« Peacemaker », Chapter Twenty Three   

Chapter Twenty Three

Spokesperson Amelia Grey admitted the FBI have made little progress in the search for Richard Kim. Mr. Kim disappeared mysteriously about three months ago after leaving his office at VPS one evening. Our sources report investigators suspect he may have been involved with the development of PeaceMaker.

---- Portlandtimes.news, April 12, 2012

 

The Pentagon reported today that Special Forces had captured a computer containing an updated copy of the PeaceMaker software virus. This is the third such capture this year, raising concerns that Islamic terrorists are planning to launch a virus attack in the near future.

---- The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2016

 

Early Monday Morning, January 30, 2012

Leon searched the third level of the parking garage for his car. All the overhead lights were out, so the darkness hid the identification number for each spot. Even worse, the remote door opener no longer worked, which forced him to try each car with the plastic key.

Eventually, Leon found his car and climbed in. His hands trembled as he turned the steering wheel, so he leaned back and tried to pull himself together. Usually, he could drive home in about an hour, but now he didn’t know what to expect on the roads.

Leon carefully drove down to the exit area on the ground level. Swiveling headlights, synchronized to the direction of the tires, pierced the darkness as he descended, illuminating a strangely quiet and deserted building. Usually, the cars were lined up three deep at the tollbooths but not tonight. Like the remnants of a failed civilization, the tollbooths were abandoned.

Leon drove past the gate and turned onto the airport exit road. All the streetlights were out, but the moon bathed the road in a fragile radiance. He was glad to see a few cars on the road; each seemed like an unexpected visit from an old friend. He tried to call home, but the dial tone was missing.

As he usually did, Leon drove north along the Delaware River on Route 95. He turned on the radio, but static filled the car. As he swung around the airport, flames from the crashed jet flickered over the water. Rescue boats were searching for survivors, and fire engines were extinguishing the last of the blaze on both sides of the river. Leon knew it could easily have been him lying dead in that broken plane.

Gradually, he left the airport behind. The warmth from the car’s heater was soothing. It was ordinary, predictable. The naval base came into view, the huge fighting ships gray shapes in the night. A few lights were moving on the base, and he felt a little better.

Cars entered the highway, causing traffic to slow down and finally lurch to a stop. Leon jabbed along for more than a mile before he saw the problem. A big truck had turned over, blocking the northbound lanes. A lone cop stood on the center line, directing the cars around the accident. Leon rolled down his window as he edged past the man and shouted his thanks. The cop nodded to him and kept working.

He could barely make out a dark skyline as he approached center city Philadelphia. Usually, the huge buildings were well lit, but tonight they were murky giants jutting into the sky. The dark valleys between the buildings were challenged only by the headlights of an occasional car.

You wouldn’t want to be walking those streets tonight.

He continued on 95, driving past several bridges that crossed to New Jersey. Leon was still in Philadelphia when the traffic again came to a halt. He stepped out of the car and peered ahead for an accident but couldn’t see anything. All four northbound lanes were clogged with cars, while the southbound lanes were deserted. A cold breeze blew off the Delaware, so he got back in the car. After waiting several minutes, Leon noticed the gas gauge had dropped almost to empty, so he turned off the engine and settled back to wait.

He had been sitting in the car for almost half an hour when he heard something that sounded like a pop. Leon pushed open the door and heard fast-moving footsteps coming in his direction. A well-dressed man ran past his car, and then a young woman. Alarmed, he stood on the edge of the car doorway and looked around but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Suddenly, a gang of young men ran out from the side of the highway and approached the cars. Big trouble, he thought. Guns, bats and who knows what else.

Terrified, Leon started the engine and looked for a way to escape from the clogged highway. He backed up and rammed the car behind him, trying to make room. He frantically turned the steering wheel to get his car to the shoulder of the road, but space was tight and he hit the car in front of him. By then, two of the thugs had reached his car. One member of the gang swung a bat and blasted through the driver-side window. Leon ducked onto the passenger seat and covered his face to avoid the flying glass.

The thug pulled open the door and grabbed Leon by the back of the collar. As he was dragged out of the car, Leon spun around and punched the man hard in the face. He knocked the thug back, but the second man slugged him, grabbed his head, and slammed it against the car. Barely conscious, Leon slumped to the road. He was dimly aware when someone kicked him in the side, went through his pockets, and grabbed his wallet. He felt someone take hold of his wrist and pull off his watch, and his hand dropped to the street.

Leon’s head throbbed as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Gradually, he became aware someone was speaking to him.

“How are you doing, buddy?”

The night slowly came into focus. He was on his back in the highway, looking up at the stars. A silver-haired white man was kneeling over him, pressing a handkerchief to his forehead.

“My head feels like it’s ready to explode,” Leon mumbled. “Am I bleeding?”

The man picked up the handkerchief and examined Leon’s head. “Seems to be stopping. I saw that thug slam your head against the car. They took your wallet and your watch. The bastards got mine, too.”

“Let me see if I can stand up,” Leon said.

His legs felt shaky, but with a helping hand from the older man, he was able to get up. The cold air cleared his head. Leon glanced around for the thugs, but, thankfully, they were gone. He saw cars begin to move farther up the road.

“Are you able to drive?” the man asked. “You can come in my car if you’re not feeling up to it.”

Leon shivered from the cold and said, “Thanks, but I’ll be okay. I want to get home to my wife and kids tonight if I can.”

The older man looked up the road. “I’d better get back to my car. Looks like we’ll be moving soon.” The man peered into his eyes and said, “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Leon called after him, as the man disappeared into the night.

Still feeling light-headed, Leon climbed into his car and pressed the ignition. He was able to drive, but he had to force himself to concentrate. The car moved ahead slowly for about a mile and reached the site of another accident. He saw more than a dozen smashed and overturned cars on both sides of the road, a few still smoldering from a recently extinguished fire. The wrecks had been pushed to the side, leaving two lanes open. Leon edged past the accident but traveling remained slow.

He looked at his watch. Three hours and he was less than half-way home. He decided to cross into New Jersey and drive up old Route 29 along that side of the Delaware. He found a bridge to New Jersey and crossed over.

Driving the old highway was nerve-wracking. The snow was carelessly plowed, and the roads remained slippery. All the traffic lights were out, so he had to stop at each intersection and strain to see oncoming cars.

Leon drove for about an hour and crossed back to Pennsylvania at New Hope. During the summer months, he avoided the town and its streets packed with tourists. Tonight was different, though. The shoppers were absent, and many of the shops had broken windows. As he drove through town, Leon saw looters loading a van with sports equipment. Another looter was tearing down the door of a jewelry store. The looter stopped and stared as Leon drove by. He stepped on the gas and drove through the town as quickly as he could.

As he approached the edge of town, Leon found the street blocked by a large, well-behaved group of people milling about. A crowd had gathered at the front steps of an old, wood frame church and spilled out into the street. He attempted to keep moving forward, but the crowd was tightly packed into the narrow street, forcing him to stop. Leon tried to back up and turn around, but too many people were walking behind the car.

Waiting once again, he heard music coming from the church, so he rolled down his window. Leon could make out an organ blending into a chorus of voices. Although the words were indistinct, the music was sweet. The hymn seemed to reach back to his childhood – he could almost see his mother leading the choir. The sound touched something deep within, but he had a family waiting.

Leon saw three well-dressed men politely asking the crowd to move back and let the cars go by. People began to separate – moving to the sides of the street, creating a narrow lane. A young girl hanging on her mother’s arm smiled and waved at him as he drove by, and he found himself waving back. Slowly, the music faded into the background as he drove away.

In a few minutes, he turned into his neighborhood. Like everywhere else, the lights were out in all the homes. Leon pulled into his driveway and found his way to the brick path leading to the front door. As he walked to the door, Sabrina rushed out of the house and threw her arms around him.

Later, Leon and Sabrina sat in front of the fireplace and talked. After a while, he felt her rhythmic breathing and saw she was asleep on his shoulder. Leon basked in the warmth of the fire for awhile, put his head back on the couch, and drifted into an exhausted sleep.

He was sleeping peacefully when the lights woke him.

*

Nancy sat in the dim hospital room, staring at the silent form in the bed. Moonlight trickled through the open blinds, coming to rest on a pale, young face. The doctors had examined her son as best they could without modern equipment. They had worked feverishly to stimulate his heart, but everything had failed. His pulse was fading – too weak to maintain life, the doctors told her. They couldn’t help him, so they put him in the bed and left. She prayed for a miracle.

Nancy looked over at Brian, who was asleep on the other chair. She found a blanket in the closet, which she gently slipped over him. She kissed Brian, sat next to the bed, and watched David.

A moment later, Nancy leaned toward him and said, “Fight it, David. You can beat this thing. You’re young and strong.” She fought back a sob. “I know you have a deep strength. You have to use it … draw upon it. You can’t leave us. We love you – all of us. Your father, Brian, me … I love you so much.”

She kept talking, trying to keep him alive. Finally, a fluttering beam of light from the hallway caught her eye. She had become accustomed to the flashlights as the doctors and nurses went by. A nurse walked into the room, a large, older black woman with a friendly attitude. Her name was Josie, Nancy remembered.

The nurse said hello, and Nancy nodded back. Josie checked David’s pulse and temperature, much like a nurse would have done half a century ago. Nancy knew everyone was doing the best they could, with no power or computers, but it didn’t make her feel any better. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, not surprised to find wetness.

Shaking her head, Josie said, “I’m sorry. His pulse is still droppin’, and his temperature is down even more.” She looked sympathetically at Nancy. “How you doin’, honey?”

“I don’t understand.” Nancy wiped her eyes again. “He was fine a couple of hours earlier. Working with his computer, like always.”

“Why don’t you try to get some rest?” Josie said. “Your son is a fighter. He’s not givin’ up. I’ll sit with him for awhile.”

The lights abruptly turned on, first in the hall, then in the room. Josie said, “Finally! Now we can do our job. We’ll find out –”

“David!” Nancy shouted.

David’s eyes were wide open. He screamed – a hoarse, crackling whisper of a cry, terrifying in its intensity. Nancy hugged his rigid body and whispered in his ear, but David continued to scream.

Brian was shocked out of his sleep and began to cry. He ran to Nancy and buried his face in her lap, sobbing.

Gradually, David’s cries diminished. His body became a soft formless thing, and he finally stopped crying.

Nancy held him closely and murmured over and over, “It’s all right. It’s all right.” David’s raspy breathing gradually returned to normal. Finally, he raised his head and looked around in confusion.

“How you feelin’, young fella?” Josie said. “You gave us quite a scare.”

“Am I in a hospital?”

Josie walked toward the door, saying, “Yes, you are, but you look pretty good now. I’ll check back in a few minutes.”

Nancy hugged him again. “Thank God, you’re all right. What happened to you? I came in your room and found you unconscious.”

David seemed to think back. “I was talking to Alice, and all of a sudden I felt something burn into my mind. It was like my brain just melted down.” He backed out of Nancy’s embrace. “Then, somehow, I was inside the computer, looking out.” Shaking his head, he said, “I know you won’t believe me.”

“Go ahead,” Nancy said. “Tell me what happened.”

“I could see my body outside the computer. But I wasn’t moving out there. Just looking into the display. Then I felt her on the edge of my mind.

“It was Alice,” he said. “We were both there. I thought Alice was just my computer’s persona, but she’s real. She was ripping into my mind. It hurt real bad. The next thing I remember is waking up in this room.”

His eyes welled up. “What’s wrong with me? Something terrible is going to happen. I can feel it coming.”

“Nothing bad is going to happen to you,” Nancy said.

David’s head jerked to look around the room, “Dad. Where’s Dad?”

“I don’t know. The power, phones, computers are all down. He’s probably at work or maybe in his home.”

“Get Dad,” David pleaded. “Call him now, Mom. Please.”

Nancy tried the netphone next to the bed and got a dial tone. As her sons watched, she said Ray’s personal number. She listened to the phone ring over and over, looking into David’s frightened eyes and hoping Ray would pick up.

But there was no answer.

*

Laura was almost home. Another three blocks and she would be safe. Just a little farther and she would come to Grant Street. Another two blocks along Grant to get to her apartment building.

Just about there.

She walked close to the buildings and tried to stay out of sight. Laura was still scared, but she felt better being so close to home. Suddenly, she was shoved from behind and her purse ripped off her shoulder. Laura fell to the pavement but held on to the strap of her purse. She looked up to see the thief was a slender boy, maybe twelve or thirteen.

The boy tried to rip the purse away from her, but she was too strong. Her coat tore open when the boy, shouting curses, dragged her into the gutter. They continued to struggle over the purse, and he kicked her hard in the side. Laura cried out from the pain but held on to her purse. She lashed out with a foot, hitting him just above the knee. He cried out and collapsed, his face disfigured by pain. He tried to scramble away on his knees, but she grabbed his leg. He struggled to jerk his leg away, but she was determined not to let go.

All the fear and anger of the long night drove her to fight without reason. Laura got to her knees and punched the boy in the back with all her might. He screamed again, rolled over and Laura grabbed the front of his shirt. As she yanked him forward, the boy drove his hand into her side. She saw a flash of metal and felt something pierce her skin. Looking down, she saw the handle of a knife sticking out of her side. Blood was spurting around the knife, soaking through her coat. She looked at her attacker, who was staring at the blood. My blood, Laura thought as she fell over on her back.

*

The police car was cruising down the Avenue. Roy Gibbons was tired from dealing with incidents throughout the long, dangerous night. Several stores had been broken into tonight, and Roy and his partner had been unable to catch any of the thieves. Since communications were down, they were on their own.

Gibbons looked out the car window at streets that had barely changed since his youth. He had grown up in Newark, just a few miles down the Avenue. He glanced at the driver, Joe Santoro, a young, white guy with less than a year on the force. Roy knew it was up to him to keep both of them alive tonight.

Roy was scanning both sides of the street, when he noticed a dark form lying on the pavement. “Joe, pull over to the right. I think I saw something.”

Both officers pulled their revolvers, got out of the car and looked up and down the Avenue. Roy had never seen it like this, so dark and quiet. The streetlights blinked, the darkness returned for a moment and then the avenue was lit up in a burst of energy.

Crouching defensively in the glare of the lights, Roy walked toward the object, then began to run. He knelt down to examine a young woman and saw a knife deep in her side. The dark circle of blood surrounding her was in cruel contrast with the snow. Roy put his head on her chest and listened for the pulse of life.

Joe leaned over. “Is she alive?” he asked, nervously glancing up and down the street.

Roy looked up at his partner, sighed and shook his head.

*

“Maureen!” she heard Brett yell from across the room.

She was behind the wall examining wire when she heard Brett’s wail. “The coolant temperature is in the red zone!” he shouted. “It’s not cooling the reactor anymore. The core is starting meltdown.”

Maureen climbed out of the wall and stood up. All work had stopped. The control room was quiet. She hurried over to Brett and looked at the antique instruments. The core would blow any minute. There was nothing she could do. They had lost.

The technicians gathered around her, waiting to hear the worst. Maureen heard someone begin a prayer, but it provided no comfort. She was angry at their incompetence, and she turned to vent her feelings.

The lights blinked and, without warning, the computers started up. The drab control room became a rainbow of multi-colored displays. Graphs, blinking lights, charts were everywhere. The technicians let out a cheer and rushed to their workstations.

Sentry responded rapidly and began to inject emergency water into the reactor cooling system. Maureen rushed over to the main console and saw the coolant temperature peak and slowly come down. No meltdown! She checked the containment pressure. Much too high.

It was going to blow!

Sentry started the containment spray and fan systems to reduce the pressure, but Maureen knew it was too little, too late.

She heard Brett say, “Thank God.”

Didn’t he see that containment wouldn’t hold? That the explosion would kill them all? The fool – it was up to me.

“Sentry, release the containment pressure,” Maureen shouted.

“No, no,” Harold screamed. “Reverse the order. Containment will hold.”

At first it was like a low moan, but it quickly swelled into a high-pitched shriek. The crew stood frozen in horror as they listened to torrents of radioactive steam shriek into the skies.

Maureen grabbed the side of the console as the building began to shake. She stared at the main console, which was showing the scenes captured by the cameras on the roof. A gray hurricane of steam was roaring out the vents and disappearing into the air.

Brett whispered, “My God, what have we done?” as the radiation rode the wind.