Thursday, January 30, 2014

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 26

Chapter 26

After the evaluations were done and the General left a new equilibrium came to the Defenders.  Now they were left alone, the only remnants of their previous lives the brightening and dimming of the lights that marked day and night.
For the first few weeks they were apprehensive, for the first few weeks they waited for the other shoe to drop.  But it never did.  Weeks grew to months, months to years, and the fifty Defenders grew from frightened savages into something else, a community held by no possessions, possessed of no privacy either physically or mentally, separated by nothing.  Even the concept of the individual slowly drifted away until nothing was left save for the gestalt, the Defender, the one mind of many.
So time passed.  They lived, they loved, they sang and they storied.  Mythologies and cosmologies sprung up around the three shared figures in their lives: Allen the Light, Mistlethwakey the Dark, Shaun the satellite who gleefully played in the General's shadow.  Through this the Defenders ceased to be people, and became a people.  The only thing kept from them were children...
Scattered throughout the years of this idyll were the missions the General would send them on.  Every few months they would awaken to find a Defender gone, a piece of memory missing from the great whole.  They would go about their normal routine, wait for a time, then awaken to find their missing member, freshly shorn and sunburned, with fresh thoughts to share with the mind.
One night it was John who disappeared.  He fell asleep curled around Cyd, her long hair tangled into his beard and flowing down his chest.  He awoke sitting upright with something coarse rubbing across the entirety of his body.
Metal scraped on stone as he lurched awake, gasped at the sudden brightness around him.  He blinked, felt for his beard, found it missing.  Reached to feel his hair, found only a thin stubble.  He looked down at his body, was horrified to see a bright red rash with small purple tumors covering his torso, loose flaps of dark skin covering his thighs.  A memory pushed itself to the front of his mind, then, and he relaxed.  Clothes.  These were clothes. 
“Been a long time since you weren't flapping in the breeze, huh?”
John looked up to see Shaun seated across from him, wearing a light tee-shirt and a wide-brimmed hat.
“Course, it's been a while since you've had a breeze.”
There was that.  A feeling of constant motion, of an open world all around.  John breathed in a deep lungful, sneezed, felt his head clear as years of constant pressure he hadn't noticed was suddenly gone from his sinuses.
Around him was the green of a park, beyond that a late 20th century city, the buildings blocky and functional.  Overhead, a brilliant blue sky.  He and Shaun were sitting in metal chairs around a small table on a limestone patio.  It smelled like a restaurant.  John's mouth watered.
“Alright, architect, you see that building across the street?”
John didn't look; instead, he latched onto the building Shaun had seen in his mission briefings.  A central tower, its top blossoming into a helipad.  Around that, a blocky building of glass, most of one wall opening into a courtyard around the tower.
Shaun nodded.  That's the offices of the General Staff of the IDF...
He leaned over the side of his chair, came up holding a small satchel.
I want you to take this inside, then look around until you find someone with access to their nuclear arsenal...  Keep looking until you hit the top of the food chain then plug whatever's in here to whatever the headman happens to be holding...  Then, I want you to dump some things into the headman's head...
A flurry of commands and conditions flooded into John's head, a distinct packet of memories that would control whoever was unlucky enough to receive them. 
After you do that, wait five minutes, unplug, and come back...
John sat in silence for a moment, running through the command memories again.  You're going to usurp their arsenal...
Shaun frowned.  What I'm ordered to do is none of your business...  This is my assignment for you...  You don't ask question...
John knew he shouldn't argue, should just bide his time until Allen was ready, but this seemed like the kind of abuse of power, the blatant warmongering, that Allen had trained them to stop. 
Even before the thought was expressed in words, Shaun was quashing the rebellion.  Remember that bitch of yours?  What's her name...
Unbidden, the image of Cyd floated to the top of John's mind, but there was no response from Shaun.  Then, the image of Lucy; he hadn't thought of her in years.
Yeah, that's her...  Remember what I threatened to do to her all those years ago?  Just thought you should know that I made good on those promises while I was on leave over the last couple of years...
Images of Lucy, her sweaty face framed by pillows, her bare back arching away before him flooded into his mind.  He gasped and kicked out at the table.  It gonged hollowly and rocked a little.
Mmm, but she's a good one...  Now I wonder, though, since I've made good on that threat, what more can I hold over your head?  I could give you a full playback, but... I like those memories a bit too much myself...  Can't kill her, either...  Wouldn't think it, but I've fallen in love with her... Even thinking of proposing...
His smug smile was too much.  John looked away and saw his target in the physical world, rising behind a stand of trees.
            I know...  I'll start taking your memories, one at a time...  Little ones first...  What was she wearing on your first date?   When was your first date?  Then, we'll get a bit bigger...  What kind of music did she like?  What about you did she like?  Before you know it, all you'll remember was that there was something you were supposed to remember, the most important thing of all, and it'll be just out of reach...  And by God, it'll itch...
            John snatched up the satchel, then crossed the street and passed inside the building.  He strode past security, felt through the minds of military officers until he found his first target, followed a chain of memories up the chain of command until he came face to face with an ancient woman in green fatigues.  He took her tablet, infected it; took her mind, infected it.  Five minutes later, he was back on the street, staring at Shaun who stood to greet him with open arms.
            “Good job, Johnny-boy, you finished off the set!  Thanks to you the United States now has complete access to the world's nuclear arsenal!  And you know what you get as a consolation prize?”
            A sense of betrayal towards the one person who's taken pity on us in the last decade? John answered in the relative privacy of his mind.
            “You get to go home!”
            There was a brief moment of elation as John misunderstood his words, then his eyes opened and he was laying naked on a worn-smooth concrete floor, tremendous pressure threatening to crush his skull.
            Around him was the mind of the Defender, welcoming him back, clamoring for any news of the outside world.  What did you do?  What did you see?
            What did I do?  I betrayed Allen...  What did I see?  The prelude to apocalypse...

Spindly columns of liquid stone rose from the ground, forming a lattice that supported the sparse weight of a spindly little man wearing nothing but a tangled beard.  Etched into the floor before him was a circular trench, ten feet wide with a tower rising stalagmite-like from the center.  Around the edges were six smaller towers, arcing up and away from the center, then disappearing into the trench.
As John continued to stare at his creation portions of it began to vibrate, glow red with heat, melt and reform, adding detail to the structure.  His tower was almost done.
Lips brushed against his ear, a whisper tickled the hair that poured down to cover it.  “It's time,” Cyd said.  “Go to Allen; he needs you.”
Even as Cyd ran off to gather more, John stood, his chair dissolving back into the synthetic stone it had been formed from.  He took a final longing look at his tower, then turned to go find Allen.  As he walked away the tower began to crumble, to fill in the trench, to become smooth floor once more.
The other Defenders stood around one of the thin doors that pierced the room.  There was a loud grinding noise, a clunk, and the door swung inwards.  The Defenders filed out, turned to the left to follow the trail to the administrative wing of this subterranean complex, to find the soldiers who guarded the door out.  John turned right, followed the hall to another door: it was unlocked.
Inside he found a long ward, milky plastic curtains separating off individual beds to one side.  At the far end was another door, another room.  This one was as different from the small clinic as the clinic had been to their living quarters.  Off-white walls, pale green trim, a couple of recliners, a large television.  In one corner, a refrigerator, a microwave, a sink.  This could have been any small apartment in the living world above.  As John continued to the door on the far side of this room, he mentally scanned the two rooms that split off from this one to either side.  Bedrooms, pure and simple: comfortable beds, desks, personal bathrooms.  This is where Shaun and Allen lived.
Through the last door and—John didn't know what to expect, but not this.  A storeroom, filled with luxury goods the likes of which he never could have dreamed of: toilet paper, paper towels, liters of soda, bags of fruit.  Everything he had so taken for granted...
“Donalson?  What the fuck—”  Shaun was cut off by a blow to the back of his head.  He crumpled to the floor, Allen standing behind him, holding a mesh sack of oranges.
John almost laughed.  That was easier than I expected...
Allen actually did laugh.  Then he flew backwards through the air, impacting a metal shelving unit, the shelves springing apart and wrapping themselves around him.
Shaun leapt to his feet, caught the oranges, flung them at John.  John leapt over them, spread his legs, caught himself on two facing shelves.  The metal sprang away from him, heating and liquefying, twisting into white-hot tentacles that whipped through the air at him, burning through his swirling hair. 
It was getting hard to breath...
He fell to the ground, dodged again, focused on the ground immediately beneath Shaun.  A puff of smoke surrounded the man as he sank ankle-deep into molten stone, his boots and pants burning.  He didn't scream.
Instead, Shaun lunged into a back-flip, spraying bits of magma at John.  Pain seared across John's chest as miniscule burns erupted on his skin, but he was focused on the air around Shaun.
The door into the room burst wide, a cold wind rushing in to fill the void left by the heated air now forming up in a dense sphere around Shaun.  Shaun gasped, pushed out at his private atmosphere, his face red and drenched with sweat.
John was able to maintain the sphere, felt Allen supporting him, pushing in, smothering their enemy.
Shaun was on the verge of unconsciousness when the heavy hum of the scramblers began.  He dropped to the cooling concrete as the air that had surrounded him burst outward, slamming the door closed and knocking John—and the rest of the shelves—to the ground.
“It... it isn't too late...”  Allen was pulling himself out of the metal embrace of the shelf, struggling to rise.  “We can still kill him...”  His voice lacked a certain conviction.  It was as if he knew he were defeated, were just repeating words he thought John needed to hear. 
And maybe he did need to hear them.  Maybe he did need reassurance.  Because without Allen's presence, without his voice directly in his mind, John felt fear.  After all the years of planning, the years of waiting, they had tried, and they had failed...
The door burst open again, this time dissolving in a cloud of splinters that fragmented through the storeroom.  John clenched his eyes shut, covered them, tried not to be blinded by the shards of wood peppering his body.
When next he opened his eyes a fourth figure stood in the room, emaciated and weathered, wrapped in an over-large drab uniform.  It took several long moments before John recognized the spray of snowy hair atop the figure as belonging to the General.
“Come, Wendleferce, it's time for the endgame.”
There was no reply save for a weak gurgling. 
John looked away from the General to see Shaun trapped beneath a heavy shelf, a foot-long shard of wood protruding from his throat.  Already, blood was pooling in the uneven surface of the floor surrounding Shaun.
“Hmm, can't have that... not yet.  Hate to say it, but there's more for you to do.  And you,” he turned to fix John with a bemused smile, “this might give you some motivation for later.  Solve a lot of plot-holes, this way.” 
Allen.  Where was Allen?
John frantically surveyed the room, saw Allen standing in one corner, his body limp, his eyes vacant.  The scramblers couldn't be affecting him that much, could they?
A wet sound, like tearing flesh, ripped John's attention away from Allen's limp form.  Shaun was jerking forward, as if something held him by the neck, even as the splinter twisted and moved of its own accord.  And then it was out.  The General smiled.  The sides of Shaun's wound pressed together, bubbled as air escaped, then sealed, the skin scabbing and flaking away, leaving behind fresh, pale skin.  Not even a scar.
As John watched, three things occurred to him.  One, the General had become one of them.  In retrospect, it seemed obvious.  This man was power hungry; what better way to ensure his own survival than by giving himself the greatest power imaginable?  Two, he had a way to bypass the scramblers.  That... that had no obvious answer; John could hash it out later.  Three... Allen never had a chance.  As much as he had planned, as well as he had trained his troops, in the end he had been nothing more than a mild annoyance to the General—never a threat.
And then John awoke, kneeling on the concrete of the home room, his beard once more shorn.  He looked up, saw his companions, his family, his other minds, kneeling as he was, shaved as he was, shamed as he was.  Years waited, years lost, all in a moment.  There wasn't a one of them that had made it through the battle unscathed.  Most were bruised, with bloody cuts and scrapes over their bodies, with eyes puffed-shut and joints bulging from sprains.  Others were wrapped in brown-stained gauze, or splinted or sown or God-knew what else.  Two lay on the ground, hardly breathing.
Past the scrambler-hum that hazed the close air John saw a ring of armored forms spaced along the walls, weapons pointed in.  And at the front of the room, in the same spot he had stood for countless days across countless years knelt Allen, naked as they were, bald as they were.  He had finally become one of them.
Boots echoed through the room, the sound intruding through the ever-present scramblers.  The General strode in, passed before Allen, glared out at his charges.  “And was it worth it?”  He stopped, turned to face them, looked from eye to eye.  “You killed fifteen of my men, made it halfway out of the facility, and nearly ruined the program.  I ask again, was it worth it?”
John rocked back on his heels, pushed himself up until he was standing.  He was nauseous, he was hurt, but he was able to look the General in the eye.  “Yes.”
Mistlethwakey blinked, then slowly nodded.  “I see.  Crushed your bodies, but not your spirits...”  He glanced down at his boots, then back up to John.  “Doesn't matter, though.  The things you've seen, you won't remember.  It's time for scrubbing, boys and girls, time to wash this place from your pretty little minds.  Then, you won't remember anything.  Not me, not the pain you've endured, and not the words Allen has infected you with.” 
He strode to Allen, placed his bare hands on Allen's bare head.  “What do you have to say to that, Major Fendleton?”
            Allen jerked, his eyes widened.  For the first time since the General invaded the store room, he seemed to be his old self.  He looked up at the still standing John, tried to smile.  "We are Defenders. We will defend. We must tick on," he said. "The Q-bomb must tick on."
With that Mistlethwakey nodded, stepped away, raised a small pistol and leveled it at Allen's defenseless form.
There was a flash of light, an echoing crack, and somehow, despite the scramblers, a scream of pain and loss and sudden relief...
Then there was black...

Once more John was sitting in the chair, looking at the place where Suzanne had died.  This time, Shaun was sitting in here place. 
You ready to see this place go?
The scramblers were gone.  John tried to fling himself forward, to attack his tormentor one last time—
All he succeeded in doing was sliding limply to the floor. 
We've been starving you...  You're too weak to pull anything funny...
He tried to push in at the little vein in Shaun's head, to pinch closed a heart valve, anything... nothing.
Shaun knelt down and wrapped his hands around John's head.  “I'm supposed to do this fast,” he whispered.  “Blank out everything back to your car wreck.  But... you and I, we have history.  We have to respect that.”
He released John's head, placed his hands next to John's shoulders, leaned in close so that his lips brushed John's ear.  “You're never going to get back to her, you know that.”

A beam of brilliant light split across John's vision as his eyelids cracked opened.  He couldn’t make out much of where he was... it was too dark beyond the light that slanted in from the window facing him.
There was enough light to see the bed, the blanket, the pock-marked torso that rose from it, to see the burned, gnarled hands at the ends of his slim wrists.
Enough light to see the silhouetted form leaning over him.  “John?  Are you awake?”
The voice was at once familiar, at once monstrously alien, belonging to two parts of his life that were irrevocably over.
“Alice...” he rasped, his throat barely capable of human speech.
Alice turned away from him.  “Naomi, he's—”
I know...
As John looked, he noticed other minds, far more familiar voices, elsewhere in this place.  The minds connected to his, spoke to him, began the process of rebuilding the total unity they had once possessed.

And above all the others Naomi could be heard.  She showed us what you had in the car with you, John...  You have it whole, you can show me it in its entirety... Now, I will follow you...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 25

Chapter 25

Basic routine remained, but details changed for the Defenders.  No longer did they learn hand-to-hand combat from Shaun; now, there were weapons.  Rifles, blades, clubs, artillery, cavalry, armor.  One day Shaun came in wearing a heavy grey suit, a scaled-up descendant of what he had worn when he was tormenting them in the small rooms.  He presented the Enhanced Human Ultimate Defense System to them, showed them how to put it on, how to operate it.  Over the coming weeks they all got the chance to use it, to become one with it.
Allen's training also changed.  No longer did he teach them how to communicate or manipulate the body, but how to change and effect the mind.  They learned to misdirect, to become invisible, to get information from people with their targets left none the wiser.  Over the coming months they learned the subtleties of being spies.  They could go anyplace unnoticed, interact with anyone unremembered, do anything untraced.
And at night... at night was were things changed the most.  As they lay resting, their bodies relaxed but their minds alert, Allen would come to them, tell them things.
Our goal is simple...  We will bring war and strife to a complete stand still...  We will be a threat that unites mankind...  Not a common enemy for them to fight, but a potential doom so great they dare not bring it upon themselves...  We will be a force to be reckoned with... If all goes well, we never will be reckoned with...
One night, while Allen was in their minds, John called out to him, Why?  Why does this take so long, why are you keeping us here, making us suffer while you fill our heads with dreams and futures we dare not hope for?
Nervous energy welled up around the half-sleeping bodies, resentment aimed at him for interrupting their prophet.  But as the time stretched, as the tension mounted, some minds reached out to John, minds that saw the world as he did. 
Ashleigh, young and frightened, wishing she had been the one to die in the little room with two chairs, terrified of the life she lived, terrified of what she would have to do in the future.  Maria, fierce and angry, in love with what Allen said, yearning for the day when she could break from this place and enforce his will.  Merv, the soldier, the army man who was plucked from his unit, horrified by what his brethren had done, horrified nearly as much by the sedition Allen preached.
Finally, Allen spoke.  You have heard me use the Q-bomb metaphor before, use the film as an example for what I hope we can become...  So if our goal is so pressing, why do I linger?  You've seen the movie, haven't you?  The Mouse That Roared?  In the end it turns out the Q-Bomb is a dud, could never have kept the world in check if it were tested...  I delay to ensure that our Q-Bomb goes off without a hitch... 
The reasoning made sense; the nervousness dissipated and the minds relaxed.  But the answer did nothing to sway the uneasy. 
Where does that leave us? John asked.  What do we do while we wait?
John expected another delay, but this time Allen replied instantly, a hint of giddy excitement suffusing the words.  You are an architect, yes?  You have a structure you love, something that inspires you?
An image of Sky Crest, cold and glistening, rose in John's mind, and he was surprised to see it mirrored in Allen's.
Take this structure, break it apart, rebuild it...  Make it something greater, something beyond what you could ever hope to build, and build it...  As you study helicopters with Shaun, work through every bolt and girder of the foundation...  As you learn to speak around language barriers with me, work through every tile of every walkway, every pipe and every inch of wiring...  When your building is complete, when you could build it if only you had the men and supplies, then we will be ready, then we will rise up to be the Q-bomb, to be the benign threat that unites the world...
And as Allen's voice faded from his mind, and as their prophet continued to enlighten his disciples, John began to disassemble Sky Crest, to look over every part in his mind, to try to find something he could make of it... And for the first time since he had killed Suzanne, he felt a spark of hope...

 The commonly held view was that four years had passed.  A count of days and nights had taken some time to start, and even when it had, a fine consensus could never be reached.  Biological clues were useless.  Every ten to fifteen days a swarm of soldiers would enter the room, line them up, shave them.  Finger and toenails would break off under heavy use.  There were no periods: the bean-paste contained some kind of birth control.
Still, the semi-random haircuts, the rough day count, the pure guessing gave them a count of four years learning to be Defenders when Shaun and Allen both came to the front of the room and announced that there would be a day of rest.
“You've learned all we could teach you,” Allen said.
“Some, more so than others.”  Shaun glared at John.
“So, starting tomorrow, the General will come and you will all be evaluated.  Should your skills meet his expectations, you will be released to perform missions on behalf of the United States government.”  Unsaid in any form, should Shaun overhear, were the words, “You will begin to perform the great works I have made for you.”
The men left, and the Defenders stared at one another.  They had heard Shaun speak of the General, extol him as the soldier's soldier, the best military leader America had.  Whether it was true or not, General Robert Mistlethwakey had a mythology surrounding him in the minds of the Defenders.  They had no particular desire to see the man in person; they had all seen the General in Allen's memories.  There he had been a cruel man, ready to use them, to hurt them, to take them from the living world and into this dark place.
This is our best chance... John said.  This is when we should strike, kill the General, kill Shaun, run from this place...
Some minds echoed his, others resisted.  One—Maria—answered.  I want to leave this place as much as you do...  But Allen has not yet told us that the time is right...
Naomi joined in.  How is your tower, John?  Can you build it?
An image of a skeletal structure clawing its way into the sky, with arms branching off and curving to meet the ground, passed through their minds.
When you have it whole, when you can show me it in its entirety, I will follow you...
I will follow you now... Another voice, rarely heard, rumbled through the Defenders' shared mind.  I was once one of the General's men, once served under him when he was a colonel...  He has betrayed me, and for that I will never forgive him, never let him live as long as he is in my sight...  Merv stood and walked to take up an new place at John's side.
Anyone else?
A nervous ripple passed through the shared mind, but no one moved.
Vince?  Ashleigh?
I will not move until Allen tells me to...
And I will not move at all...  I killed once, never again...
John sent out a burst of intense frustration, then lay back and tried to fall asleep...
He never did.
When the lights brightened to signify the morning, when the other Defenders began to sit up and stretch, John was already up, still struggling with killing the General.  Do it now?  Wait for Allen?
His thoughts were interrupted by the click of boots on concrete: three sets.  Allen first, Shaun last.  Between them, the thin form of a man in his late sixties, wearing an unadorned green uniform.  He stopped in the middle of the room, waved off his companions, and stared out over the sea of hate filled faces that glared at him.
A toothy grin split his face.  “My, but what a glum looking group of motherfuckers.  Haven't they been feeding you well?  Believe me, if this was a Chinese operation, or a goddamned Russian one, you all wouldn't be looking so fat and happy.”  His face drooped and his smile disappeared.  “But that fucking do-gooder Latterndale made sure you all won't be either of those.”
Confusion emanated from the Defenders, and the General's face went momentarily slack before snapping into angry focus.  “Fendleton!  Are they reading my goddamn mind right now?”
Allen stepped forward, his body language that of a knowledgeable counselor rather than the cowed subordinate Mistlethwakey was obviously expecting.  “No, sir, they're merely expressing a need for clarification of your comment.  If they were reading your mind, you wouldn't feel it.”
The General glared back at the Defenders.  His face looked frightened, but his mind conveyed nothing but disgust.  “Turn on the scramblers; I don't want any of these EHUDs rooting around in my head.”
“Sir, I can assure you that they will practice the upmost discretion—” 
A look of shocked embarrassment fell over the General's face.  “Oh, I'm so sorry; I didn't mean to imply that your men were ill-mannered.”  He sneered.  “Turn on the fucking scramblers!  These are prisoners, not guests.  Or was I mistaken in believing that you're one of my men?  Maybe Captain Wendleferce can handle flipping a switch!”
Shaun stepped forward.  “Yessir.”
Allen looked down at the General for a long moment, his eyes blank and his mind filled with pity.  History will remember you fondly...  The greatest irony...  He reached into a pocket and pulled out two foam plugs and wedged them into his ears.
Shaun left the room.
The Defenders had a moment to feel uneasy, to share apprehension before a high-pitched whine flooded through the space, buzzed through their bodies, sent their minds reeling into disorientation.  Some lurched forward, vomited.  Most sat and twitched.  One or two screamed.
John sat alone, naked and defenseless, scared--truly frightened--for the first time in years.  Suddenly he was the man awakening alone in the hospital bed; Suzanne, his constant companion, gone, the whole world alien and empty. 
He jerked his head around, caught the eye of Cyd.  She shook, gasped, reached out to him.  Their fingers brushed, but instead of bringing them closer, the human contact only served to underscore the yawning gulf that now separated their minds.
At the front of the room, Allen ground his teeth and stared intently at his boots.
Shaun returned to the room.
The General smirked at him before facing down his prisoners.  “Major Fendleton's given you a lot of leeway since you started here.  Maybe that was good while you were built up, while you became the Enhanced Human Ultimate Defenders.  But now it is time to tear you down, to take your trumped up supernatural powers and put them to the test.  You may have been Allen's men, but now you'll be mine, and you'll do as I say.  Starting today, I am testing you.  You'll be showing off your chops to myself and a panel of interested individuals.  Then, if you prove not to be a waste of five years and unknown trillions of dollars in funding, you'll be sent out, you'll work.  You'll earn your keep.”
He paused, stared at the ceiling, then nodded.  “That's all for now.  I would wish you bon appetite, but food's going to start being a lot more scarce from now on.  I'm not entirely sure you're worth it.  If you prove you are, you eat.  If not... saves me the trouble of killing you.”
The General strode from the room.  A moment later, Allen ran after him, a moment later the buzzing ceased, a moment later the precious connections shared between the Defenders returned.  Relief, terror, wrenching heart-break, all leapt from mind to mind.  Lost in the flood of emotion was a single thought, emanating from a single mind: I should have killed him...  I should have killed him...  I should have killed him...

One by one they were led out of the room that had been their eternal home, out into the familiar dark grey halls, past the endless doors.  One by one they were led into a thin room with a small gate located across from the door.  All was dark save for a pulsing red light above the gate.
The flickering crimson sun enraptured John, caught him in a world of color he had long thought lost.  As the color held his body, tugged at his mind, he remained aware enough to cast about, to feel the minds all around him.  Shaun and Allen of course, the dark and the light.  The General, a black hole, brilliant in his darkness; other minds interested or disgusted or bored.  And behind them all, primitive with no thoughts save survival, were three points of intense hunger and animal fear.  In these alien, thoughtless minds John found his kindred.
The red pulses flared into a brilliant green continuum and the three dogs burst from the gate.  Instinct took over, and he did the only thing he could to ease their minds, gave them the same gift he had given to Suzanne all those years ago.
Their momentum carried them as far as his feet before they collapsed into warm sacks of fur.  It was all John could do to keep from crying as he imagined Suzanne, the dogs, and himself cuddled together in a small room, enjoying each other's warmth, each other's companionship.
Several minds were quietly amazemed.  One was even grudgingly impressed.  In one, there was sorrow...  I didn't want you to become this...  I want you to know I never wanted this from you...  
As you once said...  'It's better this way'...
One by one they were returned to their home room, either hurt or well, grieved or elated, terrified or stoic.  It had been the first killing they had done since they had decided the fates of their partners.  It had been the first killing where they had been fully aware of their actions.  None returned from the thin room the same as when they had arrived in it.
One by one they were taken to another room, a cube like their first home, duller and more lifeless, illuminated by a flickering florescent bulb.
This time, John was not alone when he entered the room.  This time Shaun was there, kitted out in EHUD armor.  He waved nonchalantly as John entered.  “Hey, buddy; didn't imagine seeing you here.”
John didn't answer.
“Right.  This time you get what you always wanted.  This time, I want you to kill me.”
As the words began to echo from the bare walls, John struck out, aiming at a vein deep inside Shaun's brain, intending to burst it and leave.
Something stopped him, an unseen force that kept the thin vessel wall intact.  Shaun's waving hand collapsed into a fist, then the index finger extended and wagged.  “Bad boy...  That'd be too easy.  This here is a contact sport.  Come at me, bro.”
John did.  He leapt, his torso twisted, his left elbow angled down to strike Shaun's collarbone.  Shaun slipped, lunged under John to grab at his legs.  Instead John reversed in mid-air, his mind pushing against the ground, twisting his body so that momentum drove his heel into Shaun's faceplate. 
The outermost layer of armor bowed inwards, but the faceplate held, the padding absorbing the blow and the gel redirecting its force away from Shaun's head.
John rebounded, twisting again, landing splayed on the ground, catlike, his gaze locked onto Shaun.
Shaun jerked forward, flipping over John's back, his legs impacting on the far wall and sending him caroming at John, an elephantine bullet screaming at the pale flesh before him.  John was just able to leap over his adversary, to twist and swing down with his right fist, to strike the concrete as Shaun passed under him.
John gritted his teeth as his arm buckled under the force of the blow, even as cracks raced through the concrete under the force of his will.
Across the room Shaun stood, pirouetted, faced John who was now racing at him, his arms extended to strike at the base of the reinforced collar—a desperation move.  Shaun raised a fist to connect with John's oncoming head.  John dropped back, his feet skidding and shredding on the rough ground, his right arm also catching on the floor, his left arm swinging up to dig into the joint between Shaun's arm and body.  The fingers of the left hand, held in a tight blade, impacted the unarmored padding, pushed deeper into the gel, spurred on by psychic force.  A bulge of gel formed around the impact site, rippled up and around the arm, came together in another bulge that sent the massive shoulder plate jerking upwards. 
There was a pop as the arm inside the armor dislocated from its socket, and Shaun cursed as he pivoted, grabbed John's extended arm with his left hand, twisted it, felt the wrist break.
John screamed as Shaun let him fall to the floor, then moved to stand over him.
“You did... you did good, Donalson.”
Shaun reached around to grab his own wrist, jerked it upwards, inhaled sharply as the arm popped back into place.
“You did good...”
One by one they were returned to their home room, either hurt or well, grieved or elated, terrified or stoic.  They had all tested themselves against the greatest fighter they knew, all had managed to survive, to hurt him a little.  For all, that had been cathartic.  To most, the catharsis only made them hate themselves more.
One by one they were sent back out into the dark halls, past the endless doors to the one empty chamber, the one bright cube with the two chairs.
The cool leathery material of the chair felt strange to John, reminding him of a life he no longer thought of as his own, reminding him more of a decision he had made that still tickled the back of his mind.  At this moment, death seemed like such a pleasant opportunity.
Across from him, sitting in Suzanne's chair, was Allen.  He was leaned forward, chin resting on hands, arms resting on knees, staring intensely at John.
“Why did you bring me back to this place?”
“I wanted to see how far along you were on that building of yours.”
“Does that really matter?”
“More than you could possibly know.”
John sneered at him.  “So nice to see you're hinging everything on my imagination.  And what about them?”  he gestured to the walls.  “What are they going to think about my little building?  Or better yet, the reason I'm building it?” 
“Anything said here is in confidence.  Yes, I'm relying on your imagination; but also relying on theirs.  Right now the General and his cronies see what they want to see.”
John leaned forward, grimaced as his skin pulled against the dark fabric.  “Why am I here?”
Allen raised an eyebrow.  “Generally?  You're here because of a stupid coincidence.  That was one of the criteria for the program, actually.  You were in a car accident with a military officer who looked nearly identical to you.  One of you died, the other was in a coma.  The EMTs' report was enough to get you on the lists.  But specifically?  You're here to understand my plan.”
He dropped his hands and sat upright.  Taken aback at the sudden revelation, John mirrored his movements.
“The General wanted to make you up like foreign terrorists, use you as an impetus to go to war.  That's been scrapped.  Right now, the plan is the Vice President's.  It was a contingency to the original, to have all memories of this place and your powers wiped from your mind, then have you reintroduced to the world.  From there, you'll discover your powers naturally and then volunteer them for national service.  That's still a ways in the future, though.  Until then, it looks like you'll be used for the General's purposes.”
Allen balanced one leg on the opposite knee, then folded his hand in his lap and returned his gaze to John.  “Right now, I'm planning on us breaking out of here just before the memory scrubs.  We get out quietly if we can, kill if we must.  Shaun'll have to die, one way or another.  From there, we get out, we expose everything, then we step up and become the Q-bomb; peace on earth.”
“What do you want me to do?”  John sat straighter now, his body tight with excitement.  For the first time things seemed to be moving forward, to be nearing an end.
“When I get the order to begin the scrubbing, I'll signal a group of messengers: Naomi, Ashleigh, Cyd, and Vince.  I've already spoken with them; they'll organize everyone else to begin securing the halls.  I'll be going after Shaun.”  He leaned forward again.  “When you get the signal, I want you to come and find me.  Chances are Shaun will still be a threat.  I need someone beside me, someone who believes in me but doesn't trust my judgment.  The others are yes men; you'll be my no man.”
John nodded.  It felt good knowing Allen trusted his lack of trust.
John stopped nodding.
“That's assuming all goes right.  I've had plans in the past, and they haven't all worked out as intended.  If this doesn't work out and you get scrubbed, I've taken measures to ensure that certain memories remain, and you'll be able to break your programming.  If that happens, and if I'm not there to guide you all, I'm putting you in charge.  I feel you best know our goals, best know what I would've wanted.  You're the EHUD arbiter.”
“Why me?”
Allen's eyes flicked away, and he shrugged.  “Dunno; fate?”
“That's not very reassuring.”
“I didn't mean it to be.  Now,” he glanced at a thin chronometer on his wrist, “I believe our time is over.  Congratulations; as far as the General is concerned, you just proved yourself a competent operative.”
He stood, John did the same, and Allen ushered John out the door.

One by one they were returned to their home room, each hopeful or comforted or merely shocked as John was to see an end in sight...

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 24

Chapter 24

This time there was light, soft and blue, wrapping around shapes and making the whole world glow.  John lay in a large bed, his arms held to side-rails by short padded lanyards.  Tubes and wires descended from a tangle of devices that hung around him.  Beyond those he could see milky-white curtains, cutting him off from the shadowy forms beyond.
This time, there was order, a dependable schedule.  There was a day of discernible length, a night of dimmed light.  Four times a day a person in a thick green plastic suit would come in, check the devices, check him, leave.  After that would come a vibration in the tube running through John's mouth and into his body, then he would feel full and satisfied.  Compared to what had come before it was a good life. 
Except he couldn't sleep.  Every time his mind began to drift away, every time his stomach felt full and ready to digest, he would see Suzanne slumped lifeless on the floor.  Would wonder again if he had actually moved his finger, or if the two men had chosen arbitrarily.  Compared to this place of rest, was it better to be dead?  Was Suzanne in the best place he could have chosen for her?  Had he protected her, or once again hurt her?  Or had she chosen quick escape for herself, leaving him the painful choice and the even more painful life beyond?  Every time he thought of her, he missed her.  Every time he missed her, he hated her.  Every time he hated her, he longed to have her back.
After twenty days, solace came to him; he had made the right choice.  The person in the thick green suit had come, like always, had checked him over.  But this time the person didn't leave.  This time, John's straps were tightened, new straps were added to his ankles, across his legs and chest.  He was trapped in the bed, unable to move. 
His attendant left, returned a moment later with a large handled box.  Inside were row upon row of syringes holding a clear liquid.  A syringe was selected, fluid was injected, John was infected.
That night, as the lights dimmed and John tried to sleep, he felt hot.  He was sweating now, his eyes stinging, his body aching.  He tried to move, to curl in on himself to escape the pain, but it was no use; the straps were too tight.
By morning, he was not alone.  Suzanne and Lucy lay beside him, both resplendent in frilly wedding gowns, the white lace pouring over the sides of the bed.  They caressed his forehead, reassured him, told him that he had made the right choice.  Suzanne had no one to return to; John had Lucy.  It was is if the weight of the world had lifted from his chest.
They both leaned close, tried to kiss him around his feeding tube—
The attendant returned.  John was poked, prodded.  Notes were made on a small tablet.  As the attendant left, as the food returned, John came to his senses enough to see the women fade and vanish.  In their place was his body, strapped to the bed.
He was thin, his stringy muscles standing out in sharp detail.  All along the pale skin were patches of purple-tinged red, like bruises, rising up above the underlying muscle.  As he watched, the red patches grew, connecting in places.  They bulged, hardened, oozed with pus, retracted, formed again.  With each new growth, each change in his body, he became hotter, began to gasp for breath, faded away into the inferno that was boiling just beneath his skin.
His last thought before passing out was that perhaps he had died, and what he was feeling were the flames of hell...

This time there were voices.  They spoke softly, incoherently, mumbling from every side.  They woke John, brought him out of the pit with Suzanne and back to the bed.  His body stretched out before him, pale and smooth, the matrix of scars completely gone.  He didn’t know how long his mind had been away, but it must have been for a considerable span.
His mind...  it must be playing tricks on him.  The voices continued, but they were too clear.  Thick plastic sheets still cut him off from the rest of the world, but they didn't muffle the sounds.  In fact, they seemed to be completely unmodulated.  The voices came to him, free of echo, pure of tone.  It seemed less like he was hearing them so much as directly perceiving them with his mind.
Trying to listen to the voices, to take in what they had to say, was stranger still.  There seemed to be no thought behind the words—or rather, too much thought.  One voice would start: Oh, God, how could I let him... I shouldn't be here...  Then another would break in: Kill then all... as soon as I can move, I'll kill them...  Then yet another: How much longer, how much longer, how much longer...
The more John listened, the more the words broke down, the more he heard—felt—raw emotion.  Images floated along with the words: hundreds of faces, all ages and races, most out in the sun, living in the world.  Many, thin and naked, their hair shorn and pain evident in their eyes.
Whoever these mysterious speakers were, they seemed to have suffered just as he had.
And the voices continued.
The attendant came, the feeding tube vibrated, and the voices continued.  Day dimmed into night, John tried to sleep, and the voices continued.  He tried to block them out by thinking of Suzanne.  As he focused on her, the whisper-pictures of the other victims became louder, and he shifted to Lucy.  This brought about even louder whispers, but now of friends, of family, of good times in the world of the living.  As the whisper-pictures continued to flood his mind, he was able to drift off to sleep, convinced that this had all been a bad dream.
And the voices continued.
Just before sleep claimed him, another voice joined the din, strong and sure, and completely clear in meaning.  I'm sorry...  I didn't want to, but you are the first sacrifice for the new world...  there is no solace for you in this life, but there will be for some of you in the life to come...

Falling asleep in one impossible situation only to awaken in another was becoming routine by now.  This time John was in a gymnasium-sized room, made of the same dark cement as the halls of this place.  This time when he woke to find a sea of clothes-less, hairless people around him, he didn't panic; neither did the others.  As they came awake, as they recognized they were not alone, they merely nodded greeting to each other, then scooted away and become obsessed with their own misery.
As the group fragmented, the whisper-pictures returned...
The sound of boots echoed around the room, distorted by the space: real sounds, not in his head.  Standing along one wall, about midway down the room, were the two men who had stood behind the chairs.  Based on the angry buzz that came through the voices, the endless identical whisper-pictures, these men had stood behind many chairs... or at least many occupants.
The shorter man took a step forward.  “Greetings, everyone.  My name is Allen.  My colleague,” he gestured at the other man, “is Shaun.  For now, those are our only names.  And you,” he looked around the room, locking gazes with every hate-filled pair of eyes in the room, “have been chosen to become the greatest weapons humankind has ever made.  We live in a dangerous world, always on the edge of cataclysmic end.  Everyone is always so ready to give offense.  What we need is defense.  You... you will be Defenders.”
For a moment there was silence.  For a moment no sound, real or imagined, disrupted the sanctity of what the man—Allen—said.
Then there was a yell, a single lungful of echoing noise, backed a thousand-fold by the voices.  Someone leapt from the ground, rushed at Allen.  The other man—Shaun—twitched forward, an eagerness glinting from his eyes, but Allen was faster, intercepting the attacker, gripping him in a massive bear hug.
John found himself unable to breath, the cable-like muscles of Allen's arms holding him more firmly then the bed restraints ever had. 
“You,” he whispered into John's ear.  “You would have defended her if you could.  I'm giving you that chance now.”
John grunted, let out a short gasp of air.  He prayed the others would follow him, rescue him, but he heard no sound of movement.
Oh, they want to help you... I'm not letting them, though... It's better that way...  Your time to lead them will come John...
John.  The shock of hearing his own name, the horror of knowing that the people here knew who he was, sent a wave of nausea rolling through him, and his legs gave way.  Allen crouched, lowered him to the ground, laid him gently on the rough floor.
Hey... A new voice.  I thought we'd agreed, no more of this touchy-feely shit...
The General agrees with my methods...  What I do here, I do with authority...
Allen stared back out at the crowd, his eyes lingering on John.  You're not supposed to hear that...  But I need you to know that no matter what, we're on the same team...  I'm just getting a head start on trust...
As Allen's voice spoke into his mind, John was aware of the man's true voice, air and vocal-cords voice, echoing around the room.  This man could speak silently while he also spoke aloud... 
And this man had just spoken silently into John's mind.  The low voices, the whisper-pictures, had been vague and confusing, coming off a period of emotional stress and severe sickness.  But this time he felt whole, felt rested, felt alert.  And this man had just spoken into his mind.
The nausea that had hit him when Allen used his name returned, in greater force, and the last remnants of what had been in the feeding tube sprayed in an arc over Allen's boots.
Don't worry yourself... I can get them clean later...

Routine was once more becoming routine.  Every day the lights would turn on, and Shaun would walk into the room.  He would lead his horde of prisoners through exercises, then combat kata, then walk amongst them as they sparred against each other.  He would correct them if they performed an action poorly, give a cold nod of acknowledgement if they performed an action well.  If any of his Defenders refused to fight, or chose to fight him, he would send them to the ground, twitching and writhing in psychic agony.
Every day, this was John.  Every day he would follow the exercises, would go through the motions of the combat forms, would test his mettle against one of his compatriots.  Then, just as Shaun passed by him, he would swing out, try to catch Shaun unawares, try to hurt him.  Every day he would end up on his back, radiating hatred at Shaun's smiling face.
Every day, Shaun would have the last word.  “Goddamn, Donalson, how are you ever going to please that girlfriend of yours if you don't even have the balls to hit me?”
Every day, John vowed revenge.
After exercises there was food and water.  The same bean-paste as before, but much more of it.  They were encouraged to eat.  Not just to eat, to gorge themselves.  They would eat until they were almost ready to vomit, then the lights were dimmed and they were told to rest.  For the first few days, there was nervous whispering, hurried plans to overwhelm the two men and escape.  Within a week, all discussion stopped, and all rested.
Nap time would end, and Allen would enter the room.  In contrast to Shaun, he always smiled, always greeted his horde by name.  “Ashleigh, you're looking well today.  Vince, glad to see that arm's healing.”  And always, a private word for John.  I didn't mean for this to happen...  Just give me a little while longer, and it will all make sense...
They sat in loose rows before him, their legs folded, hands resting palms-up on knees.  The first day they had been nervous, uncertain.  Allen led them through breathing exercises, through meditation techniques.  Many, those who had spoken throughout the nap period, had fallen asleep. 
Carefully opening one eye and looked around, John saw Allen stand, saw him approach one of those who slept.  A young woman, honey-skinned with a round head and a flat nose.  John flinched inside, already sympathetic to the pain this woman was about to endure. 
Allen reached down and patted her bare shoulder.  “Naomi?  Wake up, I'm afraid there's still work to do today.”
Her eyes snapped open and she looked around terrified.  Those sitting closest to her edged away, unwilling to suffer Allen's wrath.
Allen smiled, nodded in acknowledgement, and returned to the front of the room.  “Now you all see the importance of rest before this exercise.  If the mind can't stay awake while it is away from the body, it is useless...”
As the weeks slowly passed, Allen's instruction became steadily more bizarre.  Yet even as it raised so many questions about why they were there, why they had been kidnapped and tortured, it also answered other questions.
Now, I know you all can hear me...  I want to hear you...  You've been doing it already, unconsciously...  Now, I want you all to envision my mind, to seek it out, to speak purposefully to it...
There was a confused babble from the voices, sudden flashes of whisper-pictures.  But they were quieter this time, less, clear, as if they had been focused at one destination,  as if less of the signal were getting lost.
I hate you Allen... I hate you and Shaun, and this place and your goddamned mysterious General...
Allen smiled.  “Very good, everyone; we've made progress.  I think we'll end a little early today.  Maybe tonight, while you're sleeping, you'll try to reach out and speak to someone with what I have shown you.  I sincerely hope you do...”  I'm not against you, John...  I hate this place just as much as you do...  This was not what I expected...  Just give me time...
After Allen there was more food.  Food, feasting, sleep.  They all lay curled in a mass in the middle of the room.  For some reason, sleep came easier to them after their time with Allen than their time with Shaun.
It was during this time, after a hard day of training, after the two men had left, that the Defenders talked.
“You know,” a short woman named Cyd said, “things might go better for you if you don't antagonize Shaun.”
A girl, no more than 16—Maria—scoffed and said, “He's the only one who's willing to do what we should all be doing.  Just because it looks like we're stuck here doesn't mean we can't find a way out.”
“He keeps speaking to me...” John said.  About ten others turned to stare at him.  “Allen.  In my mind.  He keeps telling me that he's sorry this is all happening, that if we're patient, he'll get us all out of here.”
Cyd's eyes widened and she gestured at John.  “Okay, then just keep your head down; he'll let us go.  We just wait, and everything's fixed.”
“I'm sorry, how long have we been here?”
Cyd didn't respond. 
“How long were you held in a tiny room, being tortured, huh?  I'd guess for me at least a month, maybe longer.  I wouldn't know; I was too busy being mind-fucked.  And then, you know what?  I killed the one person who was there for me throughout that time, the one person who needed me.  Then I got infected with God only knows what.  Did that happen to you too?”
Cyd nodded.
“And how long do you think Allen's known about that, huh?  At least since I killed Suzanne?”
“Harry...” Cyd muttered.
“You think if maybe, maybe he was going to get us out of here, he would have done it before we were tortured, or before they turned us into killers, huh?  You think he might have done it while we were still human?”  John was trembling now, breathing heavily.  “If he was going to get us out of here, he should have done it by now.  At this point, I don't want his help.  I'll do whatever I need to, to get out on my own.”
He glared at Cyd, waited for her to say something.  She looked away.  He sighed.  His anger released, he fell back to the concrete, then turned on his side and tried to sleep.
It continued like this for over a year.  Wake up, Shaun, food, sleep, Allen, food, sleep, wake up, Shaun.  They grew stronger, faster, their bodies honed to perfection.  Sparring was no longer a challenge, was just a game of blocking each other's moves.  Their minds also grew stronger, also neared perfection.  They had long ago moved past speaking to each other through their thoughts, long ago moved past simple matter manipulation.  They had all moved together, their minds linked, passing through an entire human body, seen its intimate workings, healed its maladies, found a hundred thousand ways of killing it without ever leaving a mark.  They had moved beyond thinking of themselves as single isolated humans, had now become something more.
And then one night Allen spoke to them while they slept.
Soon, others will come into this place, to test you, to use you...  You will be asked to do terrible things...  And now, I will ask you to do the most terrible thing of all...  I will ask that you trust me...
And with those words a dream began.  The memory of being Allen entered their minds, and they were all corporals in the United States Army, standing in a sterile room, dressed in nothing but a thin paper gown.
“You understand the risks of this?” an older man asked.
“Sir, yes, sir, proud to risk my life for my country, sir!”
“No need to be so gung-ho, Corporal Fendleton.  The tests have been very effective with animals; your prognosis looks good.”
Fendleton nodded as a doctor led him to an examining table.
The older man continued.  “Fendleton, if this works out...  Well, not only do we have that promotion I mentioned, but also the possibility of training some others.  It won't be immediate, mind you, we still need to find out what you're capable of, but if you meet our expectations, we're looking to increase the scope of the program, and...” He shrugged.  “You'd be in on the ground floor.”
Allen laughed around a tongue depressor.  “Sou's goo' 'a 'e.”
The scene faded, shifted, and now they all lay in familiar beds, with the familiar tension of restraints on their arms as familiar pain racked through their bodies.
In the next bed over—the only other bed in the room—lay Shaun.
“Goddammit,” he yelled, “this was a fucking mistake!”
All Allen could do was groan agreement.
The scene faded again.  Now First Lieutenant Allen Fendleton stood before the desk of the older man, Colonel Robert Mistlethwakey.  “You've done good, son.  Much better than our initial estimates.  Hell, all the chimps did was make the researchers give them bananas and get horny.  Unfortunately, your prowess leaves us in a bit of a predicament.”
“I've already spoken this over with the President, and he agrees.  Drawing volunteers for an augmented intelligence force is one thing, but for fucking superheroes?  We can't have acknowledged people on our pay with those kinds of powers, not if we don't want the rest of the world to nuke us to hell and back.  This goes a bit beyond Project Stargate.  No, we're going completely black ops on this one.  We're recruiting from the populace, doing this in such a way that no one can trace it back to us.  Matter of fact, we've already started.  Now, we just need you and Lieutenant Wendleferce to train the unfortunate motherfuckers.”
“Sir, I...” unease passed through the multitude that shared Allen's mind.  “Sir, I have some reservations about that...”
“Come on, now, Fendleton, where's that gung-ho spirit you used to have?  We need it for this.  You said you were willing to do anything for your country, yes?”
And now they were back in the bright cubes, hiding behind the prototype powered armor the General had passed on.  They stood next to Todd Frease, the program doctor, as Shaun mercilessly beat one of his victims.  The thin little man, freckled skin, mid-thirties—Harry—tried to stand, but Shaun hit him again, cracking the skull, spraying blood over the woman in the room—Cyd.  
That's enough, Shaun...  You can't just kill them...
Shaun reached out and pinched a vessel in Cyd's brain; she collapsed into unconsciousness.  Then he began pushing together the split side's of Harry's head, fusing the skull back together.
Doesn't really matter, does it?  One of them is going to die anyway...
Allen felt a wave of revulsion, and marched out of the room.
The scene faded, and now there was only darkness.
I didn't want to do this, but...  It was supposed to be for the best...  You were supposed to be a first-line defense against global threats, but now I see that won't work...  You're greater than a single nation, a single cause...  You are gods among men, forces of a global scale, and you must defend all of humanity...  You are strong now, I trust you now with what power you have...
I ask now that you savor what power you have tasted, and stay with me as I feed you more...  Stay here and learn all you can, become more powerful than you could ever have imagined, and together we will rise from this pit and ascend to a world in need of what we can offer...  I asked you once to be Defenders...  Now I ask you again...  Forgive the unforgivable thing I have done, and use this power to truly defend the defenseless...
And throughout the room, forty-nine freighted, desperate, hopeful mind answered Yes...  And one mind answered No...

 The next morning lights turned on, and Shaun strode into the room.  He stopped, fell into a pose, performed a swift set of movements, stopped and watched as his students did the same.  Then, another set.  Both were movements taught long ago, returned to be fresh in the student's minds.  More movements, his students following them all exactly.  Then he walked amongst them, reaching out his arms to touch two, telling them to fight, touching another two, the same. 
He passed by John, sneered at him, just as he had every day.
The fighting began, a fluid dance of twenty-five pairs swirling and striking, flowing around each other, never quite hitting.  Shaun continued to walk amongst them, to become a sudden third player in the dance, to move through and be gone.  He passed by John, readied himself... but John ignored him.  John continued to be engrossed by the tall, thick-limbed body of Merv the Soldier, continued to participate whole-heartedly in the dance.
So Shaun passed through them, confident that today there had been a change.
The dance ended, small doors on either end of the room slid open, and bowls of food were passed through.  Shaun watched as his students stood, got their food, began to eat.
John watched Shaun.  He kept track of the man—the monster—as he went to the wall, picked up a bowl, sat down with Cyd and Naomi to eat.
Shaun started towards a door.  John picked up the bowl and poured its contents onto the floor.
“The hell?”
He stood, threw the bowl, held it in his mind and flung it at Shaun, crashing it into the side of his face, spraying blood.
“The hell?!”
John leapt forward, all concentration on his hips and legs, reaching Shaun in under two seconds, grabbing him, throwing him to the ground. 
Shaun took the weight of the thin Defender, rolled, came up to his feet grappling with John.  They both broke apart, began swinging at each other, neither hitting, too evenly matched.  John struck out with his third fist, his invisible fist, flattening Shaun's face and spraying out even more blood.  He reached inside with the fist, found Shaun's heart, began to squeeze it.
Shaun gasped, clutched at his chest, narrowed his eyes.  John was flung backwards, scraped along the rough ground for a yard, his back torn and bloody.  He came up, lunged, found all feeling below his waist disappear, stumbled and collapsed, his legs flopping and twitching, trying to find a signal from the brain.
John glared up as Shaun leaned over him, his flattened nose extending, snapping back into place, the flow of blood drying and stopping.
“Before, back when it was just a swing or two at my head?  That was kind of cute.  You were just trying to show you weren't broken, were still fighting back.  That was good, that was spirit.  But this?  This is just goddamn sad.  You don't get it yet, do you?  You can't beat me.  I rule here, and you have no choice but to fall in line.”
John tried to muster a wad of bloody saliva, to spit it up into Shaun's face, but it merely fell back into his own.
“I know all about you, Johnny-boy.  I've read your files and I've read your mind.  What you don't seem to realize is, while you're stuck here, I can leave whenever I want.  What's to stop me from going up to Philadelphia, from finding Lucille Dawkins, from doing whatever I damn well please to here?”
John began to twitch.
“You may think the outside world is gone.  In a way, it is.  You can't touch it.   But it can sure as hell touch you.  I can come back and tell you just exactly what I did to her.  Hell, I can do one better.  I can show you, I can give you a nice vicarious conjugal visit to your little girlfriend.  How'd you like that?”
John continued to twitch, his eyes growing wider.
“Good.”  Shaun straightened and walked away.
As feeling returned to John's body, as he was able to roll over and stand, to see the stunned and piteous looks of his compatriots, a voice came into his mind.
Now will you do it?  Now will you bide your time with me, join me in subverting men like him?  Now will you be one of my Defenders?
John walked stiffly back to Cyd and Naomi, scooped some bean-paste off the ground, ate it.

What do you want me to do?