Leaving Manhattan was surprisingly simple.
Though the riots continued above, Damon, Virgil, Harris, and his team made their way unhindered through the complex network of sewer tunnels beneath the city. Their journey took them to the edge of the borough and into an alleyway between two warehouses. In an adjacent parking lot, an all-black Chevrolet Suburban with heavily tinted windows and no discernible markings awaited them.
Damon was pleased that he would not have to fly. He had never liked flying, but his last few attempts especially had been less than sterling. The last time he had flown, it was while the rest of the world was being bombed from orbit by Rededication, and he was hoping not to be shot right out of the sky. The time before that, he was scouring the Nevada desert for Daniel Eick’s body, which had fallen nearly thirty miles to the ground. The time before that, he had flown to Nellis Air Force Base to add treason and terrorism to the already surely lengthy list of crimes the Department of Homeland Security had compiled on him. And the time before that, he had been forced to sit between two warring children on a long flight from Hong Kong.
This was better. Even getting crammed in the backseat between Agents Benson and Beck was worth the trouble, considering the alternative.
In his many years in arms manufacturing, Damon had made a number of commutes from Manhattan to DC. Typically the drive would take a little over four hours; he would take the New Jersey Turnpike southward, then get onto I-95. This time around, with William Harris at the wheel, they avoided the Turnpike altogether and instead headed straight for the Interstate.
Along their way, Damon managed to peek out the windows and catch glimpses of massive LED screens around the area, several of which were impromptu and likely set up by local police and military forces. Each of them displayed the same broadcast, on a continuous loop, overshadowing what remained of Nulem Verris’ own invasive message; a news feed, delivered from a station somewhere out of Pennsylvania, showing footage of a small craft terrorizing the skies between the eastern Canadian coast and New York, before picking up four blurry figures from the side of a building. Damon knew exactly who those blurred visages were; the report claimed he was among them, having no knowledge of Ila.
The radio stations were busy broadcasting the same story:
“…NORAD and the United States Air Force have confirmed that the four fugitives being hunted by Nulem Verris have indeed left the planet in some sort of spaceship. I repeat: Daniel Eick, Damon Hale, Arras Enqelin, and Valiya Zoa have left the planet. We have not yet received word on how Nulem Verris will respond…”
Only a couple hours had passed since they had left the planet, with these broadcasts beginning shortly thereafter, but Damon felt as if he could already see a marked change in the people passing outside as the black Suburban prowled through the city. Fear had dissolved into an oddly sober resignation, it seemed—peace had not taken the city, but an abject feeling of powerlessness.
There were a number of horrific traffic jams along the way, but Harris managed to circumnavigate each of them. The Interstate itself had been closed off for the past few hours, likely to limit the spreading chaos that was reaching critical mass in New York City, but there were a couple special inlets open, each one manned and monitored by heavily armed military contingents. Harris flashed an FBI badge at the men, stating simply that they were on “federal business” to DC; from there, it was a smooth ride down a mostly empty I-95.
Even with the open Interstate, their drive was expected to take approximately six hours in total. Virgil decided to take that time to brief Damon.
“I take it this has everything to do with 85-11, then,” Damon surmised, being the first one to speak.
“Correct,” Virgil said from the front passenger seat. “The truth is, Damon, a few days ago Her Majesty decided to personally call the Madam President. Their discussion was quite long, as you might imagine, having everything to do with the naughty little secrets the United States has been keeping since the Second World War. Rather than raising accusations, however, my government decided to come clean concerning its knowledge of 85-11, and then to make a suggestion.”
“Revive the program and use it against the enemy,” Damon concluded. “I suppose it’s only right. Though I would have thought the circumstances of Arthur Emmerich’s recent death would have deterred anyone from touching 85-11 ever again… Still, I’m sure this is what Arthur would have wanted—to see us making the most of what was pulled from the outposts.”
“Agreed,” Virgil replied solemnly, recalling his brief interaction with Arthur Emmerich, who, he would say, had been murdered before his body was ever used to wreak havoc on the Las Vegas Strip. “Our respective governments became increasingly interested in resurrecting 85-11 when they realized that, among Truth’s first targets, were all known locations of old Coalition outposts—plus a few random areas we can only guess were outposts the US never discovered.”
“You take that as a sign of fear, then. You think she targeted those areas because she’s afraid you might find something to use against her?”
“More or less. That made 85-11 all the more valuable. The databases have since been multiplied and placed under the finest quantum encryption the NSA and SIS could provide. Though the technology is still experimental, no one has noticed any alterations to the content. We believe we’ve managed to keep Truth’s hands off the data—at least for the time being.”
Damon then understood why Virgil had been called away so quickly a few days ago, and why he had said nothing to them of where he was going. Virgil had been called for the same reasons as Damon: their firsthand knowledge of and experience with 85-11 and Rededication. And he guessed that the reason Virgil had never explained his sudden departure was also the same reason Henrietta had ordered Harris and his men not to interfere with Arras, Danny, or Valiya—she truly wanted to step on as few toes as possible.
“So how will I be involved this time around?” Damon finally asked.
“Consultation, for the most part,” Virgil said plainly. “However, both our governments would also like for you to pool all Teleios’ assets into 85-11 as well, at least so long as the program remains a purely military initiative.”
“As much as I’d love to assimilate my family’s company into the very program that nearly killed me,” Damon said before trailing off. “Well, I suppose I don’t have to tell you my status as a global fugitive, do I?”
“We understand,” Virgil replied, turning to give Damon a reassuring glance over the shoulder of his seat. “But that won’t be forever, mind you. The United Nations as a whole, including the US and the UK, have already begun making concerted efforts to announce to the world that the four ‘fugitives’ Nulem Verris has requested have left the planet, leaving us no forwarding address. So, when things cool down, then they’ll require your connections and influence over Teleios. But, for now, most of your efforts will be spent advising how to properly implement 85-11, devising scenarios and strategies—essentially everything necessary to ensure we don’t make fools of ourselves with our new toys.”
“So that’s how it is…”
“There’s one more thing,” Virgil added. “Actually, it’s perhaps the most significant reason President Ridge requested you. However, it’s something the Madam President has decided only you should know.”
“It must be rather ‘top secret’ if not even you or her most trusted security detail can know.”
“Well, I know,” Virgil said almost flippantly. “But yes, it’s a rather… urgent matter, to say the least.”
A few hours later, they arrived in Washington, DC.
Military forces were concentrated heavily in the nation’s capital, more than even in New York City, and the defense only thickened the closer they came to the White House complex. With marines and soldiers guarding every corner of the streets, stacked to the shoulders with weapons and tactical gear, the area felt more like a warzone than a tourist attraction. Yet it was the NASAMS 2 missile-launcher vehicles parked immediately around the complex that demanded the most attention; the stocky vehicles with blocky surface-to-air missile systems on their backs intimidated even Damon to a degree, and he had been one of the few men responsible for a recent modernization of their artillery and targeting systems.
He could only conclude that Henrietta and the rest of the government were taking no chances, even with their possible deliverance after the four fugitives supposedly left the planet.
Virgil, Harris, and the two field agents formed a tight box around Damon as they proceeded from their Suburban to a guarded side entrance to the White House. Together, they wound their way through a few halls, past a false wall, and into an elevator which took them far below the complex’s documented basement levels. Nearly a mile below the White House, beneath one dense plate of armor after another, was the bunker from which the President of the United States would continue to run the country in the event that DC was compromised.
The elevator stopped at a floor that had no designation on the cart’s display. The doors opened, and, without a word, Damon’s escort was immediately replaced by masked marines who took him down another long corridor. At the end of the corridor, one of the marines opened a door ahead of Damon, ushered him inside, and closed the door behind him, leaving Damon on his own.
Damon found himself in what looked like a provisional Oval Office, though the relatively cramped space clearly lacked the charm and history of the location it had been modeled after. Across the room, rising from behind her desk, was President Henrietta Ridge.
“Glad to see you made it,” she said plainly. “How was the trip?”
“Delightful,” Damon said, trying not to let his tone instantly sour as he spoke. “I see we’re alone.”
“At my request. Have a seat.”
They each sat down in one of the two armchairs in the room, facing each other directly. Damon leaned on his cane, studying Henrietta. Though she had maintained the blond locks framing her face, her eyes confessed the accelerated aging that had resulted from the past few days alone. Still, she seemed to remain confident as ever.
“Pardon me,” Damon said, “but I’d rather not tiptoe around this. Shall we get down to business?”
“Let’s,” Henrietta agreed, appreciating his approach. “I expect Virgil briefed you at least partially on the way.”
“You’re resurrecting 85-11, in hopes of using it against Rededication. Ironic, given that so much of it apparently came from the very person attacking us.”
“Yes, Virgil filled us in on that when he joined up,” Henrietta said, a hint of shame in her voice as she massaged her temples. “That was one of the details we missed out on when I pardoned you and your friends, and cut you loose. Truth be told, I thought I smelled something foul after the incident with Arthur. And your friend Arras also complained a good deal while she was with us, trying to tell us it was impossible for us to have even accessed the outposts’ databases, let alone pulled apparently falsified tech from them—like that nano-net inhibitor.” Weighed down by more chagrin, Henrietta looked Damon in the eye. “It took Arthur going berserk for me to give her any credit.”
Resting his cane against his leg, Damon spread his hands with a slight shrug. “You’re unfortunately not the only one Truth took for a ride. Besides, there’s nothing to be found in fretting over the past. All we can do now is try to secure our future.”
“Precisely,” Henrietta said, putting herself back on track. “That’s why I’ve called you here, Damon. The fact is that Truth and Rededication aren’t the only ones threatening our future.”
“Trouble at home, then.”
“There’s a lot of paranoia circulating through the various countries of the UN, even before Nulem Verris reared his ugly mug. I don’t know if you’re aware, but that paranoia’s spiked into mass hysteria in the past week, resulting in several violations of the Geneva Conventions.”
“The Geneva Conventions had nothing to say about extraterrestrial militaries or combatants, let alone mechanized ones.”
“It’s their own people, Damon. And other countries, too.”
“I’m not justifying any violation of international treaties or law, but this kind of panic is to be expected in a case like this. However, I’m uncertain as to how this pertains to me.”
With a heavy sigh, already cornered, Henrietta said, “There was a theory that as terrorism replaced traditional warfare, the war on terror would in turn be replaced by some other large-scale threat that would ban the world together—like an invasion. But no. Terrorist groups all over the Middle East—not to mention Nigeria and Uganda, Somalia; you name it—they’ve all taken advantage of the chaos, and they’re gaining traction while the rest of the world is in the thick of things with Rededication. There are rumors that North Korea may make a move on South Korea, while they’re still licking their wounds after losing Seoul. And despite the heavy hits China’s already taken in the initial attacks, they’re making some pretty sizeable threats. The list goes on, Damon.”
“The world is starting to channel their panic into violent retaliation,” he replied simply, though empathizing with her. The idea wasn’t difficult for him to process; he had already seen a microcosm of it in Manhattan, cluing him in on what was apparently occurring on a macroscopic scale around the world. “But that retaliation’s not aimed exclusively at the enemy, but at each other. Enemies didn’t suddenly stop being enemies when Rededication jumped into orbit.”
“Many world leaders believe this invasion has weakened their respective countries to the point that they’re vulnerable to their enemies on Earth,” Henrietta expounded. “Unfortunately, that includes us as well. And there are certain individuals in the US who are considering trying to change that… I think you’re already familiar with the Manhattan Protocol.”
The moment the words left her mouth, the blood rushed from Damon’s face. He knew the term all too well. In the first quarter of 2002, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Damon had personally consulted with a number of cabinet departments—which would shortly thereafter become the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense—on this particular protocol. However, it was from a series of documents Damon’s father Joseph Hale had hidden before his death that he had first come across the term.
With the end of World War II and the birth of nuclear warfare, the United States sought methods to defend itself against an attack similar to the ones it had made on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan. During the Cold War, a certain few senators secretly drafted a hypothetical scenario and response, only ever referring to it as the Manhattan Protocol. The protocol was only to be activated in the event that the United States was crippled to the point that it could not effectively defend itself against foreign threats. While the country rebuilt itself within its own borders, the Manhattan Protocol would ensure that the vulnerable US was safe from outside attack.
Joseph Hale had been present for the private congressional hearing that had been meant to decide on the feasibility of the protocol, but the only conclusion his father had ever committed to writing was that “the commie threat never merited such a response.” Damon came to the same conclusion decades later when he was brought in to discuss potentially readapting the protocol into a military response to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2002, the idea was dismissed as “excessive”—though Damon had used a far stronger word—as it had been during the Cold War.
“You’re saying the Manhattan Protocol could be initiated, then?” Damon asked. “God, I knew things were dire, but I never thought we would sink so low as to even consider…”
With an agreeing nod, Henrietta delivered the grim details. “As of this moment, there are two dozen cloaked submarines carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles, which have been specially outfitted to resist any and all known methods of premature detonation. Each submarine is in position and awaiting orders. If the Manhattan Protocol is initiated, they will immediately eliminate all potential risks to homeland security.”
“And the targets?” Damon asked reluctantly, trying to hide his brimming anxiety.
With a hint of distaste, and no small amount of reservation, Henrietta gave him the list. “North Korea, Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, a number of remote military installations operated by these countries, as well as all territories currently occupied by the Islamic State.”
Breathing deeply, Damon tried to respond. But he had no words.
“There’s a secret committee organized to determine whether to activate the protocol,” Henrietta added. “They’re afraid, Damon. They’re afraid that we can’t win against something like Rededication, and rightly so. And even if we can win, they believe we can’t do it without severely crippling ourselves in the process. The Manhattan Protocol looks like the only option to them, eliminating all potential major threats to the US, assuming we even have the opportunity to rebuild when all of this is over.”’
“It’s absolutely ludicrous,” Damon replied, raising his voice, holding Henrietta’s gaze firmly. “To say nothing of likely retaliation, it would be nothing short of putting a savage crown on this awful altercation with Truth and Rededication.”
A look of relief washed over Henrietta, and the tension in her shoulders released. “That’s why I called you; I knew you wouldn’t stand for this. Because of your direct involvement with Arras and Daniel, your firsthand knowledge of and experience with Rededication and its methods, not to mention your general involvement in the Manhattan Protocol… Damon, I believe you’re the only person on Earth who might be able to convince the committee not to push the button.”
Damon could very clearly see the fear in her eyes, the sheer need for what she was requesting. Henrietta really was out of options, and he could not imagine what few courses of action would be open to her at this point, especially if anyone with significant power had been pushed far enough to even consider the Manhattan Protocol.
He furrowed his brow and looked Henrietta in the eyes once more.
“I won’t watch my own planet burn itself to the ground in Rededication’s shadow. I’ll do what I can.”