BY SUZETTE BLOM
Copyright is held by the author.
That was what Cassandra’s psychoanalyst told her. She tried hard to breathe deeply. “In through the nose, out through the mouth” Her heart kept pounding. Soon her hands would start shaking. She shut her eyes and tried to visualize herself floating on a plastic floating chair on the crystal waters o? her favourite beach in the Greek islands.
She began to feel queasy, her stomach lurching the more she tried to push her thoughts in another direction. Finally, when she was sure that no amount of prana breathing was going to prevent her from upchucking all over her shoes she raised her hand frantically. Her supervisor Priam King sauntered over and looked down at her with clear disgust.
“Well?” He said impatiently.
She swallowed hard trying to regain some semblance of dignity. The lump in her throat choking her, she simply pointed to the screen.
“What the fuck are you on about? Better be important. You know what a mess we got over in the orange sector.”
She entered each letter of the code that opened the file. After what seemed an eternity the file popped open on her screen.
“Jesus, this better not be another one of your emergencies that weren’t.”
Priam was peering over her shoulder and she could smell the sour perspiration under his arms and the stale co?ee on his breath, none of which was helping her stomach settle.
A fuzzy image opened on the screen. A T55 Soviet era tank had been blown completely of its base. Scorched earth surrounds the black smoke billowing from the hollow remains. Her eyes stung as if she was breathing the acrid air. The sheer intensity of the image bubbled up in her throat. There was no comfort in the horrible realization that she had been right again.
Slowly she became aware that Priam was looking down at her quizzically. “What do ya think?” He asked with genuine interest.
“If you recall Priam I warned you last week this could happen. I don’t know but I think we need to hit the protocols for this one.”
He shrugged languidly, “Well, let’s not get hasty. Where did it come from?”
“Hmm, Syria?” He postulated as if he were on to a completely new idea that no-one in the sector had ever have contemplated.
“Yes, that is where they keep it,” she muttered, her stomach completely settled by the assurance that she had not been hallucinating even though the acrid taste of frustration filled her mouth. She had hand delivered a report last week laying out exactly this scenario. The report had footnotes and glossy slides. She had actually had to reprint it after spilling co?ee all over the first draft.
“Can’t be. It has got to be a decoy, a fake.” Priam mused, “Or an historical shot. Definitely not current.”
“The signature shows every sign of being authentic.” Cassandra insisted.
“Really not how I read it. You should know better.” Priam admonished as he turned away in disgust.
Priam’s disapproval could not keep Cassandra from pondering the image on the screen. She knew there would be no bodies. With that kind of an impact the bodies would be incinerated. Yet it wasn’t the “Trojan horse” or anything in R sector that caused her to retch into the nearest waste paper basket. She had one of those feelings again, vertigo with a slight itch just under her left arm pit. Shaking, she called the coordinates for J sector, knowing before the images materialized on her screen what she would see.
Hector, the only analyst in the room who ever listened to her warnings with any kind of courtesy, put his head over the partition, “You OK? It’s time for the 11:00 am briefing.”
She looked up, embarrassed. Hector was one of those people who blazed like the stars in the heavens. He had a head of silky blond curls, soft brown eyes and tight abs that rippled under his golf shirt. He sent shocks through every woman and not a few men in the unit. He moved with a lithe grace and seemed to listen to everyone’s concerns in a quiet, considerate way. He had taken a stand on her behalf many times when people thought she was simply an anxiety-ridden, paranoid nut. His kindness only exacerbated her discomfort at having literally just vomited into the garbage can.
“Hector can you take a look at these images before we go in?” She asked, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice.
“Of course. What’s up?”
She avoided the temptation to call up an image of J sector. There were no bodies there yet. That would be later. Instead she called the image of R sector up knowing that at least that image showed actually carnage. Hector’s reaction was like Rolaids on her stomach. The anxiety churning within her subsided with his reassuring interest. She felt validated as he peered at the screen, his eyes growing wide in concern and shock.
“Where is this feed coming from?” He asked.
“It’s our satellite.”
“Are you sure?” he demanded.
She nodded her affirmation tentatively.
“It has got to be an attack in R sector.” He deduced, looking at the data signature.
“Exactly,.” Her voice rose to a shrill tone with excitement.
“The tank was really old but desperate people will use what they can,” she added hopefully wondering if she sounded like someone who should be locked up in Bedlam.
“My thoughts exactly,” Hector murmured in his deep melodious voice.
“Well there is more to it. It looks like the tanks were some kind of decoy,” she said tracing lines on the picture with her cursor, trying to get her hand to stop shaking.
Hector’s beautiful brows knit together in confusion, “What do you mean?”
“I think the tank played dead until the fighting unit got close enough for the explosion to do real damage. It was probably loaded to the gills and rigged to explode at close range.”
“Like a deadly decoy,” he concluded.
“I think they call it a Trojan horse. The villagers would have thought the tank was a gift, sort of a peace offering. While the fighting unit was wiped out by the tank decoy the village would be left undefended. With no fire power, they would not have been able to put up any resistance. They were all massacred.” She said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Did you tell Priam?” He queried.
“I did, but you know Priam,” she replied not stopping to quell her frustration.
“Let me guess. He ignored you.”
“Jesus. We would do better fighting the enemy if we stop fighting ourselves. Well the 11:00 briefing is as good a time as any to deal with this.” Ever the gentleman he came around the partition and helped her stand and grab her crumpled notes.
They walked into the glass enclosed boardroom together. The sense of being hermetically sealed in with no escape route made Cassandra retch again. Like all exquisite tortures everything seemed to move in slow motion. Her pulse was pounding in her ears and she was afraid of throwing up again in front of everybody. To make matters worse the only seat open was beside Helen, the unit’s quintessentially beautiful mean girl. Everyone adored Helen even though she left her first husband for Priam’s son Paris who worked in the same unit. Paris always sat beside her at every office meeting so people could see what a trophy wife he had. No-one seemed to care about how Helen’s first husband might feel about this even though the human resources department was dealing with the fall out which included an enormous law suit that could destroy their unit. Cassandra already knew that despite having created so much havoc Helen would go back to her first husband one day. Cassandra rested her head in her hands in almost complete defeat. Fortunately, all eyes were on Helen, who was smoothing her hair and crossing her legs in her tight skirt. No-one paid attention to Cassandra’s obvious distress.
Priam stood at the head of the table. “Well people, today we are considering some new regulations concerning data usage. Also, we have a directive from upstairs about the use of personal cell phones on company time. And last but not least we are using too many paper clips!”
Cassandra squeezed her eyes shut in a futile attempt to block him out. It was hard to listen to daily castigation about cell phone usage and paper clips when her computer had just shown her the horrible death of hundreds of people. Her inner voice was shrieking. Visions of catastrophe came in waves. One receded and another came to take its place. If they would just listen to her she could stop what she knew with dread certainty would be an ocean of death if only they could hear her voice. It was as if someone had turned off the volume on her life. “People, we need to economize on this data usage or . . .”
Ever the hero, Hector interrupted Priam in mid-sentence: “There was a serious attack in R sector. We need to get some support there now!”
Priam did not miss a beat. “Really, and how do you know this? Don’t tell me it’s from Cassandra’s feed! Well sir Galahad, you have obviously been listening to Ms. ‘the world is ending’ again.” Priam’s caustic rant settled like flakes of ashes on the room.
Not to be deterred Hector shot up and jabbed his finger at the feed streaming into the screen at the front of the room.
“It’s a fake! Look how old that tank is!” Priam ranted.
Hector rounded on him. “It’s authentic. If you took the time to look at the digital signature you’d see it was taken by our drone. We’ve got to get some support to the operatives on the ground.”
Much to her own surprise Cassandra rose to her feet. “Too late. They are all dead,” she said. Tears ran involuntarily down her cheeks. She looked from face to face. It was like she was speaking a foreign language. Even Hector did not seem to understand. Helen quietly leaned over revealing her ample bosom and, much to Cassandra’s surprise, passed her a Kleenex.
Finally, Hector spoke up, “We did not have any operatives in that village, Cassie. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not talking about that village. It’s the village in sector J that is gone. The mission in that sector is lost too,” Cassandra said as she shu?ed her papers. Hector sat down dismayed by her outburst. Priam planted his two meaty hands on the desk and glared at her.
“Why don’t we just deal with the stuff on the agenda first?” Helen said trying to smooth things over.
All eyes focused on Helen as she stood up to give her report on personal cell phone usage. No one seemed to notice as Cassandra, her head exploding in frustration and her heart pounding, stumbled from the room.
Cassandra sat at her desk marinating in her own anxiety. Why didn’t they believe her?
They did not even give her the courtesy of suspecting her to be a foreign agent. Why was everything such a struggle? She could not explain why she saw these horrible things. In some ways, it would have been better if she were crazy. At least people would not die.
Unfortunately, she was an unfailingly accurate prophet of doom. It was like an undetected cancer growing silently inside of her, invisible until it was too late. She had truly earned the sobriquet “Catastrophe Cassandra.” Yet somehow everyone forgot she was the one who warned them when these disasters came to pass. Even the heroic Hector found her hard to take. He would defend her saying, “she might be paranoid but it didn’t mean no-one was out to get her.” Not for the first time she thought of her former boss, Apollo. She had refused his advances and ruined his career by reporting him to the gender equity director. When they fired him he cursed her, saying her big mouth would get her into trouble one day.
She tried to quiet the turmoil in her brain and squelch the images that flowed in furious river in front of her mind’s eye.
She got to her feet and gathered her coat. No need to stay. Soon they would know she was right but not soon enough. As she headed to the elevator, people, shocked by the sudden announcement of a massacre in J sector, were racing out of the boardroom. It was just as she had predicted. Indeed, all the operatives were dead.
Cassandra bit her tongue to keep from gagging on the acrid taste of anxiety. Her knees felt weak as she tried to make her way to the elevator. She was not sure what was worse: the nightmare of accurately foretelling the future or the frustration engendered by the fact that no one believed her.
She felt a tap on her shoulder. Hector smiled down at her, his beautiful brow creased with concern for her.
“You OK? Can I give you a ride home?”
Cassandra nodded. “That would be great if you don’t mind. I mean if you have time.”
“Of course. I couldn’t let you go home alone feeling the way you do.” Sympathy and chivalry oozed from every pore.
He helped collect her things and grabbed her elbow for support as they made their way to the elevator.
“I know this is a hard job but you shouldn’t think your shouldering it all alone,” Hector advised as they rode down the elevator.
Cassandra was trying not to look into his velvety bone melting brown eyes.
“You can always turn to me for help. I’ve got broad shoulders,” he said.
Literally and figuratively Cassandra thought just as her stomach begun to lurch again. The vision of Hector stepping forward to confront a co-worker named Achilles filled her mind. Achilles, enraged over what he perceived as a slight to his honor after he didn’t get the bonus he wanted, would commit the fourth mass shooting in their state that week. Hector, ever the hero, would die tackling him as he tried to save others.