Friday, October 17, 2014

Chapter 39

The three soldiers ran back through the corridor to the stairs at the end of the hall.  Graham and Charley quickly climbed the stairs in the Battery Station until they reached the fifth floor.  The smoke was starting to clear, but it was still thick at the top.  They exited the station through a narrow door and then ran down a long hallway, past maintenance access hatches to a large grey door. 
“What’s in here?” Charley queried, “I never even knew this door existed.”
“It’s not a great place for a storage room.  We don’t use it much anymore.  But I think that it’s near the back wall of the Brain Room.  Come on, open her up so we can see.”
Charley passed his key card through the reader, and the door opened.  The emergency lights in the room revealed a dusty, neglected mess.  High metal shelving units lined the room’s walls and were covered with years of the Platform’s detritus.  Overflowing cardboard boxes sat among old aprons, rusted cooking pots, stacks of paper, and tee-shirts from the facilities’ 20th anniversary party. 
“There’s an air duct in here somewhere, I’m sure of it,” Graham said.   “Help me pull these shelves away from the walls so we can figure out where it is.  We’ve got to hurry.  If they blow the Brain Room, the whole West Coast water production operation will be out of commission.”
They crossed the room, picking their way through the piles of long-forgotten junk.  They started pulling the shelves out from the wall one by one and groping along the walls.  After a few minutes of work, they located the air vent.  Graham knelt down next to it, got out the pocket knife his father had given him so many years ago, and began to remove the screws that held the vent cover in place.  He made quick work of it and pulled the cover off. 
“No flashlight, huh?” Graham asked.
“Nope.  I could run back.”
“No time.  We’ll just have to do our best in there,” Graham sighed.  After spending what seemed like hours bound and gagged in the tiny wardrobe back in the guest quarters, he was not looking forward to climbing into a dark hole barely wide enough for his shoulders. 
“Sir, I think that you should go first.  That vent looks mighty small.  I am going to give it a shot, but I would hate to get stuck in there and then be in your way.”
“I agree, but give me a little room in there.  I don’t want to feel you nipping at my heels.  If you need to communicate with me, just whisper.  I’m sure that I will be able to hear you.  I don’t think that the Brain Room is far.  At least I hope not.”
Graham then stuck his head into the air vent.  He could feel the thick dust on his hands as he pulled the rest of his body into the shaft.  The vent was not tall enough for him to crawl on all fours.  His ribs hurt like hell.  He had to shimmy ahead, pulling himself forward with his elbows.  After he had progressed a few feet, he heard Charley climbing into the shaft behind him.  No turning back now, he thought.
Graham pulled himself through the pitch darkness a few feet more until he came to a sharp corner in the shaft.  He tried to get through on his stomach, but he could not squeeze through.  One of his hips was now caught on the corner.  His hands began to sweat and his breathing accelerated.  “Come on, Graham,” he whispered to himself, “hold it together just this one time.”   He then backed up out of the corner, turned on his side, and pulled his torso and then his legs through.  “I don’t think that you’re going to make it through this corner,” he said softly to Charley.
“I’ll do my best, Colonel.  You push ahead.  I’ll catch up, don’t worry.”
Graham could now see a dim light shining into the shaft through the slats of a vent cover at the far end.  He crawled forward as quickly as he could.  If his calculations were correct, the air shaft ended in a quiet corner of the Brain Room, out of sight from the central console.  He did not know what he was going to do when he got into the room; he figured he would devise a plan once he actually got in there. 
When he reached the vent cover, he glanced out.  He could not see much through the slats, but he could tell that he was looking into the Brain Room.  He heard Ian’s voice giving orders to Peggy Lee.  Other, muffled sounds were coming from the room – Graham assumed that the soldiers had been gagged.  He pushed on the grate, but could not force it free.  He punched it a couple of times with his palm, trying not to make too much noise, but it would not give.  He did not want to alert Peggy Lee and Ian to his presence.  Then, he remembered his pocket knife.  He felt its weight in his trouser pocket.  He shifted onto his side again and reached down into his pocket.  He got out the thick blade and turned back onto his stomach. 
Charley whispered from behind, “Sir, I am not sure if I am going to be able to get through here.  You might be on your own.”
“Ten-four, Charley,” Graham whispered back, as he began to pry the grate away from the wall.  After a few seconds, he had freed one corner.  When he attempted to pry open the next corner, however, the thick blade snapped in two.  Graham had yanked too hard.  About an inch and a half of the blade, including the tip, fell to the ground outside of the ventilation shaft.  Graham was left holding the handle, with just about of a third of the blade intact.  His heart sank – he knew that his father would have been disappointed to see the knife break in half at the exact moment Graham needed it the most.  But that had been a big part of the last years of his father’s life – that disappointment.
His anxiety began to balloon.  If he could not get the grate off in front of him, how was he going to get out?  Charley was blocking the other end.  What if Peggy Lee and Ian detonated the bombs with him trapped in the ventilation shaft.  Flames would consume him, and he would not be able to move.  He would squirm and wriggle and fight to get away, but he would die in the fiery confines of that tiny metal shaft.  The air began to feel very hot, and his hands shook uncontrollably.  Bile formed in his throat, and his stomach felt like it was turning inside out.  He could taste his dinner – acid and sweetness in his mouth. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Chapter 38

As Graham reached the third floor, the smoke grew so thick he could scarcely see anything.  Angry flames licked the blackened Battery Station walls, and the heat from the fire was almost unbearable.  He covered his mouth with his shirt, ducked down low, and kept going.  When he got as close as he could to the fire, he squeezed the handle of the fire extinguisher.  A powerful stream of white powder shot onto the flames and eventually killed the majority of the fire. 
Once some of the smoke had cleared, he dug through a pile of frayed, broken, and blackened wires, smoldering memory boards, and melted silicon plates.  All that was really left of the central console was a black, gaping hole.  Charred pieces of plastic, some still aflame, lay strewn about his feet.  A thick power cord snaked by his feet, spewing sparks and dancing wildly a few feet away.  The spilled electricity had already started to melt the metal grating under the cord.  The sparks rained down through the smoky air all the way to the ground floor.  There was nothing salvageable here.  The battery system for the region had been completely disabled. 
And then he noticed an odd component in the rubble.  It was too hot to hold.  He used his shirt sleeve to protect his fingers and picked it up. 
The alarm continued to whine overhead as he turned to leave.  When he stepped toward the stairs, he saw that the heat from the electrical cord had already melted a hole in the metal floor.  The cord fell through the hole and began to swing lazily from side to side.  Hundreds of kilowatts spilled out of the wire, dissipating into thin air.  It will take months – maybe years – to fix this, Graham despaired. 
He jumped over the hole and ran down the stairs.  As he descended, he noticed three other soldiers talking with Charley on the ground floor.
“Sir,” Charley shouted as he saw Graham approaching.  “All soldiers have taken up their attack-ready positions.  We think that the terrorists are probably heading for the Brain Room.”
“I think it’s safe to guess that they’re already there.  Look, I found this in the debris upstairs.”  Graham showed the soldiers the burn component in his hand. 
“What is it?” Charley asked.
“It’s part of a remote detonator.  They probably waited until they were already in the Brain Room before detonating this explosion by remote control.  That way, they tripped the alarms only after they had gained entrance to the Brain Room.  We’re in a lot of trouble, boys.”
“What do you mean?” one of the soldiers asked.
“With the central alarm activated, the Brain Room doors will be jammed shut,” Graham explained.  “We set it up that way years ago so that no attackers could access the Brain Room once the central alarm was tripped.  The doors are on a timer and will only open after three hours.  We figured that would be enough time for us to regain control of the Platform through reinforcements from headquarters.  There is no override code because we were afraid that terrorists might try to torture it out of us.  We never counted on the attackers gaining access to the Brain Room before tripping the alarm.  Now we are locked out, and they are safe and sound inside, behind those thick, titanium reinforced, security doors, with three hours to rig their bombs and blow the place to smithereens. 
“Soldier,” Graham continued, “who do we have on duty in the Brain Room?”
“The Brain Room is manned by a couple of rookies tonight,” a baby-faced soldier responded.  “Private Adams and Private Peterson.  I don’t think that they’ve been trained in any attack scenarios.  They are both techies and were planning to fix some of the bugs that have crept into the system over the past few months.  We scheduled them to have their shifts at the same time so that they could help each other out.  Neither of them is much of a fighter – as far as I know anyway.”
“So we can’t count on them for much,” Graham said.  “So here’s the plan.  I want you three to go and see if you can break through the main entry portal to the Brain Room.  Gather everyone.  All hands on deck for this one.  Those doors are heavy duty, so it will take some time to get through.  Get the blow torch, blast the door open, do whatever it takes.  Just don’t hurt our guys inside or the Brain Room computers in the process. 
“In the meantime, Charley and I are going to try to get in through the air ducts.  I remember that there was a vent behind the main server racks, and I think I know how we can get to it.  If we are lucky, we can surprise the attackers and gain the upper hand.  Does everyone understand?”
“Yes, sir,” the three soldiers replied in unison.
“Yeah, Graham, let’s do it,” Charley answered.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Chapter 37

“What the hell is all of this?” Charley asked as he undid the gag and cut the strap binding Graham’s hands. 
Instead of answering, Graham lay down flat on his back, his body still pulsing with pain, and stretched his arms out wide.  He took a long, deep breath and then sat up.  He wiped the mucus and saliva off his face with the outside of the hood.  He rolled his head back and side-to-side and then glanced out into the hallway, past the broken door.  Two bottles of red wine sat on the floor across the hall.  Charley had been true to his word; he had sought out the wine for Graham’s rendezvous with Peggy Lee.
“I was waiting for you down by the boat,” Charley said.  “When you didn’t show up, I came here to see if everything was okay.  I tried to open the door with my pass card, but the lock was jammed.  I even tried the override code, but it still wouldn’t open.  Lucky this is one of the older doors, so I was able to bust it down.  So what’s going on?  Where’s Peggy Lee?  Is this some kind of weird sex game gone out of control?”
Graham shook his head.  “No, no, Charley, we have a real problem on our hands.  We’ve got to find Peggy Lee and that son of a bitch, Ian.  I think they’re eco-terrorists.  I think they’re planning on destroying the Platform.”
“Are you kiddin’ me?” 
“I’m afraid not,” Graham said.
Charley helped Graham up off of the ground.  Graham moaned and almost toppled over, catching his balance by grabbing the side of the wardrobe.  “Are you okay?” Charley asked.
“Yeah, no, I don’t know,” Graham answered, “maybe a broken rib or something.  But that doesn’t matter.  Come on, let’s sound the central alarm, and then we’ll track them down.  The nearest trigger is in the dining hall.” 
They hurried out of the room and started running down the corridor.  Just as they were about to round the corner towards the dining hall, a loud boom shook the hallway.  The lights dimmed and then flickered completely off.  Seconds later, the emergency power system kicked in, and the lights came back on at half strength.  The blast had come from behind them.  A local alarm from down the hallway began to blare, and then the central one kicked in.
“Shit,” Graham said.  “Sounds like they started in the Battery Station.  Let’s get down there before they can do any more damage.”
They turned around and sprinted past the broken door and the bottles of red wine.  Then they jumped down the two flights of stairs that led to the Battery Station.  Graham stumbled but caught himself on the railing and kept running.  Hot, thick smoke filled the approach to the station, but they did not slow down.  They ran straight through the smoke and onto the main floor. 
A small fire burned on the first floor right above them, but most of the smoke was coming from the third floor, where sparks spewed from the central command computer.  The giant overhead fans had been disabled by the blast.  The alarm blared in their ears.  The dimness of the emergency lights combined with the bitter, black smoke made it hard to see anything clearly.  Graham choked and coughed as he assessed the situation.  “It looks like Peggy Lee and Ian aren’t here anymore,” he yelled.  “You take the fire on the first floor, and I’ll work on the upper one.”  He grabbed two fire extinguishers, handed one to Charley, and then started running up the metal stairs.
As he climbed, he recalled the conversation he had had with Peggy Lee earlier that afternoon.  He had been surprised that she had even noticed the central computer way up on the third floor, barely in sight.  But now he understood; she had used him to double-check her specs.      
Now the water production system had been significantly compromised, and it was totally his fault.  He should have never allowed them to come out to the facilities in the first place.  He should have seen it coming.  He should have known that something was amiss.  He should have realized that there was no way in hell such a beautiful woman would ever be attracted to him.  The burning computer, the acrid smoke, the shrieking alarm, they were all proof of desperate gullibility and his sad, shameful naiveté.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Chapter 36

Outside the wardrobe, Graham heard Peggy Lee and Ian moving around the room.  After a few minutes, they left, closing the door quietly behind them.  Crammed in the closet, Graham could hear nothing but the sound of his own intensely labored breathing.  Sweat dripped down his brow and into his eyes.  Inside the dusty hood, the air became nearly unbreathable.  His arms ached, and his stomach throbbed from where Ian had kicked him.  He wanted to scream, but his tongue’s effort against the ball in his mouth made him gag.  He was afraid he’d throw up.  He thought he might choke.  He struggled against the straps that bound his wrists, but he could not free himself.  He recalled the terror in Ginger’s eyes back in the silo – those many years ago – as she yowled against the violent storm of corn.  He wondered if his eyes now looked like hers did then.  He wanted, he needed to touch his scar, to try to calm himself down, but he couldn’t.    
Graham tried to stand up, but the wardrobe was too short.  He hit the top of his head and then fell forward.  He could squat, but that was no help.  He tried to push the wardrobe doors open with his knees, but he could not get any leverage.  The wardrobe seemed to be getting smaller and smaller.  Graham felt his breathing quicken.  He knew that he had to calm down, but the sides of the closet were closing in on him.  Now the air in the hood turned to thick gravy.  Each breath filled his lungs with dirt and grit.  Each breath became faster, shorter, harder. 
Graham flipped himself onto his back with his feet in the air.  His arms were pinned painfully underneath him.  He tried to calm himself down.  The image of Peggy Lee’s face came into his head.  She was so beautiful.  How could she have done this to him?  She had seemed so genuine, so caring and kind.  The thought of her crying in the hover transport vehicle made his stomach drop.  Was it just an act?  He felt sick with shame, and then the anger took back over. 
He had to do something to get out of there.  With his feet, he kicked the side of the wardrobe as hard as he could.  The banging was deafening inside of the wardrobe.  He knew that trying to signal someone was a long shot.  The soldiers’ quarters were far away, as was the rec room.  Perhaps some of the guys had lingered in the dining hall and could hear him, but he doubted it.  After a few minutes of continuous kicking, he stopped.  He was exhausting himself, and no one was coming. 
Graham began to pass in and out of consciousness.  In his haze, he remembered a story about a woman who had been caught cheating on her husband.  The husband happened to be one of the most powerful traders in ancient Rome.  He had loved his wife with all of his heart.  In his anguish over discovering her infidelity, he ordered that she be buried alive.  The execution, however, was designed to send a message to all of the other wives in the area.  The trader commanded the gravediggers to install an air tube from the grave to the ground above.  They forced the woman into a coffin-like box, and then the lid was nailed shut.  The gravediggers attached a ceramic tube to the box and lowered her into the ground.  After the gravediggers filled in the hole, the end of the tube stuck up from the ground about six inches.  The woman survived for days and days.  She was slowly dying of thirst and of hunger.  Ghastly, animalistic screams rang out from the tube all day and all night long.  The husband stayed by her graveside listening and lamenting.  Sometimes, he would pace back and forth on the soil above his wife’s dwindling body and suffering soul.  When finally the tortuous whimpers had ended, the husband drank a solution of hemlock and died a few moments later, with his hand next to the silent ceramic pipe. 
Graham awoke with a start.  He could feel the heavy dirt above, the sides of the coffin pressing in against his arms.  He could hear the hopeless screams echoing inside the tiny box, the stifling air filled death and unbridled fear.  He twisted and struggled on the floor of the wardrobe.  The gag pressed down into his throat and the thick hood seemed to tighten around his head.  His heart was about to explode.  He tried to pull his hands free, but it was no use.  He needed to get some air.  He had to get out of there.
And then he heard a sound.  It was faint at first, far away, but he had definitely heard something.  He listened intently, trying to ignore his heart pounding in his ears.  And then he heard it again.  It was Charley:  “Graham?  Hey, Graham?  Are you still around here?”
Graham started banging the side of the wardrobe again with his feet.  After about thirty seconds, he stopped and listened. 
“Graham?  Is that you?”  Charley’s voice was coming from the hallway.  He was nearby.
Graham banged once.
“Why don’t you say something?”
With all his might, Graham kicked and kicked, shaking the wardrobe violently. 
“Okay, okay, are you in Peggy Lee’s room?”
One bang.
Graham heard Charlie trying the door and then a loud crash as he knocked it down.  “Where are you?” he asked as he flipped the light switch.
Graham banged on the cabinet one last time.  He listened as Charley untied the ropes.  It seemed to take forever.  His body was shaking.  His arms involuntarily pulled against the constraints, tearing away the skin on his wrists. 
The doors swung open.  Charlie pulled Graham out of the wardrobe, loosened the ties of the hood, and yanked it off.