Chapter 8: Moral Dilemma

“A Stand Against the Shadows of Progress”

Gesturing for Clarke to follow, Mercer set off down the gleaming corridor towards the facility’s secure communication center. His footfalls echoed urgently on polished concrete, the sterile lights bleaching all shadow and warmth from the sprawling complex. This concrete hive, dedicated to the methodical dehumanizing of Ascendance, was everything Mercer now stood against.

Arriving at the door of the comm center, Mercer turned to Clarke, his expression deadly serious. “What I’m about to say might initially confuse you, but I can’t remain complicit or complacent any longer.”

Her brows knitted in confusion, but she nodded her assent. Mercer knew he could rely on her integrity – her presence would verify the exchange to come.

Swiping his keycard, Mercer entered and activated the room’s perimeter-sealing measures before initiating the call. The line encryptions flickered to life immediately – his NSA authorization permitting a direct, secure link to the Department of Defense’s senior leadership.

The screen resolved into an empty conference room, with a row of uniformed generals and imposing government officials waiting expectantly. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Caldwell, sat prominently among them.

“Agent Mercer, we’ve been expecting your report,” Caldwell intoned seriously from the screen. “Give us your assessment on Project Ascendance’s progress and any obstacles we should address.”

Mercer drew a steadying breath. Clarke stood professionally behind him just in view of the camera. There could be no retreating from what came next.

“With respect, General, obstacles don’t begin to cover it,” Mercer began gravely. “After witnessing the actual state of Dr. Natalie Blackwood today, I cannot in good conscience recommend further resources be devoted to this project. Its human experimentation violates the oaths we took, sir.”

The gentlemanly faces on the screen registered astonishment at his baldly insubordinate words. Caldwell’s brow lowered as he responded sternly. “Mind your tone, Agent Mercer. You may have security access, but your role does not include dictating policy outside your jurisdiction.”

The implied threat was clear, but Mercer did not back down.

“I understand my place in the chain of command, General. But I also understand right and wrong. What GlobeX is carrying out under our complicity should shock the conscience of any citizen, let alone public servants.”

He clasped his hands behind his back, holding Caldwell’s glare unflinchingly.

“With respect, shutting down Ascendance immediately would be the only moral course. Before more minds are broken and lives ruined.”

The heavy silence emanating from the screen told Mercer he had irrevocably crossed the line from obedient asset to inconvenient dissenter. Caldwell sighed, as if disappointed a wayward pupil.

“Your ethical concern is natural, Agent Mercer. Such projects can appear troubling from a limited perspective. But trust that wiser minds weigh these difficult issues.”

His next words rang with chilling finality. “We cannot afford to halt progress toward securing our nation and its interests against rapidly evolving threats across the globe. Much depends on the advances Ascendance will yield. That must remain your sole focus.”

Mercer met his steely gaze unflinchingly. “I cannot in good conscience ignore atrocity even under orders, sir. Either we hold ourselves to higher standards, or we become the very threats we aim to defeat.”

As Mercer stood resolutely before the screen of stunned military leaders, he felt the full weight of what his act of defiance would cost. Among the impassive faces staring back was General Caldwell – not just his superior officer, but someone with whom Mercer had forged a deep bond during his many years of service.

Their relationship extended beyond the professional. Caldwell had taken a personal interest in Mercer’s career, mentoring him and ensuring his steady rise through the ranks. He had been like a second father at times, a trusted confidante. Mercer had imagined one day seeing pride in the old general’s eyes when he succeeded him in a leadership role.

Now, Mercer saw only disappointment and reproach in Caldwell’s expression. By defying Ascendance, Mercer knew he was irreparably severing the closest thing to family he had known since losing his parents. He was throwing away Caldwell’s legacy of trust, besmirching a name that had opened every door for him.

The thought twisted Mercer’s gut. He wanted to plead for understanding, to make Caldwell see they stood on the same side of right and wrong. But he knew the general was too beholden to shadowy powers and interests to concede Mercer’s point, even if he agreed at heart. Duty would force Caldwell to vilify him now as a dissenter and liability. Their bond had reached the breaking point.

As Mercer stared into the hardened eyes of his mentor, the full personal cost of his stand welled up inside. He was rending asunder not just an oath of service, but a formative relationship and surrogate parental tie. Even an act of conscience demanded difficult sacrifice.

With a muted choke of emotion, Mercer severed the call. His hand trembled slightly as it lowered from the controls. When he turned to Clarke, his gaze shone with renewed conviction and sadness mingled. Duty had forced him to betray the man who had given him purpose for so long. But Mercer knew the true betrayal would be of his own moral integrity, if he faltered now. 

As Mercer strode from the communications room, the weight of his decision sat heavy upon him. He had burned every bridge and sacrificed all he once held dear for this stand of conscience. There could be no returning from what he’d done.

He stopped and turned to Clarke, who stood wide-eyed behind him. She had witnessed the exchange, his open defiance of powerful men thought untouchable. Her life too now hung in the balance.

“Agent Clarke,” he began gravely, “I cannot force you to join me in what comes next. You have a promising career ahead under Caldwell, if you choose to stay the course.”

He held her gaze with sudden vulnerability. “But I must see this through, regardless of consequences. If you share my convictions, I would count myself honored to have you as an ally. But the risks will be great. The choice is yours.”

Clarke drew herself up, a light of resolve entering her eyes. “With respect sir, there is no choice. What we witnessed today was an atrocity. I will not stand idly by, career be damned.”

Her expression softened, touching the shadow of sadness lingering in Mercer’s own eyes. “I took an oath to defend humanity as well. My place is with you, come what may.”

Mercer clasped her shoulder, overcome with gratitude. Here was a partner truly aligned in conscience and purpose. He had sacrificed his past, but perhaps gained hope for a future beyond the lonely path of dissent.

“Ready a covert transport off this mountain immediately.” His voice resonated with conviction now rather than doubt. “As of this moment, we no longer serve under NSA authority. Our sole allegiance is to the moral interests of humanity, above any agency or nation.”

Clarke nodded, her eyes shining with purpose. “I’m with you, sir. To the end.” No further doubts or questions needed to be spoken between two partners aligned in conscience.

As they moved swiftly through the gleaming corridors, Mercer felt the weight of a terrible revelation, but also freedom from the inner conflict heretofore paralyzing him. He knew the only hope of halting Ascendance now lay beyond regulations, in the realm of radical defiance.

The day’s events had illuminated a line between darkness and light that could not be bridged or blurred – only severed. To defend what was right against such overreaching evil required embodying one’s principles fully, without compromise. And embracing whatever sacrifices that stand demanded.

Mercer had witnessed the human mind not elevated by Ascendance, but demolished. Reduced to an engineered vessel stripped of agency, dignity and soul. What emerged from such monstrous tampering was no longer human at all, but machine. For forcefully conscripting Dr. Blackwood as its first casualty, GlobeX and its cohorts had forfeited all right to his loyalty or restraint.

As the mountain winds buffeted his face while Clarke prepared their unauthorized extraction, Mercer stood resolute in the decision fate had forced upon him. The dark roots of corrupt power must be severed here and now, by his own hands if necessary. Before the forces embodied by men like Drake and institutions like Ascendance metastasized past hope of cure.

Whatever the personal consequences, this singular conviction now drove Mercer’s every act with moral clarity. Here, finally, was purpose and direction surpassing any he had known before in a lifetime of obedience and doubt. Come what may, he would see Natalie Blackwood and all those to follow freed of psychological chains and their free will restored. Service to that end alone now defined the measure of his life.

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