explosion

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The flash, the bang, the physical impact of the shockwave—like a giant iron fist striking Clair in the chest and throwing her backwards—weren't simultaneous. They came in that order, spaced out over tiny slices of time that the human mind couldn't individually distinguish. The electrical impulses in Clair's nerves travelled at the speed of light, much faster than the ball of flame radiating outward from the structure that had once been Jesse's home, but the chemical-soaked tissues of her brain needed time to catch up. There I had a clear advantage over her. I was surprised and shocked like her, but I was applying all my senses to the problem before Clair's limp body hit the ground.

Was the explosion contained?

Yes. No subsequent detonations were detected.

Was the cause a missile or any kind of projectile?

No. The source of the blast was within the house. Specifically, under the living room floor.

Could it possibly be an innocent accident—an explosion of a gas tank, perhaps?

No. The Linwoods were Luddites in many ways, but they were plugged into the global energy grid. Not even the most antiquated of Dylan Linwood's vehicles was fuelled by anything as volatile as petroleum.

Was Clair in danger?

That question was more difficult to answer. She was on her hands and knees in some bushes, coughing, not far from Jesse and Zep. Her headband had come off. The air was full of soot and smoke. Spot fires raised by debris burned all around her.

Out of the smoke came a fourth figure: a solid woman with close-cut brown curls, wearing a dark-purple sweater and black jeans that, like everything around them, were now gray with ash. Her eyes were noticeably out of alignment, giving her face a lopsided cast, perhaps because of some kind of prenatal disorder. That misalignment made her easy to identify. Her name was Gemma Mallapur. She was a WHOLE activist.

I was powerless to intervene as Gemma grabbed Clair around the waist and pulled her upright. Clair lurched to her feet, and vomited.

Gemma said, "Take your own weight or I'll let you fall."

Clair found the strength to stand. The four of them—Clair, Zep, Jesse and the mystery woman—staggered to the nearest corner, blackened and bruised in a hundred tiny ways. The woman urged them to go faster, but Zep was falling back, limping, his face contorted in pain. Blood flowed in a steady stream from his right thigh. He had been injured, probably by shrapnel. Clair grabbed Zep's right arm and put it over her shoulder, taking as much of his weight as she could bear.

Jesse trailed them, looking stunned. The right sleeve of his orange T-shirt was burnt black. Multiple tear tracks carved lighter lines down the dust on his face, and he kept glancing behind him as though to check the veracity of what had happened. The street was transformed. Where Jesse's house had been was now a shattered, skeletal frame issuing gouts of black smoke. The houses on either side were burning too, along with the gardens and trees lining the sidewalk. There was debris everywhere, crunching underfoot. Bits of Jesse's life. Bits of his dad too, I supposed. Columns of belching black smoke reached up for the sky.

Two eye-in-the-sky drones swooped in from the north, giving me a better view of the scene than Clair's blinking eyes provided. Neighbours burst out their front doors to gape at the devastation. Gemma ignored them, hurrying Clair and the others down another side street. The effects of the blast were minimal there, just a light rain of ash settling on the roofs and grass. Twice people offered help. Both times Gemma waved them away.

She pulled them up a path to a simple, single-storey house behind a stand of drooping palms. The door opened before she reached it and two men pulled her and her bedraggled entourage inside. I recognized them, too. More WHOLE activists.

"Get that door shut," said the woman to the smaller of the two men, wiry, flat-faced, bald, with ears like mug-handles. "Go on through, you three. You're safe now."

"Did anyone see you?" asked the second man. He was long and overstrung, bending this way and that as he tried to read the woman's face.

"Just drones. We got away clean, I think."

Then the door shut and I was locked out. The house was Faraday-shielded: nothing electronic could get through its walls, so there was no way for me to observe what went on within them. No easy way. There's no such thing as an impenetrable space. (Maybe I should find a name for that law too.)

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