An ominous shade of grey tinted the sky, threatening rainfall. But there was no moisture in the clouds and hadn’t been for some time now. A thick blanket of cloud blocked out the sun, and the carbon dioxide in the air made it difficult to breathe. Gel masks—a mandatory item while outdoors—suctioned tightly over noses and mouths and hissed, snake-like, at their first flow of oxygen.
Bill Taggart emerged from the bullet train station in Nottingham, England, with his head low, hands in pockets. He walked at the edge of the path until the crowd swelled suddenly and nudged him onto the street. An aggressive horn-blast made him jump, and he turned to see a black car with tinted windows, approaching slowly. International Task Force officers in combat uniform immediately surrounded the car, their force-field shields held high. A sharp push from the shields thrust Bill back onto the path, into an unruly mass of arms and elbows.
Bill watched the car pass by. There were few people on Earth with the power to command a street in such a way, but only one who favoured England: Charles Deighton, the CEO for the World Government. The officers cleared the road, and when the car began to move more freely they fell into step behind it, shields at their side, Buzz Guns hanging from hip holsters.
The ITF officers were a familiar sight on the streets and also in his place of work. But Bill wasn’t a police officer; he was a desk grunt, processing paperwork for the various regional ITF offices around the globe. He considered the job to be a distraction at best; a stepping stone to something greater. He had given twenty years to the World Government and he believed his experience would count for something one day. His wife Isla was an advocate for doing the thing you loved; but, as she had warned Bill, that couldn’t happen without first doing all the stuff you hated.
A swelling of bodies jostled Bill along streets that were far too narrow to cope with the burgeoning city population. He kept his gaze down and continued forward, hands in pockets, gel mask in place. A large man barged him as he passed, and Bill turned fast enough to see the offender’s head bob and disappear as he was swallowed by the crowd. Bill snarled. He was close to his apartment; just one more street to go. Could he make it home without thumping anyone?
Bill entered the foyer, closed the main door and removed his mask—artificial environmental controls inside buildings made unassisted breathing possible. There was a loud popping sound as he broke the seal around his mouth with a finger. He stored the mask in his pocket and inhaled the familiar coolness of the artificial air as he steadily climbed the stairs. On the third floor, a different scent hit him: a sweet, yet metallic tinge with a definite taste of carbon. He waited outside the apartment door, rigid with anticipation. There was only one reason why his wife cooked, and it usually wasn’t a good one. He pressed a thumb to the sensor plate and the lock opened.
Bill slipped out of his long, heavy overcoat and hung it up. He kicked the door closed with his foot. The living room was empty but there was definite activity in the kitchen. He followed the clattering sounds and found his wife bent over a trio of pots on the stove. Her long brown hair was tied up in a bun, with loose strands framing her face. There was a reddish-brown stain on the sleeve of her blouse, and she was gripping the stirring spoon so tightly that Bill could see the whites of her knuckles.
‘Hey, love,’ he said softly, remaining in the door frame. He considered coming back later.