Part 10: Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

This week probably (no promises) marks the half-way point in our story. If you’re joining us for the first time, you might find it beneficial to start here.

All You Can Do Is Watch

“All stations be advised, imminent weather event expected within the next half hour.”

“I need more gauze over here!”

“Check Sector 8, Building C. There should be additional fuel supplies there.”

“Set those tents inside the hanger, Sargeant! We’re going to have wind!”

“Get Charlie unit out of the hole! We can’t wait any longer. We’ve got to get that opening covered.”

“Corpsman! We need blankets over here!”

Perry sat atop a portable table, his legs in splints, his eyes squinting through all the dust and the bright lights powered by the diesel generators. He was still trying to make some sense of everything that had happened. His rescuers had hardly moved the concrete wall off him when he passed out. As a result, he wasn’t conscious as he and the remaining analysts and Marines were lifted out of the bunker. He wasn’t sure who had survived and who hadn’t. Was the traitor among them? He didn’t know. He sat there, watching the organized chaos.

“Sir, we’re expecting front edge winds in excess of 40 miles per hour.”

“Work the most serious injuries first, get them into the hanger now!”

“Lieutenant, that is a cord, not a rope. I need a rope. Learn to tell the difference.”

“Charlie unit clear!”

“Delta, Foxtrot, Tango! Make sure you have enough stakes!”

Looking behind him, back to the West, Perry could see the dark clouds forming over the mountains. The rumble of thunder in the distance was an ominous warning of the approaching storm. Weather events this time of year wasn’t out of the ordinary. The base was well equipped to handle everything from an F4 tornado to a category 5 hurricane. Perry knew the supplies were regularly checked and everything kept in a readiness condition not merely to keep the base operational but to provide rescue support to the surrounding region. The base could weather whatever was coming under normal conditions.

What lied in front of him, though, was far from normal conditions. Multiple tables were lined up across the yard, medics and corpsmen running back and forth treating the wounded. A chaplain was making the rounds, providing encouragement where it was wanted, last rites where they were needed. Everyone had an assignment and was doing their best to carry it out. At the same time, they needed to move indoors. Portable medical equipment wasn’t meant to withstand anything more than a normal rain shower. 

Ironically enough, it was an aircraft hangar designed to house five B2 bombers that were assigned to the facility but had not yet arrived. The hangar was built to sustain a direct aerial assault and would provide adequate shelter from whatever storm was headed their way. Getting everyone from the yard into the hanger was not something that had been drilled. Perry made a mental note to make sure it was added to the schedule. Mistakes might not always be preventable but there was no excuse for not learning from them.

“Roll on my mark!”

“Get that transport over here!”

“Charlie unit! Make sure you have all that gear clear and stored. We’re going back down once the storm passes.”

“Lieutenant! I need a census count from sector 12!”

“Weather event from the North, Northwest less than 15 minutes out, sir!”

Two corpsmen and an officer pulled up in front of Perry riding in what appeared to be a modified golf cart. After exchanging requisite salutes, the officer introduced himself.

“Major Baron Davis, sir, acting command. We need to get you inside that hangar. No need for you to leave the table. We’ll just pick it up and move it.”

Perry watched as the corpsmen placed straps across his legs and felt the wood brace at his back. “What’s the base readiness level, Major?”

“We’re at level eight, Colonel,” Major Davis answered. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve not had to fully deploy outside of drill conditions. So far things are going reasonably well within the reality of what we anticipated.”

“We didn’t anticipate this, though,” Perry said as the corpsmen picked up his table and moved it to the transport. “Weather events are one thing. Combat is another thing. What we didn’t plan for was all hell breaking loose.”

Major Davis double-checked the buckles holding the table in place. “No sir, but we’re Marines. We anticipate hell everywhere we go.”

Perry did his best to hold on for the bumpy ride to the hangar, not completely trusting whatever locking system allowed the table to stay secure on the transport. All around him, similar vehicles moved back and forth carrying the injured analysts and Marines. Perry thought he recognized a couple of the faces but he couldn’t be sure. That Major Davis had assumed command meant Colonel Brinkman as, at the very least, incapacitated, just as he was. He still felt dizzy and his vision was still blurred. As much as he wanted to take command, he knew he was not fit and knowing that made him all the more anxious to fix the problem any way he could. 

“Cover fully secured, sir!”

“Golf, Kilo, Lima! Get those tents down. Nothing left in the yard!”

“We’ve got five minutes, sir!”

“Area secure! Prepare to shut those barn doors!”

“No visible personnel on the yard, sir!”

A chill swept across Perry’s face as his transport entered the hangar. He looked behind him and saw that the yard that had been full of activity just a few minutes ago was now bare. A massive tarp was stretched tightly over the hole in the bunker. He couldn’t help but wonder how many were still down there waiting for someone to notice and rescue them. He also wondered if any of those still down there were the traitor responsible for this whole mess.

Corpsmen picked up Perry’s table and moved it off away from the other survivors, placing him under a tent where medical supplies were already set up. Generators had been moved inside the hanger and provided sufficient illumination but also cast massive shadows across the field of tents. Modified golf carts whizzed from one end of the hangar to the other. Perhaps everything was not running as smoothly as he would have wished but at least it was running. 

After a few minutes, Major Davis returned to Perry’s table. “How are you feeling, sir?” 

“Still a bit dizzy, seeing everything through a haze,” Perry said. “I’m guessing the compression really fucked up circulation. How are things going out there?”

“Usual chaos,” Davis replied. “We have approximately 250 wounded and only two doctors. A significant weather event is on the way. Comms are down.” He paused between each sentence, reflecting the gravity of each statement. “Could be worse. At least no one’s shooting at us for the moment.”

Perry tried to sit up into a more authoritative position. “How many fatalities are we looking at?”

Davis looked down at a clipboard he was carrying. “We’re currently over 300. I don’t have a complete census yet, though. I’m not sure how many are still missing.”
“Col. Brinkman?” Perry asked.

“Status unknown, sir,” the Major answered. “He went down in the hole before the last collapse and we aren’t sure exactly where he was. We’ll resume looking as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

Perry nodded. “I’m not in a hurry to lose any more people.”

“Same here, sir,” Davis responded. He looked back down at the clipboard then out at the sea of activity swirling around the hangar. “I’ll get a doctor over to you as soon as possible, sir. Just as soon as I find one.”

Perry shifted his weight again, frustrated that there was still no feeling in his legs. “That’s fine, Major. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll just sit here and watch.”

Major Davis nodded and trotted off in the direction of a group of transports that had gathered. “Is this a convention or are ya’ll in love with each other? Wrap it up and let’s keep moving!”

“Lights to sector C! Lights to sector C!”

“Medic! I’ve got a bleeder!”

“Make sure those air vents are open!”

“Lieutenant, no one needs a statue. Stop staring and move!”

“Where are the fucking sandbags?”

There Is No Up

Norma sat on a corner of the sofa in the Oval Office, momentarily alone as everyone else around her ran from one end of DC to the other delivering messages. She looked over at the Resolute Desk sitting in its dominant position in the room. Great presidents had sat behind that desk. So had some who were not so great. A gift to Rutherford B. Hayes from Queen Victoria, the desk was ornately carved and delicately finished. The desk was the first piece of furniture one saw upon entering the relatively small Oval Office and was as much a symbol of the presidency as was the presidential seal embedded in the rug. The thought had occurred to her that she could sit there and look more presidential, but she considered that a step too far. She was only acting president, filling the gap until Blackstone made it back. Every move she made, even something as seemingly insignificant as where she sat, would be scrutinized and criticized. The last thing she needed now was an unnecessary distraction.

Around the room, four members of the Secret Service stood at attention. Norma wondered what they were thinking. They had heard all the conversations. Some day, they would possibly retire and would make millions of dollars writing tell-all memoirs about what they had witnessed. For the moment they were sworn to secrecy, everything considered a matter of national security. That restriction wouldn’t last forever, though. 

Conversation with their boss, Director Horace Wellfin, and Treasury Secretary Nathaniel Roche had not gone especially well. Norma understood Wellfin’s commitment to defending the members of the Secret Service. They had all been carefully vetted and tested and gone through rigorous training before being assigned to the White House. Accusing him of having traitor in their midst was a charge he took personally and had not held back his feelings on the subject. His level of emotion might have crossed the line professionally, but Norma had not chastised him. She expected no less.

Roche, on the other hand, had taken a more political approach. He warned Norma that any attempt to replace the Secret Service with a military escort would be translated by many in Congress as a violation of the Constitutional requirement for a civilian-controlled government. Roche threatened that Republicans would question the authority of her actions should she take such a deliberately oppositional position and would likely block any further moves she might attempt to make. More than once the Secretary had inferred that Norma wasn’t really the president and that there would be retribution for any partisan action she might take or any attempt to hold onto power longer than was necessary.

Fortunately, Admiral Tennant had been just as forceful in the other direction, yelling down Director Wellfin in a confrontation that at times seemed to border on violence as Tennant persistently asked, “How did that gun get in the White House?” She reminded him that only Secret Service was allowed to carry weapons and that even the Marines standing guard outside were little more than decoration. She also reminded Secretary Roche that refusing to provide the acting president with the level of security commiserate to the threat could be seen as treason, especially given that they still didn’t know the extent of president Blackstone’s condition. 

In the end, they had agreed that a dual force would accompany Norma to Capitol Hill, assuming Roger was able to convince members of both parties to issue the necessary invitation. 

Norma correctly assumed that the conversations he was having were just as partisan and as contentious as those she had just experienced. Nothing moved in this city without someone complaining about it and more often than not there was some faction ready to take extreme measures to keep the other side from “winning.” While the invitation for the president to speak to Congress might seem ceremonial to the public, this too required compromise and a distinct limitation that Norma would only be allowed to update Congress on matters as they stood and would not use her address as an opportunity to voice support for any pending or anticipated legislation.

Sitting on the corner of the sofa, her elbow leaning on the upholstered arm, her fist propping up her head, Norma questioned how anything ever got done in this office. She wondered if there would be someone popping up to voice an alternative if she requested a cup of coffee from the commissary. There were no small decisions made in this office. Even wearing the wrong color of suit could cause problems. Norma considered slipping off the heels she now regretted wearing but knew that such a move would be seen as disrespectful and unpresidential. No wonder presidents’ hair went gray so quickly. Stress was the prevailing aspect of the job, so much more so than any other position she had ever held.

There was a light knock on the door before Will Tucker walked into the office. “You requested to see me, Madam President?” 

Norma stood, quickly adjusting her suit jacket. “Yes, Will, thank you for coming in. I have some questions I hope you can answer.”
“Not a problem, ma’am,” Will replied as he walked around and shook hands with the acting president. They had met before only in more social situations, making this meeting a bit uncomfortable for them both. “How can I help?”

“Have a seat, please,” Norma said, gesturing toward the chair across the table from her and simultaneously sitting back on the edge of the sofa. “I would like your opinion on the legality of all that’s taken place this afternoon, with Andrew and myself. I need to know whether we’re committing any criminal acts if I do anything more than sit here.”

Will sat down and then moved forward in the chair. “We are in an unprecedented situation, ma’am,” he said. “There has always been a lot of speculation as to what would happen if, for example, a bomb were to be detonated during the State of the Union with all members of the Supreme Court in attendance. Yes, there’s the “designated survivor” left behind, but there’s no one left to swear that person into office. The legitimacy of that president is still constitutionally authoritative even though, as a member of the president’s cabinet, that person is technically not an elected official. I think we’re on similar grounds here. The 25th amendment absolutely establishes the order of succession. As far as I’m concerned, you are the acting president, sworn in or not, and as such you maintain all the authority of that office until such time as President Blackstone either returns or, heaven forbid, dies. At that point, you may need to be sworn in again, preferably publicly this time, but for the interim, I wouldn’t worry about your authority, ma’am. You have the same limitations as Andrew would have had. You don’t get your own staff or Cabinet, though you can still utilize your Congressional staff at your discretion. You’re also, technically, still Speaker of the House by virtue of the fact this is considered only a temporary situation.”

Norma considered the attorney’s position a moment. “So, technically, I could invite myself to speak to a joint session and no one could stop me.”

Will wondered exactly what Norma was inferring but his expression did not change. “You know the dynamics of Congress better than I do, ma’am. I would expect some push back, and possibly even a lawsuit, but at the end of the day, no, you have power on both sides, which, again, is unexpected and unprecedented. I imagine that your colleagues might want to suggest some legal clarification when this is all over.”

“Which, between you and me, cannot come soon enough,” Norma replied. “I’m not comfortable being on such shaky ground, Will. Our nation is in crisis, there’s a murderer loose in the White House, and I fear our democracy could be on the brink of collapse. I realize you were appointed by President Blackstone and as such, I assume you and I have different opinions on any number of topics, but I need someone to help me keep everything above board and legal. Can I count on your help in that matter?”

“On that matter, you have my word,” Will said. “While my appointment might have been partisan, my opinions most certainly are not. The job of the office of White House Counsel is to make sure that no one in the White House, from the president on down, undertakes any action that might violate the law. I don’t have your back, Madam President, nor do I have President Blackstone’s back. I have the Constitution’s back.”

“That’s good to hear, Will,” Norma said. “This entire situation pushes the Constitution beyond its original intent. You’re right, it will need some serious amending when this is over.”

Will sat back ever so slightly but the move was significant. He had made his point and succeeded in establishing his position. He wasn’t going to let anyone break the law no matter who was sitting in this office. “So you’re going to address Congress?”

“I don’t see as I have any choice, given that other forms of communication are completely down. They need to know everything that has happened and what we’re doing about it,” Norma answered. “I assume by now word has filtered down as to what happened to Andrew and General Lang. By the time I get over there, the story will likely have been blown out of proportion and rumors will have to be put to rest. They’ll also need to be assured that we’re not taking any drastic action at this time that might pull away from the president’s agenda.”

Will nodded. “Might I suggest talking with Rick Angel and getting a national security perspective on the matter. Remember, we’re still under martial law and that changes some of the rules. I imagine he’ll want you to include a statement that assures the international community of our continued readiness.”

Now it was Norma’s turn to sit back a bit. “Rick is a bit of a hawk on that subject,” she said. “I get not wanting to appear weak on the international stage but at the same time I don’t want to make promises we can’t back up.”

“Welcome to the White House, Madam President,” Will said. “We say things we can’t back up all the time.”

Norma sighed. “I feel like this is a time we have to be upbeat and positive, encouraging, pulling people back from the edge of panic this situation has caused.”

Will stood, suggesting he was about to leave. “Madam President, might I suggest you take a look at President Roosevelt’s Infamy speech. He was addressing a nation that was scared shitless by what had happened on the morning of December 7, 1942. People were expecting Japanese bombers to be flying over Kansas at any moment. He acknowledged that fear and even the fact that people had already formed their own opinions. But then he says, ‘No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.’ He didn’t deny the terror and fear people were experiencing but encouraged faith in America that we would overcome it. That’s exactly what Congress and the nation need to hear now. They don’t need to be told that we’re holding down the fort. They don’t need someone telling them to ‘get over it and move on.’ What they need to know is that you’re going to do everything you can to make sure we ‘win through to absolute victory.’ We don’t get over this, Madam President, we get through it. Together.”

Not Yet Night

Darrell stood up from his place on the floor and stretched. No one seemed to notice. He was sitting far enough away from the group that he could observe without becoming any more of the scene than he needed to be. He thought Barry had glanced his direction but it turned out the larger man was looking in the direction of the kitchen. Darrell knew everyone had to be more hungry than they were letting on, especially Barry. They would scavenge for food later, of course, but there wasn’t much they could do at the moment. 

Hearing the sound of whispers in the hallway, Darrell walked toward them, waving at the three women gathered outside Natalie’s room as he turned and entered his own. He hadn’t spent any time in there because not only was it dark, almost everything in the room was electronic, needing a power source to operate. The entire room had gone black when the phone call had gone wrong. He had assumed everything had been fried by whatever it was that killed the power. As he opened the door now, though, he saw those battery-powered devices, such as his phone and smartwatch along with a couple of novelty lights were working again. 

Darrell’s first move was to the phone, hoping that some miracle had occurred and he had service so they could call for help. No such luck. No connection, no data. Still, for the moment, the phone could be used as a light source and a way of keeping time. Looking at the clock, he was surprised to see that it was only 6:28. It certainly felt and looked as though it should be later than that. So much had already happened, and the skies were almost as dark as when the sun was completely set. The watch showed the same time. 

Picking up the two novelty lights, one a blue orb that resembled the moon, the other a green-glowing alien, Darrell walked back into the hallway. Looking toward the women, he held up the lights and said, “I found something to brighten the situation!”

Amber and Reesie laughed while Natalie buried her head in her hands. She had hoped to hide the fact that her boyfriend was a complete nerd but now he was outing himself.

“By the way, did you all know it’s only 6:30? At least, that’s what my watch and phone are saying,” Darrell said.

Natalie perked up. “Your phone is working? Can we call for help?”

Darrell shook his head. “No service, just power, which is an improvement over nothing at all. At least the batteries are working again. It sure does feel later than 6:30, though. I’m wondering if that time is right.”

Amber reached over and took the phone, pushed a couple of icons and announced, “No, your clock is working fine. It’s not off by more than a minute or two. Apparently, the ion battery wasn’t affected.” She handed the phone back and smiled. “It’s good that someone has a working phone. We’ll know if service ever comes back.”

“When this is over I’m going to be looking into a lot more analog devices, especially clocks,” Reesie said. “This whole dependence on electricity isn’t working for me at the moment.”

“Same here,” Natalie said. “I was thinking I might even see if I can still find an old typewriter that I could use. Might actually be fun.”

Darrell chuckled. “Finding the typewriter is easy. I see them in antique shops all the time. The challenge is finding the inked ribbons those things used. I’m not sure anyone makes them anymore.”

Natalie made a face and said, “There you go dashing all my hopes and dreams again.”

“Just helping you keep it real, dear,” he responded. “I’m going to go set these lights out here so people can maybe see each other or something. At least until the batteries run out.

There were cheers from the group in the living room as Darrell brought the novelty lights out and set them at opposite ends of the room. They didn’t provide a great deal of actual illumination but they helped improve the mood that had been steadily going downhill.

“Odd that it’s so dark this early,” Natalie said, leaning back against the hallway wall. “I would have sworn that it was closer to 9 or something.”

Reesie dropped back against the opposite wall. “Ugh. I know. This day feels like it’s never going to end. This whole being without communication thing is really starting to get to me.”

“It’s a Luddite’s wet dream,” Amber said, leaning against the doorframe with her left shoulder. 

“Luddites?” Reesie questioned. “I’m not sure I follow you on that one.”

“People who are against technology,” Amber answered.

Reesie cocked her head to the side. “I thought those were Amish.”

“Same concept but different reasons,” Natalie said, jumping into the conversation. “Amish have religious reasons for wanting to keep things simple. Luddites … I’m not sure but I don’t think it’s religious.”

“They were the 19th-century version of technophobes,” Amber explained. “They were garment workers who were afraid new looms were going to put them out of jobs, which is exactly what happened. There has been some form of Luddites throughout society ever since, though rarely do they get as violent as the original group.”

Natalie thought for half a second. “Violence? I don’t remember that part of the story.”

“Bad enough the Brits called in the army and started shooting at them,” Amber said. “They were completely trashing factories, shooting guards, completely disrupting the industry.”

Reesie shifted her position. “So, this could be the work of some modern-day Luddite.”

Natalie shrugged. “I suppose, though it seems a bit extreme. Whoever or whatever caused this did a lot more than just break equipment.”

Amber suddenly stood up straight. “Are you sure everyone downstairs was dead?” she asked Reesie.

“There was too much blood for them to not be dead,” Reesie answered. “They were sliced up into pieces. Why?”

The young woman stretched to her full height, towering over her two friends. “I’m pretty sure I just heard a noise downstairs.”

“Could be a squirrel or raccoon looking for a dry place to hang out,” Natalie said. “You gotta think they’re just as displaced as the rest of us.”

Amber shrugged. “Possible, I suppose, but I’d rather be sure. Where’s the key to the deadbolt?”

“In the deadbolt,” Natalie said cautiously. “No one can put a key in from the other side of the key is there.”

“I’m going to go check,” Amber said. “Anyone want to go with?”

Reesie and Natalie looked at each other. “Sure, I might as well,” Reesie said. “Place freaks me the fuck out but I damn sure don’t want any zombies coming up out of there.”

Natalie and Amber laughed at the popular reference.

Darrell came back down the hallway, heading toward his room. “I’m going to see if I have anything else that lights up,” he explained. “Those aren’t going to last too long.”

“Amber thinks she heard a noise downstairs,” Reesie said. “We’re going to go check. Want to come?”

“Sure!” Darrell responded, seeming much more excited about the adventure than any of the women. “Let me just grab a couple of things out of here first.” He disappeared into the room for a minute and returned holding a couple of battery-powered reading lamps. “We can take one of these with us, shed some light on things. They’re LED so they don’t use as much power.”

“I think I’ll stay up here and listen for your screams,” Natalie said wryly. “I think I’ve had enough adventure for the day. I’m not going looking for more.”

Darrell took one of the LED lamps to the living room, receiving a loud cheer and applause for his effort. He took a couple of bows and then returned to the hallway. “You might take a look in your closet,” he told Natalie. “Didn’t someone send you a reading light and you said you didn’t like it because it caused a glare on your screen?”

Natalie gave the suggestion some thought and then her face lit up. “You’re right! And there’s like three of them in different sizes of annoying!”  Darrell handed Natalie his phone and she slipped into the bedroom. She was relieved that Adam had gone back to sleep so she didn’t need to explain what she was doing. She found the lights in her closet, two of them still unopened, and then returned to the hallway, quietly shutting the bedroom door behind her. “Probably best to save these until the others go dead,” she suggested. “There’s still no way of telling when we’ll get power back. With the tornado and everything, it could be days. We’ll have to ration the light.”

“You’ll forgive me if that sounds somewhat oppressive,” Reesie said. “I get it, and I agree, but it just sounds off.”

“I know,” Natalie said. “It didn’t feel right coming out of my mouth. I’m glad you get what I mean, though.”

“Why don’t you let us out and then lock the door behind us,” Amber suggested. “That way, if there is someone down there, we don’t have to worry about them running up here and causing problems. We’ll knock three times when we’re back.”

“What are you going to tell the others?” Darrell asked. “They’re going to see us parading across the room and out the door. We don’t need any extra help and I don’t want everyone up here being scared the entire time we’re gone.”

“I’ll tell them you’re going scavenging, looking for anyone we might have missed in the other apartments, checking to see if the water’s gone down any,” Natalie answered. “I don’t think anyone’s going to volunteer at this point. Barry and Carson are both still damp and barefoot and you can tell they’re neither one used to either of those conditions. Roscoe’s not letting Gwen leave that chair, Amanda’s mothering Miranda, and Hannah, Gloria, and Toma are doing the whole family thing. Go. Find the squirrel. Don’t get any diseases, though.”

Darrell handed the LED light to Reesie and the four of them walked through the kitchen to the front door. Natalie unlocked the deadbolt and Darrell led the way onto the landing. He wasn’t exactly thrilled with the prospect of going back into the bloody apartment but it was better than sitting around doing nothing.

Inconclusive Conclusions

From the perspective of the press members waiting outside Walter Reed Hospital, the quick arrival and departure of the First Lady’s motorcade appeared perfectly normal with everyone assuming that President Blackstone was at least stable if not doing better, well enough that it was okay for the First Lady to leave. What they didn’t know was that the drivers had orders not to return to the White House but to a top-secret location on the outskirts of Arlington, Virginia clandestinely operated by the Treasury Department’s financial crimes bureau. The nondescript office building typically was used for the collection of financial data in the pursuit of international crimes but the Secret Service also maintained a handful of offices and interrogation space for those times when their offices at the Treasury Department were too public.

While Agent Campbell had, of necessity, been the one to formally arrest Tasha and Gloria, he was careful to stay behind and let other agents, specifically the head of the First Lady’s detail, Mark Benhurst, handle the transportation and intake paperwork. He knew once the press did find out what had happened there would be myriad questions to answer and he wanted to put off that event as long as possible. Not having rapid communications at the moment helped achieve that goal.

As the motorcade sped off, Roger looked at Agent Campbell and said, “This changes a lot. Did you get Zinky?”

The agent nodded. “He had his face planted on a microscope but said he’d be out as soon as possible.” He paused and then added, “You do realize this is going to be an investigative nightmare. The fact that Ms. Fastbaum slipped into the White House largely unnoticed by our own people requires an internal investigation. Once we discover the method used to poison the president, we’ll have to examine how she managed to get any level of access. We’ll have to try and look at all communication between Ms. Fastbaum and the first lady, though, with cell phone service down, that could be a slow-moving process.”

“How long do you have before filing charges?” Roger asked.

Campbell shook his head. “We have a room full of people who heard the confession, including you and agents from both details. The attorney general isn’t going to like it, but he’ll have no choice in the matter. The first lady isn’t protected with the same immunity against an indictment that’s afforded the president.”

As they started walking toward the examination room door, Roger said, “AG Simons and the President were buddies before Tasha was ever on the scene. As distasteful as it might be, he’d rather charge her than appear to be disloyal to the President. It will be a freak show once it hits the press, though.”

The pair were standing just outside the exam area when Dr. Zinky came rushing toward them. “Okay, what’s this new news you have? Please hurry because the President’s condition is deteriorating.”

“He was poisoned,” Agent Campbell said bluntly. “We don’t know with what or how just yet, but a friend of the First Lady just confessed and has been taken into custody.”

“I can tell you what it was,” Zinky said, his body shaking with the anxiety. “Botulinum. Botox. The same stuff people inject in their lips or their foreheads. Sufficiently diluted and injected into muscle tissue, it’s not lethal. Consumed, though, it’s perhaps the most deadly poison available. The amount used was low, likely similar to what is used for cosmetological purposes, but it is no less lethal. We’re doing everything we can but the president’s condition is extremely critical.” The doctor paused and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. “Complicating matters more, it seems traces of the poison were external to the President, not ingested. We’re finding traces of it on his clothes, creating the possibility that some might have been inadvertently ingested by Secret Service agents or our own medical personnel. We’re going to have to test everyone, including you, Agent Campbell.”

Adrian took a small step backward, his eyes growing wide. 

“Don’t worry,” Zinky continued. “It’s not likely you would have ingested enough to prove fatal, but even a small amount could make you quite ill. We can take a quick blood sample now if you don’t mind. If you experience any hoarseness or blurred vision, let me know immediately.”

Agent Campbell nodded and began rolling up the shirt sleeve over his left arm. “Let’s get it done,” he said. “Same for the full detail. Almost all of them had physical contact with the President at some point. Let’s not take any chances.”

Dr. Zinky motioned to a nurse who came over and began prepping Agent Campbell’s arm for the blood draw. Her motions were quicky, her face expressionless, void of the usual bedside manner presented in these situations. Fortunately for Adrian, she was expert enough in her technique that he barely felt the needle prick. The vial was full within a few seconds. 

As the nurse sealed the vial, Dr. Zinky instructed, “All the agents need to be tested so make sure the vials are clearly marked and processed quickly.” 

The nurse nodded and walked quickly to another nearby agent, firmly ordering him to roll up his sleeve. The agent looked at Adrian who nodded for the agent to comply.

“Since you know what it is, you can treat this, right?” Roger asked.

Dr. ZInky sighed and looked back in the direction of the treatment room where the team was working on the President. “We’re administering the antitoxin now, but it does nothing to reverse the effects that have already taken place. He’s experienced some breathing complications so we’re putting him on a ventilator. Had we known sooner, we could have administered the antitoxin on the way over, but a lot of damage has been done. I’m not sure how effective it will be. It’s not like Rudy was in the best of shape, to begin with. You know the situation, Roger. Between the diabetes and the blood pressure and his age … His body’s not in the best condition for fighting this. Saving him at all is going to be a battle and, quite honestly, even if we do save him he could have permanent nerve damage. His risk for stroke is also pretty high at the moment. We’re watching that but we may not be able to stop it.”

“What should I tell the acting president?” Roger asked. 

Zinky shrugged. “Tell Andrew not to get too terribly comfortable …”
Roger raised his hand to stop him. “Not Andrew. Norma Watkins.”

Zinky looked shocked. Having been with the president the entire time, he hadn’t been aware of the other events that had taken place. “What happened?”

“Assassinated,” Roger said, “along with General Lang and a Secret Service agent. They were taken directly to the coroner’s office so as to not cause confusion here.”

Zinky was visibly shaken. “This is not good,” he said. “This is very not good. I’ll need to look at the blood samples again, but while the botox was obvious, there was also something else present that hints at a longer-term problem, a lingering presence of cyanide building up.” He paused and then looked at Agent Campbell. “I think you have to consider the possibility that there was more than one person attempting to kill the President today,” he said, “And right now I’m not sure who is more responsible.”

Adrian and Roger looked at each other. “President Watkins could be in more danger than we thought,” Agent Campbell said. “You should get back to the White House and warn the detail there. I’ll send you with a note for the lead agent. It should be Marsha Burlington.” He walked over and retrieved the suit coat he had draped over the back of a chair. He pulled out a notepad and pen and began writing. “Basically, we have to consider her quarantined until we catch whoever is responsible for this mess. Anything brought in from outside the oval office has to be tested before President Watkins touches it.” He ripped the note from the pad and handed it to Roger.

“I’m not sure this was the outcome anyone anticipated,” Roger started, but he was unable to finish his thought as alarms started sounding in the President’s treatment room. 

Zinky instinctively bolted that direction then stopped before going in to warn Roger and Adrian, “Stay right there, both of you. Go nowhere.”

Roger and Adrian both sighed at the same time. 

“Helluva time for cell phone service to be down,” Adrian said. “If someone was looking to create chaos, they’ve certainly done a good job of it.”
Roger looked at Adrian and said, “This is a history-making moment, Agent Campbell. Everything we do or don’t do matters. Our actions, our decisions, how we choose to react to every piece of information will be dissected and re-dissected long after we’re deceased. Regardless of what the intentions might have been or how many people were involved, our responsibility is not only to protect the president but more importantly the Constitution. Someone’s attacking our democracy and we cannot let them succeed.”

What Was Is No More

Darrell, Reesie, and Amber slipped out of the apartment almost completely unnoticed. Barry and Carlson both looked in the direction of the door as Natalie unlocked it but neither cared to say anything. The day’s events had neither man in the mood to say anything for fear it might volunteer them for more trouble. 

Standing on the landing outside the apartment, Reesie said, “You know, we should probably check the other apartments on these two floors, see if anyone’s still here.”

Darrell shook his head. “I checked the second floor before going down to the first and the people in both the other apartments up here left for work early this morning. One of them has kids so they’re not exactly quiet. The other apartments are vacant.”

“You don’t think anyone would hole up in a vacant apartment, do you?” Reesie asked. “I mean, if someone got caught out in this mess, a vacant apartment would seem to be a logical place to try and ride it out.”

“No one would know which ones were vacant unless they lived here,” Amber said. “The management company is careful to not advertise the number of units available. Helps minimize break-ins, at least in theory.”

Reesie shrugged and the trio started down the stairs. The feeling was ominously surreal. The only sound was that of water rushing around and through the lower level of the apartment building. There were no bird calls, no distant traffic noises, no sounds of people yelling or children playing. Nothing. Just the water and the wind. It was a sense of solitude that might have been relaxing under different circumstances but for the moment it was frightening. 

There were no rescue boats. No people sitting on rooftops waiting for someone to whisk them to safety. There were no rooftops at all. Only a few trees remained. Other buildings nearby had suffered significant damage, some completely ruined, others likely salvageable except for all the water running through their lower floors. Nothing around them looked inhabitable. Instead, it felt more as though they were trapped in the middle of an ocean, lost on an island no one knew existed. Alone. No civilization. No other forms of life. Stranded and left to die.

When they reached the apartment where they had found the needles and fuel cans, Darrell tried turning the doorknob only to find it locked. “Did you lock the door when we left?” he asked Reesie.

Reesie reached over and tried the door for herself. “Not intentionally,” she said. “I mean, I was scared as fuck and ready to get out of there. I suppose it’s possible I hit the lock by mistake.”

“Not a problem,” Amber said as she reached on top of the doorframe and found a flat, notched piece of metal. “I found these accidentally when I was looking to decorate my front door last Christmas. Apparently, management doesn’t want maintenance to have to carry master keys so they’ve hidden these instead. They’re just hoping no one notices. One of the most stupid things I’ve ever seen.” She slipped the piece of metal into the lock and popped the door open with ease.

Darrell led the way into the apartment but two steps in he stopped short, causing Reesie to bump into him.

“Darrell!” she scolded. “You want to let the rest of us in?”

“Someone’s been here,” he said, stepping to the side so both women could join him.

The scene was not what they had expected. The meth lab was gone, as were all the drug paraphernalia, trash, empty fast food containers, and other signs of life. In their place was reasonably nice furniture with just the slightest hint of wear. The apartment looked neat and clean, the exact opposite of what they had seen earlier.

“This isn’t right,” Reesie said. “Did we get the wrong apartment?”

Darrell shook his head. “No way. Something’s very wrong here. There’s no way someone could have cleaned up that mess and brought in new furniture without us hearing them. How would they even get here? It’s not like you can back a truck up and unload.”

Amber looked around at the unexpected scene. “Do you suppose the bodies are still here?”

Darrell looked at Reesie who shook her head. There was no way she was going down the hallway again. “I guess I’ll go look,” Darrell said.

“Be careful,” Amber warned. “Don’t touch anything. There could be cameras watching us.”

Darrell nodded and started down the dark hallway. The doors to both bedrooms were open. Using his foot, he pushed open the door to the room where the bodies had been. They were gone. There was no blood, no sign of any struggle at all. Instead, there was a nicely made bed, two end tables, and a matching dresser all neat and tidy as though nothing had ever been out of place. Darrell backed out of the room slowly and returned to the living room. “This is crazy,” he said. “No bodies, no blood, nothing. Everything’s all nice and neat. Even when they first moved into this apartment it didn’t look as good as it does now.”

Amber sighed. “Well, the good news is that we don’t have to dump the bodies. Someone’s obviously taken care of that task for us. The bad news is that someone slipped in right under our noses and completely removed all evidence of any crime. No drugs, no murder, not even a bit of sloppiness. I wish my apartment were ever this clean.”

Reese walked through the living room and into the kitchen. “I don’t get it. Why would someone go to this much trouble? I get clearing things out, maybe dumping everything into the water, but replacing it with legit stuff? This makes no sense, not now, not ever. I’m getting a really bad feeling about being down here.”

“You’re not the only one,” Darrell agreed. “I think we need to get out before whoever cleaned this place decides to return.”

“Hold on,” Amber said as she walked toward the kitchen. “I want to check something.“ She opened the refrigerator door and found it full of food. Milk, eggs, condiments, soda, and even a couple of bottles of wine. More importantly, they were all cold. “They’ve not been gone long. Everything in here is still cold and the power’s been off for what, over eight hours now? I can see it still being cool, but this is fresh.” She turned and opened a cabinet, finding it full of canned goods, pasta sauces and pasta, popular cereals, and dried beans. Opening another door revealed protein bars and high energy snacks. Dishes were stacked neatly and organized by size. Cups and glasses were laid out in perfect rows. “This doesn’t make any sense,” Amber said. “These cabinets are stocked as though someone knew in advance that people were going to be stranded.”

“I don’t get it,” Darrell responded. “This place was a complete wreck, the kind that takes professional cleaners days to straighten up. I mean, the carpets have been cleaned or something! How did that happen without electricity or without us hearing all the noise? This isn’t possible!”

Reese joined Amber in the kitchen and was looking through all the food supplies. “I say we take it as a blessing, gather the food, and go. How it got here isn’t nearly as important as the fact that we need the food. We have too many people upstairs to ignore this.” She opened a pantry door and found a stash of reusable shopping bags. “Look, they’re even environmentally friendly. We take the bags, we load them with food, and we don’t worry about the details.”

“Hold on,” Amber said as she walked through the rest of the apartment. “I want to check something.” Walking into the master bedroom, she knelt down and dug her fingers along the edge of the wall between the carpet and the molding. “The glue under the carpet in here is still wet,” she called back to the others. “Whoever did this hasn’t been gone long.”

Darrell walked to the kitchen and was helping Reesie fill bags with the food from the shelves and refrigerator. “This still makes absolutely no sense. There was blood on the walls and the carpet. The carpet in here was burned and stained. None of this furniture was here. All that lab equipment, the boxes of drugs … and we’re surrounded by water! You can’t get in or out of this place without a boat!”

Amber returned to the kitchen and grabbed an empty shopping bag and began filling it. “So, we take the food, get everyone fed, and keep our ears open. Someone’s going to return and wonder where the food went. We don’t want anyone sneaking up on us during the night.”

“Like there’s any chance I’ll be able to sleep,” Reesie replied. “I’m exhausted, but there’s no way I’m closing my eyes. There’s some weird shit going on here.”

“This whole day … I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all,” Darrell said. “I mean, any one of the things, losing power, that damn phone call–whatever the fuck that was, the rain and the flood, and then the tornado wiping everything out, just one of those things would have been enough but we’ve had them all in one day, within a few hours. How the fuck does that even happen?”

Amber shook her head. “You’re right, it’s pretty odd. I would normally blame global warming but this day has been a ‘next step’ kind of event, as though the whole planet decided to get pissed.”

Reesie started stacking grocery bags onto her arms. “My grandma would have called this the wrath of God, lighting candles, and making everybody pray. I haven’t been to church since her funeral but I’m not so sure praying’s not a bad thing. Certainly can’t hurt.”

Darrell followed Reesie’s lead, stacking as many of the bags as he could onto his arms. “I never believed in any of that stuff,” he said. “Still don’t. Something or someone had to interfere. There’s no way a confluence of that many disasters hits the same day on their own.”

“We can figure out the why after we’ve survived the what,” Amber said. “I don’t think this was all an accident, but if we don’t get everyone through this, why any of it happened or what caused it to happen is irrelevant.” She paused and looked toward the door, setting the bags she was carrying on the table. “Whoever left this food knew we were upstairs. They had to. That many people walking above you? Trust me, these units are not that well built. They knew we were there, they knew we would come looking.”

Darrell and Reesie looked at her. “What are you saying? We have a guardian angel or something?” Reesie asked. “Not that I mind if we do.”

“Or someone’s trying to poison us,” Darrell said, putting his bags on the table next to Ambers. “What do we do, take it or leave it?”

Amber looked at the other two, considering the options before them. There were hungry people upstairs who could really use something to eat, but what if the food was tainted? Everything down here felt a bit too convenient as though they were being set up by someone. She didn’t have any reason to doubt that Darrell and Reesie had seen the apartment under different conditions just a few hours ago, yet everything was now neat and orderly, the kind of neat and orderly of an expensive condo on the market. Nothing made sense. Nothing had made sense all day. “Let’s take it and go,” she said. “But we’re careful. We watch. The first sign of anyone getting sick, we make everyone throw up and throw out the rest of the food.”

“Works for me,” Reesie said as she headed toward the door. “I’m just ready for this day to be over. I want to know that my baby is safe.”

Darrell picked up the grocery bags again. “I’ll let ya’ll eat first. I think we have some ipecac in one of the cabinets. I’ll double-check and have it ready.”

Amber nodded. “Not a bad move. We’ll just have to be careful and hope for the best. I don’t see that we have many other choices.” She picked up the bags and followed Darrell and Reesie to the door. She let them get a few steps ahead of her before she turned back to the apartment and said to no one who was visible, “Don’t think I don’t know you’re here, whoever you are. Don’t give me a reason to come back down here and find you.” She closed the door behind her and instantly felt the lock move on the other side.

There Is No Down

If years in the PR business had taught Terry anything it was that loyalty could kill you. Politics being what they were, if she wanted to survive the day with her job still intact she needed to cozy up to the new acting president and make sure that some sense of normalcy was restored as quickly as possible. She didn’t have to like Norma Watkins. One of two things was going to happen. Either President Blackstone would return and hold everyone accountable for what happened in his absence or he would die and Norma would eventually replace her with her own staff. Until then, Terri had to put aside her personal feelings and the overwhelming fear she was experiencing and do her job.

Wilson entered her office without knocking. “Word is Watkins is heading to the Hill. She’s going to need help with a speech.”

Terri gave him a blank stare. “I’m not the speechwriter. Go ask one of them.”

“I did, but I didn’t ask. We’re going to help her, all of us. If we don’t get this right, we’re all looking for a job tomorrow regardless of who the president is. We have to make it look like she knows what she’s doing without making President Blackstone look incompetent.”

“But he …” Terri started.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Wilson interrupted. “I’m going to go snag Karen, get her in on this, too. Meet the others in the conference room. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“I thought we weren’t supposed to leave our offices,” Terri countered.

“None of us were in a position to have potentially been the shooter,” Wilson said. “We have permission to gather and do our jobs. Just avoid anyone you don’t know. We don’t need anyone else getting shot.”

“I don’t suppose we have any word from the hospital,” Terri said. “Might be nice to know what kind of odds were playing against here.”

Wilson paused in the doorway and shrugged. “Assume the best, plan for the worst.”

Terri grabbed a couple of legal pads and pens from her desk. “Like I’m supposed to know which is which.”

A Chance To Escape

Rain beat down the tall grass that had been allowed to grow across the Virginia valley as though a massive fire hydrant in the sky had opened. A minute after the rain came the hail and the wind creating a wall of destruction determined to take out everything in its path. What wasn’t firmly attached to the ground was going to be ripped up and destroyed like so much paper. 

Tom listened to the howl of the storm and realized this gave him a better opportunity to escape than he could have created on his own. Already, he had managed to avoid the Marines who were rescuing the others and hide high in the access tunnel. No one else seemed to realize that the cave-in had opened a hole, moving enough of the debris from the explosion so that he could squeeze through into the clear, broad hallway. The battery-powered emergency lighting had kicked in and he had no trouble making his way up the ramp to the door.

The problem was that opening that door led him into a small building whose walls were made of clear plexiglass. Had he exited through the door before the storm he would have almost certainly been seen. Even worse, there were over 100 yards of open asphalt between there the next building. There was no way he could have crossed that distance unnoticed. Not that he couldn’t have made up a story. He had all the credentials he needed. He had been working here long enough, had managed to pass all the security and background checks, so no one was going to suspect him of any wrongdoing. But he didn’t want to answer all the questions. There were still things to do and they weren’t going to get done if he was sitting in an office chatting it up with a Marine, or worse yet, Perry, who he was fairly certain had caught his earlier slip about the food trucks. 

What the storm offered was a way out, the opportunity to leave the bunker without anyone knowing he was still alive. Not finding a body wasn’t a big deal given the first explosion. He would be listed as missing, presumed dead. A victim of a horrible attack that no one would ever be able to trace back to him. All the evidence had been destroyed either by the bomb or by the cave-in. Even if any of the computers had survived, his work was so deeply embedded into the code it would take years before anyone else could figure out exactly what had happened. By that time, the world would have completely changed. Everything would be better. He wouldn’t have to worry about the government taking anyone for granted or considering them expendable ever again.

The storm was unrelenting. A corner of the massive tarp covering the breech into the bunker came undone, allowing rain and hail to fall onto the ruins below. The sound echoed loudly through the cavern as though the entire planet were coming to an end.

“That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing,” Tom thought. “At least the government wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone ever again.” He paused for a moment and thought about the team members that had given their lives already. They had talked about this. They all knew the risks and the odds. They were all willing to die if it meant other families like theirs might not have to suffer as they had. Still, through all the planning and the years of execution, they had become friends, having taken the place of the family that had been killed at the hands of a cold and irresponsible government that had no accountability. 

Tom also thought about all the innocent people he had killed that day. They hadn’t asked for any of the horrible things that were happening but he considered they were all culpable. They hadn’t stood up to the government. Hell, most of them hadn’t even voted, ever. Americans had become too lazy, allowing the government to run itself without electoral oversight. When people did vote they weren’t actually stopping anything. All anyone cared about was that their own lives continued without interruption. So, if they died today, it was their own fault.

He knew thousands if not millions of people were dead. At any given time, there were roughly 9,700 airplanes crossing the United States carrying more than 1,200,000 people. Of course, they wouldn’t all die. In fact, there was a reasonable expectation that several would be able to land safely. Where the planes crashed was more likely to cause a greater amount of damage. A plane just taking off, loaded with fuel, crashing into an urban area could potentially kill thousands more than just the passengers of the aircraft. 

Such massive disruption was necessary, in Tom’s reasoning. Something big, something unprecedented had to happen to prove to the governments of the world that they were not in control, that they could not stop people from fighting back. The group’s estimate had been that somewhere between 30-150 million people could die from their actions. That was still a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people governments murdered. They would all be martyrs for a greater cause to save humanity for the future.

Tom waited, listening as the storm only grew more severe outside. He was sure that the Marines would have every door shut, every window barricaded against the storm’s fury. The only thing standing in his way was himself. He had to be ready. 

Opening the door, Tom stepped into the outer building, shocked to find himself instantly standing in ankle-deep water. He quickly pushed the door shut behind him so that no one would notice it had been opened. Visibility was beyond zero. Not only could Tom not see any other buildings, but there was also no sense of direction. He wasn’t sure in which direction he needed to run. He watched for a minute, trying to get his bearings, remembering what building was where and which ones had likely been destroyed by the bombs. About 150 yards to his left would be an office building that had likely been abandoned as everyone would have been pulled into the rescue efforts. Being strictly an administration facility, he wouldn’t need a key card to get inside. 

Tom looked in the direction of where the building should be. He could see nothing through the rain. The hail was relentless, pounding constantly on the roof of the building with such volume as to make him wish he had brought earplugs. Allowing for the severity of the wind and the uncertainty of where he was going, Tom figured it would take him two and a half minutes to get to the admin building. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be blown off course too much and would be able to find the door quickly. There was no awning or eave covering the doorway. If he didn’t find the door soon enough, the hail could, in theory, beat him to death before he could make it back, or to another building. He pulled his lab coat up over his head. It wasn’t going to be much protection. It was already soaked just from standing in the outer building. 

Finally, it was time. Tom couldn’t wait any longer. He ducked his head and took off running.

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