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"It's time, Dad," Kyle said.
He handed his father a syringe of luminous amber fluid. Tom Baldwin turned the syringe over and over as he contemplated the promicin shot in his hands. For most people, the illegal injection offered fifty-fifty odds of gaining a remarkable preternatural ability or dying a horrible death. But Tom was destined to survive the shot, or so he had been told. According to his son, the future meant for him to gain an ability of his own.
"Your ID, sir?"
The voice snapped Tom out of his memory, bringing him back to the present. Knuckles rapped against the driver's-side window of his blue Chrysler sedan. He rolled down the window and handed over his ID to one of the border guards posted at the barricade. A damp January breeze invaded the car, as well as the gassy odor of auto exhaust. Dozens of vehicles were backed up on I-5 while they waited to be allowed to exit Seattle. Judging from the boxes and suitcases strapped to the roofs of many of the cars, as well as the ubiquitous U-Haul trailers, many of them were leaving for good.
Less than two months had passed since an outbreak of airborne promicin had ravaged Seattle, killing over nine thousand people, and the city had yet to fully recover from the disaster. The fact that another nine thousand-plus people had been endowed with unnatural abilities against their will had only added to the instability. Not surprisingly, thousands of survivors, especially ordinary people with no special abilities, had chosen to seek safer pastures elsewhere. Over four million people had once lived in the Seattle metro area; nearly a third ofthat number had now pulled up stakes.
Tom couldn't blame them. Seattle was a dangerous place these days.
And getting more so all the time, he thought.
The guard examined Tom's credentials. A high-collared, pine-colored uniform with silver trim identified her as one of Jordan Collier's self-appointed Peace Officers. "NTAC, huh?" The woman's face hardened; the National Threat Assessment Command was not exactly popular with the followers of Jordan Collier, the undisputed leader of the Promicin-Positive Movement, which had largely taken over Seattle, now known in some circles as "Promise City." During the disaster, his people, who were immune to the plague, having already been exposed to promicin, had stepped forward to maintain order and had yet to surrender Seattle back to the authorities. Although Collier had yet to officially declare the city's independence, and had refrained from taking any formal title or position, he and his acolytes were pretty much in control of the city's government and infrastructure. As far as the Movement was concerned, NTAC, a division of Homeland Security, was part of the oppressive old order they had usurped and best relegated to the dustbin of history.
"That's right," Tom said. He couldn't help wondering what kind of a special ability the guard possessed; all of Collier's people had been changed by promicin in one way or another, and believed they had a sacred destiny to change the world. Even the name of the disaster was controversial. Collier and his followers referred to it as "The Great Leap Forward." Most everyone else called it "fifty/fifty."
He kept his voice neutral, not wanting to provoke her. The guard did not appear to be armed, but that hardly mattered where p-positives were concerned. For all Tom knew, this woman could kill him with a thought. "I think you'll find my papers are in order."
The guard squinted at his ID. "I suppose," she conceded grudgingly. "If I were you, though, I'd keep going and never come back." She thrust the papers back at him. "Your kind doesn't belong here anymore."
Tom was tempted to point out that he'd been born and raised in Seattle and had as much right to live there as anyone else, but held his tongue. He had more important matters to deal with today, assuming he ever got out of the city. "See you later," he said curtly. "On my way home."
The guard scowled, but waved him on. An automated aluminum gate arm lifted to let him through. A pair of orange metal pylons flanked the roadway. Although dormant now, the pylons were capable of generating waves of intense pain when activated. They were Promise City's first line of defense.
Tom didn't bother to roll up his window before driving north as he only got about fifty feet before running into a second set of checkpoints. This one was manned by grim-faced soldiers toting automatic weapons. Their uniforms and insignia identified them as members of the U.S. Army. A guard approached the driver's side of the car.
Here we go again, Tom thought.
An uneasy stalemate existed between the federal government and Promise City. Needless to say, the Powers That Be were hardly happy to surrender a major American city to a messianic drug dealer with a cultlike following, but the extraordinary abilities of Collier and his people, as well as the futuristic technology at his command, made taking back Seattle a risky endeavor. Even before the plague, Collier's community of p-positive revolutionaries had managed to repel any government attempts to take them into custody. Now, with his army swollen with literally thousands of new recruits, Collier was a force to be reckoned with and not only in Seattle. It was well-known that he had sleeper agents, capable of generating tornadoes and hurricanes and God knew what else, positioned throughout the entire country, ready to create havoc if the Feds tried to send in the troops to reclaim Seattle.
Which they're bound to try eventually, Tom thought. Everyone figured a major confrontation was inevitable, but nobody wanted a city-sized version of Waco just yet, so forces on both sides were biding their time and holding their breaths. Just like the rest of us.
He showed his ID to the soldier, a fresh-faced young man who looked to be about Kyle's age. The guard relaxed only a little when he saw Tom's NTAC credentials. His armed comrades stood by warily, tightly gripping their M16 assault rifles. He didn't blame the soldiers for being edgy; they were on the front lines of an evolutionary civil war. "Please exit your vehicle," the young guard requested. He stepped away from the car door.
Tom sighed impatiently, but didn't raise a fuss. He climbed out of the car. A tan nylon jacket, open-collar polo shirt, and dark trousers protected his muscular frame from the elements. Sandy blond hair crowned his rugged features. Haunted blue eyes hinted at the strain he'd been under for the last four years. He unzipped the Windbreaker to reveal the sidearm holstered at his hip. The guard looked askance at the gun but let it go. Tom stood by while the young soldier entered Tom's name and Social Security number into a handheld PDA, checking it against an ever-growing list of known p-positive "terrorists." Drug-sniffing German shepherds checked out the Chrysler to make sure Tom wasn't smuggling promicin out of the city.
Although openly distributed in certain neighborhoods of Seattle, the artificial neurotransmitter remained strictly illegal throughout the rest of the world. Mere possession of promicin brought a mandatory prison sentence, which hadn't stopped Collier and his disciples from trying to make the drug available to anyone who wanted it, free of charge. And judging from some of the reports Tom had seen, Collier was succeeding in his aims, despite the sort of stringent containment measures Tom was currently experiencing.
After giving his car a clean bill of health, the dogs came over and sniffed Tom as well, just in case he was carrying any promicin on his person. He tried not to flinch as the suspicious canines invaded his personal space.
Good thing I left that syringe back home...
Tom sat on his living room couch, cradling the hypo in his palm. The eerie yellow glow of the promicin sent a chill down his spine. He had witnessed firsthand the fatal effect of the drug on those unlucky enough to lose their fifty-fifty shot at making history, watched bright arterial blood stream from their eyes and noses as violent convulsions consumed the last moments of their lives. Taking the shot was like playing Russian roulette, but with worse odds. His own sister had been killed by promicin less than a week ago, along with thousands of other innocent victims...
I can't believe I'm seriously considering this, he thought.
"Go ahead, Dad," Kyle urged him. His son, a lanky young man with short brown hair, sat beside him on the couch. He was dressed casually, in a striped white shirt and jeans. A book bag, containing a volume of mystic prophecies, was strapped across his chest. Kyle had already taken the shot, against Tom's wishes, several months ago and dropped out of college to become Jordan Collier's right-hand man. Tom didn't entirely understand how his son's ability worked, but he knew that Kyle had acquired some kind of precognitive gift that had led him to a mysterious book that seemed to prophesy the rise of Collier and the eventual coming of "Heaven on Earth." The cryptic volume had also listed several individuals who were destined to play instrumental roles in the salvation of the world.
Tom's name was on that list.
A few years ago, he would not have taken any of this talk about prophecies and destiny seriously. He had been a hard-nosed federal agent with little patience for sci-fi gobbledygook. But that was before 4400 missing people suddenly appeared outside Seattle with strange new abilities and no memory of where they had been. The 4400 had turned Tom's world upside down, even before he'd discovered that their return had been engineered by time travelers from the future as part of an elaborate plan to avert a mysterious future catastrophe. At first, only those original 4400 returnees had possessed unnatural abilities, but once the neurotransmitter responsible for their gifts had been isolated and replicated by a secret government-sponsored initiative, ironically enough the promicin genie had been let out of the bottle. Now, Tom didn't know what to believe. In this brave new world of time travel, telepathy, astral projection, and every other kind of weirdness, why couldn't a musty old book foretell his destiny? Especially if it had been planted in the past by the agents from the future.
But for what purpose?
"It will be okay," Kyle insisted. Certainty, and a near-religious fervor, shone in his gentle brown eyes. Unlike his father, he had total faith in Collier and his vision for the future. "The book says you'll survive."
"I don't know," Tom replied, shaking his head. "I'm not sure I'm ready for this. Not after everything we've been through lately."
His hand went to his left ear, where his fingers found an X-shaped mole hidden behind his earlobe. The telltale stigma was a reminder that, less than a week ago, Tom had been Marked by conspirators from the future, who had taken over the minds and bodies of prominent men and women in an insidious attempt to prevent Collier and his followers from changing the future. The Marked, who belonged to a rival faction opposed to the time travelers who had first returned the 4400 to the present, had injected Tom with microscopic machines nanites that had replaced his personality with that of a ruthless imposter who had stopped at nothing, including murder, to carry out the Marked's sinister agenda. In time, Tom's friends and allies at NTAC had seen through the imposter's act and rid Tom of the invading personality but not before "Tom" had killed at least two men on behalf of the Marked.
The murders still haunted Tom's memory, like a bad dream he couldn't quite shake. He glanced down at the coffee table in front of the couch. The files on the killings, including the victims' photos and obituaries, were spread out across the tabletop. The faces of Curtis Peck and Warren Trask stared up at him. He remembered killing both of them.
Guilt stabbed him. Although he knew intellectually that he wasn't responsible for the men's deaths, that he had been literally possessed by another mind when he had committed those murders, he still wasn't sure he could live with the memories.
Kyle thought that taking the shot would make everything better. That it would justify all the pain and suffering Tom had endured and open the doorway to a better future for the entire human race. Tom wasn't so sure.
"I just got myself back, Kyle. I just got those...things out of my brain." He placed the syringe down on the table, next to the accusing photos. He looked at his son, hoping Kyle would understand. "I'm not ready to inject another potion from the future into my body. Even if it doesn't kill me, I don't want to change anymore. I want to be just plain, ordinary Tom Baldwin again."
"But..." Disappointment was written all over Kyle's long face. He had been pushing the shot on his dad for months. "The prophecy, heaven on Earth...you have to take the shot. The future depends on it."
"Maybe," Tom said. He hated to let Kyle down like this. His son's newfound commitment to Collier's cause had too often come between them. Still, he placed the syringe in a padded carrying-case and closed the lid. "But not today."
"Okay," the guard informed him. "You're clear."
Tom got back in his car and drove past the checkpoint. Putting Promise City behind him, at least for the time being, he drove north on I-5. Traffic was brutal for a Sunday afternoon, but eased up once he turned west onto 526. A short ferry ride carried him from the docks at Mukilteo to the southeast corner of Whidbey Island. From there it was a quick drive across the island to his destination: Fort Casey State Park.
Located atop the steep cliffs overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Fort Casey had been erected in the 1890s to guard the entrance to Puget Sound from naval attacks. Although it had been rendered obsolete by the advent of airpower after World War I, the fort's imposing gun emplacements had been preserved as an historical monument. The massive concrete batteries faced the surging waves below. Antique artillery was mounted on disappearing carriages atop the weathered gray walls. Lookout towers peered out over the batteries. Dilapidated stairwells and catwalks had once served the troops stationed here. A tall white lighthouse had been erected a little farther up the shore, only a short hike from the abandoned fort. Its cozy, whitewashed appearance stood in sharp contrast to the forbidding military ruins.
Tom remembered bringing Kyle here years ago. A nostalgic pang pierced his heart as he recalled how much the boy had enjoyed exploring the old fort. Together, they had manned the ancient guns and pretended to fire upon imaginary battleships. Life had seemed much simpler then. Now Kyle was a grown man, caught up in Jordan Collier's dangerous ambitions, and the real invaders came from across time, not from the sea. Fort Casey was more obsolete than ever.
A grassy field separated the parking lot from the batteries. On sunnier days, the field often attracted kite enthusiasts who filled the sky above the fort with elaborate airborne constructions, but the dismal winter weather had kept visitors away today. A clammy mist hung over the grounds. A steady drizzle fell from an overcast gray sky. There was only one other car parked nearby: a black Lincoln Town Car with Washington plates.
Looks like we've got the place to ourselves, Tom thought. Probably just as well; whatever today's covert meeting was about, it surely wasn't for public consumption. Why else choose such an unorthodox rendezvous point?
Curiosity, as well as the incessant rain, drove him across the field. He grimaced as icy water trickled down the back of his neck; like most native Seattlites, he wouldn't be caught dead carrying an umbrella. A quick dash brought him to an arched concrete doorway at the base of the nearest battery. A riveted iron door flanked the open threshold. He darted into the murky confines of an abandoned shot and powder room. The unlit chamber was as stark and barren as a prison cell. Greenish algae streaked the rough concrete walls. An empty elevator shaft connected the powder room with the guns mounted on upper levels. Rainwater sluiced past the doorway, pooling on the hard stone floor.
Tom shook the rain from his hair and glanced around the shadowy bunker. At first he didn't see anyone and wondered if maybe he had ducked into the wrong storeroom. The old fort was full of secluded nooks and crannies, which no doubt contributed to the location being chosen for this rendezvous. The dense concrete walls discouraged electronic surveillance.
Not taking any chances, I see.
He was about to venture out into the rain again when he heard a rustle of motion behind him. His hand went instinctively to his sidearm as he turned around to see a pair of figures emerge from one of the adjoining storerooms. One was male, the other female. The former was nobody he'd been in any hurry to see again.
"About time you got here," Dennis Ryland said. "You're late."
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