Dar was glad enough to feel the springiness of the gangway under her feet as she preceded Kerry towards the pier. Around her, the city seemed muted, sounds of sirens audible and the soft roar of traffic only barely so.
She could smell the pungent scent of the water, but above that, on the wind now blowing from the sea, she could smell the burning, acrid scent of destruction, and the taint left a strange taste on the back of her tongue.
The darkness hid the billow of smoke still emerging from the Trade Center site, but if she looked up, and off to the horizon, she could see the stars being obscured by it.
“So where do we go from here?” Kerry asked, her hands tucked inside the pockets of her jacket. “All we need is the terminations, right?” She caught up to Dar and walked alongside her, their steps sounding an odd echo as they moved off the gangway and onto the concrete pier.
“Right.” Dar said. “And to integrate the datastream, but that’s trivial compared to everything else on the physical layer.”
Kerry removed one hand from her pocket and tucked it through Dar’s elbow. “You sound so sexy when you talk like that.”
“Ker-ry.” Dar gave her a sideways look.
“C’mon hon. I have to take my fun where I can find it tonight.” Kerry responded wryly. “Let’s walk down to that bar you mentioned, and see if we can get some nasty bar food or a pizza and a beer. Hell, I’d even take a hot dog right now.”
“Me too.” Dar exhaled, feeling some of the tension in her unwind. The last big hurdle was done, and she was actually looking forward to finishing out this particular task and getting on with the much larger one ahead.
They walked along the pier towards the gates, which now had some lurid, orange lights outlining the guard vehicles blocking the way. As they got closer to the gates, the sounds of arguing voices were heard, though, and they stepped up the pace by silent accord.
“Hope that’s not dad out there.” Kerry muttered. “I thought those guys were okay with us.”
“If it was dad, they wouldn’t be yelling.” Dar responded. “Let’s see what’s going on.”
They got to the gates, and ducked through the opening to find a half circle of armed guardsmen facing off against three young men in jeans and windbreakers. All were carrying backpacks. Two of them were tow headed and fair skinned, the third was dark skinned, and had black, straight hair.
The guardsman in charge, a different man than when they’d entered, was on a radio, giving the trio dark looks as he talked into it. “Not sure what to do with these guys, sir.” He said, just audible to them. “They’ve got all kinds of tools and some crazy story.”
“Uh oh.” Kerry slowed. “Maybe we should stay back.”
Dar hesitated, taking in the angry stances and the weapons and almost decided Kerry was right, until their forward motion took them into the floodlights and the young men spotted them.
They weren’t familiar to her, but apparently she was familiar to them, because the look of relief on all three faces was almost comical.
“Ms. Roberts!” The closest one called out. “Tell these guys not to shoot us!”
“Then again, maybe not.” Kerry released Dar’s arm and followed her into the light. “Looks like they’re ours. Mark’s guys, probably.”
“Probably.” Dar sighed, continuing past the trucks towards the crowd. “Don’t’ shoot, gentlemen.”
The guard in charge turned, startled to find them emerging behind them. “Holy shit hang on.. I’ve got some people inside here.. “ He pulled the radio from his mouth. “Who are you people? What are you doing inside that gate?”
“Someone didn’t leave handover notes.” Kerry sighed. “Jesus.”
“Now I wish it was my father out here.” Dar grimaced. “Okay, hold it everyone. Let’s just discuss this before people start getting hurt.” She said. “Let me start from the beginning.”
“Let me start from the beginning.” The guard captain said. “Let’s see some identification from you people.”
Uh oh. Kerry removed her identification case from her pocket and stepped forward, holding the leather case out to the man. “Okay, here’s mine. We’ve been in here since this afternoon, one of your colleagues allowed us in after he checked us out with the Mayor’s office.”
“What?” The man grabbed her folio and glanced at it. “No one said anything about people being inside there. Who are you people?”
“I’m sorry if they didn’t leave you word.” Kerry said, in a calm voice. “But we came in here around three oclock. We’ve been working inside the ship this whole time.” She took a step closer to him, aware of Dar’s alert presence at her back. “We don’t want to cause you trouble. These people here are employees of ours.”
“Boy, we’re glad to see you, Ms. Stuart.” The tech said. “They sent us from Washington. They said you needed us.”
“Shut up.” The guardsman ordered. “Go stand over there, both of you. I don’t know who you are, and I’m not buying some crazy story that you got let in here earlier. Don’t you people know what’s been going on around here?”
Dar just walked past him, catching Kerry’s arm as she went and gently hauling her along with her. She stopped where the techs were, all of them visibly relaxing. “You our fiber boys?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The talkative one said. “I’m Shaun Durhan, this is Mike Thomas, and Kannan Barishmorthy.”
Dar had her hands in her pockets, and was regarding them mildly. “Dar Roberts.” She finally said, then glanced to her left. “Kerry Stuart.”
The men all blushed a little. “Yeah, we knew that.” Shaun said. “Glad you came out here. They were really starting to hassle us, especially Kannan.”
Dar glanced at the third man, her brows contracting. “Kannan?” She knew the name, vaguely. Mark had spoken well of him, she remembered, one of their H1B Visa candidates she recalled signing off on. “Why?”
“They often joke that some people do not understand geography.” Kannan said, in a quiet voice. “However I did think most knew the difference between the Middle East and India.”
“Don’t count on it.” Kerry glanced behind her, where the guardsman had now taken her identification and ducked inside his command car with it, and his radio. “My mother said they’d been expecting some problems in Michigan with a backlash.”
“Expecting?” Kannan eyed her. “Ma’am, there were two men killed already there from my home country, beaten in their shops from people thinking them Arabs.”
Kerry remembered the call earlier, and bit off a curse.
“Well.” Dar exhaled. “I’m sure having a bunch of them living in Miami without being detected didn’t help anything.” She looked around. “It would be like one of them living here. How could you tell? Half the cabbies in the damn city come from that part of the world.”
“Well there.” A new voice approached. “What are you folks all doing out here?” Alastair shifted the bag in his arms. “Waiting for us?”
Andrew was right behind him with his box, glancing alertly around at the guard, the command car, and the small group waiting outside the gates. “We got trouble now?” He came up next to Dar and cocked his head in question. “How’re you feeling, Dardar?”
“Frustrated.” Dar craned her head around to look at the command car. “You can give those things to these guys. It’s their gear.” She indicated the techs. “You three might want to fish through there and make sure we got everything.”
The techs took possession of the bundles and knelt next to them on the ground, opening up the bag and peering inside it. “Kannan, this is your stuff.” Shaun handed it over. “Let me get the box open.”
“Ah, yes. Thank you so much.” Kannan sat down on the ground and removed his pack, swinging it around and setting it down next to his leg.
“Hey! What are you people doing?” The guard commander circled his truck and approached them. “What’s going on here? Who are you two?” He pointed at Kannan. “Get those things away from that guy – he’s one of them!”
“One of them what?” Kerry turned in confusion. “He’s our fiber tech. What’s wrong with.”
“Shut up. You’re probably in it with him. All of you, a bunch of t…”
Kerry got in front of him. “They’re also part of our company. Look, can’t we just call the command who was here earlier?” She held up both hands, then realized he wasn’t going to stop and couldn’t get out of the way in time before she was shoved hard to one side. “Hey!”
“Get out of my way. You men, over here. Bring that..” The guard commander hauled up short as Dar suddenly surged into rapid motion, coming right up into his face with her hands raising up into fists. “What the hell do you.. hey!”
Dar had him by the front of his shirt. “You stupid little piece of shit.” She yelled at top volume. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing pushing the people who pay your fucking salary around?”
“OH boy.” Alastair moved nervously forward. “This is going to end badly, I can just tell.”
The guard reeled backwards, then reached for the gun hanging off his back and started pulling it around only to find himself lifted up off his feet and shoved through the air back against his truck as his rifle was taken from his hands in a single, smooth motion. “Why you..”
“Hold UP.” Andrew barked, taking the safety off the gun and cocking it. “Paladar, you get back.”
Dar took a single step back, her hands at her sides, fingers twitching.
The other soldiers belatedly started forward, only to halt when Andrew slowly moved his head in their direction.
“Put them damn things down.” Andrew ordered. “And you still yourself, mister.” He addressed the guard commander. “Fore I shoot you in the nuts and save us all the trouble of you spreading out them no nothing genes.”
The other guardsmen hesitated, then put their rifles down on the ground and stepped back.
Kerry eased forward, and got her hand around Dar’s arm. “Hey.” She rubbed her thumb against her partner’s heated skin. “I’m okay. He’s just an idiot.”
The guard commander at least had the sense to stay where he was, sitting on the ground with his back against his truck. “You’re all ending up in jail.” He said. “You better put that gun down, buddy. This is no game.”
“No, it aint.” Andrew agreed. “Most times when I been holding one of these here things, it weren’t no game and not so much as when you can’t tell who you got on the other end, a friendly or a target.” He stared, unblinking, at the man’s face. “Like now.”
The guard captain went very still, only his breathing evident in the rise and fall of his shirt.
“Now.” Andrew said. “These here people are here to do something for the gov’mint. You are going to get on that there radio and get your CO over here, so he splain why you ain’t letting them do what they need to do. Right now.”
“Okay.” The guard captain held his hands out. “I’m just trying to do my job.”
“No you ain’t. That feller there today was doing his job. You just ain’t got no sense, and don’t want to listen to nobody.” Andrew disagreed. “So get yourself up and get on that comm., for I do it and get them collar bugs turned to half stripes for you.”
The guard got up and reached in the open window. Andrew shifted the rifle audibly and he paused, then slowly pulled his hand out with the radio mouthpiece in it. “Can I ask who you are?”
“No you may not.” Andrew told him. “But ah will tell you that if ah don’t know someone who will bust you, ah know someone who knows someone. Just get on that thing and get someone with a brain ovah here.”
The man hesitated.
“And if you all don’t’ believe that, ah’ll just let mah little girl here beat the tar out of you and take pitchers.” Andrew continued mildly, with a straight face.
The guard captain keyed the mic. ‘HQ, HQ.. this is Hudson Midtown. Over.”
“Thought that might do it.” Andrew turned his head slightly. “You kids want to get on back in case someone does something jackass here?”
“No.” Dar replied.
Kerry shook her head in agreement, half turning as Alastair eased up next to them. “We’re all jackass, right?”
“Without question.” Alastair agreed. “I’ve never been as jackass, in fact. But you know, the Commander is right. Let’s get back a little.”
Both Kerry and Dar just looked at him.
Dar finally relaxed, her shoulders easing and her hands uncurling. “Let’s see if we’ve got everything.” She gave in, and stepped back from the half ring of uncertain guardsman, and her father’s threatening, brace legged form.
The techs were all crouched near the ground, eyes wide. “Wow.” Shaun muttered, as they joined the three of them. “This is getting crazy.”
“Getting?” Kannan looked upset, and tense. “Never have I felt so scared, you know? Intimidated by my own nationality being in question. It is terrible. I feel like I am walking target, for people to think badly of.”
Kerry felt her heart finally starting to settle back down in her chest. She felt a trembling weakness in her legs and she leaned against Dar for support as much as in comfort. “He didn’t even know who you are. He didn’t even care.” She said. “Jesus.”
“Asshole.” Dar said, quietly.
“You all right?” Kerry murmured, leaning close to her.
Dar didn’t answer for a moment, then she exhaled. “Well.” She said. “At least my cramps are gone.” She glanced down at Kerry. “I just saw red.”
Kerry bumped her shoulder with her head. Then she looked down at the techs. “Kannan, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to be judged on something you don’t have control over .” She knelt next to him. “Is there something we can do to help with that? We might as well get started, since I think we’re stuck here for a little while.”
The techs were willing to be distracted. Kannan pulled his bag over and took out a tool kit and set it on the ground, then removed a handful of bits and pieces from the paper bag. “Not too much light here. “ He looked up at the orange lamps.
“I have a flashlight.” Shaun paused, removing it from his pack. “Want me to hold it?”
“I will.” Dar held her hand out for it. “Let’s get done what we can. Then the beer’s on me.”
The techs smiled timidly at her, and started to get to work. Dar turned the light on and focused it on the sidewalk with it’s odd scattering of technical debris, glad of a chance just to stand still, the sense of thrumming anger only slowly fading from her awareness.
Kerry’s shoulder was pressed against her knee. Dar slowly turned her head and stared past her father’s form, at the soldiers who were staring back at them.
Kerry put her hands on her hips as they listened to the guard commander, casting a glance behind her where the three techs were now seated in a ring of bright white light from the headlamps of four guard vehicles.
“Listen, I know how damned crazy this all is.” Dar said. “But you people need to think before you start wailing away on folks you don’t even know did anything.”
“Ms. Roberts, I understand what you’re saying.” The guard commander replied. “But to be honest, there’s no time to think right now. Just react. I know you know what I mean.”
Dar sighed. Andrew sighed. Alastair grunted and shook his head.
“I’m really sorry we..no, I didn’t leave notes for Josh there about you people being inside.” The commander went on. “I got called out on a bomb threat, and three men were arrested with parts in a backpack, a lot like what your guys there looked like.”
They turned to look at the three techs, who were working contentedly on the sidewalk. “I mean, what the hell were they supposed to think with all that? What is it? Do we know? We’re not mechanics.” The guard commander asked, plaintively.
“Commander, we understand.” Alastair spoke up. “You’re just trying to get a job done, we’re just trying to get a job done. We’re on the same side, y’know.”
“The guys that did that.” The guard commander pointed in the general direction of the disaster site. “Lived among us. Tell me how we can trust anyone?” He let his hand drop. “I can’t. I know you’re all right because the Mayor’s office said so, but those people, coming walking up here, with backpacks and a wild story, and one of them looking like one of those guys who did that, what can you expect?”
Dar exhaled. “Kannan’s from India.” She said. “It’s not even the same continent. Are you telling me anyone who doesn’t look like Kerry here is eligible to get shot now?”
The guard commander lifted his hands and let them fall. “I don’t know. You hear the news. People are getting shot and beat up all over because everyone’s so angry they want to lash out. Me to. Us to. Maybe I would shoot someone like him if I had a doubt, if I thought maybe something else was going to happen. Yeah.” He answered, honestly. “I would.”
“Wow.” Kerry murmured.
“You asked.” The commander said. “But anyway, if you say he’s okay, these guys are okay, then I have to go with that because the Mayor says you are okay. But you could be lying.”
“We’re not.” Alastair said. “These people are employees of ours. They have government clearances.” He shifted his gaze to Dar slightly, and caught the equally slight nod of her head. “We all do. That’s how the Mayor knows we’re all right.
The commander shrugged. “I don’t’ have that information when people are walking towards me. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not saying people aren’t going to get hurt in this who are innocent, I’m just telling you what the truth is. We don’t’ know, and we can’t afford to risk erring on the side of caution anymore.”
They were all briefly silent. “Gotta wonder why the heck we’re here trying to help then.” Alastair said. “Because these people’s lives are worth a hell of a lot more than making sure the Mayor has a phone and a connection to the internet.”
The guard commander now looked a little embarrassed. “Anyhow. I’m sorry this happened, Mr. McLean. I’ve talked to Josh, and I made sure everyone in this area knows you people are here. Maybe they can get some badges or something.. I don’t know. I just don’t know what the answer is right now.”
Shaun had gotten up and now he cautiously approached the group. “Ms. Stuart?”
Kerry turned towards him. “Hey. You guys finished prepping?”
He nodded. “We’re done, and we’ve got the gear packed up.”
“Okay.” Dar ran her fingers through her hair. “Dad, you want to take Kannan back into the ship where the other guys are waiting and let him get that fiber done, and we’ll go up the ramp to prep the office side. That work for everyone?”
“We’ll send a couple guys in with you just in case anyone else’s gotten in there.” The commander said. “No more screw-ups on this end tonight.”
They walked back over to where the techs were packing up, and getting their bags together. With a faintly anxious look, Kannan followed Andrew towards the gates, as the rest of them trooped on towards the ramp leading up to the new offices.
“He going to be okay, ma’am?” Shaun asked Kerry. “He’s kind of freaked out about everything.” He shifted his pack on his back. “I would be too, I guess.”
“He’s in good hands.” Kerry told him, feeling a little freaked out herself. “Dar’s father is a retired Navy Seal. They’re not going to mess with him. Let’s just get this done, and get the heck out of here. It’s been way too long a day.”
“Wonder if they’d deliver pizza to this damn emergency office.” Kerry said. “Or I’m going to have to call that damn bus to come down here before I pass out.”
A pale slice of moonlight peeked through the clouds, illuminating the peeling iron and concrete of the pier with grudging nobility.
“Can I speak to the governor, please?” Alastair leaned against the railing, his back to the city. “Alastair McLean here, from ILS.”
In front of him, the tarmac of the port’s driveway stretched out to either side, separating him from the front of the pier itself, which was dusty concrete and steel, the glass doors spidered with cracks and partially plywooded sections.
Behind the doors he could see Dar, her arms crossed over her chest, talking to two men in blue coveralls. At a desk just inside the door, Kerry was perched, likewise talking to two men in guard uniform.
It was near midnight. He was exhausted. At the moment, he wanted nothing more than to get on a plane to Houston and leave all the messy, uncomfortable, gritty details of it all to Dar, and he was almost too tired to be ashamed of himself for that.
“Mclean?” A voice answered. “That you?”
“It is, governor.” Alastair said. “Just wanted to tell you, we got your emergency office up. My people are making the last connections and bringing up systems now.”
“Yeah? About time.” The governor said. “You people took long enough.”
Alastair exhaled. “Well, you know, sometimes these things just take time.” He said. “As you may realize, it’s not that easy to get things done in the city right now.”
“I’m not looking for excuses. Just get it done.” The man said. “Now if you don’t mind, I have to call the White House. Good night.”
Alastair closed his phone and juggled it in one hand. Then he walked across the road and into the terminal, the doors creaking reluctantly open to admit him inside. “How’s it going, folks?”
Dar glanced at him. “Just waiting for Mark to call me back and confirm the routing integration.” She informed him. “But we’ve got good signal. We just need to push their routes.”
Her boss nodded sagely, as though he understood what she was saying. “Well, wish I could say it was much appreciated by the governor, but I just got yelled at for taking too long. Hell with him.” He said. “Let’s gather our folks up and get out of here, if we’re done.”
One of the coverall suited men put his hands on his hips. “If it’s any consolation to you, we’re grateful as hell to you people for coming in here and getting us going.” He said. “All we’ve been getting from the politicos today is pointless jaw flapping.” He looked cross. “All of them in here wanting this, wanting that, but when its time to throw a little influence around, forgetaboutit.”
Alastair smiled at him. “Thanks.” He said. “But we’re used to being abused, aren’t we Dar?”
Dar rolled her head around and looked at him, one eyebrow hiking up. “I’ve had enough abuse for one day.” She announced. “The governor can kiss my ass.” She looked up as Kerry’s cell phone rang and waited while her partner answered it. “Hope that’s Mark.”
Kerry gave her a thumbs up.
Dar exhaled, just as the two men at the desk started clapping and cheering. “Woo effing hoo.” She said. “It’s done.”
Alastair studied the two men, who were high fiving each other. The activity in the room, which had been subdued, now perked up and a flow of workers poured from the break room behind a broken wooden door, and approached the endless rows of banquet tables set up for use.
It was done. Now that he stood there and looked at the room, with it’s peeling steel columns and dirty walls, it seemed anticlimactic considering the effort and the struggle that they’d gone through.
Crazy, after hearing what Dar had done, with a soldering iron, and watching the young technicians sweat over the tiny glass strands of the fiber in a process so alchemic, he almost felt like he’d been watching some magic rite.
The techs emerged from the break room, and headed towards them. They were smiling, as they pulled their packs up onto their back and headed for the small group near the door.
“Ready to go back to the hotel?” Kerry folded her phone, and clipped it to her belt. “I think we’re finished here.” She tucked her hand around Dar’s elbow. “I need a drink. Finally.”
“Let’s go.” Dar replied quietly. “I’m about done in myself. Alastair?”
Her boss snorted tiredly. “Lady, you got to be kidding me. I was done before sundown.” He indicated the door. “I see Papa Roberts out there, so let’s get ourselves someplace more comfortable.” He glanced at the techs. ‘Fellas, did they make arrangements for you?”
The techs exchanged glances. “I don’t think so.” Shaun admitted. “They weren’t really specific about what we were supposed to do when we finished – I think they expected us to be here all night so maybe it wasn’t a concern.” He looked shyly at Dar. “We thought we’d have to run the big cable too.”
Dar managed a return smile. “Glad you didn’t have to.”
“Well, c’mon with us, then, and we’ll get you sorted out.” Alastair decided. “You fellas did a great job tonight, and you deserve a nice bed and a shower, at the least.” He turned and regarded the door. “Now. As to finding a taxi.”
“No probl’m.” Andrew had entered, and was loitering near the door. “Them fellers down the ramp said they’d take us in their truck. Ah think they’re just trying to poligize.”
“I’ll take it.” Alastair shooed them towards the door. “Let’s go, troops. Shops closed for the night.” He gave the men inside a wave, then followed the group out the door. They turned and started down the ramp, in the cool dampness of a fall night that despite the late hour, wasn’t really all that quiet.
Emergency sirens still sounded. They could hear trucks on the lower level pulling up and the clank of forklifts unloading.
Dar let the sounds move past her. She was almost at a point where she was so tired she wasn’t really cognizant of where she was, and the ability to care about what was going on was fading fast. She felt Kerry’s hand clasp hers, and focused on the comfort of the contact, willing the ride to the hotel to be over and the long day to end at last.
She was glad, in a distant way, that they’d brought the office up. Knowing the bigger task that faced them though put this in a meager perspective and she wondered briefly if the governor was expecting them to go right from this to reviewing downtown without a break.
Probably he was. Probably he could just put his head between his legs and kiss is own ass, too. Dar bumped Kerry lightly with her shoulder, smiling tiredly as she was bumped equally gently back.
The guard post was now very quiet, only two of the men standing by the barricade with their rifles, the rest hunkered down behind the truck, legs sprawled out and a pizza box nearby. As they approached, the two men on guard alerted the others, and by the time they reached the bottom of the ramp, the guard captain was there to greet them.
“You folks finished up?” He asked.
“Yeap.” Andrew did the talking for them. “We’re fixing to get out of your space now. Got all them people up there happy, time to move on.”
“John, bring that truck up, give these people a ride to their hotel.” The captain said. “And listen, sorry again about that mixup earlier, Commander. Things are so mixed up here, we’re just trying to be safe.” He glanced over at Dar. “So much is going on.”
Dar frankly couldn’t have cared less at the point she was at. “No problem.” She waved it off. “Let’s just get the hell out of here.”
They got in the personnel carrier and it rumbled off, turning onto the roadway and heading for the nearest cross street, a blinking yellow traffic light fluttering overhead. The driver, leaned on his wheel and glanced at Andrew. “Where’re we going, sir?”
“Doubletree Metropolitan.” Alastair provided, then he settled back in the hard, bench like seat as the truck turned and headed east. “Boy. What a day.”
Dar was leaning against the door on the other side of the vehicle, with Kerry between them. The window was shaded, but she was able to look out and see the buildings flow by, blinking lights and lurid neon decorating the mostly empty streets.
“Ms. Roberts?” Shaun spoke up from the back seat. “So, are we going to stay and help out with whatever else is needed tomorrow? My folks were asking. They ‘re kind of nervous I’m here.”
Dar stirred herself to some kind of skewed alertness. “Yeah.” She said, after a pause. “Tomorrow we have to go down to the Trade Center site and see what we can do about putting the country’s financial infrastructure back together.”
Shaun leaned forward and put his hand on the back of the seat Dar was in. “For real?”
Kerry half turned her head and nodded at him.
Shaun sat back. He blinked a few times, then exchanged looks with his coworkers. “I’m going to tell my ma you’re sending me to Niagara Falls.”
“Very good idea.” Kannan agreed. “Or maybe to Buffalo, so we can get some wings.”
Kerry managed a faint laugh. Then she let her head rest against Dar’s shoulder and tried to forget the cramps she was now experiencing. “Barrel over the falls sounds good right about now.” She muttered. “Hope the hotel has room service.”
“They better.” Dar sighed. “They damn sure better.”
They damn sure did. Dar ruffled her hair dry as she emerged from the bathroom, to find Kerry sprawled on the bed with her arm wrapped around a pillow and a cup of rum laced chocolate nearby. Her forehead had that little wrinkle it got when she was in some discomfort, and Dar fully empathized with her on that subject.
“Ugh.” Kerry reached over and picked the cup up, lifting herself up enough to take a sip from it, then putting it back down. “Life sucks.”
Dar draped her towel over the chair and climbed into the king sized bed, laying down behind Kerry and slipping one arm over her as she blew gently in her ear. “Could be worse.”
Kerry leaned back against her. Despite her current discomfort, she could appreciate the wonderful feeling of that solid connection and was very glad she could simply lay here with Dar wrapped around her and not have to move, or think, or yell at anyone.
Wonderful. “What a long freaking day.”
“Ultimately a successful one.” Her partner countered. “I’m glad we saw that connection through. At least we won’t have that on our plates tomorrow morning.”
“Only thing I want on my plate tomorrow morning is some French toast.” Kerry sighed. “But somehow I don’t think we’ll get that lucky.”
“Advil kick in yet?” Dar asked, her voice warm with sympathy.
“Not yet. But I think you’re enhancing it’s attempt.” Kerry told her. “It’s nice to just lay here. I’m trying not to think about having to get out of this bed tomorrow morning and go do what we did today again only in a much worse place.”
Dar exhaled. “I feel like we busted our asses all day and ended up getting the finger from the city. I appreciate they’ve having a crisis here, but we’re not the cause of it.”
Kerry folded her arm over Dar’s and exhaled. “Yeah. It’s a weird attitude. I think it’s because they’re just so pissed off at what happened, and they can’t lash out at the people who did it. So they’re taking it out on everyone else.”
Kerry smiled. “Hey, we’re going around saying we’re being mean because we’re having our periods. Cut them some slack, okay?”
Dar chuckled dryly. “I never needed that as an excuse.” She demurred. “Though it sure didn’t help today. I felt like doing some surgery on myself there for a while.”
Kerry grimaced in reflex. “Ouch.”
“Do you think we can get the financial stuff going, Dar? Is it going to be more of what we had to do today? That was kinda nuts.” Kerry said, after a brief pause. “I mean… “ She went briefly silent. “I don’t know what I mean.”
Dar pulled her a bit closer and felt her eyes drifting shut. “I don’t know.” She answered. “If it’s as big a cluster there as I think it is, maybe we don’t have to do anything. Or maybe we have to come up with some wild ass scheme no one’s thought of yet.”
“Or maybe someone else will be brilliant for a change.”
Kerry felt her own eyes closing, and she relaxed against Dar’s warm body, setting aside the aggravations of the day and letting them go for the moment. Far off, she could hear the late night sounds of the city, but already that too was fading, and before she could take another breath she was a sleep.
Dar was awake just a bit longer, savoring the peace and quiet after the long day. She felt Kerry’s body go limp against her and her breathing even out and hoped they’d be able to get through the night without any calls, or demands, or…
Screw it. She reached over and turned Kerry’s phone to silent. Then she closed her eyes, and tugged the covers up over them.
“Okay, so where are we.” Kerry blinked into the pallid dawn light coming in the window, half distracted by the scent of coffee nearby. “Mark, your three guys are here in the hotel with the rest of us.”
“Cool, yeah.” Mark answered. “I got an email from Shaun last night.” He paused. “He sure was glad to put his head down on a pillow.”
“Me too.” Kerry agreed. “So, what’s the status right now? Who’s here, who’s on the way here, and what kind of gear is everyone bringing.”
There was a soft knock at the door. Kerry went to mute the mic, but stopped when Dar appeared from the bathroom and waved at her, heading over to answer it. “Who the hell is knocking this early?” She grumbled under her breath.
“What was that, boss?” Mark asked.
“Nothing. Go on.” Kerry sighed. She leaned forward a little, grimacing as a cramp gripped her.
“Anyway.” Mark cleared his throat. “So we’ve got six guys and me in the truck, and we’re like one, maybe two hours out. I left a bunch of guys there, a half dozen showed up from different accounts yesterday to help out so I thought it was okay to take off out of there and head over.”
He sounded a touch nervous. Kerry half smiled, understanding the feeling from her first weeks working for Dar, and having to lay out her own decision making. “Great plan.” She said. “We need you here badly.”
Mark didn’t answer for a moment, then he audibly chuckled. “Thanks boss.” He said. “So we’ve got the camper, and we’ll pick up the sat units and the power trucks on our way down there. Where do we go?”
Ah, good question. “For now, come here .. well, to the Rock.” Kerry clarified. “We have to find out where the best place is to start working from. I know we’ll need stocks of cable and patch equipment, do you know if we’ve got that on the truck?”
“Hang on, lemme check.”
Kerry muted the mic and hissed a small curse as another cramp hit.
Dar came back over to the desk she was seated at and emptied the contents of a packet on the table. “Ah. I’m legal again.” She flicked her slim billfold with one finger and pushed the folder of identification cards around. “You don’t have to worry about me being deported.”
“That’s a relief.” Kerry managed a smile. “Though I have to admit razzing the admin at the office was pretty funny.”
“It was.” Dar sat down and extended her long, mostly bare legs across the floor. “Gut still hurting?”
“How’d you guess?” Kerry made a face, resting her chin on her hand. “I feel like dog poo.”
“No kidding.” Kerry turned her attention back to the phone as she heard rustling against the remote microphone. “I’m surprised we haven’t gotten called from Alastair or anyone yet this morning.”
Dar picked up her newly reunited cell phone and opened it, triggering it on and watching as it obediently started up. After a quiet moment, it started buzzing and rattling loudly, making her jump in startlement. “Yah!”
“Holy crap!” Kerry blurted.
Dar dropped the phone and it danced across the table in truly spectacular fashion. “Any idea how to bulk delete voice mail messages?”
“Okay, boss.” Mark came back on the line, then paused as he heard the noise on the other end. “What the heck’s going on there?”
“Um.. not much.” Kerry grabbed the phone and tossed it to it’s owner. “So what’s the scoop?”
“Let me put it this way, you got any pull with those guys at ADC? We used all the stuff they sent rebuilding the space at the old P, and we ain’t got any more.”
“Ugh.” Kerry uttered. “So we don’t have patch panels, or anything like that, right?”
She sighed. “What do we have?”
“Got some routers, some little switches, a couple spools of STP, couple spools of UTP, another big roll of that fiber the guys used last night, and a handful of RJ45 plugs.”
“My mother could probably do a three dimensional art project with that.” Dar commented, her eyes fixed on her now rattle free phone, as she thumbed through the alerts and messages. “Want some coffee?”
“Well.. I’d say let’s get ordering, but you know what Mark?” Kerry sighed.
“We got no idea what to order.” Mark supplied. “I know. I thought of that when I got up this morning and took over the driving again. I think we gotta get eyeballs on it, then figure it out.”
Kerry muted the mic. “Coffee sounds great, except it’s going to make my stomach ache worse.” She mourned.
“Figured you’d say that. I had them bring tea too. Want blackberry or honey lemon?” Dar didn’t even look up from her phone. “Mark’s right. Let’s wait for him to get here, then we all go down to the Trade center and see what we’ve got to work with.”
“I love you.”
Now Dar looked up, and smiled. “Blackberry?” Her eyebrows lifted. “And we’ve got some warm muffins. You up for that?”
Kerry merely rested her chin on her fists and gazed at her partner.
“Take that as a yes.” Dar set her phone down and sauntered back over to the room service tray.
“You hear that, boss?” Mark queried. “Hello?”
“Sorry.” Kerry wrenched her attention back to the phone. “That sounds like a plan, Mark. Dar was just saying we should wait for you to get here, then all go down together. You think you’ll be here by eight? It’s just ten past six now.”
“We can probably do that unless we get held up nearer to where you are.” Mark replied. “They going to let us in there?”
“We’ve got passes.” Kerry didn’t elaborate. “All right, you guys just head on up here. We’ll meet you at the office. “ She waited for the line to drop, then she closed her phone. “What else do we need to do?” She wondered. “Why do I feel like I’m so damned behind the eight ball today?”
Dar came back over with a plate containing a buttered muffin, and a steaming cup of tea. She set them down next to her partner’s laptop and leaned over, giving her a kiss on the top of her head. “I love you too.”
Kerry leaned against her. “Oh honey, I sure know that.” She murmured. “Thanks for breakfast.”
“No problem.” Dar straightened up and went to retrieve her coffee, pausing to watch the silent television screen full of frenetic activity and destruction. More people. More rubble. More talking heads. The scroll at the bottom spat a neverending series of numbers that she had to force herself to realize mean human beings either missing or dead.
It was strange. The whole thing had started to take on a surreal glaze and it was hard to concentrate on the facts that seemed to come at her from the screen in so many different directions. She watched shots of the president down near the still smoking rubble yelling into a bullhorn, an American flag flapping in the wind nearby.
Behind him, a fireman sat on a flat, twisted piece of iron, his head down, paying no attention, his elbows resting on his knees in exhaustion.
Dar nodded to herself a little, then she went over to the small table and picked up half a corn muffin, taking a bite of it as she tried to focus her mind on the task at hand. She glanced at her new laptop, open on the table, and watched the network metrics, a slowly healing graph of yellows morphing to greens rather than blotches of solid red.
The company was recovering. Things were starting to move back into normal patterns, and along with that her list of tasks shunted aside for the emergency was starting to build.
The world had held still, since that morning. Now, she had a sense, that her world, if not anyone else’s, was starting slowly to turn again and she had to admit a trace of impatience that she found herself tied up here, working a problem not remotely her own, heading towards a hopefully successful end that probably would get little notice and less credit.
Uncharitable, probably. Dar chewed her muffin and turned to watch the television screen again with a thoughtful expression. “Ker?”
“Hm.” Kerry looked up from her laptop, her cup of tea just returning from a trip to her lips.
“Can we get a list of our customers who are still out of service here?” Dar asked. “Let’s see what synergy we can get with getting them on the wire at the same time we’re relieving our obligation to the government.”
“We don’t have enough to do with that?” Kerry’s tone was, however, merely quizzical rather than accusing. “Sheesh.”
“Let’s just say we have a responsibility to them, and I’d like to walk out of here with a sense of accomplishment beyond some rubber chicken.” Dar replied. “Getting the job done for the markets, but leaving our own customers high and dry aint’ my way of doing business.”
Kerry smiled. “I want to be you when I grow up.” She stood up and popped the last of her muffin into her mouth. “Well, the day’s not getting any younger, so I guess I’ll go get my shower, and start getting ready to get ready.”
“Be right there with you.” Dar sat down to finish her muffin, leaning back and watching the dawn light slowly growing in the window, turning her back to the frenetic TV screen playing behind.
Kerry leaned back against the driver’s partition in the courtesy bus, watching the street roll by outside the window. “At least the traffic hasn’t built up so much again.”
“You got that right, ma’am.” The driver agreed. “People are still in shock, I think. I was talking to a man who came by the bus earlier. His son worked in one of those investment offices up near the top of one of the towers, and he just kept saying he was going down there to visit him real soon now.”
Kerry grimaced a trifle. “It’s hard to take it all in.” She murmured.
“Can’t imagine it myself. “ The driver agreed.
They were traveling east, heading towards the disaster site. Kerry eased forward and knelt, resting her arms on the front console as she started to see a dusting of ash on the streets, and the cars, and the buildings.
It was not that strange to her eyes, it resembled a light coating of snow more than anything. As they passed, she could see some shops open, some closed, some in an inbetween state where the rolling garage doors were half open and people were standing outside, talking or sweeping the ash.
The bus stopped at a stoplight, and she watched one man carefully sweeping his sidewalk clean of the stuff and in putting it into a tiny pile. He then knelt and pulled out a dustpan and hand brush, and whisked the ash into a small plastic bag, standing when he was done and looking at it.
Would he throw it away? Save it as a memory of the horror? Or sell it on Ebay? Kerry watched him put a twist tie around the top of the bag and take it inside, ducking under the half drawn door and disappearing.
Could go any of the ways. Kerry sighed. The bus started moving forward again, and on the right hand side, they passed a fire station. The big doors were wide open, and she looked inside, to find it completely empty of either trucks or people.
A prickle ran down her spine. She looked at the sign above it. “Ladder 11. Hope they’re all okay.”
The driver glanced at the empty station, then looked at her. “Ms. Stuart, beg your pardon, but no one here’s okay.” He said. “No matter if they walked out of that mess or not.”
True. Kerry saw the coating of ash getting thicker, as they turned left on to Houston Street. “What insanity.”
Dar came up behind her and looked over her shoulder. “Mess.” She said, succinctly. “Are we going to end up east of the site?”
The driver nodded, as he turned the big bus right. “Yeah, that’s what the cops told me to do. Take the FDR around the end of the island and come up from there. Too much destruction on the west side, and besides, they’ve got Battery Park there, wide open.”
Now through the walls of the bus, they could hear sirens, though as yet all they could see was the outline of Staten Island across the water. A pensive silence fell over the bus, as everyone picked a window and stared out of it.
“Mark still behind us?” Dar asked, in all that quiet.
The driver glanced in his mirror. “Yeah, he’s there.”
Dar watched out the window, at the thick plume of smoke rising from between the buildings, and the debris that was starting to line the road. “Jason, break out the case of radios, please. “ She ordered quietly. “And the masks.”
“Everyone just stay calm. This is going to be hard.” Dar added, after another brief pause. “Just stay focused, and remember that everyone here’s been through a hell of a lot worse nightmare than we’re about to experience.”
Alastair came up behind Dar and gazed past her, his face quietly grim. “Know something, Dar?”
“Wish you’d turned the White House down?”
Alastair’s lips pressed into a humourless smile. Then he turned and went back to the side window, seating himself on a stool and staring outside.
Kerry slowly stepped down from the bus, the third one out after Dar and Alastair had emerged to deal with the gun toting guardsmen who had flagged their convoy to a halt. She stood quietly for a moment, the wind at her back as she slowly scanned the area around them.
They had been pulled to a halt on State Street, just across from Battery Park. The roads were eerily silent, covered in thick white gray dust and debris, with cars and trucks parked every which way. She could look right up Broadway, and see more automobiles, and more dust, and windows blown out with curtains being sucked out and fluttering in the breeze.
She could smell burning rubber, and diesel oil, and the strong scent of the water. Fireboats and barges were churning just offshore, and a ferry was coming past, it’s decks packed with uniformed figures.
Small groups of police, firemen, and other workers were clustered around. Some were sitting in the grass of the Park, a few were collapsed with their backs against trees facing away from the city with their faces towards the water.
Mark came up next to her, his arms folded over his chest as he stood and looked around. “Man.”
“Yeah.” Kerry half turned, as a car with a siren blaring turned the corner and headed up Broadway, the sound echoing between the buildings and then fading.
“We going all the way up there?”
“Depends.” Kerry leaned forward slightly to watch Dar and Alastair, with the guard. Dar’s body posture was still relaxed, so it didn’t look like the situation was getting confrontational. “Let’s see where they’ll let us go to. I told our telecom friends we’d be trying to get over here before we left the Rock.”
“It’s like a ghost town down here.” Mark commented, then grimaced. “That was tacky bad. Sorry.”
“Don’t’ worry about it.” Kerry walked across the street and into the park, carefully skirting around a pair of firemen sitting in the grass.
One of them looked up at her as she passed. “Hey.” He called out. “Where’ d you come from?”
Kerry stopped and went over to him, kneeling down in the grass and letting her hands rest on one knee. “That bus over there.” She indicated the waiting caravan. “What about you?”
“Me?” The fireman looked exhausted, and his face was coated with the gray dust, outlining red rimmed eyes. “I’m from Connecticut. What’s the bus for?”
“It’s our company bus. We’re going to try and help to get communications back up and running down here.” Kerry readily explained.
The fireman snorted. “Good luck.” He picked up his radio, lying beside him, and let it drop. “Hear more static’n talk on these things.”
“All these tall buildings.” Kerry agreed.
Kerry turned, to see Dar motioning her over. “Well, time to go back to work. Nice talking to you.”
“Same here.” The fireman nodded.
Kerry got up and crossed the grass, glancing both ways in reflex before she crossed the road. She could feel the dust under her hiking boots, feeling like a light, powdery sand. She joined Dar and Alastair, who had moved closer to the bus. “We set?”
“Not quite.” Dar said. “They’re trying to move heavy construction rigs in – cranes, whatever – we can’t pull the trucks down yet. They told us to park them up here until we can move closer.”
“Nice fellah.” Alastair commented. “Thought we were going to have a dust up again, but this guy seemed like good folks.”
“Okay.” Kerry said. “So we walk up from here? Is that what you’re saying? I know John and the telcom folks are up nearer the site.”
“We walk.” Dar turned and faced the bus, lifting her hand and waving it. “We should pull the sat and power trucks up on that side street there. Get them out of the way.” She stared towards the bus, as Andrew appeared from behind it and headed her way.
Alastair put his hands in his pockets and regarded the scene. “I have a feeling this is the most pleasant we’re going to see today.” He said, giving Kerry a sideways look. “Shall we go get our togs? This stuff looks nasty.” He kicked a bit of the dust with his boot.
“Sounds like a good idea.” Kerry turned and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Everyone get your overalls and masks! Sync up radios!”
A swarm of activity started around the bus, as the driver got out and popped open the underneath storage, and techs started to drag big cases out and open them. Kerry joined Dar near the door to the bus, waiting their turn to pick up equipment.
“Dad’s getting the trucks parked.” Dar said. “You ready for this?”
“Dar.” Kerry leaned briefly against her. “How in the hell could anyone be ready for this?” She asked. “I’ve already got a knot in my gut that has nothing to do with having my period.”
Dar looked around, then grunted.
“Ma’am, I think this one will fit you.” One of the techs approached Kerry with a coverall and handed it and a mask to Kerry. “We didn’t have many this small.”
“Thanks.” Kerry smiled wryly. “I think.”
Dar eased past him and rummaged through the bin on her own, removing a set of the clothing. “I have to fight the wolves for mine, on the other hand.” She came back tow here Kerry was standing, leaning back against the bus and starting to pull the coveralls on. “Someone get the tool belts out! “ She added in a loud yell.
Kerry picked a spot against the bus next to her and got her first boot into the leg opening of the thick, dark green garment. The fabric was tightly woven and tough, and it reminded her just a bit of a military flight suit.
Not tremendously attractive, even with the company logo bold on the chest and across her back. She snapped the wrists closed, which thankfully were in fact her length, and bent to unlace her boots, tucking the legs into them and lacing them back up again.
She stood up and examined the mask Dar had handed her, a full face unit with surprisingly lavender filter cartridges poking out both sides of the bottom. She fitted it to her face, and found it relatively comfortable.
“Not bad.” She removed it and let it hang around her neck, as Dar handed her a smaller, mouth only mask. “Whats’s that for?”
“Wind’s right.” Dar said. “I figure we can leave these big ones off until we’re pretty close, but it doesn’t pay to take chances. You see that stuff? Ten bucks it’s full of silica particulate.” She pointed at the dust in the streets.
“Powdered glass?” Kerry remembered the fireman, and his red rimmed eyes. “Ouch.”
“Not to mention asbestos.” Alastair had come up next to them, clad in his own green outfit. “Nasty stuff.”
Andrew circled the bus from the other side, already draped in a tool belt and bearing a pack on his back. He had a mask gripped in one big hand and to all appearances absolutely knew what to do with it. “You gals.” He addressed Dar and Kerry seriously. “Keep them damn masks on. Hear?”
Dar had just finished clipping a utility belt around her, and fastening her radio to it. “Got it.” She said. “You too.” She adjusted the radio and clipped the transmitter to her lapel. “Check.” She keyed it. “Check. Mark?”
“Here.” Mark’s voice crackled back. “I did a radio scan. We’re clear on this frequency. Most of the rest of them are using lower band. I’ve got the base repeater up and going.”
“Run radio checks with everyone.” Dar looped her credentials around her neck and settled them under her collar. “Then let’s meet up near the head of that street there.” She pointed.
“Broadway.” Kerry supplied.
Dar looked at her. “Really?”
Her partner nodded. “It’s where it starts. Kind of like where US 1 starts in Key West.”
“Huh.” Dar muttered. “Okay, we’ll go try and find your telco folks and see what we can do in that area, then we can come back and see what’s left of our technical office down here. It’s just south of the Exchange.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Alastair said. “I told the gals to see what they could offer those poor guys out there after they get set up.” He indicated the firemen. “Can’t be easy.”
They started towards the edge of the park, as Mark’s voice crackled and echoed doing his checks. The guardsmen glanced at them, then waved as they went by, pausing at the end of the park for th entire group to gather.
Dar gazed down the street, and acknowledged the sense of nervous dread in her guts. This was something past her experience.
Something past all of their experience, save maybe her father. She looked at him as he came up to stand next to her, pale eyes flicking back and forth as he watched everything around them. “Dad?”
He focused on her. “Yeap?”
“Glad you’re here.”
Andrew reached out and clasped her shoulder, but didn’t say anything in response.
“We all here?” Dar asked, assuming the leadership role. “Everyone geared up and got radios? Listen up.” She turned to face them. “Stay together. No one go wandering around anywhere. This is a dangerous place.”
Everyone sobered, and regarded her seriously.
“I don’t’ know what we’re going to have to do. If it’s something I think is too dangerous, then we’re not going to do it. Everyone understand me? No one is risking their lives for someone’s stock options.”
Everyone nodded. Even Alastair.
“We’re not heroes.” Dar pointed past them. “Those guys over there? They’re heroes. They went into those damn buildings while they were falling around them to try and get people out. A lot of them are missing. We’re not here for that. “
One of the techs raised his hand. “Ms Roberts?”
“What?” Dar put her hands on her hips.
“We get the point.” The tech said. “And that’s really cool. But we all saw you on television hanging out of a ten story window putting kids in a basket.” He looked past her. “So can we just go see how we can help out?”
Kerry scratched her nose to give her an excuse to muffle the smile on her face.
Dar sighed. “Let’s go.” She turned and started up the street, with her stolid little army behind her, walking carefully around lumps in the road that could have been anything.
Kerry decided, after a few minutes quiet walking, that the settling of the dust over everything reminded her not so much of snow, but of the underwater landscape she and Dar so often explored together.
The dust had that kind of silty, grungy appearance to it. It draped over everything, the sidewalk, the cars, anything on the sidewalk – just like it did underwater over discarded concrete blocks, and forgotten anchors.
The odd gust of wind from behind them stirred it just as an errant fin would, an she’d only gone half a block before she’d put her smaller mask on, convinced she could taste the stuff on the back of her tongue.
There were workers and firemen, an isolated few, walking the other way, but they all looked exhausted and none of them paid attention to either their surroundings or the passing techs. Some had breathing masks, some had full face units like they did, a few had nothing at all protecting them and were rubbing at their eyes with the backs of their hands.
It was quiet. Far off, she could hear the sound of heavy machinery, the faint hoots of a big truck or something backing up, and the sudden, unexpected sound of metal against metal that rang in the middle of her ears, making them itch.
It was surreal. If she looked behind her, she could see the clear blue sky of an autumn day, with wind riffling over the waters of New York Harbor But ahead of her, she felt like she was going down into a dungeon, as the air seemed to be getting thicker, and more hazy, and the ravaged building fronts rose high on either side of them.
“Put your masks on.” Dar ordered, her voice startlingly loud.
Kerry removed her small one, and replaced it with the full face mask, adjusting the straps as it put a surprisingly comfortable veneer between her and the scene. The constriction of her vision almost seemed welcome, and after a minute she realized it was because it wasn’t really very different from her putting her diving mask on.
They turned a corner and headed west, and now rising in front of them were fire trucks and cars, beaten and half destroyed.
Kerry glanced to her left, to find Nan there behind her mask. “Hey.”
“This is unreal.” Nan said. “I feel like I’m in a scifi film.”
The sunlight filtered through the haze, outlining the destruction in a peculiar beauty. Kerry pulled her small camera from her pocket and paused, focusing and snapping a quick shot of it. “It’s definitely unreal.”
They walked along the center of the small cross street, and at the corner, turned right and faced north.
Everyone stopped in their tracks, the people in front like Dar and Kerry only barely avoiding being crashed into by those following until their eyes could take in what they saw and freeze their steps too.
“Holy shit.” Mark said, after a few moments of silence.
Dar found it hard to absorb what she was seeing. The entire end of the street she was on was blocked by a huge pile of twisted debris, with heavy smoke coming out of it’s depths and chunks of ruin tumbling down towards her amidst the wreckage of cars, trucks, and vans.
Kerry put a hand on her back, easing closer. “I saw this on television but my God, Dar.”
“Yeah.” Dar looked around. “Don’t think we can get through that way. I guess we better .. well, hell. I have no idea where we should go. Want to give your buddies a call, find out where they are?”
“Sure.” Kerry unclipped her cell phone and opened it, finding the number and dialing as she switched her headset over to the phone from her radio.
Andrew and Alastair had walked a little further down the street and now had stopped, next to an ambulance that had been flipped on it’s side and burned almost past recognition. They studied it and shook their heads.
“This is fucked up.” Mark finally commented. “This is really , really fucked up.”
“Yeah.” Dar said. “It is.”
“This is crazy.” ILS’s MIS manager said. “They should just move all the freaking banking stuff out to Wyoming. We’ve got lots of power and bandwidth there.”
Dar pondered that. Could they?
“Look at this place. Holy shit.” Mark shook his head. “Man. I can’t believe it.”
Dar mimicked the motion and studied the scene.
The shops on either side of the street were blown out. Windows had imploded, driven inward by the blast of roiling debris the tall buildings had funneled down away from the collapse, no where to go but out and down , scouring the area raw.
It smelled, Even though the mask and the filters, she could smell rot, mixed with electrical burn, and garbage from the surrounding areas that hadn’t been touched since Tuesday. Bags, covered in dust were on the sidewalk, buzzing with flies.
A puff of air brought a stronger scent to her, one of death, and she only just barely stifled a gag.
She realized she didn’t want to be here. Dar never minded reality, and considered herself a straightforward person, but there was such a thing as being too much in the moment and she thought this might be one of those times.
“This is one bad thing.”
Dar turned, to find her father at her shoulder. His voice was slightly muffled by the mask, but the somber look in his eyes wasn’t. “It’s hard to take in.” She admitted. “It’s like a bad scifi movie.”
“Yeap.” Andrew agreed. “Real bad things are hard to look at, and take serious.” He went on reflectively. “Cause your mind says, nah, that can’t be. Can’t be so.”
“But there it is.” Dar studied the smoking, twisted debris. “And the more I look at it, the more I wonder what the hell we’re doing here.”
Her father snorted a trifle.
“We can’t fix any of this, daddy.” Dar told him. “This is broken past my ability to make it right.”
Andrew studied her. “So what’re you all doing here?”
Dar folded her arms over her chest. “Good question.”
“Dar.” Kerry came back over. “Okay, they’re one street back down, and further in front of 2 World T… “ She paused. “Where 2 World Trade Center was. There’s a damaged subway entrance there.” She pointed to the street they’d just come from. “There, and then the first left.”
“Lead on.” Dar told her.
They trooped back down to the corner and headed back the way they’d come, turning again at the corner Kerry indicated and walking down this wider street, full of wreckage.
The building faces here were ravaged. Parts of the brickwork had been scoured off, and the fronts were crumbled in and sagging. One of the roofs nearby was draped in metal debris, dripping down into the street and forcing them to circle it to get past, the metal stained in a dark rust color that made Dar’s guts shiver.
Once past that, she could see a group of men clustered at the corner, near a set of stairs going underground. As they approached, the men at the edge of the group turned, and shuffled, splitting apart to allow two figures through from the center.
The one in front headed right for Kerry. “Kerry Stuart, you’re a welcome sight.”
Kerry extended a hand. “Hello, Charles.” She could see his red rimmed eyes behind the shield of his mask. “Did you find your brother?”
He hesitated, then shook his head. “They’re still looking at the hospitals in Jersey. A lot of guys were found over there today.” He said. “Glad you could come down here. We were just going to see how far we can see underground, maybe there’s clearance enough to get to the line pipes.”
“Okay.” Kerry half turned. “I brought some help.”
Charles nodded briefly. “Any help’s welcome.” He gave the rest of them a distracted look. “Do you have …oh, yeah, you do have flashlights. Great. We can get going then.” He gestured towards the half wrecked staircase downward. “See what we can see.”
Another man walked over, in a vest with Verizon on it. He had a small breathing mask on his mouth, but no other protection. “You people ready?” He asked. “We got a lot of other things to do, y’know? I got people chewing my ass right and left here.”
“Let’s go.” Charles motioned them all forward. The group by the stairs was a mix of Verizon staff, his own staff, a few people in different color protection suits with Sprint’s logo, and one with MCI Worldcom on the shoulder.
They all looked at the newcomers in question. Charles gestured vaguely at them. “ILS sent a team to see what they could to do help.” He said. “I figure the more help the better. “ They started carefully down the steps, which were full of dust and debris, the railings half collapsed. “Be careful folks.”
“Took them four hours to clear them this good.” One of the other men said. “We’re crazy to be going down here.”
Everyone turned their flashlights on, and the space erupted into a dancing, bobbing light show as the beams reflected against all the dust in the air, and what they were walking down into. Kerry felt like she was descending into some cave, and she felt Dar’s reassuring hand rest on her shoulder as they picked their way downward.
One of the Sprint techs was right in front of her, and he turned as they slowed, waiting for the people in front to continue. “Jake Davies.” He offered a hand. “Thanks for coming down. We got some cell sites up and running on generator, but it’s tough.”
“Kerry Stuart.” Kerry returned the grip. “We’ve got some satellite trucks and generator vans with us.”
The men closest to her half turned, their ears perking up. “Yeah?” One said. “We could sure use those.”
“Everyone could.” Dar answered. “Once we finish seeing what the needs are, then we can talk about who gets what.” Her voice indicated lack of debate on the subject.
The men looked at Kerry, then looked up at Dar.
“She’s the boss.” Kerry remarked. “Want to go on down? I think they’re waiting for us.”
The men turned and headed down the steps, with Kerry and her group behind them. It was very dark, and the ground was very uneven, and she reached the bottom of the stairwell with a sense of anxiety as the flashlights danced around the dark interior.
“Holy shit.” One of the men said, as they moved a little further inside. His light shone on the walls, which had big, gaping cracks in them, tile scattered all over the floor and sliding around with a brittle sound as boots kicked them.
They moved past the turnstiles cautiously. “We sure this ceiling’s all right?” One of the men from Sprint asked. “There’s a ton of concrete over our heads.”
“Look at that!” Another man said, shining his flashlight down the second set of stairs. A huge metal column was piercing the ceilng, extending down and bisecting the steps halfway down.
“Wow.” Charles shook his head. “I don’t’ know about this.”
“Aw, c’mon you little girls.” The Verizon man headed down the steps.
“Now there’s a right jackass.” Andrew started to push past Dar and Kerry, only to have his daughter casually block him with one arm. “Scuse me, rugrat.”
“Dad. Relax.” Dar started down the steps. “If asses need kicking, I’m capable of that.”
Kerry was glad of the banter, since the area around her was giving her the severe creeps. Aside from being dark, it stank, and despite the filters her eyes were watering from it. Her imagination was painting almost anything in the corners, and she was halfway afraid of looking too closely in the glare at what might be there.
She edged closer to Dar instinctively, hooking one finger in her partner’s belt as she followed her down the second set of stairs deeper into the earth, under the collapsed tower, down to the platform that was the subway.
There she had to halt, as Dar had halted, because everyone else had.
The flashlights couldn’t do the scene justice. “Hang on.” One of the Verizon men went over to one side, and worked a latch on something, accompanied by a long, screeching sound that made everyone jump.
A floodlight flickered on, dim with age. “Shit for batteries.” The man muttered. “But it’s better than nothing.”
The light blared down the tracks, showing the destruction. A subway train car was at the end of the platform, it’s top crushed in, the tunnel ceiling collapsed on top of it.
They were all silent for a moment. “Hope that was empty.” Kerry murmured.
On the other side of the tracks, the entire tunnel was collapsed on top of the platform, blocking any further travel in that direction. The tunnel leading east, away from the towers, was still intact, but a light shown down it displayed debris covering the tracks as far as the eye could see.
A rain of debris suddenly came down from the ceiling, rattling down on the tracks.
“Shit.” The Verizon man said. “This ain’t going no where. We can’t even get to the intake blocks.” He ran his flashlight along the back wall. The concrete and steel pylons were cracked and bent and somewhere, a faint hissing noise was going off.
“No.” Charles said. “Dead end.”
Another silence. “Probably a lot of them.” The Verizon man finally muttered. “Let’s get outta here. Waste of time.” He took a step backwards, as another rain of debris came down. “I tolja it would be. We should get back to the damn work site and do something productive.”
Rude or not, Kerry was totally in sync with the idea. She kept thinking she heard things moving in the distance, and she could feel her heart racing as the shadows seemed to move closer. She backed up and got on the steps, swallowing hard to keep her stomach down.
The upper level was almost bright by comparison. Hazy sunlight was coming down the steps to the outside world, and Kerry made a beeline for it, relaxing only when she knew her head was out from under the cracked ceiling and she could see sky above her.
“You okay?” Dar asked, climbing up the steps at her back.
“Yeah.” Kerry answered after a brief pause. “Just freaked me a little.”
Dar patted her back in comfort, as they emerged onto the street, faced with the pile of wreckage and the sound of sirens blaring suddenly.
They both jumped. Dar turned in a circle, her eyes scanning the area.
“Shit. Now what?” The Verizon man hauled up out of the stairwell after them, looking quickly both ways. On the next street, a police car growled by, it’s lights cutting the dusty air as the officer inside aimed a high beam light on one of the building fronts.
The Verizon man relaxed. “Looter.” He guessed. “Bastards.” He looked around again. “We should get the hell…”
“Away from here? I agree.” Dar turned and counted quickly, making sure all her team had emerged from the suway. “Tell you what. We’ve got a tech office a block or so over. No lights but we can sit and talk about what we can do there.”
The group gathered around her, most looking a bit shaken, and even Andrew assuming a somber expression on his face.
“You said you had sat trucks?” Charles said, finally. “I thought I heard you say that, Kerry.” He turned to look at her. “Right?”
“We do.” Dar answered for her. “So let’s go put our heads together and figure out a plan.” She suggested. “Maybe we can start from the other end, at the Exchange, and see where that takes us.”
After an awkward pause, Charles nodded, though the rest just looked at Dar. “Sounds like a good idea.” He ventured. “Sorry, I didn’t… I don’t think we were introduced.”
“My manners are slipping.” Kerry shook herself out of her funk. “Sorry, Charles. This is Dar Roberts. Dar, this is Charles Gant, the technical executive on our account.” She paused, as she took in Charles wide eyed expression and the sudden, startled looks from the other men.
It would have been funny, if it had been any other situation. Kerry just couldn’t appreciate the humor at the moment. “Let’s go folks. You can gawk later.” She said. “We need to get out of here.”
“Git.” Andrew started herding them towards the cross street. “Just git.”
Another siren started screaming behind them, and they retreated around the corner, just as a second joined it, and then a third, rending the air as though the sound were chasing them.