New – 20 August 2005
A Glancing Blow
Through the window one could see most of the activity. People were scurrying about the six enclaves with singular purpose. They must get ready. With less than three weeks left, they must completely outfit all six enclaves. Medical lockers, food and water supplies, tools and equipment for later use, and the myriad of personal effects allocated to each person had to be stored with very careful packing and secured to the structure of the enclave. It seemed likely that each structure would be subject to unrelenting, omni directional, and enormous shocks. Everything in the enclave had to be capable of withstanding the enormous stresses and impacts of a world under siege.
Including the human cargo. The system of straps and harnesses within each enclave had transformed the interior into a complex of spider-like webs. Each individual had been custom fitted so that, conscious or not, the person would be secure in the riggings and usually within the reach of another individual.
But many of the occupants were beginning to realize the strappings had a more immediate significance. As the complex rigging in each enclave became customized for the future occupants, it became increasingly evident that there was no extra space for any new people. Subtly there was being established a specific maximum capacity of the enclaves and, ultimately, of the small community. Suddenly the realization came that there was no more room.
In the early days of the community it has been stressed that only the original nucleus of the leadership (Griffith, Scott, Ryker, Smith and Voulers) could offer a place in the community. By the act of joining, each new member had agreed that they could not invite friends or relatives to join. But the complete and unquestioning acceptance of this had never materialized. While few ever seriously considered it, there always seemed to exist the option of simply presenting the leadership with a fait accompli at the last moment. Surely no loved one would be turned away at the door. The simple existence of the possibility of such an action was an essential comfort.
Now the crutch was being removed. The population was being fixed, unalterably. Flexibility was being completely removed as final plans were laid and executed. On top of everything else, telephone service -- cell phones and otherwise -- were failing or had been coopted by the military. Accordingly, any lingerings of a faint hope to bring another into the site were then finally laid to rest by Tom. On Scott's return with his children, Tom supplemented his orders that no one would be allowed off site. Well-planned forays for essential supplies would be considered, but then only with the additional stipulation that selected people would be involved. The lone exception was Fred Smith, who was – hopefully -- on his way back from Washington even now.
The principal difficulty was that the decisions to close the camp (but with a single personal exception) were being made by one man, Tom Griffith. Despite the fact that the other leaders had more or less formally given their support to Tom, he was, to many, the single leader. What he did or decided was unilateral. And it was this fact that occasionally made someone glance over to look at that window.
Who, after all was to say what the ultimate capacity of the enclaves was? Who could determine absolutely when they were full? And what gave the man behind the window the right to set a maximum? How was Fred Smith special?
Tom turned away from the window's interior sill. For the moment no one was watching it, no one was silently questioning his decision. Deep in thought, he stood for a moment alongside his desk, his fingers lightly tapping the light-stained wood. For a time he began to think, to examine, and to wonder.
After a few moments an intrusion on his thoughts brought him back; there was a disturbance outside. Puzzled, he went to the window and saw several people running toward the west fence. Simultaneously, Nancy Lomas was running for his office. Tom was out the door and heading toward the others before she could cover another twenty yards. All Tom heard of Nancy's report as he ran by was, “We've an intruder.”
Tom arrived at the edge of the enclave compound with most of the others as George Frederick and a stranger walked toward them. George's gun was pointed squarely at the back of the stranger's head. By the time they reached the edge of the compound the stranger had already guessed Tom to be the man in charge.
"If you're in charge,” he said, with less than an easy confidence, "You'd better call off this trigger-happy nut before somebody gets killed.”
“You're trespassing,” Tom noted. He waited for a reply.
It took a moment. “Well pardon me. I sure didn't see any signs to that effect.” Then, more carefully, “Just show me the way out of here and I'll be on my way.”
Tom watched him very carefully. “There is no way you could have gotten on this property dressed as you are, “pointing to the stranger's slacks, “Without seeing the 'Keep Outl signs.” When the stranger made no effort to reply, Tom added, “Which means you're lying. I'd like to know why.”
“You've got to be kidding!”
“What's you name?”
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Your name!” It was very insistent.
The man watched Tom for a bit then volunteered, “Jeffrey Wright.” Then, quickly, “If it's any of your business.”
“You have some identification?”
Wright was ready to refuse when he noticed a large fellow moving on his right. He looked as if he would love to floor the stranger. Jeffrey slowly and silently pulled out his papers. He must not appear too secretive.
Tom carefully took the wallet from the man. For a moment he wondered at something which he could not quite grasp. Then he began to glance through the wallet. The man was a civil servant, apparently nothing more. But something was wrong.
“You're from Washington?”
“I work there, yes.”
“What do you do?” Tom forgot the wallet for a minute and looked up at Wright.
“I'm uh, an accountant.” Then quickly, “For the Department of Defense.”
Tom watched the man for a moment. It would take time to be sure of this man. And, as he noted the others about him, a little more privacy. "You'll have dinner with us, won't you?"
Wright flinched slightly. “I'd just as soon be on my way.” With only a slight nervousness he glanced around him.
"We insist,” Tom ordered. Fredericks and Yasaitis each took an arm and led Jeffrey Wright off. To Wright, there seemed little point in objecting.
Back in the office Tom stood staring at the wallet. Scott and Brownson had joined him but they said nothing, waiting for Tom to initiate the conversation. Then Tom began to smile.
"Of course, the money.” Turning to the others he explained, "When I took his wallet he made no objection. He even let me keep it just now. Yet there's almost three hundred dollars here. If he'd been concerned about the money, he'd have said something."
"And the fact that he didn't', Scott added, seeing Tom's train of thought, "Implies that he was more concerned about something else. Like his identification."
Brownson asked, "What does his I.D. say, anyway?"
"That he's a federal employee with the Department of Defense. And nothing else.”
"You don't think he's an accountant?"
"No. He's something else. Only I don't know what. Yet.”
The pitch black darkness was beginning to unnerve Wright. He was locked in a bare small room without a hint of light. He could have slept but for the enclosing blackness. It might have eased his mind to know that a darkened condition was an essential requirement on the site, despite the ongoing work.
The fact that he had been carefully bound with his arms and legs each attached to separate walls didn't help either. Obviously, his story of a roaming accountant was not being taken too seriously. And it seemed just possible these people were sufficiently concerned with their privacy as to consider murder. Jeff felt he could forestall this, at least for a while, since they could not know he had not left clues for others to follow him.
Clearly, they were holding him in order to get more information. Equally clearly, that was his only asset. Everything he knew or guessed were his bargaining tools.
Then he heard it: The slightest scuffling noise. Then the bolt on the door being slipped off (funny that they had no padlocks!). Then the door opening. A figure came in quickly and quietly and then shut the door again.
Jeffrey stiffened even more when a light flashed on his face. Then the light went off. For just a moment there was silence.
Then, "You dumb bastard!"
Jeffrey recognized the voice immediately but hardly dared believe it was his boss. "Roberts?” Jeff asked tentatively.
“Shut up and listen, dummy. You have just about queered the whole set-up.”
Jeff was now sure it was his boss. And orders were orders; he shut up.
“I stumbled on this outfit a couple of weeks ago. I've been more or less accepted, but not to the point of being trusted to leave the area. I still don't know just what they're up to yet, but I'm sure it's something big. Probably the comet collision scam."
"Only now your arrival just might blow everything.”
"Sorry.” It was a timid reply and oblivious to the standing order of silence.
"Does anyone else know that you're here?”
“No sir. My last report was from St. Louis. I had hoped that I would have more information before making my next report.”
Wright could not see Roberts' smile in the darkness. He only heard his voice, “That's more bad news -- which makes your escape even more important. We can still blow this little conspiracy wide apart, but we've got to get you out of here first. Understand?”
“Yes sir.” There was no question in Jeff's mind, escape was paramount. "But the comet thing is a scam?"
"Of course, idiot. It's an attempt to lower our national defenses. These guys are just a small part of it. Now shut up and listen! I'll help you slip the knots off your hand; it's got to look like you did it yourself. If they figure anyone helped you, I'm dead.” As Roberts pried the ropes off, Jeff winced at the pain of scraped skin but kept silent. Roberts continued to outline his plan. "Once your hands are free, I'll leave. You get the ropes off your feet any way you can. Then wait a few minutes so I can get back and establish an alibi. Then you make your break. Okay?”
“Right. I understand.”
“I'm going to have to rebolt the door from the outside, it's got to look like you busted out on your own."
"But how do I get it unbolted?"
"You don't idiot! You knock the door down. Then you run. Once you're out, go to your right at about a forty-five degree angle. That will get you to the edge of the camp the quickest. Then head west.”
"Which way is west?"
"Head toward the moon. Any more questions?"
"What do I do once I get away?"
There was no immediate answer. Then, haltingly, "Try to contact headquarters and get this area sealed off. If you don't hear from me in six days, come in shooting."
Jeffrey gulped. "Yes sir."
"In that case, good luck."
Quickly Roberts was up and out the door. Jeff heard the bolt slide shut. In a few minutes he was free. He waited a bit, trying to calm his runaway heart. Then, after several rehearsals in his mind, Jeff carefully stepped back for his run at the door. Then he charged with his shoulder leading.
A sharp pain blasted his shoulder but he felt the door flinging open, his success overcoming the momentary pain. Off balance, he fell to the dusty, grassy ground. Quickly he leaped to his feet and started running at what he guessed was forty-five degrees to his right. Ahead he saw two temporary buildings. He ran for the intervening space.
Then, too quickly to ever completely register in his mind, a figure seemed to step partially out of the shadows of one of the buildings. Two deafening roars hit his ears as chunks of lead ripped into his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground.
In the shadows Roberts muttered, "You dumb bastard!"
The whole camp was alive. People running about, confusion rampant as everyone reacted to the gunfire. It was ten minutes before the basic facts were known: Wright had been shot in an apparent escape and Riddle had shot him.
Riddle explained, "I was walking back from number six when suddenly the shack door practically exploded. I realized immediately that it was the prisoner escaping. And then, incredibly, he began to run right at me.” Riddle appeared excited but still in control. "I guess he didn't see me; I must have been in the shadows."
"And then you blasted him?” Scott challenged.
"Oh yeah, he was coming at me like a charging bull. I yelled stop and, when he didn't even slow, I opened fire."
"Why two shots?" Tom asked.
"Did I shoot twice?" Riddle glanced about. "I guess I didn't realize it.”
"But you do realize, don't you, that you not only killed a man, but one who might be a government agent. And, if he doesn't show up back in his offices, then someone else will come looking for him?" Griffith was furious.
"Look, Griffith, that guy was making tracks. If I hadn't stopped him when I did, he'd be long gone. And no matter who he was, if he got away we'd be in trouble. If he was an agent, we've still got time on our side. And we can handle anyone else who comes along, provided of course that they come in here blind like he did."
“I'm happy you're so confident of our ability." Tom looked as if he might hit Riddle. “I'm not quite so cocksure myself.”
“Let me put it this way,” Riddle challenged. "I can handle it even if you can't.”
Tom glared at his challenger for a long moment. Then he turned away in disgust. Grousely he ordered, "Larry, some of you take care of the body. Bury it here in the compound. The rest of you, back to your stations."
"Bury him here in the compound?” Riddle asked incredulously. "ls that a good idea?"
Tom stopped and turned only for an instant. Then he ordered, "Larry, get a shovel for Mr. Riddle. We'll let him bury his mistake.” Then he turned and walked away.
Riddle smiled at the departing figure. It seemed as if he'd won round two as well.
Chapter Nine -- Preparations
Chapter Eleven -- Panic, et al
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