John Russell walked along a puddled sidewalk past empty storefronts papered over with recruitment bills for the Eagle and Cross. A thick stratus pressed onto the skyline as it had since November. On a street corner, a clean-shaven man thrust an upside-down baseball cap toward him. John could see a bit of bronze in there. Dollar coins.
“Peace and freedom,” the man said.
“How’s the weather?” John said.
The man with the inverted hat glared at him.
John’s heart rate kicked up. That was foolish, he thought. If anyone looked like a Homelander, this man did. Begging—with a fresh haircut.
John glanced back as he crossed the street. The man continued to shove his hat at other passersby. He didn’t reach for a cell phone, and John hadn’t noticed an earpiece or a camera. Still, better not to pass this way again for a few days.
The beggars in the succeeding blocks were more to type: clothes blackened from nights in doorways and under bridges, matted hair, skin burnished and creased like worn leather. As John approached the revolving door of his building, a boney woman looked up from her seat against the polished stone planter. She had two children with her. The girl was five or six, with a runny nose and a filthy men’s flannel shirt hanging from her skinny frame. The boy, younger, sat on his mother’s lap with his eyes fixed on the sidewalk. The mother held a stained paper cup.
“You can’t stay here,” John said to her.
The woman said, “Big man.”
“I mean the guards will come out. You don’t want that. Just move down the block. Here.”
He dropped a dollar coin into her cup, which hit the bottom with a thwack. The boy didn’t flinch, but continued to stare downward.
“I’m sure you’re okay,” he said. “It’s a security thing. The bombings.”
As he said it, he knew it sounded absurd. A mother with two kids.
Inside the building’s lobby, John filed behind the others who arrived for the day’s work. He, like they, put his thumb on a small square of dark glass on one of five turnstiles. A light went green and two small panels, like translucent saloon doors, opened to admit him. A helmeted guard stared ahead, the truncated barrel of his machine gun pointed toward the floor.
John stepped into an empty elevator and pressed his thumb to another e-key, then to the numbered button for his stop. As the car rose, a tiny video monitor above the array of buttons showed a talking head and an undulating virtual American flag. The newscaster said something about more trouble with the reconstruction of Ras Tanura, the massive oil export facility on the Persian Gulf which had been destroyed in the Saudi Arabian revolution ten years before.
The young mother outside and her two children brought to mind John’s family from his first marriage. He hadn’t heard from Claire in months. Their remaining reason for contact, their son Joshua, had left her home some months ago to live in the Eagle and Cross compound near the abandoned housing developments at the edge of Antioch. John had briefly seen his daughter Ashley a few months ago, and when he asked about Claire, Ash had said, “She’s fine.” What she meant was, she has nothing to say to you, Dad, and neither do I. As the elevator slowed, he wondered why the beggar woman triggered thoughts of Claire, Ash, and Josh rather than his present family, Jessica and Zephyr. Guilt, of course. A mother, a daughter, a son, an absent father—the parallel was inescapable.
He stepped through the security doors onto the expanse of the trading floor among the rows of video screens which hypnotized the men and women who sat before them. The semi-controlled chaos of work, with its structures, limits, protocols, and defined goals, was a kind of haven for John. He could leverage the company’s systems and infrastructure for the public good, be useful, get things done. Outside work, everything was in flux, provisional, uncertain, and beyond his influence.
“Where’s the gas market?” he asked Zhao, who sat before a bright twitch of tables and charts.
“Higher. The Europeans. Oil’s up, too.”
John glanced at the floor-to-ceiling display on the far wall of the windowless room, where a wide grid of numbers fibrillated in response to thousands of commodity trade orders from financial centers across the globe.
“It’s okay,” Zhao said, glancing up and beaming. “We’re way long.”
Zhao had made billions for Verdegen over the past few years, and his success had financed much of what the company did, including the liquefied natural gas facility under construction on the tip of Alameda, the island in San Francisco Bay that had been the site of a naval air station in the twentieth century. John, as Vice-President of Energy Reliability, was responsible for the LNG project. He was also notionally Zhao’s superior.
Zhao had come from the investment bank Gelman Sayer four years ago along with the CEO of Verdegen, Nick Barone, and had made the rare leap from quantitative analysis to trading. Most quants were predisposed by nature and conditioned by training to regard commodity markets as random, and scorned the notion that a rational person would attempt to out-think them. But not Zhao. He saw the market as a story the world was telling itself but not paying proper attention to, a story in which chance was just one plot thread interwoven with others equally powerful—human need, national interest, the laws of supply and demand, chaos theory, and above all, the dynamic psychology of greed and fear. It’s simple, he had told John, as guilelessly as a child. The world economy is in ineluctable contraction. It’s overshot the planet’s capacity. Cheap fuels are in decline, agriculture’s in collapse, and without growing stocks of fuel and food, growth is impossible. But nobody can admit that. That’s strictly taboo. One is required to be an optimist, or one will be shunned. As long as the taboo holds, the rest is just pattern recognition. I don’t mind being shunned, Zhao said. His one unhedgeable risk was that the world one day faced facts. If that happened, he said, he and Verdegen would be wiped out. Then he laughed.
If Zhao was joking, John didn’t find it funny. If he wasn’t, John couldn’t reconcile the deep cynicism of Zhao’s analysis with the smiling face before him. He had nodded and turned away, off-kilter and out of balance, and from that day forward spoke little to Zhao and trod gently on the thin ice of his success.
At his office on the other side of the building he said good morning to his admin, Nicole, who lifted her expressionless face to return the greeting. Before the ice broke up, a talented employee like Nicole—mid-thirties, MBA, sharp organizational skills—would have been a rising star with her sights set on a vice-president’s title herself, but as the economy unraveled and jobs dwindled she was shunted into a game of musical chairs just to stay employed.
John set his briefcase on a chair between two waist-high towers of paper that sprouted from the floor. He went back to the door, leaned out, and asked if there had been any calls. The major, Nicole said, another security incident. He asked her to get him on the line, then returned to his cluttered desk and picked up the phone. He glanced at the faint raking sound from the window. The rain had begun again.
“Daniels,” declaimed the voice on the other end.
John asked what happened. A boat had approached the plant before dawn and didn’t respond to orders to stop, Major Daniels said. The guards had fired on it, killing both people on board. Reflexively, the image of his daughter Ash and her boyfriend Forrest flashed through John’s mind.
“Who were they?”
Two males, no weapons, no ordinance. (Two males. A relief.)
“Nothing goes to the media without my authorization,” said Daniels. The statement was both a reassurance and a command.
It had come to this, then: people were being shot and killed on his project. In the past five years there had been threats against the plant and two instances of attempted sabotage. The contingent from the National Guard had been on site for the past three. A lethal interception shouldn’t have been unexpected, he supposed, but the fact that the intruders were unarmed was something to think about. Security was no longer John’s responsibility now that the Guard was on the scene, yet he couldn’t help feeling tainted by this incident. The sense of implication would take some processing to shed.
He set about that process immediately. There was nothing to do about the two men. The matter was out of his hands. John needed to keep the power plants running, and without the new source of fuel he was bringing to the country, the fissures in the commonweal would open that much wider. Keeping things running was a matter of life and death. After three years of rolling blackouts, the population hadn’t adjusted; if anything, it had gotten more restive. The last thing anyone needed was a couple of radicals setting the project back any further. So he pushed the shooting to the back of his mind and turned to his computer, where an untitled message floated up from a sender with a single name.
John suppressed the urge to delete it. Whatever alert in Verdegen’s security system that name may have triggered had already been recorded. He had no doubt it would be reviewed by some first-line security person if it weren’t being scanned right now, in real time. Claire had been on the list ever since the Antioch school district had fired her for cause.
The text said, “About our son. Come by tonight.”
Despite their differences, he trusted Claire not to send such a message unless something were truly at stake. She was a good person, above playing on his guilt, and even after ten years he still wanted to make things right with her and the children they’d had together, or at least a bit better, if he could. He typed “ok” and hit Send.
Nothing suspicious, he thought. Divorced parents discuss their children all the time. Through the rain-streaked window, he gazed across the bay where the white globes of the regasification plant bulged above the opposite shore like three sterile sister planets awaiting a primordial spark.