Prologue

Tuesday, April 7

10:47 AM EST

" ... and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea."

-Plato, Critais

Ellis Rhodes slammed the old phone down with a crash. His fleshy palm got caught in the newly-formed crack in the handle of the receiver, which pinched him viciously. He hollered an oath and jerked his hand away, cradling it in his other hand. Nancy looked up from her computer through his office window, but quickly looked away when she saw the distinct shade of purple his face had become.

Ellis wasn't a screamer any more, and everyone in the precinct was grateful for it. He still had an incredibly hot temper, but now it only reduced him to vitriolic muttering rather than any vocal or physical violence. Still, it was best to stay out of his sights when he had a mad on. The poor phone's receiver had been replaced numerous times, and Nancy had the website for replacement ones all bookmarked and ready to go.

Ellis glared through the windows of his office, almost daring someone to meet his eye, but every neck was bent, and the room had fallen completely silent as everyone waited for the boss to head out. It was a well-established pattern, and everyone there knew it. Several years earlier, Ellis had lost it when interviewing a suspect. Lawsuits had followed, and mandated anger management training had come down along with a pretty lengthy probationary period.

The end result had been what was happening now. Ellis was wild-eyed but quiet, breathing heavily as his face ran through a gamut of ugly red and purple colors. He would remain that way for a minute or so, then grab his coat and leave, slamming his office door behind him. Not a word would be spoken to anyone, and it was up in the air as to whether or not he would return that day. Once he had gone, everyone would chuckle nervously and then hold an impromptu meeting where speculation would fly about what had set him off, whether he'd return, and if there was anything that they collectively needed to handle in his absence. It wasn't the most efficient system, but it worked for the small precinct.

"Murray! Fowler!", Ellis bellowed.

Across the room, gazes met and befuddled looks abounded. The two designated individuals jumped up and hurried towards the chief's office. This was all wrong. He was supposed to just leave. Both officers remembered quite well the day that the interview room had been closed for repairs to the table, one-way mirror, and the paint job, and were in no mood to deal with old-school Ellis. The chief began to speak in tight, clipped tones before the men were even inside the office.

"That was the goddamn FBI. The shooting this morning in Helston just got snatched from us, and they want someone with more seniority than Michaels and that fuckin' newbie out there onsite to document the transfer. You two just fucking volunteered. Get your asses moving."

Murray and Fowler exchanged a look, and Murray opened his mouth to speak. One sharp glance from the chief, however, and he meekly closed his mouth again and nodded. Without a word spoken between the two of them, they turned and left.

Helston wasn't that long a drive, and the partners made it in silence. Murray, being the senior officer, drove while Fowler worked the GPS and the radio, zeroing in on the crime scene. They both knew the particulars from the morning rundown at the station. White male, late 70s, dead on his front porch from a gunshot wound. No signs of a struggle, investigation pending, was seen by his neighbor that morning as she left for work.

As they turned the corner to the crime scene, Murray inadvertently braked hard.

"What the fuck?" Fowler whispered.

"Hell if I know, man. Look at this shit."

The entire road was roped off. Fowler was able quickly to count at least four 'unmarked' government sedans, one ambulance, Michaels's patrol car, and about twelve vehicles belonging to the press. There were vans with satellite dishes, cables were running everywhere and men milling about with huge cameras like old-school boomboxes held against their ears.

Fowler tweeted the siren a couple of times and the people directly in front of them began to move, though slowly. They were able to inch through, but still were forced to stop and get out well short of the crime scene tape. As they exited, both men received shouts from several individuals, asking for a statement, or a minute of their time, but both officers kept their heads down as a man with dark hair and sunglasses beckoned, holding the crime scene tape up for them to enter.

Fowler glanced around at a half-dozen suits that were so similar that it seemed their hairstyles had been bought wholesale and issued when they handed out the sunglasses. Nobody ran forward to shake his hand, so he led his partner towards the front door of the house, where there was the largest knot of people.

A white sheet covered what was presumably the body, and there was a lot of chatter, but nothing that stuck out to Fowler as important. He looked around for Michaels or the new kid, but didn't see either of them. One of the suits standing at the foot of the stairs turned, met Fowler's eye and jerked his head toward the open front door. Fowler felt his fist clench, and ground his teeth a little bit, but he knew better than to cause trouble with the feebs.

"Stay here, man. I'll be right back" he said, working his way around the techies and stepping into the house.

Michaels and the rookie were standing in the kitchen, hangdog looks plastered all across their faces. Facing them, with his back to Fowler and the door, was an enormous black man wearing an FBI-issue suit, albeit one that looked like it had lived a previous life as some sort of boat cover. He was cue-ball bald, and didn't appear to be wearing the standard dark glasses or earpiece. He was talking to Michaels, but his voice was low, so that Fowler couldn't catch any words. Fowler cleared his throat.

"Excuse me? Are you the guy in charge?"

"That would appear to be the case. And you are?"

The large man didn't turn all the way around, just looked over one shoulder as he spoke. Fowler felt his temper rising once more, but bit it down hard. A twinge ran through his stomach and he wished he had remembered to bring his antacids with him.

"Fowler. Lieutenant sent me down here, something about paperwork?"

"Ah yes, we've been waiting for you. Tell me, Fowler, does your precinct make a habit of sending, shall we say, less seasoned officers to a high-profile crime scene?"

"High-profile? What the hell are you talking about? Some old guy got shot! Besides, it was their turn in the rotation."

"Some old guy? So you really have no idea what's going on here, do you?"

"You mean the fucking zoo out front? No, I don't know, so why don't you explain it to me, feeb?"

The large man finally turned and faced Fowler, an ugly smirk on his face.

"Unbelievable. No wonder this place is the back-ass end of the state. And no wonder the victim chose to move here."

"Hey!"

"Just shut up and listen. The dead man's name was Mario Crawford. He got out of jail three weeks ago. Does the name ring any bells?"

"No. Should it?"

"Mario Crawford registered as a sex offender when he moved in. The child protection website was updated two days ago, to include his presence. Two days later, here we are."

Fowler fidgeted a bit, trying not to make it obvious. They SHOULD have known about this scuzzball moving into the area, but hadn't.

"So what's the FBI doing getting involved with it? No matter what the cause was, it's one old dead guy. We'll track down the perp and bust them for it. No reason for you guys to come in here and take over."

"Oh, but there is. You see, Mister Crawford is, indeed, just "one old dead guy", as you so eloquently put it. However, he is now the thirty-fourth "old dead guy" killed in this state, all with their names on that list."

Michaels and the rookie both gasped at that, and Fowler felt his jaw unhinge as it headed for his shoes.

"Did you say thirty four? Jesus Jumping Christ! Thirty four killings?"

The agent grinned now, showing his even, pearl-white teeth.

"It gets better, Fowler. Near as we can tell so far, it looks like they happened damn near simultaneously."

Fowler's jaw worked once, twice, but no words came out.

"So do you guys really want to bitch about jurisdiction? Or would you be willing to come over here and sign this little form so I can get back to my job?"


Tuesday, April 7

6:19 PM EST

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandius

Paul Nelson kept a swimsuit calendar on his desk. It was one of the ones where you tear off each day and throw it away, revealing the next scantily clad model. In theory it was supposed to make each day a little brighter, but in reality it just seemed silly against the grim grey tones of Martinsdale Prison. Everything was grey, and to compound the sin, everything was lit with overhead fluorescent lights, which made Paul's skin seem as grey as his surroundings.

Paul felt grey these days. He was alone for most of his waking hours, associating only marginally with the only other humans in his realm of influence. He lived alone, ate alone, and even shopped alone at an all-night market after his shift finished. He drove a red station wagon that had seen many better days, but still kept plodding along. Paul saw more than a little bit of those characteristics in himself. He spent a good portion of each day parked in front of a bank of black-and-white (and grey) surveillance monitors. Twice a day he would put on an orange vest, take one of the shotguns from the case, buzz through, and go walking down Death Row.

Paul considered the mandated 'check-ins' to be both ironic and ludicrous. He had to perform Wellness Checks on the Death Row inmates. It was part of keeping them healthy before the state killed them, after all. Paul didn't have any interaction with the monsters behind the bars. They'd long since disregarded his presence as something worth noticing, and he'd returned the sentiment. He'd walk idly down to the end, past all twenty-one cells, never looking right or left. Then he'd turn back, trudge his way back down the hall, swipe his ID badge to open the door, return the shotgun to the wall, and flop down into his chair once more.

Paul worked the late shift, 4 PM to 1 AM, when Jimmy Porter came in to relieve him. There was no backup, no second guard on duty, nothing. The creatures in those cells were never let out, for any reason. Once a week a cleaning crew came in, meals were already finished by the time Paul came on duty. So it was Paul, his calendar, and the most evil collection of bipeds in the country. Paul couldn't wait for retirement.

This particular night, Paul had just finished his first Wellness Check, and settled back into his chair, when the (grey) phone on his desk began to ring, scaring him half to death. That phone NEVER rang. He reached a hand out and grasped the receiver.

"Hello? I mean, um, Death Row, Paul here"

"Paul, it's Jaeger. How you holding up?"

Jaeger. Paul's supervisor, in theory, even though his office was three states away just outside Leavenworth.

"Fine, sir. What can I do for you?"

"We're running a diagnostic check on the surveillance systems, and you're next up. Are you at your desk?"

Where else would I be, he thought. This was where the phone was, after all.

"Yessir, I am. What do you need me to do?"

"Simple, really. We had someone in there before you came on installing the testing hardware, but they forgot to activate it. That's where you come in. Have you ever cycled the surveillance system?"

Cycled was official-speak for turn the damn thing off and back on.

"Yessir, I have. Would you like me to do that now?"

"You got it, Paul. Kick on the backup system first, so you don't lose visual."

No kidding, Paul thought.

"No problem. It's spinning up now, but it, uh, takes a minute or so, Sir. Do you want to hold, or?"

"I'm fine with waiting. How're things going down there?"

"Same as always, Sir. Nice and quiet, just how we like it."

It was a very old joke, but Jaeger chuckled anyway.

"How many scumbags do you guys have down there these days?"

Paul rolled his eyes. Jaeger of all people should know that.

"Seventeen, Sir."

Jaeger whistled between his teeth into the phone.

"Seventeen scumbags on Death Row. Jesus, and us poor taxpayers paying to keep the bastards alive and comfortable. Ain't that a kick in the ass?"

"Well, I mean, they have rights too, you know? We wouldn't want to make a mistake and execute the wrong person, would we?"

There was a long pause, though Paul could hear Jaeger breathing. So he waited.

"That backup system come online yet?" Jaeger asked.

"Yessir, it did. Want me to cycle the main?"

"You're damn right I do, Paul. And let me just say something, while I've still got your ear."

"Yes Sir?"

"Those animals are evil, pure and simple. The worst of the worst. They're a threat to every person living in this great country. Every breath they draw is an affront to all decent Americans. Never forget that, Paul."

Paul blinked, not quite knowing how to react. He had never heard Jaeger Trueblood, his supervisor for more than twelve years, speak about an inmate in such harsh terms.

"Um, yes Sir. I mean no Sir. I won't forget that."

"Go ahead and cycle the system, Paul. I'll hold on the line just to make sure everything goes according to plan."

"Roger that, Sir. Cycling now."

Paul set the receiver down on his desk and reached for the main power toggle for the surveillance monitors. The light above it was green, indicating that the backups were already in place, meaning that visual would be maintained during the reboot. Paul turned the knob gently, knowing that his boss was listening in. He felt it click into place, and the screens flickered. That was perfectly normal. What wasn't normal was the rumble he felt through his feet, and the seat of his chair.

"What the-?" he shouted.

Movement caught the corner of his eye, and he looked up at the monitors. Time slowed down for him as his mind attempted to process what his eyes were seeing. First he noticed that six of the monitors were gone completely to snow. Before he could process what that would mean, two more did the same. There was another rumble, more pronounced this time, and Paul watched as the remaining monitors that were in occupied cells exploded into action, the prisoners clearly panicked, but there was no sound on the backup system.

His brain calmly noted that the rumbles were definitely getting louder, and seemed to be spaced about ten seconds apart. As if that was helpful or useful information. Paul watched in horror as Edwin Marcus, the most accomplished serial killer in American history, was flash-fried by an intense burst of light. Heartbeats later, Paul felt the rumble again.

Paul whirled to the phone and snatched it up.

"Jaeger! Dear God, Jaeger, they're being blown up! Jaeger? Jaeger?"

Paul couldn't take his eyes off the monitors. Four left to go, and the rumbles were now accompanied by sharp cracking noises.

"What did you say, Paul?"

Jaeger's tone was as calm as ever, and Paul fought hard to keep the panic out of his voice.

"Bombs or something, Sir! The inmates are all being blown up!"

"Perfect. Good bye, Paul."

The line went dead, and Paul held the receiver away from his ear and stared at it, uncomprehending. As the last two monitors went to snow, his brain finally started to piece it together.

"No", he whispered. Directly underneath his desk a small device quietly beeped once, then erupted. A cone of white-hot flame burst forth, aimed directly at Paul's lower body. The flames engulfed him immediately, climbing over his shrieking form with horrible rapidity. The blast reverberated, sending one final rumble through the Death Row floor.


Tuesday, April 7

5:20 PM PST

"Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate."

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Michael Carter stood, his face as placid as it had been throughout the entire trial. His brown suit was pressed, and the few strands of hair that were long enough to reach had been pasted to his head. His glasses were gold and brightly polished. He was clean-shaven and bright-eyed, looking for all the world like he had just spent the night in an executive suite, as opposed to a dark holding cell.

The judge, wearing far more makeup than usual in deference to the cameras, leaned forward and spoke clearly into the microphone. She recounted the claims against Mister Carter for the benefit of the press, who had been excluded from the courtroom access during the testimony end evidentiary phases due to the hysteria surrounding the trial. They had been let back in to hear the closing arguments, though the judge wondered exactly where that particular order had originated. She'd been the one to issue it, but it hadn't been her idea. A call from the mayor's office had precipitated it, and she could only imagine the wide variety of pressures being forced on that particular individual.

Every effort had been made to get the trial transferred, using every machination that the prosecution could muster. The defense, for their part, wanted nothing more than to keep the trial exactly where it was. They argued for jurisdictional transparency, due process, and a true jury of Mister Carter's peers. In the end, none of it mattered. Long, tangled puppet strings had been pulled, and all the players danced to their designated tune. The trial was happening right here.

Michael Carter had never once cracked a smile or broken into a sweat. He stood when he was ordered to do so, sat when it was appropriate and listened attentively to the lurid testimony. Witnesses took turns raging at him from their protective booth, and one young lady had actually spat at him, but Mister Carter gave no more reaction than he would have were he watching a late-night infomercial.

The transcriptionist had recused herself from the case after the third day of testimony, claiming illness, but it was obvious that the poor woman had been overwrought. A two-day recess had been necessary to bring in another transcriptionist all the way from Houston, and allow her to catch up on occurrences to that point. She had proven to be of much sterner stuff, though she carefully did not look when the crime scene footage had been introduced.

The jury had cried, gasped, and fidgeted uncomfortably at various times. Miss Plummer on the end had swayed visibly when the second victim's younger sister had testified. The little girl was only nine, and spoke with a simple honesty that had ripped through the jury's hearts like a rototiller. Her soft voice, genuine tears, and pure anguish were powerful forces, and they had almost been too much for Miss Plummer.

The prosecuting attorney had been tempted to have the little girl as his final witness, but instead chose to end with a flurry of law enforcement luminaries. Each crime scene was carefully diagrammed, and the impact of each piece of forensic evidence was dissected for the jury's sake. The prosecutor knew that, as with most circumstantial cases, this was his best chance for a conviction. It was vital that the jurors understood each piece of evidence, and its import.

The defense attorney was monkishly quiet throughout the onslaught of 'copspeak', stipulating willingly each time he was asked. After the parade of uniformed officers was finally halted, the press had been ushered in, and closing arguments had begun. The prosecution had gone first, and the prosecuting attorney had jumped at the chance to tie in the forensic evidence with his tale while it was fresh in the jury's minds. He belabored each crime scene, pointing out the most horrifying of the details, with a healthy dose of speculation thrown in as fuel to the flames. He thundered to great effect, slamming his hand down hard enough to cause an involuntary wince, which actually made Mister Porter, the third juror from the left in the second row, chuckle aloud. With a ringing alliteration, which his wife had helped him develop in the second day of testimony, the prosecution rested its case with a flourish.

The defense allowed the silence to linger, and the ringing of the prosecution's stentorian bellows to die away completely. Then the attorney for the defense stood up, carefully brushed something off of his tie, and made his way slowly to the podium. He thanked the judge for her patience throughout the entire process, thanked the prosecution for their exquisite skill when it came to all-out courtroom brawls, then apologized for not living up to the spectacle that had been created. He spoke evenly and quietly the entire time, before finally turning to face the jury.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to apologize to you all. You have been subjected to unspeakably disturbing images and testimony during the course of these weeks. You've been kept from your families and jobs, as is expected of someone fulfilling his or her civic duty. But I'm sorry to say your time was wasted. You've been lied to, for three weeks, two days, six hours, and," He paused and looked at his watch, doing a quick mental calculation. Every eye was on the small man. His voice was soft, warm, and calming. He struck a chord with every member of the jury, the onlookers, and everyone watching on TV. This man was the picture of sincerity.

"forty one minutes, so far. That comes to an end now. Now is the time for truth. If the rules of due process had allowed it, I could have saved us all a lot of time from the start. You will notice that, unlike the TV shows we're all so fond of, I did not leap to my feet screaming objections, force witnesses to wither under my brutal cross-examinations, or call a single witness of my own. This probably seemed odd, but it was the only avenue I had. I firmly believe in the truth, ladies and gentlemen. I do not represent monsters in front of this court."

The judge almost rolled her eyes at this point. This particular defense attorney was one of the oiliest she had seen in her seven years on the bench, but the man could practically ooze charm, and he was putting on a virtuoso performance for the cameras.

"Why, then? Why did I not aggressively defend my client? Why didn't I call witness after witness, or yell and scream and slam my hand down on this podium?"

Every eye shifted to the prosecution table, where the prosecuting attorney became quite interested in something apparently stuck in the band of his watch.

"It's simple, folks. There was nobody to call. Think about that for a minute. This man, my client, has no family of any kind. He is long since retired, and lives alone. He doesn't associate with anyone well enough to call them as any kind of character witness. So who could I call in his defense?

Generally, witnesses are called to refute testimony against them. So I would have been derelict in my duty if I had not introduced evidence or testimony to disprove the prosecution's evidence against my client. Can any of you guess why that didn't happen?"

The defense attorney leaned forward on the podium, resting one elbow on its surface and placing the palm of his hand on one cheek, appearing completely relaxed. He shot the jury a smile.

"Think back, folks. Wade through all of the lies and misdirections they threw at you. Where was the person pointing a finger at my client and saying he did it? Where was the analyst saying his DNA had been found at the scene? Where was the forensic analyst dragging trace evidence that damned my client? Where were the witnesses putting him at the scene of the crimes? Hell, folks, where are the bodies?"

There was a long silence, and the judge took a moment to force herself to appreciate the weasel's approach. Everyone knew the butcher was guilty. They had enough circumstantial evidence to get an indictment, after all, but the attorney had just gutted that entire approach.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you were forced to sit there in those awful, uncomfortable chairs and listen as they paraded theory after theory in front of your noses. They used words like 'usually', 'most likely', 'in my opinion'. Folks, none of those words mean 'fact'. They never once introduced a single fact that proves my client's guilt. Just their opinions, or guesses. And for that, they want to kill a man.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you know as well as I do that they're trying to fleece you. They throw this mountain of evidence at you, and expect you to dance to their tune. Don't let them get away with that."

The words were simple, brief and direct. He spoke in plain English, and seemed for all the world like he was talking to friends around a dinner table. They were delivered with perfect nuance, and a master's sense of timing. They were expressive and evocative, and brought the entire house of cards that the prosecution had built tumbling down in one silent avalanche.

Through it all, Michael Carter's face remained impassive. He didn't even watch his lawyer as the man spoke. He sat quietly, his hands folded neatly on the tabletop in front of him. There was a stillness about him that suggested he was somehow detached from the entire process, that it bored him somehow.

The moment had arrived at last, and a silence blanketed the room as the foreman began to speak. As could have been predicted, he was not allowed to finish. Indeed, at the single word "not", the room had erupted. There were shrieks and wails, both of anguish and triumph. Louder than all, though, was the mad rush of the press, streaking for the door with cell phones pressed to ears, each shouting louder than the other, attempting to be heard by straining editors over the cacophony.

Michael Carter was as placid as ever. He had stood for the reading, but not looked at the jury. When the chaos exploded, he remained steady and unwavering against its intensity. He calmly lifted his hands, stretching the chain taut to allow the bailiff easy access to the ancient padlock. As the chains fell free, Michael absently rubbed one wrist, then the other, still staring off into space.

Angela Branson was in a state of pure shock. She felt like she should have been screaming with the rest of them, but she was paralyzed. She couldn't even breathe, and was growing steadily more lightheaded. The monster was free! The Butcher had won, and Angela's sister was never to be avenged for her horrific torture. Angela felt impossibly hot tears running down her cheeks, but couldn't move to stem the flow.

She heard her name, then. An odd, high-pitched voice calling her name, knifing through the tumult and the noise. The sound galvanized her, and she managed to break free of her paralysis enough to turn her head. She felt each nuance of the movement, rotating her head like a turret until she located the source of the summons.

Michael Carter had broken his calm demeanor, and his eyes bored into her from across the distances. Though bodies in suits broke the line of sight, the connection was strong enough to hold their gazes locked together. Angela felt something move inside her, some organ or muscle rolling in discomfort, the deeper parts of her psyche instinctively recoiling.

Michael Carter's smile started as a seed, the tiniest of gradual movements, then spread like a fungus across his face. The smile transformed him, lending a wrongness to his appearance that grew and grew, stretching across the front of his skull, growing impossibly wide. His lips were like worms, visibly segmented even across the distance between them, and a rain-soaked pink tinge touched them in places. After several lifetimes, the smile reached capacity and shattered, exploding out across the room, slapping her in the face with the wretched, ugly sound of Michael Carter's laughter.

The laughter was putrid and small, slithering through the courtroom, causing shivers as it touched the occupants. It snaked its way into Angela's ear, and froze solid as it wriggled its way down to her very core. She began to shake with the iciness that overtook her, and could feel the chill spreading across her entire being. Michael Carter laughed and laughed, a cruel, mocking laugh, directed solely at her. Angela felt her body shutting down, and watched with mild curiosity as her vision began to tunnel.

The last thing she was able to see were his eyes. They still bored into her, and the noises had finally been choked out as she fell from consciousness. The eyes kept hers pinned, however, and the tunnel closed with those eyes as their focal point. Farther and farther the tunnel spiraled, until her entire vision was filled with those evil, dark eyes. As the last vestiges of rational thought slipped from her grasp, a sharp cracking noise punctured the gummy silence around her, and she saw something change about the eyes that held her gaze. Another one seemed to appear, directly between the other two. It appeared out of nowhere, and seemed angry and black. Angela was confused, but only for an instant, then her cares joined her in repose on the cold courtroom floor.

Michael Carter's head erupted from the back of his skull in a cone of gore and bone fragments. A silence gripped the entire room, and it was an awful, total silence. Michael still stood, his mouth open in mid-laugh, but the light had gone from his eyes. From the vantage point of most of the onlookers, he seemed almost normal, though there was a definite feeling of wrongness about him. A slow trail of blood leaked out of the newly-created hole in the bridge of his nose, and wound its way across his lips and into his open mouth. Then his knees buckled, and Michael Carter fell to the floor.

In the chaos that followed, it seemed that half the room enabled the video capture mode on their phones, and within minutes the internet was flooded with shaky, hysterical videos. Would-be narrators hollered, trying to infuse their video with their own personal take on what was going on. Two rushes of people collided, with half the room trying to evacuate as fast as possible, and the other half rushing forward, cell phones held high, angling for the perfect shot. None of these videos would be remotely useful to investigators in the years that followed, but the few most coherent would live on for a very long time.

The Legion had announced its presence to the world.

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Story tagged with:
Science Fiction / Mystery / Military /