Light footfalls echoed in the hallway, followed by a child's voice. “Dad! Dad, Gigawatt broke! Dad!”
The bow-tie slipped, and Edgar Latterndale closed his eyes and sighed. He waited a moment and tried wrapping the bow again.
The footfalls came closer, bringing with them more shouts of “Dad! Dad!”
The footfalls fell silent as Ethan, clutching a toy in one hand and a severed leg in the other, burst into Edgar's bedroom. “Dad, the leg broke!”
Edgar closed his eyes again and focused on the tie. He didn't want to bring Amanda in to do this.
“Can you fix him, please? I think it just needs glue or something. Please? You’ve got time before you have to go.”
He glanced at the clock next to the mirror—forty-five minutes. He dropped the bow and took the toy from Ethan. “Alright, let's see...” the leg was ripped off at a joint just below the hip; the bottom half of the joint's peg was still trapped in the thigh. “I can't do this tonight; I'll need to drill out the leg and find another piece to splice in—”
“Can we just glue it, just for tonight?”
Edgar put the toy on the dresser and gestured at himself. “See what I'm wearing? This is a tuxedo. I can't go messing around with glue.”
“But I really need Gigawatt!”
“Not tonight, little dude.” He picked up the bow-tie and tried again.
“C’mon, Dad! It’s my favorite toy!”
The tie slipped and came undone.
Frustration spiked through Edgar, and it took several deep breaths to keep it from showing. “Ethan,” he said, staring stone-faced into the mirror, “Tonight is really important at work, and I don’t have time to deal with your toy tonight. Okay?”
“Can I go with you? Please? Uncle Isaac’ll be there, right?”
Remain calm… “Tonight’s a big political event, okay? Stay here and try to get your homework done, and Esperanza'll take care of you. Hey, why don’t you go and see if she can fix your toy, okay?”
Ethan sighed through his nose and dropped his head. “Yeah, I guess…”
Edgar forced a smile. “Good.”
Ethan turned and the footfalls clunked out of the room.
Edgar had managed to get a few twists in his tie when the hurried footfalls began again.
“Dad, Essie says that she can’t—“
Edgar slammed his hand onto the dresser. “Goddamn it, I don’t have time to worry about your stupid toy!”
Ethan stared up at him, his eyes wide and showing confusion. Then they blanked out, went distant. Ethan nodded, turned and left the room.
Five minutes later Edgar had finally gotten the bow tied, and was putting in his cuff-links when the bedroom door opened.
Amanda stood there, a smooth red gown draped over her body, her hair cascading in loose ringlets over her left shoulder. She padded over to the bed, dropped the pair of heels she was holding, then flopped down next to her shoes.
“What did you say to Ethan?”
“Nothing. He was bothering me, and it wasn't a good time. I—I yelled at him.” Edgar looked back at Amanda in the mirror. His emotions were caught up between pride that this beautiful woman was his wife and amazement that she had managed to get ready before he had. “What's wrong with him?”
“He's all sullen and angry now. You could have just talked to him; did you think about that? Just tell him it wasn't a good time?”
Edgar snapped the final cuff-link in place and headed towards the bathroom. “I tried that; didn't seem to get through.”
“You didn't need to yell at him! What were you doing that was so important you couldn't talk with him? You were just getting dressed.”
“He was interrupting!”
“He wasn’t interrupting! He was just trying to talk to you while you got dressed!” Amanda buried her face in her hands and grunted. “What is with you? You have time to spend on everything else in life, and you just treat Ethan like he’s an inconvenience!”
Edgar turned to face Amanda. “Now is not the time.”
“Then we need to make—“
Edgar raised a hand. “Now. Is not. The time.”
“When is the time?”
Edgar threw his hands up. “Hell, I don't know. Look, I’ve got a big job trying to keep this shit-hole of a country together, and it takes a hell of a lot of time. Someday Ethan’ll understand that, and he’ll be able to forgive me.”
“I suddenly understand why your father never visits.”
Edgar shrugged. “He may not have done more than provide for us, but it was what he needed to do. I don’t like him, but I’ve forgiven him.”
“Don’t you think you should do better for your son?”
“I’m making sure he has a future to grow up in; isn’t that enough?”
Amanda tilted her head to one side and thought for a moment. “No, it isn’t. Even if you spend every waking moment fighting for the future, it may not come. All we have is the present, and you need to be spending that present with your son.”
Edgar slipped into the bathroom and returned a moment later with a lint roller. “Well, the present is the 9/11 Memorial. I don't want to go any more than you do, but that's my job, and I have to do it. Right now, Ethan has to come second.”
Amanda glared at him, then grabbed a shoe and forced it on. “If he's such a damn inconvenience, why did you agree to have him?”
As with so many of Amanda’s questions, this one had no safe answer. Edgar brusquely rolled the lint off of his tuxedo jacket and settled on modified honesty. “Because I knew a kid would make you happy.”
“You’ve never been that romantic, Ed. Try again.”
She wanted brutal honesty? He was frustrated enough now to make sure she got it. “Because I’d have a nice, perfect little family, with a son involved in soccer and violin and a trophy wife who looked good in campaign commercials. That romantic enough for you?”
Amanda didn’t respond for such a long time that Edgar looked up to see if she was still there.
“Well… I guess that saved us five years of marriage counseling.” She turned and left the room.
Edgar looked after her, grinding his teeth and wondering what he could do to calm her down. He glanced at the clock again. Thirty-five minutes. He'd have to finish this conversation later tonight.
Despite Edgar’s best hopes, traffic proved a tough beast to beat, with every usual Metro passenger flooding the streets in taxis and personal vehicles. In the end, he and Amanda arrived at the White House's September Eleventh Memorial banquet an hour late.
“If we’re lucky,” he said as a valet drove away with their car, “the dullest speeches will be over.”
“I'm sorry, okay? Can we just—just ignore this until afterwards?”
Amanda turned and walked into the White House.
Edgar sighed and followed her.
Once they made it past security and into the East Room, they were greeted by politicians and dignitaries, power brokers and lobbyists, men and women rich enough to enjoy— or demand— the president’s notice. They were all very understanding of the couple’s late arrival, and helpfully informed them that no, the speeches hadn’t started yet. Again. And again. And again.
By the time Edgar had shaken hands and exchanged pleasantries through the crowd and to the buffet table, he was ready to leave. He looked around, made sure that he had lost Amanda, and tried to relax. He checked his watch; he'd be stuck here for at least three more hours.
A hand slapped down onto his shoulder. “Edgar! So glad you finally made it! I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
Edgar turned, a false smile already materializing on his tired lips, and saw who had addressed him. The smile dematerialized. “Oh. It’s you.”
Mistlethwakey's skeletal face peered out from behind an over-burdened buffet plate. “Yes it’s me. Good to see you, too. Let’s talk.”
“I’d rather not.” Remembering his agreement to help with Mistlethwakey's plan, to stand by while he arranged the death of the president, brought a rush of unease into his gut.
“Having second thoughts about helping me?”
Not for the first time, Edgar felt that the General had somehow read his mind. “I'm not comfortable with your... policy.”
Mistlethwakey swallowed what he had been chewing while Edgar spoke, and cleared his throat. “I told you, things are happening with or without you. You're my first choice for liaison with the Q-bomb, but I could go on without you.”
“And what if I renege on my part? What if I go to Isaac right now and tell him what happened to Ashleigh?”
Mistlethwakey glared at Edgar, his eyes like dark coals smoldering in an otherwise grandfatherly face. “You could. Wouldn't be the smartest move, in the long run. Holding back important information, that's bad. But after what's going to happen—that's treachery in and of itself.”
Edgar felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. “What's happening tonight?”
“I told you six months; it's been four. There's a timetable.” Mistlethwakey's demeanor changed, and he smiled. “Say, where's that lovely wife of yours? You can’t leave, of course, that would look too suspicious. But you, ah, you might want to get Amanda close by, somewhere where you two won’t get separated.”
“What’s going on?”
Mistlethwakey winked and tapped the side of his nose. “Best if you don’t know. If things somehow go off-script, it'll be more believable if you're as surprised as everyone else. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some other people I need to see…” He popped a small sandwich into his mouth then wandered away, becoming lost in the crowd.
Edgar was rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do. His imagination ran wild with the horrors Mistlethwakey could have planned for the evening. Most of them were should be impossible, beyond even the General's ability to perform. But then, if he had the Defenders under his thumb, was anything really out of his ability?
A resolution formed within Edgar: he would warn Isaac. Mistlethwakey's assurances were worthless, and he couldn't control Edgar. Edgar knew of a credible threat to the president’s safety; any Secret Service agent he told would evacuate the president, and the General's little plot would be worthless.
Until the questions started.
Edgar saw the rest of his life unraveling before him: the truth coming out about his involvement with Mistlethwakey, the general’s swift downfall, his own downfall as he was sacrificed to the public as the mastermind behind the true EHUD program… years later, sitting in a maximum security prison, Ethan coming to visit him, asking him why he had thrown it all away… himself asking why he had missed the call for greatness, all because he was too afraid to fight for the greater good of the nebulous future.
He went to find Amanda.
“Ed,” she muttered as he dragged her away from a group of lobbyists she was working on, “They were about ready to make donations—”
“I think you should probably stay close tonight, you know?”
She jerked her arm away from him. “It's too late for the touchy-feely crap, alright?”
“I just—I have a bad feeling, okay? Something just seems off tonight.”
She stared at him in puzzlement.
“Look, let's just stay together, okay? Hey, look over there.” He pointed at an older woman behind Amanda. “I'm sure the congresswoman will want to steer funds your way.”
Amanda continued to stare at him, then turned and made her way to the congresswoman. Edgar followed.
They stayed together for the next twenty minutes, mingling with the crowd, soliciting donations for Amanda's charity, and exchanging pleasantries with Edgar's colleagues.
Soft chimes of music caused everyone to drift away from the open areas of the room and congregate at the tables set before a large podium. Edgar helped Amanda into a chair, then sat down himself and looked to see Isaac Latterndale mount the stage and take his place behind the podium. He looked out at the crowd, his face solemn, and began to speak.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and colleagues, it is wonderful to see you all here today. We are gathered here to remember a profound event, the great awakening that the United States had at the dawn of the 21st century, that defined our history and culture for many years...”
The speech droned on for ten minutes, heartfelt but bland. Edgar tried to listen, but he was too caught up in trying to discover what horror the General had in store. He swept the room, looking for anything out of the ordinary. His feelings of dread only increased as nothing caught his eye.
The applause that punctuated the President’s speech shook Edgar out of his thoughts, and he focused back on Isaac.
“Thank you, thank you all. Now, I know you’re all probably rather tired of me going on, as I tend to do, and you’ll want to hear someone a bit more concise and eloquent.” He paused to let a fresh round of applause die down. “So! Without further ado, I’m proud to introduce my esteemed colleague Senator Mitchell Terstein.”
The audience clapped, the President left the stage, and… no one came up.
Edgar's throat tightened. He glanced around, expecting to see someone slipping through a door or a rifle sliding out from behind a curtain.
The applause died and a polite silence ensued.
No one came to the stage.
Edgar was about to jump up, was about to warn Isaac of his imminent danger, when the silence changed to excited whispering as someone came on stage. It was definitely not Senator Terstein.
The newcomer was short, with a thick beard and stubby, dirty-looking dreadlocks. Unlike the other male guests in their tuxedos, this man wore layer upon layer of ragged coats and scarves. He scratched at his large nose as he approached the podium.
“Um, hello…” he said experimentally, leaning into the microphone atop the podium.
The whispers increased in volume. Edgar saw several Secret Service agents rush along the sides of the room, only to halt some twenty feet from the stage and stand stock-still.
Mistlethwakey had actually done it. He had co-opted the Defenders. Edgar knew who, what, this man was, and with that knowledge came the abrupt closing of Edgar’s window of opportunity. Whatever the outcome of the next few minutes, he was stuck with Mistlethwakey to the end.
“Hello,” the man said again, and conversation ceased. “My name is, uh, Merv Lemlin, Private First class, U.S. Army.” He paused for a moment. “Retired. Not who you expected, but… uh, after that introduction I’m going to try and be as concise and eloquent as I can.” Someone in the front row stood. “No interruptions, please. I promise I’ll be quick.”
The man in the front row didn’t sit down, but he didn’t move, either. One arm stood out as if frozen in place.
“I want to talk for a minute about the EHUDs. Now I know you all know about the EHUD system. Damn fine machines, definitely, but they’re not why I’m here. Reason I’m here is the super-soldiers. You know about them? The rumor going around that the suits're just sort of a cover for government testing program, trying to improve our soldiers.”
The room was dead silent. Edgar closed his eyes, awaiting the inevitable. Beside him, Amanda reached out and pushed her hand into his.
“Well, those rumors were absolutely true. Not accurate, but true. Anyone can tell you it doesn’t take half a trillion to make a wearable tank; that’s stupid. But it does take that to make super-soldiers. The Defenders, they were called. Same acronym, EHUD, so disguising purchase orders was easier, but the ‘D’ was Defenders.”
He paused and glared at the audience, daring someone to challenge what he said.
“Of course, as bad as super-soldiers is, there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you go legal. Take the first two test subjects, for instance. Two career military boys, get hyped up on the super-serum, next thing you know, they could kick Captain America’s ass. But the government didn’t stop there, oh no.” He chuckled. “The whole last administration—hell, most of this administration, probably; the president definitely—went ahead and captured a hundred innocent civilians, and—“ He stopped and scratched his chin. “Well, I wasn’t a civilian, but I damn sure weren’t no volunteer. Anyways, they kidnapped us, tortured us, made us do things to break our wills, then made supermen out of us. And I don’t know why, but here we are on your doorstep, fifty of the toughest sons of bitches you’d ever want to meet, and we ain't happy.”
No one spoke. Edgar felt confused, unable to form words. Lemlin was doing this. He thought of going for his phone to call for help but... it just didn't seem all that important. Lemlin wasn't taking chances.
Amanda's hand was warm in Edgar's grip.
“There’s only one man you have to blame for all this, one man who put together the bill that started all this shit, one man who got it voted in, one man who stayed with the project and made sure it went off without a hitch, ready to fuck the world over and establish the new American order. One man I’m going to kill tonight.” His arm rose, elbow bent and hand skyward. The hand dropped, an accusing finger pointing straight at the overweight old man in the front row. “President Isaac Latterndale.”
Those words seemed to loose something in the room. People were moving, yelling; the president stood and began to denounce his accuser.
Edgar watched as a cadre of Secret Service surrounded Isaac and took aim at Lemlin.
Lemlin, smiling, laughing, reached into his pile of coats, looking for all the world as if he were going for a gun. It was enough for the SS agents. All other sound was drowned out by gunfire.
As the echoes died away, Edgar found Amanda pressed close to him, her arms wrapped around him. Between the imminent danger he knew awaited and the warm body next to him, he felt more alert than he had in years, primal purpose coursing through his veins.
At the front of the room, Lemlin stood, smiling and unscathed. Floating in the air before him, most still vibrating, some glowing, were nearly a hundred bullets.
Amanda pulled away, half-standing with the rest of the audience to stare in silent fascination as the bullets began to drift together, glowing brighter where they touched and fusing into one another. Soon Lemlin stood behind a head-sized sphere of lead which began to spin, faster and faster, until—
Edgar knocked Amanda to the floor, kicking over the table in the process. He didn’t see what happened next, but he heard a sharp crack, wet ripping sounds, strangled screams.
He levered himself up and peered over the edge of the table. Lemlin was leering at the mangled pile of agents surrounding the president. A few of them must have been alive, as sporadic gunfire erupted from the pile, but the bullets all swung wide, veering off into the crowd and burying themselves in fleeing guests.
The pile shifted as agents rose into the air, only to be brought back down with bone-breaking force.
Edgar dropped down and looked back to Amanda. She stared at him, eyes wide.
“Don't do it.”
Edgar felt a thrill of adrenaline. He knew it would be stupid to go up against Lemlin. He also knew that Mistlethwakey had his hands all over this, and wouldn't let things get too terrible for his chosen puppet. “I need to get out there. I need to get to Isaac.”
“You have no idea what the fuck that is out there! You go out there, you'll get killed!”
Their eyes locked for a moment. Lemlin meant death. Amanda meant a chance, however slim, of staying alive. Edgar looked away. He had already made up his mind, had already agreed to be complicit in the General's coup.
Edgar grasped Amanda’s hands. “I love you,” he said, hoping she believed him. “But I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to try to save the president.”
Amanda's eyes went cold, and she pulled her hands away from Edgar. He crawled out from behind the table and sat up on his knees, trying to find a safe route to the pile of bodies that was still providing Isaac some measure of protection.
“He’s not going to die now, you know.”
Edgar ducked down and found Mistlethwakey under a table beside him.
“I'm assuming it's safe to go in and rescue him?”
Mistlethwakey shrugged. “I'm not in charge here.” A piece of chair swung past Edgar’s head, hitting the floor with enough force to shatter. “I just set the stage and let the rest shake out.
Edgar felt his determination drain away. Hiding next to Amanda seemed a much more inviting prospect. “You don't have any plan past this?”
“We need to get the president to use the scramblers. If he does that, everything else falls into place.”
Edgar lurched forward and grabbed the lapels of Mistlethwakey's jacket. He didn't know where this sudden boldness came from; ten minutes ago he never would have dreamed of confronting the General physically. “Will I get out of this alive?” he growled.
Mistlethwakey appeared serene, oblivious to the deafening noise around him. He seemed to be giving serious consideration to Edgar's question. “That's up to you.”
Edgar nodded and ducked out from under the table.
Lemlin's voice rose up over the cacophony. “Where are you, you fucker? I know you’re there! C’mon out, boy!” Lemlin was playing with his food.
Edgar stopped under a table in sight of where the Secret Service agents had died. Even now the pile was shifting and sliding as bodies floated up into the air and were flung around. There was no sign of Isaac Latterndale. Edgar scanned the area around the bodies and saw the heap of a crushed table shiver. He worked his way around behind it, belly-crawling through a thick brown pool of viscera. All breathing was through the mouth. By the time he had reached the table he must have looked so much like a mangled corpse that Lemlin ignored him.
Close up, panicked breathing could be heard under the remains of the table. Something moved inside, and then the blood-smeared face of the president was looking out at Edgar. “Help me,” he mouthed.
A hand grabbed Edgar’s leg and he froze, thinking he would be the next body flung into the air.
“The doors are locked!” Mistlethwakey hissed from somewhere around Edgar's waist.
The president's eyes widened.
Edgar took a deep breath, tried not to gag, and whispered, “You need to call in scramblers.”
Isaac’s eyes widened further. “We can’t do that! They don't exist!”
Mistlethwakey pushed his way forward until he was face-to-face with the president. “Damn secrecy; we don't use them, we die. We can't hope to starve Lemlin out.”
Isaac looked around in a panic, breathing hard, then nodded and wiggled around until he brought out his hand, clutching a mobile. He typed in a code, then looked up at Mistlethwakey. “Now what?”
The tirade from the dais changed tone. “I’m getting' bored now, Isaac. I came for you, not for your guests. Last chance to be a man about this.”
“Don’t listen to him.” Mistlethwakey reached behind his back and pulled out two blood-smeared pistols, passing one to Edgar.
“You distract Lemlin; I’ll get the doors.”
Edgar nodded and began to crawl away from the president. Before he had moved more than a foot there was a moment of sudden, absolute silence, followed by a resigned sigh from the behind the podium. “Time’s up, Isaac.”
The president began to rise into the air, the remains of the table sliding off his back. “Bob!” he hollered, his eyes bulging with fear. “Bob, get me out!”
Mistlethwakey jumped to his feet and ran to the knot of panicked guests clogging the nearest exit. At the same moment Edgar, trying his best to ignore the overwhelming panic that begged him to stay down, also rose and skittered across the slick floor to stand before Lemlin.
From somewhere in the room, he thought he heard Amanda call his name.
The pistol was up in a two-handed grip. “Merv Lemlin!”
Lemlin looked away from the president, struggling vainly in mid-air, and locked eyes with Edgar. “The hell's this?”
Edgar opened his mouth, closed it, then yelled, “I don’t know what the hell you are, but this is your only warning: You are committing an act of war upon the United States, and it will be responded to as such! Cease and desist, and maybe we can talk this through!” Edgar was aware the pistol trembled, knew he was sweating profusely. But he also knew that if he survived this moment, the sun would never set on his career.
Lemlin sneered at him. “Seriously?”
Edgar shifted his grip on the pistol and tried to dig his feet into a steadier stance.
Lemlin shrugged. “Guess I can kill one more bystander, though to tell you the truth, I’d really rather not.” With his eyes still on Edgar, he pointed off towards one wall. “And don’t think I don’t know about you over by the door. It’s useless; I’ve got ‘em shut.”
The room fell into something approaching silence. The injured moaned, the terrified whimpered, but for a moment everything else fell away as the tension between Latterndale and Lemlin mounted. A few yards away, the president floated, helpless, above the bloody floor.
An explosion rocked the room, and Edgar found himself sprawled on the floor, though whether he had been knocked down by the by the force of the blast or by the nausea that was twisting his guts, he did not know.
He closed his eyes, tried to stop the room from spinning. He pushed up, his hands slipping in blood, and looked over the tops of tables to see a squad of EHUDs rushing through the remains of the door that Mistlethwakey had cleared. The armored figures slid out of focus, and then Edgar was back on the floor, his vision blocked by the body of an agent. He followed the lines of the body up to the mangled face, realized this was someone he had known for a few years now, someone he had worked with. The nausea flared, and Edgar vomited.
He crawled away from the body, found himself out in the killing field, where he had a clear view of the podium.
The EHUDs had formed up in a ring around Lemlin, each of them with a thin metal cylinder strapped to their chests. The cylinders vibrated as they pulsed with a frequency that was, for the moment, disorienting Lemlin enough that his powers couldn't manifest.
And the cylinders—the scramblers—were doing their job. Lemlin was at the center of the ring, half-crouched, clawing at his ears. His mouth moved, yelled something, but Edgar couldn't hear anything, or if he could, he wasn't functioning well enough to understand the words.
One of the EHUDs approached Lemlin, handcuffs outstretched.
Something finally clicked through Edgar's mind: they wanted to take Lemlin alive. They couldn't do that; he would tell everything if he were alive... Another thought followed, giving Edgar some peace of mind. Mistlethwakey was orchestrating this, to some degree. At the very least he was controlling what memories the Defenders were allowed to keep from their time in captivity. No matter how much Lemlin told, Edgar was safe from recrimination. Besides, Lemlin had gone after Isaac, not Edgar... not Robert Mistlethwakey...
A moment later any lingering doubts disappeared. Lemlin jumped up, put his weight behind his elbow and tried to force the approaching EHUD to the ground. All the attack succeeded in doing was to rock the EHUD back on his heels, but it was enough for Lemlin to break away. He made it maybe ten feet before one of the EHUDs brought a rifle up and—
Edgar had seen enough. He closed his eyes and curled into a ball. He shuddered as the rifle cracked, then tried to block out the world.