Pt. 14: Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

Regrettably, this is, of necessity, another short entry, coming in just under 7,000 words. I’m feeling significantly better this morning, despite being in a foul mood, so hopefully, next week will see a return to more full-bodied entries. Again, if you’re just joining us, click here to start at the beginning.

Defining Success

Tom looked around at the makeshift “brig” the Marines had constructed for him. There wasn’t much too it. A large metal shipping container with a cot. Fencing had been stretched across the opening, bolted on one side to serve as something resembling a door, but he didn’t expect the padlock on the other side to be coming off anytime soon. Perry knew who he was. He assumed correctly that he was under a “shoot to kill” order if he even tried to escape, not that he stood any chance of getting past the four Marines standing guard. 

Laying back on his cot, Tom thought, “At least I have dry clothes.” They were out-of-service fatigues that were too large and stood out dramatically from the desert camo that everyone else in the hangar was wearing. He was also one of the few who had been given dry clothes. Most of the Marines he observed were still wet as were a number of the survivors from the Bunker. Not that Tom could see that many of them. He was stuck back in a corner of the hangar where he wouldn’t be a spectacle that would draw attention. At the same time, materials had been arranged so that even if he did somehow manage to overpower the four guards, there was only one way out, a long aisle between stacks of additional shipping containers. At the end of the aisle stood two more guards. 

His feet were shackled to the floor. Tom hadn’t expected that part. Devices used to keep shipments from moving around the container had proven to be the perfect size to secure the shackles as well. He had just enough chain to put his feet up on the cot, which also gave him enough length to get within a couple of inches of the doorway. He could have leaned forward and grabbed the fencing but his balance would be compromised if he did. 

Light inside the container was practically non-existent. With the power out, only reflected light from the lamps attached to generators provided any sense of illumination anywhere and he was stuck so far back in a corner that it would have been black were it not for the shiny metal tops of the shipping containers reflecting some light their direction. As it was, Tom reasoned that if he were to lie perfectly still on the cot, the Marines might be fooled into thinking he had somehow escaped and then he could slip out when they pulled back the fencing. The problem was those shackles. The chains were noisy. Any movement at all was audible. He had nothing. He had no way of planning for this outcome and even if he had the Marines had done far too thorough a job of searching him to have any hidden tools available. 

Tom smiled in the darkness. No matter what happened to him from here, this mission had been successful in disrupting the government; of that much, he could be sure. The fact that he was being held in the manner he was proved that much. He and his team had managed to create enough turmoil to force the country into martial law for the first time since the Civil War. What happened next was up to President Blackstone. He would now have the power to change how the country operated, stop the secret programs that hurt people and then covered it up, change the policies that swept government mistakes under the rug with no accountability. The future would be better for everyone. If that meant Tom sacrificing his life, that was an acceptable outcome. 

Not that he had expected the plan to work as well as it had. When Rod Hampton had identified himself as a member of the Secret Service five years ago, Tom had immediately assumed that the whole movement was over and they were going to jail. Who would have expected that the agent would share so many of Tom’s feelings and experiences? Rod had lost his mother due to a government “accident” and joined the Secret Service thinking that would be a way to fight similar injustice. Two years had proven to be disillusioning, though, and Rod found Tom’s ideas for change palatable with his own agenda. He would be their man on the inside.

Tom hadn’t trusted Rod at first, of course. He still expected that it might be a sting operation, that the government was using Rod to uncover the group’s entire network so they could arrest everyone all at once. Every time there was a knock at a door or someone entered the bunker a little more aggressively than necessary, Tom had jumped, his anxiety constantly on overload as they had moved closer to the target date. Rod had proven reliable, though. All of his information was accurate and his details complete.

Then, two months after Blackstone was elected President, Rod sent word that he thought he could sway the leader of the free world to work with them. Again, Tom was certain it was an elaborate trap. The entire group would be tried for treason and shot. But Rod came through with hand-written notes from the President himself. If he could use their plan to invoke martial law and take firm control of the country, he was in. He backed up the notes with rhetoric in his press remarks about a third term and wondering aloud why Supreme Court justices served for life but presidents don’t. Each comment was sent beforehand to Tom and the group so they would know the President was being serious. This morning, right on time, the President had done what he promised and interrupted the phone call, triggering the dangerous code that brought the country to a complete blackout. Tom was genuinely surprised. He didn’t think Blackstone would actually go through with it. Rod was in the room as a backup, ready to make just enough noise to interrupt the call, but that proved to not be necessary.

Everything from that point had happened so quickly Tom could barely remember any of it now. When systems had gone down, he had quickly taken advantage of the security outage to crash the jet into the bunker, dropping its heavy payload in just the right places to make sure no one would be able to ever go through all the code and know exactly what they had done. The rest of the day was a blur. 

Tom was ready for whatever Perry might throw at him. He didn’t expect the treatment to be light or the least bit compassionate. He didn’t expect to survive. All that was tolerable and expected given the circumstances. That didn’t mean he had to make it easy for anyone, though, and Tom was ready to have some fun whenever Perry got around to questioning him. The only problem at the moment was a headache that had been growing the past several minutes.

“Excuse me,” Tom yelled in the direction of the guards. “Is there any way I could get like a couple of ibuprofen or something? I have a hell of a headache.”

The Marines looked at him and laughed. “Thanks to you, we don’t even know where the ibuprofen is,” one of them said. 

Tom shrugged and stretched out the best he could on the cot. Perhaps he could sleep the headache off. It wasn’t like there was anything left for him to do now, anyway. The plan might not have been perfect, but it had worked well enough.

Temporary Displacement

Part of being a good Secret Service agent means being able to control one’s personal emotions through any situation and Rod Hammond was a pro. Repeated abuse at the hands of both his parents and a school administrator had helped him perfect the ability to maintain a stone-cold, emotionless expression no matter what was going on. Today, that trait was what was keeping him alive. Even as Agent Campbell had ordered him to start looking for the person responsible for Tony Briscane’s murder, which he was, Rod kept a calm exterior. 

Had anyone checked his heart rate or blood pressure, though, they would have seen signs of how anxious and desperate he actually was. Knocking off Briscane had been easy, almost expected. Rod had seen the way he was talking to the President, constantly warning him of the need to be quiet. He knew the FBI agent would be a problem that would have to be eliminated. Tom’s text hadn’t surprised him at all.

The order to take out the Vice President and General Lang had come from a different source, though, one that was unexpected. Rod had acted quickly enough but had needed to take out one of his own friends, a career agent with 22 years of service, in order to avoid being shot himself. He had felt that one a little too closely. Shooting people he didn’t like was one thing. Shooting a friend was not what he had prepared for himself when he showed up to work that morning. Now, here he was, somehow, the senior officer at the White House during one of the most chaotic periods in history. He knew Campbell wouldn’t let this lapse last for too long, so he was taking advantage of it while he could. 

The Chief Justice’s order to treat the entire White House as a crime scene had complicated things. The “shelter in place” order that had come with Briscane’s death was now “stay where you are but don’t touch anything.” Not that anyone was doing much in the first place. With the computer systems down many in the West Wing offices had taken the opportunity to straighten up their perpetually cluttered workspace. The Chief Justice’s order had stopped even that activity, though. Everything, every piece of communication, every note, would have to be considered as evidence in whatever conspiracy the Chief Justice was piecing together in his head.

Rod had been surprised at how quickly the judge had figured out Blackstone’s role in the whole mess. Selling the President on the concept had been surprisingly easy. Rod was frequently assigned to the residence detail and given the President’s predilection toward walking the halls at random hours of the night, he had ample opportunity to discuss the plan with him out of earshot from anyone else and without fear of being recorded. Blackstone had an enormous ego and Rod had quickly realized that this President, unlike any of his predecessors, was highly dissatisfied with the limitations of the office. Giving him the chance to usurp those checks and balances had been like giving a child his favorite toy for Christmas. Blackstone was so giddy that Rod was concerned he might not keep the matter secret. 

In fact, the President hadn’t kept the plan secret at all, and that, as far as Rod knew, had been his undoing. “You wait, they’re going to make me King and Congress won’t have any say in the matter,” Rudy had told his wife. He hadn’t divulged any more than that to her, but that had been enough. The President then repeated that statement at least two other times in more public settings. Most people took it as a laughable attempt at humor. The concept that the United States would ever revert to a monarchy was preposterous! Not everyone had laughed it off, though, and some of those people were now the ones in charge.

Rod walked through the White House trying to exude authority and confidence without coming off as a power-hungry jerk, something that didn’t play well in the Service. He could see the anxiety on the faces of the younger agents. They had received plenty of training in various disaster scenarios but none had been quite as chaotic as this reality. The inability to communicate quickly with anyone left them bumping into each other and chasing after shadows. The order to preserve everything, especially the residence, as a crime scene was so daunting as to be humorous. No one had any crime-scene ribbon, not even the White House police. They were using giant rolls of gray duct tape instead. Agents were busily taking pictures, trying to catalog what was obvious, while others continued searching for a shooter Rod knew they would never find.

White House police, which was a separate division of the Secret Service, were being extra vigilant at guarding the East and West Wing entrances. The North entrance had been closed the moment the power had gone out. All public tours had been canceled. Only personnel with existing White House credentials were allowed to enter, no one was allowed to leave without authorization from the Chief of Staff, who never seemed to be in his office. Still, the traffic through the doors had been even busier than normal. With communications down and people in other buildings not knowing all that was going on, messengers and couriers continued to arrive at a steady pace, most of whom were quickly told to return without admission. Rod could just imagine how that was going over with the pompous bureaucrats who each felt their job was the most important. 

It was that bureaucracy that Rod had hoped to see dismantled. He had joined the Secret Service convinced that here he could make a difference in keeping people safe. What he quickly discovered was an antiquated system that seemed to thrive on outdated methods and mountains of red tape that made it impossible to get anything done without consulting at least four different agencies and a host of Congress members. The whole checks-and-balances system slowed things down, made it too easy for bad guys to hide. A more authoritarian government would change that. Under martial law, everyone reported to the president. No need for studies or consultation. If he authorized something, it happened. That was the system Rod was wanting.

What was going to happen now was unclear. Technically, the country was still under martial law. The president, by definition as Commander in Chief, reigned supreme. Rod hardly knew the now-former Speaker. There would be changes coming that he hadn’t anticipated. His safety and his own exoneration were no longer certain. President Blackstone wasn’t here to protect him. More than ever, Rod was vulnerable. 

A group of black sedans pulled up to the West portico and a group of senior Secret Service agents stepped out of each. They flashed their badges as they marched through the metal detectors. The first one through asked, “Where’s the agent in charge?”

“In the residence, sir,” came the reply. 

The first agent divided the others into groups and then took two agents with him as they headed toward the third-floor residence. They found Rod kneeling down, securing a piece of duct tape that had come loose.

“Agent Hammond?” the senior agent asked. 

Rod recognized the agent and stood quickly, attempting to straighten his suit. “Yes, sir,” he responded. 

“Have all your agents gather at the West portico. You all are being temporarily relieved of duty pending residue analysis and re-assignment. You’ll leave your service weapons with me for testing,” came the order.

Rod knew he had no choice but to comply, at least for the moment. He motioned to the other agents in the residence to join him and instructed one to inform those investigating the other floors. There was an inherent sense of guilt that he hoped wasn’t showing in his expression. The walk down to the West portico felt too much like a death march for Rod to be comfortable. 

At the rear of one of the black sedans parked under the portico was an agent with two boxes. One contained evidence bags and markers. Agents that had been on White House detail that day were all instructed to place their service weapons in a bag and mark the bag appropriately for identification. There was only one agent observing this process and he was frequently distracted by other movements in the area. No one was doing body searches for additional weaponry. The thought hadn’t even occurred to anyone.

Rod dropped his registered service weapon into a bag, sealed it, and wrote his name and badge number on the outside. This wasn’t a problem. His service revolver wasn’t what had been fired. What had amazingly not occurred to anyone in authority was that the barrel of the 9mm weapons that were standard issue for Secret Service agents was smooth. There were no threads with which a silencer could be attached. The visual difference alone would have been enough to cause his weapon to stand out from the others. Instead, Rod was also carrying a second modified 9mm, one that used the same rounds as his service weapon but could be fitted with the suppression device. While the weapon wasn’t technically silent, it was significantly softer than the loud bang of a standard pistol. 

Getting into one of the cars that would take the entire detail back to the Treasury building, Rod felt confident that he was going to get away with his ruse. He would be able to easily drop the second weapon somewhere, wiped clean of any prints, and go on about his job as though nothing had happened. A temporary re-assignment wasn’t a bad thing. He’d be back at the White House soon enough.

Trying To Fit In

As the light in the apartment grew dim, Cam sat cross-legged on the floor in front of Reesie as the young woman attempted to brush the mats out of the teen’s hair without tearing the follicles from her scalp. Reesie was being as gentle as she possibly could but the child still winced and whimpered as the brush frequently snagged on the tangles.

“I’m sorry, I’m not terribly good at brushing someone else’s hair. My son’s hair is a very different texture,” Ressie said, attempting to apologize for the frequent pulling. “I imagine your momma did a lot better.”

“Not really,” Cam said. “She was always in a hurry and my hair just tangles no matter what I do to it. She’d pull at it until she got angry and would just throw the brush at me, ya’ know?”

Reesie laughed. “I gotcha. No one ever has enough time for our hair. Not even at a salon.”

“I wouldn’t know, I never been,” Cam said, squirming a little more. “Momma said we gotta takes care of our own, not be payin’ some nigga to do our own shit.”

“You might want to be careful with the language, little sister,” Reesie warned. “I’m cool, but talk like that tends to make some people a little nervous.”

Cam shifted positions yet again. “Yeah, so, how you get all tight up with these crackers anyway? Most ni- uhm, black folk done got flooded out and are either sittin’ atop their roof or done drowned to death. Ain’t seen no one comin’ to help them, ya’ know?”

Reesie carefully separated Cam’s hair into narrow sections and started braiding. “Most of them were in my coffee shop when the storm hit,” she explained as she carefully twisted the strands of hair. “Natalie, the cute little girl out front, was in the shop and brought us all here. Those of us who could make it. We lost a few along the way.”

“Damn, you really own your own biz-ness?” Cam asked, “And all these, uhm, white folks buy shit from you? Sister, who’d you have to blow for that to happen?”

Reesie lightly tapped the side of Cam’s head. “Listen, child, that’s disrespectful. I know how talk is in the hood but let me tell you right now this girl didn’t trade favors with nobody. I got where I am all by myself, workin’ hard, learnin’ to do things I didn’t know how to do, scrubbin’ baseboards and laying down floors and figurin’ out how to make the best damn coffee in town.  Ain’t nobody can take any credit for what I’ve done all on my own. Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t do it, either. You stand up for yourself. You don’t take any bullshit. When someone says ‘no,’ you make ‘em tell you why not. They’re not gonna tell you it’s because you’re black or you talk funny. They’re gonna give you a reason and you gotta overcome that reason and the next reason and the reason after that until they can’t tell you no anymore.”

“I don’t know any folk like you,” Cam said. “My momma always said we gotta stay in our place. Don’t make any noise. Do whatcha told. Smile an’ say ‘yes sir,’ an’ ‘no ma’am.’ Don’t lift your head too high. Don’t walk too proud. Otherwise, you might get shot just fo’ walkin’ down the damn street.”

Reesie tied off one braid with a piece of string and started on the next. “I hear ya’, little sister,” she said. “I’ve been on those streets. We all come from those streets, one direction or another. Let me tell ya’, though, ain’t no one keepin’ you on those streets but you. You decide you’re going to do better by yourself. You decide you’re gonna step up and that you’re gonna win. We got the exact same rights as everyone else and a lot of people might try to stand in your way but no one can really stop you except you. You get that in your head now. We’re gonna come out of this thing with a lot fewer people around. They’re gonna need us, all of us, and there’s no good reason we can’t come out on top. When someone tries to put us down at the bottom, we rise up to the top. We take charge. We get things done.”

Cam tucked her legs under her, still not finding a comfortable position to sit. “Yeah, but my momma said you rise too high and it makes you an easier target for them to shoot. Stay in your place and at least they won’t come lookin’ for ya.”

“Girl, what do you think your place is?” Reesie asked as she tugged on a braid.

Cam shrugged. “I dunno. Jus’ livin’ in the hood, doin’ a job ‘til they fire you then findin’ another job or two. Not makin’ no trouble, ya’ know?” She shifted positions again. “Momma worked days at the Kroger an’ then went an’ cleaned those doctors’ offices up there on 42nd street, ya’ know, the ones that take all the poor folk like us who ain’t got no insurance. She says as long as ya’ do your job and don’t make no trouble, don’t go askin’ for time off or any favors or such, keep your head down and your mouth shut, an’ maybe you can pay your bills. She don’t trust no men, either. Says they’re nothin’ but trouble.”

Reesie chuckled. “I have to agree with your momma on that one. Men are always trouble. Have yet to find an exception to that rule.”

“There is this one boy, down the street,” Cam said softly. “I mean, we don’t really talk that much, but, you know, he does kinda make me feel all squishy inside.”

“Nothin’ wrong with that,” Reesie said as she started another braid. “We meet all kinds of people who make us feel different ways. What matters is that we don’t give up control of ourselves. I love someone, I love her a lot, and if anyone can make me feel all the feelings, she can. But you know what? She don’t control my life and I don’t control hers. We do things together when we want, not because someone says we have to. We have a little boy we adopted and he’s a lot of work, but even before we started the adoption process, we talked about who would do what and the times when we need help, we ask, we don’t tell. And …” Reesie felt her throat close as the flood of emotions came rushing to the front.

Cam leaned back against Reesie and the young woman wrapped her arms tightly around the teen as she sobbed, “God, I miss them and I wish I knew for sure that they were safe.”

Cam tucked her legs and snuggled in closer to Reesie. “I don’t know what to believe anymore,” the teen said. “I mean, my whole house is gone. Maybe momma was there, but she could’ve been at work. That would be safer, wouldn’t it? That big building?”

“I suppose,” Ressie answered. “At least, if she was at work she would have people there to help her.”

The girl scoffed. “Yeah, you really think anyone’s going to help an old black woman? Hell, ya’ll were all set to tear me to pieces before you even knew who I was.”

“Yeah, we had just had a tussle with someone who wasn’t so friendly, so we were being careful,” Reesie said. “But look, not everyone’s bad, and when bad things like this happen, people surprise you, both directions. Some people you think have your back end up leaving and people you don’t even know stick around and help. We just don’t know. We have to hope.”

Cam sat up and looked around the room. “You think all these people have our back?”

Reesie leaned forward and lowered her voice, not sure what others could hear. “Not sure. I think they want to think they’d have everyone’s back, but it was a rough trip over here, let me tell you. I think everyone has someone they’d watch out for, but no one can have everyone’s back and I’m not sure we’re at the top of anyone’s list. As long as the group stays together, I think we’re safe. We get split up for some reason, though, we may have to watch out for ourselves, just because.”

Pulling her legs up into her chest, Cam whispered, “It’s almost like we’re invisible.”

“To some people, we always are,” Reesie said. “No matter what, some people never really see us.”

A Harsh Dose Of Reality

As Norma’s SUV pulled up to the Capitol building, the rush of reporters and staff members immediately descended upon the vehicle, causing a delay in her ability to exit. “Good god, you’d think they’d been waiting all day or something,” the Speaker/President quipped. 

“You know that the Republicans, especially Senator Norman and his cronies, aren’t going to make it easy for you,” Chief Justice Todd warned. “Have you decided how to handle things?”

Norma nodded. “Yeah, I’m going to let you do all the talking.”

Ken chuckled. “That’ll make ‘em happy, I’m sure.”

Watching as her Secret Service detail cleared a path, Norma said, “I’m less concerned about making anyone happy and more concerned about not getting shot. The whole manner in which things have happened today makes my stomach want to heave. To think that our own President would initiate such chaos in an attempt to usurp the Constitution should be ludicrous, but the way you laid it out …” She sighed and sat back in the seat, waiting for the door to open.

“At the very least, there has to be a thorough investigation,” Ken said. “If you do nothing else during your tenure as president, that much is paramount. We have to know who did what to whom, when it was done, and if possible, why. You’ll have the full backing of the Court on that.”

Norma nodded as the door opened and she stepped out to a barrage of questions. “Madam Speaker, do you have any word on the President’s health?” “Madam Speaker, is it true that the Vice President has been shot?” “Madam Speaker, do you have any word as to when power might be restored?” Norma smiled and waved as she walked the gauntlet flanked closely by Secret Service agents on all sides.

The crowd seemed surprised when Chief Justice Todd stepped out of the same vehicle. “Mr. Chief Justice, are the rest of the Justices attending this emergency session as well?” “Mr. Chief Justice, are we in a Constitutional crisis?” “Mr. Chief Justice, how was your speech in New Hampshire?” Unlike Norma, Ken felt no compunction to act nicely or even acknowledge the crowd of desperate reporters. He ducked his head and headed toward the door as quickly as possible.

Just inside the Capitol, Representatives Childress and Delany were waiting. They had just been about to challenge Norma for calling a join session when they, too, saw the Chief Justice approach. Catching both men with their mouths open, Norma said, “Just take your seats, gentlemen. We have a Constitutional obligation to fulfill.”

Aides who had been stationed at the doorway ran quickly to inform their related Members of Congress as to the arrival of the Chief Justice along with Speaker Watkins. Speculation had been burning all day as to exactly what had happened at the White House and what the Constitutional implications might be. The presence of the Chief Justice indicated to most that Speaker Watkins had already discussed the matter with him and that a final assessment was about to be pronounced. The Assembly Hall that had not been half-full two minutes earlier quickly began to fill. The cacophony on the floor spread throughout the halls as aides and members of the press rushed to secure a seat in the balcony. The three television cameras that still had battery power left took a position in the aisles. 

As Norma stepped onto the dais, Senator Graham, stern-faced and sullen, warned her, “One step out of line and I will call Point of Order so fast you’ll never get in another word.”

“Take your seat, Senator,” Norma replied. “You might be surprised by what you hear.” She then turned and banged the gavel three times on the podium. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I hereby call this Joint Session of the United States Congress to order. The Speaker does at this time recognize the Honorable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Kenneth Todd.”

Everyone in the room unanimously stood and applauded as the Chief Justice took the dais and stood behind the podium. To have done anything less would have been seen as disrespectful to the entire court, something no Congressperson dared do. The political repercussions would be immediate and overwhelming. The polite applause was short-lived, though, as the members were anxious to where what the Chief Justice was about to say.

“Madam Speaker, Mr. Senate President Pro Tempore, members of Congress, my fellow Americans, there have been many grave and serious events take place here and around our country today. While I cannot confirm nor deny every rumor that is circulating through these halls and others, I stand before you this evening to certify the very real events in regard to the leadership of this country and to fulfill the Constitutional obligation as defined by the 25th amendment.”

Ken paused while a wave of murmurs passed across the galley then continued. “This morning, at 10:15 AM, a test of new functionality in the Emergency Broadcasting System malfunctioned causing a cascading power outage across the entire continent along with loss of cellular and significant satellite service. The full consequences of these outages have yet to be assessed as the lack of communications makes it impossible to know exactly the full range of fatalities, but at this point, the Secretary of the National Security Administration tells me that estimates are in excess of one hundred thousand lives lost.”

Gasps and cries went up with the confirmation of their worst fears. Ken waited a couple of minutes for the commotion to calm down. “As a result of those outages and upon receiving a report of considerable unrest in several cities, and at the request of multiple state’s governors, at 10:52 this morning, President Blackstone issued a general state of emergency and declared martial law to be in effect over the Continental United States until such time as power has returned and order sufficiently restored. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Alexander Lang, was placed in charge of those operations.”

“At approximately 11:05, FBI Special Agent In Charge, Tony Briscane, who had been present in the White House to conduct the test of the Emergency Broadcasting System, was found murdered in the basement of the White House. As there were no immediate witnesses to the murder, the White House was put on lockdown and the President and his family secured in the residence while an immediate investigation was opened by the Secret Service.”

Ken paused and took a drink of water from the glass he had brought with him. He took the opportunity to read the faces of those closest to him and saw both panic and fear as they waited for whatever would come next.

“At 11:23, while in the company of General Lang and multiple Secret Service agents, President Blackstone collapsed in the residence. The initial diagnosis was that the President appeared to be having some manner of seizure and he was immediately transmitted to Walter Reed Hospital under the care of White House Physician, Dr. Zinky. Upon arrival at the hospital, the President appeared to be resting, though still unconscious, and was presumed to make a full recovery.”

“Following the rule of law as dictated by the 25th Amendment of the United States Constitution, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Eliana Krueger was summoned to the White House to deliver the oath of office to Vice President Andrew Abernathy as acting President until such time as President Blackstone was able to resume his duties. This oath, contrary to the opinion of some, was fully legal. There is nothing in the Constitution stipulating that I nor any other member of the Court be required to administer the oath. Therefore, be advised that the Court will summarily deny any challenge to that oath without a hearing.”

“Then, quite tragically, as Acting President Abernathy was leaving the Oval Office in the company of General Lang, both men were assassinated along with Secret Service agent Oswald Rachito. The presumption at this time is that this act was committed by the same person responsible for the death of Agent Briscane.”

Again, a chorus of anguished cries rose from the assembly as the rumor was confirmed. Many on the Republican side of the aisle had counted on the even-handed Vice President to keep the President in check and as the preferred replacement should it be necessary for President Blackstone to be removed. 

After a sufficient moment, Ken continued. “Associate Justice Krueger again delivered the necessary oath of office to Speaker of the House Norma Watkins as required by the Constitution. It should go on record at this point that Speaker Watkins declared her desire for her tenure as acting President to be as short-lived as possible and that she looked forward to returning the reins of governance back to President Blackstone as soon as he was able.”

That comment produced some rude laughter from the Republican side of the floor and the Chief Justice was quick to raise his hand along with a stern glare as an indication for them to cease. Like children chided by their parents, the laughter quickly stopped.

Ken carefully looked to the other side of the floor and continued. “What I am about to tell you now has not been public knowledge until this point. As members of Congress, you have a sworn duty to uphold and protect the Constitution and I’m afraid that our very core of government has come under attack. At approximately 4:30 this afternoon, the Secret Service arrested and took into custody attorney Gloria Fastbaum and First Lady Tasha Blackstone on suspicion of attempting to poison the President.”

Another pause. While rumors of the Vice President’s death had made their way to Hill, the Secret Service had managed to keep this bit of news completely locked down. The entire membership of Congress gasped as did the assembled press and Congressional aides in the balcony. “It’s a setup!” some shouted. Ken waited for a few minutes, stepping back from the podium. When it seemed that the commotion on the floor was not going to die down on its own, Norma stood and gaveled the chamber back to order. As the racket reduced to a whisper, Ken continued with what he knew would generate an even larger response.

“Following that unfortunate event, at 5:17 the President experienced a serious brain hemorrhage from which he did not recover. President Rudolph Blackstone was declared deceased at 7:42 PM. Preliminary reports show that the hemorrhage was not likely related to the attempted poisoning. However, in all likelihood, it was caused by the sound waves emitted at close range during the failed Emergency Management test that morning.”

Congress erupted with cries and screams. Ken stepped back from the podium and looked at Norma, who had tears in her eyes, as did Graham. So long as there was a chance that the President would recover and return to office there was arguable wiggle room as to whether the 25th Amendment was genuinely applicable. With the President’s death confirmed, however, any opportunities to wrest power away from Norma was gone. Graham knew what was coming next. Any attempt to claim conspiracy was thwarted by news of the First Lady’s arrest. 

The pandemonium in the House chamber went on for several minutes, never fully settling down. Anger spread different directions between those who demanded to know who all was involved in the First Lady’s conspiracy to those demanding to know how the Emergency Broadcast test had failed so spectacularly. Norma gaveled the chamber back to order long enough for Ken to swear in the new President and issue the order for a full investigation. Few people cared. The enormity of the day’s complete devastation began to settle in, distracting from the significance of what was going on in front of them. Of course, there would be photographs and videos to be viewed later. Official accounts from those present would be doctored to sound more impressive and somber than the reality of the moment. No one wanted to admit to the level of shock and fear they actually felt at the time. 

Over the course of the next few hours, a lot would take place. Congress would authorize a full, multi-level investigation of the entire Emergency Broadcasting plan in addition to the conspiracy to poison the President. Memorial actions for both the President, Vice President, and General Lang were approved. Seven floors of the Willard Intercontinental Hotel were requisitioned as temporary space for the new President and White House staff. Norma then nominated White House counsel Will Tucker as her Vice President. The Senate wasted no time in confirming him so as to make sure that there was someone filling the critical position should the disaster continue to take its severe toll.

No one was in the mood to take any chances. Borders were closed. Air traffic was grounded. With precious little argument, Congress conceded almost unanimously that martial law was warranted and necessary. 

There would be no going back from this moment. The United States of America had changed. This was a different country now with a very different outlook. 

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