His own saliva wakes him up.
The icy patch on his face tips him out of the warmth he mustered from the newspapers pitched against the restaurant grate in the alleyway. Gabe checks the clockstrip he filched from a street vendor. 1/10/2015… 7:22 a.m… 18 degrees F…
A shelter tonight. He hates being locked in, but it beats frostbite. More from the strip: Center City closed to traffic… Prez speech at Independence Hall.
Good. Whenever downtown is crowded the cops don’t bother hassling vagrants. Maybe he’ll slip into the men’s at the 30th Street Station and wash up. He checks the compartment inside his jacket. Two soap tablets, six shaving capsules, a few toothpaste buds. No food, meds, or money, but in the voicelock compartment closest to his heart he still has a hologram of Julia, smiling. He’s also held onto every micronscript his mother sent since he deployed to Iraq. Five years’ worth on one wafer. He last responded two years ago. That didn’t stop her; but he can’t imagine going home, making the effort, trying to pretend he’s the same person.
A woman’s smile. Before she stopped wanting to please him, Julia would dress up in vintage clothes, parrot-bright slinky dresses, impractical high-heeled shoes, lacy bras and panties. “I’ll slip into something uncomfortable,” she’d laugh.
The last time he saw her was two years ago, after he got back to the States. When she agreed to meet him, he hoped she’d changed her mind. She’d changed more than that. She’d moved south (she wouldn’t tell him where) to train to be an aquanaut. Coming out of the alleyway, he shakes his head. Julia always hated the water. Well, she did what he wanted when they were together; maybe she’s generous at her own expense. ‘Cause when she left she didn’t take a thing besides his heart. He loves her enough to wish her well.
It’s snow-bright on the street, the sun glancing off the white plastic carapace of a drobot picking its way down the sidewalk. Drobes are designed to look friendly, but, as Gabe well knows from the Hokusai Mark IV Trotters he retrofitted in Afghanistan, they can deliver a taser jolt as easily as a pizza. This one, though, carries a see-through crate of red sta-hot boxes of Philly’s Best Cheesesteaks. Stomach rumbling, he trails the mechanism.
Down the block, the cheesesteak drobe is stuck behind a troop of Youth Scouts blocking the intersection. Gabe snatches a National Times from a kiosk and closes in. He’ll do an Indiana Jones on the thing, the paper for a sandwich, without it sensing the switch. Gabe is just about to make the swap when it hits him: there’s no scent. Here he is, inches away from a stack of warm meat and cheese, and no aroma. Nothing. Nada. He aborts the mission, pivoting away. Then he follows the drobe at an oblique angle, checking it out.
When it motors past a building with a façade of brassy polarizing glass, the white plastic carapace takes on a bronze sheen, revealing a greenish stain spreading over the drobe’s hindquarter. Might just be a spray of lubricant from a broken valve. But this stain has an odd pattern, traveling horizontally as well as vertically. Plus, why isn’t ArToo radioing a maintenance request to its command center? And who orders cheesesteaks at 7 A.M. anyway? No one. He flashes back to a heat-laden workshop in the war zone, when his bomb squad gingerly disarmed a drobe. That’s when they discovered its sac of placentoleum, the illegally engineered amniotic fluid designed to protect a bio-bomb egg’s fragile shell as well as obscure its detection until it was detonated in a crowd, unleashing a deadly virus.
It’s headed for Independence Hall. Gabe’s running after it now, shoving people aside. Two guys grab him, but he fights away. Same thing happened in Tel Aviv last year. A drobe deposited an egg at an outdoor festival, but a little girl picked it up to show her mother. The terrified woman held her daughter, who in turn held the egg for nearly two hours until a hazmat team freed them.
Gabe lunges for the machine’s kill-switch, but it tases him and he staggers back. He must have triggered a failsafe device because the drobot drops its payload, tottering away. Gabe fights his twitching body, scooping up as much as he can of the placentoleum along with the bomb.
He cradles the thing in his trembling, gooey hands, screaming until he’s hoarse for everyone to get back, it’s a bomb. People give him wide berth but the cops are closing in, as if he’s the bomber. He shouts “Tel-Aviv! Tel-Aviv!” and an old man gets it and explains. The force quickly clears the area. A reedy-voiced guy talks to Gabe through a bullhorn two hundred meters away.
“You okay, soldier?”
“I could use a cup of coffee.”
“How you gonna drink it, son? No hands free.”
“My name is…” His voice shakes. He clears his throat. “My name is Gabe.”
“Gabe, you just hold on, okay?”
Surrounded by abandoned cars and emergency vehicles, the only movement Gabe sees is the satellite tower sprouting from behind one of the squad cars. Of course. He’s ‘breaking news’ all over the net. His mom could be watching right now. Or Julia.
If he lives, he’ll be a hero; if he dies, a martyr. He has to laugh. This is what he thought he’d be doing in Afghanistan. Being brave, saving lives. Captain Frigging America. Instead, it was picking up the wounded, burying the dead. The ones who didn’t make it, kids most of them, barely in their twenties, all said the same thing at the last. Madre, Mamma. Mother.
“Call my mother before she sees this on the news.” Gabe recites the number.
“Sure thing. Any message?”
“Never mind. I guess I’ll tell her myself.”
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