Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop, Pt. 4

Editorial Note: I’ve reached a point where keeping the separate sections/chapters around 1,500 words is difficult and when those run long the whole post runs long. We’re at 11,332 words this week. All total, so far, we’re looking at roughly 42,000 or so words for the whole thing. If you’ve not yet started the story, you’ll want to go back and begin here.

Thank you for sticking with the story this far! We’ve not serialized anything like this ever before and it really puts the entire website in a different genre. I know anything over 1,000 words is considered a long read and each week we exceed that by ten times or more. Please, keep reading, and I really wouldn’t mind if you shared. Now, let’s see what’s going on down in that bunker, shall we?

Calculating The Risk

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.

Perry wondered how many people topside were still alive. Col. Brinkman has estimated 30-40 Marines killed with more civilian casualties on top of that. Of those still living, how many were wounded and unable to help in any significant way? Without any form of communication, it was impossible to know what their options might be.

Looking over at those working on the shaft, he knew that would be the one safe way out if they could ever get it open, but at the moment, with massive pieces of concrete and steel lying on top of it, that didn’t seem like it would be available expeditiously. Not only was removing the rubble going to be difficult, but there were also bodies under there that needed to be treated with respect.

Perry looked around at the carnage and felt a wretching deep in his stomach. 15 years of work. 15 years of relationships. All that he had done and it was gone in a matter of minutes. The experiment had not only failed but, from what he could tell, had brought catastrophic consequences to the entire country, if not the whole world. He had done this. HE was responsible even if nothing that had happened was intentional on his part. There would be no rectifying this. Too many lives were lost. His work had inadvertently changed the face of the world.

Standing in the midst of the rubble, he became aware of the smell surrounding him; a mixture of concrete dust, jet fuel, and charred human flesh. His stomach wretched. His dark suit that had been blue when he put it on that morning was now a pallid gray. In the air hung minuscule flakes of unrecognizable material, perhaps drywall, or paint, or pieces of human flesh, the remnants of those he had promised to keep safe.

Perhaps in a more private moment, he would shed multiple tears and grieve for what was lost but right now he still had a responsibility to those who survived, who were frightened and grieving on their own. He also had a responsibility to a traitor, the person who had sold them all out for reasons he didn’t yet understand. Perry knew that he alone would have to be the person to find that mole and believed to his core that the person wanted to be caught, wanted someone to step in and stop what was happening.

All the different thoughts flooding Perry’s brain at that moment were disturbed as a body harness secured to a rope nearly hit him in the head as it dropped into the cavern created by the explosion. Around the perimeter of the cavity, other harnesses fell. At the top stood a group of Marines in hastily assembled combat gear. They may not have known exactly what was happening or who was in charge, but they did know they had to take action and had secured the ropes to safely lift anyone who had survived.

Perry slipped into one of the harnesses, tightening it in all the places that, of necessity, make a harness uncomfortable. He tugged twice on the rope and felt the pull and momentary loss of control as his feet left the ground. His mind flashed back to basic training and Parris Island so many years ago. His body instinctively responded by gripping the rope hand over hand, leaning in and tucking his legs under him.

Riding up would be easy. Actually getting up, over the threshold would be the challenging part. There would be no way to know whether the material that had been at the top of the bunker was stable enough to hold his weight. The Marines pulling him up had stayed well away from the edge. As he reached the top, he grabbed hold of a piece of rebar extended from the concrete and pulled himself up onto the surface, lying still to see whether it was going to hold. Rising cautiously to his hands and knees, he crawled to the nearest Marine who helped him to his feet.

Once Perry was standing, the Marine took a step back and stood at attention. “Lieutenant Santino Rodriguez, sir, at your service.”

Perry dusted himself off then saluted, “Lieutenant Colonel Perry Hawkins. Are you the senior person up here?”

“No sir,” Lt. Rodriguez answered as he returned the salute. “Staff Sargeant is team lead and there are other officers back at base command. Someone said they saw Col. Brinkman down in the hole as well, sir”

Perry nodded. “I can confirm that,” he said as he looked around at the damage to what was supposed to have been a top secret base. Wreckage from the B-2 was still strewn across the field around him, pieces of debris still smoldering, small fires still burning around the torn trimming of the fuselage pieces surrounding him. Modern B-2s only required a two-person crew: a pilot and a mission commander. A high level of automation provided the pilot with near-real-time information and the target status. For a wreck like this to have been possible, either massive systems failure had occurred or the plain had been damaged. There was almost no way the crew could have taken all the systems offline manually without it being noticed wherever their control base was located.

“I assume there was no warning prior to the crash,” Perry said.

“No sir,” the lieutenant responded. “Our only warning was the second between the bombs dropping and the plane hitting the deck, sir. We had no warning nor response time.”

Looking down into the crater caused by the bomb, Perry was still surprised that more damage hadn’t been done. GBU-57As were designed to root out terrorists hiding deep in the caves of Afghanistan. The fact that anyone in that bunker had survived left him feeling uncomfortable for reasons he couldn’t yet explain. Not that anything about this entire situation made a lick of sense in the first place, but he had seen the full-scale damage one of those bombs could do and what lay below him was less than half the destruction there should have been. Something was off.

“Sir, do we need to send down rescue teams to evacuate survivors?” Lt. Rodriguez asked. His voice snapped Perry’s attention back to reality.

“Yes,” Perry answered. “There are four remaining in Lab B, 18 in Lab A, but they’re under orders to wait until I come and get them. They need to come up and remain housed as a single unit. I’m the only one who debriefs them on any level. No visitors and no one leaves. Understood, Lieutenant?”

Rodriguez confirmed, “Absolutely, sir. All together, total sequestration. Permission to assemble a team under your command, sir.”

Perry nodded. “Go. Bring me the best we have.”

“Sir, aye sir,” the Marine said as he saluted.

Perry returned the salute as the Marine ran off to assemble a team. He knew the young man would choose his buddies, people from his outfit that he trusted. Marine units are close-knit groups committed to having each other’s backs.

Protecting Holly and her team was paramount, but it still bothered Perry that he didn’t have any way of knowing whether the mole was in her team or one of the others. For all he knew, the mole might have been killed in the explosion. The uncertainty was troubling, though, and until he knew the threat had been eliminated there was no choice but to act as though someone was still trying to destroy them—and the entire United States.

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

They all might as well have been blind for all practical matters. As rain battered against the faces of the 13 who had left the coffee shop holding onto a makeshift raft, they were making their way more by feel than by sight. Even if they had been able to see it wouldn’t have helped much. The water was over four and a half feet deep now. Half the group was struggling to keep their heads above water. For the three women precariously perched on the shoulders and hunched over the heads of Reggie, Carlson, and D, every move by their host threatened to plunge them into the swift current of the flood water.

At the foot of the small bridge, Natalie was beginning to wonder if there was any chance of them all making it to her apartment. Until now, she had been ferociously guarding her hope for their survival, pushing back any thought of despair. Now, however, she realized for the first time that, slight as it might be, there was an arch to the bridge. Finding footing through the dark waters had been difficult coming across the sidewalk and onto the rapidly disintegrating street. Adding any degree of slope made the journey over the bridge treacherous.

Natalie tried wiping some of the water from her eyes as she looked for the lamp posts she knew were there. All she could see were blurred gray shadows she hoped were the street lamps. She looked over at Barry who was close enough to touch but whose features were still blurred by the rain. They nodded to each other and began to pull the raft forward.

For Barry, the danger of the bridge was not knowing whether the entire deck was still intact. Asphalt in the road was rapidly eroding against the relentless pressure of the water. In theory, he knew, the water level on the bridge should go down. Typically, there were over ten feet of space between the bottom of the bridge and the normally shallow creek beneath it. For all the years he had been using the Burns Coffee shop as a meeting place, he had never known it to be more than a couple of feet deep, and that had only been after the most severe of rains.

Today was different from anything Barry had ever experienced and as he struggled to gaze ahead he instinctively knew that the natural canyon carved by the creek was well beyond its boundaries. Were it not, the current would have rushed toward the recess. As it were, everything was flowing downstream, ignoring that there had ever been any creek there at all. As he felt the slope of the incline beneath his feet he worried. The bridge was made of concrete and steel but it was certainly not a recent construction. In fact, he tried to remember, was it last summer or the summer before when the bridge had been closed while repairs had been made? There could easily be a massive hole in the middle of the bridge and there would be no way to tell until they disappeared into it.

Ressie looked at Adam’s body being pelted by the rain. His body was soaked to the point now that his physical features were embarrassingly apparent. If he had indeed had a stroke or some other coma-inducing event, all this rain had to be making conditions worse. She wished she could have done more to protect him.

At the same time, the practical part of her brain wondered if she had done the right thing in attempting to save him. If in saving him, her brain reasoned, the rest of them perished in conditions they would not have otherwise known, had she possibly doomed them all? She hated ethical dilemmas like this for there were arguably no correct answers. In college, any situation her ethics professor had given them seemed to create more problems rather than solving anything. Doing the “right thing” was never clear cut nor without potentially deadly consequences. Reesie had long reasoned that it was best to do what was right at the moment because consequences would be waiting on the other side no matter what one did. Rarely had that reasoning been incorrect.

Hunkered down on the table next to Adam’s right leg, her face hidden from the rain that was beating fiercely on her small body, Amanda was thankful that, at the very least, none of the others could see her bawling. With every cell of her body, Amanda was regretting having ever left home this morning. She kept telling herself that she shouldn’t have been so aggressive in trying to grow her business. She had children. They had enough money already, they didn’t need her to make more. Her greed had pushed her out of the house, away from her husband, and her babies. She had been wrong, she knew, and she promised herself that if she made it out of this alive that she would stay home and never leave her babies with someone else again.

Four-year-old Devin was at the top of her mind. Elise and Alexander were at school. There would be people looking out for them and schools would be the first place rescue services would go. Plus, the school was built on a hill. They might not even have the flooding she was currently experiencing. Bruce would be okay. He worked on the 14th floor of a tall office building. Nothing would be able to get to him, but at the same time, he was as stranded up there as she was on the table. Devin, though, her baby, she had left with a sitter. Sure, Sarah seemed like a nice person and she knew she wouldn’t just abandon the baby and run away, but did she have the common sense necessary to keep them both alive under these conditions? Was the house flooded? Sure, they could go upstairs but there was no food upstairs and Devin could be annoyingly fussy when he was hungry. Leaving home this morning had been the most selfish thing she had ever done. Amanda was sure of it.

Carson struggled under the weight of the woman on his shoulders. He didn’t even know her name. He didn’t especially care that she had a name. More than once, every time her weight had made it difficult for him to find and keep his footing, he had considered lunging to one side or the other and letting her fall off. What did he care? None of them were likely to survive to wherever the hell that girl was taking them. This day was going to be the end of him, he was certain. It had started bad right from the moment he opened his eyes and there was little chance of it ending any better than it had started. He saw no reason to care about anything or anyone.

Yet, Carson knew there was someone he cared about. He had a wife, Carolyn. He had kids and yeah, they were both teenagers almost grown and anxious to get out of the house, but he still loved them. Their names were Carly and Bruce. As Carson tried in vain to see anything past the form of Reggie’s body in front of him, he wondered how they were, would they miss him, would his death even change their lives. He had life insurance that should pay off the mortgage at least. He could give them that. He certainly hadn’t given them much else.

Slowly, the group began inching their way up the subtle incline of the bridge. Any other time, under any other circumstances, most of them wouldn’t have felt any incline here at all, it was so slight. Now, though, it might as well have been a mountain, another obstacle in this constant challenge to survive through conditions none of them had ever imagined having to endure. The rain, the wind …

WHAM!

Out of nowhere, the entire bridge shook, having been hit on its North side. They all looked in the direction of the strike but could see nothing with the rain directly in their faces. They could feel the bridge move, though, as whatever had come into contact with the bridge had jarred it sufficiently to separate the steel undergirding from its center support structure.

Below the water, completely out of sight, a black SUV picked up and turned on its side by the flood had been swept from a nearby parking lot at a fast food joint, swept into the stream and held under by its own weight. Had the vehicle been upright, someone might have seen its roof as it bobbed in the water. If that roof had been what hit the bridge, its soft aluminum would likely have folded with the impact and done little damage, But none of that was what happened.

Instead, the vehicle had turned and swirled as it took on water until it was heading downstream wheels first. That meant it was the undercarriage, the only part of the vehicle where there was any form of rigid steel in its construction, that would hit the center support of the bridge with the full force of the rushing water behind it. The decorative stone on the outside of the support had provided little barrier in the collision. The SUV hit the first steel girder with enough force that two of the massive bolts securing it to the bridge snapped.

Engineers could not have anticipated the bridge having to endure conditions like this. On larger, more heavily traveled structures, there would have been additional safety mechanisms in place to make up for the loss of the two bolts. For a small urban bridge over a tiny creek that had never been known to leave its banks, however, those backups had seemed unnecessary and expensive. No one gave any thought to adding them to such an insignificant little bridge.

One opening was all the water needed. As the bridge deck lurched in the loss of support, a massive chunk of the roadway crumbled. Everyone reached to hold on to the table as well as they could.

Reggie failed. Before anyone’s brain could think fast enough to react, his feet were swept from under him and down he went, taking the woman on his shoulders with him. With all the commotion and focus on trying to keep themselves upright, by the time anyone realized that Reggie and his rider were gone, it was too late to help. Their bodies, struggling as they were to at least reach the surface and breathe, were dragged away quickly by the strong undercurrent that moved them downstream while holding them down as though they’d been chained.

As they passed under the table, Reggie had reached for the water bottles, hoping desperately to find something to which he could hold, but his hands had no time to find a grip. Instead, he felt his feet his something. At first, he thought perhaps it was the guardrail on the bridge, something, again, to which he could potentially grab hold, but it slipped away as well.

As the others were beginning to realize the horror of what had just happened, everyone was looking where Reggie had stood so no one saw Marti disappear when her feet were suddenly knocked out from under her. The movement had come so unexpectedly that by the time the girl’s brain communicated to her arm that it should reach for the table, she was already well out of reach.

“Mom!” cried the woman on Carson’s shoulders. The others looked at her, realizing they knew none of these women nor understood what this crisis meant to them.

Then, in the next second, Natalie realized there was a blank space between her and D. “Marti!” she yelled, looking hopelessly downstream.

Looking was all they could do. They didn’t dare let go of the table. Rescue was not a service they were in any position to provide. Tears merged with the rain on their face as they quickly tried to adjust and regain their balance. They needed to get off this bridge.

Magnitudes of Scale

Magnitudes of Scale

Roger wasted no time running through the maze of cubicles and offices in the West Wing of the White House, trying to get to the basement office area where Special Agent Biscane had allegedly been shot. Finding the correct spot hadn’t been difficult. The number of people through which he had to push was enough of a map to get him right to the spot. Secret Service officials were already there, doing their best to secure the crime scene while attempting to keep back the White House staffers without losing their temper. No one other than the agents seemed to understand how important it was that the area not be contaminated.

Roger recognized one of the agents as having previously been in rotation for guarding the president. “Kelly,” he yelled above the crowd, “what the hell happened.”

The agent stepped back and pulled the Chief of Staff through the crowd. “We’re still trying to get a handle on the details,” he said. “A member of the maintenance staff found him when they were looking for cleaning supplies.”

“Was he poisoned or did someone shoot him?” Roger asked, frustrated by the knowledge the agent wouldn’t be able to give him the answers he so desperately needed.

“He was definitely shot,” Agent Kelly told him. “One chest, one head. We’re looking for any shots that might have missed but I’m not expecting to find any. Judging by the wound, this appears to have been done with the same caliber weapon as is carried by all the federal officials in the building.”

“You’re saying one of our own did this?” Roger asked, his temper ramping up.

“I’m saying someone pretending to be one of our own did this,” Kelly replied. “No one I’ve talked to yet remembers hearing anything that sounded like a gunshot. That likely means some kind of silencer was used and he was shot at close range. No one on the federal payroll is allowed to carry that kind of equipment.”

Roger gave a long, heavy sigh. There was nothing about this day that wasn’t compounding one problem on top of another. “Okay,” he started. “I’ll have this corridor sealed for you. Take a good look and let me know what you find as soon as possible. We have to assume the shooter is still in the building and still armed, which means they could have more targets.”

Agent Kelly nodded. “I don’t suppose locking people in their offices is a possibility?”

Roger thought a minute. The lack of traffic running around the White House would make it easier to notice if the shooter were heading toward another target. “I think I can sequester everyone except senior staff, and I’m having them all in my office to figure out a way to address all these disasters.”

Roger was actively attempting to avoid asking himself whether this day could get any worse because he knew it could and he didn’t want to invite any more disasters than they already had. He also knew that people would be expecting the White House to respond and provide some answers. With digital and broadcast communications down, though, he wasn’t sure exactly how they were going to communicate with anyone. Even the country’s newspapers relied on satellite communications these days.

As he returned to the office area of the West Wing, Roger could see Terri waiting on him, as well as the Director of Communications, Wilson Niedermeir, standing near his office door, obviously waiting for him to return. Roger headed off their inevitable questions by speaking first as he walked through the outer door. “You’re just the people I need to see,” he told them, then to Tina he added, “Get me Rick, Karen, Marty, Will Tucker, and Ann Morrow. I need them in here immediately.”

Terri and Wilson looked at each other knowing that whatever was coming next had to be pretty serious. Roger had just instructed his secretary to bring in the directors of the offices of Public Affairs and Political Liason as well as the White House Council, head of national security, and the First Lady’s Chief of Staff. Rarely was there any reason to have those people in the same room and when there was it was never a happy occasion.

Following Roger into his office, Terri asked, “So it’s true, someone was shot right here in the White House?”

“Yeah,” Roger replied before hitting the intercom button on his phone. “Tina, send an urgent memo to all White House staff that everyone needs to return to their office or cubicle and stay there until further notice. No exceptions.”

The Chief of Staff turned back to Terri. “It was a professional hit using the same caliber weapon as our own people use, and they may have had a silencer. That means they’re probably still in the building, most likely have either Secret Service or FBI credentials, and may or may not have previously had access to the President.”

“Shit!” Wilson exclaimed. “So we’re on full lockdown?”

“You can bet on that,” Roger replied. “No one in or out until we have some answers and can be sure that everyone, especially the President, is safe. Meanwhile, I need as accurate a picture as possible of all the disasters that seem to be taking place across the country.”

“That’s going to be a long list,” Terri said. “And perhaps the biggest question at this moment is whether we’re the only ones attacked or not. Before everything went down, there seemed to be some indication that other countries were having problems as well.”

Wilson took a seat on the sofa sitting across from Roger’s desk. “If someone hacked the satellite grid, they could cause havoc for every country on the planet.”

Roger sat in his chair and pulled out a legal pad. “We have a responsibility to our own country first. We have to keep this president safe and we have to do the best we can to keep our people safe.”

Quickly, the office began to fill with the requested participants. The First Lady’s Chief of Staff was the last to arrive because she had to come from the opposite side of the building. The expression on her face wasn’t a pleasant one.

As the office door shut, Roger began talking. “Listen, what I’m about to say is effectually law until I say it’s not. We appear to have an active shooter in the building. We have no idea who this person is but given that only Secret Service and FBI are allowed to carry weapons in this building we have to assume that they are carrying those credentials. All meetings are canceled. I want everyone’s door shut. Established attack protocols are now in place. The First Family stays in the residence until all this is over. Only Senior Staff are allowed to enter and I’d like to keep that on a limited basis. Everyone has to come to see me first or they don’t get in.”

Ann Morrow, the First Lady’s Chief of Staff, was the first to respond. “Are we adding additional Secret Service within the residence?”

“They’re already up there,” answered Rick Angel, the president’s National Security advisor. “Their normal assignment plus an additional eight agents previously cleared for presidential detail. Nothing nor no one gets close to the first family without scrutiny, and that includes changes in personnel. I’m ordering the detail adjusted so that only those most trusted with previous experience are assigned.”

“Karen, what’s the mood over on the hill?” Roger asked.

Karen Ladovsteski was the president’s chief political liaison. “Fear more than anything,” she said. “With communications down, their having difficulty communicating with their home states and districts. Many of the younger members didn’t even have secure landlines in place. In that brief moment, before everything went dark, though, there was just enough information to scare the shit out of everyone. Planes falling from the sky. People experiencing random nose bleeds. The Midwest is apparently experiencing the broadest storm event ever with rain in excess of six inches an hour. Add to that uncertainty about the nation’s hydroelectric damns which may have lost power, causing them to fail.”

“They all have gasoline generated backups,” Rick said quickly. “Any interruptions would have kicked on the backups, allowing everything to be shut down safely. We shouldn’t have any compromise there.”

Karen nodded. “That’s good to know. What concerns me at this point, though, is that fear inevitably leads to anger and without the ability to leave town or even go home at this point, don’t be surprised if we see some knee-jerk legislation coming up later in the day.”

“Do you think leadership over there can keep a lid on the stupid at least until we have more concrete information?” Roger asked, knowing that Norma and Graham had their mind on other things.

“Today, yes,” Karen said. “Tomorrow, don’t bet on it. We need communications back up ASAP or people on the hill are going to try creating their own solutions without the benefit of any real information.”

“The rest of the nation is likely to be feeling the same,” added Marty Wilson, director of Public Affairs. “They’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other, including family. Panic sets in quickly and when that panic isn’t relieved anger is the next response.”

Roger looked up from the notes he was taking on the legal pad. “Rick, where are we on deploying the National Guard?”

“Initially, we were getting some resistance, especially from governors in the South,” the National Security Advisor said. “As conditions have worsened, though, I’m not expecting as much push back. I think they’re more likely to welcome the help and in those Midwestern states, they’re probably going to be asking for a lot of assistance. We’ll need the president to be quick about issuing disaster declarations when this is over.”

“So, we’re probably not looking at riots or anything?” Roger asked hopefully.

“Certainly not on a large scale,” Rick said. “From what little we know, every region seems to be dealing with its own set of disasters. We need communications back up, though, or we’re going to start seeing all that fear and anger begin to hit the streets.”

Roger sat back in his chair, thoughtfully. “I want us to have a prepared set of statements,” he said to no one in particular. “As things start coming back online, I want the first thing everyone sees to be some assurance that the president is aware of all the problems and that the White House, and make sure it’s worded that way, the White House is working to address all the problems as quickly as possible.”

“And how accurate is that?” asked Will Tucker, the White House Counsel.

“We’re working with everything we have under the conditions we’re faced with,” Roger said.

Will leaned in. “Yes, but how much does the president actually know?” He paused and took in the uncomfortable expressions around the room. “Look, we all know this president isn’t exactly a hands-on kind of guy. He’s a delegator and that’s fine as long as he knows who is being delegated to do what. The problems begin when we think we need to keep anything from him. What I’m asking is what does the president actually know?”

“He knows what he wants to know,” Roger said.

“And that’s what bothers me,” Will replied. “We already know that there are those in Congress who would be happy to see the president forced out of office. If he’s not being updated regularly on everything, for any reason, we could be looking at some serious vulnerabilities. Obstruction and lying to the American public would be the first volley. If he refuses updates, then we could be looking at a refusal to uphold his Constitutional responsibility.”

Roger tapped the tips of his fingers together. “Does the fact that we’re under martial law protect us to any degree?”

“Not really. If he’s not getting or accepting updates from General Lang then it’s just as bad,” Will said.

Roger glanced over at Terri who was furiously taking notes. “Okay, let’s do this then, Wilson, have someone create a written brief that can be given to the president. Update it every four hours. Make sure Lang has input and that his input is noted. That way, at the very least there’s a paper trail. We can say the president was informed. Let’s try and keep a tight lid on this one, okay? We don’t know when comms are going to come back but be sure when they do people are going to be glued to their televisions for at least 48 hours. We’ve got to make sure we’re not providing any ammo they didn’t already have. We’re good here. Thank you. Terri, hang back a minute, please.”

As the other senior staff members left the room, Terri kept her seat in a chair she had pulled in front of the door leading to the Oval Office. She waited until the room was clear and the door was shut then said, “What do you think? Do we have support to move forward?”

Roger drummed his fingers on his desk for a moment. “I’m not sure. I think we may still have to give the president a little latitude. What we’re seeing as incompetence isn’t something substantial enough to take public. There are good people in place who are doing their best to make up for the president’s fallibilities. I will say this, though, we want Will on our side if and when we do make any kind of move.”

“It sounded to me as though he’s already leaning that direction,” Terri said.

“Will Tucker holds no political allegiance to this president, the party, or any other political figure in this town. He’s the anomaly that has managed to endear himself to everyone while staying clear of their liabilities,” Roger said. “If there’s anyone who can definitely say the president is unfit for office it’s Will Tucker and everyone knows it.”

Out of the Frying Pan

Out of the Frying Pan

Holly and her team waited anxiously in their lab with no knowledge of what had happened. All they knew is that half their group from the other labs, including the other team leads, were dead. Nothing in their lab worked, not even the coffee pot. They’d been ordered to stay put until Perry personally came to move them but there was no indication as to how long that might take.

Holly looked around the room at her team. She could see the fear on their faces. It had only been the luck of the draw that had put any of them in that lab. All three teams had been equal, populated with specialists assigned to identical tasks. What was different about their assignments was the specific geography for which each team was responsible. Claire’s team was responsible for the United States communications network, which was arguably the largest in the world. Holly’s team was responsible for communications directly to US Embassies on foreign land and military units including all deployed naval vessels.

Kenneth’s team was responsible for satellite interface, making sure that everyone received the same message at the exact same time with minimal lag. The reasoning was that in the event of a genuine emergency, everyone needed to have the same information at the same time. “Trickle down” communications, a term that had elicited a number of bathroom-humor jokes were not an option. By making sure that everyone had the information simultaneously they had hoped to eliminate the possibility that a foreign power or greedy oligarch could take advantage of any lag that might occur.

From Holly’s perspective, Kenneth’s Blue team had been the target. Claire’s team were victims of being too close to the blast, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eliminating satellite synchronization, creating the possibility that several minutes, even hours, could lapse between the information being received at the embassy in Germany and the embassy in Japan. It also increased, if not practically guaranteed, that any message could be interrupted and changed by an unfriendly power. Different people could get different messages at different time, creating a tremendous amount of confusion.

She couldn’t say any of that to her team, though. She knew they would each individually be debriefed as to precisely what part of the program each of them had a part in creating, whether they had been contacted at any part by a foreign player and whether they had knowingly mentioned their involvement with the program to anyone outside the three teams in the bunker. Her team had been through those interviews before and up until today, she had trusted them all completely. Now, however, with so many of her colleagues and friends dead, she was second guessing whether her trust was appropriate.

Shawn Begrebatti, a military protocol specialist critical to achieving properly-formatted military communications, walked over from his non-working station and asked Holly quietly, “How long are we supposed to stay down here by ourselves? Did Perry give you any sort of time table?”

Holly shook her head. “How could he? It hasn’t even been five minutes since a fucking hole was blown in what was supposed to be an impenetrable facility. He doesn’t know what’s going on any more than any other person in this hell. The only thing we know is that someone in one of these groups fucked up, said the wrong thing to the wrong person and now half our group is dead.”

Shawn backed away. Of the three team leads, Holly was normally the quiet, level-headed one. He hadn’t expected such an outburst. Neither had anyone else on the team. If Holly’s intention had been to scare the shit out of them all, she had succeeded. They had not considered that one of them might be responsible for whatever had happened. There was no way now that they could not look at each other without suspicion.

Holly walked around the perimeter of the room, taking in all the destruction. So much detailed work, work that could have set new standards for AI in systems all over the world, was now gone. Sure, there were tape backups stored somewhere in some off-site location, but she couldn’t assume those were any safer than what had existed here.

The lab door opened and Holly jumped, expecting to see that Perry had come to get them. Instead, it was Gary Chu, Claire’s assistant, along with the three other survivors of the Green team. “One of the military guys told us to stay here with you until they can get a team to get us out,” he said.

Holly looked at them and felt the tears coming to her eyes again. Their clothes were scorched and torn. They all had cuts, some of which were severe. They had obviously used their own clothes in an attempt to stop the worse of the bleeding. Her own dust-covered team looked pristine by comparison.

“Sure, come on in,” Holly said. She grabbed a vacant chair and pushed it toward him. “Here, have a seat. Tell us what you need. Clean bandages? Alcohol?”

Other members of the yellow team quickly gave up their seats as well for the wounded members of the green team. Only Holly had been outside the lab so this was their first exposure to just how bad the explosion had been.

“Thank you,” Gary said as he took the chair Holly had offered. “We did the best we could to stop the bleeding. Tia’s leg is probably the worst injury among us. It could definitely stand to be cleaned and rebandaged.”

Holly walked over to where the bespectacled Tia sat, obviously trying to not scream from the pain she was feeling in her left leg. The lower half of her slacks had been torn away, part of it used to make the tourniquet that was keeping her from bleeding out. The fabric was soaked in blood and Holly could only guess that an artery had been severed. Removing the tourniquet without the ability to immediately replace it could be dangerous.

“Sansibal,” Holly said, addressing one of the women on her team, “Run to the women’s restroom and grab me like three tampons and a roll of toilet paper.”

As the young woman ran to the restroom, Holly looked at Shawn and ordered, “There are sheets in the supply closet, along with a number of blankets. Take Lila and Chuck and grab all of them and bring them back. We’re going to need the sheets torn into 3-inch strips.”

Holly then took Tia’s hand and said softly, “We need to get you inverted. Your leg needs to be higher than your head. Let’s ease you down here onto the floor and put your foot in the chair. That should do the trick.”

By the time the remaining team members helped ease Tia to the floor, both Sansibal and Shawn had returned with their assigned supplies. Holly took the tampons first and opened the sterile packages, discarding the applicators. The women on her team looked horrified while the men were totally confused. “Government efficiency,” Holly explained. “The tampons are sterile and since they’re government issued we don’t have to worry about any perfumes or other chemicals that might introduce poisons to her bloodstream. They’re designed to do one thing: absorb.” She paused for a moment and looked at Shawn. “You have those strips ready?”

He passed her a neatly folded stack of hastily ripped sheets. Holly had to admit that she was impressed by his efficiency.

With the tampons and new bandages at the ready, she started to remove the bloody bandage but then stop. “Duct tape,” Holly said, seemingly randomly. “There’s a roll of duct tape in the supply room, second shelf on the left, third bin back. Someone get it.”

Shawn was immediately up and running, retrieving the duct tape in a matter of seconds.

Holly propped Tia’s head with one of the blankets and then began removing the bloody cloth. The instant the pressure was released, the blood flow grew to nearly a gush. Quickly, Holly placed the tampons inside the massive wound, then used the bandage strips to wrap the leg as tightly as possible. Finally, she used the duct tape over the strips to apply additional pressure that would hopefully stop the bleeding.

Tia’s body shuddered. Holly covered her with another of the blankets and instructed Sansibal to fill a water bottle and make sure Tia stayed hydrated.

Standing, Holly looked at the remaining members of the Green team. None of them looked great, but none of the other injuries appeared to be life-threatening at the moment.

The lab door opened again. There stood Perry, outfitted in a climbing harness. Behind him stood similarly-clad Marines. “Holly, give me a run down. Who can walk and who can’t?”

Holly looked at Tia and was about to suggest that she needed to be taken out first. Then, before she could speak, everything went dark.

The Evil Among Us

The Evil Among Us

Carson and D looked at each other, knowing that some adjustment would have to be made before they could continue. There was now a massive hole in the bridge where moments ago Reggie had stood. If Carson took another step forward, his fate and that of the woman on his shoulders would be the same as Reggie’s. The obvious solution seemed to be for Carson to move around the table to D’s position and for D to move up where Marti had been. The men nodded at each other and began the careful shuffle while Natalie, Barry, and Reesie struggled to hold the table in place. Just as there was the risk of the two men falling into the hole, the current was pulling back against the table. Considerable effort was necessary to prevent Reesie or Natalie from being dragged into the crevice from the other side.

Every moment felt like an eternity. Every decision beyond whether to breathe felt like a life or death matter. For all the altruism that might have existed between Reesie, Barry, and Natalie when they left the coffee shop, each felt now that their own survival was paramount to anything else. There was no guarantee of anyone making it to Natalie’s apartment building and even if they did make it that far there were still other threats that might keep anyone from seeing their families again. Without saying a word, they had each privately decided that if it came down to making a choice between themselves or anyone on the table, they would act to save themselves first.

Slowly, the men eased into their new positions around the table and the group began the precarious venture down the subtle incline of the bridge. Carson could feel the edge of the hole beneath his right foot. Only the young woman on his shoulders heard his whimper and she didn’t care. She had just watched her mother being swept into the flood, her grandmother lied motionless next to Adam on the table, both her hope and her will to live had vanished. She wondered if she would really be that upset if Carson was to stumble and dump her into the same muddy water that had claimed her mom. Carson, however, was determined to not let that happen. He had already decided that if he began to feel himself slipping he would intentionally lunge in whatever direction necessary to toss the girl onto the table. Maybe she’d make it, maybe she wouldn’t, but at least he would have tried.

Reesie couldn’t stop crying. Reggie had been her right hand at the coffee shop. He was the first person she hired on her own and he had volunteered countless hours to help with the restoration of the space. In some ways, she felt he was as responsible for the coffee shop’s success as she was and now, with no warning, with no chance of recovery, he was gone, swept away, without so much as a chance to call for help. The pain was almost too much to bear.

Natalie could hear Reesie’s sobbing over the rain pounding against her own head. She looked across the table at the woman she had begun to admire and knew that she could only imagine what she was feeling at the moment. Natalie had seen a lot of things in her career as a reporter, but she had largely been spared having to cover much that actually involved death. On the few occasions where it was necessary, the deceased was never anyone she had known at all. She was able to remain detached, a cool observer whose only job was to write about the tragedy, not join in it. Losing people with whom she had any kind of relationship was new. The fear of losing anyone left around the table was not something she wanted to consider.

When the group finally made it off the bridge to more level ground, they paused, wiped the water from their faces, and readjusted their positions around to table to keep it balanced. Reesie was now directly across from D. She noticed that the middle-aged woman on his shoulders hadn’t said a word through the entire process. Clinging desperately to the top of D’s head, her body seemed to affect him no more than would an oversized hat. Carson was alone with his rider at the back of the table, a position he didn’t necessarily enjoy. He feared he could slip into the water and those in front of him might not even notice.

The gray outline of Natalie’s apartment building was vaguely visible in front of them, She knew no one could hear her above the rain, but Natalie still caught everyone’s attention and pointed toward the large structure ahead so that even if something happened to her they would know where to go. They wouldn’t know what to do when they got there, but they would have a destination and that was better than nothing.

No one spoke the remainder of the trip. Seeing the apartment building gave them a sense of focus for something outside themselves. All they had to do was make it this last, short distance and they would be safe, or at least, safer than they were out here on the street.

Barry thought it a bit strange that they hadn’t seen anyone else outside in the rain. He knew that the houses crowding the popular neighborhood contained a mix of retired people and young families. As water filled their homes, he wondered why he didn’t see anyone climbing onto rooftops or into trees, the sights he remembered always seeing when the television news sent helicopters flying over flooded areas. Neither had they seen anyone in boats or canoes. Their solitude struck him as strange and unnatural. He kept his concerns to himself, though. They had enough trouble just trying to make it to safety. He had no business inviting more.

He wondered how they must look to anyone who might happen to see them navigating the makeshift raft down the middle of the road. They were the most unlikely grouping of strangers now dependent on each other for survival, so thoroughly soaked by the rain and beaten by the wind that their features were hardly distinguishable. The only thing, he told himself, was that while the rain had slimmed down everyone else to the point that they looked like sticks protruding from the water, he was still the fat one, a single bobber surrounded by four fishing poles. Barry hadn’t needed to exert this much physical effort at any point in his life. Breathing had quickly become difficult but at this point, even that challenge felt like something he had been doing for years. This trip was taking forever.

As they neared the apartment building, Natalie realized there was a new problem facing them: there was no way the table was going to fit through the stairwell. Sure, had it just been a piece of random furniture they could have gotten it up the stairs by turning it on end and twisting it around. This was no longer furniture, though. As a raft carrying three people, it needed to stay flat and in that position, it wasn’t going past the first landing.

Natalie looked back at the three people on the table. At least Amanda could walk up the stairs on her own. The older woman could probably make it with some assistance. Getting Adam upstairs was a problem, though. She and Reesie had struggled enough to get his coats off him back at the coffee shop. Now, he was thoroughly soaked, she guessed 300 pounds or more of dead weight. Even if everyone worked together, she wasn’t sure they could move him to safety. Had they really brought him all this way, endangering their own lives, for nothing?

Reesie and Barry soon realized the problem as well and everyone else caught on quickly. Amanda was now sitting up, anxious to get off the table. Only now did they realize that the older woman hadn’t moved for several minutes, either. Yet, her condition was secondary at the moment, even for her granddaughter who was clinging to Carson’s head.

When they reached the base of the stairwell, Natalie turned to the others, yelling above the rain, “Stay here, I’ll see if I can find some help. I know there have to be people at home.”

The others felt the table shift as Natalie released her grip and bounded up the stairs.

Carson started to ask what they would do if Natalie didn’t come back, but the wind blew water into his mouth, effectively keeping him quiet. The thought had gone through everyone else’s mind, though, and they waited nervously, hoping.

Natalie hoped that Darrell was still home. She couldn’t be sure. Hadn’t he said something about meeting someone for lunch? If he was gone, she had no way to get into the apartment. Her keys had been in the same bag as her laptop which was now likely underwater back at the coffee shop. She tried the door and was immediately thankful that it was unlocked. What she saw in her living room, however, was not what she had expected.

Darrell was not alone. Two very naked young women were sitting in towels on the couch. A third was approaching from the hallway, drying her hair with another towel, just as naked as the other two.

Hearing the door, Darrell moved quickly to see who was there and was genuinely surprised to see Natalie standing in the doorway. “I … I … It’s not what it looks like, I swear, it’s …”

Natalie rolled her eyes and motioned for him to be quiet. “No, I get it,” she said, then looking at the girls, she called each by name. “Miranda, Amber, and Gwen. Apartments 104, 107, and 106, all of which are flooded. We’re good. Did anyone think to check on Mrs. Applegate in 103?”

“I knocked but didn’t get any answer and the door was locked solid,” Darrell said. “Same for the other first floor apartments. They were the only ones at home.”

“Everyone else works day shift,” Natalie said. “Will and Caroline in 102 would have been the last to leave around 9:30.”

“It’s Tuesday, Mrs. Applegate is probably at the senior center over on Clermont,” Amber said as she finished drying her hair and sat the towel on the back of a kitchen chair. Her tall, tanned, and fit physique was the kind that made many women jealous. More than a few of the building’s residents referred to her as “The Amazon.” Natalie was one of the few people who had actually taken the time to get to know her, however, and knew that she held two masters degrees, one in physics and other in applied mathematics, and did competitive bodybuilding to counter the nerd stereotype she had battled in high school.

“We have a problem downstairs,” Natalie said. “I brought everyone from the coffee shop home with me and one, maybe two of them are unconscious. We’re going to need a lot of help getting them upstairs.”

“All of them?” Darrell asked. “The entire coffee shop? Like, how many people are we talking about?” He looked around the room wondering how many people they could possibly accommodate.

“We’ll deal with it,” Amber said, immediately taking charge. She looked around for something reasonably dry to wear and found a pair of Natalie’s stretch leggings. “You mind if I toss these on?” she asked. “I might stretch them a bit but I can buy you more later.”

Natalie laughed. “Go ahead, if you think you can fit into them.”

Everyone in the room giggled a little as Amber struggled to get the leggings up to her thighs and over her hips. Natalie reached over to the pile of clothes on the table and tossed leggings at Miranda and Gwen as well, both of whom were considerably smaller than Amber.

“Let’s go!” Amber said as she headed for the door.

“Uhm, don’t we like, need shirts or something?” Gwen asked. She was small, not much if any taller than Amanda and looked more like an elf than a human as she stood there covering her chest with her arms.

Amber laughed. “I don’t think anyone is really going to care at this point,” she said as she headed down the stairs.

Natalie looked around the room and tossed Gwen the first t-shirt she could find, one of Darrell’s old band shirts. He started to object but the look on Natalie’s face warned him against it. She grabbed another and offered it to Miranda, but the young woman everyone in the building regarded as a too quiet and stuck up waved it off and followed after Amber. The others quickly followed.

The group at the table looked up as the sound of footsteps running down the staircase made it feel as though the whole structure might fall on top of them. Their mouths involuntarily fell open as Amber was the first person they saw, her ample breast bouncing in an involuntarily seductive way as she bounded down the stairs. Amber was about to laugh at their reaction when she saw a face she recognized.

“You?” she asked credulously. “What the fuck are you doing here? You can get the fuck out right now!”

All eyes followed Amber’s stern gaze and quickly realized that it was D she was yelling at. Amber ran down the stairs, through the water, and quickly retrieved the woman from the top of his shoulders, putting her down safely on a step just as Natalie and the others were arriving, surprised by the commotion. Amber turned and looked at D again. “Djali, you fucking demon, what the fuck have you done to these people?” Without giving him a chance to respond, she turned to Natalie and asked forcefully, “How many people did you start with?”

Natalie had to stop and think for a second, counting in her head. “Uhm, 13, I think. We lost …”

“Three,” Amber interrupted. She looked at the table, “And he’s waiting on these two because five is his favorite number.”

All eyes were still on D. He grinned and took a step away from the table. “Hey, you wouldn’t expect me to miss an event like this, would you? And most of them made it here. It’s not like I’m completely barbaric or anything. They did lose one back at the coffee shop, though.”

Reesie spoke up, a look of complete bewilderment on her face. “I don’t understand. Is he like your ex or something?”

Amber looked around for something she could use as a weapon but there was nothing but water. “Oh, he’s something, alright,” she said. “Djali is a straight-up demon of death, the kind your Sunday School teacher warned you about. He’s part of Di Inferni, but this one is Albanian rather than Roman and has a thing for making accidents happen.”

The others exchanged looks and Carson carefully moved to the other side of the table.

Djali smiled broadly, baring his teeth, a look that felt sinister to everyone watching. “You give me undue credit, dear,” he said. “I don’t make those accidents happen. I merely take advantage of them when they do.”

Amber glared at the demon then looked at the group still standing in the water holding onto the table. The current had only eased slightly and the rain was still pounding. The roof over the stairwell offered some limited protection for those closest to it but Carson and the young woman he carried were still getting soaked. The tall woman stepped into the current and took the girl from Carson’s shoulders and then guided them both onto the staircase.

Amanda took that as her cue and climbed over Adam and onto the stairs, thankful to be on more solid footing, even if she still wasn’t sure this would be survival. This left Reesie and Barry struggling to hold onto the table, the strain evident in their faces.

Amber looked up the stairs at Darrell. “Why don’t you come down and help them hold on to this thing,” she said in a tone that gave Darrell no option but to comply. “Gwen, dear, why don’t you take the soaked ones upstairs. See if you can find more towels or something.”

“Second shelf of the hallway closet,” Natalie instructed. “There are clean sheets and blankets they can wrap in as well.”

Miranda eased her way down the staircase and saw the two remaining people lying on the table. “Are they … dead?” she asked nervously.

“No, not yet,” Amber said. “If they were Djali would have conveniently disappeared by now. He doesn’t like sticking around for the aftermath.”

“How can you tell?” Reesie asked. She had been wondering for some time whether both of the table’s occupants were still breathing.

Amber moved closer to the table. “This is Adam Hirschfeld, isn’t it?” she asked.

Reesie nodded, wondering how Amber knew his full name.

“I took care of his dear wife before she passed,” Amber said as though she anticipated Reesie’s questions. She leaned over the table and checked his pulse then opened an eyelid. “He’s in a coma from diabetic ketoacidosis. He’s in desperate need of fluids and insulin therapy, neither of which we’re adequately prepared to give him.” She looked across the table and glared at Djali who was still smiling.

Amber turned her attention to the older woman on the table. She checked for a pulse the checked the dilation of her eyes. “She’s suffering cardiac arrhythmia because of the exposure.” Amber picked up the frail woman and handed her to Miranda who was not quite ready to accept the weight. “Natalie, if you can help her up the stairs, get her into something dry, see if you can get her conscious enough to drink something warm, even if it’s just warm water from the tap.”

Natalie helped Miranda carry the woman up the stairs, looking back nervously at the three people remaining. Having come this far with Barry and Reesie, she worried about something happening, especially with Djali still standing there. She still didn’t understand who he was but there was little question that he was evil.

Amber looked at Barry, Darrell, and Natalie. “This isn’t going to be easy,” she warned. “He’s a big boy. The good news is that he’ll float a little. We’ll ease him off the raft and let the raft float away.”

Reesie looked at the table, the last remnant of her coffee shop. She hated to see it go but didn’t feel like there was any room to argue the matter.

“When we get him to the stairs,” Amber continued, “Barry, it is Barry isn’t it?”

Barry nodded.

“You get under his left shoulder, I’ll take the right,” Amber instructed. She then looked over at Reesie. “You’re Tinera’s wife, Shyreese, aren’t you?”

Reesie felt her mouth drop open again and quickly shut it. “Yes, how did you …”

“Griddleiscious is an addiction Adam and I share,” Amber said, “And your wife is extremely proud of you and baby Ravie.”

Reesie smiled. “I guess I get his feet?” she said.

“As best you can,” Amber replied. “His greater weight is in his hips and midsection. Lifting him is going to be awkward at best. Darrell, try to lift where you can between his knees and his hips.”

“Maybe if I move down a little I can help,” Barry said, using his size to his advantage. “I’m not overly strong but I should at least be able to help keep him up.”

Amber smiled. “You’re a lot stronger than you think,” she said.

Together, the quartet lifted Adam off the table and let it float away. Getting him over to the stairs was easy enough but lifting him up to the first landing was a struggle. Getting him up the remaining three flights of stairs without assistance was impossible.

“What do we do now,” Reesie asked as they propped Adam into a corner. “We can’t just leave him down here.”

“I can stay with him,” Barry offered.

Amber shook her head. “You three go upstairs. See if there’s still an available blanket or something I can use to cover him. I’ll say here and protect him from Djali.”

They looked back down the staircase expecting to see the black-clad demon standing there but he had disappeared.

“Oh good, he’s gone,” Reesie said. “That guy creeped me out the minute he walked into the shop.”

Amber took a few steps down the stairs into the water. “He’s not gone. He never leaves until his body count is complete and he’s still one person short. He’s just waiting for his moment.”

For Fear of a Dull Moment

For Fear of a Dull Moment

Rudy Blackstone paced in the living area of the residence on the third floor of the White House. Being without his staff or any other form of communication was driving him nuts. He was accustomed to there always being people at his beck and call. The expanded security detail meant there were plenty of people in the residence but none of them could tell him what was going on or how soon the problem was going to be fixed.

The president started walking toward a window and quickly a Secret Service agent blocked his way. “What the fuck, I can’t even look out the window now?” he asked angrily.

“I’m afraid not, sir,” the agent responded, his voice absent of any emotion.

Rudy growled. “I thought those windows were supposed to be bulletproof,” he said.

The agent broadened his stance. “It isn’t bullets we’re worried about at the moment,” he said. “Until we’ve identified and eliminated the threat, Mr. President, we’re taking no chances of any kind.”

The president stomped back toward the kitchen area. “Goddammit,” he mumbled under his breath. “What good is it to be president if you can’t even leave the residence?” He sat down at the small kitchen table and said, “Can someone at least get me a diet soda from the fridge? Can I have that? Can I have a diet soda?”

The other Secret Service agents looked at each other, fighting the urge to roll their eyes. One of them reached into the sparse refrigerator and pulled out a can of the president’s favorite diet soda. There wasn’t much else in the unit, just some of the president’s frequent snacks. All the real food was kept downstairs in the main kitchen. The agent took a clean glass from the cabinet and poured the contents of the can into the glass before handing it to the president.

“Thanks,” Rudy said condescendingly. “At least I don’t have to do everything for myself.”

A fourth agent appeared and whispered something into the ear of the agent who had served the president the soda. The agent nodded and then turned to the president. “Sir, General Lang is here to brief you on the situation.”

Rudy gulped down the soda and stood up. “Good, maybe we can finally get some answers.”

As General Lang entered the room, the president shook his hand and slapped him on the back of the shoulder, a move the general did not appreciate. He was not here to be the president’s best friend or fishing buddy. The matter was serious.

“So, Al, tell me what’s going on out there. We’ve got a handle on this, right?” the president asked.

General Lang summoned his most serious expression, the one that frightened the hell out of even his closest advisors. “No sir, we don’t even know what ‘this” is yet. What we do know is that the entire country has been attacked and some of our NATO allies as well.”

The president put his hands into his pants pockets and looked at the floor. “So, what you’re telling me is that we’re fucked.”

“For the moment, yes, sir,” Lang said. “That would seem to be the case.”

Rudy paused. “We need to find someone we can bomb.”

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