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Don’t Forget To Breathe
“How long do you think it will take them to find us,” one of the specialists asked to no one in particular.
No one had said anything for several minutes. The air was still thick with dust from the collapsed bunker. Had it not been for their gas masks, breathing would have been impossible. They sat with their backs against a concrete wall crouched tightly with their knees against their chests and no room to move as the slab of concrete and steel laid tightly against them. The initial moments hadn’t been too bad but the longer they sat in that same position the more uncomfortable they became. Of the six of them, four were over six feet tall, including Perry. Being in such tight quarters risked permanent circulatory and nerve damage if they didn’t get out within a couple of hours.
When no one else said anything, Perry eventually spoke up. “There’s no way of knowing. We don’t know how much of the bunker collapsed, how many more people were hurt, or how it affected the overall structure. They’ll need to do some kind of rudimentary engineering analysis before they even start or else more people could be hurt. I wouldn’t expect anyone down here at all for at least an hour.”
Had there been any light, Perry would have looked down the short row of specialists and seen the fear in their faces, the tears in their eyes, and the sense of desperation scattered among them. Only the Marine who had been bringing up the rear seemed relaxed, leaning his head back against the wall, trying to slow his breathing and practicing meditation techniques in an attempt to stay calm.
“Maybe we could play a word game or something to pass the time,” another specialist suggested.
Again, the comment was met with silence.
“Okay, maybe not …” the specialist said, feeling all the more defeated.
Staying calm, quiet, and in place was their safest move. Only half of them had the training to know that, though. Three of the specialists were technicians who spent all their time in front of a computer screen. Even when they weren’t in the bunker, they all had side projects that tested their skills and allowed them to explore ideas they would later use in their work. These weren’t especially athletically-minded people who went exploring outside their own homes. What they were facing now was a situation they had never dreamed they would experience.
Perry measured his breathing, which was made a bit easier as the gas mask magnified the sound of every breath he took. He inhaled slowly through his nose, counting to himself, “one, two, three, four,” hold for another four seconds, then slowly back out his mouth with his lips pursed as though he was trying to move the flame of a candle without blowing it out. He closed his eyes and tried to think of a more relaxing environment but every time he found a mental picture that worked for him something else would jar him back to the present—the sound of falling concrete, stabbing pain in his legs, a whimper from one of the specialists. The minutes passed slowly, quietly, as though trapped in a tomb.
Only the knowledge that somewhere above them there were people rushing to try and find a safe way down into the massive crater that was the remains of the bunker provided Perry with any comfort. He knew there would be engineers questioning the structural integrity of the remaining portions, looking for ways to search for survivors without potentially weakening the existing walls, and creating a rescue plan. The Marine Corp had manuals full of procedures for how to perform this kind of rescue. There were steps in place outlining exactly what had to be done. The challenge, Perry knew, was finding those manuals and assembling the people who could take those instructions and turn them into an actionable plan. Perry knew that enough time had not passed for anyone to begin looking for them yet.
In the dark, Perry wasn’t sure how much distance was between each of them. He knew the Marine was far enough away talking to him meant trying to shout through the mask. At least they had masks. He thought of the specialists he had left in the lab. Had they survived? How many of them were injured? How long would they be able to breathe air permeated with concrete dust? He quietly pounded the side of his fist against the wall behind him. No matter how quickly they had tried to work after the phone, they hadn’t been fast enough. One disaster followed another. Too many people were dying or injured. There was no way this could be an accident.
He thought about the voice he had heard earlier, the one who had joked about missing the lunch trucks. Lunch trucks were never scheduled in advance. Perry would have his assistant call them on days when the testing was too hectic for specialists to leave or needed to work extended shifts. Most days, they brought lunch with them. Each lab was equipped with refrigeration units anyway, so few people ever complained. Meetings were occasionally catered if they consumed the lunch zone from 11:00 through 1:30, but food trucks were a relatively rare occurrence.
However, they were part of the emergency response plan. The assumption had been that in the event of a fire or some other unimaginable disaster that specialists would evacuate too quickly to retrieve their food. The food trucks would provide food and water to both the specialists and emergency personnel as long as needed. The emergency response plan was not a widely distributed binder. In fact, only five hard copies of the document existed, none of which were located in the bunker except for Perry’s own office. While access to the plan was not necessarily restricted, it certainly wasn’t on anyone’s “must read” list. Specialists had not been involved in its creation. The handful of people who had bothered to request viewing it, primarily those from the engineering section, had only browsed sections directly related to their own work. For a specialist to know that there would be food trucks meant that they had, at the very least, read through the details of the plan. The information wasn’t something part of general conversation.
The more Perry thought about the emergency response plan, the more it bothered him. The plan had, of necessity, covered the various potential weaknesses of the bunker and the outside facilities. While the bunker was constructed to the most rigid requirements possible, every structure has its weak points. Going through the various aspects of that risk analysis in his mind, Perry shuddered as he realized what had happened.
Three critical weak points had been identified. One was the single-point-of-entry accessible only by a single road between the base and town. The first bomb had blown a crater in that road. The second was the bunker’s central dome, the main access point. Most of the load-bearing elements were contained right here. Destroying the dome put much of the rest of the bunker at risk, as was obvious in their current circumstance. The third was the limited number of emergency exits. With the main access tunnel destroyed, there were only four other exit-only points away from the facility, two of which were accessible only with emergency codes. While events had happened too quickly for Perry to be certain, the location of the plane crash was such that it likely eliminated the exit that was accessible to the highest number of people. This would force them to migrate to other sections and require opening one if not both of the coded exits.
Perry felt a chill as he realized what had happened. The plane’s downing wasn’t an accident at all. Rather, it had been a deliberate suicide mission carefully planned to attack them at their most vulnerable points. This hadn’t been the work of a single individual—it was too complicated and required too much coordination for that. That meant there were multiple traitors among the group of specialists and they had organized, planned, and carried out their attack right under his nose.
Perry had never suspected a thing. He had trusted every person in the bunker. They had all undergone the most severe background checks possible, more stringent than top-level CIA agents. Each of the 486 people working there had a security clearance vetted by top NSA and FBI personnel. As an added precaution, over half had been subjected to a post-employment test where an undercover FBI agent pretending to act on behalf of another country or special-interest group attempted to convince the employee to reveal information about the bunker and the work going on there. Only three people had ever failed and they were terminated and in federal prison.
Still, somehow, at some point, a group of traitors had come together and developed and successfully implemented a heinous plan that not only took out the bunker but killed dozens of people and put the security of the entire nation at risk. Perry wondered if they had been there from the beginning or if they had somehow become disillusioned along the way. They had anticipated a certain amount of disappointment among those hired. There was no such thing as a perfect work environment and any number of psychological factors could turn a person sour on their employment. Internal security had worked with HR to carefully watch for signs of those conditions, though, and had presumably addressed those situations quickly before they had a chance to become severe. What had they all missed? With so many people watching, how could they all have missed the signs unless someone in the security team had been in on the plot as well?
Perry refused to believe that such a large-scale rebellion could exist within the closely-watched and carefully guarded confines of their operation without him knowing. As they had grown closer to the final test date, he had increased security scans and monitoring of external activities nearly 300 percent. He knew whose marriages were crumbling. He knew which specialists were sleeping together. He even knew which women had yet to tell their partners that they were pregnant. Yet, somehow, this had slipped past him?
An overwhelming sense of failure engulfed Perry and a tear involuntarily ran down his cheek. He realized that from this point forward he could trust no one, not even the Marines. Anyone could be the enemy. Someone had just deliberately and maliciously attacked the United States. That meant Perry’s responsibility no longer focused on the survival of anyone in the bunker, but rather the survival of his country.
He took a long breath, held it, counted to four, and slowly let it out through his lips. In the darkness, Perry had found clarity.
Puzzles With Missing Pieces
As the line of black armored SUVs pulled around Palmer Road cruising toward the emergency room entrance, Roger could already tell that the situation at the hospital was anything but normal. Non-hospital personnel and patient visitors had been evacuated and everyone was being held behind heavily-guarded barriers well away from the hospital. No one was happy and the level of protest was audible even from his secure seat in the vehicle.
The very fact that they were here spoke to the seriousness of the situation. The White House Medical Unit (WHMU) had been created as part of the 25th amendment to take care of the ongoing health needs of the president, vice president, Cabinet members, and any visiting dignitaries. They had a large, well-trained team headed up by a director who served as the president’s personal physician. Any time the president or anyone around him was feeling the slightest bit ill, it was up to this team to provide sufficient care without doing anything that might accidentally cause the press and/or the public to panic. Therefore, they were thoroughly equipped to handle a large number of emergencies without leaving the White House.
This was President Blackstone’s first non-ceremonial visit to Walter Reed hospital but there had always been plans in place, as there were for every president, to establish a specific protocol should he ever need their care. Most importantly, WHMU Director Bernard Zinky would remain in charge of the president’s medical care, over-riding the authority of existing hospital staff. Zinky called the shots at all time knowing full well his responsibility to inform Roger and the vice president should, in his opinion, the president, even temporarily, not be able to fulfill his duties.
Who assisted Dr. Zinky was not a matter left to chance, either. Each shift contained designated personnel, doctors, nurses, residents, and assistants, who were vetted to help attend to the president. Only these personnel would be allowed in the same room as the president and even then there had to be at least three of them at all times for security purposes.
As Roger’s SUV pulled up to the emergency room and his door opened, he was immediately struck by the large number of Secret Service members standing outside rather than at their post indoors. “Why’s everyone standing around out here?” Roger asked the nearest agent.
“No comms,” the agent replied. “The only way we can communicate with each other is to keep messengers running back and forth.”
Roger considered the size of the hospital and how many people would be needed to relay messages across the large group. They needed cell and phone service back up quickly.
Walking into the emergency room, Roger walked straight to the head of the president’s security detail. “What do we know?”
The agent shook his head. “Dr. Zinky has yet to give us any update.”
Roger nodded and turned around. The waiting room had been cleared except for the First Lady and primary members of her staff huddled over in a corner. Roger walked toward them and the group stepped back to allow the president’s Chief of Staff into their circle. He gave the First Lady a hug. “How are you holding up, Tasha?”
The president’s wife had obviously been crying. She held a crumpled tissue in her left hand, her eyes were red and slightly swollen. “They’re not telling me anything, Roger,” she said, her native French accent obvious. “All I know is that he was in there fussing at someone about wanting to look out the window and then suddenly he’s passed out on the ground. That’s all! I have no idea what happened.”
Roger put a comforting arm around the young woman some 30 years the president’s junior. She was his third wife, a former model, and junior member of the French diplomatic corp when Rudy had first met her some fifteen years ago. Roger had known the president’s other wives as well. Tasha was probably the most intelligent of the three but she was also the one most likely to cause the president trouble. Many of her private views were exactly the opposite of Rudy’s. A significant amount of energy went between Roger and his counterpart on the First Lady’s staff, Ann Morrow, to prevent situations where the First Lady directly contradicted the president. They hadn’t always been successful.
“I’m sure Bernie’s taking good care of him,” Roger said, trying to sound as encouraging as possible.
Tasha huffed. “Bernie prescribes whiskey as Rudy’s bedtime medicine. You’ll pardon me if my confidence is a little lacking.”
Roger smiled, chuckling on the inside but trying to not let on that the president’s “whiskey” was actually ulcer medication laced with apple juice. Even the president didn’t know all the tricks the medical staff used to make sure he was properly medicated. The public would have been alarmed had they known just how much medication the president was taking. “He has the best help in the world in there, Tasha. I’m sure they’ll diagnose the problem quickly.”
Roger turned and motioned for Ann to follow him. They stepped a few feet away, where the group wouldn’t be able to hear them. “Have you prepped her for what’s about to happen?” he asked.
Ann nodded. “I’m not sure she fully understands how it all works, but I’ve already sent a couple of people over to coordinate with Mrs. Abernathy. I’ve made reservations for Mrs. Blackstone and the family at the Washington Conrad. We’ll have people transfer them over while she’s still here. We’ll be ready to adjust no matter which way this goes.”
Roger nodded. “Thank you, that helps a lot.”
“Which way do you think this is going, Roger?” Ann asked. “Usually there’s enough scuttlebutt running around to fuel a dozen theories but I’m not hearing a thing today and all these agents are tight-lipped.”
Roger shrugged. “You know about as much as I do, Ann. Al was talking to him, he was animated, and then he wasn’t. He’s not exactly a young man. The options are frightening.”
Ann dropped her voice to a whisper. “So, they’re swearing in Andrew?”
“Not yet,” Roger said, shaking his head, “which puts us on really shaky ground. I need the doctor to sign the paperwork and we are still looking for the Chief Justice. We need him sworn in quickly. There’s not supposed to be any gap in leadership.”
Ann looked around, grabbed Roger’s elbow and pulled him further away from the First Lady. “Don’t expect this to go smoothly,” she warned. “Tasha’s got something up her sleeve and she’s not telling me what. See that woman in the blue suit with the red scarf? That’s Gloria Fastbaum. She’s a constitutional expert at Yale and a practicing attorney, specializing in, get this, presidential succession. She’s been ‘visiting’ Tasha, staying in the guest room of the residence, for three days.”
Roger struggled to keep his voice down. “Why did I not know this? I should have been informed the moment she arrived!”
“I know! So should I,” Ann said. “Somehow, because no one pays any attention to what the First Lady is doing,” she paused to give Roger a knowing look, “she was able to sneak her in. I just found out this morning before everything else went to shit.”
“So, she’s been here the entire time?” Roger asked.
Ann nodded her head. “Yeah, and the whole rule-breaking secrecy of it all has me more than a little concerned. You know as well as I do Tasha only plays dumb for the cameras. She’s intelligent and ruthlessly conniving. I don’t know what she’s up to but the fact that I’m allegedly her best friend and have been left out of the loop on this is disturbing.”
Roger nodded his head. “Keep your ear to the ground, let me know what you hear, even if you don’t think it’s relevant. There’s something completely off about today and I’m not sure who we can trust even within the party.”
Ann nodded her agreement and then returned to the First Lady’s group just as Dr. Zinky stepped into the lobby. He headed straight for Roger. “This isn’t looking good, Roger,” the doctor said. “You have the papers?”
Roger handed over the necessary forms and a pen. The WHMU director quickly signed in the necessary places and handed back the paperwork.
“Any idea what happened?” Roger asked.
“Everything all at once,” the doctor replied. “His blood pressure dropped. He has unusual bruises that would seem to be related to diabetes but I can’t confirm that until I get blood work back from the lab. There’s cardiac arrhythmia, seizures, hemorrhaging … So much is going on I hardly know where to start. He’s not going to be jumping up off the table anytime soon. I’d go ahead and prepare an illness statement for the press. Say the president is having some blood pressure issues. Don’t let it go any further than that. And get Andrew sworn in quickly. He’s going to be president for a while.”
Roger nodded, took the papers, and motioned to Ann as he walked toward the exit. When the First Lady’s Chief of Staff reached him, he said, “This isn’t good. Watch her closely and don’t be afraid to completely sequester her. Talk to her detail. Keep her group small and avoid the press. We’ve got to be ready to transition quickly.”
Ann nodded and returned to the First Lady just as Dr. Zinky was telling her a slightly less frightening version of what he had told Roger. Ann handed Tasha more tissue as the First Lady’s tears flowed heavily.
Called To Duty
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Eliana Kruegel, was sitting in her home office in Georgetown, sitting in a Queen Anne chair in front of a large window, sipping at a cup of cold tea. Like everyone else, she had gotten the morning’s cell phone call but her secretary had answered it and disregarded it as unimportant. As a result, when the power went out and everything stopped working Justice Kruegel was just as mystified about the cause as was every other person across the United States. Like many, she had no indication that the problem was wide-spread and assumed that everything would be back to normal shortly.
Justice Kruegel didn’t mind the downtime. There had been very few quiet moments since she was first appointed as a federal judge in Denver some thirty-plus years ago. She had enjoyed the frantic pace of the judiciary back then but now, as she was approaching her 68th birthday, she appreciated the rare moments when someone wasn’t handing her yet another brief or asking her to speak to another women’s political action group. She didn’t mind the work so much but she knew she would need to take better care of herself, allow for more moments like this if she was to outlast what she considered this fraudulent presidency. Eliana had absolutely no intention of retiring and allowing this “backward-minded brute of a president” to nominate her replacement.
Eliana was noticing how the raindrops beaded on the petals of the peonies just outside the window when her secretary, Lillian Hamilton, rushed into the room. The justice looked up, somewhat surprised by the sudden intrusion.
“There are Secret Service people demanding to see you,” the young woman said. “They say it’s extremely urgent.”
Justice Kruegel set down the teacup and moved back to her desk. “Then urgently show them in, please,” she said. As the two Secret Service agents entered, Eliana could see others in the outer office as well. “This is a bit of a surprise,” she said.
“Yes, Madam Justice,” the lead agent said. “We normally would have called first but with communications down, we had to come in person. We need you to come to the White House immediately, please. A situation has arisen with the president involving the invocation of 25th Amendment of the Constitution and we need you to swear in the Vice President as acting President.”
Justice Kruegel involuntarily winced and immediately regretted doing so. Such displays of personal emotion were unbecoming of a Supreme Court justice, in her opinion. “That’s the job of the Chief Justice. Why are you here asking me?”
“The Chief Justice is out of town on a speaking engagement,” the agent said. “With communications and a significant portion of the transit system still down, we are unable to get him back with the urgency the matter requires. You’re the justice with the most seniority.”
Eliana gave a long sigh. “This is unprecedented and most certainly challengeable,” she said. “The Constitution specifically requires the Chief Justice to swear in the president and only the Chief Justice. There is no accommodation for a transfer of power in his absence. This is a severe problem.”
The agents stood there, not knowing if the Justice was refusing to come with them or not. This was, after all, a sitting member of the Supreme Court. They couldn’t force her to do anything. The rules for her were different than most people.
Eliana kept talking as she attempted to work out the problem. “At the same time, there cannot be any lapse in the executive office. We must have an acting president at all times to maintain the rule of law. One might claim that the action was done in a sense of emergency but if so it can only have temporary authority until such time as the required action can be carried out.” She paused for a moment, staring at the unrelated briefs sitting on her desk. “Lillian,” she called out to her secretary, “grab my black pumps and my robe, please. We’re going to the White House.” The Justice then turned to address the agents, “But you guys have to find the Chief Justice and get him here quickly so we can do this all over again with him. We’re on very tentative legal ground here.”
The agents nodded in agreement. They had been among those who had frantically rushed to the Chief Justice’s office, his country club, and finally his home attempting to find him. Even as they were there, another team was on their way to New Hampshire to retrieve him.
Lillian brought Eliana a pair of sensible black pumps and set them on the floor. Justice Kruegel slipped out of her house shoes and into the pumps, then took the robe and draped it over her arm. “We’ll save this until we get there,” she said, presumably to Lillian but no one in particular. At that moment, it also occurred to Eliana whom she would be swearing into office. “Ugh, I hope Mr. Abernathy understands this is temporary and his powers are limited. So help me, I will fight with every ounce of power I have if he starts getting sneaky with legislation.”
The agents nodded and followed the Justice to the door.
Havoc and Mayhem
One of the primary problems with cloudy or rainy days such as this one was that there were few natural shadows in which to hide. Of course, Djali could create the illusion of a shadow for a time, but it wasn’t something that fooled someone with as much experience as Amber. She had seen demons since she was an infant and knew well how they worked. He was certain she had just seen him as he had attempted to dart around the corner of a warehouse across from the apartment building the group from the coffee shop currently inhabited. The demon had been quite sure that there would be two more deaths among the group. Caim had made that point rather clear.
What was also clear, however, was that other demons and ministers of Di Inferni had left their mark on the apartment building as well, and those marks were recent. The current storm and varying conditions could well claim a number of lives but Djali couldn’t just jump in and take the first one to drop. To trespass on another demon’s claim was a crime with severe consequences. He could find himself starving in the Alps again if he wasn’t careful.
Who would have suspected that being a demon of death came with so very many rules? Djali wasn’t an actual administrator of death. He was not allowed to take one’s last breath or even be the direct cause of a human’s demise. Instead, he had to wait until the last minute to jump in and snag a person’s soul at the precise instant it left the human’s body. If he was too early, he could be denied; too late and another demon, or worse yet an angel, could claim the soul before him.
Fortunately, he was good friends with Caim, one of the Great Presidents of the underworld. Caim knew the truth about the future and would let Djali know when someone was about to die who wasn’t quite likely to have an angel swooping in early. Djali hated having to fight angels for a soul. He always lost. Caim had altered him to the situation at the coffee shop.
Djali’s biggest problem at the moment, though, was that a single soul wasn’t enough to sustain him. Five was enough to keep him powered for a couple of weeks. Anything less than that was like a snack that left him wanting more.
In truth, he only needed one more. The group had neglected to tell Amber about Macy back at the coffee shop. No one considered that he’d had any role in her death at all so they forgot about her. He liked that. If he played his cards right, he might make it six for the day and be able to sit back and just watch while everyone else rushed around taking advantage of the disaster.
Water wasn’t exactly Djali’s favorite environment. On one hand, it didn’t affect his regular, handsome appearance. He had walked the entire distance from the coffee shop, enjoying pretending to be human, but had never gotten wet or slightly ruffled. At the same time, though, he couldn’t move through water as quickly, couldn’t jump as high nor as far as he could in drier conditions. If someone in the apartment building did croak, he’d have to work hard to be the first one there.
When he saw Amber look away for a moment, thanks to the seemingly random appearance of a dog that hadn’t been there earlier, Djali took advantage of the distraction and moved into the upper branches of a large elm tree on the edge of the apartment property. This was a little closer, a little easier space from which to maneuver, and easier to hide in the shadows of the leaves. He was growing impatient. The storm was claiming victims by the dozen, all souls available for the claiming. Angels were whizzing back and forth overhead but people were dying with no one available to administer last rights. That meant their souls were available to whoever got there first. Demons everywhere were enjoying the feast.
Djali felt the air move, a cold breeze counter to the direction of the wind. He turned and saw Aamon and Demogorgon taking human form on branches near him. He shuddered. Aamon was a fire-breathing Marquis with 72 legions of demons at his command. His appearance was fierce but at least he could be reasonable. Demogorgon, on the other hand, was so horrible that even the mention of his name had been outlawed by various civilizations for tens of thousands of years. He was the Master of Fate and his presence was never a good sign.
“Uh, hi, guys,” Djali said nervously. “What brings your eminences to this neck of the woods?”
“We’re having a party,” Aamon said, half-laughing, “and we thought we’d drop by and invite you to attend rather than sitting up here in this stupid little tree.”
“And maybe do some harvesting while we’re here,” Demogorgon added gruffly.
Djali smiled. “Well … uhm … thanks, guys. I appreciate it. You see, I’m just waiting for a couple more souls here that Caim said should expire soon …”
“Caim is a fool,” Demogorgon interrupted.
Djali looked desperately at Aamon for cover.
“Let’s just say Caim misread the situation by … a lot,” Aamon said calmly. “He thought this was a simple flooding situation.”
“It’s not?” Djali asked, surprised.
“It’s a fucking global disaster,” Demogorgon growled, laughing at the same time. “Fucking angels were caught totally off guard on this one. Apparently, they misread the fucking memo.” He laughed again, hard enough that the entire tree shook. Of course, to anyone watching it looked like the wind.
Djali gulped hard. This was not a comfortable situation. Either demon could turn him to dust with a quick look. “So, what would your eminences request of me?”
Aamon smiled. “Sit back and enjoy the fun, little one,” he said. “Things here are about to get wild and crazy.”
“Here?” Djali questioned. “There are only a handful of people in the apartment …”
“Oh, it’s not the apartment,” Aamon said. “Well, maybe, I guess they could get caught up in the excitement and have heart attacks or something, but that’s almost irrelevant. The flood’s about to deliver a fucking party.”
Demogorgon laughed again and this time Djali almost fell from his perch.
“Hang with us, little guy,” Aamon continued, his tone cheerfully condescending. “You’ll score enough souls to last you the rest of the year, maybe longer!”
Djali knew better than to ask any more questions. If Aamon and Demogorgon wanted him to join them, then join he would. After all, it sounded as though they were about to have a lot of fun.
How Quickly Moods Change
News of Gwen’s pregnancy cheered everyone in the apartment. They had all felt as though they were surrounded by death. The promise of this new life was a welcome distraction worthy of celebration. Even Amber stepped away from her watch at the balcony door.
Amber’s celebration was short-lived, however, as she felt the cold chill sweep across the room. She ran back to the balcony door and stepped onto the balcony not caring if she was hit by rain. Through the rain, she saw the elm tree shaking severely, seeming to move harshly in the wind. She knew something was up. She stepped back inside, closing and locking the door as she kept a careful watch.
Feeling something brush against her leg, Amber looked down and saw the German shepherd standing next to her, its ears attentive, it’s gaze fixed, a low, soft growl emanating from its throat. She reached down and scratched the top of its head. The dog acknowledged by leaning into her leg, letting her know it was there to protect her.
In the living room, plates were filled, smiles were on faces, and Gwen blushed as the other women fawned over her and the unexpected discovery. Gwen wasn’t accustomed to being the center of attention and her anxiety increased every time someone put their hand on her shoulder. She still smiled, though, because that seemed like the thing to do.
Natalie found dry clothes for Gwen and again took a lit can of fuel with them into the bathroom while the smallest of them changed from the clothes that had gotten wet rescuing the dog. They didn’t talk much, though Natalie never stopped smiling.
“So, the dog was just swimming down the street, huh?” Natalie asked, attempting to break the awkward silence.
“Yeah, he looked desperate and lost,” Gwen said quietly. “No telling how long the poor thing’s been swimming. I’m sure this has to be traumatic for him.”
“He sure seems to like you,” Natalie responded.
Gwen giggled. “Yeah, I think I may try to keep him if I can’t find his owner.” She paused as she pulled on a pair of dry tights. “He may be chipped, though. I wouldn’t want to keep him away from his owners. I’m sure their frantically looking for him.”
Natalie helped Gwen brush her hair and put it into a bun. “This has been a strange day,” she said. “I’ll be glad when phones are working so I can check on people.” As soon as she said the words she remembered that her phone was still on the top shelf of the coffee shop with her laptop, almost certainly soaked with water at this point. “Fuck,” she said quietly, but not quietly enough.
Gwen pulled back. “What happened?”
“Oh, nothing here,” Natalie assured her. “I just remembered that my phone is still at the coffee shop and probably useless by now.”
“Oh,” Gwen said quietly. “That sucks.”
As Gwen and Natalie emerged from the bathroom, Gloria handed them both a plate of food which they happily took as they rejoined the group in the kitchen. The communal conversation had shifted to telling of pets owned, both current and former, and how remarkable it seemed that Gwen has stepped outside just as the German shepherd was swimming past. There were also intermittent comments as to how good Amanda’s food was, especially considering the circumstances. Even Barry had finally left his chair and was chatting as though he’d known everyone in the group his entire life.
Hardly anyone noticed the small whine that came before the dog’s soft bark, but Amber, Hannah, and Reesie all heard it and paid attention. The dog left Amber’s side and wove its way through the group to find Gwen. He bumped her forcefully with his forehead, which hit the young woman’s hip strong enough to push her forward. He waited for a second and then hit her again in the same manner.
“I think he wants you to move,” Reesie said. The sense of caution was evident in her voice.
Gwen started working her way out of the kitchen and toward the living room, the dog effectively separating her from the group and herding her toward the corner of the living room furthest from the outside wall. When she reached the chair in which Barry had been sitting, the dog put his paws on the seat cushion and whined, waiting for Gwen to sit down. He then turned around and took a guarded position in front of her.
Reesie looked at Hannah who, in turn, looked at Amber. Amber’s grimace was the only response they needed.
“I think we all should move toward that corner of the living room,” Reesie suggested. “I have a feeling the storm’s about to get a lot worse.”
Everyone except Amber moved into the living room quickly, taking their plates of food with them. Only Carson complained. “If it’s not one damn thing it’s another,” he mumbled.
Lightning flashed close enough to the apartments that it looked for a second as though someone had thrown a spotlight on Amber. The resulting thunder shook the entire building, causing screams and whimpers from within the group.
Amber took half a step back from the glass door but kept watching the elm tree, its branches waving wildly now. They looked heavier than they had a moment ago.
Then, she heard the sound, part roar, part screeching, what some often described as a distant train whistle. The ground under the apartment began to shake. Amber shifted her position so she could get a better look to their north and she caught her breath as the looming black mass of the largest tornado she had ever seen barreled their direction.
“Tornado!” she yelled, as the ambient noise in the room grew louder. “Quick, get on the floor and cover your heads!”
Reesie pulled Gwen from the chair and covered her as the dog pressed in from the side. Darrell picked the chair up and half-threw it out of the way so there was space for the group to huddle closer to the corner where, conveniently enough, two load-bearing walls met. Amber skidded to the floor in front of the group as though she were sliding into home plate, positioning her body to protect as many of the people in front of her as she could.
For the next four and a half minutes, the group huddled closely together as the building shook and swayed from the power of the tornado. The air filled with a sound that seemed as though all nature were crying out in pain. They could hear pieces of metal being slammed against the outside wall and braced for the wall to be ripped away, sucking them all into the storm.
Then, with an uneasy suddenness, the tornado was gone, shifting strongly away from them to the West as it continued its destructive path. Their building was still largely intact. The rain that had soaked them for the past four hours was gone. An eerie quiet fell over the room.
Carson was the first to stand up and brush himself off. “You know, I’m quite done with all the fucking disasters today. If it’s not my boss fucking things up, it’s Mother Nature. So help me, if an earthquake hits next I’m just jumping in and letting the fucking earth swallow me.”
No one felt like directly responding to Carson’s complaint, though some of them felt similarly. Amber ran back to the patio door, pushed it open and stepped outside. Reesie and Natalie were close behind her. The core of the tornado had missed them by about 100 yards. A two-foot-deep trench, now rapidly filled with water, marked the storm’s path. The elm tree was gone. The building across the street was in ruins. Almost every structure at the center of the home had seemingly evaporated. Along the edges, the storm had deposited piles of rubble, elements of structures from miles away with which the swirling winds had grown tired of playing just dropped like a toddler tired of playing with its toys.
Natalie was the first to speak. “Holy shit, this is bad. I can’t even see to the other side.”
Reesie looked across a horizon that was barren compared to what had been there before and said, “It took half the town.”
Slowly, others joined them on the balcony, each compelled to make a comment.
“Shit, that was almost us,” Darrell said as he put his arm around Natalie.
Amanda, not sure whether the balcony was all that secure, grabbed ahold of Amber’s arm as she assessed the scene below. Tears filled her eyes as she pointed toward a bare place to their North where nothing existed. “I grew up over there. It’s all gone. All the people who were there, they’re gone! My friends, my first piano teacher, my elementary school … “ She broke down sobbing as Amber pulled her close.
Miranda was one of the last to step onto the balcony, having taken the time to first check on Gwen, who the dog still was guarding in the corner. Of everyone in the group, she had seemed the least bothered and the least concerned. As she stepped onto the balcony and looked at the nothingness below, she dropped to the floor and grabbed the railing with both hands as she began crying, “No, no, no, no, no! They’re gone! They’re all gone! Why? WHY?!”
Natalie rushed over to her, taking the young woman into her arms. “I know, it’s bad,” she said as comfortingly as possible.
Miranda sobbed into Natalie’s shoulder. “No, it’s not bad, it’s horrible. They’re all gone. My whole family. My mom, my sister, my Aunt Eleanor, everyone is gone!”
Natalie looked back at the others, not sure what to say.
Miranda pointed toward the blank space just West of the building. “My mom’s house was just three blocks that way, a big, three-story Victorian where I grew up. All my old things were still there.” She paused, choking on a heavy sob, then continued, “She helped me move in here because I’m autistic, well, a little autistic, like I went to a normal school and everything but I have problems with some stuff and with, you know, like self-control and things and the doctor said I wasn’t ready to be completely on my own yet. Mom walked over every morning to make sure I’d taken my meds and help me organize my day, then Aunt Eleanor would take me to work in the afternoon and Sissy would pick me up, and … “ Her body shuddered as she was consumed by the grief. “I can’t live without them,” she cried. “They protected me, they kept me safe, they wouldn’t let mean people hurt me!”
Natalie pulled Miranda more closely to her. “I’m so very, very sorry,” she whispered, knowing there was no way she could fully appreciate the grief Miranda was feeling.
Amber slipped through the group and knelt beside the two women, putting her arms around both of them. “Miranda, dear,” she said, putting her hand softly on the girl’s tear-soaked cheek, “We’ve got you. You and I are going to be roommates now, okay? We’ll find us a new place to live, we’ll both get new jobs, I’ll make sure you take your meds and help organize your day, and if any mean people try to hurt you at all they’ll have to deal with me, okay?”
Through the tears, Miranda nodded, not wanting to move from the comforting embrace of her new friends, her only friends.
Barry stood in the doorway. He didn’t say anything. Compassion was an emotion he felt but didn’t know how to share. He felt he was too big to give anyone a hug, his size too overwhelming to possibly be gentle or comforting in any way. Intellectually, he knew he was wrong, but his emotions ruled in this area. He understood better than anyone knew, though. His own house had been in the path of the tornado. Like Miranda, everything was gone. His house with all his equipment, his entire means of livelihood, his memories. He had nothing. Nowhere to go. No one to whom he could turn. Barry felt the depression creep in. He did nothing to stop it. Feeling something was better than feeling nothing.
Only Carson and Gwen stayed inside the dark apartment. The dog still sat at attention with Gwen huddled safely behind him. She could tell from the sounds the others were making that she didn’t want to see what had happened outside. Knowing it was horrible was enough. She didn’t need a first-hand account. Behind her new dog was the safest place to be.
Carson leaned back on the counter between the kitchen and living room assessing everything that had happened that day. His job, the flood, the tornado, one disaster following directly on the heels of another. He knew the company car he had been driving was worthless now after being completely flooded out. He wondered briefly if it was even still in the same parking space as he had left it. He didn’t really care.
He slipped his left hand inside the pocket of the ill-fitting pants Darrell had given him to wear. He felt the cell phone sim card he had slipped into his shirt pocket earlier that morning. He flipped it back and forth between his fingers. Carson was angry at the whole situation. From the moment he had walked up to the rental counter at the airport in Milwaukee things had gone from bad to worse. The information on that sim card would settle the score, though. He had their dirty secrets and after everything he had been through he couldn’t wait to divulge them. Kostenrawki would pay and pay dearly.
Flies in the ointment
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Norma Watkins, sat across the desk from Vice President Andrew Abernathy and to the left of Senate President Pro Tempore Graham Norman. Everything that had happened so far had come rushing at her too quickly. She hadn’t had time to stop and consult about anything with her staff. She felt horribly unprepared for the conversation they were having now and wanted to make sure that what they were about to do was not only legal but wouldn’t come back to bite her in the next election.
“So, we’re agreed that, at this juncture, we’re treating this as merely a temporary transfer of power, nothing permanent that would require eventual approval of the Cabinet?” Norma asked.
“As temporary as possible,” Graham said, looking suspiciously at Andrew.
Andrew looked first at the papers on his desk and then at the two congressional leaders across from him. “I think that’s the most prudent path,” he said. “Look, the reason and conditions for our meeting still exist, let’s not deny that, but don’t think I’m in a rush to act on them.”
“It certainly seemed that way,” Graham said. “You seemed quite willing to go ahead and call a Cabinet meeting right then and there.”
“Yes, I was,” Andrew said, nodding. “The perspective I had earlier showed a chief executive who had no awareness of the disaster he had caused and no clue how to handle the consequences. I still stand by that opinion as being accurate at that time. Our situation has changed, though. We have a president who is down for unknown reasons for an undetermined period of time. The Constitution is fairly specific as to what has to happen. The country cannot be without a leader.”
“We cannot afford to be seen as making a power grab, though,” Norma countered. “We have to play this strictly by the book or else there will be unending blowback within your party as well as other members of the legislature. We’re catching a bit of a break on public opinion for the moment, but don’t expect that to hold off too long, either. The press will find a way to keep people informed.”
Andrew nodded in agreement. This wasn’t the way he wanted to become president. Ascending to the nation’s highest office in this manner put every decision he made under intense scrutiny and held the possibility that, should the president recover, everything he did could potentially be reversed. Legal challenges could come from almost any direction. An acting president was meant to be little more than a figurehead for the purpose of keeping the government running.
“Why don’t we do this,” Andrew said, trying to think of a solution that would keep everyone happy. “Why don’t we announce that while I’m technically acting president, I’ll only appear in the Oval Office for the purpose of conducting official affairs of state. Everything else I’ll keep right here. No Oval Office staff meetings or briefings. I stay out of the Oval unless the situation demands it. How do you think that will play?”
Graham shrugged. “I think that would certainly appease most people in our own party. It shows respect for both the person and the office, not to mention that looking humble and unaggressive in assuming the office ultimately puts you in a stronger position should a longer-term solution be necessary.”
Norma leaned forward in her chair, thinking through the scenario. “I think that works as long as you don’t push any new legislation or sign any presidential orders that are not absolutely necessary,” she said. “We’ll have some members who see this as an opportunity to push through some bills they know Blackstone would never sign. You can’t sign them, either. Just let them sit.”
“Even appropriations?” Andrew asked, seeing a potential funding problem.
“We’ve got a month before that hits the calendar,” Graham said, “and portions of that can be delayed if necessary.”
“What about emergency funding?” Andrew asked. “If things are half as bad as we were hearing earlier, we’re going to need an aid package sooner rather than later and delaying on that is going to piss people off.”
Norma and Graham both nodded in agreement. “The problem there is going to be structuring it in a way that doesn’t appear partisan. We have to send the money where it’s needed, even if the optics appear to favor one party over the other,” Norma said.
“Do you think you can keep the radicals in your party in line?” Graham asked the Speaker. “You’ve got some feisty loudmouths over there who tend to not like to cooperate.”
“And you don’t?” Norma shot back, looking angrily at the Senator. “We both have members that would argue over a resolution declaring water as a necessary life source. We have to marshall our key members and run an aid package through that is broad and open as possible.”
“And you know damn good and well my chamber isn’t going to give anyone a blank check,” Graham said sternly. “Like you said, it has to be structured so that the people who need the help get it, not the local politicians looking to score points for the next elections.”
“Or the private contractors looking to make a quick buck off the government,” Norma countered.
The conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door and Andrew’s secretary slipped her head into the room. “Excuse me, the three of you are needed in the Oval Office immediately.”
As they stood, Andrew asked, “Can we at least agree to try and keep things civil until we have more information about the president’s condition? If this is worse than dehydration or something of that nature, we have a different set of conversations to explore.”
Both leaders nodded their head in agreement as they left the room for the short walk to the Oval Office.
Gasoline-powered generators hummed in the background as the power trio walked through the narrow corridors of the White House. White House staff, still under orders to remain in place, stood and watched the short procession. Even with limited communication, they all had some sense of what was about to happen and the historical significance the moment could potentially have. They also knew that, for some of them, they could soon be without a job, or have to fight to keep it. No one in the West Wing had come to work that morning expecting to witness a transfer of power.
Walking into the Oval Office, the three were only mildly surprised to see Justice Kruegel standing there in her judicial robe, holding a Bible in her left hand. Roger stood behind her several feet to her right. Only the Cabinet members who had been in the White House earlier that morning, Phillip Eagleson, the Secretary of Commerce, and Secretary of the Interior, Jules Robinero, looked on. The group exchanged handshakes and appropriate formal greetings. An anxious nervousness filled the air, waiting.
Finally, certain that all extraneous conversation was done, the Supreme Court Justice looked at Andrew and asked, “Andrew James Abernathy, are you prepared to take the oath of office as the acting President of the United States?”
Andrew nodded and replied, “Yes, ma’am.”
Eliana then looked around the room and asked, “Does anyone here know of any reason why we should not proceed?”
No one answered.
“Fine then,” she continued. “Let me first say that this is a highly unusual circumstance to not have the Chief Justice performing this duty. Without time for further study, I have to present a caveat that what we are about to do here is worthy of discussion by the full court and should the president not return to sufficient health in a timely manner it is one we will most certainly take upon ourselves.” She looked around the room. “You are all witnesses and as such, you may all be culpable if it turns out the actions we are about to take are illegal.”
Feet shuffled uncomfortably and worried glances were exchanged, but no one felt compelled to speak.
Seeing that no one was going to object, Justice Kruegel raised the Bible and instructed, “Place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right hand.”
Andrew complied, wishing that at least his wife could have been present for this moment. As it was, there wasn’t even a photographer in the room.
Eliana cleared her throat and said, “Please repeat after me.
I Andrew James Abernathy,
do solemnly swear
that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,
and will to the best of my Ability,
preserve, protect and defend
the Constitution of the United States.”
Andrew repeated each line, feeling the weight of an incredible burden being placed on his shoulders, a burden he had not necessarily earned and one that could dramatically affect the lives of millions of people not only in the United States but around the world.
As Justice Kruegel finished the oath, she extended her right hand and said, “I would like to be the first to say congratulations, Mr. President, and good luck.”
She stepped back as others in the room stepped forward to shake Andrew’s hand. Eliana still had an unsettled feeling in the pit of her stomach that this was not the right move but for the life of her she couldn’t think of specific overriding case law that would apply and the urgency of the moment would be sufficient excuse for modest indiscretion.
The congratulations continued, though the tone was subdued. No one seemed inclined to make too much of the moment. Roger made sure the necessary papers were signed and prepared to return to the hospital. Norma and Graham both mentioned that they needed to return to the Capitol and notify the respective members of Congress. Likewise, neither Cabinet member felt compelled to stay. The temporal nature of the transition left them somewhat in limbo for the time being.
No one heard the door open and shut as General Lang quietly entered the room, startling everyone when he spoke. “I guess my invitation was lost in the mail,” he said sternly, looking around the room.
“That would be my fault, General,” Roger said, stepping forward. “I just told Terri to grab whatever Cabinet members were still in the building. The oversight is totally mine.”
Al smiled. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I knew it had to happen, just wasn’t sure when.” The general turned and looked at Andrew, “We do have several matters on which you urgently need to be briefed, though, Mr. President.”
Andrew nodded. “Mr. President,” sounded wonderful yet unfitting at the same time.
Gen. Lang continued. “Would you like to receive that briefing here or in the War Room downstairs?”
Andrew wasn’t prepared to answer the question. The president’s daily briefing was normally given by the head of National Security, which could happen almost anywhere. For General Lang to suggest the War Room, the highly secure basement location from which the most critical of military and national security decisions were made suggested that more people might be involved. “Let’s use the War Room, General,” Andrew said, trying to sound authoritative but feeling as though he blew it.
General Lang nodded and said, “If you’ll follow me then, please, sir.”
Andrew didn’t see who opened the door, he just went through it. General Lang’s build was significantly larger than Andrew’s so seeing past him as they left the Oval Office and wound through the corridors was impossible. Staff members stood and applauded as he passed. He did his best to smile and wave but was feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the whole situation as though he were caught in some strange, surreal dream.
No one heard anything that sounded like a gunshot. No one saw a gun. No one was immediately aware that anything had happened. Andrew appeared to stumble as though the toe of his shoe had gotten caught on a loose piece of carpet. Then he fell. He didn’t get up. Blood began to pool under his body.
A moment passed before anyone realized General Lang was down as well. So was the Secret Service Agent who had been directly behind Andrew.
There was a faint aroma of gunpowder, then suddenly, a chorus of screams.