“So everything was a lie,” Nancy said. She was strangely calm, her demeanour, her posture, no different from any of the times she silently sat beside Damien, notating his instructions for the day. “You told the most elaborate lie in history. Then spent the next thirty years doing all you could to sustain that lie.”
“Not everything was fake,” Damien reminded. “The schematics I gave to the corporations did come from the Register. I even had Alex made sense of them before handing over.”
“Where is he now?”
“No idea. He vanished there about a month after he returned the schematics to me. As far as I know of, Jones doesn’t know his whereabouts too.”
“And now you wish to discredit yourself. You wish to tell the world that you fooled it for thirty years. That you weren’t granted any vision of the future. That all you had, was a vacation with wine on an alien spacecraft.” She lowered her gaze and removed her glasses, Thumbed the legs of it. “Don’t do this, Damien. Is there any point at all? For better or worse, you changed the world. There is no turning back now.”
“Not even with what Jones is doing? Not even with Maelstrom intended on plummeting all of us into chaos and warfare, so as to achieve the tomorrow I falsely painted to the world?”
She went quiet. Then she replaced her spectacles, and asked. “There are some things you didn’t clarify. Was Jones Wu in this with you all along? And that woman. Michela.”
“I only met Jones once, after we left the Unnamed’s ship. It was after a talk I gave at Berkeley.” He chuckled softly. “The man scared the shit out of me. Stepped right up, just as I was about to leave the campus. I was ready for the worst. Prepared to get violent too, if necessary. But all he did was to commend my talk. He actually pretended to be a student. Thereafter he left and I never saw him again. Over time, I assumed he was either unconcerned with what I was doing, or somehow it benefitted him. I had confirmation that it was the latter when Maelstrom surfaced.”
“I never saw Michela again. I always assumed she was with Jones. She probably still is.”
Nancy rose and went to the door. After unlocking it, she faced Damien and said evenly. “There’s no returning once you do this. Everything will be out of your hands forever.”
“Everything was already out of my hands a long time ago, Nan.”
“It’s time to own up.”
It was two floors up to the city auditorium, where the press conference was scheduled. On the way to the backstage, two riot policemen, and Ruperts, met and escorted them. The captain was his usual surly self, but he held his tongue throughout the brief walk, only speaking before they entered the backstage. Tersely, he informed Damien where his men were stationed off stage, and what to do in the event of an emergency. He also handed Damien a cylindrical device. A shadow grenade. Another one of the many contraptions Damien’s prophecies had birthed. On the Unnamed’s ship, the alien had used less potent versions of these devices for entertainment and comedy.
“You expect Maelstrom to strike.”
“I don’t know. Do you think they would?”
“Captain, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. While you’re hardly the only person who detests me nowadays, I’ve always been puzzled by your open hostility. Your predecessor, Captain William, praised you as an impartial, level-headed man.”
Rupert’s left eyebrow shot up. “Insinuating something, Pereira?”
“I’m politely inquiring.”
Rupert’s voice turned to a growl. “Go in there. Do whatever you have to do. And get out. At the sign of anything starting, you run, and you return here.” He pointed at the grenade. “I don’t need to teach you how to use this. You’re the expert. Keep it on standby throughout.”
That was all. From the door, it was but a few seconds more to the podium, and soon Damien was facing the hordes. Rows and rows of journalists and cameramen, representing all the major news networks of the world. Behind them sat ministry representatives of his country, a few of them, Damien noticed, accompanied by foreign diplomats and councilmen. As the stagehands readied the broadcaster, Damien saw Nancy wormed her way to the front row, where her reserved seat was awaiting her. A few places away, the young lady reporter from two days ago was busily preparing her camera, her scribbler perilously balancing on her lap. Briefly, Damien wondered how a news portal as new and as small as hers, could secure a front seat in the conference. He concluded the young one was more capable than what he gave her credit for.
“Dignitaries and friends, ladies and gentlemen,” he began slow, coordinating his breath with every other word, one of the many tricks he had acquired from years of mass entertainment. “Thirty years ago, a group of plantation workers found me wandering along the highway beside their workplace. When I told them I just returned from a fortnight on board an alien craft, they laughed, and then they assumed I was the victim of a traumatising robbery. They took me to the nearest hospital. They didn’t mention a word of what I said about aliens and spaceships. They were convinced I was half mad.”
He eyed Nancy. She didn’t meet his gaze. He continued.
“The doctors at that hospital thought I was insane too. They could not detect any injury on me, and my valuables and money were intact. It took two days before I managed to bribe an orderly into delivering a handwritten note to the local press. Following that, another two days, with a second note and a blueprint, before two journalists came to interview me.”
“Throughout these, I had ample opportunity in that dilapidated hospital to evaluate the consequences of my action. I had hour after hour, lying by myself on that bed, to thoroughly consider what I was bringing upon the world. My sin, my eternal failure as a human being, not once did I felt I was wrong in what I was …”
He stopped, his attention disrupted by the sudden heat pressing against his chest. Glancing, his eye caught the blinking of the shadow grenade he had left in his shirt pocket, and when he nudged it, felt the warmth on its surface, as well as a mild vibration, rapidly swelling in intensity. “I … I …” he struggled to resume speaking but found it impossible to. Within seconds, the vibration became a violent jerking, with the grenade almost jumping out from his pocket. “E … excuse me.” He turned hastily to his side, hunting for one of Ruperts’ men stationed backstage. “T … there’s something wrong. It’s heating up for no reason …”
And that was all Damien managed to say.
Shadow grenades weren’t deadly. They were meant for strategic retreats, not for killing, the same as the flash bombs wielded by ninjas and assassins in pulp fiction movies. Detonating that near to his face, however, Damien was still dazed and heavily he fell backwards, bumping his head as he hit the floor and blacking out for a few moments. When he came to, he felt himself being tugged across the floor, clutched on both arms by large, gloved hands. In the background, distorted screams and footsteps echoed. Shadow grenades, other than visual impairment, were also capable of warping sound.
“What … who … who are …”
The hands tightened and a sweaty face pressed against his. “We weren’t instructed to hurt you,” the voice cautioned. “But if you …”
Damien’s leg lashed.
He managed to make the kidnapper grunt. But that was all. A vicious chop to his side knocked the rest of the fight from him, and he was a limp puppet all the way out of the building. Once shoved into the escaped van, reinforced plastic cuffs were snapped over his wrists and ankles, and even his wallet was taken away. Everything took, by Damien’s own estimation, no more than five minutes. The rehearsed fluidity it happened with also informed Damien that not only were his abductors professionals, it was also hardly the first time they had executed such an operation.
He burst out laughing.
“Are you that thrilled to see me?” Jones mused, chin on one hand.
“Always theatrical,” Damien said. He glanced at the dour face brute to his left, and gladly accepted when a damp towel was offered. “Must if always be this way? An explosion, a big bang, with everything you do?”
“Coming from the man who dazzled the world with lurid descriptions of a doomed future.”
“You’re mistaken,” Damien added presently, after wiping his face clean of shadow flakes. “Much as I was tempted to, I wasn’t trying to lure you out. I was fully intended on exposing my own bullshit.” He noted the mild reactions from the musclemen. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I assumed you have a philosophy of honesty with your lackeys.”
“We’re not paid to use our eyes and ears,” the one who gave the towel highlighted.
“Why?” Jones asked. “Why, after all this year? Are you truly so afraid of taking the blame for what we’re doing? Or you just getting back at the world for no longer worshipping you as Earth’s prophet supreme?”
“I never did it for love … do you mind?” He stared till the brute handed over another towel. This, he rolled up and pressed against his neck. “Here’s where you and I fundamentally differ. I do not believe in changing the world. For the life of me, I also cannot think of anyone ever changing the world, with the methods you use. Instead, I believe in making money. In being wealthy and living the good life. I believe in making money through entertaining the world, through telling people the things they wish to hear, apocalyptic or not. Along the way, I throw in a few freebies. Useful, fun things, not like those you came up with. And then you resurfaced. You insisted all of us accept the tragedy you are obsessed with. You wrecked everything for me.”
“Did I?” Jones smiled, mockingly. “As I recall, your precious popularity was already on a downslide before we declared our existence. In fact, I would go as far as to say Maelstrom revitalised the world’s faith in …”
He couldn’t finish. His riposte stunted by a sharp turn of his head. Like him, the driver of the escape van was also caught off guard by the abrupt veering of an adjacent vehicle, with the impact powerful enough to send the van flipping skywards. Just before it crashed onto the asphalt, the LifeSpume system activated and a bubbly chrysalis encased them. What would have been a shattering explosion of the van was reduced to a languid bounce of the foamy ball to the side of the highway. The same foamy ball also absorbed the worst of the sonic bursts blasted into it. Damien was still conscious, albeit stunned, when pulled out from the mess.
“Can you walk?” The lady reporter yelled. When Damien couldn’t respond, she half-yanked, half heaved him into her own car. Then she was off, weaving a crazed route through traffic on the highway till she swerved down an exit. Once off the highway, she slowed immediately to a leisurely cruise, even winding down the window and lighting a cigarette. Other than the wrecked fender grating against the asphalt, they became as inconspicuous as any other vehicle driving through the suburban districts. That being the same pretence that led to the successful ambush of the escape van.
“You alright?” She asked after a long drag of her cigarette.
“I’ve been better,” Damien glowered. The sonic bursts weren’t set to full intensity, so there was only a dull ache left from them. “Is that, is that military issued?”
“This?” the reporter tilted her weapon. “You haven’t seen an actual one before, have you? This was modified from a taser. One of those things we girls buy to keep ourselves safe.” She eyed the cuffs over Damien’s wrists. “I got a new pair of plasma shears. Should work on those.”
“That’s not what I’m concerned most with at the moment.” Damien sank into the seat, half closing his eyes. “Thank you, Miriam. Whatever your intention for saving me is.”
“You know my name. You remember my name.”
“Of course I remember your name. Why wouldn’t I, after what you wrote about me. Besides,” he examined a cut along his thumb, and squeezed a drop of blood from it. “I always felt Michela would look better with short hair. The same goes for you.”
She kept her eyes on the road. “You know.”
“Not your exact relationship. Which I’m hoping you would enlighten me soon.”
She said no more. Three turns and ten minutes later, they were at her apartment.
When she first took on the job, several of Nancy’s friends implored that she reconsider her decision. They didn’t doubt her professional abilities, they were concerned with whether she fully understood the implications of the position. To be secretary to the man who witnessed tomorrow meant more than just scribbling notes or scheduling meetings, it meant also to shoulder part of the burden Damien would be weathering throughout his life. To frequently also be his vanguard, or first defence, in the face of those who denounced him. To these well-meaning ones, Nancy had stubbornly insisted that she was well aware of what she was in for. In the years after Damien’s popularity spiralled downwards, she remained adamantly positive about her job. Not once did she voice any regret about the snap decision she made three decades ago. Not once did she grouch about what she had to face every day, while working beside Damien.
Damien knew about these, in an indirect way. His reward for her loyalty and support was to leave all of his public matters to Nancy’s handling. After the appearance of Maelstrom, he took an even further step back. He quietly did whatever Nancy arranged for him to do. He met whoever she told him to meet. He went wherever she scheduled him to go, without fuss, without complaint.
A reversal of role completed. Boss to servant. Servant to overseer.
That made Nancy perfect for the new role she was approached for.
That also gave her the clout to demand direct involvement, when haggling the finer details of her betrayal.
“The public is not what you should be concerned with at the moment,” she said pointedly over the phone. “It’s the mayor. He’s getting involved. I’m due to discuss with his team tonight about a special task force.”
“I’m aware of that,” Jones said. “The others will deal with it. Your job is to continue playing the desperate assistant. How confident are you that he told no one else about his intended announcement?”
“Completely. It’s the way he is. If he needs to reveal things to me that way, it means he has only deliberated it with himself.”
“One question. Did he in any way disclose his real purpose for that announcement?”
“He said the expected. That he was tired of lying. That he wanted, no, needed, to come clean with the world. Why? Did he say something strange in the van?”
“No. He said the same. But there was something about the way he said it. I had the feeling that he’s aiming for something else.”
She hung up. Next to her, Ruperts slouched on Damien’s armchair, fiddling with the comp in front of him. Since he made no remarks about the conversation, Nancy repeated the key points. He listened in silence, then smiled emphatically. On the comp, Damien’s latest unread batch of news coverage was blown up on the screen.
“I suppose my part in this is to continue playing the inept cop. Keep all my guys away from him.”
“Discuss that with him. Not with me.”
“I could do that for a few more days.” Ruperts stretched both arms and stood up. “Tell him though, when you contact him tomorrow, that I cannot keep at it forever. I like to keep my job. It helps him if I remain where I am.”
Nancy said nothing. Moving to Damien’s safes, she deactivated one and retrieved from it a stack of print-outs. The topmost sheets from this she fanned out before Ruperts on Damien’s worktable, then gestured for him to read. After he had done so, she collected everything and returned them to the safe. The silence lasted for a few moments, before Ruperts spoke.
“So he’s been searching for them all these years.”
“It would seem so.”
“It’s hard to be sure. He hides his tracks well and he is crafty. Remember, he could be very misleading if he wants to. What I’ve showed you, he claimed he was purely curious about how many other people had verifiable extraterrestrial contact experiences. After what he told me this morning, I realised it was more than that. He’s been looking for the other two all this while. That engineer, Alex. And especially that woman.”
“You mentioned he didn’t seem particularly interested in the whereabouts of the other two. Why did he lie to you?”
“I don’t think he was lying. I suspect he was frustrated by the lack of results, and that led to him half believing the other two were already dead, or beyond his reach. Did you read the dates on the print-outs? They were all from last year. He didn’t do anything at all this year. At least, not while in this office.”
“Maybe he found something.”
Ruperts’ eyes narrowed. “Why are you telling me this? Why do I suspect our friend Jones is clueless about what you just shared?”
“If you want to find Damien before Maelstrom does, I suggest you look into what he was researching. I wouldn’t go as far as to say he somehow miraculously arranged his own rescue from Jones. But surprised by somebody else popping up, I don’t think so.”
“And why would I want to find him before Maelstrom? Doesn’t that go against our arrangement with Jones?”
“I was under the impression that you are merely assisting Maelstrom. Has that changed? Are you now his pawn?”
Ruperts didn’t answer. They left it at that.