A little something for your weekend.
I wrote In The Root way back in 2010, did some work on it in 2011, and again in 2012. Then it sat on my computer. At 18k words its pretty long, as in novella length. Too long to even bother trying to sell to a paper magazine.
I read a lot of action adventure stuff, mostly military sci-fi, and this is all that. The basic premise came from a friendship that started on an old forum I used to frequent: A liberal who became good friends with a conservative over their common interest in RC airplanes. But that was just about the relationship between the two main male characters. The idea of growing giant tunnels (as opposed to making them), came from an Alan Dean Foster novel I read many years ago called Sentenced To Prism. Everything else comes from places as obscure as the Aeneid (the protagonist’s name is no accident), to as prosaic as Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll. So I guess that means this story’s pedigree is 100% mutt.
The story is pure action adventure with ex-military construction workers caught in the middle of a looming war while being shafted by their idiotic company. It features an ignorant war-seeking President, gratuitous sex, and a reasonably high body count. Basically, if you’ve got a political axe to grind, whether liberal or conservative, I put a target in there for you to root against.
Quite a few of my friends ended up making a cameo in this story, unbeknownst to them. If you see your name in here, all I can say is “surprise.”
Plan on taking 25-40 minutes to read it.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The dream came back to Virgil seven days into his vacation. The very night he got the urgent email from the company, demanding his return.
The dream always started the same. He was working the line with the crew. Forester was in the lead, Whitby behind him. The crack in the wall was long, maybe 20 meters, and wide enough to stick his fist in. The wall around it looked wrong, diseased. The edges crumbling to the touch, the wood discolored for several meters.
Foundme plants, named for their exceptional ability to find the least bit of sea water, had colonized the crack. Their thick leather like leaves designed for an arid desert were bloated from excess water. Their fat roots wedged themselves into the crack, forcing it wider. A chemist on loan from Harrison was supposed to come by, but his jeep broke down near nodule 5.2. They were on their own.
Virgil grabbed the beat-up ultra sound machine, and ran an image of the wall, while Forester ripped the foundme plants out of the crack with his spike. The depth kept coming up short by about 10 meters, the image murky by the inclusion of seawater in the wall itself. The wall, the living breathing plant that made up the tunnel, and the only thing protecting them from the several thousand tons of ice cold sea water around them, was falling apart. Not good. Not good at all.
Then he heard the sound.
The plants around him were swaying their leaves, like a slow motion video of a man flailing their arms. The more mobile plants were actually moving from the crack; picking up their roots, and undulating away. The combined motion was enough make its own sound, a shooshing and a swhishing sound, not unlike a strong wind in a pine forest. Only there was never wind in the tunnel, save the day long slow inhale and exhale of the Root.
“Hey,” he yelled to his crew. “Everybody stop what you’re doing. I need it quiet here.”
The crew stopped moving, and turned to him, wordlessly. Forester was leaning on his spike, panting. His overalls grimy, his hard hat scratched, and gouged like his boots. Whitby sat behind him, his grey hair dirty as he quietly rechecked the readouts on the ultra-sound. The rest were scattered about, mostly standing. Silent.
“Can you hear that,” Virgil asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
The crew looked around, noticing the jungle’s odd behavior. They were all seasoned veterans. Many had taught him how to read the jungle; to pay attention to the plants around them. “The Root knows,” they would say, though often to make fun of their new boss. From the looks on their faces, he could tell they were worried too. This crack was bad. The jungle knew it. They knew it.
“I think its time,” he said over the noise of the plants, “that we got the hell out of here. Like NOW!”
Standard procedure for an imminent breech called for radio warning first, followed by an immediate evacuation. Virgil picked up his radio. “Whisky, whisky two niner. We have a bad situation here. The wall depth is less than 15 meters, and falling. The jungle is acting… its going crazy.” He paused, realizing he sounded panicked. He took a calming breath, and continued, “I believe a breech is imminent. I repeat, I believe a breech is imminent.”
The ground below them shook. The crew looked at each other, dropped their tools, and starting running for the van.
He had just reached the vehicle himself when the wall broke; the crack imploding violently. Water, plants, and pieces of Root — some of them the size of tree trunks — came flying towards the men like an avalanche turned on its side. Forester was swept up from behind, his hard hat flying ahead of him. Whitby came next, his mouth open, his face a mask or terror.
Virgil had just enough time to grab his resuscitator, and put it in his mouth when the wave engulfed him. In an instant he was under; one second breathing air, the next 20 meters underwater, and all of it ice cold. Dark shapes loomed and swooped around him, tossing him about like the inside of the world’s largest clothes washing machine.
The violent wave front swept passed, suspending them, leaving them floating in a green-grey watery world, like the inside of a snow-globe after it had been violently shaken and then set down. Plants, and broken Root pieces floated by as he slowly drifted with them down to the bottom. He saw the flash of something metal in the murky water — one of his crew, tossed around like a rag doll, his now useless resuscitator still stuck in his back pocket. The larger pieces of Root started to fall, their massive weight made evident only if they settled on you. The snowstorm of jungle and Root, flung about by the breech, was dropping all around him. Burying him in its ceaseless embrace.
The last thing Virgil saw floating in the water was his father. The old admiral’s iconoclastic long grey hair swirling around him; his eyes piercing. He was trying to talk, trying to tell Virgil something. Something urgent. Then a plant covered Virgil’s face, and the old man was lost from his view.
The resuscitator, activated by the pressure of the water, started to squirm and wiggle. Virgil could feel its threads slowly wrap around the back of his neck, covering his face, and squirming their way down his body. Its back end was waving around, seeking one of the EHPS roots which had popped up off the floor like eels on the ocean bottom. The resuscitator slowly forced open his mouth, like a lover spreading his teeth with her tongue. The weight of the detritus pinned him to the floor on his back, one arm stuck uncomfortably under his right hip, the biting cold making him numb; listless. His brain was telling at him to move, to scream, but he was pinned down to the ground, and the relentless cold was sucking his energy. His vision started to grey, turning black at the edges.
He could feel something move in his mouth, something soft, something wet. It was a vine coming from the resuscitator. Just as he was drifting off, he could feel the wet vine drop down into his throat, and start to enter his lungs.
He woke up screaming.
Jessie was there already, her warm arms around him, whispering into his ear. As usual the nightmare had left him dripping in sweat, clammy, and shaking. His legs were tied up in the sheets, his hands touching his face, making sure nothing was blocking mouth. He took in several deep breaths, and started to relax. The panic ebbing with each easy breath. In his ear he could here Jessie whisper over and over, “You’re okay you’re okay you’re okay.” She must have been saying this for the last minute, but it was only now that he could hear her.
Jessie smoothed his forehead with her hand, pushing back the longer threads of thinning hair now lightly peppered with grey. She leaned over and kissed him on his brow, her naked breast pressed up against his arm.
“Bad this time?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said with a sigh. “I saw dad. In the water. He was trying to tell me something. Something important. Only…” he shrugged his shoulders.
Jessie made a hum of sympathy, and kissed him gently again. Patient as always. “It’s been a while since the last one,” she said.
“Six months,” he said. “Maybe longer.”
“Do you think,” she asked, “if it has something to do with the funeral?”
He shrugged his shoulders. They had buried the admiral yesterday. Practically the whole base, and half of D.C. had come out to pay their last respects. The funeral was typical of his father; plenty of pomp and show, and almost no time for the family. Even in his coffin, the old man seemed to scowl.
“Do you really have to go back already? Back in there?” she asked, hugging him to take any sting out of her words.
On the very first day of his much needed vacation, the day he had come out of the root, they had received the call from the hospital. By the time they arrived there was nothing anyone could do except hold the old man’s hand, and hope for a response. The next morning he was gone. Typical of the company, it offered Virgil bereavement days, but only if they didn’t coincide with vacation days. Five days later, on the day of his father’s funeral, they sent him an urgent email demanding his return.
Unbidden a scrap of a poem he had memorized in High School came to him:
Trojan, Anchises’ son, the descent of Avernus is easy.
All night long, all day, the doors of Hades stand open.
But to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven,
That is labour indeed.
“What did you say?” Jessie asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “just a random thought.” He sat up in bed, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Yes,” he said quietly, “I have to go back. You know I do. I can’t think of why. The damn thing’s so close to done that it might as well be, but you never can tell when the company is involved. They seem to be especially talented at out-fooling anything that is foolproof.”
She snuggled up under his arm. “I know,” she said, “Its just…”
“I know,” he said. “I wish it was over too.”
Jessie was used to being a Navy widow, and prided herself on raising their kids on “spirit and spit,” as she liked to say. But what she did not say in public, or even around close family, was that she needed a break from being the sole parent as much as he needed one from his work. It was only when they were alone, the kids asleep in the other room, that she would say anything. And every time it broke his heart, although they both knew there was nothing either one could do.
“Soon” he said.
“Yes,” she replied with a sigh. “Very soon.”
Then she smiled, and lazily traced a line with a finger from his lips down the skin of his chest, and further – her hand coming to a stop on his inner thigh. “In the mean time,” she said. “Captain Virgil Davis Hammond, is hereby sentenced to comfort his poor wife for waking her up in the middle of the night, like some lowly middy.”
“This sounds serious,” he said as he leaned over and kissed her gently on the lips. “I take it, not just any comfort will do.”
“Oh no,” she said as she leaned into his embrace. “I have a very specific comfort in mind.”
“Are you sure?” he said teasingly, “I can call one of my middies if you like.”
“Oh no,” she whispered in his ear. “This comfort is reserved only for officers.”
“Officer? But madam. I appear to be out of my proper uniform.”
“For what I have in mind,” she whispered in his ear, “out of uniform is the proper uniform.”
The next morning Virgil found himself on a crowded train platform hurriedly trying to say goodbye to his family. The kids were already bored, and Jessie was tired from the night before. In the mad rush of the morning packing, nobody noticed his hands starting to shake. He made his goodbyes quickly, and got on the 10:30 train. 30 minutes later, hands digging into the arms on his seat and wishing he could have a drink, he watched the dark blur; the smooth bark of the airless high-speed tunnel zoom past his window at 640 kilometers per hour.
The tunnel, or the “Root” as it was called by the men who worked in it, was the longest construction project ever made by man. It stretched from the tip of New York’s Long Island, all the way to Plymouth in the U.K.. Counting the 34 floating seedpods, themselves the size of a small town, the Root spread some 5500 kilometers; the vast majority of which was built well below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
Only not one centimeter of it was built. It was all grown.
The inside of the Root was huge, large enough for several rail lines (including the airless high-speed tunnel Virgil was riding in). It held bike trails, footpaths, campsites, roads, hotels, and even a few massive casinos in three of the pods. The entire length was supposed to be opened to the public next month. By then, it was said, a man could hike or bike in comfort, all the way from the U.S. to England. That is, Virgil thought bitterly, if there was anyone left in the current political situation who wanted to.
What the company brochures rarely mentioned was that the inside of the Root, throughout its entire length, with exception of the inside of the high-speed tunnel, was completely carpeted, from one end to the other, in a lush semi-tropical jungle. All of the plants in the Root, including the Root wall itself, were genetically modified to act as one giant ever adapting highly complex ecosystem. So complex in fact, that no one exactly knew what it was doing at any one time or place. Plants could combine, their DNA replicating, in all kinds of surprising ways, and they often did. It was both a living eden, and a mad hatter’s dream. And the amazing thing was, this is precisely how it was intended to work.
After slightly more than 4 hours, the high speed train dropped Virgil off at Pod 16, which was the last completed stretch of the airless track on the American side of the Root. He dropped down to the next level, and caught the cargo train out to Pod 17. The Root connected to the English side of the tunnel was already complete. The last bits of the interior system of tracks and roads on the American side were being installed, the difficult airless high-speed rail being the last. The English had stopped their end at nodule 17.1, just shy of Pod 17, the middle most Seedpod. Ostensibly so the American’s could claim they grew the larger share of the tunnel, even though every one knew Harrison industries was an English company, and the majority of the technology to make the Root systems, including all of the genetically modified plants, were under English copyright law.
When Virgil arrived at the village commissary, he was tired, hungry, and in a foul mood. No one had greeted him at the Pod 17 station, and the light duty electric vehicles were all taken. He had been forced to slog his heavy bag through two miles of mud to the temporary camp where the workers slept and ate. The cool dry air inside the commissary felt great on his skin after his humid hike. By chance he had stepped into the diner line right behind Sibyl, the main secretary for the project. He reached up and gently tapped her on the shoulder. She quickly turned around, her face flashing from neutral to surprise as she recognized his him.
“Hey, Virge,” she said with a smile. “What’s ya doing here?”
Virgil set his bag down with a thump. “Dunno,” he said. “I got an urgent email telling me to catch the next fast train, so I did. I just walked in from the station. Didn’t anyone tell you I’d be coming?”
“Nope,” she said with a frown. “If I’d known I would have sent someone to fetch you. I’m sorry you had to walk, but it sure is nice to have you back.” The last part she said with a smile.
“Thanks,” he said. “I would say its nice to be back…”
“But you’d hate to lie,” Sibyl finished for him. “Yes, we know. How are the kids? Jessica?”
“Good and good.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your father,” she added, putting a hand on his shoulder in support. “That must have been rough.”
“Thanks, Sibyl,” he said gruffly. “It was, but its over now, and I think I have work to do. Do you happen to know where my crew is?”
“Sure,” she said pulling out at her ever present tablet, and manipulating the screen. “It looks like they just finished up the e-hap vine at 17.1, up next to the nodule wall. Right in front of the Brits, or so it looks,” she said as she zoomed in on an image. “Spitting on the enemy do you suppose?”
“Ha. More like swapping out some of that mule piss of ours for some real beer. Besides, you don’t believe all that ‘enemy’ talk to you?”
“Enemy? Hardly,” she said. “You know I did marry me a Brit once.”
“And, he’s the best ex husband I ever had.”
They both laughed at this. Sibyl was tough as nails, and sharp as a tack. If half of what she said were true, she also had more ex-husbands than Virgil had dates.
He slung his drop bag over his shoulder and grabbed a food tray. They both loaded up their plates, careful to not slow down the line. They were just getting their drinks from the large refrigerated area further down, when Virgil remember something. “Almost forgot,” he said. “Something’s up with the company network. That, or my tablet. Do you know what that’s about? I can find outside sites no problem, but my tablet won’t pick up anything local.”
“Oh,” she said with a frown. Her first impulse was to reach for her tablet, but between her tray and her drink, her hands were full. “The company redid all the local network passwords yesterday,” she said looking for a place to conveniently set down her tray. “They were all hush-hush about it too. Um, let me see if I can send you yours.”
“That’s okay,” he said. He had just seen Rick Martinez, the man who ran his crew whenever he wasn’t around. “I think I can get it from Rick.”
“Are you sure?” she asked to be polite. She had stopped looking for a place to set down her tray down, and was heading towards her favorite table on the other side of the tent.
“Positive,” he said, walking behind her for a moment. “Hey, how come the password changes? Did they get another hack?”
“Nope,” she said over her shoulder, slowing down as they walked between tables. “There was some big to-do when Rogers showed up. Lots of suits and stuff. Making scary noises after security arrived and looked at our press area.”
“What’d Larry think of that?” he asked. Larry Simmons was their local communications/network expert.
“I don’t know,” Sibyl said. “He’s not here.”
“How about Johnston?” Charlie Johnston was Virgil’s nominal boss, although he tended to leave the captain and his crew to their own devices.
“He’s still on vacation as well,” she said.
“Victor?” Virgil asked, working his way up the company ladder.
“How about Lakey? He’s always here.”
“Nope. He’s not here either.”
“You mean to tell me, everyone in management is gone?” They had paused in the middle of an intersection of tables, disbelief in his voice. “Who’s in charge then?”
“Me,” she said brightly while stopping to look at him.
“Oh, I knew that,” he said with a smile. “I meant who’s pretending to work while you handle everything.”
She looked around to make sure they wouldn’t be overheard, then stepped closer, lowering her voice. “That would be Rogers. Him and whoever else he brought in from the blue world. Believe it or not, it was Lakey’s idea. He wanted to get the bosses rested up for the ceremony next month, so he put all of you on vacation at the same time. This place runs itself at this point, and he figured it would better for you guys to get your vacation pay before anything happened.”
“Anything?” He asked in a quite voice. “Why do I not like the sound of that?”
“You know a war with England is possible, right?”
He nodded his head.
She continued, “I would even go so far as to say it is likely, if the President has his way.”
“Please,” Virgil said. “Don’t remind me. I got to hear his saber rattling all last week. Funny how 2500 kilometers of tunnel tends to separate one from all that noise.”
“Don’t care for the 24 hour news cycle?” she asked.
“Not when I’m working with the guys the President wants to fight,” he said. “Harrison Industries may be only marginally more efficient then our government, and the limeys do take some time to get used to, but still they’re usually more helpful than our own company when it comes to getting things done. Look how much sooner they finished their end of the tunnel.”
This was a sore spot within the company, and the U.S. government. Harrison Industries had started later, and yet finished months sooner then their American counterpart. The press tried to play up the fact that the American side was longer, and thus took more time, but the crew who actually worked in the Root knew this to be bullshit.
“Now you’re starting to sound like one of those angry Anglophiles,” she teased, as she turned her body.
“Me?” said Virgil. “Not hardly. I just happen to think they brew a better beer. That’s hardly an Anglo trait. In fact I think it’s an Irish one.”
She laughed over her shoulder as she walked away. Virgil turned and headed for Rick, knowing if they weren’t already there, the rest of the crew would soon be.
Virgil was just setting his tray down when Rick looked up. “As I live and breathe,” Rick said. “Look what the cat drug in boys.”
There was a chorus of greetings from the crew as Virgil unslung his heavy drop bag, and set it on the empty table.
Hedrick was in the middle of another story, so Virgil ate his diner quietly, enjoying the moment. Dove, Jenkins and the rest of the crew sat in rapt attention, their heads all bent toward Hedrick, their mouths chewing almost in unison. When he finished, they all laughed, and slapped in him the back. Then Jenkins said aloud what most of them were thinking. “So when are you going to share your stories with more then just e-hap?” He asked.
Hedrick suddenly hunkered down, looking more embarrassed than happy.
“I’m serious,” Jenkins continued.
There were several murmurs of assent, then silence. As the quiet grew, the men turned their eyes towards Rick. He in turn looked towards Virgil and raised an eyebrow; clearly an unspoken question. Curious at how Rick would respond, Virgin nodded his head slightly towards Hedrick, as if to say, “go ahead.”
“I think,” said Rick, “that Hedrick will share his stories with the rest of the world, when he is damn good and ready to. And not a moment before.”
Hedrick looked relieved, and the tension at the table died immediately.
Virgil slid his tray aside, and pulled out his tablet. “So,” he said to no one in particular, “How’s the vine going?”
There was an instant chorus of groans and cat-calls. Virgil waited. Jenkins again, was the first to speak what they were all thinking.
“It’s a right dog’s breakfast, that one is,” said the rough spoken Aussie. Several members of the crew nodded their heads.
“So, not the just regular snafu?” Virgil asked.
Jenkins shook his head. “Not by half sir. They got us pulling out the vine, sir. Right after we put the damn thing into the wall.”
Virgil’s eyes must have gone wide as Rick spoke in Jenkin’s defense. “It’s true, Skipper” he said. “They told us to pull out the vine, just after we had finished linking it up. Damnedest thing I ever seen. I double-checked twice, just to be sure it wasn’t some kind of prank. The orders were legit.”
Rick’s voice had been calm, but there was a hint of anger underneath. Something else too, but Virgil couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Rick was usually defensive about their work, and was known to be a real fire-breather when provoked, but right now he seemed calm, almost relaxed. As he was thinking, Virgil noticed the rest of the table was silent; the crew looking at him; expecting. Then it hit him.
“You’re up to something,” he said quietly, pride mingling with fear in his chest. “Aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
The men at the table waited, tense. Rick looked down, and brought his hand to his mouth to cough.
“Uh, well, sir. I figured Brock and Daniels might have themselves a midnight walk tonight,” Rick spoke to the table, not making eye contact with his boss. “It being such a perfect night for a stroll and all.”
Brock was the fastest fitter on the crew. Everyone knew this. He had a casual way with the jungle that the rest of the crew envied. Sending him out made perfect sense. But Daniels, that was an interesting choice. Virgil had always suspected the quiet and dark man had once done field work for some kind of agency, and not the “nice” kind of field work either. He had very careful hands, and eyes that seemed to hold secrets; dark secrets.
Virgil smiled, “Yes,” he said. “I can see that. The perfect night for it in fact.”
He waited a moment, and then continued in a more serious tone, “Did anyone think to inform Dude? We might not want to surprise our friends on the other side of the nodule.”
The looming war had made regular communications between the English and American sides of the Root all but impossible. Like hundreds of men before them, the e-hap crew had created a way around the blockage. Dude was the nickname the crew used for the e-hap specialist on the English side of the Root. They didn’t know his real name, and it was never offered. Dude liked to effect a Californian delivery whenever he talked with the Americans, and liberally peppered his sentences with “dude”, as if this would cover his rather prominent east-end accent. Virgil could care less how the man spoke, as long as the e-hap system was up and running. The thought of so many people working on the Root without an emergency protection system made him shudder in horror. If he had to break a few rules to ensure the safety of those around him, he would do so. Without a qualm.
Dove, the normally quiet communications specialist spoke up. “Um, it’s all taken care of, sir.”
Virgil raised an eyebrow. “Should I ask?”
Dove looked thoughtful for a moment. “Probably not sir,” he said quietly.
Virgil glanced at Rick. His crew chief gave him a nod. That was all he needed. Some things were better for the boss to not know.
That reminded him of something else. Virgil slid his tablet next to his beer. “I have a problem, Dove,” he said to the networking specialist, “I’m hoping you can solve. Ever since I got back, I can’t get into the company network.”
“Ah,” Dove said. “The new security protocol.”
“Good, then you know,” Virgil said. “Can you fix it?”
Dove shrugged. “We all got new passwords yesterday, but you didn’t get one, right?”
“Well, when they arrived, I thought something about mine looked familiar,” he said with growing animation. “So I ran a few tests on it. Turns out the password was just a simple variation on my login name, after turning it into hex, of course, and rounding up the odd integers to the next highest prime.”
“Uh,” Virgil said. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that again. This time in English?”
Dove gave him the same look he gave to all lesser mortals when talking about the more esoteric aspect of his job. “Let me see if I can say this in a way you’ll understand,” he said without any obvious condescension. The rest of the guys at the table rolled their eyes. It was a common phrase. “The company needed to redo their security, only for some reason they needed to do it quickly, globally, and for everybody. With me so far?”
“So rather than replacing each and every password, they made up a simple fix instead. They remade everybody’s password, based on their login name, and – get this – using the same algorithm, every time.”
“So…” said Virgil, not getting Dove’s meaning.
“So,” said Dove. “This is amateur hour 101. A fix like this leaves a pretty obvious trail. Anyone with half a brain could find the pattern, turn it around, and hack our network. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet.” He sat back, managing to look both shocked and smug.
“So,” said Virgil carefully. “Does that mean you can help me to login?”
“Oh, that,” said Dove. “I think so, but I don’t know for sure. Here,” he said doing something on his tablet. A new file appeared on Virgil’s tablet named Charon. “Run that. It should generate a password for you. Just copy it to your net. prefs., and hit return.”
Virgil started the file. “Charon?” he asked, thinking all the while that what Dove had just done, transferring a file to an authorized tablet, was technically not possible.
“Don’t ask,” Dove said. He had a habit of giving his files the most obscure of names.
Virgil ran the app, and entered his name. It returned a long string of random looking number and letters. He pasted them into his network preferences, and suddenly he was in.
“Hot damn,” he said. “Looks like it works. Thanks, Dove. You’re a genius.”
“Just doing my job,” Dove replied with a shy smile. “Just doing my job.”
That night, the nightmare came to Virgil again, only this time more real, more vivid. Like the night before, he saw his father drift by in the murky water. The old Admiral had the same urgent look on his face, the same long grey hair swirling around him. This time, by carefully reading his lips, Virgil could just make out his father’s words, “the top branch. Take the top branch,” before the swirl of plants and debris obscured him.
Virgil woke up alone in his tent, throat raw from screaming and drenched in sweat. Why the admiral, he wondered? Why now? It just didn’t make any sense. And what in the world did “take the top branch” mean? He supposed it would be nice if he could step down into the dark pit of hell where they kept the old bastard, and ask the man himself. The problem was, even if he could go down that path Virgil wasn’t sure he would know what to say when he got there.
He could feel the dark walls of the Root calling him. The old fear always came back with the dark. He swallowed hard, and looked around his tent for something, anything. Then he laughed at himself and rolled out of bed, knowing sleep was no longer an option, at least for that night. On a hunch he checked Rick’s connection. Sure enough he saw a message sent from Daniels with a 3:30 time-stamp. It contained a single word. “Done”.
At least that went well, he thought. Then pulling out his tablet, he began to look though the network, trying to discover what else had been changed in his absence.
“Morning, Rick,” Virgil said as he handed the man a cup of coffee. Rick’s eyes were just slits, his hair tousled. The younger man had just managed to get his legs over the side of the bed, when Virgil entered his tent.
“Hey boss,” Rick squeezed out as his stretch turned into a yawn. “What’s up?”
Virgil hand him his tablet. It showed a map for the area around Pod 17. “Do you know anything about this,” he asked, his hand pointing to a flashing part on the tablet?
Rick took a sip of hot coffee, and winced at the strength. “Hum,” he said, holding up the tablet. “That doesn’t look right.” He was looking at a grid of all the various communications lines running through the Root.
Because the Root was grown, and not made, a certain amount of redundancy was built into its systems. This included the hardwiring of the communications. Everything from the internet to telephony were passed through any number of various cables that had been grown into the Root. This insured that communication could continue in the event of an unlikely emergency, or that they would continue after an evolutionary change in a local habitat, which was much more likely. Because the e-hap line had its own specific cable, the crew didn’t usually worry about the rest of communications. The e-hap system was designed to protect humans in the case of an emergency. It happened to tie into the regular communications systems, but only at every Pod. This was considered enough redundancy. Virgil had suggested they tie the e-hap cable into the rest of the communications system at every nodule, but the company had refused his request sighting the extra cost. Theoretically, either system could work on any cable, but that was logistically too difficult to implement in practice.
On Virgil’s map, Rick could trace the whole array of cables, both for communications and for e-hap. Most of the them – maybe 50 or 60 it was hard to count with blurry eyes – were colored red, indicating they were not in use. Only a single cable in Pod 17 was glowing the blue of “in use.” Rick absently scrolled the map, tracing the blue line as he sipped his coffee.
The entire Root was divided into 34 floating seedpods, each about 100 kilometers apart. The sections of the Root between each seedpod were again divided into 19 nodules, each approximately 5 kilometers apart. These nodule breaks acted as a protective barrier, a sort of airlock. They were primarily used during the construction of the Root as a safe wall for the workers to sleep behind while the Root was grown. When the Root was completed up to the next nodule, then the crew would grow new dwellings into the wall, and then move all their belongings forward from the last nodule. Thus the Root was completed 5 kilometers at a time. These nodule breaks not only provided a protective barrier, they also were used as storehouses for the various chemicals and nutrients needed to help the Root grow. Since the company never liked to invest in anything without a return, the left over crew housing at each nodule were later converted into hotels, emergency dwellings, or storage.
As Rick scrolled along the map, he could see that 20 or more blue cables were in use from the Long Island terminus all the way up to nodule 16.19, which was the last nodule before Pod 17. After nodule 16.19 there was just a single blue line running from nodule 16.19 through Pod 17, and up to nodule 17.1. More importantly, the e-hap cable, the very system that provided emergency protection to the hundreds of humans living in Pod 17, also was red after 16.19. Someone or some thing had cut it. Perhaps it was intentional.
Rick handed back the tablet. “I don’t know, skipper,” he said. “I’ve never seen that display before, the communications one.”
“Does your tablet have access to the communications cable array,” Virgil asked?
“Not that I know of. I only see the e-hap array.”
“Hum,” said Virgil. “Maybe it’s only available to directors or higher.” Virgil then pointed to the red e-hap cable running through Pod 17. “Do you suppose this has anything to do with Dove’s little fix?”
Rick shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno. I’d have to ask…”
“Ask who,” a woman’s voice interrupted?
Virgil spun around to see who had interrupted. Rick shot up so fast he spilled hot coffee on his chest.
A woman was standing in the tent entrance. She had long dark hair, a pretty smile, and dressed as if she was going on a safari. A safari with stylish high-heels. She was young, but the way she rested her hands on her hips suggested a confidence rare for her age. Her comfortable stare revealed a shrewd intelligence behind sharp eyes. This was a woman used to getting her way.
“What the…” Rick yelled, ineffectively brushing burning coffee off his bare chest.
“Who in the hell…” Virgil said, taking a second to get over his surprise, “are you?”
“Amanda,” the woman said, holding out her hand. “Amanda Waters. Reuters.”
“Oh” said Rick, as if that explained her presence.
Virgil leaned over and took her hand. “Virgil Hammond,” he said. “A bit early for reporters, isn’t it?”
“Late actually,” she said. “I took the last train out.
Virgil looked at her for a moment thinking. There was something about her accent that bothered him. “Pardon me for asking,” he said, “but why the hell are you here?”
“I’ve been asking that myself,” she said. “Ever since I got to the station, and found no car waiting for me.” She pulled out her notebook. The back and sides were covered with stickers, layer upon layer. Many worn down from use.
“I received this,” she said, turning her notebook around to show Virgil an email, “yesterday. Under the circumstances, I thought it was, uh, interesting. When I got to the camp, the main office was closed, so I went looking for your tent. Since you weren’t there either, someone kindly suggested I check here. So here I am.”
Virgil looked at the email. It was an invitation for one Amanda Waters, of Reuters News Agency, to come to Pod 17 and see the work of the e-hap crew. It mentioned Virgil’s name specifically. To his untrained eye, the email looked legitimate. He just wish he knew who had sent it, because it sure as hell didn’t come from him.
He smiled and held up Amanda’s tablet. ”Do you mind if I have a copy of this,” he asked?
“Go right ahead,” Amanda replied. “First time you’ve seen it then?”
“Something like that,” he said as he sent the email to his own tablet. “I believe,” he continued, handing back her tablet, “there’s been some kind of mistake.”
“I usually get that when I arrive,” Amanda said casually as she put her notebook away.
“You do,” said Rick after tugging on a shirt? “That’s a rather curious response.”
She gazed at both of the men levelly. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
Virgil glanced at Rick, who shrugged his shoulders in response. “Should we,” he asked?
“I’m an investigative reporter,” she said. “A good one. I have a reputation for uncovering things. Big things. Remember the little dust up with the P.M. last year. The one with the girl in the pink dress?”
“Oh, I remember that,” said Rick. “Didn’t he lose his job or something.”
“Or something,” she said, the irony obvious in her tone. The scandal had cost the Prime Minister his job, and had broken his coalition. Even in America it had been big news.
“That was your story,” Risk asked in awe?
“It was,” she said.
Rick let out a low whistle. “Wow,” he said!
“But this,” said Virgil indicating her invitation, “looks more like a fluffy PR piece. That doesn’t make sense. Isn’t that a bit low for you?”
She gave him the half smile she normally reserved for idiots, and newspaper editors. “Put it this way,” she said in a conspiratorial tone. “Even reporters need a holiday every once in a while.”
Something about her fierce gaze made Virgil think this was not just a holiday for her. Then it hit him: Her accent. She spoke with a sort of European flair; a flat toned English with a lot of Americanisms thrown on top. But when she said the word “holiday” he realized she was actually English, as in born in England. He looked at her sharply, wondering how much he could trust her. She must be a shark, he thought. But how much of one? Out loud he asked, “You had breakfast yet, Ms. Waters? Or is it Amanda?”
“Amanda is fine,” she said. “And if that’s an invitation, then no I have not broken my fast.”
“Good,” Virgil said, “because we have a long day ahead of us, and I’m starving. Shall we go?”
They stepped outside, waiting long enough for Rick to put on a company issue coverall. Then they walked to the commissary in silence.
After breakfast, Virgil slipped to Dove the anonymous email that had been sent to Amanda. He asked the networking specialist of he could check out the email, and see if he could discover its origin. On a hunch, he also sent Dove the urgent email that had cut short his vacation.
When the rest of the e-hap business had been concluded, Virgil turned to Rick and asked, “Can you please take our guest up to the uniform tent, and get her some clothes?”
Rick nodded his head, but Amanda had a different reaction. “What’s wrong with the way I’m dressed,” she asked?
“Nothing,” he said, “if you’re safe and in the middle of a city. This place isn’t a city, and it sure as hell isn’t safe.”
“Excuse me,” she said in an acid tone, “but I’ve covered stories in a war zone with machine guns going right over my head, and in the arctic during a blizzard where the snow fall was measured in feet-per-hour, not inches. So I find myself wondering what can be so dangerous about working on the inside of a tunnel that also happens to be the world’s longest park? Are you one of those idiots who thinks I can’t take care of myself because I’m a woman, or do I need to worry about roving hoards of knife-wielding bambis?”
She stared at Virgil without moving, a faint blush on her cheeks. Virgil stared back calmly. After a moment he said, “I’m a bit busy this morning, Ms. Waters, so I don’t have the time to explain to you the depths of your ignorance. If you are going to work with my crew, you will dress like them. Period. You will especially wear any and all safety equipment that I deem necessary. There are no exceptions.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but he stopped her with a hand.
“And while you are considering these conditions, did it occur to you that you might be more successful in your investigation if you are dressed like the rest of the us? That is, if you don’t stick out like an idiot from the blue?”
Before she could answer he turned to Rick and said, “Get the crew looking over the network, as we planed. When you’re done with her, both of you can join me at the stage. I have a feeling that Rogers is there already. Maybe we can get some answers on what the hell is going on around here.”
“Aye, aye, skipper,” Rick said. “We’ll get right on it.”
With that, Virgil put his tray away, and headed out into the pod looking for whoever was supposed to be in charge.
“Is he always like that,” Amanda asked?
“Like what,” said Rick? The two of them were walking up hill towards the back of the haphazard chaos of the tent city, searching for the one that held uniforms and safety equipment. The uniform tent had been moved twice. Each time someone had failed to update its location on the network. Hence the search.
“You know, like a total dictator.” She dropped her tone an octave and grunted an impersonation of Virgil, “You will dress how I say. There are no exceptions.”
Rick laughed at her impression, then his face sobered. “I know he seems like a total dick at times, but the man does have his reasons.”
“Like what,” she said, her voice serious? “Why do I need to dress like one of the crew? I don’t understand. And what can possibly be so damned dangerous inside a stupid tunnel?”
“Really,” said Rick? “Do you want to know, or are you being sarcastic?” They had climbed up high enough along the circular walls of the pod that they now had a nice view of the tent city below, and rest of the pod beyond.
“Really,” she said, making it sound like a challenge. “Educate me.”
“Okay. Lets see here,” he said. “First off, its not a tunnel. Its a root. The Root. Only those living under the blue call it a tunnel.”
“Under the blue,” she asked?
“Ha,” he said with a laugh. “Its a pejorative term. It means someone who lives outside, under the blue sky.”
“As opposed to…”
“Rooties. Those of us who live in the Root. And its in the Root, not on it. Got it?”
“Sure,” she said. “But why the distinction? Why do you care if its called a tunnel or a root?”
“Because a tunnel is made. A root is grown. If you assume that this place was made; manufactured, then you’ll start to get comfortable; complacent.
“For instance,” he continued bending over and grabbing a plant with distinctive long green stalks. “Do you see this plant?”
She nodded her head.
“Do know what kind of plant it is?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t either,” he said inspecting the plant more carefully. “In fact I’ve never seen one like it before.” The Rick grabbed the plant by the base, and in an easy motion, pulled it, roots and all, out of the ground.
Immediately the plant started writhing, its long green stalks swaying back and forth as if caught in a windstorm that no one else could feel. The base of the stalks turned darker in color, and then transformed again to a bright red while leaving the tips still the same distinctive green. Amanda was surprised at it’s reaction. She’d never seen a plant move on its own before.
Rick was still holding the plant up, but was now looking around them. “Take a look at the plants around us. Notice the ones like this one?”
Amanda saw that scattered around them were several plants similar to the one Rick held. “What about them,” she asked?
“Did you notice that they’re getting closer?”
“Huh,” she said. Looking around a second time she suddenly noticed that all the plants with long green stalks were getting closer. “What in the world,” she said as she took an unconscious step nearer to Rick? “They are getting closer.”
Rick tossed the plant in a slow curve that took it to a open spot some 10 feet away. It landed on it’s root, and immediately stopped gyrating. Within a minute its stalks were back to their original green, and the plants around them were moving back to their previous locations.
“Okay,” Amanda said. “That was creepy. Did you know they would do that?”
“Not really,” he said. “We’ve seen plants that look similar. We called them zombie plants. But I haven’t seen one since before Pod 10.”
“Zombie plants? Why do I not like the sound of that?”
“Oh, its nothing like that,” Rick said. “They’ll surround you, but they usually don’t attack anything bigger than a rabbit.”
“Attack,” she asked, surprise in her voice?
“Sure. Its a food source. Plants that move fast need protein. Some more than others. The zombie plant hunts in groups, surrounding their prey and strangling them, but I don’t know what these plants do.”
Amanda could feel a rising tide of horror. She noticed Rick was smiling when he said this, watching the plants with obvious interest. “You like them, don’t you?” It more accusation then question. “Are you a botanist or something?”
“Me,” Rick said? “A botanist? Negative. I’m a sailor. Submarines, or boats as we called them. Nuclear powered. I was a commander hoping to make captain, when they scrapped half the fleet. I had worked under Virgil in the fleet, so when the Navy turned me out, I hooked up with him here.
“You’re a submariner? Why in the world would they hire you in a place like this?”
Rick turned to her, no longer watching the plants. “When they started this damn thing, the suits living under the blue thought us submariners, as you call them, would benefit the project from our years of living in and around high pressure containers.”
“Were they right?”
He shrugged his shoulders “Hard to say. This place is one mother of a pressure container, but that’s just one its many dangers. The company may hire you for your expertise, but then happily ignore that expertise when it suits them.”
“Have they done that before,” she asked?
“Once. Before my time.”
“A lot of people died, is what happened. We lost a whole section of the Root. Wiped out an entire crew. Set us back three months or more. These walls,” he said stamping his foot for emphasis, “are the only thing between us and several thousand tons per square inch of ice cold sea water. Just like a submarine working at this depth, any flaw in the pressure vessel and Boom, we’re screwed.”
“So is that why your boss is so uptight about safety.”
“Virgil? I guess you could say that. He lost a lot of friends that day. An accident like that tends to make a man pretty cautious. That or pretty dead. Say what you want, but Virgil’s still not dead. That’s good enough for me.”
Amanda was looking at Rick with new found respect. “Okay,” she said. “I think I see what Virgil meant about the ‘depths of my ignorance’. I take it there’s more that can kill me than a hole in the tunnel, oops root, or a group of predatory plants.”
Rick nodded his head, and then stopped. “I’ll be damned,“ he said, looking off in the distance.
“The uniform tent. It’s right over there. Come on.”
Rick started down the hill in the direction he was pointing. Amanda followed, her head still full of questions. “So,” she said. “Why the suit?”
“Oh that’s easy,” he said over his shoulder. “The suit has a special layer that protects you from certain chemicals. It blocks most of the amino acids and such that we use to make the Root grow or change. Some of these things are pretty nasty. Spill them on an unprotected arm, and you’ll have yourself a nice little burn. Or worse.”
“So it’s like a chemical warfare suit?”
“Similar. Not as heavy, because we’re not trying to stop radiation, just carbon compounds.”
“Any thing else?”
“Well it protects you from the jungle, but it also protects the jungle from you.”
“That’s what we call the green stuff everywhere in the Root. In the wilds.”
“Okay,” she said. “Jungle. Why does it need protecting from us.”
“You know this whole Root was grown from one plant, right?” He used a hand to indicate the entire Pod and Root.
“Okay. Well the Root needs to be able to grow without much supervision, otherwise it would be too costly to make. Make sense? But the Root also needs to be easy to modify; to edit if you will. Otherwise we couldn’t add anything to it. With me so far?”
“Sure,” said Amanda. “Grows on it’s own, but also easy to change.”
“Great,” he said as they came up to the uniform tent. He walked inside, grabbed a set of boots, gloves, a coverall in her size, and then added a e-hap stump to the stack. He handed her the stack, and pointed to the changing area. When she had stepped behind the curtain, he asked, “Can you hear me in there?”
“Sure,” she said.
“Okay,” he continued. “So the Root was designed to be sensitive to certain compounds, mostly amino acids, which we use to manipulate it. This sensitivity has a few consequences; uh side effects. For instance, I noticed you’re wearing perfume, right?”
“Well, yes,” Amanda said from behind the curtain as she struggled into her coverall.
“We found out that some perfumes will also effect the Root. Causing it to grow in different ways. Sometimes bad ways. Not just perfumes either. Many antiperspirants and deodorants effect it too.”
“Great,” she said. “So I get to wear an ugly orange outfit, and stink.”
“Well we do have deodorants which don’t effect the Root, so it’s not that bad.”
“I was being sarcastic Rick. I’ve lived with my own stick before. Please ignore me and continue.”
“Um, okay,” he said. “The point is certain chemicals, especially petroleum compounds for some reason, really mess with the Roots structure.”
“Is that why there’s only electric cars around here,” she asked as she came out from behind the curtain? “I thought that was some stupid green thing, or something.”
“Nope,” he said. “Its not about being green, its much more pragmatic than that. Need help with your boots?”
She was lacing up her boots, and was having trouble understanding how they fit with her coverall. He showed her how to lace the boots, and then slip the coverall down over the top of the boots. Two strips of velcro gave the suit a strong seal.
“So,” she said, “the suit protects us from the Root, and the Root from us. Gas and oil makes the walls go wobbly, and half the jungle can eat us if we’re too slow. Did I miss anything?”
“Just this,” Rick said holding up an e-hap stump.
“What’s that do,” she asked?
“If you’re lucky,” he said. “Nothing. If not, then it saves your life.”
She looked at the stump. It looked like a dried out root on a string, somewhat like a small brown carrot with a lot of fringe hanging from the point on it’s bottom. On top of the carrot was a small knob that looked like a brown radish with a tuft of very short hair spiking out the top. “What do I do with it?”
“Simple,” he said. “One, wear it around your neck at all times.” As he said this, he put the string over her head. “And I mean at all times. Two, in case of a breach – if you see a wall of water coming for you – put this knob in your mouth, and keep it there.”
“That’s it,” he replied.
“So it’s helps you breathe. Like some kind of respirator?”
“Something like that.”
“Something like that,” she said as she held her up to look at it. “It’s pretty disgusting looking isn’t it? You said wear it at all times. Will it go off in the shower?”
“Good question. No. It requires something more than water to activate. Pressure too, I think. I’m not sure. You could take it swimming with you, and nothing would happen, except it’d get wet.”
“Hum,” she said letting it drop. “How’s it work, anyway?”
He looked at her with a level gaze. “You don’t want to know.”
“Is it that bad,” she asked?
“Has it ever been tested?”
“In the field? Once.”
“Once. Did the guy using it survive?”
“Something like that,” he said. “You can ask him yourself if you like, but I doubt he’ll tell you more than he told me.”
“So you know this guy,” she asked?
“Sure. It’s Virgil. My boss.”
Rick and Amanda caught up with Virgil at the site for the stage; an area which had been set aside to host the opening ceremonies celebration in a few months. The stage itself was a simple platform, with a semi-circle of bleachers surrounding it. The entire complex as built into a natural amphitheater slightly upslope on the pod wall. Some of the company staff had erected a large white backdrop behind the stage, and projected old movies on it on the weekends. Otherwise the place was usually deserted; not run-down as much as unfinished.
Rick was just explaining this to Amanda when they rounded a slight hill, and the stage came into view. The area below it was littered with electric cars parked every which way, and on the rim of the amphitheater could be seen dozens of workmen. As they approached they saw a steady stream of workers enter in and out of the complex, many carrying lights and other stage equipment. Amanda pointed out several rack mounted electronic devices that were used for online video editing, and broadcasting. The speed at which the men were working made it clear they expected to finish soon.
At the entrance to the bleachers they found Virgil deep in a conversation with two men in suits. One of the men held a phone to his ear, and looked on distractedly, while Virgil spoke to the other. Amanda noticed that neither man was wearing one of the brown, ugly e-hap stumps. Nor were any of the other workers. She pointed this out to Rick as they approached the group wearily.
“What I’m trying to understand,” said Virgil in a calm voice, “is what you are doing here?”
“I already told you,” said the man in the exasperated tone like the one adults use when speaking to slow children, “we’re finishing up the stage for the opening ceremonies.” The man’s face was round, his tone pale. Pink dots of frustration were starting to show on his cheeks.
“I can see that,” Virgil said calmly, “but what I don’t see is a reason to do this now. Or a reason to use outside people for a job the company can handle. Or a reason why none of the workers seems to be wearing a single piece of safety gear.”
“We’ve already been over this,” said the pale man, “We examined all the relevant safety data, and felt the risk was acceptable.”
“Who examined the data,” said Virgil? “How did they come to these conclusions?”
“The company safety experts, that’s who,” said the pale man.
The other man hung up his phone, and turned to the pale man. “Who is this man, Rogers? And why is he here harassing us? We’ve got work to do.”
The pale man, Rogers, turned to the man with the phone. “He’s Hammond. An on-site director. In charge of a small part of the networking structure; the emergency human protection system.”
The man looked at Virgil as if he were an insect. “So what’s he doing here?”
“I don’t know,” said Rogers. “He was supposed to be on vacation, like the others.”
“So get rid of him,” said the man with the phone. “We’re already behind schedule. We don’t have time to do deal with union crap.”
“Its not union crap, sir,” said Virgil showing anger for the first time. “Company employees are explicitly exempted from union rule. It is safety crap. Crap that directly effects all of our safety.”
As he spoke, some workmen passed pushing with a dolly stacked high with 20 liter drums. One of the men asked Rogers were he wanted the load.
“Take it to the back of the stage,” Rogers said impatiently, pointing towards the entrance under the bleachers. “Leave it there.”
Moving casually, so as to not attract attention, Amanda pulled out her camera, and took a photo of the dolly. The other were to busy to notice the labels on the drums. They read: Enamel Paint: White.
Virgil continued, “I’m afraid you gentlemen have left me no other choice. I’m going to have to shut this site down until it meets the minimal safety standards.”
“You can’t do that,” said the man with the phone. “You’re just a director.”
Rogers interrupted, “Actually he can. Sr. Directors on safety systems do have job oversight authority.”
Virgil crossed his arms and smiled. Rogers looks worried.
“But,” Rogers continued, “he needs to have another Senior Director or higher back him up. On his own, he can’t stop us.”
Virgil’s face turned dark. He was hoping Rogers wouldn’t know that last bit.
The other man picked up his phone. “I think I know how to fix this,” he said as he started to dial. “Get me Samuels, in the Company,” he said into his phone. “And hurry.”
The man with the phone separated from the others, and spoke animatedly. Rick approached Virgil, and asked quietly, “who is that joker?”
Virgil shrugged his shoulders. “Some government bureaucrat,” he said. “I don’t know from where.”
Rogers hissed, “He’s not just any bureaucrat, you idiot. Don’t you know who that is?”
Before Virgil could answer Amanda passed her tablet in front of him. He looked down on the screen and saw a photo of the man with the phone. Under the photo was the caption, “Wallace Oscar. Chief of Staff, President Flintridge.”
“Holy shit, skipper,” Rick whispered. “I think you just pissed off the wrong guy.”
Virgil smiled. “Well, its not the first time,” he said in a whisper. “Probably not the last either.”
One hour later the three met up at the bottom of the ersatz parking lot. Virgil had stayed beside Rogers pestering the man while Rick had taken Amanda around the back and looked into things.
“Well,” Virgil asked?
“They’re definitely ramping up for a show,” Rick said. “Amanda thinks the stage might be ready as soon as tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” said Virgil? “Hum. Why the rush?”
“Amanda’s got a theory,” Rick said, “but I’m not convinced.”
Virgil turned to Amanda giving her a look more fitting for the Captain on the bridge of a fast attack nuclear sub, than a Director on a construction project. “Well,” he said?
“Its the govcam network,” she said. “A wireless camera array the government uses for all press conferences. The networks like it because no one has to lug their own camera equipment, and the government likes it because they can control the camera angles. You just tap into the network with your press credentials password, and take the shot directly from their feed.”
“Go on,” said Virgil.
“Well, I saw one of the White House staffers setting up the govcam gear, so I went over for a chat. He was very careful not tell me anything, but while I was talking to him I noticed the input on his tablet was cycling through all the different camera locations. All the cameras were hooked up, as near as I can tell. Baring any lighting snafus, and sound, the system is ready to go.”
“So the camera network is almost up, you say. Is this the normal lead time for a press conference? Say in,” Virgil glanced at his tablet for the time, “14 hours?”
“Oh they could have it up sooner than that sir. The govcam system it largely automatic. I’ve seen them set the full array up for a campaign stop in less than two hours. 14 hours is more than enough time.”
“Hum,” said Rick, stroking his chin. “So we have a working camera network. What are they using it for?”
“Well I noticed something else while I was poking around back there,” Amanda continued. “Several of the workers looked familiar, so I ran an image match. They’re secret service. I’m sure of it.”
Virgil looked at Amanda, then at Rick. “Well,” he said, “that explains Flintridge’s Chief of Staff, doesn’t it. So the old man is going to come here for a press conference, eh? I guess that explains all the machinations by the company.”
“You really think he’s coming,” asked Rick?
“Well it does add up. Except that technically he’ll be broadcasting only six kilometers away from what he considers enemy soil.”
Rick let out a low whistle. “That sounds like a security nightmare, for whoever is in charge,” he said. “I’d hate to have that job right now.”
“That reminds me,” said Virgil. “When I first got back, Sibyl mentioned a security guy who came by last week, looked at out setup, and had kittens. Now we know why.”
“Do you think that’s why they’ve been ripping out the cables at 17.1,” Rick asked?
“That makes a certain kind of sense,” Virgil said.
“Wait a minute,” interrupted Amanda. “They’re ripping out cables?”
“Yes,” said Rick. “Up at nodule 17.1; where the American side of the Root ends…”
“…and the English side begins,” Amanda continued. “I’m aware of the place. What’s this about the cables?”
“Well,” said Rick, “last week we finished laying all but the very end of the e-hap cable; you know, the vine that these things,” he held up hie e-hap root, “connect to. Then the day before Virgil shows up, we get an order telling us to rip our connection out of the ground. To physically disconnect it.”
Virgil pulled out his tablet while Rick was speaking. He handed it to Amanda. “Last night,” he said. “I was up late doing some checking, and ran across this.”
She looked at the map, figuring the connections out right away. “Well, this looks pretty crazy, but it does make some kind of sense. If I was going to park the President here, then I’d probably want to cut off all communication ties with the English as well.”
Amanda studied the map some more. “But there something I don’t get? Why sever e-hap? I can see why the regular network cables might be cut, but why disconnect your safety net?”
Rick and Virgil’s eyes met. “Because the company is cheap,” said Rick.
“Cheap,” Amanda asked?
Virgil rolled his eyes. “The communications cables, really they’re vines, were supposed to be a completely separate system from the e-hap vine. But some idiot under the sky came up with the brilliant idea of using the same protocol on both. It was one of those ideas that looks good on paper, but fails terribly in practice. We had the hardest time keep the signals independent from each other. It didn’t help that the Root itself tended to mix the vines up at every opportunity.”
Rick sighed, “It was a wonderful cluster-fuck,” he said. “Worst still, we got the blame whenever our vines “commingled” with communications. Anyway, we eventually found a work around, but by then it was too late to go back as re-lay the entire vine, which is what we should have done.”
“What this means,” Virgil added, “is that the e-hap system had to be made flexible enough so that it could use any vine it could find.”
“And the communications system,” said Rick, “can do the same.”
“So,” said Amanda, “the e-hap network will work over the communications vine?”
“And vice-versa,” said Rick.
“Oh,” said Amanda. “That’s why they cut the e-hap vine. It wasn’t secure.”
“Exactly,” said Virgil. “They have sacrificed our safety for their security. Well said.”
“So,” Amanda said. “What do we do now?”
“Good question,” said Virgil. “I know what Rick was going to do, and know what I am going to do, but the big question is, what do you want to do Ms. Waters? I thought you were on vacation.”
“Vacation! Don’t be silly. There’s a story here, I can feel it.”
“This just in,” Rick interrupted. “Private company cuts own network to provide security for head of state. Film at 11:00.”
They all shared a laugh.
“Okay,” she admitted, “So it doesn’t look like much of a story. Sometimes that happens.”
“Well you can always do a piece on a mid level manager loosing his job,” said Virgil.
“Naw,” Amanda said. “That’s all too common. Now if you were to loose your job for uncovering some grand conspiracy… now that would be interesting.”
“Great,” Virgil said. “I’ll start looking for a big fat juicy grand conspiracy, just as soon as I get a spare moment. In the mean time,” he continued, “I think it’s time we did a little divide-and-conquer. What do you think Rick? Are you up for a little travel?”
“Sure thing, skipper,” Rick said. “What do you have in mind?”
“Well,” Virgil said, gathering the two around him, “I think we should…”
An hour later Virgil and Amanda were traveling down a winding service road between Pod 17 and nodule 16.19. The brush and grasses all brilliant colored under the harsh artificial sunlight from the center of the Root. Rick was pointing out various plants over the steering wheel, when suddenly he stopped the truck. “What in the world is that,” he said, pointing to a spiky plant near the side of the road?
“Is something wrong,” Amanda asked?
Virgil got out and walked over for a closer look, leaving the truck door open.
The plant looked a bit like a cactus, its narrow leaves long and straight, coming out of the central root like spikes on a porcupine. Near the base, the leaves were a deep green, but that color slowly faded until it became a silvery grey near the tips. The longer leaves near the top were easily a meter and a half, or longer. “That color,” Virgil said.
“What about it,” Amanda asked, automatically taking pictures?
“It doesn’t look right. The tips look more like metal than cellulose. It doesn’t make any sense.”
She brought the view-finder tablet to bare on one of the leaves. Under its magnification it looked a lot like raw iron. The very tips already showing a faint microscopic dusting of a golden red. Was that rust?
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing about it,” she said.
“It gives you great wireless reception.”
“Why do you say that,” Virgil asked?
Amanda held up her tablet. “The border,” she said. “Around the screen. See how green it is?”
“There’s an app I run for plotting wireless reception. Its handy for when I need to find a better signal, but don’t want to look away from what I’m doing.”
“That’s useful?” he asked, sounding unconvinced.
“Sure. When people are shooting at you, and you want to call for help.”
Virgil smiled. “Okay. I can see that. Go on.”
“So watch this,” she said. Holding her notebook so Virgil could see the screen she slowly moved it towards the plant. From a distance, the edge of the screen stayed grey, but as it got close to the plant, it turned green.
“Hum,” he said. “Do you suppose it’s acting like some sort of antenna?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
Virgil took a knife from his pocket, and cleanly cut off one of the long thin leaves near its base. It was stiff, and almost perfectly straight along its length. He gave the leaf a shake and watched it vibrate. “Try it now,” he said planting the soft end in the ground, “on just this leaf.”
Amanda held up her tablet to the leaf, but the signal didn’t change. Virgil tried placing the end of the leaf up in the air, and back near the base of the plant, but it still did not improve the reception.
“Well, I don’t know what it is, but its not an antenna,” he said sliding the leaf into the back of the truck, “I guess that’s one more thing to ask the Chemist about.”
“The what,” Amanda asked as she slid onto the seat on the passenger side?
“The Chemist,” Virgil said.
“Someone. Don’t worry. You’ll like him,” he said. “He’s English.”
“What’s that,” Amanda asked?
“What’s what,” said Virgil?
“That thing. That wall in front of us?”
For the past 10 minutes they had been driving slowly, focusing on the “antenna plants” as they called them. Virgil had noticed their spacing seemed weird; they were never next to each other, and somehow always about the same distance apart. The rest of the journey had been spent testing his hypothesis.
“Oh,” said Virgil noticing the wall in front of them that completely blocked the entire Root. “That’s nodule 16.19. Our destination.”
From a distance the nodule wall looked smooth and brown, but when they got closer Amanda could see it was rough like a giant tree trunk. There was a narrow tunnel cut through the nodule wall right at the service road. They traveled through it in the dark a good 10 meters before emerging on the other side.
Like the tents in the Pod 17 village, small houses mushroomed from the Root wall at nodule 16.19 in a haphazard fashion. When Amanda asked Virgil why there were no straight streets, or houses in a clean rows, he told her that the little nodule villages were actually designed to offer the maximum view to each dwelling while keeping a a high level of privacy. “Each one is different too,” he told her. “Some are mountainous with little streams running through them, and some are more flat and spare, like a desert.”
“They put that much effort into employee housing,” she asked?
“No. Oh nooo,” he said with some exaggeration. “This is the company we’re talking about,” he continued. “The nice ones were designed to be motels. That they doubled as employee housing was just a lucky perk.”
Near the back of the village they found a beat-up work truck parked to one side of the road. Virgil pulled up beside the old truck. As the two got out they could hear the sounds of cursing and yelling. They searched around until they found the source of the noise on the other side of the old truck. Standing hip deep in a freshly dug hole was a short dark man who was grabbing at the base of a plant, and pulling on it for all of his life. That the plant didn’t budge only made the man more angry. Not hearing the two over the constant stream of his own curses, Virgil and Amanda approached until they were right behind him. The plant he was pulling finally let go with a resounding pop, sending the him sprawling. That was when Amanda noticed several more of the same plant were pilled up beside the hole.
“Having fun, Ahmed,” Virgil asked?
The man spun around, surprised, then gave a loud cheer when he recognized Virgil. “Well if it ain’t the old sea dog himself,” he said. “How fairs it Captain?”
Virgil reached down and clasped his hand. “About as good as usual you damn limey.”
Both men smiled and slapped each others shoulders.
“I take it you know each other,” Amanda said with a smile.
“Ahmed,” Virgil said. “Allow me to introduce you to my conscious. This is Ms. Amanda Waters, of Reuters News.”
Ahmed lifted his hand, and then hesitated when he noticed how dirty it was. Amanda took his hand in hers, and shook it anyway.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Waters. Its good to see Virgil keeping better company.”
“Thank you, ah Ahmed. And its Amanda. Ms. Waters is my mother’s name.”
“I see,” said Ahmed. “So what brings you to the middle of nowhere, if I may ask, Amanda?”
“Well when I got an invitation I thought at first this would be a nice little working vacation, but the more I hear, the more its sounds like a story is about to break.”
“Really,” said Ahmed, looking towards Virgil with a raised eyebrow?
“We’ve got a bit of a problem with the company at the amphitheater,” Virgil said. “Come on up out of that hole, and I’ll tell you about it.”
Virgil reached down and helped pull Ahmed out of the pit. Seeing him next to Virgil made Ahmed look even shorter and darker. Amanda could see bit of gray in his otherwise jet black hair, and then saw a twinkle in his eyes like a look of mischief. His skin was too dark to be black Irish, so she guessed he was Pakistani, but his accent made him as English as the King. Maybe even more so.
Then she noticed the pile of plants over his shoulder, the ones he had been pulling out of the ground. “Say, aren’t those the same antenna plants we saw before,” she asked?
“What,” said Ahmed? “Antenna plants?”
Virgil walked over to them and examined them more carefully. “They sure look the same,” he said.
“Those things,” Ahmed said? “I found them all over the access box here for the communications cables. I noticed the network was down past this point, so I pulled them out figuring they were some sort of parasite like the green meanies we found at 10.12.”
“You said you found them all together,” Virgil asked?
“Yep. In one big clump. They had roots going down right into the cable node.”
“That’s weird. On our drive over we saw many of these, but they were always individual plants, never in groups, and their spacing was pretty unusual.”
“Unusual,” said Ahmed? “In what way?”
Amanda held up her notebook, and looked for the data table. “They were always 78 meters apart,” she said manipulating the table. “Plus or minus about a meter. Yep. No variation over or under 67 centimeters.”
Ahmed looked over to her. “You’re sure about that?”
“Positive,” Virgil answered for her. “We line-of-sight measured a couple, extrapolated some, and then did random checks. Everything we found was remarkably consistent. I’ll bet if we GPS’d them, we’d find they’re all within 20 centimeters, more or less, of exactly 78 meters.”
“Well that is unusual,” said Ahmed. “But I don’t know if that means anything.”
Just then, Amanda interrupted them. “That’s weird,” she said.
Both men turned to look at her. “The network,” she continued, “the wireless is down.”
“Huh,” said Ahmed? “It was up when I got here.”
Virgil pulled out his own notebook and checked. “Yep. It’s down.” He turned to Ahmed pointing at the hole. “You said that is the node for the communications cables,” he asked?
“Yes, somewhere under there. Why?”
He picked up the last plant Ahmed had pulled. Its root waving weekly in the air. Dropping down into the hole, Virgil dug out a spot until he could see the cables in the bare dirt. He then placed the roots of the antenna plant on top of the cables, and gently cover them all with lose soil. Guessing what he was up to, Amanda held her notebook near the tips of the plant, and watched the border of her screen.
“Grey,” she said. “Grey. Oops, light green. Greener. Green. Looks like we have wireless again.”
Virgil took out his own notebook, and laid it on the edge of the pit. Ahmed look confused. “Can someone tell me what is going on,” he asked?
“When we were driving out,” Virgil said while checking the signal on his own notebook. “Amanda noticed that the antenna plants, as we called them, seemed to increase wireless reception. We thought the plants might act as some kind of antenna, hence the name, but when I cut off an individual leaf, it didn’t work like one; it didn’t help reception at all.”
“So you think this plant acts as a booster or something? Amplifying the signal?”
“Something like that,” said Virgil. “It certainly looks like its working as a wireless router for the cable. Perhaps its also passing the wireless signal from plant to plant as well.”
“Are you suggesting this plant is something like a wireless router, and a network booster,” Ahmed asked? “That is… well that is most unusual. Even for this place.”
Virgil looked down at his notebook. “Agreed,” he said. “Say guys you want to check on the network now? I’m getting stuff from the outside, but I’m not getting any signal from the Pod 17 or beyond.”
Ahmed pulled out his notebook, and pulled up a screen. “I’m getting a signal from outside,” he said, “but nothing past here.”
“Can you pull up the cable diagram,” Virgil asked? “The one that shows which one is in use?”
“Like this?” Ahmed dropped down to one knee so Virgil could see his tablet. The screen showed several lines in blue coming up to the node they were over, but none going past.
“Yep,” Virgil said. “How about you Amanda? Getting anything from the inside?”
Amanda shook her head. “Not a thing passed that wall.”
“Hum, Virgil said looking down at his tablet. “Somehow I got dropped from the network. Let me try logging in again to see if that helps.” After a moment he said, “That’s funny. I can’t log in.”
Virgil tossed his notebook aside, and pulled himself out of the hole. “I think I know what the problem is; the nodule wall must be too thick for reception. That was why there were several plants here, instead of just one. They needed more than one plant to boost the signal. But I think I have a better idea. Why don’t we plant one on either side of the nodule tunnel? Set them up line of sight, and see what that does?”
“Brilliant,” said Ahmed. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you’re a chemist,” Amanda suggested?
Ahmed looked to Virgil then back at Amanda. Then both men started laughing.
“Did I say something funny,” she asked feeling a little hurt.
“No, no,” said Virgil. “Its just… I told you Ahmed is called the Chemist, so you made a good guess. Only..”
“Only…” completed Ahmed, “I’m not actually a chemist. That’s just what they call me.”
“Then what do you do here,” Amanda asked, “if you’re not a chemist.”
“I’m a botanist. Actually the botanist, for this pile of dirt.”
Amanda looked confused.
Seeing her look, Virgil filled in, “What he means is Ahmed is the VP of Botany for the Root. For all of the Root.”
“He’s a VP, huh,” Amanda asked? “Does that make him higher than a Senior Director?”
“You bet your ass it does,” said Virgil.
“Oh, so that’s why you came here,” she said. “You needed Ahmed’s help to shut down the dog-and-pony show over at the amphitheater.”
“Exactly,” Virgil said.
“What,” Ahmed asked? “Dog-and-pony show?”
“Later, Limey. Lets get some plants in the ground. Then I’ll tell you all about it. Or maybe she will. She took the pictures.”
“Pictures? Pictures of what,” said Ahmed?
“You saw that,” Amanda asked? “I thought I was being sly.”
“Later. Lets get our network up first,” Virgil said. “And yes, you were being sly.”
Half an hour later three more of the antenna plants had been transplanted. One near the cable node as a backup, one on the near side of the tunnel entrance, and the last one on the other side of the tunnel. Within seconds of the last one being put in the ground Amanda was reporting a weak by viable signal. Ahmed pulled a few spray bottles out of the vast collection in his truck, and gave each of the plants a quick spritz. The signal grew even stronger after that. Ahmed’s notebook was able to get a signal from Pod 17, but the company network did not show a blue line for the new connection. Amanda was playing around, seeing what she could find off the local network, while Virgil cursed his notebook again and again.
“Still not getting in,” Ahmad asked with some sympathy?
“The damn thing won’t take my password, and I can’t log in to ask Dove for help. Stupid thing.”
“You’re sure you’ve got the new password,” Ahmed asked?
“Sure, I’m sure. I was up this morning. I don’t see why it’s not working now. The damn thing doesn’t even recognize my user name anymore.”
“Well something is different.” Ahmed said. “Networks don’t just drop you because they don’t like you.”
“Yes,” Virgil said looking at him with sudden comprehension, “Networks don’t, but companies do.”
“Companies? Do you think the company purposefully dropped you?”
“After what I did this morning,” said Virgil, “it’s entirely possible.”
Ahmed looked shocked, but before he could respond, Amanda interrupted.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something Ahmed. Instead of pulling those plants out of the ground, why didn’t you use a weed killer or something?”
Both men turned around. “What did you say,” Ahmed said in a tone that was suddenly very cold?
“Use weed killer,” Amanda said. “After all, you must have 20 things that will work in your truck.”
Ahmed’s eyes got large, but before he could speak, Virgil held up his hand to silence him. “Suppose he had,” Virgil said in a calm voice? “What do you suppose it would have done to the communications cables? After all, they’re a plant too.”
“Hum,” said Amanda. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“And what about the Root wall below the cables,” Virgil continued? “What do you suppose weed killer would have done to it? After all, its a living breathing plant as well.”
Amanda’s eye’s got big. “Oh wow. I guess I just assumed that that stuff just went away. I didn’t realize…”
“You didn’t realize?“ Ahmed said? “You didn’t realize! We’re not under the sky here. Everything we do – everything – has an effect on everything else.”
“Wow!” Amanda said. I just was wondering. I mean if its that bad, why are these guys using it?”
“What!” said Ahmed. “What guys?”
“These guys,” Amanda said turning her tablet around.
On the screen they could see a group of men working behind the amphitheater stage. Some were using sprayers on the plants, others were spraying white paint on the Root wall. Still more were on a scaffold above, smoothing something into the cracks that were forming on the wall. It looked like plaster, but they couldn’t be sure.
Ahmed was so shocked, it took him a full minute to grasp what he was seeing.
“What is this?” he asked. “Where are these images coming from?”
“The amphitheater,” Amanda said. “From behind the stage. I thought I might check to see if the govcam network is up and running. Apparently it is. I didn’t realize I could access it from the wireless plant network. Looks like I can.”
“This is going on now!” Ahmed was shouting. “Here! At the amphitheater in Pod 17?”
Amanda nodded her head, shocked by his reaction.
“Virgil!” Ahmed shouted. “Are you seeing this?”
Virgil nodded, not looking up from his tablet. “What,” he asked?
“The amphitheater? Did you see what they are doing? They’re spraying weed killer on the Wall. Weed killer. Of all the bloody stupid Yank things to do? Weed Killer!”
“Uh, yes,” said Virgil softly. His eyes still on his tablet.
“Are you listening to me, you stupid git? They’re poisoning the wall. You can even see the salt water starting to leak.”
“Uh yes,” said Virgil. “I heard, its just… I think we have even bigger problems than that.”
“The walls of Pod 17 are about to breach, because of a bunch of stupid Yanks, we’re about to piss away six months of work, and you think we have bigger problems than that?” Ahmed was yelling at the top of his voice.
“Yes,” said Virgil quietly, “I do.”
“What? What can be worse?”
“The President. Of the US. The first lady. Flintridge’s entire cabinet. All of them. They’re on their way. In fact there almost here.”
Ahmed’s face turned white.
“Here?” said Amanda looking around panicky.
“No,” said Virgil quietly. “Almost to Pod 17.”
“Cor love a duck,” Ahmed went off. “If that doesn’t take the biscuit, I don’t know what does. Of all the god damned stupid idiot things to do, that wart on the bottom of my bullocks had to come here? After practically ensuring a breach? I swear, that stupid pile of shit is as thick as manure, but only half as useful.”
Virgil raised his eyes. “My thoughts exactly,” he said dryly.
“So what do we do,” Amanda asked eagerly?
“We?” Virgil said, moving quickly to the passenger seat of the nearest truck. “Nothing. Ahmed and I will get there as quick as we can. You however, can stay here.”
Ahmed moved hastily to the driver’s seat, and closed the door. Amanda looked furious.
“Stay!” she said. “For a story like this? Are you out of your mind?”
“Possibly,” Virgil said. “Look, it’s a great story, but someone has to be alive to tell it. Dead people being notorious, and all, for not writing. When the Root breaches, this tunnel here is going to pucker up faster then an a frog’s asshole in a rain storm. Everything on this side should remain high and dry. Everything on the other, well it’ll get pretty wet. Now you have all the info. You have the story. And as a plus, if you stay here, you’ll probably live long enough to see it published – which is a hell of a lot better odds than what we face.”
Amanda looked in Virgil’s eye for a split second before moving. “Fuck that shit,” she said! “Move over!”
Virgil slid over to the middle of the seat, as Amanda jumped in. “Hit it!” she yelled, slamming the door. Ahmed had already punched the gas pedal before her door closed. The truck shot off.
“What are you smiling about,” Amanda yelled? It was hard to hear over the road noise as the truck screeched around the first turn, but somehow she had noticed the grin on Virgil’s face.
“Nothing,” Virgil yelled back. “It’s just my wife. She uses that term every time I try to do something macho. Makes me laugh every time.”
“Makes you laugh. She must be special.”
“You have no idea,” he said. “If we ever get out of this mess I’ll introduce you to her. You two’d get a long like two peas in a pod.”
“You mean when we get out of this mess, not if. And she has the balls to curse like a sailor, and to back it up, then hell yes, I’d love to meet her.”
The truck hurtled down the road as fast as the the little electric motor could go, which was considerably faster that Amanda thought was safe. After a short while, Amanda was struck by a thought. “Wait a minute,” she asked? “I thought you were locked out of the network. How’d you get back in?”
“Oh that,” Virgil said. “One of my guys gave me a program that figured out a password based on the log-in name. So when my name didn’t work, I figured I would try it on another name. So I punched in William R. Patterson, just for the heck of it.”
“You mean the President of Harrison Industries,” she asked?
“Ah-hem,” Ahmed said as they rounded a turn. “President of the U.S. affiliate.”
“Quite right old chap,” Virgil said in a fake English accent. “Begging your pardon, old chum. Yes, President of the American affiliate. Everyone knows Archibald Butler is the real CEO of Harrison Industries.”
“Bloody Yank,” Ahmed mumbled.
“So you have his access to account on the network,” Amanda asked?
“Oh yes,” He said. “In fact, I think I’m going to have him send a company wide memo to all the employees working in the Root.”
“Something like, ‘Run away. Run away’?”
“Oh no,” he said. “I have a much better idea.”
The next 20 minutes were a bit hectic for the three. Amanda kept track via the video feed of the leak on the wall, while Virgil fired of memo after memo, and Ahmed drove like the proverbial bat out of hell. By the time they arrived at the amphitheater, a crowd had formed to either side of the entrance, and every employee was dressed in their company work suits. More importantly, each employee had their e-hap stump in plain sight around their necks. Someone had found a box full of miniature American flags, and the crowd were practicing waiving them when Ahmed stopped the truck.
Just as they got out, Virgil got an urgent email from the e-hap team near nodule 17.1. “Yes,” it told him, “he could expect 20 cables hard-wired to the English side of 17.1 in 20 minutes.” Virgil wondered what Rick would make of that order, or if he would even guess of it’s true origin, especially as it was supposedly sent by the American CEO. Since Rick had Dove with him, the odds were better than even that he knew exactly what was going on. Virgil wanted to send him a personal note to warn him to get the crew out, but that ship had sailed. It was time now to deal with a larger problem.
The three ran up past the crowd to the entrance. Ahmed was surprised to see all the workers. “What are they doing here,” he hissed? “Don’t they know?”
Virgil looked at Ahmed as they ran. “I knew if I tried to shut things down, it wouldn’t have worked. There wasn’t enough time,” he said as they reached the entrance. There, right next to a smiling Sybil, they found a large box full of extra e-hap stumps.
“So you brought them all here instead,” Amanda asked, clearly puzzled?
Virgil looked at her levelly. “I brought them all here. Along with their stumps. If I told everyone to put theirs on, I know only a handful would comply. But if I told them it was part of a plan to greet the President of the United States, I knew they would follow the order without question.”
Amanda still looked puzzled.
“Bear in mind,” he said. “I’ve been down this road before.” His tone carried the dark knowledge of his past. Amanda could feel a lump of fear in the pit of her stomach. She tried to swallow, but her throat felt constricted.
“Trust me. It’s going to be okay,” he said. “Just pick up your camera, and start to film when the President gets here. If he thinks the whole press core is here, he’ll be less inclined to do something stupid.”
She looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“Okay. Anything more stupid,” he said.
Turning to Sybil he asked, “Did you get stumps for the whole crew,” he asked indicating the people behind the stage?
Sybil smiled. “You know better than to ask.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I do. Was there any trouble?”
“Oh a couple of the guys, especially the secret service ones. They tried to macho their way out if it.”
Virgil was curious. “So how’d you solve that particular problem?”
“Oh it was easy. I had a couple of the girls from accounting – you know the Davis twins?”
“You mean the ones that are, uh well endowed,” he asked delicately?
“Yep. The very ones. I had them show the boys how to properly wear a e-hap stump. It’s amazing what a man will do to get a closer look at a big pair of tits,” she said with a satisfied smile.
“Sybil, you’re a genius,” he said.
“I know,” she replied.
Just then they heard a sound. The President’s motorcade was pulling into view on the road from the train station. Virgil passed out extra stumps, put an extra two in his pockets, and made his way down to the VIP parking.
He turned to Amanda just as the cars came to a stop. “Remember. Make sure they can see you. You need to be the whole press corps today, or they’re not going to play.”
“No problem skipper,” she said firmly as she held up her tablet as a camera.
A door opened up, a leg stuck out, and flashes started going off from all over the crowd. Virgil hadn’t thought of that, but he was pretty sure Sybil had.
A secret service man (wearing a stump Virgil noted) opened the door, and the first lady stepped out. Rushing to greet her, but careful not to get in the way of Amanda and her camera, Virgil stepped around the door, and bowed before the first lady. She smiled, and stopped. Virgil could sense her surprise. She was probably told there would not be a crowd here to great her. She measured the crowd with a practiced eye, and put on her best smile.
“Greetings Mrs. Flintridge,” Virgil spoke loudly to be heard over the crowd. “Welcome to the Root. We have a ceremony we like to perform with every visitor. Those of us who work here, us Rooties, wear these garlands,” he indicated the stump around his neck, “as a symbol of those who have worked so hard under the ocean. I ask that you wear this one,” he held up one of his spares, “and consider yourself an honorary Rooty. Would you do us this honor?”
The first lady stopped and locked eyes with Virgil. He could feel a sense of hatred just below the surface of her smile. Virgil knew from his father that people in power did not like surprises. Well, he thought, you can roast me tomorrow, if you live that long. He could sense she was about to back off when suddenly he heard Amanda say, “Can you look this way, Mrs. Flintridge, while he puts it on?”
The first lady gave the slightest of slumps in her shoulders. It was about as much of an agreement as Virgil expected to get. Before she could change her mind, Virgil slipped the stump over her head, and bowed as the cameras flashed. The First Lady slipped back into her best smile, and strutted up to the entrance on the arm of one of her secret service details.
After that, the crowd rushed in, and soon everyone in the President’s motorcade was wearing an official Rooty stump. He saw Flintridge himself try to ward off a stump until one of the Davis twins worked her magic. After that, he was lead past Virgil with a bemused smile on his face. Virgil wasn’t a fan of the President, but he had to admit the man handled a strange and new situation with more aplomb than most.
It was after the last of the VIPs passed, Virgil noticed Rogers leading some secret service agents. None of them, he noticed, were wearing a stump. As they drew closer, Rogers noticed Virgil, and pointed at him. “That’s the man.” he said to the agents. “He’s the one.”
The two agents sped over to Virgil, and clamped their arms around his, keeping him from moving. “I don’t know what you think you were doing back there,” one of them said between his teeth, “but I promise you, you are going to regret it.”
Virgil smiled, his work was done.
Amanda stepped in front of them and raised her tablet as a camera.
“Give me that,” one of the agents yelled.
Amanda stepped back a few feet looking defiant.
“Go,” Virgil yelled. “Get out of here. Take the truck. Head for 16.19.”
She nodded her head, turned, and sprinted through the crowd.
One of the agents put his wrist to his mouth, and spoke into the hidden microphone. Virgil hoped Amanda had enough time to get away.
The first agent began speaking in his ear. “Okay, funny man. We’re going to move along quietly. You’re going to stay with us. No funny business. Do you understand?”
Virgil could feel the sharp point of a gun muzzle in his ribs. He nodded his head, and let the agents move him into the amphitheater. They seated him off to one side near the front, careful to have an agent on either side of him.
From his vantage point Virgil saw the crowd forming along the first few rows. The President and his party were already in their seats upon the stage. A large podium stood at center stage, the Presidential Seal glowing on its front. The wall behind the President had been painted white. Large cracks, some of them unsuccessfully filled by plaster were starting to weep from the moisture. Virgil could see the cracks slowly expand even as he watched the small stream of water at the base increase in size. The white paint could not quite hide the bruised and purple color of the wall behind.
He felt his hands digging into the arm rests as he watched the wall start to fail.
Someone, Rogers he thought, approached the podium. The crowd dutifully went silent as he waited. A low humming sound, too soft to be heard over the crowd, was now prominent in the relative silence. Rogers tapped the microphone, and got the ever present feedback squeal. “Thank you, everyone,” he said when it died down. The hum suddenly grew louder. “Before we begin…” Rogers started, but was stopped by an increase in humming. Virgil looked to the hills about the amphitheater seats. The plants were swaying and whirling. Those with mobile roots were trying to get away. It was a scene all to familiar to him. One he saw every time he had his nightmare.
The humming grew louder still. Something fell off the stage with a crash. There was a scream. People started to look around in panic. The wall on one side gave a loud pop. Pieces of wood, splinters – some of them large enough to be telephone poles – flew across the crowd. Virgil felt the agent on his right get slammed into his seat, and then slump down. Warm liquid splashed his face. Virgil reached up and felt blood. He looked over, the agent appeared to be fine, just knocked unconscious. Without thinking, Virgil grabbed one of his extra stumps, and shoved the plug end in the sleeping man’s mouth.
“What are you doing,” the other agent said? He was holding a gun, waiving it at Virgil.
Virgil looked at him and said slowly, careful not to let the adrenaline speed up his voice, “Watch carefully. You push this end into the mouth like this,” he said as he shoved the stump into his mouth again, “and you activate it like this,” he said as he pulled out, and then twisted hard the emergency tab. The stump immediately went rigid, the fringe on the bottom swaying as if underwater.
Virgil handed the agent his last stump. “Get him out of here,” he yelled over the increasing noise, desperately trying to be heard!
“The President. Get him the hell out of here. The whole place is going to collapse.”
The agent raised his gun. At first Virgil thought he was going to shoot him, but then the agent turned his wrist, and spoke into his microphone.
Men on the stage jumped up, as if shocked, and before anyone could react, grabbed the President and the first lady, and carried them up the aisles at a dead run. They had just reached the entrance when the wall burst.
Like a cannon, the wall collapsed. Millions and millions of liters of frigid salt water rushed in like a hammer. The huge artificial sun overhead gave a loud fizzle, and exploded. The people ran, some of them screaming at the top of their lungs. Virgil slumped down to the ground, and waited. He knew he didn’t have long to wait.
He was right.
His first thought was it was too bright. He tried opening his eyes, but they hurt too much to open. He heard muddled murky sounds, the buzzing of voices. Then he felt a warm hand in his own. Even with his eyes closed he knew that hand.
“Jessie,” he croaked out. He felt her squeeze his hand. A tear leaked down from his eye.
He tried to get up, leaning on one arm, but was too exhausted to stay, so he fell back.
“How bad,” he croaked, squinting into the light. He could hear the nurse try to calm him, but he ignored her noise, concentrating instead on Jessie’s hand. He forced himself to open just one eye, squinting into the light. He could just make out the shape of Jessie, a dark lump against the white light. “How bad,” he croaked again? “How many did we lose?”
He felt her squeeze his hand then relax. “Twenty,” she said almost in a whisper, “maybe thirty. No one’s sure.”
“The President,” he asked?
“Alive. One of the first recovered.”
“Rick? The crew,” he asked?
“They stayed on the US side to help, but never even got wet. Or so he says.” She gave his hand another squeeze.
“The reporter,” he asked? “Waters?”
A voice from the other side of his bed shot out, “You think I’d let a little thing like a million tons of ice cold sea water stop me, Skipper,” she said?
Rick gave a weak chuckle that turned into a painful cough. He waited to speak until he was sure he wouldn’t cough again. “I see,” he said, and the swallowed hard. “…you two have met.”
“You were right,” the reporter said. “Like peas in a pod.”
Virgil saw Jessie smile, and then the tears started falling. She held his hand and silently cried. No one said a word. When she was done, he gave her hand a slight squeeze. By then he could open both eyes, although the room still seemed painfully bright.
“You’re a hero you know,” Jessie said, wiping her eyes with a tissue.
“I am? What for this time?”
“Well at first everyone thought it was an attack by the English. Everyone in America that is. We all presumed you were dead. The military was on high alert, and crowds were gathering, begging Congress to declare war. But Amanda here got through to an American publisher she knew, and somehow got her story out.”
“I had to twist a few arms,” Amanda said. “But I got the job done.”
Jessie continued, “At first no one believed her, but then the flowers started blooming.”
“The e-hap system,” Virgil asked?
“Yep. And blooming on the English side. The American side was…“
“Damaged,” he said. “I know.”
“While we here in America were clamoring for war,” Jessie continued, “the English were gathering all of their rescue gear, and starting to dig. They found the President the first week. After that, well everybody was so busy falling over themselves in the rescue effort that they kind of forgot about the war.
“Dang,” he said. “Just when I thought I might have a Navy career again, peace broke out.”
Jessie gave him a playful slap on the shoulder. “I think you’re done with the sea for a bit. At least I’m done with you drowning in it.”
There was a moment of awkward silence, then Amanda spoke again. “I hate to interrupt, but the President’s right outside the door. Like everyone else in America, he wants to meet the hero of Pod 17. Think you’re up to it?”
“The hero of Pod 17?”
“Corny,” Amanda said. “I know. It was the best I could do on short notice. I kind of had my hands full writing while Ahmed was driving.”
“So the old limey made it?”
“Barely, but he’ll survive.”
Jessie let out a laugh, “If he can survive being married to the biggest reporter in the business.”
This caught Virgil completely by surprise. “Married! That old bachelor? Who in the world would be stupid enough to… Ouch,” he said as Jessie slugged him. Then he realized what they were saying. “Oh good god. He married you Amanda? Dang. That’s the smartest thing that man has even done.”
They all laughed at this.
“Does that mean you’re ready to face the President,” Amanda asked?
“Well, I guess. If he can stand me, I can stand him.”
Everyone laughed again.