Friday, October 31, 2014

Chapter 41

As he swung the metal cover, Graham stumbled on some unknown mass at his feet.  The cover flew out of his hands and caromed loudly against the front of the server rack.  He fell forward, catching a glimpse of Peggy Lee standing in the corner of the room.  She looked distraught.  He heard her yell “watch out” (but he was not sure who she was addressing), just as he felt himself flying through the air toward a nearby wall.
Graham quickly realized what had happened.  Ian had heard him bump into the server rack, crouched next to the corner, and then, with his massive strength, had thrown Graham.  And now, Ian was advancing on him, fury burning in his eyes.  The end is near, Graham thought to himself, the end is upon me. 
“You just cannot get enough, eh?” Ian spat as he approached.
“Leave him be,” Peggy Lee screamed.
Graham looked side to side.  There was nowhere to escape.  He looked at the air shaft to his left, hoping to see Charley popping out to save the day.  No luck.  He could try to slip past Ian, but that seemed almost impossible.  Other than that, he could retreat into the maintenance corridor behind the server racks, but then he would be truly cornered.  Maybe, just maybe, he thought, he could fend off Ian with his feet until help arrived.  Then, at the last second, he remembered something important about the last server rack in the row.  Unlike the others, which were firmly affixed to the floor, it was on wheels, for maintenance purposes.  He had a plan – perhaps not a great plan, but it was better than nothing. 
Just as Ian was about to grab him, Graham dove from his spot against the wall and disappeared back into the maintenance corridor behind the servers.  He ran into the darkness of the corridor, past the air vent.  He turned and then started slowly backing up towards the end of the long and narrow corridor. 
“Come out of there, Graham,” Ian coaxed.  “It will be a lot easier on you than if I come in there.  Don’t you remember what happened a little while ago?  You know, back in the room?  Come on, let’s not make this any more painful for you than it needs to be.  You did your duty, you tried to save the facilities, but you could not quite pull it off.  Don’t worry, they won’t blame you.  Come on out.  I’ll just tie you up with your other little soldier friends and maybe, if you are lucky, you’ll make it out of this alive.”
“Back in the room, you and Peggy Lee caught me by surprise,” Graham said, as he continued to back away.  “She tricked me.  I admit it.  I was duped.  And then you beat me and kicked me even though I was bound and gagged.  Things are different now.  I am going to stop you.  So why don’t you and Peggy Lee just give up.”
Ian snickered.  “Graham, you’ve got to be kidding me.  I have you cornered like a mouse in the kitchen.  I will crush you with the heel of my boot unless you come out now and just give it up.”  Ian wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve and leaned up against the wall.  He knew the bully part well, Graham thought to himself.  That casualness in the midst of violence, that ugly confidence in the heat of battle – only true brutes who had been in dozens of fights, victorious and otherwise, had that swagger and that intimidating smile of a cold-blooded, psychopathic street fighter.
“This whole hero thing you have going is preposterous,” Ian continued.  “No one is going to get in through those doors.  You and I both know it.  We’ve had all of your security systems in our files for years now.  And you haven’t updated a single thing.  So it’s just you and me, and, honestly, you can’t believe that you can win against me.  We have already been down this road.”
“Shut up, Ian.  I hate guys like you, always have.  This is your last chance,” Graham threatened.  “Give it up now.”
“All right, you dip-shit,” Ian sneered.  “I’m coming in there, and I’m gonna drag you out unconscious.  I didn’t want to do it to you again, but you’ve asked for it.”
Ian spat on his hands and entered the narrow hallway between the servers and the wall.  Graham back-peddled quickly until he ran into the end of the corridor.
“Where you runnin’, boy,” Ian called out as he sped his approach.
Graham prayed that his plan would work.  He had to time it perfectly.  If he was wrong, or even off by a millisecond, he was dead.  Ian would crush him, and then they would blow up the Brain Room.  The brute was now half-way down the narrow corridor, walking quickly with his fists clenched at his sides.  Graham could see that Ian’s jaw muscles were clenched tight and that a heavy sweat had broken across his brow.  He was getting too close.  Graham could almost smell him.  It was time to make a move. 
Graham pushed hard on the server rack that stood next to him.  Back when he was a soldier they used that end server as a backup for the Battery Station computer.  They had installed wheels on the server so that it could be moved easily between the two stations.  He hoped that the wheels were still in place.
The weighty rack began to move.  Graham pushed harder, putting one foot against the wall behind him for leverage.  The server began to roll out of the line and into the room. 
“Hey, where do you think you are going?” Ian screamed, as he broke quickly into a run.  “There is no escaping me.”
Graham gave it all he had.  A small gap appeared between the back of server rack and the rest of the line as Graham shoved the heavy load farther out into the room.  Ian skidded to a stop behind Graham and turned to grab him.  Graham slid his skinny body through the gap.  Ian reached for him, but just missed, scraping Graham’s forearm with his fingernails. 
Graham grabbed the corner of the server rack and yanked it back as hard as he could.  The rack slid part of the way back into place, pinching Ian’s extended arm in between the fixed servers and the free one.  Graham heard a bone-crushing crack.  All he could see was Ian’s bicep caught in between the server racks and his arm flailing in pain.  Ian cried out, “You motherfucker!”
Graham pulled himself around to the front of the server and pushed it hard again.  He felt it lurch forward as it ripped farther into Ian’s arm and squeezed his shoulder in between Graham’s giant bludgeon and the edge of the other rack.
Graham heard a roar from Ian and then felt the rack jump back at him.  Ian shoved hard.  Graham redoubled his efforts.  His shoes were slipping on the floor.  He could feel Ian quickly overpowering him.  In seconds the rack would be free and Ian would be on him –wounded and furious.  Graham glanced over in Peggy Lee’s direction.  She remained frozen in the corner of the room.  “God damn you!  Get over here and help me push or he’s going to kill me!” he yelled at her.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Chapter 40

In desperation, Graham took what remained of his knife and tried to force the inch or so of the remaining blade in between the cover grate and the edge of the air shaft.  It did not slide in easily, but Graham worked it into position.  With a firm pull, the screw popped out.  A second corner was free. 
He pushed against the grate again, and this time, it popped quietly open.  He pulled himself through the hole and into the Brain Room.  He squatted down behind the room’s massive bank of blade server racks, put his knife back in his pocket, and breathed. 
The racks stood floor to ceiling about two feet away from the wall.  Each blade server held all of the vital information for a designated group of water production boiler units.  The space where Graham squatted was a type of maintenance corridor – a narrow, dim dead-end where computer engineers would sometimes disappear for days to troubleshoot problems with the Brain Room’s hardware.  The air shaft had been put in behind the server racks to provide ventilation, preventing the servers from overheating.  It was nonetheless very warm back there.  Dark and warm.  Graham felt well concealed. 
The servers hummed as usual.  He peered through the cages to see what he could see; all of the indicator lights on the backs of the servers remained illuminated.  He wasn’t too late. 
Ian was yelling instructions to Peggy Lee.  Graham could not make out her responses, but their exchange assured him that they had not detected his entry.
Graham crawled over to the end of the maintenance corridor and peeked around the corner.  In front of the main console, the two rookie soldiers sat, strapped to their chairs, gagged, and hooded. Two other chairs lay on their side in the middle of the room, and reams of paper had been knocked to the floor.  There had definitely been a struggle, but Ian and Peggy Lee had gotten the best of the soldiers, that much was obvious. 
Peggy Lee was standing over the console with her back to Graham.  Her head was bowed, and Graham could just see the edge of her cheekbone.  She appeared to be readying a device of some sort.  He could only see a few multicolored wires between her delicate fingers, but he knew that it had to be another bomb. 
He recalled that less than half an hour ago she was running those same fingers through his hair as they tumbled into her room in that deceptive embrace – the proverbial spider and fly.  She had hoodwinked and betrayed him, and he had fallen for it completely.  If all had gone according to his plan, the two of them would have been, at that exact moment, sitting outside on the boat, sipping wine and watching shooting stars – maybe talking about life or revealing secrets to each other.  What a fool he had been.  He imagined running at her and pulling her down to the ground by her hair.  He realized, however, that he did not know what he would do after that.  Part of him wanted to scream in her face – loud and angry so she would fully register the depth of his injury.  Another part of him just wanted to finish the kiss – to see if it had in fact been a complete lie.
He could not see Ian from his vantage point, but he could hear him breathing – just barely – over the humming servers.  It sounded like he was just around the corner, which would make sense.  Along with the central console, blowing up the main server racks would inflict the most damage and cause the longest outage.  These two had definitely done their homework, from waiting to detonate the Battery Station explosives until after they had breached the Brain Room, to attacking the Brain Room when there were only two soldiers on duty.    
Graham backed away from the corner and returned to the dark, warm safety of the maintenance corridor.  He looked inside the air duct to see if Charley was on his way.  No such luck.  Graham could just make out Charley’s large shoulders still laboring away, trying to get around the corner in the shaft.  He wanted to wait for Charley, but he knew that there was no time to waste.  Ian and Peggy Lee could be finished at any second.  It was up to him and him alone.  He wondered what Burt Reynolds would have done in the same situation and wished he could call him on a celestial CB to get some advice.  He did not feel like the right man for this job, but he was the only person standing between Peggy Lee and Ian’s destructive plot to destroy the Brain Room and the resulting sudden and massive die-off in Southern California.  He knew he had to do something.
The air vent’s cover still hung loosely by one twisted screw.  If he could yank the weighty cover free, he could use it as a weapon against Ian.  Maybe he would land a lucky blow and put Ian on his back before Peggy Lee could get involved.  It was worth a shot. 
Graham took hold of the cover and pulled.  The stubborn screw would not give.  He put his foot against the wall for better leverage and pulled again.  He could feel the cover giving way, and then suddenly it popped free.  Graham fell backward into one of the server racks with a thud.  He sat silently, holding the cover in his hands and listening.  He thought he heard Ian whispering, but he could not be sure.  He was afraid that he had just forfeited the element of surprise.  He quietly shifted onto his hands and knees and crawled back over to the corner.  Peggy Lee had disappeared.  But Graham still was not sure whether they knew he was in the room with them or not.  Perhaps she had just finished up her work on that explosive device and was helping Ian.
He stayed stock still for a moment, listening.  Then, he peered around the corner of the line of server racks.  Did they know he was there?  He could not tell.  He could not hear anything – just the low hum of the servers.
Graham took a silent, deep breath, gathered his courage, and counted to three in his head.  On three, he rose up, stepped quickly around the end of the server rack, and with all his might swung the metal cover like a baseball bat at a height that he hoped would connect directly with the base of Ian’s skull.

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.