Editorial Note: Now we’re definitely into new territory. I’m curious how many of you will stay with me to the end. I’m also curious as to where the end might be. I’m writing rather extemporaneously so while I have some sense of where this ends, I don’t have details on how to get there. When I’m done, the whole thing could probably use good editing.
I’m also curious as to whether this format is preferable to a single non-fiction issue addressed each week. You know, there’s a comment section at the very bottom of the page that no one has ever used. You might give it a try, let me know which format you prefer. I’m not set up to spam people who comment, so you can feel relatively safe. I can’t promise that the NSA isn’t watching, though. One never knows with them.
It Can Always Be Worse
The backdoor was compromised first. Starting with 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. Three years ago she had written an article on surviving unexpected emergencies. One of those emergencies had been flash flooding. As part of her research, Natalie had learned how to make a raft from available materials without using a rope. She started looking around to see what might work. She would need three basic elements: a sturdy floor, something to keep that floor floating, and a way to hold it all together. This wasn’t going to be easy. As she looked around the coffee shop, Natalie realized not much here was capable of floating. The large tabletop at the back of the room was her best choice.
Turning to Ressie, Natalie asked, “Are the legs detachable from that table?”
“Yes! That’s perfect,” Reesie said. “There’s a large screwdriver on my desk in the office … or there was.”
The swirling water around them was growing deeper as massive amounts of rain continued to fall from the sky. Natalie swished her way through the water, glancing angrily at the bigger, taller men who were standing helplessly on the counter. “I’m going to need that table, ladies,” she said as she passed. ‘You might want to join the guys on the counter.”
The women whimpered as they crouched on the table and eased into the water. “I just spend $600 on these shoes,” one of the women complained.
“I should never have left home,” whined another.
Natalie rolled her eyes and kept moving. The small size of the office and the fact that its door had been closed had kept the things on top of Reesie’s desk intact. The screwdriver was exactly where it was supposed to be. Natalie also grabbed three extension cords used to power holiday decorations. They were as close to rope as she was likely to find. Now all she needed was something to keep the tabletop afloat.
Wading back into the main room of the coffee shop, Natalie handed the screwdriver to Carson, who was still griping about how inconvenient the situation was as he stood on top of the counter. “Here, grab one of the other guys and get that tabletop off its legs,” she ordered. She then waded over to where Reesie and Reggie were still trying to keep Adam afloat. She couldn’t believe he was still unconscious.
Reesie wasn’t sure how much longer she would be able to keep Adam from sinking. Not only was his body heavy, his clothes, which seemed more fitting for winter than late spring, were now completely waterlogged and weighing him down. She hated the thought of messing with anything, but at this point, she didn’t seem to have any choice. “Let’s get these coats off him,” she told Reggie. “They’re just weighing him down and making our job more difficult.”
Reggie nodded and they began struggling to remove the coats. While both of them had experience dressing sleeping children, the swirling water and Adam’s weight made this task much more difficult than either of them could have anticipated. The coats continually became stuck on every bend and curve in his body. Had they not already been completely soaked the task would have caused them to work up a sweat.
Natalie waded over and grabbed Adam’s shoulders in an attempt to help. “I need something large and floatable under the table to keep it afloat,” she said. “I don’t suppose you have any large chunks of styrofoam lying around, do you?”
Reesie laughed. “No, I guess that’s what I get for trying to be environmentally friendly.” She thought for a minute. “You know what, the water delivery guy hasn’t come yet this week. He was due this morning. There’s like six of those huge empty water bottles in the back if they’ve not already floated away.”
“That’s perfect,” Natalie said, excited to have found something so perfect. “Do you have any duct tape? I’ll need to cover the spouts.”
“File cabinet, second drawer,” Reggie answered.
“Fantastic,” she said as she waded off. As she passed the counter, she grabbed the mysterious man in black. “You’re coming with me,” she commanded. She was surprised at the authority she heard in her own voice. This was a new feeling and she was liking it.
The man carefully stepped down from the counter and they made their way toward the back room. A small, eight-foot-by-six-foot space at the back of the shop served as a kind of second seating area, though it could only hold about six people, max. Most of the time it was occupied by people working on laptops. It also served as temporary storage for whatever random material was on its way out the back door. Sure enough, there in the back corner, six large water bottles were bobbing in place, conveniently trapped by two chairs and a table. Natalie handed three to the mystery man. “You know, it would probably help if we had a name to call you, given the situation,” she said.
“D is good enough,” he said.
Natalie gave him an incredulous stare. “Look, if this rain keeps up, there’s every good chance all of us could die here. There’s no point in pretending to be all dark and mysterious.”
“Says the writer who uses four different pseudonyms,” he replied.
Natalie stood there with three large water bottles in her hands, water now up to her waist. Not even Darrell knew how many fake names she was using to navigate through the freelance system. “How the fuck did you know that?” she asked. “Have you been spying on me? On all of us?”
D turned and started walking toward the other room. “Let’s just say I have access to information most people don’t. It’s my job.”
“Interesting job,” Natalie replied, instantly not trusting the man.
They waded back toward the main room. Natalie stopped by the office long enough to grab the duct tape. By the time they made it back to the counter, Carson had the tabletop off its stand. Natalie and D helped turn it upside down and she began trying to determine how best to attach the empty water bottles. While covering the open spouts Natalie mentioned possibly using the duct tape. There seemed to be enough to do the job.
“Only for about ten minutes,” D warned. “This is moving water. Even the best duct tape is only going to hold for so long under such soaked conditions.”
Carson was feeling argumentative. He needed a way to vent his anger and D seemed an easy target. “Well then, Mr. Smarty Pants, just what the fuck would you suggest?”
D ignored him, refusing to look in Carson’s direction. “This table is designed for an extension, so it separates at the center. Pull it apart just a bit and use the extension cords to strap down the bottles. Then, make additional cords by twisting lengths of the duct tape together. That should do it.”
Natalie didn’t want to trust the man in black, but what he said seemed to make sense. It was certainly a better idea than anyone else had. They opened the center of the table just enough to weave the extension cords and twisted tape through then shut it back as tightly as they could before flipping the tabletop back over. To everyone’s joy, it floated.
Natalie and D guided the table-raft over to where Reesie and Reggie were holding on to Adam. Gently, they eased him onto the large table.
“There,” Reesie said, shaking the tension from her strained muscles. “At least he’s safe for now.”
“There’s room for another person on that table,” said one of the women on the counter. “Mom here isn’t doing especially well. Maybe she could get on there, too.”
All eyes turned to the four women standing on the counter. Sure enough, the eldest of them, a woman who appeared to be well into her 70s, her dress, and undergarments, completely soaked, was coughing and having difficulty breathing.
As Reesie and Natalie guided the raft over toward the counter, Amanda spoke up. “Wait, I want on there, too. There’s room, and I have small children depending on me to survive.”
“Yeah, well you’re not the only one,” Reesie snapped. “Your kids aren’t any more special than mine.”
“But you’re tall,” Amanda insisted. “Look at me, in a few minutes, this water is going to be up to my chin!”
Sure enough, the water was already over the top of the table at which she and Barry had been sitting and rising quickly.
Reesie looked around the room to see who was the shortest. The elderly woman and Amanda were the most at risk. “Okay, let me get her,” she said motioning to the woman on the counter, “then we’ll come get you.” She looked at Barry, “You think you can help her get up there?”
“No problem,” Barry said, giving Amanda a reassuring smile. He leaned over and whispered, “Remember, if all else fails, I float.”
With both the smaller women on the makeshift raft, Reesie looked at Natalie and offered her a high five. “We did it, girl,” she said.
Before Natalie could respond, there was a scream and a hard thump behind them. They turned quickly to find that one of the girls standing on the bar top had slipped and fallen. Making matters worse, her head had hit the corner of the table on her way down. A heavy flow of blood was mixing with the flood water as the young woman floated face down.
Reggie was the closest and quickly turned her over and picked her up in his arms, but doing so left him with no way to anchor himself against the strong current. He wasn’t going to be able to hold her and stay on his feet for long.
“Quick, put her on top of Adam,” Reesie said, not knowing what else to do. “We’ve got to stop the bleeding.”
Reggie carefully draped the young woman’s body across Adam’s. Amanda moved out of the way as best she could to avoid being covered in the blood.
Reesie looked at Reggie. “Towels,” she said.
“Fuck that,” Natalie said and she stripped off her shirt and placed it under the girl’s head. “Every second counts and anyone who hasn’t seen boobs before is just going to have to deal.”
Reesie smiled and removed her shirt as well, a move she knew would make the men uncomfortable as her ample breasts swayed just above the water. At this point, she didn’t care. Surviving was most important.
Nothing Ever Gets Done In Washington
The conference room at the Hilton Hotel in Tyson’s Corner was just far enough out of the beltway to not legally be in the District of Columbia yet close enough government officials could slip in and out without having to travel too far from their offices. Insiders knew it as the Washington Affair, the place where underpaid government workers slipped away for a quick rendezvous using IDs and credit cards that did not reveal their actual names. High-level administration officials knew to go further out toward Reston, or better yet past Dulles. It was too easy to get caught by random paparazzi all too anxious to hit tomorrow’s front page with a photo of a member of Congress or high-ranking administration official sneaking in with someone other than their spouse.
That wouldn’t be a problem this time. With everyone in a panic over the lack of communication, everyone was afraid to venture outside their office. Almost everyone had hunkered down in place for fear that the country was somehow being attacked. Tyson’s Coner was a quick drive.
Such short notice made it a little difficult for the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader to slip out of the Capitol, but then, both had considerable expertise at moving around undetected. Between the two of them, they had over 80 years of experience in Washington. While they were among the most easily recognizable faces in town, they also had security teams that rivaled that of the president. Getting them in and out of places without anyone knowing was part of the job of the Secret Service agents assigned to them.
Only seven minutes elapsed between the time Terri arrived and Senator Graham Norman of Louisiana walked through the door. In the interim, Roger and Speaker of the House Norma Watkins of Seattle had slipped in through back doors. General Lang had brazenly walked through the front door, but out of uniform, no one was likely to recognize him too quickly. No one expected the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in blue jeans and a Baylor University sweatshirt.
Once Senator Norman took his seat, a Secret Service agent closed the door, locking it behind him. There were no recording devices in the room. A thorough sweep had been done to make sure. When they left, no one would admit this meeting had ever taken place. With all the computer systems down, not even the hotel would have a record of the room ever being used.
The instant the lock on the door clicked, Sen. Norman began talking. “Look, I want it made very clear that I do not approve of the reason for this meeting. There is absolutely no way I am going to allow anyone, anywhere, anytime to unseat the duly and fairly elected president of these United States. This meeting is preposterous and the only reason I’m here is to prevent you idiots from trying something behind my back!”
The words had barely come out of his mouth when the lock on the door clicked again. All five of them startled at the sudden sound, then stood when Vice President Andrew Abernathy strode into the room.
Sen. Norman felt his jaw drop open but quickly rectified that faux paux by speaking. “Mr. Abernathy! Don’t tell me you are in on this attempted coup as well!”
The vice president looked at the senator a moment, his face set and stern. “Senator, as the last person in this room to have spoken with the president about this crisis, or at least, attempted to speak with the president about this crisis, I am probably more convinced than anyone that we have to do something to provide other leadership until we know what happened and our country is back on stable footing. I’m in favor of a temporary reduction in powers if we can legally find one, but at the end of the day, every last one of us took an oath the defend the Constitution, not the president.”
Sen. Norman was resolute and not willing to give any ground. Debate was what had gotten him where he was. “Mr. Abernathy, are you telling me, for sure, that our president is unable to uphold his oath of office? I find that opinion stupefyingly derisory and objectionably contemptible!”
Abernathy leaned in. He knew the senator’s habits and wasn’t about to give him the upper hand. Calmly, he said, “With all due respect, Senator, you don’t have all the facts in evidence. Let’s have a seat and I’ll tell you what just happened. The vice president pulled a chair back and sat down and the others did the same, Sen. Norman being the last to be seated.
Roger sensed a new urgency in the vice president’s voice and wanted everyone to hear the latest. “Mr. Vice President, I am concerned that there has been an additional incident. I thought the president was secured in his private quarters until we can figure out what happened.”
“He is,” the vice president confirmed. “He had sent a messenger to my office just before I was leaving to come here. The messenger said the president had an urgent need to speak with me so, naturally, I went there first. His only complaint, and I quote, ‘None of my stuff is working, Andrew. I get there’s a problem out there in the nation, but shouldn’t the president’s stuff be working? I mean, I have to send someone to the kitchen just to get a sandwich. No one’s answering their phones, either. Not Roger, not Graham, I had to send someone over to fetch you. And they won’t let me leave the residence. Something about national security, blah, blah, blah. Do something about this, Andrew. Form a committee or something.”
Everyone except Sen Norman chuckled at the vice president’s impersonation of the president.
VP Abernathy continued. “I asked him what he was going to do about martial law. He said that General Lang was handling it and that he expected it all to blow over by morning. I asked about the possibility that we had been attacked and he waved me off with, “Please, Andrew, no one on the planet is that stupid.” We’ve babysat him through a number of potential crisis, but this is the real things. Real lives are at stake. Millions of lives are at stake and Senator, it’s our party that’s going to take the blame if we allow this president to fuck everything up worse. We blow this right now, if we don’t replace him this instant, the GOP won’t be able to elect anyone to dog catcher for another twenty years or more. You can kiss your seat goodbye for sure.”
The vice president paused long enough to let the last bit sink in. He could see the softening on the senator’s face as he realized the truth of what the vice president had said.
Speaker Watkins spoke first. “Andrew, may I be informal here?”
The vice president nodded and smiled.
“Andrew,” she continued, “If we go through with this, there are those in your own party who are going to demand hearings and it would be almost impossible for me to stop them. My own party isn’t going to shy away from asking questions, either. We’ve gone over how this works. Congress has to approve the move within 21 days or it’s moot and, quite possibly, and you members of the Cabinet could be charged with treason. Are you convinced enough that there is sufficient evidence to convince all the people necessary?”
“Norma, I can, within 24 hours, submit the written opinion of 15 different doctors who have examined the president in some capacity, and are willing to state that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office as required by the Constitution.”
“But the president’s personal physician and the White House physician have both gone on record as stating otherwise,” Roger said. “The weight of their words is going to go further than 100 physicians without official capacity. “
Terri leaned forward to speak, “Can we, with or without physician compliance, enumerate specific Constitutional insufficiencies that would justify his removal from office, even temporarily? We have to consider public opinion, because they will eventually, somehow, find out and they will be very vocal if they feel we’ve pulled a fast one while the light was out, so to speak.”
“So what you’re telling me,” Sen. Norman started, his slow drawl pulling at the vowels of every word, “Is that we’re fishing for a critter we’re not sure can be caught. Even if we think we have sufficient evidence, and I’m still not totally convinced that we do, this whole thing could blow up in our faces.”
Andrew leaned back in his chair and sighed with exasperation. He didn’t like what the senator said but he knew it was true. One doesn’t just replace the president of the United States. They had to be dead certain of what they were doing. “We need the cooperation of myself and nine cabinet members, correct? What else do we need?”
“There are some interesting vagueries once we actually look at what the amendment says,” Norma said, opening a thick law book she had brought with her. “Listen to this carefully,”
“Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”
Looks were exchanged around the room. There were some massive holes that could potentially be manipulated if they were sufficiently careful.
Norma continued, “What I see is this: if we don’t have the willful cooperation of nine members of the Cabinet, we can call an emergency session of Congress and elect among ourselves another body of our own construction that will provide the necessary cooperation. Second, and I think this may be critical to getting Congressional approval, we can make this as permanent or temporary as we need. The Amendment says ‘Acting President,’ which implies to no small degree that either the elected president returns to office when sufficiently capable or that a new president is elected following the Constitutionally prescribed procedures.”
At this point, General Lang sat up and leaned into the table. “That’s assuming the country is in a position to have elections on time. Ladies and gentlemen, may I remind you that what is happening outside right now is not normal by any stretch of the imagination. No offense Mr. Vice President, but for all practical purposes, the president signed all authority over to me for the time being. And I don’t care who’s sitting in the White House, until that authority is revoked my only focus is to keep the people of this country safe. Ya’ll go messing around with replacing the president, that could easily set off riots that would just make bad matters worse. I’m all for ya’ll getting everything together and making sure you have everything you need, but you don’t make a move without my permission, do you understand? I can’t risk ya’ll starting a bunch of riots around the country. I don’t have the manpower for that.”
As if to underscore his statement, a military aid suddenly burst into the room and saluted the general. The general stood and returned the salute. “This had better be important,” Lang said, the robust voice booming in the empty room.”
“Yes sir,” the aide replied. “You need to know that in the past 30 minute, 27 airliners and 43 cargo planes fell from the sky without warning. No one is sure what happened. All were in route to the nearest available airport, per FAA instructions. Most made it, but not all. Sir, we have 70 planes down.”
There was a gasp that sucked all the air from the room. The general turned back to the table. “I need to go now. Remember what I said. Make all the preparations you want, but nothing happens until I say so.”
Wheels Flying Off The Wagon
Perry turned and walked back into the room where Claire and the green team were doing everything they could to try and get their equipment back online, or at least figure out what it wasn’t working. He watched for a couple of seconds then said to Claire, “Please tell me you have some good news, Ms. Fielding.”
Claire hated it when Perry used her last name. Not only did the way he emphasized the Ms. sound condescending, but Fielding was also her husband’s last name, one she planned to jettison as soon as the divorce was final. She also knew he only addressed her that way when he was under pressure to provide answers and right now she had no answers to offer him. “I have no news, good or bad,” she said. “We’ve looked at everything reasonably possible and nothing’s matching up. It wasn’t a nuclear EMP, we know that. We would have been able to simply restart most things if that were the case and there’s no way it could have affected the entire country like this has. In fact, it’s almost impossible that it was any kind of electromagnetic event at all. Engines would still be able to re-start. Replacing certain circuits or boards would allow computers to restart. None of that is working. None of that. This is more like a massive bolt of lightning from Thor’s hammer struck the center of the planet and blew everything up.”
Perry’s fingers reached instinctively for the top of his head again. “You mean to tell me that every piece of electronics in this $50 million lab is completely irreparable?”
Claire continued working on the motherboard in front of her. She removed a chip and showed Perry the scorch marks. “See those? Short of a direct lightning hit, and by direct I mean at the base of this machine, that should never, ever, ever happen. It did. It happened to every machine in this room, on this base, and from what we’re hearing, around the world at the same time. Now, pardon my language sir, but that’s one fucking massive lightning strike.”
Perry was still examining the chip Claire had given him when another Marine private came running into the lab. “Lt. Col Hawkins,” the private said, saluting, “Message from Col. Brinkman. He said that everyone should immediately take …”
The private didn’t have time to finish his warning. A massive explosion struck the lab, knocking everyone off their feet and opening a gaping hole in the side of the lab. Perry pushed a piece of drywall away and dusted himself off. The private, likewise, kicked away some debris and bounced to attention, awaiting Perry’s orders.
Claire, however, was not so lucky. The massive server that had been standing behind her was now on top of her, its memory cards having run completely through her body in multiple places. Perry motioned to the private to help him move the server’s case, but there was nothing anyone could do. He looked around the room. Three others were motionless under other pieces of equipment. He ran to each to check, but it was of no use.
Running out into the hall, Perry was met by Holly, whose lab was some thirty feet away from the blast. “What happened?” she screamed. “I thought we were supposed to be safe down here? What the fuck just happened?”
Perry shook his head. “I don’t know yet.” He was looking across the hall where Kenneth’s lab had been. There was nothing left but burning paper and magnetic tape, and not much of that. Holly followed his gaze and immediately slumped to the ground in tears.
Perry turned to the private. “I need a report and I need it now. I need to know what that was. I need to know how it got into my bunker, and I need to know what conditions are above ground and I need that information pronto, do you understand, private?”
“Aye, sir, right away sir,” came the automatic reply as the private ran off to find the answers.
Perry reached down and put his arm around Holly. “Is everyone on your team okay?” he asked.
She nodded affirmatively. “Everything rattled, a couple of things fell off the wall, but no one was hurt.” She looked up again at the smoldering remains of the blue team’s lab. “Oh my god,” she cried. “We were supposed to be safe here,” she whimpered.
“I know,” Perry said, trying to be comforting while staying alert. There was nothing in his immediate assessment that could assure him that there might not be another explosion. “I thought we were safe, too,” he said. “I thought we had taken every precaution, anticipated every threat.” He felt the moistness of a tear roll down his cheek. He had just lost two team leads and 14 technicians at the very least, not to mention potential casualties on the surface. Nothing about the start of this day could have possibly prepared him for what had happened. As tough as he needed to be, keeping his own emotions held back was a battle he might not be able to win.
Perry helped Holly to her feet and walked her back to the yellow team’s lab. “Keep everyone on your team right here. No one leaves for any reason until I personally come to get you. No one else. Unless I’m standing in this door, every one of you stays put.”
Holly nodded and shut the door as Perry turned and trotted toward the imposing hole that had taken out half the bunker. The scene before him looked like something out of a Hollywood movie. Jagged pieces of rebar, concrete, and steel were strewn everywhere. Where the entrance shaft had been, Marines were working frantically to remove the debris. Perry could only assume they were looking for people who had been in the shaft at the time of the explosion. He stepped over the various layers that were supposed to have provided them protection. The bunker was more than 180 feet underground. Normal ladders would not be long enough to get survivors out. They were stuck.
As he stepped into the full light, he could see that the bunker was not the only thing that had been damaged. There was smoke rising on either side of the installation, indicating that they were victims of an ariel attack. He wondered if the private he had sent in search of Col. Brinkman had found him yet, or if he could.
His answer came quickly enough as the colonel approached from behind a pile of rubble to Perry’s left. “Unintended consequences,” the colonel said. “One of the airforces B-2s just fell from the sky and landed on top of us. Unfortunately, he happened to be carrying a couple of GBU-57A MOPs and for reasons currently unavailable, they happened to be armed. He dropped them both seconds before the plane hit the ground. They shouldn’t have been able to go off, but they both did.”
Perry looked around at the destruction, surprised that any of them were alive. The GBU-57A was a 30,000-pound bomb commonly known as a “bunker buster.” They were specifically designed to take out munitions stores held in difficult to reach places, such as underground. Their bunker was supposed to have been deep enough to have withstood the impact of one. Obviously, someone had miscalculated.
“How many people did you lose?” Col. Brinkman asked.
“!4 that I know of. There could have been some in the shaft.” Perry said. “What about topside?”
“Somewhere between 30-40, I’m guessing. The first bomb hit outside the gate so there are civilian casualties as well. Don’t have a count on that yet, obviously.”
“This wasn’t a scenario we anticipated,” Perry said.
“This isn’t a scenario anyone would have anticipated,” Brinkman replied. “B-2s don’t fall out of the sky. Certainly not over their own soil. Never with their bombs armed.” The colonel sighed heavily. “I’m sure someone in Washington has an explanation and I’m sure I’m not going to like it.”
“Can we even communicate with Washington?” Perry asked.
The colonel shook his head. “No, the fucker took out the teletype, too. We’re out here on our own where nothing works and no one knows what to do. It’s like trying to drive a wagon with no wheels and a dead horse.”
Perry looked at the devastation around him. He had managed to avoid a combat assignment before, but now the combat seemed to have come to him. He didn’t feel prepared at all. “Colonel, request permission to arm everyone who has had weapons training. Not all our agents are ex-military, but a number of them are and several of those who weren’t have had handgun training for the field. I’d like to make sure everyone who can handle a weapon has one.”
Brinkman looked carefully at Perry before responding. “That’s an interesting request, Mr. Hawkins,” the colonel replied. “First of all, I’m not sure how many personal munitions we have left at this point. Second, exactly what is it that makes you think your people need to be armed?”
“Remember what I told you about the possibility of a mole?” Perry asked.
“Yeah, but you said NSA couldn’t find anything,” Brinkman answered.
Perry paused to measure his words carefully. “Yes sir, but since nothing here today is something we might have or could have anticipated, what about the possibility that our mole had someone at NSA covering for him, making sure he didn’t get outed? I know that’s unreasonable under normal conditions, but sir, MOPs are designed to explode at an altitude of 200 feet above the ground. From what you’re telling me, that B-2 was below that deck. Those bombs should not have detonated. Something’s wrong. Our people need weapons.”
The colonel nodded. “Sound reasoning. Scary as fuck and I hope to god you’re wrong, but in this situation, it’s sound. My only concern is what if you’re handing a gun to the mole as well. Couldn’t more people get hurt?”
“At least this way we have a fighting chance, sir.” Perry said.
“Very well, let’s see what we’ve got. Outfit former military first. No one who hasn’t been sufficiently trained. Make it happen.”
And The Water Rises
Reggie returned with an armload of towels that were only slightly wet. Natalie and Reesie’s shirts were already soaked in the girl’s blood. They tossed the shirts into the water and Reesie used the towels in an attempt to clot the blood, but nothing they did seemed to be helping. The blood was draining from her body quickly. Her face had already gone pale.
Natalie looked up at the other girl, sobbing on top of the small bar table. “What’s her name?”
“Macy. Macy Gavin,” the girl said. “Yesterday was her birthday. I was going to take her to lunch to celebrate.”
Natalie leaned in. “Macy, if you can hear me, hang in there. You’re going to pull through this. It’s going to be okay.”
Looking up, she saw D standing toward the back door. He looked at her and shook his head. She looked back down at Macy and checked for a pulse. There was nothing. Reesie checked the girl’s carotid artery. Nothing there. They looked at each other, neither one wanting to say what they knew to be true.
“No! No! She can’t be dead!” the other girl screamed. “No! Please!”
Reesie looked at Reggie. “Go clean off the top of the file cabinets. Just toss the papers. No one is going to be wanting to see those now anyway. It’s all just part of the insurance claim that they’re not going to want to pay. We can put her in there and hopefully, she’ll be safe until we can find an authority of some kind.”
“Assuming there is any authority left,” Carson said morosely as he gazed at the front window where the water inside was finally level with the water outside, but all of it was still rising.
They floated the raft toward the hallway as far as they could, then Reggie, Carson, and D took the girl’s lifeless body and struggled to set it carefully on top of the row of file cabinets.
“Should we say something,” Carson asked.
Reggie shoved the cantankerous man. “This isn’t a funeral, dummy. Just be respectful, okay?”
By the time the men came back out, Reesie had used the towels to form bandeau tops for herself and Natalie, though she doubted they would do much good once they got soaked. They waded over to the bar top and helped the other girl get safely down and into the water.
“What’s your name, dear?” Reesie asked.
“Marti, er, Martina, actually. Martina Espanoza” came the reply. She sniffed back another sob and asked, “Can I stay with her? I don’t want her to be left alone.”
“Sure, baby,” Reesie said, trying to be as reassuring as possible. “Come with me and we’ll fix up a place for you in there.”
While Reesie took Marti back to the office, Barry, Carson, D, and Reggie were all gathered where the front window used to be, visually measuring the water level.
“It’s not any more shallow out there than it is in here,” Carson said.
“Yeah, but at least out there you’re not going to be trapped by a ceiling,” Barry replied. “This room is already more than half full. We’re about to hit a point where being able to float doesn’t matter.”
“There’s the current out there, though. One misstep and it drags you under,” Carson argued. “I’m sure both the dikes upstream on the creek have already given way. There’s nothing to stop the flow of water.”
“But you have a chance,” Bary insisted. “In here, there aren’t any options. Once the water reaches the ceiling, we’re done.” He looked back at the narrowing gap in the window. “I can barely fit through that gap now. Another thirty minutes and we’re all going to have trouble. I say we go now, take everyone with us.”
Natalie had waded up at the end of the conversation. “Do you think we can still get the raft through there?” she asked. “I don’t’ want to leave anyone behind who still has a chance.”
“What about three women still on the counter?” Reggie asked. “None of them are all that tall. The water may be close to being over their heads already.”
“We need a way to tie everyone together,” Natalie said. “That way we can help those who are shorter and are going to struggle more. Are there any more towels left?”
Reggie shook his head. “None that are dry, and trying to tie wet bar towels is a waste of time.”
Reesie noticed the crowd by the window and waded toward them. “What’s going on up here?” she asked.
“We need to get everyone out before we get trapped,” Barry said. “We can use the window, but we don’t have much time. The raft isn’t going to fit through the gap 20 minutes from now.”
Reesie looked back at the raft bobbing by the hallway door then at the gap between the water and the top of the window frame. “I agree,” she said firmly. “The shop’s a complete loss. We need to get everyone out now before we lose anyone else. The question is, where do we go and how do we keep everyone safe? We don’t know how bad the flooding is elsewhere.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause as everyone tried to think of a safe option. “My place, Holiday Manor” Natalie finally said. “I’m on the fourth floor. If it floods the whole planet is gone. It’s downstream, so we should be able to get there even in high water in about 30 minutes if we can keep everyone together.”
“Isn’t that across the creek?” Carlson asked. “How are we going to know when we’re still on the road or wading directly into the stream?”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “The street is lined with those decorative lamp posts, remember? Stay between those and you’ll know you’re on the bridge. Besides, I walk that path every day. I could do it in the dark.”
Reesie looked back at the shop, thinking of all she had invested here, both in finances and hard work. She hated the thought of abandoning it. There was no way there would be enough insurance money to rebuild. Burns Coffee had been struggling when she took it over and now, every day, it had grown stronger. She had been proud of what she had done here. And she still would be, even if it became nothing more than another line on her resume.
Turning back to the group, Reesie said, “Okay, let’s go for it. Get any personal belongings if you have any. I’ll get Marti from the back. Reggie, Carson, and D, you help the women on the counter. They may need to ride on your shoulders. Barry, you and Natalie have the raft. Let’s go.”
Natalie looked up at the shelf where her laptop was sitting. There was no way of getting it home safely now. Most of the files were backed up on the cloud anyway. She could get a new laptop. Maybe. She grabbed hold of one side of the raft and headed for the window.
Reesie waded into the office and looked at Marti. “It’s time to go,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
The girl sobbed, kissed Macy’s forehead, and slipped off the file cabinet into Reesie’s waiting arms. “Will she be safe there,” Marti asked.
“As safe as anywhere,” Reesie said. “What’s important right now is that we get you to a safe place. Do you think you can walk?”
Marti nodded and slipped fully into the water. It was up to her shoulders.
They waded toward the front of the shop and joined the others. No one looked confident. Of the three women who had been on the counter, only one was tall enough to walk on her own. They all looked scared. The older woman on the raft was having trouble breathing. Amanda kept moving around, trying to avoid falling off the raft. Adam was still asleep.
With everyone standing around looking at each other, Reesie took charge. “Barry and Natalie take the raft out first, then the women, guys, and I’ll close up. Try to hold onto the raft somewhere if you can without weighing it down. Use it as a guide, not a crutch. Natalie knows where we’re going so follow her.”
Everyone nodded their agreement. Barry and Natalie slipped through the window first then pulled the raft out behind them. Amanda had to duck to keep from hitting the top window sill. The instant everyone stepped out of the coffee shop, they felt the tug of the current flowing rapidly downstream. Natalie was careful to try and stay where she knew the sidewalk would be. There were cars parked along the curb, the tops of a couple were still visible, but they would make for slippery, uneven footing. It was better to stay away.
Reesie took one last look at the Burns Coffee shop. Tears stung her eyes and then rolled down her cheeks. Everything she had wanted was in that shop and now it was all gone. She turned and caught up with the rest of the group, confident that there would be a better day.
When No One Is In Charge
Terri and Roger decided to risk sharing a car back to the White House. They correctly assumed that at this point traffic in and out of the North entrance was so heavy that no one would notice. As soon as the black SUV pulled away from the curb, Terri started talking. “That certainly didn’t go anything like what I expected. Yes, I expected Senator Norman to object, but I forgot that General Lang is actually the one in charge now and we totally left him out of the conversation.”
Roger sighed. “Don’t think Travis’ feelings were hurt. If he had wanted to say anything he would have spoken up. He’s right. We’re under martial law and as such he has a responsibility to keep the country from getting any worse than it already is. We have to tread carefully with this and he understands the dirty underbelly of political backlash better than most of us do. He’s had to navigate that mess his entire career and he’s where he is now because he’s good at avoiding unnecessary controversy. We’re not leaving him out of the loop, that’s for damn sure.”
Terri sat back and looked out the tinted windows. Traffic was light as travel had already been limited to emergency and government vehicles only. Not that anyone could go anywhere. Traffic lights were still out and there were still a number of stalled cars sitting in the middle of roads. Terri thought the SUV felt a bit like the inside of a carnival ride and it swerved in and out around the stalled vehicles. At one turn, Terri could see storm clouds forming in the West. She worried that might be an apt metaphor for what was coming later in the day.
“So, what do you want to do when we get back? Just pretend like it’s every other Tuesday? Go on with the normal schedule?
Roger nodded. “Yeah, this is just another Tuesday. We can’t appear to be panicking even if we are. We hold regular press briefings even if communications are still down. We’ll give them the information we have, which isn’t much, and let them worry about how to get that to their readers or viewers. Our job is only to provide information. Dissemination is their responsibility.”
“Which means the general public might know what is going on within a week,” Terri quipped.
Roger thought a second before replying. “Maybe. I think everyone will figure out a way to get things back up and running before then, even if they have to replace a lot of stuff. There are redundant systems on top of redundant systems. It should simply be a matter of finding the right combination of systems that are still operational. I think they’ll be back up in two days, max, and then people are going to have a lot of questions.”
“Maybe by then we can have some answers,” Terri said.
“I certainly hope so,” Roger replied, “because at the moment the only thing I know is that everything is falling apart.”
The remainder of the trip was made in relative quiet. Terri noted how odd it seemed to not have a cell phone constantly buzzing in her pocket. Roger wondered how his kids in Minnesota were doing. The two weren’t especially close friends. They hadn’t known each other until the president’s election campaign and there they had often butted heads. Work forced them together but there was never any desire to “hang out” and get to know each other.
Sure enough, no one gave a second thought to the site of the president’s press secretary and chief of staff arriving at the White House in the same vehicle. There were a string of black sedans and SUVs lined up at the North gate ferrying officials back and forth between offices scattered all over the DC area. The outage highlighted how truly dependent the government had become on digital forms of communication.
The same thing was taking place at the Capitol building, where members of Congress were having to rush back and forth to hastily arranged meetings that would have earlier that day ben handled either by email or, preferably, a text message. The House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader arrived at separate entrances but no one cared. With communications plunged into chaos, reporters that normally watched the entrances like hawks had largely dispersed. Those that remained were still trying in vain to get their equipment to work.
Terri and Roger took different paths once they entered the White House. Terri had barely taken two steps down the hall leading to her office when Carli met her looking frantic.
“Let me guess, the situation has gotten worse,” Terri sighed.
Carli matched the Press Secretary’s pace as they walked toward her office, a space that was barely larger than a closet. “We’re getting unconfirmed reports that every hydroelectric dam in the country may have failed. If so, hundreds of small towns could be swept away, millions could die, and within a couple of days we could have a significantly different coastline along the Gulf.”
“That certainly ratchets things up a notch,” Terry said. “How reliable are these reports?”
“That’s the problem. We’re not sure,” Terry said. “These are landline communications so the sources can’t be quickly confirmed nor can the situations. The Department of Interior is asking the Air Force to do a flyover, but the Pentagon has all their aircraft grounded until they’re sure it’s safe for anyone to be up in the air. They’re not disclosing the number of planes or servicemen they’ve lost.”
“Well fuck.” Terri cursed, hoping that the reports weren’t true. Her parents lived downstream from one of those damns. “Aren’t most of those dams Corp of Engineers projects in the first place?” Terri asked.
Carli paused for a second. “I’m not sure but I can have someone check. Do we say anything?”
“No, leave that out of the next press briefing. We have more rumors than we have facts at this point so I’m going to have some very frustrated reporters on my hand. Let’s not give them more rope with which to hang me later.”
Carli nodded and scurried off.
Roger waived off a number of people shouting, “Mr. Mukaski!” as he walked toward his office. Before stepping into his office, he turned and addressed the growing crowd. “Look, you probably know more than I do at this point. We’re doing our best to confirm what we can and Terri will have a press briefing at noon just like she does every day. In the meantime, we’re working on everything all at once, trying to keep the government working and address as many of the concerns as we can. Now please, let me get some work done. Save the rest of your questions for Terri.”
“Mr. Mukaski, is it true the president has abdicated power to the military?” shouted someone from the pack.
Roger felt his face flush with anger. “The president has abdicated nothing. He has invoked martial law in an effort to maintain peace and provide a coordinated point through which problems can be addressed. As Commander in Chief of the military, that means he’s still very much in charge and is being kept informed of everything that’s happening.”
“Then why is he being held captive in the residence?” shouted another voice. “We’re being told he’s not allowed to leave.”
“He has been requested to stay in the residence until we are quite sure there is no imminent threat to his life,” Roger shouted back. “You know this president; he’s going to do what he wants to do. If he wants to leave the residence he’ll leave the residence. We’d rather he didn’t just yet, though. The lack of communications makes the entire White House a bit vulnerable, including each of you.”
He turned and slipped into his office as the crowd of reporters and staffers murmured behind him. “Tina, don’t let anyone who’s not a senior member of the president’s staff get past that door,” he ordered.
“Yes sir,” she replied.
Roger walked into his office and closed the door behind him. Already there was a stack of messages from nearly all of the Cabinet secretaries wanting to meet with the president. Every area of government was being affected and no one was sure exactly what to do. He pulled a stack of official letterhead from a drawer in his desk and a pen from inside his suit coat to reply to the messages. He had just started writing the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development when he heard a loud scuffling and then a scream outside his office. He put down the pen and walked to his office door, opening it just enough to ask, “Tina, can you ask them to hold it down out there, please?”
Before she had time to respond, the outer door burst open and a random staffer declared, “Special Agent Biscane was just found inside a closet in the basement. He’s been shot.”
Take Me To The River
Nothing about walking through flood waters in the midst of pouring rain was easy. Every step contained the possibility of stepping on something sharp, tripping over something unexpected, or a change in terrain that put the water above one’s head. The water level on the sidewalk was nearing five feet which meant that at street level it was more like 5’ 4”. Had the current not been so strong, swimming might have been safer than trying to walk. As it was, though, losing one’s footing was an almost-certain death sentence.
Water swirled around the drenched baker’s dozen, their combined presence making for a significant obstacle to the natural flow of the runoff. Barry, Reesie, Reggie, and Carlson were on the upstream side of the table, taking the brunt of the oncoming water. The current was constant pressure on their bodies, attempting to knock them out of the way. For perhaps the first time in his life, Barry’s weight was an advantage, giving him the ability to maintain firm footing as he guided the makeshift raft forward. Reggie and Carlson both had women on their shoulders, however, and that made them extremely unstable. Each step threatened to pull them under. Reggie was making do by shuffling his feet, never letting them leave the ground any more than absolutely necessary. Carlson, however, encumbered by his heavy black wingtip dress shoes, had more difficulty and nearly fell twice before the group reached the street corner.
At 6’ 3”, Reesie was the tallest of the group and also the most physically fit. The water barely seemed to notice her as it passed her body and splashed into the water bottle at her side. Her cross trainers had been soaked for so long she no longer gave any thought to the added weight they placed on her feet. Like Reggie, she shuffled carefully, alerting Carlson to any crack or bump that might cause him problems.
On the other side of the table, Natalie, Marti, and D were having a slightly different experience. Displacement by the others and the raft didn’t completely mitigate the pressure from the current, it just meant they were feeling it at their knees rather than their chests. Water flowing rapidly under the table made forward movement difficult and as a result, the raft tended to turn as they fell slightly behind the pace of the others.
For Natalie and Marti, the water level was at their shoulders. Keeping a grasp on the table was difficult. To lean on the craft risked a weight imbalance resulting in their feet being swept out from under them. At the same time, holding on to either the wood top or the plastic water bottles required a level of effort that had their hands cramping in a matter of minutes. Making matters worse, Marti had been wearing flip flops. As much as she tried to hold on with her toes, the footwear left her quickly after they stepped into the flood, leaving her barefoot and in perpetual danger.
Sitting atop the table, Amanda constantly moved to try and stay as much toward the center of the raft as possible, even if that meant putting parts of herself on top of Adam’s body. She was already considering him dead and, while that thought made her sad, it did not diminish her instinct for survival. She knew that if she were to slip off the table for any reason, she would drown. She was too small, her clothes too heavy, and she never had been a strong swimmer in the first place. Staying atop the table was a priority and she didn’t care who or what she had to sacrifice to do so.
Amanda looked across the table at the ailing woman on the other side. The elderly woman’s sodden body was huddled down between Adam’s left arm and his body. Her once-white dress and dripping gray hair left her looking like little more than waterlogged newsprint that coughed. Her shivering was nonstop and the compassion that Amanda normally felt briefly wished that she could cover the woman with a warm, dry blanket. There was nothing dry about their circumstances, though, and compassion took a back seat to durableness. Amanda knew she was being a bitch but at this moment she didn’t care. She had children. Survival was not an option.
Only D seemed to not have any difficulty navigating the water. He was about an inch or so shorter than Reesie and possibly just as fit. His black suit, despite being full of water, still looked impeccable. His short-cropped dark hair fell perfectly in place despite the wind. He seemed totally unflappable and completely out of place in the group. He was also the only one smiling which might have upset the others had anyone noticed but as he was at the back of the group and everyone was focused on their own forward movement, no one bothered to look.
Debris of every kind filled the water, from sticks and twigs to fast food containers and bicycles and anything else that had not been securely fastened to the ground. A snow cone stand that had sat for decades on a corner just North of the coffee shop had escaped and was now caught in the low forked branches of a tree. Lightweight outdoor furniture from the patios of nearby apartments floated downstream as though they were enjoying a mid-morning cruise.
Rain continued to fall in torrents, the wind driving the water against the bodies of the hapless crew with all the force of a fire hose. Vision was blurry to the point that Carson could barely make out the shadow of Barry’s figure at the front of the raft. Every step was taken in caution, slowing their movement to barely more than a crawl. Ten minutes passed before they made it to the street corner.
Being on the South side of the buildings offered momentary relief from the strength of the wind but now the current, instead of hitting them from the side, buffeted them from both front and back as it flowed around the corners of the building. Natalie could hear Marti whimpering behind her and correctly assumed that her feet were already bleeding and raw. She wanted to help but couldn’t think of a solution that didn’t somehow put them both in greater danger. They were moving against the current. To stop meant getting swept away.
Ahead, Natalie and Barry began to make out the outline of the lamp posts on the bridge. Quietly, Natalie did a quick count: one, two, three, four, five … she strained to see further. Yes, there were six. While the curved structure of the bridge would offer some relief from the depth of the water, Natalie was also very much aware of the structure’s age. She had seen city engineers out several times that Spring going over the bridge, making minor repairs, and constantly inspecting it. She worried whether it might hold up against the onslaught it was now facing.
Each step felt like an eternity and as they emerged from behind the buildings the full force of the wind pummeled them again, forcing them to each huddle down, staying as close to the raft as possible, using whatever they could to protect their faces.
For the women desperately clinging to Reggie and Carlson, the sudden return of the wind nearly knocked them both off their perch. As they involuntarily lunged to one side, the men holding them up struggled to maintain their balance. Wrapping their arms around the men’s foreheads and leaning forward took some of the weight off the men’s shoulders and protected their faces a bit from the rain. Balance was a problem, though, as the top-heavy condition to which they’d already adapted was now more condensed, forcing them to consciously lean back to keep from tumbling forward into the water.
Reesie couldn’t help thinking how this felt similar to the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. She had just turned 20 and rushed home from college to help her mother move to higher ground before the storm hit but that still didn’t save them from having to deal with high water and torrential rain. Afterward, her mother had insisted on returning home. The cleanup took months and none of the promised financial aid had ever arrived. She wasn’t going to get her hopes up for any help this time. She was just hoping to survive.
Calculating The Risk
Perry looked up at the gaping hole in his bunker, the place he had, until a few short minutes ago, considered impenetrable. He had even suggested that it might be a closer alternative to the NORAD facility inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado should the president ever need to be evacuated. After all, the bunker was only a 30-minute helicopter ride from the White House.
“Shit,” Perry thought out loud, “if things are this bad here, what’s going on at the White House?” He looked at his watch. 72 minutes had passed since the failed test. He had expected Special Agent Biscane to be back long before now, or to at least call. Obviously, he wasn’t back and cell phone communications weren’t possible. He worried whether the White House had been attacked in a similar fashion as the bunker. The White House was secure from minor weapons but bombs like the ones dropped here would completely decimate the historic structure and likely kill most of those inside. Still, he reasoned, there had been enough time before the attack for the Pentagon to have warned him had there been any previous incident. Now, there was no way to know.
Looking around, Perry knew the next question was how to get out of the bunker now that the entrance/exit shaft had been destroyed. All munitions were kept topside for safety reasons. Regulations prevented anyone from carrying a weapon into the bunker. Topside, however, was 150 feet up. He was going to need more than a ladder.