He held his place on the line, one of many camo-clad figures strung around the perimeter, safeguarding the palace until the new regime could tighten its grip on power. The city facing him was in chaos, the streets clogged with flaming debris and outraged citizens who vented their fear in an outburst of rioting, looting and mayhem. That was not his concern. His concern was keeping them on the other side of the barricade.

The mob screamed, chanted, and hurled epithets like stones, not daring to throw the real thing. Not yet, at least.

A lone woman emerged from the faceless crowd. She locked her streaming eyes on his and approached, palms raised towards the red sky, a supplicant’s gesture.

Her blue eyes were magnified by her glasses and her tears and his breath caught in his throat. For just one moment he thought he was looking at his mother, but she was thousands of miles away, safe in a peaceful home.

She came closer and the illusion broke. She was ten years younger at least.

She took another step closer, and another. His hands tightened on his weapon, finger instinctively crawling toward the trigger. The chin strap on his helmet dug into his neck, pinching the underside of his jaw when he swallowed.

She stopped, six feet away, hands held higher. He thought for a moment her knees were going to buckle, that she was going to drop to her knees, but she didn’t. Instead, she spoke in a high, voice that he heard clearly over the tumult.

“How could you?” The voice was strong, accusing. “How could you? You’re supposed to serve us!”

Heat rose in his cheeks. Anger? Shame? He didn’t know. He couldn’t allow himself to think about it. He could only follow his orders and hold the line.

He hitched the rifle higher across his chest.

“Ma’am,” he said, in a voice that was flat and emotionless. “I need you to step back from the barricade.”

Behind him the White House glowed red, reflecting the flaming city.


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