Wednesday, December 19, 2012

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Light footfalls echoed in the hallway, followed by a child's voice.  “Dad!  Dad, Gigawatt broke!  Dad!”
The bow-tie slipped, and Edgar Latterndale closed his eyes and sighed.  He waited a moment and tried wrapping the bow again.
The footfalls came closer, bringing with them more shouts of “Dad! Dad!”
The footfalls fell silent as Ethan, clutching a toy in one hand and a severed leg in the other, burst into Edgar's bedroom.  “Dad, the leg broke!”
Edgar closed his eyes again and focused on the tie.  He didn't want to bring Amanda in to do this.
“Can you fix him, please?  I think it just needs glue or something.  Please?  You’ve got time before you have to go.”
He glanced at the clock next to the mirror—forty-five minutes.  He dropped the bow and took the toy from Ethan.  “Alright, let's see...”  the leg was ripped off at a joint just below the hip; the bottom half of the joint's peg was still trapped in the thigh.  “I can't do this tonight; I'll need to drill out the leg and find another piece to splice in—”
“Can we just glue it, just for tonight?”
Edgar put the toy on the dresser and gestured at himself.  “See what I'm wearing?  This is a tuxedo.  I can't go messing around with glue.”
“But I really need Gigawatt!”
“Not tonight, little dude.”  He picked up the bow-tie and tried again.
“C’mon, Dad!  It’s my favorite toy!”
The tie slipped and came undone.
Frustration spiked through Edgar, and it took several deep breaths to keep it from showing.  “Ethan,” he said, staring stone-faced into the mirror, “Tonight is really important at work, and I don’t have time to deal with your toy tonight.  Okay?”
“Can I go with you?  Please?  Uncle Isaac’ll be there, right?”
Remain calm…  “Tonight’s a big political event, okay?  Stay here and try to get your homework done, and Esperanza'll take care of you.  Hey, why don’t you go and see if she can fix your toy, okay?”
Ethan sighed through his nose and dropped his head.  “Yeah, I guess…”
Edgar forced a smile.  “Good.”
Ethan turned and the footfalls clunked out of the room.
Edgar had managed to get a few twists in his tie when the hurried footfalls began again.
“Dad, Essie says that she can’t—“ 
Edgar slammed his hand onto the dresser.  “Goddamn it, I don’t have time to worry about your stupid toy!”
Ethan stared up at him, his eyes wide and showing confusion.  Then they blanked out, went distant.  Ethan nodded, turned and left the room. 
Five minutes later Edgar had finally gotten the bow tied, and was putting in his cuff-links when the bedroom door opened.
Amanda stood there, a smooth red gown draped over her body, her hair cascading in loose ringlets over her left shoulder.  She padded over to the bed, dropped the pair of heels she was holding, then flopped down next to her shoes.
“What did you say to Ethan?”
“Nothing.  He was bothering me, and it wasn't a good time.  I—I yelled at him.”  Edgar looked back at Amanda in the mirror.  His emotions were caught up between pride that this beautiful woman was his wife and amazement that she had managed to get ready before he had.  “What's wrong with him?”
“He's all sullen and angry now.  You could have just talked to him; did you think about that?  Just tell him it wasn't a good time?”
Edgar snapped the final cuff-link in place and headed towards the bathroom.  “I tried that; didn't seem to get through.”
“You didn't need to yell at him!  What were you doing that was so important you couldn't talk with him?  You were just getting dressed.”
“He was interrupting!”
“He wasn’t interrupting!  He was just trying to talk to you while you got dressed!”  Amanda buried her face in her hands and grunted.  “What is with you?  You have time to spend on everything else in life, and you just treat Ethan like he’s an inconvenience!”
Edgar turned to face Amanda.  “Now is not the time.”
“Then we need to make—“
Edgar raised a hand.  “Now.  Is not.  The time.”
“When is the time?”
Edgar threw his hands up.  “Hell, I don't know.  Look, I’ve got a big job trying to keep this shit-hole of a country together, and it takes a hell of a lot of time.  Someday Ethan’ll understand that, and he’ll be able to forgive me.”
“I suddenly understand why your father never visits.”
Edgar shrugged.  “He may not have done more than provide for us, but it was what he needed to do.  I don’t like him, but I’ve forgiven him.”
“Don’t you think you should do better for your son?”
“I’m making sure he has a future to grow up in; isn’t that enough?”
Amanda tilted her head to one side and thought for a moment.  “No, it isn’t.  Even if you spend every waking moment fighting for the future, it may not come.  All we have is the present, and you need to be spending that present with your son.”
Edgar slipped into the bathroom and returned a moment later with a lint roller.  “Well, the present is the 9/11 Memorial.  I don't want to go any more than you do, but that's my job, and I have to do it.  Right now, Ethan has to come second.”
Amanda glared at him, then grabbed a shoe and forced it on.  “If he's such a damn inconvenience, why did you agree to have him?”
As with so many of Amanda’s questions, this one had no safe answer.  Edgar brusquely rolled the lint off of his tuxedo jacket and settled on modified honesty.  “Because I knew a kid would make you happy.”
“You’ve never been that romantic, Ed.  Try again.”
She wanted brutal honesty?  He was frustrated enough now to make sure she got it.  “Because I’d have a nice, perfect little family, with a son involved in soccer and violin and a trophy wife who looked good in campaign commercials.  That romantic enough for you?”
Amanda didn’t respond for such a long time that Edgar looked up to see if she was still there.
“Well… I guess that saved us five years of marriage counseling.”  She turned and left the room.
Edgar looked after her, grinding his teeth and wondering what he could do to calm her down.  He glanced at the clock again.  Thirty-five minutes.  He'd have to finish this conversation later tonight.

Despite Edgar’s best hopes, traffic proved a tough beast to beat, with every usual Metro passenger flooding the streets in taxis and personal vehicles.  In the end, he and Amanda arrived at the White House's September Eleventh Memorial banquet an hour late.
“If we’re lucky,” he said as a valet drove away with their car, “the dullest speeches will be over.”
“I'm sorry, okay?  Can we just—just ignore this until afterwards?”
Amanda turned and walked into the White House.
Edgar sighed and followed her.
Once they made it past security and into the East Room, they were greeted by politicians and dignitaries, power brokers and lobbyists, men and women rich enough to enjoy— or demand— the president’s notice.  They were all very understanding of the couple’s late arrival, and helpfully informed them that no, the speeches hadn’t started yet.  Again.  And again.  And again.
By the time Edgar had shaken hands and exchanged pleasantries through the crowd and to the buffet table, he was ready to leave.  He looked around, made sure that he had lost Amanda, and tried to relax.  He checked his watch; he'd be stuck here for at least three more hours.
A hand slapped down onto his shoulder.  “Edgar!  So glad you finally made it!  I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
Edgar turned, a false smile already materializing on his tired lips, and saw who had addressed him.  The smile dematerialized.  “Oh.  It’s you.”
Mistlethwakey's skeletal face peered out from behind an over-burdened buffet plate.  “Yes it’s me.  Good to see you, too.  Let’s talk.”
“I’d rather not.”  Remembering his agreement to help with Mistlethwakey's plan, to stand by while he arranged the death of the president, brought a rush of unease into his gut.
“Having second thoughts about helping me?”
Not for the first time, Edgar felt that the General had somehow read his mind.    “I'm not comfortable with your... policy.
Mistlethwakey swallowed what he had been chewing while Edgar spoke, and cleared his throat.  “I told you, things are happening with or without you.  You're my first choice for liaison with the Q-bomb, but I could go on without you.”
“And what if I renege on my part?  What if I go to Isaac right now and tell him what happened to Ashleigh?”
Mistlethwakey glared at Edgar, his eyes like dark coals smoldering in an otherwise grandfatherly face.  “You could.  Wouldn't be the smartest move, in the long run.  Holding back important information, that's bad.  But after what's going to happen—that's treachery in and of itself.”
Edgar felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.  “What's happening tonight?”
“I told you six months; it's been four.  There's a timetable.”  Mistlethwakey's demeanor changed, and he smiled.  “Say, where's that lovely wife of yours?  You can’t leave, of course, that would look too suspicious.  But you, ah, you might want to get Amanda close by, somewhere where you two won’t get separated.”
“What’s going on?”
Mistlethwakey winked and tapped the side of his nose.  “Best if you don’t know.  If things somehow go off-script, it'll be more believable if you're as surprised as everyone else.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some other people I need to see…”  He popped a small sandwich into his mouth then wandered away, becoming lost in the crowd.
Edgar was rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do.  His imagination ran wild with the horrors Mistlethwakey could have planned for the evening.  Most of them were should be impossible, beyond even the General's ability to perform.  But then, if he had the Defenders under his thumb, was anything really out of his ability?
A resolution formed within Edgar: he would warn Isaac.  Mistlethwakey's assurances were worthless, and he couldn't control Edgar.  Edgar knew of a credible threat to the president’s safety; any Secret Service agent he told would evacuate the president, and the General's little plot would be worthless.
Until the questions started.
Edgar saw the rest of his life unraveling before him: the truth coming out about his involvement with Mistlethwakey, the general’s swift downfall, his own downfall as he was sacrificed to the public as the mastermind behind the true EHUD program… years later, sitting in a maximum security prison, Ethan coming to visit him, asking him why he had thrown it all away… himself asking why he had missed the call for greatness, all because he was too afraid to fight for the greater good of the nebulous future.
He went to find Amanda.
“Ed,” she muttered as he dragged her away from a group of lobbyists she was working on, “They were about ready to make donations—”
“I think you should probably stay close tonight, you know?”
She jerked her arm away from him.  “It's too late for the touchy-feely crap, alright?”
“I just—I have a bad feeling, okay?  Something just seems off tonight.”
She stared at him in puzzlement.
“Look, let's just stay together, okay?  Hey, look over there.”  He pointed at an older woman behind Amanda.  “I'm sure the congresswoman will want to steer funds your way.”
Amanda continued to stare at him, then turned and made her way to the congresswoman.  Edgar followed. 
They stayed together for the next twenty minutes, mingling with the crowd, soliciting donations for Amanda's charity, and exchanging pleasantries with Edgar's colleagues. 
Soft chimes of music caused everyone to drift away from the open areas of the room and congregate at the tables set before a large podium.  Edgar helped Amanda into a chair, then sat down himself and looked to see Isaac Latterndale mount the stage and take his place behind the podium.  He looked out at the crowd, his face solemn, and began to speak.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and colleagues, it is wonderful to see you all here today.  We are gathered here to remember a profound event, the great awakening that the United States had at the dawn of the 21st century, that defined our history and culture for many years...”  
The speech droned on for ten minutes, heartfelt but bland.  Edgar tried to listen, but he was too caught up in trying to discover what horror the General had in store.  He swept the room, looking for anything out of the ordinary.  His feelings of dread only increased as nothing caught his eye.
The applause that punctuated the President’s speech shook Edgar out of his thoughts, and he focused back on Isaac.
“Thank you, thank you all.  Now, I know you’re all probably rather tired of me going on, as I tend to do, and you’ll want to hear someone a bit more concise and eloquent.”  He paused to let a fresh round of applause die down.  “So!  Without further ado, I’m proud to introduce my esteemed colleague Senator Mitchell Terstein.”
The audience clapped, the President left the stage, and… no one came up.
Edgar's throat tightened.  He glanced around, expecting to see someone slipping through a door or a rifle sliding out from behind a curtain.
The applause died and a polite silence ensued.
No one came to the stage.
Edgar was about to jump up, was about to warn Isaac of his imminent danger, when the silence changed to excited whispering as someone came on stage.  It was definitely not Senator Terstein.
The newcomer was short, with a thick beard and stubby, dirty-looking dreadlocks.  Unlike the other male guests in their tuxedos, this man wore layer upon layer of ragged coats and scarves.  He scratched at his large nose as he approached the podium.
“Um, hello…” he said experimentally, leaning into the microphone atop the podium.
The whispers increased in volume.  Edgar saw several Secret Service agents rush along the sides of the room, only to halt some twenty feet from the stage and stand stock-still. 
Mistlethwakey had actually done it.  He had co-opted the Defenders.  Edgar knew who, what, this man was, and with that knowledge came the abrupt closing of Edgar’s window of opportunity.  Whatever the outcome of the next few minutes, he was stuck with Mistlethwakey to the end.
“Hello,” the man said again, and conversation ceased.  “My name is, uh, Merv Lemlin, Private First class, U.S. Army.”  He paused for a moment.  “Retired.  Not who you expected, but… uh, after that introduction I’m going to try and be as concise and eloquent as I can.”  Someone in the front row stood.  “No interruptions, please.  I promise I’ll be quick.”
The man in the front row didn’t sit down, but he didn’t move, either.  One arm stood out as if frozen in place.
“I want to talk for a minute about the EHUDs.  Now I know you all know about the EHUD system.  Damn fine machines, definitely, but they’re not why I’m here.  Reason I’m here is the super-soldiers.  You know about them?  The rumor going around that the suits're just sort of a cover for government testing program, trying to improve our soldiers.”
The room was dead silent.  Edgar closed his eyes, awaiting the inevitable.  Beside him, Amanda reached out and pushed her hand into his.
“Well, those rumors were absolutely true.  Not accurate, but true.  Anyone can tell you it doesn’t take half a trillion to make a wearable tank; that’s stupid.  But it does take that to make super-soldiers.  The Defenders, they were called.  Same acronym, EHUD, so disguising purchase orders was easier, but the ‘D’ was Defenders.”
He paused and glared at the audience, daring someone to challenge what he said. 
“Of course, as bad as super-soldiers is, there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you go legal.  Take the first two test subjects, for instance.  Two career military boys, get hyped up on the super-serum, next thing you know, they could kick Captain America’s ass.  But the government didn’t stop there, oh no.”  He chuckled.  “The whole last administration—hell, most of this administration, probably; the president definitely—went ahead and captured a hundred innocent civilians, and—“  He stopped and scratched his chin.  “Well, I wasn’t a civilian, but I damn sure weren’t no volunteer.  Anyways, they kidnapped us, tortured us, made us do things to break our wills, then made supermen out of us.  And I don’t know why, but here we are on your doorstep, fifty of the toughest sons of bitches you’d ever want to meet, and we ain't happy.”
No one spoke.  Edgar felt confused, unable to form words.  Lemlin was doing this.  He thought of going for his phone to call for help but... it just didn't seem all that important.  Lemlin wasn't taking chances.
Amanda's hand was warm in Edgar's grip.
“There’s only one man you have to blame for all this, one man who put together the bill that started all this shit, one man who got it voted in, one man who stayed with the project and made sure it went off without a hitch, ready to fuck the world over and establish the new American order.  One man I’m going to kill tonight.”  His arm rose, elbow bent and hand skyward.  The hand dropped, an accusing finger pointing straight at the overweight old man in the front row.  “President Isaac Latterndale.”
Those words seemed to loose something in the room.  People were moving, yelling;  the president stood and began to denounce his accuser.
Edgar watched as a cadre of Secret Service surrounded Isaac and took aim at Lemlin.
Lemlin, smiling, laughing, reached into his pile of coats, looking for all the world as if he were going for a gun.  It was enough for the SS agents.  All other sound was drowned out by gunfire.
As the echoes died away, Edgar found Amanda pressed close to him, her arms wrapped around him.  Between the imminent danger he knew awaited and the warm body next to him, he felt more alert than he had in years, primal purpose coursing through his veins.
At the front of the room, Lemlin stood, smiling and unscathed.  Floating in the air before him, most still vibrating, some glowing, were nearly a hundred bullets. 
Amanda pulled away, half-standing with the rest of the audience to stare in silent fascination as the bullets began to drift together, glowing brighter where they touched and fusing  into one another.  Soon Lemlin stood behind a head-sized sphere of lead which began to spin, faster and faster, until—
Edgar knocked Amanda to the floor, kicking over the table in the process.  He didn’t see what happened next, but he heard a sharp crack, wet ripping sounds, strangled screams.
He levered himself up and peered over the edge of the table.  Lemlin was leering at the mangled pile of agents surrounding the president.  A few of them must have been alive, as sporadic gunfire erupted from the pile, but the bullets all swung wide, veering off into the crowd and burying themselves in fleeing guests.
The pile shifted as agents rose into the air, only to be brought back down with bone-breaking force.
Edgar dropped down and looked back to Amanda.  She stared at him, eyes wide.
“Don't do it.”
Edgar felt a thrill of adrenaline.  He knew it would be stupid to go up against Lemlin.  He also knew that Mistlethwakey had his hands all over this, and wouldn't let things get too terrible for his chosen puppet.  “I need to get out there.  I need to get to Isaac.”
“You have no idea what the fuck that is out there!  You go out there, you'll get killed!”
Their eyes locked for a moment.  Lemlin meant death.  Amanda meant a chance, however slim, of staying alive.  Edgar looked away.  He had already made up his mind, had already agreed to be complicit in the General's coup.
Edgar grasped Amanda’s hands.  “I love you,” he said, hoping she believed him.  “But I’ve got to do something.  I’ve got to try to save the president.”
Amanda's eyes went cold, and she pulled her hands away from Edgar.  He crawled out from behind the table and sat up on his knees, trying to find a safe route to the pile of bodies that was still providing Isaac some measure of protection.
“He’s not going to die now, you know.”
Edgar ducked down and found Mistlethwakey under a table beside him.
“I'm assuming it's safe to go in and rescue him?”
Mistlethwakey shrugged.  “I'm not in charge here.”  A piece of chair swung past Edgar’s head, hitting the floor with enough force to shatter.  “I just set the stage and let the rest shake out.
Edgar felt his determination drain away.  Hiding next to Amanda seemed a much more inviting prospect.  “You don't have any plan past this?”
“We need to get the president to use the scramblers.  If he does that, everything else falls into place.”
Edgar lurched forward and grabbed the lapels of Mistlethwakey's jacket.  He didn't know where this sudden boldness came from; ten minutes ago he never would have dreamed of confronting the General physically.  “Will I get out of this alive?” he growled.
Mistlethwakey appeared serene, oblivious to the deafening noise around him.  He seemed to be giving serious consideration to Edgar's question.  “That's up to you.”
Edgar nodded and ducked out from under the table.
Lemlin's voice rose up over the cacophony.  “Where are you, you fucker?  I know you’re there!  C’mon out, boy!”  Lemlin was playing with his food.
Edgar stopped under a table in sight of where the Secret Service agents had died.  Even now the pile was shifting and sliding as bodies floated up into the air and were flung around.  There was no sign of Isaac Latterndale.  Edgar scanned the area around the bodies and saw the heap of a crushed table shiver.  He worked his way around behind it, belly-crawling through a thick brown pool of viscera.  All breathing was through the mouth.  By the time he had reached the table he must have looked so much like a mangled corpse that Lemlin ignored him.
Close up, panicked breathing could be heard under the remains of the table.  Something moved inside, and then the blood-smeared face of the president was looking out at Edgar.  “Help me,” he mouthed. 
A hand grabbed Edgar’s leg and he froze, thinking he would be the next body flung into the air.
“The doors are locked!” Mistlethwakey hissed from somewhere around Edgar's waist.
The president's eyes widened. 
Edgar took a deep breath, tried not to gag, and whispered, “You need to call in scramblers.”
Isaac’s eyes widened further.  “We can’t do that!  They don't exist!”
Mistlethwakey pushed his way forward until he was face-to-face with the president.  “Damn secrecy; we don't use them, we die.  We can't hope to starve Lemlin out.”
Isaac looked around in a panic, breathing hard, then nodded and wiggled around until he brought out his hand, clutching a mobile.  He typed in a code, then looked up at Mistlethwakey.  “Now what?”
The tirade from the dais changed tone.  “I’m getting' bored now, Isaac.  I came for you, not for your guests.  Last chance to be a man about this.”
“Don’t listen to him.”  Mistlethwakey reached behind his back and pulled out two blood-smeared pistols, passing one to Edgar. 
“You distract Lemlin; I’ll get the doors.”
Edgar nodded and began to crawl away from the president.  Before he had moved more than a foot there was a moment of sudden, absolute silence, followed by a resigned sigh from the behind the podium.  “Time’s up, Isaac.”
The president began to rise into the air, the remains of the table sliding off his back.  “Bob!” he hollered, his eyes bulging with fear.  “Bob, get me out!”
Mistlethwakey jumped to his feet and ran to the knot of panicked guests clogging the nearest exit.  At the same moment Edgar, trying his best to ignore the overwhelming panic that begged him to stay down, also rose and skittered across the slick floor to stand before Lemlin.
From somewhere in the room, he thought he heard Amanda call his name.
The pistol was up in a two-handed grip.  “Merv Lemlin!”
Lemlin looked away from the president, struggling vainly in mid-air, and locked eyes with Edgar.  “The hell's this?”
Edgar opened his mouth, closed it, then yelled, “I don’t know what the hell you are, but this is your only warning: You are committing an act of war upon the United States, and it will be responded to as such!  Cease and desist, and maybe we can talk this through!”  Edgar was aware the pistol trembled, knew he was sweating profusely.  But he also knew that if he survived this moment, the sun would never set on his career.
Lemlin sneered at him.  “Seriously?”
Edgar shifted his grip on the pistol and tried to dig his feet into a steadier stance.
Lemlin shrugged.  “Guess I can kill one more bystander, though to tell you the truth, I’d really rather not.”  With his eyes still on Edgar, he pointed off towards one wall.  “And don’t think I don’t know about you over by the door.  It’s useless; I’ve got ‘em shut.”
The room fell into something approaching silence.  The injured moaned, the terrified whimpered, but for a moment everything else fell away as the tension between Latterndale and Lemlin mounted.  A few yards away, the president floated, helpless, above the bloody floor.
An explosion rocked the room, and Edgar found himself sprawled on the floor, though whether he had been knocked down by the by the force of the blast or by the nausea that was twisting his guts, he did not know.
He closed his eyes, tried to stop the room from spinning.  He pushed up, his hands slipping in blood, and looked over the tops of tables to see a squad of EHUDs rushing through the remains of the door that Mistlethwakey had cleared.  The armored figures slid out of focus, and then Edgar was back on the floor, his vision blocked by the body of an agent.  He followed the lines of the body up to the mangled face, realized this was someone he had known for a few years now, someone he had worked with.  The nausea flared, and Edgar vomited.
He crawled away from the body, found himself out in the killing field, where he had a clear view of the podium.
The EHUDs had formed up in a ring around Lemlin, each of them with a thin metal cylinder strapped to their chests.  The cylinders vibrated as they pulsed with a frequency that was, for the moment, disorienting Lemlin enough that his powers couldn't manifest.
And the cylinders—the scramblers—were doing their job.  Lemlin was at the center of the ring, half-crouched, clawing at his ears.  His mouth moved, yelled something, but Edgar couldn't hear anything, or if he could, he wasn't functioning well enough to understand the words.
One of the EHUDs approached Lemlin, handcuffs outstretched.
Something finally clicked through Edgar's mind: they wanted to take Lemlin alive.  They couldn't do that; he would tell everything if he were alive...  Another thought followed, giving Edgar some peace of mind.  Mistlethwakey was orchestrating this, to some degree.  At the very least he was controlling what memories the Defenders were allowed to keep from their time in captivity.  No matter how much Lemlin told, Edgar was safe from recrimination.  Besides, Lemlin had gone after Isaac, not Edgar... not Robert Mistlethwakey...
A moment later any lingering doubts disappeared.  Lemlin jumped up, put his weight behind his elbow and tried to force the approaching EHUD to the ground.   All the attack succeeded in doing was to rock the EHUD back on his heels, but it was enough for Lemlin to break away.  He made it maybe ten feet before one of the EHUDs brought a rifle up and—
Edgar had seen enough.  He closed his eyes and curled into a ball.  He shuddered as the rifle cracked, then tried to block out the world.   

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Being dead hadn't been particularly difficult, but John found slipping back into his old life to be almost too easy.  After a week spent cooped up in his new apartment, catching up with society and trying to ignore the specter of his forgotten fiancé, he returned to work. 
Thirteen years ago he had earned a position with Cohen and Associates, Philadelphia's premier architecture firm.  Now, thanks to their long and fruitful working relationship with the U.S. military, C&A was welcoming John back with open arms.
He took a cab on his first day back, and spent some time on the sidewalk staring up at the façade of the Cohen & Associates office.  It seemed to be made of one mass polished mirror, just like SkyCrest.  At each floor was a ledge studded with modern art, all wrought in what appeared to be glass.  Cetacean forms leapt and writhed from the wall, warping the light that passed through them into an infinite array of hues that lit up the sidewalk.  Old memories inundated John, years spent coming to this building, hopes for a future coming together.  But now he saw the dark spots, the little bits the memories seemed to leave out.  As he looked at the incomplete picture of his life, he realized this must be where Lucy dwelt, the unknown shadow now haunting his past.
He hurried inside.
There was a meet-and-greet, the president of the firm showing off his prodigal architect to the current employees.  Most, John didn't recognize.  A few he remembered, and spent several minutes catching up with, finding out how things had changed.
One surprised him: a short woman with an auburn bob-cut. 
“Alice!”  John embraced her when she introduced herself.  “I haven’t seen you since college!  How long have you been here."
She smiled sheepishly.  “I sorta got your job after you left everyone hanging.”
They caught up while everyone else drifted away and got back to work.  John tried to find out something about Lucy, but Alice knew little beyond her name and general appearance.
Their conversation was winding down when Alice said, "If you don't mind me asking... what happened?  I now there was a car accident, but the higher-ups are keeping everything quiet."
John swallowed.  He didn't like talking about the accident, but the sooner he could get it behind him, the better.
“I was in a--my brother's term here--permanent vegetative state.  Beyond that, my ID got switched with the Army colonel who rammed me going the wrong way on the freeway.  When he died, they put John Donalson on the death certificate.”  
"And after I came out of it a few months ago, I let them know who I was.  Since then they've been bending over backwards to ensure I don't sue."
Alice smiled.  "Well, that's one win for our litigious society!"
They both got to work after that.  John learned is way around the new modeling software, experimenting on a digital copy of SkyCrest Tower: changing its height, manipulating its structure, playing with its composition.  He got a feel for it, but kept the file around as a personal project, his own private SkyCrest to remake in his image.
After work he went home, had dinner with Reggie and Rachel, then spent the rest of the evening online, looking for Lucy.  Right away he found an old photo gallery, thousands of pictures of a young woman: pale, dark haired, her face dominated by a large, hooked nose.  In most of the pictures, kissing the woman, hugging her, just being happy with her… was John.
Night after night John stared at the pictures, wondered at the phantom woman and the phantom life they might have had.  At first it was just morbid curiosity: who was she?  Then it was an existential search: why didn't he remember her?  In the end it was an obsession.  She had no place in his mind, caused no feelings of fondness, but now he could see where she had been, could sense her absence in his memories.  Like an itch he couldn't scratch, she tormented him.
Once, he almost made contact with her.  Shortly after discovering the photo gallery he had found a  public profile.  There was a more recent photo of an older woman, still recognizable as Lucy, still a stranger.  Below her image was a phone number.
Just one call and John felt he could make peace with her, could let her go.
He was ready to make the call.
He dialed, the phone rang, and he hung up.  Whoever Lucy was, she had loved him, had grieved for him.  Tearing open old wounds for his peace of mind would be cruel.
"No, you should call her," Reggie opined.  "You'll feel better once you make peace with this element of your past.  At least that's what my patients always tell me."
But John couldn't make the call.  He would hold out, and hope she'd fade away.
Weeks passed. 
Rachel moved to California for the summer.
John was brought on board a team project at work, designing a bunker pulling double duty as a presidential bomb shelter and medical research.  After a month of working on it, he and the team were flown out to a developing suburb in Oklahoma to consult on the construction.  As John stood atop a pile of red dirt, looking down into the abyss that he had had a hand in making, he felt content.  He was finally where he belonged, seeing the labor of his mind becoming reality.
He could almost be happy...
Except for Lucy.
Two months after learning of her existence, he still spent his evenings sitting on the couch, transfixed by Lucy's phone number glowing on the television screen.  If he didn't get this over with, she'd always haunt him... always be a missing memory scratching at his mind.
He gestured at the screen and a low intermittent buzzing started up.  There was just enough time for him to realize that technically, he was haunting her, when the buzzing stopped and a high voice said, “Hello?”
John swallowed.  “Uh, yes, uh...  Could I speak to Lucille Dawkins, please?”
“Ahhh...”  He wasn't ready for this.  “This is John.”
“John who?”  She sounded distracted.
“Okay, please don't hang up, I know this is going to sound weird—”
“Saying that guarantees I'm going to hang up.”
There was no time to turn back.  “This is John Donalson.”
There was a long moment of silence.  “Yeah, I'm going to hang up now.”
She's giving me a way out, John thought.  Take it, take it.  “I'm not dead.”
There was another long silence.  “You might think this is funny, but I don’t.  If  you don't hang up right now, I'm going to go in the other room and let you speak to my boyfriend; he's a cop.”  Her voice was strong, but there were enough little hitches in it that John knew she still had feelings for him. 
He should have stayed dead for her. 
“I'm really not dead.  I just—I just needed to tell you that, to try to move on—”
“You have video?”
The abrupt change caught John off-guard for a moment.  She wanted to see him—she believed him.
“Yeah, let me just—”
“If you're doing something weird, I swear I'm—”
John activated video, and a small mirror image of himself appeared in the lower corner of the screen.
A low gasp echoed through the room.  “Shit!”
John swallowed again.
“How did you—You can't—they said that you were—”
“I was mislabeled in the ER.”
Lucy didn't respond for a moment.  Then the screen changed, a face blinking into existence: black curls framing a pointed face with a thick nose and wide eyes, just like in the photos.  “Oh, my God, John, I...”  Her voice remained calm but her eyelids began to twitch with emotion.  “How long?  Why didn't you call?  I would've come to see you...”  She was beginning to sound hurt.
John chewed his lip and stared at Lucy, at this woman who was supposedly such a big part of his life.  And... he felt nothing.  She was a stranger.  “I didn't remember you.”  As soon as the words were out, he felt a huge rush of relief.  He had done his duty to her, told her he was alive and that there was nothing between them.
She shook her head, not understanding.
“I was brain-dead for ten years.  I guess things... things didn't stay right in there.”
“Why'd you call then?”  Definitely hurt.
“Reggie mentioned you.  I just...  I needed to give you a goodbye.”
She closed her eyes and nodded.  “Thank you, I... thanks.”  She looked away, then back at whatever screen she was talking to.  “I'm, uh, I'm getting married.  In about a year.  I hope you don't mind.”
John opened his mouth, tried to find words, shrugged.  “Yeah, I'm... I'm good.”
Lucy sniffed and smiled.  “I still don't believe you, you know, but... but this felt right.  So... Thanks, I guess.”
They held eye contact for ten more seconds, then both hung up. 
John relaxed into the couch and sighed.  The scratching was gone...
The phone blared, jerking John out of the sofa, blinking wildly.  Lucy's number was on the screen.  John connected the call, still as video.
“Shut the fuck up and listen.”  It wasn't Lucy.  A young man stared out of the screen, tan, with close cropped brown hair poking up from a gaunt face, the skull bulging against the confines of the skin.  “I don't know who the hell you are, and I don't care, but if you call again I will find you and I will fucking kill you.”
The call ended.
John blinked and stared at the blank screen, unsure of what had just happened.  He assumed this man was Lucy's boyfriend.  A mysterious call, an emotional fiancé; surely giving some kind of protective threat made sense.  John didn't begrudge him that.
What didn't make sense, though, was that while John had no memory of Lucy, he felt sure he knew this man.
So now Lucy was no longer an enigma, and she left John's mind... Only to be replaced by this strange man.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 3

Chapter 3

It was too late to be driving.  The entire world was reduced to twin yellow lines stretching to infinity beyond a cone of light.  For a moment the world disappeared, the car swerved, and John Donalson was awake again, blinking and shaking his head, desperate to stay focused until he got home.  The road curved ahead, and his stomach sloshed as he took the corner.  How many drinks had he had?  It was just a business meeting; he should have paced himself better....  He reached up under his glasses and rubbed his eyes.  Get home, get to sleep.... Tomorrow would be better.  Had to be better: he had the contract now.
All he had to do was stay awake.  Had to stay awake, had to—
Blinking, awake again.  He slapped at his face, took several deep breaths, cranked up the air conditioning until the cold burned his skin.  Couldn't be more than ten miles.
Lights appeared in the darkness ahead of him, bright and blue.  It took John precious seconds to realize something was wrong: only red lights should be ahead of him.  And then there was another car, a dark void behind two blinding blue points, screaming at him from the gloom.
And then John was floating, surrounded by a sparkling galaxy of glass, cut loose from the grip of the earth.
And then he was down, the seats above pressing in on him, the metal of his car shrieking and twisting as it skidded along the asphalt—
“Uncle John?” 
John snorted and sat up, the side of his face numb from pressing against the train window.  “Whazza?”
“You okay there?”
It took John a moment to place the voice, a moment longer to adjust his glasses and recognize the face of his niece, Rachel Donalson.  When he saw her, he felt a moment of painful disconnect.  The chubby little girl he had half expected was instead a gangly, disheveled looking young woman. 
“You were kind of twitching in your sleep.”
“Mmm, yeah.”  John sat up and slid back on the bench.  He ran a hand over the bristly stubble that was beginning growing on his head; he missed his old hair.  “Where we at?”
Rachel sat down on the bench across from him.  “About twenty minutes outside of Philly.”
“Where's your dad?”
Rachel looked over her shoulder at the other passengers, sending her dyed-red hair swinging.  “Dunno.  Said he was going to get drinks.”
“Oh.”  John stretched and yawned.  “Yeah.  I remember that.”  He tapped the side of his head.  “At least memory loss doesn't seem to be one of symptoms of this thing.  After-effects.  Symptoms.  Don't know the right word here.”
“Dad will.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, John staring out at the passing countryside, Rachel engrossed in her mobile.  “So,” she said, “that explosion we felt back in Washington?”
“News on that.  Apparently it's a government cover-up for something.”
John grunted and shifted to look at his niece; despite months of physical therapy, he still felt disconnected from his body.  “And how's that?”
“Well, they're saying it was caused by a gas main explosion.”
John shrugged.  That seemed like a good explanation to him.  “How exactly does gas main equal cover-up?  I mean, the system's pretty old, right?”
Rachel nodded throughout John's response, her speed increasing as she became more excited.  “Exactly.  An old gas main explodes and kills a bunch of people; what do you think city officials will do?  They'll hem and haw for a few weeks, saying they have absolutely no idea what could have caused this, wait for it to all blow over, then issue a little report months later that basically says, 'Yeah, it was totally a gas explosion, but it wasn't our fault.'  Now it's only been like six or seven hours, and they've already got a handy explanation and a plan to fix it.  Nothing moves the government quite so much as a desire to cover its ass.”  She twisted her mouth into a sarcastic grin.
John snorted.  “Well, aren’t you the little conspiracy nut.  Counterpoint: what about 9/11?  They had that figured out pretty fast.”
“Who says that wasn't a cover-up?”
John folded his arms and raised an eyebrow.
Rachel shrugged and glanced out the window.  “Okay, well that was different: they saw the fucking planes go in.”
At that moment Rachel's father returned, carrying two coffees.  “Hey.  Let’s try to keep it PG-13 here, okay?”
“You can say ‘fuck' in a PG-13.”
“You know what I mean.”  He looked down at John.  “You're awake.  Good; didn't want to have to get you up when we stop.”  He sat down next to Rachel and passed John a cup.
John took it, then looked at his brother.  Reggie Donalson had always looked older, but the last memory John had of him was as an energetic man in his early thirties.  Now he was middle aged, tired looking, his face beginning to hold on to the lines and creases of everyday use.  For the first time, John was almost thankful for the car accident, for the long sleep that followed: he looked too young for thirty-seven.
“So....”  Reggie glanced back and forth between brother and daughter.  “How's it going?  Getting to know one another a little?”
John nodded.  “Rachel was just telling me about the government's big metro cover-up.”
“Really?”  Reggie looked at his daughter and raised an eyebrow.
“Yup.”  Rachel dragged the mobile onto the tabletop and put it in the middle of their little triangle.  She gestured at it, and an emotionless reporter's voice began to list off statistics as the crater sprang to life, swarming with rescue workers.  “—have rescued twenty-three people, who have been rushed to area hospitals.  There have been sixty-eight confirmed deaths, though fire and rescue officials estimate an additional hundred people still remain buried in the rubble.  The mayor has released a statement apologizing to the victims and their families, and stating his intention for a comprehensive reconstruction of the metro system, to be completed in the next five years.  For AmeriNews, this is Maria Ruiz—”
Rachel gestured and the playback stopped, the image frozen on a bulky grey figure with a skeletal face.
“What's that?” John asked, pointing at the screen.
“Hmm?  Oh, that's an EHUD.”
Reggie laughed.  “You should hear her conspiracies about them.
“But what are they?”
Rachel grabbed the mobile and began to poke and gesture at it.  “Powered armor.  Really cool, after your time, I guess.”
John grunted.
“They're Army, but Latterndale farmed them out for other uses.”
The name was familiar, but it took John a moment to place it.  “Latterndale the President?”
Rachel shook her head.  “Latterndale the Defense Secretary.”  She passed the mobile to John.  “Watch this; it'll explain.”
On the screen was a digital rendering of the EHUD, rotating in front of a black background.  A woman's soothing voice began to speak.  “The Enhanced Human Ultimate Defense, or EHUD armor system, is the future of soldier safety in the field.  This armor system allows its wearer to become a one-person army, able to withstand any attack and pacify enemy combatants with minimal loss of life.” 
The rendering faded and was replaced by a single black garment, similar to a wetsuit.  Then, a tangle of braces, wires and thick bladders appeared over it, followed shortly by another black suit, reinforced by large mounds of armor.  Finally, a carapace of lumpy grey slabs covered the entire apparatus.  The finished EHUD stayed that way for a moment, spinning all the while, before being stripped down to the first layer and repeating.
The unseen woman continued.  “The first component of the EHUD is made of a Gortex weave outer layer and a fiber-mesh-quilting inner layer.  Between these two is a special gel, which becomes solid when force is applied to it.  This gel allows for the absorption of impact forces, protecting the soldier within.
“The next component of the suit is the pneumatic sinus system.  The P.S.S. works with the soldier's body to pump fluid and build up pressure, which can then be released to enhance movements and boost the wearer's strength. 
“Over this is an additional layer of armor, consisting of ballistic gel like the inner suit, but also reinforcing joints and protecting the P.S.S.
“Finally, the last component consists of armored plates and further reinforcements to the overall system, cocooning the soldier within and protecting America's bravest and boldest on the battlefield.  With the Enhanced Human Ultimate Defense armor system, a soldier will always be ready to face combatants, negotiate firing zones, or deal with battlefield rubble.”
The image of the EHUD faded and was replaced by the logo for the Department of Defense.  “This video has been brought to you by the DOD and DHS. 
John passed the mobile back to Rachel.  “The government's gotten a lot more open since my time.”
Rachel shrugged.  “It's all a smokescreen.”
Reggie sighed and shook his head.  “Please, don't get her started.”
“I'm kind of interested.”
Reggie sighed and glanced warily at Rachel.  "Alright, go for it."
She smirked.  "Okay, so the EHUD program, its set up as an umbrella funding bill for military research.  And out of it, we got the armor, some weapons, and tons of intel."
John nodded.
"But," Rachel leaned forward, her eyes widening with excitement, "if you actually read the legislation, there's all kinds of little pieces scattered throughout that give the army tons of leeway.  Borderline illegal stuff.  In the right context, it allows for civilians to be 'requisitioned' for experiments, genetic tampering, you name it.  Basically, the whole thing is cover or making an army of supersoldiers." 
"An army of supersoldiers?"
Rachel nodded emphatically.
"You've been watching way too many superhero movies."
Reggie whooped, and Rachel slumped back into a sulk.  The laughter soon died, and the three lapsed into silence.  John turned his attention to the window, watching as farmland transitioned to industrial parks, then to suburbs, and finally the city proper.
Then in the distance there was a flash of light from the sky.  John squinted and made out a thin skyscraper, formed from gently undulating glass.
"SkyCrest," he whispered as he slowly smiled.

John and company stood at the window of his apartment, looking down the glistening side of the tower at the shopping center that stretched away thirty stories below.
"I can't believe I'm actually here," he enthused, fogging the glass. “I hate to say it, but that wreck may have been worth it all.  All it took was life-threatening injury and ten years in a coma, and here I am!”
Behind him, Rachel snorted.  “Beats working and saving up.”
Reggie turned his back to the window and took in the luxury apartment.  "Have I mentioned yet how uncomfortable I am with all this?  If the Army wants to settle, just give you lump-sum hush-money, okay, but setting you up with a house, a job?  Seems sketchy."
"Two-star general's one of the principle investors here," John muttered.  He also turned, sighing contentedly at his new home.  "Besides, I've wanted to live here ever since the place went up."
"Yeah, well, I'm not going to stay long, alright?  Just maybe three months, just 'til you're back on your feet."  Reggie scuffed his shoe on the carpet.  "Fancy twenty years ago doesn't translate to fancy today, and this place reminds me too much of my ex's."
"Speaking of fancy," Rachel interjected, "how'd they get this in here?"  She was standing next to a stone-lined fireplace in the sunken living room.
John walked over to her and examined it, bending down and peering up the chimney.  "Looks like it curves in; probably gets pumped out the core."
"The core?"
"Central Maintenance Core."  He straightened.  "Middle of the building's hollow; they run pipes and elevators through it, so none of the tenants has to see that stuff.  I saw the blueprints at work, back before..."  He trailed off, his thoughts jumping from 'work' to 'potential client' to 'business diner' to... to...
"Hey, John," Reggie called, his voice sounding strained, "Pizza should be here soon.  Why don't you show us the rest of this place, huh?"
The afternoon burred by as John led is family around the apartment, taking in the real-life version of the home he had fantasized about for so many years.  All it had taken was ten years since he had first seen the building--no, twenty, he had to get used to that lost decade--and a little piece of it was his.
They settled down to dinner.  Conversation was touch-and-go at first.  All John knew was out-of-date pop-culture and news, and Reggie was being his usual taciturn self, so it fell to Rachel to carry the conversation.  In her teenage naiveté, all she wanted to talk about was herself; John didn't mind.  His most recent memories of her were as a little kid, running around her parents' backyard in dirty jeans and flashing a gap-toothed grimace at anyone who approached her.  Now he found her grown up, about to finish high school, cynical and strange.
“Right, well, so I'm in the government club," she explained, "and we mostly do social action kind of stuff.  You know, hold rallies, spam Congressmen....  I wasn't really wanting to get into it, but my friend Rauolito talked me around.   Summers I do campaigning in California.”
“That's all her mom's doing," Reggie said.  "Actually got her some college credit, so I'm not complaining.”
“But, my God, are those people weird....”
They continued in this vein for about an hour, stopping when Rachel's mobile chirruped.  "Oh, shit.  I was supposed to call Wayne."  She pushed back from the table and looked imploringly at her dad.  "Can I take this?"
Reggie groaned and buried his face in his hands.  "I guess I can't stop you."
"Thanks, dad."  She stood and sprinted into the spare bedroom.
"Boyfriend?"  John asked.
"Eh," Reggie answered.
 “God, I feel old.”
“You are old.”
John turned away, caught his reflection in a piece of furniture trim.  Despite Reggie's words, he didn't look particularly old.  He was thinner than he was used to, the skin tighter around his eyes, but could still recognize himself through the rippling distortion.  Looking so young, so vital, made him feel ashamed to have his brother taking care of him.  “You don't have to stay, you know.  I don't want to be a burden.”
“Who's going to look out for you if I don't?”
“I've got money coming in....”
Reggie sighed and shook his head, sending his elbows squeaking along the tabletop.  “Look, I've already got one person in my life not listening to me, okay?  Just let it happen.”  He looked up, his eyelids purple and tired looking.  "Please?"
John let it go.  "I'm guessing you're not a big fan of Wayne," he said, trying to steer the conversation back to a place he was comfortable with.
"He's too old for her.  Twenty-one, already dropped out of college, probably buying her alcohol."
This sentiment, coming from someone of his own generation, almost made John laugh.  “You sound like mom.”
“Yeah, well...”  Reggie stood and strode into the living room.  “She was right about my marriage.”  He flopped onto the couch.  “You and Lucy, too.”
John froze in the act of standing and following.  “Who?”
“Who, who?  Mom?”
“No, you—you said—”  John moved to stand in front of the couch.  “You just mentioned someone.  Who was it?”
Comprehension bloomed on Reggie's face, only to be immediately chocked out by confusion.  “Lucy.”
John shook his head.
“Lucy.  Your fiancé.”
John blinked.
“Holy shit.”  Reggie rubbed his eyes.  “They said there wasn't any brain damage...”
“I had a fiancé?”  John felt numb.  “I had a fiancé and you didn't tell me?”
“Hey!”  Reggie jerked upright, his voice defensive.  “You were supposed to know!  I didn't think it was something I needed to spoon-feed you!”
John flung out his arms and snorted.  “No, I've just been conscious for three months and never mentioned something this goddamned important.  Of course I knew this vital bit of information!  What else is no one telling me?”
Reggie pushed himself to his feet.  “There's nothing to tell!  I just thought you were stressed, I don't know!  It was a rough three months.”
“I-I—”  John clapped his arms to his sides then raised them again.  “I have no idea what's going on here!  I don't even know her name!”
Back to the couch; Reggie laid his head back and rubbed his eyes again.  “So you have no memory of her?”
“I have nothing!  No girlfriends, no fiancés, no Lucys!”
“Her name was Lucille Dawkins—”
“And three months of silence didn't raise any red flags?”
“You were dead for ten years!  That raised way too many fucking flags!”
John moved his mouth for a moment, but couldn't form any words.  Rage was flaring up inside of him, tempered somewhat by intense guilt.  Reggie was right; there was no reason to be mad at him.  The last three months--the last ten years--had been hell, and he should be forgiven for not picking up on one small detail of John's life.
But forgiveness was too much at the moment.  John took a deep breath, tried to calm himself, then turned and stormed off to his bedroom.  The childlike act only served to intensify the anger. 
A new mattress lay on the room's built-in bed, glowing white in the moonlight.  There were no sheets, but....  He collapsed onto the bed.  He was too angry, suddenly just too tired.  There was too much to think about, too much to figure out.  He just needed sleep....
When he awoke he was in another room.  The bed had changed, was bigger, with controls and tubes and wires encasing him and trailing away across the floor.  Beyond the mechanisms of the bed, blurry without his glasses, were white walls and pastel curtains.  A woman in a paper mask and blue scrubs approached him, materializing from beyond the blur. 
“Colonel Udarian?  Can you hear me?  Brian?”
Fear coursed through his body, and John tried to pull away.  He couldn't move.  His body was reacting sluggishly, barely moving. 
“Calm down, sir; it's okay.”
It wasn't okay.  Why was he in hospital?  Why couldn't he move
“Hey, Brian, it's okay.  Your wife will be here soon.  It's okay....”  She moved closer, adjusted something in the tangle of tubes.
John immediately felt calmer, felt something like contentedness flowing through his veins.  The panic was gone; he was able to think clearly.  He was in hospital.  He was injured.  He wasn't Brian Udarian, whoever that may be.  The last thing he remembered was a pair of headlights, the sensation of flying, the upside-down road falling down at him—
A hand touched his shoulder and the hospital room collapsed into darkness.  He could see faint moonlight outlining an arm, followed it up to the silhouette of his brother's face.
John clasped Reggie's hand.  “Thanks for pulling me out.” 
Reggie nodded.  “I know you'd do the same.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Three faces stared out from the portrait.  Little Ethan, eight years old, a little bored, but happy to be out of school.  Behind and to his right was Amanda, late thirties, her face stern but beautiful, stress-filled eyes shining above wide cheekbones.  To her left sat Edgar, his face looking full and healthy, hair and beard thick and black.  Reflected in the glass was another face: middle-aged, grey beginning to streak the hair. 
Breath fogged the picture, then faded. Edgar Latterndale had aged more in the last two years as Secretary of Defense than he had in the previous five.  A knock at the door caused him to straighten, taking his attention away from the picture of his family.   
“Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Secretary.”
Edgar sighed, then acknowledged the young lieutenant standing in his doorway.  “Yes, Hutchfield, what is it?”
“The explosion, sir.  Crews were going through records on everyone who was in the tunnel, and one name came up on a watch-list.”
“What name?”
Hutchfield shook his head.  “Your eyes only, sir.”  He held up a tablet, then placed it on Edgar's desk.
“Thank you.”  He glanced down at the tablet, then up to the lieutenant.  “Is that all?”
“Sir.”  Hutchfield turned and pulled the door closed as he left.
Edgar sighed again, then leaned forward and picked up the tablet.  He held his thumb over a scanner at the bottom of the screen and waited for the device to verify.  An image appeared of a young woman with bobbed blond hair.  Below, her name: Ashleigh Chuskus.  Edgar swallowed.  He recognized her.  He remembered her looking different, though: a gaunt, bald woman, eyes sunken into her head so she resembled nothing so much as an angry skull.
So, she had been at the site of the explosion....
He put aside the tablet Hutchfield had given him, then turned to face his own, docked to his desk.  He opened a browsing window, searched for a moment, then settled back in his chair to watch the news.  A smoking crater was all that remained of a suburban D.C. street, rescue workers in bright orange jumpsuits swarming over the crater's lip.  Interspersed among the workers were soldiers encased in suits of lumpy grey armor.  At a gesture the volume came up.  “—as to the cause, though some experts are blaming an outdated infrastructure, which led to a gas line rupturing and bringing down the station.  The mayor has issued a statement that—”
Edgar silenced the device and looked back at Hutchfield's tablet, at the picture of the smiling young woman staring out at him.  It could be a coincidence, couldn't it?  She might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, might have been caught in a freak gas explosion.
He knew it couldn't be that easy.
“Hutchfield,” he said, gesturing at his tablet. 
“Sir?” he answered a moment later
“Footage from the explosion: do you have it?”
A nod.  “Pulled it as soon as I saw a ping on an eyes-only list, sir.  It's already on the tablet.”
Edgar almost smiled.  Competence, honest-to-God competence.  “Good work.”
Checking through the tablet, he found several video files.  After searching through a few, he found one from a camera aimed at the platform immediately at the bottom of an escalator.  The footage wasn't good quality, but he could make out Chuskus as she floated down the escalator and stood at the back of the crowd.  She began to yell, looking around and gesturing frantically. 
Edgar adjusted the volume, but there was no sound. 
He watched for several more minutes as Chuskus continued to panic.  People began to take notice, to turn and record her with their mobiles.  Chuskus doubled over, clutching her stomach and convulsing.  Then the footage flashed white and died.  Edgar rewound, played it back at half speed, repeat, quarter speed...there.  A few frames before the end, she appeared to glow, then erupted in a spreading wall of flame—
“Shit.”  Edgar dropped the tablet and dug into his pants, desperate to find his mobile.  It wasn't there.  He stood, rounded on his chair, felt through his hanging jacket.  There it was.  It was out, dialed, up to his face.
Three rings, then an answer.  “Elliot Nieman; state your business.”
“Ellie, this is Ed.  I need to schedule a meeting.”
“Sure thing.  How urgent is this?”  The sound of shoes clicking on marble filtered through the connection as she spoke.
“Say an eight.”
A moment of silence, then: “I can get you in at one.  Who all do you want there?”
“Entire cabinet.”
She gave a low whistle.  “Alrighty, then.  Sounds pretty important.”  She was quiet for a moment, then grunted.  “You're in.  President will see you at one-fifteen.”
“Great.”  Edgar disconnected the call, tossed the mobile onto his desk, then sighed.  Chuskus had blown herself up, and security hadn't noticed anything when she came in.  There was only one explanation....
He sat back down, rummaged in his desk for a moment until he found a thin black memory drive.  He slid it into the new tablet, then navigated to a folder marked “EHUD: TOP SECRET.”  Clicking on it brought up a series of security dialogue boxes, and then, finally, some hundred images.
He selected one at random—EHUD_INCIDENT_REPORT_0017.  The screen filled with the image of a soldier in heavy armor, ceramic plates pulled aside and the torso ripped open, organs spilling out.  He closed that one, opened another, number 0032.  A nude woman, her bones barely contained by pale skin, head shaven, covered in wet blood.  She was smiling, middle finger of her right hand extended to the photographer.  Edgar swallowed.  Chuskus, just as he had remembered her.  He felt nauseous. 
He closed the image, returned to the ID photo that had been placed on his desk minutes—a virtual eternity—earlier.  Something was seriously wrong here.
He picked up his mobile again, made another call.
“Office of General Mistlethwakey, how may I direct your call?”
“I need to speak with Bob.”
“Who may I say is calling?”
Edgar grimaced and cradled his head in his hand.  “It's his fucking boss.”
There were several long seconds of silence from the other end.  “I'm afraid the general is busy at the moment.  I can take a message.”
“Is the general in?”
“I'm sorry sir, I can't—”
He took a calming breath then spoke, slowly, as if to a child.  “I'll repeat: I'm his fucking boss, and I have something to discuss with him.  I've played his little shit games before, but if he isn't seated firmly behind his desk when I arrive, there will be serious repercussions.  Am I understood?”
Before the other man had a chance to answer, Edgar had grabbed the tablet and his jacket and left his office. 
When he arrived at the antechamber to General Mistlethwakey's office, he was pleased to see the general's aide sitting behind his desk, looking petulant. 
“Despite a full schedule, the general is able to see you now.”
Edgar offered up a false smile.  This poor man was only exercising what little influence he had, and it was now going to be taken from him.  “Get out,” Edgar growled.  “And don't bother coming back when I'm gone.  You're being reassigned.”
The man frowned, but stood and left without saying a word.  
Edgar's smile was now genuine.  He closed the office door, then swept his hand across the underside of the receptionist's desk: there were no signs of bugs.  He straightened, took a deep breath, and pushed through to the inner office.
General Robert Mistlethwakey sat behind a massive black desk; with his coat off, he looked like a cotton swab stuck in a tar pit.  He smiled, his face seeming to split in half along the edges of his leathery mouth.  “Ed!  So glad you could drop by!  Hear there was something you wanted to talk with me about.”
Edgar stopped in the middle of the room and worked his jaw for a moment.  The General was far too calm in light of the threats issued against him; normally, he would be on the war path at this point.
“I'm here to talk to you about the EHUD program,” Edgar said.
The General's smile grew wider.  “Ah, the Defenders.”  His dark eyes, set far back in his skull, almost seemed to sparkle.
All Edgar could do was work his jaw again.  “The Defenders?  You're ready to jump to that conclusion?  What if I were talking about the Defense program, huh?”
“Oh, please.”  Mistlethwakey's smile finally faded and he leaned back.  “You wouldn't sound so damned serious when asking the question if you weren't going to talk about the damn Defenders.”
“We have this security protocol in place for a reason....”  It was all Edgar could do to keep the frustration out of his voice.
The General nodded.  “Understood.  Now, what did you want to talk about?”
Edgar held up the tablet and shook it.  “Ashleigh Chuskus.  Today she went into a metro terminal and killed fifty people in an explosion.”
“Huh.”  The General raised his eyebrows.  “Sounds just awful.  I rather liked her....”
“'That's awful?'  That's all I get out of you?  A member of your top secret weapons program blows up the metro, and you can't be bothered to give a shit?”
The General shrugged.  “It's a complex program.  Statistically shit's got to go down at some point.  It's a miracle nothing bad has happened thus far.”
And there it was, the admission Edgar had been waiting for through the entire confrontation.  He pulled up the picture of Chuskus, bloody and defiant, and turned the tablet to face the General.  “Except this isn't the first time shit's gone down, is it?”
  Mistlethwakey glared.  “You were supposed to destroy those pictures.”
“Destroy evidence that the Defender program has flaws?  I'm a professional, Bob.  I take my job seriously.”
“The only reason you have that job is because you promised to destroy those pictures!”
Edgar snorted.  “Well, it looks like I'm not as morally bankrupt as you thought.  Now, let me state the obvious, in case you haven't put it together yet.  Here we have two pieces of evidence that your pet project has serious issues.  So, this afternoon I'm taking this down to the White House, and getting presidential approval to shut your ass down.  Got it?”
“And what happens when the President finds out his little cousin's been suppressing some of this evidence?  You think you'll have this job for much longer?”
Edgar lowered the tablet and stared at his shoes.  In all the panic that the morning had ushered in, he hadn't had time to think of personal consequences.  He shrugged.  “What happens, happens.  This program's dangerous, and flawed, and I'm going to make sure the right thing gets done here.”
Angry silence stretched between the two men.  Then the General laughed, his deep chuckle echoing around the room.  “God damn, do I know how to pick them.”  He continued laughing, the sound degrading to a hoarse wheeze.  He coughed and wiped at his eyes.  “No, you're not going to tell the President anything.  This thing with Chuskus?  That's not evidence of a problem.  That's fucking intentional.”
For just a moment, the room fell completely silent, and Edgar felt himself floating.  This wasn't at all what he'd expected....
“No,” the General continued, “this was a test.  A test and a message.  First, I wanted to find out how you'd react to something like this.  Doing what's right?  At the risk of your cushy job?  You passed, my friend; you passed.”
Edgar reached into his pocket, found the mobile he had neglected to turn off.  This—what Mistlethwakey was saying—this was important, and he needed to record it.  Blackmail or evidence, it didn't matter the reason, he needed this.  “And the message?”
The General straightened and his face hardened.  “I am in control.  The entire program, the Defenders?  They're mine.  What happens next is not chaos: it is planned.”
There was no way to navigate to a recording program, not in his pocket, not without making the moves too obvious.  Edgar released the mobile, nodding all the while.  Keep the man talking.  It would all come out when he made his report to the president.  “So you programed a sleeper agent to kill herself, just so you could massage your ego?”
“You've seen the pictures of what happened when the Defenders slipped our control.  But did you hear any of the speech Major Fendleton gave before he was executed?”
Edgar shuddered.  He remembered the pictures of Allen Fendleton, stripped of his uniform, his brains sprayed out over a concrete floor.  Through the memory were tinny words, poorly recorded: “We are Defenders.  We will defend.  We must tick on.  The Q-bomb must tick on.”
The words didn't need to be said aloud.  Mistlethwakey must have seen something in Edgar's eyes, must have also been replaying those words; he nodded and a thin smile spread across his face.  
“The Q-bomb...” the General intoned, “in theory, a small group holding unlimited power over the whole world, keeping them in line through applied self-interest.  When Fendleton first told me of the concept, I thought he was crazy.  When he led the Defenders in a rebellion and got himself killed, I knew he was crazy.  But the more I thought about it....”  The smile faded.  “We've made super-soldiers, Ed.  We've made gods.  And what are we doing with them?  The moron we have in office now just wants to use them to protect national interests.  He's not seeing the global picture.  But me....  I've been infected by Allen.  I've got his vision up here now.”  He tapped the side of his head with an outstretched finger.  “And I've altered the program, the programming.  You saw that with Chuskus.  And the others...  they're going to start fulfilling their programming soon.  And then Allen's vision will be fulfilled....”
Edgar's hands hung limp at his side.  He stared at the old man in wide-eyed disbelief, then narrowed his eyes into a death-glare.  “I suppose making threats at this point would be useless, seeing as you have an army of super-soldiers backing you up.”
A shrug.  “Their lives are their own.  I merely pointed them in the right direction and gave them a push.”
“I thought you were in control.”  The General opened his mouth to answer, but Edgar continued, “No, don't answer; I don't care.  Why are you telling me all this?”
Mistlethwakey stood and rounded his desk.  “For the Q-bomb to truly succeed, there needs to be at least one nation that will offer cooperation, just to set the example.  I'm hoping that will be us.  But the current administration....”  He looked at Edgar, imploring him to understand.
For his part, Edgar refused to think through the General's implications.  If Mistlethwakey wanted to say something, he would have to say it plainly.
“In the coming months, the Defenders will be causing a lot of chaos.  The President—hell, most of the cabinet—will likely not survive.  For this to work out, I need the right person in place to help the Defenders when they need it most.  You've already proven you're willing to give up this job that you worked so hard for in the name of 'doing right.'  How much are you willing to give up in the name of world peace?”
“You're asking for treason.”
The General gestured to Edgar's tablet.  “You've already withheld vital evidence from the President.  What's a little treason?  All I need you to do is keep quiet about this meeting and be ready to cooperate when I give you the go-ahead.  You do that, and I promise you that in six months the presidency will be yours.”
It was tempting.  All his life, Edgar had dreamed of the office, had worked hard to climb the Washington power ladder.  But the years of relentless struggle had eroded his desire for greatness, until he at last resigned himself to being nothing more than an advisor.  Now, though—no.  He couldn't do this.
He leaned in closer to Mistlethwakey and hissed, “I won't let you kill my cousin.”
Another shrug.  “The President's old.  How much longer do you think he has?”
“You're older.”
The General smiled.  “What makes you think I plan to survive all this?”
Edgar was taken aback.  All through this meeting, he had assumed it was a power grab on Mistlethwakey's part.  Hijack the super-soldiers, show what he was capable of, profit.  But as he stared into the old man's eyes, he saw something far more terrifying: belief. 
Edgar swallowed.  He had to get to the President, had to warn him.  With any luck, it wasn't too late to retrieve the Defenders, to eliminate the threat Mistlethwakey represented, before another Chuskus exploded....  Before another Allen went on a killing spree.
The General sighed and gestured again at the tablet.  “You're going to tell him everything, aren't you?”
Edgar turned and strode from the room.  He had to see the President, had to tell him what was going on.  Had to tell him before the temptation proved too strong and he agreed to what the General had offered.

Even though there was another half hour before his meeting, Edgar was already pacing around the cabinet room, stopping from time to time to check under the table for bugs.  Security wasn't his job, but at the moment he wasn't feeling particularly trusting of those whose job it was. 
He glanced over to his seat at the conference table, took in the tablet lying there.  The pictures, the private knowledge of the Defender rebellion, called out to him, begging to be set free.  Almost two years ago he had been given the files in a classified dossier while the current Secretary of Defense was out of the country.  Though he was only Deputy SecDef, Edgar had taken it upon himself to confront Mistlethwakey about the pictures.  Somehow, he had let himself be talked into covering them up in exchange for the General's influence concerning a promotion.  Scarcely a month later the incumbent had resigned, and Edgar found himself appointed Secretary.  At the time it had seemed like a good idea to keep the pictures, just in case.  Now it seemed like an even better idea. 
His eyes slipped away from the tablet and he continued his pacing.  Around the table, again, again, again.  He was almost back to his seat when strains of “Home Means Nevada” began to sound from his jacket pocket.  He pulled out his mobile and answered the call, killing the song.  “Hello, Amanda.” 
“Where are you?”  His wife’s voice was pleasant, but tinged with sarcasm.
Edgar's stomach clenched.  He wasn't in the mood for any more stress today.  “I’m at work; where are you?”
“I just left Ethan’s recital.”
“But that isn’t till two.”
“It was at ten.”
“Since when?”
Amanda sighed.  “Since it was first scheduled.  God, Edgar, you’ve known about this for five months, and you promised Ethan you’d be there; you said you could get time off.”
“Time off at two, yes.”
Amanda sighed a second time; the mobile translated it as a high-pitched whine.  “You should have double-checked the time.”
“Yeah, well, it's too late for that now, so can we talk about this later?  I'm busy.”
Amanda didn't respond for several seconds.  “...Busy?”
“You think you're supposed to be at Ethan's recital by two, and you're still busy?”
“Something came up!” 
The door creaked, and the face of a nervous-looking intern poked into the room.  Edgar furiously waved her away.
“Something more important than your son.”  Amanda's voice was painfully sweet.
Edgar closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.  There was no easy out.  “Yes, okay?  Yes, something more important.  These things happen.  No, I can't tell you what it is.  We'll talk tonight.”
The high-pitched whine again.  “Sure.”  Click.
Edgar returned the mobile to his pocket, sighed, and continued pacing.  On the one hand, he felt guilty; he had promised.  On the other, it wasn't as if this were a common occurrence.  He had never missed a birthday party, rarely missed parent-teacher conferences.  So he missed a few oddly-timed extra-curriculars; so what?  Ethan would adapt.
Amanda though, Amanda would remember this.
He fumed for a few more minutes, only stopping when he heard a light knock on the door.  A moment later Julia Telk, Secretary of the Interior, stepped in. 
“Am I interrupting anything?” she asked.
“No.”  Edgar turned and headed towards his seat.
“Ellie sounded pretty urgent; thought I'd better get here early.”
Edgar snorted.  “Hopefully you're not the only one.  I'd like to get this over as soon as possible.  My kid's got a recital at two.”
Julia nodded.  “Kind of doubt Isaac will be early.  Or on time, for that matter.”
“That's his prerogative,” he shrugged.
They both sat and waited as the rest of the Cabinet filed in.
At precisely one-twenty-five President Isaac Latterndale finally pushed through the door and hurried to his seat at the head of the table. 
“Sorry, everyone,” he said, waving his hands in an it's-not-my-fault gesture.  “It's not my fault.  You know what the Iranian embassy is like.”
Edgar felt a knot of nervousness unclench in his guts; he was finally going to get this over with.
The President sat and looked at Edgar.  “So, Ellie didn't have a lot of details to give me on this.  What exactly is this meeting about?”
“The explosion in the Metro this morning.”
“Right.”  The President turned to his Press Secretary.  “Rosencrantz, what happened?”
Eli Rosencrantz worked his jowls as he stared at the ceiling, then nodded and locked eyes with the President.  “It, uh, it seems that a utilities pipeway in the Metro exploded, knocking out an entire line and killing some fifty people.  Reports are still coming in, and rescue workers are of course on the scene.  From early examinations, it seems to have been a case of age, of an antique infrastructure reaching the end of its natural life span.  The mayor's office is already pushing for legislation to cover a complete overhaul of the system.”
“Very good.”  The President shifted in his seat and looked to Edgar.  “So what about this warrants a meeting called by my military advisor?”
Edgar had to fight to keep his expression neutral.  He knew that several of his coworkers had described him as looking “sinister” behind his back, and any excess of emotion became melodramatic; the situation would be serious enough without his help.
“I will be speaking today about the EHUD project,” Edgar said, in tones reminiscent of a catechism.
All movement in the room ceased as the words hit home.  The Vice President cleared her throat.  “The 'D' stands for...?” she asked, continuing the ritual.
With the name invoked, the proper ritual movements began.  Phones and tablets piled onto the table, power switches were pressed, backplates pried off, batteries removed.  After any possibility of electrical surveillance was eliminated, the Secretary of State pushed his chair back and went around the room, pulling curtains shut and making sure that all the doors were secured.  When he returned, the President finished the ritual by pulling out a small plastic tube, placing it on the table, and turning a dial at its base.  The garbled noise of nonsense conversations emanated from it, and the whole of the Cabinet leaned in to hear what Edgar had to say.
“After the explosion, Homeland Security was running names and one came up on a watch list: Ashleigh Chuskus, Enhanced Human Ultimate Defender subject number 12.  I requisitioned security footage, confirmed her identity, and ascertained that the explosion centered around her.”
President Latterndale swallowed, his throat bulging in an almost frog-like way.  “How did she explode, exactly?”
Edgar flicked his hands into the air.  “She just...exploded.  Through apparently preternatural means.”
“Shit.”  The President leaned back and ran his hands over his face a few times.  He said something, but his voice was lost in the aural slurry generated by his device.  He cleared his throat and tried again.  “Have you spoken with Mistlethwakey about this?” 
Edgar nodded.  “First thing after I found out.”  He rested his hand on the tablet, almost felt the damning pictures held within, begging to be let out. 
“And?”  The President stared at him, and it was all Edgar could do to maintain eye contact.
He stared into the face of the man he had known all his life, the adult cousin who had for so many years overshadowed his career.  The face had changed in its long decades of public service, had aged especially in the last six years as President.  The beard was almost completely grey, the cheeks had descended into full jowls, the eyes were nearly covered by a drooping brow.  In what little of the eyes Edgar could see was fear, a panic reaction to being told that the monsters he once thought he controlled now seemed to be out of his hands. 
In that moment, Edgar realized that Isaac didn't need to see the pictures: as far as he knew, the Defenders would always be the bloody ghouls hiding in the tablet.  They were weapons to be ruled and used, but always feared.  He would never—had never—seen them as the people that Allen saw, that Mistlethwakey saw. 
Edgar removed his hand from the tablet.  “He was just as shocked as you are.  We spoke about it at length and looked through some of the medical records, and he believes that Chuskus may have suffered a panic attack.  During the attack, she somehow subconsciously accessed her abilities.”
Julia raised a hand fractionally off the table.  “You're saying that in a moment of stress she acquired superpowers?  Excuse me for being skeptical, Ed, but this isn't a superhero movie.  You don't just 'get' powers.”
“Except she already had the powers,” Edgar explained, trying to keep his voice neutral.  “The General and I spoke at some length about this, and we believe it gels with the more theoretical parts of the program.  We may have modified her memories, but for everything to go as planned, her powers and training have to remain at a subconscious level.  The hope was that only our triggers would activate a subject, but it looks like other things can, as well.”
“So,”  the President said, “we kill the program now.  If they start manifesting before they're triggered, out of our control, then they're worse than useless.  They're a threat.  We track down the others; we take them out.”  There was a strange mixture of bloodlust and relief in his eyes.
For just a moment Edgar entertained the idea of nodding, of letting the sensible solution be implemented, of keeping his job and eliminating this threat all in one easy movement of the head.  But something about his earlier conversation, be it the words themselves or the way Mistlethwakey had said them, weighed on him.  He had already agreed to betraying his leader's trust in the name of a promotion; what was the harm in continuing the betrayal when the outcome was world peace.
“I would...recommend a little more caution, sir.”
Isaac raised an eyebrow.  He wasn't used to Edgar speaking up to him.
“First, the Defenders are too large an investment and a potential return to throw away at the first sign of problems.”  The pictures seemed to hear his words, seemed to recede deeper into the tablet.  “Second, there's no reason to believe circumstances will crop up that lead to another incident: Chuskus had a history of instability to begin with.  Third, even if situations like this continue to happen, they pose little security risk: the subjects keep taking themselves out.”
There was a brief round of polite chuckles, then the President tapped on the table until the room fell quiet.  “Alright, you make sense.  For now, we stay the course.  Have the General put together a list of anyone else he thinks may pose a risk, and put a little extra surveillance on them.  Meanwhile, get Fendelton and...and...damn, I can never remember the other guy's name.  Anyway, have them do a bit of experimentation to see if they can get answers on this.”  He nodded and looked around the table, satisfaction evident on his face.  “If there are no other matters to discuss...?”
Heads shook around the table.
“Okay.”  Isaac leaned forward and shut off his device.  Immediately a faint buzzing seemed to rush in and fill the silence.  “Edgar, thank you for keeping us appraised of these developments.”  The President stood and stepped away from the table.  “Unless anything pressing comes up, I'll see you all back here Monday morning.”
The meeting broke up and the others stood, conversing in hushed tones and drifting towards the door.
Edgar hung behind, his breathing shallow, the truth of what he had just done washing over him.  Treason.  He had just committed treason.
Outside, in his car, Edgar drove in stunned silence.  Someone honked at him, and he realized he was on the highway, heading back home to Virginia.  He looked at the seat next to him, saw the tablet, the black memory drive slotted into its side.
Before he could stop himself he had the window down, then watched through the rear-view mirror as a continuous line of Washington-bound vehicles raced over the tablet, spreading it in ever finer pieces over the highway.
He reached into his jacket, found his mobile, and dialed Mistlethwakey's number.
One ring, then, “What can I do for you, Mr. Secretary?”
“Six months.”

The General didn't reply, but Edgar could imagine the smile spreading over the old man's face.