The single word was enough to wake her, to send energy coursing through her body. She sat up, her heart beating, her cot creaking. Around her she could hear the fitful sounds of a dozen sleeping strangers. Beyond that, the sounds of a refugee camp at night. Hushed conversations, muffled vehicles driving about, raucous laughter from somewhere farther off.
She shivered; it all sounded too much like the riot nights she had spent in Cohen & Associates, listening to the voices outside drift in. The sounds of looting, fighting, killing—
No. Can't think of that. That was behind her, she was in a better place now. She was directly defending the Defenders, after all.
We did it... But something more important has happened... We need you in the tower...
The voice seemed familiar, a presence she knew well, but there was something odd about it, something she couldn't quite square with her initial reaction. Something foreign...
John. It had to be John. He had never spoken into her mind like this before, connected on this personal a level. That's why she couldn't recognize this voice as one of the other EHUDs. But his innate self, his John-ness that she knew so well, that had come across. It was just as Cyd had explained: the non-verbal persona of the individual was communicated into her mind...
She slipped on her boots—she hadn't dared undress any further—and slipped out of the tent. Lights bobbed here and there in the distance, but most of what could be seen was Sky Crest and the mall. They both glowed with inward light, as well as by spots pointing at them. Making them easier to see for aircraft? What aircraft?
The lights at least made it easier for her to find her way to the building. As she walked into the lobby she silently wondered, What floor?
Penthouse... The door will be open...
She could get used to this.
The elevator opened, she rose, the elevator opened, she got out. As she stepped into the penthouse foyer, the double-doors opposite her opened on a thin man in his sixties, ruffled white hair topping a ruffled white sweat suit.
“Hey, Alice. Glad you could make it.”
It was unnerving. The inflection, the cadence, it was all John. But the timbre, the slight raspiness, it was so wrong. She stared into the face of Robert Mistlethwakey, trying to look past the eyes to her friend within. She couldn't see him.
“Catch me up.”
“Right.” He strode back into Mistlethwakey's apartment, his body moving not as if he owned this place, but as if there were urgent business to attend to. That was comforting. She followed him.
“A couple years ago we took over the world's nuclear arsenal. Never really thought about it; it was just a mission and we were a little... preoccupied.”
As he said the last word, a sudden image of Cyd flashed through her mind. That explained some things...
“Turns out he's been planning on wiping out our technological civilization. We'd be left to pick up the pieces.”
“Shit. It's a good thing you got him when you did.”
John stopped and rounded on her. “We didn't. He's—we've—implanted subconscious instructions in high-level political targets, plus code in the actual launch computers. He's set everything to launch in just over three hours.”
“Oh, fuck.” This was not the news she wanted after just waking up. John's words kept replaying in her head, and one phrase stood out: our technological civilization. She had lived in the ruins of that technological civilization for three days; it had been bad. She could barely imagine what living through a nuclear wipe-out of that civilization would be like. Scratch that—she could imagine it all too well. She had seen movies, played video games. She didn't want to imagine it.
But in the back of her mind a little voice said, You know you could survive it. You've already proven you can survive it...
“What are we going to do?”
John didn't answer; his eyes were unfocused. He must be having an important conversation. She took this chance to look around the much-vaunted General's home. She knew the floor-plan well enough, had even put in some work on a remodel a few years back, but being here in person was different. For one thing, here there was furniture. And other people. Scattered across the main living area and up onto the loft were several armored Defenders, moving so little they resembled decorative flourishes more than actual people. Some were staring out the curved windows that made up the outer walls, some were looking down at the ground, some were focused on a small glowing tablet...
“I'm sorry, did you say something?”
“Yeah, what are we going to do?”
John gestured to the group clustered around the tablet. “Vince is trying to cut through the General's firewalls, but the security is unlike anything he's ever seen. Even if he got though, he wouldn't be able to shut down anyone's launch mechanisms; footballs rarely connect to remote networks. Our best current bet is to warn everybody, then try to create a barrier to protect the tower, maybe the mall.”
Alice was already shaking her head. “You and I both know this isn't build to withstand atomic bombing. And besides that, there's no way we could make something that would in, what, six hours? Maybe the mall—”
“I don't mean a physical barrier.”
A wicker rocking chair in her peripheral vision rose from the floor.
“We create an energy field around the buildings, angle it to deflect the blast. Some of us are already working through it. Maybe you could help them with the shaping.”
“I'd need to know where the explosion's coming from, magnitude—”
John was nodding. “He knew we were coming, probably expected us to do this. He left a very detailed map of thousands of targets, along with details of which missiles where going where.”
“Shit...” Alice was having a hard time standing, the situation was so surreal. Hearing the voice of Robert Mistlethwakey referring to himself as a separate entity, hearing the voice of her most down-to-earth colleague discussing the creation of a psychic energy shield to deflect a nuclear blast... Was this how John felt when Merv had first made himself known?
Then, guilt. “He knew you were coming. He had too many details of the plan, he must have read my mind, or—”
The leathery hand on her shoulder quieted her. “He couldn't have known you were coming... Hell, for all we know, he could have programmed this plan into us before he ever released us...”
“Why would he do that?”
John shrugged. “Who knows? But we don't have time to think about that right now. Right now, we have to survive.” He gestured up to the loft. “Talk to Vince. He'll give you the details you need to get started. Right now, I have to make sure the people of Philadelphia survive this shit-storm.”
He squeezed her shoulder, then walked off in the direction of the private rooms. Alice had no idea why.
Hey, you coming up, or you want to talk from there?
She looked up to see Vince putting the tablet down on a desk, bending forward to get a closer look. He didn't acknowledge her in any way, but she was able to recognize his presence.
Yeah, I'm coming up, she thought.
Heavy knocks on the door pulled her from sleep. She blinked, levered herself up so she could see the clock over Ethan's shoulder, took in the time: 3 AM. Amanda sighed and closed her eyes, trying to decide whether it was worth getting up just to tell whoever was pounding on her door to go away. Then she remembered who she was staying with, and realized that if the General was waking her in the middle of the night, he must have a good reason.
Grumbling, she rolled out of bed, put on a robe, and opened the door a crack. “Yes?”
Lights were on beyond the door, leaving the knocker in shadow, but the silhouette looked like Bob. “Mrs. Latterndale?”
Sounded like Bob, but he knew who she was. “Yes?” She glanced back to where Ethan was sleeping, tried to think of what she could do if this person turned out to be a threat.
“Ma'am, I'm sorry to wake you, but we have a very serious problem.”
Dark forms were moving beyond Bob. They were clearly soldiers in EHUDs with helmets off, but their faces looked strange, skeletal... Another person walked by, a weathered looking woman in baggy clothes with bright-red hair. Amanda gasped as she recognized Cyd.
She slammed the door, rushed back to Ethan, shook him, hissed, “Get, up, we have to go, get up!” She knew this was a useless gesture; there was no where she could go with her son. There was only one way out of the room...
The door creaked open, and Mistlethwakey stepped inside. “We don't have time for this. The world's about to end, and we need to get everyone inside.”
Amanda froze. The hyperbolic phrase carried some weight when spoken by the National Security Adviser.
“Mom, what's going on?”
All she could see where Ethan's eyes, afraid, staring up into hers. What could she say? The truth? “I don't know honey... But the Defenders are here.”
Ethan's eyes widened, and his throat jerked as he tried to swallow. “Dad said they were on our side, right? He was going to talk to John?”
There were shuffling footsteps behind her. “Why doesn't the boy go with nurse Donalson here?” The door creaked again, and when Amanda looked back she saw the familiar face of Reggie Donalson, the grieving brother. Why was he here?
“We need to talk. Privately,” Bob stressed.
Amanda nodded, then bent back down and whispered in Ethan's ear, “Go with the nurse. Whatever you do, stay away from the Defenders. I don't care what your father said, I don't trust them.”
She sat on the edge of the bed as Ethan slipped onto the floor, pulled on a tee-shirt, and followed Reggie from the room. When the door closed, she was able to breathe again.
“What do you want, Bob?”
“Look, I know you don't trust them out there, but they are trying to help you. I know some of them have been... rather extreme in their actions, but Ed trusted them, and maybe you should, too.” Good; he was starting to sound more like the Mistlethwakey she knew.
“Of course Ed trusted them; he's one of them.”
She glanced up to see what kind of reaction this would illicit. Bob was half-smiling, his expression looking almost wistful. “Knew it would happen sooner or later...”
Now she was standing, towering over the little General, flailing at him. “You knew? You knew he would do this, knew he was part of this—”
His hands gripped her wrists, far stronger than their age and frailty would suggest. She gasped, then fell quiet.
“There is no time for this right now,” he hissed. “The EHUDs are here for a very specific purpose: They have intel that there's about to be a nuclear assault on the U.S.. It's been a possibility for the past two months, a strong probability since last week. Now we have confirmation that someone is gunning for us. They're going to take out the Defenders before the Defenders or some other faction gets their hands on our nuclear arsenal.”
That stopped Amanda, held her in place. Nuclear war... always such a remote possibility, something she knew no one would ever try... but always the worst-case scenario, the great fiery cloud she couldn't protect Ethan from, no matter how hard she tried. She found herself slipping backwards; Bob released her, letting her fall back on the bed.
“Who... who's firing at us?”
He ignored her. “Right now I need you to focus, Mandy.”
Mandy. No one called her that except Edgar. She was focused now.
“The Defenders think they can make an energy barrier to keep us safe, but they're relying on the structure of this building to give them a guide. That means that we need everyone outside--all the refugees, all the soldiers, all the supplies--moved into the tower or the mall. We have about five hours, so we have to do it now.”
She pushed herself up, walked to the closet, dug around until she found a pair of loose khakis and some comfortable shoes. “What do you want me to do?”
Mistlethwakey nodded in approval. “You're the CFO of one of the country's largest non-profits, you're the only public face we've had for the presidency during the worst domestic dispute since the Civil War, and you're the one who got all of us here.” He gestured expansively to the room, the building, the unseen refugee camp down below. “I want you to make sure every one's inside and safe by the time the nukes start falling.”
The shoes made a tremendous thumping sound as they hit the floor. “Do you really think I can do it?”
The General smiled his sweet, sinister, grandfatherly smile. “Why do you think I came to you first?”
Edgar sat on the edge of his bed, staring down at the blue sheath that bulged from the end of his robe. He flexed his leg, watched as the hunk of plastic and plaster moved, felt his thigh straining at the extra weight. It was getting better...
He dipped down into his leg, found the last place where bone was still held together be metal. Ideally, he would get the pin out first, then seal the bone. But that would take too long, require another surgery. For now, he'd seal the bone, build his strength back up. Then, when Donalson made good on his strike against Bob, he could help him remove the metal. God, it would be good to be able to do that, to control every aspect of his body. Never to be hurt again...
Faint music pulled him from his thoughts. He listened for a moment, recognized the jaunty tune of “Home Means Nevada.” Mandy. He lunged from the bed, stumbling and grumbling as he found his balance, then clumped across to the dresser where his mobile lay twitching.
There was a moment before she spoke. In that moment were a multitude of other voices, of heavy machines groaning, of a city in a great hurry. “Ed. I'm sorry I didn't call earlier. I've just been so busy, and I knew you would be too, but—”
“I, I haven't been...” He cleared his throat. “I haven't been too busy—”
“I'll keep this short. I know we didn't part on the best of terms, and I still don't completely trust you, but Ethan misses you, and I see now how important it is for him to have you, so,” her voice became thicker, “if we survive this, I want him to come visit you. We need to be together.”
“If you—Mandy, what the hell are you talking about?”
She sniffed. “I know, stay positive. You trust them—hell, you're one of them—and you showed what they're capable of with Maria. Yeah, we'll get through this.”
“Mandy, I—” Pain shot through his leg and he scuttled back to the bed, falling back just as he reached it. “Fuck! Mandy, what are you talking about, what's going on?”
“Bob hasn't told you?”
“I haven't talked to Bob since he needed approval for the LCR strike.”
There was another moment of silence, another moment of the world around Amanda operating in a flurry of activity. Then: “Shit. The bastard was lying.”
Edgar felt a twist deep in his stomach. The General was doing something again. How long since he had told Bob to leave his family out of it, to stop manipulating him? Seemed kicking him upstairs hadn't kept him from meddling. “What exactly did Bob tell you?”
She relayed the General's words, telling him of the Defender's involvement, of the fiery death that loomed in about two hour's time. As she spoke a persistent nausea took root in the pit of his stomach.
Once again, the General seemed to have the EHUDs marching to his tune, despite what he had done to them in the past. Just like Ashleigh, sent to drive Edgar to Bob. Just like Merv, sent to catapult Edgar into the public consciousness, to open the floodgates on the reality of the Defenders. Just like Maria...
He swallowed. It was so obvious in retrospect. He had sent her to push him here, to cut him off from Amanda and Ethan. The General had never stopped manipulating him, had never left his family alone; he was still playing some deranged game.
Edgar was about to speak, to tell Mandy everything--how Mistlethwakey had been using him to empower the Defenders, tempting him with the Oval Office--when the doors to the bedroom burst open, splinters of wood flying out from around the deadbolts. Four armored guards rushed in, followed a moment later by Ashby and her intern, Rachel. Each woman was carrying a stack of mobiles.
“Mandy, I love you. I'll try to call you back.”
“Ed? What's going—” Click.
Edgar dropped his mobile and sat up to face the intruders. “What the fuck are—”
“India, Pakistan, France, and Russia just launched nuclear weapons,” Ashby said, her voice higher than usual.
“And Iran and Korea,” Rachel added.
Edgar whimpered. It looked like the General hadn't been lying after all; he just understated how many missiles would be in the air.
A mobile buzzed, and Rachel swallowed. “Israel.”
He pushed himself up, stood, stumbled towards Ashby. “How long ago?”
“France was first. Four minutes.”
“We have trajectories?”
“So far it looks like only European and Asian capitals are being targeted. NORAD's still trying to work out exactly what's going on.”
“Um, and the Russian premiere and Iranian president both called,” Rachel said. “They said missiles were fired without orders, and all attempts at aborting aren't working.” She was shivering, twitching with nervous energy; this wasn't what she signed up for.
“Right. Call NORAD, tell them to have planes in the air and anti-missile precautions prepped. They've probably already done that, but I am taking no chances. Next, get the conference room prepped. I want to be on with every world leader in five minutes.”
Ashby nodded. “Rachel, conference room. There's a corporal on duty who knows how to work everything. Put out a general call.” They both turned and left.
And suddenly, Edgar was alone, the world collapsing around him. Before the call from Amanda, this would have been a horrible tragedy, a moment of intense stupidity that would doom all mankind. But after that conversation... this was the action of one man, operating on a plan of far greater immensity than Edgar had ever suspected...
Rachel stood on the sidelines of the end of the world. The president, flanked by two military advisors, sat facing a curved wall screen filled with hundreds of windows. In each window a terrified face peered out: a president, a premiere, a prime minister, a general, even one or two monarchs. Each had their turn to mumble out a weak apology for what their arsenal was doing, then provide an even weaker excuse that, whatever was happening, it wasn't their fault.
In the middle of the screen was a map, lit up with a little red light for each calculated target. Rachel watched in horror as the little red dots multiplied and spread, plague-like, over the world. A sparse sprinkling in central Asia, growing thicker towards the edges of the landmass, flaring brightly in India, eastern China, Japan. Sub-Saharan Africa glowed, topped by a void of tan, then more red, then Europe, badly infected.
At his table, Edgar was getting angrier and angrier, his shoulders raising higher and his head dipping lower as the meeting stretched for ten minutes, fifteen, twenty. Then a voice, dripping with a Midwestern drawl, said, “Sir, ours are off, too. I don't know how, sir. There was zero electronic traffic, sir.” And then it was Edgar's turn to mumble a weak apology, to say it wasn't his fault.
On the map, the infection jumped the Pacific and Atlantic, striking the new world from both fronts. South America was aglow with sores, a green swath of rain-forest being its only safe zone. North America glowed brightly along its coasts, around its inland seas. Then, for no apparent reason other than dividing the world, a deep red sore appeared across the Panamanian isthmus.
Rachel absorbed all this in a kind of detached horror, not hearing any of the words, only watching as the world was split apart by the engineers tracking the missile's trajectories. Everything seemed remote until she saw southern California and New England erupt, and then she silently cried, knowing that in less than an hour her parents, her friends, the father of her child, would all be dead.
Then there were words, a slight glimmer of hope. They were in French, but quickly translated : “We have birds on a missile. We are engaging.” Then the hope died. “Automatic surface-to-air defenses have targeted the birds. We have lost communication. Repeat, we have lost communication with the birds.”
And then, one by one, the windows went dark. With some, there was a definite sign-off, a sad farewell to their colleagues. With others, the screen merely went dark mid-sentence.
Wheels rumbled on hardwood as the president pushed away from the table. He awkwardly stood, stumbled over to Rachel, stared down into her eyes as he rested his weight on her shoulder. “Your family should be fine. The Defenders have thrown in with Mistlethwakey and are making some kind of energy shield. You're free to make any calls you need to.”
He straightened and hobbled from the room.
Rachel was alone know, staring at the screen, the red Earth glaring out at her from the center. She stroked her belly, then looked down to her hands. Two weeks ago they had scooped up a handful of slush, formed a ball, threw it at Tisha. They had scooped up a city filled with nervous energy, formed a riot, threw it at the country. These hands had killed one of her friends, had started a war that had killed thousands and left tens of thousands of others injured. All that blood was on her hands... And now it would be washed away with fire, by the deaths of billions, utterly forgotten in the apocalypse that was about to begin. She shuddered. She had wanted to wash the blood away, to absolve herself for what she had done... it seemed impossible to believe that she would now give anything for the guilt to remain.
It was tempting to let Eli handle this... He had more experience speaking, had spent more time face-to-face with the American public. But in an hour he'd be dead, and the public needed to see someone a little more lasting, someone a little more interested in their lives.
So it was that Edgar sat in front of a green screen, facing a camera wired in to who knew what. He had returned to his wheelchair, sitting erect, his suit jacket crisp and his hair slicked back. Eli, via video chat, had urged him to shave, at least trim his beard, but Rachel insisted that the longer beard was evocative of the earlier presidents--the “better” presidents--and would help to put people's minds at rest.
It was with beard full and flowing that Edgar waited as Ashby's pet tech corporal counted him down, signaled him to begin speaking.
“My fellow Americans... By now you have heard rumors of what has been happening the world over, heard news out of Europe and Africa and Asia that a massive nuclear assault has occurred. It is my sad duty to inform you that those rumors are entirely true. By the time this message is broadcast, all of the major population and power centers on this planet's main landmass have been destroyed. Millions have died, and hundreds of millions more will surely join them in the coming weeks. There is no way to mount a rescue effort; infrastructure and manufacturing hubs have also been targeted. Furthermore, in the coming hours, the western hemisphere will fall victim to the same rain of fire. Most of the bombs that fall on us will be our own.
“The question I am sure that you all want answered is, 'Why'? Why has this tragedy occurred, who has caused it?"
He paused, looked away from the camera, brushed at his eye. On camera, it was endearing, a man weeping for his world. Below camera, his plastic-clad leg was twitching.
"I don't believe we'll ever know.
“The question we should ask is, 'What can be done'? The answer: survive. The years ahead will be the hardest mankind has faced for the last twenty-thousand years. Civilization as we know it will be gone. Our technology, our industry, everything we have counted on in our lives will be taken from us. What we are left with is each other. What we are left with is human relying on human, the race coming together as we have not done in millennia. Perhaps in the coming years, we can reflect on the Defenders, on what they could have offered us. A world of peace, a world where no man need fear another. A world where all shared equally: ideals, possessions, self. Perhaps this is the world we will make in the coming years, the world we will pass down to our children and our children's children, a world whose very existence is a sign saying, 'Do not go this way. Do not embrace war, do not shun the outsider. Listen to those wanting to help, defend those who cannot defend themselves.'
“And if I live through this, if I can see a new and different world with tomorrow's sunrise, that is the world I will try to build. And if you hear this, and if you, too, see tomorrow's sunrise, I ask that you join me in building this.”
He tilted his head back, looking down his nose at the camera. He held the solemn pose for a moment, then thrust himself forward. “Ethan, if you see this, I'm sorry. This isn't the world I wanted to leave to you. I can only hope you do a better job with this new world than I did with the old.”
Returning to his previous pose, he flicked his fingers at the corporal, until the corporal sighed and said, “We're cut.”
Edgar mirrored the sigh, then slumped down into the chair.
“It's uploading, but broadcast will be slim. There's a fuck-ton of electromagnetic interference, and all Eastern-Hemi servers are offline.”
Edgar nodded. “Doesn't matter. Not much this would do for people anyway, maybe distract them for a few minutes.” He prodded at the chair's joystick, rocked back and forth, then looked up at Ashby, standing next to the light kit. “It looks like I'm about to be president of a much more local country. Call up all National Guard in the state, get them started this way. NORAD thinks we'll be pretty untouched in the Midwest, at least until the fallout starts up. I want supplies stockpiled, police put on alert, prisons on maximum security. The next forty-eight hours are going to be absolute hell... we better be ready.”
She nodded, tapped something into her tablet, then turned to go. Just before she reached the door she stopped and turned back, raising the tablet and shaking it. “I'll get some pens and paper and have them distributed to the staff.”
Edgar bowed his head in acknowledgement, then followed her out of the room.
With one hand he was controlling the chair, with the other he was continually dialing Amanda's mobile. He couldn't get through; too much electromagnetic interference.
He was so distracted he didn't notice the person standing in the middle of the hallway until his knees collided with something and his chair stopped moving. He looked up into the face of Dr. Frease.
“Now isn't the time, doc. You can check on me after I've called my dead wife.”
Frease snatched the mobile and tossed it aside.
“I watched your little speech.” The doctor knelt so he was face to face with the president. “And you know what I kept thinking of the whole time you talked about the end of the world?”
Edgar tried to motor in reverse; he had to say goodbye to Amanda. She might survive, but he wasn't trusting the General's magic with that. Frease grabbed the wheels, holding the chair in place.
“I kept going over a conversation I had with Mistlethwakey, back when he was busy pulling favors to get me set up as your uncle's doctor. Funny thing was, I had no memory of the conversation until just know.”
The joystick snapped back upright, the motor died. Edgar was paying attention.
“He was telling me all about this place, about all the little goodies he had stuffed in the basement. And somehow you came up in that conversation... how if anything catastrophic should happen, I should show you what's in the basement...” As he spoke, his voice rose in pitch, until it was almost a whine at the end. “You won't believe what's down, there... But you really need to see it.” He looked frightened.
Edgar ran through possibilities, couldn't think of anything more frightening than what was going to happen in just a few minutes. Frease seemed like a sane man, aside from his guilt over the Defenders. If whatever was in the basement was worse than what was going on around him, it had to be important...
But so was his family. Every time Edgar thought of the imminent apocalypse, he remembered his family: Mandy's striking smile, her indomitable will, Ethan's half-toothed grin, his naïve loyalty...
“My wife and son are about to die, Todd, and I need to say goodbye. I was the one who told them to go to Philadelphia, I was the one who didn't force them to come here with me. I killed them, Todd. For once in my life, I'm putting off work to talk to them, to tell them I love them, alright?”
Frease shook his head, stood, stumbled away.
Edgar motored over to his dropped mobile, glanced around, made sure no one was watching. The mobile twitched, jumped up onto his foot-rest, jumped again up into his lap. He dialed her number, waited, heard the disinterested female voice, “We're sorry, but service is unavailable in your area.”
And in that moment he realized it was too late. He had them for so many years, took them for granted, ignored them for the promise of power. He couldn't just pick them up now that he saw all his ambition disappear in a wave of fire. All he could do was pray that he had made the right choice in sending them with Bob, hope that the preternatural General would keep them safe. It was little solace, but it was solace all the same.
The mobile slipped back down to the floor. Edgar turned and glared up at Frease, who had appeared behind him. “Alright. Show me what Bob left in the basement.”
Frease chuckled, the sound belying the panic in his eyes, the terror exuding in waves from his mind. “This way...”
He turned, and Edgar followed.
“So, uh...” Frease cleared his throat. “You remember all those blood samples I took after your episode?”