Some are angry enough at what's been done to them to want to fight. Some are ashamed enough of what they've done -- or not done -- to want to hide. But the vast majority is lost and shaken, uncertain of what this means, or how to approach it, or even what to say.
And when they reach for the internet, hoping to find information, or facts, or at least hear the voices of those who are feeling as they do, and add their own words to that stark, growing rumble of confusion, fury, and hurt, they find that they cannot.
All their smart phones and blackberries, all their tablets and laptops, all their computer labs and internet cafes -- all are black and still, unable to connect. The other programs work fine, and there doesn't seem to be any malicious, memory-eating worms working through their systems. But nothing can get the net working, anywhere, for anyone.
And, bereft of easy answers in a time when they need them most, people start to talk. They speak of what's been going on, and all the weird things they've noticed. All the strange lags and oddly-cadenced emails. How the news has seemed too good to be believed, or too strange to be understood.
And their children! Some of them -- especially in the less-developed countries, where they've been put to work for the Imago -- have had their children off in those big, white boxes since this all started. The Imago told them they'd be teaching them amazing things, in there, and they got to talk to them once a week. But the things they said, and how they said them?
The blank way they acted, at times? How far away and distant they seemed?
No, something is not right, here. Something has not been right since this all started. And now that they know -- now that they understand -- they won't be taking any easy explanations from glib-tongued metal people.
One by one, and then two by two, and then in large and shouting groups, the people of the world leave their blank computer screens behind. They head to their houses of government, and reason with the guards there to let them past, or else they'll stand outside and shout until they are acknowledged by their keepers.
And they will shout and chant and congregate, in their hundreds and thousands and millions, until they at last get the precious answers they have clearly deserved for so long.
* * *
Good afternoon, my fellow Americans. This is the President of the United States of America, reporting to you from a secret location.
I know that seeing me here, alive, must be a shock to many of you. I know that you saw me shot on live television. I know that you saw me die, and saw that SPYGOD was the one who fired the bullets.
But I assure you that this is me. I am alive. I am not the man who was shot dead, any more than SPYGOD was the man who shot that person. We have, both of us, been the victims of a very elaborate, and very deadly hoax.
A hoax that helped enslave the world.
The how and the why of what happened to me are not so important now. Not now that America, like the rest of the world, languishes under the thumb of otherworldly tyrants. Alien beings who quietly conquered our planet while we slept, and then engineered certain events to make us all fall right into their hands.
The hands of the Imago.
Tonight, I accuse the beings who call themselves the Imago of being liars and monsters. I accuse them of working in collusion with a science terrorist outfit, GORGON, to lay the groundwork for an invasion of our world. I accuse them of duplicating thousands of people, around the world, and killing the originals.
I accuse the Imago of using those duplicates to create a worldwide crisis. I accuse them of stepping in to exploit the chaos and terror they, themselves, engineered for that purpose. I accuse them of using our orbital defenses to destroy and kill on a global scale, both on 3/15 and ever since.
And, on a more personal note, I accuse the Imago of blaming that crisis on the American government, of holding false trials with duped witnesses and bullied defendants, and of executing without cause the surviving members of several Presidential Administrations, Federal Departments, and Congressional leaders.
I accuse the Imago of executing without cause my Vice President, who was one of the finest men I have known and worked with. I accuse the Imago of duplicating his wife. I accuse the Imago of using the safety of his family and mine to threaten him into saying anything they wanted him to.
I accuse the Imago of using the internet to subject the people of the world to mind control, and using their control over you to get you to look the other way as they quietly committed atrocity after atrocity.
I accuse the Imago of deeds of a scale of villainy that I couldn't even have imagined existing in this world, until I actually got back here to find out what they'd done, and how.
My fellow Americans, my fellow people of the planet Earth, right now the confusion you are feeling is a result of their influence over your minds leaving you for the first time in months. These signals are being broadcast to you over the televisions that, I am advised, most of you kept, even though they didn't work after 3/15. It will continue to play, over and over, until this crisis is past, and we have taken back our world.
I urge you, for your own safety, and the safety of your loved ones, to stay off the streets. Do not take matters into your own hands. Heroes from around the world are fighting for your freedom, this hour.
And they will win.
To the Imago, I say your time has come. You are done. Leave this planet now, if you even can. And if you can't, we'll be happy to kick you off of it.
To the world, I say that America stands with you, tonight. Whatever we have been to each other in the past, in different times, does not matter in this moment. At this moment we are all a people under threat. At this moment we are all as one in the struggle to be free.
To my country, I say that, in the words of Mark Twain, reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. I hereby resume the office, duties, and responsibilities of the office you elected me to. I once said 'Yes we can.' Today I say 'Yes we must.'
And together, and with God's blessing, we will.
Good afternoon, good luck to us all, and may God bless us, the United States of America, and the world in this, our hour of need.
* * *
"This should be all you need, mate," Tate says, handing the small cylinder over to Prentice in the back of the workshop: "I've rigged it with a three second delay, in case you want to throw it and run or something..."
"That won't be necessary," Prentice answers, looking at the tiny switch on the underside. He doesn't even look at Tate when he says this; he's hardly looked at him at all.
"Yeah," Tate replies, putting his hands on his hips and looking around: "Look, I know we haven't always gotten on too well. It's been a rough couple months-"
"I never liked you at all," Prentice says, finally really looking at the other man: "Not before, not then, and not now."
"Well, it's all coming out in the wash, now-"
"But I will say that you are one of the few truly professional people I've dealt with, up here," Prentice says, tucking the weapon under his arm: "We're alike in that way. We both know we have a job to do, so we do it. Anything else is irrelevant. And liking anyone up here's just something else to get in the way of tough decisions."
"Well, I liked you, sometimes," the other man says, extending a hand: "And I've always respected you. And I want to say thank you, before I can't anymore."
Prentice looks at the hand. He takes it carefully, and shakes it. He even smiles, just a little, but it means nothing to him.
It's all for the man who actually made the bomb, just to make him feel better about all this. To feel better about being the man who finally said what they were all thinking, and put forward the need to do this in the first place. To feel better about not drawing the shortest straw, after all that agitation.
To feel better about not being the one who dies today.
With that, Prentice turns and leaves the workshop, heading for the chamber where the former Director of Deep-Ten is holed up, creating a weapon that could destroy Alpha Base Seven if it's turned on. Which is why he's not going to let him turn it on.
Everything else that's gone into this decision is irrelevant. There's only the here and now, the many and the one.
There is only this action, which will reverberate throughout history.
* * *
From his high perch, looking down at the great chasm below, Emperor Thurl must confess to fear.
He has heard the words of the Overlander President. He knows that the time to act has come, and that he has pledged to do so. He knows that everything he has done, of late -- indeed, the entire reason it is he who stands here now, and not his previous formlife -- has led to this very moment.
But yet, the decision will be a momentous one. The Kingdom is no longer held by the Overobligation. They no longer owe the air-breathing denizens of the Overland any fealty or apology for the actions of the past. They could live down here, in the dark, and never have anything to do with the surface or its wars again.
Now that the Imago are about to be wiped from the face of the Overland -- and hopefully their City of Darkness with them -- the Kingdom need never be involved with that again.
But he has made his promise to the one coordinating the attacks against the Imago. He has told this man that the Kingdom will send help, the best way it can. And in return he has been promised true absolution for the Great Mistake, and a place at the table of the surface world. Inclusion in their "United Nations." A proper trade treaty.
(And maybe even an end to the garbage that is being constantly dumped into their world.)
It is a great leap forward. It can bring new and good things with it. It could also bring new dangers. Unseen obstacles. Maybe even untold disaster.
No adviser can make this decision for him. There is only the wisdom within his mind, and all the voice of all the formlives he's had.
And they all say the same thing.
"My Emperor?" the warden asks, kneeling before him: "I tell you truly, the moment is upon us. If you would let it happen, it should be now, or they will surely begin to eat one another."
"Then let us give them something else to eat," Thurl says, holding his claws up: "Release the War Spawn!"
And with the rushing of many unfathomably-large beings -- the very stuff of nightmares, Overland or otherwise -- his words become law, and the decision is made.
Hopefully it will be one the Kingdom can live with.
* * *
"Yes, I know you're getting !@#$ing hammered," SPYGOD shouts at one group of heroes, watching their movements on one of the many screens he has up in Lady Gilda: "Fall back a little. Let them think they're !@#$ing driving you back. Hold on-
"Okay, good. Well done, American Shield. Now hold that !@#$ position. Pretend it's !@#$ing Korea, again, and the Chinese are coming over the !@#$ hill. Okay? !@#$ing awesome. Hold on-
"Bee-Bee? Pass me some of that !@#$ vodka, will you?
"Okay, go ahead. What, how many times has the kid blown up? Not even a !@#$ scratch? Well !@#$. Okay, start using your alchemy thing, then. Have him blow up the !@#$ Specials when they show up. Hold on-
"Bee-Bee? This !@#$ sobriety isn't going to !@#$ing cure itself! Move your fuzzy !@#$ and give me booze!
"Sorry, yelling at the cat. Where are you? China? Okay, that's not where you were !@#$ing supposed to be... oh, you got that other one? Okay, then. Good work. Now if you take this one out, too? Just !@#$ing stay there. I may need you to go on to... hold on-
"Yes, Owl, go ahead. Oh, he did? Well !@#$ me running, that's !@#$ impressive. Okay, you hold that position. Do not go further. I may need you to swap with... ah, !@#$. Hold on-
"Okay, thanks Bee-Bee. You know I get if I don't get my !@#$ing vodka.
"Yes, Mister 10. We have you. Please don't start !@#$ing moving until we've got a green board on the satellites? I don't want you to get !@#$ing zapped from orbit-
"Come to think of it... Hey? How's that satellite situation going? They loaded up, yet?
"Hello? Earth calling !@#$ing B.A.S.E.C.AM.P. 4! Where the !@#$ing !@#$ are my !@#$ing satellites?"
* * *
"Tell him we're having some difficulties!" Mark Clutch shouts to Skyspear as he grabs the biggest gun he can find and runs off to the infirmary, leaving the massive, tv-like machine that dominates the grand buffet room to hiss and spit: "Just that!"
"And what if the difficulties come here?" she shouts, looking at Winifred, who's white-faced and crying, spattered with what's left of Running Bird: "That monster could destroy the machine with ease!"
"I trust you to keep him back," Mark says, stealing back one last look at her. And he does, too.
A lot of thoughts are going through his mind, right now, as he runs. Where the heck is the Lion? Where are the satellites? Where's Myron, for that matter? Can they get the equipment back to the real world before the beast smashes their way in and out?
And are they going to have to sacrifice themselves to hold it here, so that what needs to get done on the other side of the television can be done?
On the way he has two of his questions answered when he runs into Myron, who's struggling to carry one of the satellites to the main room all by himself. He's been burned, and is either bleeding or covered in someone else's blood.
"You alright?" he asks.
"That's a !@#$ stupid question," Myron hisses: "Is Winifred okay?"
"She's shaken, but not hurt."
"Oh thank God," he says, and continues a little faster: "I'll see if I can get the rest of them to the main room. But I'll need help!"
"I can get you some time," Mark says, continuing to run: "Hopefully that'll be enough!"
Myron says something in return, but Mark doesn't hear it. He's running too fast. Praying too loudly.
Scared too much.
Outside the infirmary, there's fire and blood. SPYGOD SCOUTS are struggling to put it out with halon fire extinguishers, but the flames are proving intractable. If this gets any worse, the whole treehouse may go up.
In fact, the only flames that are being put out are the ones doused in human blood. A good thing there's so much of it, Mark thinks. And then he curses himself for ever even being able to think it.
(What the !@#$ is happening to him?)
He gets inside the infirmary, jumping over a charred lump of flesh and fat that was once their doctor, right through a broken, smoldering hole in the wall that used to be the door. Just past it is the broken, shattered remains of what used to be the examination room and operating theater.
And beyond that is a sight he never thought possible -- someone actually holding off the monster that's rampaged through their base.
It's the Green Man, and he's moving so fast that Moloch can't get a hit on him, using surgical implements and steel bars to block and parry the numerous, slicing arms that the brass beast's limbs have separated into.
"You will fall before Moloch!" the monster rages, smoke and fire tumbling from its mouth.
"You will tire and give up before I'm even scratched," Green Man taunts him, leaping up and throwing a knife right at the thing's eye. It melts into metal steam before it can do any damage, but the skill needed for such a throw is unnerving, and makes the monster take a step back.
"Hey, ugly!" Mark shouts, and opens fire.
The beast turns around to regard him as the bullets bounce from its hide. As it does, Mark sees where the Lion has gone during all this. And the sight of the man in the machine makes him hesitate, just for a second.
And in that moment, Moloch strikes, shooting a gout of hellfire right at Mark's face.
In the split-second before everything explodes, he wonders how Martha is doing, and if she'll ever know what he'd been trying to tell her, all these months.
And he thinks what a stupid and sudden way to die this is.
And he prays that Thomas' father can save his son, and that the others can save the planet.
And he closes his eyes, hoping that the next thing he sees is Jesus, welcoming him home at last.
And then everything goes hot and noisy and yellow, then cold and silent and white, and he follows the cool, pale quiet down, wondering what he'll find at the bottom of it all.