I wakened as our Osprey marine tilt-rotor set down with a blast of spray on the lakefront of Gilbert Bates mansion. I expected us to be part of a Marine beachhead attack against Gilbert Bates, instead we were entering through the front door like guests at a party.

"We're all playing it by ear," Laura told me as we walked up the deck from the landing. "I love you." She said unexpectedly and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek.

"I love you too," I returned, giving her the answer she expected. Love may be blind, but my feelings were hardly so naive as to trust Laura. But she'd just saved my life again, so hope beats eternal.

FDAP agents in full SWAT attire stopped our Marine guard at the edge of the dock. We didn't protest, it was clear there was nothing the henchmen on either side could resolve, so other than a lot of gun pointing and chest beating, we proceeded.

We were met at the entrance hall by the Mahdi, Vice-President Alberts and Gilbert Bates.

"How nice to see you have survived, Dr. Heller," said the Mahdi, now resplendent though quite buck naked in a lightsuit of his own. Euroweenies at the beach in Speedos came to mind.

"Yes, yes. Quite a pleasure to meet the famous Dr. Heller," joined Gilbert Bates. "You can't imagine my respect for your programming abilities!"

I gave them both a look of utter contempt.

"Mr. President, it is always a pleasure to meet you," Gregory Alberts, vice-president of the United States greeted his commander in chief.

"Let's cut the shit boys," Clint skipped the formalities. "We've got some work to do." This was the first time the president had done business without a buffer of intermediaries, and he showed fear. "We're here to divide up the world and make it a better place."

We followed Bates, the Mahdi and Alberts into a vast conference room off the entrance hall. Lined with magnificent flat-wall monitors, the room evolved from one calming seafront landscape to another. The ultimate wallpaper.

"The world is at stake," vice-president Alberts spoke first. "That is the first and foremost reason for the coup, nothing personal. I hope you understand that, Clint."

"You back stabbing son-of-a-bitch, I don't understand anything," Clint replied. "Except that you're a damn traitor!"

"Pardon me Clint," the vice-president clinched his teeth. "But I learned my political technique from you. We're being charitable letting you step down quietly when we could blow your god damn head off!"

"You're acting like children," Laura broke in, taking charge as if she owned the place. "No one's stabbing anyone in the back. This is still a noble partnership, Greg and Clint, we're just adjusting to conditions."

"So you're in this with them, Laura?" The president asked plaintively. "You're part of the coup?"

"Let me remind you that from the beginning, the goal of our group was to create a new world paradigm," Laura lectured her lover. "Not to indulge ourselves in emotionalism."

"Count me out," I muttered to myself.

"Masses of humans, propagating like rabbits, threatened the collapse not only of our government, but the global political structure." Laura began to warm to the subject. "The Islamists had a need to consolidate their Caliphate in the Middle East, their envoy is of course the Mahdi. We all recognized the welfare state was a Ponzi scheme, that the social contract would shatter and the inevitable international wars would threaten the entire world ecology. Brute control was the only salvation, the theoretical necessity that forged our partnership!"

"So this is your plan to save civilization, a megalomaniacs club?" I blurted.

"Not civilization, the world! I, we needed each of you to save Mother Earth!" Laura drilled in with a glare. "Ahmadi, you had the will and means to power with your knowledge of Black Orchid and the streetfighting methods of the Jihadis. Clint, you were obviously on the path to become the world's most powerful leader and I realized long before you became president that your help would be critical. Gregory, your involvement in the Green World movement meant we could rely on the environmentalists to support our methods, no matter how harsh they seemed. Gilbert obviously was needed to control the Internet propaganda channels and keep a backdoor into everyone's living room. Steve, you were needed because of the research into the lightsuit, we needed to build a small efficient army on the cheap."

"No one invited me to your party, " I broke in again, enraged that I had been used as a pawn. " I'm not your little soldier boy. I don't buy your Apocalyptic enviro-babble."

Laura's eyes turned cold hard obsidian, not like a woman who had professed her undying love to me just an hour before.

"Yes, you would have put your head in the sand, watched the world disintegrate while you had wine and filet high on your academic mountain."

"I just never thought the answer to the world's problems was mass genocide," I responded. "That's your plan, isn't it? If Planet Earth is more important than humans, then eventually you have to begin exterminating the vermin."

I'd thought of Laura as a bit player in the cataclysmic events of the last year, a history surfer riding a lucky wave. Now I wasn't so sure. She was the one common link among all these events and people. Perhaps she was now the driving force of history, not just a voyeur.

"It wasn't my idea," the President broke the uncomfortable silence. "Laura and I had good hearts when this began," he whined in guilt, almost sobbed. "But it's turned out so wrong. I had a wife and child until she came along. I was the president, I was somebody!"

Clint's outburst brought an icy silence. He seemed sincere, as if he were having an epiphany, but my psychology 101 told me he was becoming abnormally agitated. The president drew a plastic gun from his coat jacket, the type that passes through the metal detectors, and pointed it at Laura's heart.

"It's all over," the president spoke quietly and began to pull the trigger. "You've played me for a fool the last time."

A blast shook the room, but it wasn't Clint's plastic gun that was the source.

"Ayyyyyiiii!!" A curdling scream rose from Clint's lips as he realized that his forearm was dangling from a strip of flesh, his hand blown off by a high caliber round.

"It works! It works!" Gilbert Bates began dancing jubilantly about, even as Clint slouched to the floor. A security device had responded to the president's assault and saved Laura's life, but I wasn't sure why Gilbert was celebrating. It was unlikely the tracking system had been aiming at Clint's hand, it should have hit him in the chest. Just another example of MicroByte's mediocre software.

"You disgust me, you've always disgusted me," Laura looked down with undisguised revulsion at the now kneeling and bleeding president. "You have one minute to get out of here."

Clint looked into Laura's eyes and I have never seen such fear, enough fear that it short-circuited the pain from his shattered forelimb.

Clint rose with difficulty and staggered to the door. Through the surveillance system, we could hear his footsteps as he ran. A flatpanel wall display tracked him as he exited the mansion, his steps slowing as he ran, dragging drunkenly from blood loss shock towards the tilt-rotor Osprey.

"Long live the president of the United States! Long live Gregory Alberts!" Laura pronounced. "So much for old business." The coup was over and it was clear who was in charge.

"The resignation of President Clint Williams will be announced on the MicroByte Network News this evening," Gregory Alberts, the new president of the United States beamed. "I will be accompanying Clint on his flight back."

"Try to explain that I still love him," Laura added as Alberts took his leave. "It was just necessary to bring in new blood to finish the job we have set before us."

"There is still new business," Ahmadi broke the silence after Alberts had left. "The question of Dr. Heller. I believe there is some software that he needs to give us."

"I'm not giving you sons of bitches anything." I thought about walking out of that room, but it was not a real option. I knew I had been under surveillance all along and could be blown to bits at any moment.

"Dr. Heller, I don't think you understand the situation," Gilbert Bates gave a boyish grin. "Watch," he motioned to a flat panel.

Inhuman cruelty is a human instinct, witnessed by thousands of years of historical events. But never before has the word inhuman been attached to the torture of an electronic creature.

Ell appeared on the flat panel. Dressed in black as if in mourning, she stood entranced in a panorama taken as if from the center of the darkest and most violent thunderstorm. A dark figure on a dark background normally would not be seen, except that Ell was illuminated by blue neon thunderbolts that laced the thunderstorm and created a continuous conduit of plasma discharge to her body through fifty tendrils of pain.

"Ell!" I cried. "What have they done to you?"

"Oh, she can't hear you," Gilbert explained. "I have been able to progressively close the pathways to her cyber conscience so that she is aware of very little, except perhaps pain."

Inhuman, such a small word for such a large evil.

"Then how do I still function?" I asked incredulously. "After all, she is the software that runs my neurosystem."

"Well, that is the question, isn't it," Gilbert admitted. "There must be some packet leakage in the system that keeps her in contact with you. In fact, that's why we have brought you here instead of having you, um, serviced."

"Here's the bargain, Dr. Heller," Mahdi Ahmadi proposed, cutting to the chase. "We will set Ell free, if you give us the kernel of her code that we are missing. TROP, the clone that Gilbert created to run my lightsuit, appears to have some bugs in it."

"Not bugs," Gilbert protested. "Some are actually undocumented features!"

On another flat panel, a picture of the clone software called TROP appeared, a hideous mutation if there ever was one. TROP had more in common with a giant tree sloth than any human counterpart.

"Fortunately, you haven't encroached on the 'Look and Feel' patent rights I have on Ell," I wisecracked and Gilbert glared a livid red. "And what will you do if I refuse to help you?" I already knew the answer.

"Why we'll slowly pull her datafiles apart until she no longer exists," Ahmadi responded with a crooked grin, motioning to Bates.

With a sick look in his eyes, Bates executed a script on a terminal and the vision of Ell writhed in agony.

"You bastards," I exploded with pent up hate and I launched at Ahmadi, grabbing him by the throat hoping to choke the evil out of him. If he had only been a man, I would have crushed him, but he was now much stronger than me. TROP was defective MicroByte software and wouldn't normally have been a match for Ell, except she was now in Gilbert Bates grasp and I was debilitated.

Ahmadi grasped my hands and pulled them from his throat, looked me straight in the eye and said "For this insult, I will make Ell the mistress of TROP!"

"This is so childish," Laura commented as it became clear I was vanquished. "But strangely erotic. Come now Steven, this Ell is just a computer game you have created in your boredom. Let me be the carrot to the stick. You can have me as your reward for fixing this TROP thing like the Mahdi wants."

"I will need access to some terminals," I admitted my defeat. "You haven't been able to rebuild some of the core personality of Ell because I designed her to be environmentally adaptive, there are complex fractal decision trees that she generates that you could never duplicate on your own."

Gilbert huffed, green with intellectual envy. "The terminals are yours, compliments of MicroByte. Make sure to digitally sign the EULA!"