Edgar Latterndale rose from the floor, his clothes soaked in blood, and stepped up to the platform. He held up a large pistol and spoke, his voice lost in the dull roar of the ballroom. Merv Lemlin turned to stare down at Latterndale, looked as if he were about to speak, and then was obscured by a pulsing white circle.
“Shit.” Alice leaned forward and paused the video. “Needs to buffer.”
“Nah,” John said, “won't do any good. Their servers are probably overloaded.”
They sat in John's cubicle, surrounded by five of their coworkers, staring at the video on John's second screen.
“Ten bucks says their servers crash,” someone called from the back.
“It's not going to crash,” someone else answered, “it's the state channel. They have enough resources to handle this kinda thing.”
“Not something this big.” Alice shook her head and leaned back into her chair. “I still can’t believe this happened.”
Walter, a structural engineer whom John had worked with over a decade ago, scooted forward between Alice and John. “I heard that it was successful, and the reason it’s taking so long to get an official statement is that they’re trying to find a convincing body double.”
“No, this guy kept his camera on the whole time, and you can see Latterndale getting pulled out.”
Walter shrugged. “I don’t know. Just what I heard.” He sighed. “Damn, it’s just so surreal, you know? I mean, Kennedy was just a bullet or three, all the theories aside. But this? What the hell was this?”
“Just special effects,” John said, refreshing the page in an attempt to play the video. “They know that whatever happened all the conspiracy nuts’ll over-inflate it, so they’re doing the job for them. Whatever happened is really embarrassing, and they don’t want anyone to know.”
John shrugged while he absently juggled a pen. “I don’t know. Maybe someone in upper management went nuts and blew up the ballroom.”
“Why—no, how would they get everyone together in less than a day’s time to film a cover up that is going to be leaked by AmeriNews?” Alice asked.
“Body doubles.” John lost control of his pen and watched it roll across the floor.
“Alright,” Walter said, “for the sake of argument, let’s assume that everything was real. This guy really could levitate things and read people’s minds and stuff. You think he’s telling the truth?”
“You mean about being made by us?”
“Yeah. I know we’ve done some pretty bad stuff in the past but this...” he shrugged. “I don’t know; it just seems so... North Korean.”
Alice rolled her chair back and forth, her lips pursed in concentration. “I don’t support what Lemlin did. I’m pretty well anti-violence. But I do think he was telling the truth; why would he lie?” She smiled, looking embarrassed. “I’ve already joined a pro-Defender rally for this Saturday.”
John snorted. “Sounds like something my niece would do.”
“Well, she sounds pretty smart—civically minded, at least. What do you think, John? Did we do this or not?”
John thought for a moment. He had seen some of the video and heard Lemlin’s testimony; it all seemed too fantastical to be true. And when the White House made an official statement, it would of course denounce Lemlin as some sort of foreign agent. What was it that Rachel said? If the government made an immediate statement, it was a cover-up? So if they’d waited this long… “He’s lying. It’s all part of his attack on the president, to discredit him if he couldn’t kill him.”
“So I guess you’re a big government kind of guy, then.”
“No, I just can’t imagine us giving someone psychic abilities and then not exploiting it for everything its worth.”
“So you admit he really had psychic powers?” Walter said, catching onto John's phrasing.
“I’m still having trouble believing that.”
Someone at the back of the cube retrieved the pen and began to juggle it. “Okay, screw the rest of the video; we all watched it earlier. White House have a statement yet?”
John turned back to his computer and ran a search. “Nothing. Statement from the Pope about Lemlin’s powers, though.”
Alice leaned forward. “Do tell.”
“Let’s see. Careful examination of scripture, consulted with many religious leaders, da-da-da-da… Okay, basically it’s either a corrupted revelation of God’s power or a show of the adaptive powers of nature; he hasn’t decided.” He glanced at the clock in the corner of the screen. “Ooh, and it’s late and I forgot my lunch. I hate to leave this conversation unfinished, but I’ve got to head out.”
Walter dropped a hand onto John's shoulder. “First, update on that tower.”
“Yeah, sure.” John closed the web browser and opened is SkyCrest file. “Alright, let's walk you through this….”
The only remnant of the original Sky Crest was the Central Maintenance Core, though it now stretched upward for over a mile. Around it, was a triple-helix spiral of colossal dodecahedrons, each containing multiple floors. In the gaps between the outer layer of glass and the triple-helix were atriums stretching across several stories.
The shopping center that extended from one side had become moat-like, encircling the tower’s half-mile wide base. Twelve smaller towers projected up from the pit to join the central tower as buttresses.
Walter nodded appreciatively. “Pretty nice....”
“Is it workable?” Alice asked.
John shrugged. “I ran stress tests. As far as the computer’s concerned, all it needs is an underwriter.”
“Yeah...” Walter sighed. “Not likely to happen.”
“What's that mean?” the man behind him asked.
“It means that with a major terrorist attack on the president, the economy's going to take a nose dive, and luxury towers are out of the question.”
The other man responded, and John took the opportunity to slip out of the office.
He had walked for two blocks before he realized he wasn't particularly hungry. He just wanted to get out of the office, to digest the events of the previous evening.
It was tempting to dismiss them as fabrications. Psychic super-soldiers were too fantastic to be real. To accept them at face value would be a tremendous leap of faith, one John wasn’t sure he was willing to make. For him, the paranormal was a mixture of con men and credulous victims, the Bible was exaggerated folk-lore, and extraterrestrial life was single-celled organisms living in ponds on the moons of Jupiter. That was life, that was normal. If he accepted at face value what had happened, if the walls of that normalcy could be breached that much, what else could find its way through the cracks?
Possibly nothing, he realized. Psychic super-soldiers didn’t entail… unicorns, say. And, in all honesty, the Defenders weren't entirely unanticipated; he had seen the rumors online, the supposed legal foundation....
The government would be aware of that, too. Maybe they were covering something, or trying to pick a fight, and just used a convenient story everyone already believed.
The sounds of a crowd on the sidewalk ahead pulled John out of his thoughts, and he looked up to see a swarm of people gathered outside an Army recruiting office, most carrying signs, and several wearing crudely printed “Defend the Defenders” t-shirts.
One of the t-shirt wearers, a frizzy-haired man wielding a megaphone, was in the middle of a tirade. “—have been victims of the military-industrial complex for too long! Who suppressed American workers in the 19th century? Them! Who usurped South American sovereignty in the 20th century? Them! Who cut the legs out from under public health care in the 21st century? Them!”
Each shout of “Them!” brought an answering chorus from the audience.
“And now,” the man continued, “they’re hitting us where we live, screwing around with us on the genetic level! Well, I say, ‘No more!’ No more of our children into the meat-grinder, no more soldiers sacrificed to Them!”
If the man said more, it was drowned out by fevered cheering from the crowd. The uproar was loud enough to attract the attention of those within the office, and the cheers turned to angry boos and curses as an officer came out and began speaking to the man with the megaphone.
John had seen enough. He was just about to continue on his way when a woman detached herself from the crowd and came to stand beside him.
“Hell of a show, huh?” she asked.
The woman was a little shorter than John, pale and thin, with high cheekbones and short red hair. Despite the relative warmth of the day, she was wearing a thick, dirty jacket. Her smell caused John to take a step away. The woman stepped closer to him again.
“So,” she said conversationally, “you can spare a dollar, maybe?”
John decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. “Sorry, I’m not interested in donating.”
The woman laughed, a high-pitched, grating sound. “Donate! Hah! No. I’m not with them. No, no, no, hell no. Hah! No man, lunch money. I’m hungry; can you spare a dollar? Maybe three?”
“No, sorry, I don’t carry cash.” He turned and took a few steps. Behind him he could hear raised voices.
“C’mon,” the woman insisted, “is that any way to treat an old friend?”
John didn’t look back.
His indifference didn’t seem to faze her. “C’mon, man, you seriously don’t recognize me? It’s me, Cyd, c’mon, you gotta recognize me!” She reached out and caught his hand. “You gotta be shittin’ me John; you gotta be shittin’ me!”
This time John did turn around. He stared at the woman—Cyd—trying to figure out how she had known his name. Stolen wallet? No, she had guessed and gotten lucky. Had to have done. Behind her, the crowd was closing in on the officer.
“Look, lady,” John began, trying to retrieve his hand, “I don’t know where you think you know me from—“
“From the Program, John!” There was a crazed sheen to her eyes. “From the Program, back when we were Defenders!” She wasn't loud, but she was able to draw the attention of the crowd's fringe.
“You’re crazy!” John managed to free his hand and stumbled back a few steps.
“Are you really a Defender?” someone in the crowd asked as he made his way closer to John and Cyd.
“Hell, yes!” Cyd declared. “Me and John, we were EHUDs! I wasn’t nothing special, but John here, Allen picked him to lead the resistance!”
More people began to drift from the crowd, pulled by the siren song of Cyd’s ramblings. John tried to walk away, but there were too many people now. For her part, Cyd was preening under the attention and continued on with her story that John was called by God—or at least by His prophet, Allen—to destroy the hated military-industrial complex.
Seeing that the crowd was now turning itself onto a visibly uncomfortable civilian, the officer tried to refocus their attention. When he grabbed onto the ring-leader’s shoulder, the man with the megaphone swung around and punched him in the face. The officer clutched at his bleeding nose and stumbled away while the man with the megaphone stared in shock at his bloody knuckles. Moments later he was tackled by several soldiers who came rushing from the office.
As quickly as the crowd had turned its attention to John, it now turned back to the chaos that had erupted in front of the office. Some in the crowd, sensing the inevitable outcome of the fight, hurried away. Others, among them Cyd, gleefully entered in. Most, John included, stood in mute fascination bordering on horror.
Some part of John knew he should leave. Unfortunately, this part of John had o motor control. The fight was growing, and he had to dodge someone stumbling back towards him. Through the tangle of arms and legs, John could see that one of the soldiers had been pinned and was being bludgeoned by shoes.
A hand grabbed John, and he twisted around, expecting to see Cyd again. Instead he came face-to-face with a different woman. She was his height, with a flat nose and straight black hair. “This way,” she insisted, jerking her head away from the riot.
John didn’t argue; he followed when she started pulling him away.
Pedestrians all along the street were stopping to look at the commotion in front of the recruiting office, and many pressed closer to get a better look.
John and his rescuer turned at the first cross-street they came to, and the sounds of the riot quieted behind them. They slowed and continued on for half a block until they were more or less alone.
“Thanks,” John said, reclaiming his arm.
“Don’t mention it.” The woman leaned against a building and took a deep breath, her face flushed from their recent sprint. John didn't look much better. “I saw you just standing there and figured you could use a little prompting.” She pushed herself upright and offered John her hand. “I’m Naomi.”
He shook her hand. “John.”
“Yeah, I know.”
John nodded. “She was a little loud, huh?”
Naomi imitated John's nod, and they both laughed.
“Jesus.” John pushed his glasses up on his head and rubbed at his eyes. “An actual riot. I—I never thought I'd see that in this day and age, right in the middle of the city.”
Naomi shrugged. “People are people, I guess.”
“Yeah, but all this over something that might not be true?”
Naomi chuckled and shook her head. “Not a believer, huh?”
“I just—I mean, it's a lot to take in, conspiracy theories aside, and all we have is video, which can be—” He was cut off by a sudden sharp gesture from Naomi.
“You hear that?”
As soon as she finished talking, he heard. The sounds of the riot, of yelling, of glass shattering and large objects being thrown about, was rising in intensity.
He nodded. “We should get out of here. Hey, I'll walk you home, okay, or at least the nearest train station?”
“No, I'm up from D.C. for business, and my hotel's clear on the other side of town.”
“What were you doing over here, then?”
She shrugged. “Sightseeing.”
“Listen, we at least need to get inside somewhere and wait this out.” He gestured back to the street corner, where a steady stream of people was running in and out of the fray. “There's a pretty nice bar and grill about a mile from here, should be safe enough.”
Naomi nodded, and John led her at a brisk pace away from the chaos.
They passed under the outdated neon sign of The Gilbert Wallace some twenty minutes later, and were surprised to see that it was almost deserted.
“Lunch crowd's out,” the hostess explained, “and most people don't want to get caught up in the riot.”
“But you're still open?” John asked.
The hostess nodded and ushered them inside the brick-lined main dining hall. The televisions over the bar all showed a live feed from the riot. The hostess led them to a large table near the corner, and John had just sat down when he heard a woman call his name. His stomach lurched as he flashed back on Cyd, and lurched again when he saw the speaker rise from her table and walk over to him.
“Oh, my God, it's really you.” It was Lucy.
John swallowed, feeling the cracks in his wall of normalcy open just a bit wider.
She looked the same as he had seen her the night he called—the only way he remembered her looking—but there were signs of stress, a few extra wrinkles around her eyes.
He looked past her to the table she had just left. A man sat there, wearing an overlarge police uniform, glaring murder at John.
A sharp pressure bit into John's arm. “Ow.”
Naomi released her sudden grip, but deep fingernail marks remained.
Lucy had reached the table and was now staring at him, chewing her upper lip. “I... I didn't think it was real. The phone call, I mean. It was just so....” Her eyes lost focus for a moment, then snapped around, looking at Naomi, then back to John, and finally off to the side, seeking her companion. She grimaced. “I'm sorry about that. I just, wow, it's just been so crazy, and I really wasn't expecting to see you again—” She stopped again, took a deep breath, and thrust out her hand to Naomi. “Hi! I'm Lucy, I, uh, used to know John here.”
Naomi accepted the hand. “I just met him.”
“Really?” Lucy was now conspicuously not looking at John. She chuckled nervously and gestured back at the table she had left. “Where are my manners? Please, join us!”
John didn't want to. It was weird enough knowing about Lucy, and he had come to terms with his missing past. He didn't want her to be a part of his present. And then there was her boyfriend.... John looked back at the man, and found him smiling good-naturedly.
The man's sudden shift in temperament seemed to be having an effect on Naomi. “Can't say no to hospitality,” she said, smiling. She stood and walked with Lucy back to the inhabited table.
When John joined them a moment later, introductions were under way. “Shaun this is... Sorry, what was your name again?”
“Right. This is Naomi. Naomi, this is my fiancé, Shaun.”
Shaun nodded, his mouth full and chewing furiously.
“And this is John, my, uh... ex, I guess.”
Shaun swallowed and nodded. “The dead guy.”
John's stomach clenched. He was offended that this man, this stranger, had trivialized the defining event of his life.
Why? he thought. I don't remember it, I don't even think about it all that often. Why is this rubbing me wrong?
“So you're a cop?” Naomi asked, pulling out a chair and sitting. “You planning on doing anything in the riot?”
Lucy sighed. “Awful, isn't it? As soon as word came on the news, everyone pretty much cleared out of here.”
“We saw it first hand,” John said. “That's how I met Naomi.”
“I'm not getting involved until I'm asked to,” Shaun answered, ignoring John and sending another jab into his bruised ego. “Extra cops on scene is just more fuel on the fire.”
Naomi nodded and winked, leaving John with the sensation that he had missed something.
They tried small talk for a few minutes, then fell silent and turned their attention to the televisions. The riot had grown, blocking traffic and turning into a looting spree around the edges. Police were still trying for containment, but several officers had been attacked and brought down by rioters.
The absolute focus of everyone in the room was broken when Shaun's mobile began to buzz. He answered, had a hushed conversation, disconnected, and stood. “I'm off. They need reinforcement, and they're refusing to call in National Guard.”
Lucy jumped to her feet and hugged him.
Shaun stood board-stiff. “Don't stay here. It's safe for now, but if this spreads, the bar's a perfect target for looters. Get home, lock everything you can; gun’s on the second shelf up in the closet. Stay away from the windows.” He pulled away from Lucy and strode to the door, ignoring the nervous looks from the wait staff.
John noticed that in the moments after Shaun's instructions, Lucy looked dazed. After he was gone, though, she shook her head and seemed to notice her two remaining companions. “I'm sorry, I, uh, I have to go.” She grabbed her purse and hurried out the door.
Now alone, John looked at Naomi and noticed for the first time how uncomfortable she appeared. “I'm really sorry about that. I didn't mean to drag you into my personal life—”
She held up a hand and shook her head. “It's okay. I knew a Shaun once. He was a real asshole. Just... deja vu, I guess.”
John laughed. “Sounds like this one, judging by my previous run-in with him.”
“I'm guessing Lucy didn't know about any earlier meetings.”
The hostess approached them. “Excuse me? We're going to close. You want anything before you go? No charge.”
John shook his head. “I'm good.” No matter what he believed about the Defenders, there was no denying the impact they were already having. Honest-to-God riots, in the middle of the city. That somehow seemed less real to him than the possibility of super-soldiers.
“I guess I'd better head out, too,” Naomi said.
“Can you get back to your hotel?”
She shrugged. “This'll kill traffic for at least a couple of days. I'll get a new room in the opposite direction; I doubt corporate will begrudge me a second room, all things considered.”
“And who knows? Maybe I'll be wrong and this whole thing will clear up on its own.”
The riot had grown to cover more than two square miles by the time Shaun arrived. He stood with a knot of onlookers who gathered at the edges of the riot, alternately held back by police and by simple fear of death. Sometimes an onlooker would get brave and try to jump into the melee, only to be brought down by one of the officers trying to contain the violence. Soon they were beyond the edges of the riot, bruised and handcuffed.
The city's jails would be full tonight.
Shaun worked his way to a nearby police officers and showed his badge. “Let me through.”
The officer let out a manic chuckle. “Good, we’ve needed back-up. Just catch anyone who tries to get in there! Anyone who wants out can go!”
“I’m here to fight, not to fuck around.”
Shaun opened his mouth to respond, then caught movement from the corner of his eye; someone was using the distraction to get involved. Shaun shot out an arm and grabbed the newcomer, swung the man’s head into his outstretched fist, then let him fall.
“I’m here to end this.” He stared into the officer’s eyes.
After a moment, she frowned and moved aside. “At least grab some armor.”
“Don’t need it. Won’t say no to your nightstick, though.”
The officer sighed and surrendered her weapon. “Stay safe.”
Shaun was already gone. He waded out into the chaos, subconsciously feeling the bodies moving around him, police and civilian caught up in a perverse dance, each participant moving to destroy their partner. He pulled out his own nightstick, swung both of them, getting his mind ready for what lay ahead.
A curse rang out behind him and he went low, thrusting one arm back, feeling someone crumple over the end of the borrowed nightstick. He came up, around, swinging at his assailant’s head. One down, a thousand to go.
Someone must have seen Shaun’s attacker go down, for another was on him already. Shaun smiled wolfishly, feeling his heart race and his mind go black. This was what he lived for. Before he could ever hope to know what happened—if he even wanted to—his body was moving, whirling its weapons through the air, striking once, twice, again, again, again. Six down.
Shaun continued swirling, continued striking. Each strike landed true: point of the chin, base of the skull, side of the head, kidney, solar plexus, groin. As the injured and unconscious began to gather around him, the police who could see him rallied and struck back at the wild civilians who tormented them. Inhibitions vanished, fear and professionalism replaced by ferocity and bloodlust.
After some time—seconds? minutes? hours?—Shaun realized he was stretching farther and farther for new enemies, new victims. His mind snapped back to the present, and he saw civilians running, screaming, surging—away. The dance had ended, those who had once led now fleeing from the floor.
Police stood still, not chasing their vanquished enemies. They panted, eyes wide behind armored visors. Shaun knew that, whatever they might say afterwards, they had enjoyed what had been done here today.
He certainly had.
This little victory, the disengagement of these few combatants, was enough to end the riot. As these civilians fled, they spread panic, weakened resolve, brought the rest down with them. Within a matter of minutes, the area had all but cleared out and the few who remained were rounded up and arrested.
Finally, a collective sigh went up from those who still stood, who had defended the peace.
Shaun stood apart, glaring down at his feet, willing them to dance once more, to return to the blackness that enveloped him.
A hand touched his shoulder and he swung around, feeling the adrenaline surging again—
“Hey, calm down! It’s over!” It was her, the officer he had taken the nightstick from. “You did a good job here.”
Shaun grunted and returned the nightstick.
He began to walk away, no destination in mind. He just needed to do something to calm down.
Behind him were footsteps.
A reporter caught up to him, trailing a camera man. “Excuse me! Sir! Hi, saw what you did back there; it was great. Mind if I get an interview?”
Shaun stopped, every nerve alert. This wasn’t like fighting, wasn’t something pure and simple. But it could be…interesting.
“Sure.” He smiled. “What do you want me to say?”