Chapter 1

Santa Rosa, California – August 11th, 2000

12:30 P.M. PST

Tapping was all that could be heard as a young woman typed mercilessly at her computer, her tongue slightly protruding in determination. She quickly finished, giving an extra triumphant tap to the last key.

"Finally," she whispered to herself. Gliding the mouse slightly with her soft and somewhat frail hands, Claire Embers clicked harshly, making the printer behind her roar with newfound life. Adjusting her thin-framed glasses, she suddenly became startled by a hacking cough behind her. Turning, she saw an older woman, probably early fifties, bent over a bench outside of the office. Two orderlies, one female and one male, grabbed her by the arms. Claire could hear something about the woman wasn't supposed to leave her room for any reason and the woman yelling something about the two young volunteers being murderers. The woman was quickly escorted away.

"Crazy…" Claire's words trailed off as a well-bred doctor sidled into the room.

"Claire, did you get that printout for me?"

"Yes, Doctor Freedman. It's printing up right now."

"Good," Freedman said, coughing slightly, "I wish I knew why all of these people are sick."

"Maybe you should worry about yourself?" Claire said, slightly chuckling.

"I'm perfectly healthy, Miss Embers." The doctor sounds strained and somewhat rushed. As if the voice isn't his own. Claire remembered a voice like that. Her grandfather had gotten sick in the hospital and when he talked, he spoke like that. He died the next morning, supposedly pulling the plug on himself. Claire had her doubts about that story but disregarded it. That was why she became a doctor's assistant, after all.

"Could you please check on Mrs. Hennigan in room 416?"

"Yes sir." Claire quickly got up, striding for the door. Her bright white coat fluttered as she turned around, hearing the doctor cough one more time.

"Doc," she said, smiling, "Take care of that cold. We can't afford to lose you in this rush."

"Miss Embers, I'm fine. Please, take care of Mrs. Hennigan." Claire, without another word, blinked her eyes once at the doctor and left. That poor stubborn old coot, she thought, carefully shutting the glass door behind her.

Brooklyn, New York – August 11th, 2000

4:37 P.M. EST

"Hold still…" A woman in a brightly colored coat stood in an awkward position, a smile plastered all over her face. A flash of light and then she let the position go. A young woman walked up to her, smiling widely.

"Thank you, Miss Anderson," she said, "I'll be sure to have these pictures developed by the weekend."

"You're very welcome, Rita," the woman said, removing the brightly colored coat. Her outfit was a gaudy mess of glitter and sequins, "You do such good work for such a young girl."

"Well, I try. I'll see you tomorrow." Miss Anderson left, coughing slightly as the door shut behind her. Rita Williams silently brushed her long brown hair from her shoulder, using the other hand to eject the camera's contents onto a table, somewhat carelessly. Quickly gathering her materials from around the room, Rita jumped upon hearing a phone ring incessantly at her, attacking her sense of sound.

"Dammit!" Rita cussed, running to the phone. She quickly picked it up, thrusting the receiver at her ear, "Hello?"

"Hi," a cheery voice said on the other end, "Rita Williams?"

"Yes?" Rita said, somewhat more calm.

"We're from the National Endowment for the Arts," the man continues from the other side of the line, "We haven't seen talent such as yours for a long time. We were wondering… if it wouldn't be too much trouble…"

"What?" Rita snapped, her Brooklyn accent jumping forth.

"Well, we were hoping that we could do a show. It would only be exhibits of your photographs and we would, of course, have a cover charge."

"How much?" Rita asks, slightly interested now.

"Fifty dollars a head, miss," the man says, somewhat happier now.

"Really?" Rita says, "When would it be?"

"Umm… August 14th."

"That's only three days away, though!"

"I'm…" The man takes a time out for a coughing fit before resuming, "I'm sorry, miss. It was the only day available before the new year."

"Alright… It's okay if I don't show, though, right?"

"It would be nice of you to show up but you don't have to make an appearance, no."

"Good… I won't be in town the 14th. I'm sorry. I'll send you some of my works to place, okay?"

"Thank you very much, Miss Williams. Good day to you." The man promptly hung up as Rita scoffed, looking at the object in her hand.

"Good day to you?" Rita laughed more as she hung up, and even more so when she thought of sending in Miss Anderson's pictures to be shown.

Bronx, New York – August 14th, 2000

4:43 P.M. EST

"Feint, Ace, feint!" A well-toned young man ducked and dodged in the large canvas ring. He tightly clenched the bright blue mouthpiece into place as he landed a swift punch on his opponent's nose, knocking him to the mat. Triumphantly, Ace Dunn, the winning of the two boxers, raised his arms, smiling through the pain he had been given. The boxer stood up suddenly, readying to punch him from behind.

"Ace! Look…" Before the coach could finish, he let out a whooping cough and the man behind Ace suddenly let out a whoop of his own. It was quickly followed by a fist, plowing into the solar plex of Ace. He fell forward, hitting the mat hard with his nose first. Standing again, the young man gave a look of pure hatred to his opponent before smiling again. He spit the mouthpiece out, making it land harshly on the dirty floor.

"Nice round, Ken," Ace said, his deep voice slightly fluctuating.

"You too, Ace," the other young man said, "Don't let your guard down like that, though. You'll be screwed over."

"I know, man," Ace admitted, hanging his head slightly, "You deserved the victory. Nice match, pal. Hit the showers." The anxious young man sprinted lightly from the ring, a smile of self-assurance across his face. Ace's trainer walked up behind him, patting his back on the sore spot. Ace winced in extreme pain as the trainer laughed.

"Nice of you to train the Myers boy," he said, a greasy smile sliding onto his face, "You did real well. Next time you drop your guard, though, I'll be the one punching your lights out, got it?"

"Yeah, Joe," Ace said, grabbing a nearby towel. Quickly wiping his face with it, he tossed it aside, stepping from the ring. It was about five months since his last real fight and his steps were becoming rusted; mechanical even. His punches were becoming less fierce and he was afraid that, as Joe had said some time before, he would "go into his elder years as a fat slob of a guy." He could've taken any of these fights without even breaking a sweat and here he was, sweating like a pig from some smart mouthed kid.

"I'm gonna practice a little more, Joe," Ace said, walking to the large punching bag. Joe simply nodded his approval.

"Don't hurt yourself, Ace," Ace said to himself, as though Joe had said it, "Thanks, Joe." Great, he thought to himself loudly, I'm talking to myself. He quickly began to throw large, gaping punches towards the large red bag, pretending it was one of many adversaries. Another of Joe's coughing fits stopped him dead in his tracks for a second and then his adversaries' faces were replaced by Joe's beaten grey haired frame. The old man had been like a father to him and, like a father, had pounded discipline into him piece by piece. It was his fault Ace was a little kid inside still even though he was the tough, muscular guy on the outside. Ace hung his head slightly and made his punches swing fuller and harder, regaining lost strength.

Jefferson City, Missouri – August 11th, 2000

3:55 P.M. CST

"Alright, let's do song four. Terry, try to stay up to tempo. Shari, keep from going sharp. Justin, remember which to hit at which place in the song. I'll try to hit the right chords. Are we set?" The band smiled, each giving their own approval of their leader's observations. Shari Baker turned, smiling seductively at Justin Theriault, the drummer. His spiked, bleach blond hair complimented his carefree demeanor and he smiled back at the female singer, somewhat turning bashful.

"Let's do it!" Leon Garabedian shouted, priming his guitar for use, "One, two, three!" Then, they were off. They all did very well, the garage resonating around them with the perfect acoustics. Justin smiled, watching the slim figure of the girl in front of him. She was perfect: a great face, perfect body, long red hair to die for, and she was good in other areas as well, as Justin had recently found out. She began to sing, her voice a seductive tone of comfort but with a sharp cutting edge to it, as well.

"Yeah, lucky me,

I'm arguing with you,

And my eyes are closed,

So I don't know why…


Wary of initiative,

Soon we're arguing,

Over stupid problems of the past…

Why do I find myself

Contradicting you with every word?

Why do the ones I love

Always become the first ones that I hurt?

How do I look myself

In the face, do you ask?

I could ask the same to you…

Contradicting you…"

The young woman's voice trailed off as Justin stopped drumming, completely immersed in thought about her. Leon and Terry looked back as Shari stopped as well, coughing slightly.

"Justin!" Terry shouted, blaring through Justin's utopia, "Wake up, man!"

"Wha… huh?" was all Justin could stammer.

"You just dropped your sticks in the middle of our song, man…" Justin quickly gathered himself, stammering something and grabbing the wooden implements from the ground. Terry lurches over, hacking a gargantuan cough at Shari. Leon stands between them, somewhat defensive.

"Get that cleared up, man," Leon said, "Don't get our singer sick."

Reno, Nevada – August 11th, 2000

2:58 P.M. MST

A bright red light blared, coating mounds of running people in a crimson curtain.




A robotic monotone voice engulfed the people, running for their positions. One woman stopped, turning to a male.

"Jess, let's go!" the male yelled at her, grabbing her arm and pulling her away.

"What about fourth class? They didn't say anything about us!" Jess Carter yelled over the sirens and the voice, "Where do we go, Josh?"

"Head to the bottom deck! It'll be safer there!" Josh Frederick yelled, pulling the girl again. They both ran, passing other soldiers quickly. All Jess could remember, though, was the sound of one of her former friends, coughing harshly and collapsing to the ground.