“People want to give their opinions? Fine; it's their right. But as soon as they start throwing bricks, we'll throw back. We're not here to be passive; we're here to take down the bad guys before they get a chance to f*** with the innocent. That means I don't worry about who's who. I go in; I get the job done.” Shaun Wendleferce finished speaking and dissolved into a young Latina standing in front of a computer-generated background.
“I don't think I'd want him keeping my neighborhood safe.” She turned her mouth into a sad half-smile. “For AmeriNews, this is Maria Ruiz—”
The saving grace was that he hadn't smiled. He had the presence of mind to keep his face somber and not look like he enjoyed beating all those people.
Any benefit this might have given to public opinion was completely obliterated by what AmeriNews had shown with the interview: a small tag labeling the man as PPD Officer Shaun Wendelferce, Major, US Army, Retired. Those words changed him from a trigger-happy cop beating on rowdy demonstrators to the hammer of government oppression, slamming down on any who questioned the official story on the Defenders. The situation was made all the worse because, eighteen hours after the attack, there was no official story on the Defenders.
Edgar Latterndale sat on a bench outside of the Oval Office, watching the situation deteriorate on a screen in the opposite wall.
Beside him, Julia Telk sighed. “This isn’t good…” Her eyes flicked to the closed doors of the cabinet room. “How much longer you think they can keep this up?”
Edgar shrugged. “Who knows? If they screw up on this, we’re all dead. But if they don’t hurry up with something, we’re dead anyway.”
“I still just say we admit everything.”
Edgar sighed; that was the option he and Julia had been pushing all morning. De-classify everything about the real EHUD program, admit their involvement in creating the Defenders, leave themselves at the mercy of the people. It would likely be better than the treatment they would receive if the Defenders got to them first.
“Can't do it,” Isaac kept insisting. “You think they'll let us off without serious jail time?”
“They can't put us in jail!” Edgar insisted, again and again. “We haven't done anything illegal! Unethical, unconstitutional, yes, but not illegal!”
“Perjury,” someone had reminded them.
The President didn’t listen. He insisted on labeling the Defenders a foreign threat, on rooting them out, killing them, and coming out looking like the hero. Only Edgar knew how impossible that would be, and he decided he wouldn't be the one to say it. Let the stubborn old fool find out for himself what Mistlethwakey was planning.
Not for the first time, Edgar wondered if the stubborn young fool had any idea what the General was planning...
“Alternative...” he found himself saying.
Julia looked at him.
“We drop the notion of having any claim to the Defenders; that ship sailed the minute Ashleigh lost it. We treat them instead as an independent entity and deal with them directly, in a First Nations kind of way.”
“No way Isaac goes for that...”
“Forget Isaac. Charlton will go for it, once Isaac gets impeached or resigns.”
Julia sighed and kneaded her temples. “Won't work.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, then heard an incomprehensible flurry of sound as the door to the office opened and the stout form of Rosencrantz pushed through.
“There's got to be a better way to block eavesdroppers. I'm getting a headache.”
Rosencrantz leaned against the wall under the television and stared at the floor. “All right, you guys have a convert. I was looking at some stuff, pre-AmeriNews, And it looks like Philly isn't the only one. L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, all the big cities are protesting in some way. Smaller towns, we got local government denouncing us. Telethepee, Ohio just signed a declaration of secession.”
“So the public is definitely with the Defenders on this?” Julia asked.
“Definitely. No words from overseas, but it's obvious where the U.N. will be.”
“And Isaac still wants to blame terrorists and ride this out?”
“Fuck this.” Edgar stood and began walking away.
“Where are you going?” Julia asked, standing as well.
“Home. Just like last night. He won't listen; he won't hear me.”
Rosencrantz shuddered at the phrase “last night” but kept himself enough together to say, “C'mon; he's almost got a statement worked out. Just a little longer...”
Edgar stopped and stared absently at a portrait at the end of the corridor. “Amanda needs me...”
When he got home the night before, he had found Amanda, still in her blood-smeared dress, asleep in the bed next to Ethan. He had tried to waken her, to get her out and into her own room. She resisted at first, and eventually Edgar lay down at the foot of Ethan’s bed, determined to stay with his family even as he suspected that he had lost the right to do so.
Amanda’s stumbling exit from the room woke Edgar an hour later and he followed her into their room, helped her out of her dress, into the shower. When she was done she sat on the bed, undressed, staring at the wall. Edgar's instincts told him he should do something to help. This wasn’t the way Amanda acted; she was an actor, not a reactor. She was always busy, always ready for something new. Seeing her completely destroyed by what had happened just felt… unnatural.
At some point he woke up, dressed in clean pajamas, in his own bed. He found Amanda downstairs, reorganizing the house, giving new orders to the maid, sending faxes and looking over client account files for work. The slow-motion Amanda from the night before was gone; she looked to be making up for lost time.
“Edgar,” she called as he came down the stairs. “I’m not going into the office today; I can write grants from home. I want you to go get Ethan; breakfast is in ten minutes; Dora has everything ready. We’re going to have a nice family meal, then we’re going out to my parent’s place. They’re on vacation, and they won’t mind if we use the house.”
Amanda didn’t stop moving. She walked to a wall screen, brought up a spread sheet full of figures, tapped at something, nodded, and moved over to a small mound of papers on the dining room table. “It’s been forever since we’ve gotten out of the city—“
“We’re not in the city—“
“And Ethan won’t be missing anything at school. It’ll be good for the family to be together.”
She wasn’t making up for lost time. She was trying to put as much time as possible between last night and the rest of her life.
“Mandy, you know I can’t—“
Amanda stopped moving and stood stock-still, her bathrobe quavering from the force of her deep breathing. “Edgar.” The name was ice cold. “You’re a member of this family. You’re not a sperm donor, not a pay check, not the goddamn SecDef. You’re a father, a husband, and you will start acting like one.”
The accusation in her words triggered something; everything he had been holding back flooded in, and everything was swept away until he stood alone, holding that pathetic little pistol against the unknown, a spear against a tank. His knees gave way, and he slumped against the kitchen island.
Amanda rushed to his side. “Shh, shh, it's okay, you know I love you, it's okay—”
It wasn’t. It could never be, not after last night. The Defenders were Mistlethwakey's tools; how long was it before the General decided to bring them to bear against Edgar? How long before Isaac found out Edgar's role in last night's events? Amanda wasn’t safe; Ethan wasn’t safe; the whole world was under the gun now. And it was Edgar’s fault. He had failed as a husband and a father; it was too late to try again.
He fought back to his feet, pulled away from Amanda. “No. You take Ethan, go where you need to, to be safe, but I can’t go.”
“Edgar, please, your family needs you—“
“No, you need the person you think I am. Who knows? Maybe I’ll become that person. But right now, right now I have to be practical. I can’t be the person who makes you feel safe, I have to be the one who makes sure you are safe.”
“Edgar, please—” There was a note of last night’s desperation in her voice.
He was still in the East Room, still hearing the shouts, the wet sound of pain. But now he was doing it, was stepping up to face the creature. He was more terrified now than ever before, but if he got through this, everything he had ever hoped for would come to him—
“What I do today, I do for us.” He grabbed Amanda’s arms and forced her to look into his eyes. “You want me to be a husband? Let me protect my family; then I’ll be back with you, and I will never leave again.”
Amanda said nothing, and Edgar wished he could be inside her mind, could know what she thought.
After several moments, Amanda nodded. “Go. Fight the fight, face Lemlin again.” At least she seemed to know what he was thinking. “But come back to us.”
He leaned down and kissed her. “I’ll be home for dinner.”
Now, standing outside of the president's office, he checked his mobile. He'd be back not long after lunch...
“Amanda needs me more than Isaac does.”
Both Julia and Rosencrantz nodded, then turned away from him and reentered the office, accompanied by another bark of incoherent noise.
Edgar made his way across the mansion to where an armored car was waiting to take him back to his own vehicle, but stopped when he heard raised voices in the entrance hall. He paused and listened for a moment, recognizing the accented voice that dominated the argument.
“We will see him! He is the one at the center of the claims, and we will hear directly from the man himself!”
It was the Iranian ambassador, Ahmad Mokri, a man Edgar had met in a professional capacity on several occasions. He might be exactly who Edgar was looking for.
Abandoning his exit strategy, Edgar made his way to the entrance hall. Moments later he found a small group of well-dressed men and women of varying ethnicities and ages; all were known on sight, although he could only recall a few names.
Ahmad stood at the head of the group, arguing with Elliot Nieman.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mokri, but I must stress again that the president is in a very important meeting—”
“This isn’t about his meeting, or even his country! This is a global issue, and will be addressed as such!”
“I cannot simply—”
Edgar smiled. If Isaac wouldn’t listen to his own advisers, then a half-dozen irate emissaries should do the trick.... and he would still be home in time for dinner.
“Ahmad!” he called, summoning up as much charisma as he could.
The chief of staff was forgotten as Ahmad rounded on him, a smile beginning to bisect his face. “Ah, Mr. Secretary! I'm so glad to see you alive today! That was quite a display of heroism you put on last night!”
Edgar suppressed a shudder and bowed his head. “Just doing what anyone would do for their country.”
Ahmad inclined is head. “I would certainly hope so, yes, but perhaps this country was not in need of your heroics?”
“Well, until we can find out the truth behind Lemlin’s words, we should give the country the benefit of the doubt.”
Ahmad shrugged. “Which is why we...” he gestured to the small crowd clustered around him, “are here.”
The chief of staff stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Ed, I tried to stop them—“
Edgar smiled in what he hoped was a pleasant manner. Based on Ellie's involuntary shudder, it wasn’t. “It’s all right. They have legitimate concerns. Hell, we all do. Maybe speaking with the president can help to settle those fears.”
“The president left clear instructions that he wasn’t to be—”
Edgar leaned in close, trying to stretch himself up even half an inch higher. “Look,” he hissed, “I’m a cabinet member, an adviser to the president. Specifically, I help him in the defense of this nation. If that requires helping him through some… negotiations… I will certainly do my best. So don’t push this, okay?”
Ellie swallowed and nodded. “I guess if you were to escort the—”
He turned back to Ahmad’s delegation. “Ladies, gentlemen, if you’ll follow me; I’ll see what I can do about getting you in to see the president.”
Edgar led them back the way he had come, realizing that no matter how Isaac reacted, he now had important international allies in place for his upcoming promotion.
Edgar stopped his followers next to the bench he had so recently left. “If you'll wait here, I’ll see if the President is ready to meet with you.”
Through the door, through ten feet of incoherent, high-pitched babbling, into the small knot of people clustered in front of the desk.
“—would make running this place fucking impossible! We would have a war on our hands, one we can’t afford to—“
“And if we just stick our heads up our asses, what then? Huh? You think they’ll treat us any better?”
“Look, maybe we should just go online, see which idea is the most popular right now—“
“Shut up, Eli!”
Rosencrantz had been wrong; they were nowhere near close to a resolution.
The President noticed Edgar's presence. “Ready to help us out here, or are you still saying we should sell out?”
The discussion lulled as all eyes turned to Edgar. “I've reconsidered my stance, yes. I now say we acknowledge Lemlin and the rest of the Defenders, grant them asylum, and allow them to initiate the Q-bomb.”
“Q-bomb?” Rosencrantz asked.
“Something Fendleton talked about,” the president said, dismissing the questio with a wave of his hand. “Got the name from an old movie, The Mouse That Roared. Set up the Defenders as an unassailable super-weapon, and world peace ensues. This only works, of course—” he glared up at Edgar, “—if they're under our control.”
Edgar shrugged. “Doesn't matter to me; you won't listen to reason. Maybe you'll listen to international scrutiny, though.”
“The fuck does that mean?”
“Shut off the voice boxes; we have visitors.”
Before Isaac could protest, Edgar hurried to the door, pulled it open, and gestured flamboyantly to the emissaries waiting outside. The unintelligible babble was choked off just before the emissaries stepped forward.
“Mr. President,” he called over his shoulder, “may I present Ambassadors Mokri, Ammanue—”
“Excuse me!” Issac said, lurching to his feet. “This is a private meeting, and uninvited guests are not...” He trailed off, glancing from ambassador to ambassador. “Mr. Mokri,” he said at last, “to what do I owe this pleasure?”
Ahmad inclined his head in greeting, then frowned. “First, I would like to offer my condolences for the members of your administration who lost their lives in last night’s unpleasantness.”
“I’ll be sure to pass that along to their families.”
Ahmad nodded. “Secondly,” he paused and grimaced. “Secondly, I would like to ask you about the validity of Mr. Lemlin’s statements.”
Isaac glared at the man. “I’m afraid we’re still trying to ascertain that for ourselves.”
Ahmad looked back at the others in his group. “So you deny his accusations?”
Edgar swallowed and held his breath; outside scrutiny had arrived in the White House and the time for strategy had passed.
The president chewed on his lip for a moment, then straightened. “While we of course take no responsibility for Mr. Lemlin’s actions, we are putting all our effort into discovering the veracity of his statement.”
Edgar released his breath.
Ahmad nodded, disappointment clear in his expression. “I thought that’s what you'd say. I suppose you’ll be clarifying your position in due course?”
Ahmad nodded again. “Well, before you do, I’d like you to consider some things. These are not official positions. Just… food for thought.” He gestured back at his entourage. “India, Pakistan, Kenya, Korea, Indonesia, and of course Iran, have all been in discussion, and we’ve come up with some provisional resolutions. If the United States was responsible for the creation of the Defenders, as Lemlin alleges, we will consider it an unconscionable crime against humanity. However, we will judge it no more harshly than what many of our own countries have done in times past. We are willing to work with the United States, to help in any way we can to put this unpleasantness behind us and move on as a species.
“But…” here he paused and glared at Isaac until the president averted his eyes. “But if we find that the United States has intentions, any intentions of using the Defenders as weapons, in any way, we will respond in kind. If what Mr. Lemlin says is true, then the Defenders are on the same order of magnitude as nuclear devices. We have no Defenders, so we will have to respond in kind any way we can.”
The room was dead silent.
“Did you just threaten nuclear retaliation?” the president whispered.
Ahmad laughed, the sound seeming inappropriate under the circumstances. “Threaten nuclear retaliation? I did no such thing! Unless of course this conversation is being recorded, in which case I would love to hear what else is in the recording.”
“I'll take what you've said under advisement. Good day.”
Ahmad inclined his head once more. Without another word, he and his entourage turned and left the room.
Edgar closed his eyes. That had gone about as bad as could be expected.
“Did Bob put you up to this?” Isaac asked. “Did Bob think the Defenders would be so much better off on their own? It would have worked, Ed. We would have had our own goddamn invincible army, volunteering itself on its own terms, the rest of the world none the wiser. But Bob just had to put them out in the open, didn't he?”
“Not sure I follow...”
Isaac sneered and leaned back on his desk, the rest of his cabinet forgotten. “Doesn't tell you everything, does he? Back when all this started, he wanted to use the Defenders as rogues to start World War III, let us take out anyone we didn't like, come out as a superpower again. I was the one who talked the president into wiping them and getting them to volunteer for the military. Who would argue with us if we just found super-soldiers?”
“I'm fairly certain Bob isn't picking a war.”
Either Isaac didn't hear, or he didn't listen. “You tell him he's won, all right? He gets his goddamn war. We have rogue nations making super-soldiers. We'll retaliate.”
Julia and Rosencrantz both groaned aloud. Several others looked uncomfortable.
“Eli! Get ready, we're going live in twenty.”
Edgar shook his head and left. He saw now why the General wouldn't work with Isaac any longer. It would have to be Edgar who fulfilled the plan...
But he had no intention of letting Mistlethwakey pull his strings.
Maria Ruiz sat in the ready room at the AmeriNews D.C. studio, rubbing her head and sipping from a cup of coffee that didn't contain alcohol, if her producer happened to ask. The entire news office had been going at a frantic pace since last night, with Maria pulled in to cover the various riots, in addition to her role as a political reporter. She hadn't slept since two nights ago.
She was contemplating a quick nap when commotion at the door caught her attention. An intern stood there, tablet in hand. “Excuse me, everyone,” she said, and the haggard reporters swung their eyes her way. “Just told the Eagle will speak in less than five minutes. Watch, pick a position, and be ready for on-air.”
Maria groaned, then turned to the small makeup table she had been assigned. She began unscrewing jars, ignoring the flurry of activity starting behind her. Forty-five minutes ago: she had been on forty-five minutes ago, for a two-hour block, and was now going back up. She needed a nap...
Too soon, the sound of the AmeriNews “Breaking Report” music interrupted her thoughts. She could see the reflection of a tired-looking anchor on the television. “We have just received word that the White House will be issuing a statement addressing the attack upon President Latterndale and the accusations leveled against him by one Mervin Lemlin.” He paused for a moment. “We now go live to the White House.”
The scene changed to a blue curtain, bright behind a dull-grey podium. Something looked off about it.... There were no flashes of cameras, no general hubbub of a crowded room being picked up by the podium’s microphones.
It took Maria a few moments to realize that the room was deserted, save for the camera operator.
A moment later the heavy-set form of Eli Rosencrantz came into the shot and slid in behind the podium.
“Members of the American public… hello.” His voice sounded hollow, as if he were speaking from memory without understanding what he said. “It is with great sadness that I come to you today to speak of the events that transpired last night. As you are all no doubt aware, at eight seventeen on the evening of September eleventh an unknown assailant, claiming to be deceased Private First Class Mervin Lemlin, infiltrated the White House and proceeded to assault the president, as well as guests and security staff through inexplicable means. Immediately prior to the assault, allegations were made against the United States military, and the nation in general, that we were responsible for the creation of so-called Defender super-soldiers, such as the assailant himself.”
Rosencrantz paused, clearly shaken. Maria turned in her seat, seeing that the others in the room had also turned to the television.
“While we are taking these allegations very seriously, and cannot at this time completely rule out the possibility of some faction within the government being responsible for the illegal and unethical creation of the Defenders, the President, his administration, and the United States as a sovereign whole deny any involvement in these heinous acts.”
The room erupted in yells of disagreement and anger. Maria tried to ignore the shouts and listen to Rosencrantz.
“It is our firm belief the assailant, as well as other Defenders, if indeed they truly exist, to be the work of foreign agents, intent on destabilizing this government.
“It is with this belief that we will attempt to come to the truth about this incident and bring to justice those behind it.” He paused again, giving the camera a thousand-yard stare. He looked as if he had just realized he was giving a speech on live TV. “Um… Th-thank you, and good night.”
As Rosencrantz abandoned the podium, the scene shifted back to the AmeriNews anchor, who mirrored the Press Secretary's stare for several seconds before thinking of something to say.
The situation was different in the ready room.
“No, that is total bullshit—“
“Do they really think we’re that stupid—“
“What the hell were they thinking—“
Maria slumped forward, her head resting on the mirror. She let out a soft laugh, which just for a moment turned into a sob; no chance of a nap now...