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.
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.”
“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 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?”
“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.