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