To anyone who's just tuning in, please read the first two installments or you'll be very lost.
To my recurring readers, welcome back! As I said before, I've been dreaming about writing this story for years and am ecstatic at finally being able to do so. Join me as I take intensity and complexity to a whole new level(with a purpose as always).
Now for the beginning of the end.
It was pointless to enjoy coffee weather if said coffee lover drank it inside an air-conditioned office rather than outdoors. The Secretary of Defense would rather dig his own grave rather than be late for work so going to a café in the morning was a privilege in his opinion, as were days off.
When the hover car came to a halt, he opened the door but paused before stepping out.
"You want anything, Tim?"
"Nah," his driver held up a thermos. "Wife brewed me her homemade blend today." He grinned. "She'd make me sleep on the couch for a month if she found out I tossed it."
"Is it that bad?"
"No it's good but…" Tim leaned forward conspiratorially. "Alice's is better. Don't tell her that or I'll sleep on the couch for a year."
His employer saluted him. "Your secret's safe with me."
"Thank you so much," Tim said with mock relief.
The Secretary of Defense chuckled before exiting the car. He was severely tempted to pull out his comm and catch the beginning of the interviews before the New York Giants started to play, but if he did, he would spend the entire morning standing on the sidewalk. He entered Alice's Diner and smiled at the middle-aged woman at the counter.
"Good morning sir," Alice's smile was surrounded by laugh-lines and was still vibrant and youthful.
The Secretary of Defense sighed. "Alice, I've been coming here for twenty years. I think you've earned the right to call me by my first name."
"All right then. Want your usual, Keith?"
"If you please."
Deciding the interviews could wait a little longer, the Secretary of Defense started a conversation.
"Is business going well?"
"As well as can be," Alice responded as she poured ground coffee beans in the maker. "Customers are happy and no economic crisis has occurred. Thank God."
"Our last one was over forty years ago. Getting paranoid?" he teased.
"I'm not stuck in the past, but it's always been vivid in my mind," she smiled sadly. "My family and I lost our home during that time. No one would help us. We had to live on the streets for nearly a year."
"Oh. I'm so sorry—"
She waved his apology away. "Don't worry. Time has healed those wounds, along with my husband and daughter. But I've always kept on alert since."
"I won't say that's a bad thing," she served him his coffee. "Maybe we're not facing any economic crises, but…I think I'd prefer one to the threat we're facing now."
Alice paled slightly but her face remained serious. "The Alliance hasn't committed any major terrorist attacks, have they?"
"You would have definitely heard about that," his tone grew grim as he stirred sugar and cream in his coffee. "We couldn't cover that up even if we wanted to. Besides, if they want more recruits, they still need to keep up the pretense of virtue," he laughed bitterly.
"I've been hearing rumors, though," Alice said. "Not very threatening ones, but they're planning something."
"Well, we can't move against them unless we get solid evidence," he took a sip and savored the rich, French roast taste. "There have been arrests and I've given the President a list of suspects. But none have been convicted of any crime other than free speech and none of the incarcerated has talked."
"I hope the police haven't been going soft on them."
He looked at her. "I'll admit there's plenty of hatred. Hatred far more justified than the kind that spread during the Iraq war. These bastards…the things they've done, the beliefs they hold and if an eighth of the rumors I've heard are true," his grip tightened on his mug. He was thinking some very ungodly thoughts right now, but age and experience that he had gained long ago stored his passion for later use. "We can't, won't use harsher interrogation methods. We can't stoop to their level. And even if we did, there's no guarantee that what they tell us is the truth."
"I didn't mean it like that," Alice said. "The Bush Administration made those mistakes and they wielded little to no results. Enough people knew that despite the lies they spread. The main thing I'm worried about is…infiltration."
She looked wary as if afraid she was offending him. But the Secretary of Defense nodded in agreement.
"That's my greatest fear also, as well as my colleague's," he sighed. "And it's a fear that came true long ago."
"Those policemen who were fired three months ago," Alice whispered.
"Them and others who are still at large. We can make arrest after arrest, but unless they do some talking, we can't penetrate the heart of the organization. We don't know what shit- infested corner the Grand Dragons skulk in," he looked at her apologetically. "Pardon my French."
She waved it aside. "No amount of cursing could sum up what the Alliance is."
Talking to someone outside his work circle helped soothe his nerves. Granted, Alice was a civilian. She couldn't understand the constant back-breaking work load the President and his cabinet had to deal with thanks to the Alliance. But Alice understood they were a real threat and had family to worry about.
The Secretary of Defense sighed and rubbed his temples. Alice stared at him in concern.
Exhausted he wanted to say but forced a smile and said, "Just a little."
"Liar." She blushed and looked away. "I'm sorry, that was so rude—"
"Ah, don't worry," he rubbed his temples again. "All I can say is thank God for days off."
"When do you have to go back?"
"Tomorrow. But I can't help feel ashamed I asked for a day off in the first place even though I just said a tenth prayer of thanks for it."
"Keith, everyone and their grandmother knows how hard you all work. Would you rather drop dead on the spot rather than relax for a full day?"
"You don't need to remind me of how ancient I am," he gave her a weary grin. "The mirror does a fine job of that every morning and night."
"Oh, you're still young, Keith. And you're still kicking, thanks to medicine and nutrition advice these days."
And Virtech's revolutionary contributions as well as nanite technology he added silently, though appreciated her attempt at tact. The Secretary of Defense wasn't the only member of the President's cabinet over ninety, but thanks to Virtech's virtual exercise games and nanite technology that could prolong a person's life for up to forty more years, he still had plenty of time to serve his country before retiring. And if he wasn't completely cynical, he didn't look ninety. More like seventy or so.
"I'm holding you up, aren't I?"
He blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"I know the New York Giants will be playing in five minutes," she stared at him pointedly. "And everyone and their grandmother knows how much you love baseball," she sighed. "Keith this is one of your rare days off. Relax. Forget for a while. I wish I could," she shrugged and her smile grew sad. "But I'm not like that. You've always been so optimistic even in the darkest of times and you haven't lost it. Us cynical, slightly younger people need folks like you to run things, and to remind us that tomorrow the cloud may lift, if only a little bit. Now go. Sit down and watch your game or I'll carry you to a seat in front of everybody."
He grinned. "You and who's army?"
"Very funny. I'm going to tell you only once m—"
An explosion cut her off. No. Not an explosion, but something just as bad if not worse.
The door was blasted open and flew across the café in a shower of glass and debris. A couple screamed and scrambled away, shielding their faces as their exposed arms were sliced. The Secretary of Defense reached for his gun, but seven armed, masked men stormed the café, plasma rifles cocked and targeted at everything.
"Put it down," one snarled at the Secretary of Defense. "Put it down or everyone here dies."
He obeyed and slowly sat down, never taking his eyes off the thugs. His eyes narrowed when he saw the insignia on their breast-plates.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Alice reaching for the alarm.
Too late. A pink streak of light hit Alice square in the back. She disappeared behind the counter.
The Secretary of Defense scrambled over the cash register but was grabbed and shoved back into his chair. An evil, satisfied voice came from the mask in front of him.
"One more nigger-lover down."
There was an eruption of laughter. Overwhelmed with rage, the Secretary of Defense threw caution to the wind. He whipped his gun out so fast the masked monster in front of him didn't have time to draw breath for another laugh before he was shot in the face. With a scream he staggered back, clutching his broken mask.
The Secretary of Defense didn't waste another second. His cane whipped toward the nearest man and when the butt connected with an unarmored kidney, a weathered thumb pressed on a button on the cane's curve. Ignoring the scream, he retracted the long, poisoned blade which was now dripping with blood and aimed at another thug. Unfortunately, he wasn't fast enough.
A punch to the face made him drop his cane. Blood erupted from gashes made from spikes on the armored fist. Another punch to the gut caused him to sink to his knees. Blows rained down on his head and shoulders.
The shout came from the man he had shot. The Secretary of Defense was shoved into a chair and roughly pinned by three men. He could feel the bones of his arms groaning under the pressure.
"Ya think you're pretty hot, don't ya, old shit?" The man's mask had shattered enough to reveal most of his face which was twisted with hatred but unharmed.
"You shouldn't have worn a mask," the Secretary of Defense smiled even though the expression caused blood to flow in his mouth. "A shot to the face would have made you so much prettier."
He was still smiling even as he was backhanded across the face.
"I'd watch your mouth," the man whispered. "We can get another messenger boy for the White House Kike."
"You interrupted my day off and killed an innocent woman just to give me a message for the President?"
"Yeah. Gonna make me worst person in the world?"
"Why would I need to do that," Keith Olbermann whispered. "When you do it yourself every time you draw breath?"
Sirens sounded in the distance.
"Mason, we have to go!" a voice from outside called.
"Yeah, give me a minute," the man…Mason retracted a datapad from a pouch and shoved it into Keith's lap. "Give that to your Kike. And as a going away present from the Congress of Aryan Alliances to a nigger-loving traitor—"
A fist collided with Keith's face. Malicious laughter around him faded into black nothingness.
"Greetings, Mr. President. If you're watching this then you've already received word that several banks have mysteriously failed as well as power plants and generators. I'm sure you can guess that there is a connection and that they did not fail by accident. I will explain the situation, so listen carefully. My allies in the Congress of Aryan Alliances want to take over the gaming industry. They are not so arrogant as to believe you would hand it over to them if they threatened to destroy it. They are fully aware…and very pleased that they will have to fight you for it. What they have done so far is merely a taste of what they can do. But it is not even close to a taste of what I can do. My name is Rebecca Fries, and I am the leader of the Virus Creed. My ambitions are stronger than that of the CAA. I don't want the general gaming industry. I want the heart of it. The virtual realities of which the Error Correctors are guardians of. Did you honestly think you could keep them secret forever? Anyway, I too know I will have to fight for what I want. But I warn you, your soldiers will not be enough. My scientists have experimented with the interface, and in the realities we wield as much if not more power than the Error Correctors. If you try to fight me without them, you are doomed.
In the near future, I will invade a reality, and the Error Correctors will play a particular game of my choosing. If they win, the reality will be theirs and will remain untouched. If they lose, it will be mine to do with as I please. Until then, have the Error Correctors train as hard as they can. They'll need it.
One more thing, Mr. President," ice-blue eyes narrowed. "If you even accuse me of bluffing, I will destroy a reality while it is in session. The most powerful computer in the world can melt in the presence of a deadly virus. My creed created the ones the CAA is using, but they don't even touch the surface of my personal arsenal. Choose wisely."
The life-sized hologram of the copper-skinned Asian girl vanished leaving an ominous silence in its wake.
"The Error Correctors…" the Chief of Staff's disbelieving voice broke it. "Who could have leaked—?"
"I can give you a list at the top of my head," The Secretary of Defense interrupted harshly. His face was still bandaged but the new, deadly glint in his eyes destroyed any impression of weakness. "I thought we were doing the right thing as a united country and as human beings by following our laws and our morals, but now I'm really starting to reconsider them."
"You're not alone," The Vice President said bitterly.
"Everyone needs to calm down," the President said. He surveyed the occupants in the room with sternness. "When we let our emotions run wild, our enemy earns a victory."
The tension eased just a notch.
"But who's our real enemy?" the Chief of Staff said. "The CAA is a given, but I've never seen that girl before in my life nor have I heard of a Virus Creed that can access the realities."
"I don't care what that crazy bitch says, she has to be bluffing," the Vice President snapped. "For one thing, she's not white. The CAA would castrate themselves before allying with her. Those bastards who attacked Keith must have been impersonators. And strong as the security is on the gaming industry it's nothing compared to the realities. You'd have to be Brainiac to break through it. And she says she wants to play games for the realities. Games! She's insane."
"And stupid," the Secretary of Defense added. "If her threats had any merit, she would have destroyed a reality first and then made demands. The CAA is our true enemy, not this maniac kid."
"Maybe, but I'm not taking any chances," the President said. He addressed the Chief of Staff. "Stephen, after this meeting have Dr. Anderson contacted. Regardless of whether her threats are real, this Rebecca Fries and maybe the CAA now know the existence of the Error Correctors, so they need to be warned."
The President's comm suddenly chimed.
"Mr. President, General Clark has stationed several battalions in sections thirty-four through fifty-two. His reports state that no more attacks have happened so far."
"Good. Thank you, Samantha."
"The CAA doesn't have the brightest military minds," The Secretary of Defense said with grim satisfaction. "They surprised us once. They won't do it again."
The President's comm chimed again.
"Mr. President, Senator Kimball is demanding more security. There are several known CAA members in Atlanta. Riots are breaking out and property is being destroyed. The local police force is not enough."
"Only a one or two battalions can be spared. This is the tenth Senator who has called for back-up. Most of our troops need to guard the virtual sectors."
The next half-hour was spent with the President answering calls regarding security updates and distribution. Aide was being sent to those who lost power thanks to the attacks, but nothing could be done for the financial assets of those whose banks had crashed. Because he was in the presence of people he trusted with his life, The President let his shoulders slump slightly as he rubbed his exhausted eyes.
"Mr. President? Jon…?"
He looked up and nodded at his Secretary of Staff but couldn't bring himself to smile.
"I'm fine, Stephen."
"We need to find the Grand Dragons," The Secretary of Defense said. "With them captured, some of the Alliance members are sure to talk."
"We'll get them," The Vice President said. "They're not nearly as smart as Bin Laden. They're right here in America. Probably watching the news and laughing their inbred asses off. Now we have all the excuse we need to hunt them down like the dogs they are."
The President's comm chimed again.
"Mr. President. Dr. Anderson is on line one."
The President's blood ran cold and he didn't know why.
"Put him on."
A moment later, Dr. Anderson's voice came through.
"Mr. President," he sounded like he was struggling with all his might to remain calm. "I had to call you directly…something terrible has happened. One of the realities has been destroyed."
Everyone froze as if they had been sprayed with liquid nitrogen. The President had to take a deep breath before responding.
"Dr. Anderson, what exactly do you mean by 'destroyed'?"
"It wasn't online…the reality was a minor one. We hadn't really been planning on using it. But all of a sudden the interface was invaded…we tried to stop it but we couldn't. No matter what we did. It came through and wiped the reality out in less than five minutes. It's gone and we can't bring it back."
"What is 'it', Dr. Anderson? What destroyed the reality?"
"A virus, sir. A virtual virus. We're examining the ruined reality now. It looks like a wild fire swept through and burned everything. We can't bring it back. The virus is still there, but it's unlike anything we've ever seen. Mr. President, someone accomplished this from the outside. They know about the realities and the Error Correctors. I don't know if it's the CAA or what. No one has claimed responsibility yet, not even through threats or blackmail. What should we do? Should we evacuate the Error Correctors? The realities can survive without them for a month if we need them to."
The President squeezed his eyes shut. He thought he would never know how Obama felt during America's Darkest Times and rejoiced in that belief.
"No," he said. "The Error Correctors need to stay where they are for now. I'm going to arrange transport for them. They are to be brought here immediately."
"…Mr. President, do you know what's going on?"
"Unfortunately I think I do. If what you say is true, then you've confirmed the existence of a threat that could put the Congress of Aryan Alliances to shame. I'll explain when you get here."
Long pause. "Yes, Mr. President. I'll have the Error Correctors prepare for travel."
The line was disconnected and the President looked at the white faces around him. The Secretary of Defense's cane was groaning under the pressure of his grip. His eyes burned with murder and self-loathing. The Vice President had her head bowed. She looked as if she wanted to scream and cry simultaneously.
"There was nothing we could have done," The President said quietly. Their pain beat at him. Coupled with his own, he wanted to slouch again but didn't.
"So she's a liar and a terrorist," the Secretary of Defense said. "She didn't even wait for a response."
"We don't even know if she's responsible, Keith," The Chief of Staff said. "This could be solely the CAA, and their using that girl to frighten and distract us."
"I wish I could believe you," The Secretary of Defense looked at his colleague with red eyes. "But my instincts tell me otherwise."
"She said she would destroy a reality while it was in session, so technically she didn't lie," the President said. "I'm not saying I think she has honor or anything, I just thank God the reality was minor and deactivated."
"If she's telling the truth about her viruses, then what about her claims to being able to access the interface?" the Chief of Staff said. "If they're true then…"
"We have traitors in our midst," the Vice President spat. "I'm not surprised."
"Until we get more information, we need to go along with her," the President said. "The Error Correctors will come here. We'll explain the situation."
"And then what?" the Vice President demanded. "Send those children against a creed of murderous psychopaths?"
"Those children are government agents," the President said. "They swore an oath to protect and serve the United States of America just like everyone in this room. They've just been doing it in a different way. Until now." He sighed. "I don't like it. I hate it. I would send trained soldiers against this Rebecca Fries, but she's right. None of them are nearly as skilled in manipulating the interface as the Error Correctors. And I know in my soul that Fries wasn't lying about her skill with it. To make a virus that could…" he took a deep breath and continued. "Those children have been unofficial soldiers for some time. But now they need to be officially called into service." His mind strayed to the image of young Harlene Ballantine's face. The girl would be fourteen now, wouldn't she?
The Secretary of Defense frowned. "Mr. President, if the Error Correctors are going to fight for America we can't keep it a secret from the public. We can't keep them from the public. Nor this Virus Mistress and her weapons. If this is really happening, the people need to be told."
"Yes," the President rose from his chair. The eyes of his colleagues were filled with a hard grimness that mirrored his own.
"The nation is under attack. The people must be informed."
(A/N): Just so everyone knows, I will be dwelling deep into intense subjects such as genocide, sexual identity and homosexuality. The only warnings you'll get will be the build-up in chapters. But I think I've established enough of a reputation as that kind of author for you to expect it. You may also be wondering why I've put in hurt/comfort as a genre. Well, I'm an idealist along with a rebel. Along with dark themes, there will also be a lot of healing and forgiveness in this story.