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.
A nervous ripple passed through the shared mind, but no one moved.
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.”
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...