Not The Average Tuesday

Another Tuesday At Another Coffee Shop, Pt. 5

Note: If you’ve not been keeping up with our story, you’ll want to start here. Also, I’m eliminating the use of photos between chapters/sections as finding imagery remotely relative is a time drain. I’ll just use separators from here on out.

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.”

General Lang carefully considered his next words, knowing that even in the residence conversations with the president were typically recorded. “I assume you mean we need someone to blame.”

“Blame, bomb, same thing,” the president said. “We have a disaster on our hands, probably the biggest disaster in the history of the country, and we can’t let the American people blame this administration. We need to find who’s responsible, or pin the blame on someone, and bomb them back to the stone age. We need someone we can villanize.”

His words made the general uncomfortable. “Yes sir, we’re looking at the most obvious sources right now and seeing who can be ruled out. Russia, China, North Korea …”

“Yeah, forget those,” Rudy said interrupting. “Even if they did do something, I don’t make any ground by going to war with them. We need someone we can put in their place, someone Americans won’t get all butt hurt if we kill a few thousand people.”

“I think the American people are going to care even if a few hundred people are killed,” Land said, wondering if he should leave now before he could potentially be incriminated in an international war crime.

The president started pacing. “Not if we frame them as bad people. Besides, it doesn’t matter if some of the American people get upset, we just have to placate the people who matter.”

Al turned his head to the side, not quite sure if he was understanding all the president seemed to imply. “Sir, you have re-election coming up next year. Don’t you need to stay on the good side of as many voters as possible?”

“Al, you’re a good guy,” the president said, chuckling in a way that tended to be both condescending and unsettling. “You know all about fighting wars with guns and tanks and stuff but I know how elections work and the thing is, the majority doesn’t actually rule anything in America. As long as we have that precious electoral college, all that matters is that we win seven key states. That’s all it takes. Seven out of 50. What’s that leave, 42?”

“43,” the general corrected.

“Whatever,” the president said, waving a hand dismissively. “What I’m saying is that worrying about polls or elections is a waste of time. Focus on the people who matter. 51 votes in the Senate, 218 in the House, five in the Supreme Court. Control the votes of those people and you control the entire country. And you know what, Al? I control those votes. I’ve got ‘em locked up tight and every last one of ‘em is going to vote exactly the way I tell them to vote.”

The general shifted his weight uncomfortably. What he was seeing at this moment was either a person who was either incredibly insane with delusions of power or viciously conniving and evil. He wondered for a moment if the president could be a bit of both, and which might win out over the coming hours.

The president continued. “You know, Al, since we’re under martial law I’m wondering if we need to suspend that habeas corpus thing. Might be a good opportunity to round up some of those fake news people while the courts aren’t able to do anything about it.”

Al knew he was in dangerous territory now. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to hear what the president might say next. He shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “Mr. President, you could face some serious repercussions once everything is back up and working again if you do that,” Al said. “The federal courts would have a field day …”

The president took a long drink from his diet soda while the general was talking, licked the residue off his lips and then interrupted. “Who said the courts are going to be back up and working again, ever?” Rudy said. “I mean, we don’t know how long this might carry on, this national emergency we have in front of us here. We’ll have to make sure everything is back up and working in the entire country before we release martial law and that might take some time.”

General Lang took a quick read of the room. He knew the Secret Service agents in attendance were under orders to not repeat anything they heard while in service to the president. They were one of the few groups protected from a court or congressional subpoena. No matter what the president might say or do that was later ruled illegal, they could not be forced to testify against him. Neither were they allowed voicing their opinions on any issue the president might address, even if he asked them directly as to what they thought. Yet, he could tell from the way they shifted their weight, glanced quickly back and forth at each other, and winced when they thought the president wasn’t working, that many of them were as uncomfortable with what the president was saying as he was. Finally, Al said, “Mr. President, Congress is going to reconvene the instant their backup generators bring the majority of the building back online. They’re going to demand a say in what happens and they’re not likely to allow martial law or habeas corpus to continue once the majority of the country has power and communications. Extending this martial law beyond a few days would be seen as a dissolution of the government or at least an attempt to that end.”

Rudy looked at the general and smiled, then took a few steps toward the nearest window. Again, a Secret Service agent blocked his way. “Damnit, Al, can you do something about these window restrictions? All I want to do is see what’s going on outside.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. President,” the general said. “We’ve not yet ruled out the possibility that we are under attack. Those window panes might stop a bullet but they won’t stop a sidewinder missile and, quite honestly, with communications down, you’re almost a sitting duck up here. Personally, I wouldn’t mind moving you and your family to a more secure underground facility, or at least the basement of the White House. For the time being, windows are a high-risk area.”

The president walked a few steps away from the direct path of the window and sat in a soft chair, a replica of a Louis XIV design, crossed his legs, rested his elbow on his knee and his chin on his fist, looking blankly off into space. He did not like being told no. He did not like not being able to see out the window. Rudy was beginning to feel claustrophobic up here in the residence, despite the size of the space. He drank the remaining soda in the can and then held it out, waiting for someone to take the can from him. A Secret Service agent walked over and took the can then disposed of it in a container marked for recycling.

“If that is all, Mr. President, I need to see what progress is being made downstairs and at the Pentagon. We’re trying to at least get landline communications back up as quickly as possible,” General Lang said.

Rudy nodded. “Sure. Get me a phone up here as soon as …” The president paused. His right leg fell to the side. His elbow slipped off his knee. His vision blurred. Lang caught him as he began to fall from the chair. Instantly, four Secret Service agents were at his side.

“Protocol 174-A,” said the agent in charge. Two other agents immediately ran out of the residence.

“What’s protocol 174-A?” the general asked.

“The president’s down, condition unknown, medical help needed ASAP,” the agent said. “General, if you don’t mind stepping back and let us do our job,” he added.

Al stood up and took a couple of steps back, watching in disbelief as the agent checked the president for a pulse.

“Eagle’s still alive,” the agent said. “Protocol 253.” Three more agents went running from the room. The agent looked up at the general and explained. “Notifications have to be made to the Chief of Staff, the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”

Al nodded. His mind felt flooded by at least a million different thoughts. Had the president somehow been physically affected by this morning’s call? If so, could other people in the building be at risk as well? At the very least, a temporary transition of power seemed imminent and necessary. It would take six minutes for an agent to deliver the message to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where the Vice President and his staff were located. At least 11 minutes would pass before anyone could get through the crowd to the Speaker’s office. The Court was not scheduled to hear arguments today so there was no certainty that the Chief Justice was even in town, much less at his office.

The room was suddenly buzzing with activity. Al stepped further back, watching as the First Lady rushed to her husband’s side and was then gently pulled back by the Secret Service agents. He knew that the White House physician was located within the building, but with everything else going on critical minutes were passing. Al would have given almost anything for his cell phone to be working right now. He removed it from the inside breast pocket of his uniform coat and stared at the screen. Nothing. Dead.

Trapped With A Traitor

Perry rushed forward and barely caught Holly before she hit the floor. A trickle of blood ran from the right corner of her mouth. He picked her up in his arms and carried her to the nearest Marine. “Get her out of here and find a medic as quickly as possible,” he ordered.

The Marine nodded, took Holly and trotted off across the debris to the staging area they had set up. Wire mesh baskets typically used for helicopter rescues were already set up and waiting. Holly was laid in the nearest one, covered with a blanket, then lifted up through the hole in the bunker.

Anger flushed across Perry’s face as he turned back to the remaining team members. “Has anyone come or gone in here since she returned from talking to me?”

Everyone shook their head. “The only time the door opened was when the four people from the Green Team joined us,” Sansibal said meekly. “We’ve not seen anyone else.”

Perry looked around the room, noting Tia’s condition as well as the other survivors of the green team. He motioned for the Marines to enter. “Take her up first,” Perry said, pointing toward Tia, “Then these three next,” he said as he motioned toward the others from the Green team. “I want them to each see a separate medic if possible. Address their external injuries and to whatever limited extent possible, I want to see blood work.”

As Perry stepped back, a group of Marines rushed in and gently put Tia on a cot and carried her out. Others did quick checks of the other three and escorted them to the exit stage.

As those Marines left, another group stepped through the door. Perry turned and addressed the rest of the yellow team. “Something’s going on here,” he said in his most stern and intimidating voice. “I don’t know exactly what it is or how it’s happening, but your team lead was just fine less than ten minutes ago. We can only take a few up at a time. Let me get the blue team settled and then I’ll be back for you.

He turned to the Marine nearest him. “Sergeant, I want you to post guards on this room. Two in, two out. No one and I mean absolutely no one, comes in or out unless I’m with them, understand?”

The sergeant saluted. He assigned two Marines outside the door while he and a lieutenant took positions inside the lab.

Perry took the remaining Marines with him and returned to the staging area where the last of the green team survivors was being lifted through the opening. He looked back at all the devastation in the cavernous space that should have been bustling with activity. Everything was dark now, the only illumination coming from flashlights and the massive hole in the roof. There had been generators but half were taken out by the explosion. The remainder were needed to help with rescue efforts.

Something was bugging Perry and he couldn’t exactly pinpoint what it was. Holly had been just fine, there were no signs of any lacerations or injury when he had last talked with her. Just now, however, he had noticed bruises on her arm, fresh injuries that had popped up quickly. If no one in Holly’s lab had been wounded by the blast, and that certainly seemed to be the case, then something else had to cause those injuries. Perry knew he didn’t have long to figure out who, or what, that something was.

As the last green team member was lifted out of the bunker, another Marine slid down a rope carrying a new set of gas masks. He walked over to Perry and handed him one of the apparatus. “Sir, we’re detecting high amounts of methane and carbon monoxide in the air down here. You should probably wear one of these if you’re going to stay very long.”

Perry took the mask and fit it to his head. “Methane,” he thought. “Because what we need now is another explosion.” Turning to the Marine he asked, “How many of those things do you have? There are a lot of people still down here.”

“Four plus yours, sir,” came the answer. “On my way to find Col. Brinkman next. We have more on the way, though. We’ll get them distributed ASAP but evac is still the better option.”

Perry nodded. The Marine saluted and trotted off in the direction of the shaft where Colonel Brinkman and others were still working.

Perry started back toward the lab, making his way carefully through the rubble. Strangely enough, the dust in the air had initially provided some illumination as the sunlight reflected off the airborne particles. As the dust settled, however, the massive cavern left was darker and obstacles became more difficult to see. Concrete, rebar, and various pieces of wires and electronics were scattered everywhere. Perry knew there was also a heavy layer of lead in much of the construction, making them all susceptible to lead poisoning the longer they were down here. The more he thought about it, the more he realized they were still sitting in a highly volatile situation, one that could explode at any moment from the tiniest of sparks.

When he reached the lab, the Marine guards let him in and he stood in the doorway looking over the remaining specialists. Perry couldn’t stop wondering if one of them had been the saboteur or if the guilty party had died in the blast to avoid being identified. He had been leaning toward the likelihood that the traitor had essentially committed suicide, most likely someone from the blue team, until Holly had passed out. Her rapid decline had him worried that either his earlier theory had been wrong. Someone was still causing trouble, and the chances that more than one person was involved seemed to be increasing. Too many things were going wrong from too many different directions for there to not have been some previous coordination of events. That meant that not only were all the team members potential suspects, so were the Marines guarding them. Humanity demanded he get everyone out of the lab and away from the bunker as quickly as possible. At the same time, he needed to keep people isolated so no further collusion could continue.

Perry raised his gas mask so everyone could hear him clearly. “We need to get everyone out of here but obviously we can’t all go at once. We have gas masks coming. As they arrive, the Marines will help each of you get them fitted properly to your head. We’re taking everyone up by rope so if you have any issues with heights you have about two minutes to get over it.” He paused and pointed to the three specialists nearest him. “You three and …” he looked toward the back of the group, “You, sir, in the back, please come with me.”

“What about our personal effects?” someone asked.

Perry looked around at the disheveled lab. “I’m afraid you’ll have to consider them lost. We don’t have time to go looking for things and, quite honestly, the less we move things around the better.” He knew that answer was not what anyone wanted to hear, but not only did he not want to risk them causing a spark he didn’t want to give a potential terrorist an opportunity to conceal something that might cause additional problems later.

A knock at the lab door revealed a Marine with four more gas masks. The specialists were fitted with the apparatus and given instructions to breathe as normally as possible, something easier said than done given the level of anxiety that everyone was feeling. Only someone who felt like they had some level of control could be calm in this situation and no one here, including Perry, felt as though they had any control at all. Too many things seemed to be happening too quickly.

When he opened the door to step back into the demolished hallway, the view reminded Perry even more of being deep inside a cave. Taking the lead, he stumbled more than ever over the debris he had missed just a few minutes ago. He tried motioning to the specialists behind him when he came across something particularly obtrusive, but they couldn’t see any better than Perry could so his efforts had little effect. The Marine who had delivered the masks was bringing up the rear and Perry chuckled quietly at the frequent cursing he heard behind him as they reacted to all the stumbling. Manners and protocol were set aside when pain and frustration met.

A span of 200 yards littered with rubble stood between the lab door and the opening in the top of the bunker. The small lights being carried by various Marines almost looked like lightning bugs in the distance. Breathing through the filtered gas masks created a specific white noise that was fodder for various references to the Star Wars saga. Any chance to giggle or groan at attempted humor was a welcome break from the intensity of the moment. Every specialist realized that not only had their past 15 years of work been a failure but had contributed to the deaths of their friends and co-workers. Only Perry was slightly aware of what was unfolding elsewhere and even he didn’t have anything close to a full picture of the devastation.

They were still roughly 50 yards from the opening when Perry heard a faint noise behind them. At first, he thought perhaps it was someone’s anxious stomach rumbling but as he listened it became louder and more continuous. Soon, the others heard it as well and the group stopped and looked behind them. The rumble became more of a groan as the ground began to shake. The slow bending of metal and steel turned into a long, low scream and dust began falling around them.

Perry quickly realized what was happening. “The roof’s caving in!” he yelled as best he could through the gas mask. “Get to the wall,” he added, motioning them toward the nearest upright structure.

As the ground shook and more dust filled the air, it was difficult to not panic as they stumbled and fell trying to reach the wall. At one point, the ground beneath them heaved and pushed them in the direction they needed to go but at the same time created another barrier between them and the opening.

Topside, the Marines manning the rescue lines quickly pulled them up and backed further away from the top of the bunker. They could see the far end of the bunker beginning to collapse and moved as quickly as possible to avoid being caught in the tragedy unfolding underneath them. There was nothing they could do to stop it from happening. Everyone in the bunker was about to be buried alive.

What little light they had was quickly eliminated. Perry tried moving in the direction he thought the wall should be, but as they had to keep dodging debris in the floor he was no longer certain of which direction was what, nor was he sure he had all the specialists and the Marine still with him. Suddenly, after stumbling forward for what felt like an eternity, Perry felt a hand grab the back of his shirt collar and push him forward into the wall just as the ceiling completed its descent, piling more lead and concrete and steel around them. The wall provided enough safety to keep them from being crushed for the moment.

As the noise died down, Perry commanded, “Count off!”

“One!” the Marine immediately answered, setting the example for the others.



There was a pause just long enough to worry them that someone had been lost, but then a weak “Four!” was heard, allowing everyone else to feel a moment of slight relief.

The group sat in the silence for the moment, not sure what to say or do just yet. Finally, someone decided to ask, “What do we do now?”

“We wait,” Perry said. “There’s probably trouble topside as well. They’ll have to figure things out up there before they can come looking for us.”

“Well fuck,” said one of the specialists through his mask. “I guess we’re missing the lunch trucks.”

The group chuckled at what seemed like a humorous reference, but Perry suddenly felt cold. He knew he was trapped with a traitor.

Strength To Keep A Promise

Natalie and Darrell’s two-bedroom apartment was far from being large. Coming in at a little over 700 square feet, the open floor plan and a lack of excessive furniture made it easy to entertain friends as long as they kept the guest list under ten. A large television was mounted to the wall at one end with a shelf filled with old DVDs and vinyl albums directly beneath it. In the corner sat all the necessary electronic equipment including a turntable for the albums. Along the other wall was a large bookcase full of the various books Natalie had collected. Darrell had one of similar size in his room full of books related to software and coding, most of which were now outdated as the various protocols and languages seemed to be in a constant state of change.

Furniture was limited to a makeshift couch of plywood stretched across old milk crates and covered with overside pillows, a giant bean bag, and an old upholstered chair that had been rescued from someone’s trash. The chair was never in the same place, though, as Natalie frequently moved it around to avoid the glare from the balcony’s sliding glass doors as she wrote.

An open floor plan meant only a small counter separated the kitchen from the living room, which, again, was convenient for having guests over. More often than not, Darrell and his friends would congregate there, next to the refrigerator while Natalie and her friends were either playing her latest vinyl find or watching an old movie.

Natalie’s bedroom was the larger of the two, though not by much. The biggest difference was that hers had a massive window on one wall which meant waking up to sunlight most mornings. She had a queen-size bed with no headboard in the middle of the room with smaller bookshelves scattered around the perimeter with other books haphazardly across the floor.

The walls were still the stark white they had been when they moved, the larger portions of flat space broken up by random pieces of artwork they had purchased in support of various friends who were artists. Many people thought that one abstract nude hanging in her bedroom looked a lot like Natalie but she always denied that it was her.

Their apartment was always cluttered, typically with old mail and laundry occupying any available flat space. Cleaning before a party amounted to throwing away the mail and hiding the laundry in the bathtub until everyone was gone. Unfortunately, Natalie hadn’t expected the “party” taking place in their apartment now. Nothing had been put up. She still had a pile of bras and panties on the kitchen counter and Darrell’s old band t-shirts were still draped on the back of kitchen chairs with a mountain of junk mail in the middle of the small kitchen table at which no one ever actually sat.

Natalie looked around her crowded living room. She liked people, for the most part, but those who were currently her guests were all wet, barely dressed, and not necessarily happy to be there even though her apartment was unquestionably better than the rising water they had endured over the past two hours. At the very least, this was a markedly different crowd from those she typically invited over to try some new exotic food or watch a foreign documentary she had uncovered.

She also realized that she didn’t know everyone’s name. Three women from the coffee shop’s back table had survived the trip, though Natalie was still unsure whether the older woman would fully recover from the ordeal. And while she knew Miranda and Gwen, they didn’t know any of the people she had brought from the coffee shop, except for Reesie, who seemed to inherently know everyone, or they knew her.

Making it back to her apartment hadn’t eased Natalie’s anxiety all that much but had merely shifted its focus. All her towels were in use along with some blankets she had stored in the closet. The washer and drier in her apartment were small capacity but at least she could get everyone’s clothes clean and dry within a couple of hours. Only Barry had refused to give his up and no one had argued with him. Food, though, was a worry. She and Darrell both ate out often enough that filling the cupboards and refrigerator didn’t seem practical. It was past noon now and even if anxiety still had most stomachs churning they would still need to eat.

She couldn’t help looking toward Barry. Judging him was obviously the wrong thing to do but she wondered how much he actually ate on a daily basis. Did she even have enough food to get him through a single meal, much less whatever extended time they might have to stay there? With rain still falling it seemed unlikely that her guests would be able to go to their own homes very soon. Natalie looked over at the kitchen counter. She didn’t even have a full loaf of bread.

Reesie looked over at Natalie and recognized the look of panic on the younger woman’s face. Reesie walked over and put her arm around her new friend. “I’m guessing this probably isn’t anything like the crowd you have over for movie night,” she said.

Natalie giggled. “How’d you guess?” she asked.
Reesie nodded toward the posters on the wall. “No one has ever heard of any of those movies,” she said. “Nor has anyone read the books on your shelves. Is the vinyl yours or your guy friend’s?”

“It’s a mix,” Natalie said. “The EDM is mostly his. He likes to listen to it while coding. I’m more the indy rock and jazz type. We both like the old classics from the 60s, though.”

“You two do realize you’re a walking, living, breathing stereotype, right?” Reesie laughed.

Natalie rolled her eyes. This wasn’t the first time that accusation had been made against them. “Yeah, we work hard to maintain our status as a valued demographic,” she teased, “right down to the stifling college debt.”

The conversation lulled a moment as both women stood there watching the interactions around the room. Barry had resumed his conversation with Amanda, but their tone and topic had changed. Amanda was more concerned now about creating an app that would let her work with clients without having to leave home as often. Miranda, still topless, was pretending to listen to Carlson who was busy making up some story that exaggerated how important he was and completely ignored the fact he was actually unemployed. Gwen was talking with the women from the back table, particularly the younger of the three, nodding her head and smiling at whatever she was being told.

After a moment, Reesie said, “I guess we should go help figure out how to get Adam up here.”

“Yeah,” Natalie agreed, almost absent-mindedly. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, but she had shifted to wondering how she was going to make up for the work she was losing and how she was going to replace her phone and her laptop. “I guess the best move would probably be to make some kind of sling.”

“That makes sense,” Reesie said. “Distribute the weight so he’s easier to carry.”

Natalie gave the matter some thought for a moment. “There are probably a couple of other options, but let me grab a duvet just in case. I think I have one that should be strong enough.” She trotted off to her bedroom and returned quickly, motioning with her head for Reesie to follow.

As they bounded down the stairs, Reesie commented, “I guess it’s a good thing cops in the neighborhood have other things to worry about than two women running around half naked.”

Natalie laughed. “You’ve not met the cops around here. They’d stop and want to take pictures with us.”

They quickly reached the landing where Amber and Darrell were keeping watch over Adam. “I brought this thinking we could make it into a sling and use that to carry him up the stairs,” Natalie said holding up the duvet. “Unless either of you has a better idea.”

Darrell took the duvet and placed it on the landing next to Adam. There was no way to completely unfold it without getting the duvet wet in the flood water that would soon overtake the landing. “How do we get him on it without getting it, him, and us all wet?” he asked.

“Think we could slip it under him from the other side, roll him a bit like they do when changing sheets under a comatose person in the hospital?” Reesie suggested.

Amber and Natalie nodded. They carefully rolled Adam to his side while Reesie and Darrell slipped as much of the duvet under him as they could. The women then rolled Adam the other direction, while Darrell pulled the duvet on through until it was completely under the comatose man. There was still plenty of the duvet left to keep Adam covered and still give them something to hold as they carried him up the stairs.

“Okay,” Natalie started as they all evaluated the situation. “Who’s going to take which corner?”

Looking at the stairs and considering the options available, Amber said, “I think we have to put you two in front and let Darrell and me handle things from here. I’m sorry Natalie, but you’re so much shorter than the rest of us you’d be swamped if we put you anywhere else.”

Natalie looked around. Rarely had she been called short, but Darrell was 6’ 3”, Reesie was 6’ 2”, and Amber was an astonishing 6’ 7”. Natalie was a miniature figurine by comparison. “Great, thanks for giving me another reason to challenge my self-worth, ya’ll,” she said as she attempted to pick up the corner closest to her.

The other three grabbed the corners closest to them and lifted. Quickly, it became apparent that the dead weight of an unconscious person who was soaking wet was not something they were going to move in this manner. They sat Adam back down and looked at each other, not quite sure what to do next.

Reesie sighed. “I feel bad. There’s got to be something we can do. Like, if we had a wheelchair or something we could put him in.”

Darrell looked over to Natalie. “Mrs. Liebovitch in 207, isn’t she in a wheelchair? I know she uses that motorized thing now, but she’s the reason we have the lift at that end of the building. She’d almost certainly have a regular one, wouldn’t she?”

“Probably,” Natalie agreed, “but she went to stay with her niece in Florida last week. And she’s always been a bit paranoid. Her door has like five locks on it.”

“We can get past the damn locks,” Darrell said. “If the choice is vandalism and theft or letting a man die, I’ll risk the vandalism and theft.”

Reesie looked at him a second then sarcastically said, “Good thing you’re a white boy. They’d hang me out to dry for something like that no matter what the reason.”

Darrell’s face flushed with embarrassment as he looked down and Natalie looked over the railing at the rushing water below, pretending to ignore the conversation.

“Or,” Amber said, breaking the unexpected tension, “I can just carry him.”

The other three looked at the tall, bare-breasted woman incredulously.

Amber read the doubt in their faces. “Look, I’ve been benching between 300 and 325 for the past two months. If Darrell can help position him so I can get him on my shoulders, and then you all spot me on the stairs, make sure I don’t whop his head on something, I think I’ve got this and I think it’s our best option without breaking any laws.” She gave a quick side glance in Darrell’s direction. “We can’t leave him here and honestly, all the jiggling and everything he’s had to go through to this point can’t be doing him any good. Even if we had something with wheels, wrangling him into it and securing him could do more damage. I fireman’s carry him up and he’s moved less and we get him to a safe place sooner.”

“And if you fall … “ Natalie started.

“I’m not going to fall,” Amber said firmly. “I’ve done a fireman’s carry with a buddy that was 285 and that was easy. I ran the length of a football field with him on my shoulders and he giggled the whole time.” She paused and looked at the unconscious man on the landing. “Besides, I promised Angela I’d look after him. He’s an independent cuss who doesn’t like being helped, but he doesn’t have any choice now. I’ve got him, guys.’ She stretched her arms above her head and twisted her waist a couple of times. “Darrell, help me set him up a little bit so I don’t strain my back.”

Darrell helped Amber set Adam upright, propping him in the corner of the railing and then continued to hold him upright while Amber stretched a couple of more times. She put her right foot between Adam’s legs, then leaned over and grabbed his right arm just above the wrist. In a move that looked a lot easier than it actually was, Amber ducked and lifted Adam onto her shoulders, shifted a little to balance his weight better, then stood up carefully.

Natalie and Reesie looked at each other, consciously not letting their mouths drop open. Seeing Amber standing there, her muscles flexed, her tanned skin glistening with the rainwater, both were thinking that they had never been more attracted to another woman before in their lives.

The sight wasn’t lost on Darrell either, who was equally impressed and a bit ashamed at the same time. He had held some fantasies about the woman who lived in 106 before but at this moment he realized she was so far out of his league that even his fantasies were inappropriate.

Amber started off up the steps, Natalie in front of her to make sure Adam’s head didn’t hit anything, Darrell and Reesie cautiously spotting her from behind. Adam’s weight was more than she had carried before and his softer features made it more difficult to keep him balanced on her shoulders. At each landing, she stopped and shifted him just a little. She hated having to move him at all but knew this was still better than the jostling he would have gotten from backing a wheelchair up the stairs.

As they hit the landing for the third floor, they realized they had an audience. Everyone had left Natalie’s apartment to see what was going on and was now cheering Amber on as she continued up the stairs with Adam on her shoulders. Cheers went up as she reached the fourth-floor landing. Natalie guided them through the small crowd and the narrow doorway of the apartment, instructing Amber to take Adam back to her bedroom. As Amber placed Adam gently on the bed, everyone else cheered again, congratulating her for her strength.

Amber looked at Natalie and sighed. They both knew this was far from over.

Transfer of Power

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building is a massive structure in the French Second Empire style of architecture that sits next door to the West Wing of the White House. Completed in 1888, it had originally housed what was generally considered the most important Cabinet offices: State, War, and Navy. Having undergone multiple revitalization efforts over the years, and having multiple times been slated for destruction, the ornate building now housed a number of offices for the ever-expanding White House staff. One of those including what is formally considered the “ceremonial” office of the Vice President, who also maintains a working office in the White House.

Today, however, the ceremonial office had seemed to be the better choice for getting work done because, primarily, this office had massive windows which meant they had light, something that the smaller White House windows did not provide well. Vice President Abernathy also found that the size and constant motion of the Eisenhower Building made it easier for him to come and go rather innocuously, away from the press whose eyes were constantly on the West Wing.

Andrew knew something was up, though, when the typical white noise of conversation dipped at an undeniable level. He stepped to the nearest window and noticed multiple Secret Service agents running to get into waiting black SUVs parked under the portico. Something was up. Either the president was about to take action or was leaving the White House. With phone communications between the buildings still down, though, he could only guess until someone bothered to fill him in.

Andrew stepped back to his desk, setting down the piece of legislation he had been discussing with aides. “Something’s up next door,” he calmly said to the staff gathered in the room. “We should probably be ready to respond whenever we get the message. If the Pentagon has identified a responsible party, I’m sure the president is going after them in the most aggressive way possible. We’ll likely need to head toward the Senate.”

His aides murmured and a couple excused themselves to run and obtain documents relative to the Senate’s role in authorizing acts of war. As president of the Senate, the Vice President technically presided over every session of the deliberative body. However, the practical aspects of the role meant that most days he never set foot in the building, instead, delegating the presiding role to various senators on a rotating and partisan basis. Only when the topic at hand was of the utmost seriousness with the possibility of a tight vote did the Vice President bother making the trip over.

Andrew waited, doing his best to squelch the impatience of having to wait for obviously critical information. Had he been in the White House, he would already know what was going on. Maybe. President Blackstone wasn’t known for consulting him very often before taking action. In fact, it had fallen to Andrew on multiple occasions to rush to the Senate and smooth things over after the president had said something off-the-cuff that caught everyone, including him, off guard. He was hoping that this wasn’t going to be another one of those occasions. Being in the position of attempting to explain the president ultimately made him look weak, more like an errand boy rather than a valued advisor.

Andrew knew the severity of the situation would be telegraphed by who delivered the message. The arrival of an intern meant that the matter was a relatively low priority, something he could likely delegate to one of his own staff members. A member of a White House staff, especially senior staff, meant that the matter was serious, one that likely required some study and consultation directly with the White House. This morning, though, it was none of those. A member of his own Secret Service detail walked through the door and came directly to the Vice President and whispered into his ear, “Eagle is down. Your presence at the White House is required immediately.”

Andrew’s face went pale. “Eagle is down” was the one phrase he had never wanted to hear. As much as he had grown to loathe his former running mate over the past two years, he wanted a transfer of power to be quiet and as uneventful as possible, especially if it happened now when the majority of the country wouldn’t get the news for several hours, possibly days. He felt his knees begin to buckle, then the firm hands of the agent holding him up.

“Are you okay, sir,” the agent asked, looking Andrew hard in the face.

Andrew swallowed hard. “Yes, I’m fine,” he said, his voice quivering. “That just wasn’t a message I was expecting.”

Another agent appeared and flanked the Vice President.

“We need to go now, sir,” the first agent said as they led Andrew toward the door at the opposite end of a room that now seemed eternally long.

Andrew looked over at his chief of staff who was standing there completely bewildered. “Transfer everything to the White House office,” he said. “We’re going to be there for a moment.”

Secret Service agents quickly escorted Andrew out of the building and into a waiting SUV. At times, it struck Andrew as rather ridiculous that he couldn’t just walk to the building next door; that would have been considerably faster, especially in moments such as this where time was a serious factor. Security concerns being what they were, however, he knew that the heavily-armored SUV was the only way to make sure he actually made it to the White House. The trip would take three minutes, minimum.

Andrew also knew that all over town at that same moment, a flurry of Constitutionally-required activities was taking place. In a couple of minutes, Secret Service agents would be pulling aside Norma and Graham, delivering similar messages and rushing them to the White House. Had this been a different Tuesday on a different week, agents would have rushed to the Supreme Court building to alert the Chief Justice, Barclay Ellinsworth. However, the court was on recess this week. While his office would know of his whereabouts, the Chief Justice did not typically make his itinerary public for security reasons. No matter what might be happening with the president, nothing could officially take place until the Chief Justice was on the scene.

On other trips where Andrew had been summoned to the White House, there was an aide waiting in the SUV to update him on the pressing matter at hand. Today, though, there was no one, which meant whatever had happened was unexpected and sudden. He thought over the possible circumstances facing him. The president wasn’t exactly young at 73-years-old nor was he exactly the picture of health. He had all but ordered the White House physician to fake the information delivered to the press after each mandatory check-up. Only his closest advisors knew that the president was on medication for high blood pressure, pulmonary disease, liver disease, and diabetes. Neither did they know that the doctor was regularly running tests for signs of cancer and dementia. Any of those, especially in combination, could result in the president suddenly falling ill.

The instant the SUV pulled under the West Wing portico, the door was yanked open from the outside and the Vice President was escorted into the Oval Office. Only the president’s chief of staff, Roger Mukasi, was waiting, and the expression on Roger’s face was one of fear.

Roger waited until the door had closed before speaking. “You might want to take a seat, Mr. Vice President.”

The fact that Roger referred to him by his formal title was troubling. Like the president, Roger preferred more casual interactions between senior administration members. Andrew took a seat on the sofa opposite the president’s desk.

“Andrew, the president collapsed in the residence a few moments ago while talking with General Lang,” Roger said. “Al says the conversation wasn’t especially intense, Rudy wanted someone to blame for today’s incident. They didn’t even know about Tony yet.”

Andrew put up his hand to stop him. “Wait, didn’t know what about Tony?”

Roger swallowed hard, mentally kicking himself for forgetting that Andrew had been in another building and wasn’t aware of everything that had happened in the White House. “He was murdered, Andrew, right here in the White House, and stuffed in a janitorial closet.”

Andrew felt his stomach begin to churn. “Please tell me they got the person responsible. Secret Service is on top of it, right?”

Roger shook his head. “At this point, all they know is that it looks like the shooter is carrying the same caliber handgun as the agent’s service weapons, only with a silencer. No one heard a thing.”

“Fuck,” Andrew said, sitting back on the couch for a second, then remembering why he was here. “So, the president, he wasn’t … was he?”

“No, not that,” Roger said quickly. “Al says he just collapsed. He’d been doing most of the talking, as usual, and drinking a diet soda, as usual, and was sitting in a chair and just fell over without any warning.”

Roger sat back and gave Andrew some room.

The Vice President put his head in his hands for a moment, trying to take in the gravity of the situation, then stood up and shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets as he walked slowly toward the president’s desk. “You realize that if this morning’s meeting gets out …” he sighed.

“Yeah, I’ve already considered that,” Roger said. “I don’t think we have to worry about Norma, but for Graham’s sake, we need the doctor to give us a hard cause quickly, not a guess. We don’t need any accusations floating around out there. The doctor’s up there with him now. Everyone else has been removed from the residence except for Secret Service and the First Lady.”

Andrew tapped his fingers along the front edge of the president’s desk. There had never been any question that he eventually wanted the top job, but he had been careful to keep a public perception that he would only run after President Blackstone’s second term. “So, where are we within the reaches of Article II? 12th Amendment? 20th?” he asked, referring to the different places within the Constitution that dictated the circumstances for a transfer of power from the president to the vice president.”
Roger turned in his chair. “Currently, the second article of the 25th. It would be a presumed temporary transfer, the same as if the president were having routine surgery or something. It communicates an assumption that the president will return to authority once he comes out of the effects of anesthesia or whatever. As long as his heart is still beating, that’s where we’re at.”

“So the Chief Justice isn’t required?” Andrew asked.

“Had the president had time to sign a temporary transfer of power we wouldn’t need him. As it is, he has to swear you in as soon as possible. They’re looking for him now.”

“And if he’s out of town?”

“The most senior associate available can swear you in,” Roger said. “I think Justice Kreugel is available. She deplores public speaking events. She’s most likely at home lecturing her cats.”

Andrew smiled and nodded. Justice Eliana Kreugel was the most liberal member of the court and frequently opposed to many of the president’s policies. Swearing him in, knowing he was even more conservative, would not be something that would make her happy.

“How long do we wait before calling Justice Kreugel?” Andrew asked.

Roger thought for a second. “I don’t think we can do anything until we have a definitive word from the doctor,” he said. “And that should be coming shortly.”

The door opened and both the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate walked into the Oval Office. “They let us ride over together this time,” Norma said. “What’s the president’s condition?”

“And what happened to cause it,” Graham added, looking suspiciously at Andrew.

“We’re waiting for a word from the doctor,” Roger said. “He was getting his briefing from General Lang and slumped over without warning.”

“And the Chief Justice?” Graham asked.

“We’re looking for him,” Roger answered, feeling strangely attacked by the senator’s tone. “There’s a good chance he’s out of town. If so, Justice Kreugel can administer the oath on a provisionary basis.”

The door opened again and the White House physician, Dr. Bernard Zinky, came in, his stethoscope around his neck. His face was flushed and he appeared out of breath. “I’m sending for an ambulance,” the doctor said without bothering with formalities. “You’ll want the Chief Justice here as quickly as possible and you’ll want to keep him here until we know something more definite.”

“That’s not sounding good, Bernie,” Roger said. “What happened?”

“I’m not sure just yet,” the physician replied. “His blood pressure dropped severely and he has some unexplained bruising. The symptoms are consistent with diabetic ketoacidosis but this severe reaction should only happen with long-term insulin issues, such as ingesting too much sugar and assuming the kitchen has been maintaining his diet that shouldn’t be the case. I’m taking him to Walter Reid and doing blood work to be sure. At the very least, the president is unable to fulfill his duties for the rest of the day. I’ll sign the necessary documentation to that fact, just have it delivered to the hospital.”

All heads turned as an ambulance pulled under the West Wing portico.

Bernie looked directly at Roger, “I suggest for now that you tell the press this is just a precaution. At this point, given everything that has happened this morning, I don’t even know that all the equipment is back up and working at Walter Reid. This could be nothing more than exhaustion. No point in  getting everyone panicked.” He turned and headed toward the door. “Don’t forget that declaration,” he called over his shoulder as he closed the door.

Bernie trotted out to the waiting ambulance. Two Secret Service agents helped him into the back and closed the door. The First Lady was helped into an SUV directly behind the ambulance. The line of vehicles moving in unison toward the gate looked like a small parade.

Another Secret Service agent popped his head through the Oval Office door. “Mr. Mukaski, I’ll have a vehicle here for you in two minutes,” he said.

“Thank you,” Roger replied, then he turned to the others. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some papers to fill out real quick. I’ll take the physician’s statement with me to the hospital and leave the transfer of power stuff here for the Chief Justice or whoever they can find.” He paused and headed toward the door leading to his office, then turned around as though suddenly remembering something important. “You three, don’t leave the building. We’re going to need you.”

As Roger disappeared into his office, Andrew looked at Norma and Graham and said, “Well, I do happen to have my own office in this building. Why don’t you join me and we’ll talk about what happens next?”

Struggling To Breathe

Perry leaned back against the wall and tried to catch his breath. He was quickly getting frustrated with the number of compounding problems beating down on him today. Having the test go sideways was enough. That it took the entire country offline and had already caused unknown thousands of deaths was a horror he still hadn’t had time to fully comprehend. Then, the blast costing him half of his team, and now a cave-in that quite possibly could have killed some of the remaining specialists. He had no way to know whether anyone left in the lab had survived.

“This is one helluva nightmare,” Perry thought to himself, “and I’m ready to wake up at any time.” He reached over and pinched his left arm, just to be sure. There was no light. Neither he nor the Marine accompanying them had lights on their breathing apparatus. The dust and debris from the cave-in filled the air with a cloud of heavy smoke. Even if they had not been stuck behind a massive slab of concrete, they wouldn’t have been able to see much of anything beyond their own shadows. To some degree, they were probably safer here than they would be out in the open.

Through the darkness and the filter of a gas mask, one of the specialists asked, “Hey, Mr. Hawkins! How long do you think it will take them to find us? I’m kinda down here without my meds, which is okay for now. I can probably go a day or so.”

“They’ll go rescue the Colonel first,” said another voice that sounded slightly closer to Perry. With the air filters in place, telling the difference between them was difficult. “We’re all just little cogs on a big wheel.”

A deeper voice spoke up from the back. “No, we’re not, we’ve got the Lieutenant Colonel with us,” the voice argued. “They’ll be looking for us first because he’s the only one who has any idea what’s going on.”

Perry wished that was true. At the moment, he wasn’t sure anyone had a clue as to what was really going on.

“Wait, I thought Hawkins was civilian,” said another voice. “You mean we’ve been working for the military this entire time? No wonder everything blew up. They’re trying to eliminate any witnesses.”

This conversation was going in a bad direction quickly. Perry spoke up. “I’m former military and have been a civilian for over 20 years,” he told the others. “The colonel reactivated me when the president declared martial law.”

“Martial law? You mean the military is running the government now?” asked the same voice. “Damn, we’re all fucking doomed down here.”

Perry wished he could see people’s faces so he could directly confront the ignorance he was hearing from the specialists. “Look, a lot of things happened outside when that test blew up this morning,” he said as firmly as he could through the mask. “A lot of bad things happened and a lot of people died. The only way the president could send people to help was to declare martial law. That’s it. The military is not taking over.”

“Although, it might be better if they did,” said a specialist.

Even through the mask, Perry recognized that voice.