Brad Mellocks, Meredith’s coworker at the Austin Star-Globe, ran a hand through his shock of blond hair. “I don’t know how Kathy expects us to go through this material any more quickly. There are thousands of these emails. Thousands.” He plopped into the chair opposite Meredith at the e-paper’s conference-room table.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Meredith said, eyes glued to the soft glow of her pocketab. “Kathy’s disappointed if we fail to break news before it happens.”
“Sometimes I wonder how long I can keep working for her.”
Meredith snickered. “Hang around for a couple of decades and then come talk to me.”
“That’s… fair enough.” Brad rolled up his shirtsleeves. “You find anything of note over there yet?”
“Not really, no.” If she were honest, she had found something suspicious on day one of their comb-through of the emails the Merry Hacksters had leaked to the world, but she dared not tell Brad of it. Meredith had been burned far too many times over the course of her career to trust someone as advancement-hungry as Brad.
A new email hit her inbox. Her eyes narrowed at the FROM field: WITHHELD.
“Maybe we can’t find anything because there’s nothing here,” Brad said. “Chief Executive Gleason could be telling the truth. She might have had nothing to do with the arms scandal cover-up, after all.”
Meredith had a hunch he was wrong but couldn’t be bothered to correct him. Her elbows on the table, she leaned in as she read the new email a second time.
To: “Meredith Maxwell”
Subject: Human/Etech—EMPATHY Study
I am on the inside.
Prove you can be as valuable to me as I can be to you.
“Even if the weapons the Altamerican Militia used to kill those school kids were from her Civilians In Arms program,” Brad said, apparently intent on talking to himself, “you have to think of how many lives were saved by arming the whole west coast against the Federation. It sounds cold-blooded, but it’s a fact.”
Meredith rubbed her temples. “I won’t say you’re wrong if believing so helps you sleep at night.” Whatever Brad’s focus might have been, her thoughts remained on the EMPATHY study, on this new email. If only this Queen of Spades had gotten in touch with her months ago! She’d spent the better part of the last two years attempting to plant moles in Human/Etech’s first round of human trials for EMPATHY. Every candidate she found, however—no matter their background or how much Meredith prepped them in advance—failed to be granted admission to the study. Meredith didn’t know how, but she had a hunch Human/Etech had some way to identify and reject would-be press informants. The study had started months ago, and not a single news source—not even those story-stealing S.O.B.s at The Courier—had been able to get a scoop.
She inhaled before talking herself down. Faux tipsters had defrauded her in the past, every one of them out for something. Fame. Notoriety. A few extra ameros in exchange for completely fabricated information. Meredith wouldn’t allow herself to be duped. Not this time.
From: “Meredith Maxwell”
Subject: Re: Human/Etech—EMPATHY Study
I’m intrigued, though I would need some proof of your credibility before I commit to anything.
“Do you want my real opinion?” Brad said.
Meredith looked up from her screen. “Is it going to ignore that nearly all the perpetrators of the attack just somehow managed to escape and never be found?”
“It’s a long debunked myth the NAU let the militia get away to keep another boogeyman on the streets.”
“Or,” Meredith said, shifting in her seat, “what if instead of letting them off the hook ‘to keep another boogeyman on the streets,’ Gleason’s administration never tracked them down because she enjoys going out of her way to sympathize with ethno-nationalists?”
Brad shook his head. “I’m not saying I agree with what the Altamerican Militia stands for or what they did, but to obsess over conspiracy theories—”
“Fine.” Meredith sighed. “But you can’t ignore that the weapons seized from the one attacker the SWAT team did gun down were checked into evidence with serial numbers, all of which were scrubbed at some point while in the care of the FBI.”
“That doesn’t mean Gleason told them to do it.”
“You are out of your mind if you think that’s something the FBI would have done on its own. Gleason had everything to lose if it turned out some of the weapons she’d put in civilian hands were later used in a school massacre.”
Brad went silent.
Meredith returned to the lead she had been attempting to follow since earlier in the week. The emails from Executive Gleason herself weren’t the ones that most caught Meredith’s eye, but rather a veritable library of emails from a Susan Dunham. This previously unheard of woman had been in communication with the FBI Director, Gleason’s Chief of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense all those years earlier during Gleason’s stint as U.S. President. No matter how Meredith tried, however, she couldn’t figure out what role this Dunham lady played in the Gleason administration, or why her contact with the then-president was always indirect and also limited to a narrow window of time following the Academy Shooting. Something about the whole thing seemed off, but Meredith still wasn’t quite sure what. If she were able to tie the current Chief Executive of the North American Union to a botched arms-disbursement cover-up, well, that would be the kind of thing that could oust someone from power.
Oh, and get Meredith’s own career finally moving in the right direction.
“What do you think Kathy would do if we told her we both wanted a raise?” Brad said.
“I don’t know, Brad.”
Meredith didn’t hear what came next. Another new email hit her inbox, again from the Queen of Spades.
To: “Meredith Maxwell”
Subject: Re: Human/Etech—EMPATHY Study
The first one is always free.
Meredith poked at the screen of her pocketab, navigating to the email’s attachment—a video. She considered waiting until she was back in her own office before viewing it, but with Brad still playing at hypotheticals, she just made sure her pocketab was on mute before hitting PLAY.
She brought a hand to her mouth as the images danced before her. Seemingly recorded from a pair of cyfocals, a sprawling cafeteria of table-and-bench seating stretched out before the person doing the filming, a high ceiling looming overhead. The space brimmed with individuals of all ages, each of whom wore various colors of hospital-style scrubs. It wasn’t the scrubs or the sheer quantity of people that stood out most, but rather the number of them whose heads had been recently shaved. Not only that, but the bald heads belonged mostly—no, exclusively—to those wearing lavender-colored scrubs.
“If the Star-Globe did that,” Brad said, “it wouldn’t be in this financial mess at all. Rather than cutting staff, it could probably—”
“Shh,” Meredith said.
“Stop for a minute. I need to think.”
“What is it?” Brad slinked to her side of the table, a hop in his step.
“Call Kathy.” Meredith started the video again and kept an eye out for any new details.
“Can you show me what you’re looking at first?”
“I’ll show you when I show Kathy.” Her editor would be furious if she found out she wasn’t the first to see this after Meredith.
As Brad dialed Kathy, Meredith shrank her pocketab before calling her intern, Alvin. He answered on the second ring. “Hey, Alvin.”
“Can you come to the conference room?”
“I’m working on that slideshow right now.”
“Can you stop working on that slideshow and come to the conference room right now?”
A pause took the line. “Yeah. On my way.”
Meredith thumbed her screen to end the call. She would want Alvin here to take notes once Kathy saw the video; surely there would be some task he could take on to support this story.
“I don’t know,” Brad said into his pocketab. “Meredith told me to have you come to the conference room. Yes. No, on the fourth floor. What do you mean?”
Meredith made a gimme motion with her hand. Brad turned his device over. “Kathy?” Meredith said into the receiver.
“If you need me to meet with you, call me yourself.”
“I would have, but I was a little too busy rewatching this video taken on the EMPATHY compound.”
“Wait, what?! Never mind, I’ll be right there.”
Kathy and Alvin arrived within moments of one another, the former wearing an expression of you-better-not-be-yanking-my-chain, the latter a posture so lacking in enthusiasm one couldn’t help but wonder whether he had osteoporosis.
“What’s this all about?” Kathy folded her arms across her chest.
“Get your pocketabs, all of you.” Meredith placed a finger in the upper-right-hand corner of her own device, stretching it outward to enlarge it once again. Then, placing the same finger over the video file, she flung it in the direction of each of her colleagues so they could watch it as she manipulated it on her own screen. “I got this video from someone who claims to be on the Human/Etech research compound. Tell me what you think vis-à-vis authenticity.”
Alvin seemed incapable of getting the video to play on his own device. Instead of troubleshooting, he crouched close to Meredith, heaving hefty breaths of coffee stench in her direction. “Looks like lunchtime in a hospital to me,” he said.
“Yeah,” Meredith said, “except most of the people have their head shaved.” All nodded except Alvin—who remained slack-jawed—as Meredith posed her hunches to the room. “Do you think they’re study participants? They’d have to get their head shaved before having the chip installed, right?”
Kathy placed her free hand on her hip. “You’d know better than any of us.”
Meredith did. Or should have, at least. EMPATHY was a nanochip, that much she knew, but knowing how it might have been implanted was anyone’s guess.
Despite the footage, Kathy remained skeptical. “How do we know the video is authentic? It could be a setup.”
Meredith raised a finger. “I—”
Alvin interrupted. “I don’t think it’s a setup.”
Kathy scoffed. “What makes you qualified to make that assessment?”
Alvin pointed to Meredith’s screen with a lone skinny finger. “Isn’t that the guy?”
“The guy?” Kathy shifted her weight.
“You know,” Alvin said. “What’s his name? It’s on the tip of my tongue. The one in charge of the study.”
Even without context, Meredith knew who Alvin meant immediately. She didn’t know how she missed him the first times she watched the video, but there, clad in his trademark white lab coat, was Wyatt Halman. “It’s him. It’s Halman.” The room flittered with excitement.
“Except he has a dumb mustache now,” Alvin said, laughing. “Look at that thing.”
Kathy tapped two fingers against her lips. “This is—this has got to be real.” She narrowed her eyes at Meredith. “Who did you get this from?”
Meredith’s chair rolled across the carpet as she stood. “She signed the email as the ‘Queen of Spades.’”
Kathy clapped her hands once. “More. I want more. Tell the Queen of Spades you want background. Details. Images. More video. You know what we need. Brad, you take over the Gleason project while Meredith follows this lead.”
“You’re joking,” Brad said.
“You know I was born without a sense of humor.” Kathy exited without another word.
As Brad fired off complaints and Alvin salivated over getting involved with the EMPATHY project, a warmth trickled through Meredith’s chest. She had done it. She had finally landed the once-in-a-career story that could again have the Star-Globe back in the black—the kind of story that could salvage her shipwrecked career.
You can find Imminent Dawn and its sequel, Mourning Dove, at any of the links below.
Art-school dropout Chandra would do anything to apologize for her role in her wife’s coma—including enroll in the first round of human trials for an internet-access brain implant.
At first, the secretive research compound is paradise, but a dark wave of uncertainty soon crashes down on the study, pitting Chandra against ruthless tech magnate Wyatt, a man whose own secrets compel him to press on with his work at all costs.
Beyond the complex’s walls, horrifying rumors about the EMPATHY brain implant reach the desk of investigative journalist Meredith, who strives to verify her mysterious source’s veracity—until threats of unknown origin force her to choose between her sleuthing and her life.
All the while, advancement-hungry administrative assistant Ariel eagerly does the bidding of her higher-ups, woefully unaware they might not have the best interests of the compound’s patients in mind.
Forced to confront conspiracies stretching from the highest levels of the North American Union government to the lowest dredges of its shadowy hacking collectives, all four characters are set on a collision course that will leave them fighting to reclaim that which they value most: their loved ones, their freedom, their lives.
A twistedly delightful clockwork of intrigue and suspense, Imminent Dawn is an electrifying sci-fi debut from author r. r. campbell.