The spirals again. Zach was back in a deprogramming room trying to recall the previous twenty four hours, the week, and the year. A thin rubber belt spun the red spiral in the glow of lights emanating from behind him. The walls were white and with the regulation textures of modern drywall, unlike the SCIDE installation in the reactor. There were other signs of middle-class Americana, too, like the shadow of a lamp Zach thought he had seen at Ikea. The spiral was the least interesting thing in the room and he tried to move, but was stopped by firm strapping on his arms, legs, and his forehead.
Not this again, he said loudly. The spirals don’t do anything.
Quiet, except for the faint hum of the motor powering the rotating infolded circles.
Is anyone here? he asked loudly, then yelled a haphazard help that emerged truncated because of his inability to stretch his neck as he raised his voice.
Aphrodite spoke from behind in the dark. Hey, hey, cool it, calm down, Zach. The spiral stopped and she walked into the light and pulled the Velcro holding his arms and head and legs loose with quick sawing noises. He rubbed his arms and asked her How long? How long have I been here?
Just a few hours, she responded. Let’s go meet everyone. Glad you’re back.
She led him into a common area that was more modern than the decrepit nuclear facility. The people were more polished, too, and older, ranging from the early teens to the twenties. Many were dressed in combat fatigues, but with distinctive SCIDE patches on their arms.
Is this place new? Zach asked after Aphrodite.
New? No, not really, it’s the next step in the war.
The war against The Signal?
Yeah, The Signal and the evil behind it. We are engaged in war on all fronts.
What happened to the reactor facility? Zach ventured, and Aphrodite stopped and turned towards him, her eyes narrowing briefly and then flaring above her nostrils.
It served its purpose and then we let it go. We are all here now, she said cryptically.
There were no small children in the hall, no technojunk hanging from tents. Everyone was officious with assault rifles pulled apart and being cleaned on chamois-draped tables, with handheld radio sets radiating strange spiral antennas, with whiteboards dense with mathematical signals, maps, and complex diagrams. Zach tried to align the faces he saw to the people from the reactor facility and thought he could see traces of identities, grown older and leaner, but there was no way to be certain. It had only been a matter of weeks, too, casting doubt on any recognition of the people around him.
They entered a large hall filled with tables with walls of LCD displays. People in uniforms hurried about. There was an intensity to the chatter. A huge projected map lit the far wall and, on a raised dais in the center, LAment stood in a leather duster, his hair tied into a neat knot at the back of his head. He was slowly rotating, watching the efficient chaos swarming around him. They had evolved, but far too quickly for evolution or human effort, Zach thought. It was impossible or, retreating from the term, improbable, yet they weakly confirmed the consistency of his background and the palace of memory. Zach walked forward towards the platform and LAment noticed him and acknowledged his approach with a silent nod before asking a young woman nearby how far the tank columns were outside Los Angeles. Zach instantly correlated what LAment said with the bundles of red and blue icons on the projected map. There were clusters along the I-10 corridor, dipping down towards The Inland Empire.
Are they attacking LA? Zach asked towards LAment.
He was older than Zach remembered him, but he responded after a brief pause over a computer monitor: not yet, he said. They are massing in support of the rescue efforts. Rioting has begun, and looting, so the National Guard is being deployed, but they seem to have rather remarkable orders to kill coastal residents. They are after the liberals, as far as we can tell, with that group fairly loosely defined as anyone in the coastal cities. The quake is a pretext to weed out their numbers, to cull the masses, if you will. The Signal is at the heart of it. LAment shook his head at the screens before him.
How is The Signal responsible, Zach asked, truly perplexed.
LAment clicked his tongue, continuing: Its presence and manifestations on TV and on the internet increased in recent days, and more and more people are beginning to sound off about the evil ways of the coastal cities. The quake was retribution, God’s judgment. We can’t do anything more than monitor the situation at this point.
Zach told LAment in a low voice that he had discovered something about The Signal, masked by the pulse of activities around him, but he felt Aphrodite edge up almost to touching him from behind as LAment descended the platform and stood before him.
What is it?
Ferret Communications created a shell company in Simi Valley that used work from a USC professor to create The Signal, Zach quickly sputtered. His mind was racing at this point, wondering if there was anything to game, any leverage built into the situation, but the effort and coordination around him seemed too real to demand anything more than participation. It’s easy to join in against a mysterious and unjust opponent, Zach thought, briefly trying to raise his level of cynicism, but then retreated to the comforting thought that they were at war and war demanded concerted effort and obedience. Obedience. The very thought made Zach feel like a pet, yet he couldn’t oppose the burning fires before him.
LAment frowned and scowled, first at Zach and then at Aphrodite. I thought so, he muttered, and turned back towards the consoles. We have to attack on all possible fronts, LAment yelled down to Zach, we have to throw a boot in the guts of the machine. He suddenly jumped at Zach again.
This is it, my man. This is where justice is woven out of thin air. This ain’t no party. They have taken over the minds of America. They want to kill us, now. They began with surgical actions driven with The Signal. Your school shooting. The murders in Germany. The quake. EuropaShip. It is all being coordinated by Ferret and their overseers. When you hold the keys to the media and the internet, when you control minds, you also control the entire body politic. They are engaging in class warfare, summoning up the resentments of the land-owning producers of the old days: ranchers, mineral wealth, oil—all against the producers of the new world, media, graphics, CGI, you name it. Storytellers, liberals, gays, the creative class, all are being picked off one by one. We have to stop it, Zach. We have to take the war to them directly, before the tanks roll over the remnants of what once was.
Zach was processing LAment’s soliloquy with an unusual commitment to what he was saying. A sense of dissonance rolled over him briefly. The notion of a right wing conspiracy was discussed in some circles, and had been a mouse to Shakey’s cat for years, but converting that conspiracy into real actions driven by malevolence was almost unbelievable. Yet many narratives had clogged Zach’s sense of reality over the past several months and this one possessed the highest level of consistency with the events that Zach remembered with the greatest clarity. That dissonance dissipated slightly as he realized that that was more-or-less the best that he could do. He tried to mesh the signals together. He tried to make them accord one another. He watched for disconfirmations. And, despite all his efforts, he was floating in a confluence of inconsistencies. Only the fever-pitch of necessity driven by civil war pulled him up, lifted him, he thought. LAment wanted action and he wanted to join in the ideological conflagration. He was a young rebel on the eve of insurrection. He was a pioneer before the wilderness.
What can I do to help? Zach asked, quietly at first, but then again with greater volume.
LAment smiled and shook his head. Great, this is important. It’s a first step, LAment said, and Zach felt Aphrodite’s willowy arms fold around his neck. She kissed him lightly on the shoulder and he felt he had risen above the cannibalistic past and was confronted only with choices, with heroism, and so he began planning with them along the wall of the displays. He wasn’t offered gear because he had to remain an outsider to the SCIDE establishment. He had to find a single target and he had to eliminate the threat. He was solidly with them as the map flickered and zoomed on the grand display. There were confluences of actions that held in juxtaposition. If this threat was not eliminated, if he remained, if the dominos were not set in motion, then there would be a cascade of failures and the war would be lost. There were tanks on I-10. There were gunships prowling Valencia. Drone craft tilted their all-seeing eyes from above. SCIDE would be attacked soon enough and they had to minimize communications. Zach would be on his own in the field, one man against the might of an evil imperium that had harnessed the greatest weapon ever imaginable—the power to twist human minds.
The maps zoomed down on a crest line in green that tracked along a snaking highway to the east and another off to the west, and Zach recognized his waypoints just enough to discern that it was the mountain cabin where he had found the servers weeks before. The realization shook him out of his obsequious nodding and he knew that elimination meant killing and death. He had been there in the building before. He had been standing before the steadfast dark eye of the observational drones that were haunting all of America. He could see the red and blue icons crowding the maps like hallucinatory ants. But he doubted that he could do what they wanted him to do. LAment kept speaking at him as Zach slowed and stared back until LAment slowed his pace and asked if he was OK.
I’ve been there before, Zach said. I walked in the back door and there were servers in the basement. The Signal is there, he mumbled.
LAment slapped his hands together and reached upward. Haleluyah! he yelled and Aphrodite was smiling fangs of white teeth across the monitor. That’s great! Another confirmation that our intel is correct. Destroy the equipment, Zach. End the game. Kill the man and it ends there.
Zach tried to grin with LAment but was doubting his own resolve. The quiet of the hillside that day combined with the ordinariness of the place were shades to the precision and determination of LAment and SCIDE. Aphrodite pulled a small backpack out from beneath the table and opened it, revealing a black and chrome handgun and a survival knife nestled beside a satellite phone with a dangling USB port projecting out of the bottom of the mouthpiece. Zach looked it over and Aphrodite demonstrated cocking, loading, and releasing the safety on the handgun. Zach had never touched a gun before but was too cool to admit as much and he grabbed the pistol with confidence and inspected the switches and levers before releasing the magazine and reloading it in short, fluid motions. Aphrodite laughed. You’re a natural, she said.
In minutes Zach was led up and out of the facility into the warm desert night. A steroidal VW bug with racks of lights and noisy, spattering exhaust tubes came to life as he approached and he strapped in, holding his backpack in his lap as the bug bounded and shimmied along gravel and dirt roads for a half hour until they approached an outer parking lot of a desert golf course. Fans of sprinklers clicked in a desynchronized chorus across the grasses as the VW shut down and rolled to a stop. The driver, from under his full-face helmet, muttered good luck to Zach and he stepped out. A faint odor of humid grass surrounded him. A compact car was parked nearby and Zach circled it uncertainly for a few moments and then approached it. In the dim light he could see keys hanging from the ignition.
He got in and dropped the backpack into the foot well of the passenger seat after pulling out the phone. Flipping up the cover revealed a smart phone beneath the fat antenna and Zach began playing with the menus. He had a calculator, an image viewer that was empty, a video viewer, and a GPS-enabled mapping system that put him past Palm Desert. He entered the coordinates of San Chardin and approximated his travel time at three hours after he varied his route to avoid the LA basin and the massing tanks. He found a browser and tried to load AetherNews but the signal was replaced with an emergency broadcast service web page that declared communications were unavailable until further notice. Zach started the car. He hadn’t driven in a while but after a few jerky rolls through the small parking lot, he was heading out through quiet neighborhoods with xeriscaped dirt and rock opposing the greenery of the course. He followed the directions from the phone as it instructed him in an emotionless female voice with an Australian accent.
There was no air conditioning in the little Toyota and Zach was glad it was night. There was still residual heat from the day in the vinyl of the seats. As he followed minor highways north he saw military vehicles heading south. They had to be moving to support the attack, he thought. Within hours he had circled up through Tehachapi, then down into the lower Central Valley, and was working his way towards the coast. He emerged north of San Chardin and began moving through the crumbling switchbacks towards the town on PCH1. It was late night and cold along the coast, forcing him to roll up his windows. The small car chugged past his school and he slowed down, suddenly diving into the turn lane that took him inland and up until he was crawling along in front of his house. The windows were mostly dark, then a sparkle of television glow splashed up against the ceiling. He pulled the Toyota into a parallel park in front of a neighbor’s house and opened the door. The phone said it was one thirty AM. The air was salty and cold. He could see the lines of breakers in the darkness below and to the west. Zach wanted to check in. He wanted to ease into his room and sleep through the night. He figured his mom was crazed at him being missing for so many days. She probably thought he had been caught in the quake and was injured somewhere, but there was no one to take her call in Los Angeles, and so she just waited and waited, and the fear subsided as the hours passed. Zach walked slowly towards the house, the satellite phone in his hand, and stood on the sidewalk in front of the house. He looked up and saw a jet arcing along the coast, its rumble lost in space and trapped inside the hiss and moan of PCH down below.
Zach stood still for a few long minutes until the phone buzzed in his hand. He almost dropped it but raised it up and saw a text message below the chubby antenna. What’s your status? it read. He wandered back to the old Toyota as he responded, In San Chardin. Moving down the coast. He fired up the car and started back down the hills until he was back in the queue of intermittent headlights heading north and south. He leaned over, carefully, and pulled the handgun from the bag. There was an industrial quality to it; burled steel along the grip and cold metal for the barrel. It was unlike the technology he was used to in its inertness. The secret was in the trigger. There was no need to boot it up. There were no signals that had be found and connected to and correlated. Zach rolled down the window as the sulfurous streetlights absconded in the darkness of the road south and switched the gun to his left hand. His thumb ran along the side until he found the safety, lightly coated with perspiration from the damp air. Zach rotated the car through a dark switchback and rolled out towards the distant horizon as the vehicle chugged up towards a hairpin on a crest. There was the infinite again. He pulled the wheel to the left and began the turn downwards. There was no one ahead. He could see for miles. He squeezed the trigger and the gun quickly discharged, the crack and brief smell of powder disappearing with the cold wind. Zach slowed the car a bit and took another shot, listening to the snap and feeling the rhythm of the gun in his hand. It jumped, he realized. It didn’t recoil.
As he pulled the gun back through the window, he could see the crest of the coastal mountains as a faint crimson luminescence was beginning to rise. The color grew and expanded in sharp lines into the darkness above until an alien glow covered everything outside the beams of the tiny car’s headlights. Zach slowed and pulled into a beach access point, rolling down his window. It was three in the morning and he felt like a Martian as he emerged from the car. EuropaShip had emerged over the western coastal range and was pulsing purple into red above him, filamentary yellow threads sliding westward like the contrails of a Japan-bound jet. The tans of the dirt rises and cliffs were tainted red and purple. He could see seabirds circling rocky inlets below him, finding enough light to come out in the deepest hours of the morning. Looking directly into the phenomena was hard; blooms of color faded towards empty black and then into new twined arrows of light. Zach leaned against the sharply sloped hood. He could see a lone pair of headlights far to the south of him, carving through the switchbacks, but the colorful maze above him kept drawing his attention back.
He dropped back into the driver’s seat and started south again, arriving along a tree-lined stretch of road that he recognized as where he had emerged from the hillside weeks before. Up above was the cabin. Up above was the basement and the stack of servers. Zach slowed and watched for side roads. He passed several but was unable to identify them based on his memories and because he had been hiding in a car and scrabbling down slopes of dirt and brush. He pulled into a driveway and killed his headlights. He fished out the sat phone and pulled up the mapping system, zeroing in on his destination. He had overshot by a quarter-mile. Zooming in with spreading fingertips revealed the road number and a short curve on approach.
It was too late and too early to drive up to the house, Zach decided. The man who lived there had rifles. He must know people were after him. He would be prepared. Zach pulled into a siding long the main road and got out. He was about a quarter mile down the hill from the cabin, he estimated. There was a wash of dim azure filtering through the trees and brush, so he decided to try to walk up to the house the way he had come down. The estimates looked reasonable from his recollections, though he realized that there was no way to be sure. He began walking in and making his way upwards. The slope of the hill grew more difficult but then let up a bit as Zach navigated the violet glow. EuropaShip was easing its way west, shifting across the indecisive coastal canopy. Zach stopped periodically and checked the satellite phone’s mapping system, adjusting his arc subtly as he ground his feet into the dry hillside in his climb.
By four he was there and eased himself around the dim compound. There was a light on somewhere inside that faintly glowed through the front windows. Zach found a tree that offered a view from above and rested. He was tired, but there was adrenaline alive in his bloodstream. A text came through the sat phone asking what his status was. He responded that he was at his destination and monitoring the situation. He fingered the cool of the gun in the backpack. The back door had been open before. He could probably sneak in now. The man would be in bed, a shadowy bump in the darkness. It would be easy, he thought, but his mind raced with the chasm of possible alternatives: detected on entry, his target rising just as he comes in, the ratchet of a shotgun pump. Cowardly planning. Zach consoled himself that there is nothing more sensible than sense itself. He sat and waited. Birds began to stir in the trees and the fading of EuropaShip to the west was paralleled by the growing eastern dawn.
As dawn grew into light, Zach moved behind the tree, hiding his body behind the needle-covered hill it grew out of, and laid down on his stomach to watch the house. He could see the kitchen window and door from his vantage point. The hood of the sedan was half visible from his position, so he felt confident that he could monitor comings and goings. The exhaustion had become a mild, hazy buzz as dawn broke, and Zach was uncertain of his judgment. There was always a moment in hacking deep into a new day when he would notice a mistake or spill his coffee or forget what he was doing. That could happen here and now, he realized, and when handling a gun it could be more than fatal. He decided he was exposed and needed to leave. He turned and edged down the hillside, out of any lines of sight of the house, and began working his way back down the hills to the car. He climbed in and drove back down the gravel access road until he was almost to PCH1, driving slowly as he descended and looking for places he could hide the car.
After more than an hour he heard the crunch of gravel and the moan of springs moving down the road above him. He was on the move, Zach thought, though he was unsure who exactly he was. As the dirty sedan edged by and paused on the threshold of PCH1, Zach started the decaying Toyota and waited until the car accelerated outward, north along the coast. He was quickly behind the car, leaving his lights off as he drifted along, tracking the taillights of the car ahead of him. There was a distinctive pattern to the shadows within the car’s taillights and Zach made an effort to memorize their similarities and differences as the car passed one other and was passed by another in the gray morning light.
The first rays of direct sunlight were tagging coastal rock formations as they approached San Chardin from the south. Zach’s target zigged and zagged on a frontage road until it eased into the parking lot of a diner. Zach followed in and found himself driving in directly behind the car before turning back into the rows of vehicles and finding a space. By the time he had come to a stop, the lights of the sedan were off. He visually searched for movement and could only make-out a shadow at the cash register through the diner door as a short, fat woman grabbed a menu and led the shadow deep into the building. He was gone, Zach realized, lost in the mean faces of early morning workingman breakfasts. He could wait until his target emerged from the restaurant but Zach felt an urgent pressure mounting. He was overtired and buzzing. He needed coffee and to finish the job so he could sleep. He wanted to drive back home afterwards, ditching the crappy Toyota over the bluff, throwing the satellite phone into the surf after texting that it was all over. He wanted back into the cocoon of youth.
A black crow landed on the peak of the entranceway to the restaurant and Zach grabbed his backpack and walked to the door. He quickly formulated a ruse, then reformulated it after realizing that if his target were near the door it would all be over. He was feeling nauseas as he approached the hostess at her station, the odors of coffee and fried foods warmly intercepting him as he breached the dual doors. He tried his ruse. He was looking for a man who just came in. He was supposed to meet him. Oh, the hostess pointed down a row of booths to the end where a lone man sat. His back was a brown coat topped by a baseball cap. She grabbed another menu and began leading the way, but Zach said, Sorry, that’s not him. Can I sit at the counter? Sure, she deviated and Zach asked to sit at the far end, around the bend, so he could see the man. He ordered coffee and looked over the menu of eggs, hams, omelets, and pancakes while quickly emptying the cup of the ugly diner brew.
Zach felt slightly better. The edge of hazy agitation lifted slightly as he looked over the top of the menu at the man in the booth. From his angle and distance, he looked unimpressive. There was a blue-checkered collar emerging from the top of the jacket which looked to be canvas or suede. The hat had a logo on it. He was a bit heavy, Zach thought, but not obese, though the jacket made it hard to determine. The man suddenly looked over towards Zach and Zach averted his eyes down to the menu again. Why was he on this mission and what could come of it? The physicality of the man and the ordinariness of the place robbed the act of stalking and killing him of the enervating narrative that had pulled Zach initially towards a robust belief in the rightness—even perfection—of what he was trying to achieve.
Zach set the menu down and pulled open his backpack. There was the gun and the phone. The phone had drifted onto the cellular network according to the tiny blue LED near the tip of the fat antenna. Zach pulled it out as the waitress approached him across the counter. She eyed the oversized telephone with its jutting antenna as a relic of some ancient era as she asked him what he wanted to eat. He went with pancakes and she left again. Zach checked his messages but they were empty. His call record seemed missing as well. He ate in silence, trying to avoid looking at his target too much while punishing himself with more and more of the kettle coffee until he could hear a faint whistle behind the noises all around him. As he finished the pancakes, he felt a need to pee coming on and decided he better take the opportunity as soon as possible. He made his way to the long, shining bathroom and upon returning, he sat back into his seat and realized that the man was gone. A burning sensation flushed through Zach as he looked around at the crowd, then out through the windows of the diner. Nothing.
He stood and walked to the windows. The parking lot was stationary. He could see the dark crawl of PCH down below. Zach was flushing from the loss of his prey and of the opportunity, and was confused at what he should do next. He stood briefly and stilly, an apparition before the large plate windows glowing with the morning light and the faint tint of EuropaShip, then returned to the counter and finished his pancakes. His tab was manageable and he left the diner in another ten minutes, finding the old Toyota where he had left it. A crow flashed away from the roofline as he approached, squawking about the interruption to its duties as it flew off.
Zach settled into the car and heard the phone chirp from within the bag, announcing a new text message. The buzzing of the coffee and exhaustion were overtaking sensibility, Zach realized, and he lowered the seatback and closed his eyes, shutting out the lines of purple and rose lacing across the windshield from the sky above.