Thursday, June 21, 2012

E.H.U.D.: Part 1, Chapter 5

Chapter 5

“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?”
“No idea.”
“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?”
She nodded.
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?”
“Allen’s dead.”
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.   

Thursday, June 14, 2012

E.H.U.D.: Part 1, Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Life fell into a normal pattern following what his mother was now referring to as “The Lucy” incident. Every day would start late for John, usually around noon, and then segue into a lazy lunch in one of the restaurants clustered in the tower’s commercial bulge. From two until nine, John would walk through the endless mall that stretched away from the tower for nearly two miles. The first three levels, located above ground, were filled with large department stores: Dillard’s, Sears, Toys’R’Us. Those took little more than an hour to explore, and he only made one purchase: a small architectural model made by Lego.
Beneath the department stores—beneath street level—were more interesting stores. There were all the usual types: clothing and perfume boutiques, health food dealers, electronics stores. John mostly passed those by. Then he found the close-out stores, the novelty shops, the art outlets. By the end of the day, he had made it to the second level down, and had made one more purchase: an assortment of bricks from the Lego store, ready and waiting to be added to his other purchase.
After nine the mall began to shut down, and John returned to his apartment to spend the rest of the night preparing for modern life. He got accounts with and read through back-issues of architecture journals, studied the latest modeling programs, read up on news.
And one thing dominated the news, rearing its head in a thousand different stories and a million different blog posts: the E.H.U.D. Governors and mayors had petitioned the government to release the suits for police and rescue work; private citizens clamored for the suits to be mass-produced so that they could one day offer a cleaner alternative to cars. One enterprising woman had even made a proposal to a House subcommittee about using the suits for steel and industrial workers.
Looking for information about the E.H.U.D. led inevitably to information on the American Defense Initiative, or ADI, Bill, which had funded the development of the combat system. And information on the ADI led inevitably to the conspiracy theorists. The blogs were filled with every manner of insanity, from accusations that the ADI was designed to turn America into a police state to a profound belief that it was meant to create a military arm for the secret Elders of Zion.
There was one conspiracy, however, that was not only widely believed, but also well supported, was that the ADI was a cover for a secret military program to create super-soldiers. When he first came across this particular brand of crazy, John had ignored it out of hand. Super-soldiers. It was stupid. But more and more blogs insisted on it, and many had excerpts from the bill itself, little bits of legislation that allowed funds to be transferred, and organizations to be created, lands to be acquired, a thousand other little things. Taken in the context of the entire thousand page bill, they were nothing. Taken together, all of these little chunks seemed to form the frame-work for a shadowy organization, free from the control of conventional law, able to do what it wished to whoever it wished, able even to perform illegal genetic research.
It was so easy to dismiss it as fringe, conspiracy-nut madness. But it all made sense… Super-soldiers. Honest-to-God super-soldiers.
Of course, the government did address this particular theory, and the way they handled it brought a bit of sanity back to the situation: It had taken over five years before anyone had made a specific rebuttal, and it had been a minor functionary, an assistant’s secretary’s assistant or the like, rather than someone like the Press Secretary. These rumors of a secret program, it was said, were overstated, and were created using legislation that was really for hundreds of different little pork-barrel projects. There was no conspiracy, there were merely politicians siphoning off money to please constituents. And there was an official statement explaining that a form of super-soldier program did exist, but it was much less glamorous than the conspiracy theorists believed: Ten scientists studying twenty individuals who claimed to have psychic powers. Telepathy, extra-sensory perception; stuff from the soviet era.
This little bit of government spin had been enough to convince John that the conspiracies were what they appeared to be at face value.
But every night after leaving the mall, he returned to the crazies, immersed himself in their irrational, paranoid beliefs…
He eventually fell asleep around midnight, partially from boredom, partially from sheer exhaustion. At noon, the cycle would start again.
Six days a week would be like this, and on the seventh day, he went to his parent’s house for supper. They were cheerful but cautious, trying to steer conversations away from John’s past as much as possible, lest they waken any more memory lapses.
John was annoyed by this; they treated him now as an invalid more than they ever did when he was in the hospital. But he managed to survive this family time, mostly through conversing with Rachel, who wanted to be there even less than John did.
“It’s not fair,” she said, following supper on John’s second week in the world.
“Dad cut me off from Wayne.”
John felt a twinge of guilt, but decided against revealing it. “Did he say why?”
“He said he was too old, and I was too immature.”
“Yeah.” She leaned back on the couch and glared into the kitchen, where her father and grandparents were talking. “He said I can go out with him again if I can get my GPA up to at least a 3.5.”
“What is it now?”
“Three straight up.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Also, dad found out about a government club at school and wants me to get involved with it.” She stared at John.
“And he doesn’t care that I’m into Civonomics and stuff like that. But you do.”
John shrugged. “We might have talked after you left last week.”
Rachel smiled. “Thanks. So yeah, I looked into the club. Mostly, they look through the news and talk about it. Sometimes they send letters to congress, shit like that.”
“And is there anything to talk about in the news right now?”
Rachel stretched. “They’re looking into collapsing the whole D.C. Metro and starting fresh. The Secretary of Defense said that they’re licensing some E.H.U.D.s to the city for workmen to use while they go through the tunnels.”
“You thinking about joining the club?”
Rachel shrugged. “They need a better GPA, too. I guess I could try to boost it before the end of the year and give it a try.”
“Cool, cool.” John slumped down in the couch and stared at the ceiling. “So, those E.H.U.D.s… pretty cool, huh?”
“It’s just a smoke-screen for the super-soldiers.”
“Oh, so you read that, too, huh?”
And so it went.
Four weeks after his rebirth, John’s pattern changed. He was in the mall, nearing the lowest level, when the mobile he had purchased three week earlier buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket, and saw that the call was forwarded from his home system.
“Hello, this is John Donalson.”
“Mr. Donalson? Hello, this is Isaiah Murphy, personnel coordinator for Cohen & Associates.”
John swallowed down a dual wave of joy and nerves.
“I’m calling in regards to an open position you were recently offered. If you’re still interested in the offer, we—“
Several people turned to look at him, then quickly walked away.
“I’m sorry, yes, yes I would be very interested.” He pushed his way through the crowd until he found a bench and sat down.
“Now, I was looking through the resume that was sent over,” Murphy said, “and I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve worked with us before. It’s, uh, it’s really quite an interesting case. We’ve never actually had someone leave us and then come back before, especially not in such an extreme case as yours.”
“Yeah, well…” John cleared his throat. “So, about that job?”
“Yes, of course, of course. Well, we’d be happy if you’d come back to the team, and hope that you could join us first thing Monday morning. Would that be good with you?”
“Definitely, definitely. Are you still in the same building?”
“No, we got a new one built about five years ago; very beautiful. We can send you the address today, along with the employee handbook, things of that nature. Sound good?”
“Sounds good.”
“Alright, we’ll see you Monday then. Have a good weekend.”
“See you Monday.” John disconnected and stared out across the bustling mall at the storefronts dug into the far wall. He could feel the world turning beneath him, pointing him in a new, better direction. And for once, he’d have something to talk about on Friday dinner.

First thing Monday morning, John stood in front of the Cohen & Associates building, watching his cab drive away.
This is it, he thought. The last life-line gone. Here he was, picking up the pieces that he could, ready to live life the fullest.
He stared up at the impressive fa├žade of the Cohen & Associates office. It was predominately flat, of course, in line with the older buildings that propped it up on either side. There were definite visual cues harkening back to Sky Crest: the polished mirror of the floor-to-ceiling windows, the sloping roof-line. But at each floor level was a small ledge studded with modern art, all wrought in what appeared to be glass. Cetacean forms leapt and writhed out of the glass, warping the light that passed through them into an infinite array of hues that lit up the sidewalk. John smiled at the display, stepping back and forth to see the colors shift. He was vaguely aware of the few passersby staring at him in apprehension, but he ignored them. This was too much fun.
“Just as easily distracted as I remember.”
John abruptly stopped and turned to see a woman with an auburn bob-cut staring at him. She looked familiar, but John couldn’t place her. Then she twisted her mouth into a crooked smile, and it clicked.
“Alice!” John rushed forward and embraced her. “I haven’t seen you since college! Wow, I guess you work, here, huh?”
She disengaged from his embrace and straightened her jacket. “Yeah, I sorta got your job after you left everyone hanging.”
Her face suddenly split into a slightly demented smile. “So! You ready to get to work, huh? Lucky for you, they got me babysitting you for the first few weeks, so you ought to able to catch up quick.”
She turned and headed into the building.
John followed. “This way I guess you can pay me back for all those study sessions I did for you.”
“I seem to remember it being the other way around. Hey, Steve.”
She waved to an older man sitting behind a curving desk that took up most of the lobby and scooped up something as she passed.
“Steve, you remember John?”
Steve shrugged, and John hazarded a wave.
Alice turned and slipped whatever she had picked up into John’s jacket pocket.
“Well, it was good talking to you, Steve, but me and zombie-boy got work to do.”
She led him through a metal detector and into an elevator.
“You gotta be careful with Steve. He’s a great guy and everything, but give him half a chance and he’ll talk for hours. That’s your card, by the way, in your pocket there. It’ll get you anywhere in the building you’re allowed to be.”
John extracted the card and slipped it into his wallet, then stared around at the elevator. Sadly, it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the rest of the building.
And there was Alice.
They had been friends in college, in the same graduating class at the School of Architecture. They had even tried dating once, right before—before John remembered taking a break from dating and never picking up the habit again. This must be the time where Lucy resided.
Thinking about Lucy quickly made John uncomfortable.
“This’s a hell of a building so far.”
“You like it? My best work, I think.”
She turned to smile madly at him. “Yeah, internal contest; mine was seen as the best by old man Cohen himself.”
“Heh, yeah, it’s hard to get him to like anything.”
Alice shrugged. “He’s mellowed since the heart attack.”
John managed to turn an inappropriate laugh into a snort.
The elevator stopped and they stepped out into an open commercial loft, with light streaming in from the huge windows on the long sides of the rectangular space. All around was the sound of restless scribbling, fevered typing, light music and hushed whispers.
“Welcome to the working floor.” She led the way towards a line of cubicles huddled against one set of windows. “I assume you read all the employee-handbook stuff over the weekend? Not that anything’s changed since your time, mind you. Of course, you still have to sign the—“
John tuned her out as he passed the cubicles. In each one sat an architect, lost in their own little world of aesthetics, wind-shears, compression stresses, maximum weight loads. He felt a brief burst of nostalgia, longing for the rush of creating livable-art.
“And here we are,” Alice said at last, leading John into a cubicle devoid of everything save for computer, chair, and view of the city. “This is your home for the next… well, forever, as far as we know. Maybe some day you’ll be good enough to live on Mount Olympus.”
John looked up at an office-studded platform that extended over part of the room.
“Let me guess; that’s where you work?”
“Damn straight. Only the best make it to the Mountain.”
“So what’ll make me the best.”
Alice folded her arms and chewed her lip for a moment. “Well. I’m guessing you’re ten years off the industry, right? You been doing your homework?”
“Yep. Can’t get any of the programs at home though.”
“You got ‘em here and now, though. Tell you what; I’ve got a meeting with a client in half an hour, and you need to catch up. You just stay here and play around through the project archive, maybe get something running in one of the programs and mess around, okay? I’ll meet you for lunch at one, and we can catch up on your lost years, introduce you around, and generally shoot the shit. Deal?”
“Sure thing. Any security I need to get on?”
“Log-in wizard’ll take care of that. Anything else?”
John spread his hands. “I’m good. See you at one.”
Alice smiled again. “I’ll leave you to it then.”
Ten minutes later, John was through the log-in process and looking through the company’s extensive archive of past projects. Everything they had done for the past fifty years—since the firm was founded—was in here. Some early houses that Julius Cohen himself had designed for college professors and friends; several buildings for the smaller townships orbiting Philadelphia; civil buildings for cities around the county; mansions and museums and arenas and everything imaginable for those who could afford it all over the world.
And then there was Sky Crest. John saved a copy of the file to his own secure folder, then continued through the archives.
Most of the files were in chronological order, oldest to newest, with a few projects for repeat customers sectioned off on their own. But there was another cluster of files—nearly half of C&A’s projects—that had their own ordering: military contracts.
When John tried to access them, he was met with a brief warning that the contents of the files were classified, and that by accepting this warning and continuing, he would be liable for any information he knowingly or unknowingly disseminated to the public. Despite a feeling of trepidation, John accepted.
The military files ended up being much less interesting than their warning implied. Nearly all of them were very utilitarian structures, most only interesting for the occasional engineering trick they incorporated to beat rough weather or explosives. But every once in a while, something caught his eye.
Like this one. John was quickly scrolling through the thumbnails when he caught a glimpse of it. He quickly gestured for the stream of data to reverse and… There. He poked at the file, and it came up in the editing software.
This structure—Now this structure was interesting. It was a bunker of some sort, a low, heavily built surface structure over about fifty feet of elevator shaft and piping, followed by a ten-story deep substructure.
A few minutes of intense rotation and zoom gestures revealed high, vaulted ceilings, thick, bomb-and radiation-proof walls, living quarters for a small army, an Olympic sized swimming pool, gas and water hook-ups for a kitchen and even what appeared to be a medical facility on the lowest level.
John whistled. This was very impressive. He switched to the file’s information page and whistled again. Presidential Emergency Catastrophe Shelter-Tulsa. Someone pretty high up was pretty paranoid. Of course, it could just be a plan—no, there was the build date. Wow.
John quickly glanced over his shoulder, made sure no one was there, copied down the real-world location of the shelter, and hid it in an innocuously named file somewhere deep in his hard drive. He felt a brief thrill of excitement as he committed his first felony, then felt fear slowly close in as he fully realized the ramifications of what he had seen. If people that high up were that paranoid, perhaps he should be, too.
He closed the file and went to his desktop. He opened the file of Sky Crest he had saved earlier and began to play with it. The program that C&A used was proprietary, and was in fact a later version of what John had used during his previous time of employment, so it wasn’t long before he was fully immersed in the tower, looking through its superstructure, finding little changes he wanted to make. First, he cleared out the other apartments on his floor, just as a little joke for himself, then he set to work trying to make the tower taller. It was easy enough to separate the top few floors and duplicate the basic apartment structure under them, raising the tower another three hundred feet into the air.
But when he brought the program into its physics simulation mode, the tower swayed far too much, and at one point even collapsed. Back to the drawing board.
He took the larger section at the bottom of the tower and extended it out and up, giving the tower a much wider base. From there, he dug duplicates of the mall out of the virtual terrain and placed them at ninety-degree increments around the tower, mostly for the look of the thing.
Now, to extend the tower itself…
This time, John was able to get it to more than twice its original height. Any more and it collapsed.
“Wow, I can see you’re having fun.”
John blinked and looked at his clock: ten after one.
He turned his chair around and looked at Alice. “Yeah, I figured Sky Crest would be the perfect project to experiment on and got carried away.”
She nodded in approval. “Good for you. Anyway, we still on for lunch?”
“Where’s it going to be?”
“Break room today, most days. Wednesdays we all go to The Gilbert Wallace; they do employee discounts.”
John smiled at that. The Gilbert Wallace, the newest of Philadelphia’s seemingly ancient hot-spots, had been one of his favorite eateries during college.
He got up and followed Alice out of his cubicle.
“By the way, I was talking with my clients, and they said they had another project coming up. I think they said it was museum. I mention you—hell, I down right plugged for you—and they’d be interested in seeing you when I meet with them next week.”
“Sure sounds good.”
“You’re back in the world, zombie boy, back in the world.”

After lunch, John returned to his cubicle and continued to work on his Sky Crest. His goal now was to get the tower to over a mile high, but that was impossible with the current design.
He expanded the base again, then completely removed the central tower. He switched to the materials section of the physics simulator, and played around with different metals and plastics, trying to find something both light-weight and flexible.
By three o’clock, he still hadn’t found anything. With a resigned sigh, John saved his changes on the file, ready to come back to it tomorrow with renewed vigor; the rest of today would be spent looking through the software’s documentation to find certain features that he knew where there but somehow couldn’t access.
He was just about to close the Sky Crest file when he decided to look at the information page. It was… extensive. Build site, build date, contractor list, owners and investors. Interesting fact: One General Robert Mistlethwakey was the primary investor and current owner of the complex. John was suddenly more understanding of his current position.
After the general information was where Sky Crest’s page ballooned. The building may have been beautiful, but the construction process wasn’t. Delays, contractor disputes, inclement weather, injuries, even a death.
John clicked on the death report and a new page opened.
At the top was a picture of a man in his mid-thirties with widely-spaced eyes, short reddish hair and thin sideburns. Below was his name and basic information: Allen Fendleton, age thirty-three, died August 16th, twenty-one years ago. Despite being an experienced technician, he had apparently stuck a screw-driver into an active electrical socket and had died rather violently. Location, location… location. John swallowed. Allen had apparently met his end in apartment number five of floor twenty seven—John’s current home.
He quickly scrolled through the rest of the incident report, and noticed another linked at the bottom. Clicking it brought him to an incident Allen was involved with three years before his death. Allen, a senior electrician, had been working with his crew in the bottom of the Central Maintenance Core, back when the slender tower had been all that existed of Sky Crest. The report was vague, but it seemed that Allen was cut off from his crew by a freak electrical discharge from the metal pylons making up the core. By the time his crew had found him, he was severely burned, near death. They got him to a hospital, but doctors had only given him a twenty percent chance of survival. Despite their predictions, he pulled through a long and fever-ridden recovery and was able to return to work within three months.
It was a rather straightforward account, nearly indistinguishable from the other disasters that beset the construction. As John read, he began to discover just how big that “nearly” was. For one thing, despite being no more than ten yards from Allen when the discharge occurred, it took the work crew over four hours to rescue Fendleton and report the incident. For another, despite being admitted to the hospital with severe electrical burns, Allen began to show symptoms of extreme radiation exposure, and even suffered through several cancerous growths during his brief hospitalization.
Strangest of all though, was the second body. When construction supervisors had gone into the CMC to investigate Fendleton’s injury, they had discovered a lump of bones and tissue that they believed to be a human body, although it was too mangled and burned for them to be entirely sure. It was quickly ascertained that all of the contractor’s workers were accounted for, so the police were called.
Crime scene investigators were able to make a definitive identification of the body as human, but nothing beyond that. They took the body away to analyze it, where it quickly disappeared behind a smoke screen of paperwork and was never seen again. Police still listed it as an ongoing case.
John closed the file and stared out at the city. He knew that if he looked for more information on the mysterious body, he’d quickly uncover a deep pit of conspiracy theories and claims of government cover-ups. Ten years ago, he would have chalked all of this up to one of life’s little mysteries and Allen’s death in his home as an unfortunate, if unsettling, accident. But after his own time as a missing body, he couldn’t shake the coincidences.
Especially with the name Allen. It hit him suddenly, a dream he had had—
No, a dream he had had in a dream, one he had been telling Suzanne about…
And who was Suzanne?
He couldn’t find answers here. John angrily shut of his computer, feeling lost in his own mind. Huge portions were gone, other portions floated around without context, and now he was starting to get sucked into conspiracy. A body, put into government custody had disappeared. He, in government custody, had disappeared as well, only to come back and live in the same apartment that the man who had apparently found the first body had died in, an apartment supplied by the government, in a tower owned by a high-ranking member of the government, which may or may not be creating super-soldiers, and covering their tracks with shiny new tech, which was being used to clear tunnels in Washington that may or may not have collapsed to cover up—
This was leading no where. It was interesting, in an infuriating way, how nearly any piece of information could be convincingly worked into any conspiracy.
John grimaced, and inwardly vowed to steer his weekly talks with Rachel along more conventional lines.
He looked at the clock: four o’clock. Good enough for a day’s work.

Allen and the mysterious body wouldn’t stay dead.
John sat in front of his computer screen, staring at the first twenty results for the name Allen Fendleton. There was of course the obligatory advertisement (Looking for Allen Fendleton? Find it here!), followed by one or two news stories and an official incident report.
And below that was what John had expected. Construction worker injured in alien encounter? Killed by shadowy government agencies to cover up his contact?
There was proof, of course; there was always proof. Allen’s body was found across the room from the electrical socket; the electrical burns were in a strange pattern that indicated some kind of energy weapon was used on him; the mysterious body found two years earlier glowed in the dark.
John’s words returned to him: any piece of information
He left the conspiracy site and found, at the bottom of the first page, a brief public profile of Allen. He idly wondered if there was one for him, then clicked the link.
It was mostly information that John already knew. But at the bottom was a paragraph stating that, during the last several years of his life, Fendleton had been an army reservist. Before his death, he had even told some of his co-workers that he was planning on quitting his job with Sloan-Watterson Construction and joining the army full-time.
John wondered who that little fact had escaped the conspiracy nuts.
He went back to the main search page and just stared at it. The thought that this man had died were John lived, maybe even where he now sat, was more than a little disturbing. And that body…
John yawned and glanced at the clock. Five thirty. He blinked, and it was suddenly five forty-five.
No, it was too early to fall asleep. He got off the couch and paced, trying to get his blood flowing. The day’s work had been more exhausting then he had initially assumed.
An idea struck him. Maybe, instead of trying to read about Allen on the internet and filling his head with more paranoia, he should try to metaphorically follow Allen, walk in the places he had walked before his death. At the very least, it would give John something to do for a few hours.
He called up a floor-plan of the apartment on the wall screen, then used it to find all of the power outlets. Not that there would be any evidence of the incident…
And there wasn’t. Each outlet had a fresh covering, fresh paint, et cetera. Of course the construction company wouldn’t leave burned walls behind.
Well, there was always the core. John knew there was nothing down there for him, but he had always wanted to see it, and now was a good a time as any.
He pulled up information on the screen, only to be told that the core was off-limits to residents. He sat back down for a moment, lost in thought, then went into his room and slipped into a polo shirt. He looked himself over in a mirror, tucked the shirt in, and put a few pens in his pocket. There; he could now pass as a computer technician.
Ten minutes later he stood in the Sky Crest lobby, walking purposefully towards the administration hub, past the main office, and through a door marked “Employees Only.” Inside was a short hall ending with an elevator and a stairwell. John got in the elevator and pushed the only button on the control panel: CMC.
The elevator stopped, and he got out in a dimly-lit space, stretching out ahead of him and curving away to both sides. As he stepped forward, lights snapped on overhead, and he found himself in a forest of pillars. He recognized it from the Sky Crest file at work; this was the foundation of the building.
The pillars and overhead lights disappeared up ahead and then, after a brief void, continued towards a rounded concrete wall on the far side of the building.
There was the core. John stepped out from the pillars and looked up into oblivion. The tower seemed to rise forever, disappearing into darkness high overhead.
It terrified him.
He stepped up onto the open elevator platform that stretched across the whole of the core. As with his exit from the elevator, lights flickered on up the sides of the core, showing a warren of tunnels leading off into the building.
The lights dimmed as he walked into the center of the elevator, and John smelled something burning. There was a sudden brilliant flash of light, and John was thrown to the wire floor of the platform.
He saw a light overhead explode, and an arc of lightning pass from it to another light, and then towards the mesh.
John rolled over and tried to stand. The lightning passed through him and he screamed, collapsed to the floor, tried to crawl away. More and more arcs filled the air, filled his body. The smell of burning was stronger, now. His vision blurred, and his body tried to pull in too man directions at once.
Suddenly, the pain stopped, though the lightning continued to pass through him. Around him, the core seemed to fade, to e replaced by an antiseptic white enclosure, filled with people staring down at him in concern.
They all moved strangely, stiffly, walking and talking in reverse. And now John’s body began to fade. His limbs were still there, but they moved through other limbs, burned, mutilated limbs. The other body closed around him and—
John jerked sideways and opened his eyes. He was in his apartment, on his couch. There was no burning, no pain, no body. He sat upright and looked around in confusion.
The clock on the screen read six fifteen.
He took several deep breaths in an effort to slow his heartbeat. The… The dream, the event, had seemed so real. He was sure he had been in the Core with the body, but—
He glanced down at his shirt. It was a dress shirt, the collar and several of the buttons opened. It was what he had worn to work today. He got up from the couch and looked in his closet. There was the shirt he had worn to the Core, clean and unwrinkled.
It had to have been a dream.
Or an aberrant memory of some sort. If he couldn’t remember Lucy, then maybe he could remember something completely nonsensical.
He walked back to the living room and stopped. A man stared out at him from the screen, off center and out of focus; clearly a home photo. Beneath the picture was a name—Jorge Rodriguez—and a brief story. John skimmed it and collapsed onto the couch.
Jorge Rodriguez had been an undocumented worker from Honduras, doing construction for Sloan-Watterson as a member of Allen’s work crew. Rodriguez had died during Allen’s unexplained electrical storm and, in order to avoid undue investigation, the other members of the work crew had disavowed any knowledge of their unfortunate coworker. Now, years later, a combination of genetic evidence and testimony from a conflicted crew member had identified the mysterious body as Rodriguez. Case closed.
The report was dated to ten years ago.
John relaxed into the couch. This was all too confusing. All he wanted now was sleep.
Tomorrow… tomorrow he’d update the Sky Crest project information sheet.