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Click these links to go directly to the Chapters, or read straight through. To Get The Book or to read the Awards and Reviews section, you can use the links in the column to the right.
Prologue
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5

DUSK BEFORE THE DAWN by Larry Ketchersid
Copyright 2006
Prologue

Julius looked down from his high perch atop El Templo del Gran Jaguar, gazing at all of the people who were trampling this sacred place of his ancestors. He did not begrudge them their curiosity; in fact, he welcomed it. But he wondered if any of them had a sense of impending events, events that his people had been holding vigils for atop this Mayan temple. He wondered if any of them would believe, or even could.

The sun blazed down on the temples at Tikal, punishing those visitors who had failed to plan around Guatemala’s torrid afternoons. Everyone, from Japanese tourists covered head to toe in cotton including starkly white gloves, to Guatemalan locals sporting American vendor logo T-shirts, sought out the shade or the water vendors or both.

Local guides, identifiable by their large brimmed jungle hats and loose fitting khaki clothes, shepherded the sweaty citizens of many nations, describing as best they could in the tourists local language the geometric precision and spiritual beauty engendered by the Great Plaza, the Plaza of the Seven Temples, and other rebuilt or partially uncovered structures at Tikal. All of the tourists had different reasons for coming, for making this out of the way journey. Tikal is not a ‘drop-in’ tourist attraction; visitors must want to come here, or be pulled here. The nearest community of any size, the dual towns of Santa Elena and Flores, Guatemala, has an airstrip short enough to make even the most seasoned flyers pray as they glide toward it over the lake, over Lago Peten Itza. There were multi-hour bus rides from cruise ships docked in Belize City ports, hikers, and people from neighboring countries like Mexico who had driven by car.

But few of these interlopers were not taken with the place, for one reason or another.

We started our tour at El Templo de la Serpiente Bicefálica, where everyone goes to watch the sunrise, the guides would all intone. But here, at the Great Plaza, was the center of Mayan life where all important civic and spiritual events took place. The main city, the Central Acropolis, is to the right, the North Acropolis to the left, with El Templo del Gran Jaguar and El Templo de Las Mascaras on either end. Notice how El Templo del Gran Jaguar has thirteen levels, six on each side plus the pinnacle, equating to the thirteen heavens, of the Mayan philosophy.

Thirteen heavens? a righteous usually American tourist would always exclaim. There’s only one heaven where I’m from.

Heads in the crowd would nod in agreement. Others would shake their heads, in silent disgust of the impending religious discussion.

The Mayans believed the path to any heaven, including heaven on earth, lay through enlightenment, the guides would always respond, as do many of the world’s other philosophies and religions. The thirteen heavens correspond to thirteen steps or plateaus on the evolution to an enlightened state.

Usually, in any tour group, there would be some caterwauling about unsophisticated heathens with pagan beliefs. Some of the guides would respond with footnotes of interest concerning Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormon or Hopi Indian beliefs that parallel the Mayan. For instance, some would point out that modern Mormon temples had similar structures to the Mayan. Other guides would remain silent amongst the grumblings of the tourists, safe and protected in their own knowledge and beliefs.

If the Mayans were powerful enough to build these things, why were they destroyed? someone would ask.

Mayans are not extinct, the guides would reply. I am a Mayan, my family and the people of my village are Mayans. We still practice many of the old ways.

The tourists would look at them, unimpressed.

If you were talking about the ancient Mayans from the 9th century, the guides would say somewhat resignedly, there are many theories.

Well, what do you think?

The ancient Mayans were actually many kingdoms, so there was probably no one reason. What we do know is that the rulers of each kingdom were considered divine and all powerful, responsible for everything that happened in their kingdom. Some believe they controlled their worlds through ‘magic’, influencing the gods to bring prosperity for their people. When they stopped focusing on the world, and their people, and started focusing on themselves, the people suffered, probably through disease, drought. They overthrew their rulers, ran them off, or died out while their rulers were preoccupied, probably with deeper studies of this ‘magic’.

On this day, one new question was consistently put to the tour guides:

What are those people doing up there on the Jaguar Temple?

The questioner would point to the opening at the top of El Templo del Gran Jaguar, where a small group of people sat, unmoving.

All of the tour guides, being from the surrounding towns and villages, knew what the people were doing, and some were envious, desiring to be up there with their brethren, rather than down here with visitors.

None would tell the tourists the true purpose of the group. Research, most would say. A local Mayan ceremony, others would say, a comment that casually hinted at the truth.

Can we go up there? the visitors would always ask, though they already expected the negative answer.

Not without permission from Julius, the guides would think.

Julian Rodriguez, known to everyone as Julius, closed his eyes, suspending his observation of the tour groups from his perch atop the temple. Usually calm, he was even more so after the groups’ morning meditation in this sacred place. They had kept vigil in that small but spiritual place for almost a month now. Through assistance from his friends who were the keepers of Tikal National Park, Julius had managed to secure access without the bothersome queries of government officials, whom he doubted would be sympathetic to their actions.

His group on the temple numbered thirteen, an exactness of interpretation Julius did not subscribe to, but tolerated. The count had been insisted on by the village shaman and elders. Exactness of interpretation was one of the main topics Julius differed on with the shaman and the elders, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Julius characterized all of their arguments under the guise of the shaman’s narrow mindedness. Most attributed these conflicts to Julius’ time away from home, studying and obtaining college degrees in the United States; others knew it was because of the multi-perspective way Julius examined each angle of an idea before weighing in with an opinion. Julius often cited the irony of the fact that his sojourn to the United States was encouraged and partially funded by the same people who blamed his rebellious nature on it. In his opinion, the experience had been quite necessary, given the different viewpoints on ancient history, philosophy, religion, even current events that he had found on the two college campuses he had attended.

Every few years, the village would select a member to get a separate education, something radically different than the regimented teachings of the normal village schools. Julius and the current Shaman had been schoolboy rivals for the position, years ago. Shaman candidates were a separate pool, kept somewhat ‘pure’, building a natural rivalry against the kids considered more ‘open minded’, where Julius had been a natural and leading candidate. Winning the position, he had left the influence of the village and the Shaman for several years, studying Western and Eastern philosophy and culture, and getting a glimpse of American perspective.

Upon Julius’ return from the States, it was obvious to all that he had become more liberal with his thinking, while the Shaman had stayed conservatively close to the roots.

The rationale for the groups’ vigil on top of the temple was at least a point of agreement for them all, though their motivations were skewed. The Shaman had interpreted the Tzolkin, the ancient Mayan calendar, in the same manner it had been interpreted for years, and had pointed to a cycle change, the end of the old cycle and beginning of the new. Cycle changes always bring important events, he had vaguely told the council, events we must be ready to observe and interpret.

The Shaman was also the groups ‘daykeeper’, responsible for keeping and translating the two major calendars, the Tzolkin and the Haab. The Tzolkin was the spiritual calendar, filled with cycles, with the base cycle being thirteen days. The days are counted with thirteen numbers in parallel with twenty different signs, giving a 260-day cycle. This cycle paralleled many spiritual time intervals, like the gestation of humans, the time between planting and harvesting, and some astronomical cycles. The Haab was based on a 360-day cycle. The integration of these two calendars gave a cycle of more than 52 solar years. The longest cycle is over 5,000 years.

These ancient calendars astounded modern-day scientists with their accuracy, depicting the equinox, solstice and other events with pinpoint regularity.

Julius had observed the daykeeper, and his interactions with the council. Each cycle change, not matter how small, was an excuse for the Shaman to address the council. He used the cycles for power, Julius had thought, for influence, not for what they were meant for.

Julius knew, based on his research of his own Mayan heritage, including the Tzolkin, and his college studies of other similar philosophies that some major event was imminent, but that the date could not be exactly predicted. To assume so would be presumptuous, stating that one of the ancient races was wrong while others were correct. Julius preferred to view this as an error of correction in interpretation or translation, as opposed to viewing it with a single-minded prejudice.

The date indicated by the Shaman had come and gone, but Julius had convinced the group to extend its stay. The Shaman was simultaneously grateful and vindictive, uncertain how to react to having his reputation partially salvaged by one whom he saw as a rival. Julius cared not, wanting simply to continue to be there, to be meditating together at the right moment.

At his insistence, some of the members of the group were also members of his special class at the local school, where Julius taught. While they were taught reading and writing, Julius also ensured that they were taught ancient and modern history, plus activities classes on how to meditate, how to understand and then later control their minds. This followed his personal interpretation of enlightenment, and the path to reach it…another topic he and the shaman disagreed upon. The Shaman would follow the Tzolkin blindly, watching the calendar, never thinking to influence reality.

Julius enjoyed the meditation, especially the morning session before the sun had crested the horizon, reveling in the heightened awareness he felt through the group. After many classes together, he and the students had settled into a rhythm, even in meditation. Some of the students even believed they could ‘feel’ the others when they meditated, something Julius had thought was beyond their experience.

As the tourists continued to sweat below, Julius and his group meditated, and waited.

* * *

Joseph Davis swam leisurely in the water, staying within easy reach of his daughters. Susan, his oldest, had gotten to be a good swimmer, but she was still only seven. His youngest, Anna, could float well, but still needed the blow up floats cinched up on her still chubby five-year old arms. They would both sleep well tonight, he thought, exhausted from their exertions.

He’d always had that dream of flying, when he was a kid, of jumping off of the concrete garden wall in front of his house and floating up into the sky at will, seeing his house shrink far below him, feeling the energy within him fight against and negate gravity. It had always felt so real. Swimming was the only activity that came close to that imagined feeling. The water felt cool against his skin, and, as he was a large man, he occasionally touched bottom, temporarily thwarting the feel of flying. It was smooth for the most part, although previous encounters with jagged cans or broken bottles had made him habitually put water socks on himself and his daughters. The sun had burned a little of the smog away, so while it wasn’t one of those rare clear blue sky days and the tops of the skyscrapers in the distant city were shrouded in haze, it was pleasant enough. He was away from work, and with his family, and those two things made any day pleasant. There weren’t that many places like this where you could swim anymore, like there had been when he was a kid. Most of the swimming holes he remembered his Dad taking him to were either taken over by subdivisions or too polluted to swim in.

His wife was on the shore at the picnic table they had claimed, nose in a book as usual, soaking up what little sunshine was to be captured, and occasionally looking up to wave at him and the girls. A Saturday off for both of them was rare these days. Joseph enjoyed his job at the hospital; it was challenging and fresh everyday. But he worked for his family, he didn’t live to work. They were his life. As he had been raised, as his father before him, he would never let his family down.

Joseph’s job at the hospital was important to him. As his mama always used to tell him, he was the first in the family to get that far without following his father through the military, as his other siblings had. Although she was proud of his father and his other siblings, he got the feeling that she would rather they pursue a safer course, especially after his older brother had been injured in combat.

To Joseph, being a medical technician wasn’t getting that far…even though the medical complex where he worked was one of the best in the world, there were several people at the hospital, nurses and doctors particularly, who had gotten further than he. But he had worked hard for his job, had studied until he knew every piece of equipment, what it was meant for, what it was supposed to do versus what it really did, and how to get the most out of it.

He glanced a few slots over on shore, and saw the old man practicing his martial arts in the park. Joseph had seen Master Yang many times in the park, sometimes with students and had stopped to speak with him. Learning a martial art was something Joseph had always wanted to do, but he had never prioritized it over his time with the family. His father had learned a form of Korean Karate while in the military, and practiced often, even showing Joseph and his brother some staff weapon combinations. His father had taught Joseph that discipline was a good trait, not a punishment. Joseph saw this same discipline in Master Yang’s movements, the discipline that comes from rigorous and persistent training, from thoughtful not mindless repetitions. The little he had learned from the brief conversations with Master Yang had whet his appetite, and he had asked Master Yang where he taught.

I no longer take students, Mr. Davis, the old man had said.

Oh. Well, sir, can you recommend a school, or an instructor?

All of the instructors I have had are in China. I personally have not taken on any new students for a very long time. He paused, scrutinizing Joseph, to the point where Joseph thought he could feel pinpricks where the man looked him up and down. He’d had people take his measure before, but never quite that intently. But if you give me a way to contact you, I will keep my eyes open for a suitable instructor.

Joseph had given him all of his contact information, and had thanked him, but still had not heard from him. The man was pleasant enough about it, but it all seemed quite formal and secret to Joseph…especially when he had observed Master Yang in the park before with a very small class, and sometimes just one young lady. Joseph actually found himself envious of the female student, one on one with a Master.

Watching him, with the slow, flowing, effortless movements, arms, legs, all synchronized, made Joseph serene…even though he was not the one performing the exercise. Maybe, one day, he thought.

Daddy, I think Anna need help. She can’t swim like me, Susan said.

Joseph glanced over to his youngest daughter. A second ago, she was smiling and splashing. She now looked lethargic, like she was ready for a nap. Her head was starting to droop forward, and her eye lids were fluttering.

Anna, swim to me, sweetie.

Anna did not answer. Joseph was at her side in two quick strokes, and had his arm around her chest. His daughter didn’t look at him, appearing to have fallen asleep. How does one fall asleep while swimming, he wondered?

Susan, start swimming to shore, please

Aw, Daddy, just take Anna back. I’m a big girl, I can swim by myself.

Susie, dear, just do as you are told, please.

Susan started swimming for shore, and Joseph was right behind her, Anna in tow. His wife had noticed something going wrong, and was standing on the shore waiting for them. They had stayed close to shore since Anna was still learning to swim, so they were on the small beach quickly.

As Susan waded out of the water, she staggered. Her mother caught her, as Susan too seemingly fell asleep in the knee-deep surf.

Joseph, what is wrong with them? Are they just tired?

No, it’s something else, like a virus maybe. Kids don’t just fall asleep while swimming. And I can’t wake Anna.

Joseph had lain Anna down on the beach, and was pulling back her eyelids to peer into her pupils. She was breathing, but unresponsive. His wife knelt next to Susan, rubbing the child’s arms to warm her up. Her panic rising, she tilted the child’s head back, and started to apply CPR.

You do not need to do that, ma’am. The child’s chest is moving, she is still breathing.

Joseph looked up, and saw Master Yang standing there.

Mr. Davis, is there anything I can do to help?

Something is wrong with my daughters. I need to get them to the hospital. Can you help my wife and I get them to my car?

Yes, of course, Master Yang said.

Joseph picked up Anna, as Master Yang scoped Susan up in his arms. They hurried toward the parking lot behind the picnic tables, Joseph’s wife trailing close behind them.

The sound of a loud boat motor caused Joseph to turn his head back toward the lake as he hurried. Boats were not allowed in this part of the lake, as it was the swimming area, but this one was moving toward the shore at top speed. Joseph watched detachedly as the boat continued coming, not slowing. It hit the shoreline and flipped up, crashing into some trees and picnic tables that lined that part of the lake. At least two people inside the boat were thrown from it as it spun.

Oh my God! Joseph’s wife exclaimed.

They continued their frantic rush and reached the car. Joseph’s wife got into the back seat, and Joseph and Master Yang put one child on either side of her, so that she could hold them up. Joseph shut the doors, and quickly hurried around to the driver’s door. He jumped in, started the car, and put it into gear.

Good luck, sir. I hope they are all right, he heard Master Yang say. I will see if I can be of any assistance to the people in the boat.

Thanks for the help, Joseph hollered over the engine noise, backed the car up, and sped out of the park.

There was a hospital close by, but the hospital where Joseph worked was not far away, and he trusted his own people. Strangely, the traffic was light. Joseph noticed some cars pulled over to the side of the road as he sped up the Interstate, and more than a few fender benders. Part of Joseph’s mind thought how unique this was, that the legendary city congestion on the weekends was always terrible going in and out of town. The rest of Joseph’s mind was overwhelmed by his desperate need to get his family to the safety of his hospital. He thought he saw people sprawled in cars pulled over to the side of the road, but he had no cognition of it, his focus completely on his family.

Joseph raced down the road, glancing repeatedly into the rear view mirror, to see if there was any change in the girls. As he neared the hospital, he noticed his wife’s eyelids flickering, her head nodding.

Honey? Honey? What’s wrong? Stay with me!!

He was starting to feel woozy himself, as he pulled into the emergency lane at the hospital. There were several other cars there, some of them with people hanging out of wide open doors, apparently passed out in the act of exiting the car. There was one man he had seen hanging around the hospital, begging for food and carrying around a placard that said Armageddon Is Coming. On more than one occasion, Joseph had taken the man inside for a hot meal at the hospital cafeteria. But now, both the man and his sign were flat on the ground. He promised himself to come back for the man once his family was safe.

His wife had completely passed out now, being propped up by an unconscious daughter on either side. With a great exertion, Joseph got himself out of the car, and staggered through the door in the emergency room. He was cold and shivering now, still in only his swimsuit.

Help me! My wife! My daughters! They need help!

People were sprawled everywhere, hospital staff and civilians, seemingly asleep on the floors, on the desks, everywhere. Not one person was moving. But they all seemed to be breathing, the steady rhythms of their chests moving up and down. There was some blood, but it seemed to be on wounds created when they fell, bloody lips and busted chins.

Joseph’s first rationalization of this scene was a terrorist attack. Or maybe a plague?

A doctor Joseph had never met walked up, hands behind his back. Joseph was losing focus in his vision, and he fell to his knees, as he lost his remaining energy. Desperation and agony for his daughters pushed one more plea from him.

My name is Joseph Davis. I work here. Please help me, help my family! Where’s Dr. Ross? Where’s Dr. Finley?

The doctor leaned over Joseph, a syringe in one hand.

What do you do here?

What? I’m a technician, I take care of the medical equipment, Joseph mumbled. What the hell are you asking me that for?

Because I needed to know, before giving you this.

Joseph felt more than saw the syringe enter his upper arm. He slipped into unconsciousness, silently screaming for his family.

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Chapter 1

Janet woke up coughing, her throat dry. Her allergies normally had her sneezing in the morning, but she had remembered going to bed feeling quite clear headed, mentally and physically. A good day in the lab, even with its myriad scents and odors and the occasional passionate argument, it always left her with that feeling of mental clarity. Just as a sour day in the lab left her feeling clouded and crabby, like she’d been staring down her nano-scope, trying to track her micron-sized nanobots, but only seeing fuzzy squiggly lines for hours, not finding what she wanted.

She felt for the glass of water without opening her eyes. She always kept one beside her bed, plastic, almost moldy, probably in need of retirement or at least a good washing. She sometimes thought about programming a group of her bots to keep her glass clean and spotless, but this was well down her current priority list. She liked to keep her eyes closed as long as possible. Sometimes she paid for that with a wet spot on the carpet, which she couldn’t blame on the dog; though, in actuality, you could blame anything on the dog, and Janet often did. She had gone to great lengths to memorize where everything was in her room, how many steps she could take from the bed before hitting the dresser, turn right, walk another few steps into the bathroom….all just to keep her eyes shut a few precious moments longer.

Her hand wasn’t finding the water, or anything else for that matter. Janet sighed, long and deep, a sigh of resignation that she was going to in the very near future have to open her eyes and end the sleep she so thoroughly enjoyed. Her eyes opened up to a bright haze, like looking into a fog with a car headlight coming right toward you. She tried to blink her eyes, but they were dry. Her hand wouldn’t move to find the water glass, and it wouldn’t move now to rub her eyes.

Just what the hell was going on?

She closed her eyes again, and willed herself to focus. Master Yang’s words came to her easily, as she had repeated them to herself almost as many times as he had said them to her. The years of studying and training with him always paid off, the relaxation chant had become so much a part of her routine that she no longer heard the words. But she did feel their effects.

She managed to move her eyelids a few times, and the haze began to clear slightly. She found she truly was looking into a headlight, or at least a very bright spotlight above her. She closed her eyes again, avoiding the bright light, and searched her memory.

She remembered leaving the lab around midnight, and getting to bed around 12:30am. The lab…her second home….sometimes her first. Her assistants had left at a more reasonable hour, if 10:00pm could be considered a reasonable quitting time. But she was close or at least thought she was. She had been among the first to achieve nanobot self-replication, her graduate thesis subject and then her life. She was so all-consumed with the project at her graduate school that one of her many potential suitors had nicknamed her ‘geek girl’, after she had missed yet another date and turned him into just another potential suitor.

There was still government approval to get through, but that was the lawyers’ problem, not hers (though she’d had to testify before the US Congress, some EU committees and the Chinese government). There were a multitude of solutions for environmental problems that required nanobots that were somewhat self-aware, and could modify their responses based on observation. Her current funding was for water pollution control and clean-up, saltwater and fresh. There was more need for solutions like hers everyday, as businesses and individuals managed to create new and inventive ways to spill, dump, drain or otherwise mix an amazing variety and size of contaminants in the Earth’s oceans, rivers and lakes. As demand for the sea’s natural resources for feeding the ever-growing populace had increased, followed by corporate-backed solutions for harvesting these resources, it was ever easier for Janet to not only find funding and sponsors, but to find herself pushed almost as hard by the impatient corporations as she pushed herself.

The ‘self-aware’ nanobot’s functionality scared many people…so-called ethisicists, laymen, especially the government. ‘Self-aware means alive, and alive means dangerous’, their argument went. In spite of this, she could see no way around it. The constant changes being inflicted upon the environment were ever evolving, and needed programmed flexibility to be dealt with. While most of the world’s governments had outlawed nanomedicine self-replication (replication of bots inside of humans), these same governments were of course interested in the military applications of a self-replicating, flexibly programmed bot.

But each one of her new replicants would not last longer than a few minutes. Reprogramming took more than a day each time; it wasn’t like hacking through C++ code like in college. You can’t flowchart life was one of the phrases (one of the ‘many’ phrases, they would say) her assistants tired of hearing her recite at them. But somewhere in the programming there was a hole, maybe even a good ole logic error, some event that wasn’t anticipated. They had already programmed responses to 50 standard events, and fuzzy logic to deal with thousands of variations on those events. She was running the code through her symbolic debugger last night, and thought she was on to it. But she had run out of gas, and headed home, feeding the dog, and setting her alarm early, so she could get one Taijiquan class with Master Yang in before returning to the lab.

Taijiquan, the one hobby she would make time for, the one activity that put her at ease. She had tried multiple activities for stress and exercise…yoga, spinning classes, marathon runs, even kickboxing for a while. But she was left physically exhausted, not rejuvenated, tired and still distracted by the day’s experiments, successes and failures. With Taijiquan, she had to focus all of her thoughts on the movements, on what each piece of her body was doing, on all facets of her existence at that point in time. It left no room for other intrusions into her mind. And it left her calm, and ready for the next day’s grueling efforts.

She was one of those that supposedly loved the outdoors but never got there. When Master Yang held Taijiquan classes outside, it was an epiphany for her, the concentration commingled with the fresh air and the feel of the real world around her. She often listened for sounds within her environment, but that environment usually turned out to be the nice quiet unnatural laboratory where she so passionately spent her life. She found that even though she was enclosed by man-made objects, she could still feel…something.

A noise of movement, and she turned her head toward it, assuming it was Max coming to give his normal good morning feed me take me outside greeting. Max had been rescued from the dog pound years ago; he didn’t like men, apparently having been abused by his previous male owner and now acted like he owed Janet something. She opened her eyes to a squint, this time avoiding what must have been the Sun through a carelessly open curtain, and looked toward where her bedroom door should be, expecting to see Max wagging tail and tongue.

Instead, her eyes took in a steel and sterile room. A metal tray with tools laying in imperfect rows, a silver pole with a plastic bag with various tubes coming out of it and into her arm. An IV, she thought? Other medical equipment caught her eye, some she recognized, like the defibrillator; others looked like equipment she might have had in her own lab. Above her, she thought she could see the night sky. But her eyes focused as someone moved the light, and she could see windows, with people intently staring down at her.

Miss Grayson, can you hear me?

She tried to move her eyes toward the voice, but it was behind her, though she tried to strain her neck to peer behind her. She tried to speak, but only a gurgle came out.

Your throat will be quite parched, making speech difficult. Here, have some water.

A person in a surgical mask and medical scrubs came to her side. In that annoying garb, she was unable to tell if it was male or female. But she was grateful as they lifted her head up, and put a glass of water to her lips. She drank ravenously, only then realizing the depth of her thirst, as if she had been wandering a desert for hours.

Thank you, she managed in a whisper, after draining the glass. Where am I?

You are in a hospital in the Medical Center. Please don’t be alarmed, you’re fine now. You are in good hands.

What happened to me? A hundred possibilities rushed through her mind, things that could have happened to her while she slept that would have put her into the hospital. A gas leak in her house? An intruder? She focused, calmed herself, and steeled herself for the answer.

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Chapter 2

Master Yang awoke, instantly alert. His breathing, regulated for sleep and rest, changed slightly to adjust for the needs of being awake. The change in breathing from normal abdominal to reverse abdominal breathing came naturally, through years of practice.

He swung his legs off the cot, and sat up. His eyes adjusted to the light streaming in from the open window. The room was simple, with a small wooden dresser, cushions in the corner, and a well-used recliner surrounding the cot. The cot was similar to the one he had slept in while growing up and training near his ancestral home. He had been told many times that he should trade it in for a softer bed. Though no one could see it, Master Yang could feel that he was getting old. His regimen had kept the effects of aging at bay for many years. But not even that could hold back time forever.

It wasn’t time for that new bed just yet, he thought.

He went through the sliding door from his bedroom to his outside garden. Seating himself, facing south, he started his morning meditation, finding his center, circulating his Qi. As he had all his life, he directed the Qi flow, through the channels of his body, from the reservoirs where he nurtured and stored it.

He had been raised with the knowledge of Qi, and thought it normal, something as common as your breath. When he had moved to the States from his native China, he was quite surprised to find a lack of knowledge and acceptance of Qi among the Westerners. When he explained that it had been studied for thousands of years in China, most of them brushed it off, assuming that it was the blood stream, nervous system or something else misinterpreted by Chinese doctors.

His Western students were soon re-educated.

As his mind led the flow, he cleansed the Qi, made it pure and his own once again. In recent time, he had begun detecting something foreign, something he now referred to as impurities, the invaders in his body. At first he thought he might be feeling cancerous cells, but they were too pervasive, not localized. He knew it wasn’t old age, but they weren’t a part of him, so they were washed away in the cleansing process.

He also said his daily hello to the others. He had begun to sense them at the same time as the impurities had invaded his body, and, initially, he had thought that they were one and the same. But he had come to realize that they were different, and that the others were sentient. He assumed they were people, but he did not know who they were. Tradition demanded that upon encountering a person with observable skill, be it martial energy, spiritual energy or a combination of both, that respect be shown. Therefore, each morning, he politely recognized these unknown others.

Time passed quickly for him, and, as usual, when he brought himself out of his meditative state more than half an hour had passed, and the sun had moved a hands breadth above the horizon.

He heard Joseph stirring in the kitchen, making the morning tea. Joseph had been with him ever since the events that had taken his wife and daughters from him. He truly had stopped accepting new students long ago, making exceptions only for students in whom he could sense unique potential. But given the circumstances, he had accepted Joseph when the young man had presented himself and asked in the appropriate respectful manner.

He began to go through the steps, walking through the motions and the movements of the Taijiquan form. Even though recently awakened, and having sat unmoving for a long while, his body moved fluidly, efficiently. A person watching might imagine a sheet billowing in the breeze on a clothesline, moving in the same direction while retaining shape. A knowledgeable person watching would see a dynamic controlled energy, changing direction at Master Yang’s will. His mind led the Qi, the energy inside, to flow in exact parallel with his movements.

He finished the final steps. Stepping over to the simple basin, he washed his face and hands, toweled off, and went into the kitchen for his morning tea.

Good morning, Master, Joseph bowed. Master Yang returned the bow, suppressing a smile as he did. Though he had seen this vision hundreds of times, the sight a man of Joseph’s size and stature wearing an apron that said kiss the cook and bowing so seriously never ceased to remind him of lighter times.

Morning, Joseph. Master Yang sat at the table, as Joseph poured his tea.

They have awakened the girl.

Master Yang sipped his tea, enjoying the warmth as it flowed into his body, heating up his throat, absorbed by his hands. The news was not unexpected, nor the timing.

She is well?

She’s still recovering from her long slumber, Master.

Master Yang motioned to the vacant chair. Please sit, Joseph. Have some tea. Tell me of your progress this morning.

Joseph sat, eyes averted, body language showing his self-frustration. He had been a proud and angry man when he had first come to Master Yang, and, though he had learned humility through time and through hard lessons, his past ego came out of hiding whenever his experience plateued.

Shouldn’t we talk about the girl, Master?

In time, Joseph. Those events will unfold as they will. My interest is with you. Please, your internal reflections are as important to me as well as to your training.

Joseph sighed. My internal reflections are sometimes that this was just never meant to be for me. That maybe there’s something about me that isn’t right, isn’t suited for this.

Humility and honesty are key virtues, Joseph. But self-doubt is not. When a student comes to me, I do not look at where they came from, or where they have been. I am unconcerned with whether they work in a field or a building, or whether they were raised by one parent or two. I look at the person, and determine if there is truly a student inside. As I did with you.

Joseph looked at Master Yang, and smiled. Respectfully, sir, at first you told me you weren’t taking any new students. I believe you tell me that same lesson in a different way at least once a month.

Master Yang smiled back. Respectfully, my student, that is how one teaches. Now, your reflections.

Joseph’s brow furrowed as he took a deep breath, then exhaled. It’s like I come to a door, a door that I’m supposed to open. I turn the handle, and it’s locked. I push on the door, and it won’t open. I lean on the door, it won’t budge. I use all of my training, and begin to beat the crap out of the door. But no marks, no dents, no budging.

Interesting metaphors, Joseph. But there really are no doors, are there?

But isn’t the training that you are trying to get me to grasp quite metaphorical? I have been taught there is an energy in my body called Qi. I cannot see it, but I can feel it. And, yes sir, just like the wind, an analogy you have used several times. You’ve taught me to build up my internal energy, to circulate it, to feel it during my training. Since I can’t see it, it helps me to use metaphors to visualize my goals.

A slight smile crossed Master Yang’s face. Goal visualization? Like star basketball players do before they shoot free throws? Using the Western paradigm of ‘goal visualization’ to gain control of an Eastern energy concept is very innovative, my student.

Master, I believe you’re making fun of me…especially when you include yet another basketball analogy.

They shared a laugh. Master Yang’s obsession with the very American sport of basketball, and his constant attempts to integrate them with old Chinese proverbs, was a continuing source of needed amusement for both of them.

On the contrary, Joseph. I believe you are getting quite close to yet another breakthrough in your understanding.

Joseph frustration returned quickly. But Master Yang, why is it always so hard? All the work you and I have done, every step is a struggle for me. It makes me feel weak, or slow…or dumb.

Joseph, we established long ago that you are not dumb. I could recite back to you a Western colloquialism that says something about anything worth having requires hard work. But I am not sure that is true. I have been developing my own theorem. Would you like to hear it?

Of course, Master.

Master Yang leaned back in his chair. Based on my observations, I now believe that some people are born with an inherent and natural ability to sense their Qi, and other peoples Qi, with little or no training at all. They may not know what it is that they feel, but they can feel something. They feel energy, they feel power within. And people are drawn to this power. That is why some people seem to have accomplishments and feats come easy to them, or at least appear that way to other people.

Here, he paused, and focused intently on Joseph. The rest of the people cannot sense this energy, without training and tutelage of a knowledgeable instructor. These people can become just as attuned as the ‘natural-borns’….probably even more so, since they must always work and practice on this. But it does not make them any less of a human because they have to work for it. The simple fact is that some people have to work for it and some do not.

Joseph closed his eyes, and said nothing for several moments. He may have appeared to be asleep to someone unfamiliar with his mannerisms. After a time, he opened his eyes, and looked at his Master.

Master, thank you for that lesson. It is a phenomenon that has happened to many people concerning many different talents in my life. Some seem born to the task; others start out hopeless at it; and still others have worked themselves up to a level of proficiency.

You, Joseph, are quite close to working yourself up to a level of proficiency, Master Yang said. And very soon, you will meet one of my other pupils, who had to work at many things, but did not have to push hard to feel her Qi. You will help her along her path, as she will assist you with yours.

I assume you’re referring to Miss Grayson, the young lady recently awakened?

Yes.

It appears that everyone believes she’s special in some way, Joseph said.

Master Yang smiled.

Except for, perhaps, the young lady herself.

Get The Book

Chapter 3

Why am I strapped down?

It’s purely a precaution, Ms. Grayson. Sudden movements could cause damage that would leave you immobile for a while.

Why can’t you just tell me what has happened to me?

I’ll leave that to the Doctor, ma’am.

I thought you were the doctor.

Janet noticed the brief flicker in his eyes, something that almost looked like fear. Then the prototypical doctor/patient face was back in place, with a sympathetic-but-not-too-sympathetic smile. He made a notation on her chart, then continued looking at the monitor.

Have my parents or any of my friends been here to see me?

Again, Janet detected a crack in the doctor’s mask. I wouldn’t know, Ms. Grayson. Best to ask the Doctor when he next makes his rounds.

Since the last time she had awakened, the grogginess had faded, and Janet had begun to regain some feeling in her arms, legs and back. She’d overheard some of the interns calling the process resuming. The procedure included nurses contracting and extending the muscles in her arms, legs, neck, hands, feet; constant massages or electric muscle stimulation when a nurse was not around; and, of course, feeding, nourishment and supplements through an IV. It had been a painful experience, with the pin prickly feeling that you get when you arm has been asleep and the circulation returned, except these feelings were all over her body. The detached part of her realized that it felt amazingly like tracking her Qi, as Master Yang had been working with her on during class.

As a scientist, of course she had been quite skeptical that there even was such a thing as Qi, an alternate circulation of energy that Western scientists had not been able to detect or measure, yet Chinese doctors and herbalists had known about for thousands of years.

But then she had felt it herself. It was in her second or third week of class. She had actually been ready to quit, about to move on to the next ‘activity du jour’, to find something else guaranteed to help balance out the stress. Master Yang appeared to notice her frustration. He then had the class assume a simple stance and posture, explaining while they held the stance that one leg was straight to enhance rooting into the ground, the other leg was bent to keep the Qi from escaping, reminding them to focus on their breathing, reminding them to keep their arms up. And she had focused on her breathing (instead of letting her skepticism take control), and lowered her arms slowly after a time (as instructed). When she first felt the tingling in her hands, she assumed it was the blood rushing back after holding her arms up for so long. But when she was able to move the tingling around her hand by using a finger from her other hand, making the feeling of circles on her palm without touching it, she was hooked. As an experiential person and experimental scientist, she had to accept her own observations. She was hooked on the class, and the instructor.

She had adopted Master Yang just as she had gravitated to certain professors as mentors in graduate school, the ones that she knew held some secret to either the science or to the way her mind worked, and she was rabid to unlock. But her aggression with the professors was often met with ego and superiority, and she was often forced to subtler methods, to show deference and in some cases to pretend ignorance in order to get the professors to show their higher intellect by instructing her. Master Yang’s approach was different. He simply didn’t care that she wanted to go faster, that she wanted to jump to the answer. You have spent many years training your mind and body into certain habits, he would tell her. You must unlearn those habits; there are no shortcuts to that.

Her perseverance in her approach to this was the same as her approach to her work. In both cases, she knew there was something there, and, at times she could almost feel it, could almost see it. And that goal kept her going, kept her pushing.

The assistant doctor by her gurney made some final notes on the chart, and turned as if to leave.

Can you please send the head doctor, or whatever you call him in to see me? I’d like to understand what happened to me and what the prognosis is. I also need to call my parents. Is there a phone in here?

The assistant looked up to the observation area. Janet tried to follow his glance, but the lights above her made it impossible to see anything behind the glass.

She heard the piercing shriek of the feedback of a microphone. Then the sound of static, as if through ancient speakers, rarely used.

Good evening, Janet. How are you feeling?

The voice was not familiar to her, through all that static. But the way he said her name, and the tone that he used reminded her of someone she couldn’t place.

I’m much better than the last time I woke up, thanks. But I’d like to know what is wrong with me, and I’d like to make sure my parents know I’m all right. Are you the Doctor in charge?

Again, the push of a button microphone, a caustic sound that reminded her of CB radios she’d seen in old movies.

I am.

Well, Doctor, you are a man of many words. Can you tell me what is wrong with me?

Janet, basically, there is nothing wrong with you. In a few days or so, as long as you follow the instructions of my staff, you’ll get your energy back, and you’ll feel fine. And, Janet, my dear, don’t call me Doctor. Please call me Gerard.

A moment of recognition of the tonality, the way he said her name. Gerard? Professor Tooney? What are you doing here? What’s going on?

Dr. Gerard Tooney had been one of those professors she had chased as a mentor during grad school. His knowledge of nano-medicine was unsurpassed, and she pestered him with questions and hypotheses incessantly. He was actually one of the more sharing professors, and she still emailed him with brainstorms or difficult questions. But he had become distracted, preoccupied with some project, and they had drifted apart lately.

Calm down, Janet, please. I will continue to ensure that you are perfectly safe and well cared for.

Professor, I appreciate that. But last time I corresponded with you, you were thousands of miles away. And you’re not a medical doctor. But then a worse thought struck her. Was there a lab accident? Was there contamination from the bots? Did they call you in to specialize? Are my people okay?

Janet, this was no accident. And no, I am not the medical doctor in charge, although now I am in charge of this facility.

Then why are you here?

I needed to talk to you. Janet, I need your help.

Gerard Tooney, the leading nanomedicine scientist in his field, one of her circle that she relayed her findings to for review and advice, wanted to talk to her.

Gerard, what has happened to me?

Get The Book

Chapter 4

Carlos ducked down the alley, and sprinted as quietly as he could. He got to the darkest part, and slid behind what used to be a dumpster, now covered with vines and weeds. The patrol car’s lights slid past him, hesitating just for a moment, then moved on past.

He panted as he quickly regained his breath, then stood up and continued down the alley way, hugging the walls and shadows, struggling through the grass that had started to grown through the cement and was pushing it up in chunks. The curfew patrols had always gotten close, but had never caught or even seen Carlos ‘the ghost’. At seventeen, his reputation on the streets had grown as big as he was tall. His constant game of sprinting and hiding had kept his body lean, his mind keen. And it kept him in high demand as an information carrier.

Carlos had observed the patrols for many nights over many months. Though not professional law enforcement officials, they were prototypical creatures of habit, patrolling at the same times down the same streets with what looked to Carlos to be the same personnel. They occasionally diverted from protocol to bust a drunk found out after curfew. But, unless there was a lockdown, unless there was some kind of imagined or real crisis, the patrols were quite predictable.

Unfortunately for Carlos, tonight was shaping up to be a crisis. And he was fairly certain of the cause of it.

He stopped a few yards before the end of the alley way, a few feet back of the glow of the solitary streetlight. A quick glance at his watch, and he knew he should wait here for the next patrol. As if on cue, headlights approached on the street at the end of the alley. As the patrol passed, their spotlight glanced off of the trash can Carlos was hiding behind, illuminating the rest of the alleyway. Spotlights certainly weren’t the norm for these guys, Carlos thought.

He counted to fifteen, then sprinted to the edge of the alleyway. Pausing briefly to glance in both directions, he ran across the street, up the block in the direction the patrol car had headed. He stopped at a door where an old sign in the window proclaimed Lofts for Sale. This had been an old downtown warehouse, or so Carlos had been told, that some developer had gutted and sold to people as fashionable downtown apartments. It all seemed quite a waste to him. He gave a quick knock. The door was unlocked, opened, and Carlos ducked inside.

He gave the briefest of nods to Jesus, the guard who opened the door, then moved quickly toward the back stairs. The lights were kept covered, the windows shaded, but he knew the surroundings well by now. The downstairs had a desk and reception area, where (it had been explained to Carlos) a concierge would wait on the needs of the loft people. He ignored this as more waste; the room he needed was two flights up.

He opened the door at the top of the stairs and walked in. Dark curtains covered all of the windows. Several people were already there ahead of him. There were other runners there, most of them younger than he. They were playing video games off to the side, oblivious to everything except what they saw on the screens or heard on their headphones, out of the way until needed and protected from eavesdropping. There was another group of people over in the corner, some passed out or dazed, others mixing solutions into cocktail glasses and tossing the mixtures quickly down their throats.

The main group of people was in the middle of the room, going over a large set of documents spread out over an old table covered with burn marks. And, as always, Julius was there.

Julius noticed him and immediately motioned him towards the table. He was a large man, smoking a cigar indoors, as he always did, even when there had been laws prohibiting it. His dark hair, mustache and beard seemed to absorb the cigar smoke, as none circled above him.

He could clearly remember coming to this town with Julius quite a while ago. He remembered many facets of the long journey, which took many weeks. And he could also remember being taught several subjects and lessons with Julius along the way. Though most people seemed intimidated by Julius, including those he saw gathered in the room now, Carlos always thought fondly of him.

Carlos, di me, tell us what you have seen and heard, Julius ordered. He was used to giving orders, sometime slipping back into his native Spanish. And Carlos was used to taking his orders and treating Julius with respect in front of others.

Si, Julius. The lady he has awakened is a Dr. Janet Grayson. She seems to be a little groggy from the procedure, but other than that showing no ill effects. Before, she worked for Dyna Energy Corporation, making nanobots to clean up environmental disasters, things like oil spills and stuff. She knew Dr. Tooney from before; apparently they exchanged research information, and may have collaborated. She has not yet been told anything, and does not know her purpose. She was apparently the lady that invented nanobot self-replication, and she and her company carried several patents on things like that.

A clean shaven blonde-haired man, with tattoos up and down his forearms who Carlos knew as Franklin spoke. So she’s to blame for our situation, eh?

Julius exhaled, the smoke disappearing into his mass of hair. The question is obviously not one of blame. What we need to know is why Dr. Tooney wants her.

Maybe he wants her for sex, chided the red-haired beauty next to Franklin. Carlos stared at her as subtly as he could, as he always did, trying hard to make sure she didn’t notice. But he was sure that she did.

Julius laughed. Vicki, Gerard could have awakened any girl or boy for that matter that he wanted for that, as he has in the past. He didn’t need to ‘resume’ a Ph.D. who specializes in a similar area to what he does. No, I believe it is as we have suspected for some time. Our esteemed Dr. Tooney needs help. His ‘experiment’ is in some amount of trouble.

How the hell do you know, Julius? Franklin said, with a slight threat in his voice. We’re making money, hand over fist. Nothing is in our way, except for competition created by Tooney. He gestured toward the dazed and passed out group in the corner. And we’ve managed to create a much more addictive drug than they.

Julius frowned. Franklin, we must never get too full of our own success that we forget that our enterprise is built on top of Dr. Tooney’s, whether he is aware of it or not. If the foundation becomes unstable, the house will fall.

Carlos remained at the table, quiet, observing. He learned a lot that way, and he had also learned from watching others not to let on what he knew. He had learned that Julius’ enterprise was some kind of drug that worked in a unique way on people’s new body chemistry, and that it was more addictive with fewer side effects than previous drugs. He knew Julius employed several smart PhD’s of his own, in labs in several cities, few of whom knew the end result of their work. He also had discovered that some of these same PhD’s worked for Dr. Tooney and secretly for Julius, so that they understood some of what Dr. Tooney was doing.

In many ways, this all felt wrong to Carlos. He had been brought up in a healthy respectful environment, even after his mother had died. But he loved and trusted Julius, and knew he would not intentionally hurt anyone; that was against everything Julius had taught him.

Carlos didn’t trust Franklin at all.

It was also obvious to Carlos that Franklin and his girl Vicki didn’t respect Julius, even though he was the boss of this operation. He hoped Julius realized this, but didn’t dare voice his opinion. He’d seen Franklin’s work on other talkers, people who Franklin didn’t think should speak unless spoken to. One of the other runners was no longer a runner because of it…you can’t run on a broken tibia.

Franklin looked annoyed. Julius, I know damn well where our so-called success comes from. You always seem to forget that I was there when the business started, that I helped create it from nothing.

Julius didn’t take his gaze away from the papers on the table. My dear Franklin, that is an event that I never forget. But all we were doing then was mimicking Dr. Tooney’s warped work. What you seem to forget is the indisputable fact that my scientists and I have improved, enhanced, and continue to improve on his efforts. I hope I do not need to remind you again that our revenues have tripled. He paused, and looked up from what he was doing, his gaze as smoldering as the tip of his cigar. But our revenues won’t grow if our clientele goes away. And if Tooney’s enterprise fails, ours will as well.

That is why we should strike now, Julius, said Franklin. We are nothing more than leeches, parasites on Tooney. Our successes will always be small, because we don’t control our supply, we don’t control our destiny. Even though he knows nothing about us, we are like dogs getting scraps from his table. If he is weakened now, as you say he is, we should take him.

What makes you think Tooney’s experiment is in trouble? asked Vicki.

Julius briefly shuffled through the papers on the desk, and pulled out several covered with numbers, charts and graphs. The effectiveness of our products over time is declining. Our lab has had to greatly increase the strength of certain elements in the formula. There could be several causes for this: our customers may be becoming more tolerant of our products; Dr. Tooney could be making his products stronger; or his products are becoming more unstable. The tests that we have done strongly suggest that it is the latter answer. These tests, plus the fact that he has just awakened a preeminent nano-scientist, point strongly to Tooney being in trouble.

Carlos enjoyed listening to Julius when he started speaking like this. He talked like this when he was teaching, too, back at the school in Guatemala. It always made sense to him, the things he said, the way he said them. It made Carlos feel smarter.

All the more reason to take Tooney down, and take over his operation for ourselves now, Franklin said, fist hitting the table for emphasis.

As you said, Julius, if he is having problems and his project fails, our business fails too, Vicki interjected.

The look that Julius gave Franklin and Vicki reminded Carlos of why Julius was boss. Although he sometimes talked like a scientist, and used facts and figures like a mathematician, he had risen to the top by using his single-mindedness in equal parts to his brains.

Franklin, I do not condone and will not allow Tooney to be taken down, at least not now. The risks far exceed the reward.

Franklin met Julius’ gaze for several moments, then resumed shuffling papers on the table. Then what should we do about this Grayson lady?

Julius took a long drag off his cigar, and exhaled heartily. This time, Carlos noticed the smoke finally escaping his pull, and orbiting above him.

We need to know what Dr. Tooney requires from Dr. Grayson. When we find out his plan, we will know our next steps. He turned once more to Carlos. Carlos, continue to observe both Dr. Tooney and Dr. Grayson, and report back directly to me on anything that you hear that might lead us to that answer.

Carlos nodded, and turned to leave the room. His gaze was drawn to Vicki, who was never subtle, as she gave him a visual up and down appraisal and smiled at him.

I’ll be working with Dr. Privett to try and determine more information about the extent of these problems, Julius continued. Carlos, he said, stopping the young man in his tracks at the door, donde es David? Have you heard from Dr. Privett’s brother, David?

Carlos turned, hand resting on the door knob.

No, jefe. I have not seen David for many days.

Get The Book

Chapter 5

David Privett peered through the windows of the Jaguar dealership he’d found, his hands cupped on either side of his face to block out the afternoon Texas sun. Tired of walking, tired of sweating, he has his eye on an XKR convertible, with AC to battle the afternoon heat, and top-down winds to enjoy the cool evenings. Based on the conditions of the roads he had observed on his previous courier trips, he knew he should be looking for a Hummer, or a good ole pickup truck at the least. But he and Julius’ other messengers had blazed enough of a trail where he thought a fine English touring car with a Ford engine would do just fine.

The door to the dealership was unlocked, as most of the doors he encountered these days were. The smell of decay that hit him as he opened the door almost convinced him to turn around, and seek other means of transportation. But he had performed these grisly duties before, many times, and he pushed on through the stench.

Out of his well-worn backpack, stained but stenciled with the words Go Rockets, David pulled out latex gloves and a cloth filter mask for his nose and mouth. A quick tour of the dealership revealed seven bodies, one female and the rest male. They were dressed like car salesmen, except for the young lady, who David imagined must have been cute before all this happened. None looked like customers, meaning it must have been a slow sales day when the disaster hit.

David was sure that he would find more bodies back in the services and parts area, and he’d do a thorough inspection later. If a store, gas station or any other place was to be a sanctuary added to the courier’s map of safe and useful places, it had to be thoroughly cleansed. This implied one of the many undesirable tasks the couriers had to perform.

He propped the dealership door open, then dragged all of the bodies into a pile in the middle of the lot in front of the dealership. He moved quickly, almost frantically; other couriers had reported packs of wild dogs that went even wilder with the scent of dead meat in the air. He quickly rummaged through his ever-present backpack, and extracted an aerosol can of Lysol and a lighter. Since all car dealerships kept their own gas tanks (another reason he was investing time at the dealership, he rationalized to himself), he could have taken the time to douse the bodies with gasoline. But the quicker this was over, the better. David said a few quick words over the bodies, praying that their loved ones had been luckier than they were, then held the lighter up to the aerosol can. He sprayed while lighting, creating a portable flame thrower, just like in college. The dried-out clothing on the bodies lit quickly and very soon all was ablaze.

He puked, as he always did, though he always expected the previous time to be the last. What a wimp, he thought. How many times have I done this, but I still can’t keep lunch down.

He quickly turned away, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve, and strode back into the dealership.

All couriers were selected by Julius based on certain specialized skills: mechanics, pilots, technicians. Most could be classified as your basic handyman, able to fix things up and get them in good working order.

David’s specialties were computers and computer networks. As such, the first thing he checked on in a new location was the possibility of Internet access. Other courier’s designated or self-proclaimed goals were power systems, or transportation systems or other infrastructural needs. David’s passion was the Internet. It was his firm belief that even minimal Internet access between Julius, the other couriers and Julius’ home base in Guatemala would relieve the couriers from playing messenger boys and free them to get systems back online faster.

Resuscitating the Internet was David’s personal quest. At the time of the disaster, David believed the Internet was heading toward its own evolution. Its size in number of connected devices had reached the vastness of the number of neurons in the brain. People were producing and consuming information at a staggering rate, communicating on a virtual level more so than at any time in history. It was surely taking on a life of its own.

David thought it might be mankind’s salvation. His friends, when told of this idea, simply called him a geek.

Passing up the salesmen’s offices, David found and entered the larger, more private manager’s office. This was where the customers were pulled in for the ‘last best offer’. Here also was usually where one would find unfiltered Internet access. Small businesses rarely trusted mere employees such as sales people or receptionists with full Internet access, worrying that they would waste company time and resources with personal online activities, or worse downloading porn, gambling online, or other forms of electronic sinning. Full access was always given to the most senior manager, who ended up abusing these privileges more than the underlings ever would.

David pushed the power button on the desktop computer underneath the manager’s desk, with low expectations. He was mildly surprised when the green light flickered and the disk drive began to whir. According to the latest courier update power had been restored to certain sectors in this area; but you never knew how the building infrastructure would hold up after all being neglected.

The computer booted up, and asked for a user name and password. David shook his head, as he typed in the information that was clearly displayed on the yellow sticky note on the side of the monitor. Such are the problems with network security, he reminisced in passing.

Before becoming a courier for Julius (a recommendation he was still not sure whether to thank his brother or not), David was responsible for network security at a local energy firm. His training concentrated in the area of network architecture, building and designing the networks to connect the company’s computers, and to connect the company to other company’s. But he had been ‘drafted’ into network security because of problems like people leaving their user names and passwords on sticky notes in plain sight for all to see; or like people giving strangers on the phone enough information to hack into a critical system, just because ‘they asked and seemed nice.’ The company had been hacked in this way by a competitor (though it had not been proven in a court of law), and this single act had raised security to the top of the CEO’s priority list. David had been reassigned shortly thereafter.

David saw that the network link light on the computer’s network card was lit and blinking, indicating the presence of a network. Probably just connectivity within the building, he thought. Still, he pulled up the command line, checked the computer’s IP address, and verified that everything looked good.

He detached the Flash Drive from around his neck. In the old days, he had kept it in his pocket, but a certain amount of ‘geek sheik’ vanity had forced him to get a sleek Rosewood laminated one, still practical for usage with it’s one gigabyte of storage. The Drive contained the tools of his trade: password hack programs, tracing programs, and others he had collected or written. He even had a self-modified version of a program called ‘Satan’, which he used to use to attack web sites or email addresses of people who truly pissed him off.

He inserted the Flash Drive into the computer, pulled up a recursive ping program, and entered in instructions for it to start searching a long list of addresses. This ping program would tell him not only if he was attached to other networks, but what, if any, other networks were alive. He turned up the volume on the computer’s speakers so that he could hear the audible alert if it happened, and left the manager’s office.

He had spotted a fine black Jaguar XKR on the showroom floor, but it had two negatives. First, the color black, the sweltering sun and David’s desire to sweat less did not go together. Second, David couldn’t allow his ‘geek sheik’ self to ride around in a coupe; it had to be a convertible. There was no sense owning a Jag if you didn’t have a rag top…what was the point?

He left the showroom after finding at the receptionist’s desk all of the keys for cars marked ‘XKR’ from the lockbox, and headed out onto the packed car lot. At the top of his list was the car whose key was marked ‘XKR Conv. Antigua Blue’. The color summoned visions of Caribbean beaches that David had visited in his misspent college youth. While the other Engineering students were studying, he and his buddies were using homegrown robot programs to automatically search for the cheapest fares to St. John’s, St. Martin, and the Mexican resorts. At least his new courier ‘job’ kept him traveling, but the scenery wasn’t nearly as picturesque.

The afternoon sun made the black asphalt of the car lot hot enough to fry an egg. David knew this was no urban myth, as he had been forced to demonstrate this during a sophomore Physics class, complete with equations. But he was used to the heat so, wiping his already sweating brow, he began his search.

He immediately spied a white convertible with a tan roof. He found the key amongst his collection, and inserted it into the driver’s side door, and left it there. He noted this cars location as a possible second choice, and resumed his quest.

Ten minutes into it, he was seriously considering going back to the white car, considering himself foolish for what he was doing. He was sweating profusely now, and longing for the relief the car’s air conditioning would provide.

Then, he saw it, against the far fence that bordered the dealership. Blue with a darker blue top. He hurried over, and saw that it had custom spoke wheels as well, with a tan leather interior and what looked like rosewood trim, to match his flash drive! He walked the perimeter around the car, focused on it. Peering in on the passenger side, the fence at his back, he saw that his dream car had the enhanced sound package, with the Altec Lansing speakers.

He was in heaven, imagining the ride, top down, speakers blaring, when the dogs crashed into the fence behind him.

Scared out of his reverie, he whipped around, and saw the pack of dogs, some throwing themselves at the fence, most frothing at the mouth. He cursed himself for not being more vigilant; most couriers had had close calls with packs of dogs before, and a few had even been mauled by them. They must have been drawn by the smell of the burning bodies, he thought.

He looked up and down the length of the chain link fence. The pack was going to have a hard time getting through right in front of him, but there were gaps in the fence no more than thirty yards in each direction. They were barking and baying now, having caught the scent of his fear. David felt for his pistol, but realized it was in his trusty backpack, which was doing him no good sitting back in the manager’s office next to the computer.

David ran around to the driver’s side door, while looking through the sets of keys in his hands for the right ones. Finding them, he clicked the door open button on the remote control, pulled up the door handle and slid into the leather seat. Turning the key, he revved the 4-liter engine, and threw it into reverse, knowing the race was on.

As he backed out of the space, he saw in his rear view mirrors that he was right. The dogs had found the holes in the fence, and were now hot on the heels of the Jag. David floored it, racing through the rows of cars back towards the showroom, quickly leaving the dogs behind.

He squealed to a halt beside the showroom door he had just left, driver’s door facing the showroom door, and, leaving the car running, jumped out, slammed the door and ran towards the showroom door. He had given himself a good forty yards on the dogs, and made the door with plenty of room to spare. He was through, closed and locked the door before the closest dog was twenty yards from him. He raced to the front of the showroom, and locked the front door, where he had dragged the bodies through earlier.

David leaned over, hands on his knees, panting to catch his breath. Over the sounds of the dogs now barking at him through the glass showroom door, he could hear a faint beeping that he at first could not identify. Straightening up, he followed the origins of the sound back to the manager’s office.

The audible alert from his search program was beeping for all it was worth through the small and tinny speaker in the manager’s computer.

Sitting down at the old wooden desk, David began scrolling through the list of addresses that his program had found. Amazingly, there was a network still functioning, not only in the dealership, but throughout the city. Though mapping the network addresses to physical street addresses was not straightforward, it was a task he was prepared for, as he had a somewhat recent copy of the registry of IP addresses database that matched Internet addresses with who registered them. The locations of the registers were not always the same as where the computer would be, but it was the best he had.

After some time, David determined much to his chagrin that ninety percent of the addresses found were physically close by, in and around the city. There was some good news there, in that it hinted at some networking and electrical infrastructure in the city (besides that hoarded in Tooney’s compound) was still in working order. But, as he sifted and filtered through the remaining few, he found some that were located elsewhere, some hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

He traced these scant few, and found they had one point in common: a large Internet peering point, north of town. This could only mean that parts of it were still operational.

David the geek grinned from ear to ear.

He restarted the program, intending to check it the next time he was in the area. He packed up everything else into his backpack, except for his trusty USB key. He placed this in his pocket, already thinking about attaching it to the key ring of his new Jaguar.

When he got back out onto the showroom floor, he saw that the pack of dogs had made its way to the front of the building, circling the smoldering pile David had made from the former inhabitants of the dealership. Silently thanking them for that small favor, and for the car, David slipped out the side door, and into the awaiting, running Jaguar.

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