5.4 - Winds of Fortune
The next part is a little hazy. It feels like there’s a vivid memory somewhere in my skull, but it was concealed by sleep deprivation and benzedrene withdrawal and the persistent fear that this was going to end with my corpse in a shallow grave and the general condition of being Atticus Gainsborough. I’ve been grilled on this point at length by people who assume that I’m lying and that the ninth guy they send in to ask the same questions in a slightly different configuration is going to be the one who trips me up.
I remember the OSIS grunts escorting me out of the consultation room with their usual good nature and grace. Then there was a long hallway and another long hallway, and then we were abruptly outside, packed onto a huge fancy bus headed toward the stadium. The other places were occupied by famous journalists, representatives from charitable and religious groups, and assorted VIPs. The OSIS guys - either due to dumb chance or because one of them had a funny sense of humor - had dumped me in a seat right across from Fred Tomasson, who managed to rip his attention away from the giant monitors lining the sides of the bus to acknowledge my presence.
“Atticus! So you wrangled a seat at the big boy table. Good for you!”
“I’m truly blessed.”
“You’re apprehensive. Is this about the scotch? Because that’s not a problem. It’s not the most expensive thing I’ve ever put on that account, I assure you.” Fred pointed his head back towards the monitors which were displaying the scene at Memorial Stadium. “Look at that scene. Tens of thousands of people clamoring to get in, and we’ll be right up front.”
“Why the hell would so many people want to hear a businessman give a speech?”
Fred smirked back at me. “You haven’t been following the briefings, I see. This is no mere speech. Mr. Jameson is about to discuss his new project, the largest non-military public-private venture in United States history. He’s kept the details close to the vest, but all of the contract drivers with whom I’ve discussed it agree that it’s some manner of digital infrastructure upgrade.”
“That’s what the drivers think, huh?”
“And the Indian graduate students agree. Think of it as a “next internet,” perfectly secure, resistant to digital noise, capacity beyond what we could ever need. The government gets communications so heavily encrypted that the Chinese couldn’t break it in a thousand years, and the rest of us get a reliable entry point without having to fight it out with some telecom.”
“That’s your theory, huh?” I fell back across the roomy seat, which under different circumstances would have been a perfect place to pass out drunk. “I’m not giving up my exclusive, but suffice it to say that you’re wrong.”
“Really. And what Jameson actually has in mind isn’t going to make for a wider world, to use your lingo.”
“Actually, I was thinking ahead for when the news breaks.” Fred leaned in closer. “I’m looking for a title phrase that’s nice and sticky. How do you feel about ‘terminal linkage’? You think that phrase is too cerebral? Too subject to misinterpretation?”
“I think you should congratulate yourself, you just made another five million dollars.”
Fred kept babbling on about his newest catchphrase but I couldn’t even pretend to care. What little attention I had was directed at the monitors which were showing a constant cycle of images - the stadium, the heart of campus still under UFJ control, various groups of people including a small pack of openly armed Briggs jackboots, a nice human interest shot of some kid scribbling something in a notebook, campus buildings engulfed by OSIS grunts, Goldie trying not to cry, Karlyle trying not to look like a reptilian monster, and a few scattered protesters who were clearly nowhere near the stadium and didn’t seem to know what they were protesting going by the signs. If there was some greater meaning in those shots then I didn’t know what to make of them.
And then we reached the stadium. There was a stage set up inside - not a makeshift number with a few added bleachers, but an ornate beast that must have been precisely crafted by engineers to fit into that space. The stands were already filling up, slowly due to the security forces converged at every imaginable bottleneck. Meanwhile, those of us in the VIP section had our own personal escort, a column of elite OSIS operatives leading us to our seats. I wondered if any of them knew me, if someone in that little group of grunts was packing a lethal dose of ketamine and instructions to use it on me if I got too feisty. Not that it was at all necessary, as the skull-sundering headache I had developed during Frederick’s spiel (coincidentally, I’m sure) had left me with no desire to do anything but sit and stare.
Under normal circumstances, I might have been a little excited. True, Joshua Jameson had revealed himself as a theocratic despot who may or may not have considered having me killed, but I’ve dealt with swine before - they’re my best sources, in fact. True, I had a pretty good idea as to what lies Joshua was going to tell this crowd and there weren’t going to be any surprises. On the other hand, how often do you get a chance to witness a coup without even having to get yourself a visa? But I couldn’t enjoy it. Something was off in this story.
Then the crowd abruptly went silent, and a few seconds later Joshua appeared at the top of the stage as if he’d descended from the clouds. He walked to the hand-wrought podium with a deliberate and powerful stride, each step sending tremors through the stadium. The only other sounds were the muted clicks of cameras, but those too faded into the aether as Joshua clasped the podium. I couldn’t read his expression - it was gentle and kind and warm with a humility that struck me as genuine even though I knew for a fact what he was planning. This was a man who had fooled the world into believing his charade of pious benevolence, and now he had even fooled himself.
Time froze for a second.
The next few seconds were such a sensory assault that I can not, for the life of me, remember what I detected first. It wasn’t the crack - that wasn’t for a second or two. It certainly wasn’t the screams. The first sensation I can clearly pick out was a fleck of something warm hitting me on the cheek. The second was a spasm, Joshua tensing up and inhaling sharply. That’s when I saw the exit wound in Joshua’s back.
It was another second before it all caught up to me, and that’s when everyone panicked. Most of the people in the VIP section turned into statues. One of them, the head of some other billionaire’s philanthropic fund, hit the floor of the bleachers. I thought this was to avoid more fire, but in reality the bullet that had passed through Joshua had grazed her arm. When the people sitting next to her noticed, they unfroze in time to claw each other bloody in an attempt to escape. The OSIS guys scrambled but the gunman was nowhere to be seen and the crowd was too much for them to control. Two of them raced over to Joshua, but it was a futile effort - we’d later learn that the bullet shredded his aorta and he was likely dead before any of the grunts could react.
Then another shock - an explosion, not inside the stadium but somewhere very, very close. When the sound faded I could catch plumes of smoke from just over the outside wall. A fresh swell of pandemonium rose inside the crowd and whatever illusion of control that OSIS had was gone. People were being flung onto the field and checked into walls as everyone tried in vain to escape.
That was when my own instincts finally kicked in. I really didn’t know where I was running, but when you’ve decided that you’re in the absolute worst place then it doesn’t really matter. With my first step, I tripped over someone (probably Fred Tomasson) and tumbled down the stands, landing on my back. Painful, but fortunate - landing on your face is a good way to lose a tooth, and I’d know. I was up in a second and racing for the exit. No one stopped me - the grunts were too busy failing to locate the shooter and the bomber to notice one random loser in the VIP stands.
The street outside the stadium was already an unholy mess. Many of the OSIS guys were panicking, almost as though the guys with the submachine guns and body armor didn’t expect all this scary violence. There was the soft sound of gunfire somewhere off on the horizon but I couldn’t pick out direction or distance.
Joanna was calling me over from the nearby parking garage. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast to meet a dealer in my life. “Goddamn, girl, everything’s gone to hell.”
“What the fuck happened in there?”
“Someone shot Jameson. Don’t know who. What the fuck happened out here?”
“No idea. There was an explosion up the hill, and they’re shooting people on campus. We’ve got to get back to that place in East Lawrence, figure out a plan.”
“How do we get there? You just said they were shooting people on campus.”
“We’re taking the long way. Keep your head down and don’t stop running.”
I have to thank Joanna. “Don’t stop running” has turned out to be the most useful advice I’ve ever received.