Saturday, January 12, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Following Lemlin’s death, Edgar found himself being carried outside by rescue workers operating EHUD suits.  The part of him that wasn’t locked down with shock was proud that he had licensed the suit for rescue purposes, but that part fell silent as he rose over the tables and saw the entirety of the night's carnage.
The floor was 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 EHUD, surrounded by agents, being hustled through the shattered main door to parts unknown.
Edgar's shock slipped away long enough for him to remember Amanda, to wonder where she was.  He needed to find her, but was having trouble moving on his own. 
As he was carried through the door he spotted Mistlethwakey overseeing the EHUDs 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, the General looked up and flashed a quick smile.
Edgar passed out then.  He woke up in a tent, surrounded once more by screams and whimpers, but also by people in mint-green jumpsuits.  One of them approached him and began poking at his forehead.
Edgar batted the hand away.  “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’ve got to stop the bleeding, sir.”
“What bleeding?”  Edgar reached up and winced as he touched the deep gash on his forehead.  He didn’t remember receiving it, but he knew that the entirety of the night's events would take some time to process.
“Where’s my wife?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.  Please keep still.”
The medic jabbed some kind of antiseptic gel into the gash.  It burned, and Edgar pulled away, hissing.  “Shit!  Will you stop that?  I’m fine!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the medic said, still jabbing at the gash, not taking his eyes from his work, “but if these aren’t seen to these will become infected.”
Edgar still tried to step away, but the medic's grip on his shoulder was too tight.  “Don’t you have someone worse off you can help?”
“No, sir, there’re plenty of us for everyone.”  He let go of Edgar's shoulder and gripped his forehead, doing his best to hold the edges of the gash together.  He applied a thick gel to the wound with his other hand, then pressed a bandage onto his forehead.  “And that should do it.  Just try to—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 booths covered the White House lawn, each one swarming with medical staff, injured party guests, and soldiers.  So many soldiers. 
He set out in search of Amanda, picking a direction at random and following it.
He passed near the White House’s outer fence and noticed, far down the street, a veritable wall of humanity.  Tourists, reporters, the rabble, kept at bay by a thin line of police in riot gear; thank God for that.
Edgar continued searching, growing more concerned as he reached the last of the tents, afraid that Amanda may be among the white-shrouded figures that continued to be brought out of the booths at a steady pace.
The tent flap pushed aside as a medic left the booth 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?”
She swallowed and took a deep breath.  “Ethan…”
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 gripped her shoulders and forced her to look him in the eyes.  “He’s fine, he’s at home safe—“
“Ethan!” Amanda screamed, shaking her hands.
Edgar released her shoulders and grabbed her wrists.  “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, moving at a glacial pace, heading in a roundabout manner towards the valet pickup.  Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, Edgar felt shock taking hold, unpleasant memories assaulting him in a steady rush.  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—
He squeezed her hand, and was reassured when she squeezed in return.
They were within sight of the abandoned valet station when Edgar heard the opening bars of “Hail to the Chief” emanating from his pocket.  He waited it out, letting the music fall silent.  It started again, and Edgar felt a pang of guilt.  Something unprecedented had happened—no, other pictures flashed across his memory—something almost unprecedented had happened, and Isaac would need advice on what to do next.
As he moved to reach into his jacket pocket, he again felt a squeeze from Amanda, reminding him that he had already done his duty for the president tonight.  How long until Ethan found out about the night's events?
The music continued.
He could still consult from home...
Ignoring the reproachful gaze from Amanda's dead eyes, he pulled out his mobile and clicked it open.  “Hello?”
“Edgar?”  Not the president: Ellie, his chief of staff.  “Good.  We, uh… we weren’t sure you were alive.”
There was no good answer to that.
“Well… glad you’re still alive.”
“Me too.”  Neither spoke for several long moments.  Edgar cleared his throat.  “Look, unless this is important, I’ve got to get Amanda home and—“
“No, no, no.”  There was a hint of hysteria in the Ellie'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.
“Ethan…” Amanda muttered.
He squeezed her hand and smiled.
“Edgar.  This is important.  This is the whole fucking country here.”  Yes, there was definitely hysteria there.
But there was also truth.  The needs of an entire country did seem to be more important than the needs of his family.  And if the country couldn't be sorted out, if society was collapsing around his ears, what good could he do for his family?
A quiet voice reminded him that he was involved in collapsing that society...
“I need someone to get Amanda home.  We’re at the valet post now.”
“I’ll send someone.”
Before Edgar could even end the call, Amanda had released his hand and taken a step away.
“Mandy, please...
“Don’t you fucking leave me, you fucking bastard,” she hissed, her eyes wide and her shoulders quivering.  “Don't you dare leave us now...”
“Amanda, I have to go now.  I know it’s hard but—”
“Fuck you.”
Edgar stared at her, completely unsure of what to do next.
Their stare-down was interrupted by the clatter of EHUD suits moving near them.  “Mr. Secretary?” a modulated voice asked.
Edgar turned to see two armored soldiers standing behind him.  “I need to get a car, or a cab or something to get her home—”
“No!” Amanda yelled.  “No, no, no, no, no...”
Edgar turned back to her and saw his wife on her knees, curled forward, sobbing.  His leg started twitching in sympathy, his whole body succumbing to whatever emotions were buried under the shock.
“What's the address, sir?”
The emotion passed, and Edgar was back in control.  “We're, uh, we're on the web...”
“Good.”  Edgar nodded, then turned  towards the White house.  He took a few steps, stopped, and turned back to Amanda.  “Mandy?  I still love you.  You know that.  I’m not leaving you.”
Amanda fought her way to her feet and turned her back on her husband.
Edgar nodded again, and walked away.  Behind him, he could hear the soldiers talking, could hear them comforting his wife, doing the job he was meant to do.

Most of the cabinet was gathered when Edgar arrived in the Oval Office.  Some of them looked up as he entered, the fear on their faces transforming into reverence.  They had seen his confrontation with Lemlin.
“Good,” Isaac said, not looking up from where he sat behind his desk.  “Everyone’s here; let’s start.”
Edgar gestured at all the empty seats scattered around the room.  “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 picked 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.  He wore only slacks and an undershirt, his bare arms mottled with reddish stains.
“Bob,” the president said.  “What happened out there?”
Mistlethwakey moved further into the room and slumped into a chair.  “Well, he was definitely one of the Defenders—“
“Goddamn it!”  Isaac slammed his fist down on the desk and glared at the General.  “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 trying to bring this whole thing crashing down on us!”
All eyes turned to Mistlethwakey.
He shrugged.  “It’s possible.” 
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.  His stomach clenched.  Had Bob involved Edgar in this plot only to turn on him, let him take the blame for what had happened tonight?
“Bob?” the president prompted.
Mistlethwakey sighed.  “Okay, yeah, there... there might be the possibility of sabotage.”
There was a collective groan from everyone except Edgar and Eli.  Eli continued to giggle to himself; Edgar was calm.  Allen.  Mistlethwakey was finally going to play Allen.
“Details, Bob,” the vice president 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.
Images of the scrubber’s “reservations” flashed through Edgar's mind.  It looked something like what had happened tonight...
“You all right?” Julia asked.
Edgar shuddered and nodded.  “I just felt, 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.”
“Captain Fendleton.”
“What?”  The president looked up, eyes wide with surprise.  “Allen?  No.  He was a good soldier.  Hell, the whole program was his idea in the first place.”
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.  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 didn't know what Mistlethwakey's line was on this, but he jumped in as best he could, hoping he could calm the president as much as possible.  “This is the first I’ve heard, too.  I only know as much as Bob tells me.  If he chooses to keep this secret, I can’t tell you about it.”
The General snorted and rubbed his arms.  “Nice to see I'm the scapegoat in all this.”
“Fuck scapegoat.”  An idea was beginning to form.  Mistlethwakey had said he had set everything up, and all Edgar had to do was sit back and reap the benefits.  If that were true, then Mistlethwakey was a loose end, and now was the perfect chance to eliminate him. 
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?”
“No, I don’t think she was just an accident.  I think she was a direct consequence of Allen's 'reservations', and that what happened tonight could have been avoided had we known about Fendleton's plans.”  He paused and rubbed his chin.  “I also think that something like tonight could—will happen again.”
With a word-weary sigh, 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.  The only option is to scrap the program and collect the Defenders.”
The president made no reply, and Mistlethwakey continued.
“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 almost 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 open palms down on the table.  “Get out!  Get the fuck out of this office right now!  Go!”
Mistlethwakey nodded, pried himself from his chair, and left.  Edgar was sure this was the first time he had seen the General obey a direct order. 
“Edgar.”  Isaac had returned to his slumped posture.  “What do we do?”
“You mean besides hang Bob out to dry?”
That earned Edgar a chuckle.  “Much as I would like to… no, 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.  We abandon the program.  Drop pretenses and try to make peace with the Defenders.  Aside from that, the best we can do is prepare for war and hope the public doesn’t start demanding blood.  Either way ends bad.”
“No.”  Isaac shook his head and patted the desk.  “No.  We can’t kill this.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?  You’ve been trying for a reason to kill this thing for—“
“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 that we know--knew--and 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 in close.  And we don't know which of them will recognize him and go rogue on us.  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 room, 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 broken when the vice president gasped and jumped out of her seat.  “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, in the goddamn Oval Office.”
“Damn straight.”  Isaac tapped a quick beat on 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.  “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.”
“Hey, where are you going?  You can’t just leave!”
She ignored him and walked out the door.
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 anyway.  Don’t need pessimism, don’t need undermining.”  He nodded to himself.  “It won’t be pretty, but we can ride this out.”
There was somber head-nodding around the room.
“You know what?  Fuck you.”  Edgar stood.  “You all didn't see him, alright?  You didn't see him like I did.  He was pissed off, and he was not going quietly.  We got lucky.  What happens when ten of them come together, huh?  I'd think a little harder about keeping up the charade before you have to face real power.  The only way any of us stay alive at this point is if they let us.”  His speech done, he followed the former Vice President out.
“Where are you going?”  Isaac’s icy voice stopped Edgar at the door.
“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 shit-storm.  You may not listen to me, but I’ll try my best.”
Isaac nodded, but in no other way acknowledged Edgar’s presence.
Outside the office the corridor was bright, and a frail old man in his undershirt sat under a painting of a horse.  He rose and strode over to Edgar, his lithe movement belying his age.
“You did good in there.  Said what needed to be said.  Just got off the phone with head of security; they’ve pieced together the president pro tempore; three down.”  He reached to pat Edgar on the shoulder.
Edgar ducked the arm, grabbed the front of Mistlethwakey's shirt, and slammed him into the wall.  “Listen,” he hissed, “I'll do it, I'll stick with your Q-bomb shit, but we're through, you hear me?  No more manipulating me, no more dropping little surprises like Lemlin on my family, alright?  You'll get what you want, but leave me the hell alone!”  He released the General and Mistlethwakey slid down until he was standing on his own. 
“Whatever you say.”  He turned and strode away.
Edgar didn't notice.  All he saw was the smile Mistlethwakey wore throughout their whole confrontation...

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