“Dad! Dad, Gigawatt broke! Dad!”
Edgar Latterndale closed his eyes and sighed. He had been trying for nearly ten minutes to get his bow-tie figured out, and now his concentration was broken.
The sound of heavy footfalls in the hall came closer, bringing with them more shouts of “Dad! Dad!”
The footfalls abruptly stopped as Ethan, clutching a toy in one hand and a severed leg in the other, burst into the room. “Dad, the leg broke!”
Edgar ignored his son and continued to work with his tie. It was time Ethan learned that the world didn’t revolve around him and his little problems; answering him would merely egg him on.
“Can you fix him, please? I think it just needs glue or something. Please? You’ve got time before you have to go.”
There! The tie was finally fixed in place. Edgar gave it one final tug to adjust it—
“C’mon, Dad! It’s my favorite toy!”
The tie slipped and came undone.
Edgar sighed and dropped his hands in resignation. “Ethan,” he said, barely containing his frustration, “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 grown-up night. You need to stay here with your nanny and try to get your homework done. 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 walked out of the room and Edgar returned to his tie.
He twisted it a few times, almost got it, then heard the footfalls begin again.
“Dad, Emily says that she can’t—“
Edgar whirled on his son. “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 he dropped the toy and began to cry.
There wasn’t time for this… “Amanda!” Edgar tuned out the crying and returned to the tie.
A moment later his wife stuck her head through the bedroom door; for once, she was dressed and ready before her husband was. “What is—“ She spotted Ethan. “Oh, honey, what’s wrong?” She hurried forward and embraced him.
“Get him out of here, will you? I can’t concentrate with him running around and crying.”
“My toy broke and I asked dad to fix it but he didn’t hear me so I asked again and he told me to ask Emily and she told me to ask Dad and he yelled at me and—“
“Shh, shh. Come on, let’s go and see if we can fix this, okay?” Amanda led Ethan out of the room.
Five minutes later Edgar had finally gotten the bow tied, and was putting in his cuff-links when the bedroom door opened.
“I can’t believe you.”
Edgar glanced into the mirror and saw Amanda standing just inside the door, a vision of beauty with blond braids and a flowing red gown. “And what can’t you believe?”
“The way you treated your son! He was just asking for help and—“
“Now was not a good time! We’re going to be late as it is and I couldn’t take the time to—“
“You could have explained it to him!”
Edgar snapped the final cuff-link in place and headed towards the bathroom. “And what would that teach him? That anytime he wants to interrupt we’ll just drop everything and explain the world to him?”
“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. “As far as I’m concerned, he is.”
Amanda gaped at him.
“You know I’m not good with kids. You knew that getting into the marriage and you knew that when you finally convinced me we needed one. You wanted him, so bad, you deal with him.”
Amanda silently shook her head, a look of disgust on her face.
“I’ve got a big job trying to keep this shithole of a country together. Someday he’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. “Again, I never wanted him.”
“So why did you agree to have him?”
As with so many of Amanda’s questions, this one had no safe answer. Edgar hurriedly 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 along time that Edgar looked up to see if she was still there.
“Well… I guess that was five years of marriage counseling right there.” She turned and left the room.
Edgar knew he should go after her, try to apologize, to try to handle the situation. It was something a devoted husband should do.
He glanced at his watch. There was only an hour to go until the president’s annual September Eleventh Memorial Banquet, and traffic was nearly impossible since the Metro was shut down.
He should go after Amanda; there just wasn’t time.
Despite Edgar’s most liberal estimates, traffic proved a tough beast to beat, and they arrived at the banquet quite a bit more than fashionably late.
“If we’re lucky,” he said as a valet drove away with their car, “the dullest speeches will be over.”
“You’re not going to be pleasant about this, are you?”
Amanda turned and walked into the White House.
Edgar shrugged and followed her.
Inside they were greeted by politicians and dignitaries, powerbrokers 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.
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 relaxed a little.
“Edgar! So glad you finally made it! I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
Edgar turned, a smile already materializing on his tired lips, and saw who had addressed him. The smile quickly dematerialized. “Oh. It’s you.”
A 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.” Their last conversation, and the decisions Edgar had made during it, were still too fresh in his mind.
Mistlethwakey nodded as he swallowed a finger-sandwich. “Don’t worry; I’ve been keeping track of the time. I’ve still got two months left.”
“Look, maybe we should just drop this whole thing, pretend it never happened, find someone else—“
“No. You said you’d give me six months, I expect six months. Ask anyone you want, they’ll tell you I’m a great guy. But you back out on me on this, and I will get very unpleasant.”
He glared at Edgar, his eyes dark coals smoldering in an otherwise grandfatherly face.
Edgar returned the glare, with what he hoped was equal fervor. He wasn’t comfortable with treason… And yet as he stared into Mistlethwakey’s eyes, he found himself somehow coming around to the general’s point of view.
“Two months,” he growled.
Mistlethwakey abruptly smiled and, balancing his plate in one hand, slapped Edgar on the shoulder. “Good man. Now, where’s the president?”
“Haven’t seen him all evening. This morning he said he was feeling a bit queasy, but he’d never miss this.”
Mistlethwakey frowned. “Well, I’m sure he’ll be here soon. Say, isn’t that your wife over there?” He waved at someone in the crowd.
“You said you wanted to talk to me about something?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes, that. Well, obviously I can’t topple the government down to your level in just a day, so of course I have to start elsewhere and build up.”
Edgar felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. “What?”
“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. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some other people I need to see…” He popped another sandwich into his mouth then wondered away and was quickly lost in the crowd.
Edgar couldn’t move. He was rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do. His imagination ran wild with all of the horrors Mistlethwakey could have planned for the evening. Most of them were probably impossible, beyond even Mistlethwakey’s ability to perform. But there was one thing for certain: the Defenders would somehow be involved.
Slowly a resolution formed within Edgar: he would warn Isaac. He knew of a credible threat to the president’s safety, and any Secret Service agent he told would evacuate the president, and the whole problem would be solved.
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 E.H.U.D. 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.
So he did nothing. He left the buffet, found Amanda, and escorted her to a table as the president finally made his appearance, mounted the dais, and began to make his speech.
The speech went on for about ten minutes, heartfelt but rather bland. The president expressed the same sentiment that had been expressed on every anniversary since the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks: Sorrow for the innocent lives lost, respect for those gallant men and women who sacrificed their lives to save others, righteous indignation against those who would perform such actions against civilians and, rather incongruously, a hope that America had learned from these attacks and would be more humble in the future.
The last bit bothered Edgar. Despite his position, he wasn’t a particularly strong patriot, and he certainly wasn’t spoiling for a fight with any country for any reason. Still, he felt that, since America had been so wronged in the attacks, it was their right to strike back and secure peace. Instead, the country had made a submissive reaction, admitting by deed if not by word that they believed themselves deserving of international aggression. Of course, that was all ancient history now, and couldn’t—
“—be prouder to serve this nation as it grows ever stronger, ever more ready to take its rightful place in the global community.”
The applause that greeted the president’s words shook Edgar out of himself, and he focused back on Isaac.
The president graciously accepted the applause. “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. So! Without further ado, I’m proud to introduce my esteemed colleague Senator Mitchell Terstein.”
The audience clapped, the president left the dais, and… no one came up.
This was it. Edgar 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 immanent 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.
The whispers increased in volume, and Edgar saw several Secret Service agents rush along the sides of the room, only to abruptly stop some twenty feet from the dais and stand stock-still.
This really was it. Edgar knew what this man was, and with that knowledge came the abrupt closing of Edgar’s window of opportunity. Weather the plan succeeded or failed, he was in with Mistlethwakey to the end, now.
“Hello,” the man said again, and conversation ceased. “My name is, uh, Merv Lemlin, Private First class, U.S. Army. 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.
“Now you all know of course about the E.H.U.D. system. Damn fine machines, definitely, but they’re not why I’m here. Reason I’m here is, there’s a persistent rumor going around the internet that they’re just sort of a cover for government testing program, trying to improve our soldiers, you understand?”
The room was dead silent. Edgar closed his eyes, awaiting the inevitable. Beside him, Amanda reached out and grasped his hand.
“Well, those rumors were absolutely true. Not accurate, but true. Anyone can tell you it doesn’t take twenty-five billion to make a wearable tank; that’s stupid. But it does take that to make super-soldiers. The Defenders they were called. Same acronym, E.H.U.D., 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. Edgar wanted to, but knew it would be suicide to do so.
“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 and force Superman to eat it, too. But the government didn’t stop there, oh no. 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 terrible things to break our wills, then made supermen out of us, too. 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 aren’t happy.”
No one spoke. Edgar wondered how many were silent out of fear, how many out of confusion, how many because of who—what—Lemlin was.
“There’s only one man you have to blame for all this, one man who put together the bill, 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. President Isaac Latterndale.”
Those words seemed to loose something in the room. People suddenly moved, panicked conversation erupted, the president stood and began to noisily denounce his accuser.
Edgar watched as the 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 Secret Service. All other sound was drowned out as the agents simultaneously discharged their weapons.
The echoes died, the smoke cleared, and there Lemlin stood, smiling and unscathed. Floating in the air in front of him, some still vibrating, most glowing, were nearly a hundred bullets.
Amanda’s hand tightened on Edgar’s arm. The audience stared in silent fascination as the bullets began to drift together, glowing brighter where they touched and fused into one another. Soon Lemlin stood behind a head-sized sphere of lead. He quirked an eyebrow and the sphere began to spin, faster and faster, until—
“Get down!” Edgar yelled, kicking over the table and dragging Amanda down behind it. He didn’t see what happened, but he heard a sharp crack, wet ripping sounds, strangled screams.
Cautiously, he looked over the edge of the table and saw Lemlin leering at the mangled pile of agents surrounding the president. A few of them must have been alive, because more bullets poured from the pile, but they all swung wide, veering off into the crowd and burying themselves in fleeing guests.
Agents began to rise into the air, only to be brought back down with bone-breaking force.
Edgar ducked back down. “You stay here; I’ve got to get to the president.”
He looked over his shoulder at his wife, registering for the first time the fear in her eyes, the uncontrolled panic. He suddenly realized how strange and confusing this must be for someone who hadn’t been aware of the Defender’s capabilities. He knew it was all a matter of genetic manipulation and careful training, something mundane that had gone on for years. As far as she knew, this was something magical, satanic, completely outside her realm of experience.
This is what it will be like for the whole world, he realized. When they see this, they’ll panic. That’s what Mistlethwakey wanted.
Edgar grasped Amanda’s hands and looked into her eyes. “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.”
Despite her protests, Edgar crawled out from behind the table and sat up on his knees, trying to find Mistlethwakey. He was ready to stop this. He didn’t care about personal ambition, he didn’t care about world peace; he just wanted this to end.
“He’s not going to die now, you know.”
Edgar ducked down and found Mistlethwakey right beside him.
“It’s over, I’m through!”
“Yeah, well… if you want to get lost in this shitstorm, go right ahead. I’m sure your son will enjoy watching the media tear you apart.”
A piece of chair swung past Edgar’s head, hitting the floor with enough force to shatter it.
“Of course, if we don’t hurry, he’ll watch literally get torn to shreds.”
“What do we do?”
“Why, get the president to use the scramblers, of course.”
“Assuming he’s still alive!”
Mistlethwakey patted him on the shoulder, then began to crawl forward to the nearest table. “Don’t you worry…”
They moved from table to table, trying to ignore the screams, sudden bursts of blood ad body mass. Above it all, Lemlin roared: “Where are you, you fucker! I know you’re there! C’mon out, boy!”
A hand grabbed Edgar’s leg and he whipped around to see the president, covered in a pile of bodies.
“Edgar!” he hissed. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
Mistlethwakey appeared beside them. “We can’t—he’s sealed the doors.”
“Then what are we going to do?”
Edgar felt a perverse joy at the fear on Isaac’s face. “We have to activate the scramblers.”
Isaac’s eyes widened further. “We can’t do that! They’re not supposed to exist!”
Mistlethwakey gripped the president on either side of his face and stared intently at him. “Isaac, if we don’t use them, we die. We could maybe—maybe—starve him out; wait till he’s too weak to do this. But that could take hours.”
Isaac pulled his head away and glared at his two erstwhile saviors. “If I use the scramblers, I lose all deniability.”
Edgar leaned forward. “Deniability is no good if we’re dead.”
The president closed his eyes for several agonizing seconds. “Okay. Okay, call them. I assume you can?”
Mistlethwakey nodded. “I made sure my name was on the list when we had the system installed.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out his mobile, then entered in a quick code. “POTUS is in the *MORE REASERCH REQUIRED* room. We need E.H.U.D.s, we need explosives or heavy ordnance to get through the door, be careful of civilians.” He put the mobile away and looked at Edgar. “We have to get the civilians away from the doors.”
“If we get up we’ll get shot down!”
“The shit is hitting the fan, Ed, this is your chance to be someone’s savior.”
Edgar flashed back on the words Mistlethwakey had used to get him into this—
“What about me?” the president said.
Mistlethwakey quirked an eyebrow. “You stay here.”
The tirade from the dais abruptly changed. “I’m 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 scuttled to a pile of bodies and frantically sifted through the gore, coming up a moment later with two pistols. He tossed one to Edgar.
“You distract Lemlin, I’ll get the doors.”
Laughter came from the dais. “Time’s up, Isaac.”
The president gave a yelp of surprise as he began to float out from under his formerly-human shield. “Bob!” he yelled. “Bob, get me out!”
Mistlethwakey ignored him and quickly duck-walked towards another table.
Edgar now sat alone in his own private world, holding the pistol, psyching himself up, and trying desperately not to notice the floating president. He… he hadn’t expected such a sudden literalness to Mistlethwakey’s promise that he would be remembered as a savior.
He didn’t want this.
From somewhere in the room, he thought he heard Amanda yell. If she survived this, how would she remember him? How would Ethan?
Before he could stop himself, he stood and leveled the pistol at Lemlin. “Merv!”
Lemlin turned his attention on Edgar, and Isaac grunted as he hit the ground.
“I don’t know what the hell you are, but this is your only warning: You are committing an act of war on the United States, and it will be responded to as such! Cease and desist, and maybe we can talk this through!” Edgar knew that the pistol trembled; he knew that he sweated profusely. But he also knew that if he died in this moment, if he went out facing down the monster, Ethan would forgive him for anything.
Lemlin sneered at him. “Seriously?”
Edgar gripped the pistol with both hands and tried to stand his ground.
“Well, I guess I can kill one more before I get to Isaac, although 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.”
For a moment, no one spoke. The wounded groaned, the frightened wept.
Then the room shook, and Edgar was thrown to the ground. It seemed like ages later that he opened his eyes, blinked away tears, tried to stand. He slumped back to the ground, gripped the edge of a table and tried again. This time got to his knees before a wave of nausea kept him from going further. He saw a squad of E.H.U.D.s rushing through the remains of the main doors. They swam in and out of focus, in and out, and…
Edgar blinked furiously and they stabilized. He must have hit his head when he fell, or been stunned by the shockwave…
The squad of E.H.U.D.s made it to the dais. Somewhere, deep in the back of his mind, Edgar realized that the soldiers shouldn’t have gotten that far if Lemlin was still—
He looked to Lemlin.
Lemlin was no longer haranguing the president, was no longer manipulating the world, was no longer even really standing. He was leaned over, supporting himself with hands on knees, his breath coming in short gasps. The scrambler seemed to be working.
The E.H.U.D.s approached him, one with handcuffs.
No, they couldn’t take him alive, they just couldn’t. Edgar could see all of Lemlin’s secrets coming out in the hands of the government, in the press of… of the press. The buzz of the scramblers was starting to confuse Edgar. He absently wondered if the E.H.U.D.s were affected, then remembered the sonic dampening in the helmets.
Sudden movement refocused his mind—Lemlin was on the move. Lemlin jumped up, putting his weight behind his elbow and trying to force the nearest E.H.U.D. to the ground. All the attack succeeded in doing was to rock the E.H.U.D. back on his heels, but it was enough for Lemlin to break away. He made it to the edge of the dais before one of the E.H.U.D.s brought a rifle up and—
Edgar had seen enough; he lowered himself to the ground and curled into a ball. He shuddered as the rifle cracked, then closed his eyes and tried to block out the world.
“Shit! Ow! Will you stop that, goddammit?” Edgar tried to pull away from the medic who was attending to him. “I’m fine!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the medic said with exaggerated patience, “but if these aren’t seen to they can easily get infected.”
“Well, don’t you have someone worse off you can help?”
“No, sir, there’s plenty of us for everyone.” The medic dabbed some more ointment at the scratches on Edgar’s forehead, then coated the wounds with a thick gel. “And that should do it. Just try to keep the area dry, and don’t remove the gel for at least four—hey!” The medic flailed his arms and tried to keep his balance as Edgar pushed past him and out of the little tent they occupied.
Outside the tent was a disaster. Nearly a hundred of these emergency medical booths covered the White House lawn, each one swarming with medical staff, injured party guests, and the occasional reporter. It had been like this for almost an hour now.
Following Lemlin’s abrupt death, Edgar found himself being carried outside by rescue workers operating E.H.U.D. suits. A part of him that wasn’t locked down with shock was privately proud that he had decided to license the suit for rescue purposes, but that part quickly fell silent as it rose over the tables and surveyed the whole ballroom.
The floor was deeply rutted in places, with blood pooling and congealing in the depressions. All around were bodies, some moving, most not. He saw the president in the arms of another E.H.U.D., surrounded by agents, being hustled through the main door to parts unknown.
Maybe it was a result of the shock, maybe it was some well of hidden emotion bubbling up, but the only person he thought of as he looked at the devastation was Amanda. He desperately wanted to know where she was, how she was, but he couldn’t force himself to talk.
As he was carried through the door he spotted Mistlethwakey overseeing the E.H.U.D.s as they retrieved Lemlin’s body and removed the incriminating little tubes of the scramblers.
As if he could sense Edgar’s gaze on him, Mistlethwakey looked up and smiled briefly.
Edgar wasn’t sure, but he might have passed out then. He woke up in a small tent, surrounded once more by screams and whimpers, but also by men and women in mint-green jumpsuits. One of them approached him and asked him his name.
Edgar identified himself, the medic entered the information into a palm-top, and then began to poke at Edgar’s forehead.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I’ve got to stop the bleeding, sir.”
“What bleeding?” Edgar reached up and winced as he touched one of the several deep gashes on his forehead. He didn’t remember getting those, but the rest of the night was already starting to fade into a nightmarish dream state, so anything was possible.
“Where’s my wife?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir. Please keep still.”
Now Edgar walked from tent to tent, trying to find Amanda.
Along the way he passed near the White House’s outer fence and noticed, far down the street, a veritable wall of humanity. Well, at least security was keeping the press from getting to close.
Edgar continued searching, growing ever more concerned as he reached the last of the tents, becoming afraid that Amanda may be among the white-shrouded figures that continued to be brought out of the tents at a steady pace.
The tent flap pushed aside as a medic left the tent and—there! A quick flash of a red dress. Edgar pushed inside and rushed to Amanda. “Oh my God, I thought you were dead.”
She looked up at him from the cot she sat on, then returned to her previous pose.
“Hello? You in there?”
Edgar sighed in relief; she seemed to be okay. “He’s at home, he’s fine—you know what, that’s not important. You’re fine right?”
“Ethan… I want Ethan.”
A medic approached them. “Sir? Do you know this woman?”
“Yes, she’s my wife. Why?”
“I haven’t gotten any responses from her.”
Edgar opened his mouth to speak but the medic cut him off.
“There’s nothing wrong with her, as far as I can tell. She’s just in shock.”
Edgar crouched down next to Amanda. “Amanda? Honey? Are you okay?
“He’s fine, he’s at home safe—“
“Ethan!” Amanda screamed, shaking her hands.
Edgar grabbed her hands and tried to calm her down. “Shh, no, don’t worry, it’s okay—“
“Ethan!” she screamed again, then began to sob.
“Okay, okay, we’re going home now, we’ll go get Ethan.”
Amanda took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded.
“Okay, good?” Edgar wrapped his arm around her and helped her stand. She continued nodding as they walked out of the tent.
The medic followed them. “I’d suggest getting her in to see a doctor; tonight, if possible, but definitely tomorrow.”
“Okay, yeah. Hey, do you know if the valet service is still running?”
“Ethan…” Amanda interjected.
They walked together for a few minutes, going slowly, heading in a roundabout manner towards the valet pickup. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, Edgar felt the shock really kicking in. Just the thought of standing up to Lemlin as he had done sent him into a shivering fit. He could see himself spread on the floor; his head burst open, Amanda off somewhere else, afraid, dying—
With some effort, Edgar was able to remind himself that they were alive, they had made it.
He wondered how all of this would affect Amanda. To be honest, he wondered how it would affect him.
Just before they reached the abandoned valet pick-up, Edgar heard the strains of “Hail to the Chief.” He tried to ignore it, but the song continued and he stopped. Beside him, Amanda held tighter to him and shivered. He dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out his mobile.
“Edgar?” It was the chief of staff. “Good. We, uh… we weren’t sure you were alive.”
“Yeah, I’m still getting over that myself.”
“Well… glad you’re still alive.”
“Me too. Look, unless this is important, I’ve got to get Amanda home and—“
“No, no, no.” There was a hint of hysteria in the Chief’s voice. “The whole cabinet’s needed. Isaac wants this thing contained and we have to figure this out and—“
“I can’t.” Edgar looked down at Amanda. He knew she wasn’t ready to deal with anything right now, and he suspected he wasn’t either. Seeing people just… disintegrate in front of you, coming apart in piles of bone and intestine—
Edgar fought down the urge to vomit.
“Ethan…” Amanda muttered.
“Edgar. This is important. This is the whole fucking country here.” Yes, there has definitely hysteria there.
Familial duty warred against state duty, and in the end, Edgar had to admit that steering the whole country through this mess trumped his personal trinity.
“I need someone to get Amanda home. We’re at the valet post now.”
“I’ll send someone.”
Edgar hung up and put the mobile away. Gripping Amanda firmly by the shoulders, he looked deep into her eyes and tried to exude confidence. “Honey? I know you want—need to get home, and I do too, but I need to go now—“
Amanda seemed to snap out of her shock, although not all the way to the real world. “No! No you can’t leave, don’t you dare leave me—“
“Honey, no, I’m not leaving you, I’ll be home later, I promised, I just have to take care of some—“
“Don’t you fucking leave me you fucking bastard! No! Ethan needs us! You can’t—“
“Amanda, I have to go now. I know it’s hard but—“
Amanda, eyes wide with terror, tried to pull away from Edgar. She tried to claw at him, and Edgar’s grip changed from one of reassurance to one of restraint.
A moment later two soldiers in full E.H.U.D. garb approached them. “Mr. Secretary?”
“Yes, that’s—“ he fell to the ground as Amanda shook him off. Instead of running, she stood in place and took several sobbing breaths.
Edgar climbed to his feet and gestured toward Amanda. “I need you to get her home. Get her a cab, something. Our address is public, so there’s no problem there, okay?”
“Sir.” One of the soldiers nodded.
“Good.” Edgar walked towards the White house, then stopped and turned back to Amanda. “Mandy?” He hadn’t called her that in years. “I still love you. You know that. I’m not leaving you.”
She didn’t respond, remaining motionless save for her frantic breathing.
“Mrs. Latterndale?” one of the soldiers ventured.
She looked at the soldier, as if noticing him for the first time.
“We’re going to get you home now, okay?”
Both Amanda and Edgar turned away then, she to her family, he to his work.
As he walked into the White House, he knew had had made the wrong decision.
Most of the cabinet was already gathered when Edgar arrived in the conference room. Some of them looked up as he entered, the fear on their faces slowly changing into reverence. They must have seen his confrontation with Lemlin.
“Good,” Isaac said, not looking up from the table. “Everyone’s here; let’s start.”
Edgar gestured at the empty seats around the table. “Where’s everyone else, then?” In his mind, more white shrouded figures were being brought out of the tents.
There was a burst of nervous giggling from Eli Rosencrantz, the press secretary. He pulled his tie out from under his jacket and pointed to a brown stain. “That’s the treasurer!” He laughed again, then curled in on himself and began to sob.
“Sit down,” Isaac muttered. “We have a lot to do. I just want to go to sleep, but we’ve got shit to do.”
Edgar pulled out a chair and sat. He took a quick census of who was there. Assuming the speaker and the president pro tempore were still alive, Edgar was now fourth in line. A shudder moved across his body as he recognized the nature of the calculation he had just made.
Movement in a corner of the room caught his eye and he saw Mistlethwakey standing by the door. Two months left, five people to go. It was too late to pull out. He had to talk to Amanda about this, assuming she would still talk to him.
“Bob,” the president said. “What happened out there?”
Mistlethwakey moved further into the room and sat down at the table. “Well, he was definitely one of the Defenders—“
“Goddamn it!” Isaac slammed his fist down on the table and glared at Mistlethwakey. “You think I don’t know that? This is the second time a Defender’s gone rogue on us, and don’t you dare give me that ‘it somehow failed’ shit! Someone is deliberately doing this, deliberately trying to bring this whole thing crashing down on us!”
All eyes turned to Mistlethwakey.
He shrugged. “It’s possible.” His eyes began to wander around the room.
The secretary of the interior, Julia Telk, leaned forward. “What aren’t you telling us, Bob?”
This couldn’t be happening. Edgar tried to take in Mistlethwakey, usually so calm and collected, now looking hunted. Could it be that using Lemlin had tipped his hand? The thought of Mistlethwakey being found out and his whole plan dissolving delighted Edgar right up until he realized that when—if—Mistlethwakey fell, he would be along for the ride.
Mistlethwakey sighed. “Okay, yeah, there might be the possibility of sabotage.”
There was a collective groan from everyone except Edgar and Eli. Eli continued to giggle nervously to himself; Edgar tried to fight nerves. This had to be part of Mistlethwakey’s plan.
“Details, Bob,” the vice president quietly prompted.
Mistlethwakey folded his hands in his lap and stared pointedly at the VP. “Shortly before we began the release phase there were, ah, complications. One of our scrubbers expressed reservations about what he was tasked with doing.”
“Christ,” someone muttered.
It took all Edgar’s strength to resist snorting at Mistlethwakey’s understatement. The scrubber’s “reservations” had resulted in a bloodbath. He hadn’t seen pictures, but he imagined it had looked something like what he had seen that night—
“Are you all right?” Julia asked.
Edgar shuddered and nodded. “I just fell, uh, I thought I was going to—“
“Yeah.” It was clear from her tone that Julia had had her own struggles with nausea that night.
The VP shifted in her seat and tapped the table to refocus the room’s attention. “Names, Bob.”
“The scrubber was Captain Fendleton.”
“What?” The president looked up, eyes wide with surprise. “Allen? No. He was a good soldier. Hell, he was the one who gave us the idea for this thing.”
Mistlethwakey shrugged. “I guess he didn’t like the way we implemented his ideas. Anyway, we don’t know if it was actually him.”
Isaac rolled his eyes. “Okay, well, he’s a lead, anyway. Get him in here and let’s ask him.”
Again, Mistlethwakey seemed evasive.
Isaac sighed and buried his face in his hands. “What now?”
The president didn’t respond. Neither did Mistlethwakey. No one in the room moved.
Perhaps Edgar should jump in and spin his own story of what had happened to their erstwhile saboteur.
Almost as if Mistlethwakey knew what Edgar was thinking, he shook his head slightly and took the lead. “He killed himself about a year ago, shortly after we finished the scrubbing. Simple overdose. I guess his conscience got in the way.”
The president rounded on Edgar. “Why am I the last one to hear about this, hmm?”
Edgar spread his hands and tried to look innocent. “This is the first I’ve heard, too. I only know as much as Bob tells me.” It pained him slightly to shift the blame like this; he didn’t want Mistlethwakey turning on him. He plowed on anyway. “If he chooses to keep this secret, I can’t tell you about it.”
“Gee,” Mistlethwakey said, “wouldn’t it be great if you could trust your boss not to give you up as a scapegoat whenever he’s antsy?”
“Fuck antsy.” Edgar pointed an accusing finger at the general. “Chuskus was a fluke, maybe, but this? No, this is too big a problem. If you suspected this, or had intel that this was possible, you should have told us.”
The president sat up. “You’re saying Chuskus wasn’t an accident?”
Edgar locked eyes with Mistlethwakey, trying to gauge how the general would play all of this. How much could he say before he suddenly became too much of a liability for the general’s plan? “No, I don’t think she was just an accident anymore. I think she and Lemlin were both the result of deliberate sabotage and that something like…” he paused and rubbed his chin. “Something like tonight could—will happen again.”
Sighing wearily, the president slumped deeper into his chair and rubbed his eyes. “What do we do? Anyone got suggestions?”
Mistlethwakey cleared his throat.
“Allen only scrubbed half of them, but for all we know he could have contaminated the whole bunch. We have to scrap the program and collect the Defenders.”
“And it won’t be easy, either. We can assume that Allen altered their programming, so they won’t return to us with open arms and innocent intentions. We have to actively consider them as all rogue.”
Silence stretched across the room for nearly a minute. “Get out.”
“No sir, I’m serious. The defenders are too big of a—“
Everyone flinched back from the president as he jerked upright and slammed his fists down on the table. “Get out! Get the fuck out of this office right now! Go!”
Mistlethwakey nodded, scooted back from the table, and left. Edgar was sure this was the first time he had seen the general obey a direct order. He casually wondered if this reaction was what he had wanted from the president.
“Edgar.” Isaac had returned to his slumped posture. “What do we do?”
“You mean besides hang Bob out to dry?”
That actually earned Edgar a chuckle. “Much as I would like to… No, I’m together enough to remember that he saved my life tonight. I know who my friends are.”
Edgar very much doubted that, but didn’t say anything.
“Besides, he’s more dangerous against us than with us. The minute we out him, he starts spilling everything he has on us. So,” he looked up at Edgar, “what do we do?”
Edgar took a deep breath. “Only one thing we can do.” He tapped the table for a moment, then gestured over his shoulder to the room’s main door. “We kill the program. I don’t think we can keep it much of a secret now. The Defenders are loose. The best we can do is collecting them and hope the public doesn’t start demanding blood.”
“No.” Isaac shook his head and tapped the table lightly with the flat of his hand. “No. We can’t kill this.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’? You’re the one who’s always hated this program—“
“The time to kill it was before, back when it was a secret. Now the people know, or at least have reason to doubt us, and anything we do to acknowledge the program will just be an acknowledgment of guilt.”
“So you just want us to walk around with our heads up our asses and wait for the next time a rogue Defender tries to off you?”
“Next time we’ll be ready. Next time, we’ll have security, next time we’ll have the scramblers—“
“Yeah, no, that won’t work. See, we had the scramblers this time, and we used them. The scramblers—which are specifically designed as Defender deterrents—are now public knowledge. The public knows about them, the program’s blown. We can’t pretend the cat isn’t out of the bag on this one.”
Isaac glared at him. “We can and we will. We acknowledge nothing Lemlin said, we jump on top of the story, and we ride this out as long as we can. We stay alive, and no one goes to jail. Agreed?”
Edgar threw his hands up and slumped back in his chair. “This is stupid. I can’t believe you’re doing something this stupid.”
Julia leaned forward and raised her hand fractionally. “There are ways to fix this without going public. We just reprogram the rest of them, make sure they stay low. Get what’s-his-name, the other scrubber, involved.”
Before she finished, Edgar began shaking his head. “He’d have to be pretty close to them. Anyway, I’ll say it again: we can’t do this thing on the sly. It. Is. Over.”
The president ignored him. “Eli, time for you to earn your paycheck.”
At the far end of the table, Eli was still engrossed in his silent sobs.
Eli looked up and tried to smile.
“We need you, okay? We need a story for Lemlin, alright?”
Eli thought for a moment, then nodded. “Okay, yeah, he’s, um, he’s…”
The room grew silent as Eli thought and Edgar fumed. The silence was quickly broken when the vice president gasped. “We’re in the White House.”
All eyes focused on her.
“Someone just tried to kill you in the White House, and we’re still here.”
“Damn straight.” Isaac pounded the table and struck a proud pose. “The SS tried to evacuate me, but I’m not hiding after this. No, the president doesn’t go skulking off and hiding after some nut tries to kill him!
“Shit.” The VP looked around in confusion and stood. “You’re—you’re crazy, Isaac. You can’t do this. You’re here at ground zero with who knows how many Defenders out there and you refuse to take the only sensible course of action.” She shook her head and blinked several times. “I didn’t sign up for this. I—I—“ She didn’t finish her sentence, but everyone knew what she was thinking about. “I’m done. I hereby resign, whatever.”
She pushed her chair under the table and walked towards the door.
“Hey, where are you going? You can’t just leave!”
“And you can’t just ignore the obvious, Isaac! You want the Defenders coming after you, you want to get killed, fine. But I didn’t sign up for this, I didn’t. Don’t worry, I won’t talk to anyone; you’re all safe from me. I didn’t sign up for this.” She returned to her brisk walk, and a moment later was gone.
At least two down. Edgar swallowed, and wondered if he should follow her.
The president snorted and gestured in the former vice-president’s direction. “We don’t need her any way. Don’t need pessimism, don’t need undermining.” He nodded to himself. “It won’t be pretty, but we can win this.”
It was over. Isaac wouldn’t listen to reality; he was making his own now. Edgar was just taking up space. He stood and headed for the exit.
“Where are you going?” Isaac’s voice was low and icy.
“Home. Amanda’s worried, it’s late, and there’s nothing I can do tonight.” He turned back to the president. “Tomorrow… tomorrow I’ll be here to do the best I can to get you through this shitstorm. You may not listen to me, but I’ll try my best.”
Isaac nodded, but in no other way acknowledged Edgar’s presence.
“Hey. I was there too, with Bob, trying to save your life. Remember who you’re friends are.”
“I always do.”
Edgar nodded and left. As the door closed behind him, he felt a wave of exhaustion rolling over him.
An arm draped across his shoulder. He turned to see Mistlethwakey standing next to him, methodically chewing a pastry.
“Good job in there,” he said between bites. “I wasn’t sure you could do it, but you kept him off balance. Plus, I don’t think he really trusts you now. That’ll come in handy later.” He patted Edgar’s shoulder. “Just got off the phone with head of security; they’ve pieced together the president pro tempore; three down.” He patted the shoulder again and walked away.
Edgar slumped onto a nearby bench and tried his best not to vomit.