Friday, June 28, 2013

E.H.U.D: Chapter 17

Chapter 17

Alice stood in a crowd surrounding City Hall, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of others enraged at the death of Raoul Omerta.  With his death, the “Defend the Defenders” movement had found a martyr.  As warm bodies moved around her, Alice felt the city alive and angry on that cold Sunday afternoon. There was hope that they might achieve something, that Raoul's death might not be in vain.  Just what they would accomplish... she had no idea.
The shadow of a man passed over her and she looked up to the bronze gaze of William Penn staring down on the mass of people assembled.  What would he have wanted in all this?  He was a founding father after all, someone who wanted freedom from tyranny, equality for all.  What would he think of the police's actions, of the government he had helped to create?
Wait.  No, he wasn't one of the founders, was he?  Alice couldn't remember; it wasn't something that usually came up in her daily life.
She tore her attention away from the statue and focused  on a tiny figure standing in the archway beneath the Hall's tower, blasting the crowd with a megaphone.
“Is this the way we treat opposing voices?  Is this the way we treat young people looking out for their futures?  No!  No!”  The crowd burst in with a chorus of “No!”s and some of the speaker's next words were lost on Alice.  “—can't pretend this isn't happening!  They took their rights, they abused them in the name of foreign policy, then they silenced any voice of protest!  So we start yelling!  Yelling 'til our voices are too loud to silence!”
The crowd roared with a concerted, animal yell, Alice shouting herself hoarse right along with the others.  While she yelled she looked up and saw several tiny figures on the observation platform at Penn's feet.  They walked back and forth, surveying the crowd.  Light glinted on what appeared to be weapons.  She shivered and looked away.  Of course there would be police here; why should she be surprised?
As the latest round of yells died down she crouched to pick up the sign she had thrown together before rushing out to join the budding demonstration.  It featured a crudely-drawn death's-head EHUD helmet beneath the slogan “Who Defended Raul?”  She hoisted it over her head and began waving it, feeling some satisfaction as a forest of other signs grew up in the moments after hers.
She stood taller, pushing up on the tips of her toes, and looked around at all the signs that now floated above the heads of the crowds.  The speaker in the archway was launching into another rant, but Alice was distracted by a sudden movement in the forest of signs.  The outer edges were rippling, distorting her vision of them.  As quickly as they had come up the signs began to come crashing down, like trees caught in a pyroclastic flow.  Renewed yelling followed the felling of the signs, though this chorus was more vitriolic, more focused on the here and now. The police weren't on the observation deck alone.
The police presence on outer edge sent a physical ripple of agitation through the crowd.  Alice felt herself caught up in the compression wave, bodies behind packing her in with bodies before.  As the wave passed and she was pulled into the trough she lost control of her sign.  It whacked someone on the shoulder and disappeared.
The man she hit fell backwards into her as a reflection of the wave pulsed past them.  She tried to push him back up but was almost immediately shoved forward into him as another wave, the strongest of them all, pushed in from the outer edges.  She waited for it to pass but as soon as it had another wave, then another, pounded in from behind.  Moments later waves from the front reached her, and she realized that something must have sparked police action. 
She managed to free her arm and clear enough room to pull out her mobile.  News-feeds flicked by on the screen, and she stopped when she saw a live video stream coming from high up in the Municipal Services building.  It showed the crowd, a cumulatively dark brown amoeba stretched over the streets around City Hall.  The crowd disappeared  past the side of the MS building to the north, but stayed constrained to the width of the Hall east and west.  A thin border of blue defined the edge of the amoeba on the west, but to the east and stretching north the border had broken and become commingled with the brown.  Arms grew from the amoeba, stretching to swallow the bits of blue still visible.  The blue was able to fight back, small clusters bursting out radially to turn on the now free-floating arms, swallowing them and leaving the digested remains too weak to threaten the invading blue organism. 
The entirety of the amoeba now pulsed in a north-easterly direction, along the sightline of William Penn, desperate to devour the free-moving blue masses.  The blue line to the west, meanwhile, was taking this opportunity to push in, acting as a semipermeable membrane hemming the amoeba in yet letting bits of it drift away as—
A foot came down on Alice's right ankle and she dropped the mobile.  The little black rectangle disappeared among the roiling legs of the crowd, lost forever.  She straightened and stifled a groan as the pain in her ankle shot up her leg.  A moment later she let out a full scream as the man before her turned, hitting her alongside her head with his elbow.  He pushed past her, though whether in haste to tangle with the police or due to pressure from the front of the crowd she could not tell.
She spent a moment rocking back and forth, supported by the masses around her, and waited for the ringing in her head to stop.
Someone moved, and she found herself falling towards a person suddenly wasn't there.  She stumbled enough to recover her balance but was pushed from behind by the eastern side of the crowd trying to escape westward.
Momentum carried her for several feet, stumbling and fighting for balance, before the force of western movement was cancelled out by eastern movement.
Okay, enough was enough.  Alice knew from watching the Washington riot earlier in the week that her position here was not a good one; if she wanted to avoid more injury, she had to get out.  She thought back to what she had seen on her mobile, and decided the west would be her best chance, as fighting hadn't yet started there.  After a few moments of fruitless struggle, free movement proved near impossible; she was just going to have to wait until the crowd broke up enough that she could get through.  Or she could make her own hole...
In her pocket was a tube of pepper spray; that should be enough to open a corridor to the outside.
An intense surge of movement from behind forced her decision, and she pulled out the tube.
“Hey!” she yelled to the man standing to the west of her.  “Let me out!”
The man tried to shrug, but there wasn't enough room to perform the gesture properly.  “I'm just as stuck as you are!”
“I'm really sorry about this!”  The tube came up and leveled at his face.
“Shit!”  The man pushed away from her, though it didn't get him very far.  It was enough to cause ripples, however, and a few moments later a new current pulsed through the center of the crowd, leading towards the west, towards freedom.
Alice sent the tube back into her pocket and let the current move her several dozen feet.
She was just starting to think she could make it out of this all right when the crowd broke around her and she realized that hostilities had commenced on this side as well.  The crowd was forming into clusters, about ten strong, and facing off against clusters of two or three police officers decked out in riot gear.  She watched in horror for a moment as a group of men—more like teenagers—wrestled an officer to the ground and began to beat him with shoes and protest signs.  She caught a glimpse of her “Who Defended Raul” sign coming down on the officer's helmeted head before she looked away.
There was no chance to take advantage of this opening and escape; a small mob pushed past her and caught her up.  Escaping was useless for now; police officers hemmed them in on all sides, a microcosm of the greater amoeba.
A woman standing next to Alice bellowed and charged forward, only to have a truncheon cracked across her jaw.  She fell to her knees, mouth bleeding, and whipped her arm up into the officer's groin.  Despite the heavy padding he had there, he groaned and slipped down to the woman's level.
Seeing the downed officer, the cluster surged towards this weak point in the barrier, carrying Alice along with it.  No one seemed to have given a thought to the downed woman and Alice, now on the outer edge, tripped over her, sending them all sprawling down into the street.
Alice screamed as someone heavy landed on her already tender ankle, and she felt it give way under the weight.  She tried to extricate her leg, but it was pinned under the struggling mass.  She curled in on herself and moaned, tried not to think of the pain.
Footsteps clattered on the pavement near her head and she looked up to see the remaining police redistributing themselves around their downed prey.  There was a momentary glimpse of on officer's face, and Alice thought she recognized him from somewhere.  The moment passed, and the police where upon them.  They swung their truncheons to no rhythm, putting as much force behind each blow as they could. 
The rioters, still pinning Alice to the street, tried to roll away from the blows but found it impossible amidst the flailing limbs.
One man, with the seeming fortune to be near the top of the pile, was able to roll off, stand, and stumble a few feet before the police focused their attention on him, surrounding him and beating him back down to the ground.
The others on top of Alice took this opportunity to make breaks of their own and soon it was just Alice and the bleeding woman she had tripped over.  She pushed herself to her feet and gasped as she put weight on her ankle.  This wasn't good, not good, no...
Nausea tinged her vision as she looked around, desperate for a viable means of escape.  Walk out, past the police, lose herself in the next few blocks, try to find a cab... 
She hobbled away, ignoring the pained screams from all around her.  Not this, not now...
She was in sight of a few lingering police on the edge of the perimeter when pain blossomed across the back of her head, her vision flashed, and then everything went dark...

The family funeral of Raoul Omerta wasn't until the following Tuesday, but the pastor of St. John the Evangelist had declared that Sunday mass would be held in the boy's honor.  Consequently, thousands of  Philadelphians had packed out the church to pay respects to their martyred brother.
Rachel, being somewhat close to Raoul, as well as for... other reasons, had insisted that they attend the memorial.  Reggie had declined; he never felt comfortable in churches, and he needed the sleep after the weekend's shifts.  John agreed to come on the condition that they arrived early.  He was glad they had; the church was almost full by the time they forced their way into the back of the sanctuary, and crews of volunteers were hastily erecting cameras and outdoor screens to convey the proceedings to the overflow.
After what seemed like a hot, crowded, agitated eternity, the pastor entered, preceded by a column of alter children, and the congregated mourners stood to sing a hymn.  When the pastor had shuffled to the front of the sanctuary, the singing petered out, and scripture was read.
John tuned it out and stared up into the vaulted ceiling, tracing out the supports that held the roof aloft.  This was the first time he had been in a proper, traditional cathedral.  He could appreciate this bit of antique engineering.
After what seemed like hot, crowded, agitated hours, the pastor stepped aside and a weeping, middle-aged woman was led in front of the pulpit.  She spoke at some length about her son, interrupted frequently by bursts of uncontrolled sobbing. 
The longer she spoke, the more uncomfortable Rachel became.  “That wasn't how it happened,” she whispered.  “The police didn't start this.  I did.”
“You had no way of knowing it would end up like this.”
“That doesn't make it less stupid.  God, everyone's blaming the police now...  That's not going to end well...”
When Mrs. Omerta was finished, her husband led her back to her seat then took the stage himself.  Unlike his wife, he said little about his son.  Most of what he said was directed against the police and the government, and John could see where Raoul had gotten his political streak from.
As Mr. Omerta's tirade wore on, noise from outside the building grew louder.  At first this was ignored; lunch-time traffic.  Then it continued, past the end of Omerta's speech and into the next.  Furious whispering broke out, drowning out the new speaker.
John saw several people checking their mobiles; after they had, they rushed out the door.  He grabbed Rachel's wrist.  “I think we'd better get out of here.”
“Is something going on at City Hall?”
“I don't know—hopefully we're far enough away that we won't get caught in it.”
It took them some time to get to the door of the church; it seemed as if half of the attendees had all gotten the urge to flee at the same instant.
Then they stepped out of the church and into a riot.   
A flood of pedestrians was coursing through the street, funneling through the openings between parked vehicles.  Some adventurous souls leapt the obstacles, leaving broken windshields and shrieking alarms in their wake.
John immediately turned back to the church, but another group of mourners was already trying to push out, so he and Rachel were forced into the mob.
By staying on the edge of the crowd they were able to avoid the worst of the current, and only moved a few dozen yards.
“What's going on?” Rachel yelled.
“Looks like something's going on at City Hall!”
A back flow was beginning on the sidewalks, heading in the direction of Penn Square.
“We need to get out of here!”
The main flow of pedestrians ebbed for a moment, and John took the opportunity to duck behind a row of parked cars, dragging Rachel with him.  A moment later the back flow broke into the street proper and managed to reverse the tide a moment before a phalanx of armored police drew even with the church.
Now that the rush of flight was over, those wanting to confront the police were pouring in with an even greater force, trapping John and Rachel.
The inevitable clash of flooding rioters and damming police occurred in front of the church.  A young man with a baseball bat, half running of his own volition, half pushed by those behind, swung at the leading police officer.  The swing glanced off the officer's shield, and the officer surged forward, knocking the bat back to crack into the man's jaw.  He fell back into the crowd, able bodied rioters swarming around him and surrounding the hapless officer who now found himself surrounded by six enraged men.
He swung his shield at the two in front of him and his truncheon at the one to his right.  The three behind him pushed, knocking him off balance.  These three were themselves attacked from the rear as the other police engaged, but by then it was too late for the first officer.  Undefended while he flailed to regain balance, his three remaining attackers stripped him of his shield and forced him to the ground.
Over the roar of the crowd, John heard bones crunching.
Rachel sat on the pavement, her back against the car.  “Shit, shit, shit—it's happening again, they're all going to kill each other, shit shit shit—”
John ignored her and stood on his knees to stare over the car in perverse fascination at the chaos erupting around them.  The police pushed forward, their line becoming diagonal.  Those on the left edge stopped to help their fallen comrade while those on the right pushed up to engage with fresh rioters.
The rioters, for their part, where pushing in tighter, coming from somewhere up the street.  They must be new, fresh to the battle, as none of them were coming from the direction of City Hall.
The right edge of the police line curved as it engaged in combat once more.  This time, they weren't playing defense.  They raised their shields, charged forward, cracking their truncheons with bone-shattering force against the hands that pushed past the shields. 
Several police weren't carrying truncheons, and instead sprayed the crowd with tear-gas and pepper spray.  Rather than discouraging the crowd, it only made them angrier, and they climbed on top of one another, using each other as springboards to launch themselves on the police, collapsing individual officers to the ground, trapped under their shields.  Soon the police line was in disarray, and the rioters were able to surround the few remaining police and bludgeon them with improvised clubs.
With the street now clear, many rioters broke ranks and continued down the street in the direction of Penn Square, though enough remained to ensure that John and Rachel were forced to remain a while longer. 
Just as it looked like the violence would be over here, a new set of screams erupted from the cluster of rioters still pacifying the police.  One officer had abandoned his shield and equipped the truncheon of a fallen comrade.  He was now using his weapons to perform a series of swift, surgical strikes on his tormentors, leaving them curled on the ground, hopefully unconscious, possibly dead.
The flow of movement in the street slowed as people stopped to see the lone officer, mowing his way through rioters, always managing to stay one step ahead of the ten or so people who were up against him.
A large man, at least six feet tall and armed with a crowbar, pushed his way through the crowd and to the officer, swinging his weapon and bellowing.  The officer froze, fell into a boxer's stance, twin truncheons held at the ready.  The man swung at the officer's head, but the officer ducked, sidestepped, swung out his right-hand truncheon and caught the man in the kidney. 
The man grimaced but didn't slow.  He spun to face the officer, grabbed his helmeted head in a one-armed bear hug, and used his free hand to bring the crowbar down toward the helmet.  The officer reacted immediately, bringing the right truncheon once more into the kidney, then the left into the man's groin, then right into the base of his skull.  The crowbar fell and the left truncheon came up and caught the man below the ear.  The officer was free.
More rioters were on him, but he held his own, twisting and dodging with grace, blocking and striking as if this were all just an elaborate dance.
Sunlight  glanced off the visor of the helmet, and for just a moment John thought he caught a glimpse of Lucy's fiancé, Shaun.  For some reason this terrified him, and he felt a jolt of nausea run up his spine.
The officer looked up, seeming to know that frightened eyes were upon him.  The blankness of his helmet locked with John's eyes for a moment, then the officer—Shaun—disengaged from his attackers and lunged in John's direction.
John reached back for Rachel's arm.
“We have to go—”
“There's still too many—”
John turned away from the rapidly approaching Shaun and ran in the direction of the church. 
“Wait!”  Rachel was following him now; she latched onto his sleeve and managed to keep pace as he barreled through rioters. 
Sounds of injury and screams of pain followed behind them.
John pushed ahead, fueled by the irrational fear that Shaun was gunning for him.  If it even was Shaun, if he even was coming after him specifically; it could be a stranger, could be a coincidence. 
He risked a look over his shoulder and saw their pursuer hot on their trail, leaping over rioters, knocking down those he couldn't scale.
“Who the fuck is that?”
“I don't know!”  No point loading on more baggage than she could carry at this stage.
They were coming up on a side street that was nearly empty; only a few people stood and gawked at the riot, recording the chaos with their mobiles.  John broke past the final line of rioters, into the emptiness, and risked a final look back—no one was following them.  Police still battled civilians, the violence still engulfed the streets, but there was no phantom police officer chasing them.
A girl around Rachel's age approached them, staring at the screen of the mobile she pointed at them.  “What's going on in there?  What's it like?”
John, still trying to catch his breath, pushed the mobile away and trudged down the street. 
“Where are you going?”
“I'm going home!”
A moment later he heard Rachel's footsteps following him to safety.

For the first time in his memory, John could see stars in the sky over Philadelphia.  The usual light that glared from the city had gone off about half an hour ago, flickering off in miles-wide blocks.  Only isolated points burned in the darkness: hospitals, police stations, buildings supplied by generators. 
Sky Crest was one of those safe beacons of civilization.  Rachel lay sleeping on the living room couch, warmed by the glow of the television giving second-hand accounts of what she had experienced that day.
Shortly before the power had gone out, the governor had interrupted every television broadcast and informed the people of Pennsylvania that he was declaring a state of emergency.  The National Guard was to be deployed as soon as humanly possible, and the city of Philadelphia was to be put under martial law until such a time as the riots could be ended and peace restored.
The announcement only made things worse. 
Sounds of sniffling reached out from the living room.  Rachel was not taking this well; John knew she felt responsible for this.  As much as he wanted to comfort her, he knew there was some truth to her belief.   
He left the window and walked to the living room.  He stood behind the couch and listened to the news anchor tick off statistics: deaths, arrests, cost of property damage.  Every few minutes a talking head would appear and wonder where the president was, what he would do to help.  Then would come talk of Defenders: were they behind this?  Was this the first steps in a mass destabilization campaign?
A toilet flushed, and Reggie walked into the room.  He stood at the edge of the sunken living room, looking at his daughter, then glanced at John.
"I think I made the right decision.  Did I make the right decision?  This isn't a place for a kid.”
John smiled  “Or a grandkid.”
Reggie snorted.  “You won't let me live this down, will you?”
John shook his head.  “You're old, dude.  Get used to it.”
Reggie didn't respond for several seconds.  He stepped down into the living room, approached the couch, and leaned over to stroke Rachel's forehead.  “I'm not ready...”
John placed a hand on his brother's shoulder.  “It's a good thing you already got the tickets.”
"Yeah.  I was going to wait a week, but as soon as mentioned babies, Denise insisted I send Rachel out right away."
“Has anyone told Wayne?”
Reggie stiffened.  “Rachel can call him if she wants.  It's best if our paths don't cross for a few more years...”
John nodded.
Reggie sighed and rubbed his neck.  “Listen, I've been told that there's an emergency triage center setting up downstairs.  Apparently this place is owned by the NSA, and he's got local National Guard diverting wounded overflow here.  So, I'm going to head down and work a bit.  Can you tell Rachel what's going on if she wakes up before I get back?”
John nodded.
“I'll try to keep it under ten hours.  Don't want her to miss her flight.”
John nodded.
Reggie kissed his daughter, then left.
John stayed next to Rachel a moment longer, then returned to the window. 

As he watched fires spread in the streets below, heard muffled screams and gunfire, he felt the walls of his normal life crumbling, letting in some of the chaos that raged outside.   

Sunday, June 16, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 16

Chapter 16

Multicolored charts and graphs flowed across the computer screen, showing bars of this and that, endless streams of Gs, Cs, As and Ts; Xs, Ys.  As chart followed chart, Edgar grew bored.  He had spent the last two days caught up in the panic of his new medical condition, and was taking this lull to free his mind and just think for a moment.
Two days ago “free his mind” was nothing more than metaphor, but now it was a reality.  He could feel a connection to his body slipping away, alien thought processes flitting in, touching him like errant signals caught by an antenna.  To one side Amanda, concerned, suspicious.  To the other, his staff doctor, Frease, reserved, confused.
These feelings, these other senses, had come with his awakening Friday morning, laying on the atrium floor, looking up at the faces of his staff.  Their eyes were wide, lost.  They were concerned, but Edgar knew that it was concern for their own jobs, not his life. 
Then Amanda had loomed over him, concern for Ethan flowing down and around him.  The strength of her emotion struck Edgar like a charge of electricity, stimulating his own memories of his son.  There were... not as many as he would have liked. 
In the midst of the memories, the realization hit him that he was experiencing other people's thoughts and emotions.  He gasped and sat up, felt something dry and flaky falling from him.
Half-formed memories of the previous night flowed in, whispers from the dead, Bob touching him, pain—
Something connected in his mind, and Edgar rushed ahead towards a looming realization: he had become a Defender.  He didn't know how, but he was now hearing those around him though they did not speak, seeing through eyes not his own.
A man with glasses, someone Edgar thought he recognized as Isaac's staff doctor, leaned towards him.  He said words, but Edgar heard only thoughts.  This is wrong, it can't happen, not to him...
To me...  What can't happen?  What did happen?  What would happen if people found out?  Corruption charges: he saw the power of the gods, coveted it, took it for himself.  Invalidation of yesterday's address: he knew more about the EHUDs than he was letting on, was abusing it to his advantage.
He climbed to his feet; it was easier than he remembered, took less effort.  The same effort was applied, however, and he found himself off-balance, stumbling.
“No one...”  The words burned as they rasped out.  “No one speaks of this.  No one tells anyone...”
He was so hungry... “I need food..”
“And what does that mean?”
Amanda leaned against him, pushing his desiccated frame to one side by her now superior bulk.
“Well...” Frease flicked through a couple of pages worth of charts on his tablet.  “Okay, you see this sequence here?”  He pointed to a written string of acids.  “This is from yesterday's samples.  This,” he pointed to another, “was from his checkup last year.”
Edgar looked between the two.  He couldn't pull any meaning from the jumble of Cs and Gs, but he could pull meaning directly from the doctor.  He sensed Amanda's comprehension, but decided to say it aloud anyway.  “You're saying my DNA is different.”
“Exactly.”  The doctor lowered the computer.  “I hate to tell you this, Mrs. Latterndale, but medically, this isn't the man you married.  Close, a brother, say, but definitely distinct.”
He wasn't the man she had married...  It was hard not to laugh at that; he hadn't been that man for years.  This was a deeper level, though, and he found himself wondering how it would affect him.  How much of him was genetic, how much nature over nurture?  Could a change in genetics cause a change in spirit?
He had been disappointed in the state of his spirit for too long—he regretted all the extra time he had put in to work, the secrets he had kept from his family—
No, that wasn't him; that was Amanda leaking in.  She was disappointed in him.  It didn't bother him; he found that he didn't care.  He wanted her to be safe, to be relatively happy, but he didn't care what she felt about him now. 
And neither did she.  The more he pushed, the more he tried to tune in to her thoughts, the more he found that the disappointment she felt for him wasn't her own, but was harbored on behalf of Ethan.  In her mind, Ethan was disappointed in his absentee father.
Edgar knew it wasn't true—he had felt the boy's overt concern for him when he had been woken and told that his father had had an accident Thursday night.  Knew that Ethan's first instinct had been to run out and prove himself to be every bit as heroic as Edgar had been, facing down Lemlin virtually unarmed.
It was enough to slow Edgar, to give pause to his never-ending urge to do his job.  Personal responsibility always came first, yes, but to whom was that responsibility due: his son, or his country?
Sitting in the kitchen, gorging himself on whatever was at hand, he had dropped everything and walked, trance-like, up to his son's room. 
Responsibilities were shifting.
That changed when Ethan saw the skeletal man in his doorway.  Images dredged up from old nightmares crawled into the room and stood alongside Edgar—his body, cold and lifeless, crumpled on the White House floor, Lemlin standing over him, triumphant.  Edgar, riding in an open-roofed car, his head jerking back and to the left even as a stream of gore spewed from his forehead.  Edgar, dying a thousand ways, each leading to the corpse now standing in the doorway, looking down at Ethan.
He returned to the kitchen.
As he sat alone, eating anything he could lay his hands on, he reflected on what had happened, tried to separate what he had seen from what he wished he hadn't.  In the end, the only conclusion he could be sure of was that the General must have made himself into a Defender at some point, and then had turned him.  Why?  He replayed what he could remember of his conversation with Bob, the day, six months ago, that he became tangled up in this. 
Mistlethwakey must have already been one of them, had realized that the best way to use his powers was to manipulate high-level politicians.  Then why give Edgar this gift—this curse—if all it meant was that Edgar had a better chance of escaping from the General's thumb? 
Well, for one, Edgar now had a vested interest in making sure that Bob's designs for the EHUDs came to pass.  For two, Bob now had blackmail material should Edgar deviate from the course.
Either way, only one conclusion could be drawn.  He downed a cup of orange juice and stared at the kitchen wall.  “I can't trust Bob anymore.”
“And what's that supposed to mean?”  
Amanda was gripping Edgar's left hand now, twisting the deformed, drooping ring hanging from his shriveled finger.
Doctor Frease shrugged.  “I don't know; not for certain.  His genetic makeup is different, that's all.  It might be some sort of error, but the physical changes suggest otherwise.”
Amanda nodded.  “Do you have any theories on what happened?”
Frease made brief eye contact with Edgar.  “Most likely a viral infection.  I don't want to speculate beyond that.”  
A flush of nervousness, brought on by the lie.  Strange that someone who knew so many secrets felt guilty by telling what was, at worst, a half-truth.
“Why don't you tell me what's going on, Mr. Latterndale?”
Syrup dribbled down into Edgar's beard as he chocked down another chunk of waffle.  He wiped at the syrup, licked it off his fingers, and looked back at the doctor who had interrupted his solitude.
“Ged de fugg oudda of hewe.”
The doctor pulled out a chair next to Edgar and sat down at the breakfast bar.  He gestured to the chef, then to the formless mass of flour and syrup on Edgar's plate.  “One for me.”
“I said—”
“Doesn't matter what you said.  Being president does not mean you rule the world; it means you're subject to the will of the people.  You're obviously not well, so as one of the people it's my duty to make sure you get well.”
Edgar grunted and took another bite.
“We haven't been formally introduced.  I'm doctor Todd Frease.”
Edgar tried to focus, to put as much of his energy as he could into forcing the doctor away.
Frease's eyes widened for a moment, then collapsed into a glare.  “That's one of the things that's wrong with you.  I'll have to make sure you get over that.”
The world stopped, and Edgar's mind flashed up to Ethan, safe in his parent's bed, then back, across time and space to the White House, September 12th.
When he returned to himself, Edgar found his hand inching towards a butter knife laying on the counter.
Frease noticed, and scooted back a few inches.  “You have nothing to worry about from me, sir.  After all, I was your cousin's trusted doctor for many years.” 
Edgar blinked, not taking his eyes from the doctor.  He called to the chef, “I think I need to be alone for a medical consultation, if you don't mind.”
“Sir.”  The chef flipped out the half-liquid remains of his current waffle, flicked off the iron, and left.
“What do you want, doctor?”
“I was on the Defender's medical staff, in the early days of the program.  I know the symptoms, and I have to say, you've got the disease.  A far more rapid strain than I've ever seen, but I know I'm not wrong.”
“That doesn't tell me what you want.”
The doctor nodded, scratched his chin.  “What I want depends on what you want.  Everything you said yesterday, about solidarity with the Defenders, writing wrongs, all that bullshit?  If you really meant that, I want to help you.  I can coach you a little on seeming normal, on keeping this secret.” 
Edgar looked into the doctor's eyes, saw courage, fear, resolve, regret.  There was a period of about six months reflected in the man's eyes, six months of nursing unwilling patients through painful transformations, through cancers that swept through their bodies again and again.  And through it all, he couldn't help them.  He saw them suffer, made them suffer, and now he was looking to atone.
Edgar nodded.  “I don't know what happened; I didn't choose this.  But now I'm one of them, aren't I?  I've got more of an interest than ever to help them.”
Frease returned the nod.  “Your secret's safe from me.  As long as you keep their best interests in mind.”
Edgar extended his sticky, syrupy hand to shake, but paused as the doctor's comment hit home.  Of course he would keep the Defender's best interests in mind.  But they weren't the only group he should be thinking of.  “I want my family kept out of this, as much as possible.  You're the doctor; you come up with the story that will keep my wife happy.”
“Why not?”
Frease leaned back in his chair and began to play with his tablet.  “Because I'm still waiting on a definite answer from the CDC.  Pointless speculation at this point might lock us into certain assumptions, which might not be helpful when we find out just what's going on.”
Edgar cleared his throat.  “Any news on when that'll be, by the way?”
Frease didn't look at him.  “At least a few more days.”
“I just don't want to risk infecting anyone...”
Happy surprise tinged with suspicion radiated from Amanda; she wasn't used to such selfless action from her husband.
“Whatever it is, we've all been exposed by now, so really, there's nothing more to consider from that end.”
“Good, then let me finish eating.”
Frease wiped off his hand, stood, and left the kitchen.
Edgar finished, pushed his plate away and went upstairs to shower.  Every staff member he passed along the way tried to push back against the wall, to avoid the hairy man in the bathrobe who threatened the well-being of their day.  Once in the Presidential suite's bathroom, he took in the man hanging in the mirror: he looked deranged, ready to pounce and kill someone with his bare hands... not that he appeared to have the strength.
He was in the shower, trimming his beard, when a storm front of nervous indecision billowed into the room, followed by Amanda.  She leaned against the door, her slow breathes sending swirls of cool air through the steam.
He turned down the water pressure so he could hear her better.
“What's going on?”
How much did she know?  He tried—clumsily—to push into her mind and see, but all he was able to find was vague foreboding.  “I'm sick.”
“I got that.  What's really going on?”
“I'm sick.”
“There is no way that was natural.  I—I have suspicions, but—I want answers, Ed.  You can't keep me in the dark forever.”
He turned the water all the way off and stepped out of the shower.  “Maybe it's better in the dark.”
Amanda crossed her arms and stood motionless as Edgar wrapped himself in a new bathrobe.  She nodded.  “Maybe.  But I'm not in the dark anymore; no one is.  The problem is, though, is that I'm still treated as if I am in the dark, and so no one will tell me what dangers are at the end of the light.”
“You're taking the metaphor too far.”
She slammed her hand against the door and lunged forward.  “I'm trying to protect my family!  You're not making it any easier!   Two days ago we had a full-scale riot a few miles from our house, then your cousin gets killed!  Now this—” she gestured at Edgar, swimming in the folds of the robe, “And you expect me to go along, business as normal?  No.  No more.  Either you start telling me things, letting me know that my son is safe, or we're gone.  Do you hear me?  Do you really understand?  I'm tired of sitting under a table while you put your life in danger to save the goddamn country.”  The steam around her was swirling faster now.
Edgar put down the towel he had been drying himself with and looked—really looked—at his wife.  He saw past the beauty-queen smile, the chemically-enhanced eye-lashes, the dermatologist's dream skin.  He saw with more than just his eyes, felt the energy boiling  just beneath the surface.  And he knew that nothing he said would comfort her.  He had missed his chance, long ago, and it was too late; she didn't need him anymore.
“I honestly don't know what's going to happen.  But I can promise you this: you're safe here.  Ethan's safe here.  This is just about the safest place on earth right now.”
“What about last night?”
“I'm sick; that's all.”
“What about Defenders?”
“I'm going to take care of that right now.”
She left, and soon after so did Edgar.  He dressed, finding all his clothes too large, and went barefoot into the hall.
He just avoided colliding with Ashby outside the door.  “Good; I was about to come find you.”
“Yes, sir.  Doctor Frease is looking for you, sir.  He wants to do some tests.”
“Good.”  He followed her out onto the steps leading down into the atrium.  “I need to make some calls; matters of state.”
She produced a large mobile and passed it back to him.  “Its secure.”
She left as they neared the small clinic in the lower level of the compound.  Edgar continued on and found Frease inside. 
“You're looking better,” the doctor said.
“You said you could teach me to be normal.  Let's begin.”
“Not yet.  Right now I want to do a check-up, take some blood samples.  I want to make sure this is—”
“Shh.”  Edgar held up a hand.  “We were stupid earlier, in the kitchen.  The walls have ears.”
Frease looked around, then fixed Edgar with a skeptical stare.
Edgar raised the mobile and shook it.  “Can I make some phone calls while you're sucking me dry?”
“You're the president.”   
Edgar hopped up on an examination table, slid a little on the wax-paper covering, and placed a call to Senator Terstein.  “Hey, Mitch.  What?  Of course I'd call!  I'm your boss now, remember?  I assume you saw my speech?  Good; I'm looking to end this as quick as possible; I'll be drafting something to put what I said into effect on our end.  You still got Ahmad on your team?  Good.  Okay; I'm currently down with something.  I'm with a doctor right now.  No, he's staff.  Listen, when I'm back up, I want to meet with you and Ahmad, and anyone else who'd be good for this.  I know; this is a big concession.  Probably illegal, too.  But it'll be worth it if we can punch it through.  Yes.  I'll get more to you later.  Goodbye.”
He disconnected and looked over at Frease, who was swabbing the inside of Edgar's elbow in preparation for a large needle.  “Q-bomb, buddy.” 
Frease raised a questioning eyebrow, and Edgar shook his head.
A needle jabbed into Edgar's arm.
Edgar ignored the pain, still aglow from the call he had just made.  Things were in motion, the path to resolution and peace was now begun.  And for the first time in over half a year, he didn't feel like he was betraying anyone.
“Even without the concern of infection, it's probably for the best if we all stay put for at least a week.”
The glow of freeing the Defenders faded over the course of the weekend: Edgar had been in and out of the clinic all day Friday and most of this morning; Amanda had skulked about, watching him with silent trepidation; Ethan...
Ethan had come to him in his office and stared at him from the door.  “Hey, dad...”
Edgar looked up from the law book he was poring through.  “What's up?”
“Just... just wondering if you were okay.”
“Yeah, I'm fine, why?”
Ethan couldn't seem to make eye contact with him.  “You just look different... and mom said to be careful around you.”
Edgar blinked; this wasn't right.  Amanda was turning their son against him.  Wasn't she?  No... that wasn't his thought, his fear.  It was Ethan, feeling torn.
“I'm fine buddy.  I'm just...  Just making the country safe for you, all right?”
Ethan nodded.
“Everyone should be safe.”  Frease turned away from the First Couple and tossed his tablet onto a counter.  “I still want to screen everyone, though.”
He turned back and gestured to Amanda.  “I'd like to draw some blood now, if you have the time.”
The bodies in the room shifted around.  Edgar stood and stretched, Amanda leaned against the examination table, and Frease prepped a needle.
In a moment they were done, and Amanda led Edgar out into the hall.  He followed her up the grand staircase, then pulled up short as she stopped on the upper landing.
“Whoa, warning next time, please.”
“I asked you what you were planning on doing about the Defenders...”
Edgar blinked and ran through his memory.  He seemed to recall something to that effect, days before.  “I'm taking care of them.”
Amanda turned; her eyes were puffy, she looked on the verge of tears.  “So what was that, back with the doctor?  Why are you doing this, Ed?  Why are you bothering to keep it a secret?”
“I don't—“
“Just stop!”  She took a deep breath, ground her teeth.  “I've suspected for months now.  You knew about the program, you knew all the dark secrets.  And I've known since Friday.”  Her voice fell to a hoarse whisper.  “I'm not blind, Edgar!  I'm not a fucking idiot, I can figure out what's going on!  I don't know why you did it, or how, or—I don't care!  Just talk to me, tell me what's going on, don't keep me in the dark!  Have you ever thought that maybe I could help you?”
Edgar heard her words, but all he saw where bodies flying through the air, tables disintegrating, little booths with white covered forms issuing from them.  And then he saw other forms, also white, floating through the light in the void beside him.  “It's better in the dark, Mandy.”
She slowly shook her head.  “I've been out of the dark longer than you may think.”
Edgar opened his mouth to respond, but the rapid clicking of shoes on steel echoed through the atrium and drowned out anything he may have said.  
Ashby appeared at the top of the staircase, her face drained of color.  “Mr. President.  We're evacuating you.  Now.”
“Marine One is touching down on the roof as we speak.”
Amanda lunged forward.  “Where's Ethan?”
Ashby didn't look up from her tablet.  “He's been secured and is waiting upstairs; we'll rendezvous with him on the way up.”
Edgar grabbed Amanda's shoulder and tried to force calmness into her.  She slumped, so he focused his attention onto Ashby.  “What the hell is going on?”
“Maria Ruiz has escaped with help from her guard; we have reason to believe the guard may have given up the location of this facility.”
“How could she know that?”
Ashby shrugged.  “How could she smuggle the nation's most dangerous criminal out of the fucking Pentagon?”  She turned and marched away from the atrium, into the building proper, confident the others would follow.
Edgar expected a burst of panic from Amanda, but instead he felt cold resolve. 
Ashby led them to a secondary stairwell hidden in a concrete chimney running up through the compound.  She ushered them in, then pressed a finger to her ear and ordered, “Activate the scramblers.”
“No!”  Edgar lunged forward and grabbed her hand.  “No scramblers!”
She looked at him, concerned that this was somehow a result of his medical crisis.  “Sir?”
Amanda was looking at Ashby, a sense of piteous contempt exuding from her.
Edgar cleared his throat and released Ashby.  “Um... if she's near, sending up scramblers might alert her.”
“Reading our minds might alert her.”
He was about to respond when the shocking buzz of the scramblers burst through the walls.  Before, they had been annoying, at worst nauseating, but now the scramblers ripped through him, roiling through his intestines and up past his esophagus, taking his mind and tearing it away from the new world he had discovered.
“Turn... off... the fucking... scramblers...” he forced past chattering teeth.
Ashby furrowed her brow, made connections best not made, and returned her hand to her ear.  “Cancel that.”
A moment later, the scramblers ceased, and Edgar slumped back against the safety rail.  “Thank you.”
Ashby nodded, not taking her eyes off him, then gestured up the stairs.  “Your son's waiting.”
When they were about half way up the staircase, Amanda sidled up next to her husband and whispered, “No one's going to be in the dark now.”
They pushed through the door at the top of the stairs, found themselves in a walkway inside an exterior walls, and met up with Ethan, his nanny, and two armored guards.  Ethan broke free of his escort, hugged his mother, and extended a hand to his father.  “What's going on?”
Edgar took the proffered hand and led the family after Ashby.  “Um... you know that lady on AmeriNews, Maria?”
“She... she wants to talk with me.”
Amanda swallowed, her throat convulsing.  “It'll be alright, sweetie.”
“She's the one who killed Uncle Isaac, isn't she?”
Edgar glanced at Amanda, who raised her eyebrows and shrugged.  “Yes.  Yes she is.”
Ethan didn't say anything, but Edgar could feel him steeling himself for what was to come.
Ashby led them up a second hidden staircase, and then they were out in the chill night air, walking across the compound's roof towards a large, green and white  helicopter that was just settling down.
Edgar let go of Ethan's hand and pushed him towards the helo as Ashby stopped and circled around to the rear of the group.  She put her hand to her ear again, then froze mid-movement. 
Edgar turned back to look at her, found her standing perfectly still.  He gulped in a lungful of air to shout a warning, but found himself unable to empty his lungs.  A moment later his chest tightened and he fell to his knees as pain wrenched through him.  He tried to scream, but the pain was too intense.  He knew enough about basic first-aid to recognize this as a heart attack.  The world began to turn red and hazy around the edges as the air he had sucked in moments before began to turn toxic inside him.
Somewhere out in the ever receding world was a presence peering into his mind, cool and disinterested.  It didn't want to cause him pain, but it had to kill him, and it had to look natural.  The presence calmed him, reassured him that his family would be safe, his country would go on without him, all would be well...
Edgar heard the words, felt the meaning, began to slip into them, to fall away from his body and let the world go... 
Red turned to black...
And everything was still...
A violent force shook him and the world burst into crystal clarity.  He was still on the roof, still dying as cellular waste built up in his lungs.  Two more minds had joined him, though, two more presences to shore him up, remind him why he was there.
The first was small, frightened, but unwilling to let go of him, urging him to stay and fight, to acknowledge it and protect it.  The second was a roiling inferno of righteous indignation, focusing on and surrounding the smaller mind, refusing to allow Edgar to leave, imploring—no, commanding—him that he could not leave until the small mind was safe, until his duty was done and the world was put right.
He latched onto these minds, these primordial beings that he didn't have the strength to identify, honed in on them, curled them down and into himself, pulled their energies down into his chest until it was so full that it burst against the cold mind that wanted him dead.  He yelled, releasing the dead air in him, pushing out his mind in every direction as a concussive wave, feeling the glass walls of the house, the windscreen of the helicopter, everything bursting and falling away.  And then there he was, seeing Amanda and Ethan, the guards, the helicopter pilots, all the world frozen before him.
“Edgar!  Do something!  You can't let him see you die!”
As quickly as he had come back to his body, he left it, jumping out into the world, hunting for that—there.
His body burst forward, over Ethan's shoulder, and at the guard standing nearest to him.  He and the guard tumbled backwards, bounding on the concrete, the armor coming off none the worse for wear, but Edgar's back ripping open under his now tattered shirt. 
They rolled, grey colossus embracing frail human, to the edge of the roof and then tumbled down into the once enclosed promenade.  They landed, EHUD down, then Edgar was thrown into the air, coming down hard  in an evergreen a few yards away.
He fought to loose from the clawing branches even as his opponent rose from the shattered glass and leapt at him.  He finally pitched himself forward and fell from the tree an instant before Ruiz's meteoric impact broke the tree off near the ground and sent it sliding away.
Edgar lay crumpled on the ground, gasping, bleeding.  Somewhere above he felt his family, reeling and disoriented from his initial burst, their ears and noses bleeding.
He tried to stand, found his legs provisionally accepting of the task, and hastily strategized.  There was little hope in defeating Ruiz through single combat—she had an advanced combat suit, years of training.  He was injured and only had a few months of basic training from his time in the military.  She was well-versed in every form of psycho-kinetic combat He had some theory gleaned from progress reports and two days of fumbling experimentation.  There was no way he could hope to survive this.
A shadow passed over him and he dodged just in time to be swept up in a wave of sod spreading out from Ruiz's latest impact site.
Think.  What would Bob do?  No!  Don't think about Bob.  Bob got you into this.  Bob suggested you participate in treason, Bob tried to talk you into playing along with his Messiah complex, Bob wasn't content to let you stay as a petty, corrupt politician, and stroked your ego until you were ready to believe you could actually rule the world.  And you, not Bob, listened.  You pushed yourself to the forefront of this war, dragging your family with you in your own personal quest for glory.
He didn't know when it had started—somewhere in the early stages of his tirade against Mistlethwakey—but at some point Edgar had lunged forward again, a bundle of raw meat wrapped in the bloody remains of a golf shirt, and had plowed into the immovable mass of the EHUD, had forced his rage and self-pity and hubris into an impenetrable mass of his own, letting it move his body in a strange dance.  He dodged a swing powerful enough to take his head off, ducked under the arm, jabbed the heel of his hand into the frill surrounding Ruiz's neck, felt the internal structure buckle beneath his blow.
His left knee came up, landing between the plates of armor on the right thigh.  Shockwaves rolled out, trying to spread the force of the impact, but the knee sank deeper, pushing a layer of gel out through the skin of the suit, sending the force of patella into femur, cracking both bones.
Ruiz let out a psychic scream of pain, dropping Edgar back to the ground.  He scrambled to his feet, only to fall again as his leg buckled at the knee.  A quick burst of willpower, and the bones snapped back into place, jabbing into surrounding muscle and staying leg shaped through nothing more than hope and wishful thinking. 
He rolled, pushed forward with his right leg, and sent himself hurtling at the damaged leg before him.  He collided with the rough armor, felt his face pull away from his skull, but also the pillar of leg bending backwards, pulling in on itself.  Ruiz was down now, and Edgar sat astride her chest, bludgeoning her head again and again with his fists, his anger, his shame at failing as a father.  With each blow the gel protecting Ruiz's head sloshed around in new paths, meeting with and deflecting from previous waves of energy, splashing around until the only outlet for the kinetic bombardment was Ruiz herself.
Her mind was now a continuous fount of terror; this wasn't supposed to happen.  An easy hit, that was all this was, a step towards getting on with a normal life.  She was in charge, she was the one who was supposed to bring down the corruption with the purging fire of the Q-bomb.  Now—now she was going to die.  Her mind dropped in volume as she realized that this would be the end of her life.  With a last desperate plea, she ran to the mirror, saw the elegant news anchor, begged her to come out and save her from this fate.
A stream of gel jetted from between two plates and the helmet split into two pieces, loosely connected by strands of wet fabric.  The familiar face of Maria Ruiz looked out through the gore, her face marred by welts and contusions, her honey-colored skin darkened by blood.
“Edgar... Please... it's me...”
Faded images... interviews for shows, off-camera camaraderie, a shared history going back years, trickled from her mind into his.  It faded, shrunk to just a few recent images  as it struck his mind, found nearly all the memories missing.
“Oh...  That was all Bob...”
Edgar yelled, brought his arm down again—and it was over.
He slumped onto the felled giant, and started to cry.  Exhaustion, confusion, unspent rage forced its way out, and left him with no anchor in the waking world...

A jarring pain in his leg brought Edgar screaming back to consciousness.  He was back inside the clinic, overhead lights burning into his eyes.
“Hold tight, mister president.”  Frease was somewhere nearby, though the blurred, mushy sound of his voice made it impossible to pinpoint. 
There was another jerk on Edgar's leg, and he felt the bones pulling apart, and then sliding back together.
“Okay!  POTUS stabilized, he's ready to fly!”
Two EHUDs lumbered into the room.  They stood, one on each end of Edgar, and lifted the stretcher he lay on.  Moments later, they were on the roof.
Marine One sat off to one side, its rotors dead, all the windows gone, blown inwards.  Another chopper was next to it, rotors in full swing, ready to fly.  They didn't sound right, though.  They were muffled, far-away sounding.  Edgar reached up and felt a rivulet of brittle crust trailing from his ear.
As they neared the helo Edgar made out a cluster of other EHUDs surrounding what appeared to be prisoners near the an open bay door.  The EHUDs parted and he glimpsed Amanda and Ethan, looking tired and disheveled.  Water glistened on the sides of their faces where blood had been washed away.
There was a feeling of weightlessness while Edgar's escorts jumped aboard the helicopter, then lowered him to the deck.  They turned away and huddled together.  Edgar pressed outward from himself, fighting past a wave of nausea and exhaustion, and felt them discussing where exactly they would strap him in.  He pressed farther and felt a disturbance just outside the helicopter, centering around his family.
He jerked sideways, giving himself enough momentum to roll off the stretcher and to the door.  His escorts noticed and turned to help him, but found themselves disinterested in the little man on the floor and returned to their conversation.
“Mandy, what's going on?”
Amanda looked down on him, her eyes empty.  “I'm not going, Ed.”
One of the soldiers protecting her stepped forward.  “We need to leave, sir.”
“I'm not going,” she repeated.  “Neither is Ethan.”
Ethan, standing beside her, whimpered.
“Sir, we can't put this off.  Permission to sedate FLOTUS for ease of conveyance?”  After saying this the soldier turned away with a sudden fit of racking coughs.
“Mandy, what are you doing?”
“What are you doing, Ed?  You...  you just turned into a monster back there and killed someone.  I mean, you saved us, but...”  Her unspoken words, this is all your fault, stood out plainly.  “I can't go with you; as long as you're tied up in this, you're not safe to be around.  I should have seen that years ago.”
An image flashed through her mind: Lemlin, lording over the East Room, Edgar standing tall before him.  This time, though, it was not seen from beneath the apparent safety of a table, but from eye-level, moving closer.  This time, Amanda was not a passive player, waiting for her husband to do his job. 
“What does Ethan want?”  He looked at his son, who took a step away from his mother and awkwardly hugged Edgar's head.
“I love you dad.  I don't want to leave, but—I—”  He let go of his father and hugged himself, convulsing in fits of nervous shivers.  “Why was she trying to kill you dad?  You had nothing to do with the EHUDs!”
“I'll... I'll tell you when I can figure that out.”  He looked back up Amanda.  “I'm not the man you married.”
“I don't think you ever were.”
He nodded, then slumped onto the deck and let his escorts roll him back onto the stretcher. 
Responsibility still nagged at him, though.  Even if she didn't want him, Amanda was still his wife, his family.  He couldn't just leave her alone.  He tried to think of where she'd be safest, where she could go that the Defenders couldn't reach her.  And then the answer came to him, shining like a beacon.  There was no safer place than the lair of the beast itself, the creature that was unconcerned when Lemlin walked in, who had coolly calculated lines of succession even as the corpses of the dead cabinet members were still warm and wet.  Everything in him railed against this conclusion, but in the end, he realized that it was the only way he would ever have peace of mind.
“Can I give you one last bit of advice?” he called over the noise of the engine.  From the corner of his eye he saw her nod.  “Bob has some real-estate in Philadelphia.  You really want to know everything, want to help me?  Bob can tell you anything you want to know, and nothing on earth is going survive getting on his bad side.  You go to him, you'll be safe from anything.  Call him; he'll get you settled.”  He saw her nod again.
He looked at the soldier he had sent away coughing.  “Make sure they get to General Mistlethwakey, okay?  They're not going wherever I'm going.”
“That's an order.”  He wasn't sure if he could give orders of this type, but he wasn't in the mood to be rational right now.
Just as the EHUDs were closing in to take his family away he called out one last time to Ethan.  “Hey, Ethan!”
Ethan looked back at his father.
Edgar wracked his mind for something to say, a lasting bit of wisdom or encouragement he could leave to his son in case they never met again.  Nothing came up.  “Listen to your mom, okay?”
Ethan's eyes remained locked onto his as Frease hopped aboard, the doors were shut, and the helicopter lifted into the sky.
Not for the first time, Edgar realized that it was too late for him to do anything different.  “Todd?”
Frease loomed into view.  “Yes?”
“Get me some food...”

Saturday, June 8, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 15

Chapter 15

The cell deep in the underbelly of the Pentagon was familiar in ways.  The low concrete ceiling ribbed with rebar, the pipes and wires locked away behind a protective metal cage; it all seemed like home for Maria.
The toilet in the corner, more importantly the sink with its promise of fresh water whenever she wanted it, was less familiar.  The last time she had been in a cell like this there had been nothing so extravagant as basic human comforts.
Comforts.  A week ago, living in her townhouse, taking the bus to the studio every morning, indoor plumbing would have been a necessity, a prerequisite for being alive.  It was always there, never to be questioned.  Comforts were things like heated seats, or her new gel insoles.
Now all that was stripped away, gone along with the beautiful, well-fed, manicured, pedicured, pampered excuse for a human that she had been there, in the real world.  Now all that was left of her was the Maria who had been in the mirror.
That Maria had come to this cell hours—days?—ago, after what seemed like weeks of interrogation.  They had tried to force themselves into her mind, to break her and turn her to their will.  Of course, they had failed; the last person who had attempted the same had succeeded too well.
“Who are you?”
She had been handcuffed, shackled at the ankle, sitting on an antique sofa in the White House.  Not telling...  It took her a moment to realize that her answer had remained locked inside her, not broadcast to the red-faced agent looming over her.  The scramblers were still on; if she wanted to communicate, it would have to be the old-fashioned way.
“We know that you're Maria Angela Ruiz.”
“Then why'd you ask, asshole?”
“Who sent you?”
She leaned back and stretched her legs, causing the chains to jingle.  “Allen.”
The agent looked at one of his assistants.  The assistant nodded and began to prod at his tablet.
“What did you think you were going to accomplish?”
“I was going to kill the president.”
This cycle had repeated ad nauseum: they would ask an obvious question, Maria wouldn't answer, they'd ask something mildly interesting, and Maria would answer honestly.  Then they'd take what little she'd give them and try to worry a deeper meaning from it.
“Who is 'Allen'?”
“He's the guy who sent me.”
“Damn it, I—I mean, what is his relation to you.”
“That's my business; the real question is, 'what is his relation to you?'”
“What did you mean, the Q-bomb has detonated?”
“It means you fucked up, asshole.”
“What's the Q-bomb?”
“I have to pee.”
Once the agents realized that they would get no real information from her, they smuggled her through a service tunnel to a waiting armored car.  In the brief space between the tunnel mouth and the car she saw the sunrise and wondered if it would be the last she would ever see.
From White House to car, from car to Pentagon, from Pentagon to pit. Once inside the huge structure they had taken her down past unseen floors of offices, of storage rooms, of normal, everyday life.  Their final destination was a claustrophobic space twenty feet long, eight high, ten wide, divided in the middle by a wall of acrylic glass.
Once she was alone in her cell, she took inventory of everything at her disposal: Bed, bolted to wall; mattress; pillow; sheet, blanket, pillowcase; one t-shirt, white, a jumpsuit, orange, and a pair of socks, also white; toilet; sink with soap dispenser; soap.  All in all... not much.
She lay on the bed; what else was there for her to do?  What would Allen want her to do in this situation, now that his great plan had failed?
The obvious answer would be escape, but that was impossible thanks to the scramblers that hummed non-stop behind the walls.  Just how long had this place existed?
With escape impossible, what else?  What else, what else...  Memoirs?  “My Life as a Guinea Pig.”  Denounce the government, name names.  That would achieve some of Allen's goals; just because the Q-Bomb failed in America didn't mean the rest of the world wouldn't get in line.  Assuming they let anything she said out to the public.
No, as much as she hated to admit it, her best bet was to lay low and wait for rescue.  Maybe Vince and the others would come for her... assuming they didn't believe she was dead... assuming they approved of her actions enough to warrant an escape.  They still believed the Allen's plan was on track.
There was always the possibility that a pro-Defender politician like Terstein would ally with a hotshot civil rights attorney and get her out of here, at least as far as minimum security, and from there she was as good as free.
She continued to think along these lines until she fell asleep, and when she awoke the next morning...  she was still exactly where she had been.
With nothing to do, her mind wandered.  Voices from the past whispered at her, taunting her with their simplicity.
The world can't stand against us; we're too powerful...  Imagine if the United Nations, if any small body had this much power...  Disinterested, not moved by partisan politics, out to serve no one but mankind, and able to enforce goodwill...  That is who we will be, that is who we are...  All we have to do is show the world that they have nothing to fear so long as they play along...
Other voices came, mixing in until Maria's head was the seat of a cacophony of noise, desperation, primal fear.  The more the voices spoke, the more the cell collapsed in on her, brought her back to where she once was. 
She was on the point of believing that she was still a Defender, still stuck with the others in the concrete hell, that her life as a news reporter had been nothing but a dream—when the food came.
“Try not to choke on it,” her guard said, sliding a covered tray through a slit in the wall.
Food, another luxury; she hadn't always had that before.
After three meals, a second guard, decked out in EHUD armor, arrived to relieve the first, and Maria counted this as a day. 
She slept.
The next day, she had just finished her second meal when the guard knocked on the barrier.
“Hey, get yourself cleaned up; you have a visitor.”
“What, another interrogation?”
The guard shrugged, her armor exaggerating the movement.  “The fuck should I know?  They just told me to get you ready.”
Maria raised her eyebrows, frowned, then turned to the sink.  She splashed some water on her face and sat on the edge of the bed.
For her part, the guard was ensconced in front of the elevator to the surface, weapon ready.  Moments later, the elevator buzzed and the doors slid open.  General Robert Mistlethwakey stepped out and into Maria's private corner of hell.  Recognizing the general, the guard straightened, saluted, and stepped to the side.
“At ease,” he said, waving away her salute.   He clasped his hands behind his back and stepped up to the glass.  “Hello, Ms. Ruiz; so nice to see you again.”
Maria didn't answer.  The old fear and revulsion was taking hold.
“I must say, I'm so glad you finally got around to doing what I asked of you.” 
She glanced at the guard.  “What, you mean kill the President of the United States?” she asked in an overly loud and annunciated voice.
Mistlethwakey looked over his shoulder at the guard, who was standing at rest.  “Oh, you don't need to worry about her; she can't hear us right now.  Everything we say will remain in the strictest confidence.”
Maria felt the earth beneath her fall away; she had no idea what was going on, and she was sure she wouldn't like whatever it was that the General had come to talk about.  She decided to take the offensive in the conversation.  “So you came to gloat, right?  You force me into one last job, I get caught, and now you're so damn happy.”
“Now really, why would I be happy that your performance was so poor that you were caught on a routine hit?  I'm actually disappointed; I expect better from one of my protégés.”
“I'm Allen's protégé, not yours.  You made us monsters; Allen redeemed us.”
“I'm sure he'd be glad to know that his martyrdom has turned him into a Christ-like figure.”
She rolled her eyes and turned her back on him to lean against the cool glass.  “What do you want?”
“I came to offer you a chance at freedom; it pains me to see you locked up like this.”
She turned in a sudden burst of anger, smashing her fists into the wall and pressing her face as near to Mistlethwakey's as possible.  “It didn't seem to bother you so much when I was one of your fucking lab rats!”
The General glared at her through the fog of her breath until she calmed and relaxed her fists.  “I think you'll find,” he intoned, “that I'm a different man than I was then.”
She leaned her head against the glass and slowly shook it.  Then her whole body shook as she tried to hold in laughter.  “How long?”
“How long since you did it to yourself, became one of us?”
“Just before Allen died.”
She straightened and took a closer look at Mistlethwakey.  He was thinner than she remembered, a little more haggard.  He was either suffering from a terminal disease, or...  The guard was still standing motionless, oblivious to their discussion.
“How are you doing that?”
“My secret.  Let's just say the scrambler's aren't as effective as everyone thinks.”
Maria took a deep breath and tried to push out against the humming.  Nothing; she was still trapped.
“It's not worth trying; you won't get through.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to try to kill the president.”
His self-assured manner was unsettling.  “I just killed one president, and now you want the next one dead?”
Mistlethwakey looked hurt.  “I said no such thing.  I want you to try to kill him.”
“You expect me to get caught.”
“I expect you to make an effort to kill the president.  Anything beyond that is between you and him.”
She turned her back on him again.  “I don't work for you anymore.”
“Then I guess you stay here.”
She heard his footsteps as he left, taking her only chance of freedom with him.
A squeak of sole on concrete echoed through the room.
“What do I have to do?”
Clicking approached and grew louder.  “I'll take you to were the president is being held, and then you'll break through any defenses and try to take him out by any means you deem appropriate.”
“What's to stop me from going after you the minute I'm out?  Better yet, what's to stop me from giving an exclusive to AmeriNews about your past with the program?”
The glass behind her flexed as Mistlethwakey leaned against it, and his voice echoed back from the far wall when he spoke.  “First, the president will be closer.  The drugs in your lunch should kick in soon, and when you wake up you'll be about five miles away from his current location, codenamed Camp Eglon.”
The room jumped into sharp focus, and she had to fight down a flutter of panic.  Her greatest enemy had powers she didn't, and to top it all off she would soon lose motor control.  Cooperation was looking like a far better option now.
“Second, nothing's stopping you from exposing me, save for a very popular man and freshly minted president coming to my defense.  You have some sympathy, to be sure, but you're an unstable individual who performed acts of terrorism.  Enemy number one.  You kill the new Latterndale, make it look like an accident, and suddenly I'm an ally short.”
His logic made a vague sort of sense, though Maria didn't believe that the President would affect public opinion regarding Mistlethwakey, alive or dead.  Or maybe it would and she just wasn't analyzing it right.  The room was getting fuzzier—no, imagination, just imagination.
Still, not long to fight back.  She should at least look into cooperation.  “What's in it for me?”
Mistlethwakey snorted.  “That's exactly what Edgar asked when I first sounded him out.”
An interesting twist.  With Mistlethwakey's president on the chopping block, Maria would have no chance of survival should her usefulness pass.  If she refused his offer now, her usefulness wouldn't even begin. 
“I don't suppose you'll ill me in on your evil plan?”  Was she genuinely interested, or buying time?  The room was already losing distinction.
There were several seconds of silence before he answered.  “Demolish the old world order.”  His voice was tired, yet just a little wistful.  “Wipe the slate clean, allow for the Defenders to rise to a position of power, where they are able to function as the perfect impartial judges of mankind.  Purge us of the mistakes of the past, and bring humanity into the wider universe.”  His words were fantastic, yet his voice was sincere.  "In sort... the Q-bomb." 
The sincerity was so strong that it extended out from the General through whatever hole he was able to make in the scrambler's field and touch Maria.  She turned her face to the glass, and was surprised to see Mistlethwakey reflecting her position.  She looked into his eyes, saw sadness mixed with hope mixed with... something else.
This is what Allen wanted.”
He's lying, don't believe him, don't—
Vince was standing in the corner now, a shadow amongst shadows, urging her to fight past the General's words.  She struggled to find an argument to justify refusing him.  “Allen's already failed.  There's no way we can act for peace now...”  Hard to keep eyes open, to talk.
Another voice spoke, breaking into the darkness of the cell like sunrise.  “You always assumed it'd happen overnight.  Peace takes time, Maria.  The Q-bomb is only in development; deployment is a long way off yet.”
She gasped and spun around to catch a glimpse of him, to see Allen standing in the antechamber.  Instead, there was only Mistlethwakey.
“You asked before what was in it for you?”
As her knees began to tremble and the world grew dark, she realized that there was never any choice but to cooperate with Mistlethwakey.  Allen, for all his power, all his ideals, had cooperated with him in the end; that's why she had gone to the old president.  Now she had no choice but go to the new and hope for a different outcome.
No!  Couldn't do this, couldn't go back to being his slave!  Think!  Buy time and think!
Was that Vince talking?  No; the other Maria.
She surveyed the room, sliding her eyes along the walls, past the grim form of Mistlethwakey, and lading on her lone guard.  “What happens to her?”
He raised his eyebrows and glanced to his left.  “Her?  The innocent bystander?  Didn't think you cared.  She's the scapegoat, obviously.  She helped you escape, gave you her armor.  Probably, goes to prison for life.  Not a bad fate, considering what's coming.  Definitely improve her odds of survival.”
Maria blinked, feeling his words slipping past her, uncomprehending.
“So, are you in or out?  Will you try to kill the president, or am I going to be forced to kill you and pull Vince into this?”
Words were said then, but she didn't know what they were.  All she knew was that Mistlethwakey smiled and stepped away from the glass.
She stumbled forward, slid down to her knees.  She had saved Vince; this time, she had saved someone.  The last time she had been forced to choose, been forced to pick Maria or another she had made the choice of a monster, had paid for it ever since.  Would this redeem her?   Would it at least lead to her death?
In the last glimmers of light before the world fell into eternal night, the General paused and said, “Oh, just thought you should know—Steig's alright.”
No answer.
“Your cameraman?  He was injured in the riot, not that you were really there for that.”
Still no answer.
“Have you already forgotten the Terstein riot?  Jesus, I know the rest of the country has, but I hoped for more from you.  Do you realize what an impact it had?  Guess you kind of overshadowed it...”

Gnarled skeletons of trees stretched up to claw at the sky.  They creaked in the wind, followed a split second later by the rustle of leaves along the ground.  Something wasn't quite right about them, though.  The creaks and rustles were too crisp, modulated; every tonal range was presented in its entirety.  The sky was also too clean.  Above was blue, and to the sides it grew paler, fading down into brilliant green.  For the trees, every line of the bark showed in exaggerated contrast, every twig standing crisp and clean, distinct from the sky.   Maria blinked and for an instant, almost too fast to follow, the sky blurred, pixilated.
So... she was in an EHUD   Mistlethwakey had done it after all.
The effort of standing was nonexistent.  As she rolled onto her right side the suit moved with her, flipping her easily.  Gathering her limbs beneath her, she pushed, and found herself in the air before she came back down onto her feet.
The dome of the sky had shifted, and now she was staring off into the green, the brown of rolling hills jutting up and terminating the horizon.  Somewhere out there, she knew, lay Latterndale.  Lay her own death.
Now or never.  She turned in a circle, trying to decide which way would take her where she wanted to go.  If only she knew where she wanted to go...
She came to the sobering conclusion that it didn't matter; no matter what happened, Mistlethwakey would have what he wanted, especially since the scramblers seemed to have no effect on him.  With that in mind, he was now the single most powerful person on the planet.  She shivered; it was not a pleasant thought.
Had that been his plan all along?  In her days in the pit, living as his guinea pig, his soldier, she had thought of him as a loyal man, devoted to the nation he served.  Allen had schemed, had looked for a way to use them to better the world.  Maybe Allen had finally gotten to Mistlethwakey.  Maybe he was finally ready to use his creations responsibly.
Not that she was just a tool to be used.  Not that she would ever forgive him.
Still, with no better direction, it was best to follow him for the moment.
She stuck out her tongue and felt a rough rubber knob embedded in the helmet.  She pushed on it, and a blue light flashed.
“Voice commands.”
“Voice command active,” an androgynous, synthesized voice answered.
“Special protocol.  Defender control.”
The blue light flashed again, and Maria extended her mind to fill the helmet.  She found two wires behind her head, held millimeters apart, and meshed their ends together.  A grid formed over the world, and a pulsing purple line extended out from her, winding away through the dead forest.
Now or never.  She took a step forward, and hoped Vince would never have to know the sacrifice she had made for him.
Step after step, mile after mile she continued.  When she was able to let herself forget about her current mission she almost enjoyed herself.  She began to skip, to hop, to fly a dozen feet into the air and come down with no impact.  She soared through the trees and loped along the ground, using the forest of tree-bones as her personal playground.  She let her eyes close, relying on her mind to avoid obstacles.
Then, as quickly as her revelry had started, it ended, blurred away by the harsh buzz of scramblers.  She slowed long enough to see the white ceramic tubes of the scramblers placed on several nearby trees; the outer defense perimeter.
This was it.
She continued to move, more sedately now, following the purple line over a last ridge and then—it was gone.  Nestled in the valley below was a low concrete and glass building, flowing water-fall like over a small cliff and coalescing in an atrium at the back.
Don't panic.  She turned to the voice, careful to keep her movements natural.
Another EHUD stood some twenty feet away.
He pointed back to the ridge that she had just come over.  “All quiet on your front?”
She nodded.
“Right.  Sorry to interrupt; carry on.”
She nodded again, and the guard loped away, looking for all the world like an Apollo astronaut out for a stroll.
She turned back to the valley, looked again at the hardened shell of Camp Eglon.
This was it.

Now or never.