This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.
╗ FIVE ╚
Monday morning dawned inauspiciously with a thunderous early autumn rainstorm, pelting and tearing with a vengeance at the roof and windows of Anna's home in heavy gray torrents. The trees thrashed and raged in the wind and colorful fall leaves alternately scudded across her yard or plastered themselves to various obstacles.
Inside, safe from the storm, Anna sat on her bed in her business attire with a variety of objects strewn in front of her on the sheets. Her new security ID badge lay there, as well as her transfer documents on their encrypted chip. Next to that was her commex, as well as a jumble of various electronic equipment. Anna reached out and touched one of the pieces, a fist-sized black plastic egg with a universal port connection on one side.
Anna sighed faintly. Just that one item was worth more than her entire house and the surrounding property, a mobile code slicer of the highest calibre. She had been looking forward to using it; her department at HomoGen had asked her to test the security of their system from her home using the slicer. She had planned the entire thing out and was certain she could break down their firewall if they gave her enough time. Now it looked like she would never get that chance. The joys and sorrows of a new job. She had three weeks to get all of HomoGen's equipment back to them.
She gathered up the pile of instruments and stuffed them into her safe, shutting the door with a heavy finality. This really was the start of a new career. Her stomach did a nervous somersault at the thought. A quick check of her watch confirmed that she would be on time for her first day if she left now. One final glance at the safe, and she gathered her accessories and rushed out the door.
Even under the protection of an umbrella the rain was relentless and the wind unforgiving. She struggled to her car and climbed in with the grace of a stumbling elephant, her umbrella refusing to close properly as the rain wet her hair and legs. She swore and pulled everything into the vehicle with one desperate motion and slammed the door shut. As she sat for a moment in silence, panting, she happened to glance outside through the downpour and was amazed at what she saw.
Mr. Vickers sat on his front porch, rocking slowly on his rocking chair with his eyes closed and a wide smile across his face. His arms were spread out, as if to welcome the wind that whipped at his sweater and swirled the smoke from his pipe in wispy blue tendrils. He was protected from the rain under the porch roof but just barely.
Anna watched him with complete incomprehension. Why? Is he insane? She couldn't fathom the reason. She noticed with a start that his eyes had opened and he had seen her. He raised a hand and waved, his smile growing even broader. She waved hesitantly back, remembering with a sudden pang that the last time she had seen him she had yelled in his face and stormed off. Brushing the thought aside, she started the car and raced away.
Her breath sucked in and she gazed out the windshield in unadulterated awe. She had driven past the Central Administration building complex hundreds of times to get to work; however, it had never been her destination before and as she sped closer she could feel her remaining confidence wilting. A huge brooding structure of gray stone and tempered glass, the complex squatted grimly on the combined sites of the old Washington Monument and the Ellipse and pummeled the viewer into submission with its intimidating scale.
She silently thanked Officer Garnham for giving her programmed directions to the building. It gave her time to gawk at the sheer vertical walls, besides the fact that she had no idea of the approach. The car did, however, and rolled obediently up into the entrance corridor and to the first security checkpoint, stopping by a concrete guard hut.
Before she even had time to produce her security badge, four guards emerged from the hut with the biggest dog she had ever seen and began to inspect her car from front to back. One guard swept her vehicle with a portable backscatter scanner for several moments while the other three probed the car with the dog. She sat nervously inside, not even daring to drop her window until they finished. Finally one of the guards tapped her window and gestured for her to open it. She did so and produced her badge.
“Officer Terry Garnham is expecting me?” she offered. “I am doing orientation with her today.”
The guard peered at her over her badge like she was stupid. “We know that, Miss McLean. Please let us finish.”
Anna sat back, chided and bewildered. The stories of Central Admin's fastidious security were shaping up to be very true. She remained in silence until the guard team finished their sweep and only gave them a slight nod when they waved her through the gate. She rounded a bend in the driveway and passed through another checkpoint, a purely electronic surveillance station, which photographed and scanned her car as she drove.
She mentally shrank into herself as she drove closer and closer to the building and the security protocols became strikingly more evident. The huge sweeping front steps were patrolled by more guards, but far more frightening were the two black auto-tanks whose protruding electronic eyeballs turned to follow her car as she drove up. The deadly robots eyed her dispassionately with a dead stare that made her skin crawl.
Two of the guards at the steps motioned to her to halt and approached her car with automatic weapons at the ready. She again produced her badge and her explanation, and the guards nodded. “We've been expecting you today,” one of them said, then proceeded to walk around to the passenger side of her car. He tapped on the door, and it took a second for her to realize that he intended to get in next to her. Her heart pounding, she pressed the unlock button and the soldier wasted no time sliding into the passenger set and shutting the door. He leaned into the walkie-talkie on his shoulder and clicked it on. “All right, boys,” he said quietly, looking out of the windshield up at the roof of the huge building complex. “You can stand down, this one's legit.”
Anna could feel a bead of sweat trickle down the back of her neck as she looked to where the guard was looking. To her surprise and sudden fright she realized who he was speaking to: three squat blockhouses on the roof, each with the hint of a sniper rifle barrel peeking out of the darkness within. She looked over at the man in her passenger seat, almost trembling and utterly unsure of what to do next.
The guard looked over at her. “Standard operating procedure, ma'am,” he said in what she figured he thought was a reassuring tone. He reached over to her nav computer touchscreen and tapped in a short set of directions. “Please release the wheel and let the car do the work, ma'am.”
She complied and the car hushed forward once again, navigating deftly on its own into an underground parking garage beneath the main building and coming to a stop next to yet another guard booth. The guard tapped her arm. “This is where we get out. You will come with me; we will park your car for you.”
Anna exited the car with a pounding pulse and sweaty palms. She was almost beginning to doubt that her presence here was legitimate as the guard took her by the arm and led her to the nearest elevator. They rode up one level in silence and as the doors slid back open the guard gestured for her to get out.
They had emerged into the main lobby and everything towered over her. The marble walls, polished to a mirror finish, reflected her tiny form and reminded her of her own insignificance. Blocky and efficient pillars rose fifty feet into the air and met the equally efficient ceiling in unadorned capitals. Harsh white LED lighting glared from ports in the ceiling and cast diffuse spots on the floor. Heavily armed guards stood in pairs at every door out of the lobby,
She shrank farther into herself than before and would have sprinted to the front reception desk in desperation if it hadn't been for the firm hand on her arm.
Behind the flint-colored desk sat a flint-faced woman wearing a brown uniform and a scowl. She looked up sharply as Anna approached and her frown deepened. “Name please and reason for visit?”
Anna found herself tongue-tied. She attempted to explain but the words wouldn't form properly. The flinty woman's eyes narrowed and Anna, in a cold panic, tried again. “I was told to report to Officer Terry Garnham for orientation. My name is Annalise McLean.” She swallowed and placed the chip with her transfer paperwork on the desk, and the desperate thought occurred to her that it might always be this tense around here. She recalled the mantra of every government announcement on radio and television: “Government is serious work.”
The woman at the desk took the chip with a doubtful look on her face and inserted it into her computer. Her face changed as she perused the files and she tapped the console at her left. “Ms. Garnham? There is an Annalise McLean here for you.” She nodded to the guard, who released Anna's arm and stalked back outside.
“Please, Miss McLean, come over here so we can perform a security sweep.” The woman stood and led Anna over to a full body scanning unit, where Anna was commanded to remove her coat and shoes and to walk through the upright scanning frame. The procedure took less than five minutes yet still managed to feel horribly invasive, and Anna was glad to get her things back. When the guards manning the machine were satisfied, the woman took Anna's arm, turned her around and led her back to the reception desk. Against said desk with her arms folded in front of her chest stood Officer Terry Garnham, looking almost exactly like she had the first time Anna had seen her: severe and to-the-point. Still, she was a more welcome sight than any that Anna had seen so far today.
“Good to see you again, Miss McLean,” Officer Garnham said politely with a tiny degree of warmth, extending a hand. “Thank you for arriving early.” She turned to the woman at the desk. “Miss McLean is under my charge from now until her orientation is finished, and she is part of the Central Admin research team assisting the HomoGen Initiative. None of your personnel are to stop, search, or harass her again when she comes through here. She is one of us. Is that understood?”
The receptionist reddened. “Yes, ma'am.”
“Good,” Officer Garnham replied firmly. “Shall we then, Miss McLean?”
Anna, glad to vacate the lobby, eagerly followed her orientation officer towards the nearest doorway. They entered a long hallway together and strode in silence to the end of it, where Officer Garnham touched the “Down” button of the elevator.
“You brought your ear and eye protection, I presume?”
Anna nodded and opened her bag to show. The tall blonde woman nodded in satisfaction and, as the doors slid open, motioned to Anna to step in first. They boarded and Officer Garnham pressed the button marked Basement, Level 2. With a slight jolt they were on their way. They rode in silence; Officer Garnham as usual seemed perfectly content to keep her thoughts to herself. The doors slid open again and they emerged in a long brightly lit chamber with a low ceiling. One half of the room featured padded floor and walls, with various exercise and sparring equipment scattered about. But the other half was what caught Anna's attention. And it seemed to be where they were heading.
Splitting the room in half were built-in tables separated from each other by dividers of thick acrylic. Beyond the tables stretched long lanes, each with a long rail above that carried a metal hanger. The walls of this half of the room were baffled with foam and metal, and in front of each table sat a large metal rack full of various firearms. Anna realized with a quick thump of her heart that her earlier suspicions had been correct: they were standing in a shooting range.
Officer Garnham tossed her own bag onto the nearest table and pulled out hearing protection and safety glasses, then pulled a hair band from her wrist and twisted her hair back in a ponytail. She moved quickly and efficiently, and Anna now realized just how strong her arms and body looked. Her muscles were not bulky, but everything about them suggested a taut and powerful build.
Anna pulled out her own protection and silently eyed the other woman. Officer Garnham, seeing her stare, gave a short humorless chuckle. “I will let you know when you have to imitate me, Annalise, and trust me, you will be doing a hell of a lot of that today. And we are on a first name basis now, so you will call me Terry.”
Anna swallowed and nodded. “All right...Terry. Where do we start?”
“With this,” Terry answered, pulling a plastic case from a bin near her foot and dropping it on the tabletop. “Open it.”
With trembling fingers, Anna popped the double latches and pushed the lid open. She almost gasped as she saw a black semiautomatic pistol inside, nestled into conformal foam next to three empty magazines. She had never been this close to a firearm before, much less touched one, and she hesitated. Terry nodded to her.
“It's yours,” she said. “It will be yours until that day when you are no longer in service with Central Admin. Which,” she added mysteriously, “probably will not be for a while.” She sensed Anna's continued hesitation and, turning the case towards herself, she pulled the weapon free of the foam. “By the end of today you will know more than you ever wanted to know about how to shoot, tear down, clean, and reassemble this weapon. You should be able to do it all in your sleep by the end of your total orientation. Let's get started.”
She wasted no time at all. They began by drilling gun safety rules, where not to point it, how to hold it, how to clear it and safety check it. Terry then proceeded to strip off the slide and show Anna how to break apart the firing assembly for cleaning. Anna's head was spinning a bit during the tutorial, but by the end of the first thirty-five minutes she could recite the safety checklist by heart and tear down and rebuild the weapon with ease. Terry nodded and grunted her approval, then opened a drawer underneath the table and pulled out five heavy boxes of ammunition. Plopping them down on the table, she pulled a magazine out of the foam and held it up.
“Let's load up.”
The entire exercise suddenly felt real now, and Anna's blood began to pound in her temples harder. She would really be doing this. Following Terry's lead, she learned how to load the .40 caliber ammunition into the magazine without tearing up her fingers, watching with satisfaction as the double-stack of bullets slowly began to form. Finally all magazines were filled. Terry pinned a man-shaped paper target to the hanger on the track and, with the pull of a lever, sent hanger and target down to the end of the lane.
She motioned Anna up to the lane and demonstrated the correct posture and how to achieve a proper sight picture. Anna dry fired the gun several times, feeling the trigger break under her index finger, hearing the striker snap. Then both women donned ear and eye protection and Terry gave Anna a thumbs up sign.
Anna felt suddenly frozen in time. The target down the lane waited patiently, the HVAC system hummed unhurriedly in the background; all was ready and still. She slid a loaded magazine into the gun, racked the slide and lifted the weapon up in front of her. The sights lined up in front of her; she sighted as best as she knew how, and pulled the trigger.
The power and noise of the detonation that followed jarred her. She felt the shock ripple up her arms and into her shoulders, and it occurred to her that might be why her orientation officer sported such strong arms. It also occurred to her that she had closed her eyes at the moment of firing, and as she opened them again she realized that she had not even hit the target at all.
Terry, despite her naturally grim attitude, managed a small smile. “You're afraid of the trigger, Annalise. Find its break point and don't anticipate the recoil. Try again.”
Anna flushed red and gritted her teeth, aimed again and fired. She struck paper this time, but only on the outer edge of the human silhouette. She looked at Terry helplessly. Terry leaned in and looked down the lane at the hole that Anna had made. “It may sound counter-intuitive, Annalise, but you need to relax. Tension in your arms and shoulders is your enemy. Also,” she added, “squeeze the trigger, don't pull it. We're trying to shoot through the target, not at it.”
Anna took a long breath and turned back to the target. It waved slightly in the draft from the overhead ventilation. She narrowed her eyes at it, loosened herself ever so slightly, aimed. A dozen different bits of direction floated through her head but she pushed them out and sighted down the gun. The moment her dots lined up and everything felt right, she breathed and squeezed the trigger. The report resounded and the empty casing clattered to the floor.
Terry blinked and looked twice down the lane at the target. A new hole had appeared on the paper dead in the center of the center zone, heart and lungs territory. Bulls-eye. She turned to Anna with a look approaching pleased. “Do that one hundred more times for me, Annalise, and I may just call you a natural.”
Anna smiled and proceeded to empty the rest of the magazine into the silhouette.
Click here for Chapter Six!