Authors: Peter Clines
George woke up with a headache.
He stretched his arms out from under the blanket and covered his eyes. Another night of too many vivid dreams and not enough restful sleep. The chain of beads
ed against the side of the fan. The beads wobbled back and forth and tapped the motor housing again and again. The noise accented the awareness that he wouldn’t be getting back to sleep, even though the clock said he was awake more than an hour early.
His arm was sore. It tingled and felt a little raw. He wondered if something had bitten him during the night. A few people in his building had complained about bedbugs and demanded the managers spray or fumigate or something. Up until now, George figured he’d dodged that particular bullet.
He stepped off the bed and yawned. For now he had an extra hour to kill before heading in to work.
Like most people in such a position, he turned to the Internet.
George checked his e-mail and Facebook and skimmed a few articles on Yahoo! News. The President was coming into town for an appearance on one of the late-night shows. Things were still at a constant near boil in the Middle East. The big weekend movie was being savaged by critics and bloggers.
Halfway down the entertainment section was a picture of Karen Quilt wearing a long black dress and making it look casual. She was taking part in some charity gala in Los Angeles
tomorrow night. She was also using the time to tour the Jet Propulsion Lab out in Pasadena. Aerospace engineering was one of her hobbies. The article phrased her interest in a condescending way, like a parent explaining that their child wants to be an astronaut when they grow up.
He wondered what Miss Quilt thought about that particular reporter.
The folded-up copy of
was on his desk. He’d tossed it there when he came home the other day and hadn’t touched it since. He flattened it out and opened it up to one of the first pictures. Karen Quilt sat at a desk in an English study with lots of books and a wooden globe. She was wearing a black suit and owlish glasses. It was a naughty librarian–type pose.
Someone had scribbled in the margin at the bottom of the page, alongside the introductory paragraph that talked about Karen Quilt’s parents and early life. George tilted his head, then turned the magazine.
Try to remember—Madelyn
She’d included her phone number and dorm room, too. He tried to think when she would’ve had time to write without him noticing. Maybe when he’d answered his Nextel? Had he looked away from the table?
Madelyn’s story drifted through his head. A girlfriend he didn’t remember and a best friend he’d never heard of. George looked at the naughty-librarian picture again and shook his head. Guys like him didn’t get women like that. Not in the real world.
What was the guy’s name? His supposed best friend. He remembered the first and last name had the same sound. There was a term for that, when two words started with the same sound. A lot of old superhero names were like that, their secret identity names. Peter Parker. Clark Kent. Bruce Banner. Wally West.
He chuckled at the mental list of superhero names. He hadn’t read a comic book in years, not even any of the popular graphic novels. But Madelyn had given him heroes on the brain.
She’d mentioned where the best friend worked. Something in New Mexico. A power station of some kind. Or was it a lab?
He tapped a few keys on his computer. It took him five minutes to find Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and their Pulsed Power Project. One part of it was a huge array called the Z Machine.
The Z Machine. Z. Z. Z. It sounded appropriate somehow.
George didn’t understand half the factoids Wikipedia listed about the Z Machine, but apparently it was used to create phenomenal amounts of energy. There was a photo in the article showing a crackling web of electricity stretched over banks of equipment. He was pretty sure it was just a split-second photograph, not an ongoing effect, but it was still impressive.
The main website for the project didn’t have a crew roster he could find, but there were a few pictures. George lingered on one showing a half-dozen people gathered around a table. Seated off on the left was a skinny black man with stubble-short hair.
The website had contact information. A set of e-mail addresses and a pair of phone numbers. The lab was open—or answered the phones, at least—during regular business hours. He unplugged his cell phone from the charger and tapped in the number. New Mexico was an hour ahead, which meant it was …
Seven-thirty in the morning there. They probably had a George of their own who was just showing up to empty the trash. No one else would be there for hours. If they were, they’d ignore the phone.
He felt silly.
Madelyn’s story had struck a nerve. Some idealistic dream from childhood about helping people, great power and great responsibility, or some such thing. Part of him almost wished her story was real. Minus the killing-millions-of-people part. He put his phone back on the desk and closed the magazine.
George threw his arms over his head, locked his fingers, and stretched. A good night’s sleep would get everything right in his head. That’s all he needed.
The alarm went off behind him. He banged his knee on the desk when he jumped. It was time to get ready for work.
Once again, pedestrians made the drive in a headache. Every intersection was packed with people, all of them taking their time. George sat through the whole green light at Fairfax as men and women shuffled across the street. On the plus side, everyone could see the crowd, so nobody started honking their horns. The only thing more frustrating than traffic delays was a jerk behind you who didn’t acknowledge them.
It also didn’t help that the brake on his car seemed to be slipping. He’d get to an intersection and the Hyundai would try to lunge forward at the figures in the crosswalk. He could feel it fighting his foot as he pushed down. With the constant cries on the radio extolling different religious figures for aid, it gave the drive in a surreal tone he didn’t enjoy.
There seemed to be a lot of homeless people out that morning. At least half the people crossing each intersection wore stained, ragged clothes. George knew Los Angeles had a huge homeless population, but they weren’t always so visible. Or maybe he’d just become more aware of them somehow.
He made it most of the way to campus before the car sputtered and died again. George swore and guided the vehicle to the edge of the road before it lost all momentum. He turned the key again and again. The dash lights didn’t come on. Not even one click from the starter. The radio was silent. He glanced at the street to get a sense of how far he was from campus.
His car had come to rest in front of the recruitment office again.
Something moved in his peripheral vision and a huge figure lumbered out of the early morning haze. It was the bald officer he’d seen last week, the man with arms the size of George’s waist. He was wearing a tan T-shirt and breathing deep, the kind of measured breathing people did after exercise. He pulled some keys from his pocket and headed to the office door.
In the back of George’s mind, he realized the car must have died just as it passed the big man, half a block or so back.
He stepped out of his car. “Excuse me,” he called to the man.
The giant turned. Confusion flashed across his face, but he clamped down on it. “Yes, sir,” he said. “How can I help you?” Only some of the confusion slipped into his voice.
George gestured at his Hyundai. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “I stopped here last week. I’ve been having car trouble. It just died again.”
“I remember. Do you need another jump?”
“I’m not sure. I can’t figure out what’s going on with it, to be honest.”
A sound echoed down the street. A foot slapping against the pavement. There was a faint scraping sound, then another slap a few seconds later. George looked down the street. A handful of homeless people were shambling up Wilshire toward them.
Something about them gave him a chill.
“We should go inside,” said the soldier with a nod at the approaching group. “I’ve been generous in the past and now they can get a bit demanding. I’ve found it best to avoid them.” He unlocked the door and waved George inside.
The giant flipped the dead bolt and tapped out a quick code on a keypad near the door. His fingers were very nimble for their size. He flipped on the lights and walked across to his desk.
“Thanks,” said George.
“Not a problem,” said the soldier.
“Lieutenant Freedom,” said the giant. He held out a broad hand.
George’s fingers barely reached across the palm. He smiled as they shook. “Freedom? Is that some recruitment tool or something?”
The officer’s face tightened. “It’s a family name, sir.” He turned away and headed toward a door in the back corner. “Sergeant Harrison’s not in for another half hour or so, but we might have some jumper cables in the back. There’s a junk closet with a lot of odd supplies in it.”
A thump came from the front of the office. One of the homeless people was pressed against the window. His teeth were a
rotted mess and his eyes were filled with cataracts. He was muttering, but George couldn’t hear him through the glass.
His eyes swept back around and Freedom had a pistol out and pointed at him. The muzzle was enormous. George stumbled back with his hands up, tripped, and fell on his ass.
Freedom blinked. “Are you all right, sir?” He held out an empty hand. Both his hands were empty.
George looked at the huge man, then back over his shoulder. The homeless people were shuffling away. The one with bad teeth had left a smudge on the glass. “You had a gun,” he said.
“Sir?” Freedom looked at his bare hip. “I’m not armed.”
George climbed back to his feet as the pieces fell together. “You shot me,” he said. He gestured back at the window. “Those things were all around and you shot me with some big-ass pistol.”
The soldier’s gaze didn’t waver, but his face shifted.
George stared back. He sounded crazy. He knew that. He tried to ignore the endless pen-clicking and focus his thoughts. “I think I know you,” he told the other man. “I think we’ve known each other for a while.”
Freedom straightened up. He was almost a foot taller than George. “I’m pretty sure we just met for the first time last week.”
The sound of his voice freed up something else in George’s mind. It came rushing out so hard and fast it made his head ache. “You were a captain,” he said. “Harrison said you’d been demoted and I didn’t make the connection. You’re Captain Freedom. John Carter Freedom.” The words spewed out, as much of a surprise to him as they were to the lieutenant.
The officer pressed his lips together. George wasn’t sure what kind of expression the man was biting back. He also wasn’t sure where he’d pulled the name from. He glanced over his shoulder at the empty office and then back to the giant.
“Sir,” said Freedom, “I think you should leave now.” He crossed his arms across his chest. He wasn’t making a request or suggestion.
George wandered outside. A few of the homeless people saw him and switched direction, but he was back in his car before they came anywhere close. He checked his pockets and the dish under the emergency brake, but he didn’t have any change to offer them.
He flopped back in the driver’s seat and pressed his hands over his eyes. He couldn’t believe he’d babbled on like that. He’d accused an Army officer of trying to kill him! His lack of sleep was now officially making him act like a maniac. He wondered if he should take a sick day or two and just try to get caught up on rest.
A thump made him look up. A filth-covered woman pressed herself against his window. She had pale blue eyes, almost gray. She would’ve been pretty if not for her stained shirt and all the dirt on her face.
George glanced at the time. He was going to be late for work. He started his car and pulled back out into traffic. If the lights were in his favor, he could still make it on time.
He was parking on campus when he realized his dead car had started back up with no problem.