Charlie Jade: Final Judgment

ByRichard Justman

Final Judgment is a side story taking place within the multidimensional world of Charlie Jade. It is based on events in the episode Spin, in which Charlie's friend Papa Louis is framed as a terrorist and scheduled for public execution, but turns the tables by revealing the secret of the Multiverse on live global television. What is never revealed in the episode is how, in the closely monitored, totalitarian world of Alphaverse's Cape City, Papa Louis is allowed to go on for several minutes disclosing details of the Big Lie without someone pulling the plug. This story offers a possible explanation for this extraordinary breach in Vexcor's control over the airwaves.

Charlie Jade created by Robert Wertheimer and Chris Roland. Produced by Jonsworth Productions in association with CHUM Television, the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, Park Entertainment, and The Imaginarium.

Charlie Jade copyright 2006 4142276 Canada, Inc.

Story copyright 2006 by Richard Justman.


Vexcor lied to us.

Those were Wendell Rhodes' thoughts as he peered absently out the curved window by his side. The mag-lev train in which he sat was one of half a dozen streaking through the extensive tunnel network beneath Table Bay at that particular moment. Admittedly there was little to see of the subterranean rapid transit network; just a blur of fluorescent lights and ribbed, steel-lined tunnel flashing by almost too quickly for the eye to focus upon. But even were he not preoccupied with his own dark thoughts, the complex logistics and engineering feats that enabled the shuttling of some 40,000 employees back and forth between Cape City and the offshore Vexcor Tower on a daily basis would have long since lost their ability to amaze. To Rhodes, this was just the same workday commute he had made countless times before.

And as long as Final Judgment continued to do well in the ratings, he would likely be making the daily trek to the studios of VNN5 for years to come, covering corporate-sanctioned spectacles like today's scheduled execution of another convicted terrorist from the Fortress.

What was different today was the color of Rhodes' own outlook towards the megacorporation that employed him, the world he lived in, and the suddenly-changed circumstances of his own existence. Glancing around the train at his fellow passengers seemingly worlds away, he reflected that the unexpected loss of an immediate family member was bound to jar a person out of the complacency of their day-to-day routines. But, as he was discovering, the spectrum of emotions when that loss was so futilely senseless was infinitely darker.

"...and how're Gerda and the kids doing?" Rhodes briefly tuned into a conversation going on in the row of seats directly behind his, amazed at the sheer normalcy of it all. He wondered what it would be like to once again live an ordinary life, to have a family, to go about one's daily business without giving life a second thought. Just a few weeks ago, his life had been no different from those of the commuters surrounding him, or so he reasoned. Now everything was changed.

"Kids're fine," the other anonymous conversationalist responded, "Willy'll be starting middle school in the fall and Katrina's already charming the boys in the fifth grade. She takes after her mother in that regard."

"Wait till she gets into her teens," the first speaker laughed. "You'll have your hands full. And Gerda?"

"She's exhausted," Rhodes overheard the response. "With the new condo, we're both putting in a lot of OT to make the payments. And she hasn't had it easy in the office lately. The Dubai Project's falling further behind schedule and management's really riding her ass."

"Labor unrest?" the first conversationalist asked the obvious question.

"Not in that part of the world," his companion set him straight. "Basically it's been a lot of procurement screw-ups. A few years ago, we figured the company'd finally gotten its act together as far as allocating raw materials disbursements to the Divisions. But just in the last few months, it's all gone to shit again. Gerda's having a hell of a time juggling the production lines to work around all the delivery delays. I don't know what the real problem is, if Rompkin just can't fill the Old Man's shoes, or if something else is going on upstairs."

Rhodes knew nothing of whatever division Gerda worked for or the Dubai Project she was involved with. Nonetheless, he suspected he could have told her husband the exact nature of the problem. He was reminded that even within Vexcor, the vast majority of employees were unaware of the existence of the Multiverse or that over the last thirty-plus years an ever-increasing proportion of Vexcor's supply lines originated in parallel Earths. Now, with the dimensional link between worlds destroyed by an act of terrorism, those vital lines of supply had been severed.

Turning back towards the window, he once again receded into his own thoughts. All he could see in his own mind's eye was the hateful, accusing look on Christina's face as she walked out for the last time.

Vexcor lied to us, he repeated to himself. They promised us Matt would get the very best care, and look what had happened.

It seemed impossible that it was less than a month ago they had received the fateful call that Matt, Christina's nineteen-year-old son by her first marriage, had been injured while away at college. Nothing life threatening, but he had sustained a compound wrist fracture in a soccer practice mishap. Still, with Matt's aspirations towards a career in dentistry, the injury could potentially become a career stumbling block if improperly treated.

Matt had been reluctant to accept his marriage to Christina. Rhodes could understand that. If he'd lost his natural father, could he have warmed up to a surrogate during his own turbulent teen years? Probably not. But despite the strain between them, he had tried to do right by the boy, striving to be receptive without pushing himself on him. Truth be told, the fact that Matt was already out of the house, living on campus at nearby Stellenbosch University, made things easier for all concerned.

Based on his paternity and the fact that he was already of legal age when Christina remarried, Matt was classified a C2 despite Rhodes' own superior C1 status. Nonetheless, Rhodes was confident he had enough pull with the company to get him bumped up to Gold Sector General, the premiere C1 medcenter here in Cape City. With fierce competition for key personnel between the Big Five megacorps, Vexcor took every opportunity to assure their star employees that they were part of the Vexcor family. Well, here was their chance to prove it.

Under Alphaverse's multi-tiered medical system, health care delivery was different for each of the major economic classes. C1's were extended blue chip, corporate sponsored medical benefit packages and received care in state-of-the-art private hospitals and clinics. C2's, covered under the Medical Service Plans of their respective economic zones, were treated within the nominally public health care system. The vast majority of C3's had no medical coverage. If they received care at all, a catastrophic illness could leave a C3 family bankrupt and indentured to the corporate powers-that-be.

First thing the next morning, he had been on the vidlink with his HR rep, who had assured him that an authorization would be expedited and that he could bring Matt in to Cape City himself.

Lying Vexcor bitch.

He'd booked off the rest of the day, and he and Christina had sped out to Stellenbosch to pick Matt up from the small university medcenter. The transfer had gone uneventfully and he and Christina had gone home that night secure in the knowledge that Matt was checked into Gold Sector General and that his wrist fracture would be tended by the finest C1 specialists.

The following day, he had been unable to dodge a high-priority field assignment that had popped up on short notice. He'd figured it would be particularly inadvisable to decline the employers he had just asked a substantial personal favor from. He and Christina had returned to Gold Sector General first thing Saturday morning, only to discover that the promised authorization had been overridden at a higher management level and that Matt had been transferred to a public C2 hospital in District Six.

While the private C1 facilities represented the gold standard in health care delivery, the public system, in actuality public-private partnerships or P3's for short, were mandated by law to maintain minimum standards of patient care and service. But as with everything legal in Alphaverse, the level of compliance was very much at the whim of the corporate powers. Driven by lobbying efforts by Vexcor to further cut their already minimal corporate tax burden, the South African Economic Zone had recently engaged in rounds of cutbacks to public hospital support staff. Maintenance and housekeeping functions were outsourced to lowball firms employing minimum wage recent immigrants from the deforestation-ravaged equatorial economic zones.

The official line maintained by the government and corporate-owned media was that the quality of health care was being maintained while being provided within a more cost-efficient system. In fact, anyone with first hand dealings with the medical system could readily see the extent to which even the most basic services had plummeted. South Africa's public hospitals, once the pride of the African continent, were now breeding grounds for a shocking range of hospital-borne infections.

Rhodes and Christina had sped out to District Six, only to find Matt dazed, frightened, and clearly sicker than when they'd left him. He now shared a ward with half a dozen other patients. By dinnertime he was spiking a fever of 39.8° with a blotchy rash all over. Antibiotics were belatedly administered, but the virulent strain of staph infection to which Matt had succumbed proved highly resistant to treatment.

Within forty-eight hours, he was dead. Four days previously, he had been admitted to Sector Gold General with nothing more serious than a broken wrist, and now he was gone.

The mag-lev train pulled into a subway station deep within the massive concrete base of the Vexcor Tower. Its automatic doors slid open, disgorging its throng of passengers. The arriving employees, Rhodes among them, split into orderly ranks, queuing up to banks of color-coded high-speed elevators providing specific access to various tiers within the tower. As he entered an elevator, the ID chip implanted in his wrist was scanned by computerized sensors, his identity and clearance category electronically verified. Every single arriving employee or visitor had his chip scanned before entering the departure platforms beneath the mainland Cape City terminals, ensuring that no unauthorized intruder or potential terrorist ever got within twenty miles of the offshore structure by mag-lev. But there were additional layers of internal security as well. Only a handful of senior management had unlimited access throughout the tower. Like most of those around him, Rhodes had never set foot within more than the half dozen levels housing his own Division, along with the rare visit to HR or other generalized employee services. If he were to attempt to venture out of bounds anywhere within the tower, the ubiquitous, black-clad Vexcor Security personnel posted on every level would be alerted to intercept him within seconds.

Rhodes remained lost in thought, studiously ignoring his surroundings and fellow passengers as the glass-fronted elevator ascended through the concrete foundations and rocketed up the side of the kilometer-high spire above. Through the conical tower's outer framework, the newly renovated waterfront condominiums of Gold Sector, home to a large percentage of Vexcor's C1 employees in Cape City, could be seen across Table Bay. As the high-speed lift continued its climb, the sprawling scope of Cape City came into view, an enormous megalopolis encompassing the entire Cape Peninsula from the Constantia Barrens to the Cape of Good Hope. Even as they pulled level with the thousand-plus meter-high plateau of Table Mountain, which formed a rocky backdrop behind the city center, the silhouettes of construction cranes still broke the skyline, testament to the city's ongoing vertical growth. Above it all roiled a sulphurous yellow-green sky.

But all of this was lost on Rhodes as he continued to mentally replay the shattering events of the last few weeks. In the aftermath of Matt's death, the official line taken by both the hospital administration and his own HR reps was that Matt had been admitted with a preexisting infection and had expired despite extraordinary medical efforts to save him. It was only through a coincidental run-in with a relative of another patient on Matt's ward that he learned that Matt's was only one of more than a dozen recent similar deaths by infection, all within the same hospital wing.

Patients' rights and freedom of information legislation notwithstanding, all his efforts to obtain a satisfactory official explanation of his stepson's death or access to his hospital records were denied, politely at first and later with veiled threats that to pursue the matter would have dire repercussions for his own career with Vexcor. Having first-hand knowledge of the workings of the corporate media, he was under no illusion that he would ever be permitted to become a serious public relations embarrassment or liability to Vexcor. Before that happened, a version of events would be spun undermining his credibility. Substance abuser, disgruntled employee, mentally unstable; whatever. That was just the way things worked. Eventually he had been forced to back down. Even dealing with the nominally public system, in the end it was all Vexcor. And in Cape City, Vexcor got what they wanted every time.

But Christina had not seen it that way. Matt was her flesh and blood, but not his. In her grief, she blamed him for the debacle that had taken her son's life. What could he say, Vexcor lied to us? And what if they had? In this world, Vexcor and the Big Five were as unchangeable a reality as the sun and the moon. One might challenge them and throw their lives away in a single futile act of defiance, but who could really make a difference?

At last the lift smoothly decelerated as it came even with a tier of the tower bristling with satellite dishes and microwave emitters. The doors slid open onto a vast entrance lobby gridded with huge spindle-shaped columns. Above the reception counter, the words VEXCOR CORPORATION, Broadcast Division were printed in raised gold letters along with the circular Vexcor logo.

"Good morning, Mr. Rhodes," the attractive Malay receptionist greeted him cheerfully as he passed the counter.

"Good morning, Mitra," Rhodes acknowledged cursorily.

He proceeded through the lobby and down a curving corridor through a double glass door with the letters VNN5 etched into the glass. Vexcor News Network 5 was, as the numeral implied, only one of numerous global satellite networks owned by the megacorporation.

After several twists and turns, he emerged into a small, glass-fronted control room overlooking a much larger studio floor compartmentalized into various sets. To one side of the floor below, floating cambots orbited a brightly illuminated anchor desk where a handsome commentator was reading from an unseen holographic teleprompter. A green light above the door through which Rhodes had entered verified that this particular control room was not currently choreographing the action on the studio floor.

"Morning, Wendell," Alex Berman, his technical director, greeted him.

"Alex," Rhodes responded.

"Things going any better?" Berman asked, genuine concern in his voice. "You getting any sleep?"

Berman looked the part of the company man, ruggedly handsome with dark hair and a neatly trimmed moustache. He was smartly attired in a tailored gray dress shirt and conservative tie. He and Alex went back over ten years now to their days together in broadcast school in Johannesburg. They had advanced up the ranks together, rotating through numerous technical positions in Vexcor's Broadcast Division. Three years his senior, Berman had taken Rhodes under his wing as mentor and benefactor to his younger protégé.

"I'm hanging in there," Rhodes replied, trying to put on an upbeat facade. "The company shrinks from the HMO prescribed something to help me get through the nights."

Berman gave him a comradely pat on the shoulder as Rhodes settled into the padded chair at the switcher position within the control room.

Then, looking up at the rest of the studio techs at their stations about the room, Berman addressed them as a group.

"I have news," he announced. "After tonight's broadcast, we're being rotated back to the Vexlink facility. Word came down from Chairman Rompkin's office tonight. Reconstruction's proceeded to the point where the hydrologists in Beta are ready to resume pilot-scale hydro-transfer operations, and the Board want a crew there taping when they turn on the tap."

Even Rhodes was momentarily jolted out of his troubled inner world by this surprise announcement.

Berman's handpicked crew were something of an elite within the technical staff of VNN5. Some time ago, Berman had been selected to assemble and head up a technical crew to support a group of Vexcor public relations strategists documenting a special project somewhere in the vast Vexcor Security Zone northeast of the Cape Peninsula. It was no secret within Cape City that over the past decade Vexcor had engaged in a series of massive excavation and construction projects out on the fringes of the Karoo. Even in a tightly corporate dominated world, it would have been impossible to keep secret an effort involving dozens of world-class engineering, procurement, and construction firms employing thousands of workmen.

The word that had leaked out was that the facilities being erected in the desert included sophisticated control complexes and administration buildings, massive cooling towers, an enormous aboveground holding reservoir, and, most significantly, the circular tunnel system for an underground particle accelerator some ten kilometers in diameter. Based on these leaked construction details, informed speculation was that Vexcor was building some sort of experimental fusion reactor. The company, always masters of disinformation and spin, had followed up on these speculations with the public announcement that the Karoo facility was to be a pilot cold-fusion generating station.

Rhodes had been the first member to be chosen by Berman. It was only when the assembled team had been VTOL'd out to the Security Zone that they had learned the truth. As revolutionary as a working cold-fusion reactor would have been for a polluted, energy-starved world, the plant's true purpose was even more fantastic and far-reaching in its implications.

The installation was a link facility, a large-scale portal to other parallel universes which Vexcor had been aware of and maintained secret contact with for over thirty years now. It seemed that with the controlled introduction of their superior information and telecommunications technology, Vexcor had already established a powerful corporate presence in the highly similar continuum known as Betaverse. But this paled in comparison with the company's plans for the wholesale extraction of fresh water and natural resources from the pristine realm of Gammaverse once the new link was once again up and running. Under what terms this extraction was to be conducted was never specified to the documentary crew.

The momentous technological developments they were documenting represented nothing less than a secret history of their own universe, christened Alphaverse by none other than Vexcor founder Brion Boxer himself.

With the assignment had come the coveted promotion from C2 to C1 status. While it was relatively routine for star anchormen or on-air personalities to become C1's, such promotions were far less commonplace among the ranks of studio functionaries and behind-the-camera staff. But along with the promotion had come the dire warning that it was expected to take years, if not decades, of conditioning before the general populace would be fully prepped to accept the existence of the Multiverse without instigating profound social upheaval and political chaos. The historical record they were cataloguing was for a future posterity. Any premature leaks would be relentlessly tracked down and vigorously prosecuted as a serious violation of the blanket confidentiality agreements required of virtually all Vexcor employees. In Alphaverse parlance, vigorously prosecuted invariably meant a one-way trip to the Fortress or one of its numerous sister penal facilities.

While the existence of the Multiverse remained the most closely guarded secret in human history, the circle of those in the know had expanded exponentially in the half century since Boxer had first traveled to Beta and Gamma. Today, Vexcor's presence in the other universes was integral to its overall operations and profitability. What amazed Rhodes was that with so many people on the inside, it had been possible to keep the majority of Alphaverse's 12 billion inhabitants in the dark all this time. To Rhodes, it illustrated the power of the Big Lie, that so many people could be induced to not see what was right before their eyes.

A chime sounded softly within the room and the green light over the entrance shifted to yellow.

"All right, people," Berman instantly switched tack, "let's look sharp. Handover's in sixty seconds."

In spite of his own inner demons, the discipline of practiced routine took over and Rhodes focused his concentration on the switcher before him.

Appearance-wise, this sleek control room was a far cry from the studio facilities of television's early days. Gone were the bulky consoles, levers, and electronics racks of fifty years ago. The switcher before Rhodes consisted of little more than a flat Lucite touchscreen panel within which floated holographic icons for the various input feeds and transition effects at his command. Likewise, the various levels of output video that once would have occupied an entire bank of closed circuit monitors were consolidated into computer generated vidwindows arrayed on a single large holographic flatscreen suspended from the ceiling. Nonetheless, appearances notwithstanding, this room's functions and crew complement were largely unchanged from the pioneering days of broadcast media. Besides himself manning the switcher, Berman was flanked by audio and lighting technicians under his direction. Even in this era of cybernetics and artificial intelligence, it was still human beings who made the split-second creative judgments as to how to edit together a live television broadcast.

Rhodes directed his attention towards the anchorman at the center of the targeted spotlights and hovering cambots on the studio floor below. Rollin Powers' chiseled features, wavy blonde hair, and perfect teeth were repeated in close-up within the main program vidwindow.

"...and tonight's Profile in Valor," Powers was announcing, "goes to Corporal Jason Owens of the Vexcor Security Forces 9th Division. On February 12th of this year, when anti-globalization anarchists firebombed the Kimberley Memorial Elementary School in Durban in a cowardly terrorist attack, Cpl. Owens, stationed on routine sentry duty, rushed into the blazing schoolhouse to guide more than a dozen schoolchildren to safety."

Owens' smiling photograph appeared onscreen, followed moments later by file footage of tearful children milling in front of a flame-engulfed structure.

Rhodes glanced back and forth between the outgoing broadcast and live feeds of a female prisoner being prepped on the preview monitors. Within moments, he would be assuming control of the broadcast as they went live to the Fortress.

"Tragically," Powers continued, "though this twenty-two year-old hero's actions saved numerous lives, Cpl. Owens himself succumbed to extensive burns sustained during the rescue. Jason Owens leaves behind a wife and sixteen month-old daughter..."

Rhodes couldn't help but wryly shake his head at Powers' practiced melodrama. The persona of Jason Owens was a fabrication from start to finish, manufactured by the editorial staff of Final Judgment as part of a disinformation campaign designed to obscure the true nature of the Durban school tragedy. The school building in question had in fact been destroyed, with a staggering loss of 140 young lives. But there had been no anarchists, no firebombing. In actuality, the structure had been hit by a stray cruise missile, whose intended target had been a secret summit of underground labor organizers. Compounding the tragedy of the friendly fire debacle, the fugitive activists had been tipped off and the summit had never taken place.

"Next," Powers concluded his segment, "we go live to the Fortress, the Vexcor supermax detention facility on Robbin Island, where the arch-criminal known on the streets as Papa Louie, one of the Durban terrorists, apprehended by law-enforcement authorities and duly convicted in a court of law, now faces her own final judgment."

They were always terrorists or pedophiles or drug-crazed cop killers, Rhodes reflected. Vexcor knew exactly the right buttons to push with their worldwide audience. Demographic surveys had repeatedly indicated that the majority of viewers were sophisticated enough to realize that the specific charges were trumped up. It didn't matter. Everyone in Alphaverse knew that the one certain capital crime was to challenge the authority of the Big Five megacorps. The implicit message of Final Judgment was that if you became a threat to the corporate elite, this was the fate that awaited you.

"Stand by medium shot on Cambot 1," Berman directed Rhodes.

The instant the control room indicator lights flashed from yellow to red, signifying that they now had control, Berman followed up, "Cut to Cambot 1, Cambot 3 stand by."

Rhodes tapped an icon on his touchscreen and the feed from the Fortress jumped from the preview window to the adjacent main program window. The image that filled the Lucite vidscreen was that of a Xhosa woman, her head shaven, tightly bound within a prison straightjacket. She was cinched with arms pinned to her sides upon an upright metallic palette. Surrounding her was a menacing-looking array of robotic servos, which, Rhodes knew, would at the appropriate moment administer the near-instantaneous lethal injection. The woman's head drooped and her eyes appeared unfocused.

Simultaneous with Papa Louie's appearance on the big screen, a new icon popped up on Rhodes' panel along with the words TIME DELAY ENABLED. In the unlikely event that the live broadcast somehow deviated from its pre-scripted sequence of events, Rhodes would have a fifteen-second time window within which to cut to an alternate program track before any potentially objectionable –i.e. damaging to Vexcor– content actually made it out over the airwaves. The likelihood that Rhodes would ever need to resort to the program interrupt was minimal. Like every condemned inmate to appear on Final Judgment, Papa Louie would have been precisely dosed with kelazaphine, a synthetic opiate specifically developed by the corporate pharmaceutical establishment for the interrogation and management of Vexcor's incarcerated population of political detainees. The powerful hypnotic would ensure that she delivered her scripted confession precisely as coached by her Vexcor handlers. In all Rhodes' long experience with this production, he had never experienced a glitch with the delivery of the condemned's final statement of contrition.

"Slow zoom to close-up," Berman instructed the cambot tech as Papa Louie's head lolled groggily upright.

"Fellow citizens," she slurred her words, "I was brought here to confess my crimes..."

She faltered, her expression momentarily one of indecision and torment. Rhodes assumed he was seeing the influence of the kelazaphine inevitably overpowering her resistance.

Then, with an unexpectedly deliberate movement, she raised her head to face the camera. Her eyes looked directly into the lens as she resumed in a suddenly clear voice, "...but I will not confess!"

The shock in the control room could not have been any greater if a bomb had gone off in their midst. Every head jerked in the direction of the monitor, the technicians' expressions transfixed by the seemingly impossible words they had just heard.

Berman, caught off guard like the rest of them, raised his arm to signal a breakaway, but hesitated to make the call. No wonder, Rhodes thought. This was the biggest of the bigtime. Final Judgment was the highest rated reality series in prime time. One botched call now, in front of fifty million global viewers, and he could kiss his directing career goodbye.

For an impossible moment, Rhodes thought that Papa Louie's next words were directed specifically at him.

"Because Vexcor is lying to you!"

Any indecision on the TD's part instantly vanished. This had to be off-script. Whatever screw-up had taken place in the Fortress' execution dome could not be allowed to play out on-air.

"Cut to commercial!" he yelled, an edge of panic in his voice.

Rhodes' hand hovered over an icon depicting the logo of a major fast food chain; the commercial it represented cued and ready to roll. But the poised finger did not descend, held in place by his disorientation at hearing his own unvoiced thoughts reflected back at him as the last words of a condemned criminal.

"Because Vexcor is lying to you!" the fateful words repeated precisely fifteen seconds later, this time for the entire world to hear.

"Wendell," Berman barked, turning to face the switcher console, "I said cut to commercial –now!"

Rhodes looked up at his mentor and longtime friend, his expression as dazed as Papa Louie's had appeared a moment earlier.

Onscreen, Papa Louie continued her diatribe. "While you conserve every drop of water, and while you wait in line for rations of food, and while your children go hungry..."

The disbelieving faces about the room now looked back and forth between the drama unfolding onscreen and the developing confrontation between their TD and Rhodes.

"...Vexcor gets rich, rich of resources stolen from another world..."

Clearly alarmed now, Berman abandoned his post at the center of the room to make a dash for the switcher panel himself. But before he could reach around to the touchscreen controls, Rhodes threw himself over them, blocking his reach.

"Goddamn it, Wendell," he shouted, "what the hell are you doing?"

What was he doing? A part of Rhodes' own mind screamed at him even as he wrestled with his supervisor. Just one fateful decision had cost him his marriage, his family. And now, with a split second's judgment -or lack thereof- his life as he had known it would be over, his career and his very freedom forfeit.

"...resources they intend to keep for themselves..."

Just moments ago he had told himself that no one could change the world, yet that was precisely what was happening at this moment somewhere in the bowels of the Fortress and in this very room, as Vexcor's hidden agenda was unraveled moment by moment in front of Final Judgment's global audience.

What was he doing? Was this his vengeance for what Vexcor had done to his family? An act of atonement to Christina or to Matt for the lethal tragedy he himself had set in motion? A matter of principle? He was far too distracted by his groping struggle with the TD to be analyzing the motivations behind his impulsively arrived-at course of action. Not that it mattered now. In this instant, the remainder of his existence came down to one thing, keeping Papa Louie on the air for as long as possible.

"...until Vexcor owns every one of us..."

Growing more desperate by the second, Berman clamped a hand over his best friend's face, savagely twisting, even as Rhodes' fingers clasped him by the throat in a vicious chokehold.

"For God's sake, Wendell," he implored, "you're going to get us both killed!"

" the cost of billions of lives," Papa Louie continued relentlessly, her intense expression filling the program monitor window, "in an innocent world, in an innocent universe..."

Pinned across the Lucite panel, Rhodes could now see studio personnel looking up from the main floor, calling out and gesturing frantically towards the control room window.

Another set of arms encircled his waist, attempting to drag him from his feet. But he continued to clutch at the gimbal-mounted touchpad.

"Someone call Security!" the technician clinging to his back called out.

A moment later, warning chimes sounded throughout the control room as someone triggered the emergency alarm.

Fear gripped him at the mention of the dreaded Security forces. To fall into the Vexcor enforcers' clutches was the most horrific of fates for any citizen of Alphaverse. Once under their control, he might well simply disappear from the world at large, beyond the reach of due process. It was a fate that had befallen tens of thousands of those who had opposed Vexcor.

Rhodes momentarily lost track of Papa Louie's stream of revelations as the control room door was kicked violently inward and a threesome of Vexcor Security troopers in black tactical gear stormed the room, CR-21 assault carbines at the ready.

Berman's grip on Rhodes momentarily loosened as he looked up to see the Vexcor-manufactured battle rifles trained on the two of them. His head nodded back and forth between his disgruntled friend and the trio of shock troops waiting to take their shot. His head still pressed into the switcher, Rhodes was able to see the conflicting emotions warring on his buddy's face as loyalty battled self-preservation. Perhaps it was the inevitability of human nature that self-preservation won out and Berman dove away from Rhodes, out of the line of fire.

The instant they had a clear shot at Rhodes, the lead trooper opened fire with a semiautomatic burst that reverberated impossibly loudly within the cramped room.

Rhodes felt a resounding impact to his chest, as if he'd been run over by a semi. He was flat on the ground before he was even aware of falling. For several moments he felt nothing but the blind panic of wondering what had happened to him. Had he been shot? He tried desperately to lift his head, but discovered to his mounting horror that he could not get his body to function. He did somehow manage to raise a hand, which he saw was drenched halfway up his forearm in glistening red.

Then his eyes bulged in sheer panic as his lungs began filling with fluid. He was drowning in his own blood!

"Get the paramedics up here –now!" Berman yelled to his own staffers dropping to his knees to prop up Rhodes' head.

Rhodes could make out little beyond Alex's hovering face as his field of vision narrowed, his peripheral vision shutting down. But his hearing remained paradoxically clear. As his life slipped agonizingly away, moment by moment, he tried to hold onto the words carried over the program monitor, as if they could somehow carry him beyond his rapidly fading self.

"Because the truth of all of this, the very truth..."

When he'd climbed out of bed this morning, Wendell Rhodes could never have possibly imagined that today he'd be facing his final judgment. Yet here he was, lying on the floor bleeding to death as, thanks to the precious seconds he'd given her, a stranger he'd never known implored a world in denial to open its eyes. Had he made a difference, left the world a better place for his existence? He'd never know. He only hoped that Christina would somehow learn of what he had done. He tried to mouth the words to Alex, but his efforts to speak only brought up warm rivulets of blood.

" that we're living a lie..."

Then the choking overtook him and all rational thought was lost.

"...the Big Lie!" Papa Louie concluded with a flourish.

Papa Louie's last words seemed to echo as they re-emerged from the time delay buffer and were repeated countless times across the global airwaves.

Rhodes' consciousness faded for the last time just as one of the stunned studio techs recovered enough of his wits to belatedly hit the cutoff icon, and Papa Louie's face was finally replaced by a banal announcement that the network was experiencing technical difficulties.