Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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Smoke

by Roderick D. Turner





The smoke is thin and wispy, winding its way upwards in a dissipating spiral. I glance around me, the noon crowd pushing their way through the lunchtime rush. Nobody sees it. Nobody but me. Tap my call code, open a channel to control.

"It's me," I say.

"Yeah, I got that. Where are you?"

"Tecumseh and Outerbridge. Opposite Second National."

"Jasmina, I don't know how I ever let you convince me you could put a limiter on your GPS. Pain in the ass when you go off grid."

I smile at that. "Miss me, Pete?"

There is a slight pause. "You going to tell me what's going on?"

"Smoke," I say. "About three blocks south. Any reports?"

"Nothing," Peter replies. "All channels are quiet. Whatever you're seeing, it's new. Really new."

"Who else is close?"

"Becky," he replies. "She's at that transit announcement down in the subway. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen to get to you."

"Anyone else?"

"Danika."

"Better. Get her over here. I'm heading direct." I pause, run my finger up the line of my right jaw, move the embedded control--just so. "You getting that?"

"Thanks, Jas. I feel a whole lot better having your tracker online."

"For now. Visual feed?"

"Perfect. Just keep it live, especially if it gets tricky."

"Only for you."

I thread the press of bodies; step out onto the road itself. Jog to the intersection down the bike lane, dodging cursing couriers. Turn south on Chalmers, ignoring the blare of horns. Not as if the collision systems would let anything hit me anyway. Idiots.

"Peter?" I'm pacing myself, jogging, my breath coming in long controlled gasps.

"Jasmina?"

"I'm looking straight at it," I breathe. "You see it in visual?"

"Nothing," he says. "I'm activating DSP tracking. If signal processing can't find it, this is another one of your 'special vibe' things."

"What, you don't trust me?" The light is red. I pick a gap, sprint for it, skip and spin my way across Morisey through swerving vehicles. Always gets the blood pumping, dancing the traffic dance.

"Jas, some day that is going to get you killed."

"Maybe," I pant, "but not today, brother. Not today."

"Right. Listen, nothing's showing up on my screens. Digital processing comes up cold. You sure you still see this smoke?"

"Never more so," I say. "Still not a sign--anyone else sees it though."

"Where's it coming from?"

I estimate the distance, look for landmarks. "Police HQ," I say. "More or less."

I can almost hear the wheels whirring back at the station, as Peter runs the new data. "Jasmina, you're not going to like this," he says.

"Surprise me."

"Some kind of distortion around HQ," he says. "Like I can't get a clear image on any cameras. Almost like it's misty or something."

"Any new word on the police channels? Any alarms?"

"Nothing on any emergency channels. That in itself is weird enough, but when the entire HQ building is shimmering like it's a mirage, you got some really strange stuff going down."

I weave my patterns across Wauburn, jog the remaining half block and pause, standing across the street. Police HQ it is. My smoke spire is thicker now, and as I watch it blossoms into multiple similar spires, one of them spouting out the front entrance. Something niggles at me, in the back of my brain, but I can't quite put my finger on it. "More smoke now, Peter," I say, "but no shimmering on my visual. What does my feed show?"

"Bizarre," he says. "On your feed, Police HQ is clear as a bell. All the camera systems I can access, security from nearby buildings, everything else shows a kind of vacant blur where the building should be. Like it's being teleported away."

"Maybe it is, and we just can't see it," I say. "Or maybe it's being targeted by some weapon that will burn it out of existence, and it's going up in smoke as I watch."

"I gotta say, Jas," Peter says, "We should call in official support. This is big."

"Yeah, who do I call?" I ask. "The cops? The ones who're being vaporized right in front of me?"

"I have no idea. The military, maybe? Just, all I can say this is no job for a reporter to be taking on alone, no matter how kick-ass she is."

"Management might take a different view, Peter," I say. "Do anything for an exclusive, and to really get the exclusive, I need to find out what's going on before authorities shut down my investigation. You think if you called in an assault team they'd know what to do better than you and I?"

"Thanks for including me in the team, Jas," he says, "but I think you got it wrong. If there really is some weapon targeting that building, you walk over there and you're under fire too. Our beloved station aside, I want you to come back."

"We are a team," I say, "and don't ever forget that. This end of the team is the bleeding edge, and she doesn't back off easily." I'm about ready to cross the street, tackle entry, when I realize what's been bothering me. The sidewalk, across the street, empty of people. Yet when I look, pedestrians walking down Chalmers on the east side, crossing Wauburn at the light, seem unconcerned. Walk down the block, towards the Police building, and vanish. Further south, it's like they appear again, out of the air. Just beyond the boundary of the building. "Jesus," I whisper.

"What?"

I can't help myself. "You answering prayers now, Peter?"

"Cut the crap, Jas. What's wrong?"

"On your cameras. Do you see pedestrians on the east side of Chalmers? Walking past the HQ building?"

A few seconds. "They fade out just where the building goes away," he says. Another few seconds. "Then they come back on the other side, past the building. Same people. I just checked."

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Now that would be a first," he says. "The only thing I'm thinking right now is, you should get the hell out of there."

I turn as someone tugs at my arm. "Hey, Jas." Danika is dolled up for a formal event, full makeup and entirely the wrong kind of shoes.

"Pete, get Danika patched in. She's here."

"Done. Danika, welcome to the mystery."

"You give me the summary?" she asks.

"Summary. What do you see across the street?" I ask.

"Downtown Police HQ," she says. "Everything quiet."

"People walking in front of the building?"

"Normal lunchtime crowd. Cop just came out down the steps, heading north."

I'm looking but I see nothing. Glance sidelong at her. "Really?"

She looks at me like I'm crazy. "What? You didn't see him?"

"Pete?"

"I got nothing at this end. No pedestrians. No police--wait a second. He just popped up, crossing north across Wauburn. Looks entirely unconcerned."

Danika chimes in. "Peter, what are you two doing here? Is there a story or not? I get pulled out if this high end gig, nice lunch thrown in, and this is what you got for me?"

"Trust me," Peter says. "It's Jasmina's little secret. She sees something nobody else sees--you don't just let that go."

"Danika, you convinced me," I say. "We need to go in, find out what's really happening."

Danika looks bewildered. "First, tell me what you see," she says.

The smoke spires have multiplied as I've been watching. They now encompass the sidewalk. "I see the building burning," I say. "Not bright orange fire, just smoke spiralling up into the sky. Kind of like the ant you burn under a magnifying glass. Smoke goes up as it cooks, but no flame. Not until the end."

"Damn." Danika looks from me to the building across the street, back at me. "This one of your visions, Jas?"

She's hit on it. A vision. I spin to face her. "Danika, you're a genius." First time, so of course I couldn't know. "It hasn't happened yet. The building will be targeted, by something. Soon."

"So you think you're seeing the future?"

"All I can say is, I see the smoke." And as I watch, the surface of the building, the very bricks and stones, begin to smoulder. "I see a building ready to self-combust. Peter sees it sort of shimmering in his cameras, like it's out of focus or something. Meaning, probably, that whatever is going to burn this building down is already on target, ramping up to full effect."

"Jas. Danika. I'm alerting NASA. This has to be space-borne."

"Unless it's a high-altitude aircraft, but it would need to be big, and very stable, to target this single controlled area."

"All right, I'm on it. Air Force and city Air Authority are also being alerted as I speak."

I turn to Danika. Smile. "Danika, you're dressed to kill. Get in there and convince those cops of the danger. Until we figure out what's causing this, we can't risk leaving Police HQ full of people."

She nods, smiles back. "Compliments, always compliments. Yeah, I can get it done. So now what are you doing?"

"Cause a little chaos, I think," I say. "What I'm good at. Give people a reason to steer clear of this block until we defuse the danger."

"Jasmina, don't do anything stupid," Pete says.

"You ready for me to spend another night in jail?"

"Only if the station survives."

"And hopefully if it does, they'll know you made it happen," Danika says. "Worth the risk, I'd say. Go for it girl."

She heads out across the street, almost as nimble in her traffic dodging as I am. I move north, back to the intersection--walking up the middle of the street. Vehicles screech to a stop in all directions. As I move closer to the corner, the jam worsens until the entire intersection is frozen, horns blaring, pedestrians diverting, cars filling the grid. I jog to the nearest traffic light, jimmy open the control box, shut down the lights. Takes out the entire block. Glancing down Chalmers, I see the next intersection south begin to seize up. In moments it, too, is a complete mess.

"Nice work, Jas," Peter says. "I expect this little prank will also help empty the police station as they come after you."

"Whatever," I say. The sound of approaching sirens is music to my ears. Nothing like a little chaos to brighten up my day. "Best part of the job. Justifiable chaos."

"Jas," Danika chimes in. "They're motivated. I convinced the Chief. They're going to set up a perimeter."

"Perfect. Any word from the skies Peter?"

"They're trying to keep me locked out," he says. "Give me a second." A pause, then he's back, excited. "Got it. Rogue satellite. Some kind of advanced stealth technology. They're closing on it now."

I glance down at the HQ. It is now completely obscured as it smoulders across its entire surface. Sidewalk bubbles and heaves. "Good," I say. "Let's hope they can take it out."

I spot Danika jogging, best she can in her high heels, up the middle of the street. Walk out to meet her. She gestures back at the building. "Even as I was leaving, I felt it. Kind of like being microwaved. My whole body got the jitters. Jas, how did you know?"

"Pete calls it a vibe," I say. "Maybe it's just enhanced intuition. Augury. Divination. Call it what you like. I see it. Like it's real."

"You know this is going to make you the most popular reporter in town?"

"Worried I'll demote you, Danika?"

She shrugs. "You got it coming."

"Ladies, the bird is disabled and under tow," Peter says. "They're bringing it in for reverse engineering, and to find out who put it up there."

"Who, and why would be nice," I say. "My next assignment."

"Hands behind your head, both of you. Get down on your knees, and stay there."

I turn, slowly, raising my hands as I do. The officer is intense, the gun pointing at my chest rock steady. Tuck my hands behind my head, drop to my knees as ordered. "Feel like saving the world is an under-appreciated job, Danika?" I say.

"Idiots," she says. "And in my best dress and shoes."

"Welcome to my world," I say.


* * *

Forty police HQ's across the country were targeted. None were more than slightly damaged. Only a few people received minor injuries.

The satellite self-destructed on its way back into the atmosphere, and nobody knows who was behind it.

But I will find out.


THE END


2017 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: In the author's own words, "I like writing stories, and get really fired up when I enjoy what I have written. That's the best part of writing - you are, after all, most often your only audience. What's really inspiring is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters and events surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently A Winning Combination in February, 2016. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com."

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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