Marc A. Criley
VigilThe New MaN
Marc A. Criley
The New MaN
Marc A. Criley
Vigil The New MaN
The New MaN
by Marc A. Criley
by Marc A. Criley
Incoming call--a hip hop ringtone, "Deja Vu," muffled through polyester and wool. Cotton ball snowflakes drift from the sky, settle on the limestone, dead brush, the clearcut tree waste littering the hillside. Each fluff holds for a beat, then collapses.
I half unzip the jacket, dig out the phone. "Elizabeth McKenna" it IDs; and I see I missed an unknown caller this morning. I pull off a glove and tap. "What's up, Liz?" I say. "I'm up the hill. It's actually snowing in Alabama."
Crypto chatter, then, "I'm sorry Chrys, Director's holding a gun to my head. You're being conscripted. Reenactment."
I say nothing. My face flushes, my neck burns. Finally I choke out, "Don't care." I snap off the words. "I am done. He knows that. You know that. Six years. Not doing it again. Not for that bastard. No. Not ever."
"I told him that." She pauses, then rushes through "Black hats are going to crash the big banks, take down Wall Street. They demolished Credit Weissberg, feds are hushing it up." Liz stops talking, clears her throat. "Our inside guy was assassinated while exfiltrating two hours ago in Minneapolis. Shot him down in the street." She clears her throat again. "We need his phone to get at whatever he hacked out. Director Scheers ordered a national security conscription on you to get the passcode."
"Don't care. Fuck Wall Street, fuck Scheers."
There's a long pause, I move to kill the call. "Our inside guy was Edgar Marquez."
All the fire turns to ice. It's like my head is suddenly dunked in liquid nitrogen. Snow whispers down on stippled rock, black dirt, bleached stumps. It falls on my head and doesn't melt. A cold dead bullet passes through my heart. "God damn it."
"I'm enroute on the jet, meet me at the Muni airport down there in ninety."
* * *
The government Gulfstream heads north over southern Tennessee, taking forever to bust through the clouds. McKenna hands me a tablet with queued up surveillance video. "Edgar got shot in Minneapolis, Nicollet Mall," she says. "One of those hipster downtown avenues. No cars."
Geeze, everybody's got 4K TVs but security video always looks like it came off fifty-year-old VCRs. At least it's color, what there is of it--dirty snow, gray sidewalk, black-brown slush. The timestamp at the bottom holds at "08:37:14 CST." Next to it is a zeroed stopwatch timer. I tap the screen.
Pedestrians snap into motion. Winter coats but not super bundled up. A fuzzy figure strides in from the left, shoulder length iron gray hair bouncing off the collar of a beige waist-length winter coat zipped up all the way. No hat. He's moving fast, not quite trotting, head swiveling as he pulls off his gloves. Can't quite make out his features but I know by profile and that heavy left foot gait that it's Marquez. He half unzips the coat, digs out a phone. Marquez passes out of sight behind a shuttered kiosk, reemerges. Half-a-dozen strides later he slows--he's thumbing in a number. Pauses. More taps. Lifts the phone to his ear and picks up the pace.
An invisible foot kicks him square in the back, his head snaps back, then forward. The phone sails as Marquez crashes to the sidewalk. The stopwatch in the corner of the screen starts ticking. A half dozen pedestrians freeze, then scatter. Others farther out hurry away, tromping through slush and snowbanks; fleeing left and right until only Marquez remains.
A minute later two cops race in from the right, guns drawn. The screen splits. On the left the security camera feed continues, clipped to just Marquez and the cops. A much higher resolution view opens on the right, jumping around violently like someone's running with a camera. Body cam, I realize.
Body cam cop crouches by the body. I see Marquez up close, face smushed into the concrete, blood seeping from under his chest. He's gasping like a fish. Cop checks his pulse. Flips him over, tears open the coat. Bright red soaks everything. I flinch. Blood wells with each slow heartbeat. The view leans in, bare hands press on the wound. Cop wedding ring glints amongst red.
A dark finger of blood finds and tracks a sidewalk crack. Marquez, wide-eyed, stares at the sky. He blinks a couple times. A shiver starts in his shoulders and ripples out. Then another, less vigorous; then one last one that fades to stillness. A minute later an EMT SUV skid/slides to a halt on the sidewalk, facing Marquez and the cops. It blocks the security camera's view. Two EMTs leap out, hauling medkits. Security view goes away and the body cam view expands. Marquez' gaze slews across the cop's face, down to the camera. He wrinkles his forehead, looks straight into it ...
* * *
... straight into my past:
Five minutes after walking into my room on the psych wing, Marquez was all "Chrys, you're a good kid. You're not suicidal. And you're not a danger to yourself or anyone else. You don't need to be here."
I snorted. "Did you read my file? The part where I keep blacking out and waking up gunshot and half-dead in a hospital? We get a drive-by every other month, three people I know've died in the last year. Missed me, but they bled out and died while I held them. I'm lucky or jinxed, your call. A couple days later I black out and wake up in the hospital--shot. And I don't remember getting shot."
"They never find a bullet,” Marquez said.
"Chrys, you don't remember getting shot because you didn’t. There’s no bullet, just the wounds. You ... reenacted."
"Yeah, that's what the shrinks keep telling me."
He waved it off. "Not that kind of reenactment."
* * *
Marquez' forehead smoothes, his eyes drift closed.
A kneeling EMT checks for a pulse, checks again. (The stopwatch halts at 00:01:55.47.) She lays a nitrile gloved hand atop the cop's hands, gently takes hold of the fingers, peels them off Marquez' blood-soaked chest. No more welling blood, everything is still. The video freezes on hands gripping bloody hands. I close my eyes, slouch back in the seat.
They can't brute force crack the phone, McKenna says from across the aisle. On-point operational security. "Class 5 anti-tamper, Blue Max encryption, phone bricks after six failures. Twenty-six digit passcode, changed every three days. None of that fingerprint biometrics bullshit. We need his code."
She tells me the Agency built an app--whatever I reenact with a phone is real-time keylogged and VPN'ed to a command center. Even if I don't survive, the passcode does.
"Did you two ever ...?" Liz asks.
I shake my head.
* * *
The Chicago recovery team deployed into Minneapolis three hours before I got to the morgue and saw Dr. Abati. She briefs me on the autopsy while the rest of her team heads downtown to help the logistics teams close off Nicollet and unpack the field operating theater. Abati swipes through pictures on a tablet. First sniper bullet pierced the neck, she says, clipped the C5 vertebra then made a clean exit.
That didn't kill him, Marquez would've healed up just fine. But the second bullet punched a nickel-sized hole in the aorta on the way in and a fist-sized one on the way out.
Hi-res color photos of shredded meat.
Swipe swipe swipe.
Aortic punctures are ninety-five percent fatal, the victim usually dead before the ambulance shows up. Abati shakes her head. "If you're not shot in a hospital, forget it." I look over at Marquez' body, the sheet drawn up to his chin. Blood from the neck wound has seeped through. I guess the rest is double sheeted--there's no stains despite her having just finished carving him up.
Five percent chance of survival. At least Abati and the surgeons know precisely what to expect. She estimates time of death as "one hundred ten seconds after second impact plus or minus ten seconds."
I blow out a misty breath. "So add the time to unlock, plus a twenty percent margin." I close my eyes, do some math. "Hundred fifty seconds."
I look over at Marquez' plastic sheathed body, cold on the stainless steel table. "Best get started then," I say. The doctor pats me on the forearm, then slips out the swinging panel doors. I wait until the clattering subsides.
I haven't seen Marquez in the six years since Norwich. His bare arms rest uncovered on the polished chrome table. I grip his left hand. Room temperature, forty degrees. I close my eyes to concentrate, try not to remember ...
* * *
... the first time:
"Operation Groundhog" some fucking Agency bureaucrat called it.
I cracked my eyes open, saw a pair of hospital socks sticking out from under the sheets. Slowly realized they were on my feet. I heard someone moving, then a shadow loomed.
"Chrys? You back with us?"
I think I nodded, my thoughts thick as mud on a cold spring day.
"Mission accomplished, kid, flawless." My eyes focused on a face. Marquez. Edgar. "We--you--got the keycode," he said. "We took the whole cell down. Ten thousand soldiers get a Christmas because of you. The doctor says you'll be back on your feet in a couple days, and out the door in four. You're a hero, Chrys, and everyone here is taking good care of you."
"Okay," I said. I think I said that anyways, and I think I smiled, and I think he squeezed my arm, and then I closed my eyes.
* * *
I'm counting up the seconds, whispering each one. Don't need a watch. No one hears. It's just me, just me grasping a dead man's stiff gray hand.
* * *
I stand at one end of a tunnel of mixed olive drab, camo, and desert tan canvas. Aluminum struts frame the sidewalk, spaced every eight feet or so. One side is shoved up against the storefronts, blocking all street-facing doors and windows. The street side ripples in the light breeze. Everything and everyone is locked down for four blocks around.
Liz hands me a phone. "Installed and VPN verified." I check the settings, confirm network sync, shove it into my breast pocket, double-checking that it faces out. "They've got Marquez' phone down at command," she says, "white hats ready to unlock and tear it open. Everyone's teed up--local cops, state, FBI, Homeland, special forces."
"And the shooter?"
"Yes," she says. "Fucking that son of a bitch is my job."
It's cold in the tunnel, calm, like my hilltop, my home. Each cotton breath hangs a moment, then dissipates. LED worklights run the length of the tent corridor. Flat panel monitors bolted on posts every ten yards or so are stuck on the same number: 00:35, captioned "Est Time To Impact." Waiting. For me.
Liz shrugs. "I fought them on this. But I don't understand you. This isn't Norwich. These are goddamn bankers. You could've said no, fuck conscription. Why didn't you tell me to go shit in my hat when I called? Why are you taking a bullet? Two bullets?"
"They're not real bullets," I say, ignoring the question.
"I saw the autopsy pics. No diff." She glares at me. "Fuckin' answer the question."
I kick at the sidewalk.
McKenna's phone rings, a muffled "Born in the U.S.A." She looks at it, swipes down. "I think they're ready." She snorts and shakes her head. "I don't understand you. But whatever, Chrys. If you're not dead, if they get you patched up, go away, far away. Get lost, permanently."
“Don’t ‘yeah’ me, asshole.” She's in my face. “Don't come back, don't answer the phone. They're going to use you again and again, just like we ...” She looks away ...
* * *
... And so do I.
Edgar and Liz flew down to make the pitch. An existential emergency of loose nukes and dirty bombs. Liz swore I was a backup, a worst case just in case. Feds were already closing in on a cell somewhere in upstate New York. They'd have it in hours.
It'd been three and a half years since I'd reenacted the NASA hack. I got out after that. Pain grinds you down, fatal injuries exact their toll. I thought I was out, Marquez asked me to come back for this. Said he'd squire me, that it'd all be cool. They needed me--nuclear blackmail was now a thing.
Two days later, worst case happened. Fucking militia working out of an abandoned warehouse just like in the movies. Warhead arming codes locked in less than a minute before the assault team crashed in, shot up everyone--though careful to miss the equipment. I got hustled in. Half a dozen bodies bleeding out while random gun bursts echoed elsewhere in the building. Gray light filtered in through high arched windows. I'm marched to the guy sprawled before the keyboard and flat screen monitors. Edgar is right behind me, unzipping the medkit.
I picked up the guy's hand--still warm. A moment later I said, "He's not dead."
Scheers, the assault team commander, glared at me. "Not a problem." He pulled out his MK3 and slashed the guy's throat. Blood spurted, flowed across his shoulder, ran down his arm. Edgar lunged for Scheers, yelled "No!" A soldier clotheslined him, flung him back. "Where are the medics?" he gasped over the sudden roaring in my ears. "We have to wait! You'll kill him!"
"No time," Scheers said. A couple soldiers shoved me to my knees next to the chair. Scheers slapped the dead man's hand into mine. He pulled his 9mm, pointed it at Edgar. A counter on the flat panel ticked through 13:47. "Six minutes," Scheers said to me. "Don't let go."
I looked at Edgar, a knee on his neck pinning him down. From the dead man's hand I felt nothing, I never did. No power surge, no crackle of “life energy,” no infusing warm flow nor breathtaking, bracing chill. Just me holding a dead man's still warm, bloody hand.
Six minutes later I dropped it. The countdown hit 07:30. The body is dragged off the chair and I'm shoved onto it. Blood smears cover half the keyboard. Scheers shifted the pistol to my head, said, "Do your thing."
Edgar shouts, "Chrys!"
"Twenty-five million Americans will not get nuked on my watch," Scheers snarled. "There are no choices here."
* * *
Liz blinks hard, jabs me in the chest. "They'll pull that national security conscription bullshit on you again." Jab. "And again." Jab. "And again. You don't owe them anything." Jab. "They'll keep killing you until you stay dead."
Director Scheers comes trotting up the tunnel. "It's all set," he says to me. "And you"--looking at McKenna--"answer your damn phone when I call, we need to get this rolling."
"He'll go when he's ready," McKenna says. "This isn't one of your bullshit fucked up covert assault--"
"Agent McKenna," Scheers snaps, "the nation's financial system is in exceptionally grave danger. This is a national--"
"So you gonna kill him again?" Liz snarls. "You gonna put the gun on me this time?"
"Liz!" I snap. "I'm doing this. Do your job, get the shooter. For Edgar." I look at Scheers. "You? Go fuck yourself."
Scheers stomps off, pulls out his phone, types in something, holds it up to his ear. He mumbles, probably some military code thing for "stand by." I walk to the middle of the tented sidewalk, look down its length, there's a square of light at the far end. My jacket--light colored, exactly matching Marquez'--is unzipped. His was zipped, but I can't risk it getting stuck. I tap my left breast pocket, the phone is there. I'm not wearing gloves; getting them stuck half-way off would wreck keying in the passcode. I get no second chance.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Abati’s on-site surgical team is ready--they know what's coming. I start down the sidewalk.
"Med bay is hot!" someone yells a hundred feet ahead of me, just past the kiosk. Dull, healed wounds ache in the cold. I rub the thick scar on my neck ...
* * *
The dead man's throat had stopped bleeding by the time I set my hands on the keyboard.
I reenacted, snapped into motion. An assault team soldier videoed my hands while weapons techs watched for an arming code. Four minutes into it my fingers keyed in a long string of digits. I'm shoved out of the way as a tech jumps in to disarm the warheads. I kept reenacting, pantomiming on phantom mouse and keyboard. Couldn't stop. Reenact until dead.
Ghost bullet penetrations--thigh, calf, chest--knocked me off the chair. Edgar wrestled free from the startled soldier pinning him down, snagged the medkit and sprinted to me. A wave of burning cold raced out and echoed back, left my fingers shivering. He emptied a hemostatic injector into my torn femoral, tied off the calf. Vision paled, palled into gray. Couldn't really breathe. Less than a minute left. Edgar pressed a bandage onto my chest. As he dug another out of the kit, an armored soldier came over and squatted, applied pressure. Edgar slapped a pad against my as-yet-unslashed neck. Oh God, any second now.
"Chrys," Edgar said, his voice muffled as though through thick cotton. "I'm sorry. God damn I'm sorry. Get away from here, from all of us. We're ... monsters." I focused on my panting, tried to break through, slip free for just a moment. A silver flare sheared open my neck, an actinic flash from dim gray to brilliance. Black tendrils and patches began eating into the blazing white. It melted away, like snow on fallen trees. I fixed on Edgar's face--his evaporating, fading, face.
* * *
I reenact, snap into a heavy left foot gait. Ticking off with each stride: Mosul. Super Bowl. Truck bomb. State of the Union. Sarin. NoKo. Nukes. Mosul. Logan. Stingers. Scud. Philadelphia.
Millions lived today that would've died had Edgar not discovered a lost sixteen-year-old kid helplessly, involuntarily, reenacting the senseless deaths of friends.
A few strides later I slip off phantom gloves. My hand digs the phone out of my pocket, flips it, keys in a twenty-six-digit code.
In the distance someone shouts, “Got it!”
I keep reenacting, keep walking, keep tapping--a phone number, one I recognize. Ah. Sorry I missed your call, Edgar. I lift the phone to my ear.
Ten yards ahead a group of garbed doctors and nurses, hands upraised, all stare. I recognize Dr. Abati smiling behind her mask.
The Est Time To Impact seconds dwindle.
There's a foam mattress on the sidewalk. It is draped with plastic sheets.