Chicago thrummed through Claire, its perpetual sound and motion vibrating in her veins as she left the glassy doors of the Essex Inn for the sidewalk of Michigan Ave on this stony, colorless midmorning of November 14, 2013. In the loop to the west, behind her and her hotel, the L-trains roared on their metal paths, and ahead of her, on the eastern side of the reach of Grant Park and the low wall of Lake Shore Drive, the freshwater beat of the cold lake at its piers and shores.

Her phone said it would be sunny today. The afternoon would take strength and break through the clouds clogging the sky in time for the sun, rich and apple-ruddy, to spill across the city as it dipped behind the skyscrapers, before the night turned the lake to iron under the towers of light splitting the blackness.

"Are you nervous, Miss Keynote Speaker?" her colleague, her friend had asked her not moments before up in her hotel room as she set her hair to rights, her bangs all caught up with static from the sweater and the season's dryness.

"Erin, if you keep that up," Claire had said, looking away from the mirror where she swept out her hair with her fingers and wrapped it up again in its classic ponytail, "I might start thinking there's something to be nervous about."

And Erin laughed and said, "Where do you get your confidence?"

Claire was a girl from the mountains after all, and Chicago pulsed around her in all its vastness, cool and preoccupied. 'The city's still so big,' she thought; it teamed withthe kind of claustrophobic millions her mind could barely contain, a different animal altogether from Denver. And after her transfer from her home chapter of Terra Save completed, it would become her city—whether it felt like it or not.

"I'm born with it," Claire had said, and then, they talked briefly of her travel plans; the 'Next Step: Human Recovery after C' conference awaited after all, and in commemoration of her transfer, her promotion, and her service to Terra Save, to humanity, since the beginning of this harsh and frightened era, Claire would present as the first of seven keynote speakers.

'And I'm speaking at the opening ceremony,' she thought on the city ground, feeling winded with anticipation of that crowd, that crowd of press people, colleagues, and leaders from the world over, even as her breath fogged on her lips. 'The opening ceremony—' She clutched her hands in her pocket, and her fingers curled around a battered ten-dollar bill.

"The buses are crazy this time of year, believe me, I know," Erin had said with all the certainty of a Chicago native since birth. "Take a cab."

"I can handle a crowd—"

"Trust me," Erin had said, handing her the folded cab-fare. "I know."

Claire stepped up to the curbside, the rumble of the street, a stream of cars, and cabs, and buses, filling her ears, and hailed.

[ - - - ]

Chris knocked at 2717's door, and nobody came. He stepped back, his hands buried in his pockets and his eyebrows knitted as he waited. The chill of the wind-blasted city still clung in his bones, his right hand ungloved and grasping idly around the cellphone in his pocket.

He waited, the corridor hugging close with the silence and the chill of a morgue washed out in the overexposure of the afternoon light.

And still, no one came. Chris shifted from one foot to other and stood with legs apart, head bowed, and hands still in the pockets of his jacket.

Maybe this wasn't Claire's apartment.

Commercial paintings hung in the white spaces between the warm, cherry wood doors, static windows of oil pastures and engraved, crystal vases running over with sunflowers and drunkenly tilting lilies, but the painted vase between 2717 and 2716 was empty with a scattering of knick-knacks, a broken copper cigar case, mismatched dice, a letter-opener, and a toppled tea-cup, on the table blanketed in antique, ivory lace beneath it.

Chris ignored the weird painting and pulled out his phone, his finger bones still icy and stiff.

'I've never been to this apartment,' he remembered, downplaying to himself that this wouldn't be the first apartment of Claire's that he'd never visited. He slid open the lock and checked the address, and her text.

'Okay,' this was Claire's apartment, he was in the right place, and he put his phone away, an unintended shiver in his fingers. He went to knock again and stopped, the subtlest sounds of a football game lapping into the hallway from the doors around him.

He broke his hesitation and knocked as he had before, three stops, the door hollow beneath them, and no one came. No one called 'Coming!' or 'Hang on!' through the door, and no steps preluded any voice at all.

Maybe she wasn't home. His stomach twisted compulsively.

'I was invited,' Chris thought dumbly, and he remembered the invitation, its textual blankness, habitual as an automated message. Only the new address deviated it from any other holiday invite before. In years past, he always had his own stale responses. 'Not gonna make it this year,' 'I'll think of you guys, you should see the weather in…' Africa, Edonia, China, in wherever he happened to be 'working,' his work creating and killing men and monsters at the same time. 'Say hi to Aunt Liz for me.'

Then, the door opened, and sound spilled out of the apartment and his sister, his tall and thin sister with tied-up mahogany hair and ocean-side eyes, stood in her doorway. She had bloomed into a feminine alien in their family, so tall and so red-headed; he ended up looking more like their mom and aunts than she did.

She wore a sweater with one of those floppy, wide necks, and sort-of flowy pants that kind-of looked like jeans; he was no good at clothes and stuff.

'Fancy for Thanksgiving,' he thought and opened his mouth to speak.

Except she was staring, her eyes aimed at but beyond him, unblinking, and she leaned on her doorframe, like she needed the lift. She searched his face hard, she sized him up like—'A stranger,' Chris realized and ducked his head to the side, dodging the weight of her gaze. As soon as he did, Claire blinked, breaking from her trance.

"Hey," she said, pushing her door open. "I'm sorry. Come—come on in."

[- - -]

For five minutes, the taxis ignored her and several people waiting along the avenue as the flow of cabs held close to the sludge of traffic down the center lanes. As someone honked far up the street, thunder broke in the sky, and it began to rain, gray and autumnal, dots darkening her clothes as mist clung in Claire's hair. A green cab finally pulled from the line and rolled up beside a gentleman a step or so up the street.

She shivered and glanced aside, feeling the subtle, feather-weight of a stare. The gentleman, clean and neatly-shaven, watched her as he stood with the door to the cab hanging open.

The rain thickened, striking the Chicago cement and steel harder, a thousand nails falling.

The gentleman smiled, handsomely, with the warm, friendly face of an actor and called out over the rising metal pound of the rain.

"Care to join me?"

[- - -]

Claire's apartment smelled like holiday food and sounded like a parade, electric cheering and euro-pop music pouring from the flatscreen against her front-window. The throw pillows on her couch were kinked up, a clutter of tea cups and a can of coke left on the coffee table.

"Got guests over, huh?" Chris asked, his voice sounding clunky to his own ears. He never imagined those would be the first words he said to his sister back down in the lobby.

"Yeah, some friends," Claire said, leading him into her kitchen. "You'll already know Sherry, but this is her friend—" The little hallway turned into a niche of sandy-granite countertops and pale cabinets with an island dividing the kitchen from the dining room with its cozy square table, four chairs—

And Jake Muller.

In his sister's apartment. On the other side of her kitchen. Drinking her Coca Cola. On Thanksgiving Day.

The parade suddenly seemed so far away, broadcasting from a lone, abandoned television literally in New York.

"I know who he is," Chris cut her off. "Why is he—"

Jake put the can down with a crisp clink on the granite.

"I was invited," he said, putting his hands up. "Didn't expect to see you here—"

"Wait," Claire said. "You two know each other—"

Chris glared at Sherry.

"Didn't you tell her?"

Sherry glared at him back, in her way.

"Of course not, that's highly classified information—"

"Then, why did you bring him here—"

"She didn't, I did—" Claire butted in.

"Why—"

"Because I wanted to invite Sherry," Claire explained plainly, "and it seemed sort-of rude to invite her and blow off her friend—who had just saved my life at the time—"

"He saved—" Chris put the pieces together very quickly with a hard glance at Jake. "You're the 'third party contractor'," he quoted the phrase like a memory, ingrained and very specific. "And you—" He pointed at Sherry. "You brought him into it—"

Sherry met his gaze head-on, short and small-voiced as she was.

"It was Claire, I wasn't just going to leave her—"

"I know it was Claire," he said, like he didn't know that better than anyone. "I was handling it—"

"Not very quickly," Sherry said bluntly.

"That isn't your concern, agent—"

"Okay, enough," Claire interrupted. "No more fighting until the three of you explain to me what is going on—"

"It's a long story—" Jake put in deadpan.

Chris cut him off with a stern, hard look at Sherry and a finger in her direction.

"You started this," he said. "So, you explain it to her, and you—" The finger shifted to Jake. "You're going with me."

"Going with you?" Claire inquired. "And just where are you going—"

"We're going to throw the pigskin around," Chris said with needless confrontation, and he gambled. Redfield tradition deemed that they always kept their sports-gear in the coat closet. He won and found the old, neglected ball shoved up above the coats and shoes. Jake gaped, the pigskin existed and this was happening, and—

"Let's go," Chris ordered, his voice a physical tug as he dragged Jake out, the apartment slipping back with the sharp slam of the door.

[ - - - ]

The cab pulled away from the street-side and into the steady river of traffic. Claire sat carefully next to the Handsome Guy, the dry heat of the cab sucking the dampness from her clothes, as he didn't speak and one of her legs threatened to jitter. The silence lingered and settled.

'I've got more important things to think about.'

As quickly as Handsome Guy appeared, he faded from her awareness and she sunk into the ride, listening to low melodies of cabbie radio and the muffled sounds of the city outside. Her hands shook lightly, sections of her speech rehearsing in her mind. The speech shifted in and out, changing from the photo-memory of her typed notes into the sound of her own voice practicing in her mind's ear.

'Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure as vice-chair of Terra Save Chicago to welcome you to—' The cab knocked suddenly down a turn-lane, cutting off the radio's satellite connection, and the sudden silence tore at her concentration. Claire started again.

'Ladies and gentlemen…'

The cab changed lanes and dipped into the sudden darkness of an underpass.

'This isn't the first time we've had to realize that the world will never be the same again. All of us changed, irrevocably, in 1998. Some of you out there—'

The tail of the car slid under the viaduct, the backseat blanketed in blackness, with the mouth of the underpass hanging ahead too bright and too crowded.

'—were too young to realize it as it happened, but I know you never forgot. No one forgets how the world we lived in that morning in September—disappeared, and now, in 2013, we have to change again—'

A click sounded in the darkness, a hammer sliding into place, and the cold mouth of a gun kissed the back of Claire's ear.

"Good afternoon, Madam Keynote Speaker," said the man in the next seat.

She slammed into him across the seat, and he shoved her back, smashing her face against the window as the gun bit into the skin of her neck in the dark, the white window of the end of the tunnel swinging. The cab drove on, undisturbed, as he forced her still, his free arm wrung around her neck.

"It doesn't matter if you struggle," he said, crushing her arm between her chest and his. "This is your own fault."

"Shut up—" She pushed him back again, and he squeezed her throat harder, the air tearing from her lungs in a burst of brilliance behind her eyes.

"I'll explain slowly," he said. "This is happening to you, I am happening to you, because you trust."

"What—what the hell does that mean—"

"You trust. In your innocence, you trusted this cab, you trusted these people, you trusted this city." He paused and she felt his lips twinge and turn in a grin against her earlobe; she cringed. "And you trusted me. And every time, your trust was misplaced."

"So what?" she spat back roughly as she wriggled in his grasp, mostly to get his skin off hers. "I'm not afraid of you—you're not doing anything I haven't seen before—"

He shoved her hard, bashing her head into the window and making a minefield of her brain, loaded with bright, blaring spots of pain.

"Don't pretend you understand me, Madam Keynote Speaker," he said. "I understand you, but you don't understand me." He let her fall dizzily against him, her head lolling as the flares of her concussion crumbled into a gentler darkness. "You've never been taken against your will. What hole has Claire Redfield ever woken up in where she didn't mean to be? She trusts this world so, even Umbrella takes her where she needs to go." The gun fell with a dull clunk as he rolled up the sleeve of her sweater, sweat and cool air licking the exposed skin before he stabbed a needle into her forearm. Claire jumped, blood and bruising welling at the puncture, as a cool, tingling sensation washing her body with numbness and dragging on her brain. "But I will tell you what hole you never meant to wake up in," he said, his breath warm against her ear and the light at the end of the tunnel dimming.

"Mine."

[ - - - ]

The case file on the disappearance of Claire Redfield, a thirty-three-year-old, Caucasian woman who was abducted on her way to the Next Step Conference in Chicago, Illinois, opened formally with a series of text messages to the missing person's older brother, Chris Redfield.

The first text message read:

I'll explain slowly.

In the seconds after, more messages followed, all from the same number, with a sentence each.

The medium is the message, said the second.

And understand that all of man's countless creations are his media, his art.

The Mona Lisa and the Light bulb are the same, but perhaps the Light bulb is the more valuable.

It's all right if you don't understand.

The important part is that which does not have a message is meaningless, that which is not media is meaningless.

The fifth message broke the pattern with a rambling paragraph.

Before the development of the T-virus, human bodies had no meaning; they are not built by hands. Processes beyond (or below, as context means so much) our understanding cause bodies to be, but a medium serves a purpose; it extends the living body beyond its physical limitations. The limited, human ear can hear for miles—with a cellphone. The limited, human eye can see for miles—with a television. The internet becomes the brain itself, but faster, smarter, better. By itself, a living body does nothing—but trap a mind. But the viruses, by their mediated nature, create meaning where there was only body, empty flesh living for the sake of life. It frees men from their limited bodies as they become the virus, become media.

The finale: in 72 hours, I will inject the virus into my hostage; I will make media from a meaningless body.

But perhaps that body has meaning to you.

The text messages ended with a voicemail where a male voice, robotic and throaty, formed from electronic nothing, edged in fuzz. He spoke distantly at first, the words unintelligible until he brought the phone close and said:

"Now, Madam Keynote Speaker, in order to ring in this spectacle properly—"

A second, muffled voice struggled briefly in the background, and Chris heard his sister's capturer drag her hood up over her mouth. She gasped once and inhaled in a hiss through her teeth.

"—I need you to tell our audience your name," the male voice instructed.

She paused, and her lungs heaved and stilled. In Chris's mind's eye, the disheveled curtain of her bangs shadowed her eyes, and a rusty film of dried blood smeared the corner of her lips. She grimaced, the split in her lip opening, the broken flesh raw and pink.

"Go to hell—"


This chapter took a very long time because almost immediately after I posted it, I took on a crappy, second job. Real Life literally got all up in my creative process's face, per se, but things have since settled down, I can finally get back to work on this.