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HOMELAND

Chapter Three

Higgs and Simms stood at the end of a short corridor in front of a door labeled “Security Personnel Only”. The corridor had led off from the crossroads precinct, which Simms had referred to as Precinct Two. All of the precincts in the mall were numbered, he had explained to Higgs. The one with the glass doors was Precinct One, the one with the hospital and Higgs’ room was Precinct Three. All very straightforward except that the mall had some twenty precincts.

Simms seemed to be enjoying himself. “Prepare to witness the inner workings of the machine. Only a few privileged souls get to see behind these doors.”

Higgs sagged. “I don’t want to see. I just want to go home.”

Simms ignored him and, with a flourish, keyed a number into the ubiquitous door keypad and pushed the green button.

The air filled with that woman’s voice again. “Incorrect code. Please try again, Simms.”

Simms turned a dark pink. “Oh, er, they must have changed the code again.”

Leaning closer to the keypad and covering it with his hand so Higgs could not see what Simms was doing, he carefully keyed in the number again and hit the green button. With a soft hiss, the door slid up.

“Voila.” Simms beamed, gesturing grandly for Higgs to enter. “The Security Center.”

Higgs walked reluctantly across the threshold.

The room beyond was both huge and cramped. It stretched for some hundred meters yet the ceiling was no higher than a tall man might touch and Higgs was taller than most. All the way down its length were packed rows of desks separated by narrow aisles. Each desk supported a computer monitor and was attended by a person in a red jumpsuit. Like Higgs, they were security officers, men and women in equal numbers, and they scrutinized the screens as if their lives depended on it. The humming of machinery was almost deafening and the acrid tang of sweat hung in the air. Leading away from the doorway down the center of the room was a broader aisle. At the far end of the room was a glass wall with an office beyond.

Simms took Higgs gently by the arm and began to lead him between the rows of desks towards the far glass wall. Higgs glanced left and right but none of the men or women looked up, they just stared intently at their screens. Higgs and Simms had walked some twenty meters into the room when one of the security officers at a desk adjacent to the aisle suddenly became very animated.

“Ooh, suspected terrorist on camera 1734B,” she shouted excitedly.

A number of her colleagues crowded round and Higgs stopped and leaned over to try to see. The screen showed a view through one of the multitude of cameras Higgs had seen around the mall—it had to be that, what else could it be? The picture focused on a man who appeared to be thumping on a vending machine’s change return button. As his frustration grew, he became more violent and started swearing at it.

The security officer chuckled and shook her head. “Now, now, sweetie, temper, temper.”

Around her, colleagues smirked and rolled their eyes.

“What’s the problem?” asked Higgs.

The security officers suddenly became aware of Higgs and he sensed an immediate air of deference. He realized in an instant that he outranked them all. The security officer at the screen looked up at him. Her name badge told Higgs she was Security Officer Chelsea Day. She spoke quickly. “Don’t worry, sir, he’ll be dealt with.”

Simms pressed a hand on Higgs’ arm, gently pulling him away.

“Come on Tray…Higgs, don’t trouble yourself with that.”

They continued across the room. At the halfway point, broad gangways led off between the desks to the left and right, each one ending at a large door wide enough for several people to walk through abreast. Higgs automatically filed this information away in his head—something big was hidden beyond those doors.

They continued on until they reached the glass wall at the far end of the Security Center. Beyond it stood a spacious office with a high ceiling. The center of the room was dominated by an imposing conference table made of black glass resting on a broad dais. Many large, leather swivel chairs were spaced evenly around the table, which could easily accommodate twenty people or more. On the far side, one of these chairs had been turned to the wall, facing away from the main security center. Dozens of screens were built into the wall and streams of numbers scrolled slowly up them. Apprehension gripped Higgs. Somebody was in that chair, facing the screens. Higgs imagined a man with an eastern European accent, stroking a white Persian cat. At the opposite end of the room to the conference table was a large, polished black desk, neatly piled with computer disks and folders. Two androids towered beside it, motionless, hands resting on their automatic assault rifles.

Simms and Higgs stood outside the glass wall. One single glass door led into the office and Simms knocked on this reverentially and entered. Higgs followed. Instinctively, he noticed that the door was not automatic like every other one he had seen. It swung closed behind them under its own weight and the noise of the security center lulled to a distant hum.

Higgs trailed Simms up onto the dais and they waited by the conference table. After an uncomfortable, silent interval, Simms looked sideways at Higgs and coughed politely.

A cold hard voice came from the chair.

“Ah, Information Officer Simms. How kind of you to have brought Security Officer Higgs to us in one piece.”

The chair swiveled around slowly to reveal a small, balding, middle-aged man with sharp, unkind features. He wore a black jump suit with three stripes on the shoulder. There was no sign of a cat. The man was old, older than anyone else Higgs had seen in the mall. Something about him was familiar.

The man’s eyes were dark and penetrating and they fixed Simms with a cold, hard stare. Simms squirmed like an eel, unable to meet the man’s gaze.

“I, er, I’m sorry sir, I…”

The man held up a hand in disgust to silence Simms and turned to Higgs. The man smiled. Higgs was not sure whether he preferred the smile or the glare the man had given Simms. At least you knew what the glare meant. The man spoke.

“Security Officer Higgs, my apologies to you, you must be finding this quite trying.”

Higgs thought for a moment. He was angry and he wanted answers but something inside him, some element of instinctive self-preservation told him he needed to tread carefully. Something about this man made Simms very afraid and Simms seemed to make most of the people he met afraid. This man was dangerous.

“Sir, I would like to know what is going on. Would you object to a few questions?”

The man leaned back in his chair. “Be my guest.”

“Sir, I would like to know where I am.”

The man nodded but didn’t answer.

“I would like to go home.”

Again the man nodded and gestured for Higgs to continue.

“I’d like to know why I’m here, who you all are and who or what the hell is Homeland.”

The voice filled the room, her voice. “How remiss of me not to introduce myself, I am Homeland. I am the shopping mall’s security program and I am here to protect and serve so that all are able to shop without fear of a terrorist attack.”

Higgs found himself at a loss for words.

The man leaned forward and spoke. “And I am Commander Jared, head of homeland security. I am your line manager.”

Higgs whistled under his breath. Well, that’s a comfort.

Jared continued. “And you are Security Officer Higgs, one of our best men. Please, sit down. There are some things that I need to explain.”

Higgs reached nervously for a chair and lowered himself into it, the polished leather creaking as he did so. Beside him, Simms began to sit on the adjacent chair but Jared turned a steely gaze on him.

“Simms, I was addressing Higgs,” he barked.

Simms shot bolt upright and clumsily backed away from the table, sending the chair clattering off the dais.

“Oh, er, sorry sir, I, I thought…”

Full of contempt, Jared held his hand up to silence Simms. He turned his attention back to Higgs while Simms scuttled off to retrieve the chair.

“You’re a lucky man, Higgs. Two months ago, you were badly injured in a terrorist attack on this mall. You owe your life to the expertise of Medical Officer Jodi Francis, she pulled you back from the brink. She tells me that you have suffered considerable memory loss.”

“Yes, sir.”

Many holes remained in what Higgs could remember, especially about his recent history.

“What can you remember?” came the voice of Homeland.

Higgs paused before he answered. Something about her voice made him feel that he didn’t want to tell her too much.

“I remember graduating at the military academy. In aeronautics.”

“Yes,” urged Jared encouragingly.

Higgs remembered his mother, his father, his brother. He remembered getting his degree, he remembered the look of pride on his mother’s face but his father, well, his father always demanded more. It didn’t matter that he had passed with the highest honors, his father wanted to know what was next. Higgs swallowed as these thoughts flooded through him.

“I feel like I’ve only just graduated,” he said eventually. “I was hoping to go into the space industry.”

Jared eyed him keenly, as if he were trying to see what Higgs was thinking. “You graduated eight years ago and you’ve been with us since that time in the security services.”

“The security services? I’d kind of worked that out, sir.”

“Yes, and you are one of my best men, Higgs. The best man.”

Jared leaned back in his chair and stretched while Higgs took this in. The best man in the security services. His father would have been proud of that. He could allow himself to be proud of that. America was a great country and it would be a privilege to serve in the security services.

After a few moments, Jared leaned forward again, eyeing Higgs carefully. “Medical Officer Jodi Francis assures me that more of your memories will return but, to be frank, she believes that you’re not yet up to the challenge of resuming your duties and recommends that you should have more time to recover.”

Something about this statement grated on Higgs’ nerves. Challenge? Who said he wasn’t up to any challenge? He could decide that.

“Look, sir, I don’t remember any of these things. All I can remember in any detail is up to the point of graduating. I don’t know what these duties are but I do know whether I’m fit or not and I do know that I want to serve my country.” The memory of his father was still fresh in his mind—Higgs was not about to let him down.

Jared grinned. “Higgs, I knew I could rely on you. You’re the best there is and damn it, man, I need the best.”

Higgs smiled and looked down modestly. “Sir, I still don’t know where I am. I want to go home.”

“You are home. You have lived here for the past eight years.”

“But it doesn’t feel like home, sir.”

“That is because your memories have not recovered sufficiently. If you resume your duties, things may start to come back to you.”

Higgs sighed and nodded. Perhaps Jared was right. After all, he couldn’t remember anything and there wasn’t any particular reason why Jared should lie to him. There came a point when you had to trust authority, you had to trust those in command. The people at the top got there because they knew what they were doing and if you doubted them, the whole system fell apart.

Jared continued. “We have a problem, Higgs. The mall is under almost constant terrorist attack. The terrorists have been distributing subversive materials.” He paused and clicked his fingers at one of the androids. It turned slowly and picked up a plastic bag from the desk, holding it aloft for Higgs to see. It contained a notepad and a pen. Joints hissing, the android returned the bag to the desk and placed its hand back on its gun.

“So far we’ve been unable to work out how they are operating and where they are based. Before you were injured, you were getting close to finding out what was going on. I need you to pick up from where you left off, find them and stop them.”

Higgs considered for a moment. “Did I leave any briefing papers or notes?”

For a moment—just a fraction of a moment—Higgs thought he saw the look of a haunted man in Jared’s eyes. Jared shook his head.

“Your notes were destroyed in the terrorist attack which injured you.”

Are you lying? It wouldn’t make sense for you to lie to me. “Sir, why are the terrorists attacking the mall?”

Simms, who had been quietly forgotten up until this point, gasped and ducked back. The two android guards stepped forward and leveled their guns at Higgs, prepared to fire. Higgs stared open-mouthed, surprise dulling his instinctive reaction to dive for cover.

“Overruled.” Homeland’s voice filled the room.

The androids lowered their weapons and returned to the desk. Higgs looked from Jared to the androids and back again, opening and closing his mouth. Jared seemed completely unfazed by the actions of the guards and continued as if nothing had happened.

“Terrorists are the enemies of freedom. It stands to reason that they should attack the freedom of the mall. Only a subversive would suggest otherwise.”

Higgs realized he was holding his breath and let it out. Beside him, Simms visibly relaxed. With one eye on the androids, Higgs cleared his throat. “Why can’t we leave the mall?”

Both he and Simms flinched as the androids leapt forward, guns leveled at Higgs. Homeland’s voice stopped them again. “Overruled.”

Higgs and Simms breathed out.

“Why should anyone want to leave the freedom of the mall? Only a subversive would want to leave the mall.” Jared smiled benignly, still apparently unconcerned by the androids’ murderous intentions on Higgs.

Higgs felt emboldened to try his luck. “Why is everyone in the mall so afraid?”

“Overruled.”

The androids did not even get the chance to move this time. Higgs noticed they did seem to glance sideways at each other. They weren’t supposed to think, Simms had said.

Jared smiled. “The people are not afraid. The people are happy, safe in the freedom and security provided by Homeland. Only a subversive would think otherwise. Really, Higgs, if it were not for the trauma of your recent injury which is clearly clouding your reasoning, I would have to conclude that you were posing these questions to test my reactions.”

Higgs opened his mouth to speak and then thought better of it.

Homeland spoke. “You are confused, Security Officer Higgs, and that is only to be expected after the trauma of your injury. Please return to your quarters. There will be some clearance tests before you can resume your duties.”

Higgs rose slowly from his chair. “Thank you, ma’am. I think you’ll find that I won’t let you down.”


As Higgs and Simms hurried away from Jared’s office, and back through the security center, Simms was incredulous.

“You are so lucky, Higgs. You came this close to being terminated.” He held up his thumb and index finger a fraction apart. “Subversive questions like that are going to get you into a lot of trouble.”

“What the hell was subversive about them?”

“You heard Jared, only a subversive would think like that.”

Suddenly, Simms put a hand on Higgs’s shoulder and stopped him. He leaned close and whispered, “You’re not really a subversive, are you, Higgs?”

Higgs started to laugh but stopped short when he saw the look of deadly earnest in Simms’ eyes.

“No. No, of course I’m not.”

He pulled away from Simms and continued down the room, annoyed. What kind of question was that? What was up with Simms? And anyway, he didn’t want to stay too close to his breath for any length of time.

A crowd of security officers surrounded the screen Higgs had looked at earlier. Security Officer Chelsea Day typed furiously into her keyboard while her colleagues watched. As he drew closer, Higgs caught a glimpse of the screen. The vending machine was peppered with bullet holes and a number of medical personnel in white jump suits knelt around a stretcher. A body lay covered by a white sheet. Chelsea looked up, beaming. “We got him, sir. Just filing my report.”

When Higgs made no response, Chelsea gave a little nervous laugh and returned to the keyboard. Simms took Higgs’ arm and pulled him away.

“Come on.”


Through the glass wall, Jared watched Higgs and Simms as they walked away through the security center. He breathed out heavily and reclined back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head. Higgs would probably find out what had happened to him eventually. You couldn’t keep things hidden from a man like Higgs for long. He was good, too good. He took everything in, little details other people missed. Jared had noticed Higgs’ reaction at the news that his notes were destroyed. Jared quietly cursed himself. He did not need Higgs to start having doubts. If anyone could get to the bottom of this terrorist insurgency, Higgs could.

Homeland spoke quietly. “I am concerned, my friend. He is showing signs of subversive behavior.”

Several long seconds passed before Jared replied. “I share your concern, my friend, but he’s our only hope.”

“I do not want a repeat of the last time, my friend.”

Jared sighed. “My friend, the terrorist attacks are increasing in frequency and boldness and yet we are unable to root them out. Security Officer Higgs may be…” he floundered for a suitable word, “…unconventional but he is effective. Please let’s give him time.”

Homeland paused before responding.

“Agreed.”