Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rendezvous: Chapter 1

Dee grumbled to herself as she stood up to go wet some paper towels and wipe off the fresh pizza sauce that had fallen on the front of her shirt.
"Way to go, Dee," said Sam as she returned to the couch, "Embarrass us in front of the boys some more, why don't you?" Sam folded the greasy slice before carefully taking a bite, wanting to eat pizza and not her words. Deftly avoiding Dee's fate, she turned her attention back to the cartoon on the TV.
Having reduced the saucy mess to a light orange stain, Dee returned to the table with paper plates and set them next to the newly-arrived pizza boxes as the four men around the table finished rearranging their dice and character sheets.
"Crisis handled," quipped Seamus. "Now - where were we?"
"You're out in the hallway. You and Dee have been waiting on either side of the doorway, and Kevin's character is standing guard by the stairs. Cam's guy is still researching that one magical thing." Jack looked expectantly at the four of them as he absent-mindedly manipulated dice in his free hand while eating a slize of pizza and looking over the notes on his laptop, presently employed as a makeshift screen to hide his activities from the gamers at the table.
"Well," drawled Kevin, "I guess we just wait for something to happen."
"All right," said Jack. "A few minutes go by, Seamus and Dee hear muffled voices speaking behind the door. Suddenly, there's a shout and then a gunshot immediately afterward."
"OK, as soon as I hear that shout, I'd draw my nine and kick down the door," said Seamus.
"It's just a flimsy office door, so I won't make you roll for it," Jack responded.
"I'd pull out my buck knife and poke my head in the doorway when Seamus is through," added Dee. Kevin indicated that he'd stay at the stairwell and continue to keep an eye out.
"All right," began Jack, "Seamus, you see your police contact having what appears to be a seizure on the floor in the middle of the room, gun drawn. Jonas is slumped in his chair, a large bloodstain on his chest. The old man is scrambling on hands and knees to get in the corner."
Seamus considered the situation for a second and then said, "I'll go over to the old man grab him by the collar of his shirt."
"OK. Dee?"
"I'm gonna pop in the room and take a look at the cop."
"He stops convulsing as you approach, and he's got black powder in his face and on the front of his shirt." Jack paused to roll a few dice. "Also, you notice that Jonas has a small envelope in his lap."
"Can I check his pulse without touching that black shit?"
"Sure. He's dead."
"OK, then I'd just say, 'He's dead, there's black shit all over him.' Then I'll go take a look at Jonas' corpse." Dee sat back and folded her arms in a subconscious attempt to cover the stain on her shirt. She looked at Cameron, who was leaning back his chair on two legs as he read the notes Jack had prepared for him on the magical whatsit he was supposed to be investigating. He was eating pizza without even looking at it. Flawless. Dee glowered.
"I stick my gun in the old guy's face and ask him, 'What's that black stuff all over the cop?'"
"The old man looks over at the cop's corpse and says, 'Black stuff? I don't know, I'm not a doctor!'" Cameron nearly choked on his pizza. The rest of them erupted into a fit of hearty laughter.
"Oh, man," said Seamus, "I'm gonna use that for everything now! 'Where are my car keys?' I don't know, I'm not a doctor! 'Did you leave the oven on?' I don't know, I'm not a doctor! 'Why didn't you pay your bills on time?' I am NOT a DOCTOR!" Seamus' inimitable inflection on the last line led to a new round of laughs.
Somewhere in the middle of this nonsense, Sam jumped up from the couch and shouted to the group, "Holy shit! Guys, come take a look at this!"
The quintet of gamers ambled over to the TV, still chuckling to themselves over the latest development. It appeared that Breaking News had interrupted whatever late-night cartoon Sam had been watching. Flaming wreckage was visible in the background, and the screams of the injured were audible over the sound of sirens. A newscaster holding a wet cloth to his mouth rose from below the camera and began speaking.
"For those of you just tuning in, we should be on all channels now, I'm standing here in the middle of Chicago during what appears to be a coordinated-"
The Emergency Broadcast System appeared shortly. Just as "This is not a test" scrolled across the screen, the power went out in the apartment. The six figures stood frozen in the darkness. Moments later, a faint rumble was heard in the distance.
"Huh," said Dee. "S'quiet." With no power for their amps, even the terrible Monday night cover band at the bar below the apartment had stopped playing. Cameron, Kevin, and Seamus had been plagued by the barely-even-music most nights since moving in. They had only ever viewed the apartment in daylight before signing the lease, and hadn't considered the fact that theirs was a college town, complete with bar scenes that seemed almost designed to favor That Guy when he suggests a change of scenery to Drunk Girl. But now that they had peace and quiet, the silence was foreboding, every creak and groan amplified by the hardwood floors, brick walls, and empty space.
Dee startled the others as she began walking across the room. The apartment had one large main room, almost as large as a studio apartment in its own right, with three bedrooms on the street side of the building. Dee was heading for the bathroom now, a windowless room set towards the interior of the apartment. For some reason, the light switch had been placed on the outside of the room - more than once, Dee had found herself pants down in the dark when one of the boys had shut off the light. For that reason, she had stashed a cheap flashlight under the magazine rack next to the toilet.
Sweeping the beam of light across the large room, she asked, "Do you guys have any candles?" Seamus had just lit a large three-wick candle on the metal trunk they used as a coffee table, and was on his way to his room for more. Dee handed the light to Seamus as he passed. She then flicked on her plain gunmetal Zippo so she didn't have to fumble with the back door in the shadow of the candlelight, and stepped out into the cool May air for a smoke on the roof.
Sam came out to join her a few moments later with a pair of hard ciders. She walked up the grated metal steps to the rooftop and saw Dee standing casually at the very corner, staring down below. Sam leaned her hips on the railing and then smoothly swung both legs over in rapid succession, flipping her hair victoriously as Dee glanced her way at the noise. Handing Dee a cider, she looked down below and saw the throng of people slowly milling about on the street in the half-light of the slow traffic. Wandering about in various states of inebriation, groaning in disappointment both at the closing of the bars and the slow speed with which the cabs were trickling by, they looked for all the world like a mob of zombies.
Dee turned around and stepped away from the edge when she heard Seamus approaching, a six-pack of bottled cider in one hand and a smoke in the other. He was smoking the same brand of clove cigarettes as Dee. After setting down the six-pack, he cracked one open and downed half of it in one long pull. He gave an exaggerated sigh of contentment and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth before depositing his cigarette there. At six feet even, Dee could see straight over Seamus' head, but he could out-drink her any day of the week. Jack and Sam were both comparative light-weights, though, with Cameron and Kevin falling somewhere in the middle. Sensing a challenge, Dee drained the rest of her bottle and popped open another from the six-pack.
"Well, that was fuckin' weird," remarked Seamus, sitting cross-legged on the roof after glancing over the edge at the crowd beneath.
"Yeah," agreed Sam, sipping at her drink.
"Hey," said Dee, "I just thought of something. You guys have cable here. What the hell would cause there to be static on cable - don't you just go to a test screen or something when it goes out?"
"Nah," replied Seamus, "It's digital cable, it just gives an error message with a form-letter apology and contact number."
"Whatever, I don't watch TV. What could have caused it to go to static like that?"
"Dunno. Maybe some signal distortion, maybe the transmission got cut off, could have been a lot of things."
"What about the newscaster," Sam interjected. "What do you think he was trying to say?"
"Probably 'coordinated attack,'" offered Dee. "If that rumble we heard was an explosion - and judging by the the timing, what with the distance of the power station, I'd say that's likely - then maybe there's some kind of attack going on."
"Bullshit," said Seamus. "We're in Buttfuck, Illinois. Who the Hell could attack us? Fuckin' Canada?"
"I dunno," said Sam. "I mean, that would explain some stuff."
"Yes," sighed Seamus, rolling his eyes. "But so could fucking magic. I'm saying there's probably a much more plausible explanation which we're just overlooking."
Dee raised an eyebrow at him, regarding him critically. "Such as?"
"Shit," said Seamus, spitting over the edge of the roof. "Remember that rolling blackout that went from the East Coast almost to, fuckin', uhh - Pennsylvania, or some shit? Maybe something like that happened again, and something blew up over there, or whatever. I mean, it wouldn't fucking surprise me if, were something like that to happen again, the media blamed it on 'teh terrists.' And it's only, like, five and a half years since nine-eleven with nothing else scary to show for it, so why the Hell not?"
"Sure," responded Dee, "But can you imagine the backlash afterwards? If the media wasn't nailed for inciting panic, then the government would probably catch Hell for feeding that story to 'em, if that's what they did. I don't see anyone getting out of this clean, if that's the case. That would just be stupid."
"Fair enough." Seamus shrugged and dropped the butt of his cigarette into his now-empty bottle, then opened another. "So what about the backup grid," he asked after taking a swig. "Shouldn't that be up, I don't know, now-ish? There's no traffic lights or anything down there. Radio towers, other cities in the distance, everything's down."
Dee shrugged and sipped her cider. Sam finished hers and cracked open a second. Dee leaned her head back and looked up into the sky, then closed her eyes and rolled her head around on her neck.
"Fuck this noise," said Sam after a long moment. "Looks like we'll be without power for a while, so we better drink all this stuff before it goes bad." Dee raised her eyebrows and poked her tongue out at Seamus, who smiled crookedly and winked. He grabbed what remained of the six-pack, packing the empties in, and the three of them went back inside.
The rest of the night passed quite uneventfully, with the exception of uncharacteristically heavy drinking for a Monday night.

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