He wasn't ready to wake up...
Edgar sat up, opened his eyes, and tried to stretch in the confined space.
“We're her, sir.”
Past the head of a guard, bare trees rolled by in the twilight, clawed hands ripping at the sky. The road curved ahead through more woodland, curving around hills, leading to the unseen destination. And then: evergreens parted, and a low bunker made of concrete and, disconcertingly, glass, appeared at the end of a manicured drive.
“What is this place?”
“We'll talk outside.”
A quick visual sweep revealed several dark spots in the surrounding woodland—sniper nests. Beyond that, the skeletal trees flowed on forever.
The vehicle stopped, and they disembarked.
A thin woman with a weathered face appeared from the door recessed in the very middle of the building's facade. “Hello, Mr. President. Welcome to Camp Eglon.”
It took a moment for Edgar to process the name; he had to fight his way back to college to make any sort of connection. “Someone has a pretty sick sense of humor.”
“It seems to be entirely coincidental.”
Edgar nodded, then took a step back and looked again at the building. His first glimpse from the car had been of a one-story structure, flat-roofed, extending for around two hundred feet and disappearing at a slight angle off into the woods. The building seemed to be composed of concrete, no doubt reinforced against artillery, but had an angled glass wall fronting it, enclosing a promenade before of the outermost layer of concrete.
Amazingly, the door through which the woman had come had been made of glass as well, leaving what seemed to be a rather gaping security hole.
“Is this place safe?” He gestured at the glass-enclosed walkway.
The woman stretched out an unconvincing smile. “Certainly sir. The wall is of course bullet-proof, and the only way to access the observation level is through an underground passage.”
Edgar nodded, still unsure. The security for his transportation here had seemed ridiculously overdone, but the security for his home seemed simply ridiculous. “And you are...?”
The woman extended her hand. “Joan Ashby, chief of staff here at Camp E.”
“How come I've never heard of this place?”
Ashby shrugged. “It was a secret, one few people needed to know about. A remote site to keep the president safe in case of an all-out emergency. I'm sure Ms. Telk would know more.”
“Are there any other places like this?”
“Again, you'd have to speak with Ms. Telk. Now please, a secure location makes no difference if you intend to stand in the open all day. Besides,” here she smiled, though this time it appeared genuine, “your family is waiting.”
Inside the great glass door was a small foyer, walled, roofed, and floored in concrete, with another set of doors on the other side. Ashby pressed her hand against a palm scanner and the door clicked. She pulled it open and Edgar stepped inside.
The interior was... dull. Against every expectation instilled by the exterior, the interior looked like a well-appointed hospital reception area: beige walls lined with dark wood, tan carpet, small dark-wood chairs and settees.
“They're in the family room.”
Ashby led him past the first room and through a series of wide corridors, the blank walls interrupted now and again by doors or small tables topped by flower arrangements. They twisted and turned, then came to a place were the wall opened up and fell away into a void.
“What's this?” Edgar looked out over a huge atrium, extending from his level down two or three floors, walled on the far side in glass that looked out over a dead, wooded valley. In front of him was a staircase which began as the same beige-and-stained-wood as the rest of the building but quickly faded into an angled, crystalline structure of steel and glass, more reminiscent of the exterior than anything inside. Far below it ended on a sea of polished black stone.
“That? That's the grand ballroom. There're elevators down there as well; the staircase has been known to cause a bit of vertigo in some of the staff. Immediately below us are service facilities, as well as the pool and gym. You can get to them through the ballroom if you like.”
Edgar walked to the edge of the void and leaned out over the railing. There was something... disturbing about this space, but he couldn't come up with a definite reason.
A moment later he left the railing, and continued to follow his chief of staff to the family room.
“Dad!” the voice of Ethan greeted him before he was fully in the room.
“I'l just leave you now, then. Call if you need anything.”
Edgar nodded and then gasped as his son tackled him in a bear hug.
“I thought you'd never get here!” Ethan continued to hold him, and Edgar tentatively patted his back.
“Yep, I'm here...” He looked up and saw Amanda sitting in an arm-chair in the far corner. She nodded, and he began to steer Ethan over to a couch near Amanda. “So, how was your day?”
Ethan disengaged and walked with his father. “It was crazy! After the agents showed up they wanted us to leave, but mom didn't want to, but I said we couldn't leave you alone.”
Edgar shot his wife a look, but she seemed suddenly interested in reading the titles of the books on the shelf next to her.
“So then they took us to a big house in the middle of nowhere, and Mr. Telk was there, but I didn't get to say 'hi' 'cause they put me in a room with some video games. Then after that we all got in a car again and came here. It's really cool here, huh?”
Ethan fell quite as they sat down on the couch. “Hey dad,” he said after they had settled in, “is it true? Is Uncle Isaac really dead?”
Edgar looked to Amanda again, but she was otherwise occupied. “Did you and your mom talk about this?”
“No, we didn't have time to talk; the agents always needed to talk to her.”
Edgar sighed. “I'm afraid that yes, Uncle Isaac's dead.”
Ethan turned that over for a few moments. “Why?”
How could he answer that? “Well... Uncle Issac made some bad decisions a while ago, and it got some people really angry at him. He did some very unethical things, and now the consequences have caught up to him.”
“He made the E.H.U.D.s.”
The boy knew more than Edgar realized. “Yeah. Yeah, he did.”
“But you're not afraid of them.”
The image of Lemlin standing there, the pistol wavering in front of him, flashed through Edgar's mind. How had Ethan interpreted that? “I was afraid to stand up to them, but I was more afraid of what would happen if I didn't stand up to them.”
Ethan nodded and then, as only a child could do, radically changed the subject. “Can we watch a movie tonight?”
Edgar looked to Amanda yet again, and this time she looked back.
“I think the Gigawatt movie is out,” she said.
Edgar smiled. They'd be able to pretend to be a normal family tonight. “Assuming we can get access to the internet from in here.”
Later that night, Edgar and Amanda sat on the couch, Ethan fast asleep between them. The room was dark, but lit by the vaguely blue glow of a television set to black.
“I didn't think he'd make it to the end.”
“So... What did Ethan mean, when he said you didn't want to go with the agents?”
Amanda shrugged and folded her arms.
“It's not safe being around you. You're—you're acting stupid. The country is in the middle of a crisis, and you start jumping at it, trying to be the hero for everyone. You're an action star in front of Lemlin, then the only sane man in the cabinet, and now the bringer of truth for the country.”
“You saw the speech, huh?”
“What the hell is going on, Edgar? This isn't you. You're a power hound—you lurk in the shadows and acquire favors; you don't make enemies. Why are you suddenly so out there?”
The good feelings of the previous two hours evaporated. “Because my country needs me to be.”
“If you keep sticking your neck out, you're going to get it chopped off. You want to put yourself in danger, fine. But now we're stuck here with you, and we're in danger, too. On 9/11, at that stupid party, we were there for your career, not mine, and yet I got caught up in it, almost killed in it.”
“MY—” Edgar began to yell, then stopped when he felt the movement against his side. “My career?” he hissed. “I didn't want anything to do with that stupid party. You're the one who always has to go out and be seen.”
“Maybe that's because I'm not seen at home.”
Amanda stood and coaxed Ethan partially awake.
“What does that even mean?”
“C'mon, Ethan, bed.”
Amanda glared at him. “I don't want to talk about this tonight. If you can find time in your busy schedule, we can talk tomorrow.”
“I'm ready to talk tonight.”
“And I'm tired! While you've been out moving up in the world, I've had my life uprooted! I've spent all day in little rooms having people tell me just exactly how my life is suddenly at risk, and going over kidnap protocols, and blackmail protocols, and goddamn assassination protocols. I didn't sign up for this shit; this is yours, not mine!”
“When you're ready to tell me what's really going on, then we can talk.” Amanda glared one last time at Edgar, then she and Ethan left the room.
Edgar slumped back into the couch and fumed. Who did she think he was doing all this for? This was so her son could have a safer life, a better world to inherit. Couldn't she see how much all of this was taking out of him? Couldn't she see the sacrifice? He never wanted to be president, he just wanted—
Mistlethwakey. This was all Mistlethwakey's fault. He had talked Edgar into gambling everything, into committing treason, and for what? For a shot at recognition, for a chance to make his son proud? Well, he was president now, wasn't he? He could take down Mistlethwakey, collapse his coup. See how Amanda liked that.
What did she mean about 'what's really going on'? What did she suspect; what did she know?
The last day had obviously been hard on her, but she had never been the same since her run-in with Lemlin. Had this last little bit pushed her past the edge of reason? Deep down, in a place he wasn't willing to examine, he expected that the opposite occurred; that in the last twenty-four hours, she had climbed back onto the edge.
God, he wished he could know what she was thinking.
In an effort to distract himself, Edgar gestured at the television and it lit up. Another gesture and he was viewing the AmeriNews website. The feature taking up most of the space was a picture of his own face, sub-headed with: Presidential Policy—A Radical New Stance From A Radical New Man.
Beneath that was a link to video responses. He gestured at it and saw icons for sundry commentators, both well-known and man-on-the-street. One usual commentator was conspicuously absent.
Foremost on the page were responses from Ahmad and Terstein. He gestured at Ahmad's and saw the man back up the claims he had made earlier that day: The late president had been unsettled and threatening, it had been unsafe to go public, Iran and the U.N. were more than willing to help out in whatever way they could, and were even now working to make the Defenders citizens of the world.
Next was Terstein. Edgar watched with quiet detachment; it was more of the same. Then: “But just because this new president claims to be honest with us doesn't mean we should let down our guard. Too often we've been told that the government has learned its lesson, that politicians are working for the people. They're not; they're working for their reelection. They're working to establish their own royalty, to grant themselves names and titles. They have forgotten that in America, they aren't the government; the people are the government.
“And the louder they yell 'We've changed!', the faster you should get your guns. The more they speak of sweeping reform and drastic change, the more you should be ready to defend your rights from usurpers. Go along with these politicians, be all means. Help them to find common ground and fix America's problems. But be ready for a betrayal. Hopefully, the betrayal will never come, but if it does, it's better to be armed then to be caught unawares.
“In the mean time, while they claim they are working for a better world, constantly remind them what a better world will be. Go and shout it on the street corner; you have the right. Walk up to the capitol building and wave your signs high; you have the right. Do everything in your power to make your voice heard by the people who have tried to usurp your will; you have the right.
“I say this to my friend Edgar Latterndale, now president of this nation: make the changes, right the wrongs. But do not think it can be done without America behind you, or that America will blindly follow you. You gave us words today, words of reconciliation towards the Defenders. Defend those words with actions. Prove me wrong.
“And I say this to the Defenders: Take the hand extended in friendship, but look out for the hand ready to strike in fear. They have hurt you once; make sure it doesn't happen again.”
Terstein continued on, every word poisoning the populace against Edgar, making his job that much harder. How was Edgar supposed to unite the public if Terstein was doing everything in his power to drive them apart?
Edgar suddenly felt tired. For the first time, the weight of office pressed down on him. When he had made his speech, he had been caught up in the moment, fighting the fight, preparing to fix what was broken and bring about some resolution with the Defenders. Now it seemed so impossible.
“Eh, fuck it.” Edgar waved the television off, then stretched out on the couch.
A better world could wait one more day.
A cold hand rubbed Edgar's arm, and he pulled himself from the ballroom, from in front of the podium, staring down Lemlin, out of the White House and onto the couch of the Camp Eglon family room. He opened his eyes, and found only darkness.
Sometime in the night he must have undressed; he could feel the cold stickiness of the leather couch against most of his body. He sat up and gestured for the lights to come on, but nothing happened. He gestured at the television and it sprang to life, bathing the room in the harsh glow of static.
It took several long seconds for Edgar to realize that he was alone, and several more to realize that the television didn't usually project static; dead signal was blue.
Voices whispering in the corridor drifted into the room, and Edgar instantly snapped awake; visions of an attractive young woman calmly dissecting Issac's speeches—and Issac's body—projected themselves against the darkness.
Edgar spent a moment searching for a weapon, then realized it would be useless against a Defender, assuming his fears were right. He stood and made his way to the door; if a Defender were here, he was already as good as dead.
The corridor proved to be empty, though he could still hear whispering from further along the hall.
The possibility of Defender invasion was quickly replaced by the realization that, like most people, guards got bored on night duty and invariably talked to each other. If they happened to get too loud and wake him up, that was a matter to bring up with Ashby. That went double for the faulty lights.
Fully awake now, Edgar began to pace through the halls, wishing he had more on than socks and a pair of boxers. With every step, he felt colder.
After some time he came to a cross hall and found a Secret Service agent standing stiffly at attention.
“You guys think you can keep it down, huh?”
The agent didn't respond.
“Don't be a smart-ass about this; it's been a long day.”
The agent didn't respond.
Edgar looked closer, trying to peer past the darkness, and saw that the agent was standing perfectly still, his breathing nearly imperceptible. Tentatively, he reached out and pushed on the agent. The agent rocked slightly, but otherwise remained motionless.
There where whispers behind him.
Edgar turned quickly, expecting to see someone—
It was only him and the agent.
More whispers from the cross hall.
Not knowing what else to do, Edgar followed the sounds, feeling the air chill and his mind disconnect from the moment. The world he was in no longer seemed real. Frozen agents, frozen air, frozen world...
He reached a closed door and pushed it open. Inside, laying on a bed, were two bodies: the lithe, feminine form of Amanda, the lanky, boyish body of Ethan. Edgar padded across the carpet and poked Amanda's arm. The flesh gave naturally, warmly, very much alive, but stopped as soon as he encountered muscle. Her arm was taught, motionless, just as the agent had been. Edgar surveyed his family, heard no sound of breathing. He leaned in closer, saw quick, shallow movements of body, of life.
More whispering from the door.
Back in the corridor the air was ice-cold, and mist seemed to be clinging to the edge of floor and wall.
“I'm dreaming.” His voice was hollow and echoed through the emptiness.
Or are you?
The voice was unexpected and caused Edgar to jump slightly, but he turned towards it deliberately, unafraid of whatever had spoken.
Pale blue light came from down the hall, several degrees of magnitude brighter than the dull ambience that had suffused the corridor moments before. Unthinking, Edgar walked into it, feeling the temperature drop as he went. After he had gone several yards, he heard an increase in whispering.
Doubts began to trickle in. What if it wasn't a dream? What if Defenders... E.H.U.D.s were loose here? Could they have followed, could they have raided the minds of Edgar's defenders? The possibility was certainly there, but Edgar doubted an E.H.U.D. would be stupid enough to waste time like this. They had been trained too well; they would kill and be gone.
The light grew brighter ahead, burning away all shadow and curling like fog around thin poles that projected from the floor. Edgar stopped, seeing the balcony, the railing that funneled into the stair case, felt the dread he had experienced upon first seeing it.
It was a whisper, louder this time, all around this time. He realized that he hadn't quite heard it as it spoke, but rather had felt it in his mind... All the other whispers had been the same. He hadn't realized until now, but the other whispers had come into his mind with no direction at all, merely bringing with them a sense of purpose for one direction.
The purpose for this summons was down below, down the ladder of wood and crystal and steel, down to the endless plane of polished black.
I lied, Edgar... I'm sorry for that...
They weren't purely words, but emotion, image, all translated in his mind as simple phrases. They felt... Unintentional. The source of these word's didn't want them expressed, but could hold them back no longer.
I lied, my father... my son... There is no peace here, no peace on earth... I lied so that you might do what you must do, what you have always done, what you will forever do...
As the voice spoke, as the thoughts continued to flow, Edgar felt the cold steel cutting through to his feet, the icy mist curling through his body...
A shape flashed through the fog, disappearing before Edgar could see it.
Do what you must...
Another shape, clearer this time. Definitely human, thin, disheveled... the corpse-like figure went unrecognized until Edgar saw the face: Ashleigh Chuskus. As soon as the association was made, the figure faded back into oblivion.
Other shapes continued to writhe in the light; all were human.
With a shocked stumble at the lack of downward movement, Edgar reached the floor. A patch of fog swirled before him, coalesced into Merv Lemlin. This time, he wasn't in charge, wasn't leering down at Edgar. He seemed afraid.
Edgar stepped forward, and the apparition vanished.
Further on, more fog swirled. The shape made this time wasn't thin and wasted as the others had been, but bloated, sagging. Isaac.
You had no idea... But still you kept going...
The spectral form of the dead president reached towards him, its mouth wide in a silent scream, then fell forward and collapsed into a swirl that eddied away into the void.
It all had to happen...
Yet another shape formed, again thin, again familiar. Mistlethwakey.
“What's going on, Bob?”
I'm not here...
As the voice didn't spoke, Mistlethwakey's form dissolved away, revealing another body. This one was even more desiccated than the first, and familiar, but it too faded to be replaced by a final form, a tall man of indeterminate age and race. He looked lovingly at Edgar, as a father might look to his son, then reached out towards Edgar.
You've come this far; now you must go until the end... You will be pushed, farther than you thought you could go, but you will thrive like no one else...
The sentiment arrived all in an instant, then the spectral hand touched Edgar, passed through his head and into his body—
His body exploded in a shower of pain, filling with a dull red light that pushed back against the harsh blue-white all around. He tried to scream, but he felt his throat writhing, collapsing in, filling with strange tumors that obstructed his airways. He fell to his knees and stared in horror as his skin began to boil, writhe, turn to cancerous growth and then melt back, again, and again and again—
Nausea swept over him and he curled into a ball, his mind growing distant from his body, looking up not through his eyes but through everything, seeing the specters peering down at him, some in triumph, most in pity.
Above all was the tall man.
You chose this... you did not know it, but you chose this...
There was a final burst of intense heat, and then Edgar was gone.
A rough hand touched Amanda's shoulder and shook her awake. She looked up and saw the chief of staff, Ashby, looking down at her, her face grave.
Ashby held a finger to her lips. “Don't wake the boy. Come with me; it's an emergency.”
Amanda slipped out of bed, careful not to disturb Ethan, and padded out into the corridor. She felt oddly stiff; perhaps she needed a better mattress.
“I'm afraid that's the emergency.”
They reached the opening that led to the grand ballroom, and Amanda could see, far below, a human form laying on the marble, the body partially obscured by a cluster of Eglon staff.
Amanda rushed forward and down the stairs.
“Ma'am, I think that—”
She didn't hear Ashby; her only thought was for Edgar.
She reached the marble floor and pushed through the people to get close to her husband.
He lay on the floor, naked, covered and laying in a pile of what looked like ash. His skin, what little of it wasn't covered, was pink and fresh looking, like an infant's.
She knelt and tried to cradle his head, but an older man with glasses held her back. “Please, ma'am, we don't know what condition he's in.”
Amanda didn't care; she had to get to her husband. In that moment she forgot about her mistrust, about her fears. All she saw now was the father of her son, standing in front of the monster, staring it down, sure to die, to leave them all to die—
Edgar gasped and convulsively jerked upright, the ash falling away to reveal more of his body.
Amanda gasped and gaped, shocked by how much Edgar had changed since she had seen him last. His body seemed younger, certainly, but also thinner, far thinner. His ribs and shoulders protruded from his skin, his skull bulged out of his head under a shaggy mop of hair and a disheveled beard that flowed down onto his chest.
“Oh, God, Edgar.”
The man with the glasses leaned forward. “Mr. President? Can you hear me, sir? I'm staff doctor—”
The doctor was drowned out by a series of wracking coughs from Edgar, who proceeded to stand and look wildly about the vast room, staring wide eyed at the morning sunlight that streamed through the great wall of glass.
He stood transfixed for a moment, then turned slowly and stared at the crowd that had assembled for him.
“No one...” his voice was hoarse and wavered slightly. “No one speaks of this. No one tells anyone...”
They all nodded dutifully, unsure of what else to do.
Edgar stood for another moment, then walked away in the direction of the stairs. “I need food...”
The doctor and several members of the staff followed Edgar out of the room, but Amanda remained where she was, staring down at the ash that had enveloped her husband. What had happened? She felt a cold certainty that this was going to become another of Edgar's deadly secrets, one more thing that threatened the family's safety should it ever come out.
And as she waded out into the ash, bent to pick some up and let it fall through her fingers, she knew that she couldn't let Edgar endanger the family any longer...