Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The SubVersion Complex, Chapter Eleven

Here is the next chapter of The SubVersion Complex. Hope you all enjoy! If you missed Chapter Ten, click here.

This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.



It was late, and Sam fumed.

He approached the Secretary's office door and ground his teeth behind closed lips as the security officers posted outside took his firearm and scanned him. They irked him, the Secretary's personal security. It felt like a breach of trust that he, Security Chief Holloway, was not their commander as well. When the officers were satisfied, he pushed roughly past them and rapped hard on the wood. The lock clicked and he burst through.

“And let yourself in, my door is open,” Adam remarked with faux pleasantness. His feet were propped up on his desk and his commex was clutched in his hand. Fumes from his electronic cigarette spiraled around his head in fantastic swirls and shapes. He reluctantly pulled himself forward to face Sam. “What is it?”

Sam pulled out one of the chairs in front of the Secretary's desk and sat down heavily. The chair protested with a loud squeak. “I think you know very well why I am here,” he rumbled.

“I might, but do elaborate. Seeing as how you are so very good at elaborating,” the Secretary sighed.

“Well, to start, your 'Praetorian Guard' outside seem extra obnoxious lately.”

A wide smile spread across the Secretary's face. “Ah. Then it would seem that you know your ancient history. So few people do nowadays.”

Sam snorted. “You mean do I know how the Praetorian Guard eventually turned on the emperor that they were sworn to protect? Then yes, I do.”

“A necessary risk in this business,” Adam replied levelly. “Let's just call it a division of power.” He stood slowly, leaning forward towards Sam with his hands on his desk. “A division at which you will continually chafe, and that I will continually enforce. This emperor will have his Praetorian Guard and you will be content with your place. So let's leave all that aside for the moment and come to the real point of your intrusion.”

The pose and tone were threatening enough to make even Sam recoil ever so slightly in his chair. He would not be cowed for long, though, and he shifted closer to the desk. “I'm here to talk about Miss McLean.”

Adam smiled again. “Ah yes, Miss McLean. Isn't she something?” he said. “Young, vibrant, sexy, very intelligent, and with a great appreciation for my fine wines.” A strange protective sort of sarcasm dripped in his voice. “Really, Sam, you ought to get yourself a woman like that.”

Sam squirmed. “I'll make a note of it . . . “

“Please do, and please also remember your place in regards to the aforementioned woman. Now,” Adam said, turning to the window and gazing down at the nighttime cityscape below, “what about Miss McLean?”

Sam remembered his purpose and his anger returned. “I was told by the mobile security division downstairs that you took Miss McLean to the Version Ghetto.”

“They told you that, did they?”

“Yes they did. And they also told me that an auto-tank opened fire while the two of you were right there. And that she was witness to a massacre.” Sam opened his hands with an incredulous gesture. “Is this true? Please tell me that it's not true.”

The Secretary regarded the large man with curiosity for a long moment before replying. “What if it is or isn't? What is that to you?”

“If I was to put myself in the shoes of an outsider,” Sam replied with rising ire, “and given you a completely objective assessment of your actions, I would have said that you were certifiably insane and had no business going any farther with this demented plan!”

Adam cocked his head. “But I don't pay you to put yourself in other people's shoes, especially outsiders,” he said. “What I pay you for and demand accordingly is a subjective voice of force. The hound dog doesn't question the master's intent, he merely does his duty under the assumption that his human has a plan. And right now, the hound is not trusting but resisting.”

Sam scowled. “Except that this hound is human. And he wonders if his human betters actually have that plan in mind when they do things like parade street violence in front of a woman. Where indeed is the sense in that?”

Adam stood silent for a long time, the vapors from his cigarette curling around his motionless hand. “There is a time and a place for everything, Sam, even the truth. The entire, sugar-free, violent and ugly truth. She refused to accept that what I had said was true, and so decided to show her instead. There is a balance, between telling her what she needs to hear and showing her that which will motivate action.”

“Motivate what action?” Sam asked incredulously. “Driving her away? Sending her packing into the arms of a group like Verité? They prey on people who know the truth, as you must be well aware. When that occurs it becomes a security issue, and when it becomes a security issue it becomes my issue.”

“Correct as usual,” Adam said with a nod, clapping with slow derision. “But I am focused on the larger picture here. She will come, wait and see.”

“And that leads me to my other questions,” Sam continued as if the Secretary had never spoken, “which are these: why have we given her a firearm and a top-level access key? We hadn't discussed those either but I let them slide. That was before. Now I am concerned that she will be like a child who has discovered fire for the first time.”

Adam scratched his chin. “Your point?”

“My point?” Sam's face grew red. “My point is that you're creating a dangerous situation that you will lose control of more quickly than you think possible. She will be a danger to herself and could become a liability to this entire administration.” He clenched his fists in his lap as he spoke and his breathing grew loud. “In short, with all due respect Mr. Secretary, I believe you are making a terrible mistake, and you are not helping me at all.”

It was a long moment before either man moved. Adam still stood between the desk and window with a serious expression on his face; the sarcasm was gone and he stared hard at Sam. Inexplicable thoughts churned behind his green eyes and his jaw worked back and forth. Finally he creaked back over to the desk and settled slowly back into his chair, his eyes fixed on his chief of security and his face a mask.

“Perhaps I may offer a critique?” he began.

Sam frowned. “By all means,” he allowed reluctantly.

“You may be looking at this whole project from the wrong angle,” the Secretary said. “Where you see danger, I see opportunity. Where you see a threat, I see hope.” He rubbed his palms together. “Have you ever tried to feed a chickadee from your hand, Sam?”

Confused, Sam shook his head. “I can't say that I have,” he grunted.

“It's a very small bird, but very innocent and in many ways quite fearless. Despite that, you still must work to earn its trust. It is a cautious creature.”

Sam waved his hand, impatient with the analogy. “Okay, fine, I get it.”

“Do you?” Adam queried. “To lure in the chickadee you must be very still and very very patient. You must bide your time and tempt it in slowly. It will only come to you in stages, and only if each stage has a reward or other proper motivator.”

“Get to the damn point.”

“The point is this: Annalise McLean is the one I want. She is the key piece to my puzzle, and I need her to accept all of this. However, I gain nothing by making her do anything, she must want to do it. In short, she must desire to come to me and must be passionate and complete in that desire.” Adam tapped the head of his cane with his fingers. “I have set the bait, I have put out the seed, and she must be the one to bite. I sent you to offer her a job that we both knew she craved and would never refuse. She accepted. I gave her a gun and just enough training with it to make her dangerous. I gave her enough security access to make her curious. I gave her a free enough rein to feel that she was not under twenty-four-hour surveillance and could do and say what she wanted. And I put her with Dr. Jarrod who can give her just enough information for me to build upon later.”

He rose to his feet again and continued. “I am drawing her in, Sam, and I am well aware of how unorthodox my methods may appear to you. But as I said, patience is the key. Each step must be either a reward or a motivator. I have rewarded and rewarded, and now tonight I showed her the motivator, as horrible as it may seem. If I have cemented in her mind the belief that our goal is noble and that we must work to avert another such awful encounter together, then I have succeeded. As far as I know, she now thinks everything I have told her is the truth.”

“Then I presume you fed her the same standard line about Verité and her parents?” Sam asked sardonically. “And you talk about telling her the whole truth.”

Adam's face darkened. “There is the truth, and then there is the truth,” he growled. “Do not test me.”

Sam shoved himself up out of his seat. “Regardless of what you decide to do, those are my reservations and I thought you should hear them. I realize she will need to be shown . . . things. But she is a woman.”

“So was her mother,” the Secretary said. “If you are implying that Miss McLean can't handle the heat in the proverbial political kitchen then I submit that you are sexist ass. Her mother was the strongest person I know and I see a great deal of the mother in the daughter. I think we will be fine.”

“Very well,” Sam said, peeved and unsatisfied. “But I will be keeping my eyes open.”

“You know?” Adam suddenly smiled. “That is indeed the difference between you and her. I want a technocrat as my successor, an objective fixer and pragmatist, someone without ambition or visions of expansionist grandeur. You are ambitious, she is not.”

Sam's face reddened and he stiffened. “Is that all?” he grunted.

Adam, a smile still stretched across his face, gestured to the door. “That is all. Have a good night, Officer Holloway, and remember: this is all a game. A serious game to be sure, but a game with pieces and moves and counter-moves and winners and losers. Right now I'd rather I was not obstructed whilst I attempt to win this round.”

Sam quickly crossed the space to the door, but he stopped once he reached it and turned partway. “When will you tell her about the Complex? If you ever do at all, which would seem likely at this point.”

Adam looked back to the window in thought. “The time will come. Patience is the key. The chickadee must be pecking seed right out of my hand before I spring that one. But I will make it work.”

“You know her security access key will let her into the Complex and its computer system if she happens to get curious enough to find it.” Sam's expression was laced with apprehension.

“Unlikely that she will ever have the chance before I let her in,” Adam said. “One would need prior knowledge of the numbering system to do that, and she has no clue. No, I think that worry is only the remotest of remote possibilities.” His tone suddenly went cold. “Good night, Mr. Holloway, and don't forget to lock up when you leave tonight.”

Sam slid out and the door clicked shut. The Secretary fell into his chair and heaved an enormous sigh, then tapped a button on his desk. A voice crackled from the speaker, asking him with whom he wished to speak.

“I need to talk to Neville,” Adam said curtly, “to make sure that there is still no number sharing between the Complex and the larger security system.”

“I can give you the answer to that,” the voice on the other end said. “No, we never have shared or ever will share numbers between the systems. Why do you ask?”

Adam sat silently for a long moment. His fist closed and hardened until his knuckles turned white. “I just don't need any surprises,” he said slowly. “I have a new person here with close to full security key access and I don't need them stumbling over anything by accident.”

“Unless they knew the number they were looking for in advance, then no,” the voice said reassuringly.

“Good.” Adam cut the connection with a tap. “I just wish,” he continued to himself, “that I could believe that completely.”

Click here to read Chapter Twelve!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The SubVersion Complex, Chapter Ten

Well, after a long absence due to the birth of a child and other related matters, I finally had the time to post the next edited chapter of The SubVersion Complex. Hope you all enjoy! If you missed Chapter Nine, click here. Things will really be picking up story-wise from here onwards. Hope you enjoy, and please leave your thoughts.

This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.

╗ TEN ╚


Anna had been under the growing impression that all the food in Central Admin would be laden with grease of one kind or another. But, after Adam called for food to be delivered directly to his office, the spread of delicacies that arrived within a minute astounded her. Fine dining was not a foreign concept to her but this was something else entirely. The hors d'oeuvres consisted of a huge platter of shrimp and cocktail sauce, a cheese and meat tray, and a dish of caviar and crackers, along with a hearty red wine. After that came the main dish: lobster tails in butter and garlic sauce with green beans and stuffed clams. By the time the dessert of ice cream and sweet blush wine was brought in Anna felt she could not eat another morsel.

It was the most excellent food that she had ever tasted. As each dish arrived the thought kept coming to mind that if she was indeed to be the next Party Secretary, this might be how she would be eating every day. Gourmet food, the best wine, and all she could ever have of both. A childish notion, perhaps, but as each succulent bite slid down her throat she found it more and more convincing. Although, she realized her figure would suffer under such a heavenly strain, and that did give her pause.

The clock passed mid-afternoon by the time both of them leaned back satisfied in their respective chairs. While they were eating the Secretary had spoken precious little about the heavy subjects they had covered previously. He instead contented himself with commenting at length on the food they ate, where it came from, the vintages of the wines they drank. His experience of the culinary arts was extensive, as well as his knowledge of fine wines. Anna found the conversation about food equally as intriguing as their earlier topics and listened with great attention to his commentary.

She realized it was he that she found truly fascinating. Whereas before he had appeared intimidating, he now seemed eager, passionate, and engaged. The way he eyed her sometimes made her uncomfortable, but she chalked that up to her mother's lingering influence over him. His conversation was never dull, his wit never insipid, and his manners never vulgar. Anna found herself comparing him to Jesse, and the pairing was so comically mismatched that it almost caused her to laugh out loud. The Secretary displayed none of Jesse's smarmier traits; Adam was suave and genteel where Jesse was forward and overpowering.

She swallowed awkwardly as she finished what she could of her dessert and glanced at the glass of wine in her other hand. Mostly empty. Her mouth suddenly felt sticky and she remembered that this was her fourth glass. A tiny warning bell in the back of her mind warned her to slow down, but the warmth in her body rebelled against the thought of temperance. She shrugged and downed the rest of the wine in one swig. It would have alarmed her how eager she was for her alcohol if she wasn't already feeling so relaxed. The tension from earlier had mostly melted away and Anna did not feel eager to stop the numbing process.

She glanced over at the window briefly and with a start noticed how far the sun had set during their little party. They hadn't even gotten back to the Secretary's earlier explanation, although through her mild mental fog she almost couldn't remember what the question had been. She marshaled her thoughts with some difficulty as she resolutely put her glass on the table.

“You were going to . . . “ Anna started, then began again, “I had asked you about why your security fell down on the job so badly when Daniel Marcus escaped. You never did tell me why.”

Adam swirled the wine around in his glass and took another long sip before replying. “You had asked me that. I had been about to answer. More wine first?” Anna paused but then waved him off. He shrugged and poured himself some more. “More for me!” he remarked with a smile.

Anna couldn't help but grin back, and then felt silly for doing so. Damn alcohol talking. She folded her hands in her lap in an effort to compose herself.

Adam took a long puff on his electronic cigarette and released a ring of vapor that traveled almost all the way to the ceiling before dispersing. He watched it go with a mesmerized expression on his face, then turned back to Anna. “Funny how the small things captivate us,” he mused. He shook himself and returned to a more business-like tone. “Yes, Daniel Marcus remains at large and dangerous. And our forces continue to fail in finding him.” He bit his lip, a reluctant pose unlike his normal self. “The security problem has its origins many years back, dating back to even before my father was party secretary. How much do you know about my father?”

Anna frowned in puzzled thought. “Not very much. I know my parents worked with him . . .”

“That is correct, they did indeed work together,” Adam said, nodding. “Only part of the reason that Verité had your parents killed.” He saw that Anna shifted uncomfortably in her seat and he quickly switched back to the original topic. “My father inherited a torn up country, recently recovering from civil war and unending violence. His father, my grandfather, saw the proverbial writing on the wall and knew that we were losing the countryside. Our reunification project has always worked best in the cities under close central control.”

Fear the country, Anna thought. Everyone does, it makes sense.

Adam continued: “When we emerged from the so-called 'overpopulation period' there was chaos in government and anarchy in the streets; my grandfather and father both realized we needed one way of making everything work together, one system, a universal safety net. My grandfather devised and began the Central Administration, and my father built on and radically expanded it to encompass all of D.C. and its surrounding environs. Every major city in this country still under our control employs the same concept. I am the beneficiary of their labor.”

Anna knew little of Central Admin's history and the explanation intrigued her. “And was the idea not successful?” she asked with some confusion.

“It worked, for a while,” the Secretary sighed wistfully. “We streamlined food production, made certain utilities and businesses public, put the universal camera and sensor monitoring system in place, and automated the hell out of daily life. We encouraged leisurely pursuits and the enjoyment of sexual freedom granted by the AnnexEstros regimen. We discouraged dissent and suppressed all that might threaten the system.”

The last thought sent a small chill vibrating up Anna's spine. It had to be done, so she supposed. But suddenly something he had said rang odd and she spoke up. “What do you mean, the 'so-called overpopulation period'?”

Adam smiled a hollow smile at her. “A wall of convenient lies, as I said. That was one of them.”

“I don't understand,” Anna stuttered.

“There is no problem with overpopulation in this nation, not now, nor has there ever been a problem with it in the past. It is one of the widest and grandest lies ever devised by man.”

Anna's mind felt blank. It was a lie, he was lying.

“This country is suffering its most serious lack of population in history,” Adam continued unabated. “I would go so far as to say that the lack is critically dangerous at this point.”

You're joking!” Anna blurted, a little too loudly. “This country, underpopulated? This city has a traffic jam every other hour on every other street!” She laughed and added, “If anything there are far too many people. I thought that was the reason for AnnexEstros, the old abortion centers, the reason why HomoGen exists at all! What are they for if not to curb humanity's irresponsible breeding?”

The Secretary leaned forward in his chair towards her and his face betrayed no traces of humor. “Listen closely to me, Anna, and open your mind to what I am telling you. You must.”

“Not when you are lying to me!” Anna retorted hotly. “HomoGen exists to solve the problem of over-breeding! It's a heritage that I had the honor of helping to create!”

She saw a flash of frustration and anger briefly cross the Secretary's face and thought that maybe her temper was running away with her. He recovered himself, however, and continued. “HomoGen was indeed founded during my father's tenure as Secretary for the purpose of controlling the population numbers. However, the truth diverges from what you know on several points. The first is that its primary task became a desperate effort to push population numbers up, not down. HomoGen has become almost our last best hope to stabilize the population numbers.”

The will to disbelieve him welled up in her in a powerful surge, although the alcohol deadened some of the shock of the new information. What the hell was he talking about? “I have to respectfully disagree,” she said. “Officer Holloway expressly told me that HomoGen's numbers and figures hit the targets perfectly. How could we be suffering a massive population problem if that is true?”

“I'd expect you to think that, naturally. While it is true that HomoGen was and is currently meeting its projected targets, it is a relative newcomer onto the population scene. If I recall, their first real product was AnnexEstros, the fertility control drug. After that, Central Admin assumed control of a good deal of the company and began work on the Versions. Do you recall the eagerness the government showed in getting the Version project off the ground as quickly as possible?”

Now that she thought about it, Anna did recall. Her heart sank as the truth became more clear. So Central Admin had never had any intention of ever cutting funding from HomoGen. “But that still leaves a problem,” she persisted, although with less conviction now. “We may have been funded by Central Admin, but we had accounts with private customers for their own Versions to go to their own families. You act like HomoGen exists primarily for the government's purposes, just churning out Versions for you to use however you please. We were- are- a successful company in our own right. The Version program has proven wildly successful!”

Adam's eyes narrowed at her, and for the first time in the past couple hours her uneasiness returned. He frowned and fingered his chin. “Jesse is HomoGen's head bean counter and you were in the tech department, but the two of you were sleeping together. Surely you had a good look at HomoGen's balance sheet after getting frisky with him?”

Anna felt the muscles in her neck tense up. The scope of their prying was becoming alarming. She managed to control herself, though. “Maybe. Why?”

“Then you surely noticed the top buyer for your Versions?”

“Some entity called FPSO, I think. I wasn't so concerned with that part of things. HomoGen's different business units are pretty cellular and insulated from each other.”

“FPSO stands for the Federal Population Services Office, and it is another branch of our governing office.” Adam stared hard at her. “Central Admin funds the majority of both ends of HomoGen's operations, simply in an attempt to keep up population numbers. HomoGen's alternate business model of contracting directly with willing couples for Versions would never work. No matter how much those couples think they can love and care for the Versions. That model has never worked, not even from the beginning.”

Anger welled up in Anna's heart and without thinking she came upright out of her chair, almost in a threatening pose. It could not be true. It was not true. She knew those couples, at least a few of them, and she knew they were more than capable of making a loving home for their Version. Adam's words stung her like a direct insult to the program and she didn't care if he knew what she really thought.

“If this is your idea of truth, Mr. Secretary, then I've had quite enough for one day.” She could barely believe she was speaking to him this way but she was not about to stop now. Her face felt flushed as she spoke. “I've spoken to those people, I know they know what they are doing. I believe HomoGen's model can and will work, and that they should be given a chance.”

The Secretary appeared unruffled. “HomoGen's model does not work, Anna. Right now. It doesn't work. I had the statistics directly from Jesse's superiors this morning. They cannot find enough couples or families of any kind willing to take Versions. They've run dry before they've even started. This city is a wasteland for finding that kind of love and acceptance.”

Anna stood, jaw and fists working. It couldn't be true. It just couldn't. “Every Version is loved and-!”

“-loved and wanted?” Adam stood slowly, pushing himself up against his cane. A fire blazed in his eyes. “There is no love in this entire process, and it's about time the charade was dropped. You want proof that this entire idea is no longer working? Look around you, Anna. Look at your commex, look at your car! They are the same models that existed twenty years ago, the same designs! This country is suffering a brain drain of epic proportions, simply because there are not enough human heads to figure out the problems we face.”

He inched closer to her. “To make a long story very short, that is why our security fell down on the job so badly, Miss McLean. We are overstretched, understaffed. The computer networks and systems we built to make the Central Admin idea work are aging and shockingly out of date. This is not a simple PR problem. I could show you numbers and charts all day to prove you wrong, but I'd rather just show you and let you see for yourself.”

Upright, he was again a much more imposing figure despite the cane. Anna shrank back and stammered, “I'm sorry, I didn't mean-”

“I am not interested in what you meant or didn't mean. And I am not interested in your apologies, Anna. I am interested in giving you the wide truth, of letting you into the great secret so that you may be part of the solution. You must grasp the enormity of what I am attempting to show you if you are to ever govern. Come,” he said, gesturing for her to follow him.

“Where are we going?” Anna replied, suddenly apprehensive.

“We are going for a drive.”

They exited his office and were immediately joined by a phalanx of armed guards who walked with them all the way to the elevator. Anna vaguely noticed that the hallway didn't look half so charming in the waning evening light. They descended several floors down to the underground parking garage where Anna had parked her car, but emerged in a different section where a fleet of shiny black vehicles stood parked in long rows. Again surrounded by armed guards, Adam guided her to one of the biggest vehicles, a giant truck with thick windows and heavy doors. Bulletproof, no doubt.

“Get in, please,” he said curtly, then nodded to the other men. Two of the guards jumped into the front seats of the Secretary's vehicle while the rest climbed into the other cars. They all began to move as a caravan and emerged into the fading sunlight with a roar of heavy gas turbine engines.

Anna watched the familiar sights slip by: the various memorials and monuments lit up in the evening air, the restaurants, the dilapidated Union Station building and shining high rises that eclipsed it on all sides. More porn shoppes, long lines of old row houses, small corner stores and fuel stations. At another bend they passed by one of HomoGen's Version training centers and Anna pointed it out. Through the wide lighted windows she could see several Versions and their various training personnel. Adam glanced out the window dispassionately.

“You've never driven farther than this street, have you?” he remarked.

Anna shook her head. “No, I never had any business farther in. Why?”

“I'm sure you don't know this, but HomoGen and FPSO outgrew the training centers years ago.”

Then Anna realized they were driving through a section of the city that she had never been in before. The buildings gradually took on a more slovenly appearance, and evidence of crime became more and more visible. They rounded a bend and Anna's stomach wrung as she saw what looked to be a long row of military-style trucks arrayed against one side of the street. Men in uniform milled around them with automatic rifles at the ready. Up ahead in the gathering dusk she thought she could see an autotank with its restless automatic cannon turret twitching back and forth. To her consternation she became aware that they were indeed headed towards the tank at a healthy clip.

The convoy slowed as it reached the tank and made a right turn down the same street that the tank's cannon was pointed. Anna craned her neck from the back seat to try to see what lay ahead. She thought she saw something peculiar blocking the road about two hundred feet down, and as they approached noticed that it was a huge steel fence and gate that stretched from one side of the street to the other. A sign hanging on the fence read “VG Entrance 1C.” The convoy came to a stop and made a partial u-turn, so that the Secretary's vehicle was closest to the gate and he and Anna could have an unobstructed view through the side window.

A second autotank lurked only a few feet away from the fence, its various guns bristling grimly on a mission of watchfulness. They were all pointed through the bars of the gate at the broad space beyond, and Anna strained to see what lay past.

“What am I looking at?” she asked uncertainly.

“You are looking at where unwanted Versions go,” Adam replied.

Anna swallowed and looked.

“We pay HomoGen to produce them because they must keep producing to keep up, but when we cannot find a family to put them with and can't find a training center space for them they have to go somewhere. So we bring them here.”

Anna stared with mounting horror as she saw, past the fence, a crowd of dark figures moving through the street, coming and going from the doors of the row homes on either side. They prowled like animals, lost feral creatures scavenging for food and garbage. Fires burned here and there in barrels and huddled forms sat around them motionlessly. Unnerving human noises and a horrible stench wafted to the truck and Anna grimaced.

“What is that smell?” she asked.

“Most likely cremating another body,” Adam answered. “They do it sometimes.” He looked at Anna. “This is part of what you and I must work to end.”

Anna glanced over at him briefly. Her anger still remained, but it was not directed at the Secretary anymore. It felt now as if she had been lied to by everyone except him. She nodded in blank agreement and looked back out through the gate.

One of the figures around the closest fire looked up and Anna could barely make out a face: a white, scared, and enraged face. He stood, pointed at the convoy and shouted something. Soon the crowd around the fire stood and shouted with him, and they and the rest of the aimless creatures began to approach threateningly. The slow advance quickly gained speed and anger and the crowd surged towards the gate in a fearsome mob.

Despite the metal bars between the convoy and the Versions, fear rose up in Anna's throat and she tried to say something but it never emerged. The Secretary grabbed her arm and pulled her back from the window. “You may not want to watch this part,” he said curtly. All her thoughts were then cut off by a brilliant flash from her left accompanied by a deafening roar of gunfire.

The autotank had opened fire, its huge Gatling guns buzzing and sending a stream of fiery tracer rounds through the gaps in the gate. Before Adam managed to pull her back from the window completely Anna caught a brief glimpse of shredding bodies and spraying blood. Her mind went blank; she turned away, covered her ears and closed her eyes. The gunfire continued for what seemed an eternity, then abruptly ceased.

Anna waited until the echo reverberated into nothingness before she would open her eyes and ears again. When she did she heard a new sound: howls of agony and despair piercing the air from behind the gate. She didn't dare look, but she couldn't help but listen. A horrible haunting sound, it rose in pitch and volume as the seconds ticked by. Vaguely she saw the Secretary order their driver to take them back to the Central Admin complex. She felt the vehicle pull from the gate and speed away from the agony and horror.

A numbness overtook her, a different numbness from that induced by alcohol. This was a raw, aching kind of numb, punctuated by that brief image of violent death. She felt rather than knew that the effects of the wine protected her mind from the worst of what she had seen. Her hands shook all the same and the queasiness from earlier returned.

They arrived back at the parking garage and Anna noticed they stopped right next to her car. She climbed out of the truck and Adam followed her. He turned to face her, leaning hard on his cane.

“I hope you will be more inclined to believe me in the future,” he said.

Anna nodded wordlessly.

“Here is your firearm,” he added, handing her the gun that she had left with the guards outside his office. “You must choose, Anna. Choose whether or not to help me fix this problem, or to let it fester like it does now. And I hope you say yes, because I have never handled rejection particularly well. I have a plan, but it requires you.”

The last words he delivered in a darker tone and a chill shook Anna. “What will I have to do?” she whispered.

“I can only tell you that when you say yes.”

Before she could reply he waved to her car. “Do not take too much time to decide. Every second we lose is gone forever.” With that, he turned on his heel and stalked off, surrounded by his men.

Dazed, she climbed into her car and programmed it to autodrive home. Her head still spun a bit from the wine and the trip, and she did not trust her own instincts to get her home in one piece. She turned her music on and set it to as high a volume as she could bear, just to prevent deep thought on the way home.

It seemed ages until she rounded the bend into her own street and swung into her own driveway. She shut the car off and the sudden absence of music lent the world an especially poignant sense of hollowness. Gritting her teeth, she made her slightly unsteady way up to her front door and fumbled for the correct key. She wanted her bed, and she wanted it now.

Then she stopped, and listened.

The man who lived on the opposite side of her from Mr. Vickers owned a dog, but a quiet dog that rarely barked at anyone unless a new car passed by. Now, however, all she heard from next door was incessant, urgent barking. An eerie and uncommon sound.

All the hairs on her neck and arms stood up and she froze, her key in the lock but not turned yet. Probably just paranoia, alcohol induced. She turned the key and the knob, but instead of entering right away she instead pushed the door open and stepped back. It swung inward as it was supposed to, revealing the empty and dark interior. Breathing a partial sigh of relief, she reached around and flipped the entryway light switch on. The light flickered on and showed nothing amiss.

Then she saw it: the panel opposite the door that housed her home security system control box. The LED on the panel blinked green. Wasn't it supposed to be a solid green? Had she forgotten to set the alarm this morning? Unlikely . . .

Without thinking she drew her gun and entered the doorway, pushing the door closed behind her. It shut with a loud bang and she jumped. She flicked the safety on the gun to the “off” position and rounded the corner into the living room.

All normal there too. She turned on a table lamp and, with the gun pointed steadily forward, she made her way towards the kitchen. All seemed well in there too, but she decided to look in briefly just to make sure. She took a tentative step through the kitchen archway.

She never saw where the first blow came from but it landed on the top of her arm with such crushing force that the entire limb spasmed and went completely numb. Another blow simultaneously struck the gun from her hand and she vaguely felt her entire arm being wrenched around and behind her back. A third strike landed like a load of bricks on the backs of her knees and they caved in, sending her into a kneeling position on the floor. Hot breath whistled past her head as sudden pain washed over her entire body. Another hand held her shoulder in a powerful grip.

“Do not make a noise or I swear I will kill you,” a man's voice grunted flatly into her ear.

Click here to read Chapter Eleven!