The president is seated behind a varnished cherry table. Jack recognizes his face from TV. He looks older than Jack thought he would, with more gray hair at his temples than he expected. He finds it strange to be in the same room with him, especially under these circumstances.
Two older generals stand on either side of the president, a golden presidential seal on the wall behind them. One of them, his voice confident yet shaken, says, “The full force of the United States will bring you down sure and hard.”
Maya turns the generals around and closes their mouths.
Jack looks at the president. “Sabine, help Chris keep watch.” She scoots under the table, facing the doorway.
Maya pulls Chris inside the room. He collapses against the wall and groans.
Jack is spent. The pain in his head spreads like a virus to every part of his body. He struggles to keep his eyes open. He plunks into a chair opposite the president and projects as much force as he can muster to reach inside his mind. He finds his fear, his confusion, but also a determination to resist these forces he doesn’t understand. He believes that to do anything else, even if it means his own death, would be a dereliction of his duty. He’s filled with deep passions, a calculating emotional intelligence, and entrenched privilege and power.
With great effort, Jack weaves through the president’s sparking and firing synapses, tunneling deep into his consciousness. He coils through, prodding in the tenebrous matter searching for any errant thought, any wrong note, anything bearing Kasym’s mark.
Like running an obstacle course through gelatin, he fights through the morass of thoughts and imaginings, the swamp of disjointed ideas and feelings.
He remembers how easy he downloaded thoughts from the doctor, how instinctive it felt. All he took was what the doctor was thinking at that moment—everything connected to what she thought needed to be done to achieve her ends. But here, there’s a rat to root out. All the suspect thinking is cloaked, hidden behind false leads, fused with the president’s deeper convictions.
Kasym didn’t just plant one big out-of-place directive in the middle of the president’s mind. He wove it in, intricately. A slight change to his political thinking here, a tweak to his sense of his responsibly there, his priorities skewed, his moral compass perverted. Long numbers, the proper sequence of nuclear codes, had to be fished out and placed within the directive. Jack can’t imagine such as complicated mental task. Kasym pieced together his instructions from parts of president’s mind already entrenched, like a parasite not only feeding off its host, but rearranging it to suit its needs
Jack finds a vital detail that makes his blood fall to his feet: the weapon is to strike Washington D.C.
The president has faith that the missile, stationed at a silo in Richboro, Pennsylvania, is readying now. The silo blast doors are opening. Kasym has so gnarled his thinking, the president believes he’s doing the right thing. He believes this strike will make the world safer.
Jack’s heart pumps out of his chest. Sweat trickles down his forehead. His hands shake.
He tightens his focus to block out the thought of the imminent deaths of millions of people, including his friends, himself, and the president of the United States. He thinks of Sabine, the precious soul he’s come to love like a sister. He thinks of Sophie. The pressure pushes against him, fighting back against his will to block it out.
The car is swiped from the side by a delivery truck on the highway. She dies instantly. The state troopers words come to him like the musings of a dream. Mom dies in the ambulance on the way to hospital. Sophie’s sudden, crushing end in the car is no different than Sabine’s in a nuclear blast. Either way, it’s death. And a loss to Jack that leaves a chasm in his heart.
He won’t lose her again. He must focus, and put an end to Kasym’s madness.
His throbbing nerves reach a new plateau of radiating agony. He may be screaming, like he’s seen Maya and Chris do when they push themselves beyond their threshold. He can’t be sure. He’s losing himself in Kasym’s maze within the president’s mind.
Merely maneuvering through the slough is depleting him. But the more important task remains: removing it. How will he extract this barbed web of thoughts? It’s a computer virus that Jack has to decode by ones and zeroes, line by line, neuron by neuron, each one weakening him that much more. He pulls and pulls through Kasym’s firewall.
It’s too much. He might have to take it all. The violent act would render the president a mental sixth grader. But he can’t take it all. He needs the president to be cognizant enough to rescind the command once his mind is free.
He pulls more ones, zeroes, neurons. He rips them out by the handful, by them stem. He finds the last few hours of his memory. He takes it all, desperately, with his last ounce of strength, parsing what he takes where he can. What felt like an operation with a scalpel when he began is degenerating into a medieval procedure with a dull trowel. He takes out chunks at a time.
A buzz saw sounds outside the room. They’re breaking through, or trying. Is Chris still conscious? Can Maya hold them back? Can Sabine hide them? He falters.
He has to trust them and stay focused. He points his mind solely to his task, blinding his other senses. His every avenue of awareness it trained on clearing this evil gunk out of this mind. That’s his sole living purpose. There is no Jack. There is nothing else left. He must stay focused to the last, to his final extent. Pull it out, yank it out, clear it out, scrape it out. Until he has nothing left. Until it kills him. He must not fail.
His body spasms, then stiffens. A fire rises from his heart, and a new, sobering ache rises in his neck. Had he even taken a single breath since he first entered the president’s mind? He can’t remember. Is he making a sound, a last cry? He can’t hear it.
Is there a shred of the invader’s thoughts left in the president? Has he defeated the terrorist? He can’t be sure. He’s done his best. He’s given his all. He has no more.
These are the last thoughts he remembers.