Okay, so its been a while since an update. E.H.U.D. kind of went to the back burner for the last few weeks, as I've been working on short stories, one of which is set in the 'Hudverse and tells a compressed version of the final raid on the west bank scene, along with some back story and John and Allan visiting the wall. I'd love to but the short stories on the blog here, but I hope to sell them to some magazines (I've already decided on Asimov's for the 'Hud story and Clarkesworld for my college biology-cum-horror story) and so can't publish them anywhere else first. Oh, well.
So onto today's chapter: chapter twenty. But first, a story. It's a few days after Christmas, 2006. I'm visiting family in California, and my parents and I are taking a walk in Sacramento. It's dark outside, and before to long we hear a police helicopter overhead, then see it's spotlight searching for something on the ground. And into my mind pops an image of a man in khakis and a sleeveless t-shirt running form choppers. The next day, we pack up and leave. On our long car trip home, I keep thinking about this man being chased by the helicopters, and I start to come up with a story for him. I already have an idea for a dystopic futuristic super-soldier story, and I sort of put those together and... E.H.U.D. A few months later, I start writing the story as a novel and, two and a half years and three drafts later, here I am.
So here we are at chapter twenty. The helicopter scene. This is one of the longer chapters, about fifty pages long in a paperback book. It was supposed to be longer, with John raiding Shaun's memories for a much longer time, but I've decided to move that to a series of flashback chapters that happen later in the book. Also, in the last two drafts, this was to be the last chapter of Part I. I'm really glad I moved the part dividers to where I did.
Also: the movie I promised a couple posts ago really is coming! I have most of the video editing done, and have started on the sound work. I still need to do some pickup shots, do some heavy sound editing, and add music, but it should come before to much longer. As for the G.I. Joe customs, I have the photos for one ready, but on another computer (I still want to do other pictures, anyway) and my next custom is almost done. I ran into some problems while paining the face, so now it looks more like Eddie Murphy rather than Marlon Wayans. Oh well.
And in closing: If there are any single ladies reading this, PM me!
P.S. I apologize for the formatting issues when the novel goes up here, I know it's hard to read :(
John stood in front of the police station, rubbing his hands together for warmth and looking out into the dark night. It had been almost twenty degrees warmer this morning, but about noon the weather had abruptly changed, and now the air was thick with snow. John stamped his feet and shoved his hands into his pockets; he hoped Fred would hurry.
He thought back over what had happened in the interview room, what Fred had suggested. As much as he wanted to deny it, though, he had to agree that Fred’s theory certainly had the support of evidence; he had to be an E.H.U.D.
What would happen to him, once the, the… whoever it was that was sent out, found out weather or not he actually was an E.H.U.D.? If they found he wasn’t, they would likely revoke his security status, and he would be looking at a lengthy prison sentence. But if he was an E.H.U.D.? He’d probably get a lot more in the way of government payback: a free house, no taxes… As long as he was dreaming, he would like to have a completely government supported lifestyle, living in some little beach house on Guam, a martini in one hand, Vanessa in the other. Sure, the tax payers would get the raw end of the deal, but hadn’t John already suffered enough for them? Not that he remembered any of it…
But why should the government let him have a happy life? He had already proven himself a menace to society with his strange, purely hypothetical until someone could say otherwise powers. For all that Latterndale’s administration talked about perfect honesty and trying to root out corruption, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think that once they were certain of what he was, he would simply disappear and never be heard from again. Maybe he should run off to Washington and publicly throw in his support with Terstein, denounce the government that had done… whatever to him and help to start a new system—
John stopped and reflected on his latest train of thought. Even to John, who was tired, stressed, and more than a bit confused, it stank of paranoia, with words like ‘government’ and ‘they’ applied to… to the shadowy government group that was, was…
John didn’t know.
No, the most likely life awaiting him, if he really was an E.H.U.D., would be one of quiet, domestic tranquility in some small town swarming with NSA, CIA, FBI, and any number of other agents, all on the look-out for any suspicious signs from John and any other E.H.U.D.s that were discovered.
Well, that life wouldn’t be so bad. A little 1950s make-believe town, with a brick-paved main street, broad sidewalks, beautiful landscapes, and tiny cameras everywhere. A slice of Middle America infused with a healthy dose of paranoid security measures. It might be nice. John decided that he could live with that, as long as he had Vanessa with him.
And there was a possibility that she might go with him, wherever he went. Ever since they had had their winter solstice meal in John’s apartment, they had become quite close. Vanessa would often spend evenings with John, sometimes at his apartment, sometimes at hers, sometimes at the fitness center, and once out at an ice-skating rink. That trip had been fun. And painful. But John knew he would always look back at that evening as a changing point in his life. That was the first night that Vanessa had said that she loved him, and then kissed him. It was a very romantic scene: the two of them, at the very center of the rink, a hundred other couples swirling in a wide circle around them. And then they pulled each other together, leaned close, felt the universe shift around them—and then John slipped and ended up sprawled across the ice, his glasses skittering away into the night.
A few minutes later, Vanessa had found and returned his glasses, and John had come to the realization that he actually wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. It was a realization that had only come to him once, fifteen years earlier, when he and Lucy had been… he couldn’t even remember now. All he could remember was the feel of Vanessa’s lips on his, and the absolute knowledge that they were meant to be with each other, forever.
But what would she think of John now, now that he was a freakish, murdering experiment gone horribly awry? Now that he was a government-made killing machine? Would she be willing to spend her life with him in a carefully monitored semi-life, going from day to day, hoping he wouldn’t single-handedly destroy western civilization?
John smiled to himself. He didn’t even know if she was willing to spend her life with John Donalson, Jewish architect.
The sound of a car driving by on the street below him pulled John out of his thoughts and he shook himself to dislodge the snow that had accumulated on his head and shoulders as he stood motionless, lost in thought.
He glanced at his watch, and then at the police station behind him. He hoped Fred would hurry; it was cold.
In answer to John’s fervent wish, he heard someone call his name, and a few seconds later saw Fred running into the lobby. John smiled, waved, and stamped his feet a few times, trying to communicate just how cold it was.
And then the world was suddenly bright.
Fred skidded to a stop in the lobby, smashing into a large window next to the front door.
John looked in around himself in stunned amazement; everything in a five foot radius was glowing bright white. He stepped back a few paces and, his eyes squinted nearly shut, looked up. Somewhere, maybe thirty feet over his head, was a powerful spotlight. John couldn’t see much past its glare, but he could just make out the outline of a sleek, predatory aircraft, painted matte black, nearly invisible against the night sky. And judging by the way the snow around him had suddenly begun to swirl madly through the air, John realized it must be a helicopter.
Behind him, Fred was banging on the window, desperately yelling, “E.H.U.D.s! E.H.U.D.s!”
But John couldn’t hear him.
Inside the police station more officers, civilians, and even a few recent arrests were walking slowly towards the bank of windows were Frank stood, transfixed by the blinding light. Outside the police station, the few people in the front drive and on the streets began yelling, screaming, running away in a frightened panic. Within thirty seconds of the light appearing, the area was completely abandoned except for John, standing unmoving, staring into the brightness.
“JOHN DONALSON,” a voice suddenly boomed out, nearly deafening John, “YOU ARE UNDER ARREST FOR SUSPICION OF TERRORIST ACTIVITIES, AS SPECIFIED IN THE HOMELAND SECURITY ACT, THE FEDERAL FREEDOMS ACT, AND THE ENHANCED HUMAN ULTIMATE DEFENSE ACT! PLACE YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD, AND LAY DOWN ON THE GROUND! YOU HAVE TEN SECONDS TO COMPLY BEFORE WE IMPLEMENT LETHAL FORCE! AN OFFICER WILL COME DOWN TO ACCEPT YOUR SURRENDER ONCE YOU HAVE COMPLIED!”
John’s remembered the thoughts he had moments before, and he shuddered. They weren’t going to take him to some nice, quite, heavily-monitored utopia. They weren’t even going to determine if he really was an E.H.U.D. They were just going to kill him; eliminate a threat.
No, he tried to tell himself, if they were just going to kill him, they wouldn’t have made all of that noise about arrest.
Of course they would, another part of John replied. When they were finally forced to shoot him, it would be because he resisted arrest, in the presence of witnesses, after being warned of the consequences of such an action. They had, as the General was so fond of saying, deniability.
Slowly, carefully, hoping that the people in the helicopter could see him, John raised his hands and laced his fingers together behind his head and sank to his knees.
Wait, who was the General?
Something clicked in John’s mind; it felt like a blockage had removed. And he remembered. In the space of about three seconds, fifteen years worth of memories flooded his mind, overwhelmed his senses. Most of them didn’t register at a conscious level; they just entered his mind and settled into place, becoming layers of a personality. Others, the strongest, most painful memories, ones he had already experienced as dreams, were experienced as a fast flowing stream of consciousness: the dogs, tearing at his body; the boy, running through the village, trying to find shelter, trying to live… the boy, his head lolled back, slipping silently to the ground, his fingers twitching with the last traces of ebbing life…
John yelled in sudden, desperate joy as other memories, ones he didn’t perceive at all, returned to him: the feel of an assault rifle kicking into his shoulder, the feel of the earth moving beneath his feet at twenty—thirty—forty miles an hour, of leg muscles stretching and releasing, propelling him upwards in a fifty-foot standing jump, of the shape of molecules, atoms, splitting, exploding, vibrating in odd patterns—
John’s pulse quickened and the light overhead disappeared in a shower of sparks.
The spectators inside the police station yelled in surprise as John suddenly jumped up from the ground, spraying snow in every direction, and disappeared into the night. A few seconds later he briefly reappeared under a streetlight a hundred feet away, and then another one two hundred feet away, and then three hundred, four hundred, each time going faster and faster, finally becoming completely lost from sight a quarter of a mile down the road, less than twenty seconds later.
But Frank didn’t see John’s initial sprint; he was carefully studying the helicopter that floated outside. It was of a kind he had never seen before: thin, with a long cockpit and a slight bulge immediately behind, open to the night air on both sides, with sinister looking weaponry protruding from the doors. Above where twin rotors, spinning in opposite directions. The helicopter then narrowed once more, finally ending not in a tail rotor, but in some kind of articulated, twin-engined pod. Seconds after John had blown out the search-light and made his escaped, the pod repositioned itself so that both engines pointed towards one side and the helicopter pivoted around its main rotors, aiming away from the police station. Frank continued to stare in astonishment as the ‘copter once more repositioned its pod and sped off down the street, propelled mainly by the engine pod. It was like nothing he had ever seen before…
Half a mile away, John continued his run, feeling the helicopter as it gained on him. He was glad now that he hadn’t brought a coat; the sheer number of calories he was now burning where providing him with more heat than even a parka could offer.
As he reached the end of his first mile, John became aware of the ‘copter, incredibly close and coming closer. He had to escape this thing, but where could he hide? He couldn’t, of course; his only defense was to dodge when they started shooting. But they probably had more bullets than he had calories. What could he do? Options, options.
Old, half-remembered thoughts welled up in his head. “This isn’t the middle ages. We’re not fighting for glory, for honor, not even to crush people who are ideologically different. No, we’re fighting for economics. And what’s more economic than a city? You don’t destroy a city; you take it, you make it yours. And a strong defending army, the city already is theirs, and they don’t want to harm it. Use the buildings, dodge and weave through the architecture. They don’t want to hurt what’s already theirs.”
Who was that? Who said that? John tried to remember, but he stumbled, nearly fell, and the ‘copter put on another burst of speed; it was only a hundred feet behind him; close enough to shoot. Okay, can’t think, can’t focus, just run, just run… and use the buildings.
John put on another burst of speed, rushing towards an intersection, jumping over a car that swerved in front of him and, just before passing beyond the cross street, fell backwards, scraping his arm along the pavement at roughly forty miles an hour, wildly kicking at the street until he found purchase, pivoting and swinging into the cross street. All without slowing down.
Overhead, the helicopter shot by, then made an abrupt spin and came back, back on John’s trail.
John felt the vibration in the air as the ‘copter continued its pursuit. He heard people all around him yelling, cursing, scrambling out of the way; he didn’t know what was going on or where he was. All he knew was the ground beneath his feet, the ‘copter overhead, and his own body, heating up, growing tired. Without thinking, he reached up and yanked off his tie, his jacket, his over shirt. The cold air rushing against him felt wonderful, and excess heat peeled away into the atmosphere. He took a deep breath, opening his mouth as wide as he could and letting air pressure fill his lungs, then he put on more speed, pumping his legs far beyond normal endurance, feeling his thighs pulling roughly against his bones, trying to pull his body apart, his pants smoking and smoldering at the crotch under the ceaseless friction.
Two miles later he swung onto another street, leaping over a row of cars stopped at a red light, bouncing off the last one in line, rebounding off the wall of a building, flipping back onto the street. Again he felt the pulse of the copter, a little farther back than last time, but—the vibrations were different. The echoes of the blades, the reverberation of the air. This street was wider than the others; the helicopter could get lower, beneath the gusts of stormy weather that had been slowing it—
A spray of snow momentarily blinded John as a bullet obliterated a snow drift a hundred—fifty—ten feet in front of him. They were firing. John dug in his feet, pivoted his body, slid, used his hand and forearms for support—lost skin and muscle at sixty miles an hour—got turned around and ran back the way he had come. Overhead, the ‘copter turned effortlessly.
“THIS IS YOUR FINAL CHANCE!” the voice from the ‘copter announced. “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! THE NEXT SHOT WILL BE TO KILL!”
For some reason, this didn’t worry John in the least.
He slowed, gradually this time. Half a mile later, he was at a fast jog. He stopped, turned around, stood his ground as the ‘copter hovered above him, its weapons poised and waiting. He stared up at it, at the dark windshield, focused, searched, probed deeply into the material and finally found it—an imperfection. He nudged, and, much as the searchlight had done, the windshield shattered. The ‘copter remained steady in the air, but John could sense powerful waves of confusions coming from the occupants. He was safe for now.
He began running again, speeding up; this time keeping pace at twenty-five miles an hour, looking out for a place he could hide, a place he could call friends from, somewhere were he could just stop and think. He wasn’t even sure what was going on right now. The last thing he remembered clearly was the light outside the police station, the running, the fear—and here he was. The cycle continued again and again, his thoughts circling confused.
And then two more ‘copter dropped out of the sky, nearly on top of him.
Purely on reflex, John was able to speed up. But as the seconds past and he continued to run faster, his body began to give out. His vision became blurry and his muscles burned and cramped; every step made him more and more tired. He couldn’t do this.
Straining his eyes, ignoring everything else around him, he combed along the street and—there, on the corner, a mile and a half away, a Starbucks. John smiled to himself. Those things were everywhere.
With one final push, he was able to get his body to move just a little bit faster, putting distance between himself and the two—how had he been able to see for a mile and a half? How had he even known it was a mile and a half?
It didn’t matter. He could think these thoughts after he survived.
Less than a minute later he slammed into the glass front wall of the Starbucks, smashing through it and skidding along the ground, knocking over patrons and tables until he finally crashed into the counter. He quickly centered his thoughts on himself and took inventory—his forearms were a bloody mess, but had begun to heal. His broken shoulder, though… and the hundreds of tiny shards of glass imbedded in his side, and—Oh, God! The burning between his legs! He glanced down and saw the bloody pulp mixed with fabric that were his upper thighs. That would take a while to heal, and would probably prevent him from keeping a good pace.
Slowly, painfully, John dragged himself to his feet, ignoring the groans and gasps of panic from the people around him. “Do you,” he said to the barista, his voice thick with mucus and blood, “do you have any caffeine? Like little caffeine shots, you know, to add to coffee?”
The barista nodded, her eyes bulging out of her head.
“Then get me some. In the biggest cup you can.”
The barista’s hands trembled as she hesitantly said, “Sir, there are others in line before—“
John smashed a fist into the countertop, shattering the faux-marble and cracking the underlying wood. “I DON”T HAVE TIME FOR A ****ING LINE! GET ME CAFFINE NOW!”
Several customers gasped, but the barista turned and headed towards the coffee makers. Meanwhile, John grabbed a large muffin that was next to the cash register and tore into it, swallowing as much as he could, not worrying about breathing. When he was done, he started on a second, and then a third. He spotted a basket of sugar packets, grabbed several, and began to devour them.
All the while, he could feel the ‘copters getting closer.
Moments later the barista returned, holding a pitifully small cup of a thin, clear liquid.
“This is the biggest cup you have?” John asked incredulously.
The barista nodded, on the verge of tears.
John grabbed the cup from her and downed it. He gagged on the taste, then stumbled over to a wall and leaned against it, taking several deep breaths. It would take several minutes for his recent consumptions to take effect. In the meantime… He focused his mid onto his thighs, diverting what little of his energy into the muscle and skin, feeling the tissues knitting back together, the capillaries reconnecting to each other… the small tear in his vein, the source of most of the blood, scabbing over, becoming soft, covering in flesh—
He blacked out for a moment, and then returned to the world with no memory of where he was or what he was doing. Oh, right—Starbucks, running from the E.H.U.D.s.
And there they were. He could see two lights outside the store, searching through the snow, looking for him. How had they—
Oh, yes. The missing wall.
John walked painfully to the door and looked out, trying to see the ‘copters themselves. They were to dark, all he could see were the lights. Both the copters were currently on the other side of the store, but one was coming around to this side.
“Wait!” the barista yelled. “You can’t leave without pay—“ she suddenly flew backwards against the coffee makers and then fell to the floor, crying. While all of the un-injured customer’s attention was on the barista, John made his exit.
The street outside was busy, full of people—but it was quickly becoming deserted. The crowds of people feared the searching lights, and pedestrians swarmed away from the streets and sidewalks, some simply running away from the lights, others trying to force their way into buildings, still others simply hiding under parked cars.
John was about to start running again, despite the pain, when a familiar voice began speaking in his mind.
“If there’s one thing a bureaucrat hates, its paperwork. Oh, they pretend to like it, but they really don’t. And nothing causes more paperwork than a dead civilian. Going out in some war torn backwater and grabbing a farmer’s daughter to use as a human shield, that’ll just insure she dies. But if you’re in a civilized, bureaucratic society, don’t be afraid to use hostages, to shield yourself with another; the soldiers won’t risk hurting one of their own. Because for every one of their people who dies, they get to spend hours filling out stacks of mindless forms. Use the crowds, use the people.”
John wasn’t too sure about the theory behind this bit of advice, but the advice itself seemed practical enough. He would find a crowd and slip away with it. Simple.
But who was that speaking? He vaguely remembered that voice speaking before, a few minutes ago. He couldn’t remember what the voice had said, but he remembered the voice.
Then he had a memory of a group of several bald people, sitting around in a small, comfortable room, being lectured by, by... Allen. Allen speaking these words… But the cadence, the friendly, easy way of talking—there was someone else who spoke like that, someone who—
The soldiers must have realized that John was no longer in the Starbucks as the ‘copters pivoted and began playing their lights over the already panicked crowds.
The pedestrians screamed and began running in new, scattered directions, some falling over, getting trampled, hitting, shoving, kicking—
And there was John, his protective crowds gone, exposed in the bright white light of the ‘copters.
It couldn’t get worse, it couldn’t get worse, it couldn’t—the first chopper, made obvious even in the darkness by its lack of a searchlight, hovered slowly into view.
John didn’t move; in the back of his mind, he hoped that more sage advice from his past would surface. None did.
There was no option but to continue the chase… but he was too tired… there was no way he could continue…
The three ‘copters positioned themselves in a triangle around John, and he could see the barrels of weapons moving, aiming at him. They would fire, and he would be dead. The buildings at the side of the street might offer some protection, but they were too far to reach before they fired…
But they hadn’t shot him yet—they must still want him alive.
There was no way he could keep running…
But he could fight.
Slowly, smoothly, John raised his arms over his head and took a few steps closer to the helicopter without the windshield. The other ‘copters tracked his movement. He slid his hands behind his head, clasping them around the back of his neck and slowly, very, very slowly, he crouched down, preparing to sink into a kneeling posture. And then… he wasn’t there.
Three quarters of a second later John reappeared, hanging from the barrel of one of the heavy rifles that protruded from the ‘copter. He was forty-five feet higher than his previous position.
His first reaction was joy that his plan had worked; his second reaction was pain, horrible pain as his whole lower body protested against what he had just gone through. His thighs, calves, ankles all cramped as one and it took all of his strength to keep his hold on the rifle.
A sudden bucking tremor almost dislodged him; the soldiers were finally firing. Well, that confirmed it: they were normal humans, with normal reaction times. The government didn’t have any super soldiers to throw at him.
And John became more glad of this fact once he had swung up into the helicopter and saw who he faced: six soldiers, all encased in E.H.U.D. armor, each more than capable of taking on ten strong men with assault rifles and walking away without a scratch. John figured that they were probably about equally matched with him—
And then his mind reset itself, just as it had done a few minutes before. He couldn’t remember where he was, or what was going on—there were E.H.U.D.s, six of them, reaching for weapons—John was so tired…
His mind slipped, falling away from consciousness, moving his body to react on pure instinct, faster than any normal human could. His aching body swung up and back in a spin-cracking flip as six semi-automatic weapons discharged against him. His feet hit the deck of the helicopter and the nearest E.H.U.D.’s armored chest suddenly caved in and his weapon fell silent.
A few of the other weapons made up for their comrade’s silence by switching to full auto, but none of the bullets could seem to touch him. John turned to face the cockpit and the man in the pilot seat was suddenly thrust, seat and all, out through the gaping hole on the front of the copter. Behind him, two bodies slumped as their heads twisted, separated, floated off into the darkness.
John felt when one of the survivor’s attentions turned away from him and to a small box of equipment mounted on one wall. Without even realizing what he was doing, John extended himself until he was looking out through the man’s eyes and saw that he was wildly groping for a thick white cylinder. John recognized it and couldn’t help but smiling. It was a scrambler; the soldiers should have already had it out and activated before they confronted him. This soldier’s lapse in protocol would cost his whole squad their lives. John pulled back into the man’s mind and down through a bundle of nerves—
The man clutched at his left arm, and then his chest, and then began slumping towards the ground.
The two headless bodies finally hit the floor…
Two soldiers remained in the helicopter, which was now starting to vibrate and pitch wildly without a pilot—or the controls themselves—at the controls. One of the soldiers shot into the air, his armored head punching through the roof and into the rotor assembly, its thick, bullet-proof composite instantly clogging the works, stopping both rotors, sending shocks of uncontrolled inertia through the aircraft, ripping the frame—
Ignoring the last soldier, John lunged himself out the door and into the night, aiming for a low rooftop nearby. John quickly reached the climax of his jump and then… just seemed to hang there. He was falling, but it seemed to be going much slower know that gravity had him…
And then the conscious part of his mind took control again, and everything suddenly sped up to normal speed. The building rushed up to meet him, the first copter ripped itself apart, flying into metallic shards, the two other copters turned to track the movement of the man who had disappeared four seconds earlier and, far below on the snow-covered street, two armored heads came to a jarring stop in a thick pile of slush that had been trampled into existence by a fleeing crowd less than a minute ago.
Just before he landed on the roof, John remembered to get a firm hold on his glasses, so as not to lose them—and then he hit. His shoulder rammed into the thick tar paper and he twisted, tried to roll, but flipped instead, coming down on his left leg, feeling it bend backwards at the knee, falling back again, jamming in his other shoulder, rolling over his arm and then coming to a jarring, bone-breaking stop as he smashed back-first into a large air-conditioning device.
Everything went dark…
And then came back a moment later, pain blossoming through his body in vivid detail. John bit into his lip as he tried to hold back a scream. He moved—tried to move, tried to find cover before the other two copters found him—one shoulder, the one that he had broken at Starbucks, was broken again; the other was jammed forward, pushing his arm out of its socket… several ribs had snapped at his sudden stop… a leg was broken… there were scrapes and burns over all of his exposed flesh from the rough texture of the roof… and the thick layer of snow was cold… so cold…
The building shuddered slightly as the first helicopter crashed down in the street. From somewhere far away, someone screamed…
John took a deep breath and focused inwards, feeling his bones, searching through his body for nutrients… he sucked in a bit more air as the broken ribs rejoined, forcing his chest further open… the knee popped painfully back into place… one shoulder straitened…
Slowly, wearily, John pushed himself into a sitting position and stared off into the night. He was healing himself. This was insane. He was an E.H.U.D…
With a sudden jerk of muscles, his left arm shot upwards, back into its joint. He let out a blood curdling scream, and then fell back into the snow…
Without even thinking, his skin began to knit together, scab over—
And then stopped. A buzzing, thrumming sound filled the air.
John’s hopes sank. They had remembered to turn on the scramblers. He was now just a person… an injured, exhausted person… he looked down at his body. It was thin and shriveled, the muscles atrophied, any body fat used up, all energy gone from his body. He couldn’t do this…
The helicopters came into view…
There was nothing he could do, nothing he could do, nothing he could…
I pulled the trigger. I moved your finger. You’re free of the blame… Don’t thank me… there are worse things that I’ll need you to do…
Voices spoke in John’s mind. This one he knew as Allen, the true voice of allen, not spoken but felt in the mind…
I pulled the trigger. I moved your finger. You’re free of the blame… Don’t thank me… there are worse things that I’ll need you to do…
The words he said after… after John killed the boy. The boy who had been haunting him, haunting his dreams, telling him things he must do… Where those the terrible things that Allen had been speaking of?
But Allen was dead. John felt a stab of memory, a body collapsing, lying cold on the floor, empty of life… Allen couldn’t ask him to do anything…
I pulled the trigger. I moved your finger. You’re free of the blame… Don’t thank me… there are worse things that I’ll need you to do…
The helicopter floated a few feet off of the tar paper, their rotors sending plumes of snow swirling, swirling, contained only by the low wall ringing the roof. Soldiers in thick grey armor, covered from head to foot, disappearing against the background… soldiers dropped out of the open doors, their weapons held steadily on John. The circled, surrounding him, yet left their formation open enough to allow safety from cross-fire. One of them moved forward into the ring, a thick pair of headphones in one hand. Scrambler-phones. John shuddered as he remembered them. Like regular scramblers, but pumping directly into his head…
I pulled the trigger. I moved your finger. You’re free of the blame… Don’t thank me… there are worse things that I’ll need you to do…
Why wouldn’t Allen shut up? John wanted to die with silence in his mind, not thinking back on that day… that day when he had killed the boy, when he had stood with the others in the middle of the village they had destroyed, killing everyone, everyone…
Then John had pulled the trigger…
Had lost it, attacked his commanding officer…
The scramblers had been turned on…
I pulled the trigger. I moved your finger. You’re free of the blame… Don’t thank me… there are worse things that I’ll need you to do…
He had spoken while the scramblers were still on…
Yes… But don’t tell anyone… not yet…
It could be done, there was a way around the scra—
Shaun. His commanding officer had been Shaun. When John had experienced the memory in the police station, he had assumed it was a dream, but now—now he really remembered it. Shaun had been there—
No. That could wait. Scramblers, scramblers. How did they work? Sound. Vibration. Feedback loops. Repetition. Buzz, buzz, buzz. He tried to focus, think through the problem, but the buzzing, the relentless, never-ending thrumming of the scramblers was too distracting… too distracting…
John snorted, sending a puff of snow into the air. That was easy.
Slowly, carefully, not wanting to startle the tense soldiers, he rolled onto his back, spread out into the snow, buried himself as deeply as he could, wriggled around until he was in contact with the roof itself.
The soldier with the scrambler-phones momentarily paused but soon continued forward.
The vibrations pulsed through the air, through the roof, through John. He relaxed, let his mind float, let his whole body pulse to the vibrations… Pulse… Pulse… Pulse… His breathing slowed, synched with the pulse…
The soldier was almost on top of him…
His heartbeat slowed down fractionally, beating along with the pulse… Pulse… Pulse… Pulse…
John’s thoughts slowed, stopped… his whole mind became one with the vibrations and then they seemed to diminish, to enter him and pass cleanly through, to pulse with him, not against him, to amplify, rather than distort…
The soldier cautiously reached out the scrambler-phones…
And disappeared in a spray of blood and metal fragments.
John burst upward in a shower of snow, too quickly for the waiting soldiers to respond. He shot out a hand and grabbed the falling rifle of the dead soldier, feeling it, sensing what it was… There was a small grenade launcher mounted under the barrel… he spun in a circle, firing off two small explosive bundles, turned to the soldiers, each tightening their trigger-fingers, trying to fire. In the time it took the falling cloud of snow to register in their minds, and for their nerves to transmit the kill order to their fingers, John was behind them, punching, kicking, an envelope of electro-magnetic force around each hand, driving it deep through the armor, bursting through the chests, ripping through the muscle, ligaments, bones, organs, cutting through the neck, splitting the torsos—
The grenades found their mark, exploding inside the helicopters, destroying the engines, bringing the vehicles down in a rain of fire—
The shockwave of the explosion hit John, a wall of vibrating energy at a different frequency from that of his body—he jolted, twitched, felt his energy drain away, felt a disconnect from the scrambler’s sweet pulse… felt the scrambler’s presence fade away as the explosion consumed them… He slumped to the ground, all energy gone, his body twitching spasmodically as it brought itself back to its natural rhythm…
John didn’t notice as the helicopters crashed into the roof, the movement of their rotors sending up shards of tarpaper and brickwork… as the rotors snapped, and the bodies of the aircraft thrust deeper into the building, pulled inexorably downwards, their aft engine pods pushing them deeper, their structure collapsing under the unusual conditions—the pods exploded, buckling the roof, sending it up, and then pulling it back down again… the roof collapsed downwards, funneling towards the two smoldering holes of the ‘copters impact… Below, there were screams… sounds of terror, pain…
John didn’t notice… didn’t care…
His left arm broke as an armored boot kicked into it. He tried to scream… his body hurt too much to scream…
The soldier towered over him… the left arm hung limply, the shoulder pad covering it dented in, a thin trickle of blood oozing from under it…
“There,” said the muffled voice of the soldier. “Now we’re even…”
No,” John replied, recognizing the voice, “you still need to break my nose.”
The soldier chuckled and slumped to the sloping roof next to John. “Nah, you can have that one for free…”
The roof sizzled and steamed as snow continued to fall on it.
The soldier reached up and fiddled with a chin strap hidden under the full-faced helmet. “****, these things are hard to get off. That was some amazing stuff you did tonight, you know that? Wiped out three squads. Amazing.”
With a small click and a grunt of effort, Shaun removed his helmet. “So, you going to let me know how you bypassed the scramblers?”
John laughed hysterically, his heart beating faster, his body convulsing in sobs. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you!”
“Yeah, well, you’re probably not going to need an excuse for that, huh?”
The air of camaraderie instantly disintegrated. “You’re right, I don’t…”
Memories flowed back into John’s mind. Ten years of Shaun, first as a young sergeant, then working his way up through the ranks to major, first as just another soulless guard, tormenting them, abusing them… then as an overseer, taking the E.H.U.D.s out on patrols and exercises, pushing them, stretching them, honing them into killers… He had been assigned to oversee John’s squad, twenty-five super-soldiers, his to command…
John and Shaun had never seen eye-to-eye. A quiet animosity had grown between them while Shaun was still a guard and by the time he was an overseer Shaun had begun to purposefully torment John. Little things: withholding rations, stealing the few personal belongings that John had, giving him odd duties at strange times. Big things: torture, physical abuse, the breaking of bones…
Their feud finally came to a head when Shaun returned from leave and gleefully told John that not only had he managed to come into contact with Lucy, he had also begun dating her. This relation continued for the next few years until… until… every time John’s memories strayed into the last few months before he was released back into the world his thoughts scattered, his memories frayed… and here he would be, sitting next to his enemy.
And he knew, given the chance, he would kill Shaun. But he couldn’t… couldn’t now… he was too tired…
“I assume that backup’s coming?”
Shaun shrugged and leaned back against the hot tar paper. “Yeah, I guess so. Can’t see how they could miss what you did to this building… Speaking of which, we might want to get off the roof here before it collapses.”
“No,” John croaked. “I’ll just die here.”
“Oh, c’mon, what kind of attitude is that? Enjoy life!”
“How can I? You’ve already ruined it.”
Shaun chewed on his lip for a minute. “Alright, fair assessment.”
John ignored him. “I mean, its not like life was great before, you know, but I was almost done with college, I had my fiancé, everything was all set for the good life. I was happy. And then you *******s came along and screwed it all up…”
“You can’t blame me for the stuff there at the start. You were already E.H.U.D.s by the time I got to you.”
There was silence for several moments. The glow around the ragged whole that the helicopters had punched into the roof was growing brighter.
“So,” John said, “are you just going to stay here and guard me until backup arrives?”
“That’s the plan; you’re to valuable to destroy if we can avoid it.”
“Something I’ve always wanted to ask you.”
“Why? Why me?”
“How d’you mean?”
John gesticulated weakly. “Since day one you’ve been on my case. Always trying to mess with me, get under my skin. That’s why you ended up with Lucy, isn’t it?”
“Well originally, yeah. She’s grown on me since then.” He fell silent. The roof was becoming uncomfortably hot. Both men began to sweat.
“So?” John prompted.
“So why did you have it out for me?”
Shaun shrugged. “No reason. I was just a guard, you were a prisoner. You, you and Allen, you all kept fighting back. You got what you deserved. I’ll admit maybe going after Lucy was a little harsh but hey, I love her now, so what’s done is done.”
“You freaks had to be kept in check, one way or another. Our country needs you, but I don’t know if we can survive with you. That’s why I volunteered for E.H.U.D. duty here. To keep an eye on you.”
“I hate you.”
Another moment of silence came and went. Snow no longer fell on the roof; it drifted away from it some thirty feet farther up.
Both men were sweating heavily.
“Why didn’t I remember Lucy?”
Shaun’s face twisted into a wry smile. “I had a word with the general right before we wiped your minds.”
The general. The word—the name—jarred something inside John. The general… the general standing inside his hospital room. The general who could arrange open apartments at Sky Crest, the general who had a working history with Cohen & Associates, the general… the general who had tried to be his friend… who had taken him to the white house… and who was know the Secretary of Defense, able to order out military anti-terrorist urban combat units. “Mistlethwakey,” John whispered.
“Hmm? What was that?”
“Mi—“ John was interrupted by a sudden squeal of metal and a string of frightened gasps. The roof bucked, swayed, and abruptly plunged downward, its slope getting swiftly steeper, the beams supporting it caving in, the whole structure collapsing inwards as the melted skeleton finally gave way to the weight it was supporting. Shaun pitched forward, rolling, skidding, slowing as molten tar and rubber glued him into place a few yards away from the edge of the raging abyss that the building had become. John immediately followed him, but was stopped several feet further up the nearly vertical roof by hitting a stand of pipes, knocking all of the air from his lungs. He gasped in pain, desperately trying to get the burning air down his throat, trying not to fall off the scalding pipes, his left arm dangling useless.
“****! ****!” Shaun screamed.
Through his tears of pain, John was able to see his captor, his tormentor, his enemy… his competitor for Lucy… sliding towards the flames. John couldn’t help but laugh to himself. Here was Shaun, only seconds after his brave little speeches, falling into the burning maw of Sheol. Poetic justice.
But the justice felt hollow.
Shaun’s face was blistering and turning red, but his suite kept most of him safe from the heat. Slowly, carefully, he pulled himself up the roof, hand over hand, digging into the burning tar paper, hauling up, digging, hauling, digging hauling… John’s heart sank as he realized hat with the suite, and without enough energy to fuel his own talents, Shaun had the upper hand. And with the suite, he would be able to drag himself away from death.
Shaun pulled himself up alongside John just as piercing white lights began to play over the flames. “Not backup,” Shaun grunted. “Philadelphia fire!” The building gave another shuddering lurch, and it was all the two men could do to keep themselves from tumbling into the flame. “Wow. And you kept trying to convince me that I was a monster. First you killed that kid, and now this. How many civilians you think you got on this one, huh? Twenty? Fifty? A hundred?”
The kid… The boy… the innocent he had killed…
I pulled the trigger. I moved your finger. You’re free of the blame… Don’t thank me… there are worse things that I’ll need you to do…
“Bull ****,” John grunted.
Shaun screamed as a scalding metal pipe made contact with his unprotected head. He slid back, one hand letting go of the roof, but the pipe reached out and struck him, again, again, again—
John looked down at his desiccated arm, the few stringy muscles left on it bunching and spasming as they tried to hold the weight of the pipe. His grip loosened and the pipe disappeared in the flames. He pulled himself across the pipes, closer to Shaun, and rained down blow after blow on his head, his face. They weren’t hard blows, but in the heat and confusion they were enough. Shaun screamed and cursed, tried to pull away, but the roof was impossible to move around on. Soon his nose collapsed, the warm blood shooting from it feeling cool on his burning face. Eventually one eye socket cracked, snapped, collapsed under John’s incessant fist, the face slipping sideways and drooping slightly. And John continued. Hit, hit, hit… his mind eased, the conciseness giving way to suppressed rage, to fifteen years of humiliation and pain, to first the mind, the spirit, and even the body being robbed of its humanity. It wasn’t just Shaun he struck at—it was Udarian, Mistlethwakey, Polmelroy—a hundred other faces. The guards, the overseers, the soldiers, the scientists, the administrators, the care takers, and at the end… at the end when there was no one else, even Allen. Hit, hit, hit… John forgot who he was, became nothing but a vehicle for destruction, hitting again, again, again… His mind drifted, floated away, lost all but the strongest, most basic of connections… and touched—something.
Feelings, pain, anger, confusion, fear, all came flooding into John’s consciousness. Something was beating on his head, something worse than the heat that was scalding his flesh… What was wrong? What had happened? His body felt so heavy…
He opened his eyes. One stared off in a strange direction but the other saw… saw John. John blinked in surprise. He was looking back at himself, back at the pale, twisted corpselike creature supported by the pipes, weakly flailing one arm, bringing the weight of one limp hand down on his head over, and over, and over again…
John panicked. Where was he? What was happening? What was-- Strange thoughts and memories filled his mind. Longings, fears—he was going to die tonight, he knew it. Lucy would stay up all night, wondering where he was, why all the men in her life left her, died, abandoned her—and what would Mistlethwakey say? Not that it mattered, of course… only Lucy mattered…
John pushed these thoughts away, reasserted his mind. Shaun. Somehow, someway, he was in Shaun’s body, inhabiting him, living as him. Panic arose, overtook him, his mind pulled back into itself, afraid of what was all around it—felt something, a link, a tenuous chain—it lifted—there was a disorienting instant of nothingness—and there was Shaun, hanging limply from one arm, his face a mass of blood and burns.
John blinked and stopped the reflexive action of his arm. He was back in his own body, safe, at home. He never wanted to leave again…
Back in training, when they had first begun to experiment with their newfound skills, Allen had found that, with some effort, one could look into another’s mind, could control the other body’s movements. Could this be an extension of that power? Was it possible for John to completely inhabit Shaun’s body? It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but was there any other way off of this roof before the whole building collapsed?
John was about to experimentally fling himself into Shaun’s unconscious form when a thought occurred to him: Shaun wasn’t a true E.H.U.D. Their powers, as supernatural as they seemed, were all the results of genetic engineering, engineering which Shaun hadn’t undergone. If John made the leap into Shaun’s mind, if such a thing could be done again, could be done at all, and he didn’t leave some thread back to his original self, John would lose his abilities, lose what made him special…
Not that it was doing him much good now, anyway.
The lights of a rescue helicopter played over the roof again, and far below sirens could be heard.
No, it might still be necessary to do this, to make the sacrifice, to transfer his… his…his soul for lack of a better term, but that could wait a few seconds more. For now, John would content himself with having a quick look through Shaun’s mind. One never knew what kind of useful information was hidden in someone’s head. Besides, there wasn’t much else John could do right now.
Carefully, painfully, John reached out with his mind, with the very last of his strength, fueled by panic and what little of his mass remained, and touched Shaun’s mind…
Some little bit of Shaun’s mind tried to resist, tried to keep John out, but it soon fell away, and John could feel, muted and far away, Shaun’s pain, terror… fear. He searched, remembering, looking back through Shaun’s memory…
There were two big people in the next room, yelling at each other, yelling about their jobs, about each other, about Shaun…
A dark room… Shaun was older now, the big people were gone… there were friends with him… the glowing butt of a joint slowly made its way around the circle of friends…
Other nights spent alone, poring over text books, trawling through the internet…
Graduating with honors…
Joining the military… transferred… transferred… boredom… depression… make it stop…
The memories ahead were painful, more painful than John wished to experience, and his mind quickly moved around them.
Shaun laying in bed, about to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills when he got the call… he was wanted for a long-term top secret project… it would mean five years without leave… encased in one small world… Shaun accepted…
They came to get him, led him in a sealed, windowless van to where his future awaited, locked him in the vault with the E.H.U.D.s…
And there was John. John, one of the rebellious ones, one of the E.H.U.D.s who wouldn’t stay in his place, who wouldn’t settle for being a tool of the military industrial complex… John, the first E.H.U.D. to attack Shaun, to openly defy him, to threaten his life… He hated John. John the enemy, John the problem… Five years of John, and then… freedom…
Philadelphia. Not here for history, not here for culture… here for ammunition. Here to see John’s fiancé, here to tell him how she quickly forgot about him, how she’s happily married, with two kids and a great career, all because you died…
Lucy answering the door… her sweet face, her peculiar laugh, her openness… renting her room, becoming her friend, going on dates, falling in love…
And then John sucked him back. Leave was over, back into the vault. But only one year this time… Lucy said she’d keep the room ready for him…
Counting down the days, the years, to seeing Lucy again… Feeling the bitterness, the animosity from John… being told by Mistlethwakey that once it was over, once the painful process of training was over and all the E.H.U.D.s forgot, John could forget Lucy…
Finally, years later, one final mission, one final chance to get John submitted to the system… it was easy, just some Palestinian kid, just some witness, shoot him now, now! But of course, John wouldn’t…
And then… Then…
A void. An emptiness. Some small trivial memory that had gone missing. John could feel it, feel the shape of the memory, feel the pain, the triumph, the terror… but the memory was gone. And John knew that the memory would be important, would be something he needed to know. It would fill in that gap in his own memories, the last few months as an E.H.U.D., the time that he couldn’t remember…
John pulled his consciousness back from Shaun and looked at Shaun’s physical brain. He could see the shape of it, the individual dendrites making up the lobes, the chemicals, the electricity passing from dendrite to dendrite… There. A dark patch. A cluster of dendrites completely disconnected from the others. A memory gap. Using as little force as possible, John coaxed the ends of the little cells together, rejoining them to the brain at large… electrical pulses passed through them, brought them life, shared them with the rest of the mind…
John readied himself and plunged once more back into Shaun’s mind, into the hidden memory… He was in a stark white room, clearly medical in nature. Associated memories quickly flooded in, filling in the gaps. Yes, this was a ward of the E.H.U.D. Global Preparation Center’ medical facility, located midway up the mostly underground facility. He was kneeling on the floor of the medical facility, wearing the thick E.H.U.D. armor, the controls of a scrambler in one hand and a miniature rail gun in the other. Across the ward, about twenty feet away, was an examination table, with a with a figure sitting on it, back towards him. Surrounding the table was a pile of mangled corpses, laying in a thick pool of blood.
The figure didn’t seem to realize that he was there…
Shaun cautiously lifted himself to his feet and crept forward, the rail gun held ready and all of the scramblers in the room vibrating at full power. He took one step, two step, three steps—The figure swung its legs onto the table and swiveled around to face him. It was John. It was always John.
Other memories began to intrude at this point: getting alerted to a general revolt, ordered down to the med center, being informed that the three E.H.U.D.s leading the revolt had barricaded themselves inside, all medical personnel were dead—
John concentrated and was able, with some difficulty, to get Shaun’s mind back on track.
He was back in the room. John stared at Shaun and somehow, despite the presense of the scramblers, Shaun was hurled back against the far wall. The group of soldiers that were along as backup quickly formed a protective semi-circle around him as he struggle to his feet. Back at the table, John effortlessly floated up into a standing position and moved towards his tormentors, his feet hanging limply several inches off of the ground. The two men immediately in front of Shaun gasped, coughed, vomited blood, and collapsed. The rest of the soldiers raised their rail guns and fired—John was only ten feet away, there was no way they could miss. Yet somehow each silent metal needle managed to swerve around John, or drop harmlessly to the ground or, in one case, fold itself into a pretzel and remain hovering in the air. They continued to fire, their silent weapons steadily spraying thin metal shards at the man—the abomination—moving ever closer…
John stopped the linear flow of the memory and focused on himself as Shaun had seen him—gaunt, a frail construct of bone and sinew, all usable fats and proteins burned away in a psychic haze… The connection came unbidden: it was exactly as he looked now.
The memory resumed.
One by one the soldiers died: some exploded, others combusted, others merely collapsed. And then John turned his attention onto Shaun. The gaze of the unearthly creature bore into his, burning, tearing… his head hurt, there was pressure, pain, anguish—his vision grew blurry, began to fade—
And then jumped back into sharp focus.
He was lying on the floor, surrounded by the bodies of his comrades, his head still aching, and yet miraculously alive. John was ignoring him… was staring over him, to where the door would be, a look of terror spreading over his face. Shaun tried to turn, to see who—or what—was entering the room, but his armor, and that of his comrades, restricted his movement. So he contented himself on watching John.
John was twitching now, pulsing rhythmically to… Shaun wasn’t sure what. He just was. His muscles would all spasm as one, then relax, then spasm… And then he collapsed to the floor, one ankle twisting at an odd angle.
A foot suddenly appeared, blocking out most of Shaun’s vision. He was able to turn his head just far enough to see that the foot belonged to Mistlethwakey, who know stood in the midst of the bodies and glared at John.
“Give up, John,” Mistlethwakey said coolly.
John growled—actually growled, from deep in his throat—by way of reply.
Mistlethwakey shrugged. “You know, I didn’t want it to end this way, but I really had no choice. My only regret is that we became friends through all this; it’s only going to cause more pain.”
What? Shaun wasn’t sure if he had heard right—but he had. Mistlethwakey saying he had become friends with John? But they hated each other…
Mistlethwakey was still speaking. “I’m afraid this has to be the end.” His voice suddenly became more upbeat. “But look on the bright side: you won’t remember this conversation for nearly a year! Isn’t that right, Major Wendleferce?”
Shaun looked up again and saw Mistlethwakey staring down at him.
“Hi. How ya doin’?” Mistlethwakey straightened and returned his attention to John. “Any last words?”
John weakly raised himself to a sitting position and opened his mouth to speak—
“No, never mind. I’ll just do it now.”
There was a sound like crumpling paper, and then John burst into flames. He shrieked, contorted violently, his skin crisping and falling off in black sheets. There was not much to the body, it was already mostly burned away from the inside, and the flame moved through it like a spark through a see of gasoline. He writhed desperately, rolling in the thick pool of blood on the floor, trying to douse the flames—
The heat was intense; even Shaun, in his thick armor, could feel it creeping along his skin—
No, no that wasn’t in Shaun’s mind… that was the real world intruding on the memory…
The metal pipe underneath John was beginning to glow a dull red, and he could feel it smoldering its way through his shirt, scorching the flesh—
There was nothing he could do. He tried to reposition himself, but there was no were else to go, and he was too weary…
No, he thought, looking at Shaun’s still form, no, there’s still one more place to go, but that would only be a last resort. There was still hope, always hope…
But he would worry about escape later; the flames could wait. He had to see how the memory ended, how events played out, if for no other reason than that Mistlethwakey had somehow known that he would be watching this, would be experiencing it—no, he had said that John would actually remember it—
And then it appeared, unfolding in his mind, the secret, the reason that this memory had been cut off, sequestered—
The section of roof holding up the pipes gave way, and John found himself slipping, rolling off into the flame…
He looked in awe at the glowing abyss… it was too late, he should have taken the chance… there was nothing else to do but accept his fate…
And as he fell, his eyes closed and his mind clear, he slowed, and stopped, and then began to move back up, into the sky. And while he did he dreamed… and remembered…
The phone rang. With a sigh, Norgent picked it up and looked at Henderson, who shrugged helplessly.
“Philadelphia PD, hello?”
Norgent listened patiently while the person on the other line yelled, screamed, vented their frustration.
“Look, ma’am,” Norgent said, interrupting the irate caller. “I’m sorry that you were robbed, but there’s nothing I can do about—“ The caller made a response. “No, no, I’m a homicide detective—“ A screech of complaint. “Yes, I know it makes no sense. Look, what happened tonight—this, this is completely beyond the scope of what we’re able to deal with. Our anti-terrorism squad is dead, and every available officer is keeping peace in the streets. I was one of the few left behind to man the phones—“ The caller yelled. “I’m sorry, but you won’t be getting anyone down to your house for quites some time—Yes, I know, I’m sorry, but—“
Norgent glanced at Henderson, Henderson shrugged, and Norgent hung up.
“Wow,” Henderson said dryly, “I think you should become a telemarketer. It’s what you were made for.”
“Shut up.” Norgent stretched, felt his back pop, and then lowered himself into a chair. “What time is it?”
Norgent sighed. “Four hours.”
Henderson heaved himself off the desk he was sitting on and loomed over Norgent. “I know what you’re going to say, and no, it wasn’t your fault. You were following the law, there was nothing else you could have done.”
“If I hadn’t let him out onto the streets—“
“He would have killed every officer in the place. You heard what he did to the E.H.U.D. team.”
“Yeah, one survivor, burned beyond recognition.”
“Exactly. Now, Imagine what Donalson would have done if he were still here.”
Norgent didn’t respond; he leaned back in the chair and covered his face in his hands.
“I just wish I could be doing something!” Norgent angrily stood up and paced around the room. He felt caged, restless. “The whole city’s in an uproar, the police are just acting as crowd control, and we’re here answering phone calls!”
“It could be worse.”
“We could be down in the phone pits instead of an executive office.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess you’re right…”
The phone rang again. Norgent reached for it, But Henderson grabbed it first. “Don’t worry, I’ll get this one. Philadelphia P.D., hello?” A moment later the expression on Henderson’s face changed in some unidentifiable way, and he held the receiver out to Norgent. “It’s for you.”
‘Who is it?’ Norgent mouthed as he accepted the receiver, but there was no response. “Hello, Detective Norgent speaking.”
Henderson edged quietly out of the room.
“I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Yes, I figured you wouldn’t, but I’d like to finish our conversation from earlier.”
“Too bad, things are real busy here, and I can’t—“
“Stop dodging the issue, Frank, please, my time is valuable.”
“Alright, you want me to address the issue? Your friend John just killed some eighty people in what the media are already calling ‘the worst act of domestic terrorism since the Boston Auto Bombings,’ and now he’s disappeared. How’s that for an issue?”
On the other end of the line, Mistlethwakey chuckled. “Yes, I’d heard that. Pretty awful, huh?”
“Maybe, just maybe, if you’d treated him as a normal human being, instead of shooting at him, he wouldn’t have—“
“What, you think that if some guy in a suit had come and made him guess which card he was holding, John wouldn’t have gone crazy?”
“If he had just surrendered, no one would have died.”
“You sent attack choppers after him!”
“If you show up at someone’s door with an arrest warrant and the person inside is innocent, they’re not going to run away. A military police action was performed and, by his actions, John proved himself guilty. End of story.”
“Alright, if it’s the end of the story, I’m hanging up.”
“But I’m not done speaking yet.”
Norgent pulled the receiver away from his ear and was just about to press the disconnect button when he suddenly thought better of it.
“Say your piece, and then leave me alone. I don’t want anything more to do with you.”
“I’m glad you feel that way,” Mistlethwakey said gravely. He cleared his throat, and when he started speaking again, his voice was lighter and more conversational. “So, you’ve caught some of the news?”
“But not within the last two hours, I’d guess.”
Norgent stubbornly refused to answer, toying with the idea of just hanging up. “No,” he eventually conceded.
“Do you remember what I said about John, that he’s as big a threat as Terstein? Well, we’ve seen just how dangerous John can be. Guess what Terstein did, oh, about an hour ago?”
“What?” Norgent asked nervously, moving quickly to the office’s main computer to confirm whatever it was Mistlethwakey was going to tell him.
“Terstein, in an amazing display of bipartisan action, has declared war against the government of the United States.”
Norgent was too shocked to respond.
“He made a rather beautiful speech on the White House lawn, going on about ‘innocent men, cheated by the government, trying to escape unjust retribution,’ and about ‘military action against an unprotected populace, betraying the trust of the American people.’ I believe that at one point he used the phrase, ‘the dogs guarding the henhouse have just gone and had themselves an omelet.’”
Norgent finally found his voice again. “So, that’s his war? Making a speech?”
“No, that was the start of the war. The real war is every right-wing redneck and every liberal semi-terrorist freedom fighter who can hold a gun converging at city halls, state capitals, even Washington itself, and gleefully killing anyone with a uniform or, if we’re lucky, each other. And that’s just the beginning. Every grudge, racial injustice, and un-placated hurt will bubble up to the top, and this country will tear itself apart. There’s already been a minor race riot in Washington. Twenty dead.”
“Look, as bad as all that is, it can’t last forever. It’ll burn itself out—“
“If left alone, yes. But it won’t be left alone. The national guard will be deployed…”
Norgent took a moment for that to sink in. “So the military will be seen as turning on the people, and more wack—freedom fighters will join the cause.”
“Bingo. And of course, Terstein’s just been arrested, so that’s one more martyr for their side.”
Norgent leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Things were going to get worse before they got better… “Why are you telling me all this? I could just find out on the news tonight.”
“Because I want to offer you my protection.”
“Why, because I’m a cop and I’m black? I have to deal with that everyday; civil war won’t change anything.”
“No, I’m offering you my protection because not all the crazy ones will be on Terstein’s side.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean.”
“It means that you have to keep your eyes open for Jack Ruby.”
“Look, I am a Christian man, and I try to avoid harsh language, but I’m only going to say this once: stop… screwing around with me. I’m not in the mood.”
“Couldn’t bring yourself to say it, huh?” The grin that was sure to be on Mistlethwakey’s face was almost audible.
“I’m hanging up now.”
“Who had John in custody right before he went out and started the war?”
Norgent didn’t hang up.
“Who, against his better judgment, let him go slaughter the population of Philadelphia?”
Norgent didn’t hang up.
“How long until some reporter finds your name and public opinion rolls around to the point where you were the one who pushed Terstein to the edge, who aided and abetted a criminal, a terrorist, in slaughtering brave American soldiers and civilians alike? How long before someone decides to get their name in a history book by executing one of the greatest traitors America has ever known?”
Norgent didn’t hang up. “And just how are you going to protect me?”
“As you may know, I am in a position to be aware of all of the available units at the Sky Crest Towers Apartments, and have some sway with the management staff.” There was the sound of papers being shuffled, and a few mutters from Mistlethwakey’s side of the phone. “Ah, here we go. Since all this panic started with Lemlin attacking the president, and the economic slowdown afterwards, some seven percent of Sky Crest’s previous clientele have not been able to continue to afford the rather… luxurious prices demanded by Sky Crest—“
“If those kinds of people can’t afford it, I certainly can’t.”
“No, but I could offer you and your family a three bedroom, two bathroom unit about midway up the tower for, say, three months, rent free.”
Norgent almost said yes, almost jumped at the chance. He knew his Sheila would kill him if he let this chance go by… but he had no reason to trust Mistlethwakey. After all, Mistlethwakey had gotten him into this mess.
“Why what?” Mistlethwakey asked innocently.
“Why are you trying to help me? And don’t give me a bull sh—a bull crap answer. I want the truth.”
There was a moment of silence from the other side of the line. “I know this is rather cliché, but you can’t handle the truth.”
Norgent didn’t respond.
“Okay. In less than a month the human race will be nearly wiped out in a massive nuclear attack, and you and your family will be some of the few survivors. Your descendants will then go on to become a master race and rule in a utopia some three thousand years from now.”
“I’m hanging up.”
Mistlethwakey sighed. “Fine. I’m manipulating you for my own shadowy purposes.”
“And those are…?”
“I already told you.” Mistlethwakey actually sounded angry. “I’m breeding a master race.”
Mistlethwakey sighed. “Alright, I feel guilty. I was the one who ordered the attack on John; I was the one who tried to stop you from warning him, I… I… look, I just started a civil war, I’ve got Ed breathing down my neck to get this sorted out, I’m under a lot of stress, and I don’t need your death on my mind.”
Norgent though about it. That explanation seemed logical enough. And the barely contained anger in the voice seemed to add a level of truth to what he said. And if they were at Sky Crest, it would keep Brian and Lisa out of harm’s way. He could sell it to them as a sort of vacation… But they’d need to move soon, before the war got in full swing. They wouldn’t have time to pack—
As if he could read Norgent’s mind, Mistlethwakey interjected, “If you did accept my offer, I could also provide you with goods and services vouchers for the mall there. Anything you need; you don’t even need to pack.”
Norgent suffered just a moment of indecision, but something in Mistlethwakey’s voice made him want to take the chance. “How soon will the apartment be ready?”
Mistlethwakey laughed sheepishly. “I’ve already finished the paperwork.”
“Alright, I’ll talk to Sheila about it, but… go ahead and keep it open. We should be there tomorrow.”
“Excellent. Now if you’ll excuse me—“
“Hold on. We’re not the only ones who might need your protection.”
“Before his… I guess abduction would be the right word, now that we know some of the facts, John had a fiancée, Lucille Dawkins, and she’s currently engaged to a man here on the force named Shaun Wendelferce. As John’s personal friends, they may be in—“
“No, I think Lucy’s safe, and Officer Wendelferce is already in the hospital.”
Norgent almost missed Mistlethwakey’s mention of Shaun; he was too distracted by the casual, familiar way he had talked about Lucy. “The hospital?”
“Oh, yes. You knew he was attached to the E.H.U.D. division, right?”
“Y-yes, but he was working on the mechanical side of things, keeping the suits in good order—“
Norgent’s voice was drowned out by Mistlethwakey’s deep, throaty laugh. “What? The mechanical side? And you believed that?”
“That’s what it said in his paperwork…”
Mistlethwakey made an effort to stifle his laughter. “Yes, yes I… I guess it did.” He cleared his throat. “No, Wendelferce was the commander of the E.H.U.D.s.”
“Yes, you probably knew he was in the military. Assigned to an armored squad. And now he’s running anti-terrorism efforts there in Philadelphia. He was the one survivor that John left behind.”
“John tried to kill him?!”
“I don’t think John realized who it was. The EMTs didn’t, at least until they had dug down far enough to get his dog tags.” Mistlethwakey coughed. “Of course, John probably would have sensed his identity before hand and maybe, based on their mutual relationship with Lucy, may have… left him maimed and incapacitated on purpose…”
Norgent didn’t like to think along the line that Mistlethwakey had just suggested. John may have had some emotional issues, and understandably so; but he didn’t seem the vindictive sort. He wouldn’t punish a man for metaphorically marrying his widow…
Maybe he had done this to punish Lucy, to get back at her for moving on, for leaving him behind. Who cared if he had been dead? John wasn’t in his right mind tonight; he couldn’t be trusted to think logically. He might want revenge—
No. Norgent refused to believe this. John wasn’t a violent man. Norgent was a good judge of character, he knew John was a good person…
Who had killed three men earlier today, and another eighty tonight… and maimed his ex’s boyfriend…
And caused Lucy to lose the second man she had loved…
All because Norgent had let him go…
“Did I do the right thing?” Norgent asked softly. “Letting him go?”
“No,” Mistlethwakey replied simply. “But there was nothing else you could have done. Things happen because other things happen because other things happen because other things happen. You had other choices, but other things conspired to make your choice the only possible outcome. It wasn’t right, but it was the only thing you could do.”
Norgent snorted. “That sounds like a pretty weak excuse.”
“Oh, I know.” Mistlethwakey’s voice became lighter. “But it’s the only one I have. And if it makes you feel any better, I was one of the people who wrote the E.H.U.D. legislation, so in effect, I made you let him go. It’s like a friend once told me: ‘I pulled the trigger. I moved your finger. You’re free of the blame.’”
“Do I get to find out the context of that quote?”
“Nope. It’s still as clichéd as when I said it five minutes ago, but you can’t handle the truth.” A note of distraction entered Mistlethwakey’s voice. “And now if you’ll excuse me, the president wants to have a chat.”
That momentarily stunned Norgent. “The president?”
“Wow. Okay, uh… goodb—“
Mistlethwakey hung up.
Norgent sighed and slumped into a chair. He glanced up at the clock: eleven forty-eight.
Over four hours since he had unleashed John… and inadvertently started a civil war. He absently wandered if Lucy knew what had happened to Shaun…
There was the sound of footsteps in the hall. Norgent got up and opened the door a crack, but whoever it was had gone into another office.
He walked back to where he had left the telephone receiver and stared at it. Civil war… he could already imagine assassins coming after him. Traitor to the country. The one who let a terrorist and self professed murderer walk the streets. Sure, he was just following the law, just doing what he had been ordered to do. But that didn’t take away the guilt. Maybe he deserved whatever was coming…
But the kids didn’t. They shouldn’t have to see their father’s half-censored corpse on the news, knowing that he died for no crime worse than standing up for this country’s laws. Protecting the old system, broken as it was, in the hopes that it could be fixed, instead of going out and getting an all new government…
Which was really what this war was all about, wasn’t it? It was funny, Mistlethwakey thinking that he would be killed by people on the constitution’s side of the issue, even though the very thing they would kill him for was a perfect representation of the ideals they were fighting for. In the end, he would die for simple hypocrisy…
And he didn’t intend to let that happen. It was with a firm resolve spreading through his body that Norgent picked up the receiver and began dialing his home phone number.
He hoped Sheila was still awake…