« Peacemaker », Chapter Twenty One   

Chapter Twenty One

The federal government was totally unprepared for the attack. Apparently, PeaceMaker had been hidden in the operating system for many years. When it took control of the computers, the so-called security experts were helpless.

---- Artificial Intelligence: The Early Years, General Clifford Rhodes (ret.), 2048

 

Sunday evening, January 29, 2012

Goldman paced back and forth in the command center, trying to keep track of all three display panels. Behind the displays were rows of computers, instruments and other electronic gear necessary to run the mansion. The technician on each console was manually scanning through the rooms and hallways looking for Dianne and her cohorts. So far, they had come up with nothing. However, his technicians discovered the cameras did not cover several locations. This couldn’t be an accident; Dianne must have a contingency plan that enabled her to move through the halls undetected. Goldman had sent soldiers out to monitor these locations, but they never returned. Probably dead.

Suddenly, all the lights went off in the hallways around his command post. This must be the beginning of her attack, but he was ready. She would be unable to fight her way through the defensive perimeter around the command post.

Goldman scanned the darkened corridors on the displays, expecting the attack to come at any moment. He felt the tension build, but something was wrong. It was too quiet. There was no shooting, no movement, no nothing. Sudden realization came to him; the hallways had not been darkened to launch an attack but to keep him penned in.

Goldman rushed to the door, fearing the command center would become a death trap. Once he had safely reached the door, he turned around and screamed, “Everyone get out of this room!”

Just as he stepped into the hallway, a tremendous explosion blew through the floor of the command center. The force of the blast threw him against the wall and knocked him down. Goldman buried his head under his arms for protection from the heat and debris of the blast.

Stunned momentarily, Goldman struggled to drag himself upright. His eyes wouldn’t focus, and his ears were ringing. He got to his feet and shook his head to clear his mind. Through scratchy eyes Goldman looked at the remains of the command center – a wreck of broken walls and equipment covered with a thick, white dust. None of his men in there could have survived.

The soldiers in the hallway were shaken but still alive. “Take your positions. They will be coming down the hall,” he screamed. “We can still win.”

A moment later, shots came out of the dark hallways. Dianne was launching her attack, but she would be surprised to find most of his men were still alive. His soldiers were ready and returned the fire.

Goldman heard a footstep behind him, where nobody should be alive.

“Alan, drop your gun,” a feminine voice said. “It’s over.”

Recognizing Dianne’s voice, Goldman froze but didn’t drop his pistol. He said, “You wouldn’t shoot me in the back, would you, old friend?”

“What would be the pleasure in that?” she replied.

He couldn’t see Dianne, but her voice was coming from a spot a few yards behind him.

“Why not give me a sporting chance? I assume you have a weapon aimed at me. Point it at the floor, if you have the balls.”

Dianne’s laugh was unpleasant, contemptuous. Her voice challenged him. “My weapon is pointed down. Whenever you’re ready.”

Sweat ran into his eyes, but he still didn’t move.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Make your move, Alan. I’m going to kill you, anyway. What have you got to lose?”

Goldman dived for the floor and swung his gun around. He could see Dianne framed like a witch in the dusty air of the operations center. Her rifle was at her shoulder, aimed at his chest. Before Goldman could get his pistol into position, the muzzle of her weapon flashed twice. The pain was intense as the bullets penetrated his arm and chest.

The force of the bullets knocked him over, and he hit the ground awkwardly. His elbow crashed against the floor, knocking the gun free. The pistol bounced once, twice, then was still. He could see it, but he didn’t have the strength to reach for it.

Goldman was lying on his back on the cement floor, blinking his eyes to make them focus. He felt no pain, nothing at all. Confused, Goldman looked up at his enemy standing over him. “The rifle. You told me …” but he was too weak to finish.

She smiled – a thin, evil smile. “I lied.”

The witch blurred and faded from sight. I almost pulled it off, he thought. Almost ...

*

Tidesco was looking over Ray’s shoulder at a section of virus code. “Linda, this has to be the authorization sequence,” he said. “Nothing else fits.”

Her voice was dull with weariness, “It could be. I’m not sure. The code is deliberately convoluted. It could be a trap set by the developers to protect the virus from prying eyes. Maybe it tells PeaceMaker to take some sort of aggressive action if someone triggers the code.”

All of a sudden, the room shook with a tremendous explosion. The staccato sounds of gunfire followed.

“That was too close,” Ray said. “Screw it! I’m going with this as the authorization sequence.”

“Okay, let’s hope you’re right,” Tidesco said, looking dubious. “Let’s also hope you can convince PeaceMaker you’re Dianne Morgan.”

“What?” he said, pretending that she had hurt his feelings. “You don’t think I’m pretty?”

“You’re gorgeous Dianne, except you need a shave.”

“You’d better go into the living room,” Ray said, suddenly serious. “I have to face PeaceMaker alone. If I wind up toast, you’ll have to come up with another answer.”

*

Dianne looked down the hallway in both directions. The floor and walls were splattered with blood. Bodies were everywhere. It was quiet now; the fight was over. Domain agents were pulling bodies over, checking for survivors, but Goldman and most of his followers were dead.

Murphy walked up to her as she looked over the massacre. Dianne turned to him and said, “They’re all dead in here. Have part of your team do a room to room search for any survivors.”

“The search is already in progress,” he said. “Miraculously, we found Steve and Mohammed in the next room – alive, although badly beaten.”

“Okay,” Dianne said. “I’ve been unable to contact Lester or Carson.” She sighed. “Dead, probably.”

She heard someone coming and looked down the hall to see her soldiers leading two of Goldman’s men away in handcuffs. One of the captives was limping badly, while the other seemed unharmed. Both her soldiers and the captives seemed too young for this – too young for what had to be done.

“Murphy,” she said, touching his shoulder. “Tell your men to take no prisoners. There will be no witnesses to these events.”

Murphy nodded and walked away, his footsteps fading into background noise. Dianne was alone in the remains of the computer center. She walked over to Goldman’s body and gently nudged his arm with her foot. It was hard to believe he was dead. She was disappointed to discover his death gave her no pleasure. She felt nothing, really, one way or the other. She sat down on the warm floor, a few feet from the body, and leaned against a strip of wall that was still standing. Goldman got what he deserved, she thought.

As she rested, two shots rang out, then two more. She pulled her knees tightly against her chest.

You do what you have to do.

A moment later, Murphy was standing over her. Dianne noticed him, but couldn’t respond. Finally, he cleared his throat. “We discovered a room where Goldman stored the bodies,” Murphy said in a thin voice. Surprised by his tone, she looked up at her friend. For the first time in her memory, Murphy seemed uncertain. “All our people who worked here are dead. Dozens of bodies …”

“What about Ray Brown?”

“He wasn’t in the room.”

“We have to get him.” Dianne climbed to her feet, a sense of danger growing within her.

“We’ll find him – dead or alive – as we search the entire facility,” Murphy said, his voice regaining its strength. “I have soldiers patrolling the grounds. Ray isn’t going anywhere. I’ve begun to video scan the rooms using my computer. If he’s here, we’ll find him.”

“We’ll split the work,” Dianne said. “You scan the first two floors and basement, I’ll take the upper floors.

Murphy received a call on his wallet computer, listened briefly and hurried down the hall and out of sight. Dianne noticed a slight odor for the first time, the smell of meat beginning to go bad. Alone in the carnage again, she felt like a part of her had died here, too.

This is Goldman’s fault, not mine, she thought, but it didn’t help.

Pushing all the bloodshed out of her mind, Dianne pulled out her wallet computer and began scanning. Most of the rooms seemed to be empty, but occasionally, she would find a body. Several were friends, acquaintances really, even though she had known them for years. It didn’t matter now.

Then she saw someone. Zooming in, it was a woman standing with her back to the camera. It was Linda Tidesco, Alan’s best technician. She was standing in the main room of her apartment, just outside the bedroom. Tidesco was hiding, attempting to peek into the bedroom.

There was a man in the bedroom!

Dianne grabbed her automatic and rushed out.

*

Leon had been peering out the cabin window for less than an hour, although it seemed like many hours had passed. He rubbed his eyes and scanned the horizon again, hoping the lights would return. The night was almost totally black, pierced in some locations by long strands of light. Leon realized he was seeing great lines of automobiles on the highways trying to get home. There must be traffic jams down there unlike anything before. He quickly looked up as a somber voice came over the speaker.

“Hello, this is the captain again. I want to thank everyone for their patience tonight. We’re going to rely on you to maintain your good judgment until we get this flight safely on the ground.

“I have some good news and some news that’s not so good. The good news is we have established voice communications with traffic control in Philadelphia. As you have probably realized, there’s a massive power failure across the entire country. To be frank, power is out almost everywhere on the planet, the result of widespread computer failures. Apparently, almost all the computers have been attacked by a new type of software virus, something they haven’t been able to extinguish. Unfortunately, that includes the air traffic control computers, too.”

The captain paused for a second and said, “The controllers will be able to manually guide us into proper landing patterns. The backup power is on, so they can talk to all the pilots. The runway lights are working and all takeoffs have been suspended, so we should be able to land without incident. I’m not saying this will be a piece of cake, but we are going to get down safely.

“We have already started our landing procedure. We should be safely on the ground in about ten minutes. Once we’re down, I’ll give you instructions for leaving the plane. Stay in your seats until then.”

Looking out the window at the thick clouds below the plane, Leon knew that landing without an operational traffic control system would be risky. Although he could see little through the window, he felt the great plane begin to lose altitude. As the plane came down, it pivoted and dropped through the clouds, presenting a view of the Delaware River in the distance, a dark stripe barely outlined by the now sparse lights of Philadelphia.

Suddenly, there was a blast of sound, like a locomotive streaking through a railroad station. Leon saw another plane coming down for a landing, but it was much too close to them. His plane banked hard to the right, and he was pitched partly out of his seat; his head banged hard into the window. Leon felt himself screaming but couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the engines. Only the seatbelt kept him from being thrown into the aisle. The plane began to rise rapidly, and he was thrown back into his seat.

People were screaming and crying everywhere, but Leon could barely hear them over the roar of the engines. The man across the aisle sagged unconscious in his seat. Leon looked out his window in horror and watched the other big plane spiral down, spinning with crazed ferocity. It crashed into the Delaware River with terrible force and exploded in an outburst of water and flame. The roar of the explosion was beyond his endurance and he screamed again.

The roar disappeared, replaced by a low-pitched, unhealthy sound: the hum of the engines mixed with the moans of injured passengers. Leon’s face felt wet and sticky, and he brushed his forehead. He stared at his sleeve, which was smudged with blood. His stomach was rebelling, but he leaned back in the seat until the nausea passed. His reflection in the window showed a cut above his left eye. Leon pressed a handkerchief against the wound, which was messy but not deep.

The plane continued to climb, but now the ascent wasn’t as steep. The flight attendants were in the aisle, assisting injured passengers. One came to look at his wound, but he said, “I’m okay. It’s not bad. Check the guy across the aisle. He was knocked around pretty hard.”

She turned to the other passenger, examined his head, and put her hand on his wrist. She turned and shouted down the aisle, “Jeanie, come here!”

Another flight attendant, Jeanie, was quickly there. Jeanie checked the man’s wrist and then his neck for a pulse. Jeanie looked at her friend and slowly shook her head.

At that moment, the captain’s voice rasped over the speaker, “I want everyone to take a seat. We’re circling back, and we will start our descent again.” A woman screamed, but the captain’s voice was harsh, “I’m going to land this plane, so get into your seats.”

Leon felt the big plane come around and move into a landing pattern. As the plane descended again and the Delaware came into view, he gripped the sides of the seat and pressed his feet against the seat in front. The remnants of the other plane’s tail stuck out of the water and he could see part of a wing lying in a field on the Jersey side of the river. Fuel had spread everywhere, burning on top of the river and on its banks. Overmatched fire trucks were spraying water on the billowing flames. A great cloud of filthy smoke was rising from the flames and drifting over the runways.

Abruptly, his plane was in the dark cloud, and the airport disappeared. Night turned to dusky Hell, and the plane seemed to wobble briefly, then steady itself. Then they were through the cloud and land rushed up, much too rapidly. Leon felt the impact throughout his body as the plane landed hard and bounced unnaturally. After coming down on one set of wheels, it lurched to the opposite side and, finally, righted itself.

They were speeding down the runway, past abandoned planes and vehicles. The air brakes roared, but the plane gave up speed grudgingly. They sped past the end of the runway and bounced through a grass field covered with a light snow. The plane rattled hard and several pieces of luggage fell out of the overhead storage, smashing into an aisle passenger a few seats ahead of him. Still pressing his feet against the seat in front of him, Leon tried to pray, but the words wouldn’t come. A highway, choked with speeding cars and trucks, was coming into view, separated from the field by an old barbed-wire fence. The airbrakes seemed to be slowing down the plane, but the fence was almost upon them. Finally, near the edge of the field, the plane skidded to a stop.

The cabin was quiet, except for the rustle of passengers who, like Leon, probably couldn’t quite believe they were still alive. The cabin felt colder, and Leon realized that the power was off.

The captain’s voice filled the cabin. “We have landed safely. Please remain in your seats until a flight attendant comes for you. We can all exit the plane safely if you follow instructions.”

The flight attendants were busy again, opening the emergency doors and helping passengers leave the plane. Leon slid down the emergency exit, stood up and looked around.

This had to be Hell. It was night, but the flames rising from the Delaware gave everything a flickering, orange tint. The smoky fumes rose through the cold air, making it difficult to see more than a few hundred feet. The caustic odor of burning fuel was overwhelming, and his eyes stung from the soot.

There were no rescue vehicles coming. He figured they must be fighting the flames that now threatened the airport. The captain and crew were trying to gather the passengers to make the long trek back to the terminal.

A bitter wind blew across the field, making Leon shiver. A cold January night in Philadelphia without a coat was serious; they had to reach the warmth of the terminal quickly.

Leon heard the now familiar voice of the captain, who was trying to gain the passengers’ attention. The low hum of the wind and fire, combined with the irregular roar of planes and trucks going by made it difficult to understand what he was saying.

“I want everyone to listen. We need to reach the terminal as quickly as possible. Everyone who can walk without assistance should gather around me.”

All but three of the passengers were able to walk up to the captain. Leon saw Jeanie, the flight attendant, gather these three and begin talking to them.

“We are going to walk across this grass field and then across the airfield to the terminal,” the captain said. “It’s dangerous, but it’s the best option. Everyone should walk close behind me. Do not fall back! Stay alert for danger, but don’t panic. We have to avoid the flames and the fumes from the crash. Try not to breath the fumes. They may be toxic.”

The captain looked toward the terminal and turned back to the passengers gathered around him. “Be very careful crossing the airfield. Planes will be landing and coming into the terminals. Rescue vehicles will be moving at high speed. Visibility is poor, and I don’t know what degree of communications and coordination is possible. There are more than two hundred people here, and I can’t watch everyone, so stay close to me.”

The captain began walking and everyone followed him. The captain, co-captain and two flight attendants each had flashlights, but the beams only illuminated about twenty feet in front of them. Leon was on the edge of the crowd, about ten feet behind the captain. The wet snow had already soaked through his shoes. He could see the terminal in front of them, but it was far in the distance. On the right, he could see the flames and smoke from the remains of the crashed plane. To his left, he could see planes coming in for a landing. Leon thought about climbing the fence and trying to flag down a ride on the highway, but he didn’t want to tackle that barbed-wire.

The field was covered in a light snow that blew powerfully across his body in the gusting wind. His hands and feet were already feeling numb, and there was a long way to walk.

Finally, they were off the grass and onto a runway. Smoke from the river continued to drift across the airfield, making the terminal gradually disappear. The captain was a fading image in front of him, outlined by the hazy beam of the flashlights. He could hear the big planes landing, but he could no longer see them. Hopefully, the captain would be able to find the terminal.

Leon became aware of the sound of an airplane coming in for a landing. He couldn’t see the plane, but the sound was becoming painfully loud. The captain stopped and listened to what was now a roar. Leon’s eyes were tearing from the smoke as he desperately sought the location of the plane.

He heard a loud thump followed by the screech of air brakes. The plane was brutally loud, and it was approaching rapidly. Several of the passengers began to run, but most were frozen in place. A big plane emerged out of the fumes, less than two hundred feet away and coming fast. It was traveling slightly in front of the crowd, passing no more than twenty feet ahead of the captain. Passengers screamed as the tips of the giant wings passed over his head, but the roar of the plane drowned out all sound.

Horrified, Leon saw one woman run directly into the path of the plane. A huge tire obliterated her as the plane roared past and disappeared into the smoke. Nothing remained of the woman except her purse, it’s contents spilled across the runway.

The sound of the plane faded as it moved away. Heads swiveling as they peered in all directions, the passengers from his plane clustered in fear behind the captain. Leon realized he was too far from the captain and hurried to get to the fringe of the crowd. In spite of the cold, sweat had soaked through his shirt.

The fumes drifted apart for a moment, and Leon was able to see the terminal again. One of the passengers began to run toward it. The captain screamed something, but the man ignored him. More people began to run. His fear overwhelmed him, and Leon began to run with the crowd.

Sweat was pouring down his face as he ran. The crowd began to string out as the faster runners moved to the front of the pack. Leon could hear the sound of planes landing, but he couldn’t see them. The terminal drifted in and out of sight.

A woman about ten feet ahead of him collapsed to her knees. He saw her face as he went past – dirty, tear-stained and exhausted.

Leon felt his fear play out against his shame and compassion. He turned around, dodged another runner and rushed back to her. He grabbed the woman around the waist and lifted her to her feet. His hands were stiff from the freezing weather, and she almost slipped away. Half walking, half carrying, Leon dragged her along with him.

The last hundred feet to the terminal were the worst. She was exhausted, and he wasn’t much better. Passengers were going by him, some fast, some slow. Leon didn’t know if he had the strength to get her to the terminal. Suddenly, a man in a business suit appeared on the other side of the woman. The stranger got his arm around her waist and took most of the load. The three of them staggered forward and reached the terminal. They struggled but got her up the stairs and onto a bench. She was dazed, almost unconscious, and she slumped heavily.

Breathing too hard to say anything, Leon gratefully looked at the stranger. The man was bent over, hands on his knees, trickles of sweat sliding along his face. Using his remaining strength, Leon put his hand on the man’s shoulder and nodded at him. The man looked at him, nodded back and then walked away.

Leon caught his breath and turned to leave. The woman’s hand grasped him weakly on his forearm. She was starting to revive. Her mouth was forming words, although she was too exhausted to speak clearly.

“I’m glad I could help,” he said.

Worried about his family, Leon wanted to leave, but she held on to him. He patted her hand and removed it from his arm. He said, “I have to go,” and began to walk as quickly as he could. His car was in the parking garage.

What would he find on the drive home?

*

Murphy knew he was cutting it close. He checked his watch again. Just about twenty-three hours since he had set the timer. They had finished mopping up the remains of Goldman’s soldiers. Mopping up, was that how I’ll think about it? No witnesses, as Dianne had ordered.

Still plenty of time to disarm the bomb.

“Gebhardt, come with me,” Murphy said to the agent next to him. Gebhardt was their best explosives man. He was the one who had armed the bomb yesterday in the tunnel.

Murphy and Gebhardt hustled down the stairs toward the warehouse, their boots tapping out a quick, controlled pace. Both carried automatic rifles in case they ran across any remaining soldiers. Murphy noticed Gebhardt glance discretely at his watch.

“Getting nervous?” Murphy said, keeping his attention focused on the stairs.

“A little, sir,” Gebhardt replied. “But we should have more than enough time.”

Murphy grunted. The man should be nervous. I sure as hell am.

They pushed through a metal door and entered a huge, gloomy space. The warehouse was organized into tall rows of shelves filled with cartons of various shapes and sizes. Only a fraction of the overhead lights were on, providing a dim light filtered by the shelves.

The entrance to the tunnel was hidden behind a shelf on the far wall, so they hurried down the center aisle. Murphy felt a prickly sensation in his back as they walked through dark shadows. Glancing left and right, his eyes strained to penetrate the gloom.

Suddenly, Gebhardt crashed against him just as three or four low pings rattled out. Gebhardt knocked him hard into a shelf, causing the side of Murphy’s head to smash against metal. Murphy crumpled to the ground, too dazed to move.

His bleary eyes made out a figure walking toward him – a soldier with a rifle. Murphy tried to move, but his muscles didn’t obey. The soldier stopped in front of him and aimed the rifle at his chest.

*

At first, it was just a jumble of colors, fluid boundaries of dancing lights. Then pain. The changing patterns of light and a dull headache were his world. Gradually, his vision returned. Paul discovered he could focus on the light above him. Then he could search the ceiling, his eyes actually his own once again.

Sensations began to return to his body: the cold metal of cuffs on his wrists and ankles, a dry ache in his throat, the smooth surface of a chair on his bare back, the grimy sweat covering his flesh. And then, Paul remembered everything; he was a prisoner of the Domain.

A slight odor, thin and unpleasant, drifted into his senses. Paul turned his head into the odor, automatically, reflex still ahead of thought. The small floor was covered with three bodies, the color of death everywhere.

God help me.

Adrenalin surged through his body. He tried to stand up, but his hands and feet were securely chained to the chair. Uneven red spots covered his bare chest – blood dried into a splatter of death. Fear added to his strength as he pulled, but the chains held. Paul tried to control his mounting panic. He pulled again with all his strength, but the chains still would not give.

Breathing hard, he looked down at his handcuffs. He examined them carefully and didn’t see either a key or combination lock. In all probability, it was an audio lock. If he could discover the password, it would unlock.

The password would have to be an unusual combination of characters to prevent an accidental unlocking. He would never be able to guess it. Paul figured at least one of the guards would have to know the password. The guard would probably be concerned about forgetting it, so he might have it written down on a piece of paper tucked in a pocket. Maybe.

The chair Paul was chained to was sturdy but not very heavy. He started throwing his weight from side to side until the chair tipped over. Paul crashed to the floor, harder than he expected, bruising his arm. With great difficulty, Paul crawled over to the first guard, dragging the chair with him. He positioned himself so he could get his hand in the man’s pocket. He found nothing there, so he crawled over to the other side and tried that pocket. Nothing there, either.

Paul was breathing hard from the exertion, so he rested for a moment. Perspiration covered his face and chest. Still chained tightly to the chair, he crawled over to the second guard and searched his pockets. Paul found a wallet, but no password. Only the medic was left now. He crawled over to the medic, panting from exhaustion and fear. He searched the medic without success.

I was wrong. Nobody has the password.

From the floor level, Paul looked around for anything that could help him escape. Then he saw it: the top of a sheet of paper sticking out from the medic’s bag on the table.

Paul dragged himself over to the table and struggled to his feet. The paper seemed to have numbers on it, but it was wedged against the side of the bag by a filthy syringe. The syringe, cracked and slowly leaking a murky yellow liquid, was covered in blood. He realized he couldn’t get at the paper without removing the syringe. The thought of touching that syringe sickened him, but he had no choice.

Paul turned his body so his hands would reach the bag. He tried several different positions, but he couldn’t quite get to it. He considered butting the bag off the table with his head, but he was afraid the syringe would break and smear the combination. There was only one thing to do.

Paul took a moment to calm his nerves and leaned over the table. He gently gripped the syringe in his teeth, trying to avoid the cracked plastic. As he lifted the needle out of the bag, Paul felt the grisly liquid drip into his mouth. Controlling the urge to retch, he pulled the syringe free and dropped it behind the bag. He tried to spit, but his mouth felt thick and fuzzy, and he almost passed out. Finally, Paul pulled the paper out of the bag with his teeth and dropped it on the table.

The paper fell with the writing face down. He tried to pick up the paper with his teeth, but it had fallen flat on the table. Choking back his frustration, Paul pushed himself around until he could grasp the paper with the tip of his thumb and index finger. He flipped the paper over so the writing was visible.

Two passwords were written on the sheet. He said the first one, “6-A-4-X.” The cuffs that locked his ankles to the chair opened, and Paul kicked his legs free. The second password was partially covered with blood. He could make out the first two characters, but not the last two.

Maybe I can smash the chair. His wrists had more freedom of movement, and he was able to maneuver so the chair was in front of him. He struggled to lift the metal chair and was about to smash it against the wall, when he heard the sound of footsteps.

Paul flattened his back against the wall near the door and raised the chair up to his waist to strike. The footsteps were coming closer. They passed by the door and continued down the hall at a rapid pace, the sound of a single person running hard.

He pressed a control button next to the door and glanced out as the door slid open. It was Dianne carrying a pistol. She turned right at the far corner and disappeared from sight. The footsteps stopped. Paul realized she must have entered a room just beyond the corner.

Maybe she’s hunting for Ray.

In desperation, he smashed the chair against the wall, but it was barely scratched. Paul scrambled back to the paper and moved it to a spot on the table where the light was strong. The first two characters were K and 3. The third character might be 8, but he wasn’t sure. The last character was buried in a bloodstain.

Paul said, “K – 3 – 8 –A”, but nothing happened.

“K-3-8-B”.

“K-3-8-C”…

*

Laura was aware of the rasp of her breathing as she hurried along the avenue. Without electricity, night was unnaturally quiet and dark in Newark. Anxiety forced a quick glance over her shoulder, but she knew the bus was not coming tonight. Laura was about half-way home now. Another twenty minutes and she would be safe and secure in her apartment.

Laura often passed this way on the bus. The stores, almost all locally owned, occupied hundred-year-old buildings on both sides of the wide avenue. She knew most of the stores, at least from the outside. They were always brightly lit, showing their merchandise to the passing crowds. But not tonight.

Even more menacing were the empty streets. People were always walking along the avenue regardless of the hour – talking, shouting, even singing. Tonight these streets were cold and unfamiliar. These were not the streets she knew.

Laura saw approaching headlights several blocks ahead of her, two beams of light piercing the darkness. Sudden fear made her flatten her body against one of the stores. She slid along the wall into the darkness of a narrow alley, hiding behind a large trashcan, kneeling in a light coating of snow.

Laura heard the car coming and saw the beams of the headlights. A van pulled up and stopped on the opposite side of the street. The headlights turned dark, but for a moment, no one left the van. She made her breathing as quiet as possible.

The van doors opened, and three young black men emerged. They separated and walked a few yards from the car. All three were dressed in dark clothes, fancy sneakers and ski caps. Laura could see they were looking around.

Are they coming after me?

The three men pulled down their ski caps to hide their identities and hurried to the front door of the consumer electronics store across the street. She realized these men were going to rob the store, not come after her. Thank God, she thought, choking back a sob.

The store was protected by a pull-down metal cage. One of the men pulled out a key ring with a thick set of keys. He tried key after key until he was able to unlock it. They lifted the metal cage, which opened with a loud clang. The sound rattled across the quiet street, and the men glanced around. Once they had the cage out of the way, they were quickly able to unlock the front door. Two of them went into the store and began to carry equipment out to the van, while one man stayed outside and watched the street.

The thieves loaded up the van with stolen goods for several minutes. Laura didn’t dare move. She was less than fifty feet away from the lookout, and any type of noise would give away her position.

Then she heard something. Listening more closely, she heard the tiny scraping of a small animal cautiously moving across the litter of the pavement. Laura looked deeply into the alley, but the darkness hid whatever was back there. She heard it again, now a little closer. She focused on the direction of the sound and saw something move.

Yellow eyes peered out of the darkness. Laura caught her breath; years of tenement living told her what it was. As her eyes adjusted to the deep black of the alley, she began to see the outline of the rat.

Just stay away from me.

She saw a second pair of yellow eyes, then a third. The rats were coming toward her – slowly, cautiously – but they were getting close. The garbage can! I’m between them and their food.

The rats moved to within a few yards of her feet. She wanted to stand up and run, but the lookout would be sure to see her. Laura tried to shoo them away, but they scooted back a few feet and, probably realizing she was not chasing after them, came back even closer.

One of the rats crept within inches of her feet and suddenly attacked. After biting into the leather of her shoe, the rodent scurried away as she kicked out. Unfortunately, she jostled the garbage can.

“Who’s there?” Laura heard the lookout call.

A flashlight shined around the garbage can, and Laura pulled her knees against her chest, hoping to stay out of view. The light slowly panned across the alley, growing larger as the lookout approached.

She heard the man say, “Shit,” and the flashlight went out.

“Car coming,” the lookout yelled. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The street was noisy with footsteps, and she heard van doors slam shut. In a second, she heard tires squeal as the van pulled away. She peeked around the trash can – the street was empty. Laura was still hidden in the alley as a police car roared by, siren blasting. Too late, she realized the police car was the safest place to be. She ran to the sidewalk just as the cruiser turned a corner and disappeared from view. She wandered aimlessly into the middle of the street as the siren faded in the distance.

She had to get away from the store before another lowlife was drawn to the inviting target. My wallet computer! Laura pulled out her computer to call a cab … the police … someone. She punched in her mother’s number, but the line was dead. She looked fearfully down the avenue, dark and unfamiliar, toward her home.

There was no other way. She would have to walk.

*

As the figure came into focus, Murphy realized the soldier was a woman. Moderately tall, he thought, broad-shouldered, maybe a little too heavy. The rifle she carried was the same model used by all of Goldman’s soldiers. Somehow, she had hidden in the warehouse and eluded their search.

“You alive for the moment, but that could change real fast,” the woman said. “Do exactly what I say. Start by taking off those clothes.”

Murphy quickly stripped down to his underwear.

“Turn around,” she said. “Slowly.”

Murphy turned in a slow circle as she checked him for weapons. He had been carrying a rifle, but it was on the floor several yards away. Near Gebhardt, Murphy thought as he looked at the body, its eyes wide open in an unblinking stare.

“Okay, no weapons.” The rifle was still pointed at his chest. “Do exactly what I say, and I might not shoot you miserable ass.”

“Listen, I have to tell you something,” Murphy said.

“Shut the fuck up, dogface. I’m the one doing the talking,” she said. “You going to lead me out of this warehouse. Bastards sneaked in through here and ambushed us, so there has to be a secret way out of here.” The woman jabbed the rifle at him. “Take me there, now.”

He pointed down the center aisle. “It’s down there – a tunnel that goes under the brick wall.”

“Get going,” she snapped.

As he led her down the center aisle, Murphy looked at his watch. Only thirty-five minutes to go. He knew the woman would shoot him as soon as she didn’t need him anymore. He had to kill her, and the tunnel would be the best place for an ambush.

“Stop looking at that fucking watch, dogface. You probably not gonna live long enough to matter.”

“We came in through the tunnel last night. Since there was a good chance we would all be killed, I took a precaution.”

They were at the far wall now. “The tunnel is behind this shelf,” he said.

“What was this precaution?”

“We bought a few portable nukes from our Russian friends. I left one in the tunnel.” Murphy looked at his watch again. “Set to blow in thirty-two minutes.”

She laughed, but it was strained. “You expect me to believe that bullshit?”

“That’s why I came down here.” He reached behind the shelf, feeling for a button.

“Nice and slow,” the woman said. The muzzle of her rifle was pointed at his chest.

Murphy found the button and pushed it. He pulled his hand out and watched the shelf lift straight up, revealing the tunnel.

“Son of a bitch,” she muttered.

Murphy turned to her and said, “The bomb is about fifty feet down the tunnel.”

She was studying him, her finger on the trigger.

“I can disarm it,” he said. “We figured everyone within three miles of the facility would go up with the blast. Of course, it’s all woods out there.”

“All right, take me to this bomb.”

“Can I have your flashlight? There are no lights in the tunnel.”

“Yeah, right. Get going, dogface. I’ll shine the flashlight.”

Murphy began crawling down the tunnel, with the soldier a few feet behind him. A moment later, he saw the glow of the instrument panel in front of him. The flashlight beam skipped past the backpack and came back to settle on the instrument panel. He figured she was having trouble controlling both the flashlight and the rifle.

“That’s it,” he said, glancing at her. The flashlight was in her left hand, awkwardly pressed against the barrel. The rifle was pointed at the backpack, not directly at him.

“Shit,” she said, her voice for the first time containing an edge of fear.

He kneeled in front of the bomb, pretending to study the instrument panel. I have to get her now. The digital readout changed from twenty-four to twenty-three minutes as he studied it.

“What the fuck you waiting for? Turn the damn thing off.”

“This keyboard is too small for a midget,” he whined. “Give me a little more light.”

The beam juggled about as the woman moved closer. Without looking, Murphy lashed out with a mule kick to exactly the spot where he thought her face should be. His boot crunched her mouth and nose, and she stumbled backwards, the rifle flying out of her hand. Murphy was on her before she could recover. He punched the side of her face, knocking her back against the wall of the tunnel.

Murphy turned, seized the rifle, and spun around to shoot her but was too slow. She grabbed the barrel before he could get off a shot and pushed the muzzle away. At the same time, she kneed him in the groin.

Murphy collapsed, barely holding on to the rifle with one hand. The pain was a nightmare so intense his eyes began to blur. The woman pulled hard on the rifle, and his right hand slipped down the grip. He held on desperately, but his strength was just about gone.

Then Murphy saw the flashlight near his feet. He reached down but missed the handle as she pulled hard on the rifle and jerked his hand away. She jerked the rifle in the reverse direction, trying to shake him off. He fell over but was able to scoop up the flashlight. Still holding on to the rifle, he smashed the flashlight against her forehead with all his remaining strength.

The woman crashed to the floor, unconscious. Murphy pulled the rifle to his shoulder, squinting to make out his adversary through pain-wet eyes. He fired, and the body jerked. A crushing pain rolled through his body, but he fired a second shot into her before everything turned dark.

Murphy hadn’t lost consciousness, but the pain left him helpless. Gradually, the agony receded, and he began to reclaim his body. He blinked and tried to focus his eyes. Got to get up, he thought to himself as he rolled onto his side. He saw the crumpled form of his enemy in the dim glow of the flashlight.

The bomb!

Murphy got to his knees and crawled toward it. The bomb was resting on its side, knocked over during the fight. He pulled it upright and saw the instrument panel was flashing red.

Four minutes.

He kneeled in front of the panel and pressed the reset button to terminate the timer. He waited, the seconds dragging by. Nothing happened. The panel blinked a new message.

Three minutes.

Murphy pushed the button again, but the panel continued to flash red. He realized something in the circuit boards must have been damaged during the fight. He flipped up the side cover and looked inside. Murphy wasn’t an explosives expert; he was confused by the maze of circuit boards crammed into the compartment. He fought his panic and began to methodically check each board, looking to see if the connections had been damaged during the fight. The box emitted a warning buzz.

One minute.

He found a loose board and snapped it in. Please, Christ. The panel said eighteen seconds when he pressed the reset button.

The red light stopped flashing, and the readout went blank. Murphy sat and waited. Seconds turned into minutes. It was over.