Part II: Entropy

Chapter 9

Cold November wind whistled through the chain link fence surrounding the school yard, pushing the milling students further into the wind-shadow of the building, trying to stay out of the cold.

"Can't believe they're keeping us outside like this..." Rachel muttered.

"Shh, its starting." Beside her, her friend Tisha waved her arm, then brought the mobile closer to her face.

Rachel pushed away from where she was crouched next to the building and looked at the little screen. Tisha offered her an earbud, and Rachel pushed it in. A small droning voice was calling the Senate back to order after a brief recess for lunch, and the camera showed Isaac Latterndale walking to the table at the front of the chamber and sitting down. There were a few more procedural statements, and a general shuffling as the assembly settled in, then the manager for the prosecution stood and began to place papers down on the table in front of Latterndale.

"Do you recognize these documents, Mr. Latterndale?"

A short pause. "Appears to be my handwriting, but I don't recall these documents exactly, no."

"We received them a month ago from an anonymous source, and have kept them private until their veracity could be ascertained, but we are now certain beyond a shadow of doubt that they are authentic." She collected the papers and returned to her desk. "Copies have been made available to all interested parties, and arrangements may be made to examine the originals. To sum up, however..."

She returned to the small space between Latterndale's table and the first row of senators. "These documents, written in then Secretary of the Interior Latterndale's own hand, list the broad goals of the Enhanced Human Ultimate Defenders program. One hundred non-volunteers would be collected and detained indefinitely, exposed to inhuman conditions and psychological torture until only fifty of the best candidates remained. These survivors would then be exposed to to a mutantagenic virus, which would give them what have been called 'paranormal abilities.' From there, they would be trained in the use of these abilities by the program's two military test-subjects. Upon the completion of their training, there memories of the program and of their abilities would be erased via psychic conditioning, and they would be reintroduced into the populace. Sometime within five years of their reintroduction, they would feel compelled to volunteer for some form of government service, whereupon they would 'discover' their abilities, and offer them for public use."

She turned to look at Latterndale. "Does that sound about right?"

"That sounds awfully convoluted. Sound's like you're making me out to some kind of super-villain."

There was a short round of laughter from those present.

"Do you deny that you wrote these documents?"

"I do."

Tisha groaned. "Really? He's really going to deny?"

"What choice does he have, man?" a male voice asked.

Tisha and Rachel looked up to see a pudgy young man sporting what he probably hoped was a goatee.

"What's up, Raulito?" Rachel asked.

"You guy's watching the trial?"

Rachel blinked.

"Sorry, yeah, dumb question. Listen, Terstein's about to give a speech. Way more interesting than an impeachment. You gonna watch?"

Rachel looked at Tisha and shrugged. "You good?"

Tisha returned the shrug. "What the hell?"

Maria Ruiz wanted a slow news day. She would come into work, look over the daily rundown, and see that she was doing public interest, or covering a small personal scandal, and had two, three hours on air, tops. Be home by nine, maybe go see a movie.

But no, every day since September eleventh had been a hard-hitting news spectacular. Maria—and the rest of the AmeriNews crew—had been working nonstop for nearly two months, rushing from the Capitol to the White House to the Pentagon and back again.

Now Maria was back at the steps of the Capitol for the fifth—sixth?—major speech given by Senator Mitchell Terstein. The first two or three had been personally interesting, and the rest had certainly been newsworthy, but they had become painfully repetitive for her. She knew Terstein's main points by heart, knew the rhetorical tricks he would use to rally the crowd to his side. Yet here she was again, back to get another story.

She was almost willing to cover the impeachment, just to get out of doing something as repetitive as this.

"You almost ready to go?" Steig, her cameraman, was busy fiddling with cables and flipping switches on his gear. "We need to do a sound check."

Maria sighed and began to recite a short poem she used whenever Steig set her mic levels. While she spoke, she felt her mind drifting away, lighting briefly on the irony that Terstein, once President Latterndale's strongest supporter, was now his most vocal opponent. Had his support for the president only ever been an act? Had Terstein always planned on trading in Latterndale for public support when the time was right? Or did he sincerely believe in what he preached; that the Defenders needed to be defended, that a fundamental shift in government was needed?

"Okay, you're good."

Her mind snapped back to the here and now. "Great job, Steig."

"Eh."

There was a low buzz in Maria's ear, followed by a bored voice. "Five minutes to live."

Maria quirked a smile. Say what you will about Terstein's motivations, at least the man was punctual.

She smoothed her hair and went over a few last minute opening lines before she just decided to wing it and play off the studio anchor. Then:

"Live in five... four... three..."

There was a moment of silence in her head, then she heard the voice of the anchor, even as the crowd behind her burst into wild cheering.

"—now go live to Maria Ruiz."

Maria held back a frown; he wasn't giving her much to work with. The tally light on Steig's camera flashed on, and she arranged her face into a look of professional interest. "The crowd is certainly excited today as Senator Terstein makes his way onto the steps of the Capitol to give what will surely be a momentous speech." Terrible intro, but it would have to do.

"And what do you think will be the subject of the Senator's speech?"

For the second time in a minute, Maria had to fight back showing emotion. Why should she bother to speculate when the entire thing was about to be shown live?

"Well, Jim, I'd prefer not to speculate at this time. Why don't we go ahead and see for ourselves?"

She turned and trained her attention on the bulky form of Terstein. He was pacing back and forth on the top step of the staircase that fronted the Capitol, working the crowd and verbally responding to the many shouts of encouragement and excitement the crowd sent his way.

After a moment he waved his arms and the audience quieted. Opening remarks were made, with nearly every sentence punctuated by cheers and occasional jeers.

"Why are we here?" Terstein gestured to himself and the small group of guests gathered around him. "Why are you here?" He gestured to the crowd.

"I know. It's not to see a show, its not because you had nothing better to do, its not even so that you can say to your grandkids 'I was there! I was there during the bad times, there when we were angry!' No! You're here because you're America! You're here because you are the government, you are the decision makers! And let me tell you, there are decisions to be made!"

The last few words were drowned out by cheering, but Maria could have recited them in spirit, if not word for word. This was the same sentiment Terstein always started out with, convincing the people that they actually had a say in the matter.

"Some decisions have been made without you!" A round of booing, jeering, vocal displeasure. "Our once beloved president decided that it was perfectly alright for him to bypass you, to make decisions that placed fifty people in a position were every right they had as Americans were thoroughly violated."

Maria rolled her eyes and let a small smile play around her lips. She had gotten a sneak peek at what was on the agenda for the Senate this morning, and knew Terstein's writers would be flogged for his out-of date fact..

"But you, you the Americans, you America, decided he couldn't get away with it! You got your congress to impeach him, you let the world know that you will not sit idly by and let your country be taken away from you!"

More cheers.

"But it's not enough! Not enough to treat the symptoms of corruption! You must root out the corruption! And these people," he gestured at his guests, "these people are willing to help you! This is a global world, a world where brother helps brother, sister helps sister. While you, America, find and uproot corruption in your country, these people are willing to help you!"

He stepped back and gestured to the man standing to his left. "This is Ahmad Mokri, the Iranian ambassador to you, America. He is not you, he does not make decisions for you. But he, and the nation he represents, are willing to help you. He has been working with the United Nations to find a way to help America return to what it once was: a nation by the people, for the people, of the people!"

He paused, clearly expecting a cheer, but received confused muttering. They came to hear Terstein, and no one else. For her part, Maria was quietly pleased that the normal agenda had changed.

Mokri stepped forward and cleared his throat. "The Defenders." His voice echoed over the crowd. "These people, these victims of paranoid imperialism, represent a great threat to your nation. Not in terms of the actions they can perform, but in terms of the governmental corruption they represent. The highest levels of your government, the people you have placed in the highest positions of trust, have betrayed you. They claim they are now willing to police themselves, to clean the corruption from their own halls of government.

"But as anyone knows, letting a criminal punish himself is a useless task. As my esteemed colleague Senator Terstein has already stated, it is up to you, America, to make sure that this happens. The United Nations is ready and willing to help you work through your problems, to investigate those in high office, to find those responsible for this miscarriage of justice."

He paused and took a few breaths. "But it is up to you. You must decide if you want the U.N. to step in and help you. If you do, then you must convince the guilty parties, those who are currently in power, to let us in to help!"

The crowd exploded into cheers once more, but with far less enthusiasm then before. As the cheers died down, one male voice could be heard, clear and loud: "Don't tell us what to do, you goddamn sand nigger!"

The crowd instantly fell silent, and Maria briefly wondered if the comment had been picked up by any microphones.

"Maria!"

She jumped, and dug at her mic's response button. "What?"

"What the hell is going on?"

"It's better if you—"

"Excuse me!" Terstein had retaken the front of the steps, and addressed himself to the place in the center of the crowd where the offending comment had come from. "There is no need for that kind of—"

"Fuck off, nigger!"

This outburst prompted an instantaneous response. People all around the offender began to yell curses, to push together at the central spot where they assumed the man to be. In moments the sounds of struggle could be heard.

"People, please! There is no need for—"

"Maria! Back on you!"

Maria swung back to the camera.

"Maria! What's going on there?"

"Someone in the audience appears to be picking a fight, Jim. There have been racial slurs made, as well as strong language—"

She fell silent as a gunshot rang out. Slow news day—she needed a slow news day.

"Shots have been fired, Jim! Shots have been fired. Uh, uh, please stay with us here at AmeriNews as we bring you live coverage of events here—"

She was a political correspondent, not a beat reporter! She wasn't supposed to deal with... with actual danger!

Terstein was yelling, but no one was listening. The outer edges of the crowd were dissolving away from the nucleus, but there were so many people that movement was all but impossible.

"Steig!"

"Eh?"

"Handheld, now!"

Steig grabbed the camera, unhooked it from its tripod and hoisted it onto his shoulder.

"We're going in." Maria turned and began to jog the short distance to the crowd, then tried, with little progress, to work her way further into the crowd.

"Slow down, I'm losing you!"

She ignored Steig, confident that he would find appropriate video, and spoke into her mic. "I'm in the crowd, trying to see if I can find the source of the gunshots."

As she spoke, she tried to ignore her director. "Maria, damn it, now is not the time for heroics. Do you hear me? Pull out—"

She pulled the tiny speaker from her ear; not what the director meant, but close enough.

The crowd pressed in around her, and she thought she caught a flash of blood. "I'm getting closer to the source of the gunshots. I don't know at this time how many are injured, but I believe at least one person has been shot."

Daytime Emmy, daytime Emmy, daytime Emmy—

New screams broke out, this time from the edges. She tried to turn, but the crowd was too closely packed-in. For the moment, she was stuck in the crowd, pushed from every direction.

A moment later she felt the pressure behind her lessen enough that she was able to turn, and came face to face with an E.H.U.D. The soldier was surging forward, his focus intent on the source of the gunshots. As he passed, his immense shoulder armor pushed into Maria's chest, and she fell back, quickly becoming tangled in the legs around her.

The crowd, panicked above, was even more chaotic below, verging on a stampede. Maria tried to stand, to avoid being crushed, but kept slipping back down whenever she pushed herself up. Her arms were trembling, and she found it hard to breath. This was completely different from the reporting she was used to.

A hand clamped down on her shoulder, and a burst of adrenaline rushed through her. She was now able to rise and turn partway around, and found the E.H.U.D. standing above her, trying to pull her to her feet even as the crowd around her tried to run both from the shooters and the soldiers.

The soldier spoke, his voice difficult to make out through the screams of the crowd. "C'mon, ma'am, it's not safe."

The helmet floated above her, blocking out her vision of anything else. The dead rectangles of eyes stared into her, through her, pulling her in and dropping her out in another place, another time...

The soldier spoke again, his voice marginally different this time. "C'mon, you fucking bitch. Again!"

He straightened, the helmet pulling back to reveal the world around them: Dark, cold. The lowest circle of hell, poured from concrete and lit only by a thin fluorescent strip recessed in the ceiling.

Maria sat on the floor, breathing heavily, her chest bruised and face bleeding from the soldier's attack.

"Again!"

The soldier took another step back, and Maria slowly rolled over and pushed up into a kneeling position. She didn't want to give him another chance to hurt her. It was bad enough that she had no clothes, that he could leer at her from the anonymity of his helmet. But she would not let him hurt her.

"You really think you can get out of this?" Other words went unsaid. You're even stupider than I thought...

The soldier rushed forward, swinging his knee upward and into her chin. She jerked backwards, her knees stretching painfully and her head crashing down on concrete.

Basic training filtered past the pain... Jaw, broken. Several teeth shattered, the back of her head split. She wasn't sure what was wrong with her knees, but she was certain that the joints were torn.

"Get up..."

No. No...

"GET UP!"

No!

Get up!

Without meaning to, but certainly not regretting the action, her leg shot up, the knee clicking painfully into place as she kicked the soldier in the chest, sending him flying backwards and into the wall.

As he slumped to the ground, Maria screamed, letting out her pain, her shame at giving into what he wanted...

She let the scream peter out, gasped for breath, searched out her body for the pain, tried to fix it—

"Good."

The soldier stood over her again. This time, at least, there was a gash ripped in his armor.

"Good."

He leaned in, grabbed her shoulder, pulled her roughly to her feet. She felt her left leg dangle uselessly, felt cold air against the fresh wound on the back of her head—

And felt someone behind her supporting her weight. "Are you alright?"

The room was gone; Maria was back in the crowd. Around her was panic, in front of her was the soldier who had accidentally knocked her down. He glanced her over, saw that she was able to stand, and pushed deeper to where the shots had been fired.

Maria stood shaking, unable—unwilling—to move. She thought she didn't know what happened, hoped desperately that she didn't, but deep down knew what had just happened to her.

Someone pushed at her, and she began to march slowly forward.

She knew what had happened...

She felt a vibration on her arm, and looked down to see her in-ear speaker twitching wildly. As soon as it was re-inserted, she heard the chaos back in the studio.

"What the fuck is she doing? Steig, see if you can find her—"

"I'm trying to get this shot!"

"Fuck! Okay, get the shot, we'll try to get someone out there—"

The speaker was back out of her ear.

Around her, the crowd finished its collapse into absolute chaos, but Maria was insulated from it by the chaos in her own mind. She tried to deny what had just happened, but with every step more memories—memories like the combat with the E.H.U.D.—came to the surface.

By the time she had wandered out of the Mall, she was confident in what she had been—still was.

A Defender.

Hours later, and Maria was standing in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom. Her appearance—ear-length hair, healthy skin, rumpled suit—once so familiar, now seemed hopelessly alien.

She saw another woman looking out at her from the mirror: bald, naked, all traces of fat gone, flesh pulled unnaturally close to the skeleton beneath. A rotted corpse, wrapped in leather.

The Maria in the room untucked her shirt and pulled it up, exposing a knot of scars that twisted across her abdomen. She ran her fingers along the scars, reading them like braille, feeling the story written in her skin. The touch recalled a set of memories, dim and growing dimmer...

At grandmother's house, four years old. Gramaime's dog, a pit bull, rushing at her, digging into her, pulling her apart-

No other memories of the dog, though, just the one incident...

Another set of memories were embedded in the scar; fresher memories, clearer. Not a child but a young woman, the woman staring out of the mirror. Standing then—now—in a dark room, red lights pulsing from the far wall. She crouched on the rough floor, feeling the cold air surrounding her, chilling every inch of skin. Behind her was waiting, apprehension, hope the test would go well. Ahead was pain, confusion... hunger. In her was nothing. She had been empty for such a long time.

Green light flashed from the far wall. Light mixed with sound as dogs came tearing through a gate, yelping and yipping, desperate for the meat crouched in front of them.

Maria knew instinctively what she should do, her reaction bolstered by a year of near-constant training. But she chose to remain still, inactive. The only way out of this room was death: the dogs', or her own. She had no desire to kill again... and her death might be an improvement.

The fear and disappointment behind her arrived at the same instant as the dogs. The largest in the pack—it looked perversely like a golden retriever—rammed its muzzle into her unscarred belly, teeth digging into virgin flesh, rubbing against the liver. She fell, the rough concrete biting into her back even as the dogs bit into her front.

A fog descended over her mind, shutting out the dogs and the people behind her, until only two minds were left outside hers.

The first mind was nominally human, but its thoughts were nearly identical to those of the dogs. It wanted—needed—her death, longing for it and finding excitement at her pain. This was the mind behind the armor, the one who had knocked her down again, and again, and again and—

The other mind was the polar opposite. It was calloused, yes, unyielding, yet compassionate. It brooked no rebellion to its will, but it was ready to help those who needed it. This mind was Allen.

Don't focus on the dogs... Focus on yourself...

Don't want to... Just want to die...

NO! If you die, you've been a waste! There's so much in you... If you live, it will come out... If you live, you will be so much more...

She couldn't say no. He believed in her, as she believed in him.

Everyone believed in him.

What do I do?

Find your strengths... Your arms are clear... Attack the biggest threat first...

Claws and teeth were locked into her legs—painful, but not immediately deadly. Old Yeller, though, eye-deep in her intestines—

All the pain, all the fear, wicked out to her fingertips, stayed and built as an electric charge. She swung her arms up and in, energy jumping from her fingers to the dog's head. It pulled back, pieces of Maria dripping from its jaws. She struck again, felt the dog's mind flash brilliantly before falling dark.

The two dogs on her legs sensed the death of their leader and looked up, unsure if their prey was still worth the risk.

Taking hold of this uncertainty, Maria followed it back to the simple minds that generated it. It only took a single push and—she was free.

Not free yet...

Allen... Let me sleep...

You sleep now, you die... Take stock... What do you have?

Allen...

What do you have?

She wanted to ignore him. Would ignore him, would fall back into the void... But there was the other mind, and she felt its disappointment in the pain not experienced, the grudging contentment that at least Maria would not survive her victory.

If she died, this mind won. She couldn't allow it to win.

Okay, focus. What did she have? No strength, no energy, no intestines—focus.

Dog meat. She had at least forty pounds of dog meat.

She felt the weight of the still warm carcass laying between her legs, partially propped up on her belly. She pushed her mind in deeper, feeling the fur, muscle, individual protein chains. Acids breaking off, microscopic bits coming free and floating down to connect to her, building bridges across the wound, bringing the sides closer, sealing her stomach with a knot of scars.

There was a burst of rage from one mind, a vortex of hate and disappointment. And from Allen...

From Allen was pride.

And from Maria's own mind, fear. She was scared.

Scarred.

How could she ever have forgotten this?

"She didn't even have a dog, did she?"

Back in her bedroom, Maria didn't turn. She had been peripherally aware of the man behind her for some time, but had chosen not to knowledge him yet. To do so would be to fully give into the madness begun by the run-in with the E.H.U.D.

She couldn't put it off any longer.

"She raised rabbits."

The man nodded. "I thought so."

"How long have you been following me?"

Rather than answering in words the man—Vince—opened his mind to her, flooding her with a string of images, emotions—

"Stop."

There was nothing.

"I'm not ready for that yet. Just use words."

"Suit yourself."

In the mirror, she could see Vince shifting, sitting straighter, bringing himself back to what had once been the real world.

In that other world, the one belonging to the Maria in the mirror, Vince had been a friend, an ally. Perhaps... lover? No, lover wasn't the right word. There was no romantic connection there. They had copulated—that precise, mechanical word clearly described the simple need fulfillment of their relationship. He hadn't been the only one to fulfill that need. There hadn't been much else to do in the early days of the program; it was that or give into the fear, the survival-mode desperation.

As these memories fought their way to the surface, they dragged another memory with them, a conversation with Allen—

"Two months. I recognized you on TV almost a year ago. That's what brought on the memories."

Maria continued to stare into the mirror. She knew all to well about "the memories." The one now glaring brightly in her mind was almost to terrible to think of.

"Some of the others found me. We've been going around, each of us finding and following another, trying to bring back the memories as quietly as possible."

"What do you mean, 'quietly'?"

"Ashleigh." His voice lost all trace of emotion. She took that to mean he was reeling from a deep loss.

"She was in the Metro when she got it back suddenly."

"The Metro explosion."

In the mirror, she saw him nod.

In the mirror, the other Maria nodded, caught up in the memory that was ripping the real Maria apart. She turned away, truly looked at Vince for the first time, saw more of him than a shape in the mirror.

His body was as she remembered it: Dark skin pulled tight over jutting bone. His eyes had changed, though. All emotion, all humanity had been bleached from them. Living the memories was one thing; experiencing them again was a trial that none truly survived.

"How many of you are there?"

"Nine, now, but we've found at least ten more."

"What are you going to do with this private army?"

Teeth gleamed out of the darkness. "What Allen wanted us to do."

In the mirror, the other Maria was laughing.

"I don't think you really know what Allen wanted."

Vince shrugged. "Who ever truly understands a prophet?"

"Merv didn't."

Vince suddenly leaned forward, his speed and intensity startling Maria. "There was something wrong with Merv. Someone else got to him first. Used him."

"Who would—"

"Who do you think?"

Maria nodded. "So you're building us back up, to fight back on our own terms before someone else uses us."

"'Fight' is a rather strong word, but... yes, essentially." The tension past, Vince leaned back and sighed. "So, you going to join us? We won't make you, of course, but chances are you're being monitored somehow. They'll eventually figure out you're not Lois Lane anymore." What'll it be? Pretend to be human a little while longer, or embrace your inner self?

Maria cringed at his voice—his essence—in her mind, but she understood why he communicated this way. It was the way the E.H.U.D.s—the Defenders—spoke amongst themselves. Vince knew what he was.

Maria...

Maria knew she couldn't go with him. Knew she might not survive the night, if she listened to the memory that for now remained trapped in the mirror.

"I need time to think about it."

Vince frowned. What aren't you telling me?

Tomorrow... she thought. Tomorrow I'll go with you... Tonight... tonight just let me pretend to be human a little while longer...

Vince nodded, and then was gone.

Maria dropped into the chair Vince had vacated. She warily eyed the mirror, but it was empty. The other Maria had already escaped.

The memory played again in her mind, the other Maria reviewing it and laughing.

She lay curled up on the floor, the naked bodies around her curled and sleeping as she was, hurriedly metabolizing the protein they had been rewarded with that night.

Stepping cautiously through the field of bodies were the two minders. One cold, malicious, eager for the Defenders to suffer. The other... Allen.

As he passed by her he stumbled slightly, his boot gently grazing her back. She was instantly awake, alert, although she dared not show it.

She couldn't hide anything from Allen, though.

I want to talk with you... relax... don't give anything away...

Images drifted in: alien landscapes; images of anthropomorphic creatures acting out normal activities; pornographic fantasies swirling into ever more depraved depths.

Block the rest... just me and you... and especially not him...

Maria let herself relax, then focused on the dreaming minds around her and pushed them away. Now it was just her and Allen.

Sensing their mental seclusion, Allen began to communicate, even as he continued to move through the room.

Mistlethwakey has a job for you...

Fear and loathing flooded from Maria into Allen; the General had been a dark god, the motivating force in her life for nearly a decade.

Allen was able to resist Maria's emotions; he was one of only two who weren't beholden to Mistlethwakey's rule.

Focus... He has a job for you... I have orders to program you for it...

That was even more frightening than the thought of doing a job for the General. She had done jobs for him before, had loathed them but done them, and all of them had been been more or less of her own free will. Other Defenders hadn't been so lucky. In the early days of the program some—the more vocal, violent, vigorous—had found themselves brought low by the minders taking them over and programming them to obey Mistlethwakey's will.

Allen had made no friends for his part in the programming, but he had more than made up for it by what he had done since then.

I won't program you to do it... But I will ask you to do it...

Fear fought with curiosity, and curiosity finally won. What action could be so horrible that Mistlethwakey dared not ask his thralls to perform them, but which Allen felt was important enough to ask of his supporters?

What do you want me to do?

There was a brief flare of disgust from Allen. I don't want you to do it... Mistlethwakey is preparing for something... He's using us for his own game, possibly agains the government... I don't know why, but he wants you to kill the president...

The news was somehow anti-climactic. Did the general really need to program her for this? She had killed before, was prepared to kill again. One order, and the president would be dead by her hands.

And you want me to do this?

It... it may be necessary... if we fail, if the Q-bomb fails, we must strike back... killing the president would be the best target...

Why me?

Mistlethwakey thinks—

No... You... You could have asked anyone to do this... why me?

You're the only one I trust enough for this...

What about—

The only one I trust will do this...

Maria thought about that. If, in some theoretical future they were free from this, were functioning as the Q-bomb, there would be no reason for her to kill, ever again. But if that mission somehow failed, if everything somehow went wrong, would she be able to sink this low, to murder the president?

I'll do it...

I hope you never have to...

And then she was alone.

No, not alone... The other Maria was there, fully dressed, healthy, staring mournfully out from the mirror.

She seemed to be pleading with her: Things really aren't that bad. We haven't necessarily failed.

Yes, we have, Maria answered. We have not made ourselves known as the solution, the end to war, to strife. We are war, are strife. We have been used, betrayed. There is no recourse but to strike against them.

The Maria in the mirror continued to stare as the real Maria prepared to go to war.

Security around the White House had been extended for several blocks around the mansion. Once busy roads had been blocked and their traffic diverted to the already over-crowded streets, which now teemed with buses taking up the slack for the out-of-commissionMetro system.

Maria approached the cordoned-off area as part of a tour group that was now stopped and passing around binoculars to catch a glimpse of the distant White House. When she noticed that a pair of soldiers were coming their way, Maria slid inside herself and became suddenly un-interesting to her fellow tourists.

The soldiers talked to the tour guide for a moment, made certain that she had proper documentation, then continued on their patrol, unaware of the companion they picked up.

After a few minutes, their patrol pattern reached a cross-street and met with another patrol that was making a long loop back to the White House. When the second patrol began their return, Maria was with them.

They crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, reached the White House lawn, and then made the trek back to where Maria had joined them. Maria continued over the lawn, stopping only when she reached the main building. She quickly found a small alcove, invisible from any observer beyond the range of her control, and slipped inside.

Her mind stretched out and passed through the confines of the presidential mansion, quickly locating the president and all of his staff. The big man himself was in the kitchens, nursing a tumbler of vodka, agonizing over the shambles of his once glorious career.

It would be so easy to finish it all right now—just a quick push on the right part of his mind and... oblivion. She let the thought trickle out and touch the president's mind. To her surprise, he didn't reject it; he wanted to die.

Maria spent a few moments contemplating what to do. While Latterndale had been responsible for the legislation behind the program, he was nothing more than a puppet for Mistlethwakey. In fact, he had always been uncomfortable with the program, had tried several times to stop it. He deserved death, certainly, but a quiet, humane one.

But if Maria did that, killed him in a way that could be mistaken for natural causes, then he would simply be gone the next cabinet member in line would slide into place and there would be no change in the status quo. It wasn't enough to kill him; Maria had to make an example of him.

For that to happen, she would have to make herself known...

There were no scramblers on now to protect the President from Defender assassins; the same vibrational frequencies that wreaked such havoc on the Defender's abilities also caused splitting headaches and nausea in unprotected baseline humans. If Maria made herself known now, it would take at least a minute for the scramblers to be activated. More than enough time for a death, less than enough for an escape.

A secret service agent walked past her hiding spot, and Maria stepped up behind him, staying close as he conversed with the armored Marine guarding one of the building's entrances, then slipped in after him as he entered the White House.

As she stood by the door, she did another mental sweep of the building. No one had noticed her; in fact, they were all feeling exceptionally confident. Since Lemlin's attack, they had been on constant alert, but nothing had happened in the last two months, and they were beginning to irrationally believe that nothing ever would.

She left the door—her best escape route—behind and went in search of her target. With each step she became more certain that she wouldn't be leaving on her own terms. One way or another, she would be martyred with this action.

In a few moments she was in the kitchen, staring across a marble island at the pitiful grey figure of the president. She moved in on his mind, opening him up and making him more talkative. It wasn't very hard; he had had quite a bit to drink.

"Hey," she said.

He looked up, squinting at a familiar member of the White House staff. "Oh, didn't see you come in."

"How are you feeling?"

Latterndale shrugged. "Going to hell in a hand basket; so as good as can be expected."

"And the impeachment?"

Latterndale sighed and looked into his nearly empty tumbler. "They're ripping me apart in there. Didn't do anything illegal, dammit, but they're just so sure that I was behind this whole clusterfuck."

She almost laughed aloud at his self-delusion. It didn't matter to him if what he had done was right or wrong; it was legal.

She took a step closer and leaned on the island. "Who do you think I am?"

Latterndale blinked and looked up at her, his head tilted to one side. "What d' you—" He stopped and opened his mouth, then shoved himself up from the island and stumbled away from her. "Security!"

She felt it as his mind slipped through the hole she had left for him, had recognized her first as the AmeriNews correspondent, then as the monster that he had created. He felt so very guilty, afraid for his life, wishing desperately that he had had the Defenders killed off—

No remorse. No wish he had never done. Only a wish that he had covered himself better.

She no longer had second thoughts about what she would do.

Minds around her reacted to the president's summons; she didn't bother to stop them. Instead she reached out and felt the presidents intestines, laying like nested snakes in the bottom of his belly, and pulled at them, shoving them past his other organs and then through his diaphragm and up around his windpipe. She pulled the coil tight, and the president's eyes bulged as air and blood-flow to his brain were cut off. He fell to his knees, clawing uselessly at the protrusion in his throat.

A moment later Maria's grip relaxed as the high-pitched scream of a scrambler began to echo off the walls. She stood, hands in the pockets of her sweater, as Secret Service agents swarmed into the kitchen. All wore protective earmuffs.

The first agent reached the president and stopped short when he saw the unnatural bulges in the president's neck and torso. Several other agents began to stack up behind him, unsure of what to do.

Behind them all Maria stood, hunched over, felt her head throbbing in rhythm to the beat of the scrambler, slumped to her knees, screamed.

One of the agents entering the kitchen noticed her, her reaction to the scrambler. He pulled out his pistol and aimed it at her. "Get down!"

On the other side of the room the president, now on his back, continued to scrabble at the ground, to kick and twitch.

"We have a Defender!"

The agents closest to the president knelt and tried to hold him still as he writhed. Those further back turned and leveled weapons at the woman who writhed on the floor just as the president did.

"We have a defender!"

Despite the pain, despite the constant assault of the scramblers on her every nerve, Maria pulled up one last thought, which she forced on everyone in the building.

You dropped the Football... The Q-bomb has detonated...

14