Authors: Dan Needles
Illustrated by Kenn Brown
Route 11 Books
ROUTE 11 BOOKS
Route 11 Publications, Virginia, USA
Copyright © by Dan Needles 2014 First Edition.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the publisher.
Contact Route 11 Publications via email:
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and events are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is entirely coincidental.
Cover Design: Kenn Brown
To Allison, my wife, soul mate, and lifelong partner, who embraced the book’s vision, and knowing me often better than I know myself, helped coach the book into existence.
I thank Don Muchow who taught me the first and last steps in a writer’s journey: to join a writing group and eventually leave it. I also thank Don for introducing me to Kenn Brown. Don and Kenn have become lifelong friends. To Lou Aronica, Keith Farrell, Jodee Blanco, Fonda Snyder, and many others who were plugged into this vertical; I thank them for their insights and perspectives into this multifaceted industry. To Jim Czajkowski (aka James Rollins/James Clemens), Paul Melko, John Bowers, Joe Massucci, Kaza Kingsley, and Tamara Shoemaker, thanks for the wisdom, sharing your life journeys, and helping me hone my craft. Also, to the hundreds of customers in the various fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and secret military projects, without whom I would not have the perspective of the real sausage making that goes on inside the information age today, I give my thanks.
“Technology, while adding daily to our physical ease, throws another loop of fine wire around our souls. It contributes hugely to our mobility, which we must not confuse with freedom. The extension of our senses, which we find so fascinating, is not adding to the discrimination of our minds, since we need increasingly to take the reading of a needle on a dial to discover whether we think something is good or bad, right or wrong.”
—Adlai E. Stevenson, Illinois Governor, 1955
Monday, June 29, 2019
teve Donovan slammed the office door and stormed through the parking lot toward his black Mustang. Behind him, footsteps slapped against the wet, dark asphalt.
Austin was following him.
Through the steam rising off the hood from the idling engine, Steve squinted into the Mustang’s headlights. He saw only shadows through the rain-streaked windshield and held up his hand to tell his wife and daughter to stay put.
Austin Wheeler stepped into the light. “Now, son, come back inside. Let’s talk about this.” Fifteen years Steve’s senior, Austin was clean-shaven with a short crew cut. The man stared down at him from his six-foot muscular frame.
Steve felt older than his thirty-five years. From his average build and height, he could not help but feel intimidated by Austin. The encounter would surely add additional premature streaks of silver in his already graying brown hair. One thing he knew for sure—Steve could not trust Austin; not anymore. “We’re done talking,” Steve said.
Austin stretched out his arms. “It’s just a VR-enabled Internet browser. It’s supposed to have glitches.”
“Not glitches that kill. The Nexus isn’t ready.” Steve wiped the rain from his brow. He stole a glance at his watch.
Austin laughed. “Imagine the scenario you’re worried about. The patch has to fail, followed by an energy surge.”
“Followed by a seizure and death,” Steve added. He looked through the steam that rose from the car hood to its occupants. Tami was going to be pissed.
Austin shook his head. “Son, we might also get hit by lighting. You might get in a car wreck. What’s the difference?”
“We can prevent this, Austin.”
Thunder rumbled above them. The sky had turned darker and the drizzle threatened to turn into a downpour.
Austin wagged a finger. “The release date cannot slip.”
“Really?” Steve said. “Last time I checked, I was the CEO.”
“You can’t do this,” Austin said.
Steve turned and headed to the driver’s side. Pellets of rain stung his face as the storm intensified.
“Bankruptcy is around the corner. Things are in motion that I can’t stop,” Austin shouted after him.
Steve shook his head.
How could I have selected such an immature bastard for a partner?
Tami had warned him. He should have listened to her. Now millions of dollars into the relationship, he could not turn back.
Thunder cracked above.
“We’ll talk Friday after I’ve had time to test things out,” Steve shouted back. He opened the car door and put one foot in.
“Don’t,” Austin said. He had dropped his southern drawl.
Steve met Austin’s scowl.
“Steven?” Tamara said.
He turned to her. “What?”
She raised her eyebrows.
“I know. We’re going,” Steve said.
In the backseat, Brooke stared through the rain-streaked window.
“Come on, son,” Austin shouted. “One more round for the road.” He waved back toward the office.
“We’ll finish this in the morning.” Steve sat down in the driver’s seat.
“Don’t do it. I’m warn …”
Steve slammed the car door. That felt good. A smirked formed but melted as he turned and faced his wife.
She stared down at her watch and frowned.
“What time is it?” he asked. He already knew the answer. Steve put the car into reverse.
“It’s 7:30. The play begins in half an hour.”
“I can’t be late for this,” Brooke whined. The teenager leaned forward from the backseat.
Steve met her gaze in the rearview mirror as he drove forward. “Get your seat belt on.”
“I’m sure your father will make up the time,” Tamara said.
Steve winced. Crow Canyon Road was tough even without the stormy night. “Tam, I …”
Tamara sniffed his breath. “You’ve been drinking,” she said in a low voice.
He shook his head. “Only a couple.” Steve looked into the rearview mirror. Brooke remained perched forward.
“Whoa. Do you drink, Dad?” Brooke giggled.
“Get your seat belt on,” he shouted.
Brooke slumped back into the seat and crossed her arms. Steve took a deep breath and pulled onto the road. He felt a hand on his arm. “It’s no big deal,” Tamara said.
He nodded. The argument with Austin had gotten to him.
Bright headlights shined through his window and a horn blared.
Tamara gripped his arm. “Steven!”
He gunned the engine and negotiated the turn. The oncoming car missed the back end of the Mustang and the car fishtailed. After a second, he regained control.
Brooke’s seat belt clicked in the backseat.
Tamara laughed. “Your father will get us there, hopefully in one piece.”
Steve read the time on the dashboard and frowned—thirty miles in thirty minutes. He pressed down the accelerator and made the most of the 100-yard straightaway.
Tamara leaned over and lowered her voice. “Tell me, really. How much did you have to drink?”
“Only two or three.”
She dipped her head forward and raised her eyebrows.
He laughed. “Really.”
She smiled. The car rounded a corner. To humor her, he eased off the gas and applied the brakes. The car continued to accelerate.
Steve’s heart rate took off and he punched down the brake pedal. Nothing. His stomach felt sick.
“Something’s wrong,” he said.
“Dad?” Brooke asked.
“I’m working on it.”
He pumped the brakes. The car continued to accelerate, and the back tires squealed.
“Lock your door,” Tamara said.
Steve heard a
as Brooke complied.
The back end of the Mustang slid out. Steve steered into the slide and the car crossed into the opposing lane. He pumped the brakes. Nothing. As the car drifted toward the guardrail and the chasm, Brooke and Tamara remained quiet.
The road straightened and the wheels stopped squealing. He steered back to his side of the road and glanced at their speed—50 miles per hour. How had they survived? The road pitched downward, and the car accelerated. A steep cliff rose to the right and to their left was a deep canyon. He had no place to safely ditch the car.
“What’s happening?” Brooke cried.
“Quiet. Let your dad focus.”
Steve glanced at the speedometer. The car passed 60 miles per hour. A sign warned of a 30-mile-per-hour turn.
“Shit,” Steve yelled.
“Emergency brake!” Tamara shouted.
He reached down with his right hand and yanked on the brake. The arm didn’t budge.
The car entered the next turn, and Steve grabbed the wheel with both hands and managed to stay on the road. He exhaled. Foreplay—the real curve was still ahead.
“Tam, some help, please!” he yelled, glancing at the emergency brake.
“Oh, god!” Brooke screamed.
Tamara reached over and yanked the lever. It was stuck. She undid her seat belt and took hold of the brake with both hands.
“Hold on,” Steve shouted. As the car entered the turn, he steadied the steering wheel with his left hand. With his right, he grabbed the emergency brake and yanked with Tamara.
Snap. The lever flew back.
The rear wheels lost traction and the car spun. Tamara flew back and then forward, her head slamming against the passenger window.
He turned into the spin and regained control.
Steve could hear Brooke fumble with her seat belt. “Don’t!” he yelled as the car began to fishtail again. Steve gripped the steering wheel with both hands and turned into the spin. They were traveling too fast.
“Tam!” he shouted. “Buckle up!” She did not open her eyes, and blood stained the window where she had hit her head.
“Tam!” he yelled, and looked up into the rear view mirror. “Brooke! Seat belt! Now!”
“Look out!” Brooke screamed.
Steve prayed for a miracle, but the car tore through the guardrail, left the road, and slammed into an oak tree.
In the distance, Ed Davis heard a crash, followed by the blare of a horn. He stepped out of the shadows and joined Austin in the parking lot of Nexus Corporation. He stood a full head above Austin from his six-and-a-half-foot frame. His salt-and-pepper hair and groomed goatee betrayed that he was older, but not necessarily wiser. National security had demanded this action. A life of public service had bequeathed Ed with the moral flexibility required to be a team player. “Is that the verdict?”
Austin smiled. “He couldn’t leave well enough alone.”
Austin slipped the kill switch that had disabled the brakes under his coat. “As you asked, I gave him a chance.”
No, not really
, thought Ed.
Above them, a flash of light preceded another crack of thunder.
Ed turned toward the building. “I’ll call 911.”
Austin grabbed his elbow. “Give it half an hour—just to be sure.”
“So, the first shoe has dropped,” Austin said, pulling out a cigar and lighting it. “Now it’s your turn.”
Ed frowned again. “I get tired of these games, Austin.”
“Sometimes you have to break some eggs.”
Ed took a step toward him. “Maybe you had no problem killing off Steve and his family, but my best friend isn’t a fucking omelet!”
Austin shrugged. “It’s your show. You made the call.”
Ed glared at him. He did not need the reminder.
“Stay professional, Ed,” Austin said and took a drag from the cigar. He blew smoke into Ed’s face. “Steve might be dead, but at least he had a spine.”
Ed shrugged and patted his pocket. He felt the other half of the plan, a folded memo that warned of a preemptive strike by the United States against China. His bureaucratic mistake would tie up the loose ends. The memo would just disappear, like so many pieces of meaningless paper did.
He watched as the pungent cigar smoke wafted up through the mist and obscured Austin’s face, except for his Cheshire-cat grin. The deed was done. The Nexus would go out, and his career was secure. And on the other side of the globe, his best friend and his best friend’s daughter were probably already dead.
ver Hainan Island at the southern tip of China, the C130J Cargo plane lost altitude. The restraints held Allison Hwang in place as bile rose and burned her throat. Allison covered her ears as a horn blared through the cargo hold. How could anything be louder than the drone of the engines? She and her father did not have time to grab protective earplugs; they were escaping the war.
The horn went silent, and Allison glanced at her father. He smiled and stared into her green eyes. Lines of wisdom creased his Chinese face and put her at ease. She was his little girl again.
Allison shook her head.
. Her eyes were open when she had joined her father and entered Hainan. War was probable, expected. Contention had surrounded the Spratly Islands to the south, and International law overlapped the claims of China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei.
Then the Vietnamese discovered oil.
China’s leadership could not resist. After sparking capitalism, China’s thirst for oil exploded as its economy expanded. The promise of oil in the Spratlys was too much to pass up. For centuries, the Chinese had viewed the Spratly Islands as a phallic extension of themselves. The Chinese government primed their people with propaganda and prepared the invasion from Hainan and the Paracel Islands. The United States coordinated with the ASEAN regional forces and followed diplomatic channels. No one, least of all the Defense Intelligence Agency, had expected the U.S. President to order an early strike.
The chief of the DIA, Ed Davis, was practically her uncle. The tandem op had been his idea, a sort of pony show, and a pretense to appoint her to his post once he and her father moved on. The father-daughter team would enter Hainan disguised as reporters, collect rudimentary information, and get out.
A bureaucratic mistake had left them in the dark. As the Chinese forces mobilized, the ASEAN command struck the Chinese airfields and their exposed Navy. Without any aircraft carriers, the Chinese Navy could not protect itself, much less project any sort of threat.
They were now in the crossfire.
Allison felt a hand on her shoulder, and as she turned her head in his direction, he father gave the thumbs up sign.
Allison tied back her long black hair and looked around. She had never ridden in a cargo hold of a C130J before. The hold, which reminded her more of their unfinished garage, took up almost the entire plane. The hollow tunnel of metal supported by arched, steel beams extended from the firewall behind the cockpit to the tail. Gutted, with no carpets, no overhead compartments, and no seats except theirs, the windowless hold was cold, damp, and dark. Holes and notches for inserting chairs or equipment pitted its naked steel floor. Down the center of the floor ran two lines of rollers used to load crates. Foam pads covered parts of the ceiling and walls. Nylon netting hung everywhere else. Through the netting she saw the plane’s exposed pipes, conduit, and wires that snaked along the sides of the cargo hold. It was hard to make them out in the dim light, because absolutely everything was painted or dyed the same color—an olive drab. She hated that color.
Turbulence shook the plane, and Allison’s stomach churned. She hated the seats, stashed like luggage in the right corner near the firewall. They sat sideways along the wall, and every time the plane lurched backward or forward so did her stomach.
“Hang on,” the pilot yelled over the cargo hold’s intercom.
The plane accelerated, pitched down, and turned hard to the left. A high whine supplanted the drone of the engines, and then faded quickly. Allison exchanged a glance with her father.
He punched the intercom button and picked up the mic. “Talk to me, Briggs.”
The engine drone drowned out the response; but her father frowned.
Allison looked down. Her seat consisted of nylon mesh stretched over aluminum tubing. It reminded her of a cheap lawn chair. Worse, the seat belt was a simple hook and loop mechanism. She cinched the seat belt up another notch.
A high whine grew in pitch as the plane lurched right, and then the sound faded. Allison fell forward. Her father dropped the handset.
The sound returned, louder, and a deafening concussion echoed through the hold. The explosion blew the rear-loading door open, snapping its hydraulic cables, and red hydraulic fluid spewed across the interior. The mist stung her eyes and tightened her chest. She coughed, but could not catch her breath.
Her father nudged her. He mouthed the words, “We’ll be okay.”
She nodded, and the coughing subsided.
The plane pulled up at a sharp angle, throwing her father against her, but the seat belt held. She grabbed the seat’s metal tubing while the plane climbed higher. The air pressure clogged her head, her stomach felt sick, and her ears refused to pop. She looked through the open rear door and saw Hainan Island below. The plane was nearly vertical.
And then her father was tumbling past her. His arms flailed, and then his hands caught the loose end of a nylon strap at the rear-loading ramp. The strap went taut.
Her father lay still, his head resting against the vertical floor. Allison traced the nylon strap; a single strand of the nylon webbing had caught the buckle on the other end. She released her seat belt and pushed off, falling on the netting along the wall, and climbed down to where the nylon strap was snagged.
The plane veered left. The net sagged from her father’s weight. She looped her legs and arms through the netting and grabbed the strap with both hands. It tore free from the netting, but she caught it. Behind her father, a building exploded on Hainan Island.
“I’ve got you.” Her arms already ached and tears streamed down her cheeks. Allison scanned the ramp. Metal inserts plugged the holes. Her father had no hand or footholds, and the netting on the wall was out of his reach. She looked down the strap to her father. Below his hands, the loose end of the strap whipped around from the turbulent blasts of air.
“Climb!” she yelled.
He bled from a gash above his eye. Was he knocked out?
“Dad! Dad! Can you hear me?” The wind whisked her words away.
Her father lay still.
“I can’t hold on much longer!”
He did not budge, but his knuckles were white. Her arms grew fatigued, and the strap slipped a little. Her father looked up and Allison saw resignation.
She locked her gaze into his and yelled, “You told me to never give up on anything. Don’t you give up now, Dad, don’t you dare.”
He began to climb, the strap cutting into her hands as he pulled. He climbed faster.
“Slow down,” she yelled. He was too heavy. Her left arm cramped, her grip loosened, and several inches of strap slipped through, the dull edges cutting into her hands. Her father screamed as the strap slipped. She had never heard him scream. The pain disappeared as her strength returned, and Allison tightened her grip. The strap slowed and stopped.
She looked down. Her hands were covered in blood, and only a few inches of strap remained. Her father had stopped.
“I’ve got it!” she shouted.
He pulled himself up. The strap became slick with her blood, but now she felt no pain. He inched his way up the strap, and now only a few feet separated him from the netting. She could almost touch him. Her left arm convulsed, and another inch slipped through her fingers. Her father locked his gaze into hers and he climbed faster, the strap ripping back and forth. Her left hand went numb and she willed it to clasp tighter as the last bit of strap slipped from her hands.
Allison watched as her father tumbled down the loading ramp and fell through the gaping hole in the back of the plane. His eyes remained locked with hers, wide with fear and disbelief.
She reached out. “No! No! Daddy, don’t leave me! Nooooooo!”
He faded away, his flailing body shrinking until he was just an imperceptible dot lost in the backdrop of Hainan Island.