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Welcome To The Family
Reesie felt the child push her wet body back against the adult’s legs as she introduced Cam to the group. “Her home is gone,” Ressie explained. “Her family is missing. She’s been floating downstream looking for something to eat and a safe place to stay.”
Amanda immediately headed toward the kitchen. “We can definitely fix her something to eat!” she exclaimed, excited to have the opportunity to feed another person.
As the others crowded in close, Cam turned and hugged Reesie’s leg. The sea of white faces coming at her felt threatening even if they were smiling. “I think ya’ll are scaring her,” Reesie said as she knelt down and wrapped her arms around the little one. “No offense, I know you mean well, but that’s a lot of white coming at someone who’s probably been raised to not trust people.”
The group backed off and gave them some room, though Amanda kept right on working in the kitchen. “She could probably use some dry clothes,” Ressie said, looking at Natalie. “Even something too large is going to beat being soaking wet.”
“Bring her back here to the bedroom,” Natalie replied. “I’m sure we can find plenty of things that will work for her.”
Reesie stood up and took Cam by the hand. The teenager looked up at her for assurance and Reesie smiled. “It’s alright,” she said calmly. “These are all good people.”
As they walked toward the bedroom, Darrell and Amber slipped through the door and into the kitchen. When Amanda saw all the cuts on Amber, she dropped the spoon she was using and covered her mouth to stifle a scream. “That child didn’t do that to you, did she?” Amanda asked.
“No, not at all,” Amber said as she traded bloodied towels for clean ones. “These are the results of a totally different struggle downstairs. People are floating downstream on whatever they can find, looking for any place that might give them food or shelter. Cam may just be the first person we take in.”
“But, if they’re going to be dangerous … “ Amanda started, not wanting to complete her own sentence.
“If they’re dangerous, we’re not letting them in,” Darrell said. “We can’t take that kind of risk. Children like Cam are one thing, but violent adults like the one that attacked Amber have to look elsewhere. We have to keep everyone safe.”
Carson overheard the conversation and walked into the kitchen. “How many people are we talking about?” he asked, stunned by the number of cuts and bruises Amber was treating. “That looks like you took on an entire gang!”
Amber laughed. “Nah, he got lucky and there was a lot of glass broken,” she said. “But there are going to be more, possibly dozens more, who knows? Cam mentioned she had seen others. I don’t know if they found something upstream and will stay there or if we should expect them here soon as well.”
“We’re going to have to keep a lookout watching on both sides of the building,” Darrell said. “People on the second floor may have locked their front doors but I doubt many locked their patios. I know we don’t. We don’t normally expect someone to be climbing up that side of the building, you know? People who are floating downstream are going to be desperate and no, not all of them are going to be nice. We’re going to have to keep watch and we’re going to have to be careful.”
“Are you talking about setting up posts and taking turns?” Carlson asked. “I’m definitely willing to take a turn watching but I don’t think I can fight anyone off like Amber did.” He looked down at his waist and added, “I’m too much like a marshmallow any more.”
Amber laughed at the self-deprecating remark. “I don’t think anyone’s going out by themselves,” she said, “not even me. I should have come back in and gotten help before I went down there. One I could handle, but if there had been two or three it could have really been trouble.”
Carlson looked around the room. “We don’t exactly have the most intimidating group of people here,” he said. “We’re all wet, we’re all tired, and no offense, but Amber is the only one who looks like they might work out.”
Toma’s head popped up from the other side of the kitchen counter. “Who’s working out?” she asked. “I could stand to stretch a little.” She stood up and walked around the counter to join the conversation. “Are we talking about yoga or pilates or what?”
“We’re talking about guarding the building against intruders,” Darrell said, smiling. “Amber encountered someone who wasn’t exactly friendly.”
Toma looked over and saw all the cuts Amber was treating. “You know, I have some experience with Capoeria,” she said. “I’ve not had to use it often outside the gym, but I don’t have any problem taking a guy down.”
Amber looked up. “You’re Brazilian?”
Toma shook her head. “Jersey. I have four brothers who teased me endlessly about my dance classes. Capoeria gave me a chance to take those dance moves and turn them into something that could kick their asses,” she said laughing. “You should have seen their expressions the first time I did a pas de cheval that ended with my foot in my oldest brother’s face! They didn’t tease me quite so much after that!”
“I’m impressed,” Amber said. “Not many people in the Midwest have ever heard of Capoeria, much less practice it. Maybe you could teach me a thing or two.”
Toma took in Amber’s full height and said, “Girl, there’s not enough room in this apartment! One good jump and you’re going to land in a wall!”
The group laughed, which caught the attention of others just as Reesie and Natalie were returning with Cam.
“You guys are sounding cheerful,” Natalie said as she walked over and put an arm around Darrell. “Care to let the rest of us in on the joke?”
“Oh, just talking about Amber leaping through walls,” Darrell said.
The group laughed and chatter started back up around the room. Amanda set a plate of food in front of Cam and the girl inhaled it quickly as though someone might try to take it away from her.
As Cam ate, Amber pulled Reesie to the side. “Do you think you can get Cam to talk about how she got here, how many other people she saw floating downstream? It might help us know what to expect and how to protect ourselves.”
Reesie looked over at the young girl who was rapidly devouring a second plate of food, much to Amanda’s delight. “I can try,” Reesie said. “She’s obviously scared but who wouldn’t be? Are you worried there might be trouble?”
Amber nodded. “It’s almost inevitable. We can’t be the only ones who survived but we got lucky with this apartment and the food. Anyone out on the water is going to be desperate and Cam might have seen some of that. Some could have created gangs of looters and that could create some real problems if we’re not ready to fight them off.”
Reesie nodded. “You know they’re out there. There are probably more like Cam, too, kids who have lost their families. How are we going to tell the difference?”
“I’m not sure,” Amber said. “We’ll have to watch, see how people behave when they see us. We can handle scared, but we need to make sure troublemakers keep moving.”
Cam had paused for a moment as Amanda filled her plate a third time. Reesie walked over and gently asked, “So, did you see many other people like you out there?”
Cam nodded. “Lots. Mostly guys. Mostly around stores. Some were setting up camps on the roofs of buildings. I didn’t want to stay with them, though. Ya’ never know how they might treat a kid like me.” Amanda set another plate in front of the young girl and Cam immediately resumed eating.
“Were there a lot of kids like you?” Reesie asked.
“Not really,” Cam said between bites. “Mostly older people, like you guys. Mostly using doors to float on. You just kinda hang on and hope you don’t bump into anything. Ain’t no controlling those things, no way. I saw this one dude acting like he was gonna surf. Fool got knocked off when he hit a car roof. Never came back up.”
“So, you just floated into the building here? That sounds scary,” Reesie continued.
Cam shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I wasn’t aiming to come here but I guess it’s okay. At least ya’ll got food.”
Reese laughed. She walked over to Amber. “She says people are camping on rooftops, so maybe we won’t have to worry as much as you thought.”
Amber shook her head. “That won’t last. There’s more rain coming. Rooftops will hold some, but they’re not going to have access to any resources. They’re going to need food. They’re going to need water that’s safe to drink.”
“What do we do?” Reesie asked. “I mean, we can take what, maybe ten or so more people before we don’t have room to move in here?”
Amber looked around the room. “I’m not sure. I guess it depends on the size of the person. We can always put people in the other apartments, too. That’s an option.”
An explosion in the distance caused the apartment building to shake. Conversation stopped. Amber ran to the patio door and looked for smoke or some other sign. She saw nothing. Darrell ran out the front door with Natalie, looking out the other direction. Still, nothing was visible. They returned inside the apartment and shrugged.
“Something that caused that big of an explosion should create some smoke, don’t you think?” Carlson asked. “We all felt it, right?”
Everyone in the group nodded.
“Smoke requires something to burn, though, and the color of the smoke depends on what’s burning,” Barry said. “If it were something electrical, such as a transformer, any smoke would appear white or clear.”
“That was no transformer,” Carlson countered. “There should be smoke.”
“I’m not saying there isn’t smoke, just that it may not be visible from here,” Barry said. “We have to consider the possibility that if an electrical station in a non-flooded area started sending power to a station in a flooded area, some of the larger equipment, things much larger than a transformer, could explode.”
“Which would mean we still won’t have electricity,” Amanda said. “We’ll be in the dark, and vulnerable.”
“Not necessarily,” Amber responded. “There are multiple substations around town and we’ve only heard one explosion. If Barry’s supposition is correct, and it makes perfect sense to me, then perhaps the grid is trying to come back online. Even if we don’t have power, there could be others in the city who do, and that could ultimately help us all.”
“We also have to think that being the only ones with a light on could make us a target,” Ressie added. “There’s nothing else around here. We’d stick out like a lighthouse if any kind of light is visible from outside. Who knows what we might attract.”
“So, what do we do?” Carlson asked. “Just sit here and wait for trouble to come and get us? I’m not on board if that’s the plan.”
“We divide up into teams and keep watch,” Darrell said. “Two on the balcony, two out front. You see or hear anything, you alert the others. We deal with threats in groups of four or more.”
Around the room, everyone nodded in agreement with the plan, though everyone wanted to be paired with Amber when it was there turn.
Amber laughed. “I don’t know that everyone needs to participate. Hannah, no offense, but I think you can sit this one out. You’ve been through enough today.”
Hannah smiled and nodded. The early argument had left her defensive and quiet. Gloria still wasn’t talking to her.
“Miranda, baby, I think you probably should stay inside, too,” Amber continued. “You don’t need a shadow setting off an anxiety or panic attack.”
Miranda, seated on the floor, pulled her knees up into her chest and started rocking. Just the thought of what could be out in the dark was a potential trigger.
“I’m big enough to be my own team,” Barry laughed.
“No, you’re not,” Amanda countered. “I’ll go with Barry.”
“I think most the pairings are pretty natural,” Amber said. “Natalie and Darrell, Toma and Gloria, Barry and Amanda, Reesie and Carlson, and Adam can hang with me.”
Gwen stood up, stretching herself as much as possible. “Wait, what about Roscoe and me? We can watch!”
There were giggles throughout the group.
Amber smiled. “Yes, you can watch right here. Roscoe’s biggest asset is his ears. He’ll likely hear things long before the rest of us do. You don’t need to take him outside for that, though. You can sit just inside the patio door and he’ll do what dogs do. He’ll let you know if he senses a problem.”
“There’s some crazy-ass bitches out there,” Cam said, hiding behind Reesie, still not fully trusting the group. “We’re gonna needs to guns or somethin’.”
“The crazy-ass bitches out there haven’t met the crazy-ass bitches in here,” Amanda said. “What I don’t have in height or muscle I can more than make up for in noise. My kids can be all the way over in the next county and still here me.”
“Gloria’s not exactly quiet, either,” Toma added, causing her girlfriend to blush. “Cab drivers are scared of her.” She put her arm around Gloria, who promptly rolled her eyes.
Darrell looked at Natalie and said, “You want to take the first shift?”
Natalie nodded. “We’ll take the landing outside the front door. We know everyone in the building so if anyone legitimate shows up we’ll recognize them.”
“We can take the balcony,” Gloria said. “It will be nice to feel like I’m helping for a change.”
Amber nodded. “Sounds good. Any objections? We can work in two-hour shifts. That should keep everyone reasonably fresh.”
Group conversation returned as Natalie and Darrell went out onto the landing and Gloria and Toma took up their place on the balcony. Amber looked around at the group inside, pleased they were still getting along but increasingly feeling as though there were something, or someone, lurking. She just wasn’t sure who or what.
A Matter Of Protocol
Roger paced outside the doorway to the treatment room while Agent Campbell stood facing the doorway with his hands behind his back. Two additional agents stood facing him. Inside the treatment room, Dr. Zinky and the hospital staff worked hard trying to save President Blackstone. While it felt as though hours had passed, it was only a matter of a few minutes before the heart monitor attached to the president flatlined. Dr. Zinky had already ordered the annoying electronic sounds of the machines turned down, but the sudden change in the team’s tempo and activity was enough for those waiting to know what had happened. They each tried to brace themselves for the inevitable news.
Dr. Zinky was soaked from both blood and perspiration. He took off the surgical gown and gloves, tossing them in a nearby laundry bag. He watched as the team removed all the monitors from the president’s body, sewed up the incisions they had made, and removed IV tubes. No one said a word as they worked. They all knew the routine too well. For the hospital staff, this scene happened several times a day. This one was different, though, and they all knew it.
When everyone else had left the treatment room, Dr. Zinky took one more look at his patient before turning around and walking slowly to the doorway. “I regret to announce that President Rudolph Allen Blackstone passed away this evening at 7:42 PM, Eastern Standard Time. The cause of death is a brain hemorrhage that was the result of exposure to an extremely high electrical impulse earlier today.”
Both Roger and Agent Campbell looked up quizzically.
“Wait, I thought you told us earlier that the president had been poisoned,” Roger said, challenging the doctor’s statement. “I mean, we had the First Lady arrested. Are you saying we were wrong?”
“Not at all,” the doctor said as he removed his glasses and cleaned the lenses with a tissue. “The president was poisoned without a doubt but that was not his ultimate cause of death. The poison was slow-acting. He could have recovered from that, I feel reasonably certain. But there is clear evidence of exposure to an extremely strong electrical impulse, probably caused by whatever happened with that phone call this morning. We were so focused on fighting off the poison that we missed the brain damage until it was too late. Once he hemorrhaged there was little we could do to save him.”
Roger looked at Agent Campbell and sighed. “I assume you all have a specific protocol for this situation.”
Adrian nodded. “We do, though it gets a little convoluted given the current circumstances. We’ll notify the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region and they’ll send over a military detail that stays with the president’s body until it’s interred. Our team is then reassigned to protect the new president, presumably President Watkins.”
Roger sighed. “Thank you, Dr. Zinky. I know you did everything you could.”
The doctor looked at the floor for a moment before responding. “I’ll have my official report ready for public dissemination first thing in the morning,” he said. He gazed at the floor a moment longer. “So, yeah … And we’ll transition out of the White House by the end of the week. Not exactly what we had planned, is it?” He looked up at Roger. “You’ll let me know where to send everyone’s medical records?”
Zinky sighed once more and walked away toward what passed as a doctor’s lounge in the busy hospital. So many lives had just changed. He overwhelming felt as though he’d failed not only his patient but the whole nation.
Roger watched the doctor walk away then turned to Agent Campbell. “We’re going to need some guidance here. Am I still allowed a driver back to the White House or do I need to call for a ride?”
Agent Campbell smiled. Under different circumstances, he might have found the question humorous. “Yes, sir. We typically continue to provide service throughout a transition. I’m sure this will be no different. I’ll have your car brought around with orders to get you back as soon as possible.”
“Thank you,” Roger said, extending his right hand to the agent. “It has been a pleasure working with you, Adrian.”
The agent shook the now-former Chief of Staff’s hand. “Same here, sir. Please be careful.”
Roger nodded and turned toward the door. His mind swirled with all the protocols he was required to follow. He needed to find and distribute the late president’s funeral plan, something that had been created his second week in office. He would also need to oversee the removal of the Blackstone family’s belongings from the White House, though with Tasha in custody he wasn’t immediately sure where to send them. Andrew’s family would need to be relocated and funeral arrangements made as well. The two services could not take place on the same day. The president’s service would take place first.
As he pushed through the doors leaving the treatment area, he saw the members of the press through the waiting room windows. It wasn’t his job to inform them of the president’s passing, but they would certainly ask and would make judgments based on his expressions whether he said anything or not. He was glad he wasn’t the one to make the announcement. Dr. Zinky would have to do that. Dealing with the press at this moment was not something Roger wanted to do.
Roger’s car pulled under the canopy outside the emergency room and an agent quickly hopped out and opened the back door. Roger smiled and waved to the press, not saying anything as the door shut behind him. They would probably guess that everything was okay, the president was “resting comfortably.” The hospital staff was under strict orders to never speak to a member of the press without authorization so chances of there being a leak were slim.
Leaning back in his seat, Roger felt the tears begin to well up in his eyes. He had known Rudy Blackstone over 40 years. For most of that time, he had been covering up Rudy’s mistakes and misstatements while his friend basked in the limelight. Roger was okay with that. Rudy had taken good care of him financially. He could retire to a nice, unassuming home hidden in the woods of Vermont, perhaps write his memoir, which would be a best-seller by default, and then quietly pass into history as little more than a name on a list that no one would ever read. That was just the nature of the job. But first, he had to tell Norma Watkins that the job she didn’t want was hers.
Protocol. Everything he did from this point forward was a matter of protocol.
From the moment every cell phone in the lecture hall had rung while he was speaking, Chief Justice Kenneth Samuel Todd had been annoyed. He wasn’t accustomed to being interrupted by anyone at any time. He was also quite certain that he had shut off his own phone before walking onto the stage so the perceived embarrassment of it going off along with the others made the situation worse in his mind. The Chief Justice, accustomed to extemporaneous remarks as he was, had managed to make the moment humorous by quipping, “You all downloaded the wrong number app, too?”
A few minutes later, though, the power had gone out all over the campus. His assigned security detail had quickly removed him from the stage, explaining that their communication with Washington was “temporarily” out. The university had provided a quiet room off the University President’s office, along with coffee and pastries he didn’t want and wouldn’t eat. An agent retrieved one of the law books he had brought with him, and he was sitting in the room quietly reading when another Secret Service agent, one he recognized as being from the White House, entered and insisted that the Chief Justice accompany him back to Washington at that moment. The agent had not explained why the need for an urgent return, simply that it was a matter of legal necessity that he be there as quickly as humanly possible, and no, a helicopter was not an option.
To some extent, Chief Justice Todd was disappointed about the helicopter. He enjoyed the aircraft extensively, having flown one during his service in the Navy. In his current position, though, he rarely was allowed to ride in one, usually only when accompanied by the president or vice president, which wasn’t often. The consolation, in this case, was that he could still read during the four-and-a-half-hour trip back to DC. When he finished the necessary passages from the law book, there were a number of briefs to read through and consider as well.
The line of black SUVs hadn’t been gone from the university campus long, however, when Ken noticed that they weren’t taking the interstate, which was the route his detail had taken on their way there. Feeling an immediate sense of concern, he asked the driver, “What’s going on? Why aren’t we taking the Interstate?”
“The Interstate and many other major routes are blocked, Your Honor,” replied the agent in the front passenger seat. “Something caused the engines in all vehicles to go out for a while. I’m sure you can appreciate the chaos that event caused.”
“But this vehicle is working,” the Chief Justice asserted. “What’s going on?”
The agent turned a bit in his seat to more directly address his passenger. “The effects were largely temporary for the majority of vehicles. The problem was that the momentary loss of power also meant a loss of power steering and, in some cases, a loss of accurate breaking. There are a number of accidents all up and down the Interstate and elsewhere.”
“So how long is this trip going to take?” Ken fussed. One thing his position as Chief Justice provided him was the ability to control most situations in and around or pertaining to the Court. A delay of this magnitude was annoyingly disruptive to his schedule.
The agent looked at the driver who shrugged in response. “We’re doing everything we can to get you back to the White House as quickly as possible, sir,” the agent said. “Without any radio communication, though, we won’t know which roads are blocked or how to get around them until they’ve been encountered. We’ve consulted several maps and have a number of options if they’re needed.”
Ken sighed and leaned back in his seat. He had made dinner plans for the evening with an editor interested in publishing the inevitable book he would write after his retirement. He hadn’t actually set a date for that retirement yet. Physically, he could probably go several more years. He had already spent 30 years at the head of the high court, though. There were other things he wanted to do, things he wanted to be able to say without worrying about the implicit and explicit legal implications of saying them. Only the president stood in the way of Ken stepping down. There was no way he was going to allow this president to nominate his successor. The two justices he had already nominated were unfit for the bench in Ken’s opinion, but the president hadn’t asked his opinion. Ken was quietly hoping that the president’s re-election bid would fail, but again, he wasn’t allowed to say anything publicly.
He picked up the book lying on the seat next to him, trying to focus on yet another challenge brought by members of Congress to the president’s executive power, a topic Article II of the Constitution was far too vague in its description for the needs of contemporary politicians. Extrapolating any kind of Constitutional authority over most of the situations raised in the endless arguments between presidents and the legislative branches that inevitably oppose them seemed too much like attempting to describe a painting while looking at a blank canvas. The nation’s founders could not have possibly imagined anything like social media or the president’s ability to address the nation from his bathroom. Balancing the implied limitations of Article II with the personal freedoms set forth in the First Amendment inevitably put the Constitution at odds with itself, leaving it up to the nine justices to determine which had more sway. Historically, the Court had taken the position that the First Amendment, by virtue of its dominant position in the document, took precedence over everything that might follow. However, the extent to which the president might utilize social media to affect the appearance of policy, circumventing the mandated role of the legislature, was problematic. Ken knew there would eventually be a debate among the justices that would make his head hurt. He would need to be well prepared to stay on top of the conversation.
Ken sighed. “I suppose the radio is down, too?” he asked the agents.
“Unfortunately,” came the response. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a long, quiet drive back to DC, Your Honor.”
“Lovely,” Ken muttered as he picked up his book and continued reading.
Listen To The Rhythm Of The Rain
Perry wished more than ever than he could walk but there was still no feeling in either of his legs, and the field diagnosis from the doctor had been that he had likely experienced severe nerve damage that could not be repaired without surgery. Surgery, of course, would require a hospital and at this point, there was no prediction as to when transporting anyone to a hospital might be possible.
Just sitting here watching all the activity around him was frustrating. There was so much that still needed to be done, so many testimonies that needed to be recorded, evidence that needed to be preserved, and Perry didn’t trust anyone to be as thorough with those details as he would be.
More than anything, he couldn’t wait to interrogate Tom. He wanted to know why. He wanted to know how many others had managed to infiltrate his team. He wanted to know if they had any help from outside the bunker. And then he wanted to beat the traitor within an inch of his life. Knowing that a trial and likely a death sentence would be inevitable was not enough. Perry wanted Tom to have a taste of the suffering that he had inflicted on everyone else. He wasn’t proud of those feelings, and he had no intention of acting on them, but he couldn’t deny their presence.
Sitting in the tent, Perry listened to the nearly-deafening sound of the storm as it battered the hangar’s tin outer shell. Inside, there were multiple layers of lead and steel and various devices designed to make the hangar, along with the rest of the facility, invisible to satellites passing overhead. None of those, though, were enough to keep the noise of the storm from squashing almost every other sound inside the building. Generators with their big diesel engines rumbled along quietly by comparison. Shouts of orders being given were unheard more than a few inches away from their origin. Perry wondered if it might have been possible to fire up a jet engine without anyone noticing.
Making matters worse, at least on a personal level, Perry’s watch had stopped working. He had no accurate sense of how much time had passed. He felt as though the squall had been going on forever. Most thunderstorms passing through this region seldom lasted more than a few minutes. He couldn’t remember any weather event that had maintained its intensity as long as this one seemed to be doing, but then, he still had no sense of exactly how long it had been raining, how long he had been sitting in the tent, or how long it had been since the morning’s explosion. Everything was a mess of jumbled memories and emotions that left him feeling groggy and disoriented if he tried to focus on any portion of the day for more than a few seconds.
Eventually, Major Davis and a couple of aides stopped by to visit. “How are you feeling, sir?” the Major asked.
“Like a lump of useless wet canvas,” Perry replied. “How are things going out there?”
Davis turned and accepted the clipboard offered by one of the aides then handed it to Perry. “We’ve tried to write up a report for you, sir,” he said. “Since most of our forms are online now we had to try to recreate the format by memory. I apologize if we’ve left anything out.”
Perry smiled. “I appreciate the effort, Major,” he said. “What’s the status on our prisoner?”
“Well secured and under heavy guard, sir,” Davis replied. “I’m pleased to report that we were able to construct a surprisingly secure facility. He is appropriately shackled with chains secured to the floor and we have a rotating guard unit assigned so there are never fewer than four people watching him. He can’t even take a shit in private.”
Perry nodded as he looked over the details of the hand-written report. There were, at best count, only 26 survivors from inside the bunker. All were injured and in need of more medical care than could be provided on the base under current conditions. Preparations were being made to move everyone, including Perry, to the nearest hospital as soon as the weather permitted. Unfortunately, the lack of communication equipment made it impossible to warn the hospital of the impending wave of injured. They would send an advance team to help the trauma center prepare for the survivors.
There were 186 known dead and, by best count, 231 still missing, presumably in the rubble of the bunker. There was no way to immediately verify who might not have shown up for work that morning, but that number wasn’t far from accurate. Perry didn’t have to be told how critical it was to resume search and rescue efforts inside the bunker as soon as possible but the unrelenting monsoon was making that impossible.
What surprised Perry was that, somehow, someone had managed to accumulate enough military-issue meals-ready-to-eat (MRE) to last the current population five days. While the taste of those meals might not be the quality to which Perry had grown accustomed, he knew the high-calorie, high-protein meals would do a good job of keeping everyone going until they could make better arrangements.
“Everything looks shipshape, Major,” Perry said handing back the clipboard. “How would you classify our current status?”
Major Davis looked back at the now-closed hangar door for a second before responding. “We are unquestionably under duress, Colonel. I can’t be certain without an inspection, but it stands to reason that the tarp over the bunker has been compromised and under current conditions, there’s really nothing we can do.” Davis looked down at the clipboard before continuing. “I know those people in the bunker mean a lot to you, Colonel, and there are a number of good Marines down there as well. We’ll do everything we can to get them out just as soon as the storm lets up enough for us to get to them safely.”
Perry sighed and leaned back on his elbows. His back was hurting from trying to sit up for so long. “For the moment, Major, I think the safety and well-being of the people in this facility have to take precedence. I assume we’re keeping a close watch on the exhaust from all these generators?”
“Yes, sir,” Davis quickly replied. “I’m having those toward the middle of the hanger modified with tubing to direct the exhaust toward vents along the walls. We’re lucky this facility was designed to handle the exhaust of multiple jet engines firing at the same time. We’re still keeping a close watch on the numbers, though.”
Something near the hangar took a direct hit from the lightning and the resulting thunder shook everything inside.
Perry looked up at the ceiling. “We’re going to need to inspect all facilities as well. It sure sounds like we’re taking a beating. Are you sure we got everyone from all the ancillary buildings?”
“As certain as we can be, sir,” Davis answered. “We’ll do another search as part of the inspection after the storm clears.”
“Very well,” Perry replied, thankful to have someone competent taking care of matters for him. “You seem to have things well in hand. Carry on, Major. You’re dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir,” Major Davis said as he and both his aides saluted. Perry returned their salute as best he could then closed his eyes as they turned and left his tent. The conversation had not taken long, just a few minutes, but the effort it took to focus and respond left him feeling enervated. He listened to the unending pounding of the rain. Lying back on the cot, he considered that perhaps not having any feeling in his legs was perhaps better than being in extreme pain. “Be thankful for small things,” he reminded himself. Whether he liked it or not, sleep was coming, blurring time even more. The last thing he would remember was wondering whether time actually existed at all.
On The Lookout
The air outside the apartment was warm and humid with a fragrance of rain mixed with the various debris floating past the building. Darrell and Natalie leaned against the wall, holding hands, appreciating the relative privacy of the moment. They could hear the muted noise of the conversations inside but not at a level that was distracting.
Darrell closed his eyes and sighed. “Am I the only one here wishing I’d never given up smoking?”
Natalie laughed quietly. “I know, right? If ever there was a time when I could really use a cigarette, it’s right now.” She paused for a second then added. “Or a joint. Something green might do us more good.”
“Yeah,” Darrell agreed. “We don’t have anything stashed do we?”
“Nah,” Natalie said, shaking her head. “We smoked it last night. I was going to pick up more today. So much for that plan. This has been one seriously fucked up day.”
Darrell squeezed her hand. “I’m just glad you made it home,” he said, “Even if you did bring the strangest group of people imaginable. I mean, most of them are pretty nice, but that Carlson dude, if anyone needs a good long toke it’s him, man. That dude has no chill.”
Natalie smiled at Darrell’s assessment. “I don’t think he was having a good day before all the trouble started,” she said. “He was fussing about some car or something. I didn’t get all of it. I think he might have actually gotten fired but I’m not sure.”
Darrell nodded and the two of them stood there gazing out at the scene before them. This side of the apartment had not been as seriously affected by the tornado as the other. There were still buildings what were mostly standing, though the damage was severe. Water swirled around everything. Small cars occasionally drifted past, as did whole trees that had been uprooted and various other outdoor equipment that had not been secured. A large delivery truck was trapped against a wall and other detritus had begun accumulating against it, including a camping tent and some molded plastic playground equipment. Everything below them seemed to be devoid of any color, just a flowing gradient of gray and brown mixing and meshing together as the water brought things together and then moved them around at will.
In the distance, they heard the rumble of thunder. “Great, just what we need, more rain,” Natalie said. She sighed then turned to look more directly at Darrell. “Do you think we’re actually going to make it out of this nightmare alive?”
Darrell looked at her and then back out at the horizon before answering. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I think we probably have a better chance than most, but I really don’t know.” He paused and walked to the railing. “I mean, we don’t even know who or what is left. Is there someone out there looking for us, searching for survivors, or is everyone gone? That fucking tornado was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. That we’re even alive after that is a fucking miracle.”
Natalie put her arm around him as she joined him at the railing. “Maybe we get to make a new start, do things differently this time around. Better government. Better understanding of what community is and what it means to take care of each other, respect each other. If we’re some of the only ones left, then that gives us the power to do things differently. This could be the turning point the world has needed.”
“Yeah, or this could be the beginning of the end,” Darrell said morosely. “As much as I like your perspective, we have to keep in mind that right now, we have no power, no form of communication with anyone else who survived. We have limited amounts of food, no medicine if anyone gets sick, and no one who really knows how to get everything started back up. I mean, do you know anyone who actually works for the power company? This mess has dropped us back more than a hundred years and I’m not sure we have everything it takes to cope, you know? It’s not like we can look up instructions on our phones or anything. We’re kind of stuck.”
Natalie squeezed him a little tighter. “I get that, for sure. In a lot of ways, we’re totally screwed. We’re smart, though. We can figure things out. I’m sure we’ll eventually find someone who knows enough about electricity to help us get things turned back on. It may take a while, but that tornado didn’t take out the whole country. People will come to help. I don’t think we’ll be alone for long.”
“That could be an understatement,” Darrell said, standing upright. “Look over there,” he said, pointing to their left. “What do you think, do we flag them down or not?”
Natalie followed Darrell’s gaze and saw a small flotilla of people on makeshift rafts heading their direction, floating along with the current. They seemed quiet and peaceful, no one was making any noise, but Natalie and Darrell both knew that could be a deception.
“I don’t know … that’s a lot of people. Overwhelming. Even if we had access to all the apartments, there’s not enough food,” Natalie said. “I think we let them pass unless they say something.”
“There’s nothing else downstream, though,” Darrell replied, “and it’s going to be dark soon. I know I wouldn’t want you out there at night.”
Natalie thought over the ethical dilemma for a moment. Getting the attention of the flotilla could put her and the people in her apartment in danger. There was no sure way of knowing. At the same time, failing to intervene could result in the deaths of even more innocent people. “Compromise?” Natalie wondered out loud. “We don’t call ourselves to their attention, but if they see us we offer to help.”
Darrell nodded as the first three floaters passed below them. Their eyes seemed glazed, looking straight ahead, not even to the left or right. He wondered how long they had been on the water, and how desperate they might be for any kind of relief. They varied in age just like the group in his own apartment. Some were older, a lot older, and several were his age or younger. He noticed there were no small children among them, though. They floated on scrap pieces of lumber, tires, doors, tabletops, pool floats, and even an inflatable mattress. Some used pieces of wood as paddles but most simply let the current take them downstream.
Natalie and Darrell didn’t go unseen. More than one of the refugees looked up and saw them. A couple of people even smiled and waved. None expressed any desire to stop, not to call out to the rest of their group. Either they weren’t interested in stopping or didn’t want to risk becoming separated from their group. They bobbed in the water like so many pool toys, abandoned, going along with the current, doing their best to not make any moves that might upset their ride to whatever might wait for them downstream.
Many were naked or had stripped down to little more than their underwear. Their bodies were covered in mud. Even those who still had clothes were muddied. Natalie thought it interesting how this condition gave them all a form of equality. There was no obvious social standing among them. One couldn’t look and tell who was rich and who wasn’t. Race was largely obscured by the mud and in a few instances, even gender wasn’t obvious. None of the human contrivances used to separate people into groups were present. No one had food or water. None had shelter. All the substitute watercraft were trash that could, and likely would, dump their riders at the first sign of turbulence.
What bothered Natalie was the look in their eyes. All of the people floating past, and she counted a total of 56, had an absence of emotion, a sense of resignation that whatever was about to happen to them was beyond their control. They saw her but looked through her. They didn’t try to communicate, really. Even the few who waved weren’t trying to say hi. Instead, it was more of a warning to stay away, to not join their journey. The smiles were those of people who knew death was imminent and, though they might not like their fate, they had resigned themselves to it. If they were about to die, they would not fear it but embrace the relief from living.
“They’re not really alive.”
Darrell and Natalie jumped at the sound of the voice behind them. They turned and found themselves face to face with the well-dressed demon, Djali.
“What are you doing here?” Natalie asked, a mix of fear and anger rushing through her. “All I have to do is scream and Amber will be back out here.”
Djali smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to hurt you or anyone else. I’m just biding my time, waiting for what has already been determined to pass. In a way, I’m not that different from all the people down there, except that I still have some control over what happens to me … for now. Those poor people have already lost their souls. They’re empty shells of flesh. A little over a mile from here, they’ll hit some rapids formed by some landscaping pieces that have gathered under the water combined with a steep downward grade.”
“Belmont Street,” Darrell said, putting a name to the location.
The demon nodded. “All but ten will fall off there. They won’t even try to hang on. They’ll slip under the water and close their eyes until they cease breathing. No struggle. Not even any pain. They’re ready to go.”
Natalie looked back over the railing at the people floating almost out of sight at this point. “And what about the ten that stay on? What happens to them?” she asked.
“They have several more miles to go, I’m afraid,” Djali answered. “They’re people with much on their conscience, things from their past that they’ve not settled in their minds. The darkness of night will help them. By morning, they’ll be ready.” He paused for a moment as the last of the makeshift rafts floated out of sight. “There was someone you know in that group,” Djali said. “Well, maybe not known well, but you knew her name.”
Darrell and Natalie both turned away from the rail to look at him, accusing him with their faces. “Why didn’t you say something? We could have helped them!” Darrell said.
“Who was it?” Natalie added, “And why the fuck didn’t you tell us when we actually could have done something?”
Djali smiled in that evil manner to which he was accustomed. “Because you couldn’t have done anything, silly humans. Their fate is already sealed. Even I am helpless to do nothing but watch,” he said. “It was your favorite cashier from the Natural Foods market.”
“Donna?” Natalie asked, now more agitated than she had been before. “Always smiling, always cheerful, always full of recipes, that Donna?”
Djali responded with a smile that was part smirk and a shrug indicating his lack of personal concern. “You couldn’t have done anything for her. She gave up years ago. She smiled to keep everyone from seeing the emptiness inside her. Donna’s entire family was wiped out in a car accident 23 years ago. Her husband and three children, all gone in an instant. She might as well been in the car with them. There was no desire to recover from that. “
Natalie felt a tear rolling down her cheek. “You’re evil,” she said. “No one’s beyond help. We could have done something.”
“No, dear, you couldn’t.”
Natalie looked up and saw Amber towering behind the demon. “Why?” she asked tearfully.
“Because he’s not wrong. Donna has regretted waking up every morning for the past 23 years. She’s prayed, she’s wished, she’s loathed every breath she breathed. She’s suffered. Now, in about twenty more minutes, she’ll find peace. It was best to let her go.”
Natalie was fully engaged in horror and grief at the thought of all the dear woman had endured without anyone else ever being aware. “How do you know?” she asked. “How do you know about this stupid demon and about all the people who just floated away to die?”
Amber smiled. “Because I was born of the will of demons and raised by the grace of angels. I can see their world, hear their conversations, but I cannot participate in it, nor are they allowed to disturb my existence,” she said, the last phrase directed at Djali. “Which means you need to get the fuck out of here,” she told the demon. “Tell that fuckface over you that I’m overruling him. No one else in this apartment is going to die.”
Djali looked angrily at her. “You know I’m just following orders. It’s not like I chose to be stuck here.”
“Yeah, and I know what you’ve been up to in these apartments, you little trouble maker,” she growled back at him. “Not that it’s going to do any good. They’re not coming back. Your traps are worthless.”
The demon gave a low, guttural growl like a hyena about to pounce on its prey. He bared his teeth. He stared at Amber another second, then leaped over the balcony and disappeared without making another sound.
Darrell stood against the columned landing support wide-eyed. “What just happened?” he asked. “Who are you?”
Natalie looked over the railing again to make sure the demon was gone. “I still don’t get it either,” she said. “He was so scared of you. Kinda makes me wonder if we should be, too.”
“There’s a lot I could tell you but you would find it too out-of-bounds to believe,” Amber replied. “If I hadn’t lived it, I wouldn’t believe it either. Just know that there is good and there is evil and the two sides don’t get along at all anymore. They don’t even try. I was born in a very bad place around very bad people, the human equivalent of pure evil. Had someone in the form of a teacher not intervened, I probably would have ended up just like Djali. I would have become demonized. But I’m not. I chose to be good, to end the evil that was my family, and that has afforded me a bit of protection and the ability to sense what’s going on around me. That’s how I knew you needed my help out here.”
Darrell looked at her as though she were some form of alien. “I still don’t get it. So, like, you have angels, real, white-robed, big-winged angels hanging out around you?”
Amber laughed. “Not even close. First, no one has worn robes since they went out of style 2,000 years ago. The darker forces are very fashion conscious and the others would just as soon go naked, hiding in light. But no, there’s no one ‘hanging out,’ it’s more like a spiritual life-alert thing. I can make use of the light or the power for my own protection.” She paused and sighed. “Unfortunately, protecting those around me is a little more difficult. Not everyone in your apartment is as nice as they seem.”
Natalie was still trying to regain control of her emotions, wiping tears from her eyes as she asked, “What? Are you saying someone in the apartment is a threat?”
Amber shook her head. “I don’t think so. We just have some friends who have done regrettable things in the past. The guilt they feel, or perhaps don’t yet feel, over things events has the ability to influence their decisions going forward. They may not make the same choices as the rest of us somewhere down the line.”
“Who are we talking about?” Darrell asked. “I mean, if someone’s going to cause trouble, I kinda want to know before we get there.”
“Why?” Amber asked in response. “What good does it do. I’ve already told you they’re no danger to anyone. And just like it would have been wrong to try and save Donna, it is just as wrong to keep someone else from dealing with the consequences of their actions. I’ve only mentioned it in hopes that perhaps you might not judge anyone too harshly when they disagree with you. There is much about the lives in that apartment you won’t ever know. Compassion and understanding are what everyone in there needs right now. No fear. No accusations.”
Darrell walked a few steps down the lading, looking over the rail for signs of any stragglers from the flotilla. “I still don’t get it,” he said. “But then, this whole day has been sideways since this morning.”
Natalie walked down the landing in the opposite direction. “I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as everyone in the apartment is going to be safe. I’m just wondering if we’re only prolonging the inevitable.”
“The future is not written so nothing is sure. I can feel that Nature isn’t done with us yet, but I think it’s just rain this time. No more tornadoes ripping huge trenches in the planet.” Amber said. “It should be quiet out here now. I’ll go back inside and make sure everyone stays calm.”
Natalie looked at Amber and smiled. “I’m glad you’re here with us,” she said. “I’m glad you’re our neighbor.”
Amber smiled and stepped back inside the apartment.
Darrell walked back down toward Natalie and quietly said, “That’s the strangest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. I’m not even sure what’s real now.”
“Yeah, it’s a bit much,” Natalie agreed. “But as long as everyone is safe I really don’t care. Angels, Demons. Dementors. Whatever. I still believe we determine our own fate and make our own choices.” She paused for a moment then added, “Except for all those times we get no choice at all.”
Not What Anyone Planned
The line of black SUVs idling outside the White House was already long when Roger’s car pulled through the gates. Those belonging to the presidential motorcade were easy enough to spot and the now-former Chief of Staff correctly assumed that Norma was about to leave for the Capitol. He needed to advise her of President Blackstone’s death, as well as the problem with the First Lady. Getting to her before she left was critical. He didn’t recognize the other vehicles, though. Their license plates identified them as either secret service or military but he had no way of telling who their occupants might be.
Pushing through the security checkpoint, which was now double-staffed and taking extra precautions, Roger went straight to the Oval Office without bothering to ask who else might be there. As a result, he walked in on what seemed to be a rather contentious conversation.
“Are you saying I’m not President?” Norma was asking the tall man whose back was to Roger.
“That is precisely what I’m saying,” the man said, “There is a strong distinction between an acting president and a sitting president. An acting president is essentially little more than a Constitutional placeholder. They maintain the appearance that the country has a leader for legal purposes, someone who can, technically, give orders to the military in time of war, sign legislation passed by Congress, and issue pardons as might be appropriate. They cannot alter policy, however, nor can they circumvent the stated intentions of the sitting president. They can speak in his place but any speech you give does not, at this point, carry the full weight of the presidency.”
As the man spoke, Roger walked around and recognized Chief Justice, Kenneth Todd. “I might be able to clear that up a little for you, Your Honor,” he said, opening the folder tucked under his arm. “Madam Speaker, it is my duty to inform you, and thereby inform Congress, that President Rudolph Blackstone is dead following a brain hemorrhage earlier this afternoon.”
Norma stepped back, a look of shock on her face, reaching behind her for the nearest chair. She sat down, buried her face in her hands for a moment, then looked up with tears in her eyes. “So, it’s official?” she asked.
Roger nodded. “I’m afraid so,” he answered. Looking at the Chief Justice he added, “I have papers on my desk confirming the death of Vice President Abernathy as well if that helps, Your Honor.”
Ken nodded in agreement. He was glad he hadn’t been here for all the chaos of the day. Just listening to the details when he arrived had been confusing enough. He was glad the Constitution made his job clear.
“You’ll also want to know,” Roger continued, “that the Secret Service has detained First Lady Tasha Blackstone as well as her attorney, Gloria Fastbaum, on charges of attempting to murder the President of the United States.” He paused for the anticipated gasps around the room then continued. “Dr. Zinky will have details later in his autopsy report, but while there’s no question that the president was poisoned, he does not think that the poison was the cause of death. The hemorrhage was more likely the result of that crazy phone call this morning and whatever it was that went wrong with that.”
Norma was now sobbing with tissues blotting her tears. Others in the room, including Wilson and Terry, were having difficulty concealing their grief. Only White House counsel Will Tucker seemed unphased and he was the first to speak.
“Let me get this straight, and Mr. Todd, your unofficial opinion on this would be appreciated,” Will started, “but did the President know this morning that his actions might cause the phone test to erupt and essentially black out the entire nation? Is there any way he might have been warned or could have anticipated that by causing the error in that phone call he might have also done harm to himself and, I assume, potentially any others in the room at the time, including yourself?”
Roger took a moment to digest everything the attorney had asked. “Not to the extent that I am aware of any official briefing or statement from the project’s lead in that regard,” he answered. “I’m not aware of anyone knowing that the call could possibly have the catastrophic effect that it did.”
“Can the project lead speak to what happened?” Ken asked.
Roger and Will exchanged glances, both realizing the severe implications of what possibly happened.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Chief Justice,” Roger said, “but the head of the project was assassinated in the basement shortly after the test took place.” He gulped hard and took a big breath before continuing, “Speculation is that it was the same person who killed Vice President Abernathy and General Lang but that cannot be confirmed.”
“And this person is still at large here in the White House?” Ken asked.
Roger nodded. “I’m afraid so.” He looked around the room, “Unless something changed while I was at the hospital.”
Wilson and Terri both shook their heads. They had heard nothing from the Secret Service regarding their investigation. No one expected them to say anything until someone was caught.
Putting the pieces together quickly, Ken said, “So, what we have, and please correct me if I’m missing something, is a situation where, potentially, the President knew about the risk of interrupting the phone call, took that risk to intentionally create a nationwide catastrophic disaster, used that disaster as justification for declaring martial law which essentially gave him supreme powers, but then was prevented from acting on that power because he was poisoned by the First Lady, only to die from a brain hemorrhage related to the phone call. Am I missing anything? Please tell me there’s something else that lends some sanity to this situation.”
After an uncomfortably long pause, Will was the first to say anything. “Does that not speak to the mindset and intention of the President at the time of the phone call, something to which we are no longer privileged? It seems that there is a great degree of speculation that we are unable to corroborate given the deaths that have occurred.”
“Superficially, it would seem that way,” the Chief Justice confirmed, “but I think we all know that there is no such thing as a secret conversation anywhere within this building and especially in this room. Mr. Mukaski, can you confirm that tapes were recording Oval Office events during that phone call?”
“As far as I know,” Roger said. “Unless someone specifically turned them off, they should be down in the White House security office.”
Ken nodded. “Ladies and gentlemen, part of my job is to examine matters of law from every possible perspective in regard to the Constitution of the United States. It seems to me that, at least from a couple of perspectives, that there is some reasonable chance that treason was committed today if not by the President himself, then possibly by someone directly connected to this office. Therefore, I am ordering that the President’s autopsy be suspended immediately so that investigative officials can be present, and am recommending to Congress and the Department of Justice that a full investigation by a special prosecutor be established immediately. I don’t find it reasonable, given what we know at this juncture, that anything that occurred today was accidental, including the circumstances of my absence from the city.”
Murmurs quickly erupted around the room. Norma stood up and approached the Chief Justice. “This is all well and good,” she said, “I’m all for getting to the bottom of this nonsense, but where does that leave us in the meantime? Am I president or not? Do I address Congress or not? Help me out here, Ken.”
Without hesitation, the Chief Justice responded, “We go to Congress together, I think, and give them a formal swearing-in of the new president.” He thought for a moment and then added, “But hold off on moving everything and everyone into the White House. From my perspective, this entire building is now one giant crime scene and as such its contents must be preserved until such time as investigative authorities have had an opportunity to go through everything in search of relevant evidence relating to possible crimes.”
Norma looked puzzled. “If I don’t transition to the White House then where do we go? I can’t stay in my Congressional offices. They’ll elect a new speaker probably first thing tomorrow.”
“I believe previous presidents have utilized multiple floors of a local hotel during their transition period,” Ken advised. “That’s going to work best for you at the moment. This place is going to be a madhouse once all this news gets out. If you want to get any work done, you need to be somewhere other than this building.”
Norma looked at her Chief of Staff. This was turning out to be nothing at all like what they had planned.