Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Chapter Fourteen: Tartarus

The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks.”
~Douglas Adams
The discharge echoed though the small, cement-block chamber, stunning its occupants and momentarily deafening them. 
Pain tore through Edward’s chest, as though a hole was punched in him though which someone had tried to pull the entire world.  He fell for what seemed like hours before the back of his skull slammed into the concrete floor of the cell. The flash of light that overwhelmed his vision on the impact barely distracted him from the pain in his chest.  As he felt the blood rush into one of his lungs, he questioned the wisdom of this course of action.  He had faith that he would not die, but the same biology that protected him also prevented him from going into shock and he would not be spared a single second of the agony he was experiencing.
When everyone else had recovered from their own shock and the ringing in their ears began to subside, what followed could best be described as utter chaos.
Orders were shouted to restrain West, but they were unnecessary, as he had already dropped his gun and made no effort to resist as the shock of what he had done washed over him.  The President was hurried from the room, and someone called out for a Doctor.  Agents tore open Edwards shirt, revealing the bleeding entry would.  He wasn’t entirely aware how many there were or what they doing, but he fought back ferociously, though the pain, when any attempt was made to move him.  The agents, figuring they would do more harm than good if he kept fighting them, left him and wait for the medics.
They did not fare any better.
“…no doctor… *cough* …no doctor… *hack* …refuse… *gasp* …medical care…” Edward protested in between bouts of coughing up blood and gasping for breath.  The Doctor made several attempts to sedate him, but nothing he administered had any effect, and he dared not try to move him if he was going to keep resisting. The medical team was called off, and the Doctor stepped outside the holding cell to speak to the Vice-President, upon whom the task of cleaning up this mess was given.
“Mister Vice-President, we cannot operate like this! We need to move him.”
The Vice-President held a hand up to his left ear, still ringing from the gunshot. “So what’s the problem? Get going!”
“He keeps fighting us!  He only sits still when we leave him alone. As soon as we try to move him, or bind the wound , he starts thrashing about.  He’s going to die if we don’t do something, but ever quicker if he keep fighting us!”
“So sedate him.”
“We’ve tried! We’ve given him almost twice the safe dosage of Valium and Morphine and he still fights like… well, like someone who wasn’t just shot in the chest and sedated.”
The Vice President was at his wit’s end. “What do recommend, Doctor?”
“If we leave him alone? Here? He’ll die. Given the location of the wound and the amount of blood lost already? It’s a miracle he’s not dead yet. But if we try to move him, and he keeps fighting? He’ll die.  And if we try to administer anymore sedatives?”
“He’ll die, I get it. So what are we supposed to do?”
The Doctor gave a frustrated and exaggerated shrug. “Mister Vice President… He was shot in the chest as point blank range.  The blood he’s coughed up suggests his lung was punctured. He’s already lost a lot of blood, and yet he not only refused to accept help, but in additional all attempts to force the issue with sedatives have failed.”
“Oh for… Yeah, I heard you already.  What do you suggest we do?
“If he has that big of a death wish…?  Leave him here to die. And call us when we can come to pick up the body.  Anything more we do? And we’ll be killing him ourselves.”
The Vice-President stared at the Doctor and then at Edward, now alone on the floor of the cell, writhing in pain.  He bent over the fallen prisoner.
“Son… Do you intend to keep refusing medical care?”
“…heh… …hah… *cough*…joe… …go away… …don’t… *hack* …need your help… *haaaaaaah* …leave me be…”
The Doctor and the Vice President stared at each other for a moment.  “OK, then,” the Vice-President declared to the remaining Secret Service Agents as he stood up. “Lock it up.”
“You heard me, son. Lock. It. Up. If he wants to die, that’s one thing. But if this IS part of something bigger I don’t want anyone else trying to help him. Lock him up.  We’ll check in on him later.”
The two agents looked at each other as if to ask, ‘Is this OK?’ Then one shrugged as the other slammed the cell door closed and locked it.  Then the Vice President, the Doctor and the last two Agents walked out of the Security Door and back into the subterranean passageway.  As the security door closed, the light in the room went out and Edward was left in darkness, save for what light shown in though the safety glass from some distance emergency lamps that were never turned off.
Figuring he was in for a long day and night by himself, and trying to find any way possible to cope with not only the pain, but the inevitable boredom that would set in once the pain subsided, he tried to focus on how things were going and what he had learned.  One thing was that the Tablet could be used non-lethally, as long as he knew how much time the person had left, and was sure to specify several times that amount when he altered their fate.  He couldn’t extend their life with it, but at least that way he could be sure he wasn’t shortening it either.  Another was that they would make any reasonable effort to fulfill their new destiny, filling in the blanks as needed.  What Edward had written as “[West will] escort [Edward] to the Oval Office,” translated into Agent West doing everything necessary to bring an unregistered civilian through multiple security checks, saying and doing whatever was necessary to succeed in his task.  That was good to know, he thought.
The other thing he was now (painfully) aware of was that, in addition to bacteria, viruses and toxins, the Tears would also negate the effects of Pain-Killers and Sedatives.  He wasn’t all that surprised, but hadn’t really thought that one through. As much pain as he was in now – many times what he had mentally prepared for – he realized that his entire plan would have been for naught if they had managed to put him under and move him. 
'No,' he thought, 'they’ll have to see me alive and fully healed having been left on a jail cell floor, not after being brought to a hospital.'   Despite the way the media portrays it, Medical Science is NOT a miracle. HE intended to show them a TRUE miracle. Something NONE of them would be able to explain. And as he eventually became aware of the fact that he was no longer coughing up blood and thus the hole in his lung, or at least the severed blood vessels around it, had closed he could being to relax and started really believing what he kept saying, over and over, in his mind: That he was NOT going to die.  He couldn't move much yet, do to the pain it caused, but he knew he was not going to die.
Then a shuffling noise coming from outside of his view of vision made him aware of something else: He was not alone in this room!
Back in the Oval Office, the Vice President gave his report to his boss.
“And when do you plan on going back and checking on him?”
“Eventually,” the Vice President responded, exasperated. But seeing the President’s raised eyebrow and disbelieving contenence, he elaborated. “Tomorrow morning, early. First thing. In the meantime, we’re a little busy here, no?”
The President exhaled. “Yes, yes we are.” He turned to one of the three Secret Service Agents that were with the Vice President. “How’s the investigation going?”
The first agent stepped foreward. “We’ve accounted for all but 12 members of Congress.  Ninety-Seven are confirmed dead.”
“Party affiliation?” the President asked, though he already knew the answer.
“Far from all the Republicans are dead, and not all the dead are Republicans, but the trend that way is overwhelming.”
“So, how many does that make when add in all the civilians and others that are confirmed to be a part of this?”
“Two Hundred and Seventeen, sir.”
The Vice President just shook his head.
“OK, well, keep on it.  The man in custody said two-hundred and thirty five, so for now we’re not stopping until we find them.”
“Yes, sir.”
“What do we know about him, anyway?”
Another agent stepped forward. “We ran his fingerprints through the National Database and got a hit: Edward Carpenter, age thirty-seven.”
The Vice President whistled. “Looks pretty good for thirty-seven. You sure that’s right?”
“Yes, sir. It was a perfect match.”
“So why was he in there? Printed as a child?”
“No, sir.  He was printed as a child, but our information is more recent.”
“Arrested?” the President asked.
“No, sir. Background check, for his security clearance. Which he passed.”
The Vice-President was shocked by this. “THAT guy?!” he asked, pointing towards the floor.
“Yes, sir. Until recently, he worked with a defense contractor.  His employer indicated that he resigned his position just over six weeks ago - before Thanksgiving of last year.”
“Have you pulled his phone records?” the President asked.
“Yes, sir. And we found no abnormal or suspicious activity in the past few months.”
“You have an address?”
“Yes, but we haven’t checked it out yet. Should we…?”
“No, not yet.  Joe? Call Bob and have him send some of his guys over to stake it out.  Our man’s not going anywhere, so let’s see who else might come or go.”
“I’ll take care of it.” the Vice President answered.
“Thank you, Gentlemen.” And with that the four men vacated the Oval Office and the President was left by himself.
Ironically Edward was more panicked at the idea that there was someone or something in here with him than he was about the hole in his chest or the pain that kept him from moving easily. He struggled to turn his head, but the dark corner where the sound had come from remained just beyond his field of vision.  It was still hard for him to breath, and his voice was weak.
“…wh-who’s there…?”
Someone crawled out from the corner on their hands and knees.  As they came into the dim light being cast onto the floor through the room’s lone window, Edward recognized her as the timid staffer that has been following the President’s entourage, updating them on the status of those confirmed dead or alive. She was wearing a conservative, navy blue suit jacket over a white blouse and a skirt with thick, dark grey woolen tights on under it.  On her face was what could almost be described as coke-bottle glasses and she had a Paige-buy haircut with long bangs that mostly hung in her face, seeming to hide it. She had very young looking face that was cute in a sort of sad, almost pitiful way: like an orphaned puppy that had been left out in the rain. She looked familiar to Edward, and although he was very good with faces, he couldn’t quite place where he’d seen her before.
“M-Mister? M-Mister are you OK? P-Please don’t be… d-dead.”
Edward struggled to take in enough breath to answer her. “…not… dead… ….not… going to… …die…”
She scampered over to the cell wall. He eyes looked as wide a dish-plates, as much from her shock as from being magnified by their thick lenses. “Oh my God! Y-Your alive? H-How…?”
Again, a labored breath from Edward. “…told you… ….not… ….gonna die… what’s… your name…?”
“G-Gretchen. M-My name’s Gretchen Randle.”
“…ed… …nice… …meet you…”
“Oh my God, Mister… I mean… Ed… hold still. Please… don’t move.”
More labored breathing. “…can’t move… …’s ok… …be fine… …need… …rest…”
“Please don’t die.”
Edward’s breathing sounded more like an annoyed sigh. “…not… …gonna… …why… ….you…. …stay…?”
“I… I was worried about you.  I guess it’s silly b-but… I was listening to what you said… back there? With the President?  And I know… I know you’re right!  What you said… inspired me! It made me believe again, and hope again… I haven’t… had that… in so long.”  Her voice trailed off a bit at the end.
Edward found that his breathing was getting a little bit easier. There was no more fluid in his lungs, and the pressure on them from the air that had leaked into his chest cavity was subsiding.  He still could only speak quietly.
“you too, huh? i had a lot… after the election… but now…?”
Gretchen just nodded. “I know what you mean.  When I started here, I really thought we were going to change the world. Now…?  This is going to sound crazy, but every night I go home and that bottle of left over Vicadin from my wisdom tooth extraction last year just starts looking better and better.”  As soon as she said it she gasped in shock and covered her mouth with her hands. “I’m so sorry. Here you are, die… um… I mean suffering and here I am telling you about my crazy life and problems!”
“…over the job? …over politics?”
She slumped over. She had hoped that he wouldn’t make the connection, and still couldn’t believe that she had so carelessly revealed those dark thoughts she had kept hidden for so long.  She hung her head in both embarrassment and shame.
“…if… don’t want… ….to talk about…”
“No. I mean YES, but it’s not JUST about the job.  I didn’t think that I was personally going to make that big a difference. I never do. I just thought that I might be PART of something that would. That would have been enough for me.  To see this President finally start to set things right.  I could have lived happily for the rest of my life, knowing that I was part of that. But now…”
“…he’s squandered it…”
“Heh. Yeah, he has. But that not even the worst of it.  I’m now looking at two more years of barely existing in a job I’ve become completely apathetic too, only to be facing -ZERO- job prospects when he’s voted out of office.”
She sighed. “Yeah. It seems like every other staffer has already made their plans, and made connections and networked, and lined up all these opportunities… I don’t even know HOW to do that! I don’t even understand how people can just go up to complete strangers and just strike up a conversation. How do they DO this?!  It drives me crazy how naturally this comes to literally everyone else around me and how I still feel lost talking the guy and the girl that I’ve sat next to for the last two years!”
“…called you… rachel…?”
To Edward’s surprise, she actually sniffed back tears at that. “Y-Yes.” Her face was beet-red, and wore a look of utter humiliation. “You heard that, huh?” Her voice cracked a little and she took a deep breath to regain her composure. “Yes. My boss, the Vice President of the United States, who I’ve worked under for two years now, thinks my name is ‘Rachel.’”
Gretchen let out a long sigh. “After orientation, back in ’08, a bunch of us were standing in a line. He came up and introduced himself, with that big politician’s smile on his face.  Well… I guess I mumbled a little bit when I told him my name was ‘Gretchen’ and he immediately said ‘Welcome aboard, Rachel!’ and moved on to the next person before I could correct him.”
“…never told him…?”
She laughed nervously and shook her head.  “I should have.  But after the third of fourth time it happened I was too embarrassed.  I felt like… it would be like… Wow – how long were you going to let me go on calling you by the wrong name? You know? Well… six months later I’m was so mortified at the prospect that it would been easier just to have my named legally changed.”
In spite of the incredible pain it cause him Edward started to laugh.
“Stop it!”
But he couldn’t and he laughed in between bouts of coughing and gasping for breath. His chest felt as if it was on fire.
“It’s not funny!”
“…wish… it wasn’t…ha-hahh-haaaaah!... *cough* *hack*…you have… …no idea… …how much… …this hurts…!”
“Well… Serves you right!”
It struck Edward that this might be the first time in a very long time that she had stood up for herself, insignificant an example as it may be.
“So that’s why I… you know… think about it.  I’m such a loser. Two years of working in what should have been my dream job – a job that was more than I ever thought I’d have – and yet it’s turned out to be completely meaningless: I don’t have a single friend; I haven’t made a single connection; my boss doesn’t even know my name and after two more years of going thought the motions, I’ll have nothing but unemployment waiting for me.” She paused for a moment. Edward though she might be crying. “I’m such a failure,” she finished with a whisper.
They sat in silence for a few minutes before Edward caught his breath and could speak again. “…how… d’you get this job…? …don’t seem… …the type…”
“Yeah, I know right?” she sighed. “A pathetic train-wreck like me getting one of the most competitive and sought after positions there is, at least, for most people, in one of the most high-pressure environments around.  No, I’m NOT the type, you've got that right.”
“…so… ....how...?”
Another sigh. “My thesis advisor in Grad School, when I got my MPA, was close friends with the woman who was doing the staffing here when the new administration came in.  She pulled some strings for me, put in a good word… and here I am.”
The room went quiet for several minutes, with Edward lying on the floor and Gretchen sitting with back leaning on the bars, before Edward broke the silence.
Edward took a minute to catch his breath again. His lungs were whole again, but the pain still prevented him from fully using them. “…your thesis… …what… …about…?”
“Oh, nothing terribly interesting.  You know the, whole thing with the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Peace Process and why it will never work with the status quo.  I’m sure you don’t want to…”
“GRETCHEN… *cough* …please… …do me a favor… …don’t… …TELL me what I want…” Edward paused to catch his breath.  “…i was… …looking forward to… …staring at the ceiling… …alone for the next two days… …BELIEVE ME… …right now… …hearing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is… ...positively GRIPPING, next to the alternative… so please… tell me… EVERYTHING you know… about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
And so for the next several hours, Edward was treated to a completely different side of Gretchen. She was now both knowledgible and confident, passionate even, as she went through the history and explored different hypothetical polices and explored the various conflicting agendas and personalities involved.  There were times that she stopped, thinking Edward had fallen asleep, but when she did he immediately let her know that he was trying to keep still, to heal faster.  Sometimes he would use the opportunity to ask a question, to lead the impromptu thesis defense in one direction or another.  Every time he did this her enthusiasm would increase.  Edward was extremely impressed with not only her knowledge of the history and the issues, but her insight into them.  If it weren’t for the pessimistic conclusion – that nothing was going to change unless the status quo was utterly destroyed – he would hardly have believed that he was talking to same person.  It was well into the evening before they finished, and neither one even realized how much time had passed.  Edward was fairing a little bit better and he was able to slide himself over to the bars, though it caused him great pain to do so.
“…you sure know… …your foreign policy...” Edward offered.
“Yeah, well…”Now that they were discussing HER, instead of the ISSUE, her enthusiasm disappeared in an instant.
“Well… It’s not like it’s done any good.  It’s not like I’ll ever get noticed around here.  And far worse than my own complete failure, I feel like I’ve really let down my advisor.  She really stuck her neck out for me, and… I’ve really accomplished nothing with the opportunity she gave me. I just feel like such a loser.”
“…not… …looking at right…”
“W-What do you mean?”
Edward took another minute to catch his breath so he could speak somewhat fluidly.  “They don’t notice you, right? And you… think that’s a problem.”
“…normally… …i suppose it would be…  but… think about it…  …you managed to get… locked in a secured area… with a suspected enemy of the state... …unnoticed by… …medical team… …half dozen secret service agents… and… vice president…”
“Yeah, so?”
“…that’s not… …a personality flaw… …that’s a damn super-power…!”
Edward started laughing again, but between the pain and Gretchen’s obvious embarrassment, he didn’t keep it up.  “…all… …damn this hurts… …all I’m saying is… …think of the information… …you could gather… …people talking… …don’t realize you’re there…”
“You mean eavesdrop? Spy on people? No, I couldn’t do that.  That’s just not right.  And besides… I wouldn’t know what to do with the information, or even how to tell what’s useful anyway.  Thanks though…  I guess there are worse things than being The Invisible Woman.”
“gretchen…?  …thanks…”
“For what?”
“…being here with me… …so much pain… …voice is… …very soothing…”
Gretchen laughed at the idea that she had been useful to him just by doing the one thing she dreaded most and considered the ability she was most lacking in: Talking to someone she had just met. “It’s OK,” she smiled. “I wish there was more I could do for you.  I wish there was some way I could really help you.”
“…helping… …so much… …would be… …unbearable without you…” Edward said with the utmost sincerity.  He wanted the pain to end, but he was completely content being here with her, talking about life and politics. “…need… …rest… …what… …time is it…?”
“Wow. I have no idea.” It was well into the night, but there was no clock in the room and neither wore a watch.  Gretchen's cell phone was in her purse, on her desk, back in her office and Edward had no idea where his was by now.
“…sorry… …you got… …locked in here with me… …should… …get some sleep… …would you… …hold my hand…?”
It struck Gretchen as an odd request, but she slid her hand through the bars and embraced his.  As she did so, all the pain in Edward’s chest seemed to drain away and within a few moments he had drifted off to sleep.

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