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Chapter 30


Chapter 30

Nearly eight months after he'd returned from India, Tom found himself in rural Louisiana, at a small town meeting. It was for an unusual reason, to say the least.

By now, global response to the catalyzer and to the recent dome completion had been pretty clear and very predictable. Heavily populated areas like major cities had the most to gain from having clear air, and had generally been in favor. Rural areas had been against this new technology in general. Somehow, being able to breathe had become political.

There were stories all over the internet. Benign ones claimed that being exposed to the catalyzer triggered ADD in their children, and more serious ones ran the gamut between claiming the catalyzer was killing livestock off, to assuming that the catalyzer was secretly coding people by the billions. Tom had examined the auto-coder Vicky had mentioned. It did seem a bit sinister, but that was nothing compared to the rumors circulating on the web.

The town of Dunhall seemed to be one of the few exceptions to this general rural distrust of coded people. The mayor here, Rene Hofstadter, had been an outspoken supporter of coded people for some time. Rene had invited Tom to speak on behalf of the Coded Nation, and when he'd first heard that, Tom had actually been flattered.

Then Rene had announced that he would go through a coding surgery, on live tv.

It turned out he was also planning on a gubernatorial run for Louisiana next year, and that this was a prequel for it. He claimed that the people of his great state deserved a politician who would never lie to them, and that only a coded governor could be guaranteed to live up to that standard.

The whole thing was ridiculous. All codings took place in the Coded Nation for this very reason. People had to be able to trust their doctor, and only coded doctors could be trusted to perform such an important procedure. The idea of an uncoded doctor doing such a thing on live tv was almost laughable back in Scheria. Still, there was a chance that Hofstadter had stumbled onto success, so Vicky and Abner had asked Tom to come here. Devin had come along as well, for a medical analysis.

They'd gotten into town last night, but Devin had gone ahead and in secret. One of Tom's old contacts had helped sneak Devin into the hospital where Hofstadter was recuperating. He wasn't well known as a coded person, and he had enough medical experience to fake being a doctor there. He only stayed long enough to scan Hofstadter's skull while he was sleeping.

Now Devin was in the crowd, as a bandaged Hofstadter addressed his people. He clapped along with everyone else when Tom was introduced, and sat back down when he took the podium. "Thank you for your generous invitation, Mr. Mayor," Tom began, trying to project to the back of the crowd. "I appreciate the chance to speak to everyone here in person, given the importance of what we all saw on tv last week."

"Coded people have started to gain a reputation these last few years, for being trustworthy and reliable mediators," he put in a little background for them. "Everyone knows that people from the Coded Nation don't give a damn about money, and therefore don't have a stake in either side. They're the ultimate outsiders, and while most of them are pretty blunt, they'll always be straight with you. You can count on that."

Tom glanced over at Hofstadter. "You have to be pretty brave to go through brain surgery.. and to do it on camera is quite the gesture. It's not something I've been able to do yet, that's for sure. Unfortunately, that surgery we all saw on tv was a fraud. You're not coded, Mr. Mayor. You just wanted people to think you were."

Hofstadter blanched and took a step forward. "Now see here, I won't be insulted-"

"A coded friend of mine examined you," Tom cut him off loudly. "Your skull was never opened up, and you have no connections extending into your brain. All you have is a metal plate glued to the top of your head!"

Tom took a deep breath, and refocused his attention on the crowd. "I know this comes as a shock to all of you, and I'm sorry if it's also a disappointment. The Coded Nation has been completely absent from American politics for years now, and he was gambling that they wouldn't call him out on this bullshit. It must have seemed like a safe bet, but while the Coded Nation does want to stay clear of our conflicts, they will not let people use the codes to advance their own personal agendas. I regret that this had to be done publicly," he looked at Hofstadter again briefly, "but it's no different than lancing a boil. A little pain now to save a bunch of pain later."

At that, Tom abruptly left the stage and walked out of the building. Devin joined him on the way, and they could hear loud voices raised behind them. He wasn't sure what Hofstadter's mayoral future looked like, but his gubernatorial one was probably dead. Then again, in a country where so many people would rather elect a criminal than a member of the opposite party, anything was possible.


When Toby got on the bus that morning, he took his usual seat next to Ray. Based on his uncoded friend's questions yesterday, he'd done some reading and was now prepared to discuss coded philosophy. He was about to get started when a murmur began from the back of the bus.

They both looked that way. "What's going on?" Ray asked curiously, as they saw the other passengers all staring out the window to the west.

"I'm not sure," Toby answered after a moment, standing and taking a look for himself. The sky had turned a shade of light green in the past few seconds, and it seemed to be getting darker.


"What's going on?" Vicky said wearily, rubbing at her eyes. She was in the Uptown offices, having just been woken and brought here by one of the Engineering staffers. Apparently whatever reason they'd had to allow her only her four hours of sleep was urgent.

"We're not sure," Abner answered, looking out the window at the pre-dawn dimness. "Half an hour ago, I was on a call with the Secretary of the Interior over in California, when he just hung up on me. I tried calling him back, but there's no answer. Just a few minutes ago our sources in Washington said the US just went to Defcon 1. I've tried to reach half a dozen people in the Cabinet, but no one's taking my call."

Defcon 1? Vicky felt a chill. That kind of military readiness had never happened before. From what she knew, the President was also in California, preparing to give a speech that morning to the people of San Diego.

"We got something," one of the technicians to their left said, pulling up a datastream on his computer screen. "They just repositioned four satellites over the Rockies and the Midwest. Looks like they're all IceSAT models. Those are satellites designed specifically to measure atmospheric density and composition."

"Atmospheric density? Could this have something to do with the catalyzers?" Vicky realized aloud. "How many catalyzers do we have in California?"

"Just one," Abner responded after a second. "It's in Los Angeles, but it should be inactive. It was used four months ago, and then again last month." He looked back at the technician. "We have a NOAA satellite, right? Can we take a look over there?"

The technician shook his head. "Mississippi is about as far west as we can look with that bird." He paused. "I.. could try to tap into their feeds. If they set this all up in a hurry, they might not have updated their security, and IceSAT isn't known for high-end military encryption."

Vicky and Abner shared a concerned look. Hacking into a US government satellite might be interpreted as an act of aggression. Still, given the circumstances, it looked like they had much bigger fish to fry than the Coded Nation. She nodded, and Abner looked back at the tech. "Do it."

As he got to work, Vicky regretted that she'd never learned the young man's name. His code looked recent. Perhaps he'd just now finished orientation before coming to work Uptown. There had been more and more young science and technology experts coming here these days.

"Got it," he finally said, and pulled up the westernmost feed, showing a map of the continental US.

"Good God," Vicky breathed, staring at the screen.

An enormous green circle was blotting out most of California, as well as parts of Nevada and Arizona. It extended out over the Pacific, and into the Baja peninsula. Inside the circle, yellow-green swirls of cloud were moving in a slow pattern across the sky.

"What the hell is that thing?" Abner asked harshly.

Apparently unable to answer, the young man switched feeds. The second satellite was looking more to the east, and it was closer to the ground. It showed the edge of the circle over Arizona, and that the edge was moving. "Whatever it is, it's getting bigger," he said unnecessarily, running some quick calculations. "It's expanding at about 60 miles per hour. And it's not slowing down."

The entire room was transfixed by the sight for a few long moments. Vicky was suddenly aware that Fai and James were here too, and Hamedi was entering behind them.

Abner seemed to come out of the shock first. "When all this started, I asked them to call some of our coded friends living in southern California." He looked over to the other side of the room. "Any luck?"

One of the other engineers shook his head. "We've tried forty different numbers, but no one's picking up. The phones are working fine.. it's just there's no one around to answer them."

"Then we have to assume that whatever that green gas is, it's unbreathable," Vicky concluded, hearing how dead her voice sounded.

"How could this have happened?" Abner demanded, looking at Fai. "It's got to be the catalyzer, but how can we undo this?"

Fai shook his head helplessly. "I don't know. The catalyzer was designed to split molecules apart, not convert them into something else! We don't even know what that gas is, and unless we can reach someone underneath the cloud, we can't find out! I have no idea how it's being created, or how to reverse it! Certainly not in time to help anyone out there."

Out there. Tom and Devin were still in New Orleans, and her dad was up in Minnesota! "If we can't stop it, then we have to prepare for it," Vicky put in quickly, trying to snap everyone out of their shocked state. She looked over at the other engineer. "Get in touch with Elysia, and let them know what's going on. We both have to check our domes and make sure they're airtight. At 60 mph, that wave will be here in a few days, so we have to hurry."

Abner nodded, took a breath and then turned to Fai. "Doc, get one of the boats and hurry out to the underwater colony. There's no way we can finish that dome in time, but they have something we'll need. Get the oxygen harvesting gear and bring it back here right away. I want you to set it up here and in Elysia before the gas gets here."

Fai hesitated. "I'm not sure that's even possible. Scheria has over five thousand people, and the O2 splitter is only built for a few hundred. I have several other prototypes, but they haven't been tested yet!"

"No time like the present." Abner looked back at Hamedi and James. "You two need to retask the Need Board. Everyone in the city who has any experience with engineering or metalworking needs to be out on the walls right now, making sure they're airtight. We need to check the sea-door as well, so that when it closes, it keeps us safe. Unless that conversion process can affect seawater as well, in which case we're all screwed."

"I don't think it can," Vicky said, pointing back at the screen. "We can still see waves and crests through the cloud. It looks like it's gas only."

"Good. Oh, and anyone who knows how to pilot a drone will be valuable too. They need to come in here and check for cracks in the upper levels of the dome." He paused. "Can drones even fly in that gas?"

Vicky thought back to her earlier designs. "They should be fine. They're electrical, so they don't need oxygen. I doubt it'll be good for them, but it's better than on human skin. We should outfit the maintenance hatches on the shore, too, to double as airlocks. Assuming we survive the wave, we need to be able to send people out in suits to check for damage."

Again, there was that sense of overwhelming pressure in the room. So dire that it couldn't be ignored, but also couldn't be comprehended at first. "Move it, people! Every second counts!" Abner insisted, and everyone seemed to snap out of it.

He caught Vicky's arm as she turned away, and lowered his voice. "When word of this gets out, there will be a stampede of refugees coming to the Coded Nation. We need to prepare for them, and I want you in charge of that. You have more experience with relief work than anyone else."

Reluctantly, Vicky nodded. "I'll reach out to my old crew. Most of them should still be living here."

She had one more thing to do first, as she left the room. Pulling out her phone, she dialed Tom.


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