Episode 9: Steve Bradford
Residential District, Old Sacramento
7:20 AM, April 6th, 2070
Sacramento Bureau of Public Health Agent Steve Bradford jumped out of his chair and hurled his book across the room. He barely registered the sound as it collided with a vase, tumbling to the carpet in a shower of tinkling glass and flowers.
“Fuck this,” he screamed, kicking his leather lounge chair.
Placing his head in his hands, he massaged his temples with his fingertips. It was only day two of his week-long, state-mandated quarantine, a precaution following his possible exposure to the Vox Humana Virus. The quarantine period was standard procedure. He knew that. For the first twenty-four hours, it had made sense to him. The last thing the city needed was more uncontrolled exposure to VHV. The Armorer envoy — “Moe” Sterling, the Dynasty Herald, and her inbred idiot knights — were still encamped in a warehouse on the other side of town. They were an uncontrollable factor. The Sac BPH and the police were stretched thin, scrambling to keep one step ahead of them, mitigating the contact they had with the public or with municipal food and water supplies. It made sense that Steve, just one other potential vector, should be taken out of the equation.
The occupation was maddening — the Government was in a state of panic. So far, the damage, though dire, had been controllable. But all it would take was one knight deciding to piss in the aquifers, and the city could be thrown into anarchy.
And there was nothing proactive anyone could do. The police and the military could not engage because the Armorer Dynasty held the city hostage. Sacramento was under threat of nuclear annihilation, the Dynasty fully prepared to launch an atomic bomb that would wipe the Republic off the map if the Government didn’t give in to their demands, handing over “the cure for VHV.”
Moe — and her Liege, kept apprised of developments by radio — wouldn’t believe that there was no cure. No matter how many times BPH officials explained that to them, and laid out the system of public screenings and other preventative measures that kept Sac safe from outbreaks, the Herald chortled and cursed them for lying to her. And time was running out for the Government to decide on some way of breaking the stalemate. The Armorers had Congress locked inside the Capitol; they would allow no one in, and no one out. No food. No water. The legislative body of the city had a solid day left to live, maybe, before they started to die of dehydration. And after that, there was no telling what the Armorers would do.
With all this in mind, following standard quarantine procedures was beginning to seem moot to Steve. Every second that passed, he became more intensely driven to dash out his front door and plunge into the fray. He didn’t know what he would do that wasn’t already being done by his colleagues, but doing anything would be better than doing nothing. And he had a special burning concern that the rest of the BPH didn’t share. He needed to find Abbie. He hadn’t talked to her since the previous day. He had tried calling her an hour ago, but she hadn’t picked up. Either she was ignoring her phone (unlikely), she was sound asleep and her phone ringing didn’t wake her (just as unlikely), or she, for some reason, wasn’t at home (terrifying to consider). He’d also called her mother, but she hadn’t known where Abbie was.
Five times, he had walked straight up to his door, ready to throw it open and leap out into the street. Five times, he paused, rooted on the tiles of the entryway, critically considering his situation. He was in quarantine because he might be carrying VHV. If he was carrying VHV, he could expose Abbie. So, would she be safer with, or without him? The city was in crisis. But he could only make it worse.
The fifth and final time he walked away from his door, he had settled down into his chair and started to read. Now, an hour later, that book was resting in a pile of broken glass across the room from him. Steve pulled a small plastic vial from his pocket and popped open the rubber lid with his thumb. Turning it over his other palm, he poured out a single white pill. Knocking the pill back and swallowing, he sighed. It seemed like as good a moment as any to take his daily dose of diazepam — prescribed to every BPH agent. Standard operating procedure kept BPH agents on a low, baseline dose of the anti-anxiety medication to enhance their ability to do their job. Intense, gruesome horror being a routine part of their lives, the medication was meant to keep their nerves in check in the line of duty.
At the start of each week, agents received seven pills to last them the next seven days. The medication was 3D printed, giving each agent an exact standard baseline dose, calculated from their bodyweight. The number of pills they received was rigidly controlled — one of many dark sides to the agency for people in the know — but over the years, agents had had problems.
Steve put the vial back in his pocket, and smirked. If ever there was a day he felt tempted to double up or triple up on his prescribed dose, this was it. And for that exact reason, the agency rationed the pills. And Steve had always thought that policy was stupid. Ninety percent of the Bag Men were also medical doctors or trained nurses, and BPH HQ was basically a fortified hospital. If an agent really, really wanted more drugs, they would get them.
But the beneficial effects of the tranquilizers on BPH agents outweighed the low risk of dependency. There was a saying in the Bureau: “Remain calm and persist.” No matter what, they remained calm. No matter what, they persisted. Chemical adjustment of brain chemistry could only help.
Steve sat down in his chair, glancing at his phone to confirm that he hadn’t missed a call back from Abbie. He hadn’t. Leaning back, he closed his eyes and allowed the weight of his head to settle into the cushion.
“Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra,” he said aloud. “Sergei Rachmaninoff. Symphony Number One in D Minor, Opus Thirteen.” There was a gentle tone as his audio system recognized the command. After a pause, horns thundered around the room as if from thin air. Blaring, militant, the bright voice of brass cut through a deep drone of cellos. One note tumbled amorphously into the next, blending into a mourning, funereal melody, trailing off into a whining streak of notes streaming from flutes. The volume and intensity fell, lower and lower, until suddenly, carried by sweeping minor strings, the martial horns blared back to life, bursting again from thin air and filling the space.
Steve closed his eyes. Abbie’s violin was layered somewhere in that recording of the Philharmonic. He had attended the concert from which this recording was taken. Immersed again in the music, he could vividly remember sitting in the hall that night, the strains of the symphony sweeping over him in his seat, looking down at the stage from his box and watching Abbie, 1st Chair, consumed by her focus, her fingers moving with mechanical grace across the strings, caught unblinkingly in the moment and the music, aflame, losing herself in a sort of virtuosic ecstasy that could only come at the highest fruition of technical skill and rigorous training.
A clanking noise in the street outside caught Steve’s attention. It was a slight sound, a pressure in his ears that made his eyes instinctively flash open. Outside, it must have been loud, if it was audible inside over the music.
Steve looked out the window to see another Armorer patrol approaching. They had been coming by for the past few hours. They’re striking out further and further through the city, Steve thought. They’re getting bolder.
Riot police had already swept through hours ago; they cleared the streets and shepherded people back into their homes. The whole residential district was in lockdown to keep people away from the knights. I guess I’m not the only one under house-arrest.
Like one other he had seen so far, this knight was strapped into the hydraulic frame of a mech-suit. Over eight feet tall, the mech was sleek and functioned almost silently, except for the whine of the motor sound of its metal feet clanging heavily on the asphalt. The trunk and limbs were thin and angular, insect-like — long, spindly extensions of the pilot’s own arms and legs, with a metal carapace wrapping around his torso. The knees bent backwards like a dog’s leg, and the arms jutted stiffly forward, terminating, on the left, in a pair of shining bayonets, and, on the right, a mini-gun. Those instruments of death were the Armorer’s own additions to the suit, but the contraption itself was not a product of their engineering. Steve knew about them: like so many other weapons, he had been given the sales-pitch a few times during supply runs to Hell’s Gate. The suits were created by the United States Navy in the old world. They were worn by workers building battleships, giving the laborers exponentially more than human strength. The knight stared ahead, stalking down the street in the lanky, predatory mech. His face was covered by the visor of his Renaissance-costume helm. Like the others, it was impossible to say whether or not he was a VHV carrier.
The edge taken off his mood by the diazepam and by the music, Steve watched the knight pass, thinking almost dispassionately about how he would fight it. I wouldn’t stand a chance against the mech itself. It’s made to hold and weld massive sheets of metal on the hull of a ship. It could rip me in half without even trying. But the pilot is only human. He is the weak link. I couldn’t shoot him, because of that bulletproof shell he’s inside. The mech’s arms are long and stiff, though…If I could get inside its guard…
He snapped out of his reverie as his phone started to vibrate in his pocket. He grabbed it, thinking it might be Abbie returning his calls, and sighed when he looked at the touchscreen and read: Sgt. Lillian Morgenstern.
“Agent Bradford,” he said, bringing the phone to his ear. “You’ll never guess where I am or what I’m doing.”
“I might,” Lillian said. “You’re at home, and you’re listening to the Philharmonic. Speaking of which, could you turn it down?”
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony Number One in D Minor was still blaring in Steve’s living room, making it almost impossible to carry on a phone conversation. “Mute,” Steve said, turning his face away from his phone, looking towards the middle of the room. Instantly, the music cut out. Without the sonic curtain, Steve could easily hear the clanking footsteps of the Armorer mech moving farther off down the street outside.
“That’s better,” Lillian said. “Now we can talk. You’re probably dying there.”
“I’m not experiencing symptoms of infection yet, if that’s what you mean,” Steve said sardonically.
“I mean sitting on your hands while the Armorers wander around the city,” Lillian said. She knew that Steve knew what she meant, but he never missed a chance to say something grimly sarcastic or cynical. His attitude slid off her like water from a duck. “But it’s time to blow off your quarantine.”
Steve arched an eyebrow. “Blow off procedure? Do something incautious? You don’t sound like yourself.”
“Fuck procedure, in this case. Listen to me. At the moment, we don’t know for sure if the Armorers can monitor our cellphone communications or not. But we know they have lots of tech that our Intelligence Department guys can only wet-dream about, so it isn’t impossible that they’re able to intercept signals and listen in. Because we don’t know, we’re better off just assuming our conversation is insecure. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to Maureen Sterling’s face.”
“Moe, if you can hear me,” Steve said, “Be like a star and let yourself shine. Unimaginably far away from me. And probably already long-dead.”
“Uh, yeah,” Lillian said. “Now, I need you to go to the place where Saint-Ex picked you up on the morning of the 4th. Do you know where I’m talking about?”
“Yes,” Steve stated. “When?”
“As soon as you can,” Lillian said. “And don’t be seen traveling.” It was broad daylight, but she knew her agent could become a ghost when she ordered him to.
“I’ll be there,” Steve said. “Just let me put on my face.”
He ended the call, and walked out of the living room. As he opened a small closet, sunlight streamed in past the cracked door, and glinted off the eyepiece of a gas-mask.