They knocked on the door just past two in the morning. The first knock had no effect, the second knock woke Edgar, and the third knock was followed immediately by the sound of the jamb shattering as the door was kicked open.
Edgar jolted upright, immediately on edge by the absence of the security alarm. There were footsteps on carpet, wood, stairs, carpet again.
Voices: “Spread out!” “Secure every room!” “Mr. Latterndale! Mr. Latterndale!”
Upstairs, in his bedroom, he heard the terrified, suddenly-awake scream of Ethan, Amanda's frantic shouts of protest and anger. “Get away from him, you bastards! You can't have him, you can't—”
A flashlight, piercing blue in the darkness, switched on and swept the living room.
Edgar looked over the back of the couch and shielded his eye from the light.
“No time, Mr. Latterndale!”
Strong arms gripped him and pulled him to his feet.
“Package secure, moving out.”
Disjointed images flooded around him—men in dark business suits, some wearing armored vests; EHUDs filling each doorway; Mandy, pushing down the stairs, trying to keep the men away from her son.
The intruders rushed Edgar towards the front door. “Can't I at least get my fucking pants—”
“Sorry, sir; no time, sir. Clothes are in the vehicle.”
“Edgar! What's going on?” Amanda was down the stairs, struggling against captors of her own, lunging toward her husband. “What's going on?”
He tried to break away from the men who held him, but they were too strong. “I don't know! Get back to Ethan and—”
A young woman in a business suit and armored vest approached Amanda. “Everything will be all right, ma'am.”
“Where are you taking him?”
Edgar was almost to the door.
“Please, ma'am, just return to your son. You'll see your husband again soon. Now, we're going to help you pack up anything you'll need for a few—”
“Where the hell are you taking him?!”
And then he was gone. He felt the pebbles of the front walk digging into his feet as he was dragged towards a line of black utility vehicles parked along the curb. There was movement in the windows of surrounding houses as neighbors peered out at what was going on. Edgar felt a twinge of embarrassment, wondering what they must think of this, before abruptly realizing that he might never see Amanda again.
What had happened? Had Isaac finally decided to clean house and frame Edgar for the entire Defender debacle?
Only one way to find out....
They reached the middle of the line and Edgar was roughly forced into the back seat. As soon as the door was closed, the vehicle was on the move.
There was an exhaling of breath, and a light turned on overhead. Edgar blinked and recognized the face of a Secret Service agent.
“What's going on?”
The agent cleared his throat, then made eye contact. “It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that at one seventeen this morning Isaac Latterndale, President of the United States of America, was assassinated.”
Silence filled the vehicle, dancing back and forth with the sound of tires on roadway.
“So why am I here?”
The agent cleared his throat again and passed a shopping bag across to Edgar. “These should fit you. We're going through and collecting all surviving members of the cabinet. NSA's idea. With so many deaths and resignations recently, it was thought best that we get a contingency in place to keep this government running until the next election.”
Edgar pulled a pair of pinstriped trousers and a pale blue shirt out of the bag. “I'm assuming we're not going to the White House to swear in President Wong?”
The agent narrowed his eyes. “Give us some credit.”
“I just assumed that if Isaac was involved with this—”
“The president was not aware of the plan.”
Edgar nodded and began to pull on the trousers. Part of him was terrified; the agent had said “assassinated.” There was no “accident”, no “natural causes”. “Assassinated.” In Edgar's mind: Defender. On the other hand: Deep satisfaction. The old man was finally dead, and Edgar didn't have to worry about him anymore. It was as if a weight had lifted, and Edgar could walk tall and proud into whatever future Mistlethwakey had arranged.
Still needed to be sure. “Am I correct in assuming it was a Defender who did this?”
“Yes, a Ms. Maria Ruiz. You know her?”
Edgar swallowed; he knew her better than the agent ever guessed. At first hostile, later one of the program's best results. She had done a lot of off-the-books work for the past few administrations. And the General had chosen her... How long ago? There was no way he could have programmed her in the last few months; he had planned this at least a year ago.
“I've met her a few times, yes.”
“She's in the Pentagon now, sedated and scrambled to hell and back.”
Edgar nodded and finished pulling on a pair of socks.
Time for the shirt. What about Amanda? Chances were that wherever they were taking Edgar, Amanda would be brought soon after. He was now an important person in the government in exile; a family loose in the world was too big of a security risk.
Edgar finished dressing and return his attention to the agent. “So, big question here—”
“Where are you taking us?”
Amanda stood, dressed for bed and feeling tired, in the middle of her dining room while armored security agents invaded her home and collected her belongings.
The agent standing before her sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I'm sorry, ma'am, I don't know that. As I've already told you, the location will be determined when—”
“Then tell me just where the fu—” She stopped herself from finishing the curse as she felt the weight of Ethan leaning on her leg. “Where do you think you might be taking us? Do you know that?”
The agent sighed again and closed her eyes in acquiescence. “We have a number of secure facilities all across the country. We'll try to keep you on the Eastern sea-board, as close to the capitol as possible, but I simply do not know, will not know, until a final decision is reached.”
“But it will be someplace safe?”
The agent paused for an uncomfortably long time before responding, “Yes.”
Amanda nodded. She knew. None of them—the cabinet, their families—were safe anymore. The agent hadn't said the word when informing her of Isaac's passing, but it was there, trying to hide behind every clinical report, every assurance of future safety.
Ethan yawned and pushed closer into Amanda's side. She looked down at her son, then at her home and the invaders in it, and privately cursed Edgar. She knew he was somehow responsible for this.
It wasn't a feeling of blame; she wasn't trying to hang her problems on him. There existed a deep-down, pit-of-her-stomach certainty that Edgar was wrapped up in this whole mess. Memories of that night flicked in and out of her awareness, branded with new clarity. In the East Room, watching Edgar's strange behavior, his furtive glances at Mistlethwakey, at the door. The horrors of the next hour, the next night, had distracted her from what she had seen then. Lost in the panic of the crowd, seeing her husband abandon her to face down the monster that had violated her reality, she was forced to put everything aside save Ethan. There was nothing more important then, not even her own life. She alone was left in the world, she alone to save their son.
Edgar's actions later that night—his soft words, gentle embrace, constant presence—should have ended the loneliness, should have brought the family closer together as she realized that Edgar's actions at the party had been to save his family, not his president.
But all that was lost in what she had seen in Edgar's eyes. It was an old, familiar thing she had seen so many times before: there was something he wasn't telling her. As the world crumbled, as people died, as the physical universe was shaken by the psychic, there was something Edgar wasn't telling her.
Analyzed by the light of that realization, Amanda knew that Edgar's bravery had not been that of a man defying the unknown. It was that of a man who knew precisely what he was up against, and had calculated a fair chance of survival. While Amanda and the rest of the guests had been lost in confusion, scared and alone, Edgar had known what was happening, what Lemlin was.
If there were any truth to Lemlin's claims, then Edgar had been at the heart of it.
Now that heart was exposed, shedding its blood over the world. The president was dead, the country was on the edge of chaos, and Edgar was out there somewhere, being taken to safety.
They wanted Amanda to be with him, safe by his side...
She couldn't. She may not be safe here, but she would be even less safe with Edgar. As much as she wanted to trust him to keep Ethan safe from the Defenders, she knew that the secret held in his eyes would destroy his family more absolutely than any external threat.
“Please, ma'am, we have to hurry.” The agent stepped closer, as if trying to impress the need for haste through physical proximity.
Amanda sighed and looked down to Ethan, who was falling asleep on his feet. As much as she wanted to stay in this house—her home—rather than follow Edgar, she couldn't separate Ethan from his father without letting the boy have his say.
“Are we being forced to go, or is this voluntary?”
“Voluntary.” The agent sounded uncomfortable.
Amanda looked up at the agent and pointed into the kitchen. “Could you excuse us, please? I need to talk to my son.”
The agent remained for a moment, then went into the kitchen.
Amanda rested her hand on Ethan's shoulder and steered him towards the couch that his father had slept on minutes before.
“Mom,” Ethan half-yawned as he lay down, “do I have to go to school tomorrow?”
“No, you're up too late tonight,” she said, sitting and positioning his head on her lap. “But right now we need to talk about something really important, alright?”
“Honey... Uncle Isaac passed away.”
Ethan's eyes snapped open and he sat up. “What? When?”
“Just a few minutes ago. That's why your father had to leave.”
“Did the EHUDs kill him?”
For a moment Amanda saw a squad of armored soldiers descending on the president, ripping him limb from limb with their powered suits, before realizing that Ethan had meant “Defenders.”
“I think so yes. But listen... The agents here, they want us to leave—”
“I heard that.”
Amanda nodded. “Well... I don't think we should.”
Because your father is one of the scary people who's responsible for this whole mess, and besides, he's never loved you. “Because I don't think we'll be any safer with him than on our own. Because he might be in danger.”
“Like Uncle Isaac?”
He was only ten, she reminded herself. He wasn't ready to hear that his father might be on a hit list.
“There might be danger.”
Ethan's face took on a look of determination. “Then we can't leave him alone.”
“So you want to go with dad, even if that means leaving all your friends, this house?”
“We can't leave him alone.”
Amanda nodded, stood, and went into the kitchen.
Three hours of driving, and Edgar was in Maryland, only thirty miles from home, or so the agents told him. He was holed-up in what appeared to be a corporate board-room: light wood paneling half-way up the walls, textured off-white wallpaper, a long table. It was only when he looked up and saw the concrete ceiling, the exposed pipes and wiring, that he was able to convince himself that he was underground.
He padded around to the head of the table and sat down, leaning back with his feet on the table. As he stared up at the bare utility of the ceiling, he did some quick math and realized that six months ago that Mistlethwakey had promised him the presidency.
“Where's Charlie?” he asked the single agent who had remained in the bunker.
“Hopefully, flying over New Jersey.”
“You don't know?”
“It takes at least half an hour to get to New York, even with Air Force One.”
Edgar nodded and hoped that Wong would simply turn down the promotion, rather than have a plane wreck.
He sat in silence for another few minutes, listening to the low sounds of the pipes overhead. At some point he drifted off to sleep, only to awaken when someone slid through the double-doors at the end of the room. It was Julia.
She smiled and tilted her head fractionally. “Hey.” She walked around the table, sitting about halfway down on Edgar's left side.
Hours slid by, and the remaining members of the cabinet drifted in one by one.
Edgar tried to gauge their reactions. Julia seemed calm, reacting to conversation with cool indifference. She did, on occasion, show signs of stress, raising her voice for no reason or glaring at someone who made a stupid comment, but Edgar chalked that up to lack of sleep. It was the way she moved her body that showed her true feelings; she was far too deliberate. All her steps were perfectly even, her back was too straight, she moved as if she were controlling her body remotely. Edgar took that to be her coping, her trying to control the situation.
Eli, though, was an easy read. He had never recovered from the first Defender attack. Tonight he was jumpy, his eyes never staying still, his entire body jerking at every sudden movement, every too-loud sound. His conversation was whispered, clipped, unsure. Edgar wondered how long the man would last, and was amazed he made it this far.
For his own part, Edgar realized he was somewhat dazed. He moved in a trance, responding with exaggerated ease. Nothing and no one really seemed to bother him. Nothing really seemed real. The General was about to fulfill his promise to him, and Edgar was about to step into immortality. Tonight, the nervous waiting was over. Tonight, Edgar was simply... existing.
At some point in the early morning he must have given in to sleep. The next thing he was aware of was a female voice, a gentle shove on his shoulder.
“Hey, wake up.”
“Not now, Mandy....”
“You need to wake up a little more than that.”
It wasn't Amanda's voice. He opened his eyes and saw the industrial lights of the secret complex glaring down at him, much closer than they should have been from ground level. Raising his head exposed his body, fully clothed save for shoes, spread out on the conference table. He turned and saw Julia Telk standing off to one side.
“Shit. How long was I out?”
She shrugged. “It's after noon now.”
“Shit. They back yet?”
Julia shook her head. “No. But they called Eli and said they were about fifteen minutes out.”
“Shit. They say how Wong's holding up?”
Julia shook her head again.
Edgar sighed and slumped back onto the table. He turned his head and looked around, seeing other members of the Cabinet slumped in chairs, leaned on walls, all looking like they'd rather be anywhere but here.
He gave himself a few more minutes of relaxation, then swung off the table and approached Eli. “Hey.”
Eli yelped and jerked, then turned to look at Edgar. “Oh, uh, hey.”
“Just wanted to know what you've said about Isaac so far.”
“To the press? About his death?”
Eli flinched at 'death.' “Nothing. Media blackout. Not saying anything until Charlie's here.”
Edgar closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Why?”
Eli shrugged. “He might have something to say about it.”
“Do you realize how guilty this makes us look?”
Eli shrugged again. “Not my problem. Talk to Charlie.”
Edgar went back to the table and pulled out a chair. He rummaged in his pocket for his mobile, then remembered that these weren't his pants. Sleep seemed his only recourse at this point; he didn't want to talk to anyone.
A commotion by the door caught Edgar's attention, and he saw several agents enter. Charlie wasn't with them.
He slumped back in his chair even as Julia left hers and stomped up to the lead agent. “Where is he?”
The agent looked at her, exhaustion evident in his face, and said, “He's not coming. He resigned.”
Julia nodded and glanced over her shoulder at Edgar.
The agent stepped past her and approached Edgar. “Congratulations, Ed.” He turned to face the rest of the cabinet and spoke, his voice at full volume. “Secretary of Defense Edgar Latterndale shall now hold the office and responsibilities of President of the United states of America, until such a time as a vote of the people is to be held.”
All eyes turned to Edgar, who stood and solemnly nodded. The lead agent spoke into the microphone at his wrist, the doors opened again, and the elderly chief justice stepped through, her silver hair stark against her black robe. She stopped before Edgar and held up a thick book. “Don't know what your preferences are, but I went with a Bible.”
Edgar nodded. “That'll work.”
The chief justice held out the Bible, Edgar rested his right hand on it, and she led him through the oath of office. In a few minutes it was done, and Edgar was president.
Minutes later Edgar stood at the head of the table, the remnants of the cabinet arrayed around him, all waiting for him to say something... He thought back to what Mistlethwakey had said, six months ago. Edgar had been paid his price, now it was his time to work. He was in the Oval Office--or the next best thing--and he needed to get the rest of the world to play along...
“Okay.” Relief was replaced by tension, of anticipation of work to come. He clapped his hands and bounced on his toes. “Someone take notes on this.”
Julia raised her hand fractionally, and Edgar nodded in acknowledgment. “Okay. Call Terstein, tell him I want a phone conference ASAP, today if possible. Next, need to talk with the U.N. We're going to address the Defender issue head on, set them up as refugees seeking political asylum; no one can have hands on them.”
Several people around the room gasped.
Julia lowered her tablet stylus. “You're saying we have some authority to give them asylum... that means we have authority over them to begin with.”
“Yes. Besides that all those known are American citizens, we're going to acknowledge that we made them. Anyone who has a problem with that can leave now.”
No one answered. Julia raised the stylus in anticipation of what Edgar would say next.
“We're raising security alert level; things might get a little crazy in the next few days. I want every branch of the military ready. Also, call Mistlethwakey. As of now, he's relieved of duty, and I want him ready to be NSA first thing tomorrow.” He straightened, placed his hands on his hips, and nodded.
“That everything?” Julia asked, her eyebrows raised in frank disbelief.
“For you, yes. Eli!”
Eli twitched and coughed.
“Get me a press conference. The sooner, the better. Twenty minutes. Every network.”
Eli nodded and started scribbling into a notebook.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Edgar said, his arms outstretched. “Welcome to the future!” He dropped his arms and turned to look at the remaining agents.
“Now, where the hell is my family?”