Naomi stood next to the bed, her hands folded in front of her, staring down at John. He felt himself being lifted, forces pulling him upright. His feet touched tile, the cold feeling good against his raw skin. The blanket fell away from his body, leaving him standing pink and naked before his fellow Defender.
He was amazed he could still walk, given what he remembered of his battle with Shaun.
We were here to patch you up... You were completely covered in burns... If we hadn't caught you, you would have died...
John nodded. How is Shaun? As he waited for an answer he took a look around his room. A small utility closet, sink in one corner, plastic-lined window high up on one wall, bed.
The armor protected him... He will still die, however...
It was a little disappointing to learn that Shaun would die without John's direct intervention. At the same time, it was a relief to know that his tormentor wouldn't be a threat for much longer. How's Lucy?
Naomi blinked and looked away. Our spy can't tell us everything...
He suspected there was more, but didn't press. What have I missed?
He followed her into a narrow hallway, beige and brown; it looked like a hotel. As he walked he looked inside her mind, saw what had happened over the past week. News footage of airliners being shot down over the California desert, commando groups infiltrating LAX, firefights filling the night sky. More National Guard arriving in Philadelphia, Sky Crest being cordoned off, news crews trapped inside the refugee camps. Footage shot from the roof of the mall, looking over the barricades, taking in the thousands of slush-covered rebels trying to force their way in. No shots fired from the tower...
Then there was New York City. Soldiers in sky-blue body armor protecting the United Nations, hundreds of thousands of protesters before the building—occupying, demonstrating, fighting, dying. Inside, the Security Council was feverishly debating what to do about the United States. The one-time superpower was now a nuclear state with no executive leader, no internal travel, and no control over the rioting cities.
Then there was John, being held up as another martyr for the Defender cause. Everyone had their say, put their own interpretation on what had happened between him and Shaun. He was a threat, like the other Defenders, killed to save the nation. No, he was the EHUDs ambassador, killed by agitators in the military. Yes, but it wasn't the military: it was the UN, looking for an excuse to invade.
Through everything John saw, there was one man made conspicuous by his absence. He sent a questioning thought Naomi's way.
The President hasn't been heard from since his press secretary announced that you were being invited on as a consultant... Ambassador Mokri seems to think he's dead; he wants to use that as a pretext to confiscate our arsenal...
John smirked. If only the ambassador knew where his arsenal was...
They continued to walk, the hall dropping in temperature, John's skin burning as the extreme temperature touched it.
This is why we had you in that closet...
The hall opened up on one side and dropped away into a skeletal stairway that wound down to a sea of black stone marbled with drifts of white snow. Rib-like girders rose beyond, stretching up to connect with the roof that continued overhead.
This is where Maria died... We were able to track some guards out here...
John nodded. I've seen files on this before... “Camp Eglon”...
Cohen needs to fix his security...
Take that up with Alice...
Down the stairs, out over the black sea... At the far edge, just before the girders, was a semi-circle of liquid stone, stretching up to form spindly columns that held aloft the forms of twelve Defenders. Between them, dug into the stone and rising from it, was John's tower, finished as he had imagined it, built to his every last detail.
One of the wire-thin stone pedestals rotated, and the nude form of Cyd, her hair laying smooth and freshly washed, stared at him. I knew you would finally remember... With your return to sanity came my own...
John moved to stand in line with the circle described by the other Defenders, leaned back and relaxed as warm stone rose to support his weight.
Now Vince was turning to look at him, his face weathered by the last few months, sadness evident in his eyes. We tried by ourselves to carry out Allen's plans... So far, we have succeeded in killing Ashleigh, driving Maria to violence, and allowing Merv to reveal our presence in the worst possible manner... All we have tried to do has only led to war... Perhaps you have an alternative?
Naomi continued the thought, giving a physical voice to the mental words. “You built the tower. Now, if ever Allen was right, it is time for you to lead us.”
John looked away from his obsidian tower, out at the pale blue November sky, his mind sifting through the gestalt Defender that surrounded him. In each of the twelve minds there was a single memory missing, a single pivotal event he alone had witnessed, had not had the opportunity to share.
To share... He thought of Shaun then, the little man in the big suit of armor, grasping on to the melting roof, John sharing his mind with him, pushing in, slowly but surely taking over—
We will accept President Latterndale's offer for formal freedom. We will become an independent power, will separate ourselves from this nation, yet keep it in check more surely than all the others...
How can we? the Defender asked. We do not know where his is, and all our searching has been in vain...
I may know where he is...
There was a clamor of disbelief, of excitement.
Naomi focused on something John had said. You spoke of keeping this nation in check...
John continued to stare through the shattered wall of glass, not noticing as the other Defenders pulled in to surround him. Before we are able to fulfill all Allen asked, there is a final enemy we must overcome...
The memory of what the General had done, of the door exploding, of the shard sliding from Shaun's neck, was passed from mind to mind, the horror at what their enemy had become growing with each mind that experienced it.
Only Naomi seemed unafraid. Then we kill him... We have done so before.... we will do so again...
No... I am dead... I am a martyr, a sacrifice, showing the purity of our cause... If we kill the general, we show that we are the monsters that Merv and Maria represented... But there is another way... A way that gives us the high ground, that ensures us a place of power when this is all over... With this one act, we will be redeemed in all eyes, will see Latterndale make the changes he has promised, and return the world to order...
Words faded and images, raw concepts, replaced them, passing from mind to mind. One by one, as the Defenders assented to what John intended, they briefly bowed their heads to him.
As the vote was made unanimous, John's eyes slipped from the clear sky and to the dark stone that rose between the girders...
A cheery pop-song blared into existence, undercut by a deep, humming vibration. Rachel jerked upright in bed, saw her mobile dancing on the nightstand.
She sleepily batted in its general direction. The light cutting through the curtains told her it was morning, she should be up, but she was too tired...
“Goddammit, get your phone!” A pillow flew at her from the direction of the cot next to her bed.
She batted at it again, couldn't find it. Other night stand. She rolled over, arched her body over the still-sleeping woman she was sharing the hotel bed with, finally found the phone, answered.
“Rachel.” The voice was soft, raspy, little more than a whisper. Creepy.
“Who is this?”
“I'm not dead, Rachel.”
A shiver ran up her spine and she gasped.
Another pillow from another cot flew up at her. “Take it to the hall!”
The dead voice continued. “Don't say my name. Not on the phone. Now, if I say to you, 'the man with the gun,' do you understand who I mean?”
An image of Edgar Latterndale, standing on the blood-slicked floor of the White House ballroom flashed through her mind. She nodded, then remembering she was on a phone, said, “Yes.”
“How about, 'the landlord?'”
There were no immediate thought on this one. It took her a moment before she realized that since these phrases came from John, their significance lay with him. Who was his landlord? “Yes.”
“Good. I need you to go to a certain address and give a message to the man with the gun about me, my friends, and what we plan to do with the landlord. You are, of course, free to use any real names appropriate to the situation when you relay the massage.”
She was nodding frantically now, casting around for a pair of pants, trying not to step on any of the four women sleeping on the floor as she made her way to the hall.
“How, how did you—”
“I'll tell you when I come to visit.”
It was such an easy answer that it caught her off-guard, the impossibility of the situation falling victim to the hard facts of normal life. “They're not allowing interstate travel—”
“They'll make an exception for me.”
Rachel now stood in the hall, mobile cradled between head and shoulder as she struggled into a pair of jeans. “I'm sorry, but... you sound so different.” She finished dressing and switched the mobile back to her hand. “And I don't just mean sounding dead. No offense.”
“I've been through a decade of hard life experiences in the past week. I'm no longer your fun, young... relative. I'm the man I grew up to be.”
“I need you to get transportation. I'll tell you the address when you need it.”
“Okay, hopefully there's still something around the airport.” She half ran down the stairs, then stopped as something occurred to her. “Wait. You want me to take a message to the man with the gun. He's here?”
"How do you know?" She needed some kind of reassurance, some rational line of thought, to accept this as real.
"I built a bunker out there. Its new enough that no one should have stumbled across it yet."
“But, I can't just... I can't just go up to him and expect him to listen to me.”
There was a moment of labored breathing from the other end of the line. “Remember when I told you to fight for what you believed in, to pick your battles?”
“I need you to believe in this. This is the battle to pick. Can you do this?”
No. “Yes.” She reached down and stroked her belly.
Then she was off again down the stairs, out into the cold November sun, off to find a taxi or a bus or a driver who would take a bribe. She didn't question that the man on the other side of the mobile really was Uncle John; deep down, she believed it was.
Rachel stood in a deserted industrial park south-west of the airport. To her right was a colossal tangle of pipes raising into the air; to her left, a series of low sheet-metal buildings. She approached one, labeled as Sloan/Waterson Construction, and stepped into the dark lobby. A single security sat behind a small desk.
He nodded to her. “'Morning, ma'am. How can I help you?”
She smiled, doing her best to look professional in spite of her tight jeans and weathered jacket. “Yes, I'd like to speak to the president please.”
The guard looked confused, then smiled apologetically. “I'm sorry, Mr. Waterson isn't in today. I can take a message.”
Rachel took a step forward and leaned on the desk. She had to seem like she knew what she was doing, to make sure this lackey took her seriously. “I'd like to see the real president, please.”
The guard frowned. “Well, Mr. Sloan is retired...”
“Hey!” She slammed her palms down on the desk; the guard lurched back. “Enough of this stupid rent-a-cop shit, alright? We both know what I'm talking about here. Latterndale. Now.”
“Ma'am, I'm going to have to call security if you don't leave right now.” His hands moved to the vicinity of his belt—whether reaching for a gun or a radio, Rachel didn't know.
“How about you do that, yeah? Call security. I'll call my uncle, see what he thinks. He's got an invitation to be here, but couldn't make it; sent me instead. Now, take me down into the bunker to see the president. I'll wait.”
The guard's hands came up—a radio. He clicked it on. “Security.”
Rachel half expected to see a couple more rent-a-cop guards step out from the back, escort her out, keep up the charade that she was starting to believe. Instead she heard a heavy clunk and saw metal sheets descending over the front door and window, heard the tread of heavy boots on tile. Two elephantine forms appeared from the darkness, grabbed her, held her steady as the guard rounded the desk, knelt before her, began to pat her down.
He paused when he reached the little folder she kept her ID in. He slid the cards out, rifled through them, his eyes growing wide as he recognized her surname. He looked up at the EHUD clad soldiers standing just outside of her line of sight. “Search her, then get her downstairs. POTUS will definitely want to see her.”
Half an hour later she was downstairs in a dark-green parlor, dazed by everything the morning had thrown at her. She heard a low mechanical whine, looked up to see a small, hairy figure glide in on a wheelchair, one leg up and wrapped in a cast.
“So you're the security threat that's got everyone up in arms?”
He shrugged. “At least they're still trying to keep me safe.”
She took in the man she had idealized for the past three months: he was not at all what she expected. Shaggy hair and beard, loose blue golf-shirt, slacks with one leg held together by safety pins. Across his face and arms were the yellowed remains of bruises. And of course, the thick cast.
“Doesn't look like they're doing a very good job.”
Edgar snorted a quick laugh. “No, I guess they're not. Seems like no one is. Fortunately, in the case about your uncle's assassins, if what security tells me is true.”
Her hero was talking to her, was taking her seriously. All she had tried to do since the Defenders had made themselves known, all the stupid mistakes and desperate attempts to make a difference had led her to this. “He'd told me he'd like to take you up on your offer.”
Edgar frowned, then shrugged. “Great, we'll get a plane ready—”
“He doesn't want to make his survival public.”
Edgar blinked, then scratched at his beard. “That isn't exactly taking me up on my offer now, is it? Sounds to me like he has his own plans.”
She nodded. “He's gathered some other Defenders, and they'd like to make a deal with you.”
“They back you, back your plan for the UN, and in return, you keep your promises.”
“Deal.” Edgar's eyes were wide, hungry. “When do we meet?”
Rachel swallowed. This was the part John felt Edgar might object to. “They won't come out for you until they've killed General Mistlethwakey.”
Edgar stared at her for several long moments. He flicked the little joystick at his fingertips, the wheelchair jerking forward and backwards. “Everything is finally settling down since your uncle ostensibly died. Assuming he really is alive, and this isn't some kinds of hoax. For all I know, you're lying.”
Rachel sat silently, waiting for the president to make up his mind. Even though she believed the dead-sounding voice on the phone, she was beginning to have doubts. She thought of the snowball she had thrown at Tisha; it seemed like such a good idea at the time. This too had seemed like a good idea.
“Why should I let them kill my NSA?”
It took Rachel a moment to come up with an answer; this was something John had been vague about. “He—John—said that Mistlethwakey would try to stop them from reaching you, and had the means to stop them.”
Edgar nodded solemnly. Something was going on here that Rachel didn't understand; Edgar and John shared some secret knowledge of the General.
“I still can't let him restart the war. As I said before, things are just getting back to normal. Having someone this high killed will send a very negative message.”
“Oh, so you have been paying attention.” As soon as the words were said, Rachel clamped her hands over her mouth, as if trying to stop more words from coming out.
Edgar looked momentarily offended, then impressed, then amused. “You think you're a pundit, huh? You're going to judge me? Just because I haven't been out and about doesn't mean I haven't been paying attention.”
Rachel flung her hands wide. “We're about to get invaded!”
“And why do you think it's taking so long, huh? Why do you think Mexico hasn’t followed the LCR up here, or Iran hasn't taken over D.C.? I've been talking to fucking everybody, making sure things aren't getting out of control!” He was breathing heavily now. “The truth is, the crazies have almost burned themselves out, and as long as travel's restricted, they can't get together to egg each other on. Now, just as soon as your uncle gets his ass in gear and gets the EHUDs off my back, I go to New York, calm everyone down, and get back to the way things are supposed to be. Got it?”
Rachel flushed; he was certainly charismatic.
“So...” Edgar leaned back in his chair and slowed his breathing. “What's it going to be?”
“He—John, I mean...” She swallowed. “He said that he knows a way to eliminate Mistlethwakey without raising any suspicions, and that he can make it look like the NSA is still out and about.”
“Those were his exact words?”
“He spoke in code, but... yeah.”
“Hmm.” Edgar scratched at his beard again, then lunged towards his cast, stopped himself, leaned back. “I get the impression your uncle is going through with this no matter what I say.”
Edgar returned the nod. “Well, I guess that's that.” He clapped his hands together, then tilted them to point at Rachel. “Congratulations on your first policy change.”
A thrill of excitement swept through her, and she had to fight not to giggle. Oh, when Tisha heard about this...
“Now the question is, 'What to do with you?'”
“What?” The excitement turned to trepidation.
“You just infiltrated a top secret government facility. Yes, on orders and information provided by Defenders, but in any case... I can't allow you to leave.”
There was no response to that.
“How old are you? Fifteen?”
He nodded once. “Where are your parents?”
“My dad's a nurse at the Philadelphia FEMA camp, and my mom's in LA.”
“Got any plans for college?”
“I was... I was looking at doing political science at Yale.”
“Hmm...” Edgar was staring intently at his cast; it was vibrating, seemingly moving of its own accord. He looked up. “How'd you like an internship?”
“I can't let you leave, not yet, and my chief of staff could use an assistant. What do you say, White House-in-exile intern?”
“Um...” She had to tell Tisha, her mom—her guidance counselor. “Yeah.”
Edgar extended his hand, and she half stood to shake it. “Good. Hopefully we'll be hearing from your uncle or his friends any day now.”
Edgar dropped her hand, then rotated his chair to face the door that led into the rest of the facility. “Follow me, then. Have any questions you want answered right off the bat?”
She followed him through the door, down a dark hall, her mind reeling. “Uh, yeah. What the hell happened to you?”