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—”
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...