Spark 2

   Rick is a Peacekeeper--an officer of the law. He guards the remnants of civilization in a city that is the last bastion standing after the cataclysmic events of the far future. One fateful night he meets Andy, a mysterious young man who seems too good to be true... and who may endanger the lives of everyone Rick has sworn to protect. But Andy knows things about Rick's city that he ignores, including the monstrous secret hiding deep underground...

This is the second chapter of 'Spark'. A new chapter will come out every week. Any comments or questions can be directed to the author at nothlit(at)hotmail(dot)com
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or events is entirely coincidental.

                   Chapter 2

    When I woke up, Andy was gone.
    It took me a moment to realize it. When I did, I silently berated myself from having lowered my guard like that yesterday. I stood up from the bed and stumbled into the bathroom for a piss. I wasn't going to hurry. If he had stolen anything, he was long gone and there was nothing I could do about it. I wasn't going to ruin my own morning earlier than I had to.
    I flushed, and then looked around the bedroom as I came back. Nothing amiss there. There wasn't a lot to steal, anyway. Most of my valuables were inside the safe under my bed, under the floorboards. You would need a power drill to get to it, so I wasn't worried about that. Besides that, the only things someone might have possibly wanted would be my cash and my gun.
    Both of which I had just left lying in the living room, in the tangle of my clothes.
    I headed into the living room... and I was surprised, but not in the way I had expected to be.
    My gun wasn't missing, and neither was my wallet. They were both lying side by side on a table next to the couch, along with my neatly-folded clothes. I walked up to my wallet cautiously, and opened it. Everything was there. Then I checked the magazine in my gun: still full. I looked around, but Andy wasn't in there either. He seemed to have left some time ago, but when I went to the kitchen I found a little note from him thanking me for coffee and saying he had made some for me as well, for when I woke up. I clicked the coffee maker on and, sure enough, some coffee had already been brewed. Once it was hot I poured some into a mug and sipped it. It tasted better than when I made it. A lot better, in fact. Andy had put some cinnamon in it or something.
    I was mystified by Andy's behavior, but I didn't have that much time to ponder it. After having had my coffee, I took a shower and then dressed hurriedly. I had to get to work, and I didn't want to be late. Smith would be looking for any excuse to ride my ass one more day and I didn't want to make it easy for him to do it. I got ready quickly but carefully, even ironing a clean shirt before putting it on. Then, finally, I left my apartment feeling a strange uplifting sensation in my heart. I had walked all the way to the subway before I finally recognized the sensation for what it was: happiness. Yesterday's encounter had left me feeling... happy. It had been so long since I had felt happy that it took me the better part of my journey to work to really process the feeling. It was strange, knowing that today was the first day since Jane had died when it actually felt all right to smile.
    It didn't last, though. As soon as I went through the big revolving doors that were the entrance to our office headquarters, I knew something was up. The big building was imposing enough from the outside, being one of the few skyscrapers still left standing in the city. Inside, however, it was an entire different story. There were only a handful of us working as Peacekeepers now, and more than ninety percent of the gigantic building was simply empty, offices boarded up, ancient vending machines crumbling to dust upstairs. In fact, since the last working elevator had finally broken down three years ago, nobody went all the way to the top floors anymore. It was a long climb, and one not many people wanted to make despite the magnificent views of the city from the very top.
    I had been working here long enough to know that whatever the crisis was at the moment, it was big. Mike at the door gave me a stiff nod in greeting as I stepped inside the main hall, which I returned. He had his hand resting idly on the gun at his belt.
    "Don't tell me it's another sewage breakdown again," I told him, as I let him scan me as part of the totally useless security protocol. I said it jokingly, but I sincerely hoped it wasn't that. The last time one of the main pipes had broken down there had been riots, and then we'd been forced to close off an entire section of the city for good when the damage couldn't be fixed, relocating hostile, reluctant people and so on. Not something I remembered fondly.
    He shook his head. "Not that. From what I've gathered, it's something up at the Plant. They won't say what, though."
    "If I find out, I'll let you know," I told him, already distracted by the sight of Smith coming down the hall right in my direction. Great. He was followed by a couple of his lackeys, and they looked more stressed out than usual. Many pairs of eyes followed their progress towards me.
    "The boss himself," Mike pointed out unnecessarily. "What'd you do to piss him off?"
    "Rick," Smith said loudly. "Nice of you to finally join us. Come into my office. Now."
    I glanced at the clock on the wall: it was only five to nine. He knew it and I knew it, but I decided to ignore it. I followed Smith and his entourage down the hall, into the lower office section. As I passed by one of the water coolers, I got sympathetic looks from a couple of other cops. I shrugged in response and walked the last few meters to Smith's office.
    He immediately opened the door, crossed the vast room which could have easily held three good-sized workspaces and sat at his desk. His two assistants took up seats to the left of the room, where a couple of dilapidated computer terminals still worked. They immediately began typing and doing their best in general to look very busy, but their constant glances my direction defeated their purpose somewhat.
    "We have a problem," Smith said to me, gesturing grandly with one hand for me to sit at one of the chairs facing his desk. I remained standing, which elicited a tiny frown.
    "I saw that," I said. "Something about the Plant?"
    Smith's jaw clenched. He ran a hand through his thinning hair. "I really need to tell Mike to stop blabbering about every rumor he thinks he hears."
    "So it's not the Plant?"
    Smith sighed. "Yes, and no. Please sit down, Rick. The problem is a little bigger than that."
    I blinked. Smith was never this civil to me. Whatever the problem was, it had to be important. My guess had been correct.
    "Rodriguez, Hant," Smith said, addressing his assistants. "Go get me some breakfast and get the Mayor on the phone. I need to talk to that son of a bitch and he can't hide behind his receptionist all day. Go!"
    They went, but it was clear that they were disappointed at having just been kicked out of the office right when the juicy stuff was about to happen. I rolled my eyes without thinking. They were supposed to be training to be the Peacekeepers of the future, the most promising of our new recruits. Right.
    "They're not all useless, you know," Smith said once they were gone.
    "Can they fight? Can they even use those guns they're carrying?"
    "Well, no, but—"
    "Then they are useless," I cut in.
    Smith's look hardened. "I don't remember asking for your opinion, Rick."
    "And I don't remember voting for you to become Chief over me, so I guess we're even."
    "When are you going to let that go?" he asked me, visibly growing irritated. "It's been nearly two years. Face it, I won."
    "I will let it go when you quit. Which you are close to doing, even if you don't realize it. You're not cut out for this job, Bill. You never were."
    Smith opened his mouth, then shut it, and amazingly he got himself under control. It was amusing to watch. "We don't have time for this, Rick. We've got reports that the Mainland has sent agents to take out our spark Plant. It seems last month's negotiations went very badly. The Mayor was threatened while he was there, and there was talk of all-out war."
    "What?" I asked. "There can't be war. They'd be destroyed too. Everybody knows that."
    Smith grinned sadly. "So we thought. But earlier this morning I was talking to some of our boys down at engineering and they said that the Mainlanders have developed some sort lower-quality fuel resource which they'd sell us once they take out our spark Plant. I don't know the details; you'd have to be a science guy to understand it. Still, it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that we are really vulnerable now, they know it, and they might want to act on it any day."
    "And they are sending agents?" I asked him. "Why not an airstrike? I know there are still a few working bombers in the Mainland's hangars. I saw them when I did my military training there. That's the one part of their city that is still intact."
    "We sabotaged them. Well, Covert Ops did. They struck preemptively as soon as news of the new fuel source was published. That's part of what I want to talk to the Mayor about; by approving that stupid offensive action, he all but declared war on the Mainland. If any of their agents are successful in sneaking past us and taking out the spark... well. You know what would happen."
    I nodded slowly, letting the silence stretch out over long seconds as I processed the information. It felt slightly unreal for this to be finally happening. In a few short minutes, Smith had changed my view of the entire world. This could be it; this could be the war to end all wars. We had all grown up learning about it, fearing it, and finally disregarding it as a stupid course of action that no sensible man would ever take. The Mainland depended on us as much as we depended on it. To destroy one of us would be destroying the other, or at least so I had believed. Now, though...
    I didn't doubt Smith's word. He was a manipulating weasel, but he never lied about the job. It was just hard to get into the mindset of total annihilation so suddenly, calmly talking about it in his office. In a way, I felt slightly disappointed at the news. As a child I had always imagined that the last war would be fought with great machines, lots of explosions and never-ending battles, not with secret attacks by our own Covert Ops and their agents. It seemed cowardly somehow. It didn't make it any less deadly.
    "Have we secured the spark Plant?" I asked. "Strengthened the perimeter? Diverted surveillance equipment to the areas most likely to be attacked?"
    Smith grinned. "Yes. I did that two days ago. We are expecting the attack to happen either today or tomorrow, but as the agent or agents know they are compromised, they might lie in wait and strike much later. We need to be careful about how we handle this; I have limited the amount of people who know about this to just a handful and all of them in Ops. If we are too obvious about the fact that we know of the attack, we will scare the Mainlanders into hiding and it will be months and months of hard work to find them, giving them ample opportunities to just run in and strike or change their plan of attack. According to the Mayor, one of his best spies died in securing the information that the attack would happen within the window we've been given. It happened early this morning. We do have the upper hand now, but only if we know how to use the information that was so hard-won."
    I nodded, understanding dawning. "You want to set a trap. You want to involve as few people as possible, like you said, while still prepping up citywide security in case the trap fails and the agents try to hide."
    "Exactly. I knew you'd get it right away."
    "And you want me to be there, at the Plant," I added, following the plan to its logical conclusion. "I've been to the Mainland, I know how their military works. I am not with Covert Ops, so the Mainlanders would have had no reason to warn the agents of me. I'm just a regular Peacekeeper, doing a routine check of the spark Plant. I will be there when they go in, and take them out discreetly, with Ops support."
    "Yes, Rick. You're the best man we have." I raised an eyebrow at Smith's casual acceptance of a fact he had denied for the better part of two years. He continued, not noticing. "You've also been restricted to office work ever since I became Chief, so you'll be even less recognizable. The Mayor agrees that you're the ideal man for the job, and his Covert Ops advisor has volunteered to hook you up with whatever information and equipment you need. If you manage to kill the agents without anybody noticing, then the Mainland will have no way of knowing whether they attempted their mission or not. They will be forced to wait for several months before they give up on the enormous investment they made in sending those people over, their gear, and whatever large machines they managed to smuggle in. That won't win the war, but it will give us time. By then, Ops will have a plan. The diplomats will have also had a shot at calming everything down. Or so we hope."
    I narrowed my eyes. "We're also having elections three months from now. And this is the Mayor's final term."
    Smith sighed. "You don't miss anything, do you? Yes, Covert Ops is also hoping to get their candidate into the Mayor's Hall this election. They want someone more manageable, someone who won't piss the Mainlanders off quite so much."
    "And you're helping them with it, promising them our help now. What's in it for you?"
    "That's not the right question to ask, Rick," Smith answered, allowing himself a small, insolent smirk. "If you're successful with this, you should be asking what's in it for you. You could be Chief, you know. If we win the war, or even negotiate peace, I won't be staying in this job. I won't need to."
    "Son of a bitch," I said, disgusted at witnessing yet more manipulation and scheming from the snake I had once believed to be my best friend. "You dangle what you know I want, knowing full well I can't say no."
    "Nobody's really losing anything, Rick," Smith told me. The smirk was gone and his face became earnest. "If the Mainlanders win and they take out our source of spark, we're dead. Some quickly, the rest of us much more slowly, but we are all dead. I know you're the guy for the job, and yes, I'm getting something out of it too, and Ops will get their man to power next term if they play it right, but does any of that really concern you? You'll save everybody in this city, even if they never know about it. You also get to be Chief, just like Jane wanted."
    "Don't you dare," I growled. "Don't you dare bring Jane into this, you cowardly bastard. She would still be here if it weren't for you."
    For a split second, Smith's veneer of self-control cracked and I saw a hint of remorse in his eyes. Then he slammed his walls backup and the mask was back.
    "She wasn't fast enough," he said. "I was. And you could only save one person before the base blew up. Get over it. Of the three of us, I'm the one who made to Chief. That also means I'm your superior officer, Rick. And it also means you do what I tell you to do. I let you talk to me like you have just now only because of the seriousness of the situation, and only because we need your skills. You know you can't say no, so when this little meeting's over you will get your ass to your office, get the Ops advisor on the phone, and in one hour I want you geared up and ready at the entrance to the spark Plant. Our intelligence suggests that if they try to strike they will do so at night, but it won't hurt for you to have the better part of the day to familiarize yourself with the layout of the Plant and prepare. Now get lost. And not a word of this conversation to anyone. Understand?"
    I stood up, seething. "Yes."
    "Yes what?"
    "Yes, sir."
    I left. I threw open the doors, practically slamming them onto his assistants, who were hovering right outside hoping to eavesdrop. They wouldn't have heard a thing; the office was soundproof. Smith was very careful when it came to privacy.
    I stormed through the hall, desperately wanting to yell, to unmask that snake once and for all before everybody, just like I'd wanted to do every single day for the past two years. I couldn't, but knowing it didn't make it any easier. My oath bound me, sure, but more than that it was the knowledge that there was no easy way to get rid of him. All of the Peacekeepers knew that I should have been made Chief, and all of them commiserated with me that I had to take orders from the guy I'd had to babysit all through basic training and combat drills so very long ago. That didn't help, though. Smith had support from the higher-ups, and that meant that nothing short of armed mutiny would get me the position. It wasn't worth compromising lives just to settle a personal score with him. We were few enough Peacekeepers as it was. Even if I hated it, we had to stick together.
    I avoided everyone on my way to the stairs, not really in the mood for coming up with an excuse or a cover from the mission I had just been assigned. Smith had given me a magnificent office all for myself—on the sixth floor. With no elevators. Originally he had meant it is a little revenge on his part, to have me away from everybody else and to make me climb up and down six goddamn flights of stairs every day. I didn't mind, not anymore anyway, since I liked the privacy and also because the views from my office were breathtaking. The windows faced west, which gave me great sunset views over the city, all the way out to sea, glinting under the sunlight. It was one of the few good things about the office job I had been forced to take when Smith had decided he did not want me out in the streets so much, did not want me making connections and making friends.
    I climbed the steps two at a time, deliberately exerting myself, and by the time I got to my office I was calmer. The anger at Smith subsided and in its place a cold dread formed in the pit of my stomach at the thought of war. A part of me still couldn't believe it. This was a day like any other day. Right? Everything looked normal; Smith's conspiracy rumors might be only that.
    Then I saw the blinking light indicating I had voicemail on my desk, and as I clicked it, the voice of Senior Covert Ops Manager Jules Parker brought the reality of the threat crashing down on my shoulders.
    His message was brief, and he was vague enough that anyone who had not been briefed would not have made any sense of the instructions if he had overheard. To me, though, the message was crystal-clear. He specified a time and place to meet with his top military advisor and gave me a number to confirm that I was going to show. I jotted the number down on a pad, thinking in a strange, detached way that this was not what war was supposed to look like. Where were the rushed hallway conversations, the frantic exchange of information? Where was the gunfire, the tanks? Where were the explosions? This day still looked just like any other. I couldn't believe the Mainland was actually going to try to kill us all.
    I looked at my watch. I had less than an hour before I was supposed to be at City Hall for my briefing, but the building was only a five minutes' walk away. It added to the surreal feeling that had overtaken the entire morning that I actually had free time before being sent on the mission. For a minute or so, I didn't know what to do. There was some paperwork I needed to finish, but it seemed stupid since we might all die anyway if I wasn't successful, and besides I had never liked paperwork at all. In the end, my stomach rumbled and reminded me that I hadn't had any breakfast. That decided it.
    I went downstairs all the way back to the first floor. I got more curious looks when people saw me. The slightly frantic atmosphere I had noticed upon first coming in was still there, but now I knew that most of the people engaged in the rush of activity had no idea what the entire rush was about. In that, I had to recognize Smith's tightlipped philosophy. He had always been good at keeping secrets, particularly when it benefitted him. For the first time since his promotion, I had to admire that in him. Some men were just really good at certain things.
    Unbidden, a memory of last night rose to my mind. Andy had been very good at certain other things. With his mouth. I shook my head to chase the memory away. I had to concentrate on serious things now. Although...
    "You look like you got a lot on your mind," a familiar voice said beside me.
    I stopped, turned around. I had come all the way to the reception desk. "Good morning, Susan."
    "I saved a turkey breast sandwich for you," she said, digging through her basket. "Got to keep those big muscles of yours hard and strong!"
    She gave me the sandwich with one hand and with the other squeezed my right arm. She nodded appreciatively. I would have been surprised if this hadn't been the millionth time she had done it. She was also seventy-one years old, which gave her some leeway when it came to social protocol.
    "Thank you, Susan," I said, pocketing the sandwich and handing her a bill as payment. "I can always count on you."
    She smiled a perfect denture smile. "From the look of things today, it looks like you'll need some extra nourishment. Don't let what's-his-name get to you, Ricky. Whatever he's having you do is not worth losing the glow you have today."
    "Glow?" I asked, puzzled.
    "If I didn't know you better, I'd say you had a lot of fun last night," she hinted with a tone that was half playful, half curious.
    I felt myself blush immediately. "What? I, uh—"
    "I knew it!" she exclaimed triumphantly. By now the other receptionist had stopped pretending to type and was also listening in on the conversation. "And what is the young man's name? Do I know him, perhaps?"
    "Um... no, actually, uh, he's from out of town."
    "Really, a Mainlander?" she asked, and grinned mischievously. "So mysterious. You must tell me everything."
    "Actually, I need to go, to... I have an appointment."
    Sarah laughed good-naturedly. "For such an outspoken man, Ricky, you're incredibly shy! I just love it."
    I took advantage of the knowing look she exchanged with the other receptionist to escape. I headed outside, nodding to Mike on the way out. I grinned as I took out my sandwich. Sarah was a like a gossipy aunt who also happened to be one of my oldest friends. After Jane had passed away in that damned mission gone wrong, she had been the one who coaxed me out of my self-imposed isolation. She had talked to me for long hours about how she had managed to cope with the deaths of her husband and then her son. Listening to her, I had come to realize little by little that Jane would have wanted me to go on, not linger over her death endlessly like I was doing. It hadn't made the pain go away, but that realization had made life bearable again.
    I sat down at a bench facing a small park across from the office building. As I ate my sandwich, I thought about the fact that it wasn't only my life on the line. It wasn't like I was my city's last hope, I knew that—Ops would have a backup plan, and a backup for that backup plan, and if worst came to worst there were ways to contain the spread of economic and social chaos from total spark loss and the inevitable breakdown of our life-support power grid. Even so, taking any of those options would mean that we had been defeated, and that we accepted that defeat, and it would mean the end of my Island city as I knew it. If I could do anything to stop it from happening, anything at all, I was willing to do it. I had learned the hard way that life is worth living because tomorrow you may be gone.
    I finished my sandwich, stood up and headed for the City Hall. I passed a couple of street vendors, a busy subway station entrance, and a homeless junkie begging for some spark. He wasn't the dangerous hallucinating kind yet, so I ignored him. One of the Peacekeepers on patrol around here would shoo him away soon enough.
    It was sunny out, but still chilly this early in the year and it wouldn't get any better as the day progressed. I zipped up my jacket and walked a little bit faster. The sooner I knew what I was going to do, the better.
    In the end I was barely in time for the meeting, since I had to wait in line to be scanned by security behind a large group of important-looking businessmen who were also going into the building. The guard was being extra careful with everyone, even going so far as to ask a couple of them to come over to the side so one of his coworkers could perform a more thorough search for any hidden objects, and his progress was painfully slow. I could guess who had given him the order to be on the lookout for any suspicious behavior, particularly since City Hall would be a juicy target for any of the mainland agents who did not attempt to take down the spark Plant. I considered flashing my badge and hinting that I was on urgent, secret business with Ops, but the whole point of having assigned me to this was precisely because I could blend in so well and not be a high-priority threat. The less attention I drew to myself, the better, and so I waited like everybody else until I was finally ushered through. I was given a visitor badge and told to head down the right, take the elevator to basement level three and then go down the hall. I did exactly that, and I was knocking on the nondescript black door just as the hour struck.
    The meeting was brief. I met Jules Parker himself and his advisor, who introduced herself as Michelle Grant. They gave me a pad with blueprints of the spark Plant, employee dossiers and schedules, and clearance to link to the video surveillance network of the Plant from the pad—as long as I authenticated with a ridiculously long password they also assigned to me. They also gave me all the information they had on the impending attack, which wasn't much. Their source had asserted that, at the earliest, the attack would come tonight, but it was more likely that it would be attempted much later, probably in the following weeks. Their main target would most probably be the spark genesis chamber at the heart of the Plant. If they hit that, and they were successful, then everything was lost. The entire chamber had been locked out preemptively, but I was told there were many ways to tamper with it by interfacing directly with the many systems that fed into it all across the Plant. I was to keep a look out for anything between one and four agents sent by the Mainlanders. The source had not been certain of the final number, but he had known that a group greater than four in number would have attracted unnecessary attention from us, even if they traveled separately. Thus I was at best faced with dealing with a one-on-one scenario, at worst outnumbered four to one.
    I was also given my pick of the Ops armory, but I chose to stick with my own gun. I had customized it myself with specialized ammunition and a close-range stunner, and I trusted it more than any of the other fancy weapons they kept insisting I take. In the end I only carried off a field kit with sonic plugs, night filters and so on. Then they ushered me to a different elevator from the one I had used to come to this level, and I geared up as I went, sticking the plugs in my ears and stashing everything else neatly in the side pockets of my uniform. The elevator led me up and dropped me off at a back entrance to City Hall I didn't know existed, at the shady mouth of an alley nearly a block away from the Hall. I stuffed the data pad in my pocket last of all and walked as inconspicuously as I could back into the sunlight.
    Then a shop down the road exploded.
    Flying, vicious shards of glass streaked past me with deadly force even as I threw myself to the ground. The shockwave alone popped the sonics in my ears and left me dazed. I felt a cut on my arm, then the impact of my body as I hit the asphalt and a second later the sudden furnace heat of the roaring fireball as the explosion rocked the street.
    Car alarms went off everywhere. Somewhere there was a crash, loud enough to reach my addled hearing. I reached up to take off the safety earplugs but a second sonic bomb blasted something further away and I left them on. I could only cower in the ground, the protection of the plugs barely shielding me from the gut-wrenching impact of the second stronger showckwave as it hit me. My vision wavered for a second, then I felt heat again, but less intense this time. I scrambled onto my knees. Something was burning nearby; the reek of burning plastic wafted down on the erratic breeze. Dimly, I heard screams. I tore the earplugs off, useless now after two blasts anyway, and the volume of the screaming increased. Shakily, I got up, looked around.
    The City Hall dome was gone.
    The very building I'd come out of had obviously been the target of the second, stronger blast. The ornate dome with its spire was gone, and smoke billowed out heavy and thick from the gaping hole. I had come out the back, so I couldn't see the damage up front. Not that it mattered. A sonic bomb of that magnitude would have fractured the foundations of the entire structure; the incendiary payload was just icing on the cake. If the people inside didn't come out now before the thing started to crumble, they never would.
    I didn't stay. I could do very little to help, and it was obvious that this attack was meant to draw attention. Carefully but quickly I walked away from the already-gathering crowds, heading straight for the next subway entrance. Sirens began to wail as I walked, and the thick smoke rose further up into the sky. Whoever had planned this had known just where to strike to create maximum chaos. Every Peacekeeper in the city would probably be summoned to City Hall to help with the rescue efforts. Ops headquarters was underground, safe from the impact, but even they would be unable to extract themselves from the mess for some time with the building so weakened that it might just crumble on top of their heads at any moment. The elevator shaft was an option for them to get out, if the thing still worked. If not, then they would have to climb out the slow way. And in the meantime, the Mainlanders would strike.
    I hurried my pace, dodging curious onlookers. Maybe the intel had been wrong. Maybe the agents had reached the Plant even now, having sent only one suicide bomber to City Hall. Maybe it was already too late; maybe they were already hitting our spark source, destroying our only source of energy for good. Or maybe not. Maybe I still had a chance.
    I did not run because even now it was best not to draw attention to myself. I had no way of knowing if any other Ops operatives had been dispatched to the Plant already, or what the plan was other than my own instructions. I had no way to ask now, so what I had would have to be enough. I went down to the subway tunnels, waited for the Plant line train, and got on just like dozens of others shift workers heading there. Some were talking about the commotion, but most others were just bored. I sat down, took of my pad and began to read, memorizing as much information as I could from the layout of the Plant, schedules and employee profiles as my subway train passed station after station. I kept glancing up every few seconds to see if we were any closer to the Plant. I counted off eleven stops intermittently, dividing my attention between the information on the pad and my anxiety at getting there. I scanned the faces of the workers traveling with me, discreetly activating the pad's NFC to verify their credentials. All of them checked out, and all of them matched their profile picture. No luck there. Finding the agents before they acted was going to be a question of luck as much as a question of skill.
    Thirty minutes later we finally reached the last stop. The Plant was well outside the city, the only surviving building in a burned-out and crumbling area of monumental constructions from decades past. It looked strange, seeing it up close as I exited the subway. I had never actually physically been there before, and the combination of graceful white arcs intersecting at impossible angles, the collection of enormous windows reflecting back the sunlight in many places and the massive metallic superstructure supporting the entire central column were very impressive. I hurried along with the workers, scanning the area as I did. The Plant was the one place in the entire city that still had automated maintenance systems, and it showed in the perfectly-manicured gardens, the spotless gleaming metal and even the smooth whoosh of the automated doors as I walked into the main atrium. I glanced at the pad. Every personnel heat signature within its ten-meter radius was properly identified and accounted for.
    There was a security checkpoint through which everybody was filing in. Two lightly-armed guards were stationed on either side. I had seen two other guards patrolling the perimeter outside, and I was sure there were others I had not seen yet, on the lookout throughout the many levels of the Plant. The place was big, bigger than a single man could hope to him check for himself in a single afternoon. I would need their help if I wanted to find the agents before they could do any real damage.
    As I passed the checkpoint, I received an information update on the pad. It was a 3-D map of the entire Plant, showing the areas that were already under surveillance and the ones that weren't. I skimmed it, noting that security personnel had deliberately left one clear access path to the very center of the Plant unguarded. That was where I needed to go. Anybody who tried to break in would choose the easiest route. Even if they took a different path, their goal would still be the same: the genesis chamber. If I didn't find them on the way there, I would wait for the Mainlander agents outside the chamber itself as a last resort.
    The guard to my left ignored me carefully, and the one on the right gave me a visitor badge and a locker key.
    "Dressing rooms are down the hall and to the left," he said offhandedly. "There's a uniform in there for you."
    I nodded and walked away. At least they had known to expect me. I found the dressing rooms easily enough, walked to the men's section and down the aisles lined with lockers, looking for the one that matched my key. I saw it on the third aisle, walked over to it and opened the locker door. Within it was a Plant worker uniform: sturdy ionized jacket and pants, white shirt and heavy boots, plus a manager's badge. I took everything out and changed into my new clothes, taking care to hide my gun and other gear from view as much as I could. Fortunately, the uniform fit just right and with enough room for my gear in its many pockets. The clothes were identical to the ones I'd seen people wearing as I was coming in, and the one or two guys changing into them in the dressing rooms with me right now gave me curious looks but did not engage me in conversation. I did not know if they had been briefed, or if they were just wondering whether I was new.
    When I was finished, I affixed the manager's badge to the front of the jacket. I took out the pad and performed a quick scan of the people nearby. Everything seemed in order. I put the pad back in a side pocket of the uniform, closed the locker and pocketed the keys. I was turning around to leave when a guy walking by caught my eye.
    I blinked, stopped too suddenly, and drew his attention to me. Our eyes met.
    "Andy," I said, too surprised to think.
    Andy's eyes widened in fear and recognition. He stayed stock-still for an instant, and my eyes flickered down to his chest and the badge he carried there. It was a Peacekeeper's badge prominently displayed, a perfect imitation of mine in every detail but my name and picture.
    I felt a chill of cold certainty crawl up my spine as everything clicked into place and I understood. Andy, from the Mainland. Who just casually managed to meet a Peacekeeper for a hookup last night, one who would have clearance to access the Plant unquestioned.
    My hand reached for my gun. Andy saw the motion and bolted.

Chapter 3 will come out next Monday!
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