“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”
While there was no part of his life’s work that didn’t exist online, or was kept at the university, Starling still lamented the loss of so many physical ties to his old life. He found solace in the thought that it was a life that was rapidly coming to an end regardless, and that he now had a new one to start over with. But paradigms don’t shift as easily as the gearbox on the cheap French-made rental car they were tearing down the country road in, and the magnitude of his change in circumstance overwhelmed him.
“That is not going to work.”
“It’ll hold them long enough. Meantime, if anyone recognizes you, just laugh and tell them that ‘you get that a lot.’”
“Are all of your plans this well thought out?” The scientist responded, in skeptical annoyance.
“Well, USUALLY, I have more time to plan,” Edward shot a glance over at Epiphany, who rolled her eyes. “Under the circumstances, I think we’re doing pretty well.”
“And where do we go from here, pray tell?”
“I’ve got people. Shouldn’t be hard to overnight you a passport. Your voice is getting better by the way. Let robotic sounding, anyway. Odd accent, not English-sounding.”
“I am sure that will come in handy. Have you given any thought as to who the authorities will suspect is responsible for the fire at my house?”
“Don’t know. What’s your concern?”
“The nurse, who was the last known person to be there, from the night before.”
“I promise you she will not be a suspect. I will intervene personally, if necessary.”
It ended up being a few days before West could arrange for a U.S. Passport for Doctor Starling. The three spent the time setting up the scientist with an new wardrobe, playing tourist and laying out plans for Starling to continue his work back in the States, giving his advice to Edward’s organization, as needed, and helping both the Government find ways to communicate science-related policy to the public and Professor Todd develop a stronger scientific and science-based reasoning curriculum that could be used at every stage of childhood education and development.
They also were bombarded with reports from every part of the media about the mysterious disappearance, and possible death of renowned Physicist, Doctor Henry Starling. In a pub, on what would be their last night in London before flying out of Heathrow the following day, they caught an American news feed in which an obscure commentator – a conservative pundit who had previously been too insignificant for Edward to have bothered with – compared England’s loss of Starling to America’s loss of so many of their ‘prominent voices.’
“Don’t you dare compare Henry Starling to those lying buffoons!” Edward yelled at the Television set. Starling himself was in the bathroom at the time, but the outburst got them some free pints from their new found friends amongst the patronage.
Starling was nervous the next day, both checking in at Heathrow and going through Customs at Reagan. While his passport was official, he kept thinking it would be flagged as a fake. And the fact that his actual name was used on it, so soon after his apparent death, convinced him that there was NO WAY they would get away with it.
“Really?!” the customs agent inquired.
“I know, right? What are the odds?”
As much of an impossible coincidence as it appeared, the fact was that he no longer resembled the almost corpse-like invalid that the world had become so familiar to seeing. And his younger face had never been that well known. Between that, his apparent age, physical health and what was now a perfectly neutral accent, the agent just shook her head. “I know how you feel, honey!” Pointing at her badge, Starling read:
He just laughed, shook his head and replied, “Well, it is an honor to meet you, Miss Franklin.”
“It’s an honor for me as well, Doctor Starling!” she replied with sarcastic enthusiasm as she handed his passport back to him. “Welcome home!”
“Thank, you… uh… It’s… good to be… back.” He replied, silently cursing his awkwardness. It was not a greeting he had ever received from someone who wasn’t British.
That night Edward called a meeting at his house in the Manassas compound, which he was pleased to discover now had both heat and electricity. He figured he could almost have it cleaned by the time everyone would arrive. Doctor Starling was there from the start of course as Edward showed him around a house that was identical to the one he was being given. When Gretchen inevitably arrived fifteen minutes earlier than planned, Starling was whisked away to hide in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Edward was hoping to make a single reveal, to the entire group at once, of their last inaugural member. West, of course, already knew, having procured his travel documents, but for his part didn’t mention anything to anyone else. Epiphany volunteered to keep him company. An odd choice, considering their initial encounter, but Starling was keen to spend some time with her, and Edward figured that they would have some hatchets to bury in any case.
Once everyone was assembled, assuming they were all about to give status reports on their progress or some such thing, Edward let them know why he had summoned them.
“My friends. Thanks you all for coming. I hope that you’re finding the process of getting settled in to be going smoothly. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you need, literally, anything at all. I truly appreciate the work that you’ve been doing, and I know I kind of pulled a dump-and-run on you there. I want you to know that I’m back – to stay, I mean. And I’ve brought with me the last of the inaugural members of our little organization. Ladies and Gentlemen…”
As Epiphany and Starling walked in, there was a moment of awkward silence as everyone wondered who would be the first to say “Welcome, nice to meet you,” or even, “who ARE you?”
It was Professor Robert Todd who broke the silence. “Hen..Henry?” He had met Henry Starling only a couple of times, but was the only one who had any idea what he really looked like before the ravages of time and ALS had taken their toll.
Doctor Starling smiled, and nodded.
And then the rest started to piece it together… The blast in Cambridge… The disappearance and presumed death of England’s most prominent scientist… The Tears, and the effect they would have…
Gasps of realization from John, Paul and Gretchen. Nervous Laughter from West, Epiphany and Starling himself. A satisfied smile from Edward as the ice broke and the room exploded in greetings and conversation.
“So you guys are the ones who torched the place in Cambridge?” John asked.
“We had to do something.” Starling answered, somewhat irreverently, considering that the world outside was holding its collective breath waiting for confirmation that he was dead or some sign that he was alive.
“It won’t hold,” Paul concluded.
“It doesn’t have to,” Edward countered. “Henry here has made a clean break with his old life. Even if they tracked him all the way here, who’s going to believe that this is the same man?” By now he had put on nearly 50 pounds, his posture was completely erect, and beyond all that he now possessed the same look of indeterminate youth that they all did. Anyone looking in would as soon conclude that this was a frat party as the initial gathering of what would become the most influential secret society in the history of mankind.
The night socializing wore on, with the ‘getting to know you’ part soon giving way to political debates and amusing personal anecdotes. Of course everyone was glued to Starling description of what happened during his transformation from the Tears. Epiphany was concerned how he might describe her involvement, but he never made any mention of it. They were also as interested in hearing about his many travels and adventures. Despite being completely paralyzed, he had traveled many times farther, to many times more countries, as all of them put together.
Sensing a lull in the conversation, Edward suggested that the group lay out some of the rules of their little cadre; a Constitution of sorts. Rule number one dealt with new membership: Any new members from that point on would have to gain the acceptance of every single member of the group, and would, upon acceptance, gain full rights as a member. Anyone could be nominated, but they would be required to accept immortality in exchange for membership. This would be a heavy consideration for both the nominee and the group’s members.
The Second Provision: Expecting what was already in progress, any new legislative actions taken, or priorities given, would require the full consensus of the group. All voices must be heard, and all members must be satisfied. The only exception: A single member’s objection, including Edward’s, could be overruled, but only if everyone else stood against them, AND was unanimous in their decision to override them. And this last part was not something to be taken lightly. Each member understood the importance of working towards consensus, and that they were chosen specifically because they would not always agree.
Of course, as Paul pointed out, Edward seemed inclined to agree with everything that Professors Todd and Staling ever said; West, Gretchen and Epiphany seemed inclined to follow Edward; and John, while a rabble-rouser by nature, seemed to find very little to disagree with the rest of them on.
Sensing that Paul might be feeling a bit isolated, Edward sought to reassure him. “Paul, don’t you see? That makes yours the most important voice in the room!”
“Not if the entire group is always against me.”
But John wasn’t having any of it. “Oh, come on, now. Were you even listening an hour ago? Everyone was debating everything under the sun!”
And Professor Todd felt compelled to add, “Yeah, and I can assure you that you’d have to be pretty far out on a limb for me to want to over-ride your vote. I LIKE this idea of consensus. And getting to know you all, I believe it can work… IF our benefactor here can deliver what he says he can.”
All eyes went back to Edward.
“Well, let’s start with the Health Care Plan. Gretchen? How are we doing?”
“Well… The plan has managed to make it out of committee, but it’s meeting a lot of resistance in the House and Senate.”
“A lot? Huh. I wouldn’t have thought the Right would have recovered its footing that quickly. Who seems to be leading it?”
“Um… Crocker Jarmon, in the House… Bob Roberts, in the Senate.”
“Couple of newbies, huh? Ok. Jarmon and Roberts. I can deal with them. What about media? What are they saying?”
“Well, Congressman Spencer’s has been making the rounds, and he’s done a really great job arguing its strong points. I can’t say there really IS any organized opposition in the media right now; Just tough questions that, so far, he’s had all the answers for.”
“Great. Make sure he knows we’ll support him in twenty-twelve. Get him his campaign money BEFORE Campaign finance reform. Let these corporatist scum know we can play hard ball as well.”
The various discussions and debates raged well into the night and the early morning.
The following afternoon, Edward was sitting behind his computer at the High and Low asking West about the email accounts of the numerous, recently deceased Senators.
“Do I even want to know why you’re asking about them?”
“We’ll get to that in a moment. For now, just tell me: Do they still exist?”
“Yes. Per standard protocol, the login is disabled, but the contents of the accounts are kept for posterity. But why do you ask?”
Edward paused the video that was playing across his screen, stopping Congressman Ed Royce halfway through his condemnation of the Tea Party and the manipulation of the public by Right Wing Media, moments before the Orange Country Republican would be shown producing a pistol and taking his own life, as so many others had.
“I would like for Senator Jarmon to receive a warning of sorts… from his predecessor.”
West looked at the screen and all was apparent. “So… you want to make it look like the late Congressman Royce was sending his own suicide video to his successor, as some kind of a ‘don’t be like me’ message? A successor, I might add, who couldn’t have possibly been known at the time the video was made?”
Edward smiled a little too broadly. “Yeah, that’s the idea. Should be a bit unnerving, don’t you think?”
West folded his arms across his chest, smirking as he shook his head. “As much because he’ll assume it’s some kind of threat as a message from beyond the grave.”
“That’s fine. Let the rumors get started. Nobody knows I have a copy of these videos, correct?”
“Not yet, anyway.”
“Good. So is it possible to send this, via his predecessor’s email account?”
West frowned. “Possible, yes. But not easy. Suppose I could get you access. Where would you send it from? Not here, I hope!”
“Oh, no. And not with this computer either. Ideally, we’ll hit up some hotel lobby or an interment café in town, and send it from a public terminal. Maybe you can even get someone else to send it, while we established alibis for our people, just in case.”
West had friends who could do this, who he trusted to execute the plan without asking to many questions, and to keep quiet about it, provided that they were kept in the dark on most of the details, but getting access in the first place would be tricky. “The main problem will be logging into the email accounts. The Secret Service has access, but I can’t do it myself. It will attract too much attention and they’re watching me very closely these days. If the Major was here, I’m sure he could hook us I no time.”
“Well,” Edward started, switching over to his e-mail, and looking at the seemingly random email address that he had received some advice about Director Panetta through, “This might be worth a shot.”
One morning the following week, Congressman Jarmon was sitting in his office, preparing for a procedural vote that day concerning the House’s version of the Bill to create a new, National Health Care system. His constituents and his backers in the insurance lobby were opposed to the Bill, in its entirety, and he planned to use today’s vote to obstruct its progress.
His e-mail notified popped to the front of his screen. An email… from his late predecessor.
Assuming it to be some sort of glitch, perhaps someone sending an email TO his predecessor, that was then being auto-forwarded to him, he opened it up.
‘Crocker,’ read the heading, dispelling nay notion that the message was not intended for him, ‘You must not continue to support the unsustainable system we have now. Profits and tax-breaks for the rich must not come before people’s health and lives! Don’t end up like me!”
“Liberal rubbish!” he snorted. The message was unsigned, but he noticed there was an attachment. “Oh, this ought to be good,” he said to himself, derisively, as he clicked on it.
A video opened. It was his predecessor. He listened, with considerable confusion, while the late Congressman laid out a detailed condemnation of most of his political career. He denounced corporate money, and even many of the policies and principles that the Right Wing of American politics had come to embrace. He could scarcely believe his ears that this man, who he had known professionally for many years, was saying what he was. When he cut his forearm, to write… something… in his own blood, the Congressman winced.
“No…” he said out loud, as the man in the video brought out his gun.
As the screen went white with the muzzle flash, he almost fell out of his chair. He sat for a few seconds. The video looped, and started to play a second time. He closed it down. Trembling he made a fist. Fear and anger, washed over him, pushing him passed the limits of his temper.
“WHO SENT THIS?!” he bellowed, loud enough to make his colleagues in nearby offices jump. “WHO THE HELL SENT ME THIS?!”
The repetition of his enraged inquiry brought the attention of several others into his office. One or two saw at least some part of the video. Others were told what it contained. Still others overheard.
On the other side of the building, Senator Roberts silently closed a similar video, received via email from the man who had previously held his seat.
The rumors would start.
They would be investigated.
And that would lead to more rumors.
The procedural vote was held as scheduled but, unexpectedly, Representative Jarmon voted to allow the Bill to proceed, offering no objections or new amendments. Confused by this, his supporters in the House followed suit – their voting was mixed, but none offered any additional amendments as had been their plan.
When asked about this by members of the press, Jarmon merely replied, “I’m satisfied that the Bill can proceed in its current form,” refusing to elaborate any further.
A week later, with the loss of Senator Robert’s support of a filibuster, along with several others who had pledged to follow his lead, it was agreed that the Bill could proceed to a final vote. Roberts offered no comment to the press, or even his own staff, on his apparent change of heart. And with the Senate still lacking so many members, there were simply not enough members of the opposition left to filibuster: Rules changes, passed by simple majority vote, made it so that it was a filibuster that required 40 votes, rather than cloture that required sixty. Any cracks in the fortress wall, at all, would bring all obstruction crumbling down.
It would be a similar story each time a Supreme Court nomination looked like it would be held up. Another email, followed by a fresh round of rumors. Before long the media started to report on it - First only that ‘ambiguous threats’ had been received by Members of Congress, but it wasn’t long before some of the videos had been leaked. This in turn gave fuel to both the conspiracy theorists AND those who had accepted the Government’s official response, which was that these were unconnected suicides.
On the last one, Edward included a copy of what became known as the Blood Manifesto, leaving off the bit at the bottom – the name of the author; His name.
After that, the Federal Government finally clamped down on old email accounts, deactivating the accounts of the deceased members and removing them from their servers, keeping copies of their correspondence in text format only. But the damage had been done: All four Supreme Court nominees sailed through their confirmations, and the Health Care Bill was progressing towards a final vote in both the House and Senate, prior to reconciliation.
The Senate Vote was in the bag, but it was looking very close in the House. A new leader had emerged for the opposition in the House in the form of Martin Huggins from North Carolina. He had received one of the now infamous emails from Edward, but unlike many others felt neither spooked, nor threatened by it. In fact, as much as it was perceived as a threat, it seemed to embolden him.
Projections showed the Bill to be lacked only a handful of Votes for passage, and the conventional wisdom was that Acting-Speaker Ron Paul only allowed it to be brought to a vote in order to see it defeated.
As they sat around the bar at the High and Low, watching on CSPAN, Edward asked Gretchen how many additional votes they would need.
“I’m looking at us being about two or three short,” she answered apprehensively.
“I wonder how many will change, if Huggins caved.”
“Do you know something I don’t?” she inquired.
He just smiled at her. “Maybe.”
Glancing down at the tablet, its screen strategically tilted to hide its contents from view, Edward checked his work one final time:
Martin Reginald Huggins will cast his House vote in favor of the National Health Care System being proposed. He will continue to vote in support of subsequent proposals that are substantively equivalent to this one. When asked about his change in position by his colleagues, he will just smile, pat them gently on the shoulder and say “It’s fine. Let this one go.” Once the bill is signed into law, he will go on to live out the natural course of his life, under his own cognizance, for the next 200 years.”
Satisfied, he fingered ‘EXECUTE.’
As the time came for the Representative to cast his vote, his supporters were shocked to discover his vote changed to “Aye.”
As he made his way back to his chair, one of those supporters, walking towards the podium, grabbed his arm roughly. “Marty! What the hell?!”
A warm smile from the leader of the Bill’s opposition, and a gentle pat on the shoulder. “It’s fine. Let this one go.”
Other House members within an ear shot were equally stunned. A few more, farther down the line, got the same answer: “It’s fine. Let this one go.”
And so many of them did.
In the end, the House version passed by just a single vote.
Once the House and Senate Bill were reconciled, and signed into law, the very short tenure of the acting House Speaker Paul was brought to a close by his Party’s leadership.