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!