Copyright © 2012 - 2015 by Rilbur and the Revolutions Universe Partnership.
All Rights Reserved
Mat saw it first. The triage area they'd set up outside the doors was now a temporary morgue, while the wounded had been moved into the lounge. They'd exhausted what pitiful little treatment they could manage for the wounded in minutes, and now simply waited. They'd tried to use some of the emergency supplies stored in the cafeteria, but the cafeteria employees had chased them out, refusing to even let the wounded near their precious kitchen. Part of Matt understood their concerns about 'food preparation surfaces must be kept sterile', but the rest of him thought they were being absurd. The phones were all out, and the one expedition they'd sent out to the Health Center had been turned back by university security with orders to stay in the dorms. Medical personnel would be sent 'when available'.
Mat had tried avoiding looking outside, but the pitiful moans and occasional scream were too much. He'd wound up staring out the window, past the dead. It was less painful for him than staring at the wounded. Not that it didn't hurt. It hurt like hell. He reached in deep and brought that pain forth and used it as both hammer and anvil. This wasn't his fault. He felt guilty as hell, but he held that simple fact up as a shield against himself. Ashwood gave the orders. Ashwood's troops had followed them. Mat had fucked up royally by underestimating Ashwood, and he sure as hell wouldn't repeat the mistake. Still, the blame lay squarely on that squirrel-dicked rat-fucking bastard in the White House. Mat was responsible for everyone who died, but the blame, oh the blame went elsewhere. And he hammered himself on the anvil of his failure, deliberately beating away the impurities of humanity, of mercy, of tolerance to turn his soul into a weapon to bring that blame home where it belonged. The half-reflection of the windows let him watch as his face grew harder. Every stroke of the hammer brought more stone to his face, until he reached up, half expecting to find granite instead of skin.
The movement shifted the reflection on the windows, and his eyes picked out by chance a slight motion outside. Mat froze, watching patiently. It was small, subtle, almost invisible, but he could see the slight trace of motion. "It might be a good idea to vacate the room," Mat announced, voice cutting across the quiet buzz. A corner of his mind noted carefully that he didn't even have to raise his voice to be heard.
"What?" someone asked. "Why?"
"Someone is trying to sneak up on us," Mat said, voice like ice. "The only reasons I can come up with for doing that aren't exactly friendly. The police would just march up and demand answers. And unless they were planning to attack, the military would also use a bigger hammer approach. Awe and firepower will intimidate your way out of a fight that just firepower might cause."
"What should we do with the wounded?"
Mat sighed. "I don't know. I just think-"
The sound of a door caused Mat to turn, just in time to see a girl run out the main door. "Wait!" Mat barked, running after her. She was running fast enough that Mat had to really work to catch up, and by the time he'd managed to grab her shoulder they were close enough to get a close look at the person who was dragging themselves up to the dorm. "Oh hell," Mat swore. "Help me!"
Between the two of them, they managed to get his arms up over their shoulders and began dragging him back to the dorm. "Coming in!" Mat shouted, stepping over one of the corpses they hadn't been able to help. "Get the first aid kits back out!"
"Oh shit," Ralph swore as they stepped through the door. "You're shitting me!"
"If anyone is getting shitted here, it's me," Mat growled. "You said he got shot!"
"Look at his fucking head," Ralph snapped as he helped Mat put Sam on a hastily cleared table. The man who had been resting on it was groaning with the pain of being relocated so quickly, but he didn't actually complain. They needed the space to start treating Sam.
"What kind of weapon did he get shot with?" Mat asked, struck by a sudden idea.
"A gun," Ralph snorted. 'Duh' hung insultingly in the air, unspoken.
"No shit sherlock," Mat snapped. "What kind?"
"A pistol," Ralph shrugged as they stepped away from the table. Two of the girls with nursing training stepped in and took over. "Didn't think it mattered much."
"Probably not to you," Mat sighed. "The forehead is tough. A small enough round, especially if fired at an angle, can actually bounce off it," he explained. "Which is what I think happened here. Sam got shot alright, and he probably should have died, but apparently God decided not yet. He probably has one hell of a headache."
Ralph snorted. "Wish the big guy would have helped us a bit more than that," his hand swept across the room, indicating the misery there.
Mat shrugged. "He has a plan. And we have our roles to play in it. We simply need to find them."
Ralph shook his head in disbelief and stalked off. Mat turned and watched as the ladies finished wrapping Sam's head in a bandage. Somehow this helped Mat focus instead of distracting him. He'd miscalculated, and badly, but his underlying assumptions were completely valid. Ashwood wasn't going to give up power. Instead, he'd cracked down.
Mat's head slowly rose. He'd cracked down on Charleston. Something about that seemed important. Why Charleston? Sure, they had a decent economy, and a fair number of people, but you had to compare them to places like New York, San Francisco, or New Orleans. They just weren't that important. Ashwood had to have plenty of other things to worry about. If he could control the major cities, he hardly needed to worry about Charleston. In fact, it would make all sorts of sense to focus on gaining control on the major state capitals, then sweep up the minor ones.
Mat's sucked in breath in sudden understanding. The issue he had was with how hard Ashwood had cracked down. If Ashwood had needed to use a heavy hand to crack down, he would have used it on the major cities. If he'd had those cities well in hand, then he wouldn't have needed to crack down so hard.
Mat was moving before he even finished the thought. "Harry!" he demanded, knocking on his friend's door.
"What?" Harry snarled, opening the door after a moment. Mat ignored his friend's red eyes and just pressed in.
"I need information," Mat told him. "You may have already gotten some of it. Why did Ashwood crack down on us so hard?"
"Huh?" Harry blinked, confused, his train of thought clearly derailed.
"Sorry, jumping ahead," Mat shook his head. "Alright, from the top. Ashwood has a limited number of resources, of troops, he can use. He's going to use them in a manner he thinks is intelligent. Presumably, that means he's going to focus on cracking down in major cities, coast to coast. Instead, he's stomping down on West Virginia of all places. Why?" Mat shook his head. "If he could control major cities coast to coast, he wouldn't need to crack down this hard on us. The war would already be won, and all he's doing is damaging himself. If he can't crack down on the major cities, he should be leaving us until later, focusing on gaining control of them."
Harry's face began to animate as he nodded. "You're right," he muttered to himself. "Either he thinks Charleston is a pretty major city-"
"Ha!" Mat laughed, unable to help himself.
Harry ignored the interjection as he turned towards his computer, "-or there's something about us that makes us important!"
"Nuclear facilities of some kind?" Mat suggested. "I don't think there's anything, but I never really checked."
"More likely it's the chemical industry," Harry suggested. "Maybe he wants to keep that under his thumb. Steal the right chemicals and you could make stuff. I think Ralph commented that his family's business is dynamite and... And... Stuff like that."
"And that," Mat said triumphantly, "means that Ashwood isn't going to be ruling with such a heavy hand everywhere. There's a good chance help is already on the way!"
"Yeah," Harry agreed with a smile. After a moment, it began to fade. "Though..."
"Though? No though, no buts," Mat warned. "I really do not want a but here Harry!" Mat sighed. "But what?" he asked. "Might as well hear it. I'd hate to walk right into the meat grinder again just because we wanted things to be better."
"What if he didn't crack down hard on us because he had to?" Harry suggested. Mat frowned, confused, then made a 'continue' gesture. "What if," Harry said softly, "he cracked down this hard because he wanted to?"
"Oh fug," Mat complained. "Why did you have to come up with that idea?" Mat let himself collapse into a chair. "Worse yet, I can't disagree or argue. It's completely reasonable. And if that's true-" Mat hesitated. "No. Just no. It's not."
"Why not?" Harry asked.
"First, because I refuse to believe it," Mat told him. "If it's true, and I don't think it is, then he's already won, and we might as well bend over, stick our heads between our legs, and kiss our butts goodbye. I don't intend to do so. And besides, if he had that much power, he wouldn't have waited until after the election."
Harry frowned, then nodded in understanding. "Good point."
"So, we need to assume there's a reason he's cracked down so hard around here. Is it something specific about this area? Or, maybe, was he forced to move too quickly, and we just got the benefit of the troops that were supposed to be deployed elsewhere?"
They stared at each other for a long moment, then Harry turned to look at his computer again. "As soon as we get power back, I'll start looking into matters."
"Good," Mat nodded. Business done, he looked up at Harry again, this time noticing his friend's reddened eyes. "How you holding up?" he asked.
"I'll live," Harry's tone cut that line of conversation off. Blinking, he really looked at Mat. His lips twisted. "Better without you in my room," he added quickly. "I still don't agree with your decision."
Mat reached out and laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I know you don't like how it came out, but thank you for being there," he said softly. "I don't think we would have gotten out without you."
Harry's eyes raised up to meet Mat's. "Perhaps not," he agreed unhappily, eyes simmering with anger. "But I'm going to have to think about all the people who didn't make it out. Those that didn't make it out because I failed them, and those that didn't make it out-" Harry cut himself off. "Just go away."
Mat sighed. There were ghosts he didn't want to deal with himself. The fact that he'd chosen to face them head-on already didn't make him any happier with the circumstances that made it necessary. "If you need to talk, I'll be there," Mat told him.
"Thanks." Harry couldn't have said 'Not going to happen' any clearer if he'd shouted 'fuck off' at the top of his lungs.
Mat decided that discretion was the better part of valor and let himself out the door without another word. By the time he made it back to the lobby, two guys were carrying a girl out the door to the corpse pile. Mat closed his eyes, sighed, and let himself fall back into a corner and slump down into a sitting position, knees pulled against his chest. He couldn't figure out which one he felt guiltier about, the fact that he'd gotten her killed, or couldn't remember her name.
"You OK?" Ralph asked, sitting down next to him.
"No," Mat admitted. "I fucked up. Big time."
"I think you made the right calls," Ralph sighed. "I didn't think we had a chance of making it out."
Mat sighed. "Did we?" Mat asked. "I gave the order. I had to. In the heat of the moment it was so clear. Each step followed from the previous, and I never considered -- never even thought about -- making a different choice. Not really."
"Odd. Normally you're the one who pulls the quotes out," Ralph commented.
"Huh?" Mat asked, confused.
"He who hesitates is lost," Ralph told him. "In a fight, the worst decision you can ever make is to not decide. You can't double-guess yourself until the fight is over, or you'll hesitate. And hesitation will get you killed."
Mat sighed. "But what if I made the wrong choice?"
"I think I made the wrong choice," Ralph told him. "You don't see me beating myself up over it. You were right to fight."
Mat shook his head. "If I hadn't gotten this protest running, how many of these people would still be alive?"
"If you hadn't started the protest, how many of these people would still be convinced Ashwood was a good guy?" Ralph countered. "They know the cost of opposing him, but they've also seen the cost of supporting him. If he does shit like this, he has to be taken out of office. I don't think there's anyone in the building who wouldn't gladly join you in an attack on the White House now, convinced that you'll get them through it safely."
"Safely?" Mat snorted, waving his hand at the injured.
Ralph sighed. "They don't blame you for the soldiers showing up and shooting at us. They do give you credit for saving our asses afterwards. No one could have predicted the soldiers showing up, but you saw what was happening in time to stop a riot, then when the military violently suppressed the predicted riot anyway, you again stepped in and stopped them. No, you didn't save everyone. A lot of people are dead. But you saved as many as you could."
Mat grappled with the point and had to give up. Argue how he might, Ralph made a good point. A surprisingly good point. "Still. If I hadn't decided to act, a lot more people would be alive right now," he returned to the original point.
"Perhaps," Ralph nodded. "But a number of them would have simply gone to the demonstration at the Capital Building instead. Do you really think that Ashwood hit that group any lighter than he did ours?"
Mat sighed. "True enough. But I don't think those I 'saved' here outbalance those who would have been lost there. Hell, for all we know the gathering at the Capital did better than we did."
Ralph shrugged. "We can't know," he agreed. "So let's just assume you didn't save anyone that way. There's still the original point. Everyone here knows Ashwood needs to be taken out now. They -- we -- are going to do it, somehow, or die trying. That's worth a few lives. How many people do you think he's going to kill if we don't stop him?"
Mat closed his eyes and thought about it. "For an idiot redneck, you seem to have found a much shorter path to the truth than I did," Mat admitted. It was where he'd been headed anyway. Ralph had just put the pieces together faster than Mat could have. Maybe Mat would have put them together differently, but he doubted it. More likely he would have floundered, failing to see the bigger picture they put together. "I don't suppose you can make me feel any less guilty about my final orders."
Ralph snorted. "Hiding our weapons was pure cleverness. Nothing there to feel guilty about."
"That wasn't exactly my final order," Mat reminded him.
Ralph's voice was cold. "It might as well have been," he said firmly. "I don't know why you gave that other order. I have my own theories, but I don't know. That's between you and your conscience, and without knowing why, I can't judge."
"They'd seen our faces," Mat said softly. "If they'd reported back, Ashwood would be looking for us right now. He'd be tracking us down and killing us."
"And was that really good enough a reason?" Ralph asked. "I did it. I trusted you to have a good reason, but I'll tell you now, I hated doing it. I'd love to hear you had more in mind than just that as an excuse."
It had seemed so clear at the time. Mat struggled to bring it back, to explain it to himself as much as to Ralph. "Those soldiers had attacked civilians, without warning or justification," he said slowly. "Most of the people they shot weren't even armed, just trying to get the hell out of their way."
"Maybe the first group, but the ones you had us execute had come in second," Ralph pointed out.
Mat felt his stomach lurch, and he closed his eyes. "Hell," he swore. "You're right. They were reinforcements, weren't they. They might not have even known what the first batch did." Ralph stayed silent, letting Mat think it through further. "Still. We had to protect ourselves. It really was us or them. And at least we did it clean."
"Did we?" Ralph asked softly. "I know at least one person wanted to take their time about it. I convinced him not to, that you wouldn't approve, but how many others got lost in their own hatred. A situation your orders encouraged."
Mat groaned. "Still. I had to give the order. They'd seen us. They could identify us. It was our lives or theirs. And they were the ones attacking civilians. Hell, if we could have actually tried them they'd have been sentenced to death anyway."
"Do you really think that?" Ralph asked.
"Yes!" Mat affirmed, then hesitated. "Dammit. They would have."
"Do I hear a but?" Ralph asked.
Mat looked away. "No," he lied.
"Lie to me then, but you realize you can hardly go to church and talk to anyone about this," Ralph told him.
Mat shook his head. "I didn't lie!" he insisted, then sighed. "You know me too well though," he added. "I'd love to talk to a pastor over this, but that's not going to happen. It would undo all I did to hide myself."
"Frank is one of the injured. I hear he was planning to become a pastor. Maybe he'll be good enough."
"He's wounded?" Mat asked, looking around.
"One of the girls took him somewhere a bit more private," Ralph told him. "He's safe enough, but the injury is in an embarassing spot."
"Embarrassing?" Mat asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes," Ralph giggled. "I think the word even explains where he got shot. Em-bare-assed."
Mat winced. "I can see where he might prefer to be treated in private."
"When he heard about your order, he muttered about having a word or two with you," Ralph said softly. "Maybe you should kick the girls tending to him out, let him get those words off his chest. And maybe you can be a bit more honest with him than you are with me."
"Honest?" Mat asked.
"You know me too well," Ralph shrugged. "Anything you tell me, well, one day it might just come back to haunt you."
Mat snorted. He hadn't even considered that little detail. "And you think I trust him more?"
"I think that with Harry pissed at you, your options when it comes to private conversations are limited," Ralph shot back. "And yes, you trust him more. He takes that confidentiality thing seriously. He has to, if he wants to continue on to become a preacher."
Mat sighed and pushed away from the wall. "I guess I'm going to go see what he wants to ask me."
"And?" Frank asked.
"And? And?!" Mat spluttered. He'd come here, laid his soul bare, and all Frank could say was 'and?'
Frank's voice was cold. "You laid out your logic. Your order, why you thought it was necessary. How conflicted you feel over it. So what are you trying to ask me?"
"I don't know," Mat admitted.
"And that's the problem," Frank said softly. "You do know. You just don't want to admit to it."
"Know what?" Mat asked.
"You want to know if you did the right thing," Frank told him. "And that's not a question I can answer."
"Why not?" Mat demanded, rising to his feet. "Hell, didn't you put together a speech for one of your Bible clubs just the other week about every man having the duty to decide right and wrong for himself?"
Frank raised a single eyebrow, shifting uncomfortably on the couch. "Say that again, and try listening to yourself."
Mat opened his mouth for a moment, then closed it with a snap. "Fine, fine," he grumbled, sitting back down. "But why can't you tell me what you think?"
"Because that's not what you came here to ask," Frank told him. "You wanted someone to forgive you, to validate your analysis so you don't have to feel like crap over what you 'had' to do."
Mat glared at Frank. "No, I want your honest opinion. I don't want 'validation', I want..." Mat trailed off.
"If you want the truth, if you really want my opinion," Frank said slowly, "then here it is: I think you were wrong. Your logic was sound, but I think you fucked up the assumptions."
Mat felt his jaw drop. "What?"
"You're assuming those soldiers could have identified you, or anyone else," Frank told him. "I don't think they could have. Combat is stressful, and seeing individual faces with the accuracy required to recognize them later would be difficult if not impossible. The best system for identifying you would have been video records of some sort, which your scorched earth policy wouldn't have touched."
"Furthermore, I think that identification issues aside, you made the wrong choice. You've upped the ante, making future fights a question not of victory but of simple survival. History has shown again and again that when an individual is placed in a situation where his life is threatened, he will fight even when logic says that isn't the optimum solution. Human beings are ornery, hard-headed, and just plain stubborn. If," Frank hesitated, then continued on, "no, let's be honest, when you get into a fight again, your opponents are less likely to retreat, less likely to surrender, and much more likely to fight to the death as a result of today's actions. And despite all pleadings of mere, plebeian logic, they're going to actually be more likely to fight you, rather than run away. Humans are stupid that way."
"And all that completely ignores the moral dimension, which I think you know damned well you were on the wrong side of," Frank concluded.
"Well," Mat slumped back in his seat, "I did ask you for your opinion."
"For what it's worth, you could have made any number of worse decisions," Frank told him. "You've set a tone, set a path, that I think is going to lead you to a very dark place, but you still have the choice of turning aside from it. You may have made a mistake, but I don't think it was one you can't try to repair."
"That much is-" Mat began, only to be interrupted by a frenzied pounding on the door
"What is it?" Mat shouted.
"Trouble," Jeremy opened the door and stepped in. "Big trouble."
"I'd love something more defined than a single word," Mat said evenly. "Wait, that was two, wasn't it? Maybe you could actually-"
"Can the sarcasm," Jeremy snapped. "We've got soldiers on campus."
"Oh joy," Mat groaned. "How many?"
"Too many to fight," Jeremy responded oddly. "Though I don't think that's something you have to worry about."
"What the hell does that mean?" Mat asked, standing up.
"I don't think they're here about the fight earlier," Jeremy told him. "In fact, from what I can tell, this group was probably headed here all along."
"What are they here for then?" Mat asked.
Jeremy gave him a long look. "Mr. Brilliant hasn't already figured it out? Ashwood drew up a little list, and he isn't bothering with checking it twice."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Mat asked.
"He's talking about the documents that got spilled Monday," Frank cut in. "Remember those? The ones with lists of 'undesirables' and 'troublemakers'?"
Click. Mat actually felt his brain make the connection. The horrible, unthinkable connection. "They're collecting them now, aren't they." Mat had to say the words, but he still couldn't believe it, anymore than he could fail -- now -- to understand their horrible truth.
"Yes," Jeremy nodded. "They're three buildings up, and I recognized most of the people they were grabbing. Friends. An ex. People I just happened to know. Mostly gays and bisexuals, but there were a few others. Not many."
"We'll have to-" Mat started walking towards the door, but Jeremy pushed him back.
"There is no we," Jeremy told him. "Alex is gathering the others, but you are probably safe. Most of you are probably safe. They're just executing a list from earlier."
"I don't care-" Mat began.
Jeremy slapped him. "Then start caring," he said coldly. Mat met his eyes, and flinched back from the fire he saw there. "I've done the math. They're probably going to kill me. They're going to kill my boyfriend. My friends. They're going to try to 'exterminate' us, but the only reason they aren't just lining us up to be shot is either because they want to extract some kind of 'value' from us. After this morning, I doubt they're trying to hide their actions."
"I'm a dead man either way," Jeremy growled. "So be it. They want to kill me, they can have me. But I'll be damned -- Lord Christ as my witness! -- if I just let them have me. Alex and I are going to fight."
"And you, Mathew Peterson," Jeremy drove a single finger into Mat's chest, "are going to watch. You're going to watch, you're going to survive, and when the time comes you will make them pay."
"I want your oath," Jeremy demanded. "I want it sworn by all you hold dear, by faith and family, by whatever you hold most fucking sacred. I demand it. I forgave you. Now comes the time to repay your debt to me, do you understand?
There was only one answer. Mat bowed his head and placed a hand over his heart. "I swear," he said softly. "I will watch. I will remember. And I will make them howl." He raised his head and met Jeremy's eyes. "They will regret it, or I will die trying."
"Don't die," Jeremy said softly. "Live." With that he turned to leave. "You have three minutes. I suggest you get everyone upstairs, where stray bullets are less likely to hit them. And keep them behind brick walls, just in case."
Two minutes later, Mat had everyone moving in the right direction. Four minutes later, he watched from a third story window as three soldiers approached the front door, five others shortly behind them to add a little muscle to the intimidation. He couldn't hear the conversation, but the body language of the man who met them was pretty clear.
As was their decision to butt-stroke him out of their way. They didn't even hesitate. Too bad for them.
Mat watched. Just like he'd promised.
Jeremy had used his time well. He and his friends had acquired firearms -- including the one Mat had tucked away for himself -- and positioned themselves well. The eight men didn't stand a chance as bullets ripped into them mercilessly.
The one who'd stayed at the front door died a second later as a vehicle mounted weapon opened fire, spraying the lobby with large-caliber bullets. Mat couldn't quite make out the words, but someone got on a bullhorn and started shouting threats. The sheer amount of military hardware concentrated on the entrance to the building was intimidating, but not intimidating enough to save their lives when Jeremy and his friends charged outside from a side door.
Mat remembered. Just like he'd promised.
He'd remember Jeremy's valiant attack. It was clever. They'd drawn the soldiers into not one, but two successive ambushes. Having convinced them that the threat axis was from the lobby, he and his friends ducked aside and attacked from the side, catching half a dozen soldiers in poor positions, covered against only the threat they'd 'known' was there.
He also remember the brilliant, impossible shade of red that covered the grass as the soldiers turned and tore them to pieces.
He would remember until the end of his life.
Only one part left to his promise.
Blood dripped from his hands, where his fingernails had ripped into his palms and he repeated silently, 'I will make them pay.'