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Authors: Alex G. Paman

Herculanium

BOOK: Herculanium
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Table of Contents

HERCULANIUM

By Alex G. Paman

Published by Alex G. Paman

Copyright 2014 Alex G. Paman

Cover design by Natasha Brown

All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means, including graphic, electronic, or mechanical without the expressed written consent of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is purely coincidental.

Prologue

Bodega Bay, California

May 24, 2032

 

Melinda Reed stood at the edge of her yard, just behind the white picket fence that faced the ocean. Her house was one of a few hillside homes that overlooked the coastal side of the town of Bodega, most known for being the setting of the classic horror movie, The Birds. But beyond the arrival of weekend tourists and the bustle of fishing boats, Bodega Bay Proper remained a quiet seaside community.

Today, however, the familiar cries of sea gulls were drowned out by the roar of military helicopters.

She looked up at the sky and cupped her hands over her brow. The helicopters swirling above looked like giant dragonflies searching for prey, flying at different levels up and down the coastline. A small fleet of search boats cruised offshore in the distance, containing local fishermen to their respective docks while they searched. From her peripheral view, she could tell her neighbors were staring at the commotion as well, talking and pointing amongst themselves. They looked more like the victims than innocent bystanders viewing from afar.

Doran Beach was the center of the intense activity, where the flashing lanterns of military barricades snaked up and down the cramp roads, making the area resemble a quarantine zone bordered by endless checkpoints. Soldiers clad in green roamed about like wolf packs, armed to the teeth and every bit as intimidating as their reputation. Some scoured the beaches with metal detectors, while others went door-to-door and demanded accounts of what the locals saw. They had already been to Melinda’s house earlier in the morning. They sounded more like robots than people, efficient drones of a human hive with a single consciousness—and an equally mysterious motive.

She recalled an early morning press conference televised from the local television station. She had never seen such an impressive-looking entourage of men talk so much about virtually nothing. This five-star general lectured that a military satellite crashed in the Bay the night before, holding information critical for the defense for these United States. Under no circumstances were local civilians to interfere with their investigation, nor withhold information or items obtained from the crash-site. Predictably, this “crash-site” was deemed top secret.

It was a necessary precaution, Melinda dismissed. The safety of America came first, and all law-abiding citizens must do their duty, whether it was adhering to the law or staying clear of it. However, she hoped that the military would find this satellite soon and leave her community in peace, so the citizens here can have their lives back. If the commotion of movie studios filming here in the past was irritating, this massive military presence bordered on harassment and assault.

She
was
out on the beach the night before, but she didn’t see a thing. There were a few passing planes, car lights sweeping across the sand from the roads, even that rare winter shooting star. There were also couples walking across the dark, desolate beaches, but there was no crash or impact. Whatever it was must’ve been carried by the tide to somewhere far offshore.

Melinda’s kettle whistled softly like a seeping fissure from a geyser. She tore open a packet of hot chocolate and gently tapped its mixture inside her usual ceramic breakfast mug. After an arduous sixty-hour work week of non-stop meetings and under-bidding clients at her real-estate office, she finally earned herself a day off. There better be a wad full of commission checks after all her efforts, she mused. She poured hot water in the mug, gave it a quick stir, then sat down at the dining room table.

Melinda stared at a package that had arrived from her husband two days before. While he told her to keep an eye out for it, it was only now she was able to give it attention. Carefully tearing its butcher paper wrapping by the seams, she opened the box and saw that it contained a stack of papers. It was heavy, easily several inches thick, like a phonebook without a spine. But why would her husband send her this?

She took a sip of her hot chocolate and carefully placed the papers back in the box. With the sound of military helicopters hovering in the distance, she had more important things to attend to.

Part One: Paradiso
Chapter One

Sacramento Ronins Trench Arena

November 17, 2031

 

Each stride fell squarely on a landmine, each dribble was a bench press. The ball felt more like solid steel than rubber, pinging sharply when pounded against the hardwood floor. He imagined he was inside the old Roman Coliseum, where the crowd’s applause sounded like the roar of a hundred lions ready to pounce. As he sprinted towards the basket, his opponents became misshapen blurs, almost frozen in time, as he contorted his body into the most obscene positions possible just to avoid them. Camera flashes sped ahead of him in sequence, like runway lights leading a plane for takeoff.

In the instant just before his ascent, he suddenly became one with the entire universe, feeling the emotions of the home crowd, his own heartbeat, the biomechanics of his form, even his favorite rap song.

He counted: One…Two…NOW!

The floor fell away like a trap door. The humid air hit him with the force of a hurricane, and he felt his sweat turn into freezing mercury. As he floated higher towards the basket, all he could hear was the wind rippling through his flapping jersey.

He was weightless, a naked astronaut rocketing to the moon.

He swung his chiseled arm back, fully extended with his elbow locked. He barely felt the ball in his palm as he jerked his arm forward like an Olympic swimmer. The backboard crumbled as the basketball went through the net, the glass showering the floor with jagged rain.

This series MVP didn’t remember landing on the floor on one leg, like his friends later remarked. He dug his nails deep into his palms, leapt onto the broadcast table, and faced the frenzied crowd in total victory.

He just beat his arch-nemesis team on a last-second drive to win Game 7 of the Finals.

 

Preston Jones pressed his eyes hard to wake himself up. A smile wiped across his face as he exited the team bus to enter Trench Arena, his vision blurring back to reality. He had only performed that perfect, game-winning dunk once, maybe twice, in his entire career, and he could feel the tingle in his arms at the thought of someday doing it again in the Finals.

He felt a stern tug at his sleeve as his walking pace sped up. His agent, Maxwell Lee, looked back at him with concern, guiding him and his entourage of friends through a groping crowd of well-wishers and reporters waiting at the Players’ Entrance.

“My client has nothing to say,” said Max to the cheering crowd.

Preston chuckled to himself at seeing this small Asian man push people aside to make way for his celebrity client. But he could also hear the worry in his agent’s voice, something he wasn’t accustomed to. Max was normally such a bulldog when it came to negotiations, because he always had some type of control over all situations. But today’s event was completely out of his influence, and that bothered him immeasurably.

“We’re going straight to Preston’s suite,” Max yelled to the ear of the lead security guard waiting inside.

After ruffling through a stack of papers on a wooden clipboard, the guard motioned for their group to proceed down the hallway. Another security guard opened the door for them to enter.

“Preston, are you alright?” asked Max, as if masking his own concerns by inquiring about his client’s. “How you feeling?”

“Max, you gotta relax a little. We’re in my suite now, inside a secured area. No one can come in here without going through security.”

But his agent was ever vigilant, smiling while going over details in his notepad. “Let me worry about everything, ‘kay?”

The room was self-contained, complete with a small bar, plush sofas, and several flat-screen television sets. Preston sat down on the nearest couch and sprawled his body across its length. “You know, they gave me this room when I first signed, and I swear, I’ve only used it once or twice a season. I don’t even know what’s in here.”

He then stood up and walked towards a full-body mirror on a nearby wall. His 6’6” frame made him look like buffed-out string bean, but Preston knew he looked good in a suit. He gently ran his hand across his bald scalp, and then over his faded mustache. His gold watch protruded from his wrist like a metallic boil, much more pronounced than the three-diamond studs bolted in his left ear. Behind him, he could see Max shaking his head and grinning.

“Do any of these TVs have a remote, Preston? We have a press conference to watch, you know.”

Preston lifted a remote control from the nearest table and tossed it to him. “Right here, your highness. Anything else I can get you?”

“You’re a real prince,” said Max with a smile. He pressed a button, and the largest flat-screen television in the room came to life. “We’re about to make history.”

Preston folded one leg above the other, then gently rested his arms on his knee. He cupped hands around his mouth and took several breaths, scanning the screen from top to bottom, left to right. This was how he observed things, as well as his personal position for prayer.

But as exciting and monumental this press conference was going to be, Preston Jones felt as alone as he had ever been in his whole life. Like the reporters and their cameras waiting outside, his life was also flashing before his eyes.

 

* * *

For one night, the majesty of San Francisco was on display in a building situated atop a windswept hill that overlooked the Bay. It was standing room only in Sequoia Hall within the glamorous Bay Imperial Hotel, a local landmark used mainly for political conventions and annual corporate parties. For tonight’s event, its normal capacity of 5,000 was far exceeded. Scaffolding lined its four expansive walls, and miles of multi-colored cables snaked around the chairs and tables that were scattered throughout the floor. Spotlights scanned the stage and ceiling, with sound, video, and lighting technicians hastily setting-up and rehearsing from a script they received just barely a day before.

Politicians, celebrities, and reporters swirled about the floor in waves, expertly brown-nosing and networking while positioning themselves to get the best view of the main stage. Limousines and private transports came and went in front of the hotel’s glamorous front portico, its traditional red carpet now a muddied 70-foot welcome mat.

Richard Peryson quietly cleared his throat as he entered the Main Stage from the rear curtain. From his conservative bow tie, to his neatly-parted silver hair, he was a stickler for appearance and promptness. He gripped the vaunted envelope tightly between his fingers, already imagining the impact of his reading its contents upon the waiting world. As CEO of McGinnis Promotions, he had made hundreds of speeches before, for every type of event imaginable. But tonight, he was intentionally going to keep this announcement dramatic but to the point. He’d rather say his peace and make a hasty retreat, than watch the fireworks fly soon after.

At least that was the plan. World-shaping events often had minds of their own.

Peryson casually turned around and headed backstage, tucking the announcement envelope safely in his pocket. It wouldn’t be long before he’s called back to the stage again, when those blasted spotlights would be hunting him down again.

 

* * *

“You missed a spot.” Darienne Snow stood behind her best friend before a bathroom mirror, harshly critiquing anything out of place. This had been their routine since childhood, from fourth grade through senior ball. “Your eye shadow’s too light. The camera won’t pick up the accents around your eyes.”

Michelle “Micky” Suarez smiled in both delight and irritation. Maybe it was a mistake to bring an out-of-town friend to this particular press conference. She could’ve easily brought her family for moral support, but tonight was different. Micky Suarez needed both professional and distant support, and a best friend fit that bill perfectly. She was just glad her agent was not in the ladies’ room with them.

She stood tall in front of the mirror, her hourglass body compressed into a purple mini-dress business suit. She made it a point to show off her legs at every occasion, an industry standard from decades before. She always kept the same hairstyle, thick yet parted to one side, nearly covering half her face and tapering around the shoulders. She had the classical Latin face, high nose ridge and accentuated cheekbones. Made-up or not, she was blessed with astounding natural beauty.

“Girl, I’ve done this a million times, so I know how the camera’s gonna play me.”

Darienne smiled and ran her fingers back through her short blonde hair. She was often teased for looking like a man.

“You just sit there and watch me look good,” said Micky confidently.

“Who do you think is going to win this lottery, Mick? It feels like we’re in the middle of a movie awards ceremony. You’re probably used to all this, but I sure as hell am not.”

“Don’t know, don’t care. It’s just another big story to cover, and hopefully, I’ll be in the middle of it.”

The once-cavernous bathroom slowly became an overflowing bus station of seeming New Yorkers. Lines to use the stalls had grown to extend out the door, down the hallway and the length of the lobby. The Bay Imperial’s unique floor-to-ceiling mirrors was a personal hand mirror to all the bathroom’s occupants, as women jockeyed for position to view themselves in the soft ambient lighting. The hotel’s signature background muzak of woodwind music was lost in a deafening cacophony of cursing, conversation and flushing. From hotel guests and reporters, to executives to janitors, all the women inside moved and acted with a purpose. This press conference was going to be the event of a lifetime, and all involved wanted to participate in history as it was unfolding.

“I thought you said your agent was going to be here, Mick.”

“She’s somewhere. I don’t know how the hell she’s going to find me in this ugly crowd.”

Darienne felt a tap over her left shoulder. A taller, hawk-faced woman with feathered, bleached hair loomed over her.

“Do you mind? Other people have to use this mirror too, you know.” Her tone was unmistakable.

Darienne was about to move aside when Micky placed her hand on her arm and stopped her. Micky looked back at the intruder and gave her a cold stare.

“Listen, girlie, you’re going to have to wait your turn like everyone else. We were here first.”

“Who the hell do you think you are, you…”

“Fuck you, you stupid cunt. Why don’t you and your dike-ass friends leave this bathroom before I give your face something your camera man would love to do a close-up on?”

The woman was about to give a loud rebuttal when she was unexpectedly shoved to the side by a tide of people shifting lines to use the toilet stalls behind them.

Darienne quickly lost sight of her in the crowd. “Who was that bitch?”

“Colleen O’Reilly, network bigwig and ex-reporter. She’s had this beef with me about something, I don’t even know about what. Who cares; the feeling’s very mutual.”

“She’s not your boss, is she?”

“She works for a rival network. She’s actually very good; she just has a fucked-up attitude about things.”

“And you can talk to her like that?”

“In this business, you have to have a thick skin and a big mouth. You’re not out there to make friends, you’re out there to get a story. You can’t become someone’s favorite patsy, because then you can’t do your job as a professional.”

Darienne and Micky calculatingly wove their way through the crowded bathroom and out into the hallway. The change in space was a pleasant welcome, and all they had to worry about was the octopus cabling that checkered the ornate carpet. A thin mist hovered high above the hallway and played among the mini-chandelier lights, no doubt from technicians smoking themselves to death from being overworked.

Micky’s pocket began to pulse and vibrate. Nudging Darienne to one side of the hallway, she pulled out her cellphone and placed it next to her ear.

“Where are you?” she said while shaking her head from the poor signal reception. It was more than time to replace her outdated phone with a newer model. “I’ll meet you there.”

“Who was that?” Darienne looked on with curiosity.

“It’s Lilian, my agent. She’s here and wants to meet me in the hotel atrium. I think we passed it earlier, near the front.”

“You have enough time? What time does the press conference start?”

“These things are always on ‘minority’ time,” Micky said with a smile. “They’re never on schedule.”

The hotel atrium was aglow with eerie pastel lighting. Retractable solar panels hung on cables from the ceiling, controlled by remote to reflect the most desirable lighting possible. Clear glass, ribbed with Mondrian-style paneling, formed the skeleton of the huge room, where the center piece attraction was a sprawling Greek fountain that rose nearly 20 feet high. The floors were decorated with murals made of small tiles, a faux pointillist rendition of classical still life. Exotic plants both stood and hung through its walkways, emoting an almost Zen serenity at first glance. Coupled with the bubbling sounds of the fountain, the atrium was an anachronism to the hotel that housed it, a tropical jungle of illusion within a commercial structure.

But there were no birds or butterflies here, only people.

Lilian Hirsch could’ve easily been mistaken for a butterfly. Her gaudy orange blouse wrapped around her body and draped to the floor, capped with what looked like a plumed pirate’s hat. Her bony frame made her look taller than she actually was, and her make-up always appeared overdone.

“We don’t have much time, Micky,” said Lilian, walking up to her even before Micky saw her coming. “The movie stars are staying from the tenth floor on up, all the way to the penthouse. A lot of the geeks and writers opted to stay at the cheaper hotels in the area, so chances are, they’re in the hotel lounge getting drunk with the politicians. You can’t tell who’s who with the geeks, because they all dress like farmers and science teachers. “

“Who do you think is going to win?”

“It’s a toss-up. It might be one of the athletes, but the Nobel writers always have a chance. It’s all political, you know.”

“Lilian, this is my best friend Darienne. We go all the way back to grade school.”

BOOK: Herculanium
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