XLVIII. Homecoming

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Victor's breathing was ragged. He'd been running for what felt like hours. His interrogator had kept up with him effortlessly all the while.

They'd traveled down city streets, out into the country. She hadn't said a word since he got up and walked out of the diner.

He shook his head, bile rising. He looked down at his hands.

It wasn't real. None of this could be real. It had to be... drugs, or a head injury, or something.

He didn't know what to do, so he resorted to his training. Survive. Evade. Resist. Escape.

He looked around. He recognized his surroundings. They were crystal clear around him, sharper and more real than any dream.

He exhaled, and looked sharply at the young woman who continued watching him expectantly.

Finally, he asked the dreaded question. "Am I dead?"

She winced a little. "That's a complicated question, but I'm inclined to say no, Admiral. If we can stop what's about to happen, we can get our old bodies back. If we can't... then everybody's dead. Everybody."

He nodded slowly, frowning. "You haven't drugged me, then?"

She shook her head. "No."

He narrowed his eyes. "If everybody's really going to die, why don't you? Why not do whatever it takes to get the answers you need?"

She spread her arms. "First, I don't want to torture or drug anybody. Our host doesn't really have any concept of torture or drugging, but they're incredibly practical, and if they thought it would work, I'll be honest, they might have tried it." She took a breath. "That said, we don't just need information. We need your help. America's in trouble, and so is the rest of humanity. There's also an ancient alien civilization that will end if we don't do something about it."

It took him a moment to respond to that. "All of this sounds like... science fiction, or a dream. Can you get me a phone, or a television or anything?"

"The phone will be a little harder, but we can get TV in here, yeah."

She gestured, and a flat rectangle appeared in the sky ahead of them, and Adam's shaking voice emanated from invisible speakers around them.

"--think it's broken. Don't know how long we have. We have been attacked by unknown assailants possibly associated with President Peters' new chaplain corps--"

Shyamala stood, willing her heart to stop racing.

She looked down at the dead body of the President of the United States of America.

She sank into his chair, and her eyes scanned his enormous, opulent desk. She eyed the phone, and considered calling in the Secret Service to turn herself in.

She breathed out shakily, and spread her hands flat on the desk. She felt something under one of her fingertips, and pressed down.

A panel slid open, and a screen slid up out of the desk. Another panel flipped, revealing an expensive-looking mechanical keyboard.

She stared at the password prompt on the screen for a moment, then reached for her Bernard cap where it had fallen on the desk.

Her fingers slid into the rim of the hat, and she pulled out a small USB drive she had concealed there. Neither of the searches conducted on her had found it.

She crawled under the desk, beside Peters' body, and hunted around until she found an access panel. She pulled it open to reveal the front panel of a computer.

She inserted the USB drive and held down the power button until the lights on the computer went out. She pressed the power button again and the lights came back on.

She got back up, shoving the body out of her way as she did so. She looked at the screen, and saw a familiar prompt.

[root@usb ~] #

[root@usb ~] # ls /dev/{s,h}d*

She typed a few commands to display the attached storage devices, mounted each in turn, and began copying files onto her USB drive.

"Why am I doing this?" She mumbled to herself. She glanced down and her mouth tightened.

Then she examined the contents of some of the text files in the President's home directory and her mouth went dry.

She wanted to go turn herself in. She wanted this to be over.

She halted the machine and retrieved the USB drive.

She didn't want to try to get out of the White House alive after assassinating the President.

She put the drive back in her Bernard cap, stood, and took a deep breath.

She stood straight and walked back toward the elevator, mustering her best poker face.

She had a very good poker face.

The elevator didn't require a key card to return to the ground level. Her skin crawled as she imagined the security cameras in the elevator watching her.

She mentally practiced what to say when she went to leave if she was stopped or questioned. She didn't really have any illusions she would make it out alive, but she couldn't give up. Not now. Not with the information she had.

There was no one in the hallway when she emerged from the elevator. She moved directly for the entrance, her heart pounding. If she could just get to the helicopter...

She heard a shout and froze.

"Hey! You can't be in here! Get down on the ground! GET DOWN!"

Shyamala froze and almost dropped to the floor. She looked around. The voice was coming from around the corner.

Seconds later, she heard gunshots.

Sarah blinked as she came to. She thought something was wrong with her eyes for a moment until she realized there was a sheet of black fabric covering her face, blocking out light and muffling sound. She tried to move and cried out as searing pain flared in her right wrist. It took her a few more seconds to realize her hands were zip-tied behind her back, her wrist likely broken.

She could feel and hear the rumbling of the road beneath them.

She felt someone slumped on her left shoulder and gently bumped them. "Hey. You awake? You okay?"

She was greeted by a groan from Jason. "No. I was just in a car accident and I'm being abducted by cultists."

She fought through the pain to adjust her position, and kicked out gently with one leg. She felt another limp form lying on the floor of the van. "Dave? Adam?"

She heard a hiss, then Dave's muffled mumbling. "Wuh... think they shot me."

Sarah's heart leapt, and she grunted, her vision whiting out with pain for a moment as she awkwardly moved closer to him. It felt like her ankles were ziptied too.

"You're shot? Where?"

He made a pained sound. "Not... live rounds, I think. Rubber bullets."

"That was considerate," Sarah muttered. "What the hell is these guys' deal? Where's Adam?"

"Think they have him up front," Dave mumbled. "I heard him shouting at them a few minutes ago, I think."

She gritted her teeth and started moving towards the front of the vehicle, and did what she could to press her hooded head against the barrier dividing the front of the vehicle from the back.

She frowned. She could barely hear Adam's muffled voice.

"...our viewers... greatly mistaken... this great country... ...glory of God..."

She hissed back to Dave. "They've got him reading some kind of hostage statement."

"Guess that's why they want us alive," she heard his muffled voice. "Get us to retract our coverage. Pressure us to manufacture propaganda."

She leaned back against the divider and sighed. "Fascists. Why couldn't they have just killed us?"

Suddenly, Sarah heard shouting. Then, she was thrown into the wall of the vehicle as the driver swerved hard. She was thrown in the other direction a moment later, and she cursed whatever unimaginative god had contrived her to be in two car accidents in under an hour.

She heard more shouting, then gunshots.

Then more shouting.

Then silence.

Somebody opened the back door of the vehicle, and Sarah saw light through the hood over her head.

"Are you all right?" Someone asked. She heard them fumbling with something, then a snap. Dave made a noise of relief.

"Here, let's get that hood off," the unknown person said.

Dave gasped. "It's you," he said.

They had built up a facsimile of the control room to coordinate their next steps.

Victor pointed up at the tactical map. "Three more transponders there. I have no idea why they're all broadcasting their locations like this. Any satellite listening on the right frequencies could pick up their locations."

Danielle glanced over into empty space for a moment. "That tracks. If the traitor is coordinating all of them, they'd want to know where their pieces are on the board. We can use that."

He gave her a long look. "I've seen a lot of strange things today, Danielle. I'm... still less sure than I'd like to be about all this."

She shrugged. "I could show you everything I know so far. I could show you the Library. But we don't have time."

She looked over at the screen still paused on the last frame of Adam's latest transmission.

The unbelievers will burn. The righteous will out. Holy retribution starts now. Heiro... Heirophant-Infinite Peters will lead us all into the next world.

Victor saw goosebumps on Danielle's arms and shook his head. "If I hadn't seen what I've seen these last weeks, I wouldn't believe it."

He nodded to her. "So, you've got a body you can take out there? Can you make one for me, or anybody else to help you out?"

"It's a little complicated. Unfortunately, I don't think you'd have a great time driving one of these. The design is incomplete. It just has to last long enough."

"All right. But where will you start? Which one of these will you tackle first?"

She glanced off into space again. "Well, about that..."

Agatha sat on her sister-in-law's couch with her knees curled up to her chest. Alan lay on the couch beside her, gathered up into a sullen lump.

It had been...

Hard was not in the same universe as what it had been. The world had been turned upside down. And then the world had ended.

She still couldn't close her eyes without seeing Danielle running straight toward that thing-- that strange light in her eyes as it scooped her up and shoved her thrashing body into its mouth--

She took a ragged breath.

Alan had lost his mind for a while, meowing nonstop as though to remind Agatha that Danielle was missing, like she'd just forgotten and he needed to tell her over and over.

She couldn't resent the stupid cat. She felt a little stupid that she was heartbroken for his loss too when it was her wife that was...


She made fists. After everything they'd been through, it had just...

She heard a rapid knock on the door.

She didn't get up at first. Danielle's sister wasn't home. Whoever it was could come back later or drop the package off for all she cared.

But the knocking continued urgently. Finally, Agatha hoisted herself off the couch. She caught a glance of her reflection as she passed a mirror and scowled.

She stepped over to the kitchen sink a room away to splash water on her face, dried off with paper towels, and went to answer the asshole knocking on the door.

"Yeah, yeah, what do... you..."

Her mouth hung open and her heart stopped.

Alan rushed past her, meowing frantically.

"Hey my sweet boy! There he is!" Danielle smiled down and half scooped up her cat as he all but leapt into her arms.

"It's... you can't--" Agatha choked, reaching out. She touched Danielle's arm.

It was solid and warm. Danielle smiled. She looked... good. She was wearing something strange-- it looked almost like body armor-- but she smiled and Alan rubbed her face with his, purring loudly.

"Hey," Danielle said.

Agatha pulled Danielle into a hug that made Alan protest between them. She laughed, feeling tears streaming down her cheeks, and kissed her wife, feeling like she had just awakened from a nightmare.

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