Editorial Note: While this is not the first time that I’ve spread an article across two posts, I think this is the first time that I’ve serialized them across multiple weeks. If you’ve not yet read the first part of this story, you will want to click here and do so in order to make sense of what you’re reading today. Maybe.
This is also where I need to state that everything that follows is fictional. Any relationship between the story here and actual persons or events is not only coincidental but a little bit disturbing. There are no strange theories being developed here or any futuristic prognostication. This is fiction. Please respond appropriately. Now, let’s pick up where we left off.
Not The Average Tuesday
Reesie looked across the coffee shop just as her watch beeped 10:00. The rain hadn’t started yet, though the clouds looked as ominous as ever. At the near table sat a large man looking very uncomfortable in a black sweater talking to a well-dressed diminutive woman. Something about an app. The girl in the front chair had her laptop open and seemed to be working, but looked as though she were about to cry. Carson was going off about some rental car problem, but Reggie was handling him sufficiently. Two young women who hadn’t seen each other in months were catching up at the high top, and the principals of the software company down the street were having their weekly meeting at the back table. And Adam was asleep on the couch. Again.
The bell at the front door rang and a late middle-aged gentleman, his hair nearly shining from the shade of silver, walked through the door. He pulled a worn wallet from the front pocket of his jeans and deposited $3 in the honor jar. Obviously, he’d been here before but Reesie didn’t recognize the face. He filled his cup from the carafe with the house blend and took a seat on the bench across from the counter. He looked at his watch, then at the door. She recognized that look. He was waiting for someone.
Reesie checked all the carafes and pulled the two that were nearly empty, then ground the coffee she would need to fill them. The morning was going smoothly.
Then, at precisely 10:15 AM, her cell phone rang. Never mind that it had been set to vibrate only all morning. The phone rang.
And so did every other cell phone in the coffee shop. Conversation stopped as everyone simultaneously stared at their phones. The rings were all identical, overriding the individualized settings that everyone had spent far too much time agonizing over when they first got their phones. They rang, an electronic impersonation of the old wall-mount phones now relegated to museum pieces.
A couple of seconds passed. Everyone in the coffee shop had the same reaction as Reesie. They first looked at their phones, then across the shop as they realized theirs wasn’t the only phone ringing. In the next second, everyone reached for their phones and answered. The phones didn’t have to be on speaker settings. Everyone was hearing exactly the same thing
“Greetings. This is …”
“Did it work?” asked a somewhat muffled voice in the background. “Did the alert go through?”
The dominant voice, a male baritone similar to that of an evening news presenter, sighed and tried again. “Greetings, this is …”
“Don’t tell them too much right now, you’ll scare everyone,” said the voice in the background.
“Sir, we have a script and a very limited amount of time. Please …” said a third male voice.
“Greetings, this is …”
Suddenly, the call was interrupted by a loud, piercing, digital squeal, first a long, single tone, then a punctuated warbling. Then, the call ended, disconnected on the other end.
Everyone looked up at the same time, unsure of how to respond. Ressie looked across the coffee shop. Uncertainty was on every face. What had they just heard? Who had sent that call? Was there an emergency? Did they need to take cover?
With near simultaneous precision, everyone picked up their phone and started calling someone. Natalie called Darrell. Ressie called Timora. Barry called his mom. Everyone had someone they needed to call, and when they answered, everyone asked the same question: “Did you just get a strange call?”
With the affirmation that yes, everyone has received the same odd call with the same piercing sound came expressions of worry and concern.
“Are you okay?” Bruce asked Amanda. “Do I need to come get you? Have you talked to the sitter?”
Amanda assured him she was okay and that the sitter would be the next call, then the school.
“Is anyone there panicking?” Timora asked Reesie. “Ravie seems unaffected, though he definitely heard that loud noise at the end.”
Reesie nervously replied, “Not sure yet. Everyone’s calling someone, just like us. I don’t think anyone knows exactly what’s going on.”
“Yes, mom, I’m safe,” Barry was saying. “No, I’m not home, but I’m safe. No, mom, we’re not being invaded.” He wasn’t sure whether or not he was lying on that last statement, but the last thing he wanted to do was upset his 83-year-old mother.
“I’m sure it’s no big thing,” Darrell told Natalie dismissively. “Sounded more like a glitch in the FCC’s emergency system to me.”
The FCC’s emergency system. Natalie remembered reading about the national system being established a couple of years ago. Theoretically, it was designed to send everyone a text message in the event of a national emergency. “I didn’t think that system had voice ability,” Natalie asked him.
“I dunno,” Darrell responded. “I’m re-thinking my lunch plans, though. Maybe you should come home.”
Natalie considered the request. “Maybe. Let me see if I can figure out what’s going on first.”
Carson was speaking softly into his phone but hadn’t left his seat at the counter. “I just wanted to know that you and the kids are okay. I’ll be home as soon. I’m sure this was nothing serious.”
In the back room of the coffee shop, Reggie whispered into his phone, “Look, man, you gotta go do you. This isn’t normal shit. Take care of whatever you need to take care of. You know I’m here, man. I love you.”
As Reesie finished her call to Tinora, she felt dampness under her nose. She reached for a nearby paper towel to wipe her nose, assuming that it was nothing more than normal nasal drainage. Seeing blood on the paper towel caused her heart to jump a beat yet again. She looked up to see Carson wiping the blood from his nose as well. From the back of the shop, she heard Reggie exclaim, “What the fuck?” She quickly realized that everyone was bleeding from the nose. She grabbed the paper towels and hurried from behind the counter to distribute them.
That’s when she noticed Adam. He wasn’t moving. If he had a cell phone, he hadn’t answered it. His head was still slumped against his chest as it always was when he was napping on the couch. Reesie set the paper towels on the table between Amanda and Barry and rushed over to him, expertly placing two fingers against his carotid artery, then down on his left wrist. She started looking for her phone and realized she’d left it on the counter. Then, she felt a hand on her shoulder.
Natalie had noticed Adam at almost the same as Reesie and was dialing 911.
“We’re sorry, all emergency networks are busy at this time. Please hold and we will do our best to answer your call in the order in which it was received.”
“Fuck,” Natalie said, placing the phone on the coffee table in front of the couch with the speaker on. “Is he breathing,” she asked Reesie.
“Just barely,” Reesie answered. “His pulse is really, really weak. I don’t know that much about him, but almost certainly seems to be in some form of cardiac distress. We need help!”
“ … all emergency networks are busy …” continued the recording on Natalie’s phone.
“Isn’t there a fire station just down the street like a block and a half? I can run down there and see if they can help,” Natalie offered.
Reesie thought for a second. She didn’t know who this white girl was nor if she’d come back, but her instinct said to trust her. “Sure. Want me to put your laptop behind the counter?”
Natalie handed her the computer. “Thanks. I’ll be right back. I promise.” She stood up, but never made it to the front door.
At that second, the power went out in the shop just as a torrent of rain harder than anyone had ever seen pounded against the front wall of the coffee shop. No one was going anywhere.
What No One Is Supposed To Know
“Fuck! I’m not sure if we got anything out or not.” the man said as he pushed away from the desk. “Mr. President, with all due respect, your interruptions may have cost us the integrity of this entire program. People heard you. They’ll recognize your voice. When they do, the necessary secrecy of this operation will be compromised. If you were anyone else, I’d take you outside right now and shoot you!”
Special Agent Tony Biscane had been working on the new national communications project for 15 years across three different presidential administrations. All the previous presidents had been easy enough to work with once they were briefed on the critical nature of the program and why its existence could not be revealed to the public. Today was the first public test of that project but the president had practically ruined it because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
“You will NOT talk to the president of the United States like that!” Chief of Staff Roger Mukaski reprimanded the agent. “You will show some respect, especially in this office!”
Tony wasn’t having it. He turned and looked Mukaski in the eye. “I don’t care if he’s god incarnate. The fact is that your president likely just created a national incident and we’re going to have to do something to calm everyone down and that action is not going to be easy nor inexpensive.”
“Sir, we’ve got a massive problem,” a tall man in an Army uniform said as he burst into the Oval Office. “This went sideways in a hurry.”
“See? It didn’t take long,” Tony said, looking directly at Mukaski.
“What’s the problem, General Lang?” the president asked.
General Alonzo Lang stood tall above the president, and pretty much everyone else in the room. At 6’ 8”, he tended to be an imposing presence no matter where he was. The left breast of his dark green dress uniform was covered in ribbons and medals that almost distracted from the four stars on his lapel. He could have almost passed for a younger person than his 63 years of age were it not for the gray hairs starting to creep into his temples. That touch of gray just gave him that much more authority, especially in situations like this one.
“Mr. President,” he said, “That call, whatever it was, has invoked a full-scale, nationwide panic. We’re getting reports from everywhere of people running into the streets, distracted drivers causing accidents, critical hospital equipment malfunctioning … Mr. President, we weren’t ready for a response like this on even a small scale. We don’t have the resources to deal with this. No one does.”
The president looked at Tony. “I thought you said everyone was supposed to be calm and quiet at the end of this thing. I’m not taking the blame for this. Know that now. This was not my fault.”
Tony glanced at Mukaski before replying. “Mr. President, if you had not interrupted the broadcast, if we had been able to deliver the entire message, this would not have happened. I told you before we started, I told everyone before we started, that we had a 20-second window. That was it. Twenty fucking seconds. We’ve known this for over two years. We’ve gone over it. We’ve practiced it. But no, you just had to say something and when you did we weren’t able to read the entire message and the system didn’t hear the keywords so it glitched and now we have a massive problem”
President Rudolph Blackstone, whom everyone preferred to call Rootin-Tootin’ Rudy, stared angrily at the agent. “Why didn’t you just …” He stopped and turned to Mukaski, “I expect you to handle situations like this. If silence was so critical, why did we perform this test here in the oval office?”
Mukaski tried to not roll his eyes. “Remember, Mr. President, you requested the test to be held here. It was originally scheduled for the war room without anyone present but Agent Biscane and the Joint Chiefs. Is that not correct, General?”
“Yes sir, that is correct,” General Lang answered. “If you’ll recall, we even submitted a formal complaint to the test being moved.”
President Blackstone pounded his fist on the massive walnut desk in front of him. “Complaints. All anyone ever does around here is complain. I breathe and someone complains. I don’t need complaints right now, gentlemen. I need solutions. What are we going to do about this?”
“Mr. President, … I don’t think …” General Lang started only to be interrupted by an aide rushing in with an update pulled from a computer just outside the oval office. The general stared at the paper for a moment, then made his face resolute. “Mr. President, if we don’t impose martial law right now, this very second, we will lose the country before noon.”
Both Mukaski and Biscane looked at the general with their mouths open. Before noon? That was less than two hours away! What was going on out there?
The general read their expressions and continued. “The national 911 network is overloaded. People’s first response to the phone call was to call 911. Then, people started having a physical response to whatever that noise was at the end. Most people had nose bleeds, but anyone with any kind of medical implant device, especially pacemakers, experienced a malfunction. Panic is rampant. Police in every city are overwhelmed. Nationalize the National Guard and impose martial law so we can get them some help.”
“Fine,” the president said, tossing up his hands and turning to face the window looking out onto the White House lawn. The thick glass kept him from having a detailed view of anything out there, but he liked to pretend. “Roger, draw up the papers and I’ll sign them as soon as possible.”
“We’ll need to make a public statement when you do,” Mukaski said.
“That’s fine. I’ll just say …” the president started.
“You need to stick to the script on this one,” Mukaski warned. “There are strict legal guidelines in play here. Congress doesn’t even have to hold impeachment proceedings if you fuck this up.”
“Fine, whatever. I’ll play nice. Just make sure the teleprompter is large enough for me to read,” Rudy said. He sat in the large chair behind the desk. “I could use a soda. Someone get me a soda.”
Unintended Actions Still Have Consequences
“Goddammitmotherfuckingsonofabitch! What in the name of crazy moon monkeys just happened and why the fuck am I seeing fucking red lights everywhere I look?: Agent in Charge Perry Hawkins entire head had grown beat red and anyone who didn’t know him might think he was about to have a stroke or some other serious medical event. Those who knew him, however, and especially those who worked with him, knew this was a regular event any time Perry was upset—and Perry was often upset. Still, this rant was rather significant. Every piece of electronics in the room had just failed simultaneously.
“We’re working on it, sir,” responded Special Agent Claire Fielding. “At this particular moment, all I know is that something, somewhere, interrupted the signal between here and the White House.”
Perry grabbed the back of the chair in which Claire was sitting and pulled it back so he could bend down and look directly in the young woman’s face. “What do you mean something interrupted the signal? I didn’t think there was supposed to be anyway anything could interrupt that signal! My understanding, Miss Fielding, was that there was no known technology in the world that could interrupt that signal! Do you know how I came to that understanding, Miss Fielding?”
“Yes, sir,” Claire answered firmly. “I told you nothing could interrupt this signal. Obviously, I was wrong.”
Claire had grown rather accustomed to Perry’s attempts to intimidate her. When she had first taken the assignment in the Virginia bunker, he had been successful. Claire was no pushover, however. Her bantam height of 5’ 2” and meager build notwithstanding, Claire was one of the toughest agents, both physically and mentally, on the force. On days like today, her two-inch sensible pumps allowed her to meet Perry’s stern gaze at his own level, something not many people in the organization dared to do. Claire had figured out a long time ago that the way to beat a bully was to stand nose-to-nose with them until they backed down, and they always backed down.
Perry knew this wasn’t the time to mess with Claire. “Fuck. How fast can we track down those interruptions?”
Claire was busily banging at keys on a keyboard, frustrated that none of the monitors in front of her were responding. “I’ll run diagnostics as soon as I can find a machine that wasn’t fucking fried.”
Fried. That was not a good word to hear in what was supposed to be the nations most secret and most secure underground electronics facility. Just getting inside to go to work took 30 minutes. Getting out took even longer. “Do you mean to tell me that every piece of electronics in this room is no longer in working condition?”
Claire slammed her fist on the keyboard in front of her and slid her chair over to the next one. “I’m afraid it may be worse than that, sir,” she said as she started typing again, getting the same lack of response. You may want to check divisions Blue and Yellow, sir. I’m not getting a response from anything in the bunker.”
Moments like this made Perry wish there was something handy to throw, something that he wouldn’t immediately regret breaking into a thousand pieces. He could take pills to help him with the high blood pressure, but they hadn’t made one yet that could control his rage and right now every fiber of his being sense that he was being personally attacked and needed to fight back.
“Someone get me Blue team lead,” Perry yelled to no one in particular. He needn’t have bothered.
“I’m right here, Perry,” said Special Agent Kenneth Spaulding, the Blue team lead.
“And I’m right behind him,” quipped Special Agent Holiday Lightfoot. She preferred for people to call her Holly. Holly was the Yellow team lead.
The four agents looked at each other a moment before Perry spoke. “You’re telling me whatever interrupted that signal took out the entire Bunker?” His voice was softer. He was trying to regain some sense of control and composure, at least over himself if not the situation.
Kenneth spoke first. “I’m afraid it’s worse than that. We could be looking at a catastrophic event affecting government installations all over the US.”
“Make that the world,” Holly corrected. “As best as I can tell, both London and Munich are down as well.”
Perry inhaled deeply. “What about naval commands? Have we heard anything from them?”
“The McCain reported in two minutes ago. They’re operational but are having some issues with their navigational systems. They’re running diagnostics now,” Holly reported.
“Define ‘some issues,’ please,” Perry ordered.
Holly nodded. “Their satellite connections are glitching. They’ll show accurate coordinates one second and then something totally random the next. They’re not dead in the water but they’ve slowed to give technicians time to hopefully stabilize the system.”
“Assuming,” Kenneth added, “that the systems can be stabilized. Based on what I’m seeing, Perry, I’m wondering if the satellite grid might be part of the problem. We know damn good and well we tested against every known technology on this planet and even invented some of our own just to be sure. What if someone put something up there we don’t know about?”
Claire and Holly shared a sudden look of fear. The satellites were considered safe. If they had been hacked, there might not be anything they could do on earth to fix the problem.
Perry pushed his thick fingers across the top of his head as though he were trying to pull at hair that wasn’t there. “Do we at least have some outside communication? I mean, just how bad a situation are we looking at?”
A private dressed in Marine Corp street camo rushed into the room and handed Perry a piece of paper. “Sir, this message just arrived, sir,” the Marine said, and then he paused with his mouth open.
“Go ahead, boy, say it,” Perry commanded.
“Sir, it came in via teletype. We didn’t even know that machine was still hooked up and functioning, sir. Just all of a sudden it jolted and started clattering away. We thought it was about to explode or something,” the baby-faced Marine explained.
“That’s the only thing still working,” Claire whispered.
Perry looked at what was on the teletype printout and his hands began to tremble.
“Perry, how bad is it?” Claire asked quietly.
Perry walked over to the door and pushed buttons on the intercom system next to it. “Attention all stations. Attention all stations. This is Special Agent in Charge Perry Hawkins. I have just received direct orders from president Blackstone. Military protocol 579 M. 1483 is now in effect by order of the President of the United States. Repeat: Military protocol 579 M. 1483 is now in effect. Ladies and gentlemen, the United States of America is at war. Stand by for further instructions.”
At that moment, the only sound in the small room was intermittent beeping from various electronics still attempting to perform their assigned function. The four agents looked at each other. Technically, they were not part of the military, though they worked closely with them. No one was exactly sure what would happen next.
Perry turned and addressed the Marine. “Son, who is your commanding officer?”
“Sir, Colonel Brinkman, sir,” the Marine answered.
“And is Colonel Brinkman physically inside the bunker at this moment?” Perry asked.
The private trembled as he tried to answer, but no words came out.
“It’s okay, son. We’re all scared. Nothing like this has ever happened before. We’re going to get through this as best we can, but I need to talk to Col. Brinkman as fast as possible. He would seem to be everyone’s boss right now. Can you find him for me?” Perry did his best to keep his voice low and calm. Any hint of panic at this point could set off a chain reaction throughout the bunker.
The Marine nodded.
“Good. You’re dismissed.”
The Marine ran from the room as quickly as possible. Perry looked back at the three team leads, then gazed around the room at the remaining special agents. This was one of those moments Perry had never imagined would actually happen. Sure, somewhere in one of those boring classes they had all taken as part of their training, they had been told it was possible and what would happen if it did. The sum and substance were that the military took over. Everything. The only other time a President had invoked this order was in 1863 and even that was up for debate. This was new. This could only mean that the United States was under a direct attack by a foreign power. But who?
“Who here has a military background?” Perry asked. All three team leads and several others raised their hands. Perry nodded in acknowledgment. “Good. Those of you under the age of 45, which is most of you, can likely expect to be re-inducted into your respective branch of the military. At that time, you may or may not be assigned elsewhere. That decision is no longer up to me. I do know that circumstances topside must be pretty severe for the president to make that order. Be assured that when this action is over and this order is rescinded, you are all welcome to resume your positions here.”
“What about those of us recruited elsewhere?” asked an agent sitting in a darkened corner of the room.
Perry shook his head. “I’ve no idea. I assume Col. Brinkman is getting orders from the Pentagon as we speak. He may ask us to stay on as military consultants. He may ask us to be escorted from the bunker and sent home. The decision is totally up to them.”
“Can we be shot?” the same voice asked.
Light laughter rippled around the room and Perry managed a smile even though he had wondered the same thing himself. “No, no one is getting shot without sufficient reason. I’ll talk to the Colonel as soon as he can be found. Until then, let’s gather as much data about this disaster as we can, okay? Everyone continue working. We need to know what caused that interruption, its source, and how bad the damage is. Now.”
Special Agents Spaulding and Lightfoot left the room to return to their teams. Claire and her team returned their attention to the array of electronics that were still not responding. Perry slipped out of the room, leaned his back against the wall, and covered his face with his hands. He wanted to scream, but couldn’t. He wanted to run and hide as well, but that was not an option. He had a job to do.
What bothered Perry most was not being able to tell his team in advance that this could happen. He had been briefed by Special Agent Biscane two weeks ago on the matter. The window of operation was kept as small as possible to prevent any type of interference, but any number of variables could have left the nation’s entire communication system vulnerable. That information was classified, though. As far as he knew, only himself, Biscane, and the president’s Chief of Staff Roger Mukaski knew the risk going in. The military had been intentionally left out of the loop.
As Perry considered the situation and the role he had played, his stomach turned. He had told his agents a lie. Someone could get shot. Him.
Battle Against The Inevitable
Natalie looked at the door then back at Reesie, unsure exactly what to do next. The water was already forcing its way inside. Going to her car, let alone two blocks to the fire station, was impossible now.
Reesie ran over and locked the front door then turned around to address her customers. “I’m sorry everyone, but it looks like we’re gonna be family for a bit. Reggie, secure the back door, please. I’ll happily let folks in but no one’s going out until we’re sure it’s safe.”
She paused a second and looked over at Adam. “I don’t suppose anyone here is a doctor? Or a nurse? Or a girl scout?”
The customers looked at each other and shrugged. None of them had any medical training. Reesie and Natalie bent back over the older man. Reesie checked his pulse again.
“I’m not sure what to do,” Reesie said. “I mean, I have one of those defib kits back in the office, but I don’t know this is the situation to use it.”
Natalie rocked back on her heels for a moment, thinking. “Do you know anything about his medical history at all?” she asked. “I know that’s an odd question but he seems rather comfortable, coming in here and sleeping like this.”
Reesie chuckled. “It’s part of his daily routine. He comes in a little before 10, gets a cup of coffee, takes maybe three sips of it then falls asleep. He normally sleeps for about an hour, sometimes less if we’re busy, then throws his coffee away and goes home.”
Natalie couldn’t help chuckling at the quaintness of his story. It made her that much more determined to help him. “If we had power I could check online for some suggestions but without Internet I’m helpless. Do you have any idea how old he is?”
“Somewhere in his late 70s, I think,” Reesie answered. “We didn’t really have much chance to talk, what with him sleeping all the time. He would say hi, sometimes ask how the day was going. He’s been coming here a long time before I bought the place.”
Reggie had rummaged around in the back room and found long, red tapered candles left over from some holiday decorations. He lit the candles with his lighter and brought them around to the different tables, leaving two for Reesie and Natalie.
The wind blew hard, causing the front window to rumble as though it might break. Reesie and Natalie both jumped. The candle flames flickered.
There was still enough light to see inside the coffee shop. The patrons could easily get up, move around without being in danger of tripping over anything. Yet, they each stayed seated right where they were, pivoting between their now hushed conversations and watching the front window, fully expecting a deluge of water to come roaring in on them at any time.
Natalie found the whispering interesting, as though they were in a church. All the lively chatter than had previously filled the small space of the coffee shop hadn’t stopped, but everyone was whispering. Her curious nature had her wondering if the content of the conversation had changed at all.
Reesie walked over to the counter and began unwrapping the pastries that were sitting out. “Everyone feel free to help yourself to a pastry. I don’t think the power is going to come back any time soon and these pastries will ruin if left out. No need in them going to waste,” she announced to the group.
The four women who had been sitting at the back table seemed very pleased by this development and had just stood up when the wind rocked the coffee shop again. This time it did blow out the candles and the room instantly felt much darker than it actually was.
“No worries,” Reggie said. “Just sit still a moment and I’ll relight them.”
As Reggie worked his way around to the different tables, Reesie looked back toward the front door where water was beginning to pool. She had seen water flood the shop before, but this was coming in faster than previous incidents. Within a few minutes, the water would spread across the floor. She walked over to Natalie. “You might want to go ahead and unplug your laptop. I can put it up on a shelf if you’d like. We’re going to have water all over this floor in just a few minutes.”
Natalie looked first at the floor and then toward the door. She walked over and unplugged her laptop, placed it in her tote bag, then handed the whole thing to Reesie. “Here, put it where you think it’s safe.” She looked at the bag and then added, “I don’t think I’m going to make my deadline.”
Reesie looked at the bag then back at Natalie. “No, you probably won’t, but I’m glad you’re here. My name is Shyreese, by the way. You can call me Reesie.”
Natalie smiled. “I always did like Reesies.” She giggled. “I’m Natalie. Never Nat.”
Reesie nodded her acknowledgment. “Natalie it is then. Pleased to meet you.” She then walked over to a nearby wall and put the tote bag on a secure shelf higher than her own head. If water got that high, she reasoned, the laptop would be the least of anyone’s worries.
Carson started pounding his index finger on his phone. “Dammit, now I’ve lost all signal, too. Don’t tell me the whole cell network is down.”
Everyone in the shop immediately checked their own phone. Sure enough, no one had any cell service. A wave of panic swept over Amanda. She had gotten in touch with the babysitter, but she hadn’t reached the kids’ school. What if they tried calling? What if they needed to be picked up? Tears filled her eyes as she realized there was nothing she could do.
Barry cautiously reached over and touched Amanda’s forearm. He had attended more than enough classes to know he should ask permission before touching someone else, but this moment seemed to be a bit different. “I know, it’s scary,” he told her. “I think we all have someone we’re worried about. It’s going to be okay. Even if this place fills with water, it’s okay.”
Amanda choked back a sob. “How do you know that? How do we know anyone will survive? We don’t even really know what’s happening other than it’s raining so hard we can’t see the curb.”
“Easy,” Barry said, smiling. “I’m a natural flotation device. Just grab hold and I’ll float us all to safety.”
Amanda placed her hand over Barry’s and squeezed as she managed a small smile. Any other time, she would have laughed at his self-deprecating joke, but for the moment she was worried about her babies. Nothing could or would come before that. She needed to be with them. She needed to know they were all safe.
Reesie went to the back of the shop where all the “extra” items were stored. She never had really gone through everything in this closet. She had inherited its contents with the store, knowing that it had old tax records, among other things, if she ever needed such. Now, she was rummaging through the old lost-and-found items. She came up with a couple of long winter coats and brought them out to the shop. She tapped Natalie on the shoulder and said, “Help me a minute here, please.”
Natalie took one of the coats and followed Reesie over to the couch where Adam hadn’t moved. Reesie laid one coat over him like a blanket, then motioned for Natalie to put the one she was carrying on the coffee table. “Fold it up a little,” she instructed, and then help me put his feet up there.
The sight of the two women struggling to raise the old man’s feet made Carson chuckle.
“Hey man, not cool,” Reggie said in response. “They’re doing what we should have already done.”
Carson scoffed. “At least the old man is sleeping through the whole thing.” He looked over at the nameless man who had come in right before the storm hit. “What’s up with you over there?” he asked. “You’ve hardly moved through this whole ordeal.”
The man looked down into his coffee cup, then looked Carson in the eye and said, “When one attends the theatre, only the actors speak. It is the job of the audience to listen, not participate.”
Carson and Reggie looked at each other, bewildered, as the man leaned back against the wall and finished his coffee. He then walked past Natalie and Reesie to lean over Adam and pull back one of his eyelids.
Reesie reached over and pulled him back. “What the hell are you doing?” she insisted.
“His pupils are still active,” he said without looking away from Adam. “He’s not in any danger for the moment. Let him sleep.”
Reesie was indignant. “Wait, you’re a doctor and you didn’t say anything earlier?”
The man shook his head. “I’m not a doctor. Doctors know everything about life and saving it. I only know about death and when it is certain.” He paused. “He has nothing to worry about.”
The wind blew again at the window and both Reesie and Natalie felt a chill down their spines.
He looked at the door, then looked at the chair where Natalie had been sitting earlier. “Perhaps we should move that chair in front of the door. It won’t stop what coming in through the cracks but it might keep the door from giving up completely.” Walking over, he moved the chair carefully in front of the door, wedging the back under the push bar located a little lower than most to accommodate the number of children who came and went.
Reesie looked at him again. “I’m sorry, but I can’t place where we’ve met. I’m Reesie. I own the place.”
The man nodded. “I used to be a regular back when you first started working here before they sold the place. I’ve been … out of town for a while.”
“Welcome back,” Reesie said.
The man smiled. “You may be the only one who would say that.”
Creating Chaos Out Of Order
Press Secretary Terri Baldwin slipped into the oval office where aides were going over the soon-to-be-televised speech with president Blackstone. As usual, he was questioning their word choice and many of his replacements altered the meaning of what he was saying. Finding an appropriate vocabulary for him was always a challenge. Terri walked around the perimeter of the room trying to avoid being noticed by the president. She gently touched the shoulder of the Chief of Staff and motioned with her head that she needed to speak with him in his office, adjacent to the president.
Mukaski nodded and followed her to his office, a rather small room filled with more books and papers than he could ever have time to read. He closed the door behind them and asked, “What’s up? I don’t like that look on your face.”
“We have more problems than I can count, Roger,” Terri said. “The FAA has just grounded every airplane in the United States and Canada and Mexico are doing the same. I’m not sure about the EU or any of the South American countries because no one can reach them. All international communications are down. Mount Vesuvius could be erupting again for all I know. Not all the governors have received the official message that the National Guard has been nationalized. Those that have are not happy about. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are vowing to fight it. The 911 system is down pretty much nationwide. The nation’s semis are all having to pull over because the electronics in their truck are no longer working. And you know what else isn’t working, Roger?”
“I didn’t know there was anything left,” Roger deadpanned. “Tell me.”
“The communications systems that allow people to pay for things with their credit cards. They’re all down. People can’t buy food or gas or lottery tickets for Christ’ sake.”
Roger looked up at the young woman who was at least six inches taller than he was and didn’t blink. “So, what you’re telling me is that it’s a normal Tuesday.”
“Sure. And I don’t think the president should do a live address. I think we should tape it. If he goes off script he could make a bad situation worse,” she said.
“He won’t go off script,” Roger answered. “They’re going over everything with him now.”
“He’s balking at the word ‘martial,’ Roger,” Terri argued. “I heard what was going on in there, it’s the same thing that happens every time he goes to make a live address. He can’t pronounce anything that begins with OR. If a word has more than two syllables he trips and makes up something new. If he blows this, Roger, people, real people who vote, could get hurt!”
At that moment, Assistant Press Secretary knocked on Roger’s door. “What is it?” Roger yelled.
Carli opened the door and stuck her head into the room. “TV’s canceled. Can’t do it,” she said.
“What?” Terri exclaimed.
“Why the fuck not?” Roger asked. “This is a national emergency. The networks don’t get to decide whether or not they’re airing this announcement. THEY’RE AIRING THIS ANNOUNCEMENT!”
Carli stepped all the way into the room, shutting the door behind her. “Their equipment is down. Desire or lack thereof has nothing to do with it. None of them are getting a signal. Every TV station in North America is off the air.”
Roger and Terri looked at each other in disbelief. Roger pushed a button on the phone sitting on his desk and called his secretary, Tina. “Tina, go into the Oval Office and tell them to hold up. We’ve hit a snag on the president’s statement.” He released the button and turned back to Carli. “What about radio, is that down, too?”
“I’m afraid so,” Carli answered. “The problem is consistent across the country. The only thing working for the moment are land-based phone lines. Newspapers and military installations that have teletype are receiving messages.”
“Teletype?” Roger asked incredulously. “Who the fuck still has teletype? Do we still have teletype?”
Carli looked at Terri for the answer.
“I believe so,” Terri said. “Down in the basement, next to the offices across from the boiler. It’s not been used in years, but assuming it doesn’t need to be oiled or anything it should still work. I think the Pentagon still has some as well.”
The phone on Roger’s desk buzzed. “Mr. Mukaski, the president would like to see you,” Tina’s voice said.
Roger sighed and looked at Terri. “You’re coming with me. He’s not going to understand why his television isn’t working.”
Terri followed Roger back into the Oval Office. The aides that had been helping with his speech were packing up their things to leave. The President saw Roger and Terri come in and stormed over to them. “What’s this about my speech being canceled? I thought I was the only one who could cancel my speech!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. President,” Terri said, deflecting the president away from his already over-stressed chief. “All cellular and satellite-based communications are down. There’s not a television station in North America that can air your speech right now.”
The president looked confused. “None of them? Not even if I was right there in the studio?”
Terri tried hard to not roll her eyes. “Correct, sir. Where you are isn’t the problem. They’ve lost the ability to broadcast anything. There’s nothing at all on television or radio at the moment.”
Blackstone dropped his head for a second, then asked, “So there’s no chance of me catching the Cubs game this afternoon, huh?”
Terri looked at Roger not certain whether the question was serious or rhetorical. Roger nodded for her to go ahead and answer. “No sir, you won’t be able to catch the Cubs game this afternoon. I think we’ll all probably be staying here in the West Wing trying to address the number of national issues that seem to be multiplying.”
Rudy looked at Terri, the expression on his face similar to that of a teenager who had just decided that it was time for them to rebel against their parents’ wishes. “Isn’t this why I have all these people in the White House?” he asked. “It’s not like I can solve every last problem on my own, you know. I expect the communications department to handle communication problems. I expect the Secretary of the Interior to handle all the Interior problems. You people are all here specifically to handle problems. I don’t have to do your jobs for you, do I? You do your jobs and I’ll take care of the big issues, like meeting with the new German Chancellor tomorrow afternoon. Understand?”
“Uh, Mr. President, the German Chancellor won’t be coming tomorrow,” Roger said, hoping to take some of the heat off Terri.
“Why not?” the president demanded. “He better not be standing me up. He doesn’t want to get on my bad side. That would be very bad for Germany. Very bad.”
Roger stifled the urge to slap the president upside the head. “No, Mr. President, he’s not standing you up. All air traffic has been grounded. He can’t get here.”
“Oh,” the president said reluctantly. “All the planes are grounded, huh?”
“Yes sir,” Roger said. “It isn’t safe for them to fly.”
“So, no golfing in the Keys this weekend?” the president asked.
Roger looked at Terri, still not believing what the president was saying. “No sir, there probably will be no golfing this weekend. We have to get these satellite and other issues are taken care of. Our nation is in crisis!”
The president nodded. “Okay, you and Terri go work on that television thing. Let me know when it’s up and running again.” He paused, then added, “That is all for now.”
Roger motioned for Terri to follow him back into his office. Once the door was closed, Roger pounded his fists on his desk. “Can you believe that reaction just now?” he half-screamed. “The nation is experiencing the biggest crisis we’ve had since the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the president is upset because he can’t go to a Cubs game or go golfing this weekend!”
“I know, sir,” Terri said, trying to remain calm. “The president’s behavior isn’t rational. We’ve talked about this before. I think we may not have any option but to look for other alternatives.”
Roger grimaced. “If you had said that for any reason prior to this morning, I’d fire you on the spot for insubordination. But I’m afraid this time you’re right. Call the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Arrange a meeting. We can’t let this guy be in charge during martial law. Everyone will die.”
To Know Or Not To Know
Perry Hawkins had been a young Lieutenant in the Marine Corp when the FBI first approached him about working for them. Back then, recruitment by both the FBI and the CIA tended to be a rather secretive affair, unlike the open applications both maintained on their website today. Someone with connections at Langley had seen something promising in Hawkins. They offered him an alternative for serving his country without the likely chance of having to be shipped overseas to get shot at. The FBI would let him get shot at right here at home.
What they saw in Perry was the ability to bring highly skilled people together and get a job done without a lot of internal chaos in the process. He had the right touch for bringing experts together and had done so with specific assignments addressing child porn and religious cults that had a habit of kidnapping their followers.
Then, 15 years ago the Deputy Director of Operations, Norman Levstein, came to Perry with the offer of a “permanent” assignment. One that was so secret even family members couldn’t know what he was doing. Perry was a perfect choice. His wife, Norma, had died from an aggressive form of breast cancer two years prior. They didn’t have any children and Perry had never been all that close with his brother, Tyler. In fact, they hadn’t spoken in over ten years. No one would particularly notice if Perry sort of “disappeared.”
The assignment had initially involved the establishment of a national emergency alert system. Even though the United States had not had a direct attack since 9/11, there was the constant and pervasive threat that a foreign power could use technology to attack in new and different ways that could be just as disruptive as bombs, or a distraction so that no one noticed the bombs until it was too late. The idea was to create a system that would in no way rely on the public communications system or the power grid. That way, if the obvious targets were somehow taken out, they could still communicate to people, advising them of the necessary actions to take.
The first step had been the ability to send a text message to every active cell phone licensed in the United States, regardless of where it was at the time of the emergency. That part had been in place for a few years now. They had made a big deal of having the president push a button that sent the first test message. Of course, they didn’t let him write the message, and the button he pushed was actually nothing more than decoration, but it made for good optics and the American people, by and large, bought into the concept. Everyone felt safer.
Shortly after that test, however, they realized there was a problem with a text-based system. While they had secured an agreement with all US carriers to not charge data or text rates for any federal emergency message because text messages normally do incur those rates, many people had them turned off or filtered so they could only get messages from select people. There was also the issue that the message had only been sent in English. There was no way to know whether the person receiving the message could read English or not, but there was neither any way to know which cell phone user spoke what language. Between the two issues, there were a significant number of people who either might not get the text message at all or would not know how to read it if they did. By some estimates, as many as 58 million people across the United States would still be at risk. Added to that was the fact that there was still five percent of the population, roughly 20 million people, who didn’t have a cell phone at all. In short, more than a quarter of the US population would remain at risk, a number far too high to be acceptable.
That had prompted the current project, one that worked off the cellular data compiled by the FBI and other national security sources. Essentially, Perry had argued, they didn’t need to know what people were saying on their phones, they simply needed to know what language they were speaking when they used them. That allowed them to then create a data-driven map that sent messages to a phone in their dominant language. Some had argued against the potential for privacy abuse, but Perry had talked them down with assurances that only language preference was being stored in their database, which was true.
When he hired Claire Fielding, however, she pointed out that the solution failed to address the full problem. Translating a text message into various languages still left at least 20 million people at risk and failed to consider the approximately 32 million adults in the United States who can’t read anything, no matter what language. Claire had been the one to suggest using artificial intelligence (AI), something in which she was a bit of an expert, to create voice calls that could be automated and distributed simultaneously. Then, to address those without phones, she suggested, it could be broadcast on television and radio simultaneously, just like the current severe weather system.
Selling her solution had been easy. Actually doing it, though, had presented more than a few challenges along the way. Additional staff had been added. Security had been tightened. Claire had expressed concerns more than once that they might have a leak within the group. Perry had ordered checks on everyone and not found anything out of the ordinary. Still, Claire was concerned. She was seeing pieces of code she had written pop up in public AI forums, code that was supposed to be top secret. No one had figured out how that code had gotten out.
Then, Kenneth and Holly found snippets of their code online as well. A special team was brought in to investigate. They found nothing.
Claire still had misgivings when the system was ready to test, but without any concrete evidence Perry couldn’t support any further delays. They had gone through all the issues with Tony Biscane, their liaison at Langley. Only the team leads had any lingering concerns. Perry was wishing right now that he had listened to them.
Perry looked up to see a man in uniform walking rapidly in his direction. He correctly assumed that the man was Col. Brinkman. He was correct.
The colonel started talking before he reached Perry. “Mr. Hawkins, I just got an order via teletype of all things telling me to take immediate command of this facility. Can you please tell me why that is?”
“The president has put the country under martial law, colonel. Civilian command is secondary for the moment,” Perry said, knowing full well the colonel was already aware of that information.
“Yes,” agreed a rather aggravated sounding colonel. “The problem with this order, Mr. Hawkins, is that my troops and I were stationed here for security purposes only, not operational. We’re to keep the bad guys away so your folks can get their work done. I have never been briefed on what is going on in this little establishment of yours, Mr. Hawkins. So if you don’t mind, I’d like an update, the elevator version if you don’t mind, along with an explanation of what, if anything, this operation has to do with the mess that’s taking place topside.”
Perry sighed heavily. All those days in boot camp all those years ago suddenly came rushing back to memory. He didn’t like being yelled at then and it wasn’t any easier to accept now. He decided to address the last request first.
“Colonel, in all likelihood, we caused that mess that’s taking place topside or, at the very least, facilitated it. Our team leads suspect a mole but NSA was here for six months and didn’t find anything. Our computers are fried, our agents are angry, and somewhere in the mix, Colonel, we have a spy.”
“Well fuck,” Col. Brinkman said with a long, slow southern drawl. “Looks like I just inherited a shithouse full of problems, haven’t I?” He took a good look at Perry. “You’re former military, aren’t you?”
Perry instinctively stood at attention. “Yes sir. I was recruited as a Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corp, sir.”
Col. Brinkman chuckled. “I knew it. Once a Marine, always a Marine. I can spot ‘em anywhere. Lieutenant Hawkins, I’m reactivating your enlistment right now and giving you a field promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. You handle the mess here, I’ll handle the bullshit coming at us from the Pentagon. Deal?”
Perry smiled at his new commanding officer and saluted. “Deal, sir.”
It Can Always Be Worse
The backdoor was compromised first. First came a heavy gust of wind then what sounded like a small explosion outside. The door broke free of its hinges and floated toward the storage room swept along by a torrent of water that had been looking for somewhere to go. The water rushed from the back toward the front, quickly covering the entire shop in six inches of water with more coming in.
Reesie heard the front door squeak. Natalie, Reggie and Barry helped move the heavier furniture toward the door, stacking it on top of and around the chair that was already there. What none of them realized was that the door wasn’t the weakest point. With a crash of thunder, the giant display window fell and what had been six inches of water was now nearly three feet of water, which meant Adam, was floating, and he still hadn’t awakened.
Reesie and Reggie grabbed hold of Adam’s legs while everyone else started climbing onto table tops and the counter, looking for any safe space not covered in water. The four women at the back table were all crying now. The two at the bar top were standing in their chairs looking completely bewildered and helpless.
Reesie looked at Natalie and said, “I don’t suppose you’ve ever built a raft before, have you?”
Natalie smiled. Yes, actually, she had.