Three faces stared out from the portrait. Little Ethan, eight years old, a little bored, but happy to be out of school. Behind and to his right was Amanda, late thirties, her face stern but beautiful, stress-filled eyes shining above wide cheekbones. To her left sat Edgar, his face looking full and healthy, hair and beard thick and black. Reflected in the glass was another face: middle-aged, grey beginning to streak the hair.
Breath fogged the picture, then faded. Edgar Latterndale had aged more in the last two years as Secretary of Defense than he had in the previous five. A knock at the door caused him to straighten, taking his attention away from the picture of his family.
“Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Secretary.”
Edgar sighed, then acknowledged the young lieutenant standing in his doorway. “Yes, Hutchfield, what is it?”
“The explosion, sir. Crews were going through records on everyone who was in the tunnel, and one name came up on a watch-list.”
Hutchfield shook his head. “Your eyes only, sir.” He held up a tablet, then placed it on Edgar's desk.
“Thank you.” He glanced down at the tablet, then up to the lieutenant. “Is that all?”
“Sir.” Hutchfield turned and pulled the door closed as he left.
Edgar sighed again, then leaned forward and picked up the tablet. He held his thumb over a scanner at the bottom of the screen and waited for the device to verify. An image appeared of a young woman with bobbed blond hair. Below, her name: Ashleigh Chuskus. Edgar swallowed. He recognized her. He remembered her looking different, though: a gaunt, bald woman, eyes sunken into her head so she resembled nothing so much as an angry skull.
So, she had been at the site of the explosion....
He put aside the tablet Hutchfield had given him, then turned to face his own, docked to his desk. He opened a browsing window, searched for a moment, then settled back in his chair to watch the news. A smoking crater was all that remained of a suburban D.C. street, rescue workers in bright orange jumpsuits swarming over the crater's lip. Interspersed among the workers were soldiers encased in suits of lumpy grey armor. At a gesture the volume came up. “—as to the cause, though some experts are blaming an outdated infrastructure, which led to a gas line rupturing and bringing down the station. The mayor has issued a statement that—”
Edgar silenced the device and looked back at Hutchfield's tablet, at the picture of the smiling young woman staring out at him. It could be a coincidence, couldn't it? She might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, might have been caught in a freak gas explosion.
He knew it couldn't be that easy.
“Hutchfield,” he said, gesturing at his tablet.
“Sir?” he answered a moment later
“Footage from the explosion: do you have it?”
A nod. “Pulled it as soon as I saw a ping on an eyes-only list, sir. It's already on the tablet.”
Edgar almost smiled. Competence, honest-to-God competence. “Good work.”
Checking through the tablet, he found several video files. After searching through a few, he found one from a camera aimed at the platform immediately at the bottom of an escalator. The footage wasn't good quality, but he could make out Chuskus as she floated down the escalator and stood at the back of the crowd. She began to yell, looking around and gesturing frantically.
Edgar adjusted the volume, but there was no sound.
He watched for several more minutes as Chuskus continued to panic. People began to take notice, to turn and record her with their mobiles. Chuskus doubled over, clutching her stomach and convulsing. Then the footage flashed white and died. Edgar rewound, played it back at half speed, repeat, quarter speed...there. A few frames before the end, she appeared to glow, then erupted in a spreading wall of flame—
“Shit.” Edgar dropped the tablet and dug into his pants, desperate to find his mobile. It wasn't there. He stood, rounded on his chair, felt through his hanging jacket. There it was. It was out, dialed, up to his face.
Three rings, then an answer. “Elliot Nieman; state your business.”
“Ellie, this is Ed. I need to schedule a meeting.”
“Sure thing. How urgent is this?” The sound of shoes clicking on marble filtered through the connection as she spoke.
“Say an eight.”
A moment of silence, then: “I can get you in at one. Who all do you want there?”
She gave a low whistle. “Alrighty, then. Sounds pretty important.” She was quiet for a moment, then grunted. “You're in. President will see you at one-fifteen.”
“Great.” Edgar disconnected the call, tossed the mobile onto his desk, then sighed. Chuskus had blown herself up, and security hadn't noticed anything when she came in. There was only one explanation....
He sat back down, rummaged in his desk for a moment until he found a thin black memory drive. He slid it into the new tablet, then navigated to a folder marked “EHUD: TOP SECRET.” Clicking on it brought up a series of security dialogue boxes, and then, finally, some hundred images.
He selected one at random—EHUD_INCIDENT_REPORT_0017. The screen filled with the image of a soldier in heavy armor, ceramic plates pulled aside and the torso ripped open, organs spilling out. He closed that one, opened another, number 0032. A nude woman, her bones barely contained by pale skin, head shaven, covered in wet blood. She was smiling, middle finger of her right hand extended to the photographer. Edgar swallowed. Chuskus, just as he had remembered her. He felt nauseous.
He closed the image, returned to the ID photo that had been placed on his desk minutes—a virtual eternity—earlier. Something was seriously wrong here.
He picked up his mobile again, made another call.
“Office of General Mistlethwakey, how may I direct your call?”
“I need to speak with Bob.”
“Who may I say is calling?”
Edgar grimaced and cradled his head in his hand. “It's his fucking boss.”
There were several long seconds of silence from the other end. “I'm afraid the general is busy at the moment. I can take a message.”
“Is the general in?”
“I'm sorry sir, I can't—”
He took a calming breath then spoke, slowly, as if to a child. “I'll repeat: I'm his fucking boss, and I have something to discuss with him. I've played his little shit games before, but if he isn't seated firmly behind his desk when I arrive, there will be serious repercussions. Am I understood?”
Before the other man had a chance to answer, Edgar had grabbed the tablet and his jacket and left his office.
When he arrived at the antechamber to General Mistlethwakey's office, he was pleased to see the general's aide sitting behind his desk, looking petulant.
“Despite a full schedule, the general is able to see you now.”
Edgar offered up a false smile. This poor man was only exercising what little influence he had, and it was now going to be taken from him. “Get out,” Edgar growled. “And don't bother coming back when I'm gone. You're being reassigned.”
The man frowned, but stood and left without saying a word.
Edgar's smile was now genuine. He closed the office door, then swept his hand across the underside of the receptionist's desk: there were no signs of bugs. He straightened, took a deep breath, and pushed through to the inner office.
General Robert Mistlethwakey sat behind a massive black desk; with his coat off, he looked like a cotton swab stuck in a tar pit. He smiled, his face seeming to split in half along the edges of his leathery mouth. “Ed! So glad you could drop by! Hear there was something you wanted to talk with me about.”
Edgar stopped in the middle of the room and worked his jaw for a moment. The General was far too calm in light of the threats issued against him; normally, he would be on the war path at this point.
“I'm here to talk to you about the EHUD program,” Edgar said.
The General's smile grew wider. “Ah, the Defenders.” His dark eyes, set far back in his skull, almost seemed to sparkle.
All Edgar could do was work his jaw again. “The Defenders? You're ready to jump to that conclusion? What if I were talking about the Defense program, huh?”
“Oh, please.” Mistlethwakey's smile finally faded and he leaned back. “You wouldn't sound so damned serious when asking the question if you weren't going to talk about the damn Defenders.”
“We have this security protocol in place for a reason....” It was all Edgar could do to keep the frustration out of his voice.
The General nodded. “Understood. Now, what did you want to talk about?”
Edgar held up the tablet and shook it. “Ashleigh Chuskus. Today she went into a metro terminal and killed fifty people in an explosion.”
“Huh.” The General raised his eyebrows. “Sounds just awful. I rather liked her....”
“'That's awful?' That's all I get out of you? A member of your top secret weapons program blows up the metro, and you can't be bothered to give a shit?”
The General shrugged. “It's a complex program. Statistically shit's got to go down at some point. It's a miracle nothing bad has happened thus far.”
And there it was, the admission Edgar had been waiting for through the entire confrontation. He pulled up the picture of Chuskus, bloody and defiant, and turned the tablet to face the General. “Except this isn't the first time shit's gone down, is it?”
Mistlethwakey glared. “You were supposed to destroy those pictures.”
“Destroy evidence that the Defender program has flaws? I'm a professional, Bob. I take my job seriously.”
“The only reason you have that job is because you promised to destroy those pictures!”
Edgar snorted. “Well, it looks like I'm not as morally bankrupt as you thought. Now, let me state the obvious, in case you haven't put it together yet. Here we have two pieces of evidence that your pet project has serious issues. So, this afternoon I'm taking this down to the White House, and getting presidential approval to shut your ass down. Got it?”
“And what happens when the President finds out his little cousin's been suppressing some of this evidence? You think you'll have this job for much longer?”
Edgar lowered the tablet and stared at his shoes. In all the panic that the morning had ushered in, he hadn't had time to think of personal consequences. He shrugged. “What happens, happens. This program's dangerous, and flawed, and I'm going to make sure the right thing gets done here.”
Angry silence stretched between the two men. Then the General laughed, his deep chuckle echoing around the room. “God damn, do I know how to pick them.” He continued laughing, the sound degrading to a hoarse wheeze. He coughed and wiped at his eyes. “No, you're not going to tell the President anything. This thing with Chuskus? That's not evidence of a problem. That's fucking intentional.”
For just a moment, the room fell completely silent, and Edgar felt himself floating. This wasn't at all what he'd expected....
“No,” the General continued, “this was a test. A test and a message. First, I wanted to find out how you'd react to something like this. Doing what's right? At the risk of your cushy job? You passed, my friend; you passed.”
Edgar reached into his pocket, found the mobile he had neglected to turn off. This—what Mistlethwakey was saying—this was important, and he needed to record it. Blackmail or evidence, it didn't matter the reason, he needed this. “And the message?”
The General straightened and his face hardened. “I am in control. The entire program, the Defenders? They're mine. What happens next is not chaos: it is planned.”
There was no way to navigate to a recording program, not in his pocket, not without making the moves too obvious. Edgar released the mobile, nodding all the while. Keep the man talking. It would all come out when he made his report to the president. “So you programed a sleeper agent to kill herself, just so you could massage your ego?”
“You've seen the pictures of what happened when the Defenders slipped our control. But did you hear any of the speech Major Fendleton gave before he was executed?”
Edgar shuddered. He remembered the pictures of Allen Fendleton, stripped of his uniform, his brains sprayed out over a concrete floor. Through the memory were tinny words, poorly recorded: “We are Defenders. We will defend. We must tick on. The Q-bomb must tick on.”
The words didn't need to be said aloud. Mistlethwakey must have seen something in Edgar's eyes, must have also been replaying those words; he nodded and a thin smile spread across his face.
“The Q-bomb...” the General intoned, “in theory, a small group holding unlimited power over the whole world, keeping them in line through applied self-interest. When Fendleton first told me of the concept, I thought he was crazy. When he led the Defenders in a rebellion and got himself killed, I knew he was crazy. But the more I thought about it....” The smile faded. “We've made super-soldiers, Ed. We've made gods. And what are we doing with them? The moron we have in office now just wants to use them to protect national interests. He's not seeing the global picture. But me.... I've been infected by Allen. I've got his vision up here now.” He tapped the side of his head with an outstretched finger. “And I've altered the program, the programming. You saw that with Chuskus. And the others... they're going to start fulfilling their programming soon. And then Allen's vision will be fulfilled....”
Edgar's hands hung limp at his side. He stared at the old man in wide-eyed disbelief, then narrowed his eyes into a death-glare. “I suppose making threats at this point would be useless, seeing as you have an army of super-soldiers backing you up.”
A shrug. “Their lives are their own. I merely pointed them in the right direction and gave them a push.”
“I thought you were in control.” The General opened his mouth to answer, but Edgar continued, “No, don't answer; I don't care. Why are you telling me all this?”
Mistlethwakey stood and rounded his desk. “For the Q-bomb to truly succeed, there needs to be at least one nation that will offer cooperation, just to set the example. I'm hoping that will be us. But the current administration....” He looked at Edgar, imploring him to understand.
For his part, Edgar refused to think through the General's implications. If Mistlethwakey wanted to say something, he would have to say it plainly.
“In the coming months, the Defenders will be causing a lot of chaos. The President—hell, most of the cabinet—will likely not survive. For this to work out, I need the right person in place to help the Defenders when they need it most. You've already proven you're willing to give up this job that you worked so hard for in the name of 'doing right.' How much are you willing to give up in the name of world peace?”
“You're asking for treason.”
The General gestured to Edgar's tablet. “You've already withheld vital evidence from the President. What's a little treason? All I need you to do is keep quiet about this meeting and be ready to cooperate when I give you the go-ahead. You do that, and I promise you that in six months the presidency will be yours.”
It was tempting. All his life, Edgar had dreamed of the office, had worked hard to climb the Washington power ladder. But the years of relentless struggle had eroded his desire for greatness, until he at last resigned himself to being nothing more than an advisor. Now, though—no. He couldn't do this.
He leaned in closer to Mistlethwakey and hissed, “I won't let you kill my cousin.”
Another shrug. “The President's old. How much longer do you think he has?”
The General smiled. “What makes you think I plan to survive all this?”
Edgar was taken aback. All through this meeting, he had assumed it was a power grab on Mistlethwakey's part. Hijack the super-soldiers, show what he was capable of, profit. But as he stared into the old man's eyes, he saw something far more terrifying: belief.
Edgar swallowed. He had to get to the President, had to warn him. With any luck, it wasn't too late to retrieve the Defenders, to eliminate the threat Mistlethwakey represented, before another Chuskus exploded.... Before another Allen went on a killing spree.
The General sighed and gestured again at the tablet. “You're going to tell him everything, aren't you?”
Edgar turned and strode from the room. He had to see the President, had to tell him what was going on. Had to tell him before the temptation proved too strong and he agreed to what the General had offered.
Even though there was another half hour before his meeting, Edgar was already pacing around the cabinet room, stopping from time to time to check under the table for bugs. Security wasn't his job, but at the moment he wasn't feeling particularly trusting of those whose job it was.
He glanced over to his seat at the conference table, took in the tablet lying there. The pictures, the private knowledge of the Defender rebellion, called out to him, begging to be set free. Almost two years ago he had been given the files in a classified dossier while the current Secretary of Defense was out of the country. Though he was only Deputy SecDef, Edgar had taken it upon himself to confront Mistlethwakey about the pictures. Somehow, he had let himself be talked into covering them up in exchange for the General's influence concerning a promotion. Scarcely a month later the incumbent had resigned, and Edgar found himself appointed Secretary. At the time it had seemed like a good idea to keep the pictures, just in case. Now it seemed like an even better idea.
His eyes slipped away from the tablet and he continued his pacing. Around the table, again, again, again. He was almost back to his seat when strains of “Home Means Nevada” began to sound from his jacket pocket. He pulled out his mobile and answered the call, killing the song. “Hello, Amanda.”
“Where are you?” His wife’s voice was pleasant, but tinged with sarcasm.
Edgar's stomach clenched. He wasn't in the mood for any more stress today. “I’m at work; where are you?”
“I just left Ethan’s recital.”
“But that isn’t till two.”
“It was at ten.”
Amanda sighed. “Since it was first scheduled. God, Edgar, you’ve known about this for five months, and you promised Ethan you’d be there; you said you could get time off.”
“Time off at two, yes.”
Amanda sighed a second time; the mobile translated it as a high-pitched whine. “You should have double-checked the time.”
“Yeah, well, it's too late for that now, so can we talk about this later? I'm busy.”
Amanda didn't respond for several seconds. “...Busy?”
“You think you're supposed to be at Ethan's recital by two, and you're still busy?”
“Something came up!”
The door creaked, and the face of a nervous-looking intern poked into the room. Edgar furiously waved her away.
“Something more important than your son.” Amanda's voice was painfully sweet.
Edgar closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. There was no easy out. “Yes, okay? Yes, something more important. These things happen. No, I can't tell you what it is. We'll talk tonight.”
The high-pitched whine again. “Sure.” Click.
Edgar returned the mobile to his pocket, sighed, and continued pacing. On the one hand, he felt guilty; he had promised. On the other, it wasn't as if this were a common occurrence. He had never missed a birthday party, rarely missed parent-teacher conferences. So he missed a few oddly-timed extra-curriculars; so what? Ethan would adapt.
Amanda though, Amanda would remember this.
He fumed for a few more minutes, only stopping when he heard a light knock on the door. A moment later Julia Telk, Secretary of the Interior, stepped in.
“Am I interrupting anything?” she asked.
“No.” Edgar turned and headed towards his seat.
“Ellie sounded pretty urgent; thought I'd better get here early.”
Edgar snorted. “Hopefully you're not the only one. I'd like to get this over as soon as possible. My kid's got a recital at two.”
Julia nodded. “Kind of doubt Isaac will be early. Or on time, for that matter.”
“That's his prerogative,” he shrugged.
They both sat and waited as the rest of the Cabinet filed in.
At precisely one-twenty-five President Isaac Latterndale finally pushed through the door and hurried to his seat at the head of the table.
“Sorry, everyone,” he said, waving his hands in an it's-not-my-fault gesture. “It's not my fault. You know what the Iranian embassy is like.”
Edgar felt a knot of nervousness unclench in his guts; he was finally going to get this over with.
The President sat and looked at Edgar. “So, Ellie didn't have a lot of details to give me on this. What exactly is this meeting about?”
“The explosion in the Metro this morning.”
“Right.” The President turned to his Press Secretary. “Rosencrantz, what happened?”
Eli Rosencrantz worked his jowls as he stared at the ceiling, then nodded and locked eyes with the President. “It, uh, it seems that a utilities pipeway in the Metro exploded, knocking out an entire line and killing some fifty people. Reports are still coming in, and rescue workers are of course on the scene. From early examinations, it seems to have been a case of age, of an antique infrastructure reaching the end of its natural life span. The mayor's office is already pushing for legislation to cover a complete overhaul of the system.”
“Very good.” The President shifted in his seat and looked to Edgar. “So what about this warrants a meeting called by my military advisor?”
Edgar had to fight to keep his expression neutral. He knew that several of his coworkers had described him as looking “sinister” behind his back, and any excess of emotion became melodramatic; the situation would be serious enough without his help.
“I will be speaking today about the EHUD project,” Edgar said, in tones reminiscent of a catechism.
All movement in the room ceased as the words hit home. The Vice President cleared her throat. “The 'D' stands for...?” she asked, continuing the ritual.
With the name invoked, the proper ritual movements began. Phones and tablets piled onto the table, power switches were pressed, backplates pried off, batteries removed. After any possibility of electrical surveillance was eliminated, the Secretary of State pushed his chair back and went around the room, pulling curtains shut and making sure that all the doors were secured. When he returned, the President finished the ritual by pulling out a small plastic tube, placing it on the table, and turning a dial at its base. The garbled noise of nonsense conversations emanated from it, and the whole of the Cabinet leaned in to hear what Edgar had to say.
“After the explosion, Homeland Security was running names and one came up on a watch list: Ashleigh Chuskus, Enhanced Human Ultimate Defender subject number 12. I requisitioned security footage, confirmed her identity, and ascertained that the explosion centered around her.”
President Latterndale swallowed, his throat bulging in an almost frog-like way. “How did she explode, exactly?”
Edgar flicked his hands into the air. “She just...exploded. Through apparently preternatural means.”
“Shit.” The President leaned back and ran his hands over his face a few times. He said something, but his voice was lost in the aural slurry generated by his device. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Have you spoken with Mistlethwakey about this?”
Edgar nodded. “First thing after I found out.” He rested his hand on the tablet, almost felt the damning pictures held within, begging to be let out.
“And?” The President stared at him, and it was all Edgar could do to maintain eye contact.
He stared into the face of the man he had known all his life, the adult cousin who had for so many years overshadowed his career. The face had changed in its long decades of public service, had aged especially in the last six years as President. The beard was almost completely grey, the cheeks had descended into full jowls, the eyes were nearly covered by a drooping brow. In what little of the eyes Edgar could see was fear, a panic reaction to being told that the monsters he once thought he controlled now seemed to be out of his hands.
In that moment, Edgar realized that Isaac didn't need to see the pictures: as far as he knew, the Defenders would always be the bloody ghouls hiding in the tablet. They were weapons to be ruled and used, but always feared. He would never—had never—seen them as the people that Allen saw, that Mistlethwakey saw.
Edgar removed his hand from the tablet. “He was just as shocked as you are. We spoke about it at length and looked through some of the medical records, and he believes that Chuskus may have suffered a panic attack. During the attack, she somehow subconsciously accessed her abilities.”
Julia raised a hand fractionally off the table. “You're saying that in a moment of stress she acquired superpowers? Excuse me for being skeptical, Ed, but this isn't a superhero movie. You don't just 'get' powers.”
“Except she already had the powers,” Edgar explained, trying to keep his voice neutral. “The General and I spoke at some length about this, and we believe it gels with the more theoretical parts of the program. We may have modified her memories, but for everything to go as planned, her powers and training have to remain at a subconscious level. The hope was that only our triggers would activate a subject, but it looks like other things can, as well.”
“So,” the President said, “we kill the program now. If they start manifesting before they're triggered, out of our control, then they're worse than useless. They're a threat. We track down the others; we take them out.” There was a strange mixture of bloodlust and relief in his eyes.
For just a moment Edgar entertained the idea of nodding, of letting the sensible solution be implemented, of keeping his job and eliminating this threat all in one easy movement of the head. But something about his earlier conversation, be it the words themselves or the way Mistlethwakey had said them, weighed on him. He had already agreed to betraying his leader's trust in the name of a promotion; what was the harm in continuing the betrayal when the outcome was world peace.
“I would...recommend a little more caution, sir.”
Isaac raised an eyebrow. He wasn't used to Edgar speaking up to him.
“First, the Defenders are too large an investment and a potential return to throw away at the first sign of problems.” The pictures seemed to hear his words, seemed to recede deeper into the tablet. “Second, there's no reason to believe circumstances will crop up that lead to another incident: Chuskus had a history of instability to begin with. Third, even if situations like this continue to happen, they pose little security risk: the subjects keep taking themselves out.”
There was a brief round of polite chuckles, then the President tapped on the table until the room fell quiet. “Alright, you make sense. For now, we stay the course. Have the General put together a list of anyone else he thinks may pose a risk, and put a little extra surveillance on them. Meanwhile, get Fendelton and...and...damn, I can never remember the other guy's name. Anyway, have them do a bit of experimentation to see if they can get answers on this.” He nodded and looked around the table, satisfaction evident on his face. “If there are no other matters to discuss...?”
Heads shook around the table.
“Okay.” Isaac leaned forward and shut off his device. Immediately a faint buzzing seemed to rush in and fill the silence. “Edgar, thank you for keeping us appraised of these developments.” The President stood and stepped away from the table. “Unless anything pressing comes up, I'll see you all back here Monday morning.”
The meeting broke up and the others stood, conversing in hushed tones and drifting towards the door.
Edgar hung behind, his breathing shallow, the truth of what he had just done washing over him. Treason. He had just committed treason.
Outside, in his car, Edgar drove in stunned silence. Someone honked at him, and he realized he was on the highway, heading back home to Virginia. He looked at the seat next to him, saw the tablet, the black memory drive slotted into its side.
Before he could stop himself he had the window down, then watched through the rear-view mirror as a continuous line of Washington-bound vehicles raced over the tablet, spreading it in ever finer pieces over the highway.
He reached into his jacket, found his mobile, and dialed Mistlethwakey's number.
One ring, then, “What can I do for you, Mr. Secretary?”
The General didn't reply, but Edgar could imagine the smile spreading over the old man's face.