Rachel sat in a cold grey conference room in the cold grey airport. At least, she assumed the airport was grey. She hadn't seen much beyond the terminal, hadn't been outside at all. It was cold. And now it was getting late, and nothing at all had been decided.
She looked at her allies: a group of six other passengers, each from a different flight, that had been selected to represent all the stranded passengers. At least three of them were lawyers, but she couldn't remember which ones: everyone looked frumpy and unwashed. They had been in here for over five hours, arguing.
They argued with the people from the airline: One vice president, two customer care specialists, two lawyers. The lawyers she could identify from the suits they wore. The rest... she didn't even care who they were anymore.
One of the lawyers was talking, exhaustion evident in her voice. “Again, we are in no way liable for this situation. This was a government mandated grounding. We sympathize with you, and will of course help to arrange lodging or other forms of transport, but we cannot and will not provide financial recompense for costs incurred during this layover.”
One of Rachel's allies answered; probably a lawyer. “As this is a federally mandated grounding, then I am sure the federal government will reimburse you for any costs incurred while assisting us.”
God, were politics always this boring? The news made it seem so simple, Mom's rallies made it seem so exciting. Negotiating was just... She didn't know how much more she could take.
Someone else had the same idea she did. “Look, let's just table this tonight, figure it out—”
“We can't! If we stop here, everyone's going to have to find hotels, with no idea of who's going to pay!”
The mobile in Rachel's pocket buzzed, and she straightened in her chair.
An enemy lawyer noticed the movement. “Yes, Ms. Donalson, do you have any ideas you'd wish to contribute?”
“Little compromise on the last point raised. Fifteen minute break?”
There was a moment of silence, then a babble of assent. They all stood, chairs scraping, and walked stiff-legged out of the room.
Rachel remained seated and dug out her mobile.
There was a message from Tisha: Rach - - check the news!
Rachel rubbed her forehead. She didn't need any more on her mind right now. Still, if Tisha thought it was important enough to message so late... She opened a browser, began flicking through the news feed. Almost at once she saw the name: John Donalson. Click, open story. An old photo, John looking younger, with hair. The story...
Cyd was right. After months of yelling it on the street corners, it seemed the homeless woman had correctly identified a Defender. After displaying his powers, Donalson was invited to join President Latterndale for a summit on international/Defender relations. Then, a force of U.S. soldiers ambushed and killed the erstwhile Defender. The battle, short and brutal, had claimed the lives of at least ten soldiers, as well as over a hundred civilians who were caught in a building set alight by a downed chopper.
Rachel gasped and slumped back into her seat. It had to be a joke, it couldn't be real—she clicked a link at the bottom, found a response video, listened as Senator Terstein's voice sprang into life.
“The time for action is now! Even as protection and goodwill were offered to this young man, our military has struck him down! So far, every Defender to pop up has been struck down, and I am forced to ask our president, 'Why, Edgar?
“What aren't you telling us, Mr. President? I am beyond the point of giving you the benefit of the doubt, and so too, I hope, is America. Where are you? Step forward and set the record straight!”
Another link, another. Riots in major cities, raids on army bases, more members of the LCR springing up all over southern California.
More links, international responses. Iranian Ambassador Ahmad Mokri, denouncing America as a rogue state, advising all nuclear states to prepare themselves for possible hostilities.
More links, NORAD readying anti-missile countermeasures, more links—
It was all Rachel could do to keep from crying. John was gone...
As the door to the conference room opened, as people returned, Rachel felt tears begin to streak her face.
Darkness engulfed Philadelphia. Beyond the light of Sky Crest, blackness extended into infinity. There were occasional sparks of gunfire, brief flares of stars exploding into existence, then fading away into nothingness.
Indistinct movement passed over the gunfire, and Amanda Latterndale shifted her focus, took in her own reflection in the glass wall that curved overhead. She could see the penthouse behind her, open wood floor for twenty feet, then continuing under the steel loft of the floor above. Ethan sat in the small living area in one corner, playing with his one legged Gigawatt toy.
Movement again. An aid, up a flight of stairs to where Mistlethwakey stood in conference with several soldiers. The aid pushed in close, said something to the General, waited for a response, then returned the way he had come. Minutes passed, the General dismissed his entourage, then descended the stairs and came to a stop next to Amanda.
“It's kind of beautiful, don't you think?” he asked in a somber tone.
“In a rather perverse way, yes. Did the messenger bear bad news?”
Mistlethwakey ran his hand through his hair, shaking his head. “Just an update on Norgent. It looks like he's going to be okay.” He dropped his hands, then fell silent.
Amanda glanced at him. “Something on your mind?”
“Just...” he gestured back at the few soldiers who continued to mill around upstairs. “They're so damn concerned with what's happening outside, they're not seeing the bigger picture.”
“We're on the edge of nuclear war.”
Amanda let that sink in, ground her teeth. “They're really that afraid of what the Defenders will do?”
“The Defenders?” Mistlethwakey shook his head. “For once, this isn't all about them. We're a nuclear power, with an absentee president, terrorist groups in control of our biggest airport, rioting in all our major cities, and politicians very publicly calling for armed revolt. Most in the last four hours, I might add. We're the very definition of an unstable state.”
Amanda sighed. “And Ed assured me we'd be safe here...”
The General turned and appraised her. “He was absolutely right; this is the safest place on the goddamn planet. It'd survive the end of the world.”
She smiled. “You know something I don't?”
He nodded. “Damn right.” He returned to staring out the window.
She returned her attention to the reflections. Behind her, Ethan was gripping the Gigawatt, swinging it at a small stand of army men. The innocent play seemed so wrong in light of what was happening just outside their window. The bigger figure would hit, the little men would fall. How many civilians were dying out there, gunned down as they tried to break into police stations, or take over train lines?
“Have you been speaking with Ed?”
Mistlethwakey looked up. “Hm? Not as such. He's not exactly on speaking terms with me at the moment.”
“Seems a bit odd for him to name you NSA.”
He shrugged. “I think he was trying to get me out of the way.”
“Has Ed been speaking with anyone else?”
“Ashby said he's been a little withdrawn lately...”
“Right.” Amanda stood a little straighter, let the room blur as she focused on the eternal night outside. “Then as far as anyone's concerned, you're speaking for him, as security adviser. You'll get a SEAL team, infiltrate LAX, take the damn thing back. If they fly out any planes, you shoot them down as soon as they're clear of the city. This country's been on lockdown long enough.”
He quirked an eyebrow. She turned for a moment to look at him, saw that he was offering no resistance, returned to her vigil.
“Once the skies are clear, you're going to get as much FEMA support flying as is humanly possible. I know it's not your purview, but you see it gets done. You land food and medicine in all the major cities, the ones with the worst fighting: Chicago, LA, San Antonio, New York. You get the idea. Pick a spot, somewhere large but defensible. Lock it down. Then, you start letting in anyone who wants to get away. Make sure they don't have weapons.
“Here, you do it in Sky Crest. I know you've got some barricades already. Now, everything outside Kensington's a dead zone. Hell, even Kensington. You now have the tower, the mall, and the immediate surroundings. Pull back the troops. Anyone who wants can come in, but absolutely no one gets out.”
He nodded, then ran his hands through his hair again. “You're suggesting concentration camps.”
She returned the nod. “Hostages. It'll mostly be women and children who come. Safety, food, and medicine. You said yourself we're a destabilized state. People out there are fighting for ideals, for the future. If you take their families, their futures, they'll have nothing to fight for. If you take the families hostage, the men have no choice but to give up and go home.”
They stood in silence for a minute, the last few soldiers descending the stairs and making their way to the elevator.
“You realize he's not coming for you, right?”
Amanda clenched her jaw. “How long ago did he choose the world over me?”
Mistlethwakey shook his head, shrugged. “I don't have an exact date; it's ancient history to me.”
“Just make sure you get it done. Then we can get back to worrying about those fucking EHUDs.” Amanda turned from the window and stormed away. She approached Ethan, got his attention, gathered him in an embrace.
Mistlethwakey watched in the reflection, then looked beyond the shadow world into the darkness beyond... and smiled.