Friday, July 18, 2014

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 31

Chapter 31

The single word was enough to wake her, to send energy coursing through her body.  She sat up, her heart beating, her cot creaking.  Around her she could hear the fitful sounds of a dozen sleeping strangers.  Beyond that, the sounds of a refugee camp at night.  Hushed conversations, muffled vehicles driving about, raucous laughter from somewhere farther off.
She shivered; it all sounded too much like the riot nights she had spent in Cohen & Associates, listening to the voices outside drift in.  The sounds of looting, fighting, killing—
No.  Can't think of that.  That was behind her, she was in a better place now.  She was directly defending the Defenders, after all.
We did it...  But something more important has happened...  We need you in the tower...
The voice seemed familiar, a presence she knew well, but there was something odd about it, something she couldn't quite square with her initial reaction.  Something foreign... 
John.  It had to be John.  He had never spoken into her mind like this before, connected on this personal a level.  That's why she couldn't recognize this voice as one of the other EHUDs.  But his innate self, his John-ness that she knew so well, that had come across.  It was just as Cyd had explained: the non-verbal persona of the individual was communicated into her mind...   
She slipped on her boots—she hadn't dared undress any further—and slipped out of the tent.  Lights bobbed here and there in the distance, but most of what could be seen was Sky Crest and the mall.  They both glowed with inward light, as well as by spots pointing at them.  Making them easier to see for aircraft?  What aircraft?
The lights at least made it easier for her to find her way to the building.  As she walked into the lobby she silently wondered, What floor?
Penthouse...  The door will be open...
She could get used to this.
The elevator opened, she rose, the elevator opened, she got out.  As she stepped into the penthouse foyer, the double-doors opposite her opened on a thin man in his sixties, ruffled white hair topping a ruffled white sweat suit.
“Hey, Alice.  Glad you could make it.”
It was unnerving.  The inflection, the cadence, it was all John.  But the timbre, the slight raspiness, it was so wrong.  She stared into the face of Robert Mistlethwakey, trying to look past the eyes to her friend within.  She couldn't see him.
“Catch me up.”
“Right.”  He strode back into Mistlethwakey's apartment, his body moving not as if he owned this place, but as if there were urgent business to attend to.  That was comforting.  She followed him.
“A couple years ago we took over the world's nuclear arsenal.  Never really thought about it; it was just a mission and we were a little... preoccupied.”
As he said the last word, a sudden image of Cyd flashed through her mind.  That explained some things...
“Turns out he's been planning on wiping out our technological civilization.  We'd be left to pick up the pieces.”
“Shit.  It's a good thing you got him when you did.”
John stopped and rounded on her.  “We didn't.  He's—we've—implanted subconscious instructions in high-level political targets, plus code in the actual launch computers.  He's set everything to launch in just over three hours.”
“Oh, fuck.”  This was not the news she wanted after just waking up.  John's words kept replaying in her head, and one phrase stood out: our technological civilization.  She had lived in the ruins of that technological civilization for three days; it had been bad.  She could barely imagine what living through a nuclear wipe-out of that civilization would be like.  Scratch that—she could imagine it all too well.  She had seen movies, played video games.  She didn't want to imagine it. 
But in the back of her mind a little voice said, You know you could survive it.  You've already proven you can survive it...
“What are we going to do?”
John didn't answer; his eyes were unfocused.  He must be having an important conversation.  She took this chance to look around the much-vaunted General's home.  She knew the floor-plan well enough, had even put in some work on a remodel a few years back, but being here in person was different.  For one thing, here there was furniture.  And other people.  Scattered across the main living area and up onto the loft were several armored Defenders, moving so little they resembled decorative flourishes more than actual people.  Some were staring out the curved windows that made up the outer walls, some were looking down at the ground, some were focused on a small glowing tablet...
“I'm sorry, did you say something?”
“Yeah, what are we going to do?”
John gestured to the group clustered around the tablet.  “Vince is trying to cut through the General's firewalls, but the security is unlike anything he's ever seen.  Even if he got though, he wouldn't be able to shut down anyone's launch mechanisms; footballs rarely connect to remote networks.  Our best current bet is to warn everybody, then try to create a barrier to protect the tower, maybe the mall.”
Alice was already shaking her head.  “You and I both know this isn't build to withstand atomic bombing.  And besides that, there's no way we could make something that would in, what, six hours?  Maybe the mall—”
“I don't mean a physical barrier.”
A wicker rocking chair in her peripheral vision rose from the floor. 
“We create an energy field around the buildings, angle it to deflect the blast.  Some of us are already working through it.  Maybe you could help them with the shaping.”
“I'd need to know where the explosion's coming from, magnitude—”
John was nodding.  “He knew we were coming, probably expected us to do this.  He left a very detailed map of thousands of targets, along with details of which missiles where going where.”
“Shit...”  Alice was having a hard time standing, the situation was so surreal.    Hearing the voice of Robert Mistlethwakey referring to himself as a separate entity, hearing the voice of her most down-to-earth colleague discussing the creation of a psychic energy shield to deflect a nuclear blast...  Was this how John felt when Merv had first made himself known?  
Then, guilt.  “He knew you were coming.  He had too many details of the plan, he must have read my mind, or—”
The leathery hand on her shoulder quieted her.  “He couldn't have known you were coming... Hell, for all we know, he could have programmed this plan into us before he ever released us...”
“Why would he do that?”
John shrugged.  “Who knows?  But we don't have time to think about that right now.  Right now, we have to survive.”  He gestured up to the loft.  “Talk to Vince.  He'll give you the details you need to get started.  Right now, I have to make sure the people of Philadelphia survive this shit-storm.”
He squeezed her shoulder, then walked off in the direction of the private rooms.  Alice had no idea why. 
Hey, you coming up, or you want to talk from there?
She looked up to see Vince putting the tablet down on a desk, bending forward to get a closer look.  He didn't acknowledge her in any way, but she was able to recognize his presence.
Yeah, I'm coming up, she thought.

Heavy knocks on the door pulled her from sleep.  She blinked, levered herself up so she could see the clock over Ethan's shoulder, took in the time: 3 AM.  Amanda sighed and closed her eyes, trying to decide whether it was worth getting up just to tell whoever was pounding on her door to go away.  Then she remembered who she was staying with, and realized that if the General was waking her in the middle of the night, he must have a good reason.
Grumbling, she rolled out of bed, put on a robe, and opened the door a crack.  “Yes?”
Lights were on beyond the door, leaving the knocker in shadow, but the silhouette looked like Bob.  “Mrs. Latterndale?”
Sounded like Bob, but he knew who she was.  “Yes?”  She glanced back to where Ethan was sleeping, tried to think of what she could do if this person turned out to be a threat.
“Ma'am, I'm sorry to wake you, but we have a very serious problem.”
Dark forms were moving beyond Bob.  They were clearly soldiers in EHUDs with helmets off, but their faces looked strange, skeletal...  Another person walked by, a weathered looking woman in baggy clothes with bright-red hair.  Amanda gasped as she recognized Cyd.
She slammed the door, rushed back to Ethan, shook him, hissed, “Get, up, we have to go, get up!”  She knew this was a useless gesture; there was no where she could go with her son.  There was only one way out of the room...
The door creaked open, and Mistlethwakey stepped inside.  “We don't have time for this.  The world's about to end, and we need to get everyone inside.”
Amanda froze.  The hyperbolic phrase carried some weight when spoken by the National Security Adviser.
“Mom, what's going on?”
All she could see where Ethan's eyes, afraid, staring up into hers.  What could she say?  The truth?  “I don't know honey...  But the Defenders are here.”
Ethan's eyes widened, and his throat jerked as he tried to swallow.  “Dad said they were on our side, right?  He was going to talk to John?”
There were shuffling footsteps behind her.  “Why doesn't the boy go with nurse Donalson here?”  The door creaked again, and when Amanda looked back she saw the familiar face of Reggie Donalson, the grieving brother.  Why was he here?
“We need to talk.  Privately,” Bob stressed.
Amanda nodded, then bent back down and whispered in Ethan's ear, “Go with the nurse.  Whatever you do, stay away from the Defenders.  I don't care what your father said, I don't trust them.”
She sat on the edge of the bed as Ethan slipped onto the floor, pulled on a tee-shirt, and followed Reggie from the room.  When the door closed, she was able to breathe again. 
“What do you want, Bob?”
“Look, I know you don't trust them out there, but they are trying to help you.  I know some of them have been... rather extreme in their actions, but Ed trusted them, and maybe you should, too.”  Good; he was starting to sound more like the Mistlethwakey she knew.
“Of course Ed trusted them; he's one of them.”
She glanced up to see what kind of reaction this would illicit.  Bob was half-smiling, his expression looking almost wistful.  “Knew it would happen sooner or later...”
Now she was standing, towering over the little General, flailing at him.  “You knew?  You knew he would do this, knew he was part of this—”
His hands gripped her wrists, far stronger than their age and frailty would suggest.  She gasped, then fell quiet.
“There is no time for this right now,” he hissed.  “The EHUDs are here for a very specific purpose: They have intel that there's about to be a nuclear assault on the U.S..  It's been a possibility for the past two months, a strong probability since last week.  Now we have confirmation that someone is gunning for us.  They're going to take out the Defenders before the Defenders or some other faction gets their hands on our nuclear arsenal.”
That stopped Amanda, held her in place.  Nuclear war...  always such a remote possibility, something she knew no one would ever try... but always the worst-case scenario, the great fiery cloud she couldn't protect Ethan from, no matter how hard she tried.  She found herself slipping backwards; Bob released her, letting her fall back on the bed.
“Who... who's firing at us?”
He ignored her.  “Right now I need you to focus, Mandy.”
Mandy.  No one called her that except Edgar.  She was focused now.
“The Defenders think they can make an energy barrier to keep us safe, but they're relying on the structure of this building to give them a guide.  That means that we need everyone outside--all the refugees, all the soldiers, all the supplies--moved into the tower or the mall.  We have about five hours, so we have to do it now.”
She pushed herself up, walked to the closet, dug around until she found a pair of loose khakis and some comfortable shoes.  “What do you want me to do?”
Mistlethwakey nodded in approval.  “You're the CFO of one of the country's largest non-profits, you're the only public face we've had for the presidency during the worst domestic dispute since the Civil War, and you're the one who got all of us here.”  He gestured expansively to the room, the building, the unseen refugee camp down below.  “I want you to make sure every one's inside and safe by the time the nukes start falling.”
The shoes made a tremendous thumping sound as they hit the floor.  “Do you really think I can do it?” 
The General smiled his sweet, sinister, grandfatherly smile.  “Why do you think I came to you first?”

Edgar sat on the edge of his bed, staring down at the blue sheath that bulged from the end of his robe.  He flexed his leg, watched as the hunk of plastic and plaster moved, felt his thigh straining at the extra weight.  It was getting better...
He dipped down into his leg, found the last place where bone was still held together be metal.  Ideally, he would get the pin out first, then seal the bone.  But that would take too long, require another surgery.  For now, he'd seal the bone, build his strength back up.  Then, when Donalson made good on his strike against Bob, he could help him remove the metal.  God, it would be good to be able to do that, to control every aspect of his body.  Never to be hurt again...
Faint music pulled him from his thoughts.  He listened for a moment, recognized the jaunty tune of “Home Means Nevada.”  Mandy.  He lunged from the bed, stumbling and grumbling as he found his balance, then clumped across to the dresser where his mobile lay twitching.
Click.  “Mandy.”
There was a moment before she spoke.  In that moment were a multitude of other voices, of heavy machines groaning, of a city in a great hurry.  “Ed.  I'm sorry I didn't call earlier.  I've just been so busy, and I knew you would be too, but—”
“I, I haven't been...”  He cleared his throat.  “I haven't been too busy—”
“I'll keep this short.  I know we didn't part on the best of terms, and I still don't completely trust you, but Ethan misses you, and I see now how important it is for him to have you, so,” her voice became thicker, “if we survive this, I want him to come visit you.  We need to be together.”
“If you—Mandy, what the hell are you talking about?”
She sniffed.  “I know, stay positive.  You trust them—hell, you're one of them—and you showed what they're capable of with Maria.  Yeah, we'll get through this.”
“Mandy, I—”  Pain shot through his leg and he scuttled back to the bed, falling back just as he reached it.  “Fuck!  Mandy, what are you talking about, what's going on?”
“Bob hasn't told you?”
“I haven't talked to Bob since he needed approval for the LCR strike.”
There was another moment of silence, another moment of the world around Amanda operating in a flurry of activity.  Then: “Shit.  The bastard was lying.”
Edgar felt a twist deep in his stomach.  The General was doing something again.  How long since he had told Bob to leave his family out of it, to stop manipulating him?  Seemed kicking him upstairs hadn't kept him from meddling.  “What exactly did Bob tell you?”
She relayed the General's words, telling him of the Defender's involvement, of the fiery death that loomed in about two hour's time.  As she spoke a persistent nausea took root in the pit of his stomach.
Once again, the General seemed to have the EHUDs marching to his tune, despite what he had done to them in the past.  Just like Ashleigh, sent to drive Edgar to Bob.  Just like Merv, sent to catapult Edgar into the public consciousness, to open the floodgates on the reality of the Defenders.  Just like Maria...
He swallowed.  It was so obvious in retrospect.  He had sent her to push him here, to cut him off from Amanda and Ethan.  The General had never stopped manipulating him, had never left his family alone; he was still playing some deranged game.
Edgar was about to speak, to tell Mandy everything--how Mistlethwakey had been using him to empower the Defenders, tempting him with the Oval Office--when the doors to the bedroom burst open, splinters of wood flying out from around the deadbolts.  Four armored guards rushed in, followed a moment later by Ashby and her intern, Rachel.  Each woman was carrying a stack of mobiles.
“Mandy, I love you.  I'll try to call you back.”
“Ed?  What's going—”  Click.
Edgar dropped his mobile and sat up to face the intruders.  “What the fuck are—”
“India, Pakistan, France, and Russia just launched nuclear weapons,” Ashby said, her voice higher than usual. 
“And Iran and Korea,” Rachel added.
Edgar whimpered.  It looked like the General hadn't been lying after all; he just understated how many missiles would be in the air.
A mobile buzzed, and Rachel swallowed.  “Israel.”
He pushed himself up, stood, stumbled towards Ashby.  “How long ago?”
“France was first.  Four minutes.”
“We have trajectories?”
“So far it looks like only European and Asian capitals are being targeted.  NORAD's still trying to work out exactly what's going on.”
“Um, and the Russian premiere and Iranian president both called,” Rachel said.  “They said missiles were fired without orders, and all attempts at aborting aren't working.”   She was shivering, twitching with nervous energy; this wasn't what she signed up for.
“Right.  Call NORAD, tell them to have planes in the air and anti-missile precautions prepped.  They've probably already done that, but I am taking no chances.  Next, get the conference room prepped.  I want to be on with every world leader in five minutes.”
Ashby nodded.  “Rachel, conference room.  There's a corporal on duty who knows how to work everything.  Put out a general call.”  They both turned and left.
And suddenly, Edgar was alone, the world collapsing around him.  Before the call from Amanda, this would have been a horrible tragedy, a moment of intense stupidity that would doom all mankind.  But after that conversation... this was the action of one man, operating on a plan of far greater immensity than Edgar had ever suspected...

Rachel stood on the sidelines of the end of the world.  The president, flanked by two military advisors,  sat facing a curved wall screen filled with hundreds of windows.  In each window a terrified face peered out: a president, a premiere, a prime minister, a general, even one or two monarchs.  Each had their turn to mumble out a weak apology for what their arsenal was doing, then provide an even weaker excuse that, whatever was happening, it wasn't their fault.
In the middle of the screen was a map, lit up with a little red light for each calculated target.  Rachel watched in horror as the little red dots multiplied and spread, plague-like, over the world.  A sparse sprinkling in central Asia, growing thicker towards the edges of the landmass, flaring brightly in India, eastern China, Japan.  Sub-Saharan Africa glowed, topped by a void of tan, then more red, then Europe, badly infected.
At his table, Edgar was getting angrier and angrier, his shoulders raising higher and his head dipping lower as the meeting stretched for ten minutes, fifteen, twenty.  Then a voice, dripping with a Midwestern drawl, said, “Sir, ours are off, too.  I don't know how, sir.  There was zero electronic traffic, sir.”  And then it was Edgar's turn to mumble a weak apology, to say it wasn't his fault.
On the map, the infection jumped the Pacific and Atlantic, striking the new world from both fronts.  South America was aglow with sores, a green swath of rain-forest being its only safe zone.  North America glowed brightly along its coasts, around its inland seas.  Then, for no apparent reason other than dividing the world, a deep red sore appeared across the Panamanian isthmus.
Rachel absorbed all this in a kind of detached horror, not hearing any of the words, only watching as the world was split apart by the engineers tracking the missile's trajectories.  Everything seemed remote until she saw southern California and New England erupt, and then she silently cried, knowing that in less than an hour her parents, her friends, the father of her child, would all be dead.
Then there were words, a slight glimmer of hope.  They were in French, but quickly translated : “We have birds on a missile.  We are engaging.”  Then the hope died.  “Automatic surface-to-air defenses have targeted the birds.  We have lost communication.  Repeat, we have lost communication with the birds.”
And then, one by one, the windows went dark.  With some, there was a definite sign-off, a sad farewell to their colleagues.  With others, the screen merely went dark mid-sentence.
Wheels rumbled on hardwood as the president pushed away from the table.  He awkwardly stood, stumbled over to Rachel, stared down into her eyes as he rested his weight on her shoulder.  “Your family should be fine.  The Defenders have thrown in with Mistlethwakey and are making some kind of energy shield.  You're free to make any calls you need to.”
He straightened and hobbled from the room.
Rachel was alone know, staring at the screen, the red Earth glaring out at her from the center.  She stroked her belly, then looked down to her hands. Two weeks ago they had scooped up a handful of slush, formed a ball, threw it at Tisha.  They had scooped up a city filled with nervous energy, formed a riot, threw it at the country.  These hands had killed one of her friends, had started a war that had killed thousands and left tens of thousands of others injured.  All that blood was on her hands...  And now it would be washed away with fire, by the deaths of billions, utterly forgotten in the apocalypse that was about to begin.  She shuddered.  She had wanted to wash the blood away, to absolve herself for what she had done... it seemed impossible to believe that she would now give anything for the guilt to remain.

It was tempting to let Eli handle this...  He had more experience speaking, had spent more time face-to-face with the American public.  But in an hour he'd be dead, and the public needed to see someone a little more lasting, someone a little more interested in their lives. 
So it was that Edgar sat in front of a green screen, facing a camera wired in to who knew what.  He had returned to his wheelchair, sitting erect, his suit jacket crisp and his hair slicked back.  Eli, via video chat, had urged him to shave, at least trim his beard, but Rachel insisted that the longer beard was evocative of the earlier presidents--the “better” presidents--and would help to put people's minds at rest.
It was with beard full and flowing that Edgar waited as Ashby's pet tech corporal counted him down, signaled him to begin speaking.
“My fellow Americans...  By now you have heard rumors of what has been happening the world over, heard news out of Europe and Africa and Asia that a massive nuclear assault has occurred.  It is my sad duty to inform you that those rumors are entirely true.  By the time this message is broadcast, all of the major population and power centers on this planet's main landmass have been destroyed.  Millions have died, and hundreds of millions more will surely join them in the coming weeks.  There is no way to mount a rescue effort; infrastructure and manufacturing hubs have also been targeted.  Furthermore, in the coming hours, the western hemisphere will fall victim to the same rain of fire.  Most of the bombs that fall on us will be our own.
“The question I am sure that you all want answered is, 'Why'?  Why has this tragedy occurred, who has caused it?" 
He paused, looked away from the camera, brushed at his eye.  On camera, it was endearing, a man weeping for his world.  Below camera, his plastic-clad leg was twitching.
"I don't believe we'll ever know.
“The question we should ask is, 'What can be done'?  The answer: survive.  The years ahead will be the hardest mankind has faced for the last twenty-thousand years.  Civilization as we know it will be gone.  Our technology, our industry, everything we have counted on in our lives will be taken from us.  What we are left with is each other.  What we are left with is human relying on human, the race coming together as we have not done in millennia.  Perhaps in the coming years, we can reflect on the Defenders, on what they could have offered us.  A world of peace, a world where no man need fear another.  A world where all shared equally: ideals, possessions, self.  Perhaps this is the world we will make in the coming years, the world we will pass down to our children and our children's children, a world whose very existence is a sign saying, 'Do not go this way.  Do not embrace war, do not shun the outsider.  Listen to those wanting to help, defend those who cannot defend themselves.'
“And if I live through this, if I can see a new and different world with tomorrow's sunrise, that is the world I will try to build.  And if you hear this, and if you, too, see tomorrow's sunrise, I ask that you join me in building this.”
He tilted his head back, looking down his nose at the camera.  He held the solemn pose for a moment, then thrust himself forward.  “Ethan, if you see this, I'm sorry.  This isn't the world I wanted to leave to you.  I can only hope you do a better job with this new world than I did with the old.”
Returning to his previous pose, he flicked his fingers at the corporal, until the corporal sighed and said, “We're cut.”
Edgar mirrored the sigh, then slumped down into the chair.
“It's uploading, but broadcast will be slim.  There's a fuck-ton of electromagnetic interference, and all Eastern-Hemi servers are offline.”
Edgar nodded.  “Doesn't matter.  Not much this would do for people anyway, maybe distract them for a few minutes.”  He prodded at the chair's joystick, rocked back and forth, then looked up at Ashby, standing next to the light kit.  “It looks like I'm about to be president of a much more local country.  Call up all National Guard in the state, get them started this way.  NORAD thinks we'll be pretty untouched in the Midwest, at least until the fallout starts up.  I want supplies stockpiled, police put on alert, prisons on maximum security.  The next forty-eight hours are going to be absolute hell...  we better be ready.”
She nodded, tapped something into her tablet, then turned to go.  Just before she reached the door she stopped and turned back, raising the tablet and shaking it.  “I'll get some pens and paper and have them distributed to the staff.”
Edgar bowed his head in acknowledgement, then followed her out of the room.
With one hand he was controlling the chair, with the other he was continually dialing Amanda's mobile.  He couldn't get through; too much electromagnetic interference.
He was so distracted he didn't notice the person standing in the middle of the hallway until his knees collided with something and his chair stopped moving.  He looked up into the face of Dr. Frease.
“Now isn't the time, doc.  You can check on me after I've called my dead wife.”
Frease snatched the mobile and tossed it aside.
“I watched your little speech.”  The doctor knelt so he was face to face with the president.  “And you know what I kept thinking of the whole time you talked about the end of the world?”
Edgar tried to motor in reverse; he had to say goodbye to Amanda.  She might survive, but he wasn't trusting the General's magic with that.  Frease grabbed the wheels, holding the chair in place.
“I kept going over a conversation I had with Mistlethwakey, back when he was busy pulling favors to get me set up as your uncle's doctor.  Funny thing was, I had no memory of the conversation until just know.”
The joystick snapped back upright, the motor died.  Edgar was paying attention. 
“He was telling me all about this place, about all the little goodies he had stuffed in the basement.  And somehow you came up in that conversation...  how if anything catastrophic should happen, I should show you what's in the basement...”  As he spoke, his voice rose in pitch, until it was almost a whine at the end.  “You won't believe what's down, there...  But you really need to see it.”  He looked frightened.
Edgar ran through possibilities, couldn't think of anything more frightening than what was going to happen in just a few minutes.  Frease seemed like a sane man, aside from his guilt over the Defenders.  If whatever was in the basement was worse than what was going on around him, it had to be important...
But so was his family.  Every time Edgar thought of the imminent apocalypse, he remembered his family: Mandy's striking smile, her indomitable will, Ethan's half-toothed grin, his na├»ve loyalty...
“My wife and son are about to die, Todd, and I need to say goodbye.  I was the one who told them to go to Philadelphia, I was the one who didn't force them to come here with me.  I killed them, Todd.  For once in my life, I'm putting off work to talk to them, to tell them I love them, alright?”
Frease shook his head, stood, stumbled away.
Edgar motored over to his dropped mobile, glanced around, made sure no one was watching.  The mobile twitched, jumped up onto his foot-rest, jumped again up into his lap.  He dialed her number, waited, heard the disinterested female voice, “We're sorry, but service is unavailable in your area.”
And in that moment he realized it was too late.  He had them for so many years, took them for granted, ignored them for the promise of power.  He couldn't just pick them up now that he saw all his ambition disappear in a wave of fire.  All he could do was pray that he had made the right choice in sending them with Bob, hope that the preternatural General would keep them safe.  It was little solace, but it was solace all the same.
The mobile slipped back down to the floor.  Edgar turned and glared up at Frease, who had appeared behind him.  “Alright.  Show me what Bob left in the basement.”
Frease chuckled, the sound belying the panic in his eyes, the terror exuding in waves from his mind.  “This way...”
He turned, and Edgar followed.
“So, uh...” Frease cleared his throat.  “You remember all those blood samples I took after your episode?”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 30

Chapter 30

Thick-treaded tires crunched over the debris littering the street.  The armored troop transport moved slowly, rumbling as it made its implacable way over parked cars and chunks of fallen masonry.  Inside the transport, shielded by hydraulic suspension, the eight EHUD-clad Defenders felt nothing.  John, sitting at the head of the passenger compartment, wearing nothing more advanced than canvas pants and a tee-shirt, felt some of the truck's bobbing, but his mind was focused far enough away that his body's nausea didn't bother him.
The truck slowed, groaned to a halt, vibrated as it idled.  Voices could be heard from the cab, laughter, a gloved hand patting the ceramic plates covering the hood.  The engine roared, the vibration increased in intensity, and the truck pulled forward. 
They were going slower now than they had out in the city proper, and John felt a mixture of relief and nervous tension.  As much as he wanted to get this over with, to put all the planning and careful execution behind him, he wanted to wait just a little while longer, to stay in this moment where everything looked good on paper, where there was no reality to smash his plans.
Around him, leaking from the others despite orders to keep a tight hold on emotion, were similar feelings.  Most of them had remembered months ago, had lived with secret knowledge of what was really moving world events, had wanted to do something—anything—to make their presence known.  Only now did they appreciate the security they had felt, the knowledge that they were unknown, could slip away whenever they wanted, become whoever they wanted.  Now they were committed, now they were actually putting Allen's ideas into practice.  Yesterday they were ghosts, haunting humanity's dreams, but not affecting them.  Tomorrow they would be gods, stepping up with the nations of the world to impose an endless peace.  Today, they were afraid, and were doing a poor job of holding it in.
“Quiet yourselves,” John whispered.  “We can't let him suspect anything until the last possible moment.”
Eight skull-like masks dipped in shallow nods; eight skull-like masks remained staring down at sixteen booted feet.
The truck slowed again, the engine rumbled, died, and the back doors were pulled open.  John pulled on a cap and glasses, trying to hide as much of his glistening pink face as possible.  It seemed unlikely that anyone would recognize his old face amidst the scarring, but he didn't want to take any chances. 
Two more EHUDs from the cab of the truck joined them and the ten Defenders escorted the ordinary man around the side of the tower and down a sloping tunnel that led into the super-structure.
At the bottom was a roll-up cargo door.  A few soldiers stood around, helmets off, relaxed in the pocket of warmth the tower afforded them.
They straightened when the noticed the squad of newcomers, and one stepped forward.
“Hey.  You guys with the medical delivery?”
“Yeah, we got the truck back up top,” Naomi answered, her voice sounding tinny through the speakers.
“Well, why don't you go back up there and get it then?” the soldier asked, sounding more irritated than suspicious. 
The relaxed atmosphere in the compound kept him off-guard enough for Naomi to approach, lay a hand on his shoulder, and headbutt him, his nose flattening and jetting blood into his collar. 
The other Defenders sprang into action, each picking a target and incapacitating them.  Five seconds, and all the guards were unconscious. 
One of the Defenders—John thought it was Vince—approached him, holding a plastic key-card.  “Found this on the corporal over there.”  The voice was definitely Vince.  “It'll unlock the door, but I don't know how suspicious it'll be to open from out here.  In theory, there should be someone from the medical staff coming out to check on the supplies.”
John shook his head.  “There're physical guards here; they haven't upgraded the security system.  Unlocking it from this side shouldn't raise any flags.”
Vince nodded, then bounced away in the direction of the massive door.  A moment later there was a grinding, and the door began to fold away into the ceiling.
“Right then.”  John stepped forward, once more into Sky Crest.
He had never been on this level of the building before, but knew it well enough from the blueprints.  A vast storage area, with great pillars rising like a forest of dead trees into the ceiling twenty-five feet overhead.  Huge halogen lamps, kept locked behind wire cages, lit the space.  An unconscious shudder passed through the Defenders; this place reminded them too much of their imprisonment.
Naomi took point as they passed by pallets stacked high with bright-blue boxes marked “NOT FOR RESALE—FEMA.”  Here and there were thicker, flat-sided pillars: freight elevators.
A minute of walking and they reached another roll-away door, set into a curved barrier that stretched away to either side, disappearing into the glow of the bright lights overhead.  This was it: the Central Maintenance Core.
This door opened with the simple push of a button, and they were in.  The CMC looked much as it did in the digital models: A concrete tube a hundred and fifty feet in diameter, extending up for fifty feet before constricting to just over twenty feet wide and continuing upwards forever.  A ring of exposed metal girders stretched down from where the ceiling constricted, enclosing the flat platform of the utility elevator.
“Right.  You know what to do.” 
Nine of the defenders broke off, each pulling several thin scramblers from various pockets and pouches scattered across their bodies.  Then they were off around the ring of girders, strapping the scramblers on with copious amounts of duct tape. 
Naomi stood close to John, piecing together a large assault rifle.  John watched her for a moment before his nerves got the best of him and he felt he had to talk.  “It's a good thing Alice told you about that place.”
Naomi grunted.  “It's a good thing they cleared out of there so fast they forgot to pick up their supplies.” 
John nodded.  “I don't think this is going to work.”
There was a click as the magazine was snapped in and a round was chambered.  “Too late for second thoughts.  If cycling the scramblers doesn't stop him, nothing will.  Then we might as well give up and die.”
John glanced down at his chest, at the spindly limbs that stretched from it.  “I'm going to die tonight either way.”
“Just your body.”
“I never had kids.  Seems a waste of genes...”
“Genes you had at birth are gone now anyway...”
He hadn't thought of that.  He shrugged, then stepped up onto the elevator.  “Right, everybody, one more time, just for safety.  We get to the fiftieth floor, you switch them on.  Cycle frequencies every ten seconds.  Five minutes in, you snap scramblers off for a cycle, then back on.  I'll jump into him at the cut.  After that, I'm either in control of his body, or I'm dead.  Either way, it's out of our hands.”
Solemn nods all around.  Naomi followed him onto the platform. 
Speaking of revenge, telling Allen how much he wanted to strike back, being told by Allen he would lead, that had seemed so good at the time.  Now, actually being in charge, actually having lives in his hands—John didn't like it.  Sending Rachel to the president had been a risk with a high degree of return, a risk she was certain to survive.  Asking Reggie to participate in the technical assassination of a public official, that was risky, had a much lower rate of success.  The refusal to help had shaken John, though he wouldn't let the other Defenders see that.  If even his brother didn't trust him, how could they?
He stopped walking—stopped thinking—when he reached the center of the platform.  He could look up and see all the way to the metal umbrella shielding this chimney, see rows of colored lights stretching up the sides of the core, showing a warren of tunnels leading off into the building.
As he stood there, transfixed by the immensity of this place, by the construct he had long imagined around this core, the lights seemed to dim, to flicker off.  He was suddenly in total darkness.  He thought he smelled something burning... 
The whispered inquiries he expected from the others never came.  This was a major kink in their plan, but no one seemed to notice...
There was a sudden brilliant flash of light and heat, and John was thrown to the mesh floor of the platform. 
He saw a light overhead explode, an arc of lightning pass from it to another light, and then towards the mesh.
He rolled away, leapt to his feet.  The lightning followed him, passed through him, sending pain ripping through his already ravaged body.  The heat was worse this time than on the roof; this time he burned from the inside.  Despite his best efforts he screamed, collapsed to the floor, tried to crawl away from the heat and light that crackled through the air around him.  Where were the others?  Had their suits frozen, were they trapped inside a hundred pounds of armor with no electronics?  Surely the mechanical systems still functioned.
More arcs of feral electricity filled the air, filled his body.  The smell of burning was stronger, now.  His vision blurred as his body tried to pull in too many directions at once.
Suddenly, the pain stopped, though the lightning continued to pass through him.  Around him, the core seemed to fade, the concrete and steel melting and reforming into an antiseptic white enclosure, filled with people staring down at him in concern.
They all moved strangely, stiffly, seeming to walk and talk in reverse.  And now John’s body began to fade.  His limbs were still there, but they moved through other limbs, burned, mutilated limbs.  His limbs from the week before?  No—these were beyond burned.  Liquid flesh oozed from cracks in the caramelized skin, veins and vessels rose to the surface, wrapping themselves tightly around the molten flesh.  The other body closed around him and—
John jerked upright and opened his eyes.  A skeletal face of rough ceramic was staring at him.  “The hell is wrong with you?” Naomi's modulated voice asked.
John survey his surroundings.  A metal platform, girders beyond that, nine armored forms staring up at him, several heads tilted in curiosity.
He looked down at his hands—pink and unnaturally glossy, the skin waxy looking.  “Nothing.  I'm just getting feedback from all the refugees.  They're nervous; I'm nervous.”
Naomi grunted, then gestured to Vince.  The elevator began to rise.
Fifty feet up and they were out of sight of the others.
“I had a vision,” John said.
“I thought you were back up a hundred percent.”
“Not a memory.  A vision.  Something I've never seen before.  There's something else going on here, something we don't know about.”
“Yeah, too bad our main source of intel decided not to talk to us anymore.”
John ignored the comment, then dug into his pocket for a pair of ear-plugs.
Fifty stories up, and the scramblers snapped on.  Standing by a single scrambler, unprotected, was enough to cause nausea and disorientation. Standing in a hollow tube, resonating with the pitch of twenty scramblers, was enough to cause a complete consciousness collapse.  Even with the earplugs, John felt his entire body stiffen, his mind scream for the pain to stop.  Beside him Naomi, cocooned in her armor, was twitching, her movements exaggerated by the suit.
“You... you...”  John took a deep breath, almost gagged.  “You think th-th-the G-General's ab-ble to hand-dle this?”
Naomi didn't answer; she was finally getting her body back under control.
The platform jostled, slowed, stopped.  Before them was a door, about five feet tall, with a simple latch—no lock.  Naomi pushed it open.  Inside was a small room, lit by a thin strip of LEDs that turned on when the door opened.  Pipes, cleaning supplies, an electrical box; all was expected.  Across the room was another door, set tight into the wall.  She pushed it open and slid into the lair of the beast while John waited in the storage room.
A minute passed in silence, then there was the sound of a scuffle, a heavy thud, Naomi's modulated voice.  “He's unconscious.  Hurry.”
John slid through the doorway, found himself in a small media room nestled under a second-story loft.  Beyond the edge of the loft was Philadelphia, stretching to the horizon, moonlight streaming in and casting harsh shadows around the room.
“Over here.”
John walked over wooden floor until he came to a small sitting area set before the great glass wall.  A small figure was slumped in an arm-chair, and the hulking form of Naomi stood off to one side.
John nodded.  This would work.  “Good job.  As soon as the cut comes, I'll jump.”
He waited for a response that didn't come.
The form in the chair shifted, bringing a pistol twinkling into the moonlight.  “Hey, John.  Glad you made it.”
John bit his lip and lowered his eyes.  He had expected this possibility.  “I've always wanted to ask you how you're able to do this.”
The General shrugged apologetically; the pistol remained pointed at John.  “That I cannot tell.  The one thing I can't teach you...  Personally, I think its genetics.”
The voice was the General's, but the vocabulary, the speech pattern, was off somehow.
“You know, despite everything that's happened, that will happen, I really did want us to win.  To break out when we had the chance.”
“What do you mean 'we?'”  John was circling towards Naomi.  If he could get her rifle, convince Mistlethwakey he intended to kill him...  Assuming he wasn't reading his thoughts. 
“But I guess my own actions betrayed me on that.”  He sniffed and wiped at his nose.  “I'm sorry for getting your hopes up like that, only to turn right around and give you to Shaun and the General...”
John stopped, his hand reaching towards the rifle, his body frozen, every muscle tensed.  “Allen?”
The form sitting in the chair dipped his head, and for the first time the gun wavered. 
Now was the chance, aim low, incapacitate until the cut— 
“You think you're the first to have the idea of taking over this body?”  He stood, holding out his arms, almost inviting John to shoot him.  “Not the best physical specimen, but he had power in all the right places.”
John's hand rested on the butt of the rifle, more for support than for superiority.  “How long?”
Mistlethwakey—Allen—shrugged.  “About three years.  I infected him with the virus during his first visit, kept him completely unaware of his power, scrubbed his memory of the ordeal.  Rather like what you two went through.  From there it was just a matter of implanting orders to keep him in line up until...  That last day.”
The rifle was forgotten now.  John stepped forward, his life-long struggle to keep his life normal warring with what this man was telling him.  “Why?  Why do any of that?  Why fill our heads with all that Q-bomb bullshit if you were just going to betray us to the General, become the General?”  He couldn't get angry, couldn't let himself be distracted.  This man might still be Mistlethwakey, might simply be lying.
Allen lowered his eyes, let his arms drop to his sides.  “Have you ever actually seen the movie, The Mouse That Roared?  Why do you think I chose a metaphor from an obscure comedy film rather than from any other possible source?”
“Many characters played by one actor?” 
Allen snorted and patted his belly.  “Fitting, but no.  In that film, before the Q-bomb enables the Mouse to become a superpower, a small group of soldiers come in and bring America to its knees by stealing the Q-bomb.  With the cold-war superpower brought down, all it takes is an empty threat for the little guy to rule the world.”
John stared at him, not comprehending.  Didn't matter, though; keep him talking.  Couldn't be more than a minute until the cut...
“You're the soldiers, John.  And while you were waiting for me to start the revolution, you did whatever you were told to do.  And when the General told you to go in and hijack the Israeli arsenal, you did it.  And Maria, she took the Iranian arsenal.  Merv?  He took ours.  One by one, you went in to the superpower, and you took the bombs.  The whole world's in our hands now, John.  World peace, just the push of a button away.”
John swallowed.  “You never believed we could do it on our own.  You never intended the Defenders to be the Q-bomb.”
Allen sadly shook his head.  “Right now there are too few of us.  Right now, the world is too afraid of us, too willing to risk all to destroy us.  Hell, right now you can be taken out by a mobile vibrator glued to a speaker.  Insinuated in the current power structure, you're a god.  Outside, you're a threat.  But take away the power structure—”
John lunged, ripped the rifle from Naomi's frozen grip, leveled it at Allen.
“Ah-ah, not so fast.”  Allen held his hands up, a smile creeping across his face.  “You've still got about forty-five seconds before the cut.  Until then, let me show you what I've got in store, huh?  I've got a lot of nukes, yes, but I've also got you, and her,” he gestured to Naomi, “and all of them down there.  And most importantly, I've got your tower.”
John readjusted his grip, held the rifle close, wanted so much to squeeze.  “What do you mean, show me?”   
The smile was fully formed now.  Suddenly the room was gone, exploding away in a shower of super-heated hydrogen, swirling around, reforming into a thin needle piercing the sky, a triple-helix of dodecahedrons wrapped around it, sprays of bridges rising up and falling in parabolas to connect to smaller towers that rose from an immense pit, the walls honeycombed with homes and shops and parks and—
And people.  Millions of people moving in and around the tower, all with skin like honey, hair cascading in wooly brown braids, their facial features an unrecognizable blend of all the races of earth.  And as they moved, as they did work, as they lived and loved and even died, John saw that within each of them was the spark that resided in him, the innate power that suffused his DNA.  All were Defenders.
John gasped, surprised to find himself in the moonlit penthouse, the solid weight of the rifle pressed into his shoulder.
“Thirty seconds, John.”
John was breathing heavily, barely aware of anything except the vision Allen had shown him.
“You have a choice now: live life in a state of normalcy, try to reform the world with your twelve Defenders, try to find the rest, try to bring peace.  Or you can believe what I've shown you, believe the impossible things you now know, and miss the cut.  Leave me in charge of this body, let me do what I must do, and be assured that your death will be meaningful.”
John's gaze flicked down to the rifle, back up to Allen, who was slowly spreading his arms, inviting John to make a choice.   
The ever-present buzz of the scramblers stopped and John tensed his inner-self, ready to make the jump, to push everything that was him into Mistlethwakey, into Allen.  But as he waited, as the seconds ticked by, he found himself unwilling to.  Allen had spoken to them of defending the world, standing up to be the final line against war.  But from the moment they had appeared, they had done nothing but bring strife, encourage others to fight for them, to die for them.  By existing in this world, they negated their own purpose. 
It was nearly enough for John to shoot Allen right then and there, to kill Naomi while she remained frozen, to go back downstairs and finish the others.  But history had shown that their disappearance would not leave the world any better.  As John thought about it, he realized things would only be worse: now that the world had seen a Defender, an EHUD, what would stop any nation from making their own?
No, the only solution was to let Allen have his way, to let him unleash his hellfire on the world to cleanse it from wickedness.  Then from the nuclear glass the EHUDs would emerge: stronger, more numerous.  They would protect humanity from what was worst in itself and the future... would be glorious.
A shudder passed through John as the scramblers returned.  He lowered the rifle. 
Allen lowered his arms and bowed his head.  “I was right, all those years ago.  You were the one who knew best what I wanted.  And, as my no man, I fully trust your agreement on this.  You did good, John.  That's why I picked you.”
John forced the rifle back into Naomi's hand.  “I don't know how much of my plan we have to stick with...”  There was still a trace of hope in his voice.
Allen shook his head and groaned as he settled himself back into his seat.  “I'm the great martyred prophet; they've heard me say everything they've wanted to hear.  You're their leader now; I'm sorry.”
John nodded, gestured to Naomi.  “She came in and knocked you unconscious.”
“Ah, yes.”  Allen's forehead rippled, then split, blood oozing down from a shallow gash just above his eye.
John stepped away from the sitting area, approached the wall of glass.  He looked out at the dead skyline of the city he had grown up in, had struggled to get back to.  It had suffered so much in the previous weeks, so much of it because of him.  And now it would burn, would be wiped away because of him.
He turned back to face Allen, his mentor, his friend.  “Tell Reggie... tell him thanks for everything he's done and... and I'm sorry I couldn't do more for him.  And tell Rachel that I know she'll do great things.  And tell Lucy...  Tell her I've always loved her.” 
Allen nodded, then slumped back in his seat.  Naomi blinked, looked around, saw the shivering form of John in front of the window, saw Mistlethwakey—John—slowly leaning forward.
“I made it,” he croaked, his voice slurred and raspy.  “He's in my old body.  I made it...” 
Naomi turned, raised the rifle, and fired once, twice, three times. 
As the bullets ripped through John's body he couldn't help but inwardly smile.  Three bullets to kill him on his third death, three bullets to finally end his third life.  And as he fell to his knees, his body numb and unresponsive, he though he saw Suzanne standing in the shadows.
I did it, he thought.  I made another choice, just as terrible as the one I made for you.  And this time, I am cut free.  This time I escape what is to come.  And now I am with you, forever...

Monday, July 7, 2014

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 29

Chapter 29

Philadelphia was a ghost town.  Smoking husks of buildings lined the streets, windows smashed, furniture and electronics and clothes and anything else people couldn't carry strewn across the street.  Alice edged around obstacles in the road, trying not to destroy her car's tires.  She drove slowly, taking in the desolation.  A shape jutting out of an alley caught her attention; it looked like a pair of legs.  She swallowed, tried not to think of the men laying on the floor of the Cohen and Associates building.  She had managed to avoid their faces for the past week, managed to not see their accusing eyes as she slept.  But coming back... it was stirring memories best left forgotten.
The streets became more congested as she drove, abandoned cars lining the road, doors wrenched off, trunks open.  Up ahead she saw a green sedan, the hood crumpled, the frame twisting away in small ripples.  That was where her life had changed.
Beyond the line of cars was the barricade, now abandoned, lined with garbage and covered with graffiti.  She pulled through a gap, felt metal scrape on metal as she squeezed past a utility vehicle that had been left here. 
Once through she drove for another quarter mile, pulled over, and got out.  Over the line of buildings ahead she could see the shining cylinder of Sky Crest.  With the tower as a beacon, she trudged off through the snow.
Down the street, turn, another street, and—
Her path was cut off by a high chain-link fence stretched across the road, backed with planks of blue plastic, making it impossible to see inside.  Here, there were signs of life—children's shouts, vehicles moving, the clatter of a city living just beyond the fence.
Here, there were people.  Four National Guard troops in armor, standing by a closed gate, wide-barreled rifles aimed at the ground but ready to be leveled at her.
“Freeze!” one of them shouted.  “You are approaching a protected area.  Leave immediately, or stand by for search!”
She raised her arms, waited as they approached her, patted her, unzipped her jacket, felt inside.  A week ago, this would have been a a gross defilement of her rights as an American citizen.  Now, this was routine.  Now, they had a good reason to search her, though they couldn't know it: she was a spy.
“Identification,” the nearest barked. 
She carefully reached inside her jacket, came back with a drivers license and Social Security card.
“Suzanne Brin?”
She nodded.
“Aren't you a little late getting here?”
She took a deep breath, let a little of her fear show through; Cyd had said that would make her more believable.  “I live in West Philadelphia.  It was... It was really bad out that way.  I only felt safe enough to leave today, and, and I can't go to my sister's in New Jersey—”  She took another deep breath and let it out slowly, haltingly, turning the end into a sob.
She didn't need to be a Defender to see the story develop in their minds: a single woman, mid-thirties, trapped all by herself in the worst part of town, waiting through the three days of open fighting, waiting until there was no chance that it would start again, walking all day to cross the city and get to the one safe place left.
The soldier nearest her straightened and reeled off a string of legal jargon about the camp beyond the fence.  “Do you understand?”
Alice swallowed, allowed herself a moment to appear to consider, then nodded. 
“Further, in conjuncture with U.S. Military forces stationed inside and for the continued safety and security of all residents of this compound, you are prohibited from leaving this compound under any circumstances until such a time as the current state of emergency is lifted.  Do you understand?”
This time she gave herself a longer pause, allowed herself a longing look behind her at the dead city, then faced her interrogator and nodded.  The soldier returned the nod, then escorted her through a small door set into the gate.
And she was in.  It took everything she had not to smile.  Ever since she had jumped into the 'Defend the Defenders' movement, she had felt that what she was doing for their cause wasn't enough.  Now, she was doing their dirty work, infiltrating their target, communicating with their inside man, all under the super-powered nose of General Robert Mistlethwakey.  It wasn't exactly fun, but that was the best word she could think of for it.  It was certainly more fulfilling than what she had been forced to do to those men...
The soldier dropped her off at a small trailer just inside the fence.  She was  processed, assigned a tent and work rotation, given a meal card, then escorted out to the clinic in the main tower. 
“But I'm healthy,” she protested. 
“Sorry, ma'am,” her bored sounding case-worker replied, “but everyone has to be screened.  We haven't had any outbreaks yet, and we want to keep it that way.”
Alice could appreciate that.  As they trudged through the endless rows of blue tents that filled the plaza around the mall, she could see the disease potential as an almost physical miasma hanging over the compound.  People milled about, looking worn and dirty, half-a-city's worth of frightened women and children pressed into maybe two square miles of space.  
They arrived at Sky Crest proper, and she felt a thrill as she entered the stone-floored lobby she had seen so often in the computer at work.  Up the elevator, out into an open-plan floor divided by fabric walls into a maze of wards and examining rooms.  Her guide left her sitting on a stool in a cot-filled room, disappearing with a perfunctory, “I've got some other work to see to,” tossed over her shoulder.
Two other patients were with her in the room.  She nervously waved to them, they nodded back.
Two hours of waiting, then a harried-looking man in grubby scrubs bustled in, his face buried in a tablet.  “Suzanne Brin?”
Alice raised a hand.
“Right.  Fill this out.”  He thrust a clip-board into her hands, then turned his attention to a man sitting at the edge of a cot. 
“Excuse me.”
The doctor—nurse—orderly—whatever he was—looked up.
“Um, I'm looking for someone.  Do you know a Reggie Donalson?  He's a nurse here—”
“You know him?”  He was back into the other man's hair.
“We went to college together—”
“Reggie!”  The yell cut through the background noise that permeated the space, and a moment later there was an answering “Yo!” followed by another man walking into the room.
Alice swallowed.  It could have been John.  Hair, that was different, thick and wavy, and the man was bulkier, thicker in the face, but he was unmistakable.  She felt a momentary pang of loss.  This was the man who should have been her coworker, the man who she had graduated with, worked with for fifteen years, not the shriveled pink thing that lay in the bed, twitching and muttering as his burned flesh melted and reformed, each time a little less red, a little less blistered.
“This lady's looking for you.”
Reggie glanced at her, blinked, looked momentarily panicked.  “Yes, uh...”
She began to mouth her name.
“Suzanne, yeah, we went to college together.”
She sighed in relief; he had remembered the cover story.  Not that it was strictly necessary, but John had been in full super-spy mode when he had prepped them.
Reggie was nodding now.  “Yeah, after you finish up that paperwork, we should meet and catch up.  Just shout when you're done and I'll take you down to the mess.  Okay?”
Reggie gave a final nod then left.
The man who had given her the clip-board—she went ahead and decided he was a nurse—was glancing at her now.
“You, uh...”  The nurse let go of the hair he was looking through and cleared his throat.  “You ever meet Reggie's brother?”
“Once or twice.”
“Before, or—”
He returned to his task, and Alice returned to the paperwork.  She spent maybe ten minutes filling in her medical history, then handed the clip-board off to the nurse.
“Great, thanks.  I'll go find someone who can give you an exam.”
“That's okay, Reggie can handle it.”
His eyes widened.  “It's a full physical.”
“We went to college together; it's nothing he hasn't seen.”
The eyes were even wider now, looking like they would pop from his skull.  “Reggie!”
Reggie came and escorted Alice to a small personal booth with an examination table inside.  She sat on it as he closed the curtain behind them, giving them the semblance of privacy.
“Can we talk here, or do you think we're being monitored?”
Reggie shrugged.  “Here's a good a place as any, I guess.  Be a big lawsuit if they were recording in here.”
Alice nodded, then dug into her pocket and retrieved her mobile.  She pulled the battery out, then gestured to Reggie's pocket, expecting him to do the same. 
“God, you're paranoid,” he complained, even as he complied.
“Okay.”  Alice closed her eyes and ran her hands through her hair, then repeated, in a whisper, “Okay.  Look, first, thank you for everything you've done so far—”
“Save it.  He's my brother, I'll look out for him.  I'm glad he's not dead, and I'm glad he's trusted me enough to bring me in on this.  Let's focus.”
Alice opened her eyes.  “Alright.  They're planning on infiltrating the compound.  They'll be a group of soldiers coming in from New Jersey, brining in a truckload of supplies.  Then they're going to rig a bunch of scramblers to the tower to disorient the landlord.  From there, it's into his apartment and elimination.”
The sounds of a busy clinic invaded their little space as Reggie mulled over her words.  “Three question.  One, where did they get scramblers?  I thought those were top-secret.  Two, why do they need them on Bob?  Three, what the hell does any of this have to do with me?”
She frowned and nodded; they were fair questions.  “One, I don't know for certain, but I assume they made their own.  It's basically a vibrator and an amplifier, and they're capable of reading minds.  Two, I have no idea; they don't tell me everything.  Three, you've had access to the penthouse and we need your key.”
And there it was, his face changing from curious to stone-wall stubborn; she had seen it on John throughout their collaborations. 
“No.  I'm willing to feed you intel.  The fact that the first lady personally consoled me on behalf of the President—that I owed to John.  If she had had her way, it would have been him she was talking to.  The fact they set me to working on that agent, that I owed, too.  John was concerned for him.  But this?  I'm not going to sneak a bunch of dangerous fanatics into someone's house to kill him.”
“I thought you said you'd look out for him?”
“This goes a little beyond looking out for him.  We're talking about killing someone; I won't be a part of that.”
Alice couldn't believe Reggie would betray his brother like this.  “They're going to kill the man that imprisoned them for ten years!”  It was hard to keep herself from yelling it.
“Everyone keeps saying that, keeps reminding us the Defenders were the victims.  But you know what?  That doesn't justify what they're doing.  They want restitution?  Fine, they ask for it.  They want justice?  They find an impartial judge and see that it gets done.  They want revenge?  Don't come to me for help.  Ever since he came out of that coma, I've been watching John, taking care of him.  Even when I suspected that he was one of those terrorists—”
Alice gasped.
“Yes, terrorists who were out on their rampage of revenge, I still looked out for him.  He needed me.  But now he's back on his feet and proven that he's able to take care of himself.  You know how many times he told me that Rachel was growing up, that I should just accept it?  Well, now I'm saying it to him.  He can find another way in to kill the landlord; I won't be a part of this.”
He picked up a form he had gotten from the other nurse, scribbled his name on it, and thrust it at her.  “Here, clean bill of health.  Now, you tell John that we're done.  He's gotten my daughter into this, but he's not going to get me.”  And with that he pushed through the curtain and disappeared into the labyrinth of dividers.
Alice closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, tried to hold in a scream.  Couldn't he see that this was just, that the Defenders were protecting themselves, making themselves safe so they could protect the world?  All they needed was his key-card, or him to escort them, or something to get them past the General's security.  Now what were they going to do?
She continued to think over the problem as she made her way back to the first room, passed off Reggie's signature to the nurse, and left the building to stand in the cold November wind, shivering more from the smell that permeated the compound than from the cold.
She was just dialing the number Cyd had given her when the solution to their problem came to her: the Central Maintenance Core.  They already had to go down to the basement to attach the scramblers to the building's super-structure.  It wasn't any more of a stretch to take the utility elevator up to the General's backdoor.
There was a click, an overly cheery “Wassup?”
“I wanted you to know that I made it into the camp.  Just as soon they let us out I'll be down in New Jersey to see you.”
“Were you able to meet with the nurse?”  Cyd's voice was business neutral.  It was still difficult for Alice to correlate the hardened soldier to the incessantly perky bag lady.
“I spoke to the nurse about my current medical issue.  Unfortunately, he wasn't able to get me in to see the doctor.  But as I was leaving, I thought of an alternative treatment...”  

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 28

Chapter 28

Naomi stood next to the bed, her hands folded in front of her, staring down at John.  He felt himself being lifted, forces pulling him upright.  His feet touched tile, the cold feeling good against his raw skin.  The blanket fell away from his body, leaving him standing pink and naked before his fellow Defender.
He was amazed he could still walk, given what he remembered of his battle with Shaun.
We were here to patch you up...  You were completely covered in burns...  If we hadn't caught you, you would have died...
John nodded.  How is Shaun?  As he waited for an answer he took a look around his room.  A small utility closet, sink in one corner, plastic-lined window high up on one wall, bed.
The armor protected him...  He will still die, however...
It was a little disappointing to learn that Shaun would die without John's direct intervention.  At the same time, it was a relief to know that his tormentor wouldn't be a threat for much longer.  How's Lucy?
Naomi blinked and looked away.  Our spy can't tell us everything...
He suspected there was more, but didn't press.  What have I missed?
Let's walk...
He followed her into a narrow hallway, beige and brown; it looked like a hotel.  As he walked he looked inside her mind, saw what had happened over the past week.  News footage of airliners being shot down over the California desert, commando groups infiltrating LAX, firefights filling the night sky.  More National Guard arriving in Philadelphia, Sky Crest being cordoned off, news crews trapped inside the refugee camps.  Footage shot from the roof of the mall, looking over the barricades, taking in the thousands of slush-covered rebels trying to force their way in.  No shots fired from the tower...
Then there was New York City.  Soldiers in sky-blue body armor protecting the United Nations, hundreds of thousands of protesters before the building—occupying, demonstrating, fighting, dying.  Inside, the Security Council was feverishly debating what to do about the United States.  The one-time superpower was now a nuclear state with no executive leader, no internal travel, and no control over the rioting cities.
Then there was John, being held up as another martyr for the Defender cause.  Everyone had their say, put their own interpretation on what had happened between him and Shaun.  He was a threat, like the other Defenders, killed to save the nation.  No, he was the EHUDs ambassador, killed by agitators in the military.  Yes, but it wasn't the military: it was the UN, looking for an excuse to invade. 
Through everything John saw, there was one man made conspicuous by his absence.  He sent a questioning thought Naomi's way.
The President hasn't been heard from since his press secretary announced that you were being invited on as a consultant...  Ambassador Mokri seems to think he's dead; he wants to use that as a pretext to confiscate our arsenal...
John smirked.  If only the ambassador knew where his arsenal was...
They continued to walk, the hall dropping in temperature, John's skin burning as the extreme temperature touched it.
This is why we had you in that closet...
The hall opened up on one side and dropped away into a skeletal stairway that wound down to a sea of black stone marbled with drifts of white snow.  Rib-like girders rose beyond, stretching up to connect with the roof that continued overhead.
This is where Maria died...  We were able to track some guards out here... 
John nodded.  I've seen files on this before...  “Camp Eglon”...
Cohen needs to fix his security...
Take that up with Alice...
Down the stairs, out over the black sea...  At the far edge, just before the girders, was a semi-circle of liquid stone, stretching up to form spindly columns that held aloft the forms of twelve Defenders.  Between them, dug into the stone and rising from it, was John's tower, finished as he had imagined it, built to his every last detail. 
One of the wire-thin stone pedestals rotated, and the nude form of Cyd, her hair laying smooth and freshly washed, stared at him.  I knew you would finally remember...  With your return to sanity came my own...
John moved to stand in line with the circle described by the other Defenders, leaned back and relaxed as warm stone rose to support his weight.
Now Vince was turning to look at him, his face weathered by the last few months, sadness evident in his eyes.  We tried by ourselves to carry out Allen's plans...  So far, we have succeeded in killing Ashleigh, driving Maria to violence, and allowing Merv to reveal our presence in the worst possible manner...  All we have tried to do has only led to war...  Perhaps you have an alternative?
Naomi continued the thought, giving a physical voice to the mental words.  “You built the tower.  Now, if ever Allen was right, it is time for you to lead us.”
John looked away from his obsidian tower, out at the pale blue November sky, his mind sifting through the gestalt Defender that surrounded him.  In each of the twelve minds there was a single memory missing, a single pivotal event he alone had witnessed, had not had the opportunity to share. 
To share...  He thought of Shaun then, the little man in the big suit of armor, grasping on to the melting roof, John sharing his mind with him, pushing in, slowly but surely taking over—
We will accept President Latterndale's offer for formal freedom.  We will become an independent power, will separate ourselves from this nation, yet keep it in check more surely than all the others...
How can we? the Defender asked.  We do not know where his is, and all our searching has been in vain...
I may know where he is...
There was a clamor of disbelief, of excitement. 
Naomi focused on something John had said.  You spoke of keeping this nation in check...
John continued to stare through the shattered wall of glass, not noticing as the other Defenders pulled in to surround him.  Before we are able to fulfill all Allen asked, there is a final enemy we must overcome...
The memory of what the General had done, of the door exploding, of the shard sliding from Shaun's neck, was passed from mind to mind, the horror at what their enemy had become growing with each mind that experienced it.
Only Naomi seemed unafraid.  Then we kill him...  We have done so before.... we will do so again...
No...  I am dead...  I am a martyr, a sacrifice, showing the purity of our cause...  If we kill the general, we show that we are the monsters that Merv and Maria represented...  But there is another way...  A way that gives us the high ground, that ensures us a place of power when this is all over...  With this one act, we will be redeemed in all eyes, will see Latterndale make the changes he has promised, and return the world to order...
Words faded and images, raw concepts, replaced them, passing from mind to mind.  One by one, as the Defenders assented to what John intended, they briefly bowed their heads to him.
As the vote was made unanimous, John's eyes slipped from the clear sky and to the dark stone that rose between the girders...

A cheery pop-song blared into existence, undercut by a deep, humming vibration.  Rachel jerked upright in bed, saw her mobile dancing on the nightstand.
She sleepily batted in its general direction.  The light cutting through the curtains told her it was morning, she should be up, but she was too tired...
“Goddammit, get your phone!”  A pillow flew at her from the direction of the cot next to her bed. 
She batted at it again, couldn't find it.  Other night stand.  She rolled over, arched her body over the still-sleeping woman she was sharing the hotel bed with, finally found the phone, answered.
“Rachel.”  The voice was soft, raspy, little more than a whisper.  Creepy. 
“Who is this?”
“I'm not dead, Rachel.”
A shiver ran up her spine and she gasped.
Another pillow from another cot flew up at her.  “Take it to the hall!”
The dead voice continued.  “Don't say my name.  Not on the phone.  Now, if I say to you, 'the man with the gun,' do you understand who I mean?”
An image of Edgar Latterndale, standing on the blood-slicked floor of the White House ballroom flashed through her mind.  She nodded, then remembering she was on a phone, said, “Yes.”
“How about, 'the landlord?'”
There were no immediate thought on this one.  It took her a moment before she realized that since these phrases came from John, their significance lay with him.  Who was his landlord?  “Yes.”
“Good.  I need you to go to a certain address and give a message to the man with the gun about me, my friends, and what we plan to do with the landlord.  You are, of course, free to use any real names appropriate to the situation when you relay the massage.”
She was nodding frantically now, casting around for a pair of pants, trying not to step on any of the four women sleeping on the floor as she made her way to the hall.
“How, how did you—”
“I'll tell you when I come to visit.”
It was such an easy answer that it caught her off-guard, the impossibility of the situation falling victim to the hard facts of normal life.  “They're not allowing interstate travel—”
“They'll make an exception for me.”  
Rachel now stood in the hall, mobile cradled between head and shoulder as she struggled into a pair of jeans.  “I'm sorry, but... you sound so different.”  She finished dressing and switched the mobile back to her hand.  “And I don't just mean sounding dead.  No offense.”
“I've been through a decade of hard life experiences in the past week.  I'm no longer your fun, young... relative.  I'm the man I grew up to be.”
“I'm sorry.”
“I need you to get transportation.  I'll tell you the address when you need it.”
“Okay, hopefully there's still something around the airport.”  She half ran down the stairs, then stopped as something occurred to her.  “Wait.  You want me to take a message to the man with the gun.  He's here?”
“Highly likely.”
"How do you know?"  She needed some kind of reassurance, some rational line of thought, to accept this as real.
"I built a bunker out there.  Its new enough that no one should have stumbled across it yet."
“But, I can't just...  I can't just go up to him and expect him to listen to me.”
There was a moment of labored breathing from the other end of the line.  “Remember when I told you to fight for what you believed in, to pick your battles?”
Rachel swallowed.
“I need you to believe in this.  This is the battle to pick.  Can you do this?”
No.  “Yes.”  She reached down and stroked her belly.
Then she was off again down the stairs, out into the cold November sun, off to find a taxi or a bus or a driver who would take a bribe.  She didn't question that the man on the other side of the mobile really was Uncle John; deep down, she believed it was.

Rachel stood in a deserted industrial park south-west of the airport.  To her right was a colossal tangle of pipes raising into the air; to her left, a series of low sheet-metal buildings.  She approached one, labeled as Sloan/Waterson Construction, and stepped into the dark lobby.  A single security sat behind a small desk.
He nodded to her.  “'Morning, ma'am.  How can I help you?”
She smiled, doing her best to look professional in spite of her tight jeans and weathered jacket.  “Yes, I'd like to speak to the president please.”
The guard looked confused, then smiled apologetically.  “I'm sorry, Mr. Waterson isn't in today.  I can take a message.”
Rachel took a step forward and leaned on the desk.  She had to seem like she knew what she was doing, to make sure this lackey took her seriously.  “I'd like to see the real president, please.”
The guard frowned.  “Well, Mr. Sloan is retired...”
“Hey!”  She slammed her palms down on the desk; the guard lurched back.  “Enough of this stupid rent-a-cop shit, alright?  We both know what I'm talking about here.  Latterndale.  Now.”
“Ma'am, I'm going to have to call security if you don't leave right now.”  His hands moved to the vicinity of his belt—whether reaching for a gun or a radio, Rachel didn't know.
“How about you do that, yeah?  Call security.  I'll call my uncle, see what he thinks.  He's got an invitation to be here, but couldn't make it; sent me instead.  Now, take me down into the bunker to see the president.  I'll wait.”
The guard's hands came up—a radio.  He clicked it on.  “Security.”
Rachel half expected to see a couple more rent-a-cop guards step out from the back, escort her out, keep up the charade that she was starting to believe.  Instead she heard a heavy clunk and saw metal sheets descending over the front door and window, heard the tread of heavy boots on tile.  Two elephantine forms appeared from the darkness, grabbed her, held her steady as the guard rounded the desk, knelt before her, began to pat her down.
He paused when he reached the little folder she kept her ID in.  He slid the cards out, rifled through them, his eyes growing wide as he recognized her surname.  He looked up at the EHUD clad soldiers standing just outside of her line of sight.  “Search her, then get her downstairs.  POTUS will definitely want to see her.”
Half an hour later she was downstairs in a dark-green parlor, dazed by everything the morning had thrown at her.  She heard a low mechanical whine, looked up to see a small, hairy figure glide in on a wheelchair, one leg up and wrapped in a cast. 
“So you're the security threat that's got everyone up in arms?”
Rachel nodded.
He shrugged.  “At least they're still trying to keep me safe.”
She took in the man she had idealized for the past three months: he was not at all what she expected.  Shaggy hair and beard, loose blue golf-shirt, slacks with one leg held together by safety pins.  Across his face and arms were the yellowed remains of bruises.  And of course, the thick cast. 
“Doesn't look like they're doing a very good job.”
Edgar snorted a quick laugh.  “No, I guess they're not.  Seems like no one is.  Fortunately, in the case about your uncle's assassins, if what security tells me is true.”
Her hero was talking to her, was taking her seriously.  All she had tried to do since the Defenders had made themselves known, all the stupid mistakes and desperate attempts to make a difference had led her to this.  “He'd told me he'd like to take you up on your offer.”
Edgar frowned, then shrugged.  “Great, we'll get a plane ready—”
“He doesn't want to make his survival public.”
Edgar blinked, then scratched at his beard.  “That isn't exactly taking me up on my offer now, is it?  Sounds to me like he has his own plans.”
She nodded.  “He's gathered some other Defenders, and they'd like to make a deal with you.”
“They back you, back your plan for the UN, and in return, you keep your promises.”
“Deal.”  Edgar's eyes were wide, hungry.  “When do we meet?”
Rachel swallowed.  This was the part John felt Edgar might object to.  “They won't come out for you until they've killed General Mistlethwakey.”
Edgar stared at her for several long moments.  He flicked the little joystick at his fingertips, the wheelchair jerking forward and backwards.  “Everything is finally settling down since your uncle ostensibly died.  Assuming he really is alive, and this isn't some kinds of hoax.  For all I know, you're lying.”
Rachel sat silently, waiting for the president to make up his mind.  Even though she believed the dead-sounding voice on the phone, she was beginning to have doubts.    She thought of the snowball she had thrown at Tisha; it seemed like such a good idea at the time.  This too had seemed like a good idea.
“Why should I let them kill my NSA?”
It took Rachel a moment to come up with an answer; this was something John had been vague about.  “He—John—said that Mistlethwakey would try to stop them from reaching you, and had the means to stop them.”
Edgar nodded solemnly.  Something was going on here that Rachel didn't understand; Edgar and John shared some secret knowledge of the General.    
“I still can't let him restart the war.  As I said before, things are just getting back to normal.  Having someone this high killed will send a very negative message.”
“Oh, so you have been paying attention.”  As soon as the words were said, Rachel clamped her hands over her mouth, as if trying to stop more words from coming out.
Edgar looked momentarily offended, then impressed, then amused.  “You think you're a pundit, huh?  You're going to judge me?  Just because I haven't been out and about doesn't mean I haven't been paying attention.”
Rachel flung her hands wide.  “We're about to get invaded!”
“And why do you think it's taking so long, huh?  Why do you think Mexico hasn’t followed the LCR up here, or Iran hasn't taken over D.C.?  I've been talking to fucking everybody, making sure things aren't getting out of control!”  He was breathing heavily now.  “The truth is, the crazies have almost burned themselves out, and as long as travel's restricted, they can't get together to egg each other on.  Now, just as soon as your uncle gets his ass in gear and gets the EHUDs off my back, I go to New York, calm everyone down, and get back to the way things are supposed to be.  Got it?”
Rachel flushed; he was certainly charismatic.
“So...”  Edgar leaned back in his chair and slowed his breathing.  “What's it going to be?”
“He—John, I mean...”  She swallowed.  “He said that he knows a way to eliminate Mistlethwakey without raising any suspicions, and that he can make it look like the NSA is still out and about.”
“Those were his exact words?”
“He spoke in code, but... yeah.”
“Hmm.”  Edgar scratched at his beard again, then lunged towards his cast, stopped himself, leaned back.  “I get the impression your uncle is going through with this no matter what I say.”
Rachel nodded.
Edgar returned the nod.  “Well, I guess that's that.”  He clapped his hands together, then tilted them to point at Rachel.  “Congratulations on your first policy change.”
A thrill of excitement swept through her, and she had to fight not to giggle.  Oh, when Tisha heard about this...
“Now the question is, 'What to do with you?'”
“What?”  The excitement turned to trepidation. 
“You just infiltrated a top secret government facility.  Yes, on orders and information provided by Defenders, but in any case...  I can't allow you to leave.”
There was no response to that.
“How old are you?  Fifteen?”
He nodded once.  “Where are your parents?”
“My dad's a nurse at the Philadelphia FEMA camp, and my mom's in LA.”
“Got any plans for college?”
“I was...  I was looking at doing political science at Yale.”
“Hmm...”  Edgar was staring intently at his cast; it was vibrating, seemingly moving of its own accord.  He looked up.  “How'd you like an internship?”
“I can't let you leave, not yet, and my chief of staff could use an assistant.  What do you say, White House-in-exile intern?”
“Um...”  She had to tell Tisha, her mom—her guidance counselor.  “Yeah.”
Edgar extended his hand, and she half stood to shake it.  “Good.  Hopefully we'll be hearing from your uncle or his friends any day now.”
Edgar dropped her hand, then rotated his chair to face the door that led into the rest of the facility.  “Follow me, then.  Have any questions you want answered right off the bat?”

She followed him through the door, down a dark hall, her mind reeling.  “Uh, yeah.  What the hell happened to you?”