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Story GUNS OF MARCH
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  1. #1

    GUNS OF MARCH

    Dr. Marcus Gunn arrives in the Phoenix Prefect just as the Ropers riot over food shortages. Not the best time for a job interview, but he figures the National Police Force has it under control. That is, until they destroy the power grid. Gunn never thought he'd kill anyone after Syria, but a lawless 2,000 miles is a long way to go without shedding blood. Especially if you can't control it.

    In a gated community in the Chicago Prefect, Tia Gunn is stranded in a powerless mansion without food, water, or her ten million Twitter followers. She has to live in the Clubhouse guarded by Windstone Security just to keep the Ropers from murdering her. So when the National Police Force arrives, she figures the nightmare is over. That is, until they start murdering people. Tia never thought she'd have to take motherhood seriously, but a six-month old baby is a lot of work without a NannyBot. Especially if you're being hunted.

    Genre: Dystopian apocalyptic science fiction (kinda similar to Fallout)

    WARNING - CONTAINS ADULT LANGUAGE AND CONTENT. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.



    GUNS OF MARCH

    PROLOGUE

    PART I: MADNESS
    CHAPTER 01
    CHAPTER 02
    CHAPTER 03
    CHAPTER 04
    CHAPTER 05
    CHAPTER 06
    CHAPTER 07
    CHAPTER 08
    CHAPTER 09
    CHAPTER 10

    PART II: OUT-OF-BOUNDS
    CHAPTER 11
    CHAPTER 12
    CHAPTER 13
    CHAPTER 14
    CHAPTER 15
    CHAPTER 16
    CHAPTER 17

    PART III: THE FREE CITIES
    CHAPTER 18
    CHAPTER 19
    CHAPTER 20
    CHAPTER 21
    CHAPTER 22
    CHAPTER 23

    PART IV: THE ROAD
    CHAPTER 24
    CHAPTER 25
    CHAPTER 26
    CHAPTER 27
    CHAPTER 28
    CHAPTER 29
    CHAPTER 30
    CHAPTER 31
    CHAPTER 32
    CHAPTER 33
    CHAPTER 34

    PART V: WINTER
    CHAPTER 35
    CHAPTER 36
    CHAPTER 37
    CHAPTER 38

    EPILOGUE
    Last edited by Dock; 09-23-2018 at 08:35 PM.

  2. #2

    PROLOGUE

    PROLOGUE

    Anti-Hate Speech Agency
    Washington, D.C.
    Federal States of America
    3 Years Before the Regression

    On the day of his retirement, Director Miles Breck sat in a wheelchair on his office balcony overlooking the bullpen. Why do I waste my life on this? he asked himself for the thousandth time that evening.

    His geriatric assistant gave him a furtive look.

    “The agents will miss you, sir.” Errol said.

    Breck glanced at the agents of the Anti-Hate Speech Agency. They were spread out in front of a hundred-foot TV screen broadcasting an empty podium. Overlaying the image were dozens of digital boxes containing small snippets of text. Social media posts, blog entries, text messages, e-mails. Word weapons to sow discord. And my loyal soldiers who fight those who wield them… He grinned. So long as they aren’t triggered to death, that is. “I won’t miss them though. That's for sure.”

    The volume on the TV increased as the muffled voices of the reporters diminished.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the Federal States of America.”

    The camera shifted and a gray-haired man in pin-stripe suit walked onto the platform. Trailing him were several men and women. 

    “I don’t see the Under Secretary,” Errol said.

    Breck scanned cabinet members marching down the east lawn. Indeed, the Under Secretary of the Department of Social Justice was absent. “She was fired last night.”

    His aged assistant turned. “Really?”

    “Yes," Breck said. Damn shame I won't be here to enjoy her absence.

    “Is it because of what you said in the exit interview?”

    Breck raised an eyebrow. “If my lowly opinion swayed the President, I couldn’t say.”

    “You told him she has an undiagnosed personality disorder."

    “When you are this close to retirement, you can afford to be honest.”

    On the TV, President Grayjohn arrived at the podium amidst camera flashes.

    “Good evening,” he said. “I want to thank everyone for coming to witness the unveiling of the prototype. Before we begin, I’d like to thank our corporate partners for their help with the project.”

    “For their graft and bribery and corruption,” Breck corrected.

    “Standing behind me is the first prototyped Cauldron.” The President stepped to the side and the cameras shifted. Against the backdrop of the White House, a round, tubular structure that looked like a medieval war cannon came into focus. “An autonomous factory programmed to build the Sotirios nanorobots.”

    Breck frowned at the oddly-shaped machine. “For ten trillion dollars, you’d think it would look more like a molecular printer than a circus implement.”

    “The Sotirios Project is the single most important undertaking in written history,” Grayjohn continued.

    “The most bloated and expensive one anyway,” Breck said.

    “These nanobots will clean the air of the excess CO2 that is warming our planet,” Grayjohn said. “They will repair holes in our ozone layer. They will shield us from nuclear war, and [span style="font-size:13.3333px;"]ameliorate the[/span] damaging weather patterns brought about by decades of irresponsible stewardship of our planet.”

    Breck frowned as the idiots in the crowd began clapping. “Maybe they can transform into dollar bills to pay back the Chinese with," he said to Erol.

    The camera shifted to the cannon which began spewing out black marbles in waves. Hundred of thousands of clusters of the tiny robots. The camera shifted again, showing the bots rise into the sky over the White House and coalesce into a long sheet across the sky. A second later, they disappeared, blending in with the air around them.

    Breck stared awe-struck. Like a great plague of locusts...

    The cameras refocused as the people gathered around the podium applauded.

    “Director Breck,” a throaty, masculine voice said behind him.

    Breck turned from the screen. Speech Officer Zara Jepson stood behind him, her massive, football-player sized body occupying the full frame of the doorway to the balcony. She had purple highlights running through clipped hair and a dark pantsuit cut-off below the hip where an entire length of muscled and not entirely hair-free legs were visible.

    He stared a moment at Jepson. Time was, such attire was considered inappropriate for the workplace. The hairs on her lower lip prickled with the growing scowl on her face. There was also a time when a man couldn't become surgically edited to appear female. “It’s my last day on the job, Jepson. Can this wait till Monday?”

    “No it cannot,” she said, casting a glare at Errol.

    His old assistant made his leave. “I’ll check in later.”

    Breck turned to Jepson. “What is it?”

    “I’ve got a level five violation on a Facebook status post.”

    Breck raised an eyebrow. Oh no, another thought crime. With exaggerated surprise, he said, “A level five, you say?”

    But Jepson didn’t notice his tone. She shoved her hand terminal at him. “A piece of shit who thinks he can use gay slurs. This ****er needs to be three-oh-two’d.”

    Breck frowned. 302 was the page number of the section in the Federal Code that detailed the penalties for repeated violations of anti-hate speech regulations. The National Police Force had a specialized squad of SWAT teams dedicated to arresting the violators under a National Security warrant.

    He reached over and took hold of the terminal. The hologram shifted and rearranged itself. On the top-half of the screen, a web browser materialized on one of the major social media websites. There was a flashing icon in the corner of the man’s profile, indicating someone the AHD had flagged. He read the flagged message:

    [div style="text-align:left;"][span style="font-size:10pt;"]“These Sotirios robots are weapons for the globalist elite to control you. Those of you saying they will clean-up the environment and end nuclear wars are deluded. They will be used spy on you, to curb your freedom of movement, even to kill you (the nanobots can fabricate and deploy sub-orbital missiles not unlike drones). The Fedcoats have used the last scrapings of the nation’s treasury to fund the most tyrannical boondoggle in history while eighty percent of the country starves to death. Keep drinking the Kool-aid, you liberal faggots.” [/span][/div]
    Breck frowned at the last line. The Revised First Amendment allowed people to voice disagreements with the government, provided they weren’t offensively written. And slurs that denigrate alternative sexual preferences are very offensive. Especially to someone like Officer Jepson.

    He pressed a finger over the blinking red icon in the corner, causing the screen to shift in front of him. The violator's profile appeared on the top-half of the screen. His real name — one Vick Charles Wilkerson — along with his address, social security number, and other personal info. At the bottom of the screen listed his trade/profession. Unsurprisingly, it contained words Breck had seen all too often in such reports: UNEMPLOYED, WELFARE-DEPENDENT.

    A picture of the Wilkerson family appeared underneath the report. A gaunt white man with sunken eyes next to a sickly, emaciated woman in a stained yellow dress. Neither of them appeared happy to be photographed by the Federal Census Bureau. The only smiling one was a young girl in her early teen years in a ragged T-shirt. Her dentition looked like she hadn’t ever received dental care.

    He stared at them with pity. Ah the modern American family. Half-starved and devoid of hope. At least they still have internet access. The one thing the government provides that still works. He swiped a finger over the hologram and a new image appeared. Dozens of snippets of e-mails and Facebook posts that the Agency had flagged.

    “Well?” Jepson said.

    He sighed and thrust the terminal back into Jepson’s hands. “We can let this one go.”

    “What?”

    “Living is punishment enough for him.”

    Jepson’s face twisted into a scowl. “He’s a homophobic piece of shit.”

    Breck shrugged. “Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. Might be he’s just a poor, starving bastard looking for someone to blame.”

    “Using the word ‘faggot’ is a federal crime,” Jepson said. “And the man has a constant stream of anti-government hate littering his Facebook page.”

    “It's a horrible, horrible thing,” Breck droned in a flat voice. “Let it go.”

    Jepson shifted, the muscles in her arms tensing. When her face rose, her eyes were darkened. In a quiet voice whose menace was ruined by artificial hormones, she said, “I can’t let this slide, Director Breck.”

    Breck frowned. Time was, you could reprimand an employee for insubordination. But the Seventy-fifth amendment to the Revised Constitution had eliminated an employer’s right to fire or even punish an employee without federal approval, even within the federal government. And Breck was less than twenty-four hours from retirement. And spending another minute talking with this she-man isn’t how I want to spend my last day on the job…

    “Fine,” he said, shooing her away with a hand. “Three-oh-two him if you feel so strongly about it.”

    Jepson’s angry scowl turned into an ear-to-ear smile. “I’ll put in the call.”

    He watched her leave and then sank deeper into his wheelchair, a feeling of exhaustion rolling over him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the boarding pass he’d purchased over a year ago and ran his fingers over the glossy cardstock. Tower obelisks and highrises surrounding a bevy of white sand beaches and turquoise blue water. At the top of the stub were the words ATLANTIS — The Floating City of Freedom.

    He smiled at the picture. The libertarian city-state was a complete anti-thesis to the modern America. No taxes, no welfare, no seven-thousand pages of regulations and laws. They didn’t even have police there. And yet even without those “necessities,” they’ve become richer than the rest of the world’s countries combined.

    He imagined what he’d do when he first got there. On a budget of eight million Federal dollars, he had enough to rent a small flat in the cheapest part of the island for a year. He’d find work, of course. Atlantis didn’t have a welfare system. Maybe he could be a doorman. A step-down from his current station, but anything was better than living in this banana republic.

    He put the ticket back in his pocket and patted it. It was the most expensive thing he’d ever purchased. He had to be careful about revealing his intentions to move there. Even his assistant and close friend Errol wasn’t aware of it. After all, the Federal government considered the autonomous floating city to be a terrorist nation.

    He pushed the joystick of his wheelchair back out onto the balcony. On the giant TV, in the bullpen, the President was fielding questions from the reporters. He twisted sideways to work at a painful click in his deformed spine. As he turned, he caught sight of the agency motto carved into the stone wall above the giant TV.

    “WORDS ARE THE WEAPONS OF THOUGHT.”

    He chuckled to himself, in part to staunch the shooting pain running through his deformed spine. Before he was crippled, heroism had always been something he aspired to. As a soldier, he’d earned himself several decorations in the many small-scale wars across the continent — fighting the white supremacists in Montana and the Sunni Muslims in the now Islamic Republic of Minnesota. He earned a medial of honor in the Border War against the Mexican drug cartels in Southern California. Along with a stray bullet that crippled him below the waist. And now the only battles I fight are against fake news, microaggressions, and improper pronouns. Not the kind of thing they make movies about… but then movies today are hardly worth watching.

    The door to his office was thrown open again and a black woman in a white pantsuit and dress appeared. The Under Secretary of Social Justice looked in disarray. Her hair was disheveled, the collars of her jacket turned sideways. Bobbing on the left side was a fat pin illustrated with the likeness of a Sotirios robot.

    “You backstabbing piece of garbage!” Madeline Kim yelled.

    Breck’s eyebrows shot upward. He hadn’t expected his former boss to wish him a happy retirement. “Good evening, Madam Under Secretary.”

    “Don’t ‘Madam Under Secretary’ me, asshole. I was just fired and you well know it!”

    He faked his most sincere look of sadness. “Fired? Oh my… I am so sorry to hear that.”

    Kim’s face, usually a mask of cold indifference, was turned a light shade of red. Her mouth clenched, causing her whole head to tremble. Her eyes shimmered with wet. “I'm the best thing that ever happened to this Department. The best thing, you hear?”

    Breck blinked. Strange how you grow-up with this generation. Witness their bottomless arrogance and self-entitlement your entire life. And yet seeing it on display is still a marvel. “Oh of course. The officers will greatly miss your calming presence.” As much as they miss their last bowel movement after its flushed into the sewer.

    “I was a great leader!” she shrieked.

    “Of course, of course,” he mumbled. If greatness was measured in terms of one’s propensity to have an emotional meltdown, then you are a great woman indeed. 

    She stopped two feet from him and raised trembling finger in his direction. “Don’t pretend you aren’t responsible. You sold me out! You—you… crippled scumbag!”

    He nearly choked with laughter. Sticks and stones have broken my spine, but your words are a spear through my heart. If I still had one, that is. In his fading facade of seriousness, he said, “That isn’t very nice, Madeline. I thought you and I were friends.”

    “You’ve been gunning for me since day one. This whole retirement thing is just a scheme to inveigle your way into the cabinet.”

    Breck shook his head. “There is no scheme here, Madeline.”

    The door to his office burst open for the third time and two armed security guards entered. The bigger of the two grabbed Kim by the arm.

    “Come on, Mrs. Kim,” the guard said. “You were ordered to vacate the premises.”

    “Get your hands off me!” she screamed. But the guard only tightened his grip on her arm.

    “My apologies for this, Director,” the other guard said.

    Breck smiled at the back of his former boss. Goodbye, Madam Under Secretary, goodbye.

    Just as the guards excused themselves, Errol snaked his way through the door. There was a fat green bottle in his hand and a smile on his lips.

    “Congratulations, sir!” Errol shouted.

    Breck frowned. He didn’t expect to be congratulated on orchestrating the woman’s removal from office. But then, his long-time assistant always celebrated the trivialities. One of the reasons I will miss him while scrubbing toilets on Atlantis. “Thank you, Errol.”

    The aged assistant worked his fingers along the top of the bottle. There was a thwop as the cork flew into the fluorescent lights, amber liquor bubbling over bottle’s edge.

    “You enjoy savoring even the smallest victories, don’t you Errol?”

    “Small victory?” Errol said beaming. “When were you going to tell me?"

    Breck paused, his hand pressing over the ticket stub in his pocket. Had the old geezer snuck into his desk and found his ticket stub? Was he expecting Breck to bring him along?

    “It’s just like you to keep a secret till the rest of the world knows,” Errol said, beaming at him. He poured liquid into one glass.

    “Announcement?”

    Errol watched him for any sign of a joke. But Breck held his steadfast look of confusion long enough to cause the old man to frown. “You didn’t watch the news conference?”

    Breck got a cold feeling in his guts. He turned over his shoulder and saw that the press conference was completed. The retreating form of the President was waving to the small crowd as he trekked his way back to the mansion. “I was speaking to Madeline…” he mumbled.

    Errol pulled out his hand terminal and did a few swipes. A holographic image of a white woman in a hijab appeared behind the podium. The President’s press secretary, Barbarianna Boomqueesha Jackson-Abu El Sayef.

    “The Sotirios deployment will need buy-in from every state on the continent,” Jackson-Abu El Sayef said.

    One of the CNN reporters in the front row held a hand in the air and the press secretary called on him.

    “The mayors of the Free Cities say they aren’t going allow deployment of the Cauldrons past their state borders,” he said. “How can they be forced to comply?”

    Jackson-Abu El Sayef’s face grew hard. “We will not allow our planet to be destroyed, and our children’s future jeopardized by the irresponsible greed of these secessionists.”

    “But how are you going to force them to comply?” the reporter urged.

    The press secretary’s face twitched with annoyance. “We are working with the National Police Force to create no-fly zones around these so-called Free States.”

    Rambunctious murmuring from the crowd, more hands shot into the air.

    “But they manufacture everything inside their own states,” one reporter shouted.

    “But the Federal government can’t afford another war,” another ignoramous yelled.

    Jackson-Abu El Sayef held out her hands in a silencing gesture. “One at a time please!”

    The crowd grew quieter. One reporter from the New York Times was called next.

    “Have you named a replacement for the Director of the National Police Force?” she asked.


    Breck knew well enough it was a plant question. Jackson-Abu El Sayef’s looked of feigned annoyance was little too obvious. The rest of the press grew silent at the question.

    “Yes, we have,” she replied. “We will announce it in a few days.”

    “Who is it?”

    “Is it Shiela Steinem-Gorgitsus?” someone asked, referring to the current Director of Homeland Security.

    Jackson-Abu El Sayef scowled. “No.”

    “Is it General Champion?” someone else asked, referencing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who’d changed his name in a court proceeding a few months prior. Champion was only his newest first name, however. His last name was “of-World-Peace.”

    “No,” she replied.

    More shouting and guesses from the reporters, and she raised her arms again. “We still haven’t congratulated him privately. All I can tell you is that he is a decorated war hero, and has a great deal of command experience.” She smiled. “He is even a medal-of-honor recipient.”


    Breck stared at the image as the horror set in. "No..." he said. "It can't be..."

    The playback was paused, and Breck glanced up at Errol who was staring at the door to his office. He turned and froze. A group of six men in red-and-black Kevlar strolled into the room. The insignia on their helmets had three white letters — NPF. National Police Force.

    Breck felt a wave of nausea funnel through his guts like a caustic toxin.

    Their leader, a light-skinned man who looked like he ate steroids for breakfast everyday since he was a child stepped forward. The label on his chest said Captain Guntur. “Director Breck?”

    “Who the hell are you?” Breck snapped, his voice squeaking at the end.

    “We were sent to retrieve you, sir,” Guntur said. “The President requests your audience.”

    Breck swallowed, glancing around at the armed goons. Strange how a simple request needs to be delivered by six armed thugs. Unless it wasn’t actually a request. “A simple phone call wasn’t enough?”

    “He wants to meet in person.”

    “What is this about?” he said. Though he knew well enough.

    Guntur raised an eyebrow. “I think he wants to make you a job offer.”

    "And if I tell you to go to hell?"

    "If you accept the job, I'd have to comply with that order," the NPF officer said. "But until it becomes official, my orders are to ensure you make it to the oval office."

    Breck's hand reached out and caressed the part of his withered thigh just above where the ticket stub was stored. For some reason, I think my retirement plans will need to be altered.

  3. #3
    Part I: MADNESS

    “Three causes especially have excited the discontent of mankind […] These are death, toil, and the ignorance of the future.”
    - Charles Mackay (Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds)


    CHAPTER 01 — EVERYTHING IS FINE

    Patriot Hotel
    Phoenix Prefect
    Federal States of America


    On the morning of his interview, Dr. Marcus Gunn sat on the edge of the bed in his hotel room. Hovering above the screen of his cell phone was a holographic photo album that his mother sent him that morning. He smiled as he stared at a picture of his infant daughter. Cimarron was cradled in the arms of a woman in a dark pantsuit surrounded by a group of similarly dressed men and women on the steps of the Capital.

    “I can’t believe you brought her to work,” Gunn said.

    Senator Miranda Gunn’s voice transmitted through the terminal. “This baby loves to travel.”

    Gunn swiped across the invisible screen over his wrist and pulled-up the next one. Cimarron was dressed in a blue bonnet and overalls, walking across the rug inside the Oval Office. To his surprise, President Juarez was visible at the edge of the frame speaking to Miranda. “Did the President think she was cute?”

    “Of course,” Miranda said, like it was the dumbest question she’d ever been asked.

    There was a loud rumbling that shook the hotel. Gunn’s head snapped-up to the heavily-barred windows. He stood and walked over to it. He twisted the dial near the frame. The steel shades retracted inward an inch, allowing him sight through the reinforced glass. Down the main road about a quarter mile past the cement walls surrounding the hotel, an oil tanker was being escorted over the bridge by no less than six of the NPF’s electric patrol cars. On either side of the street, there were large crowds barricaded by shock fences.

    “Everything okay?” Miranda asked.

    “Everything’s fine,” Gunn said, twisting the shades shut again. He sat back on the couch. He reopened the album and stared shuffling through the pictures again.

    “Does she miss me?” Gunn said.

    “Of course,” Miranda repeated. “Though I think it’s probably good your gone.”

    Gunn closed the photo album and the real-time hologram of his mother appeared again. Cimarron was cradled in her arms, sleeping soundly against her shoulder. “Why do you say that?”

    Miranda pointed at his daughter. “She’s grown so used to sleeping with you that she refuses to stay in her crib without screaming her head-off.”

    Gunn felt a pang of longing as he glanced at the back of his daughter. It was bad habit, he knew. Every pediatrician would’ve told him it was wrong to condition a baby to sleeping with you. But Gunn couldn’t help himself. His daughter would only be small enough to enjoy sleeping in his arms for so long. He would enjoy it while it lasted. “Truth be told, I’m having trouble sleeping without her.”

    His mom smiled at him and shifted the baby over to the opposite shoulder. On her lapel, a large green pin with a black-and-white Sotirios robot became visible.

    “What’s that obnoxious pin for?”

    Miranda glanced down at herself, frowning. “It’s Sotirios Day today.”

    Gunn raised an eyebrow. “They’re still having those?”

    “The President is. Celebrating our victory over climate change, and nuclear war, and ya-dee-dah.” Miranda said, scowling. “There’s just all that starvation, poverty, and hyperinflation left to deal with.”

    He frowned. His mother tended toward the cynical at times. “It sounds like you and the Recovery Committee are making headway. What happened to those talks with the Chinese about refinancing our debt?”

    His mother snorted. “That fell through over a month ago, dear.”

    Gunn blinked. “It did?”

    “You should pay more attention to the news, Marcus.”

    He frowned. He didn’t much care for the news. There was never anything positive, and he had a strong suspicion that the few positive items were heavily spun by the government. He had his mother to thank for that little piece of pessimism. His time in the military probably contributed as well.

    A door opened in the hologram behind Miranda, and Gunn caught sight of a younger man in a suit and bow-tie. One of the Senator’s many assistants. Miranda turned and spoke to him in a hushed voice. When she turned back, she was frowning.

    “Gotta go?” Gunn asked.

    “Yes,” Miranda said. “Tia just arrived.”

    His stomach lurched. It wasn’t a response he should’ve had to the news that his wife had arrived. “Why is she there?”

    Miranda looked at him with a tired scowl. “To get her daughter. Why else?”

    Gunn felt a sickness in his guts. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

    “A good idea?” she said. “It wasn’t a good idea for you to marry her in the first place.”

    Gunn knew she was right. But he’d impregnated her, and there wasn’t anyone else to blame. The reality TV star and British social media queen had planned on aborting their child at first. But then she learned just how massive Marcus Gunn’s trust fund was, and figured marriage was a more profitable proposition.

    Gunn scowled. His parents had warned him about marrying her, and he hadn’t listened. He would’ve done anything to save his unborn child, and still didn’t regret the decision. But now he had the sneaking suspicion the woman wa running out the clock on her five-year drug-court probation before filing the divorce papers, as the active drug conviction greatly limited the possibility of taking full custody of Cimarron. Not that she cared anything for their child, more that full custody meant a massive increase in the amount of spousal support money from the divorce proceedings.

    “Can’t you keep her with you?”

    “No,” Miranda said.

    “Why not?”

    “The President has called an emergency session of Congress tonight.”

    “Is it serious?”

    She frowned. “The last time this happened, the dollar lost ninety percent of its value. The time before that, the Relocation Bureau was announced.” She stared bitterly at the screen for a moment. “I don’t have much hope for these emergency sessions.”

    “Tia doesn’t change diapers,” Gunn said.

    “It’ll be fine, Marcus,” she said. “I’m sending them back to Windstone on the private plane. The NannyBot is with them.”

    Gunn felt a pang of worry just then. With gas prices where they were, his mother must’ve really been concerned to fork all that cash over to run the plane from Washington all the way to northern Illinois.

    On the screen, her assistant with the bowtie reentered the room. Miranda turned again and barked something at him that sounded like, “Hold your damn horses” which caused Gunn to smile despite himself. It was one of those anachronisms his mother had used for as long as he could remember.

    “Marcus, I’ve got to go,” she said. “Do well today. It took a lot of work getting you that interview.”

    “Thank you.”

    “Be careful out there,” she said. “There’s Roper riots in all the major cities again.”

    “Of course, mom.”

    “Love you,” she said, reaching out of the frame for a moment. When she came back, Cimarron was visible. Miranda mimed a goodbye wave with one of her tiny baby hands.

    Her image remained on the screen for a moment. Right before the call clicked off, he said, “See you soon, then.”

    ##

    In the hotel lobby, two of the other applicants in Gunn’s cohort were waiting. One was a plump Indian girl named Dr. Belinda Ramachandran who he’d met at another hospital earlier in the interview season. Seated across from her was a thin-looking man with premature balding who he’d never met. Both were enjoying the continental breakfast.

    “Hey guys,” Gunn said.

    “Dr. Gunn,” the man said standing and offering his hand. “Name’s Kayden Carlysle.”

    Gunn shook the man’s hand. “Any relation to the Surgeon General?”

    “She’s my grandmother.”

    “Pleasure to meet you, Kayden,” Gunn said. He glanced over at Belinda, who didn’t even bother to look up at him. At the last interview he’d attended with her, he got the feeling she didn’t like him very much. Though for what reason, he couldn’t say.

    “Strange to see you this far from Chicago Prefect for an interview,” Kayden said, sitting down.

    “It’s not strange,” Belinda said, not even looking up from her plate. “His mom is a Federal Senator. She’s gotten him into every hospital this year.”

    Gunn blinked at the implication. He’d graduated at the top of his class in medical school. That his mother knew a few people here and there wasn’t his fault. The initial anger was quickly tempered, though. The way his father taught him, the best strategy for detractors was to kill them with kindness. “It’s good to see you too, Belinda,” he said, smiling it off like her comment was a good-natured jibe. “How is your son doing?”

    She glanced up at him with a frown. “How do you know I have a son?”

    “It’s in the biography section of the paper you sent to JFMA,” he said, referring to the prestigious Journal of the Federal Medical Association. “The one about ultrasound diagnosis of elevated intracranial pressure.”

    She set her fork down and swallowed, staring at him with something like amazement. “You read that?”

    “I memorized the entire protocol,” he said. “It’s quite genius.”

    She stared at him a long moment, like he was playing something over on her. “How? They didn’t publish it.”

    “The rejected papers are all kept in a repository on their VRnet site,” Gunn said, shrugging. “I go through it every now and then to find something interesting.”

    The large woman was now staring at him with something like a glow in her eye, all hostility melted away. “Uh… thank you. I worked very hard on that.”

    An awkward pause while the big woman started to eat. Gunn got the feeling she did that when she was uncomfortable, and it showed. She was very obese.

    “When’s the shuttle coming?” Gunn asked.

    “He here now,” Belinda said, jamming biscuits and gravy into her mouth. “Rye oww-side…”

    He looked up at the entrance where a middle-age man in a National Motels polo was standing next to the armored shuttle. Forgoing the breakfast, Gunn trekked his way out of the lobby and through the automatic doors. A cold wind rippled through his suit jacket with a bite that surprised him.

    “Didn’t know Phoenix got this cold,” he muttered.

    “Oh it does,” the man said in a thick southern accent that was distinctly non-Arizonean. New Texan perhaps? The tag on his polo shirt named him as Lyle. “Goin’ to the hospital?”

    “Yeah,” Gunn said. His eyes went downward, noting an unnatural ruffling in Lyle’s clothing. On the right-hip, the subtle outline of a firearm bulged through his polo shirt. “We ready to go?”

    Lyle pointed a finger through the window. “Waitin’ on Shamu in there.”

    Gunn did a double-take, looking back through the glass where his two colleagues were still seated. Belinda seemed to be going to town on a fresh stack of waffles, while the other kid was nowhere to be seen. Thinking he’d misheard through the thick accent, he said, “Huh?”

    “Waitin’ on those two in there.”

    Gunn smiled. “Yeah.”

    After a minute of silence, in which the cold wind continually assaulted him, Gunn excused himself and went back inside. At the reception desk, a middle-aged woman in a scarf and ugly brown sweatshirt with the National Motels logo drank from a thermos.

    “Damnit!” she said. She slammed her hand terminal against the desk.

    Gunn flashed a smile. “Marriage is tough.”

    “Huh?”

    “My wife uses her terminal as a voodoo doll for me. Better than domestic assault.”

    The woman smiled tersely. “Can I help you?”

    “Need to check-out.”

    She walked up to the terminal and started typing on the keyboard. She seemed to stay at it for an inordinate amount of time before Gunn tried speeding up the process by dangling his room card over the counter.

    “It’ll be seven-thousand dollars for incidentals,” the woman said.

    Gunn raised the back of his right hand, where the government-issued charge chip was implanted. She passed a red-light scanner over his skin, then watched the computer screen, frowning.

    “Something wrong?”

    She tried scanning him again.

    “Still declined.”

    Gunn looked at his hand, frowning. Tia had been away on a trip to Canada with her girlfriends the last two days. Had she spent all of their allowance at the mall? “It should’ve been refilled yesterday. The government is never late on a payment.”

    The clerk didn’t even smile. Tough crowd.

    He handed over two crescent-shaped bills from a bank in the Free States. Illegal currency, technically, but in this part of the Fedlands, people didn’t always follow the rules. Her eyes widened at the proffered notes, and she quickly glanced around in both directions before snatching them from his hand and pocketing them. A minute later, she printed out an itemized receipt, which he promptly discarded in the waste-bin beneath the counter.

    He pulled out his own hand terminal and dialed the number for the Federal Employee Credits Union. When the call didn’t go through, he looked at his phone. It was turned-off.

    “Hmm,” he said, frowning. He’d just charged it this morning. He pressed the power key on the side of the device, and it came to life. The home screen launched slowly into view, and a second later, he was able to make the call.

    “We’re sorry, the number you’ve dialed cannot be reached at this time.”

    He clicked off the call, and tried again. Same response.

    “The heck’s going on?”

    He around the parking lot and then above the top of the palm trees as he stepped further out. He gazed across the canopy as though the answer to his troubles lay somewhere in the heavens. Instead of finding an answer, however, his nose picked-up an unmistakable scent. One he hadn’t smelled in a long time. It was charry, like burnt meat.

    He felt a twitch in eye, and his heart started beating fast. There was a feeling of nausea and dizziness, causing him to reel slightly. He turned back to the hotel. A flag pole in the front near where Lyle was helping his two colleagues load onto the van was rippling gently in the wind. He shook his head quickly, cleared his thoughts.

    “You comin’?” Lyle asked.

    “One sec.” He walked back into the lobby. The receptionist was sitting behind the desk, her head cast down, sleeping.

    “Excuse me?”

    She didn’t move.

    “Yo!”

    She stirred suddenly, rubbing at her eyes.

    “Long night?”

    Her mouth twitched upward in the same tightwad smile. “Colleague was supposed to relieve me at five AM.”

    Gunn looked at the clock on the wall. It was 0900. “He’s late.”

    “Yes.”

    “Do you have a hard phone I can borrow?”

    She shook her head.

    Gunn reached into his wallet and extracted another crescent-shaped bill. “Por favor?”

    “The hard lines are down.”

    Gunn stared at her a moment. “Down?”

    She shrugged. “Sorry.”

    “Ya’ll got any food?” a female voice from behind said.

    Gunn spun around. A heavy-set white woman in a dirty pink robe stood in the doorway. A tangle of thick black cords stuck out between her disheveled ashen hair, like errant spark plugs. Visible over her left breast was a large indentation in the skin, where the port for the nutrition and other drugs was pumped through. She was a Roper — one of the hundred million Federal citizens who spent most of their waking hours plugged into the VRnet.

    There was a look of barely-contained rage on her face. Behind her was a group of fifteen other Ropers of varying age, gender, and race. Each was dressed more or less in their pajamas, or similarly ill-fitting and stained clothes.

    “Food?” Gunn repeated, glancing between the group and the receptionist.

    The receptionist had a look of alarm on her face. Probably she hadn’t encountered a Roper in a long time. “The breakfast is only for guests.”

    “We are guests,” a man said, stepping to the forefront. He was big, about Gunn’s size only twenty pounds or so heavier in the gut. “We’re your neighbors. Ain’t you gunna be hospitable?”

    Gunn’s heart rate inched up a notch. Neighbors?

    “I’m sorry,” the receptionist said, voice was shaking slightly. “I have to ask you to leave.”

    Gunn looked between the receptionist and the band of Ropers. He noticed that two males of their rank — a white one in a bandanna and a much younger black one had already inched their way into the small cafeteria and were helping themselves to the spread. Kayden and Belinda made their exit, looking worredly at the crowd gathered in the lobby.

    As they moved for the automated doors, Gunn followed them. Most of the Ropers had already invegled their way into the dining hall, but a lazy-eyed girl with torn jeans and a tank-top, who stepped right in Gunn’s path.

    “You got any more of them Free City bills?” she asked.

    Gunn glanced between her and the several other people staring at him.

    “No,” he said. “Sorry.”

    “I seen you waving one around just now.”

    He looked her up and down. She was a pathetic and sad sight. A rough-looking sixteen years or so. Maybe a lot younger. Reminded him of the refugees he’d come across as a soldier behind the Syrian DMZ. Only without the cords hanging from the back of her head.

    “Please, mister,” the woman said, scratching at her arm. “The stores aren’t accepting NAI Credits.”

    He had no doubt it was true. The Ropers mostly lived on Slumber Cases — boxes of concentrated nutrients infused through a large IV while connected to the VRnet. The government-provided nutrient source was calibrated just down to the bare minimum of what a human would need if they were supine for days on end doing nothing.

    He sighed. Back in Syria, he’d carried extra MREs for the children he’d encountered in the villages. He learned then that a good favor often bolstered his mood for days on end. It probably didn’t keep the malnourished alive much longer, but he’d learned long ago that doing the right thing was its own reward. He reached into his pocket and removed a couple Western Montana Bank notes and handed them over.

    The woman’s eyes bugged out wide as she accepted them. Tears sprinkled in the corner of her eye. “Thank you…” she gasped. “Thank you so much.”

    He watched as she made her exit, walking off toward the sidewalk. Wondered what good it would do at this point. For a Roper, such a large sum of money could easily get her killed. But he hoped she’d make it to the black market groceries, where she might be able to buy a few day’s worth of food for her and her child.

    Out in the parking lot, Lyle was loading their bags into the trunk when Gunn climbed into his own row behind Kayden and in front of Belinda. The large woman was sprawled out on three seats.

    “I ate way too much,” she said.

    Gunn glanced back at the lobby, where the hunger mob was still flooding into the dining room. Another reminder to be grateful for his station in life. Just sheer luck that he wound-up the son of a billionaire Federal Senator as opposed to a Roper crack whore.

    The front door popped open and Lyle hopped into the front seat. “Sorry bout that,” he said.

    “Who are those people?” Kayden asked.

    Lyle turned the ignition, and the old van roared to life. “They’re from the public housing complex up the street.”

    The car pulled out onto a street called Van Buren. Through the wind shield, Gunn could make out the rising towers of the APC and the state-owned Sheraton Hotel.

    “Why did they come to the hotel?” Kayden asked.

    “NAI is offline,” Lyle said.

    Gunn knew the NAI stood for Nutrition Allowance Implant — the subcutaneous chip required to purchase groceries from the GovMart. In the early days after the First Dollar Collapse, enrolling in NAI required a separate implant in one’s hand. But after the Free Cities Secession, the Federal government mandated all citizens have an IdentiSCAN chip implanted at birth as a way to monitor their comings and goings, and ensure citizens didn’t wander beyond the confines of the major cities.

    “It’s horrible what these capitalist pigs are doing to these poor people,” Kayden said. “They ran the prices up on all the groceries, and now the system is completely bankrupt.”

    Gunn frowned. From what his mother told him, the few privately-owned grocery stores still in existence operated on the Black Market, and only with Free Cities currency. Only the GovMarts accepted NAI. But somehow, the Federal Department of the Internet and Social Media had convinced people it was the private stores that were destroying the social safety net.

    “How far to the hospital?” Gunn asked.

    Lyle took a moment to respond, caught-up in staring at something outside the vehicle. Gunn followed his gaze to the side of the car, and did a double-take. At a GovMart three blocks from the hotel, there was a mob lined-up outside the entrance. Perhaps a thousand or more Ropers standing around behind a barricade, yelling and shouting. Some wielded blunt weapons, kept away only by the heavily-armed SecurityBots positioned around the main entrance.

    “I feel so bad for them,” Belinda said.

    “That’s what two days of no eating will do to ya,” Lyle said.

    “I blame president Juarez,” Kayden said. “He broke everything.”

    Lyle chuckled, though for some reason, Gunn didn’t think it an amused one. “It ain’t broken. There just ain’t any money left.”

    “Oh sure there’s money,” Kayden said, waving his hand. Gunn looked outside at the various commercial buildings they were passing. “The problem is that these corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes.”

    “Most corporations are owned by the government,” Lyle said.

    “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if they owned all of them,” Kayden replied.

    Gunn kept trying to get his cell phone to work, but the signal was still down. “Do any of your guys’ cell phones work?”

    “Nope,” Belinda said.

    Kayden shook his head. “I left mine back the hotel. I don’t want Lady Fru-Frou going off in the middle of my interview.” He began humming an obnoxious pop song.

    The remainder of the drive to the hospital wasn’t any less disconcerting. At another grocery store nearest the hospital, the crowd was almost double the size of the GovMart they’d initially passed, and somehow Gunn sensed the patrons were a little more desperate. Loud shouts and blaring music could be heard from the parking lots, with people littered about everywhere. They were on the grass and in the middle of the street, blocking through traffic. Down a side street, a car was accosted by five dubious-looking youths who stepped in front of the car, one of them holding a baseball bat. The driver somehow managed to reverse quickly and retreat in the opposite direction.

    Even having lived in a city where food shortages were common, Gunn thought this was on the extreme side.

    “What the hell is going on,” he murmured to himself.

    ##

    The sound of ambulance sirens was constant around the hospital. Lyle drove around to what Gunn assumed was the staff entrance because it was devoid of most human activity. This was in sharp contrast to the ER side, which was building a line of people out the door. They parked in a handicap spot adjacent to the main door and got out with the three of them.

    The hospital lobby was more or less empty. The front desk and valet booth were empty. A few people in scrubs or in business attire meandered by the front desk looking sullen. They headed wordlessly into the maze of corridors off the lobby. In a small nook just astride the lobby, Gunn registered the sound of a television. He walked over and sank into a plush armchair. On the TV, a wild-eyed female reporter chattered off points from what he assumed was a tele-prompter. The woman was middle-aged and exceptionally attractive, though in his opinion she looked half-crazed. He stepped over to the TV and sat on the worn leather couch.

    “Citizens are panicking over the shut-down of the NAI system across the country. With just two days of no access to groceries, there are reports of widespread unrest and looting, especially in urban areas...”

    The picture cut to an aerial view above a supermarket where a throng of people were smashing windows and beating each other up to gain access to a GovMart. After a few seconds, it cut-over to another image of a similar event taking place elsewhere. A caption at the bottom of the screen labeled each of the new places — Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago.

    The last one sent a wave of panic through him. His wife and daughter were in the Chicago suburbs.

    “The Secretary of Urbanization tried to quell fears today that the shut-down was permanent, with Treasury Overseer Reese Donovan promising that the default of Federal Union Treasury Notes last Friday was unrelated to the crisis.”

    “This is going on everywhere?” Belinda said.

    “It’s the government news, you can’t trust it,” Lyle said, depositing the last of their backs in the waiting area. “I’ll be waiting in the lot for ya’ll.”

    Gunn thanked the man without turning from the broadcast. The AFB logo flashed across the bottom of the screen as the reporter spoke. Approved for Broadcast. The Department of Social Justice’s brand that they’d approved the recording for national broadcast. A guarantee that it didn’t contain any Trigger-Sensitive or emotionally harmful information.

    “Hey guys.”

    Gunn looked up to see an attractive Arab-looking woman in scrubs walking towards them. She had a large mug of coffee in her hand and an ultrasound wand around her neck. Dark circles under her eyes told him she had been in the hospital for a long time without sleep. He felt a small measure of relief at her sight. At least the doctors weren’t afraid to come to work yet. Her hospital badge, clipped to the waist of her scrubs read: Mina Siddiqui, M.D. — Resident Physician.

    “I’m Mina. Welcome to Phoenix Hospital.”

    The three of them introduced themselves.

    “Come with me,” she said.

    They walked down a narrow hall, where the lights were dimmed. A yellow caution sign warned people in thirty languages not to slip on a wet surface nearby, but no janitors were in sight. Outside the row of elevators stood a large kiosk advertising newspapers and coffee. There was no one behind the stand, but a personal-sized flat screen television was mounted on the wall near the lone cashier’s desk. A politician was flapping his lips in front of an official-looking podium, but Gunn couldn’t understand the words as the broadcast was in Spanish.

    “Seems quiet,” Belinda said.

    “This is the rear entrance,” Mina said. “Usually for elective surgery patients.”

    Gunn frowned. In the Federal Health System, there really weren’t any elective surgeries. You either didn’t need surgery, in which case the government wouldn’t pay for it, or you did need surgery, in which case the government probably still wouldn’t pay for it. Elective surgery was something that might’ve happened in the Free Cities, where people paid out-of-pocket for their healthcare. But it was a long extinct practice in the Fedlands.

    “We drove past the front entrance,” Kayden said. “There’s lines out the door of the ER. Are you guys giving away free crack or something?”

    Mina gave a half-smile which Gunn interpreted as an unfavorable reception.

    “There’s riots over the food situation. Lots of people injured. Lots of gun shots,” she said, sighing and pressing the elevator button. “I’ve been here for twenty-eight straight hours. It’s a complete mad house.”

    The elevator took a long time to come, and when it did, four rough-looking white men stepped off, eying them closely. Gunn felt a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach as one of their rank — the man nearly seven foot and near four-hundred pounds eyed Mina closely, licking his lips.

    The rest of his crew seemed to pay no attention, however. They rode the elevator towards the eighth floor. On the fourth floor, the door opened and Mina pressed the close door button repeatedly.

    It opened briefly anyway, and what Gunn saw surprised him.

    There were dozens of people standing outside the elevator shouting at each other. Children running around back and forth. Gurneys with patients in blue gowns or in street clothes were pushed-up everywhere, though from his quick survey, not a single one seemed sick or injured. The sound of incessant bitching was strong in the air. A nurse with a big red R.N. badge moved amongst them, but was accosted every two steps by a pissed-off patient or family member.

    “Told you it’s crazy,” Mina said as the doors closed.

    On the eighth floor, they moved off into a series of offices. There was a large office room with a group of cubicles. A sign on the door read Federal Health Systems Hospital - Arizona Central Hospital. A man in a short clipped tie and khakis awaited them inside.

    “Hello everyone, my name is Jim Callahan and I’m the program coordinator.”

    They said nothing.

    “I know we’re missing a lot of people today,” Callahan continued. “But we’ll do our best to give you the most informative experience.”

    A beeper went off in the background. Mina tugged what looked like a 100-year old black device off a clip on her scrub pants.

    “Shit,” she said warily and excused herself.

    Callahan seemed somewhat embarrassed. “Can I ask you to have a seat while I call Andrea, our Chief Resident?”

    Outside, the unmistakable sound of glass shattering rang out, followed by a car alarm.

    “What was that?” Belinda asked.

    “Sounded like broken glass,” Kayden replied.

    “Everything is fine,” Callahan said. “Everything is completely fine.”

    Gunn stared at him. The man seemed to waiver there in the doorway, hands clasped together as though he was in some kind of trance.

    Reflexively, Gunn reached into his pocket and opened his cell phone. Still out-of-service.

    “Everything is fine,” Callahan repeated.

  4. #4
    CHAPTER 02 — LIGHTS OUT

    The Chief Resident was a pleasant-looking female of dark complexion named Andrea. She spoke with a cadence of authority, sported an air of confidence gained only through eighty-hour work weeks. Gunn admired her air of confidence, but his mind wasn’t focused on the presentation. It was on how to get to the train terminal later that day to get back to Chicago, and whether he’d be safe walking through the city.

    “I’m confident we can meet all of your training needs,” Chief Andrea said, pacing back-and-forth in her green Croc’s like she was over-caffeinated. “Whether you’re planning for a career in private practice or fellowship training.”

    Blah, blah, blah. Same stuff they’ve said at every interview the past three months…

    “We have several fellowships available. Our gastroenterology program for example…”

    Gunn sighed and snuck another glance at his phone. The connector symbol in the upper-right hand corner was blinking red now, indicating that not only was there no cell signal, there was no internet either.

    “Am I boring you?”

    He lifted his gaze.

    The Chief glared at him, the bags under her eyes accentuated by the low lighting. He turned left then right, as if confused about who the question was directed at. The act had limited effect in a room of four people.

    “Am I boring you?” she repeated.

    Gunn felt a small burning in his cheeks. “I apologize.”

    “If you don’t care to listen to me, then get the f*** out,” she said, pointing at the door.

    He frowned. Well, this was quickly escalating. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Just waiting on an important phone call.”

    Her face grew hard. “The phones are down,” she said, with surprising amount of force. “The phones are freaking down!”

    Gunn’s eyebrow raised. “Right...”

    There was a brief pause while she maintained her hard stare, holding it for several long seconds before something unexpected happened. Tears formed in the woman’s eyes, and she began bawling openly. The next instant, she keeled over on the ground. Great, heaving sobs wracked her body like a shock of electricity.

    Gunn’s internal cringe-o-meter screamed at him like a raid horn. Seemed this one was fit for the bughouse.

    The door to the conference room opened and Mina rushed in, a quizzical look on her pretty face. She spotted her boss on the floor under the podium, frowned openly, then walked over. Kneeling down beside her, she patted the grown woman on the back of the head like a dog, whispering nonsensical invectives.

    That was the final straw for Gunn. The hungry plebs at the hotel and the looters on each block weren’t enough to force his exit, but this hysteria did the trick.

    With a sharp squeal, his chair pushed out from under the table and he was on his feet.

    In the caravan of cubicles outside, there was relative silence save for the sound of furious typing near the entrance. Callahan sat smiling behind his desk, a phone headset on, fingers pecking at the keyboard. Gunn glanced around again and frowned. The rest of the office was now empty — even the few busybodies there a half-hour ago had vacated.

    “Looking for the bathroom?” Callahan said in a voice so pleasant it was grating.

    “Yeah,” Gunn lied, walking past the desk without a glance.

    “Down the hall to your right!”

    He bypassed the elevators in open view of the main office, too tactful to make his exit obvious. His feet took him along the corridor toward a red Exit sign, past several offices and science laboratories. In each room, the lights were dim and human activity was sparse. Towards the end of the hall, he spotted an enormous bay window overlooking the main parking lot. The first thing he noticed was the sky — an overcast day had turned an ominous dark-gray. Faint droplets of rain formed on the window-sill, rolling down against a backdrop of flickering lightning.

    At first, his heart leapt with stupid hope. Rain might keep the NAI zombies inside.

    When he stepped in front of the window, he was disavowed of that expectation.

    The front entrance reminded him of pictures of a third world refugee camp. Several hundred people loitered about under the rain like a parade ground. They lined up on the grass and in the parking lot, spilling over in front of the emergency room entrance. Mothers carried screaming infants, covering them with stray clothing or cleverly-positioned limbs. Children screamed and darted about, playing and shouting with ignorant glee while others stood quiet and scared-looking. Many seemed shivering under poorly insulated clothing and raggedy jackets. Older youths of all colors shoved and pushed, grown men shouted and threatened. The air filled with anger, despair, and a polyglot of languages.

    “Shit-balls…” he murmured.

    It didn’t take him long to realize that there was some focus to the chaos. The bulk of the mob directed their ire at an unseen segment of the building somewhere underneath him.

    “We’re standing above the delivery garage,” a male voice said.

    Gunn turned. An armed security guard hovered a few feet away, a concerned frown on his mustachioed face.

    “Two days no food and the poor bastards are losing their minds.”

    Gunn took a deep breath, turned back to the window. “No kidding.”

    He felt a strong need to get out of here and to the train station before things got uglier. Without further glance at the guard, he stepped through the door under the exit sign.

    It was cool and bright in the stairwell, his path illuminated by intense fluorescent lights along the walls. He paced quickly down seven flights, footfalls echoing off each step. He went through the door labeled Floor One.

    He pushed open the door and strolled out without a second thought, coming into a hall lined with patient rooms. A cacophony of alarm bells mixed with angry shouting seemingly from every room. His eyes scanned both directions, spotting the nurses stations at the far ends of each corridor. Several patients and non-uniformed people loitered in and around rooms, but not a single nurse was in sight.

    A barely audible clicking sound made him turn back to the door. His hand reached out to shove at the handle, but the steel door didn’t budge. Seemed it locked from the outside.

    “Damn it!” he said, kicking the door in frustration.

    He walked off toward the nurses station, intent on finding someone to swipe him out. Near his destination, a forceful scream reached its way into the hallway.

    “I WANT THIS F*****G THING OUT NOW!”

    Gunn turned to see the owner of the voice — a muscular man of middle age traipsing out of a room wheeling an IV caddy on four wheels. His eyes were frantic and searching, and in a moment of shock, Gunn realized he not only had IV lines in each arm, but one sticking out of the collar of his gown. The central venous catheter was anchored with see-through tape to the right side of his neck.

    “You!” the man shouted at him.

    Gunn stared back, saying nothing.

    “You a doctor?”

    “No,” Gunn said.

    “Nurse?”

    “No.”

    “Doctor?”

    “No, I’m not—”

    “Come on man, you gotta help me,” he said, pointing at the catheter in his neck. “Please get this out…”

    “I’m sorry, I can’t,” Gunn said. “I don’t work here.”

    “I gotta get out of here,” the man insisted. He moved towards Gunn, tripping over the various thin tubes connected to the machine. The caddy alarm began beeping then, loud and obnoxious. Along the side of the device, Gunn read the monitor: WARNING - PERIPHERAL LINE OCCLUSION.

    “I gotta get out of here,” he repeated, moving clumsily. “I got a wife and kids at home.”

    Gunn took an involuntary step back, holding his hands out. “I’m sure help will be by soon. They’re short-staffed.”

    The man laughed, but it was devoid of mirth. “They’re gone,” he said. “They got out of dodge when the TV said the chinks are coming.”

    “The what?”

    “The f*****g slant-eyes, man. They’re coming to kill us all!”

    Gunn frowned. Was this the psychiatric unit? His head twisted around in both directions, looking for a sign to confirm it. But then, why does this guy have a central line? Psych units don’t take patients on drips.

    “The Chinese are coming!” he yelled, reaching out a hand at Gunn. “They’re gunna have tanks and choppers outside any second!”

    “Listen guy, just calm down…”

    “Please,” he croaked, tears forming in his eyes. “Please…”

    Gunn stepped back even further. “I’ll be right back,” he lied, moving in the opposite direction. He was half-way towards the next nursing station when a baritone voice echoed from the opposite end of the hall.

    “Get back in your room, Roger!”

    Gunn turned. A middle aged man in green scrubs jogged down the hall. Even from a distance, Gunn could read the ID badge hanging off the waist of his pants. He was a Physician’s Assistant assigned to General Surgery.

    Relief flooded through Gunn. “Hey, can you let me out of here?”

    The PA ignored him and bee-lined straight for the patient, various obscenities passing across his lips. Gunn watched the two argue for a moment, frustrated at first, then intrigued at the creative invectives being used.

    It took half a minute before he became impatient and made-up his mind. Quick and quiet, Gunn strolled-up behind the PA and tore at the hanging ID badge on his waist. Roger didn’t comment on the theft, though it took place in his line of sight.

    Gunn moved fast toward the exit, his dress shoes slapping on the tile as he passed through the chaos of alarms and shouting and crazed misery. On the wall next to the door, he passed the ID over a rectangular scanner. The light turned from red to green, and a satisfying second later, his ears were greeting with a popping sound as the door budged open. Tossing the PA’s badge aside, Gunn zipped into the stairwell, urgency driving his every step.

    His feet found the final row of stairs when two bad things happened almost at once. First, the power went out. The bright lights in the stairwell switched off, throwing him into near-total darkness. His brain registered this, but not in time to slow his pace. On the third-to-last step, a puddle of water greeted his lead foot.

    “f***!” he cried as he went ass-upwards in an feat of unintentional acrobatics.

    His feet and shoulders swapped positions as he went perpendicular to the ground, reality turning a blur of the dimly-lit stairwell. His skull smashed into something hard and all went black.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Mar 2013
    Location
    SE Okieland
    Posts
    3,003
    Dock,

    Have read the Guns of March thru to the Free Cities on another site....

    Good read....

    Texican....

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