Dusk was fading into darkness when John turned a corner and saw Sky Crest rising above the skyline. A few cars drove by, desperate to get to ground before curfew hit. John stood for a moment, trying to focus, to feel minds around him, to distract their attention from him. He remembered the procedure, the tried and true methods of misdirection, but there was a blockage of some kind, a disconnect that prevented him from putting action to thought. His past life still felt... unreal. It was as if two Johns inhabited the same body, both diverging from the car wreck. One, awakening in a hospital, surrounded by friends and family, brought back out into the real world; the other, awakening in hell.
Gritting his teeth, John stepped out into the street, crossing behind a Humvee packed with soldiers. As he walked he scouted out paths of escape, alternate routes into the building, into his apartment. Worst case scenario: infiltrate the Central Maintenance Core, and take a utility elevator to his floor.
He stepped out of the street and onto the front walkway, taking in the warm brown stone underfoot, realizing with a pang of regret that this would be the last time he saw it. Through the front doors, into the foyer, following the curving surfaces of the room to the focal point where a man stood, dark skinned in a dark suit, contrasting with the silvery steel of the inner wall.
John stopped, tried to feel the man's intentions, only read a confused hubbub from the thousands of souls overhead.
The man smiled, raised one hand in greeting. “Mr. Donalson, hello! Frank Norgent, State Department.”
Take a step back, make it outside, around the east side of the building, freedom— “What can I do for you?”
Norgent dipped his head in acknowledgement. “I'm here on behalf of President Latterndale, meeting you as a representative of an independent people group.”
“Has that gone through yet?”
“We're still working on it.” Norgent lowered his arm.
John could finally make out a bit of this man's signal from the noise of the tower. Not enough to find meaning in the message, only to identify the man as a distinct entity.
“And what are you going to do to me, as a representative of an independent people group?”
Norgent shrugged. “Don't see as there's anything I can do. You're not out beyond curfew, you're brother's car is insured, and I doubt he'd press charges, given the circumstances. Not even trespassing on the way here.”
John felt stupid. He wasn't thinking, wasn't acting up to his abilities even with mundane skills if they were able to track his so easily. “So then, what do you want?”
“President Latterndale is interested in seeing peaceful international relations established with you Defenders, and as you're the first we've met who's in a...” he moved his jaw, then gestured to the air, “...reasonable state of mind, he would very much like to meet with you, see what you would like to see come out of all this. He wants to work with the Defenders, but up until now, he hasn't had any to work with.”
There was a way out, a last little shred of the world the resurrected John held onto. “I'm not really in the best position to be a consultant; I don't remember too much.”
Norgent nodded, relief evident on his face. “This is a completely voluntary request. If you don't feel the need to meet with the President, he won't force the issue, though he may try to fly out and meet with you on your own terms.”
“Where is he now?”
And just like that, Norgent was back on edge. “I'm afraid that's privileged information.”
Now John was getting something... fear, disappointment and... hope? Behind Norgent's walls of professional concern, of his mistrust of this Defender standing before him, was hope that John's intervention on Edgar's behalf would cause the whole world to step down. Still, hope wasn't enough.
“How do I know you won't just kill me as soon as we're in the air?”
“Because the world has already seen you, Mr. Donalson. Your little outburst at the car is now an internet sensation. If you disappear now...” He shrugged. “Could destroy the world.”
Memories flitted by, only showing themselves for the barest of moments. John already could destroy the world. “I'll need to get a few things from my apartment.”
Norgent nodded, his attention shifting from the present and to the future. “Take as much time as you need.”
John continued his march to the elevator, aware again that this would be his last time seeing this place...
Out of the elevator, down the hall, and into his sanctuary. His tower stood in one corner. It seemed to burn brightly in the darkness, previously unknown significance pushing to the forefront of his mind. For the resurrected John, it had been a hobby, a private passion. For the old John, the dead John, the tower served as his one link to sanity, the tenuous thread tying his mind together, keeping him sane until he got back to Lucy.
And now he was back, and now he wondered: why had he forgotten her? Who had taken her? There was still an unknown, a mist of forgetfulness around her heart-shaped face.
Bypass the tower; its purpose had been served. Circle the apartment, gather a bag of essentials: three shirts, two pants, a week's worth of socks and underwear, toothbrush.
And now he was back at the door, staring around at his life, the one he had fought through hell and back to get to. The realization that it had all ended months—years—ago, that it had been nothing more than an illusion, brought the final dissolution of resurrected John's walls of normalcy. The new memories were still there, but the old ones were forcing their way to the surface. The dead John turned his back on the apartment, his second life becoming nothing more than a brief diversion from the one life he had always lived.
A brief sojourn in the lobby, then Donalson and Norgent were back in the elevator. They exited on the fourth floor, wound their way through a huge laundry room, and towards a door in the outer wall. They pushed through, and John found himself in the freezing night air, standing on a mesh-work balcony. It narrowed into a catwalk extending over the roof of the adjoining mall, ending in the bloated insect form of a passenger helicopter perched on the building's helipad.
John spent a moment looking around, seeing the illumination that spilled from Sky Crest, contrasting it with the utter darkness of the city beyond. It could almost be a metaphor for his life right now, he thought, then rejected the notion. Sky Crest had proven to be nothing but a fantasy. He nodded to Norgent, and the they stepped out over the mall's roof, drifts of snow creating stormy whitecaps on the sea of glass.
The helicopter, rotors spinning up, was surrounded by a cadre of EHUD clad soldiers. Seeing them jogged something in John's memory, and he turned to Norgent. “I assume it's okay if I keep in contact with my family?”
“So long as you don't call during takeoffs and landings.”
“And my friend, Alice, who was in the car, what happened to her?”
Norgent chewed his lip for a moment, then shrugged. “The reports mentioned a woman, aside from Cyd, but honestly, she was kind of forgotten.”
“What about Cyd?”
“We obviously wish to speak to her, but as soon as you left, she disappeared. Seems she wasn't so crazy after all.”
John nodded in confirmation. “She was always pretty level-headed. I'm assuming it was all just an act. Or... maybe something went wrong when they scrubbed her.” John shuddered at the thought. What mental ramifications were there to erasing a decade of someone's personal experience? And who's to say all the Defender were released as found, as John was... Can't think of that, not yet.
The rotors were overhead now, and they were walking between the EHUDs. Norgent stepped up onto a small boarding ladder, then gestured to John and the soldiers. “All aboard, folk.”
John stepped forward, but the soldiers remained motionless. John's hand reached out to grab onto the stair rail for balance, and one of the soldiers moved, an arm swinging up to bring an assault rifle to bear. A crack of gunfire, and Norgent was laying inside the helicopter, gasping.
Old reflexes acted, and John tried to throw himself to the catwalk, but found himself unable to move.
The soldier dropped his rifle and stepped towards John. The other soldiers remained motionless. The soldier raised his hands, brought them down holding his helmet, and there stood Shaun, his face split in a wide grin.
“Goddamn, Donalson, didn't think I'd get the chance to see you off. So glad you called.”
The mist of forgetfulness dissipated, and there stood Lucy, bright and present in John's mind. Another mind intruded onto the memory, the hope of the future.
“You're never going to get back to her, you know that.”
John lay, gasping and naked, on the rough floor.
“I'm not too happy with what you did last week. Fucked up a lot of well-laid plans.”
John swished saliva in his mouth, then spit blood onto the floor. Shaun crouched down in front of him, his uniform baggy on his thin frame.
“You listening? I want you to think about her now, remember her as much as you can. Cause after this... she's gone. I told you I'd do it, too. You fuck around with me, I'll fuck around with you.” He paused, smiled. “Then I'll fuck around with her.”
John began to breath heavily, anger boiling inside him, his starved body unable to do anything about it. He tried to hold Lucy in his mind, to remember her, to know he could get back to her—
Get back to who? There was someone John was supposed to remember, someone he needed to remember... but now there was just a void.
“Itches, doesn't it, knowing you know she's there but not... quite... able... to put your finger on it.” He prodded John in the head.
Her. A woman... His mother? No. Suzanne? As much as he wanted it to be otherwise, she was dead. Alice?
“Her name's Lucy.”
John jerked away from the finger, the woman reappearing in his mind, forgotten memories resurfacing—and vanishing.
“Nope, can't have you remembering her. Hell, can't even let you know she's missing...”
Darkness enveloped the form of Lucy, cut off her smiling face... And now she's gone, buddy...
And now she was back. Now Shaun was back, smiling out of the carapace of an EHUD in the cold November wind.
Nothing for it, then; the President would just have to reschedule. John pulled his focus inward, built, released. Shaun twisted backwards, his armor shifting and hardening to hold him semi-upright. John dropped his travel bag, gripped the railing of the catwalk, and jumped backwards, falling to the roof below.
He hit the roof, rolled, began to run. Behind him the rotors whined faster, booted feet clumped over mesh, Norgent grunted and cursed as he thudded down onto the helipad.
Over the other noise, Shaun could be heard whooping in excitement.
Blue light filtered up through the glass, pulling John's attention downwards. The mall was deserted, its arterial chasms undulating beneath him. He had to fight off the feeling that he was suspended over a pit, about to fall. Focus, think of those old cartoons—as long as he kept moving, he wouldn't fall. Well, that and the inch thick acrylic glass.
Several thudding vibrations passed through the roof, and John felt an unsettling ripple that threatened to knock him off balance. He looked back and saw a trio of armored troops running across the glass towards him.
He picked up his pace, hoping to get to street level, to a hiding place, before the soldiers got him. In theory, they weren't a threat on their own. Get them far enough away from Shaun, and they were just a bunch of confused kids with no idea of where they were or how they had gotten there. Still, better safe than sorry: they had arms and armor. John had almost no control of his powers.
There was a groan of metal, and then the helicopter's deafening whine shifted in pitch, began to move closer. Shaun wasn't going for subtlety.
Why, John thought, why didn't Shaun just give him another push, another scrub? Then John would have been out of his life forever, none the wiser about Lucy's existence. The last four months must have been far more real for Shaun than they had become to John.
The helicopter whined closer.
Time to run. The edge of the roof seemed to jump forward as his speed increased. His pants tangled with his legs as they pumped harder and farther than seemed physically possible. They were starting to cramp...
Ripples propagated through the glass, diminishing in intensity, telling John his pursuers were falling behind. That gave him what, a matter of seconds to decide how to get down from here?
Can't think of that; can't think. Old training was making its way back into his mind, unknown possibilities returning to their rightful place as second nature. Let them return, float away on them... conscious thought sank away until John was nothing more than a blank sensory receptor, left bobbing on the surface of the world, trailing a bundle of combat reflexes. Now, up on the edge ledge, seeing the ground, guesstimating the distance, feeling the wind shift as the chopper ascended.
Down, tucked into a ball, one level, two, three. Balls of the feet, forward, left shoulder, jacket catching on the cement, rolling out of it, left shoulder again, shirt ripping, skin coming away, back to the feet, up, running, every joint sore.
The plaza on this side of the mall was bright, the harsh blue halogen lamps illuminating a small band of National Guard soldiers. Some must have seen John's leap of faith; they were starting to stream towards where he had landed. A moment later they were pointing, open mouthed, and John knew his pursuers were still following.
Likely, they didn't tuck and roll. Likely, they came down hard, like children jumping a flight of stairs, standing still for a moment as the armor dealt with their kinetic force, then starting forward, continuing their pursuit.
Beyond the ring of light now. Here, the city was dead.
A wavering cluster of lights appeared in the distance, and John veered towards the subliminal warmth and safety it represented.
Blood was now beginning to dry on his shoulders, tearing his skin even more as the remains of his shirt, now a massive scab, shifted with his movements. He shucked it off over his head, held back a pained yell, and ran on, too stunned to register the cold.
When the cold finally worked its way into his awareness, when he felt it stab into his bare arms, he found himself lying on the ground, steam pouring from his blueish lips as he twisted around, trying not to freeze to the metal floor.
“Got to be ready for any conditions.” Shaun stood above him, dressed in a thick parka and rugged-looking boots. God, those boots. What John wouldn't give for a pair of good boots...
“Never know where we'll send you...” He was probably insinuating St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Helsinki, somewhere truly cold, not running Philly in khakis and an undershirt...
Sudden blinding light pulled John from the memory. A spotlight turned on overhead, bobbing and moving with him, definitely from a helicopter... The pitch of the engines was wrong, though. He listened for a moment, matched the sound with the engine of a small troop-transport, designed for combat-zone drops.
John fell to his left, rolling under a truck just as machine gun fire buzzed down from overhead, ripping the street apart, cutting into the truck, slicing it in half. He continued to roll, through a snow bank, onto the sidewalk next to an alleyway. A small jump and he was inside, in the darkness, gasping in lungfuls of chill air, his body shuddering as it dealt with the demands of actions long forgotten.
The whine of the first helicopter joined the whir of the second, and underneath that was the stomp of boots as the pursuing soldiers stomped into view. They made a bee line for John's hiding place.
He was about to bolt when he heard another sound, saw another light come down the street from the direction he had been running. A small Humvee, spotlight wielding soldier poking out of the top, careened into view, sliding on the damp asphalt as it braked. That must have been the light John had seen earlier.
A door swung open and a soldier leapt out, yelling and gesticulating. He pointed to the lead EHUD soldier, then to the divided truck, then yelled something that was lost under the sound of the helicopters. John could make out intention now, could almost pick up discreet meanings from the man's mind, felt sudden pain and betrayal as the helicopter opened fire again, reducing the soldier to a twisted pile of meat. The light cut off as the Humvee crumpled, clearing the street of any further distractions.
Time to run.
The buildings on either side sloped together, narrowing the alley until John could sense his pursuers were in single file. Now was as good a time as any for action. Ideally, John would just loose the soldiers, or push inside them to kill them, but he was too out of practice, and Shaun was too strong for him now.
John halted, felt the soldiers close in behind him, leapt up, back, landed on the first soldier, the armor's broad shoulders and protective frill making a passable seat. He hooked his foot under the soldier's rifle, kicked up, grabbed, inverted, drove the barrel down between frill and helmet, wiggled it until he felt the end pass between a confluence of plates at the top of the spine. Normally, this place was unreachable. From within the frill—
John stood and fired, felt the bullet rip through bone and into the chest cavity, through the torso and— The armor did its job; the bullet did not pass. John flipped from the still-running body, slipped in the snow, let his momentum drop him to one knee, swing around, bring the rifle to bear on the second charging soldier. He braced the rifle, emptied the magazine, dodged just in time as the soldier passed over him, kept running, tripped over the body of its fallen comrade. No time, deal with it later—on to number three.
Just enough time to fall to his back, kick out and take the behemoth's momentum in his leg, roll backwards, pivot the third soldier up and over, letting him fly and fall onto his compatriots.
John continued with the roll, curled, came up on his feet, stumbled back. He turned, ran up onto the writhing pile of EHUDs, leapt over them, came to the end of the alley.
A spotlight burst into being, and John came back to himself to realize that another drop-zone transport hovered before him. He fell and rolled just as the spray of bullets ripped into the street.
He had just a moment to think, to focus, as the helicopter rounded on him. As long as he was on the ground, he was vulnerable. Against normals, he could run and hide. Against a Defender, against one of the two men who had trained him, there was no choice but to engage. That meant getting to the first helicopter. That meant getting to this one.
Now... now was when he really needed some of his powers. Falling into the empty sense, dancing with the world around him, that wasn't enough; he needed a direct effect.
Bullets exploded around him, and he jumped, dodged, and rolled until he was below his enemy. He dropped into a crouch, focused everything down into himself until there was nothing in the world but his hips, thighs, calves. His muscles began to pull tighter and tighter, bringing the crouch deeper, twisting the meat and sinew into something dense, solid. And then—release.
John shot into the air, his legs streaming limp beneath him, ten feet, twenty—metal. His torso hit the underside of the helicopter, his legs swung around the side, gave him enough momentum to flip up and sprawl out on the deck. Bullets continued to churn out of the machine gun for another few seconds before the armored soldier manning the gun noticed his erstwhile passenger.
By then, John was up, swinging an elbow at the soldier, feeling his humerus shatter as it took the force of the impact with the helmet. The blow wasn't enough to hurt the soldier, but it caused him to step back, walking into open air. The soldier fell from the side of the helicopter, landing in a churned pile of asphalt and molten lead.
John lunged for the machine gun, grunted as his right arm swung limp at his side, pulled the trigger. Compared to the pain of hitting the EHUD helmet, the gun's recoil didn't seem to have that much force. The soldier below twitched and tried to stand as round after round after round after round rained down on him, but the heavy 50mm darts had their way. Blue gel exploded from the dark suit visible in places beneath the armor, and the soldier died.
Two minds at the edge of John's awareness saw the blue spray in the harsh halogen light, felt a sense of invincibility draining away. A third mind, farther out, pounced on the first two, silenced their screams of sanity, pushed them forward.
The two remaining soldiers charged out from the alleyway, only to succumb to John's endless barrage.
The third mind seethed, recalculated. John was doing better than he expected. Only one thing left to do...
The helicopter jerked as the pilot began to wildly swing controls. John lurched forward, grabbed the barrel of the gun for support, screamed as the metal seared into his flesh. He gritted his teeth and hung on, even as tears blurred his miraculously whole glasses.
A moment passed, and then the other helicopters swung into view. The other drop-zone transport opened fire, and John hurled himself from the deck even as the helicopter began to disintegrate under a hail of bullets.
He found himself falling towards a flat, snowy roof-top, turned himself so he would come down on his right arm. One more injury might cripple it, he was willing to risk it if his left arm was still usable for the next few minutes.
He hit. The air was knocked out of his lungs, and he lay gasping in a snow bank, the cold wetness digging into his burned palm feeling so good.
From the street below there was a tremendous rending of metal as his helicopter, rotors still spinning, impacted parked cars and the fronts of buildings.
John tried to focus, to survive, but this had all... been... too...
He blinked, woke up, found he was still alive, still cold. Now, he could hear fire crackling under the sound of two helicopters passing by overhead.
Inventory, now: Legs, stretched and sore, still functioning; left arm, burned, bruised, good enough; right arm... best not to think about that. Head? Possibly concussed. For the rest? Friction burns, contusions, tears... the looseness of his skin spoke to the sudden weight loss he had experienced over the past... five minutes? So much fat consumed, so few calories left; he couldn't keep this up.
The remaining drop-zone transport had its machine gun readied, reloaded, aimed down at him. John saw the gunner, felt the gunner, felt the mind riding piggy back on his nervous system, felt its attachments. Shaun was looking through the gunner's eyes, feeling his heart race in anticipation of the kill, was about to jerk the trigger finger... but his mind lay lightly over the gunner's. The gunner felt he had orders, was willing to fulfill them, didn't need constant hand-holding.
So John took the open hand and jerked.
Just before Shaun pulled the gunner's trigger finger, the gunner swung around, aimed at the passenger helicopter floating some hundred feet away. And before Shaun had a chance to realize what was happening, he ordered his own death.
The gunner opened up, ripped through the other helicopter, brought it crashing down towards the roof John was on. The tar-paper construct wasn't made to take the helicopter's weight and the great machine broke through, crashing down into hopefully abandoned apartments.
The roof beneath him twisted and sloped down to where the helicopter was sinking out of sight, and John found himself sliding towards the still-whining fantail. He grabbed at a pipe sticking trough the tar-paper and managed to catch himself under the armpit.
Above, the gunner stopped firing, and the still-flying helicopter waited. Below, deep inside the building, something caught fire, and the entirety of the downed helicopter, its tail still visible, burst into flame.
As the edges of the hole in the roof caught fire, John scrambled upwards, desperate to climb out of the pit the roof had become. He made it a few feet, managed to slide down behind an air-conditioning unit, the metal holding him away from the hell below.
Above, the gunner remained detached.
John stood, letting the canted roof support his weight, wincing as his body demanded he sit back down. He looked over the edge of the AC unit, saw the tail of the helicopter sink into the fire... saw an armored hand reach out of the pit, dig into the tar-paper, drag a mangled and oozing EHUD out of the hell-fire.
Shaun dug his other hand in, the armor letting him pull his destroyed body up and to safety.
John took a moment to reach out, to take inventory of Shaun: crushed pelvis, one leg completely useless, the other almost so, back broken, one lung punctured by the long shard of metal sticking out of the armor. So there were some things the suit couldn't survive...
Something deep inside the building shifted, and the rest of the helicopter disappeared amidst a thunderous noise. Shaun held on, even as the roof rebounded, then returned to its slow melt. John didn't fare as well; the sudden shift caused the AC unit to tear loose from the roof and slide down into the pit, sending John pinwheeling after it. He managed to push against the roof, to direct his fall until he was right on top of Shaun, draped over the frill, inches from the edge.
Shaun noticed him, didn't care; the survival instinct was too strong. He reached up, ripped through the roof, pulled, got higher.
It was too slow. John could feel his skin hardening, splitting, burning in the intense heat. He knew, beyond any doubt, that he would die here.
Shaun pulled himself up another few inches.
It wasn't fair. John had suffered for years, had fixated on Lucy as his one salvation, had finally made it back to the land of the living, only to see Shaun come out ahead after all. It wasn't fair... And he wasn't going to let it happen.
Shaun was too terrified, to preoccupied to notice as John's awareness pushed into his mind, spread out, began searching through memories. Suddenly, amidst the flames, Shaun was five years old, was in his backyard, mud splattered on his overalls, his conical hat askew as a puppy leapt up and knocked him to the ground, licking him. Behind him, he could hear his parents laughing. Then the moist tongue was gone, the dog was pulled away, the next eight years of happy memories faded away until... he was alone, friendless.
John smiled. On to the next one.
Shaun reached up, flames wrapping around his glove, grabbed onto the breast of the teenage girl straddling him. She rocked forward and back, shaking him, shaking the whole bed. Fourteen year-old Shaun grunted, convulsed, shivered in the sudden coldness of his empty room, the girl forever gone, the next three years of their romance disappearing in rapid succession.
Now Shaun was beginning to notice, to sense the alien mind, to see what it had taken. He tried for a moment to push back, felt the tar-paper beneath his fingers sag under his weight, pulled himself further up.
John continued to pour through Shaun's mind, to take moments of happiness, of victory, and pull them away. Soon, Shaun's life was nothing more than a continuing string of disappointments, an empty childhood followed by a lonely adolescence followed by a lackluster military career followed by a dull retirement.
Still, there was promise in the future. Shaun pulled again, felt himself rise higher. The flames still lapped around him, still burned the thing that lay slung over his back, but there was black sky overhead, a chance at survival, at redemption.
John began to sift through his own memories, to push them onto Shaun, to imbue him with sudden imprisonment, with years of dehumanizing torture, with pain, with choices that should never be made... with Suzanne...
And as Shaun continued to climb, as John continued to push, he found his actions moving in time with Shaun's—a memory for another handhold, a remembered defeat for another inch towards freedom above. And then John found all his pain, all his hatred, all his years as a Defender, inside Shaun.
John raised his gloved, hand, pulled, gripped again. Yet he still felt the burning, the pain of the shattered right arm...
He expanded his consciousness, found Shaun clinging to a few small memories, to the happiness of the last year, to Lucy. Shaun was weak, tired, almost completely gone. Another little push, and he'd be dead. But his body...
John reeled at his discovery. He had somehow managed to take his... his essence, his soul, and push it out of his own body and into Shaun's. It wasn't something the Defenders had been taught, wasn't even something Allen had speculated on in his theoretical musings. Already, the pain from the other body, the burning vestige of the John that was, had lessened. All it would take was another small push, and John would be in a new body. An injured body, yes, but a body in an EHUD, a body with a chance of survival. All he needed to do was make the final push—
The building trembled, and John lost focus. For a moment he swept out of Shaun's body, felt the enormity of the cosmos around him, glimpsed into the void of death—and then returned to his own body. He gasped at the pain that had been building while he was gone, ignored it, focused back on Shaun.
In the instant since John had left his body, Shaun was reasserting himself, gathering what memories he could, returning to his struggle to make it to the top.
No. It would not end this way.
John pushed again, felt himself slip into Shaun's resistant mind—
The building trembled again. The roof creaked, thundered, collapsed. The whole construct of tar-paper, metal and plywood sunk inwards, towards the flames. Amidst it all were two barely human forms, silently screaming as they plummeted into hell...