Wheels Flying Off The Wagon

Part 8: Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

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A Sliver Of Hope

4:00 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. The only way Perry had of marking time was the glow-in-the-dark hands on his wrist-watch, a feature he had never really needed before now and could have never anticipated. Nothing about this day was anticipated. The past six hours had been absolute hell in the bunker. He could hear the noises, he knew people were taking the steps necessary to safely begin looking for survivors, but he had no sense of how to let anyone know he was there. His legs were numb from being crushed against his chest. The filter in his gas mask was nearing capacity. Breathing wasn’t as easy as it should be.

Six hours had passed since the botched phone call had plunged the nation and a large part of the world into chaos only a few extremists had dared envision. Every city where the United States had an embassy had experienced at least a temporary blackout of both electricity and telecommunications. The smallest countries with the fewest American tourists recovered soonest and largely went on about their day with little interruption outside the fact that no one was able to contact anything or anyone in the United States. Countries where American tourism and business visitors were high, though, places where people were walking around with US phones that had all rung at 10:00 AM New York time, were still without power and scrambling desperately to figure out the problem before their own governments were challenged.

Only in the past two hours were people around the world beginning to realize the same thing that had cold sweat running down Perry’s back: The United States was completely vulnerable at every possible level. Being quick to adapt and exploit new technologies had created a dependency on the nation’s power grid that largely escaped a public conversation. Perry knew that the National Security Agency (NSA) had long-considered the safety of the nation’s power sources a matter of high importance but outside that relatively small group of agents, no one paid any attention. Members of Congress were warned of the cascading effect that would happen if operations at just a handful of power stations went out of service but no one had agreed on a plan to solve that problem. 

Sitting in the dark, Perry had first blamed himself for not picking up on the threat within his own group but had eventually moved to the realization that he wasn’t the only one who had been fooled or misguided. America’s willingness to ignore its dependencies and protect its weaknesses had left them open to the malicious actions of people who found it too easy to breach allegedly-secure systems, infiltrate partisan politics, and work clandestinely to bring down a government and a country too proud to admit they had taken giant leaps without looking. Damn the consequences that lie somewhere down the road; those were for someone else to deal with at a later time. America insisted that it be first to normalize technologies without considering the eventual impact. When someone dared to raise a caution flag, public shaming via social media allowed those who had the power to produce the change to ignore the need to do so.

Perry had always been a champion of pushing the limits of what technology could do, especially in regard to what it could do in helping to prevent large-scale armed combat. Global surveillance technology had been a large part of that push as it offered a way to intercept encrypted messages between terrorists and potentially prevent major events. Technology that had been developed in the bunker allowed the CIA and NSA to quickly translate messages and take actions that had prevented over 200 bombings worldwide. Perry was proud of that. He had to admit, though, that with the advance of technology more traditional surveillance methods had been discontinued. There weren’t as many agents on the ground in dangerous places, meeting people, developing relationships. Without the technology nor the agents in place, the United States and all their international interests were vulnerable.

Bringing back the entire grid would take time, at least three years, and billions of dollars in investments. While re-building the grid presented the opportunity to correct serious structural errors that had been in place for decades, Perry knew people in rural areas would suffer severely. Five years could pass before some remote areas would see electricity again. Oddly enough, the protocol for such an event had been established years ago. Government and military concerns had precedent and would be brought back online first. Major banks and financial concerns would come next. Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Dallas/Ft. Worth would be the first cities to see power return. The protocol was developed in terms of an area’s population and economic impact. That meant coastal cities came before many Midwestern cities with populations of similar size. Larger farms with heavy production would get power before small, rural towns. People would suffer. Some would die.

“Some would die. How many have already died?” Perry wondered. In addition to those who had died there in the bunker, the failure of the power grid and cellular services meant that critical services were not working. Most necessary facilities had backup generators that would last them for several hours, but few, if any, could last until the grid was back up. He knew both state and federal governments held emergency supplies of fuel that would keep at least one Level 1 trauma center going in each state, but that supply wouldn’t last long. Critical life-saving devices across most of the country would begin failing within 24 hours. 

Perry swallowed hard. How long had it been since he’d had anything to drink? Over seven hours now. He’d had a cup of coffee around 9:00 that morning. Coffee. Why couldn’t he have had water? Coffee is dehydrating. His body could still last several hours, but the lack of water would make their entrapment all the more uncomfortable and strain their circulation systems. He wondered if any of the specialists had severe injuries. No one had mentioned anything, but in the quiet solitude they had imposed on themselves someone could have passed out or died from an undeclared injury and no one else would know. 

That thought was enough to prompt action. “Team, count off!” Perry barked through his mask.

“One!” shouted the Marine.

“Two,” came another reply.

“Three,” sounded considerably weaker.

“Four,” said the person next to him.

He waited. There was one more voice he needed to hear, the voice of the traitor among them. Silence. “Five, are you there?” Perry yelled.

Still, nothing.

“Three and Four, can you touch each other?” 

There was shuffling for a few seconds before both voices responded. “Yes!”

“Three, can you touch two?”

Again, shuffling and an affirmative answer.

“Marine, can you touch Two?”

More shuffling but this time the response was not as positive. “Sorry, sir, I can’t reach them. My legs are trapped.”

“Fuck,” Perry thought to himself. Of all the people to be trapped, it would have to be the strongest among them. “Is anything broken, Marine?”

“No, sir,” came the response. “I’ve been trying to work myself free but without being able to see I’m not having much luck.”

Perry sighed. “Save your strength, son,” he advised. “None of us are going anywhere for a while.”

Leaning back against the wall again, the thought of water made his throat feel drier than ever. Rescue teams would be carrying canteens of water when they finally made it down there, but how much longer would that be? There was no sign of light outside their entrapment. Everything was as dark as the bottom of a West Virginia coal mine. 

Then it occurred to Perry that the nation’s water purification system was all connected to the power grid. There had been some talk of putting the supply on independent solar supplies years ago but conservatives in Congress deemed the risks too small and the costs too high. Without those facilities operation, the entire country would run out of clean drinking water within three to four days. Out of desperation, people would look for other sources that would inevitably be polluted. The death toll would rise higher, faster.

A tear rolled down Perry’s cheek, which made him all the more angry at his body for wasting resources. He had allowed all this to happen. The whole thing was his fault. And now, there was a specialist down. The voice of the traitor had never answered the last roll count and no one could reach far enough to touch him. There was no way he had slipped out. No one could have made their way through the giant slabs of rubble without making noise that he would have heard. Was he injured? Asleep? Plotting his next move?

All the emotion was almost too much. Perry wanted to scream but knew he couldn’t. His job was to lead. There was every chance that the four analysts he had with him were the only ones still alive. He had to guard them, keep their spirits up, and help them get out alive. 

4:30. Perry was glad he had chosen a mechanical watch rather than one that was battery-powered. At least he could tell time, even if it was creeping along impossibly slow.

Caught In The Middle

Norma Watkins was the one person in Washington, D. C. who never had wanted to become president. Her sights had been set on the office she achieved: Speaker of the House of Representatives. From there, she would argue, she could directly influence the national conversation and be an active champion for people who felt as though they had no voice in the nation’s capital. She understood better than most how severely limiting the role of president is and had never made the slightest pretense about running for the office.

Yet, here she was, the newly-sworn-in acting President of the United States. She was shocked at every possible level. She had just witnessed Vice President Andrew Abernathy being sworn in as acting president. She was on her way to the waiting SUV so she could inform House members of the transfer of power. Suddenly, there was a lot of noise, her Secret Service detail literally dragged her back into the Oval Office. After a few short minutes of confusion, a visibly shaken Supreme Court Justice Eliana Kruegel had sworn her in as acting president. She now sat behind the desk not sure exactly what she needed to do first. While she knew much of what was going on, she hadn’t been read in on everything and the person whose job it was to do that was lying dead in the hallway along with the late vice president. 

Roger and Graham entered the Oval Office together, the expressions on their faces reflecting the horror of the situation. Graham, like Norma, had planned to return to the Capital to address the Senate regarding the president’s condition and transfer of power. Roger had been getting in an SUV that would take him back to the hospital. They had both been held in an outer office surrounded by armed agents until Secret Service was sure they were safe.

Roger started to speak, “Madam President …”

Norma held up her hand to stop him. “Don’t, Roger. I know it’s protocol and everything, but I’m not ready to hear it. I’m not ready to sit here at this desk. I’m still trying to comprehend it all.”

Roger nodded and stepped back while Norma stood and walked around the desk.

“I still am not completely sure what happened. Andrew, Al, the agent behind Andrew … How? How the fuck does this happen in the White House? Do they have the shooter? Do they know why? I’m getting no information.”

Roger and Graham looked at each other before Graham answered. “They’re guessing it was the same person who killed Special Agent Biscane earlier. No one saw the gun and with the ensuing chaos the shooter got away again. Obviously, every available agent is looking for whoever it is.”

“So we’re still in danger?” Norma asked. “Every last one of us is a sitting duck? We can’t leave, we’re not sure who to let in, there are no outside communications available, and the whole situation could get worse before it gets better.”

Roger looked at the floor. “Yes ma’am, that’s certainly the way things appear to be.”

Norma signed and leaned back against the desk. “They’ve put double the number of agents on this office,” she said, gesturing toward the line of Secret Service members lining the walls. “New agents are being brought in and re-assigned. The FBI is being asked to send over additional people. There’s so much going on I don’t even know where to start. I’ve asked for my chief of staff to be sent over but that’s going to take a while.” She paused, looking at the presidential seal woven into the rug in the center of the room. “Roger, I know we’re from different political parties, but I’d like you to stay on in an advisory capacity no matter how this turns out. I’m going to treat this as very temporary. I never thought I’d say this, but I really hope President Blackstone is able to return to this office soon. In the interim, we need as little partisan bickering as possible. I want consistency and you’re the perfect person to help with that.”

“Thank you,” Roger said with an appreciative smile. He had already mentally updated his resume, bracing for Norma to tell him to pack his bags. This was a surprise.

“Graham,” Norma continued, “I’m going to rely on your integrity as well. Let’s put a hold on all partisan legislation until we get this mess figured out. If that means waiting until after next year’s election, I’m good with that.”

Graham looked at her carefully. “Does that mean you’re …”

“No, I’m not running for president,” Norma said, anticipating the question. “If Rudy isn’t able to run for re-election, we need to allow the country to make a clean break in choosing a new leader. Think of me as a placeholder until either President Blackstone returns or someone new is elected.”

Graham sighed. “There are many in the Senate who will be relieved to hear that, and not for partisan reasons.”

Norma nodded. “We’re going to need to fill some major vacancies, though, and I’m not sure what is legal under the current situation.”

Roger began pacing around the sofa. “Legally, we are still under martial law,” he said. “Naming a successor to General Lang would seem to be the priority.”

“But do I have the authority to do that?” Norma asked. “I am, at best, the substitute for the substitute. The Constitution does not anticipate this situation at all. We don’t know but what Rudy will be back before anyone I appoint could get through confirmation. And what about Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Hardistand? Isn’t he naturally the next in line?”

The three stood there thinking for a moment, not sure of the answer. Finally, Graham spoke up. “Name one of the other military branch heads as acting Joint Chief. Yes, General Hardistand would normally be the go-to person here but he’s out of the country. Appoint one of the branch heads. They don’t need Senate confirmation. They can serve in an acting capacity until such time as either Rudy returns and relieves them or one of you is in a position to make the appointment permanent.”

Norma liked that answer. “Roger, who would you recommend?” she asked.

Roger thought for a moment. “Admiral Tennant is probably the most politically astute of the group, but General Boxer has more seniority.”

Norma shook her head. “I’ve dealt with Boxer before. He’s an egotistical, misogynistic asshole who likes to hear himself talk. Graham, do you have any objections to Admiral Tennant?”

Senator Norman shrugged. “Admiral Tennant is bright, provocative, intelligent, and a woman; everything my party fears. There will be a few complaints on the extreme side but you have my support.”

“It’s settled then,” Norma said. “Admiral Grace Tennant is acting Chair of the Joint Chiefs. I guess someone needs to get a message over to the Pentagon.”

“I’ll handle it,” Roger said as he walked toward the door. “Terri’s going to want some time with you as well. I can just imagine the press corp is falling all over themselves right now.”

Press. Fuck. Norma had completely forgotten how aggressive they were with the White House. “Go ahead and send her in but get my staff over here as well. I’m going to need all the help I can get.”

Roger nodded. “I’m pretty sure that’s already in the works. Just a matter of security.” He walked out of the office, closing the door behind him.

Norma looked at Graham, her frequent adversary. “This is a fucking mess, Graham. You want to be Vice President?”

Graham chuckled and waved her off. “I think that appointment can wait a few hours. Let’s see how Rudy is doing, get an update from Walter Reed. I’m your constitutional back-up anyway. The less party swapping we can have right now the better. We don’t need anyone accusing you of staging a coup.”

“Graham! You don’t think I …” Norma started.

The Senator shook his head and interrupted. “No, I was here, remember? But with communications down every unreasonable conspiracy theory is going to find a voice. We don’t want to give any of them any fuel.”

“God, Graham, how do we get out in front of this thing if we can’t even address the nation? We’ve not been this disconnected from the public since the 19th century,” Norma said, taking a seat in one of the chairs opposite the sofa. 

Graham took a seat on the corner of the sofa diagonal from the new president. “I’m not sure. 

The optics certainly aren’t going to play well. For most people, the power went out suddenly they have a new president from the opposing party. No matter what you do a certain number of people are going to think you were complicit in the whole thing. Everything has happened so quickly, I’m not sure people would believe it even if it had been live-streamed. Any way you look at it, this past six hours has been rather incredible.

The door to the Oval Office opened and Terri Baldwin entered looking as though she’d narrowly survived a hurricane. Her hair was disheveled, her suit coat torn and dirty, a scratch on her face was still bleeding.

“Oh my god!” Norma exclaimed, jumping up to rush to the woman’s aid. “What the hell happened?” She guided Terri to a chair but the press secretary refused to take a seat.

“I can’t sit until you do, Madam President,” Terri insisted.
Norma rolled her eyes. “Fuck protocol. You’re hurt. Sit down and that’s an order. Let me find a tissue.” The acting president walked over to the credenza behind the massive desk and pulled a tissue from the box sitting behind the president’s chair. As she was walking back across the room, she asked again, “I want to know what the fuck is going on out there. I’m sorry, but you look like you were trampled.”

“You could say that,” Terri replied as Norma dabbed at the blood dripping down her cheek. “There was something of a stampede immediately after the shooting. Since no one heard an audible gunshot, everyone wanted out but no one knew which direction to run. I got caught going the wrong direction.”

“Has it settled down any?” Graham asked, leaning forward.

Terri tried to catch her breath. “Only because the Secret Service made everyone return to their office. Everyone is still scared shitless. Half the people are crying, the other half are plotting to rush the door. With all due respect, Madam President, a fair number are saying they have no intention of working for a Democrat.”

Norma sat in the chair next to Terri, still holding the bloody tissue in her hand. “They’re political appointments so I’m not surprised,” she said. “We still don’t know how Rudy’s doing, though. No one should resign or abandon the ship just yet. I’m not asking anyone to leave until I have more information on President Blackstone’s condition.”

“Can we make that an official statement,” Terri said. “I think someone in the press pool still has a manual typewriter in their office. If there’s a ribbon in the thing I might be able to type up a memo and release it.”

“By all means,” Norma responded. “We were just talking about how to get out in front of this thing. Do you have any ideas?”

Terri shook her head. “I’m afraid that ship has sailed, Madame President. The press was already upset that none of them had been invited to witness Andrew’s swearing-in. Then when you were sworn in so quickly it felt as though we were trying to hide something from them. I’ve been yelled at so much over the past 30 minutes I feel like the parent of a teenager.”

Norma sat back in the chair and sighed. She was accustomed to being in full control of any situation. She understood how everyone else was feeling angst over her being acting president because she was feeling the same emotion for herself. She wasn’t ready to be president, not even for a few hours.

For a brief moment, Norma considered abdicating. She could resign and let Graham take the hot seat. He had actually run for president once, though his campaign had died early in the primaries. At least he had some aspiration for taking the seat. She didn’t. 

Resigning would mean the country would have had three different acting presidents within the same day, though. That wasn’t the kind of history Norma wanted to make. Republicans would see her as being too weak to lead, Democrats would see her as betraying the party. Whether she wanted to or not, Norma knew she had to tough it out.

Terri interrupted the moment of contemplation. “Madame President, at the very least I think you need to make a statement to the press. Even if we don’t know how President Blackstone is doing, just letting them know, letting the people know, that you’re on top of things and trying to restore some manner of order would really go a long way in calming nerves.”

Norma considered the recommendation for a second and then asked, “What if Graham and I made a statement together?” She paused and looked at the senator. “Better yet, what if we did a joint press conference? Let them know that this didn’t happen without someone from the other side knowing what was going on?”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” Terri said. “Senator?”

Graham considered the political implications. While he didn’t especially like ceding power to the opposition, anarchy helps no one and cooperation now might be traded for political favors later. “Sure, that sounds like a good idea,” he said. “I’d rather we have prepared remarks, though. I’ve seen how that bullpen gets when they’re feeling feisty. I don’t want to get tricked into making a mistake and saying the wrong thing.”

“Definitely,” Norma agreed. “The White House press corps has never been exactly gentle and from the looks of things, they’re more aggressive than ever. The more prepared we can be the less likely we are to make matters worse.”

Terri stood and nodded. “I’ll have Carli come in and help with that. She’s quite accomplished at calming emotions and putting a positive spin on potentially troubling situations. She’s done it for President Blackstone often.”

Norma chuckled and said, “That has to be a never-ending challenge.”

Terri let the comment go unanswered. She had a feeling President Blackstone wasn’t coming back and she didn’t want to make Norma angry at her. “I’ll send her right down,” she said, and then opened the door, letting the shouts and noise from outside slip into the otherwise quiet office.

“That’s going to have to be one hell of a statement,” Norma said, looking at Graham. “I feel rather like an unwilling Ceasar standing before an angry Senate wondering how many of them have knives.”

Graham shook his head. “In this environment? All of them Madame President. Every last one of ‘em.”

Adapting To The Aftermath

Tragedy changes people. No matter who they are or how prepared they might be, when disaster strikes directly, people have to adapt to that aftermath and the fact that their world is no longer the same. Some people have the attitude to handle that adversity well. Others, perhaps most, crumble under the pressure, unable to meet the unrealistic social expectation that one simply picks up where they left off and keep going. 

Natalie stood on the balcony of her apartment wondering what was going to happen next. There was nothing but death, destruction, and water in any direction she looked. In comforting Miranda, Amber had raised a point that Natalie hadn’t yet considered: they were all going to need new homes. Even though water hadn’t risen above the first floor, the structural integrity of the whole building had been compromised. Making matters worse, once the sun did come out and temperatures began to rise, mold would take root in the damp sheetrocked walls creating a health hazard. The building would have to be condemned and torn down. No one would be able to stay.

At the other end of the balcony, Amber and Reesie were attempting to console an unconsolable Miranda. Natalie couldn’t imagine the depth of the young woman’s grief nor the severity of her fear. For Natalie, being independent had come naturally. While her parents had feigned sadness when she moved out on her own, they had wasted no time converting her room into hobby space. Having Darrell for company and to help share expenses made life a little more comfortable but she knew she could survive without him if necessary. 

Miranda had none of those advantages. Every day of her life was a struggle to fit in, to calm her anxiety, to tamp down the urge to run through a room squealing and flapping her hands, to focus on simple tasks such as fixing a bowl of cereal for breakfast or choosing what clothes to wear. She hadn’t said anything, but when Darrell first knocked on her door that morning Miranda answered it stark naked, catching him by surprise. She had managed to put on an old t-shirt and underwear by the time he returned and if he hadn’t come back and taken her upstairs, Miranda wouldn’t have known where to go. Now, in less than five minutes, everything that was familiar, everyone she could trust, her entire support system had been ripped away. Her family was presumably dead. She was alone and frightened and even if she had remembered to bring her medication with her it wasn’t strong enough to mitigate everything she was feeling now. 

Natalie wondered if Amber really would be able to take Miranda on as a roommate. None of these people had known each other well before going to the coffee shop this morning, and Amber, Gwen, and Amanda didn’t even have that advantage. The flood had pulled them into this tragic party and except for Adam, who remained comatose, they had no relationship with anyone else in the group. Natalie knew who they were, they spoke when they met in the breezeway, but they certainly hadn’t gotten to know each other. No one in the apartment building was that outgoing. 

Amber was a different force from the rest of them, though. Her depth of knowledge seemed unending. Her spirit was undefeatable. Natalie found herself wishing she could be a lot more like Amber but at the same time unconvinced she could ever come close to that goal. Amber was strong, beautiful, and extremely intelligent yet had a level of compassion and warmth that caught one off guard. Natalie considered herself only reasonably intelligent, competent, and okay-looking if she bothered to brush her hair and put on some mascara. She tried to be kind but when she was honest with herself knew that she was often judgemental and sometimes a bit cold, especially toward people who didn’t seem to “have their shit together.”

Natalie looked back out over the swirling water below. The trench dug by the tornado had re-directed the water flow with the effect, at least momentarily, of lowering the water level around the apartment building. She could occasionally see through the milk-chocolate-colored murkiness that large chunks of asphalt were missing. She correctly assumed that her car had flooded and was now worthless but for the moment wasn’t terribly worried about losing anything more than the journal she kept in the console between the two front seats. Everyone had lost their car which put them all on equal footing, literally. 

She wondered how the city would respond to this disaster. The city council had been complaining for years that they didn’t have enough money to maintain infrastructure appropriately. Now, it was all gone. Natalie wasn’t sure there were any complete roads left. Everything as far as she could see was covered by water. Thousands of homes and other buildings were decimated leaving behind an almost-clear view of the horizon. No utility poles, no power lines, no street signs, nothing. Only a handful of random trees and piles of rubble remained. Recovery would require billions of dollars in financial assistance. Businesses had been wiped out. Getting construction supplies into the city would take weeks. Months would pass before people would be able to return to the jobs and in the meantime, there were no grocery stores, no food supplies of any kind, and no clean drinking water. 

For Natalie, this seemed like it might be a good time to pack up her things and move. She had nothing holding her here. Hadn’t she just been thinking earlier this morning how she was done with Darrell? She could take her work anywhere, any city of reasonable size. She could flee to a place that actually had roads and homes and jobs that still paid. Avoiding all the suffering that was to come seemed like a sensible idea.

Looking back at the people gathered in her apartment, though, Natalie knew she couldn’t just abandon everyone. How would she even leave, anyway, without a car, without roads, or any other viable means of transportation? The city would have to rebuild because it was the only option any of them had. They were stuck. Everyone was stuck with each other and the only way any of them would survive would be to go ahead and acknowledge that this was a different life from what they had known when they woke up this morning. The rules had changed. People had changed. Survival depended on their ability to work together.

Natalie slipped around the trio huddled on the floor of the balcony and into the apartment. Gwen was still sitting in the chair in the corner of the living room, guarded faithfully by the dog who apparently had decided they belonged together now. He sat up and thumped his tail as Natalie approached. Gwen smiled but did not change her position: her feet up in the upholstered chair, her arms around her knees, her legs pulled up against her chest. Natalie sat cross-legged on the floor next to the dog. “Have you decided what you’re going to name him?” she asked.

Gwen shrugged and tilted her head to the side as she thought. “I don’t know. Maybe Roscoe? He sort of looks like a Roscoe, I think.”

The dog turned its head toward Gwen and thumped its tail in agreement.

“He seems to like that name,” Natalie said. “How are you feeling? This has been both an exciting and traumatic day for you.”

“I’m scared shitless,” Gwen said, smiling for effect. “I’m happy, I guess. I’m alive, right? And I’m apparently bringing a new little life into the world in nine months. Those are all positive things. There’s no place to work, though, my apartment’s completely flooded, my car’s probably dead, and I don’t even know how to contact the baby’s father because his number was on my phone which I stupidly left in my apartment and now it’s probably ruined. So, we’re all probably going to starve to death and then nothing will matter because there won’t be anyone left.”

That Gwen said all this with a big smile on her face was unnerving. “We’re not going to starve to death,” Natalie said, hoping that she sounded reassuring. “It’s not like the whole planet flooded. People will come to help and they’ll bring food and help us find safe places to live.”

Gwen shook her head. “I can’t be that positive. Anytime I have a positive thought it, like, jinxes my entire life and everything goes horribly wrong. Take this morning, for example. My boss gave me the day off, with pay, because I put in like 72 hours last week and helped them win this big case against some company or something. She told me I’d be getting a promotion, which isn’t really that big a deal except that I’m not at the very bottom of the totem pole anymore. I’m still just an associate research assistant, which is, like, nobody. I made the mistake of thinking that this was going to be a great day. I even said it out loud. ‘This is going to be a great day,’ I said. Why would I do that? Why would I jinx my day like that? But I did and now we’re all going to die.”

Natalie couldn’t help but giggle at the cheerful way in which Gwen had pronounced their certain doom. “I don’t think you jinxed us all,” she said, “but I’m not so sure mother nature isn’t getting us back for messing up the planet so severely. Life is definitely going to be challenging for a while.”

“Do you think you’ll stay here?” Gwen asked. “Not in the building, of course, but in town, in the area?”

“I don’t see that I have much choice,” Natalie answered. “No car now, and even if I had one the roads are non-existent now. There is no escape. We have to stand and work together. It’s like we’ve been thrown back to the 19th century and we’re all pioneers.”

“So we’ll all die of dysentery,” Gwen giggled. “I wonder if there will even be a hospital by the time this baby is ready to be born? If there’s not, can I come over and use your bathtub? Mine doesn’t drain that well.”

Natalie assumed that the shock she felt by Gwen’s question showed in the expression on her face by the way Gwen laughed. “I … I …” Natalie stammered. “I guess so? I mean, I have no experience with childbirth or anything.”

Gwen was still laughing. “Like any of us do? I don’t even know how I’m going to find a doctor after all this mess. If I get this baby into the world without one of us dying it will be a miracle. At least the pioneers grew up knowing what to expect. We don’t have a clue. We weren’t trained for this. We’re supposed to be able to find all the answers on our phones.”

Roscoe laid down and put his head in Natalie’s lap. She absentmindedly scratched him behind the ears. She hadn’t considered just how ill-prepared her generation was for what they were now facing. In fact, she wasn’t sure there were very many people left at all that would have any applicable experience in rebuilding everything from scratch. “The Amish will have to save us,” Natalie finally said. “They’ve been living this way for centuries. They’ll tell us how to build houses without steel and drywall. They’ll teach us how to drive buggies, and their women will teach us how to deliver babies while baking bread and sewing our own clothes.”

“Oh, and churning butter and making our own cheese!” Gwen added, full of excitement. “I love cheese. Making my own cheese would save me so much money! Where do you think I can buy a cow?”

Gwen had Natalie laughing now. “Where would you put a cow?” she asked.

Gwen thought for a second. “In the bathtub since it already doesn’t drain well.” She stopped and considered her answer. “Will a cow fit in a bathtub? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one up close.”

“I’m pretty sure cow’s don’t normally reside in bathtubs,” Natalie laughed. “And you’re going to need some hay, too.”

“We’ll have to have sunshine for that,” Gwen said quickly. Reading the confusion on Natalie’s face, she added, “You know, make hay while the sun shines? If the sun isn’t shining you have to stop making hay.”

Both young women laughed. Roscoe thumped his tail.

New Orders

Admiral Grace Tennant was in no mood for trivial conversations. Since 10:00 that morning, communications with the Navy’s ships had all been lost. The entire department was in panic, testing, and re-testing every form of communication they had. Nothing had worked. When an aide delivered the message that her presence was requested at the White House, her first reaction was to decline. She didn’t have time for Rudy Blackstone and his misogynistic condescension. He was probably wanting to move ships around again, failing to understand how that one didn’t just relocate an entire fleet of 70-80 ships and submarines without adequate planning. Now was not the time for that kind of nonsense. Her response to the aide was, “Tell Blackstone he can fuck off.”

The aide looked at the paper on which the message had been typed. “Ma’am, this doesn’t say President Blackstone. It says, Acting President Watkins.”

Grace looked up from the map spread out on her desk. “President Watkins? As in Norma Watkins?”

The aide looked at the paper again. “It doesn’t say, ma’am.”

The Admiral sighed. “Roll those back up,” she said to the two officers, both Admirals, who had been pouring over the maps with her. “Keep trying the comms. If necessary, I’ll drive out to Anacostia-Bolling myself and have planes go up to make sure we’re not running into each other out there.” She then turned to her administrative assistant. “Issue formal orders revoking all leave until further notice. That should be fairly obvious but now, but I want to make sure it’s official and no one can claim ignorance. Get everyone in and on the job immediately.”

“How do I communicate the order, ma’am?” the admin asked.

“I don’t know. Pony Express? Dolphin? Maybe see if Aquaman is available. Hell, we may need Jesus to walk it out there to them. Just worry about domestic bases for now. We’ll figure out how to communicate with Europe when I get back.”

Admiral Tennant grabbed her cover, tucked it under her left arm, and left the office, walking briskly through the hallways of the Pentagon to her waiting car. She didn’t want to go to the White House. She didn’t have time to go to the White House. There were plenty of other people who could go to the White House. Wasn’t General Lang over there already? But then, the Admiral knew all too well how often the president failed to listen to the Chairman’s recommendations. This was yet another in a frightening trend of presidents who had no military experience of any kind sitting in the office of Commander in Chief. None of them understood how the military works, what their protocol was, let alone how to lead the most destructive and powerful military in the world. 

Then, there was the matter of the message coming under the authority of “Acting President Watkins.” No one had advised her of any change of command and even if there had been Vice President Abernathy would be next in line. What the hell had happened at the White House?

More than anything, though, the Admiral worried about her fleet, especially the submarines that might not have a clue where they are and, as such, no concept of what dangers might be right in front of them. They were operating blind in the first place. With SatComm down, the only thing they could “see” was what sonar detected and that was a very limited range.

The Admiral’s car pulled up under the West Wing Portico and Grace was very quickly ushered into the Oval Office where both Norma Watkins, whom she knew as Speaker of the House, and Graham Norman, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, were waiting.

Norma walked over and extended her hand toward the Admiral. “Admiral Tennant, it is good to see you again, though I certainly wish the circumstances.”

Graham held his position by the sofa but nodded in recognition of the Admiral. “Good afternoon, Admiral,” he said.

“Please, come over and have a seat,” Norma said, gesturing toward the center of the room. “I’m afraid this has been a fairly tragic day and we need to catch you up on the more important events.”

The Admiral stood in front of one of the chairs facing the sofa and waited until Norma took a seat in the other chair before sitting. “I have to admit to being confused by your name being on the order to come over,” Tennant said, looking at Norma. “Knowing the location of the president and vice president as well as General Lang would seem to be a priority.”

Norma nodded. “Exactly why you’re here. The president collapsed in his residence a little after 1:00 this afternoon. He’s at Walter Reed but we still don’t know exactly why he collapsed or what his prognosis might be. The Chief Justice is out of town, so we took the extraordinary step of having Justice Kruegel swear the Vice President in as acting president. President Abernathy and General Lang were on their way downstairs to the War Room when an unknown intruder shot them both as well as a Secret Service agent and then disappeared into the chaos. The building is under lockdown while both Secret Service and the FBI look for the shooter.”

Admiral Tennant sat back in the chair trying to take in everything Norma had just told her. Crying was not in her nature but hearing about Al Lang hurt especially hard. He had championed her becoming Chief of Naval Operations four years ago and had continued to support her decisions, giving her space to make significant changes. Life in the Pentagon was going to be more challenging without Al having her back. She swallowed hard. “So there’s still an active shooter in this building?” she asked.

Norma nodded. “I’m afraid so. Our best guess is that it is someone with Secret Service credentials and is likely even participating in the search for himself. Justice Kruegel swore me in as Acting President and out of an abundance of caution neither Graham nor I plan to leave this office until the responsible person is caught.”

Grace looked cautiously at the two politicians sitting with her, not sure whether she should trust them. “Why are the other chiefs not in here as well? They’re as invested as I am.”

Norma looked nervously at Graham before answering. She reached over to the coffee table, picked up a black padded folder and handed it to Grace. “President Blackstone signed this earlier this morning.”

Tennant opened the folder and read the declaration of Martial Law. She read it twice more before responding. “The situation is really that bad?”

Norma nodded. “Prior to completely losing all communications, reports were coming in of massive riots in every state. The only way to allow troops to be deployed on domestic soil and help keep the peace was to invoke Martial Law. The president was sent to his residence and General Lang was effectively running the country as best as anyone could. His death leaves us without anyone directing our troops.”

Grace feared what might be coming next. She felt fairly certain she was about to be in over her head.

“Admiral Tennant,” Norma continued, “I would like for you to be acting Chief of Staff at least until President Blackstone is capable of making a decision on his own.”

The Admiral gulped. Acting Chief of Staff? “Has this been run past the Secretary, ma’am? He would normally be consulted prior to making these decisions.” 

“No,” Norma confessed. “Due to the nature of the situation, we don’t have time to stand on protocol. Hell, Congress doesn’t even know about the president yet. When we have to send runners back and forth for matters we used to handle by email, the whole communications systems slows to a crawl. We need someone who can jump in, damn the protocol, and get this country stabilized. We’ve not been able to talk to any of the governor’s for almost five hours. We have no idea the level of violence and uprising they may be facing. We need to know what’s going on and we need to get matters under control.”

Admiral Tennant looked down at the folder she was holding in her hand. “Madam President, may I be frank for a minute?”

“By all means, Admiral,” Norma replied.

“Taking this position, even on an ‘acting’ basis, is a career-ending move. That the Pentagon nor Congress even knows about the president yet is unconscionable. No one is going to listen, no one is going to take orders until they have some sense of how we got here. Right now, from the perspective of everyone outside this building, you have taken over the government of the United States in a manner that is quite possibly illegal. We call that a coup and no one in the Pentagon wants to be associated with a coup, including me. I can’t imagine anyone taking General Lang’s position under these circumstances. I don’t care if it takes a week. You need to do this correctly. The governors have the National Guard; that’s why they’re in place. Governors of every state have the power to call them up and put them into action. There are a lot more Guard troops than there is active military. Our active troops are located on ships and military bases around the world. It is not their job to play the big mean cop on our home soil. The Guard is right here, right now. They can handle this. Let them.”

Norma felt her face flush. She gulped hard. “Thank you for your candor, Admiral. Please understand I’ve just had all this dumped in my lap. We’re still trying to figure this out and perhaps bringing you over now is premature. I’ll send for the Secretary of the Navy and see how quickly we can act.” She turned to look at Graham. “She’s right about Congress. They need to know. The question is how? Should you call a joint session?”

“Do you think Dick would cooperate without you getting in his face?” Graham replied, referring to Representative Richard Deggar of Ohio. “You know how cantankerous he can be when it comes to doing anything nonpartisan.”
“Yes, he reminds me a lot of you,” Norma said. “Let me see if I can find a piece of letterhead or something. I’ll write him a note and we can have it officially dispatched. That should make him happy.”
“Excuse me, Madam President,” Admiral Tennant interrupted. “If you’re going to leave this building for any reason, might I suggest a military escort rather than Secret Service? If they have a traitor in their midst, the sight of a dress uniform should cut down on both the confusion and the risks. I can talk to the Commandant so that you have a phalanx have marksmen at your side.” 

Norma looked back at Graham for help. “Is that legal?” she asked. “Can we temporarily displace the Secret Service?”

Graham buried his face in his hands. “Sure, if you want this to look every bit like a military coup. I think you have to be careful of the optics, Norma.”

“I can appreciate the optics,” Tennant countered, “and as I said, no one wants to be associated with a coup. But Secret Service has been compromised. They can’t be trusted to walk the president through this building, let alone outside. We can make the order specifically temporary if you want, but for the president to leave under Secret Service guard is putting her life and our nation at risk.”

Norma sighed. “Let’s get both the Secretary of the Navy, Commandant Harris, and both Treasury Secretary Roche and Director Wellfin of Secret Service over here ASAP. Let’s call that joint session first, let them issue an invitation to the president, and then we’ll worry about how to get over there.”

Under The Threat Of Night

Shadows grew long in Natalie and Darrell’s apartment as somewhere well above the cloudy skies the sun moved into the western sky. Days so emotionally and physically draining might otherwise have welcomed the growing darkness as an opportunity to retreat, perhaps relax, and look forward to sleep. That few groups of people had suffered so much in such a short period of time to the 13 people crowded into the space designed ideally for two might have seemed obvious were it not for the fact that similar, though typically smaller, situations had played out across the city and even throughout the region. Torrential rain and devastating tornadoes had covered the entire Midwest from Chicago down to Nashville, across Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin. No one would ever know the complete death toll, but it was well into the millions of people. Those who remained looked at an approaching night, still a few hours off, with fear, surrounded by water, no power, and precious little hope.

Amber and Reesie were unable to convince Miranda to leave the balcony railing where she stared, weeping, into the nothingness where her home and family once existed. Miranda clung to the cast iron supports as though letting go would forever erase what little was left of her world. She cried and rocked and reached her arms through the railing, longing for the familiarity of her family and their routine. She was not emotionally equipped to handle grief of any kind. There was little question that Miranda was rocketing toward a full-blown mental breakdown and all anyone could do was try to keep her safe.

While Reesie chose to stay outside with Miranda, the others gathered loosely in the living room surrounding a single can of fuel that provided the only illumination for the apartment. Several minutes passed with no one saying much of anything at all. After everything they had experienced that day, words were incompatible with the level of emotion. Barry had made a quip about this being the closest he had ever come to sitting around a campfire and that had elicited a group chuckle, the kind of tittering that was an obligatory acknowledgment of the humor void of any actual enjoyment of the joke. Beyond that, the room was nearly silent. The sizzling of the fuel as it burned, the sound of floodwater continuing to rush past the apartment building and the infrequent coughing caused by overly-dry throats seemed louder than they should have been. 

Feeling hopeless seemed like the appropriate emotion for the situation. Stranded in a small apartment, surrounded by water, no means of outside communication, separated from their families, certain of nothing more than the painfully obvious fact that everyone had lost everything, what other emotion could have been appropriate? There was no visual or auditory indication that anyone else was near them or that any form of rescue operation might be underway. There were no sounds of helicopters overhead looking for survivors. An empty, vacant nothingness held an invisible grip on their souls.

After several minutes of sleeping at Gwen’s feet, Roscoe stood up, shook himself, and wandered through the group, sniffing at each of them, happily accepting pets and scratches behind the ears, licking at those he sensed were open to it, such as Gloria and Toma, bypassing those who weren’t, such as Carson. Wandering out onto the balcony, the dog managed to distract Miranda for a moment, the first indication that perhaps her grief might be subdued. He licked at her face which made the young woman giggle. She gave the dog a hug before he sniffed at Reesie as she knelt beside Miranda, and leaned in as though she were giving her a hug. 

Padding back into the apartment, Roscoe then wandered through the other rooms, briefly stopping to sniff at the bathroom and Darrell’s room before wandering into Natalie’s room. Almost immediately, the dog turned around, came back to the living room and gave a sharp bark, shattering the silence with unexpected ferociousness causing everyone to sit up and pay attention.

“Shit, I bet Adam’s drip is empty,” Amber said as she jumped to her feet and ran toward the bedroom with Roscoe following closely behind. Sure enough, the bag had gone empty. “Natalie, can you bring me that bottle of distilled water and the salt, please” she called toward the living room. She checked Adam’s pulse and was pleased to find it was steady. He had dried considerably after the ordeal of getting from the coffee shop to the apartment. His body temperature seemed normal enough without any way of checking more accurately. Amber was having to rely on her experience rather than equipment.

Natalie jumped up and found the distilled water and salt Amber needed to make more saline. Natalie couldn’t remember exactly why she had bought the water, some experiment she had considered doing for an article she couldn’t remember was the likely reason. She took the materials into the bedroom and asked the obligatory question, “How’s he doing?”

Amber was readjusting the blanket over Adam and said, “At least he’s stable. He’d be much better in a hospital, I suppose, though if they’re without power as well I don’t know that it would make much difference. He wouldn’t likely be considered a priority patient.”

Natalie looked over the makeshift rig Amber had constructed. “Do you think you can refill the bag without dismantling everything?” she asked as she handed over the supplies.

“We’re about to find out,” Amber said, smiling. “Everything here is so far away from anything that could be considered normal.”

“I’m sorry,” Natalie said, instantly thinking of how messy the apartment was.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Amber said as she opened the fluid bag and began filling it with water. “It would be weird to walk into someone’s home and find a space completely sterile. People don’t live like that. We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances we were given. No apologies necessary.” 

Amber carefully measured the salt to mix with the water, put it in, shook the bag vigorously to the point Natalie couldn’t help but giggle, then taped it back to the lampstand that kept it sufficiently elevated. “There, that should keep him going for a while. Let me just check the needle and make sure there’s no problem.” Carefully lifting Adam’s arm, Amber was moving the needle as gently as she could when she felt the arm twitch. Adam’s fist clenched. She stepped back. “Did you just see that?”

“I … I’m not sure,” Natalie stammered. “Did he move?”

“Sure as hell felt like it,” Amber replied. She reached down to touch the needle again and Adam’s entire arm twitched. She looked back at Natalie.

Natalie took a cautious step closer. “Oh my god!” 

Adam’s entire body shifted as one might during an uncomfortable dream. Amber stepped back and motioned for Natalie to do the same. They watched as Adam’s face drew up in an expression of some pain, then as his eye slowly opened for the first time in several hours. His eyes darted back and forth for a moment, then he quietly asked, “Where am I?”

Amber rushed to his side and brushed back the hair on the side of his head. “You’re safe, you’re here with me.”

“Amber?” Adam asked, his lips quivering. “Am I dying? Am I going home?”

The young woman leaned down and hugged him as best she could. “No, you’re not going anywhere. You just had a bit of a spell and a lot of things happened. You’re dehydrated so I’m fixing that for you.”

“So, I’m in the hospital?” Adam replied, still unsure of his surroundings.

Amber chuckled. “Not quite,” she said, motioning for Natalie to step forward. “You’re in this young woman’s apartment for now, where it’s safe. Her name’s Natalie.”

Natalie smiled and waved.
A look of confusion crossed Adam’s face. “How did I get here? How did you get here?”

“Shhhh,” Amber instructed. “This isn’t storytime. You still need to rest. You’ve no idea how harrowing your day has been. We were worried for a while you might now make it. What’s important is that you’re safe.”

Adam reached up and took Amber’s hand, holding it gently. “Thank you,” he said as he smiled.

A Ray Of Light

Sleep seemed to make sense. If anything, there hadn’t been many other choices. No one could move. Breathing was difficult behind the gas masks. There was no light. How long he had been asleep Perry didn’t know, but he was now being abruptly awakened by a very bright light shining directly in his face.

“Sir, can you hear me?” a voice asked. “I need to know whether you can understand what I’m saying.”

Perry nodded and tried to speak. His throat was too dry. Nothing came out. He gave his rescuer a thumbs up.
“Very good, sir! Do you know how many people are trapped down here with you?” the voice asked. 

Perry held up his hand indicating there were five others.

“Okay sir, we’re going to try and get this concrete off of you and get you out of here. It may take a moment, but you can breathe easy. We’re gonna get you out as safely as possible, sir.”

Perry breathed a sigh of relief. He couldn’t talk. He was sure he had permanent nerve damage in his legs and probably couldn’t walk. A burning sensation filled his lungs. At least he was still alive. There was a group of traitors he needed to stop.