General Robert Mistlethwakey stood before a barricade of concrete lane dividers and sandbags. “This is of course merely a stop-gap measure,” he was saying. “At this point, we're not fighting; we're trying to keep the fighting contained. So far, this is still a police action, bolstered by deputized troops. I, along with other ranking officers deployed with the National Guard, will be shifting our attention to the California crisis as soon as we can get the airways clear enough for us to fly.”
He smiled, then receded back into a small box floating behind the anchor's shoulder. The anchor continued the story, but John didn't listen. He waved the television into silence, then sat upright on the sofa and looked around the living area of his apartment. His tower stood in the corner, the central support of a reality that had ended less than a week before. He wanted to be at work, to continue to fine-tune his designs, to do something, but the city was still on virtual lock-down. He and Reggie had barely made it back from the airport before the second round of rioting had commenced.
He stood and walked to the tower, felt its cold, smooth surface, then walked to the other end of the room, then back. He felt trapped in here.
What was Rachel doing now? Last he had heard, she was trapped at Tulsa International Airport. Where was Reggie doing now? Last he had heard, he was going to the hospital; that was twelve hours ago. Likely, he was sleeping there, getting ready for his next shift. Likely, everyone was okay. That didn't help John. As much as he didn't want to admit it, he was scared.
He returned to the couch, gestured at the television until he came to a browser, searched until he found something interesting.
Compressed footage, date-stamped from sometime early that morning. A group of rioters, harried and half-mad from a day and two nights of guerilla combat, had ganged up on a patrol of national guards.
The footage started down low, close to the ground, moving closer to an empty intersection. The unseen camera operator dipped behind a newspaper dispenser, then poked the camera over the top to get a view of the side of an old brick building.
For a few seconds there was nothing, then a group of four soldiers—three men and a woman—rounded the corner, weapons drawn but relaxed. Most of the fighting in this neighborhood had burned out late Monday evening, so they were just patrolling, expecting no serious threat.
As soon as the soldiers passed by the traffic signal, the camera rotated to a line of cars that had been destroyed in the riot. Their doors were flung open and at least twenty young men and women, all dressed in "Defend the Defenders" shirts tumbled out, brandishing clubs of all varieties. The rushed at the soldiers in a ragged line, swinging their weapons and yelling. The soldiers held their ground, tried to speak, to reason with their attackers.
In the end, it didn't matter what the soldiers did; this group of rioters was out for blood. They closed in and the image broke down into a swirl of arms and legs. Moments later the combatants separated, the soldiers standing in a circle, rifles raised, one rioter on the ground, blood spreading across his shirt. The rioters rushed again, and this time there were more shots, more people down—
John waved the video off. It was becoming too real. He didn't want this to become real...
A harsh ringing from the television jerked him from his darkness, and he waved. A click, a series of short gasps, and then a woman's voice, quiet, scared: “John?”
He leaned forward, alert. “Alice?”
A sharp sob of relief grated through the speakers. “Oh, God, I never thought I'd get through. Oh, my God, I thought I'd die in here...”
“Alice what's going on? Where are you?”
“I, uh, I—” Her breathing was heavy, frantic. “I've been trapped here since... since Sunday. There was no power—the phone lines were all jammed...”
“Where are you?” John repeated.
“Cohen & Associates. I was stuck in the riot, and—and lost my phone, and—” She swallowed. “I came here, and they cut the power, and the hard-lines were too busy to get through until just a while ago and—”
“Slow down, yeah?” John rushed to his bedroom, slipped into a pair of jeans, scrabbled around for as much cash as he could find. “Are you okay? Hurt, need food, anything?”
“My ankle's pretty fucked up... I've had food, though.”
“I'm going to come and get you, okay?”
“Can you?” She sounded disbelieving, as if the thought were too much to hope for. “I mean, can you even get through? I have no idea what's been going on...”
John stopped short. He didn't even know what was going on, not really. He hadn't left his home since yesterday's second round of riots, and he had no idea if C & A's part of the city was one of the interdicted zones.
“I'm going to try, alright? Have you called the police?”
A wild laugh. “Yeah, that's not happening any time soon. I got through once, after hours of calling, and all I got was a recording telling the lines were fucking busy...”
“Okay, I'll come and get you. You have any way to tell time? You don't hear from me in an hour, you call again, okay?”
John waited for the click of disconnect, but instead all he heard was Alice's labored breathing. “Alice?”
“I need you to hang up, Alice.”
The breathing became more intense.
“Please,” she hissed. “Please don't go. You don't know what's been happening, what happened here...”
John swallowed. If he was having trouble coping with reality while in the safety of his still-functioning home, what must she be going through, out there beyond any hope of reality?
“Alice, I'm coming for you. Please, please trust me.”
The breathing continued for another minute, then ended with a click. John breathed a sigh of relief, then left the safety of his tower's shadow.
The barricade cut across the street, a line of dusty green that killed all forward movement and left John trapped for two hours. A small chain-link gate wrapped in razor wire swung open, a truck trundled through, and John pulled up to the edge of his world. A soldier stepped forward, tapped on the window with his tablet. When the window was down, he leaned forward, took a quick glance around the beige interior of the car.
“License and registration, please?”
John passed his ID out of the window. “This is my brother's vehicle.”
The soldier nodded as he tapped at the tablet. “He know you're borrowing it?”
“We have an agreement, yes.”
“Hmm...” The officer returned John's license, then glanced over the car. “Where you going?”
John tightened his grip on the steering wheel; the sudden interrogation was unnerving. “Private matter.”
“Sorry, sir, but the city's under lock-down; you better have a damn good reason to be out and about.”
John felt reluctant to tell the soldier anything. He had grown rather more suspicious of the military in the last few months, of their gifts, of their implied oaths of silence. “I'm picking up a friend; she's been trapped downtown for a couple days.”
The soldier nodded, rubbing his chin. “We'll need to search the car. You come up clean, you're free to go. Just make sure you get back before curfew.” The soldier gestured at two others who stood by the gate.
“When's that?” John bounced as the car rocked, heard the sounds of people groping around the undercarriage.
“Eight o'clock. Be on time.”
The inspection ended and John was waved through the opening gate.
Beyond the barricade, all was still. Cars lined the road, looking pristine and untouched. Buildings loomed overhead, the fresh corpse of a dead city. As John drove the death became more pronounced, the rot set in. Now, the cars were twisted at odd angles, their windows smashed, some showing signs of having been on fire. Shops stood gutted, ragged glass standing as the only hindrance to the goods that were once inside.
This wasn't real, couldn't be real, couldn't be the world he lived in.
And then there was Coen & Associates. John parked in the middle of the street and stood from the car, his resolve draining away as he saw what had become of the once beautiful facade.
The first two floors were gone, nothing but steel girders and twists of wire leading into a lobby piled high with iridescent drifts of shattered glass. Above that the glass stood erratically, jutting from a pole here, a girder there, up and up, becoming more whole as the top approached. The sparkling, cetacean forms that had leapt from the ledges at each floor now stood stunted, sheared off, what remained stained with smoke.
John approached the building, stepping over glass floes and office equipment and human filth until he found a door leading to an emergency stairwell. He pushed on it; it gave, but wouldn't open completely. He dialed Alice's office number, waited, waited...
“I'm at the stairs; I can't get the door open.”
“I barricaded it. I'll be down soon.”
Minutes dragged by, then John heard something, many somethings, shifting and falling, Alice's voice cursing and crying. More minutes dragged by, and then the door swung open.
Alice stood in the darkness, her clothes rumpled and dirty, her right ankle swollen. “Office chairs,” she said, her voice hoarse and barely audible. “I threw them down the stairwell after the first group got up.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. “How many?”
“Three... I... I don't know what they thought they would find here, but... No one else got up.”
John swallowed, stepped forward, led Alice outside and into the car. She hobbled along, gasping with every step.
“Oh, God, I can't wait to get out of here. I assume there's somewhere better to go?”
“Yeah.” John opened the passenger door and lowered Alice inside. “Still have power in Sky Crest.”
She chuckled. “You always did love Sky Crest, huh? It's gotten you through a lot...”
Something she said clicked inside John, and he aborted his circling to the driver's side. He opened Alice's door, leaned inside. “I'm really sorry, but there's something I have to do.”
“What?” Her eyes dilated in fright, and she began to shake a little. “John, what are you doing? Where are you going?”
“I've got to do some looting of my own.”
“John? John—” She continued yelling his name, her voice muffled as he closed the door and walked back to the shattered building. It bothered him to leave her here, but there was something he needed, something that had gotten him through so much, the tower holding up what little was left of his reality.
In through the door, up over the shifting mass of broken office furniture that littered the bottom of the stairwell. Up seven flights of stairs, through a fire door—
The smell of human refuse and rotten meat rolled over John as soon as the door was opened. He gagged, coughed, and looked out over the loft that had been his home away from home. This high, the windows were still intact, but streaked with smoke. In the light that filtered through, John saw collapsed cubicles, small barricades of desks and computers. In a pile under the half-floor of offices hanging overhead were three bodies, each crushed under a small piece of furniture.
Alice was right; he didn't know what had happened here.
He sidestepped the bodies, made his way to the narrow hallway at the far end of the loft, and pushed open a door that led into darkness. A moment later his mobile illuminated a small room filled with wires and short, rounded plastic towers. Each was labeled, Work Group A through D, with a series of names below the initial designation. He found his name, Work Group C, and disconnected the wires that held the tower in place.
As he left the loft, left the remains of Alice's brush with madness, he smiled, secure in the knowledge that the tower, his tower was now firmly in his hands. All his plans, every detail of construction and material, was his for the taking. Now all he needed was an underwriter.
Downstairs, Alice sat hunched in the car, glaring murder at John. He deposited his bundle in the back seat, then slid into the driver's seat and started the car.
“That's what was so fucking important?”
Her tone cut at him, made him regret what he had done. She had been through so much in the past two days, and all she wanted was to be home...
But what about me, what about John? He had been through worse, had lost ten years of his life, had been dead. All he had to show for his life, for his second chance, was stored in the foot-and-a-half of plastic in the back seat. The ten minutes it took to retrieve his legacy hadn't hurt Alice.
“What happened up there?”
Alice looked down at her lap. “They just... came up and were just going to wait it out, like me, just set up camp in the middle while I was up above. Then I heard them talking, heard what they were planning to do on Monday, when things had died down a bit and... and I...” she fell silent, chewed at her nails. “After that I barricaded the stairs. Did you know the water fountain doesn't work with no power?”
John shook his head and turned the car around, avoiding the piles of glass. “Power's out in most of the town. Kensington's pretty much the hub of civilization here in the south. We've got power in Sky Crest; you can stay there a few days if you want.”
Alice nodded, then sniffled. She was already relaxing, slumping down in the seat, putting her ordeal behind her.
A car turned onto the road ahead of them, and John followed it for a mile before two other cars joined them. Another two miles, and seven cars were lined up at the barricade.
John put the car in park and adjusted the heater.
Alice was tensing, grinding her teeth.
“National Guard barricade; they set it up yesterday. There's one here, and another couple around Penn Square. They're trying to keep most of the rioters contained southeast.”
Alice nodded, but she didn't seem happy about this development.
The driver at the head of the line was offering up his ID to the soldier who stepped through the gate as a small truck pulled out into no man's land.
The car rocked violently, and Alice screamed, struck out at the window. John stared in wide-eyed confusion, saw a shape hunched on the hood in front of him. The shape extended an arm, rapped on the windshield, and shifted to reveal the gaunt face of a small, dirty woman. Spilling out of the layers of coats she wore was a spray of bright-red hair.
“Hiya, John!” she called through the windshield. “Piece of fuckin' luck finding you here!”
John swallowed back a curse; he had hoped all this was behind him.
“Is that Cyd?” Alice asked.
“You know her?”
“I watch all her videos. I just... never brought it up with you.”
Cyd knocked again. “You're a celebrity, Johnny!”
John wrenched open the door, slid for a moment on a patch of black ice, and stood glaring at the woman on his hood. “Cyd, this isn't funny. I told you last time, I'm not who you think I am.”
She stood, and the stink of smoke and stale urine waved over John. If anything, it smelled worse than Cohen's building... “Sure you are, sure you are! You can't leave me hanging here, John, you see what I've become!”
The soldier at the head of the line had become aware of the commotion, and had waved at two others to join him.
John clenched his fists. “Just what the hell do you want from me, huh?”
“Lead us, John! Allen picked you, knew you were the only one who'd get the Q-bomb!”
“The fuck are you talking about?”
Cyd began to bounce, rocking the car. Inside, Alice gasped, looked nauseous, nervous, ready to scream.
“Cyd, get off the car.”
The soldiers were approaching now.
“Not 'till you agree to help! Maria fucked up something awesome, huh?”
Cyd laughed, continued to bounce. The soldiers were only two cars away now. John didn't want this. He just wanted to be back in the tower, his tower, the place he was safe, where Alice could be safe, where he could pretend his life was the same as it had been a year—a decade—ago.
“Not until you say please!”
The soldiers stopped short, too socked to ready their weapons. Alice, on the verge of a panic attack, stared blankly at the dashboard. Cyd's face peered up from the far side of the car, shattered windshield sparkling in her hair.
There was a moment of total silence as John stood, staring at the gently rocking car, its shattered windows tinkling out onto the icy streets, the shards of glass adding their iridescence to the thin snow.
Cyd's low, throaty chuckle echoed off the empty buildings lining the streets, and the world collapsed back into sharp focus for John. He saw Cyd, not as she was, but how she once had been, tall and naked and glowing with a fierce pride. Saw her as she joined with him, with Allen, in overrunning the guards, making a break for the door, for escape—
The lead soldier yelled, raised his carbine, fired. Alice screamed, kicked open her door, fell into the street. John grunted, clutched his left arm, looked down to see a small white beanbag stark against the blacktop.
He knew it wouldn't hurt him, knew his jacket had padded him enough that there likely wouldn't even be a bruise. He knew too how many rounds the soldiers had left, what their standard protocol would be from here on out, what the likelihood of them panicking and ignoring protocol was.
He blinked, fought down the torrent of memories that was flooding into him, the half-remembered reflexes that were urging him to action. One reflex, an instinct even deeper than his training, finally brought him to action: he ran.
Around the car, past Alice, stumbling towards an abandoned truck, out of range of the soldiers. He was two blocks away now, coming across another barricade, this one with no gate. He continued on, his body demanding more and more breath until he collapsed, gasping, into a drift of snow in an abandoned alley. His legs twitched, cramped, finally lay still.
He sat up and pushed himself into the wind shadow of a dumpster, tried to bring his memories under control. He was upside-down, surrounded by a galaxy of glass, saw the road coming at him—awake now, in the dark, naked, cold. Someone was beside him, he saw her, held her—she was gone now, but he wasn't alone, was surrounded by others like himself, the children of Allen.
And there she was, his strength, the woman he had vowed to get back to, the woman he loved and needed to survive here: Lucy.
He fumbled in his jacket, surprised he had it, found his mobile, scrolled through until he found her name.
Three rings, click.
“Who is this?” a man's voice answered.
John cursed; Shaun had answered. “I need to talk to Lucy.”
“Who is this? Is this John?”
“Let me talk to her!”
A moment of indecision then, “Lu. It's for you.”
“Hello?” She sounded tired.
“Lucy!” He felt elated, relieved beyond measure. “Oh, God, Lucy, it wasn't the wreck, I didn't forget you, I always remembered—”
“John? What the hell are you—”
“It wasn't brain damage! I didn't forget you; someone took you from me! I remember everything, Lucy, or most of it or—I'm a goddamned Defender, Lucy, and someone took you out of my mind, made me forget you, and my decade, and made me think I was in a coma, and, and...” He was pating, drifting in and out of reality; there were no walls now. Was he talking with Lucy? Was she really there this time? Or was it Suzanne, was he telling her about Lucy, or—No, Suzanne was dead, he couldn't forget that, could never forget that. But he had forgotten Lucy, hadn't he? How could he have forgotten her for all these years—
He was sitting behind a dumpster, his left biceps throbbing, his jeans soaked in snow. Lucy was talking.
“John, I don't know if this is some kind of sick joke, but I don't need you dredging up the past. I'm happy with Shaun now, I don't need you.”
“Shaun? Wha—no one was talking about Shaun! Lucy, this is about us, about a second chance. I remember us now—”
“I'm happy with Shaun.” Her voice was strained, distant. “Goodbye. Don't call again.”
Click, and the call was over. John sat in the snow, felt the cold creeping in on his limbs, felt the fire raging in his lungs, in his heart, dying down. He struggled to his feet, got his bearing, and trudged off in the snow, towards Sky Crest. He was only peripherally aware of his destination, only vaguely felt the pull of his tower. As he walked his mind swirled, a decade of forgotten memories fighting for their moment in the sun, fighting to be remembered...
The human leg was a many splendored thing. Edgar rested on a colossal metal beam, looking out at the endless bridge of crystalline bone stretching off into the red-black void. He drifted from his perch, found a place where the brown crystal had sheared apart, opening a crevasse that stretched down to the marrow. He stroked the end of the crystal, reached out and caught a globule of plasma, ripped the sugars from it, pressed it to the crystal, willed it to grow—
A high-pitched whine shivered through the superstructure, reverberated up the small metal pin, brought a slight ache to Edgar's shattered knee, and caused Edgar to shift in his wheelchair and look around.
He was in a large bedroom, decorated to look like the official bedroom he now doubted he would ever sleep in. His leg was propped up before him, white cast wrapped in a blue support. It wasn't going anywhere soon.
The whining continued, and Edgar realized it was the intercom hailing him. He pushed a button on his wheelchair, and the whine stopped. “Fuck off!” he shouted.
He waited a moment, heard no response, and grunted in satisfaction. It had taken him twenty minutes to get his mind down and into the minutia of his damaged leg; he didn't need any further distractions.
Back to it... Breathe out, relax, settle back into the seat... disconnect, feel the room around him, his body as a separate entity... feel the heat, the inflammation of the torn tissue around the surgical pins, the patella sewn together with wire, the bone straining out to reform itself in its intended shape. Scattered about the smooth plate were small protuberances, shafts of bone that had grown too quickly, too poorly, experiments by an untrained god in the arts of healing. It was a good thing Frease knew the secret; the bizarre spurs would worry any other doctor.
Edgar finally found the site of his last awkward fumble, found the crystal that had begun to swell in his moments of distraction, pulling sugars and minerals haphazardly from the surrounding fluids. Edgar touched the spot, found the life growing in it, killed it, watched as the new growth crumbled away. Without his constant attention, growth that fast could become cancerous.
He had just gathered the scattered minerals, had just begun to sculpt them back into new growth when movement pulled at his attention.
Focus returned to his eyes just in time to see the double doors leading into the room burst open, and the small form of Joan Ashby storming in.
She stopped just inside the room, looked over the shriveled, robe wrapped form slouched in the chair. “Well, at least you're wearing clothes.”
Edgar straightened, tried to look presentable. “Leave me alone!”
“Hey!” Ashby clapped her hands and stalked forward. “I don't give a damn about your personal life, or your injuries, and I know for a fact you're not on any pain medication right now, so don't try to act wasted! You are the president sir, and the country is going to hell out there! Focus. You have a job to do. Everything else, I've been more than happy to delegate, but you need to listen to this.”
Edgar looked away from her, slumped sideways, tried to focus all his attention on the carpet. He didn't want to be president anymore, had more important things on his mind.
“We've found a Defender sir.”
He trembled, and glanced sidelong at Ashby.
“In Philadelphia, a Defender just used his powers in front of a National Guard blockade. As far as we can tell, he didn't injure anyone. More importantly, he's alive, he's been identified, and we know where he's going.”
Edgar lifted his eyes to Ashby, the rest of him following as he straightened. “Who? Where?”
“John Donalson. He's heading toward his home; Sky Crest apartments.”
Edgar swallowed, then ground his teeth. Donalson: Allen's hand-picked successor, the one he had entrusted with carrying on the Q-Bomb, just before he was executed. The thought of Donalson out on the streets, rogue and with full powerful, was terrifying. But if he could get to Donalson, strike a deal with him... Then all the Defenders would be on his side, or at least enough to sway the balance of power. Then Mistlethwakey's entire mad scheme would be fulfilled, all the pointless plotting and second-guessing would be over—
“He lives at Sky Crest?”
Of course he'd live at Sky Crest. Where else would the General put such an important piece of his plan? Edgar felt a brief stab of regret for sending Amanda and Ethan into the lion's den, then remembered that Donalson and he were on the same side. In fact, the only possible threat towards alliance was the General himself, unless he had edited himself from the Defender's memory. If that wasn't the case, Edgar would lose no sleep in throwing Mistlethwakey in as a bargaining chip.
“How long ago did this happen?”
“Twenty minutes. Police and National Guard are tracking him on foot, and we have a satellite lock on his mobile. Everyone has standing orders to hang back and observe.”
“Perfect.” Edgar rose to stand, gasped as his leg caught on the wheelchair's supporting arm, slumped back down. “I want someone waiting for him when he gets home, an agent we can trust, someone personable.”
“The NSA is still on site in Phil—”
Ashby snapped her jaw shut with an audible click.
“Not... not Mistlethwakey. I want someone a little lower-rank, a little less intimidating. I want a helicopter standing by. I want whoever we have there to talk to Don—to whoever the Defender is, cordially invite him to a conference with me, to advise me on the Defender situation, and to help improve relations. This is strictly voluntary. Hell, I'll go to him, if he wants that.”
Ashby looked uneasy. “Neither of those options sounds good. This is the most dead-end hole we have, and I don't want any security breaches, especially not after what happened at Eglon. And I definitely don't want you out and about.”
“Well, that's not really your call to make, is it, Chief of Staff?” His smile was designed to annoy.
Ashby frowned, then nodded. “I'll get everything ready.” She turned on her heel and strode from the room, pulling the doors to behind her.
Edgar chuckled, then leaned back and put his hands behind his head. He glanced down at his leg, then decided to ignore it for the time being. If everything went well, by this time Thursday he'd have someone who could show him exactly how to fix the useless thing...