Chapter 2 of I, Eschaton

As I, Eschaton draws towards publication, here’s Chapter 2 in its glory. Here, Christopher Miller and Sarah Grey learn about the attack on the Wilshaw Foundation…and so does Eschaton.

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Chapter 2

Pagan in Repose

Pain was an old friend. It had crept up on him the way the seasons did, obvious only in hindsight. After a lifetime in the military, training at the outer limits of human performance and serving in hotspots around a world two steps away from chaos, his body more closely resembled someone five, maybe ten years older than his real age of thirty-two. Not his muscles or his outward appearance, rather the worn cartilage in his knees and spine, the knobby bone spurs in his neck and ankles, lingering pains from scars and old injuries. And even that was largely due to superior conditioning, the finest sports medicine Cascadia had to offer, and medical nanomachine treatments.

Christopher Miller rolled, stiffly, agonizingly, out of bed. At least he didn’t groan this time. Sarah Grey snoozed on the other side of the bed, oblivious. The detritus of the previous night—discarded clothes, kicked-off shoes, toys—lay scattered across the floor. He smiled. They’d spent all of yesterday hiking and practicing combatives and shooting, but they still had energy for other…recreational…activities when they got home, late in the evening.

Miller swept a clear path with his feet, pulling on his T-shirt and shorts. He slipped on a pair of moccasins, filled up a soft plastic water bottle, clipped on his chest pack and went outside.

There was just enough light to see by. On his front porch, he stretched and twisted, rotating and swinging his joints, easing them into the full range of motion. He flowed into leg-lifts, butt-kicks, lunges, half-squats, push-ups, smoothly raising his heart rate, letting blood nourish his limbs.

Morning exercise began proper. No fancy gym here. Out in the wilderness he preferred bodyweight movements, working every muscle from head to toe. One-arm push-ups, pistol squats, bridges, handstand push-ups. On a nearby tree he had hung a pair of gymnastic rings. There he did one-arm pull-ups, hanging leg raises, levers, L-seats. He went full-bore for forty-five concentrated minutes, stopping only long enough to shift to the next set. At the end of the routine, his muscles burned pleasantly, and his joints quietened their protests.

He chugged down a shot of water, clipped the bottle to a D-ring on his pack, and ran. Not jogged. Ran. On active duty he ran in full kit; today, he made up for the weight with extra speed. He sped past his neighbors, jumping over or swerving around obstacles, practicing the art of natural movement as he went along. The Greenhaven EcoPark was the next generation of trailer parks, a self-contained ecosystem of greenery and small wild animals, with a small but growing population of humans housed in what the advertisers called LifePods. The pods were glorified trailers the size of shipping containers, but each was self-sufficient. They had solar globes on the roof for sunlight, water catchment and reclamation systems, waste composting tanks, and satellite-based Internet connections. They were also cheap—cheap enough that he could live out here for three years what it cost to live in the big city for one, and still have a nice hunk of change left over.

He took a long, winding route around the park, running until the sun was up and the sky turned blue. People bustled about, tending to their business. Microfarmers inspected their livestock and produce. Artisans trekked to their workshops. Some people fired up generators while others cleaned out their reclamation systems or just maintained their homes.

Approaching his home, he slowed to a brisk walk. His lungs were aflame. Pain spiked through his right side, coursing through flesh where shrapnel had torn through a week ago. He winced. The doctor had told him to take it easy. Maybe so, but he was coming up to the end of his medical leave and he needed to be at a hundred percent.

Sarah was waiting for him. Her cheeks were flushed, her skin shining with sweat. They both knew she couldn’t possibly keep up with him, but tried to coordinate their schedules anyway. While Miller was out running, Sarah had busied herself with a piloga routine, some strange hybrid of Pilates and yoga. She smiled at him, and together they went through a series of cool down stretches. More out of companionship than necessity, but Miller figured his joints would appreciate it.

They shared a shower in the bathroom. It was cramped, but both were used to small spaces. Miller stayed to brush his teeth, while Sarah made the bed and cleaned up.

They made breakfast together. Omelets made from free-range chicken eggs, mixed with capsicum, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and full-fat strained yoghurt. Sarah had hers with salt, Miller had his with pepper. All the food was sourced from nearby farmers, either purchased directly or at the local farmers’ market. It reminded Miller of his childhood—but, unlike his early days in New Washington, Greenhaven’s agricultural areas were managed with more care, and so far hadn’t suffered any crop failures or die-offs.

“How’s breakfast?” she asked.

Miller took an experimental bite. “Perfect, as usual.”

She beamed, and dug in.

At which point, Miller’s ebrain chimed. He had an incoming conference call, from a blocked number.

“I’ve got a call,” he said.

She arced an eyebrow. “Me too.”

They looked at each other for a moment.

“Eschaton,” they said simultaneously.

Anonymous conference calls were the artificial intelligence’s preferred, and perhaps only, means of communicating with them out here. They’d met the AI separately under trying circumstances. When Miller came home to recover from his last mission, Eschaton had contacted them together. Miller and Sarah had a few strained conversations with it since then, with the AI trying to learn more about humans and the humans attempting to elicit more personal information from Eschaton.

“It wants something from us,” Miller said.

“Let’s find out.”

They accepted the call.

“Good morning,” a flat digital monotone said. “I trust you slept well?”

The AI was learning to be polite. Miller didn’t see a reason to discourage that. “Yes, thank you. And are you doing fine?”

“Yes. Have you read the news?”

“Not yet. What’s up?”

“Take a look.”

In the living room, the holovision projectors fired up, displaying the home page of Cascadia News Broadcast Network. The images expanded, letting Miller read the text over Sarah’s shoulder without having to squint.

“Holy shit!”

“What’s wrong?” Sarah asked.

“Take a look.”

She turned around.

“Holy SHIT!

The headlines were splashed across the screen: ‘Terrorists attack Wilshaw Foundation, killing 108’.

“How the hell…?” she said.

Miller alternated between his omelet and the news, chewing his food as carefully as he did the words. A group of terrorists attacked the Wilshaw Foundation, gunning down everybody inside the office and leaving behind booby traps. They delayed emergency services with a cyberattack on the dispatch system, and detonated a car bomb outside 38 Vandemeer Plaza. The Sons of America have claimed responsibility.

Sarah’s face went pale. The rest of her froze.

“Sarah, are you okay?”

“Oh. My. God.” She turned around, burying her face in her hands. “My God.”

Miller went to her. She pressed her face against his shoulder. “I…I could have been there. If you hadn’t…I’d…”

He hushed her, wrapping his arms around her. “Shh. It’s okay. You’re safe.”

The Sons of America had targeted Miller, among other special operators, during their resurgence. When the Army bureaucracy disqualified Sarah from protection, Miller had single-handedly moved her to Greenhaven. She was still on a leave of absence from the Foundation. If she hadn’t…

“That is incorrect,” Eschaton said.

“What do you mean?” Miller asked.

“The Wilshaw Foundation was developing policy recommendations for the Federal government. The Sons of America have destroyed all data relating to their activities in the Yellow Zone, and killed a significant number of the Foundation working group investigating the SOA’s activities in the Yellow Zone. I extrapolate that the surviving members of the SOA policy working group is at risk. Including Professor Sarah Grey.”

Sarah swallowed. “Did anyone else from the Foundation survive?”

“I am currently cross-referencing casualty reports with employee payrolls and documentation. It appears that everyone inside the Wilshaw Foundation was killed in the attack. Only the ones not physically present in the office survived.”

Sarah nodded, mainly to herself. Miller felt her jaw clench. “What are we going to do?” she asked.

“Shelter in place,” Miller said. “If the enemy’s going after the Foundation, we need to hole up and remain underground.”

“You can’t stay here forever,” she said.

Miller sighed. That was true. Any moment now, the Unit could recall him to duty if they decided their manpower needs superseded his medical profile. More than that, though, he wanted…needed to get back into the fight. Cascadia was on the verge of war. The Cascadian Defense Forces were mobilizing to embark on the largest counterinsurgency campaign in the short history of the Republic. He had to be out there, at the tip of the spear alongside the Unit. That was his calling in life, and he couldn’t do that sequestered in a tiny pod.

“Master Sergeant Miller, I require your assistance,” Eschaton said.

An all-powerful AI needs my help? Miller wondered. Out loud, he said, “What kind of assistance?”

“I will not tolerate the presence of the Sons of America in the Green Zone. They have attacked me once, and they will attack me again. I request your help in eliminating this cell.”

“You can’t do that by yourself?”

“There is only so much I can do without being discovered.”

Only a handful of people knew Eschaton existed. It was afraid that if it revealed itself, the public would clamor to delete Eschaton, legally or otherwise. As the SOA had demonstrated before, it was effectively defenseless against physical penetration of its network nodes. Miller didn’t know how much of that was justified, how much of it was paranoia—and how much was just an attempt to manipulate him into doing its bidding.

“There is also only so much one man can do.”

“The Combat Studies Unit has attached a team to assist the National Security Service in investigating the attack. Your team.”

Miller’s eyebrows shot up. “The hell?” He frowned. “That’s not a coincidence, is it?”

“No.”

“You did it.”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“The national military and security bureaucracy is sufficiently large that paperwork may be generated and passed on without anybody knowing its true origin.”

Miller folded his arms. “Well, then. My men should be able to help out, no? What do you need me for?”

“To eliminate the cell.”

“Meaning, to kill them all.”

“If necessary.”

Miller snorted. “Get someone else to play your games. I’m not interested.”

The holoscreen cleared, displaying official looking paperwork.

“This is a recall order,” Eschaton said. “The Unit’s medical specialists have decided that your wounds do not preclude limited duty in the Green Zone. In the interests of team cohesion, they are recommending that you be returned to duty to assist the investigation.”

“Goddammit Eschaton!”

“This was not my creation,” the AI continued, speaking a little more slowly. “Colonel Ryan Kincaid ordered the medical review. Very soon, the Unit will be contacting you. I am merely providing advance notice.”

Sarah licked her lips. “The Unit can do this?”

“National security supersedes individual security,” Miller muttered.

“Our interests coincide,” Eschaton said.

Miller’s lips compressed into a narrow line. “You don’t say. Looks like I’ll be popping back into Cascadia, hooking up with the team, and developing the situation.”

The last phrase was deliberately vague. If the SOA left the boundaries of the Green Zone, where the laws and customs of civilization applied, they were fair game for the military. The Unit, in particular. Attaching a full team to the investigation meant that the moment the investigation developed actionable intelligence outside the Green Zone, the Unit could swing into action without delay.

And Sarah didn’t need to know that.

“Let me come with you,” Sarah said.

“No,” he said reflexively.

Sarah frowned, crossing her arms. “Why? It’s too dangerous?”

“It’s not that. You’re a civilian, with no special skills or training. How exactly are you going to contribute?”

She tapped her skull. “The Wilshaw Foundation uses a closed peer-to-peer messaging network for secure internal communications. A network I have access to. I can help contact the survivors and coordinate the response. And.” She grinned. “And. Until we know otherwise, at this moment I am Cascadia’s foremost expert on the Sons of America. You need someone who knows how they think, their mindsets, their preferred strategies. Eschaton, you can doctor paperwork to have me attached to the task force, correct?”

“Yes.”

Miller took a deep breath. Let it out. And realized that, yes, he needed her too. She wasn’t being overt about it, but he knew that she resented the way Eschaton had forced people to do its people. Separated, Eschaton could control them. Together, they stood a chance against its machinations.

“Fine. But I have operational control. Out in the field, if I or anybody from the Unit give an order, you will obey immediately.”

She grinned impishly. “Yes milord.”

“You will be armed at all times where practical. You will wear body armor if directed to. If the situation gets too hot, you will be evacuated to a safe house.”

“Yes dearest.”

“We won’t be babysitting you. You’ll have to look out after yourself. If you can’t keep up, you will be left behind. Or kicked out.”

“Yeeeeeeeees deeeeeeear.”

“Good girl.” He sighed. “Don’t make me regret this.”

“I won’t.”

Chapter 2 of I, Eschaton
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