Darius should have realized how much trouble he was in when he saw Liam rushing to the lift with another brilliant, but desperate idea to save them. The wave of relief that washed over him in seeing Liam when he feared they would never see each other again was only parallel to the profound dread in learning that Liam was no longer safe, that they were reunited just so they could die together.
That was his first sign of what was happening, but they had a war to prevent and a planet to save, so there was no time to consider his own feelings and the implications they brought along.
There was nothing like the impending threat of nuclear missiles to keep one’s usually repressed feelings hidden even deeper beyond reach. A lot could be said about Darius, but he would never let distractions get in the way of doing what needed to be done.
And they would not let things end like this, with people destroying each other before the asteroid even had a chance. Humanity still had a chance for salvation, and not just on the one hundred and sixty that could escape the hangar, but only if they could stop the threat it posed to itself.
“Hey!” Liam yelled as he came running, slipping and nearly falling to the ground in the process. “Darius!”
The end of the world as they knew it, the lifting of the veil of ignorance from the general public, came to in the same way that Darius’ own private world had changed so drastically, with Liam running to catch him in an lift when he shouldn’t be there. The romantic part of Darius saw some poetry in this, but the logic part was too concerned with the immediate threat.
“Liam?” Darius asked, and he couldn’t help but stare in disbelief as Liam raced against the closing lift doors.
For a moment, Darius thought about telling him to go back and save himself, but he knew there was no time left. At this point, the treehouse was the safest place for Liam to be, and that was exactly where Darius was going.
“The iron core, I know what to do. There’s still hope,” Liam said, setting himself by Darius’ side at the lift, as if this was how it was always supposed to be.
Darius couldn’t help but smile, despite their current situation. Liam was the eternal idealist, after all. He couldn’t have just accepted to be the leader of what would survive of the human race, he couldn’t save himself and work in the rebuilding after everything was destroyed, because he couldn’t accept the defeat. Liam would stay in a doomed Earth until the end, trying to find one final idea that would be their salvation. It was something to be admired.
It was one thing they had in common, they had to see this to the end, even if for very different reasons. The pessimist and the optimist, both too stubborn to accept that there was nothing else that could be done. Together, they might as well do something impossible. If those weren’t the last fifteen minutes of their lives.
Darius never got a chance to say anything to that effect, because Liam spent the few seconds of their trip up trying to explain his plan, how he came up with it, and how this was going to fix everything. Which wasn’t actually possible in that little time, so he ended up mumbling confusing thoughts all the way to the treehouse until Darius was forced to stop him and set things back on track.
“Magnets?” Darius asked as he opened his vault, trying to focus on the more operational part of Liam’s plan, to determine if they had thought of the same thing, and if it was something that was actually feasible in the amount of time they had, or something that involved the need to invent more technology decades ahead of what they had, now in the middle of a war.
He kept moving as Liam replied, they needed to make more immediate preparations, if they were going to survive long enough to execute Liam’s plan, or any plan, really.
“Yes,” Liam replied, taking a second to breathe and hopefully organize his thoughts. “We reprogram the gravity tractor’s EM drive, turn it into an electromagnet, which pulls the asteroid off course. Voilà, save planet Earth, collect Nobel Prize.”
Liam was nearly buzzing with excitement presenting his idea, and Darius almost felt bad that he had to be the one to bring reality back into the mix, especially after Liam had possibly sacrificed his life to bring this information to Darius so they could do something about it.
“Your plan, while clever,” he paused, thinking of how to word this without crushing Liam’s idea, and disguising his motives by taking the pill he had retrieved from the vault, “would require oscillating the EM drive between thrust and magnetism, a delicate dance with zero margin for error. With 127 days left to go, that’s a chance we can’t take.” Then, before Liam could argue, Darius changed the focus back to the immediate threat. “Potassium iodide,” he said, tossing the bottle to Liam and making his way to the computer, “Protects the thyroid from radioactive iodine if we’re exposed to nuclear fallout, which may or may not happen in about... 12 minutes,” he finished, showing Liam the path of the misiles.
Just because he thought that Russia was about to destroy the United States, probably with as good a cause as any country would ever get to nuke another, if such a thing even existed, that didn’t mean that he was just accepting this outcome. They weren’t dead yet, which meant there was still hope, as Liam had posed it.
Liam was trying to understand what was happened. Darius seemed excited about his idea in the elevator, and then he shut it down as soon as Liam was able to properly explain it. The way Liam saw it, the fact that they had so little time and no other hope was another point in favor of this plan, not against it.
Rationally, he knew that coming there was reckless, and that maybe Darius had a point when he said he wanted Liam to help the others in rebuilding the human race, but he couldn’t just stay there, safe, while Darius sacrificed himself and pretended that this was all just a practical decision.
But of course it wasn’t that. This was what had been bothering Liam since Darius told him he knew about the results of the genetic test. Darius had risked everything to build that ship, and he never considered using it to save himself, it was always about giving humanity its best fighting chance, even if that meant he wouldn’t have any chance at all.
All that posing and arrogance, and Darius was actually more selfless that even Liam had been at the beginning. Darius would suffer through pain and personal loss and his plan B wasn’t even for himself, the only way he was going to live through this was if they managed to save the entire planet. For someone who always prepared for the worst possible outcome, that was…
Liam didn’t even know what that made him feel, but if in a little over a month he had already changed his vision about Darius so much, that single moment of realization meant even more than all the previous ones combined. This brought forward a complicated set of emotions that he didn’t have time to untangle.
Then he remembered that Darius was the one to bring magnets first, while Liam’s mind was still racing so much that he couldn’t express clearly what why this idea was so important that he was willing to leave the ark to transmit it.
“What did you mean when you said magnets?”
If Darius also had another idea, maybe things weren’t looking so dire as Liam feared.
Darius didn’t look away from his screen while talking to him. “We build an electromagnetic railgun to fire projectiles into the asteroid, uh, nudging it off its trajectory.”
That sounded… absurd. Shooting a railgun into space. To move an asteroid. And that was somehow better than using electromagnetism? At least they knew electromagnetism could world, if only they managed to modify the EM drive, but it wasn’t such a long shot. Not like shooting a railgun into space, which sounded like something taken out of a bad sci-fi.
“Seriously?” he said, because he couldn’t come up with a good argument as to why that clearly ridiculous idea was, well, ridiculous.
Darius didn’t seem at all affected by Liam’s lack of faith in his plan. “We already build railguns for the Navy,” he answered, not even slowing his typing.
“To shoot targets here, on Earth,” Liam said, as if he was talking to a child and needed to point out the obvious. Shooting a ship and shooting an asteroid were two very different things.
Darius finally looked at him. “See? We’re already halfway there,” he said, with a bit more charm and confidence than Liam thought the situation deserved. “All we have to do is scale it up.”
If Liam thought that Darius not looking at him and just focusing on his typing was bad, this was even worse. He had that tone that seemed to convince everyone around him that his ideas were the most brilliant. He even crossed his arms and looked away, as if this matter was settled.
“Yeah, to the size of Massachusetts,” Liam said, frustrated, then gestured at the computer. “At least run the numbers on my idea before you shut it down.” His plan could work, he knew it could, he just needed the data to back that up. Then, he noticed the mechanical noise coming from the windows, and realized that Darius had been staring front. “What’s this?” he asked, sounding more panicked than he wanted to.
“A protective shield,” Darius said, his voice softer now. Comforting even. “Titanium cladding,” Darius turned to look at him, “We’ve just become a hermetically sealed bomb shelter.”
Liam laughed, nervous. Despite the bottle Darius had tossed him, he had somehow managed not to think about the bombs headed their way. “We’re safe in here, right? From the nukes?”
Darius was looking away again, and Liam wanted to grab him and force Darius to look at him, because their conversation had to be more important than staring at that window, but he didn’t act, realizing that this was just a reaction to his panic.
He was afraid, and he wished he wasn’t. Not so much afraid of dying, but that they wouldn’t be able to fix things, because they had to fix things, this couldn’t be how the Earth ended.
“I guess we’re gonna find out,” Darius said, a mix of apologetic and curious.
Which was exactly what Liam didn’t want. He was looking for assurances that they would make it, not some brutal honesty.
Liam finally took the pills on his hand, and stared front too. He could see the computer screen on the corner of his eye, they would know soon enough if the missiles would hit. Those could be the last few minutes of their lives, and that thought shook his to the core.
He felt as if he should say something, or do something, to mark that, but couldn’t think of anything, so he just stood by Darius’ side, and waited.
Darius stared at the screen, as if he could will those dots to disappear. There was nothing he could do to stop them, no brilliant plan that would save them.
For once, he had to put his entire faith on the government and their ability to solve a threat, and it was a dreadful prospect.
The powerlessness of it all was perhaps even worse than knowing that the ineffective government tools would likely fail in neutralizing the missiles.
He watched as one dot disappeared after the other, and then the last one kept moving, confirming his suspicions.
Darius dropped his head, defeated. This was it, the end of the world as they knew it.
“One got through,” Liam said, and Darius had never heard his voice so defeated, so lost. “To where?”
Darius didn’t dare to look at him, both because he couldn’t stand to see the expression on his face now, and because he wouldn’t risk looking away from the screen. “We’ll know any moment.”
That nuke would hit, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Nothing except prepare for impact, and deal with the consequences.
Liam’s heart skipped a beat as the bomb dropped. He couldn’t help but selfishly hope that it would hit anywhere but there, that they would be safe.
And then it dropped, in the middle of nowhere.
It was with a mix of relief and panic that he watched as Darius lifted the shield and opened the news channel, then quickly assessed the situation before grabbing his phone.
“You don’t understand, I need to speak with the president now.”
Liam could barely hear Darius’ voice, he was still staring at the feed, trying to assimilate that this was real, that this was happening. Somehow, it was even scarier than the asteroid, because they were doing this to themselves.
“Darius Tanz.” “And updating you now on breaking news. “T-A-N-Z. Who am I speaking with?” “Multiple reports of a massive explosion outside of Lebanon, Kansas. Eyewitnesses as far as Wichita…” Liam heard the phone call and the news, not quite differentiating between the two, he was in shock, unable to move or say anything.
“Turn that down, will you?” Darius’ annoyed voice broke the spell on him, and he obeyed. “Yes, I understand she’s unavailable, a nuclear bomb just went off in Kansas, but she’ll want to speak to me. She needs to speak to me.” Darius’ anger was strangely grounding, in opposition to Liam’s numbness. “No, I don’t want to leave a bloody message!”
“Why would Russia drop a nuke on… on Lebanon, Kansas?” Liam asked, finally able to vocalize something from the turmoil of his mind.
“They didn’t,” Darius said with a sigh.
Liam turned to him, if Russia wasn’t responsible, that could only mean one thing, “It’s RE/SYST.”
“Grab your coat,” Darius said, starting to move, “we need to get to the president while we still can.”
Liam grabbed his things and quickly followed him. If Darius was so angry and frustrated, he had to have a plan, and right now, they needed to be doing something, anything.
“We’re not gonna fly there, are we?” Liam asked, in a tone that tried to be casual, but not enough to hide his fear.
Liam was already in panic, so Darius decided there was no point in pushing him further, especially considering how long it would take to locate a helicopter pilot.
Darius tried not to think of it in terms of not flying because Liam had an irrational phobia that he was perfectly able to face if the situation called for it. Instead, it was more about having two viable options and not actively choosing one that would harm someone else.
“We can take the car,” he said, pushing the elevator down button.
He was already making plans, thinking of how they would protect themselves from a RE/SYST powered by TESS.
This was his fault, for giving in to their demands and handing them TESS, they wouldn’t have been able to grab a hold of nukes without her, and now he had to live with this.
They ran to the car without a word, but without the immediacy of something to do now that Darius was driving, he could see Liam go back to being nervous.
“Why would they do that?” Liam asked him, as if they hadn’t received the exact same information.
It was one of those things that Darius tried to ignore about Liam, the way that, unless he was defending his own brilliant ideas, he would turn to Darius as if he had all the answers.
“The short version? World domination. Undermining major governments while seeding fear.”
“But one bomb won’t achieve all of that.”
“They don’t have just one bomb. You really should have stayed in the hagar, Liam.”
He heard Liam’s breath catch and almost wished he could sugarcoat the situation, but they didn’t have time to deal with anything but the truth.
“Do you… please tell me you have a plan to stop them.”
Liam sounded so lost that part of Darius wanted to hug him again, to comfort him. Darius wasn’t much the hugging type, but Liam obviously was, and he needed something to ground him before he lost himself in the chaos, but they didn’t have time for comfort, and Darius was taking advantage of the empty roads to run as fast as he could, so he kept his hands on the wheel.
“We’re not out of options yet,” Darius said. It was the best he could do without lying, and he wasn’t willing to lie to Liam.
Darius had told him about the plan in the car, and Liam wanted to believe this could work, but at the same time, he was terrified of what RE/SYST could do faster than they could stop them. The only reason why millions of people didn’t die was because it wasn’t convenient for them, and that was a horrifying concept.
He rushed behind Darius, feeling like he did on the early days, like a lost intern trying not to lose sight of his boss. Only Darius could walk inside the Pentagon like he owned the place and have no one stop him, even after a nuclear attack.
“Why would the Russians want to blow up a nearly empty wheat field?”
Liam heard the president’s voice as they approached the room.
“Because it wasn't designed to kill,” Darius said, a little out of breath. All the eyes in the room turned to them. “It was a message.”
“Mr. Tanz, what kind of message? And from whom?” the president demanded.
“RE/SYST. They masterminded this from the start, played us against each other, tricked us into a shooting war,” Darius explained, without the unflattering addendum about military leaders and their overeagerness that he had used when explaining it to Liam.
“And then hacked those missiles once they were in the air,” Liam added.
“And where did they choose to drop the bomb? New York? D.C.? No, seven miles outside Lebanon, Kansas.”
Darius explained things as if he was giving a lecture, and Liam understood him well enough at this point to know when to intervene. “The exact geographical center of this country.”
“Calculated to cause maximum fear and minimal casualties. And demonstrating what they're capable of if we don't give in to their demands,” Darius finished with an urgent tone.
That’s the same point were his explanation to Liam had stopped. Outside of world domination, Darius couldn’t do more than speculate about what RE/SYST could want, and he wasn’t about to do that to the president and risk being proved wrong.
“What demands?” she asked.
“That's the trillion-dollar question.”
Liam turned away, everyone in that room was expecting that they would have an answer, and they didn’t. Then he noticed the computer signalling a transmission. “I think we're about to get the answer.”
Everyone turned to the monitor, just as RE/SYST’s message started. “Global citizens, we are RE/SYST, a hacker collective dedicated to radical transparency. We are reaching out to give you answers to what is happening and why. The United States and Russia have initiated an armed nuclear conflict. In an effort to minimize the damage, we intercepted one ICBM and guided it to the safest possible location. Had we not intervened, the results would have been catastrophic.”
Liam heard Darius huff next to him.
“They're positioning themselves as the saviors.”
RE/SYST had taken control of that nuke and instead of disarming it, used it to attack the United States and then lie about it. Darius was right, they could turn public opinion against the government and in their favor. For the people that didn’t know them and what they were capable of doing, it was just believable enough.
“The most recent escalation is due to a far greater threat, a profound secret your governments have been keeping from you for the last four months. An extinction-level asteroid is on course to collide with Earth in 127 days.”
That he wasn’t expecting. In the corner of his eye, he saw Darius placing his hands on the back of his head, pressing his lips as if to prevent himself from saying something. So he didn’t expect that either. If everyone on Earth knew what was going to happen, then their mission had just became a lot more complicated.
“RE/SYST has a plan to compel the countries of the world to stop the asteroid. We control one remaining ICBM, currently in orbit and carrying 13 warheads.”
Liam and Darius stared at each other. Darius was right then, the missile they lost telemetry on was under RE/SYST’s control, and they had already used a nuclear bomb to kill, even if focusing on a small number of people, so he doubted that they would hesitate in doing that again.
“Any country that refuses to participate in our plan will face dire consequences. From this moment on, no more secrets. We are RE/SYST.”
They had four months to stop the asteroid and two plans that demanded huge leaps in technology, but none of that would matter if they couldn’t work because of the threat of immediate destruction, not to mention the widespread panic now that everyone knew what was going to happen if they failed.
Liam thought about the way he felt when it first dawned on him that this could be the end. If they had to deal with billions of people like this, they wouldn’t even have the resources to make either plan work.
He could see the wheels turning inside Darius’ head, this was worse than they thought, but it wasn’t over yet. He just hoped Darius really knew what to do.
“Mr. Tanz, any idea how to disarm that ICBM?” the president asked.
Darius took a second to answer, and Liam stared at him, hoping that his faith wasn’t unwarranted, that Darius’ idea really was going to save them.
“You have one of the world's fastest supercomputers in the basement of the Department of Energy. I need a tie-in right now.”
A replacement for TESS, he needed a replacement for TESS, but even that supercomputer wouldn’t be enough, and Liam suspected that Darius knew that. He was buying time, which meant that he wasn’t sure how to stop RE/SYST, and that was a bad sign.
“We already have half the NSA working the problem,” a random general said.
“Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you wanted this done today. Madam President, we need to get this done before they release their official list of demands, or we'll have no choice but to comply.”
There it was, the trademarked Tanz confidence that sucked everyone into its orbit and convinced them that he had all the answers, if Liam didn’t know better, he would actually have believed that in one day this would all be over.
“Get Mr. Tanz what he needs. Meantime, we need to keep the peace here at home.”
But lucky for them, the president didn’t know him as well as Liam did, because even if Darius was stalling, he was still their best chance of dealing with this threat.
“Driving was a stupid-ass idea.” Of course, it had been his idea, to make Liam more comfortable, but he didn't think this through. Everyone was out on the streets, as if they could out run nuclear weapons and a meteor. He should have accounted for how irrational people were.
“There’s already a run on stores,” Liam said, as if he hadn't heard him.
“People have skipped fear and gone straight to panic.”
And this was how the world was going to be now. Their job just became a lot harder. Even driving down the street was now considerably more dangerous.
“Darius, when are we opening the Ark? I mean, the immediate threat to D.C. is over.”
Darius had to admire how optimistic Liam was. “Over? Nukes are circling as we speak.”
“Imagine what they’re all going through, not knowing if we’re all alive or dead.”
Liam didn't seem to notice that he had answered to what he was thinking, not to what Darius said. That idealism and optimism could really cause some sort of cognitive dissonance. It was great in the sense that he couldn't stop trying to make things work, but sometimes a healthy dose of hopelessness could be useful.
“Liam, right now they’re safe, and we’re not.” He almost said that he wished Liam was safely there too, but it wasn't everything true. As much as he wished Liam hadn't come and had stayed safe, with him the odds of fixing things were better. But all of this wasn't important now, all that mattered was that they couldn't stay trapped on the road, so he would have to do something. “Wait here.”
“Darius!” Liam yelled, trying to get his attention.
Darius shouldn't have left the car, there was chaos on the street.
“The road is closed. Get back in your cars and turn around! Out of the way or we’re gonna move these barricades ourselves! Get back or I’ll shoot!”
“Everyone, calm down! Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! Calm Down. Put your weapons down, please. I know you’re all frightened.”
“Frightened? A nuke went off. We’re all gonna die!”
Liam followed the conversation in panic. Darius was going to get himself killed in the middle of the street because of some random guy with a gun. This was wrong, and Liam had to do something, but he couldn't think of anything.
“No, we’re not, if you put your gun down.”
“How the hell would you know?”
“Because most of you hold in your hands a computer a million times smarter than the one NASA used to put a man on the moon just 50 years ago. Human in genuity is a powerful force. Every day, we solve the unsolvable. Imagine what your ancestors would think if… if they knew we could fly, cure diseases, yeah, pay for the parking meter with a credit card. If we can do the unimaginable, we most definitely can nudge a space rocks a few degrees off course. But only if we keep our heads and work together. Now sir, what you do in the next ten seconds will determine whether you go to sleep tonight in the comfort of your own bed, the discomfort of a jail cell cot, or worse. Your call.”
Hearing Darius like this reminded Liam of a time before they met, how he admired Darius, wanted to be like him, to be with him. It reminded Liam of how inspiring Darius could be. Which wasn't what he should be thinking about in a time like this.
“Why can’t we move these?”
“Civil defense protocol. This road is reserved for the evacuation of VIPs.”
“Can we agree right now that, as far as the eye can see, there are no VIPs?”
“All right! One car at a time! Move on through in an orderly fashion.”
“Are you completely insane? You could’ve been killed out there.” He tried not to sound panicked, not to let Darius see how worried he was.
“That was mere mortal’s work. What we’re about to do, I’m afraid, requires superhero skills.”
Everything about this was wrong, and almost harder to believe than the fact they might not be able to fight an extinction level event. His company was invaded by the government of the United States, following the instructions of terrorists, and that made no sense.
Liam. They wanted Liam. And the government was willing to deliver him to terrorists, with no one to protect him. He didn't know what to say, didn't know what to do, but he had to say something, he couldn't just let this happen. He couldn't let Liam be taken by the government.
“Wh… what? Y-you can’t hand Liam over to them.” He tried to sound rational, tried to explain why this was absurd, but he couldn't think of any reason why they couldn't take him, not one that would make sense.
“I’m afraid we don’t have much leverage right now. They’re threatening to bomb any country that doesn’t turn over the scientists on their list. Unfortunately, they’re asking for Tanz as their base of operations.”
“Absolutely not.” He couldn't find a way to justify protecting Liam, but Tanz was his and if not all of their demands could be met, then maybe none of their demands would be met. As far as plans went, it wasn't the best, but it was what he could think of that moment.
“No, I refuse! You can’t negotiate with terrorists," he said, even though he knew they had to. If they had asked for anything else, maybe he would have accepted it, but he felt responsible for Liam, he had to protect him.
“I signed the order five minutes ago. Under the NSPD, I was given the emergency power to nationalize Tanz Industries, and I had no alternative.”
He knew that, but he wasn't as worried about Tanz as he was about Liam. A company could be nationalized in the name of the greater good, but an innocent civilian kidnapped by the government and handed over to terrorists? Even the threat of nuclear bombs shouldn't be enough to cause the law to be violated like this.
“Ah, this is insane. Now first Tess. Now Liam and…” he realized he had added Liam, as if he was his to lose, and struggled to continue, “and Tanz? Well, they’ve taken away all my power. I‘m… I’m essentially powerless.” He was trying to find a way to explain this that didn't involve explaining why it was so important to keep Liam safe.
Truth was, he couldn't face the government of the United States, at least not without preparation, especially when Liam seemed to be accepting this. There it was, the downside of all that optimism, he couldn't even see how dangerous it was to go along with a terrorist plan.
Perhaps Liam should be more concerned about his own situation, about what he would be able to do without Darius' help, but he was too shocked by the president's offer to think about his own predicament. He would only have to work with RE/SYST, but Darius was about to become the Vice President of the United States, which was ridiculous. Not only because of how British Darius was, and a coincidental birth during a family vacation didn't seem like enough to make someone American enough to be vice president, although that was weird enough too.
No, what he couldn't wrap his head around was Darius as a politician. Of course, he could understand the logic of people being inspired by Darius. He felt that too, even if after meeting Darius in person the pure inspiration and admiration received an added occasional annoyance. Darius knew how to convince people to strive to be the best versions of themselves, which was the exact opposite of what a politician did, so Liam couldn't understand how they had gotten to this point.
They were supposed to be finding a way to save humanity together, and now Liam would go to work with RE/SYST and Darius could go to work with the president, and everything was so far away from was supposed to happen when he gave up the safety of the Arc to come back to work with Darius.
"Can we have a moment?" Darius asked, then grabbed Liam's arm and pulled him aside without waiting for an answer.
He dragged Liam aside with minimum protest from him.
"What's wrong?" Liam asked, as if he wasn't demanded by terrorists.
"What's wrong? They are demanding you as a hostage!"
Liam made a face. "Not a hostage, they want scientists to work together to save the planet. Which is the same thing that we want."
"But our plans never involved threatening people with nukes to get them to cooperate with us."
"No, but we broke laws, stole nuclear material and lied to the government. Don't we all want the same thing?"
How could Liam even think those are the same thing?
"Liam, they are kidnapping you. You do understand that, right?"
"They aren't kidnapping anyone, they are just trying to get us to work together without the governments interfering."
"If they have to use the threat of nukes, then it's kidnapping."
Why couldn't Liam just see what was going on? His insistence on seeing the best in everyone was getting old.
"Even if that were the case, we don't have a choice. I have to work with them."
"If you don't have a choice, then it's kidnapping. Liam, we can fight this. We have to fight this."
He couldn't believe what was happening. The world had really gone mad if everyone was simply accepting what terrorists asked without even thinking of fighting.
"We can't. You heard the president, we have to do this."
There was much he wanted to say. That he couldn't let him go, that it was too risky, that Liam was too important to let RE/SYST take. But he didn't know how to explain all of that in a way that wouldn't make him sound like a manic.
"I'm sorry, but time's up," said a secret service agent, coming to collect Liam.
And just like that, it was too late for Darius to do anything. He had failed in protecting Liam, failed in making him understand how important he was to Darius. It was too late, and he didn't know what to do.
They needed Darius' help. Neither group could do what needed to be done alone, but together they had a real chance. Convincing RE/SYST to work with him wouldn't be easy, but he was sure that Darius would accept if he could convince them. He wouldn't be happy about it, but he wouldn't let it get in the way of saving lives.
For a moment, he considered that maybe RE/SYST wasn't what he thought it was, if they were willing to risk the fate of humanity just so they could avoid working with someone that they didn't like. He had thought that they were better than this, and to be faced with this reality was hard. He wanted everything to work out right, and for that to happen, everyone had to work together.
At the same time, it was hard to think of RE/SYST as keeping people there against their will. Sure, they used the threat of nuclear weapons to get the scientists there, but still, he thought it was just a way to get people to cooperate. Despite having the weapons, they only did a symbolic attack, so maybe they could be forgiven for using extreme methods. He and Darius had done similar things, even though not as drastic.
In a way, he didn't know what to think anymore. He didn't know if he could trust RE/SYST as much as he wanted to. Still, they were willing to let him leave to go ask for Darius' help, and that had to mean something. He wasn't being kept there against his will, so maybe that meant that the others could leave too, if they had a real reason for it.
Still, there was something bothering him about this whole situation. He didn't know what it was, but he couldn't think about this now. First, they needed to get Darius' help, whatever reservations he had about RE/SYST would have to wait for a better moment.
The president was dead, and he was the president now. It seemed impossible to believe. He had thought his position was simply for show, so he could make some speeches and give people hope. He never expected to be handed the leadership of a country like this, Even though this gave him more power to ensure his plans to save the planet, it was also a type of responsibility that he didn't want, and wasn't sure he knew how to deal with. He was afraid of being turned into a politician.
And there was something else in his mind. He wasn't the only one to change. Liam was now willingly part of a terrorist group, and that was hard to believe. It had to be Stockholm syndrome, he had staid with them for too long, and now believe in them, ignoring reality to accept what they said.
Perhaps that wouldn't be to bad, if not for the fact that it could keep going to even worse places. He was afraid that Liam might do something that he would later regret, or worse, something that he couldn't live with.
Darius should never have allowed Liam to go with them, he should have fought harder. Now, he needed to find a way to save Liam before it was too late, but he couldn't think of what to do. He couldn't simply invade Tanz and get Liam back, especially when Liam believed in what RE/SYST was doing. And worse, as long as Liam was with them, and supporting them, there was nothing that Darius could do to deal with the threat of nuclear bombs.
RE/SYST had been brilliant in what they did to Liam, and Darius hated himself for his guilt on this, but perhaps the worse part was that he couldn't focus too much on Liam's situation. With seven billion lives on the line, not to mention a country to rule, he had other responsibilities, and he couldn't ignore that for one man, no matter how important he was.
Darius would have to wait for an opportunity to rescue Liam, and maybe convince him that RE/SYST had lied to him. In the meantime, he had a lot to do. As horrible as that situation was, Liam would have to wait.
“You look bigger.”
“And you look smaller.”
“What do you want? I’m not wearing a wire.”
“I came alone. You can call off the goon squad here, this is between us.”
All he wanted was to pretend that things were like before, and the scenario wasn't helping.
“There is no ‘us’. I’m the president. You’re an enemy of the state, responsible for the assassination of President Mackenzie.”
It hurt, hearing Darius talk like this. From the start, they were a team. And sure, Darius never told him the whole picture. Darius had a problem with honesty, and respecting other people's decisions. But still, they were acting together most of the time.
“RE/SYST did not kill Mackenzie.”
“That’s what they told you, but as we both know, they don’t have a good track record when it comes to the truth.”
How could he make Darius see that RE/SYST was telling the truth?
“And how about you? And we know the real target for your rail gun test. If you make any attempt to disable those nukes, RE/SYST will retaliate. Darius, you have to be the cooler head here. RE/SYST will never back down. I mean, they’re talking about dropping a nuke on a major city.”
“You’re a member of RE/SYST, so by ‘they’, you mean you.”
“I guess. Yes, I do.”
He was part of RE/SYST after all, wasn't he? Even if he disagreed with what they wanted to do.
“Good to know. Arrest this man. He’s just confessed to being an enemy of the United States of America.”
“What are you talking about? No. I’m trying to make peace.”
How could Darius think this of him? He was just trying to make things better.
“Did you think I would just let you waltz out of here, after threatening a nuclear attack on our nation?”
“This is insane, Darius, You’re making a horrible mistake. You’re gonna have blood on your hands.”
After everything they've been through, Darius couldn't even trust him.
What was he thinking? That was a terrible idea.
Darius had a simple plan, not a very good one, perhaps, but still simple. He would keep Liam safe and out of harm's way by keeping him in jail, and then release him with a pardon after RE/SYST was dealt with. Clear and simple.
The problem was, of course, that Liam wasn't a tool that could be put away and then brought back when needed. He was a person, who wouldn't understand why what Darius was doing was for his own good. And Darius didn't have the time to explain it to him.
It was a bad call, but it was the only one that he could think of.
Any minute that Liam stayed with RE/SYST was another minute that he could do something unforgivable, something he wouldn't be able to live with, so Darius had to remove him from the situation before it was too late.
Even if removing him meant that he would hate Darius in the process.
It was a terrible idea, but it was the only one that he had.
Too bad it didn't work.
Liam didn't know who to trust anymore. Maybe RE/SYST wasn't what he thought it was, but at the same time, when he tried working with Darius, things went...
He never imagined that Darius would arrest him, let alone for treason. After everything, Darius arrested him and RE/SYST found a way to rescue him. It was a strange situation to find himself in, and it only made the situation harder to understand.
He didn't know what to do anymore, and he didn't know what side he was supposed to take.
All that he knew was that he wanted to save the planet, and the way that things were going, he didn't know if anyone would be able to do it.
Fighting a series of bad ideas with an even worse one had to be some kind of record, but again, it was the only thing that he could do.
If things went perfectly, then maybe he could rescue Liam and the entire world from RE/SYST. Otherwise, he might die and then the whole world would probably be destroyed.
Part of him was terrified, but at least this was doing something. He wanted to do something, couldn't stand to keep still waiting for other people to fix this problem. And if he didn't do something, then odds were that Liam wasn't going to survive and that RE/SYST might even explode the nukes.
Whatever way he looked, it was bad, but still it was their only chance.
A brilliant plan, a terrible idea, high risk, it was the kind of thing he did best.
Liam stared at Aguirre, trying to understand. Subconsciously, he knew, he knew even before Aguirre gave it away, or rather, Darius gave it away. He knew it, and that's why he felt so nervous and yet so at ease next to Aguirre.
He didn't know what to say, Darius had just disguised himself as a reclusive Argentinean scientist to infiltrate Tanz, and despite everything that happened between them, he still trusted Liam enough to tell him the truth, to make this ridiculous plan that depended on Liam not betraying him for it to work.
He couldn't believe the things that he had told Aguirre, all the doubts that he had, he even admitted that Darius was right, things that he would never have said if he knew who he was talking to.
He wanted to ask a million questions, but first, they needed to be alone.
Liam was angry, frustrated even. Darius couldn't blame him, after tricking him into talking, into admitting that he was wrong. Still, he had agreed to talk to him alone, so that had to be a good sign.
If Liam could admit now that RE/SYST wasn't what he thought it was, then perhaps he could be saved after all.
Darius tried to explain Aguirre, despite Liam's interruptions. He knew how absurd it was, to create a whole new persona to hide science that actually worked, but that was what he had to deal with once he built a reputation. The problem with developing technology was, sometimes people saw the name first, and the science second.
Liam was almost there, going back and forward between thinking this was all a trick, that he was there to sabotage their plan or to help, that all of this was Darius' fault or RE/SYST's fault, and he was so close to making the right decision.
"I mean, you threw me in a jail. You were talking to me like I was, I was a criminal."
There it was, the hardest point to pass. His idea had been terrible, and he knew that now, but didn't know how to explain that he was only trying to help.
"You left me no choice, I needed to protect you."
"Protect me? By throwing me in a federal jail while the world still needed saving?"
"By keeping you away from RE/SYST! Do you have any idea how hard I had to fought not to have Tanz invaded? I wanted you safe away from here, and I know jail was a terrible idea, but at least there you would be safe."
"You labelled me a terrorist."
"And I issued you a pardon, it was always my plan to pardon you, regardless of what RE/SYST did."
"You could have told me what you were planning."
He took a few steps closer to Liam, and touched a hand to his arm. "I tried, but you trusted RE/SYST too much, you wouldn't listen to me."
Liam lowered his head, ashamed. "They tricked me, they lied to me."
"I know, and I don't blame you. I did come here to repair what's been torn. The two of us have the power to shut it down and get back to what we do: science. But I need your help." I need you, he didn't say.
This was it, the moment of truth. Liam would either accept to help him so that they could go back to the way things were, or he could sound the alarm and get Darius killed.
But Darius knew what would happen, he knew he could trust Liam.
"What can we do?"
Darius explained his plan to him quickly. They already lost too much time, they needed to neutralize RE/SYST so that they could focus on Liam's sail plan.
He couldn't believe what Darius was doing for him. Despite the fact that Darius' main plan was about getting rid of the nukes, there was no denying that rescuing Liam was part of it.
Liam wasn't naive to the point of thinking that Darius couldn't have just invaded Tanz, it wasn't an empty threat, but that would mean risking getting people there killed. People such as Liam.
After everything, Liam didn't know what to think of Darius, or rather, of Darius in relation to him. At times, it seemed as if Darius really cared about him. Then he would turn around and dismiss Liam, hide his plans, lie, and even have Liam arrest. Still, he came to rescue Liam, and trusted him with his life.
And Liam couldn't violate that trust. He didn't know where they stood, but he trusted Darius more than he did RE/SYST.
Whatever else happened, he was going to help Darius, and together they would end the threat that RE/SYST used to control the world.
He should be afraid. Not because he didn't trust Liam, despite everything, he still trusted Liam more than anything. Even if all of his latest ideas had been so bad, his heart was in the right place, and Liam wouldn't get him killed. Not intentionally anyway.
The problem was with RE/SYST. If he told him, thinking that they would simply send Darius out, then they would kill him. Simple as that.
He should be afraid, but he wasn't. For the first time since this whole business with RE/SYST started, he believed that Liam understood what was happening.
Darius should have fought harder at the beginning, shouldn't have let Liam be taken like this. Then, he shouldn't have dismissed the influence RE/SYST had over Liam, shouldn't have acted so carelessly, shouldn't have had Liam arrested to protect him even though it seemed like the only alternative.
He didn't give everything on all those times, so he had to give everything now. A leap of faith, hoping that Liam would see it the same way.
He should be afraid, but being afraid would mean holding back, and he had decided not to do that anymore.
Whatever the outcome, he was giving all he had to this attempt to get Liam back.
Everything happened so fast.
Liam was afraid that he wouldn't be able to trick everyone, and that he would get both of them killed, but Darius' plan was good.
Everything happened just as it was supposed to. And just like that, no more nukes, no more power to RE/SYST, no more scientists kept under duress. No more TESS. Liam couldn't believe everything that Darius risked and everything that he sacrificed to get them there.
This made him realize how much he cared about Darius, and it made him want to do something in return for Darius.
And he had the perfect idea.
"Welcome home, Darius," called the familiar voice he never expected to hear again.
"Tess?" No, he had destroyed her, worse yet, convinced Liam to destroy her for him, because even if he could have found the opportunity, he wouldn't be able to pull the metaphorical plug on her.
"Admin voice pattern authenticated."
He looked at Liam, searching for an answer, but he didn't need to ask for one.
"I restored her OS using her original source code, and she's back to how she was before RE/SYST," Liam said, almost beaming.
He obviously proud of himself for having thought of that when Darius didn't, but Darius wouldn't call him out on that. It was a brilliant idea that didn't occur to him, and Liam deserved to feel proud.
More than that, it showed something that Darius couldn't quite name. Liam knew how important Tess was to him and how much it costed him to sacrifice her, so he saved her, for him. Perhaps heart was the word Darius was looking for, Liam always had too much heart, often too much for his own good.
A sudden urge took over him, a warm feeling on his chest that he refused to name, and that appeared far too often when he was near Liam. It was the same thing that almost made him do something stupid when Liam came back to free him, proving that they could still mend things between them. Then, he had brought himself back to reality by reminding himself of the urgency of the situation, since RE/SYST could still be in the building. Now, there wasn't anything stopping him from doing something he would surely regret.
"Thank you," Darius said, because it was the only thing he could think of saying, despite not being enough, nothing would be enough.
He raised his eyes at Liam, and that was his first mistake. It would have been easier to fight his own impulses if he hadn't confronted the earnest vulnerability of that look, the sea of naked emotion just below the surface that showed him that Liam was desperate to say something more, to acknowledge what existed behind that gesture.
Darius should say something to disarm the situation, remind them of the asteroid coming their way, anything to keep him from confronting his own feelings. But the last couple months since he had lost Liam still weighted on him. Having to stand by while the government handed him over like he was a disposable property, getting him back in body but not in mind, watching as RE/SYST brainwashed him and not knowing how to protect Liam from himself and from them.
Now Liam was finally back, fully back, to him. Darius had hesitated in taking the first step to mending things between them, but he was rewarded by his leap of faith. Darius handed Liam his fate and his life, trusting that Liam would make the right choice, and his trust was well placed.
Darius didn't know how long they stared at each other, and he didn't notice when he had stepped closer to Liam, but they were in each other's space now, close enough to touch.
Liam opened his mouth, probably to try to downplay his actions, or maybe even to apologize for what he did before, but Darius wasn't having it. Talking lead to arguing and misunderstandings and before he knew he would be pushing Liam away when he wanted to keep him close.
So Darius decided to just forego words and act on that persistent impulse that wouldn't leave him alone, before it made him act on a more inconvenient time.
As soon as Darius placed a hand on the back of Liam's neck, pulling him a couple inches closer, Liam's eyes widened and his mouth closed, Darius gave him a moment to process the shock and push him away if he wanted. With the look on Darius' face as he stared at Liam and the way he licked his bottom lip ever so slightly, there was no mistaking his intentions, but Liam didn't move.
After a moment that was far too long, Darius leaned in the rest of the way and kissed Liam.
There were a millions reasons why that was a terrible idea, and a million more why this was a terrible time, but considering how many times Darius caught himself fighting the urge while they were still at immediate risk from RE/SYST, it was better to get this out of the way. Even if Liam pushed him away and rejected him outright, if they could get past Liam working with terrorists threatening to nuke the world and Darius placing him under arrest, they could get past this.
But Liam didn't push him away. He didn't do much of anything at first, and Darius was about to back away to let him process what happened when Liam sighed against his lips and relaxed against his body, placing both arms around Darius' neck.
Darius took that as a positive sign and placed his free arm around Liam's waist, pulling him closer. Now that Liam was kissing him back, Darius stopped holding himself back. He would take as much as Liam was willing to give him, just in case Liam came to his senses and realized what a monumental bad idea this was.
A flicker of an idea crossed his mind, something important, something that meant they had to stop right now, but then Liam's tongue was in his mouth and he couldn't think of anything else.
His mind actually went blank for a moment, a rare occurrence for him. As his thoughts began to return to him, all he could think about was Liam, the taste of his mouth, the little whimpering noises he made when Darius pulled his hair, the desperate way he was holding on to Darius. Everything was perfect.
And then Darius remembered what happened to Liam while he was with RE/SYST. Call it conditioning, Stockholm's, or anything else, there was no denying that Liam went through something, and he had to still be emotionally vulnerable after all of it. Darius stopped, the thought of taking advantage of Liam like that sicked him. He pushed Liam away by the waist, softly, but surely.
Liam immediately tried to close the distance between them again, but Darius held him away. Not far, Liam's arms were still around his neck, but more loosely now. Close thought that he could still see so clearly the hurt expression on Liam's face. Darius closed his eyes for a moment and sighed, this was another monumental mistake on his part, he should never have kissed Liam, not at a time like this, and now he had ruined things again, broken what they had just started fixing.
"We shouldn't do this," he managed to say, needing to explain what was in his mind.
"You were the one who kissed me!" Liam all but screamed, frustrated, while letting his arms fall to Darius shoulders.
"And I shouldn't have," he said, and seeing how Liam's face fell, he added, "not... now, at least."
Liam let go of Darius, but didn't push Darius' arms away. "If you bring up that damn asteroid again..."
Darius shook his head. "That's not it. You are no condition to do this."
This time, Liam stepped back, getting away from Darius' arms. "What the hell are you talking about?"
That's what Darius was afraid of, that words would break things between them again. They were always better with actions given without explanation. Darius didn't know how to place things in a way that wouldn't make things even worse.
"You were conditioned by RE/SYST, you are in no condition to consent to anything, I shouldn't have kissed you."
Now Liam was truly angry at him. "I know what I did and I wasn't brainwashed. If you are getting second thoughts, you don't get to put this on my mistakes," he yelled.
"That's not what I'm saying! You're not immune to Stockholm syndrome, Liam! They let you go and you went back, you defended their use of nukes, and the fact that you can't see it tells me that you are in no condition to be making big decisions right now."
Great, now he was yelling too. This was exactly what he didn't want. They were fighting again, when all he wanted was to hold Liam close and comfort him. He should never have kissed him.
"So I was in 'no condition to be making big decisions' when I was almost shot to help with your plan? Or maybe I'm crazy because I dared to think that maybe your solution wasn't the best. Just say you regret kissing me and stop making excuses!"
Darius grabbed Liam, pulling him close before holding his face between his hands. It took everything he got not to kiss him senseless then and there, but he couldn't be more convinced that Liam was still in a vulnerable mental place.
"The only thing I regret is not kissing you before they took you away. No, I regret that I even agreed to their ridiculous demands. There's nothing I want more right now than you, in every way that you'll have me, but I refuse to be like them and take advantage of this traumatic experience. I may have many failures as a lover but this is not one of them. I care about you too much to take the risk that I'm using you like this." His tone became softer as he spoke, until it ended almost in a whisper. He was dangerously close to saying words that he didn't often say, but if kissing Liam was wrong, justifying it with a confession about his feelings was even worse and closer to manipulation.
Darius could practically see the gears shifting inside Liam's head, as he tried to solve this like any other unsolvable problem that he was faced with.
"What can I do to prove that you're not influencing me? That I really want this, and have wanted it for a long time?" Liam asked, and at least now he wasn't yelling, so Darius took that as a good sign.
"I don't think that you can, not now anyway. Give yourself time to think, and if you still want this..."
"Didn't we lose enough time already? That asteroid will be here in less than three months, and I already have enough regrets."
Darius brushed his thumb on Liam's cheek despite himself, he had almost a need to comfort the other, and it was hard holding back. He couldn't let Liam lose hope like this, humanity needed both of them working on this problem with all they had. "It won't be, because we are going to stop it. Your sail combined with my cannon, this is going to work."
"Darius..." Liam started, and Darius could see that he wasn't going to let it go.
"One day. Give yourself one day. Get our mind off things, sleep, and if you still want this, then I'll be waiting for you tomorrow night. And if you don't come here, I'll know that you changed your mind and we never have to speak of this again."
For a moment, Darius thought that Liam might keep protesting, but he didn't.
"If this is what it takes to convince you, fine. I'll see you tomorrow night."
"You don't have to," Darius remembered. "The whole point of this is that you shouldn't feel pressured."
"I know, and I know that I'll still feel the same tomorrow." Then, Liam surprised him once again by hugging Darius tightly. "Thank you for coming back for me, even when I didn't know that I needed rescuing."
Darius saw no harm in holding Liam, they were still friends after all. "I should have come earlier, but I didn't know how to convince you. I shouldn't have pushed you way when you first came back."
"Then don't push me away now."
"That we should act normal until tomorrow night."
Darius sighed, and pushed Liam just slightly away, if he wanted normal, then he would get normal. "Very well, then we've still got work to do."