Michael’s life returned to normal after that meeting. (That is to say, he visited the hospital four times in the course of the week, and he sent at least eighteen grown men there in that time.) He had put the thought of Jaq Stone’s attack out of his head. At least, that’s what he kept telling himself. When he was doing some trivial task, or was waiting for something, he usually caught himself dwelling on what was said in Dale’s office.
Dale had claimed that Alex’s brother was a necessary loss. Now, he was sending Michael and two boys out into the real world. Would they become “necessary losses?” Would Michael have to give his life to save some greater good? Of course, Michael would gladly sacrifice himself for Praesidium, but he would like to know ahead of time. And the other two, Alex and Ben, they didn’t deserve to have Michael lead them to their deaths unknowingly. Michael couldn’t die, wouldn’t die, with the lives of two innocent and skilled people, much less two teenagers, in his hands.
All of these questions came and went through Michael’s brain throughout the week. Doubt and curiosity clouded his vision. His sense of righteousness and his sense of adventure clashed inside of him, while his sense of discipline tried to quiet both of them.
These emotions battled it out viciously. All of them had good points, and it was clear that they were equal. But there was one variable left to consider: Michael. Whichever one he fed with more passion would grow stronger than the others and overcome them both. He was torn, but as the date of the attack grew closer, he knew he had to do something soon. He didn’t know what consequences would befall him. He didn’t care. He just knew that he had to act quickly. He had but a week to stop their greatest enemies.
Fueled with this desire to go into the world and protect his home, he abruptly took off for Dale’s office. He had started off at a speed-walk, but, as his emotion flowed out of him, he picked up speed until he had begun sprinting. He reached his destination winded, but entered the room anyway.
Dale was sitting there, carefully reading an important-looking document. His stern eyes snapped to Michael as he barreled towards him.
“Sir,” Michael said, breathing heavily, “I cannot sit idly by any longer. An attack is coming, and I must be there to stop it. I will do so without the others’ help.”
Dale studied Michael quizzically. After a couple of seconds of looking at Michael and mulling over his words, Dale replied.
“You wish to do so without the others’ help?”
Dale chuckled slightly, breaking the tension in the room and thoroughly confusing Michael.
“Sir?” Michael asked uncertainly.
“You, much like Alex, want to handle this threat alone. Now, I sense that your reasons for wanting this vary greatly from Alex’s. Alex sees this as a chance to prove himself, and is insulted that he must be led by you. He feels as if I do not trust him as I trusted his brother, and he doesn’t think that he can properly honor his brother as someone else’s sidekick. Especially not someone who he has bested in combat, even if that combat was four-on-one and he had a knife.” He paused, looking amused.
“Now you, however, are a completely different matter. Where he seeks to prove, you seek to protect. You want not to fight, but to save. And we cannot forget about that comment I so foolishly said aloud after Alex left. I assume you have considered that I am leading you three to your deaths without preparing you. You may have even gone as far to call me a murderer, a fraud, a villain. I assure you this is not the case. I mean you three no harm. Alex’s brother, Jeremy, was a . . . special case, for lack of a better word. He had gone too far, sought out what was not to be sought after. He became greedy. He was misled. Alex thinks he died a little over a year ago, as this is when he stopped receiving letters from his beloved brother. This is not the case.
“Jeremy was ecstatic about his journeys outside of Praesidium. He saw many great things, had many wonderful experiences . . . but out in the real world, you are as susceptible to excruciating pain as you are to peace, as susceptible to overwhelming sorrow as you are to happiness. One wrong step, one tiny slip-up, and everything goes south. This is what happened to Jeremy. He stumbled upon whisperings, threats. He thought it no more than propaganda, but he had unknowingly picked up some information vital to Jaq Stone’s plans. He sent a letter to me shortly after he had heard these murmurs, about strange things happening to him since his discovery. In this letter, I picked up on very transparent feelings of his wanting to know more. He was treading on dangerous water, and I knew I couldn’t stop him. He would’ve blown everything!
“Now, Michael, you must believe me when I say that I am not proud of what I responded with, but it was necessary. You must see that there was no way around this that didn’t result in turmoil. I knew of Jaq Stone’s gruesome capabilities, of his evil practices. I knew that the best way to protect Praesidium, to protect Jeremy, was to kill him.”
He stopped, unable to continue. Michael, wanting to know the whole story, waited patiently.
Finally, Dale resumed his recounting of Jeremy’s death. “You must understand, Michael. If Jaq Stone had gotten his hands on Jeremy, the torture would have been unbearable. He would have broken Jeremy with the snap of his fingers. I knew that it was only a matter of time before we had lost Jeremy to a fate worse than death. So I orchestrated his death. He had no idea, of course, as he may have interfered, brought about loose ends. It was a tragic blow, but it was for the greater good.
“Now,” his voice hardened, “you must not tell Alex what I have just told you. If he knew the truth about Jeremy’s demise, he would not listen to reason. He would become a threat, a nuisance. He would have to be dealt with, and it could very likely result in his death as a safety precaution. I would very much prefer it did not end up like that, so let’s keep this between us.”
Michael gaped. He was at a loss for words.
“Uh . . . of course . . . ummm . . . sir.”
“I understand this will make you uncomfortable, but you must remain strong. As much as you may want to tell Alex the truth, you cannot. And if you know what’s good for you, you will not.”
“Is that a threat, sir?”
“Why, yes, it is. Now that you realize the gravity of the situation, go fetch Alex and convince him to join our cause. In the meantime, I will go find Ben.”
And with that, Michael left the room. His head was buzzing with questions, but very faintly. It felt numb. With thousands of thoughts racing through his head, only a few words stuck out.
Unbearable torture . . . Orchestrated his death . . . Loose ends . . . Tragic blow . . . and most prominent of all: For the greater good . . .