crop arrives. Welcome to Florida.”

“Halleluiah,” said Alex clapping his hands.

“No,” I said. “I mean how can the parents do that? Just sell her like that? I didn’t even know that was allowed even if they wanted to.”

“Money’s everything now, kiddo,” she said sadly. “That’s all I’ll say. It’s obvious you haven’t been here for a long time.”

I studied the fire truck Janine came in. Two of the tires looked flat. The passenger door was not only missing, there was no seat. One of the nozzles had completely come off. A few people used the remaining nozzle to hose down the building or rather what was left of it. The water pumps barely worked and the whole vehicle looked ready for the scrapyard. The other fire truck that had come later wasn’t much different. I didn’t say anything about how bad they were because I knew it was all they had. I knew that everyone knew they were shortchanged. The real money was in the big city. I scanned the area to the east, over at New Tallahassee. In the dark, the domed city was easy to spot. It looked like a huge jellyfish submerged in the ground. Strong lights came from within it as if it were the internal organs of the city. I had managed to avoid places like that all my life having lived mostly overseas in Asia.

“Can you tell me more about Lime City?” I asked.

Janine didn’t answer at first. But then her head turned toward a direction that was slightly aimed towards New Tallahassee. She blew out some smoke and said, “Like Alex said before it’s a city inside the limestone. They built it underground when the sinkholes got so bad they figured they may as well live in them.”

“What? They really live in limestone caves?”

“Kind of,” she answered. After she saw my bewilderment, she continued, “It’s tough here, kiddo. Living outside the city dome ain’t no joke.” I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it anymore so I dropped the subject.

We said our goodbyes to Janine. I decided to make a detour on the way back to the base. We didn’t need those self-driving cars after all as we were sobered up by the night’s events. Alex who had noticed something that was angering me, stopped me.

“What’s wrong?” Alex said.

“You didn’t help me back there. Janine was the only one who did anything,” I said flatly.

“Is that it? Well damn boss. I was trying to go find someone to give us a better truck—that’s all.“

“I don’t believe you,” I said it plainly. I was too tired for .

“Let’s go back to base and talk about it,” he said.

“No. I need to go take care of some business,” I said moving away from him.

“What?” he said. “Where are you going? You’re not going to stay mad at me are you?”

I didn’t answer. Alex gave me an inquisitive glance but eventually the darkness intervened and I lost sight of him. I was happy to be away from Alex. There was something about him I didn’t find appealing. I took an auto-cab headed towards New Tallahassee. With my citizenship restored, I was able to get through the gates of the city into the domed area. I just needed to go to one place though. Immediately, the lights from the city assaulted me. I had images of Las Vegas, which I had never visited. This place looked like Las Vegas on steroids. Above me were huge solar panels lining the top of the dome along with many wind turbines, perhaps thirty meters high. The dome material itself was some clear glass-looking substance blocked by a computer-generated shade during the day. All around the city, the artwork of Neydis was apparent but eerie. The animal cartoons with joyous expressions looked too out of place in that city. It wasn’t hard to see the reason. Lined around the city were corpses of those who couldn’t make it in.

I found a small room near the entrance of the city where I was able to use my money to contact someone dear to me. Also thanks to Kraftberger’s arrangements, I had been again granted access to Eagle Zone. I signed into the Future Family Network using my neuro implants, and after checking on the monthly billing payment, was able to finally bring up the image of a woman who was in her thirties and who looked remarkably like me. I knew that if someone were to suddenly enter the room they would not be able to guess what I had been up to.  I wanted things to stay that way. I knew no one would enter the room since I was paying for privacy.

Although my mother had officially died long ago, I had enrolled into an account with FFN shortly before she died. Throughout the years she had been stored on the company’s servers and the image appeared before me thanks to my optic implants, which had activated not long ago—again thanks to Kraftberger.

“Mother, how have you been?” I asked immediately seeing the familiar face. It had been frozen at the age of thirty-three, the day before she had fallen ill and died. Except for a strange green glow throughout the image, the resemblance was uncanny but there was something off about it.

“Oh well I’ve been doing pretty well. I played tennis today.” She smiled at me just like she had done all those years previously. The company’s algorithms were quite efficient I had to admit.

For some reason, the sound of her voice didn’t really cheer me up. I my head down into my hands and rubbed my eye sockets and then the temples while listening to the pleasant illusion.

“Did you really? With whom?” I asked, following the familiar script.

I was done perhaps thirty minutes later. I was misty-eyed despite not being able to touch her in any way. The illusion was optical. I didn’t have enough for the premium version that would let me hug her. I knew that this could be the last time I saw her so I had said goodbye to her in a way should would find strange. She had noticed something was odd, so she had begged me not to leave. I didn’t have a choice so I issued the command to end the program. I made my way back to the base, found quarters and fell asleep.

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