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Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

Ed. Note: This is it! This is the last installment for the main part of the story that now simply has to be turned into a book somehow. Next week I’ll add an epilogue so you’ll know how everything turned out with your favorite characters. If you’re like me, you’ve likely become a bit attached to a few of them. Just letting everyone go off into an unknown horizon doesn’t quite provide enough closure.

After that, I’m going to take some time on some single topic pieces while I edit this mess. There have been a number of interesting sciency things the past 19 weeks so I want to take some time to explore those.

Eventually, there’s another story brewing in my head centered around a group of pastors I knew while growing up. Interesting group of characters they turned out to be. I’ll make fiction of everything, of course. No real names. I think all the original players are deceased now anyway. So we’ll start that up maybe in December or something.

Thank you for taking the time to hang with me and read all this. I know I’ve had fun. Maybe I’m the only one who has. But thanks to those who have stuck with the whole story. Now, let’s finish this thing up.

One More Mountain

Rain fell all night, varying in intensity but never to the extreme that it had earlier. With the rain came additional shifting at the other end of the building. One tremor was large enough that Natalie and Darrell were pretty sure that their apartment was now rubble but neither of them wanted to go outside to check. There was a common resignation that this situation was what the universe had given them and there was no point in objecting. They were keenly aware that there were so many others, including the original residents of the apartment they occupied, who had not made it this far. No one was going to complain now about something relatively insignificant as the loss of a few clothes. 

The group had enjoyed the personal revelations that had come with playing Never Could I Ever. Not only did Hannah reveal that she had driven a car naked when she was younger, but she had also chased chickens across a cow pasture and gotten knocked over backward when firing a shotgun. The sometimes intimate looks into their previous lives bonded the group together even more than the day’s tragedies had done. They were friends who had saved each other’s lives and finding that the more they shared the deeper those relationships became.

Everyone had a story. Barry told of the time he had gotten stuck in the doorway of a city bus, requiring first responders to come and un-wedge him before the bus could continue. Toma told of a time when, as a young teen, she pretended to not speak English so that a kindly shop owner would give her free ice cream. Amanda related an incident where she had embarrassed her husband by serving roast beef to a client visiting from India. Natalie recalled an interview where she called the CEO of what was now a major high-tech firm by the wrong name for the full interview—an error he never bothered to correct even when they met again after he was famous.

Framed in the innocence of self-deprecating humor, no one had judged Carlson admitted that he hadn’t always told his wife when he was traveling with an attractive co-worker because his wife was jealous of the co-worker’s red hair. Neither did anyone degrade Gloria when she admitted to being homeless between semesters and stealing food in order to say alive. Everyone laughed with the way Darrell told of getting arrested for filming skateboard stunts on private property after he had broken his arm and collar bone and was in the hospital. 

The group agreed that Adam’s stories of being wild and raucous in the 1960s were the best. Gwen was voted most innocent and it didn’t take long for everyone to notice that it was rare for Miranda to not raise her hand, especially if the topic involved sex. Under this umbrella of shared adversity, no one criticized anyone else for momentary lapses in judgment. No one condemned anyone else for holding a morality different than the generally accepted norm. Instead, they gave each other hugs, provided encouragement after stories of failure, and claimed each other as family. They barely noticed that Amber remained by the glass door keeping watch. When they did, she reassured them that all was well and they continued playing.

Eventually, one by one, they gave into the day’s fatigue and fell asleep. Only Adam was still awake when Amber carefully slipped out onto the balcony. He quietly got up from his chair and joined her.

“How you holding up there, big guy?” Amber asked as Adam shut the glass door behind him. 

“Eh, feeling the effects of no medicine,” he said, “but since I know nothing’s coming I’m taking precautions, getting up and moving around, avoiding the snacks Amanda seems to keep finding.” He paused for a moment then asked, “You’re still doing that thing you always do, aren’t you? Watching out for everyone else, keeping us all safe?”

Amber nodded. “It’s instinctive at this point. We’ve had a day where just about everything that could possibly go wrong has and you know as well as I do that shitstorms like this don’t just dry up and blow away. There’s more coming, I’m afraid.”

Adam followed Amber’s gaze into the cold blackness of the rainy night. “Are we all going to make it?” he asked quietly. “I won’t be upset if this is the end, you know. I’ve had a long and interesting journey.”

Turning around and smiling, Amber looked at Adam and said, “You still miss her, don’t you?” She reached over and wiped away the tear on his cheek. “It’s impossible not to, I know. She was an amazing person and an unbelievable partner.”

“I’ve thought about her so much today,” he replied. “Had they just left me in that coffee shop, perhaps I could be with her now. I’d be okay with that. The world is going to be different after today. I’m not sure there’s any place left for me now.”

Amber stepped to his side and put her arm around him, pulling him in close to her. “The fact that they didn’t leave you or Hannah or anyone else shows that there is a place for you. This changed world needs the wisdom of your experience, the lessons you’ve learned from your mistakes, the things you wish you’d done differently. You can help make this world better by helping us avoid repeating the same stupid errors. Besides, I happen to have it on good authority that your name isn’t on anyone’s list at the moment. I’m afraid you’re just stuck here with me.” She squeezed him again and smiled.

At first, Adam found her words comforting, then pieces between the lines became evident. “Wait, you’re telling me there’s a list?” he asked. “We’re not all going to make it?”

Amber smiled. “Nothing is ever final until it happens, you know that,” she answered. “I’ll do what I can, but there’s a limit and I’m not sure I can keep everyone together. There will be some decisions made later today and the consequences of those decisions are not something I can undo.” She paused for a while, then added. “The good news is I’m pretty sure Nature’s done throwing her tantrum. She’ll want to do some cleanup but that will come later.”

“So, where’s this trouble coming from that’s got you all worked up. I can feel your muscles flexing and relaxing. You’re anxious. It’s like you’re sitting in a foxhole waiting for the enemy to make a move.” 

“Upstream quite aways,” Amber said. “I heard a commotion about an hour ago, something that sounded a lot like gunfire. Still a few miles away that point.”

“Looters?” Adam asked.

“Or gangs,” Amber replied.

Adam felt his stomach turn. The day’s events to this point had been the type of thing no one could avoid. Nature would do her own thing and everyone else would have to go along with it. Person-to-person violence was a choice, though, one Adam had experienced far too often. He had lost too many friends because someone else made a stupid decision That it might happen again was sickening. He sighed. “I should probably try and get some rest then, shouldn’t I?”

Amber nodded and hugged him again. “Just try to not go comatose on me, okay? I don’t have the stuff to revive you again.”

“You know, there’s an old hymn …” he started.

“Go take your nap, old man,” Amber interrupted, laughing. She was relieved to see Adam smile before he turned and sauntered back inside the apartment. Perhaps she had told him too much, admitting that there was a list, that there was a chance not all of them would make it. Yet, of all those in the group, she knew Adam could handle that information responsibly.

There was the sound of a flutter of cloth and the gentle thud of something landing on the balcony behind her. Amber turned around fully expecting Djali to have returned. Instead, it was the raven-haired angel, Destefana, one of Michael’s charges. Amber relaxed her fists and smiled. “It has been a long time, sister,” she said. “I was expecting that creep Djali to be trying to stake a claim.”

“Oh, he’s been trying all night,” Destefana said. “At the moment, he’s trying to undo himself from a tangle of thorns that seems to have mysteriously trapped him on the other side of the street.” She smiled knowingly, the kind of smile that would have sent chills up the backs of most mortals.

Amber laughed at the thought of the minor demon struggling against thorns that blocked his every move. “I’m sure he’s only getting what he deserves. He’s been hanging around here all day. Although, seeing you here isn’t exactly good news, either, is it?”

“Is it ever?” asked the angel. “I just dropped in a couple of minutes early to say hi. I’ll be taking your friend Hannah with me, I’m afraid.”

Amber turned and looked into the nearly dark apartment. “Poor Gloria, she’ll be devastated.”

Destefana followed Amber’s gaze. “I suppose, but for Hannah, it’s a relief. Today’s been exhausting both physically and emotionally. She got to see her granddaughter laugh, tell a few more tales, and feels good about the future. She leaves smiling if she goes now. That may not be the case later.”

Looking back out into the night, Amber asked, “How bad is it?”

“Were this a normal day, your police would have stopped the whole thing by now with no one getting hurt. As it is, you’ve got an entire phalanx of protectors about half a mile upstream and Michael’s sending backup now.” Destefana paused, turned and took Amber’s hands in her own. “At no time will you be alone. Your armor protects you so fight fiercely and bravely. The people you protect are more important today than they could have possibly imagined themselves yesterday. They are brave but they are not invincible,” she paused and looked toward the apartment, “and a couple of them are not especially bright.”

Amber giggled. “Don’t you say that about most mortals?”

Destefana shrugged and pulled Amber into a hug that felt like being wrapped in a blanket of sunshine and hope. “I have to go, sister. The power of love be with you.”

“And also with you,” Amber replied softly.

The angel disappeared and in the next second Amber felt a soft breeze blow across her face. “Godspeed, Hannah,” she said softly.

Preparing To Lead

Seven hours after being locked into the SitRoom with Will and Katy and Roger, along with a number of aides and interns, the chatter had finally died down. Norma looked at her watch and realized she had not only been awake but moving from one event to another for well over 24 hours. Food had been limited. Rest had been non-existent and it showed. The dark circles under her eyes looked as though someone had misapplied her makeup to disastrously resemble the look from a fashion runway of the mid-2000s. Her light brunette hair, normally well-styled and coiffed each morning by her personal stylist, looked more like a disheveled haystack in which children had played. Her gray Prince of Wales checked suit was wrinkled. She neither looked nor felt like a president. 

Norma looked to her left and Katy wasn’t faring any better. Katy was a fitness buff who frequently could be seen walking the halls of Congress with a water bottle in her hand. Somewhere through the days’ activities, she had lost the water bottle and the jacket to her pink Marc Jacobs suit. Her leg was subconsciously bouncing non-stop, using energy she didn’t have to spare. Her usually well-manicured nails had been bitten down to stubs. The day’s excitement was now nothing more than exhaustion. She considered how frequently Chiefs of Staff had resigned mid-term in previous administrations and felt she was beginning to understand why. If every day was going to be this intense, and it certainly seemed for the moment that they might, she knew it would only be a few months before she would burn out completely. 

Roger didn’t wear his worry and anxiety any better than the President. He worried not only that the White House had likely been destroyed, but also that much of the country’s defense infrastructure had likely been put out of commission, at least for the short term. He had been aware that the severe weather was having a global effect but didn’t know to what extent Russia or China might still have sufficient troops and weapons capability to reach them. Perhaps even worse, Roger realized that with communications down, stopping terrorists was almost impossible. The only positive thought was that the situation also made it impossible for any large-scale attack to be sufficiently coordinated. 

Will had managed to calm himself enough earlier in the evening to nap for about 30 minutes. Only the interns closest to him noticed and they knew better than to say anything. Will’s approach to everything tended to be more pragmatic than most people’s. His philosophy was that there was no point worry over anything that couldn’t be controlled and the storm that was dismantling the District of Columbia at the moment wasn’t something that could be controlled. They were safe. He had to be thankful for that despite knowing that his wife and two daughters were likely caught off guard and could possibly be victims of the killer storm. He sat at the table now mentally devising a plan for how the government and the city would have to be pieced back together. Will desperately hoped that perhaps the storm had knocked some of the partisanship out of the survivors and that they would be able to move quickly, but at the same time, he knew there were too many in Washington who enjoyed a good fight and would never let a bill pass without opposition of some kind.

Norma looked at the various emotions on the young faces around the room. Most were as exhausted as anyone else. She knew her own interns were typically up an hour or two before she was, preparing briefings of international events and the day’s agenda long before she usually got out of bed. They were constantly pushed to do more, given responsibility for tasks they were ill-equipped to complete, and severely demeaned and punished when they failed to complete them to someone’s satisfaction. Some were obviously worried, biting at nails, twirling hair, anxiously re-organizing the contents of purses, messenger bags, and briefcases for the 30th time or more. Others were frightened, huddled on the floor in some variation of a fetal position, still not convinced they were as safe as Roger had assured them they were.

“We’re going to have so much work to do when we leave here,” Norma said to no one in particular. “There is no precedent, even after the Civil War, for rebuilding after a disaster of this magnitude.”

“The first thing we’ll have to deal with is shock,” Roger said as he wiped his hands across his eyes. “No one’s ever seen anything like this. They’re not going to believe how that places and things that have existed for their entire lives are now gone or forever altered. The security of a place, a home, the landmarks with which we identify is gone.”

Will sat forward and folded his hands together as he leaned on the table. “They’re going to be scared,” he said quietly. “Where will they find food? Are their families safe? How will they rebuild their lives if everything is gone? They’re going to be asking a lot of critical questions and they’re going to be looking to us for the answers.”

Norma reached over and touched Will on the arm. “I know this isn’t protocol, but I don’t want you to be an inactive vice president, Will. I need you right by my side. In all the chaos and confusion we’re about to face, I need you to help make sure we maintain the rule of law; compassionately, to be sure, but after all the lying and corruption of the past few generations, this is our chance to re-align ourselves and the country with the law, even if we have to change laws to do it.”

Will nodded in agreement.

Katy listened nervously, wishing she could crawl beneath something and hide. “People are going to be angry,” she said. “There’s no agency in Washington that has a public approval rating above 30. They’re going to look at everything that’s gone wrong the past 24 hours and blame us. They’ll want to know how we managed to fuck up this bad. It won’t matter that the people in charge now had nothing to do with it. The anger is directed at the government and we are now the government. They’re not going to like us and they’re not going to trust us. They’ll want answers we don’t have.”

“We’ll need to roll out some form of emergency aid,” Norma said. “If we have anything left to give.”

Will and Roger started to speak at the same time and Will nodded for Roger to go first.

“Food and water are the most critical,” Roger said, “And every state has disaster preparedness stores capable of addressing the needs of that state for about a week. Our larger cities have additional resources on top of that. The first question we’re going to need answered is how well those stores weathered the storm. Those facilities were designed to handle moderate disasters, like a hurricane or tornado, not multiples of everything all at once.”

“We’re going to need to complete overhaul economic policy as well,” Will said. “People need to go back to work to make money to rebuild their lives. Insurance companies aren’t going to be able to handle this hit. We’re going to need complete debt forgiveness, wipe the slate clean for everyone so that they can all start over. Provide no-interest loans to employers so they can get facilities back up and running as soon as possible. Large-scale grants not only to large cities but the small ones who were probably all-but eliminated.”

“Complete debt forgiveness?” Norma asked. “I’m progressive, Will, but that’s a bit much even for me. How do you plan to sell that one.”

“Madam President,” the Vice President began, “where none of the things for which that debt was incurred still exists the debt becomes an unnecessary burden to rebuilding. Companies and individuals have no choice but to take on new debt before they can start putting things back together.” He paused and gestured at the ceiling. “We’re going to need new debt to repair and rebuild the White House. Imagine if you had to pay for that out of your own pocket when you don’t even have a job. Our nation depends on a tax base of financially secure citizens. If we saddle them with their previous debt we’re not going to have that.”

Norma nodded, admitting that Will’s argument was compelling. Getting such a bill through Congress would be difficult and banks would almost certainly fight back hard, but she knew his point was valid. She sighed, paused, then said, “We’re going to need to plan funerals, and they’re going to be touchy.”

“The whole nation is going to be in mourning,” Roger said grimly. “At this point, we don’t even have a grasp of how severe the loss is, but we know it’s significant.”

Katy leaned on the table and drew abstract patterns with her finger. “I think the state funerals are highly symbolic. The nation has suffered a very deep and personal loss. It’s not about whether anyone liked or didn’t like President Blackstone or Vice President Abernathy. Those two funerals become representative of every person who has died today. This isn’t just about patriotism and fallen leaders, this is personal. We’re mourning our own lives, our lifestyle, and all the people connected to them. We can’t make either funeral celebrations of the persons, they have to be the focal point for the mourning of a country.”

The emotion behind realizing how humongous the loss was, became clear as she talked and a tear rolled down Katy’s cheek. Norma reached over and took Katy’s hand. “Where we mourn can also become a point for healing to begin,” the President said. “We may have to rewrite some protocol here as well. I have a feeling we’re going to be writing new protocols just about everywhere over the next several days. I’m so completely overwhelmed by the size of this challenge I hardly know where to begin. We get food and water, get electricity restored, and then we plan state funerals that mourn the passing of an old country and the beginning of a new era, with a pledge to rebuild stronger, better, and more equal than ever before.”

Will smiled. “You sound like you’re already running for re-election, Madam President.”

Norma glanced at Katy and winked, then said to Will, “If we do a good job, the people won’t give us any choice but to run will they?”

The conversation at the table had caused the interns and aides to stir, most of them sitting up and taking notice at talk of the President running for election. Some stood and stretched, others tried twisting the kinks out of their compressed spines.

Roger looked up at the ceiling and then at the door. “You know, I’ve not heard or felt anything in a couple of hours now. Perhaps its time to break the seal on the door.”

Will cocked his head to the side and tried to listen for any sound then remembered where they were and realized any sound he heard down here would have to be significantly large. “We’re in a subbasement,” Will said. “You don’t think the room is going to fill with water if you open the door?”

“Meh, maybe a little,” Roger admitted, “but draining was built into the design. It’s not fast, and not designed to be complete, but there should only be a few inches of water, not a few feet.”

“What do you think, Madam President?” Will asked, catching Norma slightly off guard. 

Norma looked around the room at the young faces eagerly awaiting her response. None of them were excited. They were scared and anxious, unsure of what might happen next, of what they would find on the outside. “Okay,” she said, attempting to smooth the wrinkles from her suit jacket, “let’s give it a try. We can’t move forward if all we do is sit on our asses.” 

Norma stood and everyone else in the room immediately stood along with her. “Go ahead, Roger, lead the way.”

Killer Reality

Across East Executive Avenue from the White House, the secure basement of the Treasury building was in the dark. Generators powering the basement had failed in the middle of the night, not only leaving them without any light, but also opening the magnetic locks on the cells holding those the Secret Service had been questioning. Agents standing near the door knew this meant they would be mixing with everyone else in the basement and that, with only a couple of notable exceptions, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

No one was in any hurry to leave, though. As the lights went out, the basement shook. Unlike the White House, the whole basement wasn’t soundproof. Only interrogation rooms had been outfitted with that option. There was little question as to how serious the storm was above them. Massive claps of thunder repeatedly shook the ground. Sounds of metal bending and screaming were eery and frightening. Not everyone in the room was convinced that it was as secure as claimed and expected the ceiling to be removed at any moment.

Hours passed. Conversations dwindled. People went from standing around anxiously to sitting on the floor, huddled together like so many small children during an active shooter drill. Some made new friends. A couple of new romances blossomed. In the dark, however, most preferred to stay where they were, keep to themselves, and wait, hoping that the storm wouldn’t last forever, which it seemed to be doing. 

Time ceased having any meeting. No one’s cell phone had any remaining power. Battery-powered smartwatches had died. More traditional digital watches had stopped working when the test failed. The few older people who still had analog watches couldn’t see them in the dark. The sounds of the storm rolled through in waves, taking time with them. Just as it seemed as though there might be an end, another burst of thunder and wind would arrive.

Those whose nature was to investigate everything noticed that with each iteration, the sounds of metal, glass, and concrete being ripped and broken diminished. By the time the last burst of fury passed, only the storm was heard. Agents and others took this to mean that there was little if any building left above them. Had they been able to see who they were talking to, perhaps they would have come up with a plan for what to do when the door was finally open. They couldn’t, though, and Treasury employees were inherently suspicious of things that were not obvious. 

Only after the silence had persisted for what felt like a second eternity did the Secret Service agents finally decide to risk opening the door. Their plan wasn’t complicated. Two would stand at the bottom of the stairs to make sure the departure remained orderly. The other two would stand at the top and try to identify those who were being held for criminal investigation and detain them, though they were unsure exactly where they would be detained.

The most senior agent made the announcement everyone had wanted to hear. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to begin the departure process. There are three sets of doors to be opened. Please stay where you are until all the doors are checked and we are certain that it is safe to leave this facility.”

There were a few cheers, but most of the response was concerned with whether it was actually safe to leave. Were the storms over or was this just an eye-of-the-hurricane type of intermission? They all stood, talking with whoever was close, waiting to see what would happen next.

Agents warned those closest to them that there might be water on the other side of the door. Those closest tried to move back but the pressure of those behind them allowed little space for retreat. 

The first door opened to more darkness. The barriers had held and the stairs were dry. When the second door was opened, however, gathered water rushed down the stairs and across the basement floor, catching many by surprise. There wasn’t a lot of water, just enough to soak everyone’s shoes, eliciting grumbles from those who had paid too much for footwear that could do nothing to help them at the moment.

What the agents opening the door saw was something more bothersome. The third door wasn’t there. After the second door, nothing was above them but a menacingly gray sky. Strange odors of distressed metals and petroleum products and burnt rubber filled the air chilled by a stiff wind that had nothing to challenge its movement. Feeling a sense of unease, both agents drew their service weapons, not having any idea who or what to expect as they emerged from the basement. As they climbed above the base floor, the scene before them was so horrific that they rushed back down the stairs. Agents whispered quietly among themselves and then gave everyone else a fearful warning.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to go ahead an let those who wish to leave to do so. However, be aware that there is nothing remaining above us. The Treasury building is gone. The Assets Regulatory Board is gone. All the shops and restaurants across 15th street are gone.” He paused a moment, not sure how the crowd would respond to the next statement. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he started, a lump in his throat making it difficult to speak as he tried to hold back his own emotion. “The White House is gone.”

Across the basement, there were screams and cries of disbelief. Under no reasonable circumstances would anyone have believed that the entire White House would be wiped off the planet, but it had.

The agent continued, “Obviously, we don’t know if the President or any of the White House staff survived. We know there was secure space available and assume that they utilized that space sufficiently.” He took a deep breath, wiping the tears from his eyes. “If you wish to leave, you are free to do so. If you wish to go up the stairs and look around then return, you are free to do so. The Secret Service agents will remain here, on duty, until we are relieved by the appropriate authority. This is a safe space and at this point, we don’t know how many places remained intact. You are free to return here at any time until authorities determine otherwise. If you choose to exit, please use extreme caution. Assume that everything you see is contaminated. Don’t touch metals or glass, especially, if you can avoid it. You are free to go.”

The survivors debated among themselves whether it made any sense to leave the basement or not. Many sat on the wet floor and cried. Knowing that everything, including the White House, had been destroyed brought a level of devastation both physical and emotional. Realization of so many hundreds of lives lost, friends and family whose existence was now brought into question, left several to weak to move.

Those who did choose to explore the outside could not have imagined the post-apocalyptic scene that awaited them at the top of the stairs. Even before they completely emerged from the basement it was obvious that the landscape had been virtually wiped clean of any reliable structure. For as far as anyone could see in any direction there was nothing but rubble and waste and flooding. 

The White House grounds were littered with pieces of metal and wood, sheetrock and insulation, crushed blocks of marble and mangled remains of statues from all over the city that had been picked up and randomly deposited on the once-pristine grounds. To their south, the White House Visitor Center, the Commerce Department Child Development Center and, most ironically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were all gone.

In the back cell at the rear of the basement, Tasha took Gloria’s hand. “Come on,” she whispered, “We many not escape but I have to have a look.”

“They’re not going to let you go,” Gloria warned. “Of all the people here, you’re the most recognizable.”

“I know,” the former first lady said, “but I have to see this for myself. The White House is the most secure building in the world. I can’t believe that the entire thing is gone.”

The two women slipped out the cell door and started toward the stairs. Ann, Tracy, Charlotte, and the two wired Secret Service agents waited a few seconds and then followed. While none of them expected the two agents at the top of the stairs to willingly let them leave, no one was willing to trust what either of the women might do.

Tasha paid no attention to who was behind her as she climbed the stairs. She didn’t really care at this point. Spending hours in the darkness listening to the storms above them had shaken her resolve. Had agents been able to interrogate her at that moment, she likely would have confessed to everything she had done and possibly even some things she hadn’t. She was feeling more frightened and desperate than at any other time in her life.

She didn’t want to believe the tale the agent had told. Tasha couldn’t conceive of a city that had been laid bare after it had been built of limestone and marble reinforced by concrete and steel. She was convinced that the agent was exaggerating and only seeing for herself would convince her otherwise.

None of the women could have been prepared for what they saw as they emerged from the stairwell. The two agents immediately recognized Tasha and stood to block her exit, but she never made it that far. As soon as her head cleared floor level, she was able to see that, if anything, the agents had understated the extent of destruction across the city. Not only was the White House gone, so was the even larger Eisenhower Executive Office Building and all the federal buildings and moments beyond that. There was nothing standing between them and the horizon. 

The sight was more than Tasha could stand. She covered her face with her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. Gloria put her arms on Tasha’s shoulders, attempting to comfort her while still trying to accept the reality for herself. Grief-stricken, Tasha collapsed, falling backward against Gloria. The attorney wasn’t prepared to balance bother herself and Tasha’s weight on the stairs and they both began to fall, tumbling into the women behind them, Ann and Tracy caught Gloria and helped her back to her feet. Gloria recognized Ann and instinctively knew that nothing they had said in the basement was secret. 

Charlotte and the two wired agents thought they had Tasha. They stopped her roll and were in the process of helping her to stand back up. Tasha recognized Charlotte and was startled, causing her to slip on the wet concrete. As Tasha slipped, one of the agents lost her footing, causing her to let go. The former first lady began to tumble again. This time, there was no one behind her to stop her fall. She hit the landing with a thud and didn’t move.

Of course, everyone rushed to Tasha’s aid. Personal animosities aside, none of the persons assembled wanted her to die. They would have much rather she lived to explain things and then be put to trial for her crimes. There was nothing they could do. Tasha’s neck had snapped on the third step down. The remained of the fall only added cuts and bruises that would have looked horrible had there been anyone with a camera to record the scene. There wasn’t. Tasha Blackstone was as dead as her husband. 

Word quickly spread through the basement that the former First Lady had died from the shock of the devastation, which, in part, was true even if it was a little more forgiving than what she deserved. In moments like this, there are few bad guys. Human nature leads us to look for the redeemable qualities of a person’s life once that life has ended and those redeemable qualities no longer really matter. No one wants to speak ill of the dead even if ill was all there ever was.

In the confusion and melee that followed, Gloria slipped away. Ann might have seen her but if she did she didn’t care. The Secret Service Agents might have known what was happening but they were not immune to the emotions any more than any other person who spent the night in the dark basement. There was no one who cared about anything other than the death of Tasha Blackstone. 

In that moment, leaving the basement hardly seemed like an intelligent choice. Those who remained chose to stay until a more stable situation presented itself. 


Marine Staff Seargent Gary Willis and Corporal Patrick Wu were in the front seat leading a 20-member search and rescue team. They were soaked, muddy, and each would have sold the other for a reasonably fresh cup of coffee. Orders had come down the night before to head toward a set of top-secret coordinates in the middle of Virginia. Finding enough operational vehicles to carry the team had been the first challenge. Batteries had to be replaced. Radios still weren’t working so team members had to be quickly trained in the use of hand signals normally reserved for combat situations. Vehicles were loaded with emergency medical supplies, food, and fresh water, in addition to ropes and pulleys and climbing gear.

From the outset, the team’s orders were limited to rescue operations, not recovery. That they would find deceased remains was a given and appropriate protective gear was issue to avoid contact with possibly contaminated human tissue. Emphasis was on rescuing human personnel. No equipment or data was to be removed from the site. This was going to be an emotionally difficult trip, so a mental health professional was added to the team.

They were all set to leave when the first wave of the storm hit. As secure as the Marine Corps base at Quantico was, it was no match for the severity of storms coming at them from both east and west. Everything above ground was flattened. Thousands of lives were lost. The impulse of the team was to stay and help with rescue and recovery there or in the area. The acting base commander was emphatic, however, that they follow orders. He expressed urgency that any remaining personnel at the location be extracted as quickly as possible. To underscore the important, the General added that their rescue was a matter of “grave national security.” They were to bring back whoever they could find, no matter what.

Making their way westward across Virginia had been an experience not covered by any of their training. Entire towns had been flattened. Huge chunks of roads were missing. Bridges were out. Flooding was severe and frequent. The area was still battered with hurricane-force winds from the east and tornadoes circling the regions from the west. With each challenge, the team would take shelter, weather the storm, repair damage to their vehicles, and move forward.

By the time they reached what calculations said was supposed to be their destination, daylight was creeping over the horizon. There still was no sun but even cloudy light was better than none at all. Corporal Wu checked his map and calculations a second and third time, then had them checked by another team member. All the math said they were where they were supposed to be. The problem was that there was nothing here but a field littered with every manner of debris imaginable. Even team members with front line experience admitted they had never witnessed such complete ruin.

Sgt. Willis ordered the team to dismount and divided them into four groups. They had barely started, though, when a severed arm was found. They quickly returned to put on HazMat suits and re-started their search for anyone still living. Their expectations were low.

Perry had fallen asleep as the rain had stopped. His voice was hoarse from yelling. The only parts of his body that didn’t hurt were the parts he couldn’t feel at all. When he heard the unmistakable whine of HumVee engines, though, he sat up and started looking. He was surprised that anyone had come for them. He was surprised that anyone had survived to be able to come for them.

Perry assumed that any coordinates a rescue team was using had taken them not toward the bunker but the gate nearest the Marine facility. That had always been the coordinates used to identify the area. Starting there, using that point as the center, they would work slowly outward, addressing situations as they came to them. They would have no expectations for how many survivors they might find so they would have to move slowly. The team was just over a mile away from him and lying on the ground would make him difficult to see until they were almost on top of him. Still, he had heard them arrive. Someone was here. For the first time in almost 24 hours, he had hope.

Corporal Wu was heading the team heading due west from what had once been the front gate. They stepped carefully, trying to make sure they didn’t accidentally step on human remains that would later, possibly, need to be identified. Already on this trip, they had observed so much death and destruction he couldn’t imagine how any meaningful identification of the strewn bodies could ever take place. Still, out of respect for the lost humanity if nothing else, they needed to be careful. Each step was considered before it was taken. Eyes carefully searched what was immediately around them before looking at the broader landscape. 

The team had been walking slowly for over an hour when Perry saw them. He sat up as far as he could and yelled with everything left in his voice, “Help! Man down! On your two!” he cried, trying to give what had to be a military search team some direction. He repeated his call a second and third time, then, exhausted, leaned back to catch his breath.

Patrick heard the yell and picked up on the directional help. He looked where he thought the yell had originated but by that point, Perry had leaned back and Patrick couldn’t see him. Still, he knew that someone was there and motioned for his team to move to their right. They looked carefully, still stepping with precision to avoid error.

Perry set up and yelled again, finding a little more force to his voice. This time, the entire team heard the call and could see Perry’s outline in front of them. They quickened their pace as they headed toward him.

The ten minutes it took the team to reach Pery felt more like an hour. He desperately wanted to move toward them but at this point could barely find the strength to sit up. By the time the team reached him, there was no holding back the emotion and tears filled his eyes. “I wasn’t sure anyone was going to come,” Perry told the team as they knelt down to check on him. “We’ve been compromised. The nation’s under attack.”

“Yes, sir,” Patrick said through the HazMat cover. “We have orders to get you back to Washington as quickly as possible. Are you aware of any other survivors in the area?”

Perry shook his head. I’ve not heard anyone else since the storm passed.”

The team unfolded a compact stretcher and carefully lifted Perry onto it then began the slow trip back to the vehicles. As it would turn out, there were three other survivors, two analysts and a Marine private who had, as miraculously as Perry, someone managed to not be blown away by the storms. 

Sgt. Willis warned the survivors that the trip back was going to be difficult, aided somewhat by the fact that it was daylight, but still with the challenges of crossing flooded rivers and streams and deep chasms where roads once were. The ride was not going to be quick or smooth. When Perry asked about the possibility of a helicopter extraction, the sergeant shook his head. What few aircraft were available were out on other missions. 

Perhaps, under different circumstances, Perry might have complained. He might even have tried to pull rank and order the deployment himself. But right now, at this particular moment, Perry didn’t care. No matter what happened next, he was one of the lucky ones. He had survived. He lied back on the cot with tears in his eyes, grateful to be alive, heartbroken over the thousands who weren’t. 

Starting Over From Scratch

Roger and Will had insisted on going first. Roger had been correct that the rush of water into the SitRoom would be minimal. Still, there were dead bodies and incredible destruction between them and any safe way out of the subbasement. A couple of overly eager male interns joined them in clearing a path that would be safe for the president and everyone else. Along the way, they found others who had survived hiding in closets and small rooms with heavy walls. They were all relieved to know they were not alone.

The view on the surface, however, brought everyone to tears. They knew it had been bad, but Norma looked at what should have been the East Wing of the White House and was engulfed by a wave of grief she had never known possible. She had lost family members before, including her parents, but the enormity of this disaster put any personal loss to pale. There was nothing here but rubble. One of the noblest and important pieces of architecture was gone, completely demolished. She looked to the west and saw nothing between her and the horizon. Looking Southeast, she hoped to at least see the dome of the Capitol Building, but there was nothing. Not even a random tree.

As the group stood stunned by the view, some began to cry, others collapsed to the floor in silence. All the movies about nuclear destruction and post-apocalyptic life had gotten it wrong. There was nothing left. There would be no looting, no creative re-engineering of burned-out vehicles, no appropriating of weapons. Civilization hadn’t been the victim. This was the mass extinction climate scientists had warned about for the past 50 years. 

After what seemed like an eternity of silence, Norma finally said, “Okay, folks, this is a new day, a new game, and a new country. For all we’ve lost, and we’ve obviously lost more than any generation before us, we’re still here. This is still the United States of America. I’m still President and I’m officially making each of you part of my administration. We’ll worry about who plugs in where later, but this is like re-booting the entire country. We still have the Constitution as our operating system, but we’ve been given the opportunity and the responsibility to build on that and make everything better.”

“True equality under the law,” said one intern.

“No person is valued more or less than any other,” said another. 

“No institutionalized hate,” offered a third.

Will sighed. “There’s so much to do. Where do you want to start, Madam President?”

Norma looked around once more, taking in the horrendous enormity of the calamity, deprivation, and waste. “I think we start by declaring this hallowed ground, a symbol of what was, of the sacrifice and determination that brought us this far.” She paused a moment then, added, “Then we find a better place to rebuild. Perhaps somewhere more in the center of the country. This isn’t 13 little colonies fighting for independence. This is a great and mighty nation that stretches from coast to coast. We need to lead from the center, I think. The new capital needs to truly be a place for everyone, not just the elite.”

Where To Go From Here

Adrian Campbell and Roger Mukaski went through the night in the basement of Old Ebbitt Grill without more than a dozen words passing between them. Staff chatted amongst themselves at first while managers tried to keep everyone calm with bottles of wine they had brought down with them. No one had expected they would be there all night. The three other patrons that joined them were obviously federal employees, one of them still wearing his state department credentials around his neck. Neither Roger nor Adrian recognized them, though everyone knew who Roger was, or had been. 

For the moment, the information blackout worked in Roger’s favor. Only he and Adrian knew that President Blackstone was dead, that there had been a conspiracy involving the First Lady, or any of the other chaos from the day. Roger was okay with that. The truth would come out soon enough and when it did there would be people wanting answers. Roger didn’t especially want to be around when that happened.

The small generator that had lit a single lightbulb in the basement didn’t last long enough to finish the wine and no one felt especially safe drinking in the dark. Some slept, as was made obvious by their snoring. Most sat their quietly in their own thoughts, worrying about family and friends, whether they’d have a job the next day, or if the restaurant would still be operational the next morning. 

Unlike others across the city, though, who waited to make sure it was safe before emerging from their places of safety, Adrian and Roger were anxious to leave the moment the ground stopped shaking. Light rain still dampened the air and daylight tentatively peeked above the horizon as they came out of the basement and observed the same carnage others would experience several minutes later. While those around them cried over obvious loss, the two men quietly walked away, heading South on 15th street, past Treasury, in view of the White House and the Eisenhower Building. Neither said anything for several minutes as they each considered the monumental elimination of the city.

As they reached what had been the entrance to Pershing Park, Adrian asked, “So, where do you go from here?”

Roger stopped and considered the question for a moment. He had no job, everything he’d had in the White House was now scattered all over Virginia and Maryland, and he instinctively knew that his brownstone and everything in it was gone as well. “I don’t really know,” he said. “I suppose I should stick around and see if my wife or either of my daughters survived. I’m not especially hopeful on that front, though. I mean, look around, Adrian. We got lucky. Most people didn’t. You and I both know there’s not going to be an investigation now. Any evidence has been blown to bits. Witnesses are likely dead. And honestly, for all those who walk out to see this mess, who’s going to care? Survival is going to be the only thing on anyone’s mind.”

“So, do you stay around and help rebuild or do you disappear, maybe change your name, and start over somewhere else?” Adrian asked, then added, “Asking for a friend.”

Roger chuckled at the social media trope. “Tough question, isn’t it?” he replied. “Do you stay and help rebuild, maybe influence things so that we don’t make the same mistakes again, or do you enjoy the anonymity of being just another face of someone who lost everything? I’m not sure I’m ready to answer that question.” He paused then asked, “What about you?”

Adrian shoved his hands deep into his pockets and kicked at a piece of limestone from some unknown monument. “My first challenge is deciding whether I give a damn anymore. My wife left years ago, said the stress of my job was too much for her. Never had any kids, no siblings, parents are gone. So, what do I have left? I have a gun and five bullets. That’s pretty much it.

Roger immediately caught the anomaly. “Wait, I thought you guys carried nine-round clips.”

Adrian smiled and turned back to where the White House had been. “Let’s just say there was a traitor who needed those bullets more than I did.”

Roger knew better than to press the matter any further. He smiled, patted Adrian on the back and said, “Thank you for serving your country.”

Silence passed between them as they wandered through the detritus of downed trees and construction rubble and random body parts. As they crossed the street toward where the White House Visitor’s Center had been Adrian sniffed the air and remarked, “It stinks more than usual down here.”

Roger stopped, sniffed the air, and looked around. “I don’t think that’s going to improve any time soon. All the death that is here now, bodies decomposing, lord knows what kind of chemicals have been released. It’s definitely going to get worse.” He looked around. “You know, I’m heading in the opposite direction of where my home was.”

Adrian turned around and looked at the former chief of staff. “Maybe your mind has made the decision so your heart wouldn’t have to.”

Roger looked at the ground around him and shrugged. “Never in my life have I taken the easy way out. Seems rather ridiculous to do so now. Who knows, maybe she survived. Maybe they all survived. And even if they didn’t, maybe there’s someone who needs me.”

Adrian shook his head. “I’ve had enough. I’m not sure even a storm of this magnitude changes human nature any. There will still be those who want to grab all the power There are still going to be those who want all the money. Humans are fallible and I’m rather over being the person who is supposed to take a bullet for the worst of them.” He paused. “I’m heading toward the Potomac, see what’s on the other side.”

Roger held out his hand and smiled at Adrian’s firm grip. “Good luck out here,” he said. “And if I ever see you again, I don’t know a thing.”

Adrian smiled back. “Neither do I.”

One More Battle

By the time daylight crept slowly around the corners of the slowly dilapidating apartment building, Amber knew what was coming and what she would have to do to stop it. The next couple of hours wasn’t going to be easy. Everyone inside still thought Hannah was sleeping and breaking that news to Gloria wasn’t going to be the highlight of anyone’s day. There wouldn’t be time to properly grieve, though. Patrons of death were coming straight at them. They didn’t know yet that the group existed, but they wouldn’t pass without wanting to explore the building, looking for food and weapons as they had done at every other partial structure they had encountered through the night.

Stepping to the door, Amber looked to see who was still awake. She motioned for Natalie, Reesie, and Adam to join her on the balcony, shutting the glass door behind them to reduce the chance of being heard. She spoke softly as they gathered around her. “We’ve got a couple of challenges this morning and one of them may be more dangerous than anything we experienced yesterday,” she said. “First off, Hannah passed during the night. It was peaceful, she was content, but Gloria’s going to need time and space to grieve.”

“Let me handle it,” Natalie said. “I’ll pull her and Toma into the side bedroom and let them cry it out.”

“What do we do with the body?” Reesie asked. “It’s kinda creepy just leaving her like that.”

“Perhaps we move her to the side bedroom as well,” Adam offered.

Amber shook her head in agreement. “That’s about all we can do because we’ve got bigger problems heading our way.”

“What do you mean?” Reesie asked. “I’m not sure I have anything left to handle another day like yesterday.”

“Looters,” Amber said, “And they have guns and they don’t mind using them. I’ve been listening to them whoop and yell for a while now. They’re not moving fast, but from what I can tell they’re taking what they want and not being terribly kind about it.”

For Natalie and Adam, this was not good news, but Reesie didn’t seem surprised. “The only surprise here is that it’s taking them so long,” she said. “I’d bet its part of that gang that’s been robbing stores along 86th street the past few months. They’re crackheads and metal freaks who go around talking about overthrowing the deep state and shit like that. I bet they’re loving this whole mess.”

“I’ve heard of them,” Natalie said. “Didn’t they try moving in down here a few times?”

Ressie nodded her head. “Yeah, about four months ago. They didn’t account for the fact store owners down here carry guns and know how to use them. They backed off after they lost a few people. You know they’re going to be looking for revenge down here.”
“Damnit, my guns would be at home, or where home use to be,” Adam said. “What do we do? Think we can be quiet and they’ll just go away?”

“Not a chance,” Reesie said.

Amber nodded in agreement. “We have to run them off before they get here. Make them waste their ammunition shooting at nothing, then do our best to dump them in the water before they start up the stairs.”

Natalie looked justifiably frightened. This was sounding too much like a bad movie plot, one where everyone except the hero died. “This sounds a little too incredible,” she said. “We haven’t even seen them yet. What if they have like assault rifles and military-style shit? How are we supposed to fight against that?”

Amber put her arm around Natalie’s shoulder. “You’re a college girl, how much do you remember about the properties of sodium?”

Natalie shrugged. “It’s one of the most common elements on earth, necessary for life …”

“And … “ Amber prompted.

Natalie thought for a moment before it dawned on her. “And it responds violently to water! But where would we get any?”

“There just happens to be a box of it under the counter across from the sink,” Amber said. “I found it when we were looking for food. It’s medical-grade metal so I assume whoever lived here was either on dialysis or administered it in some way. That’s the only non-criminal explanation for having that much of it. Either that, or we had terrorists in the building.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Adam admitted. “We’re going to throw salt at them?”

The three women laughed and Adam blushed at being the ignorant one of the group.

“This isn’t sodium chloride,” Amber explained. “This is a variant that has been turned into soft metal, a very unstable metal. So unstable, that it doesn’t naturally occur in this form in nature. It would blow up. It’s a great heat transfer method for nuclear medicine, though, especially dialysis. One just has to be careful handling it.”

“So, how are you thinking we use it?” Reesie asked.

Amber paused a moment as she thought she heard a noise behind them. She looked over the edge of the railing to make sure there was no one below them before saying anything. “There’s a fire escape at this end of the building. It’s not exactly the easiest thing to use as it requires climbing over the porch-side railing to get to it. However, when they build it, they made it go all the way tot he roof as well so they could do maintenance on all the colling unites up there. I’m thinking we carefully take the box to the roof and set the water on fire.”

“Holy shit!” Reesie exclaimed. “You don’t think it will set the building on fire?”

Natalie shook her head. “There’s no exposed wood that would burn,” she said. “And even if there was, it would have to catch quickly. The water isn’t actually burning, it’s the gasses in the air around it. If you were to drop some into a sink, for example, it would only burn for a few seconds, b not even long enough to roast a marshmallow.”

“Of course, too much of it would blow a hole in the sink,” Amber added. 

“And we’re going to give them too much of it, I assume,” Adam said. 

Amber smiled at him. 

“You knew,” he said quietly. “No one here is on Dialysis, you knew and you hid the sodium up here because you knew whoever lived here wouldn’t bother it. How long ago?”

“Two years,” she said calmly. “It’s been building for a while, I just didn’t know when or how it would all blow. Carlson knew. He tried to warn people but no one would listen. We’ve been prepared for a few years.”

Natalie looked at Reesie then said, “Wait, you knew all this was going to happen? How did you not warn people? How many people died today because you didn’t say anything?”

“We’ve been saying something for the past 30 years,” Amber said. “The way the planet has been treated made this day inevitable. However, the company Carlson worked for sped it up by about 20 years. And don’t be mad at him. He tried. He almost got arrested trying to get his bosses’ attention yesterday.”

“That’s what that whole car rental thing was about?” Reesie asked. “He walked in fuming about that this morning.”

“Exactly, not that I’m defending the point where he stepped over the line and broke that poor girl’s nose,” Amber replied. 

Natalie looked out over the railing. “A broken nose compared to the near-extinction of humanity hardly seems of consequence now.” She listened to the wind and looked up toward darkening clouds. Turning around, she asked, “Okay, so this is where we’re at. Looks like another storm is coming in. How do we handle this?”

“In teams,” Amber answered. “First, Adam, you take Barry, Amanda, Gloria, Gwen, Miranda, and Cam to the back bedroom. Lock the door and do your best to keep them quiet, especially Roscoe. You’re not in as much danger is no one knows you’re there.”

She turned and looked at Reesie. “You, Carlson, and Toma join me on the roof. You all have the best arms and can hurl the sodium well away from the building. We can’t risk any of the explosions getting too close The building’s already shaky. A big blast too close could bring the whole thing down. We have to keep them as far away from us as possible.”

“What about me and Darryll?” Natalie asked.

Amber looked at her sternly. “I need you to be badass. We’re going to try and knock these idiots out of their boats. Some of the boats will sink, but with any luck, at least a couple of them will still be usable. We’re going to need a way to escape when we’re done. We’ve got to get everyone out of here and to safety. I need you and Darryll to go to the bottom floor, wade in the water, and try to secure at least two of those boats, even if they’re just rafts. This is critical. Do you think you can handle it?”

Natalie looked nervous. The last thing she wanted to do was wade through the water again, but she understood the danger. There was no way the building was going to last much longer. They needed to get away. “Yeah, we can do it,” she said.

The group went back into the apartment knowing the next several minutes would not be pleasant. There wasn’t time for Gloria to mourn her grandmother sufficiently and the idea of needing to leave her body behind made her angry. She yelled. She screamed. She cried in Toma’s arms. 

Cam ran to Reesie, scared both by the site of Hannah’s dead body and the instructions they were being given to hide. Reesie assured the girl that she would be okay in the back bedroom with Adam and promised to come and get her as soon as the looters were eliminated.

“Were going to do what?” Darryl asked when Natalie told him their assignment. “First you tell me we have looters with guns coming right at us and then you want me to get in the water and steal their boats? I’m sorry, that sounds like a whole lot of crazy.”

Natalie wasn’t having any of his attitude. “Do you have a better idea, mister know-it-all?” she challenged. “You’re all the time cutting down everyone else’s plans but you never have a decent idea of your own. You pick and you sigh and you groan and roll your goddam eyes at everything anyone else suggests, especially if that anyone else is me. I’m tired of your bullshit, Darryll. This is an emergency. Either get your shit together or go hide under the bed.”

Miranda walked up and put her hand on Natalie’s shoulder, hoping to help her calm down. Natalie turned around quickly and yelled, “What the fuck do you want?” then, in a moment of passionate impulse, kissed Miranda hard and long. “You go to the bedroom with Adam and stay safe. We have some talking to do when this is over.”

Miranda blinked hard from being caught off guard, then took Natalie’s face in her hands and returned the kiss. “Don’t you go drowning or anything on me.”

Darryll’s face burned with embarrassment. Everyone in the room had just witnessed him being dumped and yet he still had to work with Natalie to keep everyone safe. “Fine, he said, trying to keep his emotions in check. “I’ll just …”

“No,” Adam interrupted, “I don’t think that works. “ He looked at Amber. “I’ll go help Natalie. I think I still know a thing or two about boats anyway,” he said. “Perhaps Darryll can help you up top.”

“I need someone to keep things calm in here, though,” Amber objected.

Amanda cleared her throat loudly. “Excuse me, Mom here. I’ve got this. You guys go get rid of the looters before they have a chance to sneak up on us.” She turned to Gloria and Toma. “C’mon, let’s take our tears to the back room, okay?” 

Amber looked around the room. “Okay everyone, let’s get this done. Reesie, help me with the box?”

There wasn’t a lot of chatter as everyone moved toward their new assignment. Getting the box of sodium to the roof proved to be a bit more challenging than expected as there was only room for one person at a time on the ladder. Natalie and Adam cautiously made their way downstairs and waded carefully into the cold water. The current wasn’t as strong as it had been, but there was still plenty of debris to avoid. Amanda gathered the others in the back bedroom, thinking to grab a jar of peanut butter for Roscoe as they went.

Amber took a lookout position on top of one of the cooling units. From there, she could see anything that might be coming at them from any direction.  Dark clouds boiled overhead and she knew it wasn’t merely rain and wind they were holding. She shivered. She had fought a lot of people and a lot of things but this felt different. There was more at risk than anyone could imagine. She knew that to fail would dramatically alter the course of humanity. 

The instant Amber caught sight of the first boat coming over the horizon, she jumped down from the air conditioner and warned the others to take cover. “We don’t want them to know how many of us there are,” she said. “We work in waves. Carlson, Toma, and myself through first. We fall back and then Darryll and Reesie take a shot. Try to get as close to the side of the boats as you can without actually hitting them. The sodium has to hit water to have any effect. At the same time, if there’s water in the boat, it could destroy the whole boat and we need at least two of them to carry us all out of here safely.”

“What kind of boats are we talking about?” Toma asked. “Are they like rafts or canoes or what?”

“Fishing boats and such,” Amber said. “Whatever they could steal from the marina I suppose. Not anything too large or it was scrape bottom too often.”

“Unless they found a pontoon,” Darryll said. “There’s that sunset tour place on the East side of the lake. If they got to those boats, it could be tough to tip them over or anything.”

Carlson looked out at the water as the wind began to whip up small white caps. “What happens if it starts raining?” he asked. “We’ve got that whole box of sodium up here with us.”

Amber looked at the box then back up at the dark sky. “I don’t think that’s rain,” she said, but you’re right, we should take precaution. She thought for a moment and said, “Okay, change of plan. We work two and two. Carlson, you’re with me, Reesie, you’re with Toma. Darryll, you hand off the sodium. Keep the box under one of these units and when a team falls back you load them up.” She paused and looked up at the sky then added, “And let’s all hope I’m right about those clouds.”

As if prompted, thunder rumbled above them. As the echo died down, they could hear the whoops of the looters as they approached. Amber motioned for them to remain quiet as the boats approached. She and Carlson took position at the end of the building and waited. Carlson carefully weighed the sodium in his hand, looking for the grip that would give him the maximum distance to his throw. Amber counted the number of boats. She raised her hands to let the others know there were six craft coming at them. The first three were flat-bottomed fishing boats. Those would be easy enough to tip without severely damaging them, but they couldn’t hold more than four people each. Two 20-foot sporting boats with outboard motors followed them and, sure enough, a 27-foot pontoon boat with at least eight people on it was bringing up the rear.

“Hey, look!” one of the looters yelled. “There’s part of an apartment building still standing! Let’s see what they’ve got!”

The others yelled and whooped in response. Someone fired a gun into the air.

Amber and Carlson looked at each other as they waited for the boats to move within striking distance. The boats were about 70 yards away when lightning lit up the sky with a massive boom.

“NOW!” Amber yelled and she stood up and hurled the sodium at the lead boat, landing it just off the starboard bow. Carlson’s throw landed a little further back between two boats. Both explosions were strong enough to tip the two boats, dumping their occupants into the water.

The looters were caught off guard and hadn’t had time to recover when Reesie and Toma made their throws, both of which landed about ten feet behind the first two. The third flat bottomed boat tipped, the current shoving it out of reach as it glided toward the apartment building.

Standing in the water, hiding carefully behind the corner of the building. Adam and Natalie watched as the small boat scooted toward them. Adam crouched down so that his eyes were barely above the surface, eased out away from the building, and grabbed hold of the boat’s tie line, pulling it back to the building. He tied it to the railing on the stairwell so it couldn’t escape. “That’s one,” he said smiling.

The looters in the front boats gave up on trying to get back into their own boats and climbed into the larger sporting boats behind them. These weren’t going to be as easy to upset. Amber motioned for Reesie and Toma to be ready. Amber and Carlson threw together, the blast from the sodium ripping the ladder off the boat, killing two of the looters. Reesie and Toma threw into the same spot, isolating the boat from the others. When Amber and Carlson threw again, it heaved heavily to port, dumping its remaining crew. Reesie and Toma followed up to make sure no one would be climbing onto another boat.

Adam and Natalie crept out together to snag the empty boat, pulling it to the side of the apartment building and tying it off.

The attacks from the top of the apartment building had come quickly and were unexpected but now the looters were starting to shoot back. Amber and Carlson ducked as bullets whizzed past their heads. Reesie, Toma, and Darrell winced as the bullets hit or ricocheted of the cooling units shielding them. Being elevated still helped protect them but the sound was unnerving as relentless volleys of gunfire were aimed their direction. They could tell the boats were getting closer and Amber was especially concerned about what might happen if they made it to the fire escape.

“Let’s try to put some space between the boats,” she shouted above the noise. “You can’t look up while they’re shooting, though. Let me go first then you hit them with two bars.”

Carlson nodded his understanding and watched as Amber quickly toss a couple of bars of sodium between the two boats. The explosion was all the opportunity he needed, tossing a stick near the hull of each boat, causing them to rock away from each other. Two more people fell off the smaller boat. Reesie quickly tossed another bar to eliminate them while Toma dropped one near the front of the pontoon, knocking their shooters off their feet. 

Amber made a quick decision. “Sink the sports boat,” she shouted. Toma and Reesie joined her and Carlson at the corner of the building. All for tossed bars of sodium at the same time. The resulting explosion raised the bow of the boat into the air, causing the stern to rapidly fill with water. Another blast had the boat hull up and sinking quickly. 

They had barely ducked back down when a spray of gunfire sent fragments of concrete scattering just above their heads. Toma and Reesie belly crawled toward Darryll to retrieve more sodium. Darryll raised his head just enough to look at the two women when a piece of shrapnel hit him square in the forehead. Two more pieces hit his shoulder and then pierced his spine. He dropped onto the black tar paper that covered the roof, his eyes open but no longer seeing.

Tears stung Reesie’s eyes as she took the sodium and moved carefully back toward the wall. When she made it back she told Amber, “Darryll’s down and he’s not getting back up,” she said. “I was scared when we started, but now I’m just fucking pissed. These fuckers need to die.”

Amber looked at Reesie and could tell that her attitude and motivation had shifted. She’d seen the look before. People fight differently when they’re fighting for a cause versus fighting for self-preservation. Ressie no longer was content to survive. She wanted to win. She wanted to make the looters pay, preferably with their lives. “Stay down, don’t move,” Amber said. She motioned for Carlson to duck lower and then started crawling across the roof. The other three watched as she instinctively moved back and forth in a zig-zag pattern across the roof until she reached the box of sodium. She pushed the box out in front of her and then altered her pathway back so the cooling units could protect the volatile metal. Pieces of bullets and brick fragments peppered the tar paper around her. Amber winced as she felt something hit the back of her left thigh. She moved as quickly as she could across the small distance of roof. 

Amber was beginning to perspire as she pushed the box toward Reesie. “Take this,” she shouted above the gunfire. “My hands are sweaty. You hand them out while I rub my hand in some dirt.”

Reesie pulled the box close, handed two bars to Toma and two to Carlson. Amber was still rubbing dirt on her hands and arms when the three dropped all six bars at the front corner of the pontoon. The boat dipped hard as the reverse corner raised high into the air, dropping two more looters into the water. The trio raised up again to finish them off but were surprised with gunfire from a small boat they hadn’t noticed, peeking out from behind the pontoon. They dove for cover, doing their best to shield themselves from the shrapnel that was bursting in clouds just above their heads.

Amber dove back in close, covered in dirt and looking more like an Amazon warrior on a rampage. There was a fierceness that was frightening as her tense muscles rippled, anxious for action. 

Reesie started handing out more sodium. They were still less than half-way down the box. The bars didn’t need to be large to do a lot of damage. They were packed tight and threw easily. When she tried to hand more to Carlson, though, he didn’t move. She nudged him, not seeing anything wrong. 

Amber moved in close and pulled Carlson away from the wall. His back was soaked in blood. She couldn’t find any evidence of a bullet but the shrapnel from the wall had eventually pierced enough arteries that he had bled out. Amber knew that he had to have been in pain for several minutes but he had never said anything. He kept his focus and continued fighting. She fought back tears as she moved his body out of the way and leaned close into the wall that was quickly disintegrating around them. 

“Four at a time,” Amber yelled. “We’re not losing anyone else!”

Twelve sticks of sodium hit the water at the same time. The blast sent spray fifty feet into the air and shook the apartment building hard enough that  Amber could hear the screams of everyone inside the apartment. Adam and Natalie ducked behind the 20-foot boat as the waves rolled over the bow. Most importantly, the pontoon rolled a full 90 degrees, dumping everyone into the water. 

The looters started swimming, anticipating what was about to happen. Toma and Reesie did not miss their target. The third, though, had escaped around the corner of the building. Unsure whether it was safe yet for them to get up and move.

Natalie and Adam were ready, though. She pushed the flat bottom boat to block his path as Adam took him from behind. Natalie’s fists pummeling the man’s face might not have hurt him all that much given the height advantage he had over her, but it was enough to keep him distracted until Adam achieved enough leverage to break his neck. The looter slipped into the water and floated away.

Natalie stood with her hands on her hips, watching the body disappear into the water. “Wasn’t that the guy who ran the bike shop up on 82nd street?” she asked, not really expecting an answer. “He always was a little bit creepy.”

Adam grabbed the pontoon boat and Natalie helped him tie it off. They exchanged high fives as they finished then turned to head back upstairs.

“Don’t you think someone probably needs to stay with the boats?” Amber asked as she dropped into the water at the end of the building, catching them both off guard.

Natalie rushed forward and wrapped her arms around her. “Thank you!” she said. “I don’t know who you really are or what you really are, but we couldn’t have survived any of this without you!”

Amber held Natalie close for a second, then stepped back, looking the young woman in the eyes. “I’m not going to sugar coat this for you,” she said softly. “Darryll didn’t make it. Neither did Carlson.” 

Natalie stepped back, increasing the distance between them. “Oh no,” she sobbed quietly. “And the last words he heard from me were how wrong he was about everything. I embarrassed him in front of everyone.” The tears came quickly and Natale collapsed into the water. 

Amber picked her up and set her in the flat bottomed boat. “Wait here,” she instructed. “From this point forward, nothing that happened, nothing we said, nothing we did can drag us down. It was all experience preparing us for who we are now and what we are going to be. Just sit still until I get everyone else.”

Natalie nodded, no longer sure what was real nor what to feel. 

“Hey, Adam,” Amber called from the second-floor landing. “I think we can help people onto the boats better from up here, or at least from the stairs. Are they tied off well enough for  you to come up and help?”

“Sure thing,” Adam said as he headed up the stairs. He didn’t want to tell her how weak he was feeling. He needed something to eat, and he needed his medicine. 

Inside the apartment, Reesie and Toma had gathered everyone from the bedroom and they were looking for any food that made sense to carry with them. Amber walked through the open front door, put her hands on her hips and called, “Everyone ready for a new future needs to come with me!” There was a mixture of cheering and laughter as they ran toward the door and down the stairs to the waiting boats.

“Why can’t we all just go on the same boat?” Gloria asked as Adam helped her and Toma onto the 20-foot Bayrunner sporting boat. 

“Because I take up one all on my own,“ Barry teased as he came down behind them. “I assume you all want me on the pontoon boat,” he suggested. 

“Every craft needs ballast,” Amber joked back at him. She then turned to Adam. “I know you’re an old Army grunt, but you think can figure out how pilot that flat slab of fiberglass?”

He chucked. “My dad had one almost exactly like her. This will be like being a teenager again.”

“Then climb aboard, Captain,” Amber told him. “Those explosions shook the mortar look on this place. We don’t have long.”

Amber helped Gwen, Roscoe, and Amanda on to the pontoon, then Reesie and Cam onto the Bayrunner. Life jackets were secured for everyone, something the looters had failed to employ. 

Miranda stood plaintively on the steps, not sure where to go. She looked at Natalie still wiping tears from her eyes. The flat bottom boat looked so small compared to the other two. 

“Hey, Natalie,” Amber called. “I think this might work better if you tie that boat on behind the pontoon then you and  Miranda can help Adam.”

Natalie looked up from the boat and said, “You know, I think it’s okay if you just call me Nat. I know it sounds like a bug, but I’m a pesky little bug who isn’t going away.” 

Miranda and Amber laughed. Natalie hopped out and tied the smaller boat to the back of the pontoon, then climbed up the ladder in the back. “Permission to come aboard, sir!” she called. 

“Permission granted,” Adam called back. 

Amber hopped aboard the Bayliner and checked the controls. “Damn, this thing has nearly two tanks full of fuel! How is that one looking?”

Adam checked the gauges and yelled back, “Pretty much the same here. Why don’t you think they used them?”

“The sound would have alerted people they were coming,” Amber said. “They wanted the element of surprise. Let’s see if they’ll start.”

Within seconds, three outboard motors roared to life. The entire group cheered and as they did the last of the apartment building shifted and splashed down into the water. They all laughed at the timing. They were alive. There were no regrets in that.

Amber walked over to the side of her boat, next to where Adam was standing in the middle of his. She held out a plastic bag full of power bars. “Eat two of these now,” she instructed, “And then another every two hours. We’ll find your medicine soon.”

Adam took the bag and smiled. He walked to the bow and untied it from the railing that now went nowhere. When he returned to the controls, he turned the boat and began to float downstream with Amber right behind him.

The soft sound of the idling motors was all that could be heard for miles. As they sailed away, the skies began to lighten and the clouds began to break up. Slivers of sunlight began to peek through.

High above them, two solemn figures watched with interest. 

“Well, they managed to survive,” one said.

“Somehow they always do,” mused the other.

“Think it will be any better this time around?”

“It could be, I suppose. Anything can happen.”

There was a silence between them that, on earth, would have lasted several days. Finally, the first said, “Maybe this time they’ll learn how to make a decent cup of coffee without burning the roast.”

The other laughed. “You know she’s already designing the coffee shop in her head. She’s thinking of naming it Another Tuesday.”

They both laughed, knowing it would be a hit.