The Oval Office has born witness to some of the most powerful men in history. Presidents have started wars, shaped the lives of millions, and made love to movie icons within its walls.
Still, it had never seen a gathering like the one it housed now. The President was holding an emergency meeting concerning Boston, which disappeared yesterday under a gigantic force dome of solid energy.
The two people he met with represented powers which dwarfed his own.
One of them was Diana Halpern. She was there on behalf of the Terra Patrol, a global network of Patrollers. Normally, Terra Patrol founder Brian Janssen served as their liaison with the White House, but strife in the Middle East had kept the American-born Israeli occupied. So he had asked Diana to answer the President's summons.
When she had joined the Terra Patrol months ago, Diana had disappointed by its loose organization. It had been a constant point of contention between herself and Fyodor Tisharnovolk, who had been the informal second-in-command of the Terra Patrol.
Now, Fyodor was dead, slain by an alien robot called Hyperion just days ago. Nobody stood between Diana and the leadership of the group which would surely lead Earth into global unity and peace. Yet now, sitting before the President of the United States, part of her wished she had joined the Texas Rangers instead of the Patrol.
"Mr. President, I believe you and Mr. Killaran have already met," Diana said as she gestured to her companion, Bryson Killaran.
"Yes, at our reception with the Sinn Fein. It's good to see you again, Bryson." The President shook hands with the Irishman who helped bring about a truce between the British government and the IRA. Even though he was another member of the Terra Patrol, Bryson was not wearing a Gauntlet like Diana was. Instead, he carried a featureless black metallic helmet.
Secret Service agents had previously tried to persuade Bryson to leave the helmet behind before meeting the president, but Bryson belligerently refused to part with it. Ultimately, the President had allowed Bryson to bring it with him. He wanted to hold this meeting in an environment of trust, but he also wore his broadcast power force-field belt just in case.
Bryson had gone through hell yesterday, and right now he wanted nothing more than to finally get some sleep. But here he was to give a detailed account of the worst day of his life.
"Hello, sir. I suppose ye'll be wantin' to know what happened to your city," Bryson said with a tinge of bitterness.
"Yes. Please, have a seat." The President sat down at his desk. "It's my understanding that you were in Boston just before the Dome appeared. Now a lot of wild stories are circulating amidst the media"Not to mention the government and the military, he thought"and I don't think anybody has a clearer picture of the truth than you, Bryson. I know you've been through a lot, but I need you to tell me everything you know about what happened yesterday. Include every detail you can remember." The man folded his hands and looked intently at the tall Irishman.
Bryson desperately wished that the throbbing in his head would stop. "I suppose I should start with why I was in Boston in the first place. Me and m'mate Herne Baggis were visiting my cousin-"
"Baggis. That's the Scottish Patroller, right?" The President asked.
"Yeah." The Scottish Patroller who had been Bryson's best friend, and now was a lifeless corpse. "We heard the news report of a strange dome appearing over a university there, so we flew there to check it out. Who we found was Thomas Willrew, a Patroller who was decked out like one of King Arthur's knights. You-"
"Is that the Cruxadier?"
"I guess. He wasn't in the Terra Patrol, so I couldn't tell you for certain." Bryson shifted restlessly in his chair, as if dragging his feet against the carpet would distract him from his migraine. "He was talking utter rot about reshaping the world and oaths of fealty, like he were some kind of feudal lord. You could smell the insanity on his breath. We refused his demands, of course, and he attacked us. That's when Kaltion showed up-"
"Is this the alien being you left at Fall River, Massachusetts?"
"Yes." The President's constant interruptions irritated Bryson to no end. Everything seemed to be irritating him right now. "He's one of the Janissaries, an alien police force independent of the Patrol. But even he wasn't enough to turn the tide of the fight. Willrew mortally wounded Kaltion, and... and he killed Baggis."
The President was startled, and showed it. Murder was prohibited by the self-imposed restrictions of the Patrol Code. "Killed?" he finally exclaimed. "What about the Code?"
Shit, thought Diana. I've got the President of the United States pissed at us! What do I say? Without a second thought, she told him the only thing that came to mindthe truth. Her eyes met his and she calmly explained, "An indeterminate number of Rechargersthe artificial intelligences which regulate and monitor Patrollerssuffer from... defects. Nobody knows what causes them, and only a handful of Rechargers have been affected. It's... possible that such a flaw may be present in Willrew's Recharger, and that may be how he can so flagrantly violate the Patrol Code and not lose his Gauntlet."
"So Willrew may not be the only Patroller capable of violence?" asked the President.
"Well, technically, no, but we've never found anyone else who could just ignore the Code."
"But it is possible, isn't it? He might not be the only one, right?"
"We don't know, sir."
"My God, do you know what this means?" The President's question was rhetorical, for he knew exactly what it meant. He had already made many enemies when he embraced the Patrol with open arms and made them functioning U.S. Marshalls through an executive order. Apart from a few radical protesters, the public accepted this only because of the safeguard of the Patrol Code, which prevented the use of the Gauntlet for murder and personal gain.
The President feared that if the public found out that the Code didn't bind all Patrollers, the backlash against both the Patrol and himself would be disastrous. This, coupled with the recent political coup on Capitol Hill, could drive the first nail into his political coffin.
At this awkward moment, Bryson continued his report. "When Baggis died, I completely lost it. I tried to kill that bastard, but it only got me booted out of the Patrol." He practically spit out those bitter words.
"That's when the alien told me to put on his helmet. I used its power to fly the two of us the hell away. Minutes later, Boston disappeared under the Dome. That's all I know."
"I see," said the President as he scratched his troubled brow. "Okay, here's what I need you to do. Right now, I need to consult with my people. If we decide to try to break through the Dome, we'll need your help. Until then, I'd like you to keep a low profile. All of you," he added, glancing pointedly at Diana. "People will be asking you about Boston, but for the sake of national stability, it's imperative that nobody learn what we've discussed here. Okay?"
"Of course, Mr. President," replied Diana.
After the meeting ended, the President took care of all the appropriate damage control around Boston. Then he turned his focus on finding out more about Thomas Willrew. He had heard rumors of an obscure government facility which had been devastated by what might have been a Patroller. Could this have been Willrew? The President called an underling who asked a friend to get a colleague to contact someone who could find out.
Finally, he spent an hour of honest family time with his wife and daughter, something he did all too rarely. He was motivated by a growing suspicion that the world as he knew it was quickly running to its end.
He had no idea how correct he was.
They met in the open, per Eric Summers' request. He had used an established Third Man to get the message to Peter Lao, second-in-command of PRIME, the elite anti-Patrol force Eric had once belonged to. The message was simple: Need info on Area 51. Meet me in the Ring tonight.
The Ring, a bar which regularly hosted amateur boxing and illegal gambling, was in a seedy area of Washington DC near the river. Once, when things had been good, Summers and Lao and the others, even crazy Sylvester Grier, had all come to this place to unwind after training. They were new to PRIME, new to each other; they had walked into the bar as strangers and come out drunk and fast friends.
All things change, thought Lao, as he sipped at his vodka sour. The men in the ring were halfheartedly beating each other to death, blood dripping from their faces and gloves and staining the canvas floor as they danced around each other. After all, Lao thought, there was a time I found this sort of thing entertaining.
Lao had been sitting for only a few minutes before his light was blocked by a large, familiar frame. Eric Summers pulled out a chair and sat. Lao considered his large, dark skinned companion. Once a member of PRIME himself, Summers had betrayed that organization when his conscience had gotten the better of him. He had become a Patroller, and with his particular background, had taken it upon himself to train other Patrollers in the best use of their power. Neither man said anything until after a barmaid with stringy bleach-blond hair took Eric's order. Once the bottle of Michelob was on the table, Eric finally spoke.
"I'm glad you came, Peter. I need information."
"I know," Lao replied, his voice more relaxed than he actually felt. "I could get into some serious trouble just being here with you, you know?"
"Consider this information a loan, Peter. I'll owe you, all right?"
"Whatever, man." Lao glanced over Summers' shoulder. "Who's your bodyguard?" A tall, dark-skinned man with long black hair stood nearby, looking like he was watching the match, but keeping one eye on the table at all times.
"He calls himself Ranger. He's a new Patroller, but he has better instincts with a Recharger than I ever did. I'm training him, so he feels it's important to keep me safe. We wouldn't want Grier or some other psychotic coming in here busting up our little party."
Lao was visibly stung by the remark. "I came here in good faith, Eric."
"You might still have followed, Peter. Ranger there is my insurance." He tilted back his bottle and took a brief sip. "Can we get to it?"
"I suppose. You wanted information about Area 51. I'm assuming this relates to the situation in Boston?"
"Maybe..." Summers led off.
"Oh, cripes!" Lao's patience was slipping away quickly. "Let's cut the cloak-and-dagger crap, alright? We used to be friends"
"That was before you blew my leg off, Peter," Summers retorted. His eyes never wavered. "I forgave you for that, but don't think for a moment that I've forgotten. I'm not going to volunteer information to you, or to PRIME. My people need to knowwhat is Area 51, and what is the connection with Thomas Willrew, also known as the Patroller named Cruxadier?"
Lao's eyes went to the middle of the table. Absentmindedly, he polished off the remaining half of his drink in one toss. "Area 51 came about years ago, well before the Seeding, as you folks like to call it, as an agency to investigate all manner of paranormal phenomena. In order to gather information about the Patrollers, they kidnapped and experimented on Willrew." Lao reached into his jacket, noticing the vicious glare he received from Ranger. More slowly, he pulled out a manila envelope and slid across the table to Summers.
Summers opened the envelope and pulled out some documents and photographs of Willrew. His face didn't have the look of a man who killed Patrollers, but Eric knew better than to pass judgment on appearance alone. "What kind of experiments?" he asked, absentmindedly flipping through the papers.
"I don't know. Area 51 is real X-Files stuff. Their methods were considered unorthodox, but no one else had the expertise in extraterrestrials that they had so they were left to their own devices."
"Extraterrestrials?" Summers set the packet of information back on the table. "Peter, are you saying they have aliens there?"
"Had. Among other things." Lao looked up to meet Summers' eyes. "Look, I can't explain what all they had going on there, but it ended with Willrew. Shortly after he was there, he escaped and leveled the place, killing everyone and everything inside the compound. There is no Area 51, not anymore."
"There you have it, 'Paladin' or whatever you call yourself these days. Your Patrol, at their finest. First Willrew destroyed Area 51, and now he's the one responsible for Boston."
"Maybe he is." Eric stood, leaving most of a full bottle and a five-spot, and motioned to Ranger. "And if he is, believe methere's no hole deep enough for him to hide from me." He took Willrew's photo, tucked it into the envelope with the other documents and left.
Peter pushed his chair back away from the table. He still felt a little unnerved, even a bit silly when he considered all this 'Top Secret' exchange. But then he considered the alternative, and shuddered at the thought of how the public might react if they ever found out the truth about Willrew and Area 51. Peter sat alone in the dark tavern, and ordered another drink.
They were interesting times. The kind the Chinese used to wish upon their worst enemies.
For Mark Kristing, head anchor of the CNN program PatrolWatch, it had all begun early yesterday afternoon. He had gotten word from his Boston teamhe had a reporter/camera op duo stationed in every area of heavy Patroller activitythat a force dome had appeared over the Massachusetts Metropolitan University. They had gotten to MMU just in time to see a flying figure shoot out of the dome. It had been over the horizon before the cameraman could follow it on film.
Then an enormous net of glittering silver had been cast over the city, covering the sky. Watching the live newsfeed along with the rest of the nation, Kristing wondered if God had decided to go netfishing over Boston. The net had thickened, and the newsfeed had been cut.
The rest of yesterday had been a blur of special reports and late-breaking news. Patrol-type activity was thick. Broadcast power traces had located several individuals flying across the nation. Rumors of heavy Patroller conflicts and casualties persisted. Investigations into these reports had consistently come up without positive result; but the rumors and reports continued.
Kristing's scramble for news lasted throughout the night. During a much-needed break, Mark scrutinized the live footage from Boston, frame by frame. "Dammit, McKerny," he muttered, "Why couldn't you hold the camera still? What kind of a cameraman are you?!"
Mark immediately bit his tongue. Enough people thought he was a crazy hack who didn't deserve his own news show. He didn't need to lend credence to those opinions by speaking aloud to himself. He also felt bad for berating McKerny, who could be dead under the Boston Dome for all he knew.
Kristing blinked. He thought he was seeing spots and he chalked it up to fatigue. But on a whim he paused the tape and reversed the playback frame by frame. There was a small figure in the sky. No one had noticed it until now because of the camera's jerky motion.
He had a technician magnify and enhance the image. The process took just under two hours. Kristing gave strict orders not to let anyone else see this. Especially not that bastard Cruez, who had been gunning his his job for months.
It was now 4:27 a.m. Kristing had been staring at the magnified image for about twenty minutes. The face was still grainy but the Gauntlet on his hand was unmistakably clear. The trail of energy linking that Gauntlet and the net over Boston could mean only one thing:
A Patroller had been responsible for Boston's disappearance.
It must be the Cruxadier, Kristing thought. He was the only Patroller known to be in the Boston area at present. His mind flashed back to mid-July, when formerly law-abiding citizens had sparked a wave of irrational crimes. He had personally covered the Cruxadier's efforts to keep the peace. The Cruxadier had seemed edgy, but Kristing had chalked it up to the stress of the job. Now he couldn't help but wonder if the Patroller had been insane all this time.
Kristing had stumbled across the culprit behind the Boston Dome. He had the means to let the world know, and this scoop would secure his job. And of course, the people had to know. Every journalistic fiber in his body screamed for him to report it.
But Mark Kristing had built a career on ignoring his good journalistic sense, especially when it involved the Patrol. He doggedly pursued the initial reports of flying lights across the nation, slumming with the tabloids. He secured one of the first interviews with a Patroller and had helped introduced the Patrol to the world.
His persistence and the nationšs fascination with the Patrollers won him his own show on CNN. This kind of career leap had been unprecedented. Kristing was untelegenicdumpy-looking, Cruez would have said. Even after his exclusive expose on PRIME, his job had never been fully secure. After all, many journalists thought his news coverage was biased in the Patrol's favor.
Mark never denied any of this. His enthusiasm for the Patrol was clearly visible. Kristing, Gene Hewlitt and other similarly-biased reporters were dubbed "The Flak Patrol" by the mainstream press.
Kristing didn't know precisely why the Patrol captivated him so much that he ignored objectivity on a regular basis. He wasn't a Patroller. He didn't know any Patrollers personally outside of his coverage of them except for Gene Hewlitt, and he had found out Gene was a Patroller only after the man had been killed by PRIME. He didn't know why he bought the Patrol's story of global peace at face value. And he didn't know why he was erasing the footage of the Cruxadier over Boston.
At that lonely morning hour in his deathly-silent office, Mark Kristing was no longer a journalist. He was a nine year old boy who read comic books under his blanket with a flashlight at night. He was a starry-eyed dreamer who believed that the Patrol would bring about peace on Earth, even though he didn't think they were capable.
He wanted to protect the Patrol by concealing the damning evidence of one of their fallen angelsbut what if this knowledge could somehow help bring Boston back? Was he condemning everyone trapped there by keeping silent?
FALL RIVER, MASSACHUSETTS
Bryson sat outside the hospital room. All anyone could talk about was the whole bloody city of Boston not being where it had been the damn day before. Bryson didn't much bloody care. His head hurt from the damned helmet's interface system. It wasn't smooth and compliant, like the Gauntlet. It was incredibly responsive, though. He'd taken it off, and the suit of leather-like armor that had formed around him was now gone.
It had all gone to bloody hell. He didn't know what was going on in the Patrol anymore... he already missed being able to ask his Recharger. The Helmet wasn't as giving, but it wasn't as misleading, either. Sum Zero. The tall Irishman rubbed his hand over his bloodshot eyes and tried to figure out the score.
He'd switched jobs, lost his best friend, watched a madman apparently destroy Boston, and was now waiting for someone to come tell him if the alien he'd brought in was going to make it. What a week this was turning into.
"Ehn?" Bryson looked up. Dr. Avilliar, the attending physician, was standing there. Actually, if Bryson believed his eyes, there were two of him. He blinked and then there was just a blurry one.
"We've stabilized your friend."
"What do you mean?" the doctor responded curiously. "His injuries were severe, but broken ribs and internal hemorrhaging isn't totally beyond the pale."
"But he's a bloody flippin' alien."
"Is he really?" The Doctor looked thoughtful. "Not so alien that medical science can tell. His organs, blood, bones... all within human norms." Dr. Avilliar was staring at Bryson the way anyone would stare at an absolute madman. Bryson snarled inwardly as he stood up, hefting the gym bag at his side.
"Ahh... forget it. I'll be back tomorrow. If he wakes up, tell him ah called his bosses, and they's sending him another HA set to make up for the one he los' in the beating."
"I'll do that. Whatever that means."
Bryson stood up and walked to the elevator, passing a balding man wearing glasses and a tall, well built African-American orderly. They were discussing someone named Morganstern.
The elevator opened, Bryson stepped in, pushed the down button, and nearly passed out. What the hell do I do now? I'm not a Patroller. I'm not a Patroller. It's so fucking hard to accept it. I'm not a Patroller.
As the elevator doors opened, Bryson had already removed the Helmet from the Armor, which was inside his bag. It was nice of the World Mind to keep him on at allthey didn't have to. They hardly needed another flunky; they had millions of them. He slid the Helmet over his face as he walked through the lobby, ignoring the stares of people as he stepped out into the air. This time, he pictured the Exo-Shell of the Helmet as an exact match for his denim jacket and blue jeans. Same protection... less bloody obvious.
Bryson didn't even turn, he just used the 360 degree sense of the Helmet to scan. There was a man in some sort of exo-skeleton standing about thirty feet away from him.
"You're excused. What do you want?"
"Just to talk. If you've got a few minutes, that is. My name's Eric. Eric Summers."
"Did ah fucking ask, Jimmy? What, you want some of this?" Bryson knew his anger wasn't really logical... but he didn't care. He had not made Willrew pay for what he did to Herne.
Someone had to pay.
"Whoa! I'm only interested in talking to you, really."
"Talk to this." *SHHHHHHHHHHRAAAAAAAAAAKKKKKKK!*
The armored man managed to jump above the Heat Spike. Barely. The energy melted the asphalt into soup with ease. Bryson noticed with a bitter satisfaction that his energy output was already 20 percent higher than the Helmet's previous best. He'd been exploring the helmet with a peculiar intensityhe realized that it was his only means of power, now that his Recharger was gone forever.
"It's obvious I've come at a bad time. Look, I really just want to talk..." Summers, or whatever his name was, made a tactical mistake. He attempted to grapple with Bryson. The armored arms grasped his own with a much more than human strength.
Bryson simply shrugged, and the servo-mechanical motors screamed.
"Y'wanna see strong, boy? Y'got it!" Bryson realized that his accent was coming on rather thick. It didn't seem to matter. He swung, a not very pretty haymaker that the armored man managed to evade, making Bryson even angrier. The Toyota Celica that wrapped itself around his forearm wasn't so lucky.
"This is a hospital, for Christ's sakes!" the man called Eric protested. "You've got to calm down!"
"Don't ya tell me what ta do! The fucking Patrol tried that shit, and Eoward Killaran's son Bryson ain't havin' na more of it! That son of a bitch killed Herne! He killed him, and the shit-sucking Recharger wouldn't even let me avenge him!" Bryson realized how insanely he was acting. There were faces peering out of the windows, staring at the strange ballet he and the exo-skeleton had been performing. He'd smashed someone's car. And none of this was going to get Herne his life back.
"You feel better now?" Eric asked as it became obvious that Bryson's fit was exhausting itself.
"Ahh, a course I fucking don't." Bryson glanced around the courtyard again. "Jesus. I could'a killed you."
"Yeah, I suppose," the other acknowledged, never taking his eyes off the helmeted man. "But you didn't seem to be trying that hard."
"Well, Bryson, I'm an Ex-Patroller myself," Eric volunteered. "What say you and I have a little chat as to what the hell is going on?"
"Y'ain't gonna like it."
"I had that figured."
After they were done talking... and Bryson had downed two beers... Eric sat stone still in his chair.
"You're telling me that a Patroller, with a Gauntlet and everything, killed your friend, and kept his Gauntlet?" Even though Eric had documentation of this Patroller's newfound gruesome ability from Peter Lao, this first-hand account still shocked him.
"Keep y'bloody voice down," Bryson growled. "D'ye want the panicky citizens o' this state t'know y're involved in this?" Bryson had stashed his helmet in the bag he carried alongside him... he didn't know where Eric's company had put his armor, and he didn't care. He was unhappy that the buzz he'd been anxiously awaiting was not coming like it should. I'm building up a tolerance to alcohol. How infinitely depressing.
"Good point. Jesus, thisthis is horrible. I can't believe this is happening."
"G'ask Herne if'n ya don' believe it, Jimmy."
A strange, wild light flooded Summer's eyes. "My brother's in there."
Bryson couldn't look the other man in the face, so he stared down at his beer instead. "Well, ah hope he keeps his head down, cuz he's in there with a bloody maniac."
The Gilded Stag was one of Glasgow's more obscure pubs, and it usually wasn't open on Sunday mornings. But the owner made an exception for Herne Baggis. Herne was a Patroller, a local hero, and a regular at the Gilded Stag. Rumor claimed that the pub's prominent sign inspired Herne's alter-ego. So on the day of Herne's funeral, the Stag hosted his wake.
The Stag had never seen such heavy business, nor had it ever contained a more varied clientele. Among the mourners and the curious were a number of Patrollers, members of the Terra Patrol, Herne's comrades-in-Gauntlet. Three Patrollers sat in a corner under a flickering light.
"Everyone's leering at us," muttered Kelly Naehring. The stares of strange men irritated her.
Sarah Graham, the Patroller who called herself Rider, thought Kelly was too uptight. "They've never seen so many Patrollers in one place before, let alone at their favorite watering hole."
"As I was saying," interjected Diana Halpern, "none of our Rechargers can make contact with Willrew's Recharger."
"Maybe it's been destroyed?" asked Sarah hopefully.
"If it's destroyed, then what's powering the Boston Dome?" countered Diana. Sarah seemed to deflate and nodded acknowledgement of the point.
After a few futile minutes of silence, Kelly said, "You know, this isn't the first time the Patrol Code failed. Sullivan Green used his Gauntlet to rob until his Recharger was taken away from him. And someone said Darren Cochran's wife Jessie still has his Gauntlet."
"How?" Sara asked. "Merrara said she got Cochran's Recharger after he died. The Gauntlet should have disappeared."
Kelly shrugged. "I just pass the rumors on. I don't make them up."
"What's our next step, Diana?" Sarah asked.
"I say we get the Patrol together after the wake and crack the Dome," offered Kelly.
"Not yet," said Diana. "The President wants to organize his people and give them first crack at it. If they don't manage it, then we'll work together to test the Dome."
Kelly shook her head. "I'm sorry. I just don't see why we should wait for the feds. What can they do which we can't?"
"They do have broadcast-power type technology," Sarah said.
"Not the same as we have," Kelly objected.
"They've got anti-Patroller technology, too," Diana pointed out glumly.
"Yeah," replied Kelly, "and they've been using it to kill us. Why should we trust them now?"
Diana shared Kelly's feelings of betrayal, but she still tried to reason with her. "I know there are enemies within the ranks of our government, but the president isn't one of them. He's one of our few allies nowadays, and I don't want to make him look bad. Trust me, the time for action will come."
Sarah finished her drink and asked, "So, does anyone else feel guilty for talking business at Herne's wake?"
"Yes, but that's besides the point." This wasn't just business to Diana. This was her life, and even a funeral couldn't keep her mind off it. "Besides, Andrew's keeping company with Mrs. Baggis."
Teenager Andrew Taylor, aka Avenger, kept count of all the crazy situations he got into because he was in the Terra Patrol. Comforting an old woman he barely knew in a Scottish pub was Number Eighty-Three. The fact that he was hanging around in a bar that he would have been carded out of in America just added some excitement to the evening.
"Did you know my son very well?" Mrs. Baggis asked.
"Well, Mrs. Baggis, we didn't go on many missions together, since we were operating on separate continents. But the last couple of times Terra Patrol got together, Herne treated me like a little brother. He taught me a lot." Such as the facts of life and drinking games, Andrew thought, but kept those details to himself. "You should talk to Bryson. They were really close."
Mrs. Baggis glanced over her shoulder at the lone Irishman sitting at the bar. "It seems like he's busy talking to his drink."
Actually, Bryson was speaking to the H'Agathr World-Mind, the collective psionic essence of the race which created the Janissaries. His alien Helmet maintained Bryson's contact with the World-Mind.
Even though the link was telepathic, Bryson was still accustomed to speaking aloud with others. "I know ye were sending another Janissary this way, but an entire fleet? Things're testy enough here as it is..."
The collected friends gathered around the television in hushed silence. Months before, Sarah Callahan remembered, she and her husband of twelve years had been watching with numbed amusement as the Machine fought high-tech terrorists on the lawn of the White House. This time she felt no such amusement, though; only a quiet dread as she looked at the Boston Dome, a huge energy field which had completely sealed Boston off from the rest of the world. Alive or dead, her husband Liam and his mother were somewhere inside that dome, and she could only watch helplessly as the National Guard tried to ram the field with a large snowplow.
A comforting hand gripped her shoulder. She patted her friend's hand instinctively, whispering, "Carol, Carol," just glad for the company. Sarah had come to Washington for Carol Storch's birthday party, and found herself sharing the most terrifying moment in her life with two old college friends amid a room full of strangers.
"It will be okay, Sarah," came a raspy voice. Gary Benoit had been one of the biggest voices on campus two and a half decades ago, but years of habitual pot smoking had brought about throat cancer, and the surgery had left a scar on his voice. "Trust in God to see this through."
Sarah considered her old friend carefully, and said nothing. She trusted in no god at this point in her life. With everything that had occurred over the last couple of years, Sarah had to admit that her faith in a singular entity who lord over the creatures of just this one planet had wavered. In fact, Sarah had not given her faith a whole lot of thought up to now. She turned everything else out of her mind, and focused on the voice from the television.
"...Thanks, Jim. With the arrival of the military, as well as the FBI, the National Guard now seems to have a jurisdictional dispute on its hands. The state authorities are being asked to step aside and relinquish all machinery to the Army. Meanwhile the FBI has sent a team of investigators to inspect the dome, without confronting the military first.
"As a result, representatives of all parties are meeting now in that van, hashing out who, in fact, has jurisdiction in these matters. Meanwhile, no one is working, to this reporter's knowledge, on actually breaking through the domeone moment. I've just been given wordIs this confirmed? Yes. Yes, it has been confirmed. Emergency crews are being dispatched to the northwest portion of the dome to respond to a disaster. Two single-engine aircraft appear to have collided in midair over the Dome. It seems they were sightseeing, struck each other, and the wreckage has slid down that side of the dome. We are dispatching a news crewthis is just totally nuts out hereThat story again, two small airplanes collided over the Boston Dome..."
"No one." Sarah's voice was quiet, but wracked with pain. "No one is doing anything."
The Boston crisis didn't dampen the spirit of Colonel Thomas Jefferson Haynes, leader of the Free Earth Militia. The self-styled military man had red hair, blue eyes, and a white-hot fervor in his voice.
"Within a single hour, enough military personnel to fight a small war surrounded the Boston Dome. I commend the efficiency and speed of these men and women.
"But I do not commend their subsequent inaction. Not once in the past days have these security forces seriously attempted to break through the Dome. Their top priority is not to save the American citizens trapped under the Dome, but to keep citizens like you and me away from Boston. What is the government hiding?
"I'll tell you. You don't need Oliver Stone to figure out who's responsible for the hijacking of one of America's finest cities. Only one power is capable of such a feat - the Patrol. It's almost laughably obvious, yet no action has been taken against the Patrollers. Why is this?"
"Well, there's a history of duplicity between the federal government and these representatives of an alien culture. It began last April, when terrorists tried to kill the president and many members of Congress. The Machine, vigilantes wanted by the law, one of whom was the Patroller Pendragon, just happened to be present to save the day. And it just so happened that none of the terrorists survived their battle with the Machine.
"The President used this apparently heroic act to justify his unprecedented transfer of power to the Patrol. First, he pardoned the Machine of all previous crimes, and he declared an alliance between them and the FBI. Then he declared all Patrollers, regardless of their nationality, U.S. Marshals."
Colonel Haynes waved a large stack of papers for his audience to see. "The President practically gave the Patrol a key to the back door of the U.S. government. And I have documented proof that the Patrol is a United Nations front to sneak foreign spies into the government..."
Roger Cruez watched the newsfeed of Colonel Haynes behind the set of PatrolWatch. He groaned as Haynes served up legitimate criticism and garnished it with bullshit.
But if Haynes was the waiter, Mark Kristing was the master chef. Everyone from Newt Gingrich to Native American activists disagreed with the president's policy toward the Patrol. Yet Kristing chose this clown Haynes to represent the opposition.
Only a rookie like Kristing would so blatantly represent public sentiment. He was a starstruck journalist of the first order and he simply wouldn't push for the truth behind the Patrol and the Boston Dome.
But others would.
Gary slammed down the phone and yelled out, "We got Pearl Jam!" Gary's voice had grown surprisingly stronger over the past few hours. When Sarah asked him to help coordinate her march on Boston, he found himself renewed, and more energetic than he had been in years. "That's going to bring out the college kids in droves."
"Good work," Sarah hissed to Gary, cupping her hand over her phone, "but keep it quiet. I'm talking to a lobbyist for League of Women Voters."
While Sarah hashed out the details for getting speakers for the rally, Carol stood nearby, fixing sandwiches for her friends. Her home office had been turned from a photography studio to a protest headquarters virtually overnight, but she was so glad to see Sarah directing her energies, that she hardly minded the inconvenience at all. Carol finished the pimento cheese sandwiches and took one to each of the volunteers.
One was drafting up a pamphlet on her computer, and two others were painting a banner. Gary reached from behind Carol, one arm about her shoulders while the other fished a sandwich off the plate. "She looks a lot better today," he said.
Carol nodded. "I hope this is the right thing. She's gotten so wrapped up in the protest, I worry that maybe she's setting herself up for a big fall. I mean, what if this does no good? What if she goes to all this effort, gets overly enthusiastic that something will be done, and then nothing comes of it? Or worse," she whispered, "they break through the Boston Dome and find everyone dead?"
"You're right to worry, Carol," Gary said, "but we can't account for all the possibilities. All I know is that right now, she's getting her mind off her troubles, and at the same time, doing some good work that might just help the situation. If I were her, I hope I'd be as strong."
As Sarah hung up the phone, strong was not exactly how she felt. Tired would have been a better description. She gratefully accepted a sandwich from Carol, and began rifling through some notes on her desk.
She tried to look busy, but her mind began to wander, thinking of Liam, his thick crimson beard, his strong shoulders and soft stomach, and the smile that brought whole rooms of people to life. She had met him at the Boston Public Library in the home gardening section. He had always wanted to open his own greenhouse, but had settled on a small backyard vegetable garden. She had worked in a bank, and knew how to get small business loans. They had dated for less than six months before they had gone to the courthouse to get a license.
Events had moved quickly that first year, and at times Sarah had thought the whole endeavor could come apart at the seams. The two had argued constantly over their new venture, and the greenhouse had not fared well that first year. But Liam was devoutly Catholic, and damned if he would let his marriage crumble for lack of care. They had both stepped back a bit that first year, and learned to relax with one another.
And all the rest had taken care of itself. Over the next several months, the greenhouse had thrived. A steady business clientele had slowly formed. Just three months ago, and two years before the due date, Liam and Sarah had paid off the business loan. They had closed the shop, and spent two weeks on a Caribbean cruise. And though they were always at calm in each others' company, during that cruise they had learned to be giddy young lovers all over again.
Thinking of Liam was about to drive Sarah to tears. She quickly picked up the phone, and dialed the next number on her list.
She was a grain of sand in Bureaucracy Beach. Specifically, she was an assistant to the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. She did her duty and kept her head down. Even when her childhood hometown disappeared under the Dome, she declined time off from work.
One of her fellow workers passed by her cubicle and saw her typing at her computer. He sniffed the air and said, "Ah. I thought I smelled the stench of overtime."
"Ha! Actually, this will just take a moment."
"No, I'm tired. I'm calling it a night."
After her co-worker walk into the elevator, she printed the short letter she had been working on and read over it:
By the time you watch tonight's news, you'll know why I'm tendering my resignation. I know nature abhors a news leak more than a vacuum, but I simply could not adhere to the Secretary of Defense's policy of silence concerning the Boston Dome and the Patroller responsible for it. How can we free the men, women and children of Boston while we're kept in the dark?
She signed the document, placed it in her superior's mailbox, and proceeded to get stinking drunk.
THE BOSTON DOME
"...Thanks, Jim. This is Felicity Goldwater reporting live from the Boston Dome. Behind me, over ten thousand people have gathered in this open field to protest the apparent lack of ability of the authorities to get through the Dome. The National Guard has formed a barricade to keep the protesters out of the target area where the Army has been using explosives and demolition squads to try and crack the dome. So far, all their efforts have been in vain, and that would seem to be one of the reasons for the remarkable turnout for this, the March on Boston.
"With me is Sarah Callahan, one of the major organizers of this protest. Ms. Callahan, what do you hope to accomplish this evening?"
"We're hoping to draw some attention to the fact that so little is actually being done to get through the Boston Dome. It's common knowledge that a Patroller did thiswhy can't the Patrol do something about it? There are hundreds of thousands of people living in Bostonbut the Army insists on using high explosives instead of trying other, more high tech methods, as have been proposed by scientific thinktanks all across the nation. The government is rumored to have anti-Patrol deviceswhy don't they try those on this Patroller-made dome?" The crowd behind Sarah whooped and yelled as she finished.
"It would seem these people would agree with you. Were you surprised to see this kind of turnout tonight?" Felicity asked.
"Not at all, though I admit I'm surprised by how diverse this group is. We've got all races, nationalities, religionsall kinds of people from just about any walk of life you care to mention. Many of us do have one thing in common thoughlike me, many of these wonderful people have loved ones on the other side of that wall, and we want them back!" More screaming from the crowds.
"I'm sure you do." Felicity paused and touched her headset for effect. "I'm being told now that the Army is backing away from the dome and that some Patrollers are joining their efforts to get through the dome. For immediate coverage, we go back to you, Jim." Pause. "We clear?" Felicity's shoulders drooped an inch and she let out a heavy breath. "Ms. Callahan, if we could, we'd like to keep you with us here for commentary on tonight's events, if that's all right with you."
Sarah smiled a bit. "I'd like that. Anything that helps raise the public consciousness."
Felicity hummed a bit of worn agreement, a sort of dismissive Fine, honey, whatever you say hum. Sarah looked away for a moment. Carol was at a table nearby, distributing little twenty-five cent cups of coffee, while Gary worked the crowd with some of his "little helpers", passing around mailing lists and petitions.
Felicity turned back to Sarah. "Oh, I have a question." Sarah looked hopeful for a moment. "I thought Pearl Jam was supposed to be here tonightwhat happened with that?"
Sarah sighed. "Previous engagement. We did manage to get Toad the Wet Sprocket, Ed Haynes and, um, There Must Be Giants, I think it's called..."
"We're on in three, two... Jim, the feeling here with these people is one of hopeful optimism, that their families and friends in Boston will soon be returned to their sides. Sarah Callahan," she turned to Sarah suddenly, "if you could get a message to your family inside the dome, what would that message be?"
Sarah's cheeks flushed a bit. She had considered how Liam might see her on TV, but had given no real thought to what she might say. "I guessWell, Liam, if you can see this, I just want you to know that I love you very much," as her eyes stung and her voice broke just a hint of grief, "and that you and I will be together in the garden again. And soon."
Felicity smiled ingenuinely at Sarah, and returned her gaze to the camera. "And we all share that hope, Sarah. Back to you, Jim."
"Clear," yelled the cameraman.
Sarah turned to go. Felicity laid a hand on her shoulder. "Oh, hey, could you hang tight for a while? We'll be broadcasting from here all night."
"Fine," Sarah curtly replied. "I'll be just over there with my friend. When you're ready to talk, come and get me." And Sarah turned and walked over to Carol's table.
Carol gave her friend a warm hug and whispered to her as she did, "Need a break, sugar?" Sarah pulled her head back, smiling and nodding. Carol poured her a cup of coffee and motioned for her to sit on a folding chair. "That woman gives me chills on TV. I can only imagine trying to deal with her in real life."
"She's unreal, Carol. I never sensed any genuine interest in any of this from her."
"She doesn't care about much," Carol said. "She's a face, not a journalist."
Sarah looked over at the little black-and-white TV on the next table over. A collection of Amnesty International members were watching as a few isolated Patrollers near the Dome combined their efforts. The mumbling from the crowd was punctuated by curses and rants against the Patrol. The crowd, and indeed the whole country, was none too pleased with its resident superheroes right now. One of the Patrol, an organization sword to a Code of "no harm," had among its ranks a member who had kidnapped an entire city. For all anyone knew, that same rogue Patroller might have ended the lives of everyone in Boston. The Patrol had few friends this evening.
Powerful beams of force from their silver Gauntlets pounded the Dome relentlessly, but had no effect whatsoever. Sarah thought how so many methods had been tried, to no avail. A seed of doubt entered her mind. What if we never break through? she thought.
The Patrollers tried several methods, by creating many different kinds of tools with their powers. As Sarah watched in awe, one Patroller created a mallet the size of a bus, and another created a chisel of comparable size. The mallet struck the chisel so hard that the earth shook and several people nearby, caught in midstep, fell to the ground.
And still the Dome, after half an hour of the Patrol's onslaught, stood.
Felicity waved Sarah over. She reluctantly returned to her place by the newswoman in front of the camera, squaring her shoulders as she prepared for the inevitable question:
"Sarah, you have to be pretty disappointed by these turns of events. How do you feel?"
"Tired," she replied, "but hopeful. It's just so hard to believethat a Patrol-generated barrier, like the one around Boston now, can hold its own against so many Patrollers. In fact, I have to wonder if they were really" Sarah cut herself short as a roaring noise swept in onto the crowd from overhead. It looked like a flying minivan, with missiles and miniguns hanging off its sides.
"I'm sorry, Sarah, but it seems a new element has joined in to try and aid the situation. With the story, we now go live to Brent Lane, near the target zone of the Dome." She paused. "We're clear."
"What was that, Ms. Goldwater? The markings on that thing looked official."
"I'm sorry, Sarah, but I really don't know. We're being called back to our truck for reassignment. Good luck with the demonstration." And with that, Felicity Goldwater left the scene.
Sarah stood for a moment, unclear on what exactly had occurred. Carol came up behind her and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. "Come on, girl," she said, "let's get back to the TV so we can keep up with everything. I'll get you some more coffee and something to eat." She then led Sarah back to the booths.
On the television screen, PRIME agents in X-O armor quickly set up various weapons to try on the Boston Dome. None were successful. SoftShells, missiles designed to penetrate regular Patrol forcefields, simply clung to and detonated against the Dome. Jammers and scramblers had no noticeable effect on the Dome. One agent's armor shimmered briefly, with a strangely galvanized appearance, but when he approached the Dome, some kind of energy feedback crept across his armor and blew off his helmet. He fell backward to the ground, and several assistants ran forward with fire extinguishers to hose down the smoldering armor.
In a dark room a darker being sat watching the spectacle on a device that none on this planet would have recognized or been able to duplicate. It was capable of far fewer emotions than the humans of this world, it was true, but one emotion it could experience was sheer gloating amusement.
The others of its ilk on this world were equally aware of what was transpiring at the City Beneath The Dome. None of the Emissaries had been forced to take a hand yetthe silly Recharger of the Patroller who now called himself Willrew, he who had been a target for their mass-manipulation experiments, had been solely responsible for the Patroller's fall from grace.
But it would have been a foolish Emissary indeed who did not turn a golden opportunity into the occasion for more chaos.
The being conferred briefly with its fellows. A decision was reached. The being of darkness reached out, stroked the darkness about itself, touching and guiding. It was simplicity itself to manipulate even such an overpowered, twisted Patrol field as that which sealed the former city of Boston away from the rest of the normal universe. And its experiments in recent weeks had showed it exactly the best ways to manipulate the emotions of the pitiful little humans.
The word came down. The show was over. No more attempts to crack the Dome would be made this particular night. Two technicians from the PRIME detachment would later be able to show that the dome itself had begun to fluctuate, vibrating, giving off sound pitched far too high for humans to hear. Their evidence would be studied for long months without any firm conclusion being reachedbut all would know that something out of the ordinary even for this situation had happened, and would wonder.
The sounds the dome was generating were too high-pitched to hear. But not too high to affect those same humans.
A cry rang out from somewhere near Sarah. "No!" someone shouted. "Someone should be doing somethingtrying anythingall hours of the day!"
"People are trapped in there!" The cries of anger and fear came fast and furious. "The Patrol should be doing something! This is their messthey should clean it up!" "How long will this go on before someone gets serious?" "I want my wife back!" "How about lasers?" "Free Boston!" The chant began. "Free Boston!"
The National Guard formed a line between the crowd and the Dome. "You will disperse," came the order.
And a dark cloud fell over them all like the sudden nightfall in the deep mountains. And the tension that had built for days broke with the force of a hurricane, as the mob of people rushed the Guardsmen. "Frrreee Bossstonnnn!" they cried as the tear gas enshrouded them, and as the Patrollers with their tremendous power swept over the scene, trying desperately, futilely, to bring about some semblance of order. Everyone's personal nightmares boiled to the surface as people who all so desperately wanted exactly the same things found themselves at odds over the littlest of things.
As people ran all about, shoving, clawing, screaming desperately, taking their frustrations out on each other, Sarah stood, feeling as old and stiff as a giant redwood tree. A single word escaped her lips"Liam," she said, as her friends gathered her up, and led her to safety.
Nowhen and Now
King Willrew the First, monarch of all he surveyedadmittedly, all he could survey was Boston, inside the pocket of nothing he'd brought it tosmiled as he regarded his kingdom from his throne room on the top of the Prudential Building.
How long had it been? Had it really been almost five years? How easily the time seemed to flow when there was good work to be done.
At first, of course, there had been the food riots. When he had explained to his subjects that he could bring food in, and that only he could bring food in, they had calmed right down again. Of course, the three thousand public and highly visible crucifixions hadn't hurt his attempts at restoring order any, had they? Sometimes even the most loving of parents had to discipline an unruly child, after all.
He smiled, and turned to the witness of his glory who hung over his throne. "What do you think, Baggis?" he asked proudly. He swept his hand across the stonework window, taking in the perpetually-sunlit expanse of the Free State of Boston, so bright and clean that it almost hurt to look at it.
Of course, Baggis was a five year old corpse. No more than bones, really. So he had nothing of value to offer.
Pity, that, Willrew thought briefly and unconvincingly. Willrew wanted an audience as he Civilized the people of Boston, it was true, but then, hadn't he always had that best of witnesses to his glories?
He crossed the room to the huge, heavily carved table that reared in timbered glory next to his throne, and caressed his Recharger.
Yes, my Love? A red cloud swirled up before him, coalescing into the shape of his long-dead ex-wife. Somewhere in the back of his mind, some part of him still knew that this was just the Recharger taking his wife's form. But this hardly mattered. His Scarlet Queen warmed his heart and head and bedmuch more lovingly than had the real Leslie, tooand gave him vital company in his solitude.
"How are things progressing?" he boomed jovially. "Are my subjects working their hardest? The day is nearing when I wish to return to the world to spread the word and the glory of Civilization."
Yes, Thomas. They do their best to keep the city operating and learn their new roles. Crime is non-existent. Soon, they will truly be a mirror of Civilization.
"Good. Then we can go home soon. It is strange, after all these years, to think of returning to the other world, is it not? And then I can expand my rightful rule to world, and Civilize the whole planet. And from there, who knows?" The cloudy Scarlet Queen said nothing, and Willrew was content with this.
A thin trail of drool dripped down his graying beard. If Baggis took note of this, he he chose to say nothing.
To Be Continued
Strange Bedfellows 2: The Madness of The King