Thick-treaded tires crunched over the debris littering the street. The armored troop transport moved slowly, rumbling as it made its implacable way over parked cars and chunks of fallen masonry. Inside the transport, shielded by hydraulic suspension, the eight EHUD-clad Defenders felt nothing. John, sitting at the head of the passenger compartment, wearing nothing more advanced than canvas pants and a tee-shirt, felt some of the truck's bobbing, but his mind was focused far enough away that his body's nausea didn't bother him.
The truck slowed, groaned to a halt, vibrated as it idled. Voices could be heard from the cab, laughter, a gloved hand patting the ceramic plates covering the hood. The engine roared, the vibration increased in intensity, and the truck pulled forward.
They were going slower now than they had out in the city proper, and John felt a mixture of relief and nervous tension. As much as he wanted to get this over with, to put all the planning and careful execution behind him, he wanted to wait just a little while longer, to stay in this moment where everything looked good on paper, where there was no reality to smash his plans.
Around him, leaking from the others despite orders to keep a tight hold on emotion, were similar feelings. Most of them had remembered months ago, had lived with secret knowledge of what was really moving world events, had wanted to do something—anything—to make their presence known. Only now did they appreciate the security they had felt, the knowledge that they were unknown, could slip away whenever they wanted, become whoever they wanted. Now they were committed, now they were actually putting Allen's ideas into practice. Yesterday they were ghosts, haunting humanity's dreams, but not affecting them. Tomorrow they would be gods, stepping up with the nations of the world to impose an endless peace. Today, they were afraid, and were doing a poor job of holding it in.
“Quiet yourselves,” John whispered. “We can't let him suspect anything until the last possible moment.”
Eight skull-like masks dipped in shallow nods; eight skull-like masks remained staring down at sixteen booted feet.
The truck slowed again, the engine rumbled, died, and the back doors were pulled open. John pulled on a cap and glasses, trying to hide as much of his glistening pink face as possible. It seemed unlikely that anyone would recognize his old face amidst the scarring, but he didn't want to take any chances.
Two more EHUDs from the cab of the truck joined them and the ten Defenders escorted the ordinary man around the side of the tower and down a sloping tunnel that led into the super-structure.
At the bottom was a roll-up cargo door. A few soldiers stood around, helmets off, relaxed in the pocket of warmth the tower afforded them.
They straightened when the noticed the squad of newcomers, and one stepped forward.
“Hey. You guys with the medical delivery?”
“Yeah, we got the truck back up top,” Naomi answered, her voice sounding tinny through the speakers.
“Well, why don't you go back up there and get it then?” the soldier asked, sounding more irritated than suspicious.
The relaxed atmosphere in the compound kept him off-guard enough for Naomi to approach, lay a hand on his shoulder, and headbutt him, his nose flattening and jetting blood into his collar.
The other Defenders sprang into action, each picking a target and incapacitating them. Five seconds, and all the guards were unconscious.
One of the Defenders—John thought it was Vince—approached him, holding a plastic key-card. “Found this on the corporal over there.” The voice was definitely Vince. “It'll unlock the door, but I don't know how suspicious it'll be to open from out here. In theory, there should be someone from the medical staff coming out to check on the supplies.”
John shook his head. “There're physical guards here; they haven't upgraded the security system. Unlocking it from this side shouldn't raise any flags.”
Vince nodded, then bounced away in the direction of the massive door. A moment later there was a grinding, and the door began to fold away into the ceiling.
“Right then.” John stepped forward, once more into Sky Crest.
He had never been on this level of the building before, but knew it well enough from the blueprints. A vast storage area, with great pillars rising like a forest of dead trees into the ceiling twenty-five feet overhead. Huge halogen lamps, kept locked behind wire cages, lit the space. An unconscious shudder passed through the Defenders; this place reminded them too much of their imprisonment.
Naomi took point as they passed by pallets stacked high with bright-blue boxes marked “NOT FOR RESALE—FEMA.” Here and there were thicker, flat-sided pillars: freight elevators.
A minute of walking and they reached another roll-away door, set into a curved barrier that stretched away to either side, disappearing into the glow of the bright lights overhead. This was it: the Central Maintenance Core.
This door opened with the simple push of a button, and they were in. The CMC looked much as it did in the digital models: A concrete tube a hundred and fifty feet in diameter, extending up for fifty feet before constricting to just over twenty feet wide and continuing upwards forever. A ring of exposed metal girders stretched down from where the ceiling constricted, enclosing the flat platform of the utility elevator.
“Right. You know what to do.”
Nine of the defenders broke off, each pulling several thin scramblers from various pockets and pouches scattered across their bodies. Then they were off around the ring of girders, strapping the scramblers on with copious amounts of duct tape.
Naomi stood close to John, piecing together a large assault rifle. John watched her for a moment before his nerves got the best of him and he felt he had to talk. “It's a good thing Alice told you about that place.”
Naomi grunted. “It's a good thing they cleared out of there so fast they forgot to pick up their supplies.”
John nodded. “I don't think this is going to work.”
There was a click as the magazine was snapped in and a round was chambered. “Too late for second thoughts. If cycling the scramblers doesn't stop him, nothing will. Then we might as well give up and die.”
John glanced down at his chest, at the spindly limbs that stretched from it. “I'm going to die tonight either way.”
“Just your body.”
“I never had kids. Seems a waste of genes...”
“Genes you had at birth are gone now anyway...”
He hadn't thought of that. He shrugged, then stepped up onto the elevator. “Right, everybody, one more time, just for safety. We get to the fiftieth floor, you switch them on. Cycle frequencies every ten seconds. Five minutes in, you snap scramblers off for a cycle, then back on. I'll jump into him at the cut. After that, I'm either in control of his body, or I'm dead. Either way, it's out of our hands.”
Solemn nods all around. Naomi followed him onto the platform.
Speaking of revenge, telling Allen how much he wanted to strike back, being told by Allen he would lead, that had seemed so good at the time. Now, actually being in charge, actually having lives in his hands—John didn't like it. Sending Rachel to the president had been a risk with a high degree of return, a risk she was certain to survive. Asking Reggie to participate in the technical assassination of a public official, that was risky, had a much lower rate of success. The refusal to help had shaken John, though he wouldn't let the other Defenders see that. If even his brother didn't trust him, how could they?
He stopped walking—stopped thinking—when he reached the center of the platform. He could look up and see all the way to the metal umbrella shielding this chimney, see rows of colored lights stretching up the sides of the core, showing a warren of tunnels leading off into the building.
As he stood there, transfixed by the immensity of this place, by the construct he had long imagined around this core, the lights seemed to dim, to flicker off. He was suddenly in total darkness. He thought he smelled something burning...
The whispered inquiries he expected from the others never came. This was a major kink in their plan, but no one seemed to notice...
There was a sudden brilliant flash of light and heat, and John was thrown to the mesh floor of the platform.
He saw a light overhead explode, an arc of lightning pass from it to another light, and then towards the mesh.
He rolled away, leapt to his feet. The lightning followed him, passed through him, sending pain ripping through his already ravaged body. The heat was worse this time than on the roof; this time he burned from the inside. Despite his best efforts he screamed, collapsed to the floor, tried to crawl away from the heat and light that crackled through the air around him. Where were the others? Had their suits frozen, were they trapped inside a hundred pounds of armor with no electronics? Surely the mechanical systems still functioned.
More arcs of feral electricity filled the air, filled his body. The smell of burning was stronger, now. His vision blurred as his body tried to pull in too many directions at once.
Suddenly, the pain stopped, though the lightning continued to pass through him. Around him, the core seemed to fade, the concrete and steel melting and reforming into an antiseptic white enclosure, filled with people staring down at him in concern.
They all moved strangely, stiffly, seeming to walk and talk in reverse. And now John’s body began to fade. His limbs were still there, but they moved through other limbs, burned, mutilated limbs. His limbs from the week before? No—these were beyond burned. Liquid flesh oozed from cracks in the caramelized skin, veins and vessels rose to the surface, wrapping themselves tightly around the molten flesh. The other body closed around him and—
John jerked upright and opened his eyes. A skeletal face of rough ceramic was staring at him. “The hell is wrong with you?” Naomi's modulated voice asked.
John survey his surroundings. A metal platform, girders beyond that, nine armored forms staring up at him, several heads tilted in curiosity.
He looked down at his hands—pink and unnaturally glossy, the skin waxy looking. “Nothing. I'm just getting feedback from all the refugees. They're nervous; I'm nervous.”
Naomi grunted, then gestured to Vince. The elevator began to rise.
Fifty feet up and they were out of sight of the others.
“I had a vision,” John said.
“I thought you were back up a hundred percent.”
“Not a memory. A vision. Something I've never seen before. There's something else going on here, something we don't know about.”
“Yeah, too bad our main source of intel decided not to talk to us anymore.”
John ignored the comment, then dug into his pocket for a pair of ear-plugs.
Fifty stories up, and the scramblers snapped on. Standing by a single scrambler, unprotected, was enough to cause nausea and disorientation. Standing in a hollow tube, resonating with the pitch of twenty scramblers, was enough to cause a complete consciousness collapse. Even with the earplugs, John felt his entire body stiffen, his mind scream for the pain to stop. Beside him Naomi, cocooned in her armor, was twitching, her movements exaggerated by the suit.
“You... you...” John took a deep breath, almost gagged. “You think th-th-the G-General's ab-ble to hand-dle this?”
Naomi didn't answer; she was finally getting her body back under control.
The platform jostled, slowed, stopped. Before them was a door, about five feet tall, with a simple latch—no lock. Naomi pushed it open. Inside was a small room, lit by a thin strip of LEDs that turned on when the door opened. Pipes, cleaning supplies, an electrical box; all was expected. Across the room was another door, set tight into the wall. She pushed it open and slid into the lair of the beast while John waited in the storage room.
A minute passed in silence, then there was the sound of a scuffle, a heavy thud, Naomi's modulated voice. “He's unconscious. Hurry.”
John slid through the doorway, found himself in a small media room nestled under a second-story loft. Beyond the edge of the loft was Philadelphia, stretching to the horizon, moonlight streaming in and casting harsh shadows around the room.
John walked over wooden floor until he came to a small sitting area set before the great glass wall. A small figure was slumped in an arm-chair, and the hulking form of Naomi stood off to one side.
John nodded. This would work. “Good job. As soon as the cut comes, I'll jump.”
He waited for a response that didn't come.
The form in the chair shifted, bringing a pistol twinkling into the moonlight. “Hey, John. Glad you made it.”
John bit his lip and lowered his eyes. He had expected this possibility. “I've always wanted to ask you how you're able to do this.”
The General shrugged apologetically; the pistol remained pointed at John. “That I cannot tell. The one thing I can't teach you... Personally, I think its genetics.”
The voice was the General's, but the vocabulary, the speech pattern, was off somehow.
“You know, despite everything that's happened, that will happen, I really did want us to win. To break out when we had the chance.”
“What do you mean 'we?'” John was circling towards Naomi. If he could get her rifle, convince Mistlethwakey he intended to kill him... Assuming he wasn't reading his thoughts.
“But I guess my own actions betrayed me on that.” He sniffed and wiped at his nose. “I'm sorry for getting your hopes up like that, only to turn right around and give you to Shaun and the General...”
John stopped, his hand reaching towards the rifle, his body frozen, every muscle tensed. “Allen?”
The form sitting in the chair dipped his head, and for the first time the gun wavered.
Now was the chance, aim low, incapacitate until the cut—
“You think you're the first to have the idea of taking over this body?” He stood, holding out his arms, almost inviting John to shoot him. “Not the best physical specimen, but he had power in all the right places.”
John's hand rested on the butt of the rifle, more for support than for superiority. “How long?”
Mistlethwakey—Allen—shrugged. “About three years. I infected him with the virus during his first visit, kept him completely unaware of his power, scrubbed his memory of the ordeal. Rather like what you two went through. From there it was just a matter of implanting orders to keep him in line up until... That last day.”
The rifle was forgotten now. John stepped forward, his life-long struggle to keep his life normal warring with what this man was telling him. “Why? Why do any of that? Why fill our heads with all that Q-bomb bullshit if you were just going to betray us to the General, become the General?” He couldn't get angry, couldn't let himself be distracted. This man might still be Mistlethwakey, might simply be lying.
Allen lowered his eyes, let his arms drop to his sides. “Have you ever actually seen the movie, The Mouse That Roared? Why do you think I chose a metaphor from an obscure comedy film rather than from any other possible source?”
“Many characters played by one actor?”
Allen snorted and patted his belly. “Fitting, but no. In that film, before the Q-bomb enables the Mouse to become a superpower, a small group of soldiers come in and bring America to its knees by stealing the Q-bomb. With the cold-war superpower brought down, all it takes is an empty threat for the little guy to rule the world.”
John stared at him, not comprehending. Didn't matter, though; keep him talking. Couldn't be more than a minute until the cut...
“You're the soldiers, John. And while you were waiting for me to start the revolution, you did whatever you were told to do. And when the General told you to go in and hijack the Israeli arsenal, you did it. And Maria, she took the Iranian arsenal. Merv? He took ours. One by one, you went in to the superpower, and you took the bombs. The whole world's in our hands now, John. World peace, just the push of a button away.”
John swallowed. “You never believed we could do it on our own. You never intended the Defenders to be the Q-bomb.”
Allen sadly shook his head. “Right now there are too few of us. Right now, the world is too afraid of us, too willing to risk all to destroy us. Hell, right now you can be taken out by a mobile vibrator glued to a speaker. Insinuated in the current power structure, you're a god. Outside, you're a threat. But take away the power structure—”
John lunged, ripped the rifle from Naomi's frozen grip, leveled it at Allen.
“Ah-ah, not so fast.” Allen held his hands up, a smile creeping across his face. “You've still got about forty-five seconds before the cut. Until then, let me show you what I've got in store, huh? I've got a lot of nukes, yes, but I've also got you, and her,” he gestured to Naomi, “and all of them down there. And most importantly, I've got your tower.”
John readjusted his grip, held the rifle close, wanted so much to squeeze. “What do you mean, show me?”
The smile was fully formed now. Suddenly the room was gone, exploding away in a shower of super-heated hydrogen, swirling around, reforming into a thin needle piercing the sky, a triple-helix of dodecahedrons wrapped around it, sprays of bridges rising up and falling in parabolas to connect to smaller towers that rose from an immense pit, the walls honeycombed with homes and shops and parks and—
And people. Millions of people moving in and around the tower, all with skin like honey, hair cascading in wooly brown braids, their facial features an unrecognizable blend of all the races of earth. And as they moved, as they did work, as they lived and loved and even died, John saw that within each of them was the spark that resided in him, the innate power that suffused his DNA. All were Defenders.
John gasped, surprised to find himself in the moonlit penthouse, the solid weight of the rifle pressed into his shoulder.
“Thirty seconds, John.”
John was breathing heavily, barely aware of anything except the vision Allen had shown him.
“You have a choice now: live life in a state of normalcy, try to reform the world with your twelve Defenders, try to find the rest, try to bring peace. Or you can believe what I've shown you, believe the impossible things you now know, and miss the cut. Leave me in charge of this body, let me do what I must do, and be assured that your death will be meaningful.”
John's gaze flicked down to the rifle, back up to Allen, who was slowly spreading his arms, inviting John to make a choice.
The ever-present buzz of the scramblers stopped and John tensed his inner-self, ready to make the jump, to push everything that was him into Mistlethwakey, into Allen. But as he waited, as the seconds ticked by, he found himself unwilling to. Allen had spoken to them of defending the world, standing up to be the final line against war. But from the moment they had appeared, they had done nothing but bring strife, encourage others to fight for them, to die for them. By existing in this world, they negated their own purpose.
It was nearly enough for John to shoot Allen right then and there, to kill Naomi while she remained frozen, to go back downstairs and finish the others. But history had shown that their disappearance would not leave the world any better. As John thought about it, he realized things would only be worse: now that the world had seen a Defender, an EHUD, what would stop any nation from making their own?
No, the only solution was to let Allen have his way, to let him unleash his hellfire on the world to cleanse it from wickedness. Then from the nuclear glass the EHUDs would emerge: stronger, more numerous. They would protect humanity from what was worst in itself and the future... would be glorious.
A shudder passed through John as the scramblers returned. He lowered the rifle.
Allen lowered his arms and bowed his head. “I was right, all those years ago. You were the one who knew best what I wanted. And, as my no man, I fully trust your agreement on this. You did good, John. That's why I picked you.”
John forced the rifle back into Naomi's hand. “I don't know how much of my plan we have to stick with...” There was still a trace of hope in his voice.
Allen shook his head and groaned as he settled himself back into his seat. “I'm the great martyred prophet; they've heard me say everything they've wanted to hear. You're their leader now; I'm sorry.”
John nodded, gestured to Naomi. “She came in and knocked you unconscious.”
“Ah, yes.” Allen's forehead rippled, then split, blood oozing down from a shallow gash just above his eye.
John stepped away from the sitting area, approached the wall of glass. He looked out at the dead skyline of the city he had grown up in, had struggled to get back to. It had suffered so much in the previous weeks, so much of it because of him. And now it would burn, would be wiped away because of him.
He turned back to face Allen, his mentor, his friend. “Tell Reggie... tell him thanks for everything he's done and... and I'm sorry I couldn't do more for him. And tell Rachel that I know she'll do great things. And tell Lucy... Tell her I've always loved her.”
Allen nodded, then slumped back in his seat. Naomi blinked, looked around, saw the shivering form of John in front of the window, saw Mistlethwakey—John—slowly leaning forward.
“I made it,” he croaked, his voice slurred and raspy. “He's in my old body. I made it...”
Naomi turned, raised the rifle, and fired once, twice, three times.
As the bullets ripped through John's body he couldn't help but inwardly smile. Three bullets to kill him on his third death, three bullets to finally end his third life. And as he fell to his knees, his body numb and unresponsive, he though he saw Suzanne standing in the shadows.
I did it, he thought. I made another choice, just as terrible as the one I made for you. And this time, I am cut free. This time I escape what is to come. And now I am with you, forever...