An hour later, the secure line buzzes and a light on its panel blinks red, slow, steady, like a heartbeat. It's the first time it's lit up in twelve years. I set aside the file and take the call.
'Major Ezenwa,' a French-accented voice says through the speaker without introduction. She doesn't need one. I sit up straighter. Never have I had reason to be spoken to by de Pommier. I sense my day is about to get a whole lot worse.
'General,' I reply, hoping she can't tell from my voice I have been drinking.
'This call is Q Clearance,' she says, 'you have thirty seconds to secure your location.'
I get up and lock the door, disconnect the other lines in, and power down my tablet and wall screen. Four seconds to spare. I sit, uneasiness pooling around me, whatever is coming next, I know I'm not going to like it.
'We have a situation,' she says, crisp, exactly at the count of thirty, 'one which you are able to remedy with the most expedience.'
'Ma'am,' I say, hoping I sound more sober than I feel.
A pause. It drags, ominous, oppressing me. I can hear her tapping a finger against her desk. My instincts keel. I force myself to stillness, to quiet my tumult. 'What I am about to ask of you,' she says instead of going straight to my orders, making my instincts haul on me, harder than ever, 'I would prefer never to ask of any soldier. It is why I have contacted you directly, rather than sending the order via the Lieutenant Colonel.'
A tingle touches the base of my spine and slides up and outwards, embracing me, sobering me. I say nothing even though I sense she has paused to give me the chance to ask for clarification.
'Upon successful discharge of my order, you will be promoted to Colonel, granted residence status in Alpha VII, and—' several smart taps against a tablet, '—given permission to marry. All effective immediately.'
I blink. The room tilts. I grab onto the edge of the desk wondering if I have fallen into a drink-induced hallucination. It's too much too fast. I cannot even begin to guess at what kind of order she needs me to obey. Nothing I can think of would stop me from obeying when the rewards are so great. Everything I have wanted, all of it, on a platter, held out to me by none other than the general of Global Command.
'Major?' she asks, soft. 'Are you prepared to receive your orders?'
'Yes Ma'am,' I say, tingling with anticipation, already thinking of the call I would make to Adiana. I let out a slow breath. It's over, all of our trials. Just like that. In the space of a single heartbeat.
'Très bien. You will note the following sets of co-ordinates.' She reads out a long line of numbers. Another set follows. I copy them down and repeat them back, diligent.
'Major,' she continues, 'for security reasons, Command has withheld intelligence regarding certain deterrence measures available to the barrier.'
Deterrence measures. I put the pen down, slow, deliberate, positioning it with care over the co-ordinates so it blocks out an entire section of numbers. I don't want to see them, because suddenly I know what those numbers represent. Lives. Hundreds of thousands of them.
My moment of exhilaration vanishes, my joy fleeting, ephemeral. Reality slams into me, harsh, brutal. I thought I knew every secret the barrier held. Instead, for twelve years Command have kept me ignorant. And now I am going to find out about the deterrent which requires the general to have a conversation with me four security clearance levels above my own. I close my eyes. A steep shear of nausea assails me. The whisky turns against me, searing through my guts, sickening me. I think of Akron's suppressed smile and realise he knew all along this was coming, the bastard. Maddox and his men were just the opening salvo, their show of force giving the people a chance to flee before I used the 'deterrent'. I swallow back an upwelling of bile, its rancid heat making me gag. And so it is I who will be responsible for the horror to come. Me. The engineer soldier who has never once, in his entire career, needed to fire his pistol.
'I am going to give you a code,' de Pommier says, crisp, cutting a swathe through my despondence, 'it is the ignition code. Your security key and thumbprint will also be required to launch the weapons. You must do so within five seconds after you enter the code, or the launch will abort.'
'What weapons?' I ask, quiet. I regret it right away. I don't want to know.
'B. anthracis,' she answers, terse. 'Airborne release of spores.'
'Anthrax,' I breathe. All this time, I have been sitting on weapons which I was taught contravened all our laws . . . I glance at the co-ordinates. One centres on the half million at the wall, the other, on the second group further south. 'What about my men along that section of the wall?' I ask. 'Am I being ordered to leave them to die?'
'No. Your men are with Akron's team.'
I say nothing. She remains silent, giving me time, letting me digest the enormity of my orders. I shake my head. No. It's too much. She is asking me to murder almost a million people, to poison the land for centuries to come. Nothing can survive anthrax.
'Major?' de Pommier prompts me, low. 'Are you ready to take down the code?'
'Why must we do this?' I blurt, my thoughts skittering, chaotic, seeking a way out. 'Can't we just leave them there, the barrier—'
'Has been breached,' de Pommier interrupts, tight.
'What?' I demand, reaching for my table, powering it up, frantic. 'I don't understand, there have been no alarms.'
'A hydraulics technician opened the underground vents. Section 80C is fast becoming compromised due to one man's outdated idea of equality,' de Pommier says, placid, without a hint of acrimony. 'Akron's men contained the breach, but it is not enough. We have three days before the wall's inner defences fail. According to our models, this is the most efficient . . . solution.'
Another wave of nausea slams into me. My tablet lights up. A wall of blinking red fills the screen. Perimeter breaches. Fires. Ventilation pipes damaged. Hydraulic fluid leaks. I sink onto my chair, stunned. I have failed.
'Major, we are running out of time, no?' she says, calm, though her voice has turned cold and faintly hostile. 'You are being offered the chance to rectify your error and protect the restriction zone.' She pauses as someone gives her a message. 'If necessary, Major Akron is prepared to relieve you of your duty,' she says, before pausing again to murmur something to someone. 'Or,' she continues, coming back to me, her accent thickening, impatient, 'you take the code, go to the arsenal, use the weapons, and reap the rewards. It is your choice.'
I stare at the alerts blinking on my tablet's screen, sickened. There is no choice. If I don't do it, Akron will. I'll go to prison for treason, and he'll go to Alpha VII. Either way, those people are going to die. Twelve years ago I vowed I would do anything to get into Alpha VII, to be able to make Adiana my wife. And here it is—my one chance, my only chance. I pick up the pen and ask for the code. Ten minutes later, alone in the arsenal, I launch the weapons and monitor the successful release of their deadly cargo, condemning nine-hundred thousand men, women, and children to death.
Two days later, I am outside Adiana's apartment building in my military uniform—its breast emblazoned with my new rank—clutching an expensive bouquet of long-stemmed roses. A luxury I can now afford. With my promotion, a whole new world has opened up to me: wealth, opportunities, top-level clearance, and a photo op with the Prime Minister to receive his congratulations for my 'courage' in the face of adversity. By day, I am a hero, celebrated by the news outlets, the sanitised version fed to the people carefully spun by de Pommier's PR team. But at night, alone with what I have become, I dream of children coughing up blood and gasping for air, their thin bodies wracked by virulent fever. As I move past their emaciated little bodies, spread out under a scorching sky, they look at me, their eyes haunted, condemning me—calling me what I am. Murderer.
I can't eat. I can barely keep water down. de Pommier has been keeping a close eye on me, sending me to four different shrinks. But what is there to say? I sit there with my hands on my knees, numb, locked in guilt. I killed almost a million people so Adiana and I could survive what anyone with eyes can see is already on its way, even here, as far north as Alpha VI.
I try not to think about the fact Adiana hasn't contacted me since I have been all over the news. I convince myself she's been waiting for me to come to her, that her pride has been holding her back. So I have come to her—as soon I could bring myself to face her.
I buzz her apartment. Nothing. I try again. Still nothing. Strange. A shimmer of uncertainty ripples through me. She's always home on Saturday mornings. Always. It's when she has coffee with her father. It's the only time I have ever known with certainty where she is. Within the glass-walled foyer, the doorman hurries over to me. He pushes the door open and a blast of air-conditioned air washes over me.
'Colonel Ezenwa,' he says, quiet, pulling his cap from his head, respectful. He steps back, his eyes sliding away from mine, unreadable. 'It's an honour. Please come in.'
'You're new,' I say as I follow him inside, noting the droid who used to work behind the reception desk is gone.
'Ah, yes,' he demurs, holding his cap with both hands in front of his groin, like a soldier. 'It's just temporary, the droid will be back in a week or so, once things settle here.'
I blink. A nameless surge of misgiving hurtles through me. 'What do you mean, 'once things settle'?'
He looks around, edgy. His agitation starts to make me edgy. I eye him, wary. He's young, maybe in his early twenties, blond, fair-skinned, blue-eyed. Square jaw, just a hint of stubble. I decide to give him time. He's just a kid, after all. Maybe I intimidate him.
He stands to attention and salutes me, abrupt. 'Sir,' he says, low, 'Sergeant Gunnarsson, I've been put on door duty while the investigation takes place. I'm supposed to be under cover.' His eyes dart from side to side, but there is no one around, inside or out. He drops his salute, his hand joins the other one clenching his cap. His knuckles whiten.
A finger of fear touches the base of my spine, chilling me despite the coolness of the elegant marble lobby. 'What investigation?' I ask, quiet, Adiana's silence suddenly feels thunderous, oppressive.
'I—,' he bites his lower lip. The cap twists in his grip, 'They said you might come.'
'Who, they?' I demand, sharp, losing patience. 'Spit it out, Gunnarsson. What's going on?'
He flinches. Tears glisten in his eyes. 'She's not here,' he whispers. 'I'm so sorry, sir.'
'That's fine, son,' I say, softening my tone. I squeeze his shoulder, seeking to reassure him. 'Just tell me where she went.'
'Sir?' he asks. Confusion bleeds from him.
I tilt my head at the door. 'Did she say where she was going?' I offer, trying to help him along. Obviously not the sharpest tool in the box.
He gives me a look that makes me think of a hunted animal caught in the crosshairs. He licks his lips and blinks, rapid. 'She's gone, sir.' His words tear through me, blades of fire and ice. 'She's not coming back.' He nods at me, once, and lifts his eyebrows, meaningful, as though I'm the dense one. 'Ever.'
Rage cuts through my shock. My fist ploughs into his face. He staggers away with a cry, his mouth bloody. Without saying anything, I punch the button for the elevator. At her door, I key in the code.
Inside, everything is still, silent, a crypt. I wander around, numb, her bouquet hanging, pointless, in my grip. Little folded pieces of yellow cardboard dot the apartment, left by the investigators at points of interest: an open book on the table; beside a photograph of her and her father; on top of her tablet. In her bedroom, the bed is unmade, one of the pillows lies in a crumpled heap on the floor. The other, still on the bed, sports black smears across the cover's pristine white. I lean closer. Mascara stains. She cried. A lot.
On the bedside table, an open, empty bottle of Lagavulin. No glass. I open the dresser drawer. A bottle of Fentanyl, dated three days ago. One tablet remains. I lift the mascara-stained pillow, sending the little yellow card perched on top fluttering to the floor. Underneath, her phone. I scoff. Some investigation. I pick up the phone. The panel lights up to a screenshot of me and her at the botanical gardens, smiling and in love, taken ten years ago by one of the botanists. I trace my finger over her smile, my heart aching.
I open her call history. Her last call was made two days ago at eleven fourteen in the morning. I stare at it, my chest constricting. Her last call was to me. The call I didn't answer. Without thinking, I open her text messages. Her last one is a draft. Also to me. Written at eleven thirteen, one minute before she called me. My heart tight, I open it.
I can't live without us. Forgive me, my love.
I sink down onto the edge of the bed and look at the wilting bouquet. I throw it against the wall. The roses shudder in silent agony, their petals tumble free, coating the hardwood floor, brilliant red, drops of blood.
I reach into her drawer, take the last pill and lie down on her bed, waiting for the black-dark pain to ease. It doesn't. I pull her pillow into my arms and will myself to grieve, for her, for us, for being forced to live in a world that made her choose to die because she wasn't allowed to love.
An hour later, Akron, of all people, walks into Adiana's bedroom. He looks at me, expressionless, leaves and comes back a few minutes later with two glasses of whisky. I pull myself up against the headboard, take the glass and drink.
Akron sits on the edge of the bed, and gazes into his glass. He sips, quiet, lost in his own thoughts. He doesn't say anything. Just drinks with me.
When I'm finished I push the glass onto the bedside table beside the bottle. I run my fingers down its side, thinking of her hand on it, seeking a remnant of her to carry with me. But there's nothing. She's gone. All I have are my memories, tarnished by the blood of thousands.
'I'm done with desk jobs.' I say, bitterness remaking me, moulding me into someone else, someone I don't recognise. 'I need a change.'
Akron meets my eyes. He nods. 'Delta Force would be honoured to have you,' he says. He gets up, salutes me, and leaves. I hear the clink of his empty glass against the kitchen's marble counter top, the quiet click of the front door as it closes.
I get up and follow him out. There's nothing left for me here. I take one last look around her apartment, the scant memories we shared ebb away. I close her door, walk away, and don't look back.