It was too late to be driving. The entire world was reduced to twin yellow lines stretching into infinity beyond a cone of light. For a moment the world disappeared, the car swerved, and John Donalson was awake again, blinking and shaking his head, trying desperately to stay focused until he got home. The road curved ahead, and his stomach sloshed as he took the corner. How many drinks had he had? It was just a business meeting, he should have paced himself better... He reached up under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Get home, get to sleep... Tomorrow would be better. Had to be better: he had the contract now.
All he had to do was stay awake. Had to stay awake, had to—
Blinking, awake again. He slapped at his face, took several deep breaths, cranked up the air conditioning until it was uncomfortably cold. Couldn't be more than ten miles.
Lights appeared in the darkness directly ahead, bright and blue. It took John precious seconds to realize something was wrong: only red lights should be ahead of him. And then there was another car, a dark void behind two blinding blue points, screaming at him from the gloom.
And then John was floating, surrounded by a sparkling galaxy of glass, cut loose from the grip of earth.
And then he was down, the seats above pressing down at him, the metal of his car shrieking and twisting as it skidded along the asphalt—
John snorted and sat up, the side of his face numb from pressing against the train window. "Whazza?"
"You okay there?"
It took John a moment to place the voice, a moment longer to adjust his glasses and recognize the face of his niece, Rachel Donalson. When he saw her, he felt a moment of painful disconnect. The chubby little girl he had half expected was instead a stringy, disheveled looking young woman.
"You were kind of twitching in your sleep."
"Mmm, yeah." John sat up and slid back on the bench. He ran a hand over the bristly stubble that was beginning to grow; he missed his old hair. "Where we at?"
Rachel sat down on the bench across from him. "About twenty minutes outside of Philly."
"Where's your dad?"
Rachel looked over her shoulder at the other passengers, her artificially bright red hair swinging freely. "Dunno. Said he was going to get drinks."
"Oh." John stretched and yawned. "Yeah. I remember that." He tapped the side of his head. "At least memory-loss doesn't seem to be one of symptoms of this thing. After-effects. Symptoms. Don't know the right word here."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, John staring out at the passing country-side, Rachel engrossed in her mobile. "So," she said, "that explosion we felt back in Washington?"
"News on that. Apparently its a government cover-up for something."
John grunted and shifted to look at his niece; despite months of physical therapy, he wasn't fully used to moving. "And how's that?"
"Well, they're saying it was caused by a gas main explosion."
John shrugged. That seemed like a good explanation to him. "How exactly does gas main equal cover-up? I mean, the system's pretty old, right?"
Rachel nodded through John's response, the speed increasing as she became more excited. "Exactly. An old gas main explodes and kills a bunch of people, what do you think city officials will do? They'll hem and haw for a few weeks, saying they have absoltely no idea what could have caused this, wait for it to all blow over, then issue a little report months later that basically says, 'Yeah, it was totally a gas explosion, but it wasn't our fault.' Now its only been like six or seven hours, and they've already got a handy explanation and a plan to fix it. Nothing moves the government quite so much as a desire to cover its ass." She twisted her mouth into a sarcastic grin.
John snorted. "Well, aren't you the little conspiracy nut. Counterpoint: what about 9-11? They had that figured out pretty fast."
"Who says that wasn't a cover-up?"
John folded his arms and raised an eyebrow.
Rachel shrugged and glanced out the window. "Okay, well that was different: they saw the fucking planes go in."
At that moment Rachel's father returned, carrying two coffees. "Hey. Let's try to keep it PG-13 here, okay?"
"You can say 'fuck' in a PG-13."
"You know what I mean." He looked down at John. "You're awake. Good, didn't want to have to get you up when we stop." He sat down next to Rachel and passed John a cup.
John took it, then looked at his brother. Reggie Donalson had always been older, but the last memory John had of him was as an energetic man in his early thirties. Now he was middle aged, tired looking, his face beginning to hold on to the lines and creases of everyday use. For the first time, John was almost thankful for the car accident, for the long sleep that followed: he looked remarkably young for thirty-seven.
"So..." Reggie glanced back and forth between brother and daughter. "How's it going? Getting to know one another a little?"
John nodded. "Rachel was just telling me about the government's big metro cover-up."
"Really?" Reggie looked at his brother and raised an eyebrow.
"Yup." Rachel dragged the mobile onto the table top and put it in the middle of their little triangle. She gestured at it, and a decidedly emotionless reporter's voice began to list off statistics as the crater suddenly came to life, swarming with rescue workers. "—have rescued twenty-three people, who have been rushed to area hospitals. There have been sixty-eight confirmed deaths, though fire and rescue officials believe an estimated hundred people still remain buried in the rubble. The mayor has released a statement apologizing to the victims of this tragedy, and stating his intention for a comprehensive reconstruction of the metro system, to be completed in the next five years. For AmeriNews, this is Maria Ruiz—"
Rachel gestured and the playback stopped, the image frozen on a bulky grey figure with a skeletal face.
"What's that?" John asked, pointing at the screen.
"Hmm? Oh, that's an E.H.U.D."
Reggie laughed. "You should hear her conspiracies about them."
"But what are they?"
Rachel grabbed the mobile and began to poke and gesture at it. "Powered armor. Really cool; after your time, I guess."
"They're army, but Latterndale farmed them out for other uses."
The name was familiar, but it took John a moment to place it. "Latterndale the president?"
Rachel shook her head. "Latterndale the Defense Secretary." She passed the mobile to John. "Watch this; it'll explain."
On the screen was a digital rendering of the E.H.U.D., rotating slowly in front of a black background. A soothing woman's voice began to speak. "The Enhanced Human Ultimate Defense, or E.H.U.D. Armor system, is the future of soldier safety in the field. This armor system allows its wearer to become a one person army, able to withstand nearly any attack and easily pacify enemy combatants with minimal loss of life."
The rendering faded and was replaced by a single black garment, similar to a wetsuit. Then, a tangle of braces, wires and thick bladders appeared over it, followed shortly by another black suit, reinforced by large mounds of what John could only assume was armor. Finally, a carapace of lumpy grey slabs covered the entire apparatus. The finished E.H.U.D. stayed that way for a moment, slowly spinning all the while, before being stripped down to the first layer and repeating.
The unseen woman continued. "The first layer of the E.H.U.D. is composed of a Gortex weave outer layer and a fiber-mesh quilting inner layer. Between these two is a special gel, which turns tremendously solid when force is applied to it. This gel allows for the absorption of impact-forces, protecting the soldier within.
"The next layer of the suit is the pneumatic sinus system. The P.S.S. works with a soldier's natural movement to pump fluid and build up pressure, which can be stored and released during movement. This serves to strengthen body movements, as well as significantly increasing the overall strength of a soldier within the armor.
"The next layer is composed of additional armor, containing ballistic gel like the inner suit, but also reinforcing joints and protecting the P.S.S..
"Finally, the last layer consists of armored plates and further reinforcements to the overall system, completely encapsulating the soldier within and protecting America's bravest and boldest on the battlefield. With the Enhance Human Ultimate Defense Armor System, a soldier need never worry about chasing combatants, getting out of firing zones, or dealing with battle-field rubble ever again."
The image of the E.H.U.D. faded and was replaced by the logo for the Department of Defense. "This video has been provided on behalf of the DoD and DHS. An informed Citizen is an active Citizen."
John passed the mobile back to Rachel. "The government's gotten a lot more open since my time."
Rachel shrugged. "Its all a smoke screen."
Reggie sighed and shook his head. "Please, don't get her started."
"I'm kind of interested—" John began, but a loud tone echoing through the car interrupted him.
"We will be arriving in Philadelphia in ten minutes. Please gather your belongings and prepare for disembarkation. As always, thank you for choosing AmeriTrak for your travel needs."
John stared pointedly at Rachel. "Don't worry, we'll continue this another time."
As a teenager, John had attended the grand opening of the Philadelphia Metropolitan Mall. He stood with his high-school sweetheart and about a thousand complete strangers, waiting for the mile long shopping center to fling wide its doors and let in the masses. As he waited, bored and frustrated, his attention was slowly drawn to other strcture that was opening that day. Rising from the side of the mall was a residential tower, stretching like a great needle to pierce the sky. The structure looked so fragile, the blue of the sky wrapping around the tower's mirrored surface, distorting its outline and causing it to fade from sight.
When the mall opened minutes later, John let the crowd flow in around him. Despite his girlfreind's urging, he made his way into Sky Crest Tower, found the office, found brochures, floor plans, pored over them, inexorably fell in love. From there it was back to school, changing career plans, going to the College of Architecture, getting his first job in the industry, then speeding don the highway, trying to get home before he fell asleep, floating through the galaxy of glass.
All of that led him to this moment, standing once more in front of the tower, no possessions save for a small bag of clothes. "I hate to say it," he said, "but that wreck may have been worth it all. All it took was life-threatening injury and ten years in a coma, and here I am!"
Behind him, Rachel snorted. "Beats working and saving up."
"I hate to be pedantic," Reggie interjected, "but it wasn't a coma. 'Permanent vegetative state.' You need to get used to that phrase for the sake of insurance forms."
John took his eyes off the tower to look back at his brother. "Why? Army'll fill them out for me."
"This seems more like something Rachel would say, but have I mentioned yet how uncomfortable I am that you're taking government hush-money?"
Rachel snorted. "At least you have it easy. 'Taking care of an invalid brother' usually doesn't equate to 'manage his huge monthly stipend.' I think you're actually making money off this deal."
"Nobody asked you."
John cleared his throat. "Can we talk about something else? Maybe? It's bad enough I'm dealing with a decade-skip, I don't need you two discussing what happened at length."
Reggie and Rachel looked at each other, then Reggie sighed. "Yeah, I guess you're right. But you will need to get used to it at some point. You're going to up needing to explain to people. Plus the whole legal issue of you being dead—"
"Ah-ah-ah: subject change."
"Right. Let's go in, shall we?"
John immediately set off at a fast walk, with his family trailing slowly behind.
A curving expanse of wall stood open at the front, its doors recessed against the tower's exterior. Inside, the shining crystal gave way to warm brown stone and brushed steel, flowing away from them in bezier desks and cantilevered stairways.
Rachel snorted. "Looks like a goddamn hotel."
"First couple floors are." John's voice had taken on a new intensity. "The wider part at the bottom, going up to the fifteenth floor, is all hotel and amenities, then up above you get to actual apartments and—"
"Which way are the elevators?" Reggie asked, trying to forestall a full lecture.
Rachel shot him a grateful smile.
In the elevator they spread out as much as possible and each fell into their own world. Rachel stood along the back wall, typing into her mobile. Reggie was pressed into the corner, clutching the handrail and staring at the floor number displayed over the door. John stood in the exact center of the little box, his official welcome packet opened in his hands.
He too was staring at the floor numbers, and as they slowly rose he became more and more excited, until he felt he needed to scream. "Every dream I've ever wanted, man. My life long dream, and it only took ten years—"
"Twenty," Reggie reminded him.
"Twenty years to come true."
"I'm sure mom and dad would be proud."
John nodded absently and continued to rifle the pages. Most of it was old news; floor plans, tenant amenities, pictures of rooms and halls and skylines and— "They have balconies. No idea how they have balconies on a flat glass building. Must be new. Hey, and fireplaces."
"How'd they get fireplaces in a place like this?" Rachel asked, not looking up from the mobile. "I mean, what'd they do with the smoke?"
John shrugged and flipped a few more pages. "I dunno. Pump it out through the Maintenance Core, I guess." He flipped to the middle of the packet, opened the centerfold, and tried to pass it to Rachel. "See here?"
She looked up from the mobile long enough to take in the simplified blueprints with a hollow running through the center of the entire tower. "So there's nothing in the middle? Seems like a waste of real estate."
John frowned. "Yes and no. The whole building's built around this tube. We're right at the edge of it with the elevators. All of the pipes, wiring, everything from all the apartments is run out through here so that they can do maintenance without going into people's houses. Also allows for nasty bits like water heaters to be out of peoples' way."
"So they'll probably have a mass chimney out through the top?"
"Dear God," Reggie blurted, "when will this damn thing stop?"
A soft chime rang out and the elevator opened. Reggie was the first one out.
They spread out into a curved hallway stretching around behind them to either side. John opened the packet to a floor plan and held it up. "Okay, number five, number five…" He raised his arm, then swung it to the right. "This way."
They circled half-way around the core and stopped in front of a beige door decorated with steaks of green glass and a small golden '5'. "Aaaand here it is." John pressed his thumb to a small screen on the door jamb and a moment later the door swung inwards. He pushed forward and found himself in his private wedge of SkyCrest, the apartment widening as it approached the floor-to-ceiling window at the opposite end. "Every dream, man..."
Pizza was ordered, rooms were explored, and eventually they all settled down in the living room for dinner.
"So," Reggie asked around a bite of crust, "they gonna make you pay for this?"
John shrugged. "As far as I know it's rent free forever. They want to avoid a lawsuit."
"Seems kinda wasteful."
Rachel snorted. "This is the military; they're always wasteful."
"Okay, stop a second." John leaned forward and dropped his pizza. "This anti-government thing you've got going on. What's up with that?"
"I got into politics a few years ago, extracurricular thing."
"Her mom get her involved—"
"And the more I started looking into it, the more messed up everything seemed. Its all just 'good ol' boy' politics and insider trading."
"So this," John gestured at the gently curving cabinetry that made up the outer wall of the room, "is mine only by virtue of corruption?"
"Who owns the building?"
Rachel nodded slowly. "Look into that."
Conversation stayed with Rachel after that, drifting more into her life. She didn't seem too keen to talk about herself, but John found it fascinating. His most recent memories of her were as a preteen girl, running around her parent's backyard in dirty jeans and flashing a gap-toothed grimace at anyone who approached her. Then one night he had gone to meet with a client and come back to find her all grown up, about to finish high school, cynical and strange.
"Right, well, so I'm in the government club, and we mostly do social action kind of stuff. You know, hold rallies, spam congressmen... I wasn't really wanting to get into it, but my friend Tisha talked me into it..."
"So this a school-year only thing?"
Rachel nodded and reached for a new piece. "Summers I do campaigning in California."
"That's all her mom's doing. Actually got her some college credit, so I'm not complaining."
"But, my God, are those people weird..."
So by summers, Rachel lived with her mother in California, by school-year with her father in Philadelphia. Through all of this she was wary of the Federal government, sure they were doing everything in their power to screw the little guy. John found this trait endearing at first; Rachel was spunky, and not afraid to tell anyone how she felt. It became grating after a while; she was just a kid, but so sure she was right about everything.
John wondered if this was how people had viewed him when he was younger.
At around midnight, Rachel kicked off her shoes, curled up in the wide leather sofa she had claimed, and fell asleep.
Reggie leaned over and picked her glass of soda off the floor. "Well, everything you ever wanted to know about her, huh?"
"God, I feel so old."
John turned away, caught his reflection in a piece of furniture trim. Even through its rippling distortion he could see the wrinkles, the sinking of the eyes, the growth of the nose. "You think I made the right decision in taking the house?"
"They owe you." Reggie's voice was suddenly hard. "They took away a decade. The least they could do was pay you off."
John looked back to his brother, saw him staring intently at Rachel. Had Reggie ever cared for John this much before the accident?
"It was their mistake."
The room was full of light now, masked figures staring down at him, green-tinged shadows flying across his body. Words coming through, breaking through the distortion of his own heart beat. "Brian? Colonel Udarian? Can you hear us?" Days swinging by, shouted arguments, desperate attempts to prove his identity—
"Thanks for pulling me out." John extended his hand.
Reggie grasped it. "I know you'd do the same."
The apartment was empty when John woke up. A small light blinked beneath the blank television making up one wall, and when he gestured at it a recording of Reggie appeared, confirming that he had gone to work, and Rachel to school.
"I checked your account this morning, too. They put in a few thousand dollars, so maybe hit the mall and amuse yourself, yeah? Don't forget to take your new phone; I left it on the table."
John got dressed, grabbed his glasses and Reggie's mobile, and spent the next few minutes standing in front of the bathroom mirror. His hair was already starting to grow back in, now that the nurses no longer had access to it, and he wondered if perhaps he should keep it nearly bald.
He looked around and found a disposable razor propped up in a ring next to the sink. He stared at it for several long seconds, stretching into minutes, focusing on the little plastic handle...
And decided to let his hair grow.
He began to perk up once he crossed the tunnel leading from Sky Crest to the Philadelphia Metro Mall. Like the attached tower, the PMM was a beautiful little piece of architecture, and one that John had enjoyed studying while in college. It was constructed like a canyon, a long, narrow trench sunk nearly one hundred feet into the city, with innumerable branches distributing from it. Each of its levels was fronted by a curved wall of translucent white plastic, which would occasionally stretch sideways, connecting the walls of the trench with stringy, nearly insubstantial bridges that grew transparent at their narrowest points. Over all of this was a roof of glass, extending out for nearly a mile in an unbroken plane from its father-tower. The end result was a structure that felt highly fantastical, giving the impression that one were on another planet, locked away in a subterranean city-scape beneath a hostile alien sky.
Following the curves and whorls of the footpaths eventually led John down to the bottom of the canyon, where patrons were debouched into either the mall's theatre or food court. Feeling hungry, John took the latter option.
He had just settled down at a food court table when his pocket began to buzz. He fished out the mobile Reggie had given him and saw the message: Call forward from home number. Click. Answer. Click. "Hello?"
"Hello, is this John Donalson?" The voice was unfamiliar but calm, accented for a New Englander.
"Hello, this is Isaiah Murphy, personnel coordinator for Cohen & Associates Architecture; I'm calling back in regards to inquiries you made about employment with us."
John blinked. He was suddenly flying again, the galaxy colliding with him, tearing through his flesh— "I'm afraid there's been a mistake. I didn't make any—"
"Your lawyer made it quite clear that you would be just the person our firm is looking for to fill a position." The way the man used "lawyer" was the same way John would use "client" when referring to someone he was only working with out of necessity. It gave him a pretty good idea of who this lawyer really worked for.
"In that case yes, yes, I did make inquiries."
"Well, I am pleased to inform you that, should you wish it, the position is yours." He didn't sound particularly pleased.
John didn't care. He found the decade behind him, the confused future before him, slowly disappearing, swept up like so much shattered glass on the side of the highway.
"I, uh... I do have some questions about your employment record, though. They have no effect on your fitness for this position, but..."
"You're curious?" John stared down at the sandwich before him; he suddenly wasn't very hungry.
"That's one way to put it." The man cleared his throat and hesitantly said, "According to this, you've worked with us before?" His voice dripped with nerves; curiosity was having a tough fight with fear of perceived hiring prejudices. "And then have no work history for over a decade?"
John sighed and pushed the sandwich away; it looked as if Reggie were right after all. "I was in a permanent vegetative state. Beyond that, my ID got switched with the Army colonel who rammed me going the wrong way on the freeway. When he died, they put John Donalson on the death certificate."
"Ah." The man's exclamation put everything into context.
"Still big military contractors, I take it?"
"We've designed everything but the Pentagon."
Despite suddenly finding himself with a job—his job, by all accounts—he felt a little put-out that his benefactors in the government had done this behind his back. "If you happen to see my lawyer, could you tell him I can fill out my own job applications?"
"I'll see what I can do. Can you start next Monday?"
"Sure thing." John stood and returned to his apartment, the sandwich remaining in the bottom of the mall, untouched.