Castle Roland


by Rilbur


Chapter 3

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © 2012 - 2015 by Rilbur and the Revolutions Universe Partnership.

All Rights Reserved

"Freedom isn't free. It shouldn't be a bragging point that 'Oh, I don't get involved in politics,' as if that makes someone cleaner. No, that makes you derelict of duty in a republic. Liars and panderers in government would have a much harder time of it if so many people didn't insist on their right to remain ignorant and blindly agreeable." Bill Maher

Tuesday Nov 6, 2012, 20:45 EST

Cabin Creek, West Virginia

Resistance Logo"Come in, come in!" Gran ordered, opening the door. "I have the food in the oven, just waiting for you to get here. I wasn't expecting it to be so soon though."

"It was a hard discussion, but not a long one," Mat managed to say evenly. "The explanation wasn't what I expected at all."

"Oh really?" Gran asked as she took Mr. Knights coat. Mat could have kicked himself in the rear for opening that line of conversation.

"Mistakes were made all around," Mr. Knight came to his rescue. Mat decided to keep quiet and let the man finish, and instead turned and took Harry's coat. "Henry had me keep two copies of each video, but I kept both of them in the attic. That summer my roof rotted through managed to cause damage to both sets, and I had no idea anyone else had backups. Thankfully, the damage wasn't total. I was able to recover almost everything by mixing the two sets."

"I remember that summer," Gran nodded as she opened the coat closet. "There was a lawsuit, wasn't there?"

"I wasn't involved in it," Mr. Knight shook his head. "The contractors did a shoddy job, certainly, but bad maintenance had more to do with my issue. Besides, by the time everyone else had their pound of flesh, there wasn't enough left over for me anyway. The company folded before the lawsuit was even finished. They had to liquidate its holdings and still nobody got much."

Gran nodded as she took Harry's coat off Mat's hands. "It's a darned shame. If memory serves, insurance paid out though, right?"

"Yes," Mr. Knight nodded. "My rates skyrocketed afterwards, but that's what I deserved for not paying attention to the state of my house. I'm just lucky no one was hurt."

Gran nodded. "Best to focus on what's important," she agreed affably. "Speaking of which, our food is just drying out in the oven. Let me set it on the table."

"Let me help you with that," all three of the men offered simultaneously.

Mat led the way to the kitchen and began handing hot pads out. "The table is already set?" he asked Gran.

"Yes," she nodded as she walked away. "I'll just let you men handle it and sit my legs a spell," she added.

In moments a small procession made its way to the dining room, Mat carrying the meat loaf, Mr. Knight the potatoes au gratin, and Harry bringing up the rear with the green bean casserole.

"It's nice to have company over," Gran commented as they set the food down.

"Drinks?" Mat asked.

"Coke, if you have it," Mr. Knight and Harry said in turn.

"Oh, just water for me," Gran requested.

Harry followed Mat into the kitchen. "Do I get the impression you don't want to tell her too much?" he asked quietly.

Mat glanced over his shoulder at the door to the dining room before turning his attention back to the fridge. "Best case scenario, she thinks your father's concerns were nuts and drops it. Worst case scenario, she decides that they weren't nuts and starts poking her nose into them herself. I can look after myself if trouble comes up, but I don't want her getting hurt."

"Just like Dad could look after himself, and didn't want you hurt?" Harry asked pointedly.

Mat nearly dropped the cokes he was about to hand over. "Dammit, it's not the same thing," he complained.

"No, it's not," Harry agreed. "She's had sixty plus years of life to learn where she can get away with poking her nose. You've barely had twenty, and are known for not considering whether you should poke your nose in or not until after it's gotten you in trouble."

"Whose side are you on, anyways?" Mat complained, closing the cupboard door and moving over to the sink, glass in hand.

"Are there sides?" Harry asked. "If there are, I'm on your side, but I don't want you walking into anything blind."

"What the hell does that mean?" Mat asked.

Harry sighed. "You've read just as much history as I have, if not more. Think about it. Ashwood has painted himself into a corner. Between the assassination attempt and the hacking attack yesterday, he's managed to piss any chance of staying out of jail away. Unless of course he holds onto office. And unless things shift dramatically in the voting further west, the only way he's going to do that is by brute force."

"Do you have a point?" Mat hissed as he finished filling the glass with water.

Harry shushed Mat, glancing at the door. Mat could just barely make out that Gran and Mr. Knight were discussing something themselves, but the actual words were indistinct. "My point is that tyrants who use the iron glove rarely restrict that glove to the people that piss them off," Harry said softly. "Kill one person, and people think twice about following in his shoes. Kill his family too, and people will quake in their boots over the idea anyone thinks they're following his footsteps."

Mat felt his jaw tighten. "Point taken," he admitted. He didn't like it, but it remained a point necessary of considering. The idea of anyone harming Gran over something he'd done was sickening.

"Of course, if your grandmother ever found out you'd held back because of her, she'd kick your ass," Harry pointed out before walking away quickly. Mat took a moment to think before he grabbed his own drink and followed his friend back out.

The problem, of course, was that Harry was absolutely right. Not only was Mat doing exactly the same thing Mr. Knight was doing, but Gran would probably react even worse than Mat had. She'd probably be tickled pink that he cared enough to protect her, but then she'd turn around and kick his ass. Not only was he doing the 'wrong' thing, but she didn't particularly enjoy having anyone trying to 'wrap her up in cotton like a china doll'. She'd mellowed out a little on the idea of being helped when her arthritis kicked in, but even then, if you pushed too hard she'd raise a fit. The idea of Mat not doing something important because he was protecting her would set her off like a firecracker. She just wouldn't tolerate it.

Harry had a point about Mat following in Mr. Knight's footsteps here. Something Mat would have to think about after dinner.

"Thank you," Gran smiled at Mat as she took the water glass from him. When everyone was seated, she reached out and took Mat and Mr. Knight's hands. She waited a moment for everyone to link their hands and bow their heads. "Thank you Lord for these, the gifts of Thy bounty, which we are about to receive. Amen."

"Amen," rumbled back at her, and then food began to fly as they served themselves.

Wednesday Nov 7, 2012, 16:22

Charleston, West Virginia

Mat stretched his neck back and forth as he stared at the laptop in front of him. It didn't really help fill up the white space staring back at him. He'd managed to type out a quick outline, but he hadn't managed to fill it in, much less transform from outline to full paper.

He was trying to concentrate, but even if his personal life hadn't been topsy-turvy, the inanity of the subject would have made it impossible. Who cared about the 'Grammatical differences between Standard American English and Appalachian English'? It was just a bunch of idiots who hadn't learned to speak proper English yet!

"Gaaah!" Mat grunted in complaint as he pushed his chair back. He almost wished he'd missed class this morning. It would have given him an excuse for slacking off the rest of the day and pretending he'd had a cold. Hell, he hadn't played hooky since Senior Ditch Day in high school. He was probably due a day off, hopefully this time without a truant officer marching him home to explain himself.

And it wasn't like he didn't have plenty of more important shit on his mind. Dinner last night had been a rather dull affair, but at least Gran had taken the hint that Mat had worked things out with Mr. Knight himself. If she'd poked too hard into that, she'd probably realize that current events had driven the failure to deliver. Any hope of getting her to stay at home would go completely down the drain at that point, and he couldn't stand the idea of her getting herself hurt poking her nose into things that she couldn't do anything about anyway. Even if she would kick his ass for trying to wrap her up in cotton.

Mat stopped pacing back and forth and took a deep breath. Woolgathering might be fun, but it didn't help him get the stupid paper written. Grammar. Like 'Appalachian English' even cared about grammar. It was the most ungrammatical example of a 'language' that he'd ever heard of. Between the double negatives and using singular words where plural ones were required-

Mat felt a grin form on his face and spun around to start pecking at his keyboard. It wasn't going to be exactly the paper the teacher was expecting, but it would most certainly match her criteria.

He'd barely finished typing in the outline when his phone began to ring. Snatching it off the desk, he took one look at the caller ID and almost threw it out the window.

"Hello, Mr. Knight," Mat managed to say courteously. He understood why the man had done what he did, but as time passed he'd begun to realize that that was a long, long way from forgiving him. The first heat of his rage was gone, but it was going to be a long, long time before he wanted to talk to the man.

"Hello Mat," Mr. Knight replied. "This probably isn't the best of timing, but something has come up. I wanted you to hear it from me directly. He's coming up for parole."

"Huh?" Mat asked, confused. "Who is 'he' and why should I care about his parole?"

A long silence met Mat's confusion. "Sorry," Mr. Knight apologized. "I guess I'm in something of a fluster. I wasn't exactly expecting to be making this call."

"If you don't start making some sense, I'm going to hang up," Mat complained.

"I have several friends in the corrections system. One of them did me the favor of giving me a heads up. He knew I'd want to handle this personally. Since he was never convicted for killing your father, the board wouldn't contact you regarding Andrew McClarence's parole hearing next month."

For a long instant the sentence didn't seem to make sense, then Mat's hand reflexively tightened on the phone. The creaking as the plastic deformed was the only warning he received before a loud snap announced something breaking.

"Are you still there?" Mat managed to ask after a moment.

"Yeah, what just happened?" Mr. Knight asked.

"I think I may have damaged my phone," Mat admitted. "How- I mean-" Mat wasn't able to get more than two words at a time out before he lost track of his sentence. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to sound at least a little intelligent. "I thought he was sentenced to five years thanks to some technicality."

Mr. Knight took a long moment to respond, obviously just as emotional as Mat. "He was sentenced to five years for possession with intent to distribute. While in jail, he managed to rack up a few more years. Something about drugs, and then getting into a fight with his cellmate. I don't know the details."

"I see," Mat said. "I take it there's some kind of hearing?"

"Yes," Mr. Knight agreed. "Technically, since he was never convicted for killing your father, the board has no requirement to inform you. They also aren't required to hear you, or even admit you to the proceedings."

"Do I hear a 'but' there?" Mat asked.

"As an officer of the law, I can't really be of help, Mat," Mr. Knight said carefully. "The most I can do is accompany you if you want to try and attend. Maybe even pick your grandmother up so she can attend to. I'm sure she'll be in her best dress, to make a good impression. Knowing her, she'll try to use it to intimidate her way into the hearing."

"What if I call my mother, get her out here?" Mat asked.

"I'd gladly pick her up from the airport for you," Mr. Knight answered happily. "I don't think she'd need me to run interference for her at the airport, of course, her uniform will get her past security pretty quickly."

"But of course, as an officer you can't suggest I get her out here," Mat nodded.

"Of course not," Mr. Knight agreed affably. "It was your idea all along. I'm just accompanying you in the role of a family friend. I don't think I can even wear my uniform. Unless something untoward happens to it, I'll have to wear my suit instead."

"Untoward?" Mat asked.

"Yes, like me spilling coffee all over it. Don't worry, I plan to be very careful. Deliberately spilling coffee on it... Well, I can't do that." Mr. Knight's voice was light and airy, completely devoid of anything that might suggest he was hinting at anything Mat should do or arrange.

"Do you know when exactly the hearing will be?" Mat asked.

"Actually, yes, I do," Mr. Knight grinned.

"Give me a moment," Mat asked, grabbing pen and paper. "Alright, when and where?" Mat quickly jotted down the time and location. "If I need directions I'll be sure to call," Mat told Mr. Knight. "Thank you. I'm still not exactly happy about what you did, but... Thank you for not screwing me over again."

"Twisting the guilt knife in my gut isn't going to win you any more favors," Mr. Knight complained.

"That..." Mat sighed. "That wasn't what I was trying to do. What I said... It came out wrong. Let's just leave it at thank you until I figure out how to phrase it better."

Mr. Knight was silent a moment. "I think I understand," he sighed. "I'll talk to you later."

Mat slowly pulled the phone away from his ear. A long, jagged crack in the casing showed where his grip had broken it. Fortunately, the cheap construction of the phone had worked in his favor, relieving the stress with a simple crack and no further damage. Of course, the cheap plastic would continue to crack and flake away over time. This phone probably wouldn't last another two months. Three, if he was lucky.

Thankfully, it had been a cheap piece of junk when he'd bought it two years ago. He was due something a little more recent. Slowly, gently, and carefully he placed it on the desk. He could afford to replace it, but it would be better if it lasted a little longer. Phones were expensive, and he'd rather not spend his next semester's financial aid before he even got it.

With equal patience and care Mat opened one of the drawers on his desk and pulled out a wooden post he'd spent weeks whittling down into a toy rocket, complete with flames coming out the rear. It was still rough, unfinished, waiting for him to complete it. The wood had only been given a rough shape, without the fine detail he'd add over the next couple of weeks, or the final sanding to remove all the splinters. The wood looked almost dead, without the loving luster that it would have after he'd applied a finish. Still, his practiced eye could see past the roughness to the beauty within.

With a single, convulsive grip he snapped the wood in two, applying so much force the center actually shattered, spraying large splinters halfway across the room. "The bastards!" Mat screamed at the top of his lungs, ignoring the tears forming in his eyes. Not satisfied with the one piece of destruction, Mat dropped one half of the remaining wood on his desk and tried to snap the other half down into quarters. The remainder wasn't long enough to get as good a grip, but he was still able to break it. It was less violent, less satisfying, and he tossed both pieces aside to grab the other half and snap it too.

If someone had asked him, he wouldn't even be able to define who exactly he was calling a bastard. Andrew McClarence, the man who'd killed his father? The judge, who'd let him off for murder on a technicality? The parole board, who wouldn't have even told him about this if Mr. Knight hadn't done an end-run around the law, probably at the risk of his sheriff's badge? Maybe all of the above, but at the moment it wasn't about defining a person, it was about venting his rage. And the wood hadn't been enough. All the wood in the world wouldn't be enough. He needed more. More!

He slammed shut the drawer containing the other wooden toys he'd carved and turned his attention to his knives. Technically, he wasn't allowed to have all of them on campus, but it was a rule that everyone winked over. They weren't weapons, they were tools, and at his advisor's urging he'd signed up for an art class next semester. One course would give him all the excuse he'd need for the next several semesters, if anyone ever challenged his having them. And, as Professor Torres had pointed out, sooner or later someone probably would complain about his having a variety of knives on campus.

And maybe that someone would have a point, Mat realized as he lovingly looked over his collection of knives. This one would be perfect for plunging through a wrist, pinning the arm to a handy tree, or maybe a wooden wall. And then this one, with a much finer blade, would work just as well for removing skin as errant splinters of wood. The edge was sharp enough that with a little care, he could just spiral his way up the bastard's body in a single, inch-wide strip. That sounded appropriate. For starters.

The sound of the door opening distracted Mat from his reverie. "Dear Lord in Heaven," his roommate exclaimed, "what happened? Are you alright?"

Mat spun around to snarl at Frank, but couldn't quite say anything. Frank took a step back, hands raised defensively, seeing in Mat's glare something beyond simple anger. But Frank wasn't the one Mat wanted to kill. Frank didn't have anything to do with his rage, and despite the icy grip of his fury, Mat understood that it wasn't fair to take it out on him. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Mat reached deep and found the strength to put his anger back under control.

Opening his eyes, Mat looked at Frank, who was looking up and down the hallway as if for a place to hide. "I'm sorry," Mat managed to say. "I shouldn't take my temper out on you."

"What happened?" Frank asked.

Mat thought about how to explain. About the call. About McClarence getting off. About his destroying the toy he was planning to donate to a local orphanage come Christmas. About what he wanted, just seconds ago, to do to someone. Anyone involved would have done just fine by him.

He opened his mouth to explain, and then his stomach clenched. "Excuse me," he managed to force out before he clamped his hands over his mouth and sprinted out the door, shoving his roommate aside without a moment's thought. He had to reach the restroom. He had to get to the restroom now.

For once, the fact that the lock on the restroom door didn't work didn't bother him, as he just barreled through it and straight to a stall, where he proceeded loose his lunch. The things he'd wanted to do. The things he'd fully planned to do! Lord God in Heaven, what kind of monster was he, to even think about such things?

"You done calling ralph on the great white phone?" Frank asked behind him.

"For the moment," Mat answered, spitting.

"Want to talk about it?" Frank asked.

"Not particularly, but I suspect you won't be shutting up about it if I don't," Mat flushed the toilet as he stood.

"The knives bugged me, but I could have dealt. You used them as tools, not weapons. Coming to the room to find you'd engaged in wanton destruction, then running to the restroom to vomit?" Frank shook his head as Mat rinsed his mouth at the nearby sink. "There's something seriously wrong going on with you. Not that I can blame you for it coming to a head right now; everything seems to be going to pot. Heck, look at all the evidence that that terrorist Bryce 'won' the election."

"After the assassination attempt, that's not much of a surprise," Mat pointed out.

Frank snorted. "A brilliant maneuver on Bryce's part."

"You don't believe him?" Mat asked.

"Just as the nation is starting to wake up to the truth about Bryce, the legitimate president tries to assassinate him?" Frank snorted. "Who would?"

"I'd say the evidence suggests almost everyone would," Mat argued.

"Bah, elections can be faked," Frank responded disdainfully. "Just look at the evidence the President has in his possession, even if he can't share it. No way people would ignore that."

"Ignore what? A man claiming he has evidence?" Mat shot back. "If he had anything, he would have brought it out by now."

"Are you saying the President lied?" Frank asked, aghast.

"Are you saying Mr. Bryce lied?" Mat demanded.

"If the President had lied, the media would have been all over it!" Frank pointed out.

"Yes, they would have been," Mat agreed. "If they'd been allowed."

"Allowed?" Frank laughed. "You make it sound like a bad conspiracy theory."

"Conspiracy theory, sure, but bad? I'd say it was pretty successful to have lasted as long as it has," Mat replied. "If you have relatives out west, you might want to try talking to them. It was pretty heavily screened on the East Coast, but I hear that the rest of the nation managed to hear all about the truth. Somebody managed to hack Ashwood's servers but-good."

"What?" Frank asked. "Some nutso publishes some conspiracy theory and you believe it?"

"This isn't the right place for this argument," Mat pointed out, just in time for the door to open and let another of the men on their floor in.

"Hey guys!" the newcomer waved, continuing on his way to the showers.

"Hey," Mat and Frank waved back, then headed for the doors themselves. They were silent as they walked back to the room. Frank had his card out and opened the door for Mat.

"Sorry about the mess," Mat sighed, looking at the devastation he'd left behind. Walking gingerly over the carpet, he picked a few of the bigger pieces and dropped them in the trash. "If you go have dinner early, I'll have it cleaned up before you get back."

"No, I don't think so," Frank shook his head. "Forget politics, we shouldn't have gotten side tracked. I want to know what set you off."

Mat dragged the trash can to his chair and got down on his hands and knees. The smaller splinters could be dealt with using a vacuum, but the bigger ones would have to be picked out by hand, first.

"I've never told you about my father, have I?" Mat asked, trying to get his thoughts in order.

"Never so much as mentioned him," Frank agreed, leaning against the door.

"I'd just turned ten years old a few weeks before, so I was pretty young. I don't remember some of the details, and others I just didn't understand," Mat warned. "But the basics aren't too hard to follow. A man named Andrew McClarence ran a red light. My father was a cop, and he tried to pull the man over. Instead of being sensible and taking his ticket, McClarence hit his gas as hard as he could. The high speed chase didn't go on for too terribly long before a kid broke away from his mother. Or her mother, for all I know. I think someone said the kid was chasing a ball out into the street."

"Oh shit," Frank murmured.

"McClarence missed the kid by inches. My father..." Mat swallowed, then sniffed away a few tears. "He swerved to try and avoid the kid. For some reason, I don't think they ever figured out why, he lost control of the car and it began to spin. It managed to hit a tree at just the right angle, and wound up flipping up and landing on its top. Dad was badly injured by the crash. Blood loss, blunt force trauma, the works. Enough to put him in a coma, and a few months later... Well, the doctors told us his heart just gave out. Couldn't handle the strain, and you can't get a transplant for a coma patient."

"McClarence was caught by some other officers, and they discovered drugs in his trunk. Enough to put him away for intent to distribute. Unfortunately, they didn't handle the case right, and the judge let the bastard slip away on the murder charge over some stupid technicality. Until today, I thought he'd gotten out five years ago."

"My condolences," Frank murmured. "So what happened?"

"It turns out that McClarence managed to get a few extra years, for fighting or something, and is coming up for parole soon. The parole board wasn't even going to let me know. They probably won't let me speak." Mat felt his jaw tighten up as he reached the worst part. "My... source wasn't explicit, but I think they'll let the bastard out."

"And so we have the anger," Frank said softly. "Why the sickness, afterward?"

"I let my anger carry me too far," Mat admitted. "I wanted to do things. Things I shouldn't do. And I didn't really care who I did them to."

"You know I'm planning to be a psychologist, right?" Frank asked. "They don't exactly encourage us to be too free with advice while we're still training, but I can point a few things out to you."

"Alright," Mat nodded, picking up the last of the pieces he could do by hand. "Like?"

"Your anger at this individual is natural," Frank ticked a point off on his fingers. "It may or may not be healthy, but the anger itself is natural. Being that angry, your reaction is, in some ways, normal. You were hit with a heavy, unanticipated shock and I'm willing to bet you never dealt with the original anger you felt over the events surrounding your father's death. This caused you to want to lash out, to feel like you needed to lash out."

"That you restricted yourself to physical destruction of objects under your control suggests that you were managing a degree of control over that rage, that you were directing it to safer outlets than what the rage itself wanted to find," Frank ticked off another point.

"Your sickness afterwards is also a pretty good indicator that your reaction is not typical of your overall mindset. Yes, you wanted to hurt someone, but when you were broken out of the cycle of anger and pain, you recognized that urge as something unhealthy. Mind influencing body, you tried to purge yourself physically."

Frank spread his hands wide. "I'm not going to say you shouldn't talk to a professional. You probably should. But you don't need to worry too much about turning into some kind of mass murdering monster. The very fact that you responded to your thoughts by getting ill proves that you aren't. You just need to recognize those thoughts for what they are, and reject them."

"Recognize them for sick? That's easy enough!" Mat snorted.

"Well, getting off my psychological training high-horse, I'd actually say they're the influence of the Devil," Frank smiled. "You might want to try prayer."

"I don't particularly believe the devil is involved in every sick act on earth," Mat snorted.

"No, possibly not," Frank conceded. "Men can do plenty of damage on their own. I actually disagree with my pastor on the idea that everything wrong on earth is the Devil's work. But all it takes is a moment of weakness, and he's there, trying to turn you from God. Don't let him."

"I'll think about it," Mat conceded. "I'm going to go get a vacuum from the office."

"Actually, I think you're going to join me for an early dinner," Frank disagreed. "Don't argue."

"But-" Mat began.

"Unlike your former girlfriend, I'm not interested in your butt," Frank cut Mat off, smiling. "Or your legs. Or your nice, large hands. You owe me plenty for how she behaved. Time to pay the piper."

"My hands?" Mat asked, confused.

"Yes. You remember the time you had to run back to class, and let her stay in the room?" Frank asked, grabbing Mat's shoulder and shoving him to the door. "Well, let's just say that she gave me a real earful about what she liked about you, and really wanted to know if the rumor about whether the size of your hands and feet is reflected in other body parts."

"Other body parts?" Mat asked, regretting it immediately. Still, by moving forward under his own power, he was at least able to get Frank to let go. Physically, anyway. Somehow, Mat suspected that his roommate had been planning his revenge over certain issues for longer than was healthy for him. No one could pack that much embarrassment into such a small space of time without lots and lots of planning.

Thankfully, as they approached the door to the cafeteria, a familiar voice made Mat look to the right. "Hey Mat," Ralph shouted, sprinting up the handicapped ramp. "How's it hanging?"

"I've had better days," Mat shrugged. "Had a rotten phone call to deal with, still trying to figure out what the hell I'm going to do about it. You?"

"Oh, the usual. Left one lower than the right," Ralph grinned. "Hey Franky."

"Ralph," Frank said evenly. Mat was pleasantly surprised that Frank didn't protest, again, over Ralph's 'deliberate mutilation' of his name. It never did any good with Ralph. "It is as much a pleasure to see you as it always is." Mat didn't have to watch to know that Frank had been glaring at Ralph's sideways baseball cap the entire time he spoke.

"Good, glad to hear it," Ralph replied, either missing or ignoring Frank's body language. "You guys having dinner?" he asked as they entered the cafeteria.

"Well, it would be hard to imagine any other purpose for entering the cafeteria at this hour," Frank replied, making every effort to be exquisitely courteous.

"I heard the lasagna is good today," Ralph commented idly as they joined the line.

"I wouldn't know," Frank replied. "I'm not as tapped into the gossip network as you are."

"Oh, I don't know," Ralph laughed. "You certainly seem to hear about who's going to which church faster than I do. I think we just tap into different parts of the gossip network."

"That isn't gossip," Frank said testily. "I'm the official inter-group coordinator for several campus religious organizations. As a result, I do occasionally know when someone is attending a bible study session or prayer meeting. I suspect you probably know more about which church they actually attend on any given Sunday, if any."

"Meh, no one talks about that," Ralph shrugged. "I mean, what fun is that? Now, the fact that a certain Sarah Miller has set her sights on her ex's boyfriend, that's juicy gossip."

"Sarah?" Mat asked, looking sharply at Ralph.

"Oh, damn," Ralph winced. "You hadn't heard? She got caught doing the nasty with Franky here."

"That is a gross exaggeration," Frank cut in. "She cornered me at the library and forced herself on me. I'm of half a mind to report her to campus security."

"I can guess where the other half of your mind went," Ralph grinned knowingly. "I hear she had your pants down around your ankles and her hand right in your boxers!"

"I managed to resist her blandishments a bit better than that," Frank said through gritted teeth. "She did, in fact, attempt to unsnap my trousers, but I was able to prevent her from doing so. The rumors about her having her tongue 'down my throat' are also quite exaggerated, and the ones about my returning the favor are outright lies."

"Oh, so there was tongue involved!" Ralph giggled. "Tell us all about it!"

Frank coughed, looking away. "That was not an invitation to pry further!" he snapped.

"Hey man, didn't mean to pry," Ralph held his hands up apologetically. "Just really curious. Hey, I wouldn't mind having that babe all over me, if you wouldn't mind giving me some pointers."

"If that's your goal, I suspect all you'd need to do is swap roommates with me," Frank replied. "I don't think she's after me, per se. I think she wants to make Mat jealous."

"And I think that's enough discussion about Sarah," Mat cut in. "There is no need to continuously bring up her atrocious behavior, no matter how much voyeuristic pleasure the two of you derive from the stories."

"Excuse me!" Frank exclaimed. "I'm usually the one helping you shut these conversations down!"

"The lady doth protest too much," Ralph laughed. "Hey, I managed to remember a quote! Now I understand why you enjoy it so much, Mat!"

"Pro-protest too much?!" Frank spluttered. "Why I never... I-"

"I know you never, that's why she had to be so blatant about flirting with you," Ralph pointed out. "Anything less than her hand down your pants and you would have missed it."

Frank's mouth opened and closed a few times before he finally turned around and walked off in a huff, just as they reached the head of the line. Mat already had his card ready, but Ralph had to dig for his while Mat swiped himself in. "I just love doing that to him," Ralph commented with a grin after he'd found his card.

"I'm sure you do," Mat agreed, "but I'm the one who has to live with him."

Ralph shrugged. "Hey, you could always follow suit. Hell, I seem to remember you helping me."

"Yeah, and I already regret it," Mat laughed. Ralph always brought out the best in him. Or worst, depending on your point of view. It was one of the things that made them friends. "Still, I'll admit that this time I'm glad you were around to rescue me. He was making a bad day worse." Mat relaxed, the tension of the last half hour or so fading away as he told his friend everything. Harry might have been his best friend, but something about Ralph always helped the secrets flow, even the ones Mat thought he'd never be able to admit.

Wednesday Nov 7, 2012, 17:20

Charleston, West Virginia

Mat was much more relaxed by the time he got back to the dorm. The cafeteria wasn't exactly a five star restaurant, but it was much better than a lot of people made it out to be. The key, Mat had learned early on, was that you had to salt and pepper your own food. The kitchen applied spices with a very light hand, in an effort to appeal to the largest population possible. To compensate, they made certain that spices were available for students to use, ranging from a spice station in the food service area to salt and pepper on every table. Mat was particularly fond of the cayenne pepper, though you had to apply it very lightly if you didn't want to light a bonfire in your belly.

Despite his suggestions, none of his friends made heavy use of the spice section, though they did occasionally make use of the salt and pepper. Usually, much to Mat's disgust, to salt the fries even more than they already were.

When Mat and Ralph entered the hall where Mat lived, they found Kayla standing outside his door, hands on her hips. "Where have you been?" Kayla yelled in that uniquely female tone that let men known they were in hot water. "I've been calling you for the last ten minutes!"

"What's going on?" Mat asked.

"Come on!" Kayla shouted, running down the hall. "Just come on!"

Running on a full stomach wasn't exactly Mat's idea of a good time, but he sighed and followed suit. Ralph groaned and fell into a trot, falling slowly behind. As Mat stumbled into Harry's room, he glared at the screen everyone was standing around. "A movie?" he complained. "You had me run over here for some stupid action flick?"

"It's not a movie," Sam sniffed, wiping his eyes. "God have mercy on their poor souls, it's not a movie."

"It's a live feed from some place out in Texas," Harry told Mat. "I thought, after what you said the other day, that you'd want to see."

"My God," Mat said softly, stepping closer to the laptop. The blood. When he'd thought it was just a movie, he'd thought the effects were horrible. The blood... Was real? There was so much of it. So many dead. So many kids, dead.

"Who?" he asked. "Terrorists?"

"Ashwood," Kayla spat. "Those are Feds. Feds. Murdering children."

Mat's stomach lurched, then settled. He'd have time to be sick later. Right now, his anger was more important. "Fuck laying low," he snarled. "Is this on the news, or just the net?"

"Just the net right now, but I don't think Ashwood will be able to keep it quiet this time," Harry told him.

"Get your HDMI adaptor," Mat ordered.

"What?" Harry asked, looking away from the screen.

"Do it!" Mat snapped. "Sam, no, wait, Kayla, go to the lobby. I don't care who's on the TV there, kick them off. Find a way. Shove your boobs in their face if you have to. If they give you any trouble, tell them to come talk to me." At this hour of the day, it was a given that someone was using the big TV in the lobby, but Mat didn't much care about the difficulty of getting it for themselves. "If need be, just tell them what we're about to put on it. I'd rather you didn't, but if that's what it takes, don't hesitate one second."

"I'm sorry, you did not just order me to get you the TV because I'm a woman," Kayla complained. "That is-"

"Odds are good that whoever has the TV is male," Mat cut her off. They both knew it was true. Sure, there were ladies in the dorms, but for whatever reason it was usually the guys that controlled the big TV. "Males, especially college aged ones, react well to ladies, especially ones as attractive as you are." Also true, and it explained why the ladies hadn't thrown a fit already. If they really wanted to watch something, the guys usually let them.

"If anyone else had tried that line-" Kayla grumbled, cutting herself off before she finished. "Fine. Give me two minutes and the TV is yours, even if I have to put them through the wall."

"The rest of you go door to door," Mat ordered. "I want every last person in this building to know there's something going on in the main room they don't want to miss. Start with the staff rooms. We aren't staying in this building, so we need to know if the staff is going to cause problems."

"No!" Harry shouted, stopping them in their tracks.

"I know you want to keep your hide safe," Mat snarled, spinning to face his friend, "but this is too big-"

"It's not my hide I'm worried about!" Harry shouted back. "It's one thing to let you guys see this stuff. It's one thing to try and publish information that hit the net elsewhere. But every last connection I have is going to vanish if I get caught publicly pushing this. I won't do it. Not like that, not marching out and declaring to God and the whole wide world that I am doing it. I made a promise, and I plan to keep it!"

"Damn your promise!" Mat snarled, moving to yank the laptop out of Harry's hands. "This is more important!"

Harry slammed the lid on the laptop shut before Mat could reach it. Mat almost howled when he realized what that meant. Harry was damned paranoid, not giving so much as a guest account to let others use his machine, and it required you to log in every last time. Login with a username and password Harry never let anyone see. "Don't you understand?" Mat begged. "We can't help them, but we can't just let those kids die for nothing!"

"You're right, we can't," Harry agreed, sagging into his chair. "But we'll use our heads. And thank you for closing the door Ralph."

"You're quite welcome," he replied with a slight trace of a bite in his tone. Mat let himself lean against the other desk.

"What else can we do?" Mat asked.

"Play it smart," Harry told him. "We don't have to march out there and announce that we're the ones putting this video out. I've got a couple of hole cards we can use."

"Hole cards?" Mat asked.

Harry grinned. "Remember last year, when I got a job in the library?"

"Yes," Mat nodded slowly.

"Well, once upon a time the cable company needed to do some repairs to a major node they just happen to keep in the library," Harry explained. "It's what they use to feed their signal to the entire campus. Internet, cable TV, phones, all of it goes through that one connection. Direct connection from there to one of the major internet backbones. It's why we have such great bandwidth. Our regular tech guy was out sick, so my supervisor had me escort them into the server room."

"Don't tell me you hacked it," Kayla laughed.

"Actually, no I haven't," Harry admitted. "On the other hand, they had to replace the entire thing, and I was involved in plugging in some of the connections. Including a data connection to a campus computer that I just happened to be responsible for maintaining."

Everyone else in the room looked at each other, confused. "So if you didn't hack it, what does it have to do with anything?" Mat asked the question that was on all of their minds.

Harry grinned. "I have hacked that second computer. Which has a direct, physical connection to the node. Probably won't take me thirty minutes to hack the cable company's network node. After that, we can adjust the signal. Or replace it. Quietly. Without anyone knowing we did it. The cable company will find the hack pretty quickly once they go looking, but they won't be able to trace it to me. The library revoked my access to the server room months ago, and my replacement supposedly wiped my access."

"Supposedly?" Mat asked. "What did you do, bribe him?"

"No," Harry shook his head. "I just created an entire series of backdoors. He deleted my accounts, all of them, but the computers are riddled with security flaws I just happen to have the keys to."

"Alright, so we put it over the network and tell everyone about it," Mat said. "No, that won't work."

"The evening news starts in about thirty minutes. Kayla here just happens to be in it, so she'll politely ask the boys to turn the TV on so she can hear herself talk," Harry suggested. "And once the video starts, well, then we go door to door. I'll be able to keep it going for at least two full loops if I nurse it, maybe more. And once we've got the second loop done, well, I'll be recording the entire show, just in case no one else does. We can publish that without announcing to the world that we're privy to secrets we shouldn't be."

Mat nodded. "Fine. You've got thirty minutes left, so make the most of them. Kayla, what is this about you being in the news?"

Kayla shrugged. "Remember that fight in the food court last week? They were doing a follow up. Apparently someone found something out that made it newsworthy. If we want to know more, we'll have to watch the Channel Four news at six tonight. I was actually going to ask Harry to see if he could find something out for me, but events caught up with us."

Mat shook his head. "Why the heck would that fight be newsworthy?" he complained. "I heard whatsisname banged the other guy's sister and didn't call back or something."

"That's what I heard too," Kayla agreed. "As for why it's newsworthy? Not a clue," she shrugged. "Channel Four News will be glad to tell us... Or would be, if we weren't going to hijack their signal."

"Not to be a downer," Sam said quietly, "but we're going to be breaking the law. Are you guys really comfortable with that?"

Mat looked at Sam. "I am," he said firmly. "Think about those kids."

"I am," Sam said softly. "They're the only reason I'm not already turning you in. But think about it first. You're just assuming the news won't cover this."

"They won't," Harry snapped. "They've been soft-selling Ashwood for years."

"Maybe," Sam nodded, "but maybe not. They covered Bryce's speech the other day without censoring it. Maybe they'll cover this. Give them the chance. Besides, if we're right and they don't cover it, you've got a ready excuse for hijacking the signal. This is major news; give them fifteen minutes to cover it their way. Then blast them off the air."

Mat nodded. "Makes sense. Harry, can we put a voiceover on the audio somehow? Something like 'because the government doesn't want you to know, we had to bring this to you ourselves'?"

Harry grinned, then spun back to his computer. "Work up a transcript of what you want to say. We'll prepend it to the video, so you won't cover any of the video up."

"Let me grab my computer and I'll be right back," Mat nodded.

Wednesday Nov 7, 2012, 18:13

Charleston, West Virginia

Between Mat, Harry, and a bunch of friends Harry was able to drag in over the internet, they had a solid plan ready to execute. Instead of just one version, they'd prepared several different versions, ready to react to the way the news show tried to spin things. If the news crew was honest enough they'd abort, no harm done. If the news tried to ignore the event, they had a video castigating them for that. If the news tried to cover it as something minor, they were ready for that. Anything they could think of the news doing, they had a script for. Thankfully, most of the scripts were similar enough that they could copy and paste most of the text before tweaking it for the specific version.

Unfortunately, something called 'encoding' meant that they couldn't broadcast the stuff live; it took the computers a few minutes to prepare the video and deposit it to a remote server. They had to 'lock' their texts in at least five minutes before broadcast.

With their target being fifteen after the hour, that meant they were tweaking, adjusting, and rewriting their scripts right up until ten after six. It was rough. It was hurried. But they had all their scripts ready, proofed and sanity-checked by three sets of people each, and then rechecked by Mat personally before the deadline. And Harry, whose fingers had to ache from how fast he'd been typing, had their hack ready to go. All it would take was a single click and they'd be in, ready to broadcast whatever version they chose.

"We said fifteen minutes, right?" Harry asked as they watched the news, a big countdown clock in the lower left hand of his screen read thirty seconds.

"Yeah," Mat nodded. "Still, they said they were going to show something. We'll wait until they're done."

Onscreen, the news revealed that the fight in the university food court was actually caused by the local GSA group. Supposedly -- and Mat had already decided to take this one with a great big grain of salt -- one of the gay members had come on a little too heavily to one of the straight members, and taken offense at the 'reasonable' refusal of his advances. Sure, it made a good news story, but it stank to high heaven, given the timing and the fact that Mat had already heard a much more reasonable story. He'd been stuck sitting next to both of those guys in one class or another, and they were more likely to flirt with you than turn you down. It was enough to make an honest man retch, but they were honest enough about who they were. He'd had the dubious pleasure of hearing one even explain his 'philosophy'; the guy just wanted to have fun, and why should he care who he had fun with.

"And in further news, there are reports that some type of firefight broke out in Breckenridge, Texas earlier today. Information is sketchy, but initial reports suggest the town attempted to murder federal agents involved in quarantining the outbreak of a new illness. The CDC has refused to comment on the possibility that the disease had already compromised the minds of the locals, but in a channel four exclusive we can reveal that our sources confirm that one of the symptoms of the disease is paranoia-"

"Oh that's just sick," Mat snarled. "Wait for the end of their story or cut them off now?"

"Calling up file five," Harry replied. "Waiting for the go-order. I say give them rope."

"I came up with the idea of them hanging themselves," Sam agreed. "I bet Kayla would appreciate it too."

"Fine," Mat nodded. "Wait for it. Don't wait for me, the very second they change the subject, hit it!"

"Thanks Janice," the head reporter said amiably. "In other news, President Ashwood's administration is still silent about the election, though-"

"Now!" Mat shouted, a second ahead of Sam. Harry beat them both to it, and the screen dissolved into static for a long second. When the image came back, a Guy Fawkes mask filled the screen. "People of America, you know me," a heavily distorted voice announced. It wasn't just distorted, Mat knew; it actually started as Microsoft Sam before they'd tweaked it. More than just the people in the room, some of Harry's online friends had joined the party. Mat may have been calling the shots, but he'd never have gotten this done without their help and advice. Mat didn't even know how many others were involved, but they'd given him an idea.

"I am your brother. I am your sister. I am your mother, your son, your teacher, your student. I am legion. I am many, and I am one. I am the one voice of the many who decry the filthy lies the news has spewed, and that you have chosen to eat up whole."

"You know," Mat commented, "it really does work better without the emotion. Something about that flat delivery is sending chills up my spine."

"Me too," Harry agreed as the speech continued.

"So-called 'President' Ashwood doesn't want you to hear the truth. He doesn't want you to know that Federal Agents, without provocation, massacred an entire town. He's spinning half-truths and lies together until you can't tell where one stops and the next begins. There are facts, however, and those facts are damning."

"Fact: we will concede that the first person dead was a federal agent. In fact, he was the very federal agent who was successfully defusing the incipient riot."

"Fact: the person who took that shot was themselves a federal agent, as shown by this video feed." A quick clip of the beginning of the battle ran, then quickly showed diagrams 'proving' where the shot had to have been fired from. And as a topper, a clip of a female federal agent, caught climbing down off the roof, with a rifle on her back. A quick replay zoomed in on one frame in particular, clearly displaying the HRT patch on her shoulder.

"Fact: regardless of whether you believe us about who fired that first shot, the federal agents immediately began using indiscriminate lethal force. It is also a fact, however regrettably so, that that reaction was in some ways reasonable. If, as they believed, the crowd had fired on them they had the responsibility and the right to defend themselves. The agents immediately involved were just as much victims of Ashwood's machinations as the people they killed."

"Fact: if this was a disease, all the agents involved were woefully under-equipped to combat it. This is because, fact, they were wonderfully well equipped for a second purpose, destroying the town. Multiple tanks, and multiple combat armed helicopters."

"Opinion: while the agents involved directly after the initial shot may have been innocent dupes, the armament and readiness to kill shown by other agents shows that they knew exactly what was about to go down."

"Fact: the video of the event clearly shows federal agents gunning down unarmed civilians."

"Fact: some of those civilians were children. Some of those, fact, were high school students trying to reach their parents' guns. Fact, most of them did not get a hand on their dead parents guns. They died, just as their parents died, slaughtered to the last by federal agents."

"Fact: it wasn't just high school students. The federal agents shot everyone. Man, woman, teenager, child, infant. Age, gender, occupation, it didn't matter."

"Fact: the media didn't choose to air the full, unedited video."

"Fact: we do."

"Fact: we do not demand vengeance."

"Fact: we cry out for justice."

"Fact: this is what happened." The screen dissolved into static for a moment again, and then the now familiar video began.

"I don't need to see that again," Mat said softly, hitting the mute button. "How's our connection?"

"Somebody is awake at the studio," Harry commented. "Very awake. I've got at least three separate operators trying to regain control of the network node. I've got them tangled up in false servers and changed passwords, but eventually they're going to wise up and try for physical access."

"That was fast," Mat commented, looking over Harry's shoulder.

"Too fast," Harry replied. "Someone must have called them the second the video went live. Or maybe I missed an alarm somewhere when I hacked. One way or another, they know what we've done, and they want their channel back."

Harry's phone began ringing. "Oh crap," Harry exclaimed. "We forgot to pull the batteries from our phones!"

Mat had almost thumbed his phone silent, but a quick glance down showed that it was Gran calling. "Quiet on the set," he ordered. "Hey Gran," he said evenly.

"Are you watching the news?!" she screeched. "This is horrible! Could you find out when the memorial is going to be?"

"Memorial?" Mat asked.

"For those poor children!" Gran shrieked. "I can't imagine there isn't going to be something going on to remember them!"

A half dozen responses floated through Mat's mind, but he could hear the TV in the background. Not their TV, hers. Which sounded suspiciously like the video they were busy hacking into the school's TV grid.

"I hadn't gotten that far," he said sadly. "It's disgusting what those Feds did though. I sure hope they're brought to justice."

"Justice, not vengeance," she agreed viciously. "I'd like to meet the person who wrote that speech. I'd give them a great big hug, and maybe a kiss to boot. It was brilliant, don't you think?"

"It was certainly effective," Mat agreed, head spinning. This wasn't possible. This could not be happening. "I'd love to know how they got it onto the air, though."

"Who cares?" Gran demanded. "Listen, I'm going to call the church, get a prayer meeting together. But I'd love to attend a bigger event in the city when they have it. Find out for me, will you?"

"Will do, Gran," Mat said, then turned the phone off. "Next time we'll remember about the phones, I'm sure," he commented.

"That was your Gran?" Harry asked.

"Yes," Mat nodded. "Harry, how come Gran is seeing this?"

"Um," Harry temporized. "I actually don't have a clue. We only hijacked the node on campus. The only TV's that should be receiving this image are those downstream of the node. I don't have a clue how it's getting off campus."

"Didn't you say this node was a major one, something about the internet backbone?" Sam suggested.

"Yes," Harry nodded. "Because they already installed a T1 line to the school, it was easier to piggyback on the school's connection than... Than..." Harry trailed off. "Oh shit. The campus node is closer to the source than most of the city. They must actually route their video out here to capitalize on the internet connection. Oh dear."

"Harry," Mat asked softly, "how many people just saw our broadcast?"

"Um, way too many?" Harry suggested. "Like, oh, up to most of West Virginia? Certainly most of Charleston and the immediate surrounding area."

"How many people are trying to trace us?" Mat asked, wishing he had a nice, tall glass of water. His mouth was very dry for some reason.

Harry glanced at his computer. "Too many."

"Maybe we should turn the computer off and head out to the lounge, let your friends pull their tricks without us," Mat suggested. "I mean, we were planning to do it as an alibi anyways."

"Yeah, that sounds good," Harry agreed nervously. "That sounds like a very good idea."

"In the meantime, I think I'm going to drop by the water fountain," Sam commented.

"Yeah, good idea," Mat agreed. "Let's get going. All of us. Right after Harry disconnects."

"Almost ready," Harry said. "I'm letting my... friends... Know that the broadcast went to a much wider group than anticipated, and that I need to bail."

"Hurry?" Mat asked plaintively, almost feeling the eyes on him. Somewhere, orders were being shouted into phones, and commands typed into computers, and troops mobilized to find him. He'd rather not be found. He'd really rather not be found.

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