The World’s Secret Heartbeat	– Aatif Rashid

The World’s Secret Heartbeat – Aatif Rashid

Metaphorosis December 2016
December 2016

Blake tried once again to start his car, a mustard-yellow vintage two-door from back when companies still made gasoline cars — but the engine only sputtered and groaned. It sounded to Khalid like a dying person, coughing and wheezing through its final moments of life with a few last and naive gasps of ill-conceived hope.

“I told you we should have taken the electric,” Khalid said.

“Don’t worry!” Blake called from the driver’s seat. “It’ll work!”

Blake tried the car again, and Khalid sighed and turned to look across the bay. From here, he could see the full extent of the sprawling, ruined city where they were set to rendezvous with the Movement’s two local contacts. Cold glass towers rose into the dark sky, and in the distance lay the broken bridge, its red frame collapsed into the gray water. White, cubed houses were scattered like dice across the surrounding hills, and the setting sun reflected off their hollow, uncurtained windows. Meanwhile, the ash-strewn road where Khalid stood wound its way around the bay, through the dusty fields, and up into the city, cutting through the warm haze that hung around it all like a shroud.

“I think we’re out of gasoline,” Celine said.

“The meter says it’s still half full,” Blake said.

“Half empty,” Khalid corrected. “And maybe the meter’s broken.”

Blake ignored him and tried the car again. Celine leaned in through the driver’s door and put her hand delicately on Blake’s shoulder, though Blake as always remained unresponsive. Khalid wanted to tell Celine to give it a rest. Blake obviously didn’t go in for that sort of thing, at least not with her. She should have known this by now, having worked with him in the lab for almost six years. But as the Movement’s only historian, Khalid noticed certain human subtleties that scientists like Blake and Celine did not. It was possible that Celine understood the truth of Blake’s feelings and was attracted only to the tragic romanticism of it all, of being emotionally invested in something that could never work out. But Khalid felt a part of her probably still held out hope. Humans were after all so easily deluded into optimism.

The car sputtered and groaned once more, but still didn’t start. Blake stopped for a moment and then tried it again, with the same predictable result.

Khalid found it ironic that they might have run out of gas on this particular mission, to track down that rumored old source of sustainable energy, “the world’s secret heartbeat” as it was referred to in the records of the board meeting at Gold Man Investments. “It might just be a rumor,” he had cautioned Blake, when Blake brought them in front of Erin to propose the mission. “These old corporate documents are filled with false starts, projects that never got the funding or that never panned out.”

But Blake had argued his case effectively and convinced Erin to authorize the mission. “It’s worth chasing even a rumor,” he’d said. “We all know that shale and oil won’t last forever, a few hundred years more at most, and as long as the Domes are profiting year to year, they’re not going to be the ones to look for a long term solution. It’s up to us. And, I mean, think of how everything will change when we have long term, sustainable energy. We can finally break the Dome Corporations’ monopolies and end the long years of economic stagnation. And then we can rebuild everything, our cities, our farms, our whole society. We can make the world like it used to be.”

More convincing than his actual words had been the way he’d said them, purposeful, confident, his voice rising at the end with passion. This had always been what drew Khalid to Blake, this depth of feeling, this soul-stirring resonance that only he could create. It was how he’d convinced Khalid to join the Movement during University and it was why for the past eight years Khalid had never quit, despite his growing pessimism about their cause. Blake was like a source of energy all by himself, charging everyone around him with his own optimism, making them believe in the utopian future he envisioned for humanity, which to his physicist’s mind was a simple equation, one that by necessity had a solution that would bring the world into mathematical balance. Khalid envied the world view that allowed Blake to believe in such a thing, and perhaps that was why he always found himself following Blake, no matter how outlandish his goals. Deep down he really wanted to see the world that Blake saw.

Overhead, the sun beat down from the cloudless sky, and Khalid felt sweat building up on the back of his neck (they had plenty of sunscreen, but even so, he’d read enough stories about the long term effects of direct sun exposure outside a Dome to be worried). Blake stepped out of the car and went around the front to pop open the hood, as if the answer lay there. He took with him the battery pack, a small device he’d brought that could jumpstart electronic devices, though even a non-scientist like Khalid could tell the car’s issue was more than just a simple electronic malfunction. The battery pack had a limited charge, and Khalid didn’t want Blake to waste any of it, as he assumed it might be necessary somewhere on their mission, in the ruined city still filled with old electronic infrastructure with residual power. But Blake’s eyes gleamed with characteristic hope as he looked under the hood and across the car’s vast and complex inner workings. Celine leaned next to him, placing her hand a few inches from his, her eyes moving wherever his did. Khalid turned away to scan the horizon.

Where they’d come from was just a grimy haze, miles and miles of flat earth, the road just a thin black strip crumbling to ash under the harsh climate conditions. As it wound its way across the parched land, it passed the occasional gas station or road sign or other remnant of the old world — all now a kind of museum, or mausoleum, of the history of mankind’s folly.

As Khalid stared at the brown land around him and then back at the haze-shrouded glass and metal city across the bay behind him, he remembered what he’d read in the histories at University, about how all this had once been beautiful, green fields and rolling hills that turned gold in the summer. Things had grown here, a quarter of the world’s food — strawberries, garlic, avocados, foods that now existed only in literature and fading collective memory. He’d tasted a strawberry only once, back at the University, when a rich friend’s parents had purchased a frozen crate of them (for the price of a nice house in one of the Domes) and shipped some to her. She’d let him try one, and the taste had been sweet, but in a different way from the processed sugar he was used to. Now, gazing around the scorched earth, he couldn’t imagine anything had ever grown here that didn’t taste like ash and dirt.

Khalid knelt and ran his hands through the dust at his feet and wondered if the earth remembered the strawberries like he did. More than that, he wondered if strawberries would really ever grow here again. If Blake was right, and at the end of this road lay a heartbeat that would power the world, could everything really change? Would there really be a better future for humanity, and would these hills really be green and golden, like they once were?

Blake never got the car to work, and they had to abandon it on the road. They finished circling the bay on foot and it was evening by the time they reached the rendezvous, an abandoned metro station on the outskirts of the city proper. There they found their local contacts, who waited for them against the concrete wall, under the peeling letters of the sign (“BART,” an acronym whose meaning had, like so much, long since been lost). One of their contacts was a man, older than them, 40s Khalid guessed, though it was hard to tell with his bushy beard. His companion was a younger woman, their age (late 20s) but nevertheless looking far more weathered and seasoned than the three of them. They both wore gray, hooded cloaks, black boots, and brown bullet-proof vests, and carried large packs on their back. Despite all the gear, they possessed an enviable grace, especially when compared to Khalid, Blake, and Celine, trudging with tired steps up to the station past the broken freeway ramp.

“Are you Miles and Julia?” Blake asked. He smiled and extended out his hand out. “I’m Blake, from headquarters.”

The bearded man, presumably Miles, frowned and didn’t shake Blake’s hand.

“Next time instead of telling me your name and where you’re from, trying waiting till I’ve confirmed my ID,” he said. “What if I’d been Santa Clara police undercover?”

“So, are you police?” Blake asked, nervously, yet still with his smile.

Miles didn’t respond and looked across them with displeasure. Celine and Khalid shared a nervous glance. They’d been briefed only a little on Miles and Julia — hard, no-nonsense types, with years of experience running missions in the Santa Clara Dome, the kind of foot soldiers who would probably resent escorting three intellectual types from headquarters with little field experience. The only other operatives Khalid had ever met were trainees, and they were fresh faced recruits who looked up to even Khalid, Blake, and Celine as the older, more experienced members of the Movement. Miles and Julia, with their dirt-smeared faces and calloused hands, reminded Khalid just how far from home they really were.

“Which one of you’s the historian?” Miles asked. “The one who found out about this rumored energy source?”

“I am,” Khalid said, stepping forward.

“And it’s not just a rumor,” Blake added, stepping forward too. “Based on the documents, Gold Man investments poured considerable money into this, a few hundred billon dollars, which at pre-war currency rates comes out to—”

“Erin said you have an address,” Miles interrupted. “For Gold Man’s corporate offices.”

His voice was a low growl, and Khalid could barely see his mouth move behind his beard. Blake frowned but didn’t speak. Khalid noticed then the pistol tucked into Miles’s leather belt, and he understood suddenly that neither he nor Celine nor even Blake was in charge of the mission anymore.

“The document said California Street,” Khalid said. “555.”

Miles turned to Julia, who pulled out a phone and typed in the address. Khalid and the others had a crude map of the city, which they’d used to get to the rendezvous, but not one with street names of anything in the city center. He watched as Julia loaded up a GPS map on her phone.

“You have access to a network outside the Dome?” Celine asked.

“I’ve hacked the Santa Clara Police,” Julia said, without looking up. “They patrol through here pretty regularly, and their SUVs have mobile access.”

There was silence as Julia thumbed across the map of the city. Celine looked nervously around them, as if a police patrol might suddenly appear. Above them the sun was setting, but to Khalid the air felt no cooler than it had before.

“None of these maps have street names either,” Julia said finally. “The signs might still be there, though, if we get close.”

“Do we know where we’re headed?” Miles asked.

“If it was an investment banking company, then probably the old financial district,” Julia said.

“OK then. Let’s move.”

Without waiting, Miles turned and moved up the road, towards the distant towers. Julia gave Khalid and the others a brief, terse glance and then followed.

Khalid looked at Blake and then at Celine and saw in their eyes the same fear he felt himself. But Blake looked resolute too, and Khalid knew his mind was still firmly in the future, on the energy source that he believed with an almost religious conviction would be humanity’s salvation.

As they made their way through the desolate streets, Khalid ran through in his head the catalogue of dangers Erin had wanted them about, from Santa Clara Dome police patrols (citizens were forbidden from venturing this far out) to National Government agents on a mission (though in recent years, with the Domes growing more autonomous and the Capitol lowering taxes, it was unlikely that the Government could afford to send people to this coast) to Naturalists who’d lived their whole lives outside a Dome and who killed and ate anyone they came across (in truth, Khalid had never heard a confirmed report of a Naturalist and assumed they were just a ghost story designed to frighten any rebellious children who thought about venturing outside the Domes). The greatest danger, though, was the city itself, the crumbling overpasses and fallen streetlamps, the buildings on the brink of collapse, the sections of concrete road that could at any moment cave in, the volatile gas stations and abandoned cars that needed only a wayward spark, and the potentially toxic fumes from the old tech sections of the city. That was where the former inhabitants had once believed they could conquer nature through silicon and other elements, and where nature was now reclaiming those very elements, the sun’s deadly rays breaking down the hardware humans had synthesized and releasing cancerous fumes into the air — another reminder of humanity’s hubris.

To the group’s left, the sun was setting over the hills and what Khalid knew were the stormy oceans beyond, once the source of mankind’s power and industry, now poisoned liked the rest of the environment. And yet Khalid felt that this city, even in its shattered state, was much more alive than a Dome’s pristine, immaculate streets (the products of the unartistic and uniform corporate vision that had taken power since the war). Here the apartments were varied, a brick facade followed by a stucco one, a pointed roof followed by a flat one, and the abandoned cars that lined the streets were all of different makes and models. Even the empty storefronts suggested their former vivacity, many with glass doors and windows looking in on broad, open, high-ceilinged spaces, some still with letters from their former lives, “La Boulange” and “Blue Bottle” and a place with missing letters called “____a Republic.”

“So why bother to study something like history?” Julia asked him. “Why not science or business or soldiering?”

Khalid could tell in the way she walked, upright, shoulders back, eyes alert and looking in every direction, that she had studied soldiering.

“Well I used to think,” he said, “that in times like these, history was everything. Studying the old world, I thought, might help us rediscover some old technologies, some old ideas, help us rebuild the world, maybe even help us figure out what went wrong and why everything fell apart. I thought that maybe knowing the truth would keep us from doing it all over again.”

“But you don’t think that anymore.”

“No. But I don’t regret studying what I did. Reading all the histories, all the mistakes people have made, all the ways they’ve failed — that’s made me who I am. I’ve learned to see the world a certain way.”

Khalid could see in the way she looked at him that Julia understood what he meant. Blake could keep his scientific optimism, his commitment to progress. As a historian, Khalid knew better than to trust in humans’ capacity for goodness, for redemption. Julia, the soldier, had clearly learned the same, sad, human truth.

And yet, Khalid couldn’t help but recognize that, despite their cynicism, here they were, members of the Movement, an organization committed to overthrowing the Domes and the current, corrupt government and ushering in a better world, trekking across the ruins of an old world city, hoping to find a rumored source of sustainable energy. Ultimately, it was a testament to just how powerful Blake’s optimism was — the beating heart at the center of their group that powered them all and kept even the most cynical of them moving forward.

As they walked, Khalid wondered what lay at the end of their road. In University he had studied some of the final pre-war attempts at more renewable energy. At first, scientists believed they’d found a breakthrough, a way to convert plant life into energy at a vastly more efficient rate than the ethanol of the time, and there had been talk across the internet about a possible future of unlimited energy, where humanity could grow all the plants it would need to power the world. But as the climate change grew worse and crop failures increased, the idea was abandoned. For a while after that, scientists’ experiments grew bolder, attempts to convert everything into usable energy — trash, fecal matter, even the human power generated at a gym. This last avenue Khalid found most intriguing, and he’d read with morbid fascination documents detailing strange experiments, labs with humans running on treadmills for hours while hooked up to machines, advertisements asking for volunteers to donate large amounts of blood for “experiments in human energy.” But in the end, these experiments had been only society’s wild, desperate flailing at the clear signs of worldwide decline, the last spasms of what was already a corpse, and when the Dome Corporations consolidated their hold over the remaining oil and shale reserves, the experiments were all shut down. So what then was this early blip they were following? Had Gold Man really had the foresight to prepare for the world’s energy woes? There were a thousand reasons to doubt that they would find anything — the fact that there weren’t any other records of this source, or that despite being developed so early, in 2016, it didn’t prevent the impending war and collapse — but Khalid couldn’t help but feel a stirring in his heart as he thought about the possibility, however faint, of what they might find. Maybe Blake was right, and it would indeed lead to a better future.

Behind Khalid and Julia, Blake was lecturing Miles, seemingly against his wishes, on the larger importance of our mission. “Imagine what we could do with unlimited energy! If we end the Corporation’s monopoly, we could free their technology. The domes, so limited right now, could be expanded across the whole country, possibly even over the seas and across the world, and it could all be protected from the sun, all connected no longer so provincial. We could rebuild this city too. Open up the storefronts again, settle these apartments, fill up those empty glass towers. Make it like it once used to be.”

Blake’s eyes were shining, and Celine was gazing adoringly at him, and Miles’s gruff exterior too was cracking a little. As Khalid gazed forward, at the glass towers towards which they walked, even he saw reflected on their surface all the possibilities of Blake’s grand vision.

To their left, meanwhile, the sun finally set below the horizon and plunged the city in a quiet but welcome darkness.

It was a few hours later, after they’d turned right onto a diagonal street (“Mar__t Street” was what they pieced together based on a few signs), a street which according to the map on Julia’s phone would be a straight-shot to the financial district, that they heard and felt a strange rumbling beneath the ground.

“An earthquake?” Celine asked, her voice quivering with the ground.

“Get off the road!” Miles shouted.

He pointed to a large concrete building, part of which had already fallen in on itself. Julia was already racing to the door, a crowbar in her hand ready to pry it open. Khalid imagined it collapsing onto them as soon as they stepped inside.

“That place won’t survive an earthquake!” Khalid said. “We have to stay in the open—”

“It’s not a fucking earthquake!” Miles growled, grabbing his shoulder.

The authority in Miles’s voice compelled Khalid more than the grip on his shoulder. Julia pried open the wooden door and they crouched inside by the cracked window, staring out at the dark road.

From the far end of the hill came a gradually brightening set of white lights. The ground shook even more and the building rattled dangerously. Khalid heard the whir of electric engines now, and after a moment, a convoy of five police SUVs rattled past, down Mar__t Street and in the direction of the distant towers, their massive tires crushing the gravel of the uneven road. As the lights flashed by, he made out the logo of the Santa Clara Dome on the side of each of the vehicles. Celine moved close to Blake and held onto his arm. Khalid felt his own heart beating in fear.

After a moment, the lights were gone, and the sound was receding into the distance. The ground and the concrete building slowly sopped shaking. Silence settled around the group, save for the wind which whistled through the broken window. They looked uneasily at each other.

“That’s too many to be an ordinary patrol,” Julia said.

“Why are they here?” Celine asked.

“They’re looking for it too,” Miles said, glaring at Khalid as if it was his fault.

“The documents aren’t hidden,” Khalid said. “I found them in the corporate archives, at the National Library. It’s not impossible the police did too—”

“They might have tracked your research history,” Julia said. “Followed your online footprints.”

Miles shook his head and let out a steady breath.

“We should abort,” Julia continued. “Report back—”

“No,” Blake said. “We can’t let this energy source fall into Dome hands.”

Blake was right of course, but Khalid could see that this wasn’t the only reason he wanted them to push forward. In Blake’s wide-open eyes and rapid breathing, Khalid noticed another, more primal need to keep going, a need that went beyond Blake’s utopian dream. The rational vision of a balancing some abstract equation seemed imbued now with something more human and desperate, as if Blake needed them to succeed not just for some grander future but also for his own private one, so that he could validate the optimism he’d felt all his life. It was a side of Blake Khalid had never seen before, something darker and more intense.

Miles looked out the window, down in the direction of the SUVs, where undissipated smoke lingered in the air in a strange layer, a trail beckoning them to follow. Khalid saw in his eyes the same dark gleam that was now in Blake’s, as if finally Blake had broken through to him and charged his spirit too.

“We’re not aborting,” Miles said.

The buildings of the financial district glowed with an eerie brightness under the stars and moon, the white light reflecting off their glossy glass exteriors. Parked in a cluster at the base of one of these buildings were the five SUVs. Their lights remained on, illuminating a group of about thirty police officers, all dressed in kevlar, helmets, and boots and carrying large rifles on their backs. One of the officers was directing the others, who were fanning out in pairs into the nearby buildings. To Khalid they looked like black cloaked ghosts, laying claim with their presence to an already dead city.

“They’re checking each one,” Khalid said.

“Maybe they don’t have an address like we do?” Blake said.

They were waiting down the street around a nearby corner, looking out over the tops of a line of parked cars. Over their heads, the faded white sign read “K_____ Street” and across from them was the sign for the cross street, one whose letters were this time all preserved: “California Street”.

A little ways down this street was a large, dark brown building, not glass but granite, rising into the sky and looking to Khalid like some kind of crenelated castle tower. The plaza before it was tiny, dwarfed by the sheer size of the buildings on each side, which blocked out all but a few of the overhanging stars. Large, silver letters on one of the building’s facades read “Giannini Plaza.” In the center of the plaza was a misshapen black stone sculpture, over six feet in length, and a few feet high, as if a piece of the building had fallen into the ground. The plaque at the base with the name of the artist and the work was too small to read from this distance, but across the front of the stone was spray-painted a large, white graffiti inscription reading “The Banker’s Heart.” Two police officers slowly made their way past the sculpture and through the glass door of the granite building, the lights on their helmets illuminating the silver numbers hanging over entryway of the tower: “555.”

Miles studied the length of California Street. The police SUVs were about a block away, and in between the group and the building.

“We could go around,” Julia suggested.

“It’ll take too long,” Miles said. “And they’ll still be there when we come out. We need to get them to move away.”

Blake then leaned forward, his eyes glowing with purpose. “I have an idea.”

Julia, Celine, and Khalid stood on the opposite side of K_____ Street, with a clear view of the plaza of 555 and the police officers grouped nearby in the middle of the street. Across from them, the corner they’d come from was shadowy and quiet. Khalid stared at the line of cars and waited, unsure what Blake was planning. He was still unsettled by what he’d seen earlier, that new and intense gleam across Blake’s eyes.

After a moment, a glowing shape emerged from around the corner, crackling and whirring: a car, engulfed in flames, drifting ghost-like and steady down the street towards the gathered police, its engine quietly whirring. The officers turned at the noise and quickly raised their guns, surprised, tensed, and looking around for danger. Khalid at first thought the car was only a distraction to lure the officers away from the building. But the car’s hood was slightly open, and oil dripped from the front. Under and behind the car, meanwhile, was a thin trail of fire. Khalid understood then what it was meant to do. After a moment, the officers suddenly seemed to understand too and tried to disperse — but before they could, the car reached their cluster of SUVs and exploded.

The fireball engulfed the entire group of officers. Even before the sound died down, Khalid could hear their pained screams. One officer ran from the site, his body lit up like a candle wick. Another was crawling on his hands and knees across the asphalt — his legs had been ripped clean off and his body left smears of blood and fire in its wake. Khalid’s stomach churned and he tasted bile in his mouth. Beside him, Celine turned away in horror.

The Movement had never been a peaceful organization, and Khalid knew that. Their spies and soldiers often killed police officers during missions and sometimes even conducted targeted assassinations of the Domes’ Corporate Executives. But he had never seen the cost of their war up close. He thought again of the dark gleam in Blake’s eyes. Was Blake so committed now to achieving the mission that he was willing to accept any cost? The police might be their enemies, but to kill them like this, in such a brutal way? Khalid wondered whether Blake felt any horror at all at what they now saw, any sympathy in the sight of these shadows suddenly become human, flesh and blood now scattered across the concrete.

Julia maintained her soldier’s composure and ushered Khalid and Celine forward. As they ran down the street towards the plaza, Celine covered her nose with her shirt. The air smelled of burning rubber and meat sizzling on a grill. Khalid looked up briefly to the sky and saw to his surprise that the stars had vanished, the fire’s light pollution blocking them from view.

They crossed the plaza quickly, hugging the far side of the building on the left. At the entrance to 555, they found Blake and Miles waiting. Miles looked excited, and his body was tense and agitated, no doubt filled with adrenaline. Blake too looked energized, his face and hands smeared with grease and oil, his eyes wide and gleaming, the hint of a smile on his lips. But as soon as he saw the sickened looks in Celine and Khalid’s eyes, his excitement faded, as if he suddenly realized what he’d done. Behind them, Khalid could still hear the screaming and crackling. One of the officers had pulled an extinguisher from the one untouched SUV and was trying in vain to contain the blaze. Another officer was shouting out orders, and two more were racing towards the corner where the car had come from, guns up. The awful smell of sizzling flesh drifted over on the wind, and Blake put his hand to his mouth and turned away.

Miles quickly ushered them into the building.

“Come on,” he said, looking directly at Blake. “You did well. No time to get sentimental now.”

The main offices of Gold Man Investments were on the top floor. At first Khalid thought they’d have to take the stairs, as the police who’d entered before them were no doubt doing. But Blake and his battery pack only needed a moment with the elevator to tap into its residual power supply and get it going again, and soon they were hurtling upwards at a dizzying speed. The elevator periodically passed glass windows, and through them Khalid could see the fire, blazing silently in the street below. Blake avoided looking out and stared firmly at the doors.

At the top, Miles cautioned them to be silent, in case the police were already in the building. He and Julia overturned a wooden bench by the entrance and knelt behind it to guard them all while the others worked. Celine, Blake, and Khalid used Blake’s battery pack on the computer behind the reception desk. The network was long defunct, but the computer still had files stored directly on its hard drive, files carefully hidden but which Celine was able to pull up.

Khalid searched for references to project number but the only documents that came up were the ones he’d already found in the National Library’s archives. They were all from the same year, 2016, and around the same months, and though they confirmed the idea of a renewable energy source and a large sum of money, after them the project seemed to vanish entirely.

“Maybe they never went ahead with it,” Khalid said.

“Or they erased all references to it,” Blake said. “Try this.”

He leaned over Khalid and typed in “the world’s secret heartbeat.” In addition to the one document where the phrase was first mentioned (and several other random ones which happened to contain those individual words) one email came up, one that Khalid hadn’t found in the archives. It was dated 2026 (well after the project was proposed, and only a few years before the war) and contained only one, enigmatic line: Gentlemen. The world’s secret heart, now beating. The warehouse, Pier 15.

“It’s a location,” Blake said.

“It could be anything,” Khalid said. “This is ten years after any other mention.”

But even Khalid was tantalized by the possibility. He told Julia to pull up an address for Pier 15. Blake watched her and waited, his eyes wide open. Khalid was relieved to see the dark gleam was gone and the old, dreamy optimism had returned.

“It’s nearby,” Julia said. “Twenty minutes.”

Khalid let out a slow breath and looked at Blake, feeling energized by what they’d found. He wondered if this was how Blake felt all the time, always powered by some sense of possibility. It was an exhilarating, addictive feeling.

Celine shut down the computer and removed the battery pack. When its hum stopped, Khalid noticed how quiet and eerie the offices behind him were. He looked over his shoulder and at the rows and rows of long-deserted cubicles.

The door to the stairwell suddenly creaked.

Celine and Blake tensed. Miles and Julia raised their pistols towards the darkness.

“Police!” called a voice. “Who’s there?”

Miles didn’t respond, and instead opened fire. A second later, Julia did too. Blake, Celine, and Khalid ducked, and for a moment all Khalid could hear were the sounds of the firefight, the screaming of someone in pain, the echo of gunshots against plaster. Then the fighting stopped, and he heard footsteps scrambling down a tiled floor.

“He’s coming to you!” Miles’s voice called.

Khalid looked up, around the reception desk, in time to see a police officer darting towards them, crouched low, using the nearby cubicle as cover against Miles and Julia’s fire. The officer had a pistol in one hand while the other clutched at a wound in his side. The bright flashlight on his helmet lit up the office, and suddenly he turned and pointed it directly at Khalid. The light was momentarily blinding, but when it faded Khalid saw that the officer was scrambling to raise his pistol. Khalid looked around for something to grab, for something to stop him — but before he needed to, Celine hit the officer in the side of the face with the battery back. The impact made a strange, sickening, wet thud, and the officer slumped quietly to the floor. His pistol clattered to the ground at Khalid’s feet. The battery pack, meanwhile, was destroyed, now just a mess of circuit boards and metal, and Celine let it clatter to the ground.

Miles and Julia approached them, breathing hard. Their faces were sweaty, but they were unharmed. Miles looked down at the body slumped at his feet. Khalid could see the pulse beating faintly in the vein on the officer’s neck. He was still alive, despite the bloody gash in the side of his head and face. Miles lifted his pistol towards the body, but Celine grabbed his arm.

“He’ll wake up,” Miles said, eyes narrowing. “And he’s seen Khalid.”

“We can tie him up,” Celine said.

“The other officers will find him.”

“We can lock him up then, in one of the rooms.”

“So he’ll starve to death? Kinder to shoot him now.”

Celine looked with anguish down at the body. Miles laughed suddenly, a sharp, strange laugh that echoed across the dark office.

“You didn’t say anything when your boyfriend built that car bomb.”

Celine didn’t reply but looked up at Blake, pleadingly. Khalid looked at him too, wondering what Blake would do. Blake looked uncertainly between Miles and the body on the floor.

“He’s right,” Blake finally said, looking up at Celine. “We have no choice.”

Celine stared at Blake in horror, and for the first time since Khalid had known them, she looked angry and disappointed in him. Blake looked away, avoiding her gaze. She stepped out into the hallway and back towards the elevators.

Miles smirked and held out his pistol to Blake.

“You want to do it?” Miles asked.

Blake frowned and looked up at Miles. Khalid watched them, hoping Blake would change his mind, would tell Miles no and tell him to put the pistol away. But instead, Blake slowly took the pistol, aimed it at the guard, and fired once, into the officer’s head. Somehow, the gunshot didn’t echo, but instead hung in the stale air of the office before fading to silence. The officer’s body twitched briefly, and then settled into the ground, as blood pooled slowly around it. With a condescending smirk, Miles turned back to the elevators. Blake remained staring at the body. Khalid saw that the dark and desperate gleam had returned to his eyes.

They had to take the stairs back down, since the battery pack was now broken. The second officer’s body was slumped in the doorway, holding the door ajar with an awkwardly extended foot. His eyes were open and terrified, and his head was covered in blood from the bullet hole between his eyes. Khalid stepped gingerly over the body and tried to not to look at it as they entered the stairwell.

Outside, the remaining SUV and the surviving police were gone, save for two who crouched behind a makeshift barrier of abandoned cars.

“They’re waiting for reinforcements from the Dome,” Miles said. “We have to move.”

In front of the two officers, in the middle of the street, were the bodies of their fallen comrades, piled up and set alight in a hurried, unceremonious pyre. The flickering flames illuminated the burnt out husks of the destroyed SUVs. Blake stared directly at the burning bodies, and Khalid saw that he didn’t look disturbed at all, only resolute.

Wordlessly, they moved down California street, in the other direction, towards the bay and the piers. They walked silently through the quiet blocks, zigzagging through the smaller streets via the map on Julia’s phone, now in Miles’s hand, and making their way towards the location of the Gold Man warehouse on the pier. Blake walked steadily ahead of Khalid and Celine, at the head of the group, and didn’t once look back, moving with a desperate, relentless pace. Ahead of Blake, Miles walked with a similar intensity. He seemed changed since Khalid had met him only hours before, though more likely Khalid had misjudged him then. It was clear now that Miles wasn’t just a soldier, like Julia, pushing onward out of a sense of duty, but a visionary much like Blake, powered by a similar energy, and possibly even a similar moral code.

They soon emerged from the tangle of streets and towers onto a broad boulevard that bordered the bay. The water glistened under the stars and moon, and Khalid’s eyes had to adjust to the sudden, almost harsh reflected light. Remnants of the white and yellow lines were visible on the crumbling asphalt. Ahead of them was the warehouse, a large, light gray, concrete building sitting squat along the stone pier, with an arch at the front which still read “Pier 15” in white letters. The large windows were smeared with grime, and a few abandoned cars and trucks stood in the small parking lot. Behind it was a large glass building, surprisingly clean and beautiful in contrast to the dirty, crumbling stone of the warehouse. It was too dark too see inside, but as they crossed the road and approached the warehouse, Khalid noted the sign by the glass building’s entrance, a sign that read in vividly clear letters, “Exploratorium: Museum of Science and Technology.”

Inside, the warehouse was dark, and the group’s flashlights did little to illuminate the large, open space. The ceiling was high and arched, and over their heads ran a metal catwalk that looked unsteady and threatened to come down at any moment. They were standing on the warehouse’s upper level, which ran around the perimeter of the room and looked down onto a large, open main floor, with only a flimsy, corroded metal railing for protection. At the far end of the warehouse were a few offices with smashed in windows and broken doors, as well as a staircase that led down to the main floor. It took a few minutes of shining their lights around for Khalid to piece it all together, and it was only then that he realized that on the floor of the warehouse, stretching from one end to another, was a large, monolithic machine, made of glass and steel. At first it looked like a replica of a building, a kind of miniature version of the towers outside. The machine reflected the group’s lights, like the bay outside, and unlike the grimy walls and windows of the factory, it was clean and unblemished, as if it had never been dirty. A small computer console was linked to the machine nearby.

They stepped slowly down the staircase and fanned out around it, all unable to speak. Khalid could see the wonder in Blake’s eyes, the possibilities whirring through his mind. Even Miles and Julia looked amazed and for a moment let their guards down, their sharp, tensed bodies relaxing in the presence of this majestic thing. Celine and Khalid stepped over to the computer console, and Khalid noted a label on the bottom of the flatscreen monitor: “Property of Gold Man Investments.”

Celine placed her hand on the CPU.

“There’s residual energy,” she said, eyes lighting up.

Without waiting for the others, she reached down and pushed the computer’s power button. The machine began to hum, a sound which shook the walls and the ground and rattled the catwalk above. A white light turned on inside the glass and steel of the monolith and filled up the warehouse, as if it were daytime and the machine an artificial sun. Khalid stared through the glass walls but couldn’t see past the light. Blake reached out and touched the glass and closed his eyes and smiled, as if he could feel something stirring. After a moment, the light faded, and the machine ceased its whirring and grew quiet and dark once again. The computer monitor remained on, however, humming steadily with energy. Celine stepped to it and started clicking through what was to Khalid an unfamiliar screen of code.

“What does it run on?” Khalid asked.

“I’m checking the application code,” Celine said.

Miles and Julia were with them looking over Celine’s shoulder. Khalid could see a gleam in Miles’s eyes, reminiscent of the one he’d seen in Blake. Blake remained standing next to the machine, his hand still held to the glass, as if he could power it with his own beating pulse. All five of them were at that moment a little more alive, brimming with excitement, as if the machine had powered them too. Khalid felt a surge of hope, and he saw that Blake felt it too, along with a sense of relief, that everything they’d done to reach this point, the long trip, the car bomb, the dead officer amidst the cubicles, had all been necessary, and that here was the solution to that equation in his head, humanity’s future and his own vindication. Khalid watched Celine’s sparkling eyes, listened to her typing and clicking as she moved through the streams of code. But after a long, agonizing minute, her eyes dim and her brow furrow.

“Strange,” she said.

“What?” Blake asked, turning from the machine.

“The inputs. They’re…” Celine clicked around, and Khalid watched the lines of code appear drift down the screen, ghostly white letters floating across a black background. “They’re biological,” Celine said.

“What do you mean?” Miles asked, eyes narrowing.

“The inputs for the machine. It’s like it takes…” As Celine stared at the code, flowing like it was being pumped through a bloodstream by a beating heart, she seemed to suddenly understand something. She stepped away from the computer, holding up her hands.

“What?” Blake pressed.

“It takes people,” Celine said.

Khalid looked at Julia and saw the horror seep into her eyes. Miles slowly leaned his head back. Only Blake failed to see what the rest of them saw.

“So then let’s bring the dead officers in here,” Blake said. “Use them to power it—”

“They need to be alive,” Celine said. “It… sucks all the life out of them to make energy.”

Blake looked at her and then over at the screen, and Khalid could see the circuits whirring behind his eyes. But for some reason, perhaps a willful denial of what was now obvious, he clung to the idea that the machine was something other than what it clearly was.

“So the inputs have to be alive,” Blake said, repeating Celine’s pronouncement. “Let’s find something living then. There’s probably rats somewhere in these warehouses—”

“Blake, no,” Celine said, quietly. “The machine was built to take humans.”

The air in the warehouse grew still as the five of them remained fixed where they were, paralyzed with understanding. The computer continued its incessant humming, oblivious to the change in the room. Miles’s bearded face remained expressionless, but Khalid saw his jaw clenching. Blake was dumbfounded and stared at the computer, but even he finally seemed to understand. Here before them was mankind’s salvation, a source of renewable, sustainable energy. Yet Khalid now understood that they weren’t looking into the future, but rather into the past. Despite all their money and visions of a better future, those bankers had done nothing more than build a sacrificial altar — just another example in the long history of human self-delusion.

Blake was standing by the machine now, with his hand on the metal hull. Khalid wanted to yell at him, to tell him that he should have expected nothing less, that he was foolish and naive to have been so optimistic. But he couldn’t bring himself to say anything, because he too had been deluded. Despite everything history had taught him, he’d let himself believe in Blake’s vision and be charmed by Blake’s soul-stirring voice proclaiming vague utopian futures. Khalid hated himself for being so carried away, but he ultimately felt only pity for Blake, whose eyes now looked empty and hollow. Khalid imagined how in the machine’s incessant humming Blake could hear the hiss of gasoline streaming from a tube, the crackling of a flaming car, the repeated, punctured cries of dying men, the sharp, sudden sinking of a bullet into bone and flesh, and the crumpling of a body against tiled floor echoing down through empty cubicles.

Miles finally turned to Celine. “So where do we put the people, then?” His words, coming after long minutes of silence, were sharp and loud and echoed through the warehouse.

“You’re not thinking of using it?” Celine asked.

“The Movement will want to test it on one their prisoners,” Miles said.

“You can’t tell the Movement about this!” Celine said.

“Why not? Why else did we come all this way?” Miles eyes narrowed. “So it’s not as moral as we hoped! But it is what we were looking for. An energy source. And we’ve discovered it for the Movement. What more could we have wanted?”

He stared around at the others, but specifically at Blake. Blake was still in a daze, but when Miles looked at him, his features sharpened into a focused look.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, it’s wrong.”

“Oh, don’t you get all hung up on right or wrong, you hypocrite!” Miles said, his voice rising and echoing off the overhanging catwalk. “We’ve all done plenty of wrong for the sake of the Movement. At least now if we need to kill a police officer, we can get something in return—”

“We have to destroy it,” Blake said, in a quiet, measured tone.

The others stared at him. Khalid was surprised at how suddenly sure Blake sounded, how quickly he’d gone from despair to a new resolve. Miles, however, started to laugh.

“Don’t be an idiot. We can use this, to win the war, to change the world like you said—”

Blake stepped towards Miles, with the dark gleam returning suddenly to his eyes.

“We’re not using it,” Blake said.

“You’re not in charge here.”

Miles folded his arms across his chest. They faced each other, in silence. The machine continued to him. Khalid saw now that even Julia was worried as she gazed at Miles. Slowly, her hand moved down her holster. Underneath his beard, Miles’s jaw twitched.

Then suddenly, Blake and Miles were moving. Miles went for his pistol and Blake lunged for it too. There was a struggle and the sound of fumbling. Julia put her hand around her pistol, and Khalid wondered whether to rush forward to help — but before anyone could move, Miles’s pistol went off with a flash that lit up the darkened space. Miles cried out and fell to his knees, clutching at his side, and Blake stumbled back. In the confusion, Khalid thought Blake had the pistol. But Miles aimed it up at Blake and fired twice, and Blake crumpled to the ground.

“Blake!” Celine cried.

Miles spun to aim at Khalid, but Julia was quicker. She lifted her pistol and fired one shot, hitting Miles between the eyes and sending his head careening back against the computer console. As he fell to the ground, a smear of blood streaked across the screen and the lines of ghostly code. Khalid felt his heart beating wildly, and he half expected Miles’s body to move again and another shot to ring across the cavernous space. But slowly, silence descended onto the warehouse.

Celine rushed forward to Blake’s side, to her knees, and cradled his head in her hands. Khalid looked at Julia with a wordless, numbed look, half of thanks, half of shock. She lowered the pistol to her side, but kept her eyes fixed on Miles’s body.

They stood like that for a long moment, a strange operatic tableau in that grand, open space, the only sounds Celine’s punctured sobbing and the machine’s indifferent humming.

Back at headquarters, Khalid stared at the two new stars on the wall. The day before, the Movement had put them up in a small ceremony honoring Blake and Miles for “valiantly giving their lives for the greater good,” as Erin had put it. As far as she knew, they’d been killed in a shootout by the police. The stars were only the latest in a long column of several hundred, tiny flashes of light against the wall’s vast, dark concrete.

Khalid felt lonely as he stood in the cold, empty corridor. Julia had already returned to the Santa Clara Dome, after only a day of rest, now with a new trainee who’d be her new partner. Celine was back in the lab, already at work on a new coding project. She’d seemed sad the last time Khalid had seen her, though not like he was. Though she found Blake’s death tragic, it fit with her romantic vision of their doomed relationship. Khalid, by contrast, was profoundly shaken, and not just because his old friend’s resonant voice no longer echoed down the halls of the Movement’s headquarters. To him, a whole dream had died along with Blake, a dream he never knew he’d secretly harbored. When they’d burned the warehouse and everything in it, the machine and Blake and Miles’s bodies, Khalid had felt that on the top of that pyre he’d left the last optimistic remnant of his cynical, historian’s heart, the part that had still beaten despite everything with a quiet energy, charged by Blake’s vision for a better future. Now, life would have to go on as it always had. As far as Erin knew, they’d never found anything on their mission — and so the Movement would keep on fighting, and the Dome’s would hold onto their monopoly, all while the world clung to the last dregs of its slowly depleting energy. But Khalid felt like nothing would ever be the same. For a moment he’d let himself believe that there might be strawberries again on the hills outside the ruined city, and the knowledge that they would likely never grow back left him empty and depleted, a battery drained of all power.

He thought of Blake’s yellow two-door, still sitting there by the side of the road. As with all abandoned cars, it would seem to be just an empty shell, and no one who passed by would realize that there had once been a bold spirit within it, misguided perhaps but full of energy nonetheless, willing it down the road and towards some distant and more perfect future world. Now, that car would never run again.

Your thoughts?

%d bloggers like this: