Browsing Tag
coffee shop

This is it. This is where it all ends. 20 weeks this has gone on. I’ve been amazed that anyone at all as read every week. What I’ll do now is dump everything in a massive file, print it out, and take a red pen to it all. I know there are a number of discrepancies and a few elements that might not be needed. Once I get it edited down, we’ll decide whether to submit it for publication or just do a limited edition quick run sort of thing.

Next week, I’ll go back to shorter topics for a while, get some things off my chest, probably for the remainder of the year. I have a new book concept and it would work well if I start the first Sunday of 2020.

Thank you for reading.

Prologue: Five Years Later

They sat around a group of tables pushed together at the only diner large enough to accommodate them. Among them this time were children. Ravie was now seven. Devin was nine, Gwen’s Hannah Grace was precocious at four-and-a-half, and Miranda was six weeks from delivering Darryll Adam Kirshner. Cam, no longer a child at 19, was tall, lanky and had developed Reesie’s grace and tone to the degree that people on the street assumed they were mother and daughter. There were smiles and hugs and tears as they each arrived, taking places around the tables, then getting back up to hug someone else they hadn’t seen when they first arrived. 

A little extra space was cleared for Adam who now needed a walker to get around and required oxygen at the ready. Amber brought him with her but he still insisted on getting himself and his equipment into the restaurant and set up on his own. 

They all cheered when Barry arrived. He had dropped 150 pounds, partly due to starvation he claimed, and had taken up a rigorous workout schedule in an effort to stay fit. He was relatively well-known now for speaking out against body shaming and advocating for people to take responsibility for their own health. 

The gathering had all the trappings of a family reunion. Amanda had made t-shirts with the slogan, “Together We Survive” across the front of them, making sure she had them in colors that matched everyone’s size and personality. Gloria had insisted on name tags out of fear that she might embarrass herself by forgetting someone’s name. 

As a group, it had been over four-and-a-half years since they’d all been together. It had taken two days of floating after leaving the apartment building before they found another living human. After the floodwaters went down, they still used the boats as “home” and helped look for other survivors. All told, just over 1,000 people were left in a city that had once been home to over 600,000. 

Six months had passed before life returned to anything that resembled normal and normal had been completely redefined. They had electricity, most of which was now solar powered because there weren’t enough people left to run the power stations or string new lines across the country. They had internet because an enterprising young Russian had figured out a way to capture and re-purpose the hundreds of “dead” satellites that no longer had anyone controlling them. Travel was possible if one could find a vehicle that hadn’t been completely ruined by the flood but it would still be years before a fraction of major roads were paved again.

Gloria and Toma had been the first to leave town, having decided to head for New Jersey and see if any of Toma’s family had survived. Only her younger sister, Mary, had managed to find a place of safety. They set up a home built from the debris they found and began helping others recover.

Natalie and Miranda had moved Chicago a few weeks later as Natalie was offered an editorial position at a new media company composed of every journalist, photographer, and media production person that could be found. The company was still small, a scant 25 people, but the work was exciting and Natalie felt she was doing something important. Their decision to add to their family had come with the President’s encouragement that it was the responsibility of those who could to help the country grow. A new federal program covered all the necessary medical costs for artificial insemination and Miranda had proven to be the better recipient. They were both excited and terrified by the prospects facing them.

Everyone else had stayed local but as time had gone by they saw each other less and less. Lives became busy. There were new places to live, new jobs to create, a new city to build. With so few people left, only those genuinely disabled weren’t employed in some helpful manner. Everyone did everything they could and what they couldn’t do they learned. 

Gathering now was exciting. They felt as though life was finally moving forward again. They could hold conversations without breaking down crying. Memories, while still sad, didn’t leave them all depressed for the next week.

“Hey, Ressie,” Amanda half-yelled down the length of the table, “Did you hear that the new doctor has a background in neurology?”

Reesie’s face lit up. “Yes!” she said. “I met her at the market the other day. She looked at Ravie and thinks she might be able to help. We have an appointment next week. This is the first good news for him since he was little.”

“You guys are such great parents for him,” Miranda said. “Is he handling all the changes okay?”

“Changes are all he knows now,” Timora replied. “We spent so much time moving from one place to another that when we did finally stay in one place more than a couple of weeks, he got upset and wanted to know when we were going to move again. He’s adapted so much better than we have.”

“Oh, you all might want to know, the President’s coming for the wreath-laying at the memorial next Wednesday,” Amber said. “Apparently she’s trying to make as many of them as she can. I’ve heard she’s amazingly empathetic with survivors.”

“I’m not surprised,” Gloria responded. “Didn’t she lose her entire family as well?”

“Everyone on her staff lost their entire family,” Natalie answered. “I was down there two weeks ago and was amazed at how much they’ve changed the way government works. I suppose it helps that there’s not as many of us now to manage, but it was a lot friendlier than DC ever thought about being.”

Barry was making his way around the table, refilling everyone’s coffee cup for the harried server who wasn’t accustomed to having this many guests at a time. “Moving the capital off the East coast might have had something to do with that,” he said. “Although, building a whole new city from scratch where none had existed before still feels a little imperialistic if you ask me.”

“It makes sense if you ask me,” Gwen responded. “There’s less clean up involved. You’ve seen how long it’s taken to just get things to a place where we can build anything here. It’s been five years and every time someone digs a foundation for something they’re finding more pieces of someone. I’m not sure we all shouldn’t have just moved out and started over in a pasture somewhere.”

“How’s the new White House coming along?” Amanda asked. “Is it going to be anything like the old one?”

“It’s kind of tough to tell,” Natalie replied. “They’ve finally made it to the point they have exterior walls going up, but there’s so much new tech being built into this place that visual progress is moving slowly. They’re not going to call it the White House anymore, though. It’s just ‘The Residence’ and the President will live and work from one side and the Vice President will live and work in the other. Then, the cabinet-level departments will all be in something of a circle around The Residence.”

Adam removed his oxygen for a moment so he could speak loud enough for everyone to hear. “What I don’t get is that there’s not a Capitol building anymore. They have the House of Representatives in one place and the Senate in another. What’s up with that?”

“They’re afraid of losing them all again,” Reesie said. “The fact that what, only two representatives and one senator survived and that’s because they were not at the Capitol, factored strongly into that decision.”

“They’re also redefining the powers and roles of each body,” Natalie said. “They’re preparing to announce proposals for Constitutional Amendments next month and I think it’s going to be a positive move. We saw how the partisan bickering made everything impossible last time. They’re looking for solutions to that problem.”

“I feel so much like we’re kind of pioneers now, starting our own new country,” Toma said. “I mean, it’s nice we have the Constitution to define limits and such for now, but we have an opportunity to make things so much better, remove the encoded biases that were there before, make a point of being equal as the default.”

Miranda pushed her chair back a little and put her hands on her stomach. “Whew, this little guy seems to have an opinion,” she laughed. “I went with Nat to Democracy Center and I feel sorry for those guys. They’ve got something like 400 people trying to do the work of 400,000. Half of those are like my age, no real experience, just trying to do the best they can. I mean, the kids in the state department can speak like a total of ten languages combined. They have the major languages, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean covered, but anything for the Middle East? Forget it. Africa? Not a chance. And there are no translators. Fortunately, everyone’s still like trying to rebuild their own countries so no one’s being pushy yet, but you know it’s going to come.”

“That sounds like you might have an interest in helping out there,” Amber said. “I think there are chances for all of us to participate at a higher level than we would have otherwise expected. Personally, I’m considering running for Governor. No one else seems to be stepping up and we’re starting to grow enough we really need someone in that position.”

“I’d love to serve on your campaign!” Barry immediately volunteered. “Although, I have to admit it’s nice having you as Mayor and not having to worry about a lot of state government.”

“I totally understand,” Amber said, “There are twenty-five towns across the state now and we need to start making cohesive decisions about things such as land management, what’s suitable for farming and what isn’t, how we deal with the contaminated material we continue to find, Do we go all-in on solar energy or do we try to add wind back into the mix again? Are cities responsible only for their own energy or that of the region around them? Who is going to support those brave souls willing to try their hand at farming? There’s a lot to think about and I want to make sure we don’t repeat previous mistakes.”

“You can totally count on Devin and me,” Amanda said eagerly. “We’ve been talking in ‘school’ about what a government is and how they’re supposed to work. It would be good for him to watch the process up close.”

“What do you think, Devin?” Amber asked.

“I dunno,” he mumbled as he stared at his gaming device. “Do  you think we can get global servers back like Mom says they used to have?”

“Well, I …” Amber started, looking at the others for help answering the question.

Barry smiled and jumped in. “I think there’s a set of servers scheduled to connect to the satellite system next month,” he said. “And they’re big new ones, not monster servers made of recycled parts. They’ll be able to handle the volume.”

“Sweet!” Devin exclaimed, never looking up from his game. Ravie walked over and watched over his shoulder.

“How’s the whole school thing going?” Gloria asked. “I know I kinda miss being in class.”

“It’s … interesting,” Amanda said. “There are online curriculums that are helpful, but they were all developed for a different world than what we have now. They talk about cities with millions of people living in them and, from what I understand, those don’t exist anymore. A lot of the social references they make exist anymore.”

Natalie nodded her head in agreement. “We’re having to completely re-write everything. It seems crazy that over four billion people could die in the span of about 48 hours. Our best information is that Mumbai has about 80,000 people and Beijing may have as many as 120,000, but it’s difficult to be sure because both countries had their governments completely wiped out and there’s a lot of fighting about who gets to control things. Our best guess is there are about 2.5 billion people living in communities under 1,000 people, all self-governed, and getting along amazingly well that way.”

Adam coughed hard as he removed his oxygen tube again. “Seems to me, one of the lessons we should be learning is that layers of large government do more harm than good. Hell, large government helped create this mess we’re in now. Why would we ever want to go back to that kind of system?”

“Because there are some things we can only do as a larger unit,” Amber replied. “I agree, though. I think we have to put a lot more limits on what governments at any level can do. Like, the President’s program for replacing the old Interstate system with high-speed rail. That’s something only a federal government can facilitate. It doesn’t need to be altered as it runs from one state or region to the next. But we don’t need the federal or state government messing around in our coffee shops and grocery stores. Different regions have different needs and need the power to address those needs without interference.”

Miranda gave a short scream as the baby kicked. “Oh, that was a hard one! I’m going to assume that means he agrees with you.”
“Hey, Reesie,” Gwen started, leaning over to look down the table. “What’s the word on you getting back into the coffee business?”

“It’s still going to be a couple of years before there’s really any fresh stock of beans,” she answered. “I mean, what we’re drinking here is artificially produced, and it’s okay, but we all prefer beans so I’d rather wait until I have good stock. However,” she smiled and pulled Cam close, “This young lady is a whiz at baking, so we’ve been talking about opening up a pastry shop for her and then when the material is ready I’ll open a coffee shop attached to it. I’m thinking of naming it Another Tuesday.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful!” Gwen nearly shouted. “We’d be in all the time! Hanna Grace loves pastries.” 

The little girl looked up from her book. “Mom, there you go again, applying human emotion to an inanimate object. I love you. I devour jelly donuts.”

The group roared with laughter.

At the other end of the table, Barry’s, Nat’s, and Miranda’s cell phones dinged at the same time. They looked at each other cautiously, wondering if they should check them. Barry looked at his first, then said, “Nat, this looks like something in your area. Colonel somebody died.”

“Perry Dawkins?” Natalie asked as she looked at her phone. “He was head of the project that accidentally knocked all the satellites out. He was also responsible for getting everything back online. The guy lost both legs when a plane crashed into their research facility. He never stopped blaming himself for all the deaths, though. I’ve never met someone more tormented.”

“Didn’t everyone who was really responsible die either somewhere during the storms or the aftermath?” Amanda asked. “I mean, every politician for as long as I could remember talked about ‘draining the swamp’ but those storms eliminated the whole swamp and almost everyone in it. There were what, less than 200 survivors from DC?”

“The entire East Coast had its shoreline adjusted,” Toma responded. “All the boardwalk casinos and barrier islands are completely gone. My favorite family vacation spot in Connecticut doesn’t exist anymore.” She paused and wiped a tear from her eye. “My first girlfriend lived in Rhode Island. The entire state disappeared.”

Gloria and Miranda both reached over and put an arm around Toma. The rest of the table was silent for a moment, leaving only the sounds of the children chatting, video games playing, and spoons clanking as they swirled the creamer inside coffee cups. None of them had escaped deeply personal loss. Childhood memories, early romantic relationships, and favorite places were all gone. While federal programs for rebuilding were strong and generous, there weren’t enough people left in any one place to rebuild cities anywhere close to the state they had been before the storm.

Amber seemed to be the last effected, though she was so well-practiced at keeping her composure that no one could really be sure what she was feeling. After staring into her almost-empty coffee cup for a sufficient amount of time, she restarted the conversation. “We have a couple of large construction teams hitting town next month,” she said. “They’ll build a municipal building, something that’s safe and functional, capable of holding our entire population plus a few if necessary. Then, they’ll make sure everyone has a decent home to live in. We still have too many people living in tar-paper huts without running water or toilets. We’ll have a decent sewage system by the time they leave.”

Gwen looked up. “What about trees?” she asked. “It really makes me sad that there are so few trees left. And Roscoe would really like the shade.”

The mention of Roscoe was enough to make everyone smile. 

“I think we want to get through the winter first,” Amber said. “With all the changes in weather patterns, it’s hard to know what Nature is going to throw at us in terms of snow and low temperatures. We’ll want to be careful to choose trees that are going to survive year-round. But when we order, we’ll get shrubbery and flowers, too.”

“Bring me a shrubbery!” the entire table responded in unison, which made everyone laugh and for several minutes, the room was full of smaller conversations as everyone had a comment or memory. The young waitress, who knew them all but had a separate survival experience, brought them their food: veggie nuggets for the kids, various salads and manufactured soy products for the adults. Looking at the plates, one might have been fooled into thinking that everything was back to normal, but the food tasted nothing like what they had enjoyed before. There was no sugar or other sweeteners, few spices, and even basic grains were in short supply. Because of the limits in resources, food production of any kind was tightly controlled and that inevitably led to a sameness no matter what one was pretending to eat. Still, after two years of near starvation, no one complained. 

As they sat there talking and eating, Amber saw a familiar shadow pass the diner’s window. She set down her fork and stood up. “Excuse me for a moment, please,” she said. “I think I saw someone I need to speak with. I’ll be right back.” 

No one seemed surprised. Amber was mayor, after all, and such interruptions were to be expected. The group excused her with a chorus of mixed platitudes and continued their conversations.

Amber stepped around the corner and was not surprised to find Djali standing there in the shadow, still wearing the same perfectly-pressed suit he always wore. “You know, wearing a suit like that around here is really going to make you stand out. What the fuck are you doing here?”

“I heard we were having a reunion,” he said. “I thought I’d drop by and see how everyone’s doing.”

“Everyone’s just fine,” Amber growled. “There’s nothing for you to do here.”

Djali smiled. “I know. You’ve made sure everyone here has plenty of protection. You’ve grown a nice little town. You don’t even need a police department … yet.”

Amber took a threatening step closer to the demon. “And you’re not going to mess that up, are you? Every one of these people has been through incredible trauma. They’ve lost everything and are struggling to rebuild their lives. You and your kind can just stay the fuck away.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, mockingly raising his hands in front of his face as though he might need to defend himself. “We have strict orders to stay away from almost the entire continent. Tribalism hasn’t set in here like it has in Africa and South America. Those places are keeping us busy. They don’t have many people as it is and they still keep killing each other because those who survived don’t trust anyone. The only trouble spots here are out in the new deserts of the Dakotas, Colorado, and Kansas. Just little pockets where all the less-than-cooperative people seem to have gathered. They’re not wanted anywhere else.”

“So why, the fuck, are you here?” Amber asked again. 

Djali sighed and dropped his head. “Seriously, Amber, I just wanted to see how everyone was doing. I waded through the water with these people, remember?”

“And killed three of them,” Amber reminded him.

“They slipped,” he said defensively. “I just didn’t do anything to stop them.”

“You fucking son-of-a- …”

“Stop, Amber,” Djali interrupted. “You keep forgetting that I do have a conscience. I’m capable of feeling compassion, it’s just not in my nature to act on it. Just like we both know you have the ability to spew some real vile when it’s warranted; you’re just good at keeping a lid on it. I really feel for these people and I’m a bit sad they didn’t all make it. That wasn’t my doing, by the way.”

Amber sighed. “I know. The clouds were boiling over that fight. It must have been intense up there.”

Djali nodded his head and winced at the memory. “You know, we all get into fights every once in a while, but I don’t remember one that bad since that last European war. And you know what? The guys at the top just laughed. We were mere amusement for them.”

“Hopefully they got their fill for a century or two,” Amber said. “It’s going to take at least a couple hundred years before anything down here starts to resemble what it was before.”

“Just be careful,” Djali warned. “While we may be taking a well-deserved break, humans are still going to be humans. All the greed, the lust for power, the lying, it will all come back. You can’t keep it away forever. We have nothing to do with that.”

“I know,” Amber admitted. “I’ve already made plans for a police department when we need it. I can do a lot but I can’t keep people from being people.”

There was a sudden rush of wind as Destefana appeared suddenly behind Djali. “Get out of the way, Squirt,” she ordered. “I need a hug.” 

Djali obediently stepped to the side as Amber rushed to wrap her arms around the angel. She enjoyed the warmth and power emanating from her celestial friend. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“This pipsqueak created a bit of a disturbance when he decided to pop down for a visit,” Destefana replied. “His boss is concerned he’s too soft. I’m concerned he’s a fucking little liar.”

Amber giggled. “If people knew that angels drop F-bombs …”

The angel laughed. “Child, you know us, we’re the ones who created the language after having to chase after all these human asses down here. Although I’ve got to say, it’s a lot easier to manage for the moment.”

“You’re welcome,” Djali quipped.

“Shut up!” Amber and Destefana commanded in unison.

The demon flinched and took a couple more steps back. “Obviously, I’m no longer welcome in this conversation. I really am pleased to see everyone’s doing well, though. Maybe you could find a way to let them know that.” A warm breeze accompanied his quiet departure, blowing Amber’s hair back for a moment.

“He’s a complicated little one,” Destefana said. “But you’ve no worry from him or anyone up the chain. All’s good here.”

Amber smiled. “It’s nice to know you’re watching.”

Destefana reached out and pulled Amber close. “You make me happy,” the angel said softly. “You make the universe happy. Now, get back in there with your friends before they start to miss you.”

Amber nodded and smiled as another gust of wind took her friend to another plane of reality. Walking back into the diner, the conversations momentarily paused as she returned to her seat.

“Everything okay?” Reesie asked.

“Damn near next to perfect,” Amber said with a smile. “For all the hell we all went through, for everything we lost, you guys are just wonderful.”

Natalie leaned over and whispered, “Why is it you always have a bit of a glow to you after you have those mysterious conversations? You never have explained any of that to me and it’s still one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever witnessed.”

Amber smiled. “That’s another story for another time,” she whispered in return. “And not one suitable for children’s ears.”

“Always an excuse,” Nat teased.

The conversation returned to normal as the group chatted back and forth about everything that had changed and what they were doing to adjust to their new reality. While challenges continued, their shared experience had given them all the courage and confidence to step up to each new difficulty and find a solution. They knew they could survive no matter what was thrown at them.

Perhaps, most importantly, they had learned that complete strangers could become friends, that differences in background and culture, skin color and sexuality, were too often nothing more than defensive mechanisms people use to avoid getting close, risk the potential of getting hurt, and making new friends. It was a lesson they shared and applied wherever they went. They each told the story to whoever would listen. They not only survived the Great Extinction, but they were also better for having done so.

And for the most part, they were happy.

Reading time: 22 min
Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

Ed. Note: This is it! This is the last installment for the main part of the story that now simply has to be turned into a book somehow. Next week I’ll add an epilogue so you’ll know how everything turned out with your favorite characters. If you’re like me, you’ve likely become a bit attached to a few of them. Just letting everyone go off into an unknown horizon doesn’t quite provide enough closure.

After that, I’m going to take some time on some single topic pieces while I edit this mess. There have been a number of interesting sciency things the past 19 weeks so I want to take some time to explore those.

Eventually, there’s another story brewing in my head centered around a group of pastors I knew while growing up. Interesting group of characters they turned out to be. I’ll make fiction of everything, of course. No real names. I think all the original players are deceased now anyway. So we’ll start that up maybe in December or something.

Thank you for taking the time to hang with me and read all this. I know I’ve had fun. Maybe I’m the only one who has. But thanks to those who have stuck with the whole story. Now, let’s finish this thing up.

One More Mountain

Rain fell all night, varying in intensity but never to the extreme that it had earlier. With the rain came additional shifting at the other end of the building. One tremor was large enough that Natalie and Darrell were pretty sure that their apartment was now rubble but neither of them wanted to go outside to check. There was a common resignation that this situation was what the universe had given them and there was no point in objecting. They were keenly aware that there were so many others, including the original residents of the apartment they occupied, who had not made it this far. No one was going to complain now about something relatively insignificant as the loss of a few clothes. 

The group had enjoyed the personal revelations that had come with playing Never Could I Ever. Not only did Hannah reveal that she had driven a car naked when she was younger, but she had also chased chickens across a cow pasture and gotten knocked over backward when firing a shotgun. The sometimes intimate looks into their previous lives bonded the group together even more than the day’s tragedies had done. They were friends who had saved each other’s lives and finding that the more they shared the deeper those relationships became.

Everyone had a story. Barry told of the time he had gotten stuck in the doorway of a city bus, requiring first responders to come and un-wedge him before the bus could continue. Toma told of a time when, as a young teen, she pretended to not speak English so that a kindly shop owner would give her free ice cream. Amanda related an incident where she had embarrassed her husband by serving roast beef to a client visiting from India. Natalie recalled an interview where she called the CEO of what was now a major high-tech firm by the wrong name for the full interview—an error he never bothered to correct even when they met again after he was famous.

Framed in the innocence of self-deprecating humor, no one had judged Carlson admitted that he hadn’t always told his wife when he was traveling with an attractive co-worker because his wife was jealous of the co-worker’s red hair. Neither did anyone degrade Gloria when she admitted to being homeless between semesters and stealing food in order to say alive. Everyone laughed with the way Darrell told of getting arrested for filming skateboard stunts on private property after he had broken his arm and collar bone and was in the hospital. 

The group agreed that Adam’s stories of being wild and raucous in the 1960s were the best. Gwen was voted most innocent and it didn’t take long for everyone to notice that it was rare for Miranda to not raise her hand, especially if the topic involved sex. Under this umbrella of shared adversity, no one criticized anyone else for momentary lapses in judgment. No one condemned anyone else for holding a morality different than the generally accepted norm. Instead, they gave each other hugs, provided encouragement after stories of failure, and claimed each other as family. They barely noticed that Amber remained by the glass door keeping watch. When they did, she reassured them that all was well and they continued playing.

Eventually, one by one, they gave into the day’s fatigue and fell asleep. Only Adam was still awake when Amber carefully slipped out onto the balcony. He quietly got up from his chair and joined her.

“How you holding up there, big guy?” Amber asked as Adam shut the glass door behind him. 

“Eh, feeling the effects of no medicine,” he said, “but since I know nothing’s coming I’m taking precautions, getting up and moving around, avoiding the snacks Amanda seems to keep finding.” He paused for a moment then asked, “You’re still doing that thing you always do, aren’t you? Watching out for everyone else, keeping us all safe?”

Amber nodded. “It’s instinctive at this point. We’ve had a day where just about everything that could possibly go wrong has and you know as well as I do that shitstorms like this don’t just dry up and blow away. There’s more coming, I’m afraid.”

Adam followed Amber’s gaze into the cold blackness of the rainy night. “Are we all going to make it?” he asked quietly. “I won’t be upset if this is the end, you know. I’ve had a long and interesting journey.”

Turning around and smiling, Amber looked at Adam and said, “You still miss her, don’t you?” She reached over and wiped away the tear on his cheek. “It’s impossible not to, I know. She was an amazing person and an unbelievable partner.”

“I’ve thought about her so much today,” he replied. “Had they just left me in that coffee shop, perhaps I could be with her now. I’d be okay with that. The world is going to be different after today. I’m not sure there’s any place left for me now.”

Amber stepped to his side and put her arm around him, pulling him in close to her. “The fact that they didn’t leave you or Hannah or anyone else shows that there is a place for you. This changed world needs the wisdom of your experience, the lessons you’ve learned from your mistakes, the things you wish you’d done differently. You can help make this world better by helping us avoid repeating the same stupid errors. Besides, I happen to have it on good authority that your name isn’t on anyone’s list at the moment. I’m afraid you’re just stuck here with me.” She squeezed him again and smiled.

At first, Adam found her words comforting, then pieces between the lines became evident. “Wait, you’re telling me there’s a list?” he asked. “We’re not all going to make it?”

Amber smiled. “Nothing is ever final until it happens, you know that,” she answered. “I’ll do what I can, but there’s a limit and I’m not sure I can keep everyone together. There will be some decisions made later today and the consequences of those decisions are not something I can undo.” She paused for a while, then added. “The good news is I’m pretty sure Nature’s done throwing her tantrum. She’ll want to do some cleanup but that will come later.”

“So, where’s this trouble coming from that’s got you all worked up. I can feel your muscles flexing and relaxing. You’re anxious. It’s like you’re sitting in a foxhole waiting for the enemy to make a move.” 

“Upstream quite aways,” Amber said. “I heard a commotion about an hour ago, something that sounded a lot like gunfire. Still a few miles away that point.”

“Looters?” Adam asked.

“Or gangs,” Amber replied.

Adam felt his stomach turn. The day’s events to this point had been the type of thing no one could avoid. Nature would do her own thing and everyone else would have to go along with it. Person-to-person violence was a choice, though, one Adam had experienced far too often. He had lost too many friends because someone else made a stupid decision That it might happen again was sickening. He sighed. “I should probably try and get some rest then, shouldn’t I?”

Amber nodded and hugged him again. “Just try to not go comatose on me, okay? I don’t have the stuff to revive you again.”

“You know, there’s an old hymn …” he started.

“Go take your nap, old man,” Amber interrupted, laughing. She was relieved to see Adam smile before he turned and sauntered back inside the apartment. Perhaps she had told him too much, admitting that there was a list, that there was a chance not all of them would make it. Yet, of all those in the group, she knew Adam could handle that information responsibly.

There was the sound of a flutter of cloth and the gentle thud of something landing on the balcony behind her. Amber turned around fully expecting Djali to have returned. Instead, it was the raven-haired angel, Destefana, one of Michael’s charges. Amber relaxed her fists and smiled. “It has been a long time, sister,” she said. “I was expecting that creep Djali to be trying to stake a claim.”

“Oh, he’s been trying all night,” Destefana said. “At the moment, he’s trying to undo himself from a tangle of thorns that seems to have mysteriously trapped him on the other side of the street.” She smiled knowingly, the kind of smile that would have sent chills up the backs of most mortals.

Amber laughed at the thought of the minor demon struggling against thorns that blocked his every move. “I’m sure he’s only getting what he deserves. He’s been hanging around here all day. Although, seeing you here isn’t exactly good news, either, is it?”

“Is it ever?” asked the angel. “I just dropped in a couple of minutes early to say hi. I’ll be taking your friend Hannah with me, I’m afraid.”

Amber turned and looked into the nearly dark apartment. “Poor Gloria, she’ll be devastated.”

Destefana followed Amber’s gaze. “I suppose, but for Hannah, it’s a relief. Today’s been exhausting both physically and emotionally. She got to see her granddaughter laugh, tell a few more tales, and feels good about the future. She leaves smiling if she goes now. That may not be the case later.”

Looking back out into the night, Amber asked, “How bad is it?”

“Were this a normal day, your police would have stopped the whole thing by now with no one getting hurt. As it is, you’ve got an entire phalanx of protectors about half a mile upstream and Michael’s sending backup now.” Destefana paused, turned and took Amber’s hands in her own. “At no time will you be alone. Your armor protects you so fight fiercely and bravely. The people you protect are more important today than they could have possibly imagined themselves yesterday. They are brave but they are not invincible,” she paused and looked toward the apartment, “and a couple of them are not especially bright.”

Amber giggled. “Don’t you say that about most mortals?”

Destefana shrugged and pulled Amber into a hug that felt like being wrapped in a blanket of sunshine and hope. “I have to go, sister. The power of love be with you.”

“And also with you,” Amber replied softly.

The angel disappeared and in the next second Amber felt a soft breeze blow across her face. “Godspeed, Hannah,” she said softly.

Preparing To Lead

Seven hours after being locked into the SitRoom with Will and Katy and Roger, along with a number of aides and interns, the chatter had finally died down. Norma looked at her watch and realized she had not only been awake but moving from one event to another for well over 24 hours. Food had been limited. Rest had been non-existent and it showed. The dark circles under her eyes looked as though someone had misapplied her makeup to disastrously resemble the look from a fashion runway of the mid-2000s. Her light brunette hair, normally well-styled and coiffed each morning by her personal stylist, looked more like a disheveled haystack in which children had played. Her gray Prince of Wales checked suit was wrinkled. She neither looked nor felt like a president. 

Norma looked to her left and Katy wasn’t faring any better. Katy was a fitness buff who frequently could be seen walking the halls of Congress with a water bottle in her hand. Somewhere through the days’ activities, she had lost the water bottle and the jacket to her pink Marc Jacobs suit. Her leg was subconsciously bouncing non-stop, using energy she didn’t have to spare. Her usually well-manicured nails had been bitten down to stubs. The day’s excitement was now nothing more than exhaustion. She considered how frequently Chiefs of Staff had resigned mid-term in previous administrations and felt she was beginning to understand why. If every day was going to be this intense, and it certainly seemed for the moment that they might, she knew it would only be a few months before she would burn out completely. 

Roger didn’t wear his worry and anxiety any better than the President. He worried not only that the White House had likely been destroyed, but also that much of the country’s defense infrastructure had likely been put out of commission, at least for the short term. He had been aware that the severe weather was having a global effect but didn’t know to what extent Russia or China might still have sufficient troops and weapons capability to reach them. Perhaps even worse, Roger realized that with communications down, stopping terrorists was almost impossible. The only positive thought was that the situation also made it impossible for any large-scale attack to be sufficiently coordinated. 

Will had managed to calm himself enough earlier in the evening to nap for about 30 minutes. Only the interns closest to him noticed and they knew better than to say anything. Will’s approach to everything tended to be more pragmatic than most people’s. His philosophy was that there was no point worry over anything that couldn’t be controlled and the storm that was dismantling the District of Columbia at the moment wasn’t something that could be controlled. They were safe. He had to be thankful for that despite knowing that his wife and two daughters were likely caught off guard and could possibly be victims of the killer storm. He sat at the table now mentally devising a plan for how the government and the city would have to be pieced back together. Will desperately hoped that perhaps the storm had knocked some of the partisanship out of the survivors and that they would be able to move quickly, but at the same time, he knew there were too many in Washington who enjoyed a good fight and would never let a bill pass without opposition of some kind.

Norma looked at the various emotions on the young faces around the room. Most were as exhausted as anyone else. She knew her own interns were typically up an hour or two before she was, preparing briefings of international events and the day’s agenda long before she usually got out of bed. They were constantly pushed to do more, given responsibility for tasks they were ill-equipped to complete, and severely demeaned and punished when they failed to complete them to someone’s satisfaction. Some were obviously worried, biting at nails, twirling hair, anxiously re-organizing the contents of purses, messenger bags, and briefcases for the 30th time or more. Others were frightened, huddled on the floor in some variation of a fetal position, still not convinced they were as safe as Roger had assured them they were.

“We’re going to have so much work to do when we leave here,” Norma said to no one in particular. “There is no precedent, even after the Civil War, for rebuilding after a disaster of this magnitude.”

“The first thing we’ll have to deal with is shock,” Roger said as he wiped his hands across his eyes. “No one’s ever seen anything like this. They’re not going to believe how that places and things that have existed for their entire lives are now gone or forever altered. The security of a place, a home, the landmarks with which we identify is gone.”

Will sat forward and folded his hands together as he leaned on the table. “They’re going to be scared,” he said quietly. “Where will they find food? Are their families safe? How will they rebuild their lives if everything is gone? They’re going to be asking a lot of critical questions and they’re going to be looking to us for the answers.”

Norma reached over and touched Will on the arm. “I know this isn’t protocol, but I don’t want you to be an inactive vice president, Will. I need you right by my side. In all the chaos and confusion we’re about to face, I need you to help make sure we maintain the rule of law; compassionately, to be sure, but after all the lying and corruption of the past few generations, this is our chance to re-align ourselves and the country with the law, even if we have to change laws to do it.”

Will nodded in agreement.

Katy listened nervously, wishing she could crawl beneath something and hide. “People are going to be angry,” she said. “There’s no agency in Washington that has a public approval rating above 30. They’re going to look at everything that’s gone wrong the past 24 hours and blame us. They’ll want to know how we managed to fuck up this bad. It won’t matter that the people in charge now had nothing to do with it. The anger is directed at the government and we are now the government. They’re not going to like us and they’re not going to trust us. They’ll want answers we don’t have.”

“We’ll need to roll out some form of emergency aid,” Norma said. “If we have anything left to give.”

Will and Roger started to speak at the same time and Will nodded for Roger to go first.

“Food and water are the most critical,” Roger said, “And every state has disaster preparedness stores capable of addressing the needs of that state for about a week. Our larger cities have additional resources on top of that. The first question we’re going to need answered is how well those stores weathered the storm. Those facilities were designed to handle moderate disasters, like a hurricane or tornado, not multiples of everything all at once.”

“We’re going to need to complete overhaul economic policy as well,” Will said. “People need to go back to work to make money to rebuild their lives. Insurance companies aren’t going to be able to handle this hit. We’re going to need complete debt forgiveness, wipe the slate clean for everyone so that they can all start over. Provide no-interest loans to employers so they can get facilities back up and running as soon as possible. Large-scale grants not only to large cities but the small ones who were probably all-but eliminated.”

“Complete debt forgiveness?” Norma asked. “I’m progressive, Will, but that’s a bit much even for me. How do you plan to sell that one.”

“Madam President,” the Vice President began, “where none of the things for which that debt was incurred still exists the debt becomes an unnecessary burden to rebuilding. Companies and individuals have no choice but to take on new debt before they can start putting things back together.” He paused and gestured at the ceiling. “We’re going to need new debt to repair and rebuild the White House. Imagine if you had to pay for that out of your own pocket when you don’t even have a job. Our nation depends on a tax base of financially secure citizens. If we saddle them with their previous debt we’re not going to have that.”

Norma nodded, admitting that Will’s argument was compelling. Getting such a bill through Congress would be difficult and banks would almost certainly fight back hard, but she knew his point was valid. She sighed, paused, then said, “We’re going to need to plan funerals, and they’re going to be touchy.”

“The whole nation is going to be in mourning,” Roger said grimly. “At this point, we don’t even have a grasp of how severe the loss is, but we know it’s significant.”

Katy leaned on the table and drew abstract patterns with her finger. “I think the state funerals are highly symbolic. The nation has suffered a very deep and personal loss. It’s not about whether anyone liked or didn’t like President Blackstone or Vice President Abernathy. Those two funerals become representative of every person who has died today. This isn’t just about patriotism and fallen leaders, this is personal. We’re mourning our own lives, our lifestyle, and all the people connected to them. We can’t make either funeral celebrations of the persons, they have to be the focal point for the mourning of a country.”

The emotion behind realizing how humongous the loss was, became clear as she talked and a tear rolled down Katy’s cheek. Norma reached over and took Katy’s hand. “Where we mourn can also become a point for healing to begin,” the President said. “We may have to rewrite some protocol here as well. I have a feeling we’re going to be writing new protocols just about everywhere over the next several days. I’m so completely overwhelmed by the size of this challenge I hardly know where to begin. We get food and water, get electricity restored, and then we plan state funerals that mourn the passing of an old country and the beginning of a new era, with a pledge to rebuild stronger, better, and more equal than ever before.”

Will smiled. “You sound like you’re already running for re-election, Madam President.”

Norma glanced at Katy and winked, then said to Will, “If we do a good job, the people won’t give us any choice but to run will they?”

The conversation at the table had caused the interns and aides to stir, most of them sitting up and taking notice at talk of the President running for election. Some stood and stretched, others tried twisting the kinks out of their compressed spines.

Roger looked up at the ceiling and then at the door. “You know, I’ve not heard or felt anything in a couple of hours now. Perhaps its time to break the seal on the door.”

Will cocked his head to the side and tried to listen for any sound then remembered where they were and realized any sound he heard down here would have to be significantly large. “We’re in a subbasement,” Will said. “You don’t think the room is going to fill with water if you open the door?”

“Meh, maybe a little,” Roger admitted, “but draining was built into the design. It’s not fast, and not designed to be complete, but there should only be a few inches of water, not a few feet.”

“What do you think, Madam President?” Will asked, catching Norma slightly off guard. 

Norma looked around the room at the young faces eagerly awaiting her response. None of them were excited. They were scared and anxious, unsure of what might happen next, of what they would find on the outside. “Okay,” she said, attempting to smooth the wrinkles from her suit jacket, “let’s give it a try. We can’t move forward if all we do is sit on our asses.” 

Norma stood and everyone else in the room immediately stood along with her. “Go ahead, Roger, lead the way.”

Killer Reality

Across East Executive Avenue from the White House, the secure basement of the Treasury building was in the dark. Generators powering the basement had failed in the middle of the night, not only leaving them without any light, but also opening the magnetic locks on the cells holding those the Secret Service had been questioning. Agents standing near the door knew this meant they would be mixing with everyone else in the basement and that, with only a couple of notable exceptions, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

No one was in any hurry to leave, though. As the lights went out, the basement shook. Unlike the White House, the whole basement wasn’t soundproof. Only interrogation rooms had been outfitted with that option. There was little question as to how serious the storm was above them. Massive claps of thunder repeatedly shook the ground. Sounds of metal bending and screaming were eery and frightening. Not everyone in the room was convinced that it was as secure as claimed and expected the ceiling to be removed at any moment.

Hours passed. Conversations dwindled. People went from standing around anxiously to sitting on the floor, huddled together like so many small children during an active shooter drill. Some made new friends. A couple of new romances blossomed. In the dark, however, most preferred to stay where they were, keep to themselves, and wait, hoping that the storm wouldn’t last forever, which it seemed to be doing. 

Time ceased having any meeting. No one’s cell phone had any remaining power. Battery-powered smartwatches had died. More traditional digital watches had stopped working when the test failed. The few older people who still had analog watches couldn’t see them in the dark. The sounds of the storm rolled through in waves, taking time with them. Just as it seemed as though there might be an end, another burst of thunder and wind would arrive.

Those whose nature was to investigate everything noticed that with each iteration, the sounds of metal, glass, and concrete being ripped and broken diminished. By the time the last burst of fury passed, only the storm was heard. Agents and others took this to mean that there was little if any building left above them. Had they been able to see who they were talking to, perhaps they would have come up with a plan for what to do when the door was finally open. They couldn’t, though, and Treasury employees were inherently suspicious of things that were not obvious. 

Only after the silence had persisted for what felt like a second eternity did the Secret Service agents finally decide to risk opening the door. Their plan wasn’t complicated. Two would stand at the bottom of the stairs to make sure the departure remained orderly. The other two would stand at the top and try to identify those who were being held for criminal investigation and detain them, though they were unsure exactly where they would be detained.

The most senior agent made the announcement everyone had wanted to hear. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to begin the departure process. There are three sets of doors to be opened. Please stay where you are until all the doors are checked and we are certain that it is safe to leave this facility.”

There were a few cheers, but most of the response was concerned with whether it was actually safe to leave. Were the storms over or was this just an eye-of-the-hurricane type of intermission? They all stood, talking with whoever was close, waiting to see what would happen next.

Agents warned those closest to them that there might be water on the other side of the door. Those closest tried to move back but the pressure of those behind them allowed little space for retreat. 

The first door opened to more darkness. The barriers had held and the stairs were dry. When the second door was opened, however, gathered water rushed down the stairs and across the basement floor, catching many by surprise. There wasn’t a lot of water, just enough to soak everyone’s shoes, eliciting grumbles from those who had paid too much for footwear that could do nothing to help them at the moment.

What the agents opening the door saw was something more bothersome. The third door wasn’t there. After the second door, nothing was above them but a menacingly gray sky. Strange odors of distressed metals and petroleum products and burnt rubber filled the air chilled by a stiff wind that had nothing to challenge its movement. Feeling a sense of unease, both agents drew their service weapons, not having any idea who or what to expect as they emerged from the basement. As they climbed above the base floor, the scene before them was so horrific that they rushed back down the stairs. Agents whispered quietly among themselves and then gave everyone else a fearful warning.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to go ahead an let those who wish to leave to do so. However, be aware that there is nothing remaining above us. The Treasury building is gone. The Assets Regulatory Board is gone. All the shops and restaurants across 15th street are gone.” He paused a moment, not sure how the crowd would respond to the next statement. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he started, a lump in his throat making it difficult to speak as he tried to hold back his own emotion. “The White House is gone.”

Across the basement, there were screams and cries of disbelief. Under no reasonable circumstances would anyone have believed that the entire White House would be wiped off the planet, but it had.

The agent continued, “Obviously, we don’t know if the President or any of the White House staff survived. We know there was secure space available and assume that they utilized that space sufficiently.” He took a deep breath, wiping the tears from his eyes. “If you wish to leave, you are free to do so. If you wish to go up the stairs and look around then return, you are free to do so. The Secret Service agents will remain here, on duty, until we are relieved by the appropriate authority. This is a safe space and at this point, we don’t know how many places remained intact. You are free to return here at any time until authorities determine otherwise. If you choose to exit, please use extreme caution. Assume that everything you see is contaminated. Don’t touch metals or glass, especially, if you can avoid it. You are free to go.”

The survivors debated among themselves whether it made any sense to leave the basement or not. Many sat on the wet floor and cried. Knowing that everything, including the White House, had been destroyed brought a level of devastation both physical and emotional. Realization of so many hundreds of lives lost, friends and family whose existence was now brought into question, left several to weak to move.

Those who did choose to explore the outside could not have imagined the post-apocalyptic scene that awaited them at the top of the stairs. Even before they completely emerged from the basement it was obvious that the landscape had been virtually wiped clean of any reliable structure. For as far as anyone could see in any direction there was nothing but rubble and waste and flooding. 

The White House grounds were littered with pieces of metal and wood, sheetrock and insulation, crushed blocks of marble and mangled remains of statues from all over the city that had been picked up and randomly deposited on the once-pristine grounds. To their south, the White House Visitor Center, the Commerce Department Child Development Center and, most ironically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were all gone.

In the back cell at the rear of the basement, Tasha took Gloria’s hand. “Come on,” she whispered, “We many not escape but I have to have a look.”

“They’re not going to let you go,” Gloria warned. “Of all the people here, you’re the most recognizable.”

“I know,” the former first lady said, “but I have to see this for myself. The White House is the most secure building in the world. I can’t believe that the entire thing is gone.”

The two women slipped out the cell door and started toward the stairs. Ann, Tracy, Charlotte, and the two wired Secret Service agents waited a few seconds and then followed. While none of them expected the two agents at the top of the stairs to willingly let them leave, no one was willing to trust what either of the women might do.

Tasha paid no attention to who was behind her as she climbed the stairs. She didn’t really care at this point. Spending hours in the darkness listening to the storms above them had shaken her resolve. Had agents been able to interrogate her at that moment, she likely would have confessed to everything she had done and possibly even some things she hadn’t. She was feeling more frightened and desperate than at any other time in her life.

She didn’t want to believe the tale the agent had told. Tasha couldn’t conceive of a city that had been laid bare after it had been built of limestone and marble reinforced by concrete and steel. She was convinced that the agent was exaggerating and only seeing for herself would convince her otherwise.

None of the women could have been prepared for what they saw as they emerged from the stairwell. The two agents immediately recognized Tasha and stood to block her exit, but she never made it that far. As soon as her head cleared floor level, she was able to see that, if anything, the agents had understated the extent of destruction across the city. Not only was the White House gone, so was the even larger Eisenhower Executive Office Building and all the federal buildings and moments beyond that. There was nothing standing between them and the horizon. 

The sight was more than Tasha could stand. She covered her face with her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. Gloria put her arms on Tasha’s shoulders, attempting to comfort her while still trying to accept the reality for herself. Grief-stricken, Tasha collapsed, falling backward against Gloria. The attorney wasn’t prepared to balance bother herself and Tasha’s weight on the stairs and they both began to fall, tumbling into the women behind them, Ann and Tracy caught Gloria and helped her back to her feet. Gloria recognized Ann and instinctively knew that nothing they had said in the basement was secret. 

Charlotte and the two wired agents thought they had Tasha. They stopped her roll and were in the process of helping her to stand back up. Tasha recognized Charlotte and was startled, causing her to slip on the wet concrete. As Tasha slipped, one of the agents lost her footing, causing her to let go. The former first lady began to tumble again. This time, there was no one behind her to stop her fall. She hit the landing with a thud and didn’t move.

Of course, everyone rushed to Tasha’s aid. Personal animosities aside, none of the persons assembled wanted her to die. They would have much rather she lived to explain things and then be put to trial for her crimes. There was nothing they could do. Tasha’s neck had snapped on the third step down. The remained of the fall only added cuts and bruises that would have looked horrible had there been anyone with a camera to record the scene. There wasn’t. Tasha Blackstone was as dead as her husband. 

Word quickly spread through the basement that the former First Lady had died from the shock of the devastation, which, in part, was true even if it was a little more forgiving than what she deserved. In moments like this, there are few bad guys. Human nature leads us to look for the redeemable qualities of a person’s life once that life has ended and those redeemable qualities no longer really matter. No one wants to speak ill of the dead even if ill was all there ever was.

In the confusion and melee that followed, Gloria slipped away. Ann might have seen her but if she did she didn’t care. The Secret Service Agents might have known what was happening but they were not immune to the emotions any more than any other person who spent the night in the dark basement. There was no one who cared about anything other than the death of Tasha Blackstone. 

In that moment, leaving the basement hardly seemed like an intelligent choice. Those who remained chose to stay until a more stable situation presented itself. 


Marine Staff Seargent Gary Willis and Corporal Patrick Wu were in the front seat leading a 20-member search and rescue team. They were soaked, muddy, and each would have sold the other for a reasonably fresh cup of coffee. Orders had come down the night before to head toward a set of top-secret coordinates in the middle of Virginia. Finding enough operational vehicles to carry the team had been the first challenge. Batteries had to be replaced. Radios still weren’t working so team members had to be quickly trained in the use of hand signals normally reserved for combat situations. Vehicles were loaded with emergency medical supplies, food, and fresh water, in addition to ropes and pulleys and climbing gear.

From the outset, the team’s orders were limited to rescue operations, not recovery. That they would find deceased remains was a given and appropriate protective gear was issue to avoid contact with possibly contaminated human tissue. Emphasis was on rescuing human personnel. No equipment or data was to be removed from the site. This was going to be an emotionally difficult trip, so a mental health professional was added to the team.

They were all set to leave when the first wave of the storm hit. As secure as the Marine Corps base at Quantico was, it was no match for the severity of storms coming at them from both east and west. Everything above ground was flattened. Thousands of lives were lost. The impulse of the team was to stay and help with rescue and recovery there or in the area. The acting base commander was emphatic, however, that they follow orders. He expressed urgency that any remaining personnel at the location be extracted as quickly as possible. To underscore the important, the General added that their rescue was a matter of “grave national security.” They were to bring back whoever they could find, no matter what.

Making their way westward across Virginia had been an experience not covered by any of their training. Entire towns had been flattened. Huge chunks of roads were missing. Bridges were out. Flooding was severe and frequent. The area was still battered with hurricane-force winds from the east and tornadoes circling the regions from the west. With each challenge, the team would take shelter, weather the storm, repair damage to their vehicles, and move forward.

By the time they reached what calculations said was supposed to be their destination, daylight was creeping over the horizon. There still was no sun but even cloudy light was better than none at all. Corporal Wu checked his map and calculations a second and third time, then had them checked by another team member. All the math said they were where they were supposed to be. The problem was that there was nothing here but a field littered with every manner of debris imaginable. Even team members with front line experience admitted they had never witnessed such complete ruin.

Sgt. Willis ordered the team to dismount and divided them into four groups. They had barely started, though, when a severed arm was found. They quickly returned to put on HazMat suits and re-started their search for anyone still living. Their expectations were low.

Perry had fallen asleep as the rain had stopped. His voice was hoarse from yelling. The only parts of his body that didn’t hurt were the parts he couldn’t feel at all. When he heard the unmistakable whine of HumVee engines, though, he sat up and started looking. He was surprised that anyone had come for them. He was surprised that anyone had survived to be able to come for them.

Perry assumed that any coordinates a rescue team was using had taken them not toward the bunker but the gate nearest the Marine facility. That had always been the coordinates used to identify the area. Starting there, using that point as the center, they would work slowly outward, addressing situations as they came to them. They would have no expectations for how many survivors they might find so they would have to move slowly. The team was just over a mile away from him and lying on the ground would make him difficult to see until they were almost on top of him. Still, he had heard them arrive. Someone was here. For the first time in almost 24 hours, he had hope.

Corporal Wu was heading the team heading due west from what had once been the front gate. They stepped carefully, trying to make sure they didn’t accidentally step on human remains that would later, possibly, need to be identified. Already on this trip, they had observed so much death and destruction he couldn’t imagine how any meaningful identification of the strewn bodies could ever take place. Still, out of respect for the lost humanity if nothing else, they needed to be careful. Each step was considered before it was taken. Eyes carefully searched what was immediately around them before looking at the broader landscape. 

The team had been walking slowly for over an hour when Perry saw them. He sat up as far as he could and yelled with everything left in his voice, “Help! Man down! On your two!” he cried, trying to give what had to be a military search team some direction. He repeated his call a second and third time, then, exhausted, leaned back to catch his breath.

Patrick heard the yell and picked up on the directional help. He looked where he thought the yell had originated but by that point, Perry had leaned back and Patrick couldn’t see him. Still, he knew that someone was there and motioned for his team to move to their right. They looked carefully, still stepping with precision to avoid error.

Perry set up and yelled again, finding a little more force to his voice. This time, the entire team heard the call and could see Perry’s outline in front of them. They quickened their pace as they headed toward him.

The ten minutes it took the team to reach Pery felt more like an hour. He desperately wanted to move toward them but at this point could barely find the strength to sit up. By the time the team reached him, there was no holding back the emotion and tears filled his eyes. “I wasn’t sure anyone was going to come,” Perry told the team as they knelt down to check on him. “We’ve been compromised. The nation’s under attack.”

“Yes, sir,” Patrick said through the HazMat cover. “We have orders to get you back to Washington as quickly as possible. Are you aware of any other survivors in the area?”

Perry shook his head. I’ve not heard anyone else since the storm passed.”

The team unfolded a compact stretcher and carefully lifted Perry onto it then began the slow trip back to the vehicles. As it would turn out, there were three other survivors, two analysts and a Marine private who had, as miraculously as Perry, someone managed to not be blown away by the storms. 

Sgt. Willis warned the survivors that the trip back was going to be difficult, aided somewhat by the fact that it was daylight, but still with the challenges of crossing flooded rivers and streams and deep chasms where roads once were. The ride was not going to be quick or smooth. When Perry asked about the possibility of a helicopter extraction, the sergeant shook his head. What few aircraft were available were out on other missions. 

Perhaps, under different circumstances, Perry might have complained. He might even have tried to pull rank and order the deployment himself. But right now, at this particular moment, Perry didn’t care. No matter what happened next, he was one of the lucky ones. He had survived. He lied back on the cot with tears in his eyes, grateful to be alive, heartbroken over the thousands who weren’t. 

Starting Over From Scratch

Roger and Will had insisted on going first. Roger had been correct that the rush of water into the SitRoom would be minimal. Still, there were dead bodies and incredible destruction between them and any safe way out of the subbasement. A couple of overly eager male interns joined them in clearing a path that would be safe for the president and everyone else. Along the way, they found others who had survived hiding in closets and small rooms with heavy walls. They were all relieved to know they were not alone.

The view on the surface, however, brought everyone to tears. They knew it had been bad, but Norma looked at what should have been the East Wing of the White House and was engulfed by a wave of grief she had never known possible. She had lost family members before, including her parents, but the enormity of this disaster put any personal loss to pale. There was nothing here but rubble. One of the noblest and important pieces of architecture was gone, completely demolished. She looked to the west and saw nothing between her and the horizon. Looking Southeast, she hoped to at least see the dome of the Capitol Building, but there was nothing. Not even a random tree.

As the group stood stunned by the view, some began to cry, others collapsed to the floor in silence. All the movies about nuclear destruction and post-apocalyptic life had gotten it wrong. There was nothing left. There would be no looting, no creative re-engineering of burned-out vehicles, no appropriating of weapons. Civilization hadn’t been the victim. This was the mass extinction climate scientists had warned about for the past 50 years. 

After what seemed like an eternity of silence, Norma finally said, “Okay, folks, this is a new day, a new game, and a new country. For all we’ve lost, and we’ve obviously lost more than any generation before us, we’re still here. This is still the United States of America. I’m still President and I’m officially making each of you part of my administration. We’ll worry about who plugs in where later, but this is like re-booting the entire country. We still have the Constitution as our operating system, but we’ve been given the opportunity and the responsibility to build on that and make everything better.”

“True equality under the law,” said one intern.

“No person is valued more or less than any other,” said another. 

“No institutionalized hate,” offered a third.

Will sighed. “There’s so much to do. Where do you want to start, Madam President?”

Norma looked around once more, taking in the horrendous enormity of the calamity, deprivation, and waste. “I think we start by declaring this hallowed ground, a symbol of what was, of the sacrifice and determination that brought us this far.” She paused a moment then, added, “Then we find a better place to rebuild. Perhaps somewhere more in the center of the country. This isn’t 13 little colonies fighting for independence. This is a great and mighty nation that stretches from coast to coast. We need to lead from the center, I think. The new capital needs to truly be a place for everyone, not just the elite.”

Where To Go From Here

Adrian Campbell and Roger Mukaski went through the night in the basement of Old Ebbitt Grill without more than a dozen words passing between them. Staff chatted amongst themselves at first while managers tried to keep everyone calm with bottles of wine they had brought down with them. No one had expected they would be there all night. The three other patrons that joined them were obviously federal employees, one of them still wearing his state department credentials around his neck. Neither Roger nor Adrian recognized them, though everyone knew who Roger was, or had been. 

For the moment, the information blackout worked in Roger’s favor. Only he and Adrian knew that President Blackstone was dead, that there had been a conspiracy involving the First Lady, or any of the other chaos from the day. Roger was okay with that. The truth would come out soon enough and when it did there would be people wanting answers. Roger didn’t especially want to be around when that happened.

The small generator that had lit a single lightbulb in the basement didn’t last long enough to finish the wine and no one felt especially safe drinking in the dark. Some slept, as was made obvious by their snoring. Most sat their quietly in their own thoughts, worrying about family and friends, whether they’d have a job the next day, or if the restaurant would still be operational the next morning. 

Unlike others across the city, though, who waited to make sure it was safe before emerging from their places of safety, Adrian and Roger were anxious to leave the moment the ground stopped shaking. Light rain still dampened the air and daylight tentatively peeked above the horizon as they came out of the basement and observed the same carnage others would experience several minutes later. While those around them cried over obvious loss, the two men quietly walked away, heading South on 15th street, past Treasury, in view of the White House and the Eisenhower Building. Neither said anything for several minutes as they each considered the monumental elimination of the city.

As they reached what had been the entrance to Pershing Park, Adrian asked, “So, where do you go from here?”

Roger stopped and considered the question for a moment. He had no job, everything he’d had in the White House was now scattered all over Virginia and Maryland, and he instinctively knew that his brownstone and everything in it was gone as well. “I don’t really know,” he said. “I suppose I should stick around and see if my wife or either of my daughters survived. I’m not especially hopeful on that front, though. I mean, look around, Adrian. We got lucky. Most people didn’t. You and I both know there’s not going to be an investigation now. Any evidence has been blown to bits. Witnesses are likely dead. And honestly, for all those who walk out to see this mess, who’s going to care? Survival is going to be the only thing on anyone’s mind.”

“So, do you stay around and help rebuild or do you disappear, maybe change your name, and start over somewhere else?” Adrian asked, then added, “Asking for a friend.”

Roger chuckled at the social media trope. “Tough question, isn’t it?” he replied. “Do you stay and help rebuild, maybe influence things so that we don’t make the same mistakes again, or do you enjoy the anonymity of being just another face of someone who lost everything? I’m not sure I’m ready to answer that question.” He paused then asked, “What about you?”

Adrian shoved his hands deep into his pockets and kicked at a piece of limestone from some unknown monument. “My first challenge is deciding whether I give a damn anymore. My wife left years ago, said the stress of my job was too much for her. Never had any kids, no siblings, parents are gone. So, what do I have left? I have a gun and five bullets. That’s pretty much it.

Roger immediately caught the anomaly. “Wait, I thought you guys carried nine-round clips.”

Adrian smiled and turned back to where the White House had been. “Let’s just say there was a traitor who needed those bullets more than I did.”

Roger knew better than to press the matter any further. He smiled, patted Adrian on the back and said, “Thank you for serving your country.”

Silence passed between them as they wandered through the detritus of downed trees and construction rubble and random body parts. As they crossed the street toward where the White House Visitor’s Center had been Adrian sniffed the air and remarked, “It stinks more than usual down here.”

Roger stopped, sniffed the air, and looked around. “I don’t think that’s going to improve any time soon. All the death that is here now, bodies decomposing, lord knows what kind of chemicals have been released. It’s definitely going to get worse.” He looked around. “You know, I’m heading in the opposite direction of where my home was.”

Adrian turned around and looked at the former chief of staff. “Maybe your mind has made the decision so your heart wouldn’t have to.”

Roger looked at the ground around him and shrugged. “Never in my life have I taken the easy way out. Seems rather ridiculous to do so now. Who knows, maybe she survived. Maybe they all survived. And even if they didn’t, maybe there’s someone who needs me.”

Adrian shook his head. “I’ve had enough. I’m not sure even a storm of this magnitude changes human nature any. There will still be those who want to grab all the power There are still going to be those who want all the money. Humans are fallible and I’m rather over being the person who is supposed to take a bullet for the worst of them.” He paused. “I’m heading toward the Potomac, see what’s on the other side.”

Roger held out his hand and smiled at Adrian’s firm grip. “Good luck out here,” he said. “And if I ever see you again, I don’t know a thing.”

Adrian smiled back. “Neither do I.”

One More Battle

By the time daylight crept slowly around the corners of the slowly dilapidating apartment building, Amber knew what was coming and what she would have to do to stop it. The next couple of hours wasn’t going to be easy. Everyone inside still thought Hannah was sleeping and breaking that news to Gloria wasn’t going to be the highlight of anyone’s day. There wouldn’t be time to properly grieve, though. Patrons of death were coming straight at them. They didn’t know yet that the group existed, but they wouldn’t pass without wanting to explore the building, looking for food and weapons as they had done at every other partial structure they had encountered through the night.

Stepping to the door, Amber looked to see who was still awake. She motioned for Natalie, Reesie, and Adam to join her on the balcony, shutting the glass door behind them to reduce the chance of being heard. She spoke softly as they gathered around her. “We’ve got a couple of challenges this morning and one of them may be more dangerous than anything we experienced yesterday,” she said. “First off, Hannah passed during the night. It was peaceful, she was content, but Gloria’s going to need time and space to grieve.”

“Let me handle it,” Natalie said. “I’ll pull her and Toma into the side bedroom and let them cry it out.”

“What do we do with the body?” Reesie asked. “It’s kinda creepy just leaving her like that.”

“Perhaps we move her to the side bedroom as well,” Adam offered.

Amber shook her head in agreement. “That’s about all we can do because we’ve got bigger problems heading our way.”

“What do you mean?” Reesie asked. “I’m not sure I have anything left to handle another day like yesterday.”

“Looters,” Amber said, “And they have guns and they don’t mind using them. I’ve been listening to them whoop and yell for a while now. They’re not moving fast, but from what I can tell they’re taking what they want and not being terribly kind about it.”

For Natalie and Adam, this was not good news, but Reesie didn’t seem surprised. “The only surprise here is that it’s taking them so long,” she said. “I’d bet its part of that gang that’s been robbing stores along 86th street the past few months. They’re crackheads and metal freaks who go around talking about overthrowing the deep state and shit like that. I bet they’re loving this whole mess.”

“I’ve heard of them,” Natalie said. “Didn’t they try moving in down here a few times?”

Ressie nodded her head. “Yeah, about four months ago. They didn’t account for the fact store owners down here carry guns and know how to use them. They backed off after they lost a few people. You know they’re going to be looking for revenge down here.”
“Damnit, my guns would be at home, or where home use to be,” Adam said. “What do we do? Think we can be quiet and they’ll just go away?”

“Not a chance,” Reesie said.

Amber nodded in agreement. “We have to run them off before they get here. Make them waste their ammunition shooting at nothing, then do our best to dump them in the water before they start up the stairs.”

Natalie looked justifiably frightened. This was sounding too much like a bad movie plot, one where everyone except the hero died. “This sounds a little too incredible,” she said. “We haven’t even seen them yet. What if they have like assault rifles and military-style shit? How are we supposed to fight against that?”

Amber put her arm around Natalie’s shoulder. “You’re a college girl, how much do you remember about the properties of sodium?”

Natalie shrugged. “It’s one of the most common elements on earth, necessary for life …”

“And … “ Amber prompted.

Natalie thought for a moment before it dawned on her. “And it responds violently to water! But where would we get any?”

“There just happens to be a box of it under the counter across from the sink,” Amber said. “I found it when we were looking for food. It’s medical-grade metal so I assume whoever lived here was either on dialysis or administered it in some way. That’s the only non-criminal explanation for having that much of it. Either that, or we had terrorists in the building.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Adam admitted. “We’re going to throw salt at them?”

The three women laughed and Adam blushed at being the ignorant one of the group.

“This isn’t sodium chloride,” Amber explained. “This is a variant that has been turned into soft metal, a very unstable metal. So unstable, that it doesn’t naturally occur in this form in nature. It would blow up. It’s a great heat transfer method for nuclear medicine, though, especially dialysis. One just has to be careful handling it.”

“So, how are you thinking we use it?” Reesie asked.

Amber paused a moment as she thought she heard a noise behind them. She looked over the edge of the railing to make sure there was no one below them before saying anything. “There’s a fire escape at this end of the building. It’s not exactly the easiest thing to use as it requires climbing over the porch-side railing to get to it. However, when they build it, they made it go all the way tot he roof as well so they could do maintenance on all the colling unites up there. I’m thinking we carefully take the box to the roof and set the water on fire.”

“Holy shit!” Reesie exclaimed. “You don’t think it will set the building on fire?”

Natalie shook her head. “There’s no exposed wood that would burn,” she said. “And even if there was, it would have to catch quickly. The water isn’t actually burning, it’s the gasses in the air around it. If you were to drop some into a sink, for example, it would only burn for a few seconds, b not even long enough to roast a marshmallow.”

“Of course, too much of it would blow a hole in the sink,” Amber added. 

“And we’re going to give them too much of it, I assume,” Adam said. 

Amber smiled at him. 

“You knew,” he said quietly. “No one here is on Dialysis, you knew and you hid the sodium up here because you knew whoever lived here wouldn’t bother it. How long ago?”

“Two years,” she said calmly. “It’s been building for a while, I just didn’t know when or how it would all blow. Carlson knew. He tried to warn people but no one would listen. We’ve been prepared for a few years.”

Natalie looked at Reesie then said, “Wait, you knew all this was going to happen? How did you not warn people? How many people died today because you didn’t say anything?”

“We’ve been saying something for the past 30 years,” Amber said. “The way the planet has been treated made this day inevitable. However, the company Carlson worked for sped it up by about 20 years. And don’t be mad at him. He tried. He almost got arrested trying to get his bosses’ attention yesterday.”

“That’s what that whole car rental thing was about?” Reesie asked. “He walked in fuming about that this morning.”

“Exactly, not that I’m defending the point where he stepped over the line and broke that poor girl’s nose,” Amber replied. 

Natalie looked out over the railing. “A broken nose compared to the near-extinction of humanity hardly seems of consequence now.” She listened to the wind and looked up toward darkening clouds. Turning around, she asked, “Okay, so this is where we’re at. Looks like another storm is coming in. How do we handle this?”

“In teams,” Amber answered. “First, Adam, you take Barry, Amanda, Gloria, Gwen, Miranda, and Cam to the back bedroom. Lock the door and do your best to keep them quiet, especially Roscoe. You’re not in as much danger is no one knows you’re there.”

She turned and looked at Reesie. “You, Carlson, and Toma join me on the roof. You all have the best arms and can hurl the sodium well away from the building. We can’t risk any of the explosions getting too close The building’s already shaky. A big blast too close could bring the whole thing down. We have to keep them as far away from us as possible.”

“What about me and Darryll?” Natalie asked.

Amber looked at her sternly. “I need you to be badass. We’re going to try and knock these idiots out of their boats. Some of the boats will sink, but with any luck, at least a couple of them will still be usable. We’re going to need a way to escape when we’re done. We’ve got to get everyone out of here and to safety. I need you and Darryll to go to the bottom floor, wade in the water, and try to secure at least two of those boats, even if they’re just rafts. This is critical. Do you think you can handle it?”

Natalie looked nervous. The last thing she wanted to do was wade through the water again, but she understood the danger. There was no way the building was going to last much longer. They needed to get away. “Yeah, we can do it,” she said.

The group went back into the apartment knowing the next several minutes would not be pleasant. There wasn’t time for Gloria to mourn her grandmother sufficiently and the idea of needing to leave her body behind made her angry. She yelled. She screamed. She cried in Toma’s arms. 

Cam ran to Reesie, scared both by the site of Hannah’s dead body and the instructions they were being given to hide. Reesie assured the girl that she would be okay in the back bedroom with Adam and promised to come and get her as soon as the looters were eliminated.

“Were going to do what?” Darryl asked when Natalie told him their assignment. “First you tell me we have looters with guns coming right at us and then you want me to get in the water and steal their boats? I’m sorry, that sounds like a whole lot of crazy.”

Natalie wasn’t having any of his attitude. “Do you have a better idea, mister know-it-all?” she challenged. “You’re all the time cutting down everyone else’s plans but you never have a decent idea of your own. You pick and you sigh and you groan and roll your goddam eyes at everything anyone else suggests, especially if that anyone else is me. I’m tired of your bullshit, Darryll. This is an emergency. Either get your shit together or go hide under the bed.”

Miranda walked up and put her hand on Natalie’s shoulder, hoping to help her calm down. Natalie turned around quickly and yelled, “What the fuck do you want?” then, in a moment of passionate impulse, kissed Miranda hard and long. “You go to the bedroom with Adam and stay safe. We have some talking to do when this is over.”

Miranda blinked hard from being caught off guard, then took Natalie’s face in her hands and returned the kiss. “Don’t you go drowning or anything on me.”

Darryll’s face burned with embarrassment. Everyone in the room had just witnessed him being dumped and yet he still had to work with Natalie to keep everyone safe. “Fine, he said, trying to keep his emotions in check. “I’ll just …”

“No,” Adam interrupted, “I don’t think that works. “ He looked at Amber. “I’ll go help Natalie. I think I still know a thing or two about boats anyway,” he said. “Perhaps Darryll can help you up top.”

“I need someone to keep things calm in here, though,” Amber objected.

Amanda cleared her throat loudly. “Excuse me, Mom here. I’ve got this. You guys go get rid of the looters before they have a chance to sneak up on us.” She turned to Gloria and Toma. “C’mon, let’s take our tears to the back room, okay?” 

Amber looked around the room. “Okay everyone, let’s get this done. Reesie, help me with the box?”

There wasn’t a lot of chatter as everyone moved toward their new assignment. Getting the box of sodium to the roof proved to be a bit more challenging than expected as there was only room for one person at a time on the ladder. Natalie and Adam cautiously made their way downstairs and waded carefully into the cold water. The current wasn’t as strong as it had been, but there was still plenty of debris to avoid. Amanda gathered the others in the back bedroom, thinking to grab a jar of peanut butter for Roscoe as they went.

Amber took a lookout position on top of one of the cooling units. From there, she could see anything that might be coming at them from any direction.  Dark clouds boiled overhead and she knew it wasn’t merely rain and wind they were holding. She shivered. She had fought a lot of people and a lot of things but this felt different. There was more at risk than anyone could imagine. She knew that to fail would dramatically alter the course of humanity. 

The instant Amber caught sight of the first boat coming over the horizon, she jumped down from the air conditioner and warned the others to take cover. “We don’t want them to know how many of us there are,” she said. “We work in waves. Carlson, Toma, and myself through first. We fall back and then Darryll and Reesie take a shot. Try to get as close to the side of the boats as you can without actually hitting them. The sodium has to hit water to have any effect. At the same time, if there’s water in the boat, it could destroy the whole boat and we need at least two of them to carry us all out of here safely.”

“What kind of boats are we talking about?” Toma asked. “Are they like rafts or canoes or what?”

“Fishing boats and such,” Amber said. “Whatever they could steal from the marina I suppose. Not anything too large or it was scrape bottom too often.”

“Unless they found a pontoon,” Darryll said. “There’s that sunset tour place on the East side of the lake. If they got to those boats, it could be tough to tip them over or anything.”

Carlson looked out at the water as the wind began to whip up small white caps. “What happens if it starts raining?” he asked. “We’ve got that whole box of sodium up here with us.”

Amber looked at the box then back up at the dark sky. “I don’t think that’s rain,” she said, but you’re right, we should take precaution. She thought for a moment and said, “Okay, change of plan. We work two and two. Carlson, you’re with me, Reesie, you’re with Toma. Darryll, you hand off the sodium. Keep the box under one of these units and when a team falls back you load them up.” She paused and looked up at the sky then added, “And let’s all hope I’m right about those clouds.”

As if prompted, thunder rumbled above them. As the echo died down, they could hear the whoops of the looters as they approached. Amber motioned for them to remain quiet as the boats approached. She and Carlson took position at the end of the building and waited. Carlson carefully weighed the sodium in his hand, looking for the grip that would give him the maximum distance to his throw. Amber counted the number of boats. She raised her hands to let the others know there were six craft coming at them. The first three were flat-bottomed fishing boats. Those would be easy enough to tip without severely damaging them, but they couldn’t hold more than four people each. Two 20-foot sporting boats with outboard motors followed them and, sure enough, a 27-foot pontoon boat with at least eight people on it was bringing up the rear.

“Hey, look!” one of the looters yelled. “There’s part of an apartment building still standing! Let’s see what they’ve got!”

The others yelled and whooped in response. Someone fired a gun into the air.

Amber and Carlson looked at each other as they waited for the boats to move within striking distance. The boats were about 70 yards away when lightning lit up the sky with a massive boom.

“NOW!” Amber yelled and she stood up and hurled the sodium at the lead boat, landing it just off the starboard bow. Carlson’s throw landed a little further back between two boats. Both explosions were strong enough to tip the two boats, dumping their occupants into the water.

The looters were caught off guard and hadn’t had time to recover when Reesie and Toma made their throws, both of which landed about ten feet behind the first two. The third flat bottomed boat tipped, the current shoving it out of reach as it glided toward the apartment building.

Standing in the water, hiding carefully behind the corner of the building. Adam and Natalie watched as the small boat scooted toward them. Adam crouched down so that his eyes were barely above the surface, eased out away from the building, and grabbed hold of the boat’s tie line, pulling it back to the building. He tied it to the railing on the stairwell so it couldn’t escape. “That’s one,” he said smiling.

The looters in the front boats gave up on trying to get back into their own boats and climbed into the larger sporting boats behind them. These weren’t going to be as easy to upset. Amber motioned for Reesie and Toma to be ready. Amber and Carlson threw together, the blast from the sodium ripping the ladder off the boat, killing two of the looters. Reesie and Toma threw into the same spot, isolating the boat from the others. When Amber and Carlson threw again, it heaved heavily to port, dumping its remaining crew. Reesie and Toma followed up to make sure no one would be climbing onto another boat.

Adam and Natalie crept out together to snag the empty boat, pulling it to the side of the apartment building and tying it off.

The attacks from the top of the apartment building had come quickly and were unexpected but now the looters were starting to shoot back. Amber and Carlson ducked as bullets whizzed past their heads. Reesie, Toma, and Darrell winced as the bullets hit or ricocheted of the cooling units shielding them. Being elevated still helped protect them but the sound was unnerving as relentless volleys of gunfire were aimed their direction. They could tell the boats were getting closer and Amber was especially concerned about what might happen if they made it to the fire escape.

“Let’s try to put some space between the boats,” she shouted above the noise. “You can’t look up while they’re shooting, though. Let me go first then you hit them with two bars.”

Carlson nodded his understanding and watched as Amber quickly toss a couple of bars of sodium between the two boats. The explosion was all the opportunity he needed, tossing a stick near the hull of each boat, causing them to rock away from each other. Two more people fell off the smaller boat. Reesie quickly tossed another bar to eliminate them while Toma dropped one near the front of the pontoon, knocking their shooters off their feet. 

Amber made a quick decision. “Sink the sports boat,” she shouted. Toma and Reesie joined her and Carlson at the corner of the building. All for tossed bars of sodium at the same time. The resulting explosion raised the bow of the boat into the air, causing the stern to rapidly fill with water. Another blast had the boat hull up and sinking quickly. 

They had barely ducked back down when a spray of gunfire sent fragments of concrete scattering just above their heads. Toma and Reesie belly crawled toward Darryll to retrieve more sodium. Darryll raised his head just enough to look at the two women when a piece of shrapnel hit him square in the forehead. Two more pieces hit his shoulder and then pierced his spine. He dropped onto the black tar paper that covered the roof, his eyes open but no longer seeing.

Tears stung Reesie’s eyes as she took the sodium and moved carefully back toward the wall. When she made it back she told Amber, “Darryll’s down and he’s not getting back up,” she said. “I was scared when we started, but now I’m just fucking pissed. These fuckers need to die.”

Amber looked at Reesie and could tell that her attitude and motivation had shifted. She’d seen the look before. People fight differently when they’re fighting for a cause versus fighting for self-preservation. Ressie no longer was content to survive. She wanted to win. She wanted to make the looters pay, preferably with their lives. “Stay down, don’t move,” Amber said. She motioned for Carlson to duck lower and then started crawling across the roof. The other three watched as she instinctively moved back and forth in a zig-zag pattern across the roof until she reached the box of sodium. She pushed the box out in front of her and then altered her pathway back so the cooling units could protect the volatile metal. Pieces of bullets and brick fragments peppered the tar paper around her. Amber winced as she felt something hit the back of her left thigh. She moved as quickly as she could across the small distance of roof. 

Amber was beginning to perspire as she pushed the box toward Reesie. “Take this,” she shouted above the gunfire. “My hands are sweaty. You hand them out while I rub my hand in some dirt.”

Reesie pulled the box close, handed two bars to Toma and two to Carlson. Amber was still rubbing dirt on her hands and arms when the three dropped all six bars at the front corner of the pontoon. The boat dipped hard as the reverse corner raised high into the air, dropping two more looters into the water. The trio raised up again to finish them off but were surprised with gunfire from a small boat they hadn’t noticed, peeking out from behind the pontoon. They dove for cover, doing their best to shield themselves from the shrapnel that was bursting in clouds just above their heads.

Amber dove back in close, covered in dirt and looking more like an Amazon warrior on a rampage. There was a fierceness that was frightening as her tense muscles rippled, anxious for action. 

Reesie started handing out more sodium. They were still less than half-way down the box. The bars didn’t need to be large to do a lot of damage. They were packed tight and threw easily. When she tried to hand more to Carlson, though, he didn’t move. She nudged him, not seeing anything wrong. 

Amber moved in close and pulled Carlson away from the wall. His back was soaked in blood. She couldn’t find any evidence of a bullet but the shrapnel from the wall had eventually pierced enough arteries that he had bled out. Amber knew that he had to have been in pain for several minutes but he had never said anything. He kept his focus and continued fighting. She fought back tears as she moved his body out of the way and leaned close into the wall that was quickly disintegrating around them. 

“Four at a time,” Amber yelled. “We’re not losing anyone else!”

Twelve sticks of sodium hit the water at the same time. The blast sent spray fifty feet into the air and shook the apartment building hard enough that  Amber could hear the screams of everyone inside the apartment. Adam and Natalie ducked behind the 20-foot boat as the waves rolled over the bow. Most importantly, the pontoon rolled a full 90 degrees, dumping everyone into the water. 

The looters started swimming, anticipating what was about to happen. Toma and Reesie did not miss their target. The third, though, had escaped around the corner of the building. Unsure whether it was safe yet for them to get up and move.

Natalie and Adam were ready, though. She pushed the flat bottom boat to block his path as Adam took him from behind. Natalie’s fists pummeling the man’s face might not have hurt him all that much given the height advantage he had over her, but it was enough to keep him distracted until Adam achieved enough leverage to break his neck. The looter slipped into the water and floated away.

Natalie stood with her hands on her hips, watching the body disappear into the water. “Wasn’t that the guy who ran the bike shop up on 82nd street?” she asked, not really expecting an answer. “He always was a little bit creepy.”

Adam grabbed the pontoon boat and Natalie helped him tie it off. They exchanged high fives as they finished then turned to head back upstairs.

“Don’t you think someone probably needs to stay with the boats?” Amber asked as she dropped into the water at the end of the building, catching them both off guard.

Natalie rushed forward and wrapped her arms around her. “Thank you!” she said. “I don’t know who you really are or what you really are, but we couldn’t have survived any of this without you!”

Amber held Natalie close for a second, then stepped back, looking the young woman in the eyes. “I’m not going to sugar coat this for you,” she said softly. “Darryll didn’t make it. Neither did Carlson.” 

Natalie stepped back, increasing the distance between them. “Oh no,” she sobbed quietly. “And the last words he heard from me were how wrong he was about everything. I embarrassed him in front of everyone.” The tears came quickly and Natale collapsed into the water. 

Amber picked her up and set her in the flat bottomed boat. “Wait here,” she instructed. “From this point forward, nothing that happened, nothing we said, nothing we did can drag us down. It was all experience preparing us for who we are now and what we are going to be. Just sit still until I get everyone else.”

Natalie nodded, no longer sure what was real nor what to feel. 

“Hey, Adam,” Amber called from the second-floor landing. “I think we can help people onto the boats better from up here, or at least from the stairs. Are they tied off well enough for  you to come up and help?”

“Sure thing,” Adam said as he headed up the stairs. He didn’t want to tell her how weak he was feeling. He needed something to eat, and he needed his medicine. 

Inside the apartment, Reesie and Toma had gathered everyone from the bedroom and they were looking for any food that made sense to carry with them. Amber walked through the open front door, put her hands on her hips and called, “Everyone ready for a new future needs to come with me!” There was a mixture of cheering and laughter as they ran toward the door and down the stairs to the waiting boats.

“Why can’t we all just go on the same boat?” Gloria asked as Adam helped her and Toma onto the 20-foot Bayrunner sporting boat. 

“Because I take up one all on my own,“ Barry teased as he came down behind them. “I assume you all want me on the pontoon boat,” he suggested. 

“Every craft needs ballast,” Amber joked back at him. She then turned to Adam. “I know you’re an old Army grunt, but you think can figure out how pilot that flat slab of fiberglass?”

He chucked. “My dad had one almost exactly like her. This will be like being a teenager again.”

“Then climb aboard, Captain,” Amber told him. “Those explosions shook the mortar look on this place. We don’t have long.”

Amber helped Gwen, Roscoe, and Amanda on to the pontoon, then Reesie and Cam onto the Bayrunner. Life jackets were secured for everyone, something the looters had failed to employ. 

Miranda stood plaintively on the steps, not sure where to go. She looked at Natalie still wiping tears from her eyes. The flat bottom boat looked so small compared to the other two. 

“Hey, Natalie,” Amber called. “I think this might work better if you tie that boat on behind the pontoon then you and  Miranda can help Adam.”

Natalie looked up from the boat and said, “You know, I think it’s okay if you just call me Nat. I know it sounds like a bug, but I’m a pesky little bug who isn’t going away.” 

Miranda and Amber laughed. Natalie hopped out and tied the smaller boat to the back of the pontoon, then climbed up the ladder in the back. “Permission to come aboard, sir!” she called. 

“Permission granted,” Adam called back. 

Amber hopped aboard the Bayliner and checked the controls. “Damn, this thing has nearly two tanks full of fuel! How is that one looking?”

Adam checked the gauges and yelled back, “Pretty much the same here. Why don’t you think they used them?”

“The sound would have alerted people they were coming,” Amber said. “They wanted the element of surprise. Let’s see if they’ll start.”

Within seconds, three outboard motors roared to life. The entire group cheered and as they did the last of the apartment building shifted and splashed down into the water. They all laughed at the timing. They were alive. There were no regrets in that.

Amber walked over to the side of her boat, next to where Adam was standing in the middle of his. She held out a plastic bag full of power bars. “Eat two of these now,” she instructed, “And then another every two hours. We’ll find your medicine soon.”

Adam took the bag and smiled. He walked to the bow and untied it from the railing that now went nowhere. When he returned to the controls, he turned the boat and began to float downstream with Amber right behind him.

The soft sound of the idling motors was all that could be heard for miles. As they sailed away, the skies began to lighten and the clouds began to break up. Slivers of sunlight began to peek through.

High above them, two solemn figures watched with interest. 

“Well, they managed to survive,” one said.

“Somehow they always do,” mused the other.

“Think it will be any better this time around?”

“It could be, I suppose. Anything can happen.”

There was a silence between them that, on earth, would have lasted several days. Finally, the first said, “Maybe this time they’ll learn how to make a decent cup of coffee without burning the roast.”

The other laughed. “You know she’s already designing the coffee shop in her head. She’s thinking of naming it Another Tuesday.”

They both laughed, knowing it would be a hit.

Reading time: 73 min
Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

We’re only two weeks away (I think) from finishing up our story so don’t give up on me now! If you’re just now joining us, though, you’ll want to click here to start from the beginning!

I did have to make an adjustment this week as I realized I left out a critical portion of the story that should have come a week or two earlier in the timeline. So, we’re starting with that and then jumping back to where we left off.

Lost In The Clutter

Long before the storm took its toll on the nation’s capital, Roger Mukaski had resigned himself to the darkest booth in a corner of Old Ebbitt Grill. The Victorian aesthetic with its dark paneling and frescos on the wall made it a perfect place for hiding his disappointment. He had failed. The SUV carrying Rod Hammond had already driven away by the time he reached the portico of the West Wing. He didn’t recognize the special agent in charge but felt no reason to doubt him when he informed Roger that all the Secret Service agents that were on duty that morning were being taken in for additional questioning. That seemed, on the surface, like a perfectly logical response to everything that had happened up to that point.

What Roger knew that the agent didn’t was that Hammond was carrying an extra revolver, one modified to take a noise suppressor. The extra bulge in the back of his suit was visible in the surveillance tapes. He could easily hand in his service weapon without any worry because that was not the gun he had used. If all they tested was the gun he handed in, he would get away with the murders. Roger couldn’t let that happen. At least, he didn’t want to let that happen. At the moment, he didn’t see any way to stop him.

Old Ebbitt Grill was one of the few places still open. They were sufficiently equipped with candles on all the tables so the space had a romantic glow that would have had guests standing in line for tables on any other night of the week. Tonight, though, the place was all but empty. Without power, cooking anything ranged from impossible to dangerous. Gas stoves still worked but without any light cooks and chefs were having to guess at spices and other ingredients. Management had made the decision that they could serve cocktails and if anyone really insisted, day-old bread. 

Roger sat in the corner nursing a glass of bourbon, wondering what he would need to do next. Everything he might need in his office was now off-limits. He officially had no title so he had no real authority to walk into someone else’s office and demand to see Hammond or anything else. Options that had been available to him a few hours ago simply weren’t there now.

He felt a slight tingle in his left elbow followed by a tinge of pain in his left hand. Arthritis. He applied pressure as he rubbed his hand, trying to keep the pain from getting any worse. The weather was about to change, and he reasoned, given the way the day had gone, that it probably wouldn’t be for the better. He could physically feel the pressure dropping. There were storms coming, both the meteorological and political kind and Roger had no place to hide from either. 

Across the room, the sound of wind whipping around an open door momentarily distracted Roger from his thoughts. In the shadows, he couldn’t tell who had entered, but neither could he miss the hostess pointing in his direction. He was momentarily nervous. Was this someone he could trust or was he about to die? Roger instantly chided himself for being so damned dramatic. This was Washington. Chances were higher that it was someone sent to deliver him a message.

As the figure drew closer, Roger could finally see that it was Adrian Campbell. Roger shifted to his left to give the Secret Service agent room to sit down. Standing from the back position in a corner booth was impossible, but by this point, formalities weren’t necessary. “Figured you’d be over at Treasury by now,” Roger said as the agent sat down next to him.

“I was,” Adrian said. “Got there right as the White House team was arriving. I gotta admit, Rod was one cool cucumber. His back holster was customed made so it almost never showed under his jacket …”

“Until he bent over,” Roger said, finishing his sentence. “Like when you get out of a vehicle.”

“Exactly,” Adrian confirmed, then he laughed. “I’m pretty sure everyone else on the team thought I had gone nuts when I tackled him in the doorway. I know I caught Hammond by surprise, which was a good thing. His hand didn’t have a chance to reach and grab his weapon. If he had, I’d be dead and probably four or five other agents.”

“It will make a great scene in that book you get to write now,” Roger said. “With the president dead, there’s nothing to stop you from making millions on a tell-all. As long as you don’t reveal any state secrets”

Adrian shook his head and ordered a dry martini from the waiter who had been standing at a polite distance, waiting for a pause in their hushed conversation. “There are still loose ends,” the agent said. “We took Rod’s phone because events happened quickly enough we assumed he had gotten his orders before service went completely out. We were right. There were two calls before the test this morning. One came from a Virginia-registered number, government facility, though not we anyone immediately recognized. We’re assuming it had something to do with the failed test. Perhaps someone out there knew it was going to fail and was trying to cover their tracks. The second one, though, you’re not going to believe.”

Roger drank the last bit of bourbon in his glass, milking the pause in the conversation. “Goddamnit,” he thought to himself, “I’m a fucking drama queen.” He motioned for the waiter to bring him another then said, “Okay, shock me. Who called? The first lady? Gloria What’s-her-name, the attorney? Justice Kreuger, perhaps, that’d be an unexpected twist, wouldn’t it? Maybe Nancy did it herself, though she’d have to be a helluva magician.”

“Almost. Try Senator Graham Norman,” Adrian said. “Mind you, we have no idea what the content of that call was. I’ve sent a couple of agents over to the Capitol to try and find him. There’s a helluva storm whipping up, though, and more than ample opportunity given the situation for the Senator to dump any evidence that might connect him to the shootings, if there was ever any evidence in the first place.”

Roger shook his head and looked down into his empty glass. “You know, in a way, I’m not too terribly surprised. Norman has always played a little dirty with the politics. I’ve never thought he’d go to this extreme, but if he did, my guess is he was playing some angle to put himself in the White House.”

“He knows the succession path, though,” Adrian said. “Not only would he have to get rid of the president and vice president, but he’d also have to eliminate Nancy as well. What I’m wondering now is did something or someone thwart his plan or is he simply not done yet?”

“That’s a disturbing thought on multiple levels, Adrian. Did he know the test was going to fail and what its consequences would be? Did he know that the First Lady was going to poison the President, and if so, to what extent is he complicit? Just being connected to that incident would likely keep him out of the Oval Office. Or was he the lynchpin in this whole fucking shitload of nonsense today? Did he organize this entire disaster?”

Adrian looked up, saw the waiter standing at a distance, and motioned him over. The waiter set the drinks on the table and then quickly disappeared into the shadows of the restaurant.

“You know,” Agent Campbell said, “This place has always struck me as the kind of place where you guys make deals you don’t want anyone else to know about.”

Roger took a long sip of his bourbon while deciding how to respond to the charge. Sure, Adrian was friendly, but he was still a Secret Service agent. There was no such thing as “off the record” with him. “You are not incorrect,” he said carefully. “There are a handful of places around here. Upstairs at Joe’s Seafood on 15th. Bobby Van’s. Mirabelle. The rookies have taken to The Exchange for some reason. I don’t think they realize just how many people overhear their conversations in that place. There’s a fucking reporter at every other table. Still, more bills are passed over expensive wine and pan-seared halibut than anywhere inside the Capitol. If you want to actually get something done, you have to take someone to dinner. That’s why I’m so fucking fat.”

Adrian absent-mindedly played with the olives in his martini. “We know,” he said. “We play a lot of the same games. There’s always someone out to kill the president, no matter who the president is, and there’s always someone willing to talk. At least, most of the time. The public would be scared shitless if they realized how many assassination attempts we stop each year. We have good people who listen, take people to lunch or a nice dinner, something they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own. Justice is good about working on immunity deals with us so when we make that offer, 98 percent of the time we can back it up. It’s interesting, though, how many times an agent tracking down one attempted crime inadvertently foils another. We overhear something, we see some Representative’s aid where they’re not supposed to be, a server tips us off, and we bag a two for one.”

Roger sipped at his bourbon then rolled the glass between the palms of his hands. “Not unlike what happened in the waiting room this afternoon,” he said. “They might have gotten away with everything had the acoustics in that room not been working against them.”

“Not unlike a meeting that happened early this morning,” Adrian said. “All the way out at Tyson’s Corner, long before the rest of us were aware this wasn’t going to be a normal day.”

“Someone in the hotel staff?” Roger asked.

“Please, Roger, stop and think for a moment. No one in that meeting drove themselves all the way out there, especially the Vice President.” Adrian said. “We didn’t even have to strain to listen. I had the full report before you and Terri were half-way back to the White House.”

“We weren’t trying to kill the President, though,” Roger insisted. “What we talked about in that room was wholly constitutional. The 25th amendment …”

“I know, I know,” Adrian said. “And I don’t think Andrew would have had any difficulty getting the votes he needed. The problem is that short exchange between you and Senator Norman on your way out.”

Roger gave Adrian a bewildered look as he tried to remember what he had said to the Senator who had been oppositional the whole meeting. So much had happened during the day that he was having difficulting recalling the details.

Adrian smiled. “I know, it’s been a helluva day, hasn’t it? Let me help you out. When General Lang informed you of the number of planes down, everyone was rushing back to their vehicles and Graham grabbed you by the elbow. Remember what he said?”

Roger’s face went pale. “ ‘You better watch yourself, son, there’s a natural order to things and it’s our job to keep that order in place. You just stay out of the way and let me handle things.’ “ He gulped hard. He hadn’t considered the senator’s comment as anything more than his usual blustering. “That son of a bitch. He never was going to let Andrew become president, was he?”

Adrian shook his head and drained his martini. “Nor Norma, if he could help it. What bothers me is that he seems to think that you were in on the plan, Roger. Were you?”

Roger felt the muscles in his abdomen clench as he tried to not puke on the spot.
“That’s what I thought,” Adrian said. “You were being played and didn’t realize it any more than the president did. Having a gay Vice President may have been a large part of what got Mr. Blackstone elected, but neither you nor the Senator nor several other members of Congress were shy about voicing your opinions. You hadn’t trusted Andrew on the campaign trail and you didn’t trust him in the Eisenhower Building, either. You and Senator Norman had already tried talking to the President about not including him in the next elections. He shot you down. Graham left that meeting even more angry than he did this morning. He called you later, said he had a plan.”

“But he never revealed that plan, at least not to me,” Roger objected. He looked at Adrian, fearful of what was about to happen. “You’re thinking I’m part of the conspiracy?”

Adrian smiled and ate one of the olives in his glass. “I considered it,” he said. “I think Senator Norman thought you were part of the conspiracy, that’s part of why he was so upset with you this morning. You were getting in his way.”

Roger looked around the dark room. He could count three other people sitting at booths some distance from them. He caught the attention of the waiter and motioned for another round. “You’ve just given me another reason to get drunk, Adrian. I thought I was on the inside of everything that happens in this town. Now I find out I’m a schmuck.”

“That’s not the worst thing to happen to you,” Adrian said quietly. “If you weren’t that schmuck I’d be arresting you about now. You were the planned fall guy all along. And here’s the part where I offer you immunity in exchange for your testimony. We obviously can’t go after President Blackstone now, but Senator Norman and likely a few other members of Congress need to go to jail.”

As if to underscore Adrian’s words, a large clap of thunder shook the building. Both men instinctively looked upward, then toward the nearest exits, just in case they needed to escape. 

“Yeah, no problem,” Roger said nervously, though I’m not sure how you’re piecing all this together.”

“I’m not sure we have an accurate picture yet, either,” Adrian said as another clap of thunder shook the windows so hard they felt the breeze back at the corner booth. “I think the President was in on the test failure today because he wanted to be able to circumvent Congress and essentially become king. The problem there was that the president was incapable of understanding what the consequences would be. He thought the White House would be immune from the outages. I think Senator Norman knew about the test’s failure as well. He was one of the few people on an intelligence subcommittee that authorized funding for the facility in Virginia that funded the lab. If we’re ever able to trace the number on Hammond’s phone, I’m willing to bet it belongs to a plant at that facility and that Senator Norman helped make sure that person was in the position to sabotage the test.”

Roger nodded that the waiter was again a few paces away, holding their drinks. Adrian paused long enough for the drinks to be delivered and both men to indulge themselves before continuing.

“I’m also guessing that the Senator is the one who contacted the First Lady’s friend to get her involved. I don’t know what kind of deal he was offering Mrs. Blackstone, but obviously it was substantial for her to take that risk. Maybe they didn’t intend to kill the president, just get him out of the way long enough to eliminate Andrew without the President being implicated.”

“What About Hammond?” Roger asked. “I’m not sure I understand where he fits into this whole thing.”

Adrian stared into his drink as heavy rain began to lash at the front of the building. The flame on the candles flickered with each clap of thunder. He felt the pressure begin to drop and knew they would soon have to take cover to avoid the wrath of the storm. “I don’t think Rod was the spy he thought he was. There are a number of calls and texts on his personal phone that implicate him with the facility in Virginia. We’re still investigating those. I’ll send someone out there in the morning after this storm blows over. I don’t think he knew about the Vice President until he got the call, though. He would have tried harder to not have to kill anyone other than Andrew. Every additional bullet he fired risked identifying him. Rod wasn’t someone who wasted ammunition, not even at the range.”

Roger stared into the bourbon swirling in his glass. He was at that point where if he stopped drinking now, he would still be functional. If he kept drinking, he was going to need a ride home—and there were no rides available. He listened to the storm and decided to keep drinking. “So, what do you do now?” he asked.

“Try to put the pieces of this fucking puzzle together and then make a report to President Watkins,” the agent replied. “I need to find this person in Virginia, see how they plug into everything without arousing too much suspicion from Senator Norman. And I need records of any conversations you’ve had with the Senator since the President took office.”

“I think the Chief Justice has all those under lock and key,” Roger said.

Adrian waved him off. “We’re doing that investigation anyway. That will be another thing to negotiate, the whole Supreme Court involvement. I’m pretty sure the Senator didn’t see that coming. It may spook him.”

Roger looked up to see a figure standing a short distance from the table, waiting to interrupt. Roger motioned him over and quickly recognized him as the owner of the restaurant. 

“I’m sorry Mr. Mukaski,” the man said, “But the storm is getting considerably worse. We have a basement downstairs. Perhaps you both would like to join us?”

As if to underscore the urgency of the invitation,  lightning hit a tree directly across the street, momentarily brightening the room and it shook with the thunder.

Roger looked at Adrian. Adrian nodded. “Thank you. We’d be happy to join you.”

A Basement Full Of Surprise

The SitRoom at the White House wasn’t the only intensely secure location in Washington. Almost every federal building constructed since 1948 had one, sometimes two. None of them were regularly portrayed in movies as was the SitRoom, though, so their whereabouts were less well known, even by the staff working in those buildings. At the moment people began to realize that the storms represented a serious danger to everyone above ground, those who did know about the secure facilities began sending people toward them as quickly as possible. This alone ensured that there would be survivors to tell the harrowing tale of all that had happened this day. Their stories would eventually become books that would become movies that would serve as stern reminders of all the mistakes made leading up to this situation.

At the moment, however, no one was thinking of writing anything other than perhaps their last will and testament. Nowhere was that more the case than in the lowest level of the Treasury Building. Those occupying offices had long heard rumors about the third subbasement and its impossible-to-breach security. Just being able to push that button on the elevator had required a level of authority only a handful of people had, including the Secretary. With power out, they had taken the long trek downward through darkened stairwells not lit by the generators covering the rest of the building. They knew everyone in the building wouldn’t fit which led to no small amount of pushing and shoving in the initial burst, but that was quickly halted as Secret Service agents up and down the stairwell enforced a more orderly progression. 

What surprised the few hundred people who crammed into the tight space was that the subbasement was a jail. 40 nearly-bare cells held presumed criminals waiting to be interviewed by Treasury agents before being handed over to whichever law enforcement agency could best address their crimes. No one down here had gone to trial. No one down here ever would.

Before letting the building’s staff into the secure basement, however, they had made the decision to group the alleged fraudsters, counterfeiters, currency manipulators, and others into only two of the 40 cells—men in one, women in the other. While agents didn’t particularly like the situation, they admitted that their immediate need was to save as many lives as possible. Freeing up the other 38 cells meant that approximately 150 more people would survive. 

Not knowing where they were going nor what they were walking into created some confusion as Treasury staff entered the secure facility and were immediately escorted to cells. The three-inch thick plexiglass walls that facilitated better security also allowed them to see out. Doors were jammed open to help reduce any feeling of claustrophobia but the press of people trying to get in was so great that the prisoners had more room to move than did any of the staff. 

Former First Lady Tasha Blackstone and her attorney, Gloria Fastbaum were pleased to finally be back in the same room together. The Secret Service had been very adept at not only keeping them in separate cells but out of sight of each other, preventing them from being able to coordinate their stories. The results had been helpful as each quickly turned on the other, attempting to minimize their own roll in the President’s attempted murder. They anxiously huddled together in the back corner of the cell, hidden by the other women in the cell who all-too-happily ignored them. Being held in a secret federal facility meant no one there had yet spoken with an attorney. There were no alliances, no watching out for each other. Everyone was worried about their own situation and trying to watch their own back.

As Tasha and Gloria stood together in a corner of the cell, another member of the First Lady’s former staff was led in: Ann Morrow, her former Chief of Staff. Ann had still been giving her statement to Secret Service agents when the order was given to evacuate everyone to the subbasement. Thinking ahead, Ann requested that she be placed in the cell with the prisoners to “save on extra life.” Agents saw an opportunity and not only agreed to put Ann in the cell but also a couple of female agents who were wired with battery-operated recording devices. Knowing that people tend to talk more freely when they feel their lives are threatened, the agents were hoping someone might open up and confess, saving everyone time later. 

The fluorescent bulbs routinely flickered as the generators varied in their support. Unlike the SitRoom, which operated on its own independent power source as equally secure as the room itself, the secure rooms at Treasury relied on external diesel-powered generators, located in a ventilated room a floor above them. As the storm grew in intensity and the crowd in the basement felt the building shake above them, speculation grew as to whether they were in a truly safe place or if they were merely standing in their own mass grave. Managers and supervisors in the crowd, as well as Secret Service agents scattered throughout, did their best to keep the group calm. Panic in such a tight space would inevitably result in the space being breached as some tried to escape. Any break in the security of the space would threaten the safety of everyone there.

Ann moved closer toward Tasha and Gloria, still undetected as the two women were fully engaged in their own conversation. Neither had considered for a moment that other members of the First Lady’s staff might be present. In fact, there were three, Ann, Tracy Holloway, Mrs. Blackstone’s secretary, and Charlotte McGuigan, Mrs. Blackstone’s social advisor. Ann had taken the opportunity upstairs to speak with them both and was convinced that not only had neither of them been part of the First Lady’s plan, they all felt betrayed and blindsided by what had happened that day. She had no trouble convincing them to help her and the Secret Service to expose the First Lady’s treachery.

With all the accumulated chatter throughout the subbasement, listening in on the whispered conversation was more difficult than it had been in the more acoustically live setting at the hospital. Still, the duo was so convinced that they were alone, their voices gradually grew louder than they realized. Ann was standing, still unrecognized, directly behind Gloria when she finally began to hear enough of the conversation to make sense of what they were saying. 

“We can still get out of this, and possibly still gain the control we are wanting,” Tasha was saying. “At this point, no one outside Washington even knows that Rudy or anyone else is dead. Everyone is focused on themselves. By the time this storm thing blows over, they’ll be in a hurry to get rid of us. All we have to do is keep our story straight.”

“You shouldn’t have been so fast to order Andrew’s hit,” Gloria said. “We should have waited at least a couple more hours. You were a bit wreckless back at the hospital. I don’t think your staff was buying your act.”

“My staff is a bunch of idiots,” she said. “I’ve known most of them since college, handpicked them because of their willingness to go along with whatever I say. They are blindly loyal. If we play our cards right we can probably pin Rudy’s poisoning on one of them. I did not order the hit on Andrew, though. I assumed you did.” 

Gloria looked up for a brief moment before continuing. “Wasn’t me,” she said, “But I’m not complaining about the outcome. That totally works in our favor and there’s no way they can pin it on us. Don’t let that be a distraction. The fact that they’ve moved so many people down here tells us something is wrong. We play it cool, fade into the background for the moment, and maybe no one will remember we’re here when it’s all over.”

All conversation paused and everyone in the subbasement looked upward as the walls shook around them. They had no way of knowing the top floors of the building had just been obliterated as though a bomb had gone off. Years’ worth of critical financial information was lost in an instant. There were backups for most of it, of course, but assuming that the building housing the backups, based in California, was still operational was more dangerous than anyone knew at this point. It had, in fact, been completely swept into the Pacific. 

Ann looked over at Tracy and Charlotte. The expressions on their faces echoed the same panic being felt by every other person in the room. None of them had asked to be here and they all worried whether they would survive and see their families again. Given the opportunity, any of them would have rather taken their chances with the storm. They would have died, of course, but at the moment that seemed preferable to the uncertainty and drama playing out around them.

A couple of minutes passed before anyone in the subbasement said anything. Only after the building stopped shaking completely and the lights stopped blinking did anyone say anything and that was someone questioning whether the storm was over. The negative response resulted in groans and cries throughout the cramped space. Had they realized the severity of what was going on above them, of course, they would have been thankful to be in that subbasement. They had no way of knowing, though and as is often the case, ignorance leads to acts of stupidity as one group attempted to storm the door only to be immediately turned back by Secret Service agents whose own anxiety made punching the aggressors almost enjoyable. 

People accustomed to persistent and pervasive access to information don’t respond well to being completely cut off. Everyone in the subbasement wanted to know what was going on above them. They yelled at the Secret Service. They yelled at each other. At one point, the lead Secret Service agent complained that Treasury employees were behaving worse than the criminals being detained. 

In both of the cells, those charged with crimes were carefully watching the increasing tensions outside their enclosures. One didn’t have to be a seasoned convict to understand that were conditions to continue to erode, they would likely be able to escape without anyone noticing. After all, they hadn’t been fitted with orange jumpsuits just yet. Other than being placed in less-crowded cells, they looked much like everyone else around them. They could blend in and ride a wave of unrest all the way to freedom. All the needed was that one opportunity.

Several more minutes of relative quiet passed before conversation finally resumed its calm level of babble, just loud enough to be heard by the person standing next to you, not enough to capture the attention of anyone else in the room. Not that anyone else in the room was trying to listen. Everyone was too concerned with their own situation, their own fears, to care what anyone else around them was saying.

When Tasha and Gloria felt it safe to continue talking, it was Tracy who was standing closest to the couple. Her recording device was able to capture every word.

“I’m not feeling especially safe here,” Tasha confided to her friend. “These wretched people in their cheap suits and bad shoes are more dangerous than terrorists. They will only continue for a while before they completely revolt. Perhaps then we escape.”

Gloria shook her head. “No matter what anyone else does, you and I stay right here. We’re telling everyone we’re not guilty, right? We rush out of here like the rest of these morons and the immediate assumption is that we have something to hide. We are better off staying here. Who knows, if Secret Service gets distracted long enough, they may completely forget that we’re down here.”

Tasha sat quietly for a while. She hadn’t felt the need to hide like this since she was a little girl running from the abusive Uncle that had raised her. She was more accustomed to being the center of attention and for a moment considered that all she would have to do is stand up, straighten her suit jacket, and begin speaking. She would immediately have the attention of everyone in the subbasement. She knew of no one who could counter any statement she might make. She could rally them behind her. 

Tasha had learned the danger of speaking extemporaneously, though. Her gaffes during Rudy’s campaign had been severe enough that he had nearly ordered her to shut up. Any questions the press might direct toward her were handled by her own press secretary, someone who was not currently present. She would have to wait and Tasha was not good at waiting.

“Too bad there’s not a punch bowl I could spike,” Tasha whispered. “It wouldn’t take that much to put everyone here to sleep for a few minutes.”

Gloria glared at her. “Are you kidding? Do you realize how dangerous that could be? Besides, I left all the poison at the White House. I slipped it into Rudy’s nightstand in one of his empty blood pressure medicine bottles. If it’s ever found, it won’t be traced back to us.”

“Not all of it, you didn’t,” Tasha said. “I kept a small vial with me, just in case Rudy needed a booster.”

Gloria grabbed Tasha by the lapel of her jacket and turned them both toward the concrete wall, not realizing that only made the conversation easier to hear. “How the fuck did you get that past the pat-down? What the fuck were you thinking? You should have ditched that in the ride over here!” 

It was taking all of Gloria’s effort to not yell at Tasha. Being caught with anything, especially the drug that had possibly killed the president, was enough to assure them both a trip to federal prison. She needed to get Tasha under control.

“Listen, give me the poison. I’ll slip it into someone else’s pocket. I don’t think they’re going to search everyone when we finally get out of this fucking hell hole but even if they do, we don’t want that shit on either of us. Give it to me!”

Tasha shook her head. “It is my emergency backup. I am not going to prison. If they try to take me, I just put a little under my tongue. I get sick with the same poison that Rudy had. It looks like someone tried to silence me. I’m presumed innocent, no?”

“And what if you take too much, Tasha? You’re not exactly adept at dosing that shit. You were only supposed to put a little in his soda and look how that turned out!” 

“The Secret Service agent bumped my arm,” she said. “I couldn’t let him see what I was doing. Besides, it was Rudy. It’s not like half the people in the country don’t want him dead. When all is said and done, people will thank me. They’ll thank you. I know what I’m doing more than you think I know.”

“You’re going to get yourself killed,” Gloria warned. “You’re playing much too dangerous a game.”

Tracy looked at Ann who looked at Charlotte. They have more than enough evidence to convict Tasha. No matter what else she might say later, the First Lady had poisoned the President.

Harsh Winds Of A Lonely Reality

Perry laid in the dark wondering what might happen next. While the immediate danger of the tornado had passed, high winds still whipped across the now-exposed Virginia valley. Rain showers coming through would beat mercilessly for two minutes, soften, then dissolve into nothing. The pattern repeated itself over and over through the night. In the distance, he could still hear the thunder. If he propped himself up on his elbows, he could see the lightning. His elbows couldn’t handle holding his weight for long, though. Everything hurt. There were splinters of wood and plastic all over his body. He considered that if he were going to die out here that he would rather go ahead and get it over with rather than lying there and suffering, but fate didn’t seem to want to cooperate with that desire.

In the howling of the wind, as wayward pieces of tin rattled against what was left of concrete walls and steel girders groaned without support, Perry repeatedly thought he heard other voices. “Help!” he would yell. “Is anyone else out there?” Each time, there would be no answer save more wind, then more rain.

Perry wasn’t sure if the tears in his eyes were from his own physical pain or the emotional torment of realizing everyone around him, all his friends, everyone he had worked with for the past 15 years, was now dead. Their work had failed. Their effort was meaningless. When everything was pieced back together, the weather would get the blame, not the project. No one else would know that they had been the victims of sabotage at the highest levels. There seemed to be no one left who could corroborate his story, this seemingly impossible story how that a line of code, maybe two at the most, had shut off the world’s satellites leading to the elimination of the entire communications system and global power grind. All the witnesses were dead. All the evidence was scattered across this Virginia valley. When they found him, if they found him, he would be treated as a trauma victim. No one would ever believe the story. More likely, he would live out the rest of his days is a psych ward somewhere, talking with a therapist about the nightmares that were surely coming.

“Help!” he yelled again. “This is Lieutenant Colonel Perry Hawkins! Can anyone hear me?” 

Still, there was no answer. In the darkness, he had almost no sense of direction. Only the lightning gave him hints as to which was direction was East or West and Perry wasn’t entirely sure about that. Pieces of debris would blow across his body, mostly paper or light plastic, but he couldn’t see what any of it was to know whether there was any value in the scraps that were left.

Had Perry been able to see, the scene around him would have been all the more devastating. The tornado had cut a path more than two miles wide. Only the extreme anchors of the hangar’s concrete pad had allowed any of it to stay intact. The administration and operations buildings were completely gone, only a hint of their foundations remaining. Asphalt from the tarmac had been dug up and turned into gravel that scattered across the valley. Perhaps, hundreds of years from now, some archeologists might come across the site and assume that a great war had taken place here. What else could account for such a complete ruination of the entire area, such tremendous and sudden loss of life? 

With the wind came strange fragrances. Diesel. Excrement. A woman’s perfume. Strawberries. Rubber. Rust. Each would come through and assault Perry’s senses for a moment, sometimes to the point of stinging before moving on with the next round of rain.

Perry hated rain now. He would hate rain for the rest of his life, however long that might be. Rain represented not only defeat but the insult of being continually beaten down, not allowed a chance to recover, perpetually stepped upon by nature in her quest for total dominance of the planet. The soothing sense that came with rain falling on a roof in the spring was lost to him now. Every drop that fell from the heavens represented a new drubbing, for it was not enough to have been defeated. His soul had to be crushed, his will to create, to try again, had to be driven far from his mind. No matter what the task might be, he would not, could not, participate. His will and his drive were gone. The rain had washed it all out of him.

Lightning. Close enough this time that Perry could feel the ground shake beneath him. He worried for a moment that another storm might be moving in his direction but the wind assured him it would remain distant. That storm was meant to annihilate someone else’s life. Perhaps it would wreak its havoc on the small towns along Interstate 66. Perhaps it would run along the opposite side of the mountain, turning towns like Sperryville and Graves Mill into mud. 

Perry had been to each of those small towns. Early in the project, they had considered tunneling under the mountains, setting up communities for analysts and their families. In the end, the security risks were considered too great. It was better for everyone to stay concealed in the valley. Of course, the folks at Stony Man and Whitehouse Landing knew they were there, but they didn’t know what really went on. Conspiracy theorists had a field day guessing, but none of them were ever close enough for Perry’s security team to worry.

“Did anyone in those towns survive?” Perry wondered. He knew it wasn’t likely. Even in a place where strength and security were built into the construction, nothing was left. Small towns composed mostly of clapboard houses and 80-year-old brick storefronts had no defense against a storm of this magnitude. Whole families were likely slaughtered as they struggled to hold on to each other against the winds, just like Major Davis had attempted to protect Perry. 

“Someone out there answer me!” Perry screamed into the darkness. As if in direct response, the wind through a handful of rain directly into his face. How dare he challenge nature in this way? She had spoken strongly and sufficiently. She wasn’t going to suffer the babbling of this lone human.

Perry momentarily considered attempting to crawl on his stomach toward someplace safer. The darkness was prohibitive, though. Debris was scattered everywhere and much of it was sharp. Perry could spend hours carefully crawling through the dark only to discover at dawn that he had done nothing but maneuver himself in a circle. Every survival lesson he’d ever had told him his best move was to stay put, let rescuers come to him. The problem was, no one knew he was there. No one knew the base nor the lab was there. How could anyone go looking for a place they didn’t know existed?

“Hello? Is anyone out there?” he yelled one more time. He tried with everything in him to hear a response. A groan. A murmur. Anything that might lead him to the assurance that he wasn’t the only one alive in all this mess. 

Perry leaned back on the ground, exhausted, wondering why he hadn’t been ripped apart as well. Surviving the storm only to be left out here in the darkness, unable to move, unable to secure any form of help, was a worse fate. Mercy had shined on those who died in an instant, who had the very breath sucked out of them as their bodies were snatched skyward. A moment of fear and then blackness was all they had experienced. That end would have been preferable.

Now, here he was, alone, with no one knowing that he even existed, unable to move, left to starve to death in the middle of the wreckage that represented his entire life’s work. Over 2,500 people had died in this valley today. Most of them had families. None of them had any reason to think that working here would put their lives in danger. Perry was sure that, traitor or not, he was the one who had let everyone down. He had failed to provide a secure environment for them.

Of course, it seemed to go without saying that if the bunker had not been attacked, they all would have survived the storm. In fact, the bunker had been large enough they could have evacuated everyone’s families into the underground space and kept them safe as well. Had the bunker not been breached, everyone would have lived. Sure, the test failure was bad, but the test wasn’t what had put everyone in danger. 

Perry realized that, if he wasn’t hearing any other survivors, that likely meant Tom was dead as well. Or escaped. He had no way at the moment of knowing. What if he was still out there, running for his life, looking for other ways to bring down the government? That seemed doubtful, though. 

The wind picked back up. Splatters of rain fell in small patches that seemed almost as though nature was throwing water balls at him. Rain was nothing at this point. He couldn’t be any wetter. Wind, though, could be rough. Perry looked through the darkness as though perhaps this time he might see some form of a nearby shelter. Then, he realized, the wind had changed direction. This was coming from the East. Perry felt a chill that wasn’t from the rain.

Never Have I Ever

Amanda and Reesie explored the contents of the cabinets in the new apartments looking for food. They found rice and pasta, a few cans of tomatoes and green beans, and a bag of dried beans, all of which could come in handy if they could preserve enough fuel to actually cook. 

Darrell, Carlson, and Adam carefully navigated their way through the dark bedrooms, looking for anything that might help, though they didn’t really know what that might be at this point. 

“Seems pretty ordinary,” Darrell said. “I was hoping to maybe find a flashlight or something along that line, though.”

Carlson looked through the closet in the master bedroom. “Surprisingly neat and reasonably organized,” he said. “Even the drawers with the sex toys are labeled.”

Darrell looked up so quickly he bumped his head on a shelf. “What? Sex toys?” he asked.

Carlson and Adam laughed.

“Don’t act so shocked,” Adam said. “I’d be surprised to find a bedroom that doesn’t have a toy of some kind.”

“Toys?” Natalie asked as she entered the room. “Do I even want to know what you guys are into back here?”

The two older men laughed again. “Your boyfriend seems surprised that we found sex toys,” Carlson said.

“That’s because he’s scared of them,” Natalie said, giggling. “He leaves the room when I pull mine out to clean them.”

“It’s not normal,” Darrell said. “And it’s not like I ever turn you down for sex. I don’t get why you need them”

“It’s not like you’re always around when I get horny in the middle of the afternoon,” Natalie shot back, still giggling. “I don’t suppose you found anything that lights up, did you?”

“Not yet,” Carlson said from inside the closet. “Though, given the luck we’re having, I’m probably right next to one and don’t know it.”

“If there’s nothing obvious then you might as well come back to the living room with the rest of us,” Natalie said. “But leave the toys. I don’t want to have to explain them to Cam … or Gwen.” She giggled again and left the room.

The men followed her back down the hallway to the living room. There was more furniture here than there had been in Natalie and Darrell’s apartment. Everyone was able to find a seat somewhere that didn’t involve sitting on the floor in some fashion. Between a sofa, a love seat, two overstuffed chairs, and nicely upholstered chairs from the kitchen, even Barry had a comfortable place to sit.

“We should play a game to pass the time,” Gloria said, a bit too happy, as though they were on some kind of urban camping adventure.

Amber walked over from the kitchen and sat at the end of the sofa. “We should probably try and get some rest. Who knows what we’re going to discover once its light.”

Reesie was at the other end of the couch with Cam snuggled in her lap. “I think this poor child already took the hint. This baby is exhausted.”
“I’m not surprised,” Toma said. “Just think of everything she’s been through today, and she’s so young.”

Gwen shuffled in one of the overstuffed chairs as Roscoe laid across her lap. “I’m not sure I can sleep now, though. Every time I start to relax a little bit, something happens.”

“You’re not alone,” Hannah chimed in. “As long as this day has been, I’m afraid to let my guard down even for a minute. A game might be a nice distraction.”

Miranda giggled as she sat backward in a kitchen chair facing the group. “How about ‘Never Have I Ever?’ “ she suggested. “We play it at work when things are dead. It’s fun.”

“Isn’t that more of a drinking game?” Darrell asked. “Alcohol is one thing we’ve not come across, though I certainly wouldn’t mind if we did.”

“We can do the sober version,” Gloria said. “Just raise your hand if you’ve never done whatever they’re asking and give yourself a point. Whoever has the most points at the end wins.”

Barry shifted in his seat. “I’m with Darrell, this would be a lot more fun with alcohol. Did we check the fridge? Are sure there’s not some vodka in the freezer or something?”

“Trust me, first thing I looked for,” Amanda said. “I didn’t even find wine glasses. These must be really boring people who live here.”

“Let’s go then,” Natalie said, excited to be doing something different. “Whose going to ask the questions?”

“Miranda sounds like she’s played in the most,” Toma suggested. She leaned forward to look over at her. “You think you can keep us entertained?”

Miranda laughed. “If that doesn’t work, we can make the guys strip.”

There was a chorus of groans and general objections from the guys as the women laughed and warned that such an event would surely lead to blindness. For the first time all day, everyone was smiling, the horrors and trials and losses not gone but momentarily set aside.

“Okay, first one, Miranda said, pausing for the group to calm back down. “Never have I ever smacked my face pulling on a push door.”

They all looked around at each other as no one raised their hand and then laughed.

“Wow, we’re all a bunch of klutzes,” Amanda said. “This could be a close game.”

Laughter filled the room again, loud enough that Cam stirred in Reesie’s lap but not enough to wake. 

“Okay, let’s try this one,” Miranda said. “Never have I ever …” She paused, looking carefully around the room. “… been invited to a threesome.”

Barry and Hannah were the first to raise their hands, followed by Gwen and Amanda. Everyone else looked around the room and laughed.

“So, we’re all just a little bit kinky?” Gloria asked.

“Invited doesn’t mean participated, “ Carlson responded to another round of laughter. 

As the chuckles and side jokes died down, Gwen lowered her hand and asked, “Okay, I’ve never been asked, but I’m curious, are we talking two girls and a guy or two guys and a girl, and does it mean the two people of the same gender are gay or bi or how does that work?”

“All of the above,” Toma answered. “It really depends on the people involved, and honestly, it doesn’t always work. There are times it can be a real cluster fuck. When it works well, though … wow! Amazing.”

Gwen leaned back in the chair and scratched Roscoe’s muzzle. “That sounds interesting.”

Miranda bounced on her chair, excited. “Okay, now that we know who’s out, never have I ever driven a car naked.

Again, Barry’s hand was the first up, followed by Darrell, Carlton, Gwen, Amanda, and Natalie.

“At this rate, I’ve got this game in the bag,” Barry said, chuckling at his own lack of adventure. 

Gloria leaned forward. “Wait, Gama, your hand’s not up! Uhm, you want to let me in on this story?”

“Ooohh, intrigue!” Toma said. “Was someone a bit wild?”

Had there been more light they could have seen the degree to which Hannah was blushing. As it was, the amber glow of the fuel can added some mirth to her smile. “It was a very long time ago,” she said, “before your mother was ever part of the equation. Your grandfather and I had gone on a picnic down on a secluded spot along the lake where we knew no one else would be. We ate our lunch and while we were lying there in the sun we started getting a little frisky and decided to go play in the water for a bit. Well, your grandfather had this 1946 Chevy Fleetline convertible. Oh, it was a sweet-looking thing, a shiny gray that he kept polished and nice, white leather interior. And we were in the water, both of us naked as jaybirds when I look up and notice that something, probably a possum, had knocked the chucks from under the wheels and the car had started rolling. It wasn’t on too big of a slope so it wasn’t going very fast but it was going to get away from us if we didn’t do something. 

“So, we both jumped out of the water and Bobby, your grandfather, ran for his clothes and I just ran straight for the car and since the top was down I jumped in, slid into the diver’s seat and got the car stopped. I look over and Bobby’s still down there fiddling with his shoes so I turn the car around and am driving back to our picnic spot, wasn’t but maybe 20, 30 yards at most, when who should come along down the road but the Preacher, Rev. Leonard, and there I am in the car, with the top down, naked as the day I was born, and oh my, the look on his face as we pass!”

The group roared as Hannah told the story.

“Gama, what did you do?” Gloria asked.

“What could I do?” Hannah responded. “I just smiled and waved. I gotta tell you, though, it made communion really uncomfortable for the next few weeks!”

As the group laughed and continued on with the game, Amber slipped away and stood at the glass door watching the rain. While the game was a fun distraction, she could feel more trouble gathering around them. She wasn’t sure what could possibly be heading their way now. They’d already endured floods and tornados and earthquakes. There didn’t seem to be much left for the natural world to throw at them. They weren’t in a location where they had to worry about wild animals. With all the water a horde of insects was out of the question for the time being. That more than likely meant that any challenge now was likely to come by human hands.

Lightning flashed in the sky and Amber could see the shadows of those gathering, waiting. She looked back over at the group. In many ways, they were all so innocent. They had no reason to worry about anything more than weather. As they laughed about mysterious bruises showing up from nowhere, she wished she could protect them all. She would do her best, but there was something out there stronger than all of them and it was in a bad mood.

Reading time: 46 min

Ed. Note: We’re probably two, three weeks tops, from being done with our story! This has me wondering what to do next. Should I start another story or go with some solo articles for a while? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Just now joining us? Click here if you want to start at the very beginning.

Falling Apart At The Seams

“I hardly smell anything at all,” Carlson said.

“Same here,” added Adam.

Miranda sniffed hard. “It’s like the person next door burned their dinner or something.”

Amber shook her head. “See Hannah’s reaction? She’s crying for a reason. Hydrogen Cyanide is a killer. It works quickly and without gas masks, we’re all vulnerable. We need to quickly find a way to protect ourselves until the source is depleted.”

A new wave of panic swept across the group that, by now, was beginning to experience a sense of adrenaline fatigue. The day had been a continual chain of one disaster after another to the point that some in the group were running out of the energy necessary to fight off this newest threat. Everyone talked at once expressing their own frustration at having to deal with yet another threat to their lives, not realizing that in doing so they were potentially ingesting more of the poison gas.

Finally, Amber whistled loudly to get everyone to be quiet. “Hold on here,” she said loudly. “Look, I know this has been a trying day and I get that we’re all tired but given how few people seem to be left alive in this town I think we have an obligation to at least try to survive!” She watched the eye rolls and heard the disgruntled murmurs. “We have options we can try to at least minimize the effects of the gas. We need t-shirts and either lemon juice or some kind of vinegar, preferably not straight white because that’s a bit harsh as well.”

Darryll and Natalie looked at each other. Finally, someone was asking for something they actually had. “T-shirts aren’t a problem,” Natalie said. “Between us, we probably have a couple hundred.”

“Lemon juice isn’t an issue, either,” Darryll added. “We buy a gallon at a time because I use it to clean the bicycle grease off my clothes and Natalie uses it all over the kitchen. I just bought a new case a couple of days ago.”

Suddenly, everyone realized that Natalie was naked. While sitting in the dark she had become accustomed to her state of undress and the urgency with which she was summoned inside had overridden any sense of needing to get dressed. Her clothes were still in the dark on the landing outside the front door. She attempted to cover herself with her hands. “Oh shit, it’s not completely dark in here, is it? Uhm, let me run get those t-shirts!” she exclaimed as she ran toward the bedroom.

“I’ll help,” Miranda said, taking off after her.

The group watched as the two young women slipped into the darkness of the hallway, some enjoying the humor in what had just happened, others somewhat stunned by suddenly being yanked out of crisis mode. They heard Darryll say that the lemon juice was in his room, but no one paid any attention as he, too, walked into the darkness.

Amber tried keeping the group calm and together. “Look, the t-shirts are only going to help with breathing. Our eyes are still at risk. If you feel them begin to itch or water, don’t rub them, that will only make it worse. Hopefully, the source burns itself out quickly. Once it does, it should only take a couple of hours for the air to clear.”

“How do we even know for certain that it’s poison?” Amanda asked.

Amber looked at Hannah, still crying as Gloria and Toma stood tightly on either side. “I guess we can’t be one hundred percent certain without tests,” she said, “but Hannah’s been here before—she knows that smell and she knows what it can do. I think we’re better off taking what precautions we can, don’t you?”

Amanda nodded in agreement. 

“It is a slow death,” Hannah said, her voice weak and weary. “Once it is inside you, inside your lungs, there is nothing you can do. There is no medicine that can fix it. I was sick for weeks after my parents died. I survived because they thought I was going to die. They left me alone.” She coughed hard and teetered into Gloria’s arms. Her granddaughter held her tightly and helped her stand upright. “I’m not sure my body can go through that again. I’m not sure I want my body to go through that again. I’m old. Maybe I don’t want to fight anymore.”

A chorus of disagreement rose from the group as they circled closer to her. 

Gloria pulled her small grandmother into her chest. “We will have no talk of that,” she told her. “Remember all those stories you told me when I was little, the ones about dreaming of daisies so you could forget you were in prison? Or pretending that mush was paté? You were the one who taught me to find ways to survive even when surviving seemed impossible. I will not give up now. I will not let you give up now. We’ve lost too much today. I need you.”

Toma wrapped her arms around them both. “You know, in every disaster, there is someone who survives, some group who bands together and defies the odds so that someone else can make a crappy movie about their lives thirty years later. If you don’t survive, you don’t get to choose who plays you in the crappy movie. You don’t want that, do you?”

Hannah tried to smile. She knew the girls meant well. She also knew what she was already feeling in her lungs. Surviving might not be a matter of will but a matter of strength—a strength she wasn’t sure she had.

“I’m not sure I want to think about who’s going to play any of us in a crappy movie,” Amber said. “Hollywood doesn’t have enough awesome to handle this group, anyway!”

Barry laughed especially loud, taking a couple of steps away from the group as he coughed a couple of times. “Can you imagine,” he started, between coughs, “some poor casting agent trying to find someone to play me? They’d have to put like three guys inside a padded suit!” He laughed more at his self-deprecation. 

“They’ll have to get the prettiest girl in Hollywood to play me,” Cam said as she clutched Reesie’s leg. “Or maybe I’ll just play myself. Hollywood’s going to need some new people and maybe the movie won’t be so crappy if I’m in it.”

There was a collective sigh of relief and Amber was especially glad that the group had backed off the panic. She knew that the stressed breathing of fear would cause more of the poison gas to enter their lungs. Already, the fragrance was so light that their noses had adapted and they were no longer consciously aware of the danger.

In the darkness of her bedroom, Natalie fumbled around trying to find her dresser. “I know it’s here somewhere,” she told Miranda. “There’s underwear in the top drawer but everything under that is t-shirts.”

“Do you really have that many?” Miranda asked. “I have a few but my Mom said I was wasting my money on them.”

“Yeah, she’s not wrong,” Natalie said, laughing. “I only have so many because of all the bands I’ve covered. They think if they give me a t-shirt I have to be nice to them in my review. Most of them I’ve never worn. I save them just in case one of the bands happens to make it big. After a while, I use them as dust rags.”

There was a thump and an “ouch!” as Miranda collided with something in the dark.

Natalie laughed again. “I see you’ve found my bed!”

Miranda laughed as well, despite the pain that was shooting up her leg. “Is that what is meant by stumbling into bed?”

“I guess so,” Natalie giggled. “Here, if you can follow my voice, I found the dresser.”

Miranda felt her way across the bed toward Natalie, trying to use her hands to avoid bumping into anything else that might be there. With one hand in the air, it wasn’t long before she found Natalie’s shoulder. “Mmmm, you’re soft,” Miranda said. “Are you sure you want to get dressed? Maybe we just stay in here and I get naked with you.”

Perhaps earlier that day, before she had left for the coffee shop, Natalie would have pulled away, but the gentle touch of Miranda’s hand on her shoulder felt warm and tender. She stood quietly as Miranda’s hand moved gently down her arm, carefully across her breast, and toward her stomach. She leaned back, possibly instinctively, and let Miranda wrap her arms around her and kiss the back of her neck. She felt her nipples tighten and the beginnings of desire. It had been months since Darryll had aroused these feelings and he never had been this gentle. 

Natalie turned, using her own hands to reach under Miranda’s shirt and feel the younger woman’s delicate skin. She could feel Miranda’s warm breath on her face. She leaned in for the kiss.

“You guys find the t-shirts?” Darryll’s voice felt like it was being pushed through a loudspeaker as it interrupted the moment.
“Yeah, just loading up to bring them out,” Natalie replied, hoping the anxiousness didn’t show in her voice. “You find the lemon juice?”

“Yeah, with my feet,” he said. “I’m going to need steel-toed boots if we don’t get power back on.”

The women both laughed in an attempt to normalize the situation. “Let’s explore this later,” Natalie whispered into Miranda’s ear, giving her a soft kiss on the cheek. “I like the way you feel.”

Natalie turned back around and pulled a stack of t-shirts from the dresser drawer and handed them to Miranda before grabbing another stack herself. She was thankful for the darkness at the moment. She felt her face go flush. She wanted the intimacy Miranda was offering. She didn’t care whether it was practical or meaningful in any way. Miranda’s touch had been electric. Natalie hadn’t felt that way since college. 

Darryll was waiting for them at the bedroom door. They felt their way down the hallway toward the single light in the living room. As they approached, Natalie started tossing t-shirts as if she were at a sporting event. “A t-shirt for you! And a t-shirt for you!” she shouted, not too loudly but enough that it elicited a few grins from some in the group. “Don’t ask me about any of the bands, please,” she added. “I don’t even remember most of them.”

Darryll walked around and set the plastic gallon jugs of lemon juice next to the sink. “I hope no one’s allergic to lemons,” he said, but the group wasn’t paying attention as they ripped the shirts in an attempt to fashion reasonable covering for their faces. In a way, it felt like they were having a party. Even though they could barely see and the light from the single can of fuel was growing dim, anything that took their minds off the danger they were in was better than the panic they felt just a few moments ago.

As they finished created their face coverings, Amber instructed them, “Go see Darryll and soak it in lemon juice then wrap it as tightly around your face as you can. Try to not leave anything dry and make sure your nose and mouth are completely covered.”

Gloria was the first to rush over to Darryll with a t-shirt. “This one’s for my Gamma,” she said. 

Darryll smiled as he took the ripped t-shirt and poured lemon juice over it, making sure the fabric was soaked to the point it was almost dripping. “Make sure it doesn’t cut off her breathing,” he reminded her.

Adam was next. “This may be the strangest thing I’ve ever done,” he said as he handed Darryll the t-shirt. “Do you really think it will work?”

Darryll shrugged as he doused the shirt in lemon juice. “It makes sense I guess,” he said. “Lemon juice is acidic so I suppose that does something to whatever’s in the air.” He was handing the shirt back to Adam when the building shook with the force of a nearby explosion.
“That wasn’t thunder!” Amanda exclaimed as she reached out to Barry for support.

Cam screamed and wrapped her arms tightly around Reesie. “Don’t let me die!” she screamed. 

“Don’t worry, I’ve got you, baby,” Reesie whispered, trying to calm the girl. She wasn’t convinced that she wasn’t lying, though, and she felt her own legs struggle to maintain balance.

“That was too close!” Natalie said, rushing toward the door.

“Wait, don’t open that!” Amber warned. “If that was the source of the hydrogen cyanide, there’s even more poison in the air than there was before!”

Natalie stopped and leaned her back against the door. “Do you think that’s what it was?”

“I don’t know what else it could be,” Amber said. “Most likely someplace close by had chemicals stored and when they got wet it released the gas. Then, as more of the chemicals were exposed, maybe mixed together with the floodwater, it caused an explosion. The good news is that it should eliminate the danger. The bad news is that for the next hour or so, there’s enough poison in the air to kill us. We need to get these t-shirts on quickly!”

Everyone rushed toward the sink. Darryll was pouring lemon juice over the scraps of t-shirts as quickly as he could. Each person secured the material around their face and attempted to breathe as normally as they could with a face full of lemon going up their nostrils. When they looked around and saw each other, though, they couldn’t help but laugh.

“We look like a bunch of really bad bank robbers,” Cam said. 

Roscoe didn’t like having his snout covered and began barking and pulling at Gwen’s shirt. “What’s wrong, boy?” she asked. “You don’t like the smell of lemon, do you?” The dog barked more loudly, pushing Gwen away from the sliding glass door where she had been standing.

The building shook again and everyone reached for a piece of furniture to steady themselves.

“That didn’t feel like an explosion,” Toma said. “That felt deeper.”

“It wasn’t an explosion,” Carlson said. “That was the Wabash Valley fault line making some readjustments. That’s what Roscoe was trying to tell us. Hold on, there’s going to be more.”

He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when the ground shook again, this time for several seconds, forceful enough that everyone in the apartment was on their hands and knees, looking to hide under the too-small kitchen table.

“Why?” Amanda yelled. “Why can we not get over one fucking disaster before the next one clobbers us?”

The ground shook again for nearly a minute this time. Dust fell from the ceiling and if there had been more light they would have noticed the cracks running up the walls. They all laid on the floor as one tremor after another rocked the entire apartment building giving them all reason to wonder if this was how they would die.

“Get to the doorways,” Carlson yelled. He began crawling on the floor until he reached the bathroom doorway. Cautiously, he stood, his back against the facing, his hands firmly gripping the top support.

Others soon followed. Reesie and Cam joined Carlson at the bedroom door. Amber followed Darryll to the door of his bedroom. Natalie grabbed Miranda’s hand and they made their way to the door of her bedroom. 

“Everyone else get in the hallway,” Carlson urged. 

The others gathered as close to doors as they could get, huddling in groups. Roscoe pinned Gwen to the floor near the bathroom, lying protectively over her, growling as though he were daring the ground to move again. Toma and Gloria huddled over Hannah just outside the hallway door. Barry took Amanda by the hand to the far corner of the hallway. “Stay close,” he told her. “If anything falls just let it bounce off me so it will miss you.”

Roscoe began barking loudly again, trying to push Gwen as tightly as possible against the wall.

“Look out,” Carlson warned. “We may have a complete plate separation coming.”

The next tremor was the strongest. The building moved back and forth like a tree limb caught in a wind storm. Plaster and dust fell from the ceiling. Dishes fell from the kitchen cabinets, breaking on the floor. Pictures fell off walls. The glass in the sliding door cracked, then shattered. For over a minute and a half, the tectonic plates supporting the earth’s surface moved nearly ten inches apart, opening large wounds in the ground, severing buried cables and pipelines.

When the shaking stopped, Carlson warned, “Don’t get up just yet. Stay put. There are likely to be consequences coming next.”

They waited in the dark, no one daring to say a thing, though curious as to how Carlson knew what was coming. They would need to ask questions later, providing they all didn’t die.

The next explosion they heard was some distance away, but it was followed just a few seconds later by another a little closer, and then a third even closer, and almost immediately by a fifth that couldn’t have been more than a couple of blocks away.

“What’s going on?” Gloria asked, fear and desperation in her voice reflecting the emotions they were all feeling.

“Gas lines,” Amber replied, intentionally taking some of the pressure off Carlson. “The earthquake caused them to sever and that set up a chain reaction of …”
She didn’t get to finish her sentence as the next explosion ripped up the pavement directly across the street from the apartment building, creating a crater nearly fifteen feet in diameter. The building shifted and began leaning as the ground around the South end of the building began to give way. Metal beams creaked and groaned as they began to buckle under the weight.

Roscoe barked loudly, this time grabbing Gwen by the shirt collar and pulling her toward the door. “Roscoe seems to think we need to leave,” Gwen said. “But it’s dark out. We can’t see!”

“He’s not the only one,” Reesie said. “No offense, but I’m not feeling like this is the safest place to be at the moment.”

“But it’s dark,” Gwen emphasized, “and the streets are still full of water that is even more dangerous now because there are huge holes in the ground! We can’t just go out and choose a new apartment building. There aren’t any others standing!”

“We can at least move down a floor,” Amber said. “We know the door’s open in the apartment where we found Cam. Even if this end of the building starts to crumble, that end of the building might stay intact a bit longer.”

“Definitely can’t stay here,” Darryll said. “My whole room’s a wreck now.”

“I’m not sure there’s anything in here that’s salvageable,” Natalie added. “Maybe a few clothes, but I don’t want to kill myself trying to find them.”

“Anyone opposed to switching apartments?” Amber asked. 

The group was unanimous in their decision to leave. They grabbed the remaining fuel cans and head for the door, their faces still wrapped in the lemon-juice-soaked t-shirts, making their way carefully down the now-tangled stairs to the second floor and the apartment on the far end. Once everyone was inside, Amber shut and locked the door. Natalie lit another fuel can.

And then it began to rain.

Flooding The Swamp

For well over a century, scientists had warned that the District of Columbia was in a precarious position that could easily be overwhelmed by a major weather event. As a result, almost every building had deep foundations and some protections against flooding. Estimates were that the city could likely handle a category three hurricane and the resulting storm surge with minimal damage to public buildings and monuments. While there were always those who warned existing precautions were insufficient, the majority of scientists and politicians agreed that the provisions and safeguards in place were reasonable enough. After all, a hurricane was the most dangerous threat they faced and those didn’t just show up without warning. If the city was evacuated in a timely manner, the loss from a direct hit would be minimal.

None of the models were close to anticipating what was happening at this moment, however. Massive tornadoes coming across Virginia and Maryland had already decimated Alexandria, Arlington, Bethesda, Silver Springs, and College Park. The storms seemed to have endless energy. Where one funnel would seem ready to give out, another would appear alongside it and the two would combine in a force capable of taking down anything in its path.

At the same time, a category five hurricane with sustained winds in excess of 250 miles per hour was coming ashore at Chincoteague, heading toward the capitol with even greater fury. Had climate scientists been aware of the impending collision between the two sets of weather phenomena, they likely would have evacuated the city hours ago, but with both radio and satellite communications down, they didn’t even know exactly what was coming at them until it was too late.

A storm surge over 20 feet high had consumed everything along the coast from Atlantic City to Chesapeake for 30 miles inland. The Boardwalk had crumbled, popular tourist sites vanished underwater, vital defense bases were either swept away or rendered useless. Ships docked at Norfolk and other nearby ports were tossed about like toys and overturned. They might have had a chance to survive on the open sea but there wasn’t enough warning to get them launched in time.

No one who was stuck in the traffic on the Beltway would survive. Bridge supports disintegrated. Vehicles were blown off the highway, picked up and tossed into buildings that crumbled with them. The effect was like an angered toddler who had grown upset with a game and tossed the board and its pieces around the room. Nothing was left anywhere close to where it was supposed to be.

In the darkness, no one could watch the destruction of national monuments as each was systematically obliterated. The Washington Monument, fittingly, went first. After several lightning strikes to its pinnacle, the strong winds severed the obelisk, carrying the top two-thirds over 15 miles away before shattering its massive limestone on top of a strip mall in Temple Hills. The columns of the Lincoln Memorial were sucked out one at a time, causing remaining portions of the memorial to crumble. The famous statue of the sixteenth president remained intact until the combination of high winds and pounding rains knocked it on its side. The image of the president broke into pieces that were then picked up and scattered across the region. The president’s head would eventually be found outside Baltimore. 

The Jefferson Memorial fared far worse. With its massive columns ripped from their base, the inner portion of the memorial magnified the winds. The statue of the president was like a toy bouncing off the engraved walls before finally being smashed into dust. The memorial’s massive dome might have looked like a flying saucer as it was lifted up and then smashed into the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

So it went around the city. Nothing survived. The treasures of the Smithsonian were scattered, some pieces of historical artifacts carried as far away as Philadelphia and Morgantown. Other museums similarly had their buildings destroyed and their contents ripped to shreds as they were carried miles away by the winds.

When the storms reached the Capitol, they were merciless. With no consideration for its proud history nor its incredible architecture, floodwaters breached the basement more quickly than anyone would have expected, trapping those who had taken refuge in what was supposed to have been the safest place in the building. Two different tornados took turns picking away at the massive limestone structure, slamming parts and pieces from other structures into its walls until the massive stones finally moved the slightest bit out of place. The cupola was gone, deposited in the Potomoc South of Alexandria. That left the rotunda area unprotected and even pieces of the massive marble floor took to the sky. 

The Capitol could have survived that attack, though, and could have been rebuilt. There was a respite of about 20 minutes where surviving members of Congress and their staffs rejoiced to still be alive, not yet aware of the numbers of their colleagues who weren’t. Had they been able to find champagne in the dark, they would have been drinking it. They couldn’t see anything but lightning to their East and thinking that tornadic activity tends to move West to East, they assumed they were in the clear.

No one was terribly worried when winds began to pick back up. They were more concerned with trying to salvage what they could find than getting themselves to a place of safety. By the time they realized they were still in danger, it was too late. Wind speeds increased rapidly from 10 miles per hour to 20, then 50, then 80. Walls of rain carried by the wind slammed into the building with a force exceeding anything its architects could have ever imagined. Windspeed passed 300 miles per hour and even the massive limestone walls could no longer stay in place, but the hurricane was not done. Estimates calculated posthumously would claim the hurricane got up to unheard-of speeds over 500 miles per hour. There was nothing that could withstand such a destructive force. The size of the storm was so broad that it lingered over the Capitol unrelenting in its wrath for nearly two hours. By the time it moved Northward to obliterate what was left of Baltimore and Philadelphia, even the building’s foundation had taken damage that could not be repaired.

The Situation Room of the White House (officially part of the Presidential Emergency Operations Center) constructed specifically to keep the President safe and block out any external distractions. Buried deep below the subbasement, the concept had been that the room should be able to withstand a direct hit from a nuclear weapon. Getting there took time and access was limited. So when Director Raddison, at the President’s insistence, opened the door and pulled the security detail and a handful of low-level aides into the room with them, he was effectively deciding who among those in the White House were going to survive.

To some degree, the White House fared better than most of the structures around Washington. The hurricane took out the East Wing first, taking with it any evidence of the former First Lady’s attempt to poison President Blackstone. As it made its way across the building, the residence and third-floor amenities were wiped off as though some almighty being had brushed its hand over the structure. The West Wing partially survived with part of two walls left standing, but anything, and anyone, left inside was gone. 

Across the entire District, basement shelters proved to be death traps. The whole concept of the shelters had been that even in the event of a nuclear disaster, most of the building, at least the portion of floor directly above the basement, would remain intact. No one expected rain on top of that attack. Nature proved to have more destructive force than any bomb, however. While the hurricane winds toppled buildings, tornados of monumental proportion dug down, creating trenches in the ground, ripping up the floors that protected the basements that now, as unending rain poured upon them, caused the basements to fill with water. Those who had taken shelter were not able to escape. They could either drown or risk being blown away.

Terri was among those who chose to take her chances with the hurricane’s winds. Unable to see through the torrent of water, she stumbled across the rubble of the White House, she tried to stay low to the ground, hiding behind pieces of limestone and any other large element that could provide her a moment’s escape from the wind. Nothing held for long, though, and she kept moving horizontally to the hurricane, crawling over shards of glass, torn pieces of metal, splinters of trees, and shattered remnants of office furniture. 

The rain left her cold and wet. Her hands and knees were bloody. Pieces of office supplies were stuck in her hair. Dramatically low air pressure made it difficult to breathe. No matter how many times she tried wiping the water from her eyes, she still couldn’t see. Terri finally reached a support stone at a corner of the White House. These were titanic pieces of limestone more than six feet thick in any direction. She was sure she would be safe lying low behind this stone. For several minutes she was correct. As long as she stayed down at the center of the stone, both the wind and the rain went around her. She had a chance to catch her breath and try to plan for what to do next. If necessary, she would stay right there until the whole thing finally blew over, however long that might take.

Nature was hurling everything she could find at the other side of the stone. A cherry tree that had looked so beautiful in spring hit the limestone, its branches reaching over and slapping Terri on top of the head before they were snatched up and moved elsewhere. A pickup truck carried from some unknown parking lot fell on top of the stone, narrowly avoiding crushing Terri beneath it. For several minutes, Terri sat there shivering and shuddering every time something new hit the other side of the block. 

Finally, another piece of limestone smashed into the corner block with all the fury of a freight train. Pieces of gravel flew everywhere, embedding themselves into Terri’s skin. The corner block crumbled then gave way to the wind, taking the shelter Terri needed to stay alive.

Terri had no choice but to start crawling again. Making her way across the lawn, she would occasionally think she saw the shadow of another person, and perhaps she did, but there was no way to get their attention and before she could find the energy to scream they would be gone. She kept moving, ignoring all the pain, fighting off the urge to stop and give in. She felt the ground beneath her transition from grass to concrete to asphalt to dirt. She was well away from the White House now. She wasn’t sure if it was 17th street or H street that she was crossing, but she knew she hadn’t seen any sign of the buildings and statues that should have been close by. There might have been tears in Terri’s eyes as she thought of the hundreds of thousands of lives already lost, she couldn’t tell. No matter which way she turned, the rain was constantly in her face, obscuring her vision. 

Terri knew her only hope out in the open was to keep moving. Sooner or later she would have to come across something—a piece of a wall, the base of a statue—anything solid enough to give her a moment’s respite from the storm. She never made it. Mercifully, she neither saw nor heard the SUV before it landed on top of her. She might have known the two Secret Service agents inside but they were already dead as well. No one outside was going to survive.

Throughout the darkness of the night, the endless wave of tornados and hurricanes persisted. There was little difference felt between the departure of one and the arrival of another. Each one brought another tidal surge and several more feet of water. Annapolis, Fort Meade, and Joint Base Andrews were all under several feet of water. Philadelphia looked like Venice without the benefit of gondolas. New York’s towering skyline was completely dismantled. The only parts of buildings still standing were those under water.

For six unrelenting hours, the storms took their toll, wreaking Nature’s vengeance on those who had exploited and misused her resources.  She didn’t care if anyone survived. Humans were an infestation and reducing their number was necessary to maintain the balance she needed. She wouldn’t stop until she felt the scourge of humanity was put in its place.

Conversations In The Face Of Disaster

The SitRoom felt crowded, but it was a welcome and necessary condition given everything that was going on outside. The Presidential Emergency Operations Center was located deep beneath the East Wing of the White House. Had this been a typical tornadic situation, even a strong one of F4 or F5 classification with deep trench-digging capability, the entire underground facility would have been safe. But nothing about today had been typical and the combination of storms with 20 to 30-foot storm surge created a deadly plight even in this safest of places. Everyone inside the situation room was safe. There were no windows and the doors sealed so no water was coming in. Outside that room, however, water had rushed in as soon as the ground-level portions of the East Wing had been destroyed. Panicked staff members had fled only to be caught up in the unrelenting winds, tossed about like rag dolls, their lifeless bodies deposited across the region. 

Four Secret Service agents had stayed outside the SitRoom door, guarding the President and Vice President. The water they could handle; its volume, though rushing in quickly, never grew beyond knee-deep levels. Random debris coming through the ceiling was a greater problem. Massive chunks of lead-lined concrete killed two of the agents. Jagged pieces of rebar flung through the air with the force of a cannon violently pierced the body of a third. The fourth, a senior agent with almost 30 years of dedicated service, ducked and dodged the debris, doing his best to maintain his commitment to protect the president. The up and down of the air pressure was more than his body could handle, though, and as the pressure dropped with a third tornado, his lungs collapsed. He dropped to his knees, struggled to breathe, and finally gave in to the darkness.

Inside the crowded SitRoom, there was no way of knowing the specifics of what was happening outside, but the frequency with which the ground beneath the room shook was enough to let them know they had never experienced anything like this before. While the President and Vice President tried to remain calm and the Secret Service agents maintained their stoic demeanor, the young aides and interns, none of whom were older than 30, were terror-stricken, a couple on the verge of hysteria.

President Watkins almost-instinctively switched into “Mother” mode. “Looks like we could be down here for a while,” she said. “We might as well get to know each other. I’ll start. My name is Norma Watkins. When I woke up this morning, I was Speaker of the House of Representatives. Now, through a bizarre and disturbing set of circumstances, I am President of the United States. I didn’t ask for this job and I’m still not sure I want this job, but for the moment it’s mine and going to do my damndest to make sure the United States of America survives and rebuilds from this horrific tragedy.” The President paused and turned to her right. “Will, you’re up next. Give these young friends a fair warning.”

Will smiled, partly in acknowledgment of the President’s jab at his reputation as a by-the-book attorney, and partially knowing that the audience of aides were not likely aware of the reference. “My name is William Vincent Tucker,” he started. “I had the position of White House Counsel until late this afternoon and now I’m suddenly Vice President. If you knew me at all, that would probably cause you to pray that President Watkins doesn’t die while in office. I believe that the Constitution is a hard and fast set of rules for how the country should be run and is not subject to loose and wild interpretation. That opinion tends to not make me popular in the building because I spend a lot of time telling powerful people like the President that no, they can’t do what they want. Now, I’m one of those people. This is going to be an interesting experience.” He looked across the table. Katy was shaking her head, not wanting to go next. Will gave an evil grin and said, “Perhaps Ms. Lamb should go next. I think you’ll find her somewhat easier to work with.”

Katy tried giving Will the harshest glance she could muster, but even at her angriest, Katy’s pleasant demeanor still dominated. She looked around the table before speaking, taking in the terrified faces. “I’m Katy Lamb,” she started, then paused. She glanced nervously at the President who nodded for her to go on. “I guess I’m now Chief of Staff to the President of the United States and if we’re all being totally honest, I’ve no clue what I’m doing. I’m accustomed to managing a team of about 40 aides, and it’s nice to see a couple of familiar faces in this group. When this all finally shakes out, though … whew, the White House staff is huge, the responsibility to the President is overwhelming, and I’m not sure I’m ready for this. So, uhm, Director Raddison, I guess you should go next.”

Raddison’s expression was a different kind of uncomfortable. He was accustomed to dealing with department heads, people with education and experience, professionals with years of experience in their fields. He looked around the table and, from his perspective, they might as well have been a group of six-year-olds on a school field trip. Looking up, he saw both the President and Vice President chuckling at his predicament. “Uhm, I’m Roger Raddison,” he began slowly. “I’m Director of National Security, which means I’m supposed to keep all the agencies of the federal government working together to keep America safe from bad people.”

Will snickered at Roger’s reference to “bad people.” Roger rolled his eyes in response.

“What’s making me nervous at the moment is knowing that outside this room, millions, maybe even billions of people are dying and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I wish I could. Every fiber in my being wishes that I could have stopped whatever happened. I couldn’t, though. And now that it’s happened, everyone in this room, everyone who survives, shares responsibility for what we do moving forward. In a way, I guess, you all are lucky. You have a chance to shape what we become more than any generation since our founding. You’re important. You’re important to this country.”

Sensing that Roger was about to launch into patriotic speech mode, the President interrupted. “Thanks, coach,” she said. “Now I know who to send out when we need someone inspiring.” Norma smiled as she spoke. 

Roger blushed. He would be happy when he was dealing with “real” adults again.

Norma looked around the table and settled on the person sitting next to Will. “Young man, why don’t you go next?” She asked.

Fear immediately crossed the young man’s face as the President addressed him. He was accustomed to keeping his head down, saying “yes, sir” when spoken to, and, as much as anything, keeping his opinions to himself. “My name is Mohammed Ashir,” he said quietly. “I am an aide to Undersecretary Greyson of Health and Human Services. I was sent to the White House to ask whether the Center For Disease Control should prepare emergency services. I’m guessing the answer is probably yes.”

Norma, Will, and Roger all laughed at Mohammed’s understated recognition of the obvious. 

“Mohammed, you may have to handle that roll out yourself,” Roger said. “Think you can handle it?”

Mohammed’s eyes grew large. “Uh, Director Raddison, sir, thank you, but I’m not even sure who to contact!”

Roger smiled. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out. I’m concerned we may have lost a lot of resources across the country. I need a point person. How long have you worked here?”

“About seven months,” the young man replied. 

“I hope you paid attention,” Roger said. “You may be the most experienced person over at HHS now.”

Mohammed looked more frightened than he had when he first started talking. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Norma smiled in the kindest, most motherly way she could. “Mohammed, I’m glad you’re here. I’m sure your skills will grow and you’ll be an invaluable part of our growth.” She looked to the other side of the table where a young woman sat slumped in her chair, trying to hide behind the file folder she was carrying. “Let’s jump to the other side of the table,” the President said. “The young woman next to Director Raddison, why don’t you let us know who you are?”

The anxious girl slowly lowered the file folder, looking over the top at the President through eyeglasses whose designer frames did little to hide the fact that the girl was almost blind without them. She sat up, put the file folder on the table, and gathered her composure. “My name is Olivia Jackson,” she said. “I’m originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I’m an intern for Senator Garibaldi and was supposed to deliver these papers to the White House but I’ve never been here before and when I got here I was just kind of shoved downstairs here and now I’m not really sure I know what I’m supposed to do.”

“May I see the papers, Olivia?” the President asked. 

Olivia nodded and handed the folder to Katy who passed them on to Norma. The President looked through them carefully, skimming her way through the major points. “Seems Senator Garibaldi was concerned that President Blackstone’s policies on food assistance were adversely affecting a disproportionate share of people of color.” Norma paused as she finished looking through the papers. “Where did you go to college, Olivia?” she asked.

“UNC, ma’am,” Olivia answered. “I majored in Social Policy Development.”

“Do you agree with the Senator’s assessment of the situation?” Norma continued.

There was a moment of anxiety that passed across Olivia’s face before she realized what was happening and composed herself as she had when defending her thesis at school. “I don’t have enough information to speak to the situation in whole, ma’am,” she said, “but I do know that in the neighborhood I grew up in, food stamps were the only thing that put any food on anyone’s table. Those that couldn’t get it, like, because they had just gotten out of jail or something, they’d only have what people with food stamps could give them, like maybe some bread and some peanut butter. The cuts President Blackstone ordered last year made it even worse so that, like, if both parents weren’t living in the same house the benefits the mom might need to feed her kids were cut in half. They don’t have enough to feed themselves, let alone share. The entire neighborhood is starving, which often leads to theft and violence.”

Norma closed the folder and set it on the table in front of her. She folded her hands and leaned forward. “So, if you were in charge, what changes would you make so that everyone had an equal chance?”

Olivia thought a moment then said, “I think, Madam President, that the program needs to be revised to recognize that people who live in impoverished communities and neighborhoods, especially urban neighborhoods that also tend to be food deserts, often feed more than their own direct family members. Where food is less accessible, it’s the community’s need, not just the family’s need that should be considered.”

Norma nodded in agreement. “I like that concept,” she said. “Perhaps Senator Giribaldi should have talked with you. Your idea makes more sense than what she put in this proposal.” Norma passed the file folder over to Katy. “I think we’ll be able to find an important place for you, Olivia,” she said as she smiled. “I like the way you think.”

Young people who are successful at landing the highly competitive jobs as aides and interns are inherently bright and intelligent people and those in the SitRoom with the President quickly picked up on what was happening. More than just killing time, the President was essentially conducting interviews to fill positions in her new administration. By the time her conversation with Olivia was complete, no one was left slouching in a chair, the looks of fear and intimidation were gone. In their place sat a group of sharp, attentive people who were anxious to share what they could bring to the administration.

Norma picked up on the change in attitude and smiled. “Vice President Tucker, the next choice should be yours, I believe.”
“Thank you, Madam President,” Will said as he smiled and nodded. He looked carefully around the room. “There,” he said motioning to the corner of the room opposite him, “the young woman in the back there in the blue dress. Why don’t you step up a little where we can see you and tell us your name?”

The young woman stepped between to others and into the light. “My name is Sophia Ameretto Wattenberg,” she announced. “I’m an aide to Secretary Kaiser at the State Office. I was sent over to provide a briefing on the status of our trade treaty with Japan that is set to expire next year.”

“That’s certainly important,” Will said. “I understand negotiations have been going on for some time. Have you been a part of those negotiations?”

“No, sir,” Sophia answered. “The negotiation team is still in Tokyo. They did send a report over yesterday and that is largely why I was sent over this morning.”

Will nodded. “Abbreviate for me, please,” he said. “How are things going?”

Sophia took a big breath, not sure exactly how her planned statement would go over. “Well, Mr. Vice President, at Secretary Kaiser’s insistence, the team has been pushing Tokyo to important more American goods and products so as to dimish the size of the deficit. Initially, they seemed open to the proposition, but then, Secretary Kaiser suggested that perhaps a tariff on some products, such as smaller electronics, and that was not received positively.”

Will looked over at Norma and rolled his eyes. She nodded her agreement. “Tariffs are a difficult bargaining tool. Do you agree with the Secretary’s opinion?”

“No, sir,” Sophia wisely answered. “Tariffs are a punitive measure that ultimately hurt consumers on both sides. I think it might be more appropriate to suggest possibly reducing existing tariffs on US products and let supply and demand balance out the deficit.”

“You have a background in economics?” Will asked.

“Yes, sir,” Sophia answered. “I have a Master’s degree in Global Economics and Trade from Stanford. I’ve been an aide for Asian Relations for the past two years.”

Norma sat forward to insert herself into the conversation. “Why Asian Relations, Sophia? Do you have particular skills in that area?”

Sophia swallowed hard before answering. “No, Madam President, I was just assigned here. My expertise is centered more around global economic policy. I believe the United States is, or at least has been, in a position to use its dominant status to create a more level playing field, especially in regard to South American countries who end up consuming a large amount of humanitarian aid because we destabilize their economies with our prohibitive trade agreements. I think the more effort we put into building South American economies the less humanitarian assistance they are likely to need.”

Conversations like this continued into the night, conveniently taking all attention away from the storms that still caused the room to rock every once in a while. Each aide and intern did their best to convince the President and Vice President that they could be suitable and appropriate additions to her administration once the storm was over. For her part, President Watkins treated the young people respectfully as though they had more experience than was actually the case. She was beginning to see some of the potential leadership they would need to piece the country back together and begin moving forward. 

Only Roger remained keenly aware of how long the storms were continuing. He knew that when they did finally open the door to the SitRoom, the disaster they were likely to find would be heart-wrenching for everyone. He also worried that their ability to defend the country was severely compromised. Fortunately, there was no one who still had the resources to do any damage, but he didn’t know that yet and it was cause for him to spend most the night looking as though he hated everyone in the room. 

A couple of hours into their introductions, the room was shaken yet again, this time hard enough to cause everyone to hold on to the table or the wall for support. “The world’s not going to look pretty when we leave here,” Norma said. “We’ve got to be ready to take the worst and turn it into the foundation for what can be the best.”

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Into The Night

As darkness closed in on the small apartment, only a single can of fuel provided a source of light. The orange glow on the kitchen counter was enough to allow movement without people tripping over each other but the shadows ran deep and long, especially in the corners. Despite overwhelming fatigue, no one really wanted to sleep. The earlier unseen explosion, somewhere off in the distance, had both Miranda and Adam on edge and they stood quietly gazing out the glass door of the patio into the darkness. Cam stayed close to Reesie, bothered by both the apparent loss of her family and the anxiety of being surrounded by people she was afraid to trust. Gwen was stretched out on the floor next to Roscoe, lost in thoughts of what motherhood might be like in this new environment that was taking shape around them. Hannah, wrapped in a blanket, her knees up to her chest, sat on the couch worried that she had alienated perhaps the only family she had left, arguing with herself whether such steadfast devotion to her faith was worth the loss. Barry and Amanda were the only ones making any noise, talking quietly about what opportunities might lie in front of them after something resembling “normal” started to return. 

Carlson leaned against the counter, close to the light. He was feeling an unexplainable fear of the darkness now that he realized that his failure to make yesterday’s meeting in Milwaukee likely fed, at least to some degree, into the day’s disaster. He continued rolling the chip in his pocket between his fingers. To some degree, the disaster bought him some time. It could be months, possibly even years before technology returned to a state where the chip could be read and its contents fully explored. Between now and then, though, there were consequences that, as far as he could tell, were unavoidable. Being in the Midwest would help some, to be sure. At least they would be spared from the direct impact of the super hurricanes already building in both major oceans. What they wouldn’t be able to escape would be the earthquakes that, by Carlson’s estimates, were no more than a few hours away.

More than twenty years had passed since the problem first began. Geothermal energy had long been touted as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels but resources had seemed to be limited to a few places in the Western United States, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Africa. Then, new technologies allowed companies like ThermoDyne to tap deep resources, the kind that could only be located with thermal satellite energy. Suddenly, the entire planet was open to a powerful source of cheap and infinitely renewable energy waiting to be tapped.

Unfortunately, oil-producing countries feared that the utilization of such resources would upset their economies. Geothermal energy didn’t require near the manpower, was universal enough to provide nationalistic autonomy, and might dramatically upset the global balance of power as third world countries had the potential to lose their dependence upon foreign assistance. As a result, geothermal exploration and development were regulated to the point that it was financially prohibitive to bring the energy to the mainstream. At least, that’s what the politicians were being told.

Secretly, ThermoDyne had gone ahead and started what they called “Tap and Cap” operations where hundreds of powerful deep geothermal stores were tapped and prepared for resourcing then capped, stop valves placed on the structures, keeping the thermal energy below ground until it was needed. The plan was to wait until the next oil crisis, which was inevitable, and then release a global supply of cheap energy, completely sinking oil economies and allowing ThermoDyne-funded politicians to take over entire countries. The coup had the potential to be bloody on the front end but ultimately would serve the planet better while making billionaires of everyone at ThermoDyne.

That was until Carlson started taking a closer look at thermal maps around the capped sites. It appeared that the caps weren’t all working properly, allowing pressure to build to dangerous levels and in many cases causing the thermal energy to leak into the environment. Only Carlson and a handful of other ThermoDyne employees around the world were aware of how severe the problem had become. For all the talk of greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions, much of the problems with global climate change were actually being fueled by these leaks in the global geothermal system. Ocean-based caps were significantly warming sea waters causing ice caps to melt at an alarming rate. Land-based caps were altering ecosystems resulting in mass die-offs of bees and migratory birds. 

Gathering all the data necessary to convince ThermoDyne executives to take any action at all had consumed the past three years of Carlson’s life. He had flown all over the globe personally checking and double-checking reports from the most problematic sites. He had test results not only from internal scientists but independent studies proving the effect the capped sites were having. 

Carlson had finally convinced his boss, Greg Morris, that the problem needed immediate action. The problem was getting the attention of ThermoDyne’s CEO, Boris Kostenrawki, a jet-setting billionaire who didn’t like spending two nights in the same place. Greg had finally managed to get Carlson 15 minutes in front of the boss to convince him that the pressure valves needed to be released on the caps immediately and the sites allowed to cool before cataclysmic weather events started to take place. By Carlson’s estimates, they should have had three months to get the sites shut down. But then, the rental car fiasco caused him to miss the meeting. Kostenrawki was impatient and moved on, then fired Carlson when he heard about the incident at the airport.

Now, adding insult to all the injury, Carlson’s estimates appeared to be wrong. He knew storms of this magnitude didn’t just happen. Tornadoes the size of the one they had seen that afternoon could only be fueled by massive amounts of thermal energy. The caps were likely hours, days at the most, from completely blowing and when they did a literal thermal hell would break loose across the planet. The first one, likely deep in the Pacific off the coast of Korea, would set off a chain reaction that would ignite long-dormant volcanoes and geothermal geysers and triggering massive earthquakes across every continent. The devastating effects would have the impact of a major extermination event the likes of which the planet had not seen since the ice age.

Carlson wished more than ever for a working smartphone from which he could access satellite images. He knew that somewhere in the Caribbean multiple tropical depressions were forming. They would combine to create a massive hurricane that exceeded anything the Saffir-Simpson scale could measure. None of the islands would survive. The storm would likely power its way up the East coast of the US ripping up everything in its path and spawning hundreds of tornados that would carry the terror inland. By the time the first one died somewhere near the North pole, another would have formed and been following an almost identical path. There wouldn’t be time to recover and with communications down people would never know what was about to hit them.

For where he stood now, the greatest danger would likely come from the West. Massive pools of deep geothermal energy were centered in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Colorado. As Pacific-based energy rippled outward, earthquakes would take out the existing sites and the sudden release of energy would send dormant heat sources, such as those barely beneath the surface at Yellowstone National Park, into cascading overload. The more the earthquakes triggered explosions, the explosions would then trigger more earthquakes. Simultaneously, with massive amounts of heat and carbon released into the atmosphere, storms such as what had flooded them out this morning would seem small by comparison.

Exactly how the earthquakes would respond East of the Rockies was a geological mystery. None of the mapped faults had been especially active in the Quarternary period, meaning nothing had broken the ground. That was likely to change now and the lack of any available modeling would put major cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, and Nashville at risk. Existing emergency resources would be inadequate to respond even partially to all the disasters. People in rural areas were likely to be completely ignored. Millions of people would die as a result.

Even standing as close as he was to the light, no one saw the tear roll down Carlson’s cheek. Sure, they were all fine now, but he knew the odds of them all surviving decreased with each passing minute. With the sound of every distant explosion or the rumble of what was assumed to be thunder, he knew a greater disaster was approaching and even if he told everyone there was nothing they could do to stop it, no place they could go that would be any safer than where they were right now.

The ding of an old school wind-up timer signaled the end of the first watch period. Barry and Amanda would take the balcony, Carlson and Reesie would take over for Natalie and Darryll. Carlson felt embarrassingly uncomfortable. While he had coffee in her shop every day he was in town and always sat at the counter and chatted, he knew next to nothing about the young woman. Carlson considered it a strength that he could develop a business relationship with someone without ever getting terribly close. The sad reality was that he never got too close with anyone, including his wife and daughters. He wondered where they were, if they had survived the initial storms, and if they had whether or not they might be frightened. Over the past five years, they had all gotten accustomed to getting by without him. On a recent in-and-out trip home, his wife had half-way joked that she felt a bit like a widow. Even when he was home, he was distracted, little more than a memory of the person she married. He hoped they were all safe. He doubted they cared whether he was.

“I’m gonna come with you,” Cam announced as Reesie stood up and headed for the front door.

Exchanging a quick glance with Carlson, Reesie responded, “Nah, I think you’d best stay in here and try to get some rest. It’s only a couple of hours and it’s not likely to be very interesting. Just a bunch of adult talk, you know?” She took off the jacket she’d been wearing and wrapped it around Cam’s narrow shoulders. “Here, that’ll keep you cozy until I get back.”

Cam wrapped the large coat around her and huddled back in a lump on the floor. Reesie and Carlson stepped out front and found Natalie and Darryll sitting near the railing, their backs leaning against each other. 

“You guys look cozy,” Reesie said. “You can go back inside if you’d like.”

Natalie smiled. “The breeze out here is kinda nice. It’s been pretty quiet. Now that it’s dark, I don’t know that we’ll see anyone.”

Reesie looked out into the inky blackness around them. “I think I worry more about what I can’t see. This feels off, weird in a way that’s difficult to describe. Not having street lights is one thing, but no light at all, looking out there and seeing nothing, makes my skin crawl.”

Carlson walked over to the rail and leaned out, trying to see if there was anything visible in any direction. There wasn’t. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel vulnerable out here. You know we can’t be the only people who survived, but I don’t imagine many were able to find apartment buildings like this. People who are desperate do desperate things.”

“After being out here a few minutes, your ears start to pick up on subtle sounds,” Darryll said. 

“I guess it’s that same kind of adaptation that comes with being blind. There’s so little noise out here and nothing to interfere. You hear every little sound.”

“Have you heard anything odd?” Reesie asked. 

“No, not really,” Natalie said, looking at Darryll. They had already decided to not mention the people who had floated to their deaths earlier. There wasn’t any point.

“Occasionally a piece of wood or something will slam into a car or one of the supports downstairs,” Darryll added. “It’s always a bit startling when that happens. What we’ve been trying to listen for is anything on the stairs or hitting the walls at either end. We’ve not wandered far from the door, though. We lose sight of each other too quickly.”

Carlson turned around, leaned against the rail, and sighed. “It’s going to be a long night. I’d give almost anything for a glass of 12-year-old scotch.”

Reesie turned and leaned on the rail as well. “Make mine a Moscow Mule.”

“Beer, here,” Natalie added.

“Same,” Darryll concurred.

The four of them sat in the darkness, waiting. Longing. Remembering better times, drinking with friends, moments of pleasure that, for now, seemed gone forever.

The Power Of Frustration

Perry sat on the table trying desperately to move his legs. “Mind over matter,” he kept telling himself. “This is all psychosomatic. There’s nothing wrong with your legs. You just have to tell yourself they can move. That’s it. Just move them.” But nothing happened. Nothing had happened for a couple of hours. He sat there on the table, trying to get some feeling, jabbing and poking at his legs, things he knew should have caused some level of pain, but no matter what he tried there was nothing.

Shifting his weight around on the table had almost caused him to fall more than once. While the table was fully capable of holding his weight, its legs were not designed to endure the added pressure of being jerked around in different directions. The momentary panic that came with nearly falling off the table had convinced Perry that sitting still was probably his safest option. Still, the longer he sat there the angrier he became. He had devoted the past 15 years of his life to a project that should have saved people. Instead, hundreds of thousands, at least, had been killed because someone, perhaps more than one someone, had slipped under his radar and sabotaged the whole thing.

One advantage of not being able to move around was that it gave Perry a lot of time to think back over conversations he had with Tony Briscane and others. Tony had seemed to be aware of the potential dangers more than Perry was. He had been reluctant to add the FBI’s specialist at first. Keeping out any type of bias had been important in making sure that no possible threat was ignored and Perry considered both the FBI and CIA to be among the most biased organizations in government. Tony had proven himself, though, and had been an important leader in getting the project test ready and meeting what everyone had considered the ridiculous demands of the president.

The president’s insistence that the test be public and take place at the White House was considered ridiculous and inappropriate by everyone on the team. Tests needed to be conducted under controlled circumstances and while there was no question that the White House was about as secure a location as possible, it was still dramatically more open than the systems at the bunker, creating new and unknown dangers for interference or interception. Tony had made it his job to go through every aspect of the White House communications system with a fine-tooth comb before agreeing to conduct the test there, and only if he were the one conducting it. There were too many options for trouble.

Of particular concern was the possibility of espionage on the part of foreign governments, particularly the Russians and Chinese. Tony, Perry, and others on the team had looked at the schematics Tony had created and found numerous points where the system was potentially open to being hacked. While electrical components of the system were all manufactured by US companies, Tony had discovered that critical elements within those components were made in China, components that had the ability to store data and share information independently of the components themselves. Replacing those pieces was not practical so the team had code to shut down the external communication functions of those pieces, code that Tony was constantly tweaking right up until the last minute.

The team had also conducted their own tests within the bunker. They had purchased hundreds of cell phones from every manufacturer on every service provider available in the US, set those phones all over the base in varying conditions, and checked to make sure that every phone received the message at the same time. That aspect alone had taken over two years of testing before they were convinced that they could reach 99 percent of the cell phones in the United States. 

Still, there were limitations for which they could not account in the bunker or on the base. Cell phones depended on relays and towers being in operation. Data from service providers themselves showed that, at any given time, 18 percent of all relay equipment was not functioning for one reason or another. For the major providers, that fact was offset by redundant overlapping from other towers. They had spent billions of dollars to make sure that calls and text went through no matter where one was in the continental US. Communities primarily served by smaller providers, though, did not enjoy such redundancy. Outage complaints were frequent which meant that there were some people who might not receive the messages, especially if they were, for example, riding a tractor out in the middle of a field or driving a semi across the often desolate areas of Interstate 40. 

Tony had helped the team find solutions to all those problems. By the time he left for the White House, Tony had convinced Perry that there was less than .00001 percent chance of failure and that there was a backup to account even for that. By all reasonable estimations, there was absolutely no reason for the test to fail.

Yet, the test did fail, and the results of that failure had been unlike anything Perry had ever seen. He was aware that the government had emergency contingency plans in case there was ever an attack on the nation’s power grid. However, that plan largely relied on communications systems still being intact. Engineers in major cities needed the ability to communicate with each other in real-time as they brought systems back online in order to prevent another cascading outage that would further damage the equipment. They had just killed every cell phone in the US. The contingency plan was worthless.

Lightening hit near the hangar and the resulting thunder shook everything inside, including Perry’s table. He held on to the sides, not sure but what he was going to yet end up on the floor, unable to pull himself back up without assistance. The failure of the test was one disaster. This never-ending storm was a whole other matter, one so severe that no contingency plan, of which the military seemed to have endless quantities, fully covered what was happening at this juncture.

Perry saw Major Davis a few yards away and motioned for him to come over to his tent

“Yes, sir, what can I do for you,” the officer said as he saluted.

Perry returned the salute as best he could before answering, “What’s our status with this storm, Major? It’s been hitting us nonstop for a few hours now. How’s everything holding up?”

The Marine shuffled his feet nervously and asked, “Permission to speak candidly, sir?”

Perry nodded, “Of course.”

“We’re doing everything humanly possible to hold things together, but we’re getting close to the limit of what we can reasonably do. The cover over the bunker is only partially holding out the rain. The other explosion sites are likely severely flooding by now and that is likely impacting any survivors who were able to make it into the tunnels. We’re measuring winds at 70 and 80 knots per hour. I can’t send people out into that for any reason, I don’t care what’s blowing away. The exterior of the facility is taking a pretty severe beating. Again, it’s holding together for now, but if this keeps up we’re going to start seeing some issues soon, probably starting with the roof pieces on the exposed West side. If we could get out there, we could fix it, but again, I don’t dare send people out in this. Our current status is grave.”

Perry grimaced. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that the weather might clear anytime soon.”

Davis shrugged. “Who knows? We don’t have satellite. We don’t have radar. The best we can do is hang a sock on a pole to see which way the wind’s blowing. We’re sitting blind here, Colonel. And it’s dark now so we can’t even see what’s coming at us next.”

“How are our people holding up?” Perry asked as he watched the non-stop activity across the hangar.

Major Davis followed Perry’s gaze. “We’ve set up three shifts of rotation but most of our people are volunteering for double shifts. The downtime makes them more anxious so it’s better to keep busy and keep working. We lost a couple more of the injured and there are maybe ten others I’ll be surprised if they survive the night. We are doing everything we can but with such limited resources, we can’t really give everyone the level of care they need. Were we able to get them to a hospital, things would be different. One of my engineers says if we can get him to the garage he can fix transports to get people out, but, yet again, that means going out in this storm and there’s no way one of those trucks would stay upright in this wind.”

Perry sighed. He wanted, needed, to be up and walking. He needed to talk to the survivors. He needed to encourage the troops. He was an ineffective leader as long as he was sitting on this table. “Major, I have a favor to ask of you,” he said.

“Yes, sir, anything you want,” Davis responded.

“I need a way to be mobile, to get around, talk to the survivors, inspect things for myself. Preferably something that doesn’t involve a motor,” Perry instructed.

“A wheelchair,” the Major said, simplifying the request with the obvious answer.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Perry chuckled. “I just assumed we didn’t actually have one around.”

“I think we can probably rig up something similar,” Davis said. “There are various parts and pieces lying around. The back tires may be a bit broad, but I’ll see what we can cobble together.”

Perry shifted uncomfortably on the table. “Thanks. I’m feeling too damn useless sitting here. I also want to interview that fucking traitor you’re holding. I need to know what’s really going on here and why before I beat the living shit out of him.”

Major Davis leaned in and lowered his voice. “There are plenty of people willing to help you with both parts of that,” he said. “We’ve got a team with experience in Afghanistan. Just say the word …”

Perry nodded. He had wondered in the past whether there might be an interrogation unit attached to security detail. He didn’t want to have to use such drastic tactics if he didn’t have to, but at the same time, it wasn’t going to bother him any if Tom proved less than cooperative. A part of Perry wanted to beat the traitor within an inch of his life.

Another close lightning strike caused both men to instinctively duck as the ground shook beneath them. Dust fell from the rafters, resulting in distant calls for making sure the wounded were sufficiently covered. 

Perry could see the concern on Major Davis’ face. “What are you thinking, Major?” he asked.

“I grew up in Kansas, sir,” Davis started, “and this is starting to feel like pre-tornado conditions. If we start getting hail, even a small amount, I’m moving everything in away from the walls and set barricades in front of the doors. I don’t want anyone being sucked out if a door goes.”

“Think the building can sustain a direct hit?” Perry asked.

David shook his head. “There’s no way. Too much air under here. Anything larger than an F2 is going to yank the roof right off this hangar and suck out anything that’s not tied down, including people.”

Perry didn’t like this prognosis at all. After everything else they’d been through, the thought of people being sucked outward by a tornado felt as though the earth were directly punishing them for something they had no part in causing. “Find me a wheelchair, Major,” he said. “If I’m going to get sucked out of here I don’t want to be strapped to this table when it happens.”

“Aye, sir,” Davis said as he saluted and trotted off.

Grasping The Situation

The light in the re-inforced basement bunker known as the Situation Room had been reduced to two bulbs in an effort to extend the life of the diesel-powered generators. Similar moves had been made throughout the White House, giving the entire building a somewhat creepy feeling. Some remarked that it must be similar to what it was like before the first electric lights were installed in 1891, during Benjamin Harrison’s presidency. Others dared to wonder aloud what ghosts or spirits might be incited to walk among the shadowy corridors. In the SitRoom, however, there was no time for speculation.

Admiral Grace Tennant, acting on behalf and with the consent of the joint Chiefs of Staff, was going over hand-written notes with Rick Angel, president Blackstone’s National Security Advisor, Roger Raddison, director of National Security, and a very frustrated President Norma Watkins, who had been whisked away from the Capitol the instant she had been sworn in, much to the objection of several members of Congress who still had questions they wanted to be answered. 

Admiral Tennant sighed heavily and put the papers on the table in front of her. “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble in an attempt to create a picture of as much of the continental US as possible. We were able to get a limited number of planes back in the air around 1400 hours this afternoon. Considerable care had to be taken since they were having to fly without any satellite or radio support, something these pilots are not trained to do under most circumstances. Fortunately, there were enough pilots with experience over Afghanistan and the Middle East that the lack of resources wasn’t that big a deal. We sent them on a domestic surveillance mission to see what the state is across the country. They took pictures but they were with traditional film cameras. We’re having some challenges finding the chemicals necessary to process them, but they’ll be brought over as soon as possible. What you have in front of you is a written report compiled by the pilots, co-pilots, and flight navigators on those planes. We knew we would be looking at a dire situation, but I don’t think anyone was expecting what these pilots have seen.”

“How much of the country were they able to actually observe?” Norma asked. “I know they can see a lot, but did they get over some of the less-populated regions?”

“I’m confident they had eyes on at least 96 percent of the country,” Grace replied. “In most cases, we had some duplication over some of those least-populated regions. Although, based on what I’m seeing here, it looks as though we may have a whole lot more wilderness than we did when we woke up this morning.”

“Madam President, I’m not totally comfortable being part of this conversation,” Rick Angel said. “This is classified information and, technically, I’m a civilian now. I’m not sure it’s legal or appropriate for me to be here.”

“Roger, your opinion, please,” Norma said. “Is Mr. Angel a threat to the security of this country?”

Roger and Grace both laughed, though Norma’s expression didn’t change. “With all due respect, ma’am, we’ve often asked that same question about your predecessor, may he rest in peace. Personally, I don’t have a problem with Mr. Angel, but legally he’s correct, his presence in this room is problematic unless you want to appoint him to a specific position.”

Norma buried her face in her hands a moment before responding. “Fuck, guys, I don’t know. I’m not ready for all this,” she said. “Rick, I need all the intelligent opinions I can get and I’ve heard more than once how you managed to get Rudy to backdown off some incredibly stupid ideas. How ‘bout you continue as ‘acting’ security advisor until I have time to figure out what the hell I’m doing?”

Rick smiled at the jab Norma had taken at the former president. “I serve at your pleasure, Madam President,” he said.

“Good, let’s get on with this,” Norma said. “I’m looking over these notes and I’m not seeing a damn bit of good news here. Do we have any casualty estimates?”

Admiral Tennant shuffled through the notes to confirm her answer before speaking. “No ma’am, there are none included. However, given the severity of this report, I think it’s safe to say that there are not going to be as many members of Congress next session. Our country has taken a pretty big hit.”

Norma looked through the notes for the third time. “Roger, can we be sure none of this is the result of some form of foreign attack? How much of this is a natural disaster and how much did we do to ourselves?”

“The worst definitely appears to be a natural disaster,” Roger confirmed. “I can’t say that the whole mess wasn’t started by China, though. I’ve talked with people at the National Weather Service and they say there was absolutely no indication of these weather patterns 24 hours prior to the first events. According to their information, the only way this could happen would be for there to have been a sudden, large-scale underwater event that dramatically warmed the oceans by over 50 degrees. That could be consistent with an underwater nuclear detonation.”

Feeling her stomach churn, Norma put her forehead on the table. “Great. I’ve been in office how many minutes before we have a nuclear war scenario? Are we sure China has that capability?”

“They have two 093-type subs,” Grace answered. “They’ve been working on a naval base near Sanya in the Hainan province for at least six years. Previous satellite imagery has shown they’re working on at least four more subs but we don’t have confirmation on how close those are to being in service.” 

Rick absentmindedly drummed his fingers on the tale, causing Norma to sit up and glare at him. “You have something to say, Mr. Angel?” the President asked, her voice tense and tired.

He smiled a half-hearted apology. “Roger, help me remember here, but didn’t you say something about a year or so ago about putting down some mines somewhere along there? I don’t remember it being an actual mission, though, just something we discussed in regard to that portion of the South China Sea. Am I remembering that correctly?”

Sitting back in his chair, Roger sighed as he gave the matter some thought. He knew the answer but he didn’t want to be the one to say it out loud. He didn’t know the new president well, but he was certain that she wasn’t going to like what she was about to hear. “Admiral, you want to handle that one?” he asked, artfully passing the buck to avoid inevitable ridicule.

Grace glared at Roger, well aware of what he had just done to her. “You chicken-shit son-of-a-bitch,” she said, then turned to the president and added, “I apologize Madam President, but he just threw me under the submarine, in a manner of speaking. Yes, we did discuss the possibility of putting down mines in the South China Sea. China has been particularly aggressive in their attempts to lay claim to many of those islands, land that Japan claims is theirs.”

“Mr. Raddison, if you insist on continuing misogynistic behavior I won’t hesitate to ask for your resignation,” Norma warned. “Admiral, so there’s a chance our mines blew up their subs and that caused this whole mess?”

“No ma’am,” Grace responded, shaking her head. “First of all, even if we had mines in place, they would have had to blow up both subs at the same time. Our last recon imagery shows they were nowhere near each other nor that area.”

“Do I even want to know where they are?” Rick asked. 

“One’s about 80 miles off the coast of Japan and the second is near the Bering Strait, giving the Russians something to worry about,” Grace said. “But there is some related information that could be important. We sent the Montana down there to take a look and possible mine locations and they discovered several structures on the surface apparently installed by ThermoDyne, the US energy company. We don’t know exactly what they are but they seemed to be capping something as best we can guess.”

Norma was sitting up and paying careful attention now. “Wait, you’re telling me a US company, ThermoDyne, the one based in … where is it, Indianapolis? That they have some kind of operations going on in the China Sea? How does this even happen? Why is this the first I’m hearing about this and why hasn’t the CEO of the company been subpoenaed to provide information?”

Uncomfortable glances were exchanged around the room. No one wanted to answer the question.

“I’ll take the hit on this one,” Rick finally said. “Admiral Tennant brought the matter to President Blackstone as soon as she got the information. I remember the meeting well. She was visibly upset by the time she got to the Oval. The President, on the other hand, was in one of his “look how funny I am” moods. She told him what the Montana had found and almost demanded that we push ThermoDyne for some answers. Their equipment was directly in the way of a US military operation. We needed to know why.” Rick paused to take a deep breath before continuing. “Rudy tried making a weak joke, something about ThermoDyne doing our job for us. He then went off on a tangent about how he personally knew the CEO, that he had donated to the President’s campaign, ‘really nice guy,’ and on and on, something about how they were going to change the nature of energy one day. When Admiral Tennant tried pushing him that we needed to do something, he essentially said she was stupid and that ThermoDyne was probably just gathering information.” Rick paused again and looked at Grace. “Do you want me to go on?”

“That’s okay,” Admiral Tennant said. She sat forward in her chair. “This is one of the reasons I’m not crazy about taking the positions as Joint Chief. When I told President Blackstone that we needed some answers from ThermoDyne, he called me a bitch, said I was stupid because ThermoDyne is based in Indiana and Indiana doesn’t have an ocean, and then told me to go make sure everything in the Navy was ‘ship shape’ in case he wanted to ‘take a cruise,’ then said he’d bend me over his lap and spank me if I didn’t drop the matter. Had General Lang not stepped between us I was ready to kill the President myself. I’ve not been back to the Oval Office since until you called for me this afternoon.”

Norma slammed both her fist on the table and stood up, forcing the other three to stand as well. “I don’t normally condone speaking ill of the dead but that goddammed mother fucking sonofabitch had better be glad he’s dead,” she fumed. “Admiral Tennant, on behalf of the United States of America, I apologize for the manner in which you were treated. I will personally make sure that you are given an official commendation for your service and effort. No one should have to put up with that bullshit from anyone, especially the President of the United States.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Grace said quietly.

“Now, let’s begin re-thinking these possibilities,” Norma continued as she began pacing around the room. “We know that a sudden warming of waters in the Pacific is likely responsible for some if not all the dramatic weather we’re seeing. We know that ThermoDyne has, or possibly had, some kind of equipment at the bottom of that ocean. We know that China had no nuclear devices in those locations. Is there anything else out there that I don’t know about?”

As if in answer to the question, there was a knock on the outside of the SitRoom door. Since she was the closest, Admiral Tennant walked over and answered the knock, taking a piece of paper from the person on the other side and responding, “Thank you, ensign,” as she shut the door. Grace looked at the note and said, “Ma’am, this is not good news.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Norma said, throwing her hands in the air. “Why would there be any good news? That fat fucking bastard left us a mess that will take forever to correct!” She walked back around the table and sat in her chair before saying, “Go ahead, have a seat and drop the bomb. And please tell me it’s not a literal bomb.”

Grace and the two men took their seats.

“No ma’am, it’s not an actual bomb, but it might as well be one,” Grace said. “Our planes have been searching the islands South of Miami, into the Caribbean. Nothing is there that is supposed to be there.”

Roger sat forward in his chair. “Excuse me?” he asked. “Are you saying that all those islands, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Aruba, all of them are gone?”

“That seems to be the case,” Grace said. “Pilots say there’s nothing there but ocean, and …” she paused for effect, “Seven hurricanes in various forms of development.”

“What the fuck!” Roger exclaimed as he leaped to his feet, knocking his chair over backward. “We’re not in hurricane season! That’s not even supposed to be possible!”

“Wait, it gets better,” Grace said as calmly as she could. “US Geological says that their instruments, which all operate on batteries and buried cables in the first place, are picking up seismic activity off the West coast. You’re not going to believe these numbers.”

“Numbers tend to be meaningless. How much damage to where and when?” Norma asked. 

Grace looked carefully at the paper, turned it over, then took an ink pen from the inside pocket of her uniform to draw a rough map of the Western Coast of the United States. She then made a small circle about half an inch off the coast of Oregon. “That’s where the epicenter appears to be,” she explained as she continued drawing additional circles down the coastline. “Each of these circles represents a place where seismic activity is peaking. They’re radiating out with a strength in excess of 9.4. By the time they reach Portland, San Francisco, and all the way down to San Diego, they’re going to be around 8.5. Not only is there not a building standing that can hold up to anything more than an 8, anything jarring the coast that hard is going to trigger all the other faults in the area.”

This was devastating news. Military attacks they could handle, there was an appropriate response to that. Earthquakes that hit a city were challenging but could be managed. This was different. California had never seen anything larger than 7.9 and even that had been all the way back in 1857 when the state was considerably less populated. Oregon and Washington had never felt anything close to what was about to hit them. Millions of lives were at risk and they had no way of even warning them.

“I’m open to any ideas, even if they’re stupid,” Norma said as she leaned on the table. “At this point, I’d send elephants to hold down the ground if I thought it would work. I … I just can’t fathom … all those people.”

Admiral Tennant moved her chair over and took Norma’s hands in hers. “Madam President, this is when the American people need us to be the strongest. We can’t always stop bad things from happening no matter how much we try. We can’t take back what’s already done. As much as it feels like it’s our job, we don’t control the world. We don’t control much of anything, it turns out. Things happen and we respond. We respond with medical assistance. We respond with security We respond with financing. We respond with food and water. We respond with more than thoughts and prayers. When the United States of America sees people in need, anywhere in the world, we respond with boots on the ground, often on the same day, doing everything we possibly can to help those lives. If we do it for every other country in the world, how much more do we need to do it for our own? You have the power of martial law. You can put the full weight of the US military wherever it needs to be. The Navy and Marines are already in San Diego. We’ll take care of them. There are other forces all up and down that coast. We do a lot more humanitarian missions than we do military and I’m happy that’s the truth.”

Norma smiled at Grace as a tear rolled down her cheek. She was glad she wasn’t having to make these decisions on her own.

Grace wasn’t finished. “Now, the sad reality of the situation is that there aren’t as many people to save as there was this time yesterday. You’ve read the summary. Wildfires have already consumed everything from Carlsbad to the Olympic National Forest. They’ve not left much in their path. What hasn’t burned is flooded. Everything docked at San Diego had to move out into the ocean by ten miles. All our desert bases had to evacuate. Mud and rock slides are completely reshaping the coastline. The only reason our military bases have largely survived is that they’re designed to be mobile and they have the tools to protect themselves. Most people don’t have that luxury. They were caught off guard with no warning. They were on their way to school, to work, to the beach, and already, before this earthquake ever gets close, they’re gone. None of LA’s freeways are still standing. There’s not a building anywhere in the country taller than five stories. Anywhere.” 

“I’m sorry Madam President, but we’re witnessing the largest extinction event to hit this planet in tens of thousands of years. There will be survivors, but they won’t be many and it may take us months to find them all. When these earthquakes hit, they’ll open up some cracks in the ground, they’ll rearrange the rubble, they might even change the flow of some rivers. But they’re also going to bury the dead. They’re going to stop some of the mudslides. They’re going to consume a lot of the detritus that is currently sitting on the surface. Look at is as nature’s way of helping to clean up.”

Norma was sobbing hard by the time Grace paused. Roger took the handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit coat and handed it across the table for Grace to give the President. They waited, quietly, until Norma composed herself enough to respond.

“I’m sorry, I guess that’s not very presidential of me, is it?” Norma said as she dapped at her eyes. “Roger, I’ll have to buy you a new pocket square. This one’s going to be covered in makeup.”

The National Security director laughed. “Don’t worry, Madam President, I get them by the dozen. I’m always leaving one somewhere.”

Sitting back in her chair, Norma tried to compose herself. As much as she hadn’t wanted to be President, had even worked up a plan to avoid the situation, here she was, facing a crisis larger than any world war. No matter what she did, good or bad, history would remember and define her by this moment and nothing else. She could already feel the wrinkles deepening on her face from the strain.

“Okay,” she said with a sigh. “The West coast is about to get hit with the force of a nuclear attack. Let’s start working up a rescue plan. Roger, have the geological folks communicate directly with Grace’s people so they know when to expect aftershocks. If we get hit with anything over 8, the aftershocks are still going to be as strong as anything we’ve felt previously. Let’s try to make sure they have some warning.” 

Pausing to look through the report again, Norma added, “I’m not seeing much around the Baltimore, DC, Arlington area. Have we been spared?”

“No, we’re just on the backside of what’s hitting everywhere else,” Roger said. “That line of devastating storms is already crossing Virginia and tearing everything up as it does. We’ll likely see it here within the hour.”

As if on cue, one of the massive trees outside the West Wing took a direct lightning strike. The percussion was strong enough to even shake the SitRoom.

“I think your estimate may be off by a few minutes. What are our options?” Norma asked.

“Protocol calls for all federal employees to take shelter in the basements of their facilities. It will be a little crowded in places like State and Interior, but they should all be secure enough to protect their staffs,” Grace said.

“What about everyone’s families, though?” Norma asked. “We have an obligation to protect them, too.”

Roger and Grace both nodded but it was Roger who spoke first. “Remember that pen you were given a couple of years ago, the one you were told to activate if you were ever threatened?”

Norma instinctively reached for her purse before remembering it was now in the care of a Secret Service agent. “Yeah, I remember. I’m guessing most members of Congress might have forgotten or even misplaced them, though.”

Roger smiled. “They did. However, we have an override that, fortunately, uses old-fashioned low-wave radio bands. We activated the alert system with the first reports we got this morning. I can’t speak with great certainty, but I know we’ve moved several hundred thousand people in the past few hours into military bunkers. We’ll save more here and within a three-hundred mile radius than we were able to do elsewhere.”

“That being said,” Grace interrupted, “We’d best buckle up. As crazy as today has been, it’s about to get a lot worse. Madam President, for reasons I’m sure you now understand, I request that you stay put right here in this room until everything is over. We’re going to need your leadership.”

“But, what about my family?” Norma objected. “Is anyone bringing them here?”

Grace looked at Roger who shook his head. “No ma’am, we didn’t have time for that. We’ve moved them to a secure bunker outside Alexandria. We’ll bring them here when we’re absolutely certain it’s safe to do so.”

Norma gave a heavy sigh. “They don’t even know …”

“Yes, they do, ma’am,” Roger said. “Our driver said your husband was thrilled and that your eldest daughter seemed upset to learn that she’ll now have a Secret Service escort on all her dates.”

Everyone in the room laughed, breaking the tension that had steadily grown over the past several minutes. No matter how serious the situation might be, humor is consistently the one trait that allows all humans to survive even when the odds are heavily stacked against them. Grace and Roger both knew this and knew how to use the tool effectively to inspire those under their leadership. At the moment, that included the President.

The View From The Outside

As horrific as matters appeared from inside the White House, those with a view of the global situation saw something even worse. No country was spared Nature’s wrath or ThermoDyne’s error. Once the caps in the Pacific began to pop, the unstable effect on the planet’s tectonic plates caused others to burst as well. The destruction and chaos were universal. 

Across Africa, desert tribes that were accustomed to only a few inches of rain a year were especially unprepared. Flash floods swept across the plains taking everything in their path. Entire villages were wiped out without a single survivor. Rivers that barely trickled outside of the sparse rainy season lept from their banks and consumed massive swaths of land, forever altering the terrain. In Egypt, Cairo was inundated first by the rain then caught by surprise as tornadoes, something no one alive had ever seen, seemed to spring from nowhere, completely wiping out the city. Terrorist cells across Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Botswana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were not merely rendered powerless but eliminated along with their weapons. Explosives that had been stockpiled were either drowned or, in some surprising instances, accidentally detonated as they were being moved to higher ground. Worshippers praying in mosques died clutching their prayer blankets. From South Africa up the Western coast to Namibia, Angola, and all the way to Guinea, cyclones of previously unknown power ripped apart port cities with winds in excess of 300 kilometers per hour and rain falling as much as half a meter per hour. 

The few thousand on the continent that did survive were among the oldest of tribes, those who still understood how to watch the movement of the animals and make adjustments accordingly. The wild birds and animals had started migrating three days before anyone knew of the impending danger. Some headed for deep caves, others took to the highest parts of the mountains, and others created barriers that would protect them. Tribal leaders took the warning signs seriously and moved their people, saving countless lives. Unfortunately, those that had been polluted by outside religions and modernism failed to pay heed and died not understanding what had gone wrong.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdulla bin Salman al Saud was standing on a balcony in his palatial estate watching his young son playing with a ball in the courtyard. He was smiling with the knowledge that he had an heir who would one day inherit the rule of the country. As the skies above them grew dark, he worried not so much for the weather but the fear that the cover might be just the thing that Iran would need to bomb the city. Rumbles of distant thunder he mistook for distant bombs. He called everyone inside to the inner and most secure part of the palace and began attempting to call the country’s defense ministers and others only to find that no one’s phone was working.

Still convinced that the outage was the work of Iranian fighters, Prince Abdulla took to his laptop, hoping that social media would inform him what was going on. When he discovered that there was no Internet service, he began cursing at everyone around him. He walked out into the middle of the courtyard in an effort to hear the planes he was certain were flying just above the clouds. He had no reason to suspect the storm that was bearing down on the city. He was still looking upward when a massive bolt of lightning hit the top of his head, leaving only a three-meter crater and scorched cloth where he had been standing.

Over the next several hours, storms and tornadoes thoroughly ravaged all of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Israel along with all the other surrounding countries. Oil operations were not merely disrupted but completely annihilated with massive fires burning so hot that firefighters were consumed and died before they could ever get close enough to challenge the flames. Ports were left in tatters. Tankers were overturned, their crude spilling into the ocean. The initial response in each country was exactly the same as Prince Abdulah’s and as a result, no one made any moves to protect their people. First came the floods, then came the tornadoes, and by the time the rain finally stopped, there were fewer than 100,000 people left in the entire region.

In Ho Chi Minh City, trouble had taken a different route. Long before there were rains or storms, there had been a steady rising of the tide along the coast. The cities of Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, and Phan Thiet had been among the first to report a problem. The streets were already filled with water and people were leaving for shelters further inland when the first Tsunami warning was issued. Then came the second warning, and the third right behind that, then a fourth and fifth. Communist officials were sure that there couldn’t possibly be that many massive waves headed their direction. Something had to be wrong with the equipment. Scientists in Ho Chi Minh City refused to certify the threat and order full evacuations. 

By the time those same scientists and communist officials felt the rumble under their own feet, more than half the small country’s population was dead. Centuries-old buildings crumbled. Waves more than 30 meters high crushed everything and everyone beneath them. What the waves didn’t take, the earthquakes did. Less than 10,000 people survived.

Earthquakes also played a heavy roll in the destruction of India and China, the two most populous countries. Coastal cities that never seen a tidal wave were swept into oblivion. Earthquakes brought down tall buildings and ancient temples. In the mountainous regions of China’s Xinjiang province, the unprecedented earthquakes caused massive avalanches and opened a web of crevices large enough to swallow entire villages.

Neither Russia nor Europe faired any better despite their advanced warning systems that rivaled those of the US. Large portions of the Kremlin had crumbled. The Tower of London had been shattered by a lightning strike. The islands of Sardegna and Palma were gone. Nice, Cannes, and Marseille were under six feet of water. Large portions of the Netherlands would never be recovered. All around the world, people were dying not by the thousands but by the millions as the planet heaved and groaned as deep pockets of thermal energy exploded to the surface.

Sitting back, watching it all, were Raphael and Caim, the two celestial beings who had at first thought this would be a chance to gain considerable power but were now exhausted by all the work that Nature had created for them. Just as none of the human leaders had been ready for what happened, both beings had misjudged the severity of the death toll and their ability to manage it.

“I don’t think she’s done yet,” Raphael said to no one in particular, though Caim was the only other being close enough to hear.

“I’m sure she’s not,” Caim responded. “Though, I certainly wish she’d take a fucking break. I never thought I’d see the day when this hoard of demons would complain that there was too much death and destruction.”

Raphael waited as hosts of angels zipped back and forth past him in their attempts to account for everyone. “The last time she got this pissed there weren’t nearly this many people involved.”

Caim nodded. “Do you think we let it get too far out of control?”

“Oh heavens, yes,” his counterpart said. “When this is over I think we’re going to make some adjustments, emphasize the whole birth control thing.”

“Because that’s worked so well for you in the past,” Caim sneered. “You know that’s going to make abortion that much easier to sell if having children becomes a social pariah.”

“You have a better idea, smart guy?” Raphael challenged.

“Let’s talk to Nature, both of us. See if she’ll make more of the planet uninhabitable,” Caim said. “Maybe they won’t breed so much if they don’t have as much room.”

Raphael nodded and then had to move quickly to avoid being run over by a phalanx of demons racing toward an explosion in Ukraine. “All she has to do is leave the water where it is. Humans never did evolve well enough to work with that, did they?”

Caim stretched and shook his head. “You would have thought regaining gills would have been a natural part of the process, given that’s where they started. Not sure how that got so fucked up.”

“We let them grow too large a brain and then they never have figured out how to use the damn thing,” Raphael responded. “They have no clue what they’re capable of doing. If they had, this never would have happened.”

“You’re guys were the ones who introduced them to wine,” Caim grumbled.

“And then your brilliant cohorts took it a step further and taught them how to make liquor,” Raphael shot back. 

“But they came up with beer on their own,” Caim reminded him. “We really should have zapped them then.”

Dozens of angels and demons flew past in neat rows. “Do you think they’ll learn this time?” Raphael asked.

“Sure,” Caim laughed. “Right about the same time they stop doing my work for me. Seriously, they have turned killing into a fetish.”

Raphael sighed and began walking away. “You never cease to disappoint me,” he said before he disappeared.

Caim looked around at the temporarily empty space. “I’ve turned disappointment into an art form,” he said to himself, and then laughed hard and loud so that every human on earth was startled by what they thought was the sound of thunder.

Reading time: 49 min

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. 

Reading time: 33 min

Thought: I’m going to need a different title for this. Let me know if you have any ideas.

Caveat: This is the shortest entry to date. I’ve been too sick this week to concentrate on writing. Please accept my apologies.

If you’re just now joining us, you may want to click here to start at the beginning. Or not. Some people enjoy starting stories in the middle I suppose.

In Case There Is A Future

Toma and Gloria stepped out onto the balcony and closed the glass door behind them. The damn, humid air was far from comfortable and the combined stench of sewage mixed with every other form of debris served as a persistent and painful reminder of how desperate their situation was. Neither said anything as they stood at the railing, not sure exactly what it was they were supposed to find but nonetheless searching the blank nothingness in an effort to find it.

From their vantage point, they had seen the flotilla coming before Natalie and Darrell had but the lack of noise coming from the group was enough to keep either woman from calling out to them. Instead, they looked at each other, shrugged, and watched as they silently passed by on their rafts, proceeding with relative calm to their doom. 

Only after they were out of sight did Toma finally speak. “You know, you don’t look all that much different than some of the faces that just passed. We’ve got some time out here if you want to talk.”

Gloria looked over at her and smiled. “I’m sorry, I’m just having trouble with losing Mom. I can’t help but think of how she didn’t even have a chance to fight. That guy went down and boom, she was gone. She didn’t see it coming. No one had a chance to help her. She was there and then she wasn’t.” The young woman paused for a moment as Toma walked over and put her arm around Gloria’s waist. 

“How long does it take a person to drown?” Gloria asked. “Did she have time to be scared or was it so quick she didn’t have time to respond? Where are all the bodies going? Are they piling up somewhere, all bunched together like logs caught in the water? Will I ever have a chance to see her again, to say goodbye?”

Toma knew the questions where rhetorical at this point. The anguished look on Gloria’s face was enough to tell her that her friend had been going over these same questions in her mind for the past few hours. Toma pulled her closer and asked, “What answers do you want? Whatever you want to believe, whatever you need to believe, that’s what we’ll go with.”

A tear slowly ran down Gloria’s face, her throat tightening and she tried to not let the emotions she was feeling overtake her yet again. “I want to believe that none of this is happening, that it’s all just a bad dream and I’m going to wake up and you and I are going to the coffee shop in the morning and meeting Mom and Nana, and they’re going to love you and then we’ll all go out for a nice lunch where Nana complains about the cucumbers in the salad being too soggy.”

“Hannah does still love you, you know,” Toma said, leaning her head on Gloria’s shoulder. “You both lost someone really special today.”

Gloria sobbed. “I know, and I’m sorry I can’t be more comforting to her right now, but I see her and I feel like she’s blaming me, blaming us, for the whole situation. If we hadn’t fallen in love, if we hadn’t given in to the ‘sin’ she thinks our love is, then maybe this whole thing wouldn’t have happened.”

“Did she say that?” Toma asked.

“Of course not,” Gloria answered. “At least, not in so many words. It’s in little quips like, ‘If I survive this I’d better get great-grandchildren,” and ‘be sure, your sins will find you out,’ and all the other churchy little things she’s always saying. I love my Nana but she has always used Jesus as an excuse to judge everyone else on the planet. No one lives up to her expectations. She even badmouths her preacher. But then she goes out in public and is always so sweet, so very condescendingly sweet. I grew up thinking she was wonderful until I got old enough she’d talk about my own mother with me sitting there in the room. Now … I’m sure she blames me for all this.”

“Nothing she feels is your fault,” Toma said. “We’ve talked about this before. You are not responsible for other people’s opinions. It’s not your place to correct anyone else’s biases. If people have a problem with you it’s because they have a problem with themselves that they don’t know how to fix or don’t want to fix. Please don’t let Hannah rope you into taking on her feelings of guilt. Our love did not cause this. All the gays on the planet did not cause this. Shit happens, you know? We all live at the bottom of a cosmic toilet and that means we all get shit on. Being gay or religious or young or old or anything else changes what ultimately happens.”

“Yeah, but …” Gloria started.

“No, no ‘buts’ in this conversation,” Toma corrected. “You know that’s a blocking mechanism. You are better at calling people on it than anyone. What Hannah is doing only works if you give in and respond. Your response, regardless of what it is, becomes her validation for thinking the way she does. So, let’s think of a better way to react and go forward. We don’t have to acknowledge anything that isn’t true. We can express our grief over the loss of your mother in ways that work for us and it’s not our problem if she wants to express her grief differently. You stay in control of you. Don’t give it away.”

Gloria sighed. “I hate this entire fucking day.”

“It has been a bitch, for sure,” Toma agreed. “I’m looking at it this way: I got to actually meet your mom this morning, and for a while, she was happy. She was happy for us, she was happy with us. Remember the conversation we had in the car on the way to the coffee shop this morning? All the ‘what ifs’ and contingency plans for what to do if it didn’t go well? We didn’t need any of those. Her response was lovely! She was lovely!” Toma paused and looked out over the railing. “And then things went sideways. There was no way we could have seen that coming—any of us. At least we’re still here. I don’t know what all will happen after the water goes down and the power is back on, but I do know we’ll get through it together and we’ll make plans and go forward knowing that your mom loved us, that she loved you.”

A light rain began to fall, nothing too hard, no indication of being long or vicious, just the sort of rain that on any other summer evening would have been welcomed as a refreshing shower that watered everyone’s lawn. Yet, for this evening, in these circumstances, the mere sight of another raindrop felt as though nature was pouring salt on an open wound. Each drop hurt, a reminder of someone lost, an exclamation to the point that life on this planet had changed. While no one yet had any sense of the enormity of the tragedy from a global perspective, the gargantuan impact on personal levels couldn’t have been any more significant had the country finally experienced the nuclear holocaust that everyone had worried about for the past 80 years. There was no one who had not lost something or someone. Some, like Miranda, had lost everything. Many, like Amanda, still didn’t know how much they’d lost but feared the worst. 

Even those like Natalie whose personal loss perhaps wasn’t as severe as it was for everyone else in the apartment, the feeling of safety, security, the sanctity of existence had been violated. No place felt safe now. There was an overwhelming sense that at any moment what little was left could suddenly be yanked away. While some might question what they had done to deserve this tragedy in their lives, there were many who inherently understood. Nature had finally taken revenge on the centuries of abuse that humans had imposed upon the planet. All the strip mining, the cutting of rain forests, the destruction of native habitats, the pollution of both air and water, and the overpopulation that no one wanted to address. Nature found the solution humans were not brave enough to accost. 

What many were asking was “why now?” What was it about today that caused everything to fall apart all at once? Many blamed the phone call that everyone had received. Conspiracy theorists were already having a field day with that fodder, even though they didn’t yet have the ability to spread their gossip. Many others were trying to make a religious connection with the tragedy, though anyone who genuinely understood the religious documents knew this didn’t match up with any prophecy from any time period. 

Back in the tiny Midwestern apartment, though, there was one person who knew exactly why today and why now. He had seen this day coming for the past two months and had attempted to warn the people who might have stopped it, or at least delayed it. Had he not been delayed at an airport in Milwaukee, he might have been able to stop everything, including that damn phone call. Carson paced barefoot back and forth in the small apartment. There was nothing he could do now. They had fired him before he had a chance to warn anyone. The rain, the tornado, the earthquakes, everything that had happened around the globe had given off warning signs for the past several months. The only thing that had caught him by surprise was the phone call, the one he hadn’t received because he had just smashed his cell phone.

He slipped his hand into the pocket of the pants he was trying to keep up around his waist and fingered the sim chip he had saved. Access to his text conversations would be on that chip. When the time came to lay blame for this tragedy, he would be able to show exactly who was responsible. Not that they would pay any more than they already had. The bare horizon to the West assured him that the company’s entire campus had been wiped off the planet. Nothing that had happened today was an accident. Nature knew what she was doing. The question bothering Carson now was whether he had tried enough to stop it—and would anyone survive what was coming next. He heard the rain start outside and choked back a tear. So many people. So many lives. Carson had broken a young woman’s nose in an effort to warn the people who could have stopped it all but in the end, he had failed. 

Keeping The Service Secret

Adrian Campbell had been a distinguished member of the Secret Service for over 30 years. Achieving the position as head of the President’s personal detail was his crowning achievement. Up until a few weeks ago, he had been looking forward to retiring at the end of President Blackstone’s first term. Whether Blackstone was re-elected or not was none of his concern. Personally, he didn’t like the man and at times didn’t especially want to keep him out of harm’s way. It was his duty to the office of President, however, that kept him working tirelessly to make sure one of the most hated Presidents in United States’ history was kept safe, no matter who was sitting in that seat. Now, everything was up in the air.

Among all the subjects swimming in his head, Adrian knew that there would soon be a meeting at the headquarters of the Secret Service in the Treasury building where he would be re-assigned, most likely to a position not in the White House. A sitting president had died on his watch and while there seemed to have been nothing he nor any other agent could have done to stop the brain hemorrhage from happening, there was still the fact that someone connected to the First Lady had, somehow, attempted to poison the president and been marginally successful. Regardless of what details might be discovered in the inevitable investigation, he was responsible. Someone had slipped through their net.

Then, there was the matter of the active shooter apparently still at the White House, keeping everyone there on their toes as he had followed the president to the hospital. The possibility that one of his own people could be responsible was like a kick in the gut. He had hand-picked the White House team. Every person, including those assigned to ancillary staff such as Roger, had gone through rigorous vetting before the president took office. As a candidate, Blackstone’s behavior on the campaign trail had signaled the difficulty they would have keeping this president safe and he had gone to extraordinary measures, including interviews with every living relative of every agent, before making any assignments. Still, there seemed to be a traitor in the midst. Whether that person had acted of their own volition or in conjunction with some larger cause was, for him, irrelevant. Again, someone had slipped through the net on Adrian’s watch. 

Adrian’s record and years of service would be enough to keep him from being fired. Morale would take a hit throughout the service if he were unceremoniously dumped so close to retirement. He would likely be assigned to a non-DC unit somewhere in the MIdwest where he would work quietly, out of the way, until he was eligible for retirement. There would be a cake and a lapel pin, and then he would quietly retire to a cabin in the woods, as had his predecessors, well away from the press so as to avoid any temptation to consider questions whose answers were classified. Today’s events alone were enough to generate considerable notoriety if he were to talk, but with that notoriety would also come a visit to his home that he didn’t want. They would offer to give him a shot injecting a fast-acting cancer agent into his bloodstream. He would have six months to get his affairs and papers “in order,” which meant destroying everything remotely sensitive. He was expected to take his secrets to the grave.

Dr. Zinky provided Adrian with the necessary preliminary death certificate and he dispatched two agents to notify the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region of the president’s death. He and the remainder of the agents currently on duty would stay until the military detail arrived from joint Base Andrews. Unfortunately, that would delay him from being able to address matters back at the White House. With all communications down, Adrian had no idea what was going on, whether the person had been found, or if they had possibly managed to escape without being noticed. Despite the “lockdown” notice given to White House staff members, it was never actually possible to lock down the building and prevent the coming and going of various members of the government. The fact that the nation was in the midst of an active crisis only made their job that much more difficult. There were easily several dozen places to hide and change clothes. There should be video surveillance tapes for every room in the White House but Adrian knew that on any given day there were at least a half-dozen cameras not working. All agents assigned to the White House were given an updated list each day as to where the dead cameras were, the concept being that agents, specifically White House Police, would patrol the “dead” areas more often. He didn’t know whether the Vice President and General Lang had been shot in one of those dead zones or not, but he was certain that Tony Briscane had. Adrian was curious as to what the FBI agent knew that had gotten him killed. From the agent’s perspective, someone was trying to manipulate the Constitution in an effort to overthrow the government. Who, how, or why were critical questions he couldn’t answer, though, and he knew he wouldn’t find those answers standing around here at the hospital. 

Yellow caution tape had been stretched across the hallway outside the room where President Blackstone’s body still laid, waiting to be taken to the morgue for an autopsy. Hospital staff had been instructed to avoid the hallway, navigating around the area so as to not interfere with the moving of the President. Everything was to be kept well out of the view of the press. Fortunately, thinking that this portion of the crisis was over, the press outside was growing bored and not paying any attention to the number of non-recognizable Secret Service agents leaving and arriving at the hospital. It would only be the arrive of the military detail that would signal something had gone wrong.

Several minutes had passed before a junior field agent, Garret Simmons, walked briskly into the hallway and handed Adrien a hand-written note from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The message contained two orders: first, that the Secret Service immediately conduct a full investigation with the assistance of medical staff, collecting evidence pertaining to any obvious or potential tampering with the President’s body prior to his death; and second, as part of that investigation, that any autopsy be postponed until the proper investigative personnel were present.

Agent Simmons held out a legal pad and a pen. “I assume you’ll want to send some messages of your own, sir,” he said. 

Adrian took the pen and pad and started scribbling. The first note was in response to the Chief Justice: “Autopsy not yet started. Will make appropriate arrangements. Please inform as to chain of command.” He ripped the paper from the pad, folded it, and handed it back to Agent Simmons. “That one goes to the Chief Justice, ASAP,” he said. 

The agent folded the note again and tucked it into the breast pocket of his jacket.

“Who’s in charge back at the Nest?” Adrian asked.

“It’s been a rotating position,” Simmons answered. “Carlisle took command when you left, like normal, but then he stepped aside for Phelps when Lady Bird was sworn in. But then Phelps had to join Lady Bird on the trip to the Capitol, so that left Hammond in charge of everything.”

Adrian nodded. He quickly wrote out another note: “Delayed at the hospital. Focus on finding the shooter while Lady Bird is out of the Nest. Inspect every weapon for residue.” As he folded this note, he said to the agent, “Let me save you some trouble. Let me see your service weapon, please.”

Simmons complied, understanding that at this point a check of every agent in the White House was the only way to have any chance of capturing the shooter.

Adrian stepped inside the examining room and found a cotton swab. He then took an alcohol patch and rubbed it around the swab before then swabbing the barrel of the gun. The swab was still clean. Adrian returned the weapon. “Not that I was worried, but you understand the procedure.”

“Yes, sir,” the agent responded.

“How many were on the team going to The Hill?” Adrian asked. 

Simmons shrugged. “I’m not sure. Phelps was having a rough time adjusting to how quickly things were moving. I assume he’s using the standard Hill team plus maybe four or five of Lady Bird’s close team?”

Adrian nodded. Something didn’t feel right but he couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. “You say he left Hammond in charge? Where were Riggens and Harper? They both have seniority.”

“Phelps took them on the Hill team,” Simmons said. 

“Does that seem unusual to you, Agent Simmons?” Adrian asked. “Lady Bird already had eight on her close team. Why would he take the two senior agents from the Nest if he didn’t need them? He knows the protocol.”

Simmons looked blank, surprised by the line of questioning. “I don’t know, sir. What are you implying?”

Adrian thumped the pen on the pad for a second. “Everyone there knows the protocol. One senior agent is left in the Nest at all times. If Phelps needed extra manpower, he would have taken Harper and Hammond, not Riggens.”

“Riggens has been on Lady Bird’s team before,” Simmons answered. “Perhaps Phelps thought that familiarity would be beneficial.”

“Possible,” Adrian agreed. “Still, it doesn’t feel right. Hand me that note back.”

Simmons reached in his pocket and gave the note to Hammond back to Adrian who tore it into several pieces before shoving it into the side pocket on his suit coat. 

Adrian then penned another quick note. “Nest not secure. Send replacement team. +10 agents only.” He then folded the note twice before handing it to Agent Simmons. “Deliver that one first to Treasury. Make sure they understand to only send senior agents. Everyone still at the Nest needs to be relieved and their weapons checked. Now.”

Agent Simmons took the note and nodded. “Anything else, sir?”

Adrian shook his head. “Return here when you’re done. Don’t go to the Nest whatever you do.”

Agent Simmons considered the unusual order but knew better than to challenge a senior agent without cause. He nodded and trotted back to his car.

Adrian watched Agent Simmons leave then turned to the four agents remaining outside the examination room. “Who here was at the Nest this morning?”

All four spoke up at the same time, confirming they had been at the White House.

“I’ll need your service weapons, please,” Adrian said. He knew two of the agents had been with him the entire time but he couldn’t take any chances at this point. He wasn’t sure who to trust. What he knew was that attempts on the President’s life were never individual efforts. He had studied all the conspiracies from President Lincoln forward and the pattern was clear: there was always a group and the core conspirator was almost never the one to carry out the plan. If the shooter at the White House was indeed a rogue agent, they were almost certainly taking orders from someone. Adrian needed to find out who that person was.

Unraveling The Chaos

Deep in the basement of the White House sits a nondescript office whose door tag only says, “Comms. Authorized Personnel Only.” Emphasizing the need for authorization is a rectangular box capable of reading a person’s entire palm print. The machine as programmed to only unlock the door for ten people, eight of whom were Secret Service agents. The president was the ninth and Roger Mukaski was the tenth. 

Roger had retreated to his office while the others had worked out who needed to go to the Capitol. Naturally, everyone wanted to be there for the history-making event, but Roger had other concerns on his mind at the moment. The Chief Justice had just raised the possibility that the late President Blackstone might possibly have intentionally interrupted the phone call that morning with the intent of setting off a chain of breakdowns that would allow him to cement an irrevocable authority that included the ability to cancel elections. As long as the country was in a state of perceived crisis, Rudy could have been president forever. He understood why the Chief Justice would be suspicious.

What bothered Roger was that such a move would have required Rudy to have more advanced information than Roger knew. No one got to see the President without going through him. No one. Every person who even got an official glimpse of the President, whether in the Oval Office or the residence, was logged and vetted before they ever walked into the building. Roger knew Blackstone to be too easily swayed off course and off mission to allow just any random person to spend any private time with him at all. That was why Tony had been the only person allowed to update the President on the test. Tony had been thoroughly vetted, understood the limitations of the President’s attention span and his lack of understanding regarding technology. Roger had been present for each of the informational updates and had not picked up on anything that might have hinted at any collusion. Still, there was only one way to be certain, and that was to check the tapes.

Waiting until everyone had left for the Capitol gave Roger the relative freedom to roam through the White House without any interference. Even the number of Secret Service agents was about half what it normally would have been. At this point, Roger wasn’t even thinking about the fact that a murderer was still on the loose. Several hours had passed now with no additional deaths, at least none that had been made public. There were too many other transitional activities taking place for anyone to worry about a threat that was currently invisible. He grabbed his daytimer and headed toward the basement. As he left the office he gave Tina the instruction she knew had been coming. “Send for packing boxes. Lots and lots of packing boxes. We’ve got to move.”

He didn’t see the tears in her eyes. At this point, he didn’t care. He had given years of loyalty to Rudy Blackstone. If he had turned out to be a traitor he wanted to make sure there was nothing that would implicate him by association.

Placing his hand on the scanner, Roger heard the metal click of the lock and pushed the door open. The three Secret Service agents seated at the terminals didn’t seem the least bit surprised by his presence. Waiting until he heard the door click behind him, Roger began, “Gentlemen, we need to look over some tapes. Let’s start with everything just before Tony Briscane arrived this morning.”

The agents looked at each other before one of them spoke. “I’m sorry, sir, but all our cameras have been dead since 20 minutes after the episode this morning. We thought Agent Hammond had notified you. He left here right after it happened and he hasn’t been back since.”

Roger was so startled that he took a step back. He hadn’t thought about the fact that the interruption in electrical power would have taken down the security cameras as well. They were supposed to be independently powered. “Okay,” he said after a moment. “What about audio? What do we have there?”

“There’s a seven-second delay in all recordings during the power transfer, but no indication that any significant conversations were missed,” a different agent answered.

Roger sighed heavily. “Okay, can you at least show me what you have right up to the point of the blackout?”

The agent keyed in the details for the digitalized recording. “When would you like to start, sir?” he asked.

“Let’s start at where Agent Briscoe arrives, please,” Roger responded.

A few more keystrokes and the video popped up on the observation monitor. The group watched as Tony came through the guest door, shook the requisite hands, and was then shown to a table where he was to set up the gear for the phone call. Setting up had taken almost 30 minutes during which Tony is largely left to himself while other conversations largely centered around current Middle Eastern concerns took place on the opposite side of the Oval Office. Roger was impressed with how clearly the hidden microphones in the office had picked up every tidbit of conversation and how accurately subtitles were added to the digital recording. He had known from day one that the recordings existed. The whole Nixon Watergate scandal had made Oval Office recordings a priority. Control had been moved to this office in the 1980s so that even the President couldn’t “accidentally” pause or delete part of the recording. By the mid-2000s, the recording had been digitized with automatic backups sent to multiple locations in an effort to make sure they could not be compromised. The only catch was the White House had to have power and Internet access for the system to work correctly.

After Tony finished setting up the table for the phone call, he could be seen walking over to the President, waiting for a gap in the conversation, and then saying, “Mr. President, I need to go over some instructions with you before we run the test.”

Rudy had smiled and responded, “Sure, just a second,” before returning to a conversation with White House foreign affairs analyst Benjamin Kausterman. Tony waited patiently until the President turned to him and said, “Okay, Tony, what have we got going here? This thing’s going to be great, right?”

“We certainly hope so, Mr. President,” Tony had answered. “There are a few rules before we get started, though.”

The President rolled his eyes. “Sure, Tony, there are always rules, aren’t there? I can’t even eat dinner without someone telling me the rules. So, what are they?

Tony pulled a small notepad from his jacket pocket and started, “We have to start the test precisely at 10:15, no delays. The program is designed to work with a specific geosynchronous alignment of communication satellites to make sure we reach even the most remote parts of the country.”

The President nodded. “10:15. No problem.”

Tony continued, “Once we start, it will take exactly 20 seconds to broadcast the message.” He paused and showed the President a piece of paper on which the message was written. “This is the message we’re sending. We’ve rehearsed it so that it fits precisely within the 20-second window.”

Rudy looked over the message and said, “This looks rather dry, Tony. Can we spice it up a bit, maybe add something about how the greatest country in the world is making advances for the security and benefit of its people?”

“No sir, we cannot,” Tony said. “We have to keep the message simple so that translation services don’t miss anything. We need to make sure as many people as possible can understand what we’re saying.”

“That’s why everyone needs to speak goddamn English,” the President groused. “This is America. I don’t care how many other languages people speak, everyone should be able to speak English or they shouldn’t be allowed to stay. I don’t understand why that isn’t already a law.”

Tony tried to smooth over the topic. “Yes, Mr. President, but as you know there are hundreds of visitors and tourists at any given time across the United States. We need to make sure everyone gets the message. We don’t want to be blamed if, for example, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia gets hurt because his translation service didn’t understand the warning.”

The President nodded. “Go on.”

“Once we start the broadcast, there can be no other noise in the room, this is critical,” Tony said. He looked around the room at everyone listening. “We would normally do this is a sound-proof facility to make sure there is no background noise. We’ve already made arrangements to make sure the air conditioning is off for those 20 seconds. What I need from everyone in this room is an effort to make no noise of any kind. No coughing, no sneezing, nothing. The microphone we’re using is extremely sensitive and any transient noise could be misinterpreted by the satellites and cause the test to fail. Does everyone understand?”

Everyone around the room nodded and most voiced their agreement. 20 seconds should be easy. No problem.

“One more thing,” Tony said. “I need for everyone who is going to be in this room during the test to remove their cell phones and place them in this lead box which we will set in a separate office. You’ll get them back immediately after the test, but we can’t have your own phones going off when the call starts. That would ruin everything before we even get started.” He then held the black box and passed it around to take everyone’s cell phone. 

Naturally, the President objected. “I guess this means I can’t ‘live tweet’ the whole test thing, huh? Seems like an opportunity wasted. People want to know, you know.”

Tony, who seemed to be getting more agitated every time the President said something, tried to explain. “Mr. President, live-tweeting the test wouldn’t do any good. We’re taking over everyone’s phone. No one’s going to be watching social media for at least 26 seconds. We’ll be watching IP connections just to make sure, but if this test is successful, all mobile communications should be locked on a single source during this test.”

After gathering everyone’s phone, Tony handed the box to a Secret Service agent who removed them from the room. Tony looked at his watch and announced, “We have four minutes before the test. Please finish any necessary conversations in the next three minutes so that we have a sufficient buffer on either side of the call.”

Roger and the agents watched as conversations continued. Kausterman and a couple of other analysts left the room, Roger watched as he saw himself enter from his private door. Then, just before Tony motioned for everyone to be quiet, a Secret Service agent walks over and whispers something in the President’s ear. 

“Wait, stop,” Roger ordered. “What was that? I didn’t hear what he told the President. Back that up, please.”

An agent entered a few keystrokes and reversed the recording by a few seconds. “I’ll punch the volume as much as we can, but whispers can be difficult to make out.”

Roger nodded. “Understandable. Go ahead.”

The recording continued with only a few words audible enough to hear. “ … quickly … not too soft … satellites … failure assured.”

That was enough. Roger didn’t need any more detail. “Who is that agent?” he demanded. 

“That’s Agent Hammonds,” another agent replied. “He’s on the President’s secondary detail with residential access.”

Roger flipped backward through his daytimer. “Okay, how far back can you go without Internet access?”

“Five years at all times,” replied the first agent. “When we have Internet access, offsite backups happen consistently every 30 seconds but we always maintain a five-year record here in the office.”

“Wonderful. Check an Oval Office conversation on March 23, 12:15 PM,” Roger said.

The agent entered the necessary commands and the recording of the Oval Office on that date popped onto the observation monitor. 

“Let it run a few seconds,” Roger instructed. “I want to see who all is in the room when Agent Briscane delivers his last update before the test.”

The agent started the recording and four seconds in stated, “There’s Agent Hammond, right there to the President’s left.”

“Fast forward to where Agent Briscane leaves the room,” Roger said.

The recording sped forward 12 minutes and then stopped. They all watched as Tony left the room and almost immediately Agent Hammond walked up to the President. The agent at the console didn’t need to be asked to boost the volume.

“… arrangements … your order … our people … bunker …” was all they could hear clearly.

Roger was mentally kicking himself. Agents leaned in and whispered security instructions to the President all the time. No one ever questioned anything they might say because they were presumed to be loyal and professional at all times. Secret Service agents on the presidential detail had experience proving them above reproach. There was never any consideration that one of them, or more, might betray the country. He flipped back through his daytimer some more. “I need a piece of paper, please,” Roger said.

The agent seated at the table behind him handed Roger a thin pad of adhesive notes. 

Roger quickly scribbled down the dates and times when Agent Briscane had given the President updates on the project and handed the paper to the agent in charge of the recordings. “Let’s look at these. I want to see if the same agent is present at each one and if he speaks to the president each time.”

Quickly, the agent brought up one recording after the other, quickly zeroing in on the precise moment when Tony left the room. Each time, Agent Hammond had walked over and whispered something brief to the President. Each time, the President smiled and nodded.

At the end of the last recording, Roger sighed heavily and looked around the room at the expressionless faces of the three agents sitting there. They had just witnessed one of their trusted colleagues, for all appearances, committing treason. That the President had likely colluded with the agent made it all the more shocking. “What do you think we do?” Roger asked them. 

Without hesitation, the lead agent said, “We need to find Agent Hammond and make sure he is taken off duty.”

“Is he still in the White House?” Roger asked.

The agents looked at each other. Normally, they would have had video feed that would have confirmed the location of almost anyone in the White House, but not now.

“Most likely he is, sir,” the lead agent said. “I cannot confirm his exact location, though.”

Roger thought for a moment and then said, “There weren’t any other agents that appeared to be compromised. I’ll find a couple and have them arrest Agent Hammond.”

The agents exchanged glances. “Be careful, sir. Agent Hammond is possibly the best shot in the Service and everyone knows it.”

Roger nodded. “Of course. That’s why he shot the agent behind the Vice President. He was recognized.” His stomach churned as he realized what had happened and that it had happened right under his nose. A conspiracy so dark that the President had told no one in his inner circle. Or had he? At this moment, Roger was no longer certain of anyone’s loyalty to the President or the country. “I’ll take appropriate precautions,” he said. “Any chance you can get those cameras back up any time soon?”

The second agent shook his head. “They’ll all need batteries replaced before they can be brought back online. Take roughly two days to get them all.”

Roger nodded. “Of course.” He thought for a moment then added, “Too bad we don’t have tapes of the residence.”

“Well, that’s not entirely true, sir,” the lead agent said. “The residence is wired, we just don’t record the first family’s private moments. Any time they have an external guest, we tape those conversations.”

Roger quickly reopened his daytimer and hastily wrote down a series of dates. “Listen for any conversations between the First Lady and Gloria Fastbaum. I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking for, but somehow they poisoned the President. We need to know what they were up to.” He handed the lead agent the notepad then added. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. We’ve got to figure this mess out before it gets any worse.” He opened the door and left the small office. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to do, but he knew he didn’t have much time to get something done.

Reading time: 33 min
Unintended Actions Still Have Consequences

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 Welcome To The Family

Reesie felt the child push her wet body back against the adult’s legs as she introduced Cam to the group. “Her home is gone,” Ressie explained. “Her family is missing. She’s been floating downstream looking for something to eat and a safe place to stay.”

Amanda immediately headed toward the kitchen. “We can definitely fix her something to eat!” she exclaimed, excited to have the opportunity to feed another person.

As the others crowded in close, Cam turned and hugged Reesie’s leg. The sea of white faces coming at her felt threatening even if they were smiling. “I think ya’ll are scaring her,” Reesie said as she knelt down and wrapped her arms around the little one. “No offense, I know you mean well, but that’s a lot of white coming at someone who’s probably been raised to not trust people.”

The group backed off and gave them some room, though Amanda kept right on working in the kitchen. “She could probably use some dry clothes,” Ressie said, looking at Natalie. “Even something too large is going to beat being soaking wet.”

“Bring her back here to the bedroom,” Natalie replied. “I’m sure we can find plenty of things that will work for her.”

Reesie stood up and took Cam by the hand. The teenager looked up at her for assurance and Reesie smiled. “It’s alright,” she said calmly. “These are all good people.”

As they walked toward the bedroom, Darrell and Amber slipped through the door and into the kitchen. When Amanda saw all the cuts on Amber, she dropped the spoon she was using and covered her mouth to stifle a scream. “That child didn’t do that to you, did she?” Amanda asked.

“No, not at all,” Amber said as she traded bloodied towels for clean ones. “These are the results of a totally different struggle downstairs. People are floating downstream on whatever they can find, looking for any place that might give them food or shelter. Cam may just be the first person we take in.”

“But, if they’re going to be dangerous … “ Amanda started, not wanting to complete her own sentence.
“If they’re dangerous, we’re not letting them in,” Darrell said. “We can’t take that kind of risk. Children like Cam are one thing, but violent adults like the one that attacked Amber have to look elsewhere. We have to keep everyone safe.”

Carson overheard the conversation and walked into the kitchen. “How many people are we talking about?” he asked, stunned by the number of cuts and bruises Amber was treating. “That looks like you took on an entire gang!”

Amber laughed. “Nah, he got lucky and there was a lot of glass broken,” she said. “But there are going to be more, possibly dozens more, who knows? Cam mentioned she had seen others. I don’t know if they found something upstream and will stay there or if we should expect them here soon as well.”

“We’re going to have to keep a lookout watching on both sides of the building,” Darrell said. “People on the second floor may have locked their front doors but I doubt many locked their patios. I know we don’t. We don’t normally expect someone to be climbing up that side of the building, you know? People who are floating downstream are going to be desperate and no, not all of them are going to be nice. We’re going to have to keep watch and we’re going to have to be careful.”

“Are you talking about setting up posts and taking turns?” Carlson asked. “I’m definitely willing to take a turn watching but I don’t think I can fight anyone off like Amber did.” He looked down at his waist and added, “I’m too much like a marshmallow any more.”

Amber laughed at the self-deprecating remark. “I don’t think anyone’s going out by themselves,” she said, “not even me. I should have come back in and gotten help before I went down there. One I could handle, but if there had been two or three it could have really been trouble.”

Carlson looked around the room. “We don’t exactly have the most intimidating group of people here,” he said. “We’re all wet, we’re all tired, and no offense, but Amber is the only one who looks like they might work out.”

Toma’s head popped up from the other side of the kitchen counter. “Who’s working out?” she asked. “I could stand to stretch a little.” She stood up and walked around the counter to join the conversation. “Are we talking about yoga or pilates or what?”

“We’re talking about guarding the building against intruders,” Darrell said, smiling. “Amber encountered someone who wasn’t exactly friendly.”

Toma looked over and saw all the cuts Amber was treating. “You know, I have some experience with Capoeria,” she said. “I’ve not had to use it often outside the gym, but I don’t have any problem taking a guy down.”

Amber looked up. “You’re Brazilian?”

Toma shook her head. “Jersey. I have four brothers who teased me endlessly about my dance classes. Capoeria gave me a chance to take those dance moves and turn them into something that could kick their asses,” she said laughing. “You should have seen their expressions the first time I did a pas de cheval that ended with my foot in my oldest brother’s face! They didn’t tease me quite so much after that!”

“I’m impressed,” Amber said. “Not many people in the Midwest have ever heard of Capoeria, much less practice it. Maybe you could teach me a thing or two.”

Toma took in Amber’s full height and said, “Girl, there’s not enough room in this apartment! One good jump and you’re going to land in a wall!”

The group laughed, which caught the attention of others just as Reesie and Natalie were returning with Cam. 

“You guys are sounding cheerful,” Natalie said as she walked over and put an arm around Darrell. “Care to let the rest of us in on the joke?”

“Oh, just talking about Amber leaping through walls,” Darrell said. 

The group laughed and chatter started back up around the room. Amanda set a plate of food in front of Cam and the girl inhaled it quickly as though someone might try to take it away from her. 

As Cam ate, Amber pulled Reesie to the side. “Do you think you can get Cam to talk about how she got here, how many other people she saw floating downstream? It might help us know what to expect and how to protect ourselves.”

Reesie looked over at the young girl who was rapidly devouring a second plate of food, much to Amanda’s delight. “I can try,” Reesie said. “She’s obviously scared but who wouldn’t be? Are you worried there might be trouble?”

Amber nodded. “It’s almost inevitable. We can’t be the only ones who survived but we got lucky with this apartment and the food. Anyone out on the water is going to be desperate and Cam might have seen some of that. Some could have created gangs of looters and that could create some real problems if we’re not ready to fight them off.”

Reesie nodded. “You know they’re out there. There are probably more like Cam, too, kids who have lost their families. How are we going to tell the difference?”

“I’m not sure,” Amber said. “We’ll have to watch, see how people behave when they see us. We can handle scared, but we need to make sure troublemakers keep moving.”

Cam had paused for a moment as Amanda filled her plate a third time. Reesie walked over and gently asked, “So, did you see many other people like you out there?”

Cam nodded. “Lots. Mostly guys. Mostly around stores. Some were setting up camps on the roofs of buildings. I didn’t want to stay with them, though. Ya’ never know how they might treat a kid like me.” Amanda set another plate in front of the young girl and Cam immediately resumed eating.

“Were there a lot of kids like you?” Reesie asked.

“Not really,” Cam said between bites. “Mostly older people, like you guys. Mostly using doors to float on. You just kinda hang on and hope you don’t bump into anything. Ain’t no controlling those things, no way. I saw this one dude acting like he was gonna surf. Fool got knocked off when he hit a car roof. Never came back up.”

“So, you just floated into the building here? That sounds scary,” Reesie continued.

Cam shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I wasn’t aiming to come here but I guess it’s okay. At least ya’ll got food.”

Reese laughed. She walked over to Amber. “She says people are camping on rooftops, so maybe we won’t have to worry as much as you thought.”

Amber shook her head. “That won’t last. There’s more rain coming. Rooftops will hold some, but they’re not going to have access to any resources. They’re going to need food. They’re going to need water that’s safe to drink.”

“What do we do?” Reesie asked. “I mean, we can take what, maybe ten or so more people before we don’t have room to move in here?”

Amber looked around the room. “I’m not sure. I guess it depends on the size of the person. We can always put people in the other apartments, too. That’s an option.”

Reesie nodded. 

An explosion in the distance caused the apartment building to shake. Conversation stopped. Amber ran to the patio door and looked for smoke or some other sign. She saw nothing. Darrell ran out the front door with Natalie, looking out the other direction. Still, nothing was visible. They returned inside the apartment and shrugged.

“Something that caused that big of an explosion should create some smoke, don’t you think?” Carlson asked. “We all felt it, right?”

Everyone in the group nodded.

“Smoke requires something to burn, though, and the color of the smoke depends on what’s burning,” Barry said. “If it were something electrical, such as a transformer, any smoke would appear white or clear.”

“That was no transformer,” Carlson countered. “There should be smoke.”

“I’m not saying there isn’t smoke, just that it may not be visible from here,” Barry said. “We have to consider the possibility that if an electrical station in a non-flooded area started sending power to a station in a flooded area, some of the larger equipment, things much larger than a transformer, could explode.”

“Which would mean we still won’t have electricity,” Amanda said. “We’ll be in the dark, and vulnerable.”

“Not necessarily,” Amber responded. “There are multiple substations around town and we’ve only heard one explosion. If Barry’s supposition is correct, and it makes perfect sense to me, then perhaps the grid is trying to come back online. Even if we don’t have power, there could be others in the city who do, and that could ultimately help us all.”

“We also have to think that being the only ones with a light on could make us a target,” Ressie added. “There’s nothing else around here. We’d stick out like a lighthouse if any kind of light is visible from outside. Who knows what we might attract.”

“So, what do we do?” Carlson asked. “Just sit here and wait for trouble to come and get us? I’m not on board if that’s the plan.”

“We divide up into teams and keep watch,” Darrell said. “Two on the balcony, two out front. You see or hear anything, you alert the others. We deal with threats in groups of four or more.”

Around the room, everyone nodded in agreement with the plan, though everyone wanted to be paired with Amber when it was there turn. 

Amber laughed. “I don’t know that everyone needs to participate. Hannah, no offense, but I think you can sit this one out. You’ve been through enough today.”

Hannah smiled and nodded. The early argument had left her defensive and quiet. Gloria still wasn’t talking to her.

“Miranda, baby, I think you probably should stay inside, too,” Amber continued. “You don’t need a shadow setting off an anxiety or panic attack.”

Miranda, seated on the floor, pulled her knees up into her chest and started rocking. Just the thought of what could be out in the dark was a potential trigger.

“I’m big enough to be my own team,” Barry laughed.

“No, you’re not,” Amanda countered. “I’ll go with Barry.”

Barry smiled. 

“I think most the pairings are pretty natural,” Amber said. “Natalie and Darrell, Toma and Gloria, Barry and Amanda, Reesie and Carlson, and Adam can hang with me.”

Gwen stood up, stretching herself as much as possible. “Wait, what about Roscoe and me? We can watch!”

There were giggles throughout the group.

Amber smiled. “Yes, you can watch right here. Roscoe’s biggest asset is his ears. He’ll likely hear things long before the rest of us do. You don’t need to take him outside for that, though. You can sit just inside the patio door and he’ll do what dogs do. He’ll let you know if he senses a problem.”

“There’s some crazy-ass bitches out there,” Cam said, hiding behind Reesie, still not fully trusting the group. “We’re gonna needs to guns or somethin’.”

“The crazy-ass bitches out there haven’t met the crazy-ass bitches in here,” Amanda said. “What I don’t have in height or muscle I can more than make up for in noise. My kids can be all the way over in the next county and still here me.”

“Gloria’s not exactly quiet, either,” Toma added, causing her girlfriend to blush. “Cab drivers are scared of her.” She put her arm around Gloria, who promptly rolled her eyes.

Darrell looked at Natalie and said, “You want to take the first shift?”

Natalie nodded. “We’ll take the landing outside the front door. We know everyone in the building so if anyone legitimate shows up we’ll recognize them.”

“We can take the balcony,” Gloria said. “It will be nice to feel like I’m helping for a change.”

Amber nodded. “Sounds good. Any objections? We can work in two-hour shifts. That should keep everyone reasonably fresh.”

Group conversation returned as Natalie and Darrell went out onto the landing and Gloria and Toma took up their place on the balcony. Amber looked around at the group inside, pleased they were still getting along but increasingly feeling as though there were something, or someone, lurking. She just wasn’t sure who or what.

A Matter Of Protocol

Roger paced outside the doorway to the treatment room while Agent Campbell stood facing the doorway with his hands behind his back. Two additional agents stood facing him. Inside the treatment room, Dr. Zinky and the hospital staff worked hard trying to save President Blackstone. While it felt as though hours had passed, it was only a matter of a few minutes before the heart monitor attached to the president flatlined. Dr. Zinky had already ordered the annoying electronic sounds of the machines turned down, but the sudden change in the team’s tempo and activity was enough for those waiting to know what had happened. They each tried to brace themselves for the inevitable news.

Dr. Zinky was soaked from both blood and perspiration. He took off the surgical gown and gloves, tossing them in a nearby laundry bag. He watched as the team removed all the monitors from the president’s body, sewed up the incisions they had made, and removed IV tubes. No one said a word as they worked. They all knew the routine too well. For the hospital staff, this scene happened several times a day. This one was different, though, and they all knew it.

When everyone else had left the treatment room, Dr. Zinky took one more look at his patient before turning around and walking slowly to the doorway. “I regret to announce that President Rudolph Allen Blackstone passed away this evening at 7:42 PM, Eastern Standard Time. The cause of death is a brain hemorrhage that was the result of exposure to an extremely high electrical impulse earlier today.”

Both Roger and Agent Campbell looked up quizzically. 

“Wait, I thought you told us earlier that the president had been poisoned,” Roger said, challenging the doctor’s statement. “I mean, we had the First Lady arrested. Are you saying we were wrong?”

“Not at all,” the doctor said as he removed his glasses and cleaned the lenses with a tissue. “The president was poisoned without a doubt but that was not his ultimate cause of death. The poison was slow-acting. He could have recovered from that, I feel reasonably certain. But there is clear evidence of exposure to an extremely strong electrical impulse, probably caused by whatever happened with that phone call this morning. We were so focused on fighting off the poison that we missed the brain damage until it was too late. Once he hemorrhaged there was little we could do to save him.”

Roger looked at Agent Campbell and sighed. “I assume you all have a specific protocol for this situation.”

Adrian nodded. “We do, though it gets a little convoluted given the current circumstances. We’ll notify the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region and they’ll send over a military detail that stays with the president’s body until it’s interred. Our team is then reassigned to protect the new president, presumably President Watkins.”

Roger sighed. “Thank you, Dr. Zinky. I know you did everything you could.”

The doctor looked at the floor for a moment before responding. “I’ll have my official report ready for public dissemination first thing in the morning,” he said. He gazed at the floor a moment longer. “So, yeah … And we’ll transition out of the White House by the end of the week. Not exactly what we had planned, is it?” He looked up at Roger. “You’ll let me know where to send everyone’s medical records?”

Roger nodded.

Zinky sighed once more and walked away toward what passed as a doctor’s lounge in the busy hospital. So many lives had just changed. He overwhelming felt as though he’d failed not only his patient but the whole nation.

Roger watched the doctor walk away then turned to Agent Campbell. “We’re going to need some guidance here. Am I still allowed a driver back to the White House or do I need to call for a ride?”

Agent Campbell smiled. Under different circumstances, he might have found the question humorous. “Yes, sir. We typically continue to provide service throughout a transition. I’m sure this will be no different. I’ll have your car brought around with orders to get you back as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” Roger said, extending his right hand to the agent. “It has been a pleasure working with you, Adrian.”

The agent shook the now-former Chief of Staff’s hand. “Same here, sir. Please be careful.”

Roger nodded and turned toward the door. His mind swirled with all the protocols he was required to follow. He needed to find and distribute the late president’s funeral plan, something that had been created his second week in office. He would also need to oversee the removal of the Blackstone family’s belongings from the White House, though with Tasha in custody he wasn’t immediately sure where to send them. Andrew’s family would need to be relocated and funeral arrangements made as well. The two services could not take place on the same day. The president’s service would take place first. 

As he pushed through the doors leaving the treatment area, he saw the members of the press through the waiting room windows. It wasn’t his job to inform them of the president’s passing, but they would certainly ask and would make judgments based on his expressions whether he said anything or not. He was glad he wasn’t the one to make the announcement. Dr. Zinky would have to do that. Dealing with the press at this moment was not something Roger wanted to do.

Roger’s car pulled under the canopy outside the emergency room and an agent quickly hopped out and opened the back door. Roger smiled and waved to the press, not saying anything as the door shut behind him. They would probably guess that everything was okay, the president was “resting comfortably.” The hospital staff was under strict orders to never speak to a member of the press without authorization so chances of there being a leak were slim.

Leaning back in his seat, Roger felt the tears begin to well up in his eyes. He had known Rudy Blackstone over 40 years. For most of that time, he had been covering up Rudy’s mistakes and misstatements while his friend basked in the limelight. Roger was okay with that. Rudy had taken good care of him financially. He could retire to a nice, unassuming home hidden in the woods of Vermont, perhaps write his memoir, which would be a best-seller by default, and then quietly pass into history as little more than a name on a list that no one would ever read. That was just the nature of the job. But first, he had to tell Norma Watkins that the job she didn’t want was hers. 

Protocol. Everything he did from this point forward was a matter of protocol.

Critical Timing

From the moment every cell phone in the lecture hall had rung while he was speaking, Chief Justice Kenneth Samuel Todd had been annoyed. He wasn’t accustomed to being interrupted by anyone at any time. He was also quite certain that he had shut off his own phone before walking onto the stage so the perceived embarrassment of it going off along with the others made the situation worse in his mind. The Chief Justice, accustomed to extemporaneous remarks as he was, had managed to make the moment humorous by quipping, “You all downloaded the wrong number app, too?”

A few minutes later, though, the power had gone out all over the campus. His assigned security detail had quickly removed him from the stage, explaining that their communication with Washington was “temporarily” out. The university had provided a quiet room off the University President’s office, along with coffee and pastries he didn’t want and wouldn’t eat. An agent retrieved one of the law books he had brought with him, and he was sitting in the room quietly reading when another Secret Service agent, one he recognized as being from the White House, entered and insisted that the Chief Justice accompany him back to Washington at that moment. The agent had not explained why the need for an urgent return, simply that it was a matter of legal necessity that he be there as quickly as humanly possible, and no, a helicopter was not an option.

To some extent, Chief Justice Todd was disappointed about the helicopter. He enjoyed the aircraft extensively, having flown one during his service in the Navy. In his current position, though, he rarely was allowed to ride in one, usually only when accompanied by the president or vice president, which wasn’t often. The consolation, in this case, was that he could still read during the four-and-a-half-hour trip back to DC. When he finished the necessary passages from the law book, there were a number of briefs to read through and consider as well. 

The line of black SUVs hadn’t been gone from the university campus long, however, when Ken noticed that they weren’t taking the interstate, which was the route his detail had taken on their way there. Feeling an immediate sense of concern, he asked the driver, “What’s going on? Why aren’t we taking the Interstate?”

“The Interstate and many other major routes are blocked, Your Honor,” replied the agent in the front passenger seat. “Something caused the engines in all vehicles to go out for a while. I’m sure you can appreciate the chaos that event caused.”

“But this vehicle is working,” the Chief Justice asserted. “What’s going on?”

The agent turned a bit in his seat to more directly address his passenger. “The effects were largely temporary for the majority of vehicles. The problem was that the momentary loss of power also meant a loss of power steering and, in some cases, a loss of accurate breaking. There are a number of accidents all up and down the Interstate and elsewhere.”

“So how long is this trip going to take?” Ken fussed. One thing his position as Chief Justice provided him was the ability to control most situations in and around or pertaining to the Court. A delay of this magnitude was annoyingly disruptive to his schedule.

The agent looked at the driver who shrugged in response. “We’re doing everything we can to get you back to the White House as quickly as possible, sir,” the agent said. “Without any radio communication, though, we won’t know which roads are blocked or how to get around them until they’ve been encountered. We’ve consulted several maps and have a number of options if they’re needed.”

Ken sighed and leaned back in his seat. He had made dinner plans for the evening with an editor interested in publishing the inevitable book he would write after his retirement. He hadn’t actually set a date for that retirement yet. Physically, he could probably go several more years. He had already spent 30 years at the head of the high court, though. There were other things he wanted to do, things he wanted to be able to say without worrying about the implicit and explicit legal implications of saying them. Only the president stood in the way of Ken stepping down. There was no way he was going to allow this president to nominate his successor. The two justices he had already nominated were unfit for the bench in Ken’s opinion, but the president hadn’t asked his opinion. Ken was quietly hoping that the president’s re-election bid would fail, but again, he wasn’t allowed to say anything publicly.

He picked up the book lying on the seat next to him, trying to focus on yet another challenge brought by members of Congress to the president’s executive power, a topic Article II of the Constitution was far too vague in its description for the needs of contemporary politicians. Extrapolating any kind of Constitutional authority over most of the situations raised in the endless arguments between presidents and the legislative branches that inevitably oppose them seemed too much like attempting to describe a painting while looking at a blank canvas. The nation’s founders could not have possibly imagined anything like social media or the president’s ability to address the nation from his bathroom. Balancing the implied limitations of Article II with the personal freedoms set forth in the First Amendment inevitably put the Constitution at odds with itself, leaving it up to the nine justices to determine which had more sway. Historically, the Court had taken the position that the First Amendment, by virtue of its dominant position in the document, took precedence over everything that might follow. However, the extent to which the president might utilize social media to affect the appearance of policy, circumventing the mandated role of the legislature, was problematic. Ken knew there would eventually be a debate among the justices that would make his head hurt. He would need to be well prepared to stay on top of the conversation.

Ken sighed. “I suppose the radio is down, too?” he asked the agents.

“Unfortunately,” came the response. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a long, quiet drive back to DC, Your Honor.”

“Lovely,” Ken muttered as he picked up his book and continued reading.

Listen To The Rhythm Of The Rain

Perry wished more than ever than he could walk but there was still no feeling in either of his legs, and the field diagnosis from the doctor had been that he had likely experienced severe nerve damage that could not be repaired without surgery. Surgery, of course, would require a hospital and at this point, there was no prediction as to when transporting anyone to a hospital might be possible.

Just sitting here watching all the activity around him was frustrating. There was so much that still needed to be done, so many testimonies that needed to be recorded, evidence that needed to be preserved, and Perry didn’t trust anyone to be as thorough with those details as he would be. 

More than anything, he couldn’t wait to interrogate Tom. He wanted to know why. He wanted to know how many others had managed to infiltrate his team. He wanted to know if they had any help from outside the bunker. And then he wanted to beat the traitor within an inch of his life. Knowing that a trial and likely a death sentence would be inevitable was not enough. Perry wanted Tom to have a taste of the suffering that he had inflicted on everyone else. He wasn’t proud of those feelings, and he had no intention of acting on them, but he couldn’t deny their presence.

Sitting in the tent, Perry listened to the nearly-deafening sound of the storm as it battered the hangar’s tin outer shell. Inside, there were multiple layers of lead and steel and various devices designed to make the hangar, along with the rest of the facility, invisible to satellites passing overhead. None of those, though, were enough to keep the noise of the storm from squashing almost every other sound inside the building. Generators with their big diesel engines rumbled along quietly by comparison. Shouts of orders being given were unheard more than a few inches away from their origin. Perry wondered if it might have been possible to fire up a jet engine without anyone noticing.

Making matters worse, at least on a personal level, Perry’s watch had stopped working. He had no accurate sense of how much time had passed. He felt as though the squall had been going on forever. Most thunderstorms passing through this region seldom lasted more than a few minutes. He couldn’t remember any weather event that had maintained its intensity as long as this one seemed to be doing, but then, he still had no sense of exactly how long it had been raining, how long he had been sitting in the tent, or how long it had been since the morning’s explosion. Everything was a mess of jumbled memories and emotions that left him feeling groggy and disoriented if he tried to focus on any portion of the day for more than a few seconds.

Eventually, Major Davis and a couple of aides stopped by to visit. “How are you feeling, sir?” the Major asked.

“Like a lump of useless wet canvas,” Perry replied. “How are things going out there?”

Davis turned and accepted the clipboard offered by one of the aides then handed it to Perry. “We’ve tried to write up a report for you, sir,” he said. “Since most of our forms are online now we had to try to recreate the format by memory. I apologize if we’ve left anything out.”

Perry smiled. “I appreciate the effort, Major,” he said. “What’s the status on our prisoner?”

“Well secured and under heavy guard, sir,” Davis replied. “I’m pleased to report that we were able to construct a surprisingly secure facility. He is appropriately shackled with chains secured to the floor and we have a rotating guard unit assigned so there are never fewer than four people watching him. He can’t even take a shit in private.”

Perry nodded as he looked over the details of the hand-written report. There were, at best count, only 26 survivors from inside the bunker. All were injured and in need of more medical care than could be provided on the base under current conditions. Preparations were being made to move everyone, including Perry, to the nearest hospital as soon as the weather permitted. Unfortunately, the lack of communication equipment made it impossible to warn the hospital of the impending wave of injured. They would send an advance team to help the trauma center prepare for the survivors.

There were 186 known dead and, by best count, 231 still missing, presumably in the rubble of the bunker. There was no way to immediately verify who might not have shown up for work that morning, but that number wasn’t far from accurate. Perry didn’t have to be told how critical it was to resume search and rescue efforts inside the bunker as soon as possible but the unrelenting monsoon was making that impossible. 

What surprised Perry was that, somehow, someone had managed to accumulate enough military-issue meals-ready-to-eat (MRE) to last the current population five days. While the taste of those meals might not be the quality to which Perry had grown accustomed, he knew the high-calorie, high-protein meals would do a good job of keeping everyone going until they could make better arrangements. 

“Everything looks shipshape, Major,” Perry said handing back the clipboard. “How would you classify our current status?”

Major Davis looked back at the now-closed hangar door for a second before responding. “We are unquestionably under duress, Colonel. I can’t be certain without an inspection, but it stands to reason that the tarp over the bunker has been compromised and under current conditions, there’s really nothing we can do.” Davis looked down at the clipboard before continuing. “I know those people in the bunker mean a lot to you, Colonel, and there are a number of good Marines down there as well. We’ll do everything we can to get them out just as soon as the storm lets up enough for us to get to them safely.”

Perry sighed and leaned back on his elbows. His back was hurting from trying to sit up for so long. “For the moment, Major, I think the safety and well-being of the people in this facility have to take precedence. I assume we’re keeping a close watch on the exhaust from all these generators?”

“Yes, sir,” Davis quickly replied. “I’m having those toward the middle of the hanger modified with tubing to direct the exhaust toward vents along the walls. We’re lucky this facility was designed to handle the exhaust of multiple jet engines firing at the same time. We’re still keeping a close watch on the numbers, though.”

Something near the hangar took a direct hit from the lightning and the resulting thunder shook everything inside.
Perry looked up at the ceiling. “We’re going to need to inspect all facilities as well. It sure sounds like we’re taking a beating. Are you sure we got everyone from all the ancillary buildings?”

“As certain as we can be, sir,” Davis answered. “We’ll do another search as part of the inspection after the storm clears.”

“Very well,” Perry replied, thankful to have someone competent taking care of matters for him. “You seem to have things well in hand. Carry on, Major. You’re dismissed.”

“Thank you, sir,” Major Davis said as he and both his aides saluted. Perry returned their salute as best he could then closed his eyes as they turned and left his tent. The conversation had not taken long, just a few minutes, but the effort it took to focus and respond left him feeling enervated. He listened to the unending pounding of the rain. Lying back on the cot, he considered that perhaps not having any feeling in his legs was perhaps better than being in extreme pain. “Be thankful for small things,” he reminded himself. Whether he liked it or not, sleep was coming, blurring time even more. The last thing he would remember was wondering whether time actually existed at all.

On The Lookout

The air outside the apartment was warm and humid with a fragrance of rain mixed with the various debris floating past the building. Darrell and Natalie leaned against the wall, holding hands, appreciating the relative privacy of the moment. They could hear the muted noise of the conversations inside but not at a level that was distracting.

Darrell closed his eyes and sighed. “Am I the only one here wishing I’d never given up smoking?”

Natalie laughed quietly. “I know, right? If ever there was a time when I could really use a cigarette, it’s right now.” She paused for a second then added. “Or a joint. Something green might do us more good.”

“Yeah,” Darrell agreed. “We don’t have anything stashed do we?”

“Nah,” Natalie said, shaking her head. “We smoked it last night. I was going to pick up more today. So much for that plan. This has been one seriously fucked up day.”

Darrell squeezed her hand. “I’m just glad you made it home,” he said, “Even if you did bring the strangest group of people imaginable. I mean, most of them are pretty nice, but that Carlson dude, if anyone needs a good long toke it’s him, man. That dude has no chill.”

Natalie smiled at Darrell’s assessment. “I don’t think he was having a good day before all the trouble started,” she said. “He was fussing about some car or something. I didn’t get all of it. I think he might have actually gotten fired but I’m not sure.”

Darrell nodded and the two of them stood there gazing out at the scene before them. This side of the apartment had not been as seriously affected by the tornado as the other. There were still buildings what were mostly standing, though the damage was severe. Water swirled around everything. Small cars occasionally drifted past, as did whole trees that had been uprooted and various other outdoor equipment that had not been secured. A large delivery truck was trapped against a wall and other detritus had begun accumulating against it, including a camping tent and some molded plastic playground equipment. Everything below them seemed to be devoid of any color, just a flowing gradient of gray and brown mixing and meshing together as the water brought things together and then moved them around at will. 

In the distance, they heard the rumble of thunder. “Great, just what we need, more rain,” Natalie said. She sighed then turned to look more directly at Darrell. “Do you think we’re actually going to make it out of this nightmare alive?”

Darrell looked at her and then back out at the horizon before answering. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I think we probably have a better chance than most, but I really don’t know.” He paused and walked to the railing. “I mean, we don’t even know who or what is left. Is there someone out there looking for us, searching for survivors, or is everyone gone? That fucking tornado was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. That we’re even alive after that is a fucking miracle.”

Natalie put her arm around him as she joined him at the railing. “Maybe we get to make a new start, do things differently this time around. Better government. Better understanding of what community is and what it means to take care of each other, respect each other. If we’re some of the only ones left, then that gives us the power to do things differently. This could be the turning point the world has needed.”

“Yeah, or this could be the beginning of the end,” Darrell said morosely. “As much as I like your perspective, we have to keep in mind that right now, we have no power, no form of communication with anyone else who survived. We have limited amounts of food, no medicine if anyone gets sick, and no one who really knows how to get everything started back up. I mean, do you know anyone who actually works for the power company? This mess has dropped us back more than a hundred years and I’m not sure we have everything it takes to cope, you know? It’s not like we can look up instructions on our phones or anything. We’re kind of stuck.”

Natalie squeezed him a little tighter. “I get that, for sure. In a lot of ways, we’re totally screwed. We’re smart, though. We can figure things out. I’m sure we’ll eventually find someone who knows enough about electricity to help us get things turned back on. It may take a while, but that tornado didn’t take out the whole country. People will come to help. I don’t think we’ll be alone for long.”

“That could be an understatement,” Darrell said, standing upright. “Look over there,” he said, pointing to their left. “What do you think, do we flag them down or not?”

Natalie followed Darrell’s gaze and saw a small flotilla of people on makeshift rafts heading their direction, floating along with the current. They seemed quiet and peaceful, no one was making any noise, but Natalie and Darrell both knew that could be a deception.

“I don’t know … that’s a lot of people. Overwhelming. Even if we had access to all the apartments, there’s not enough food,” Natalie said. “I think we let them pass unless they say something.”

“There’s nothing else downstream, though,” Darrell replied, “and it’s going to be dark soon. I know I wouldn’t want you out there at night.”

Natalie thought over the ethical dilemma for a moment. Getting the attention of the flotilla could put her and the people in her apartment in danger. There was no sure way of knowing. At the same time, failing to intervene could result in the deaths of even more innocent people. “Compromise?” Natalie wondered out loud. “We don’t call ourselves to their attention, but if they see us we offer to help.”

Darrell nodded as the first three floaters passed below them. Their eyes seemed glazed, looking straight ahead, not even to the left or right. He wondered how long they had been on the water, and how desperate they might be for any kind of relief. They varied in age just like the group in his own apartment. Some were older, a lot older, and several were his age or younger. He noticed there were no small children among them, though. They floated on scrap pieces of lumber, tires, doors, tabletops, pool floats, and even an inflatable mattress. Some used pieces of wood as paddles but most simply let the current take them downstream.

Natalie and Darrell didn’t go unseen. More than one of the refugees looked up and saw them. A couple of people even smiled and waved. None expressed any desire to stop, not to call out to the rest of their group. Either they weren’t interested in stopping or didn’t want to risk becoming separated from their group. They bobbed in the water like so many pool toys, abandoned, going along with the current, doing their best to not make any moves that might upset their ride to whatever might wait for them downstream. 

Many were naked or had stripped down to little more than their underwear. Their bodies were covered in mud. Even those who still had clothes were muddied. Natalie thought it interesting how this condition gave them all a form of equality. There was no obvious social standing among them. One couldn’t look and tell who was rich and who wasn’t. Race was largely obscured by the mud and in a few instances, even gender wasn’t obvious. None of the human contrivances used to separate people into groups were present. No one had food or water. None had shelter. All the substitute watercraft were trash that could, and likely would, dump their riders at the first sign of turbulence. 

What bothered Natalie was the look in their eyes. All of the people floating past, and she counted a total of 56, had an absence of emotion, a sense of resignation that whatever was about to happen to them was beyond their control. They saw her but looked through her. They didn’t try to communicate, really. Even the few who waved weren’t trying to say hi. Instead, it was more of a warning to stay away, to not join their journey. The smiles were those of people who knew death was imminent and, though they might not like their fate, they had resigned themselves to it. If they were about to die, they would not fear it but embrace the relief from living.

“They’re not really alive.”

Darrell and Natalie jumped at the sound of the voice behind them. They turned and found themselves face to face with the well-dressed demon, Djali.

“What are you doing here?” Natalie asked, a mix of fear and anger rushing through her. “All I have to do is scream and Amber will be back out here.”

Djali smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to hurt you or anyone else. I’m just biding my time, waiting for what has already been determined to pass. In a way, I’m not that different from all the people down there, except that I still have some control over what happens to me … for now. Those poor people have already lost their souls. They’re empty shells of flesh. A little over a mile from here, they’ll hit some rapids formed by some landscaping pieces that have gathered under the water combined with a steep downward grade.”

“Belmont Street,” Darrell said, putting a name to the location. 

The demon nodded. “All but ten will fall off there. They won’t even try to hang on. They’ll slip under the water and close their eyes until they cease breathing. No struggle. Not even any pain. They’re ready to go.”

Natalie looked back over the railing at the people floating almost out of sight at this point. “And what about the ten that stay on? What happens to them?” she asked.

“They have several more miles to go, I’m afraid,” Djali answered. “They’re people with much on their conscience, things from their past that they’ve not settled in their minds. The darkness of night will help them. By morning, they’ll be ready.” He paused for a moment as the last of the makeshift rafts floated out of sight. “There was someone you know in that group,” Djali said. “Well, maybe not known well, but you knew her name.”

Darrell and Natalie both turned away from the rail to look at him, accusing him with their faces. “Why didn’t you say something? We could have helped them!” Darrell said.

“Who was it?” Natalie added, “And why the fuck didn’t you tell us when we actually could have done something?”

Djali smiled in that evil manner to which he was accustomed. “Because you couldn’t have done anything, silly humans. Their fate is already sealed. Even I am helpless to do nothing but watch,” he said. “It was your favorite cashier from the Natural Foods market.”

“Donna?” Natalie asked, now more agitated than she had been before. “Always smiling, always cheerful, always full of recipes, that Donna?”

Djali responded with a smile that was part smirk and a shrug indicating his lack of personal concern. “You couldn’t have done anything for her. She gave up years ago. She smiled to keep everyone from seeing the emptiness inside her. Donna’s entire family was wiped out in a car accident 23 years ago. Her husband and three children, all gone in an instant. She might as well been in the car with them. There was no desire to recover from that. “

Natalie felt a tear rolling down her cheek. “You’re evil,” she said. “No one’s beyond help. We could have done something.”

“No, dear, you couldn’t.”

Natalie looked up and saw Amber towering behind the demon. “Why?” she asked tearfully. 

“Because he’s not wrong. Donna has regretted waking up every morning for the past 23 years. She’s prayed, she’s wished, she’s loathed every breath she breathed. She’s suffered. Now, in about twenty more minutes, she’ll find peace. It was best to let her go.”

Natalie was fully engaged in horror and grief at the thought of all the dear woman had endured without anyone else ever being aware. “How do you know?” she asked. “How do you know about this stupid demon and about all the people who just floated away to die?”

Amber smiled. “Because I was born of the will of demons and raised by the grace of angels. I can see their world, hear their conversations, but I cannot participate in it, nor are they allowed to disturb my existence,” she said, the last phrase directed at Djali. “Which means you need to get the fuck out of here,” she told the demon. “Tell that fuckface over you that I’m overruling him. No one else in this apartment is going to die.”

Djali looked angrily at her. “You know I’m just following orders. It’s not like I chose to be stuck here.”

“Yeah, and I know what you’ve been up to in these apartments, you little trouble maker,” she growled back at him. “Not that it’s going to do any good. They’re not coming back. Your traps are worthless.”

The demon gave a low, guttural growl like a hyena about to pounce on its prey. He bared his teeth. He stared at Amber another second, then leaped over the balcony and disappeared without making another sound.

Darrell stood against the columned landing support wide-eyed. “What just happened?” he asked. “Who are you?”

Natalie looked over the railing again to make sure the demon was gone. “I still don’t get it either,” she said. “He was so scared of you. Kinda makes me wonder if we should be, too.”

“There’s a lot I could tell you but you would find it too out-of-bounds to believe,” Amber replied. “If I hadn’t lived it, I wouldn’t believe it either. Just know that there is good and there is evil and the two sides don’t get along at all anymore. They don’t even try. I was born in a very bad place around very bad people, the human equivalent of pure evil. Had someone in the form of a teacher not intervened, I probably would have ended up just like Djali. I would have become demonized. But I’m not. I chose to be good, to end the evil that was my family, and that has afforded me a bit of protection and the ability to sense what’s going on around me. That’s how I knew you needed my help out here.”

Darrell looked at her as though she were some form of alien. “I still don’t get it. So, like, you have angels, real, white-robed, big-winged angels hanging out around you?”

Amber laughed. “Not even close. First, no one has worn robes since they went out of style 2,000 years ago. The darker forces are very fashion conscious and the others would just as soon go naked, hiding in light. But no, there’s no one ‘hanging out,’ it’s more like a spiritual life-alert thing. I can make use of the light or the power for my own protection.” She paused and sighed. “Unfortunately, protecting those around me is a little more difficult. Not everyone in your apartment is as nice as they seem.”

Natalie was still trying to regain control of her emotions, wiping tears from her eyes as she asked, “What? Are you saying someone in the apartment is a threat?”

Amber shook her head. “I don’t think so. We just have some friends who have done regrettable things in the past. The guilt they feel, or perhaps don’t yet feel, over things events has the ability to influence their decisions going forward. They may not make the same choices as the rest of us somewhere down the line.”

“Who are we talking about?” Darrell asked. “I mean, if someone’s going to cause trouble, I kinda want to know before we get there.”

“Why?” Amber asked in response. “What good does it do. I’ve already told you they’re no danger to anyone. And just like it would have been wrong to try and save Donna, it is just as wrong to keep someone else from dealing with the consequences of their actions. I’ve only mentioned it in hopes that perhaps you might not judge anyone too harshly when they disagree with you. There is much about the lives in that apartment you won’t ever know. Compassion and understanding are what everyone in there needs right now. No fear. No accusations.”

Darrell walked a few steps down the lading, looking over the rail for signs of any stragglers from the flotilla. “I still don’t get it,” he said. “But then, this whole day has been sideways since this morning.”

Natalie walked down the landing in the opposite direction. “I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as everyone in the apartment is going to be safe. I’m just wondering if we’re only prolonging the inevitable.”

“The future is not written so nothing is sure. I can feel that Nature isn’t done with us yet, but I think it’s just rain this time. No more tornadoes ripping huge trenches in the planet.” Amber said. “It should be quiet out here now. I’ll go back inside and make sure everyone stays calm.”

Natalie looked at Amber and smiled. “I’m glad you’re here with us,” she said. “I’m glad you’re our neighbor.”

Amber smiled and stepped back inside the apartment. 

Darrell walked back down toward Natalie and quietly said, “That’s the strangest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. I’m not even sure what’s real now.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit much,” Natalie agreed. “But as long as everyone is safe I really don’t care. Angels, Demons. Dementors. Whatever. I still believe we determine our own fate and make our own choices.” She paused for a moment then added, “Except for all those times we get no choice at all.”

Not What Anyone Planned

The line of black SUVs idling outside the White House was already long when Roger’s car pulled through the gates. Those belonging to the presidential motorcade were easy enough to spot and the now-former Chief of Staff correctly assumed that Norma was about to leave for the Capitol. He needed to advise her of President Blackstone’s death, as well as the problem with the First Lady. Getting to her before she left was critical. He didn’t recognize the other vehicles, though. Their license plates identified them as either secret service or military but he had no way of telling who their occupants might be.

Pushing through the security checkpoint, which was now double-staffed and taking extra precautions, Roger went straight to the Oval Office without bothering to ask who else might be there. As a result, he walked in on what seemed to be a rather contentious conversation.

“Are you saying I’m not President?” Norma was asking the tall man whose back was to Roger.

“That is precisely what I’m saying,” the man said, “There is a strong distinction between an acting president and a sitting president. An acting president is essentially little more than a Constitutional placeholder. They maintain the appearance that the country has a leader for legal purposes, someone who can, technically, give orders to the military in time of war, sign legislation passed by Congress, and issue pardons as might be appropriate. They cannot alter policy, however, nor can they circumvent the stated intentions of the sitting president. They can speak in his place but any speech you give does not, at this point, carry the full weight of the presidency.”

As the man spoke, Roger walked around and recognized Chief Justice, Kenneth Todd. “I might be able to clear that up a little for you, Your Honor,” he said, opening the folder tucked under his arm. “Madam Speaker, it is my duty to inform you, and thereby inform Congress, that President Rudolph Blackstone is dead following a brain hemorrhage earlier this afternoon.”

Norma stepped back, a look of shock on her face, reaching behind her for the nearest chair. She sat down, buried her face in her hands for a moment, then looked up with tears in her eyes. “So, it’s official?” she asked.

Roger nodded. “I’m afraid so,” he answered. Looking at the Chief Justice he added, “I have papers on my desk confirming the death of Vice President Abernathy as well if that helps, Your Honor.”

Ken nodded in agreement. He was glad he hadn’t been here for all the chaos of the day. Just listening to the details when he arrived had been confusing enough. He was glad the Constitution made his job clear.

“You’ll also want to know,” Roger continued, “that the Secret Service has detained First Lady Tasha Blackstone as well as her attorney, Gloria Fastbaum, on charges of attempting to murder the President of the United States.” He paused for the anticipated gasps around the room then continued. “Dr. Zinky will have details later in his autopsy report, but while there’s no question that the president was poisoned, he does not think that the poison was the cause of death. The hemorrhage was more likely the result of that crazy phone call this morning and whatever it was that went wrong with that.” 

Norma was now sobbing with tissues blotting her tears. Others in the room, including Wilson and Terry, were having difficulty concealing their grief. Only White House counsel Will Tucker seemed unphased and he was the first to speak. 

“Let me get this straight, and Mr. Todd, your unofficial opinion on this would be appreciated,” Will started, “but did the President know this morning that his actions might cause the phone test to erupt and essentially black out the entire nation? Is there any way he might have been warned or could have anticipated that by causing the error in that phone call he might have also done harm to himself and, I assume, potentially any others in the room at the time, including yourself?”

Roger took a moment to digest everything the attorney had asked. “Not to the extent that I am aware of any official briefing or statement from the project’s lead in that regard,” he answered. “I’m not aware of anyone knowing that the call could possibly have the catastrophic effect that it did.”

“Can the project lead speak to what happened?” Ken asked.

Roger and Will exchanged glances, both realizing the severe implications of what possibly happened. 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Chief Justice,” Roger said, “but the head of the project was assassinated in the basement shortly after the test took place.” He gulped hard and took a big breath before continuing, “Speculation is that it was the same person who killed Vice President Abernathy and General Lang but that cannot be confirmed.”

“And this person is still at large here in the White House?” Ken asked.

Roger nodded. “I’m afraid so.” He looked around the room, “Unless something changed while I was at the hospital.”

Wilson and Terri both shook their heads. They had heard nothing from the Secret Service regarding their investigation. No one expected them to say anything until someone was caught.

Putting the pieces together quickly, Ken said, “So, what we have, and please correct me if I’m missing something, is a situation where, potentially, the President knew about the risk of interrupting the phone call, took that risk to intentionally create a nationwide catastrophic disaster, used that disaster as justification for declaring martial law which essentially gave him supreme powers, but then was prevented from acting on that power because he was poisoned by the First Lady, only to die from a brain hemorrhage related to the phone call. Am I missing anything? Please tell me there’s something else that lends some sanity to this situation.”

After an uncomfortably long pause, Will was the first to say anything. “Does that not speak to the mindset and intention of the President at the time of the phone call, something to which we are no longer privileged? It seems that there is a great degree of speculation that we are unable to corroborate given the deaths that have occurred.”

“Superficially, it would seem that way,” the Chief Justice confirmed, “but I think we all know that there is no such thing as a secret conversation anywhere within this building and especially in this room. Mr. Mukaski, can you confirm that tapes were recording Oval Office events during that phone call?”

“As far as I know,” Roger said. “Unless someone specifically turned them off, they should be down in the White House security office.”

Ken nodded. “Ladies and gentlemen, part of my job is to examine matters of law from every possible perspective in regard to the Constitution of the United States. It seems to me that, at least from a couple of perspectives, that there is some reasonable chance that treason was committed today if not by the President himself, then possibly by someone directly connected to this office. Therefore, I am ordering that the President’s autopsy be suspended immediately so that investigative officials can be present, and am recommending to Congress and the Department of Justice that a full investigation by a special prosecutor be established immediately. I don’t find it reasonable, given what we know at this juncture, that anything that occurred today was accidental, including the circumstances of my absence from the city.”

Murmurs quickly erupted around the room. Norma stood up and approached the Chief Justice. “This is all well and good,” she said, “I’m all for getting to the bottom of this nonsense, but where does that leave us in the meantime? Am I president or not? Do I address Congress or not? Help me out here, Ken.”

Without hesitation, the Chief Justice responded, “We go to Congress together, I think, and give them a formal swearing-in of the new president.” He thought for a moment and then added, “But hold off on moving everything and everyone into the White House. From my perspective, this entire building is now one giant crime scene and as such its contents must be preserved until such time as investigative authorities have had an opportunity to go through everything in search of relevant evidence relating to possible crimes.”

Norma looked puzzled. “If I don’t transition to the White House then where do we go? I can’t stay in my Congressional offices. They’ll elect a new speaker probably first thing tomorrow.”

“I believe previous presidents have utilized multiple floors of a local hotel during their transition period,” Ken advised. “That’s going to work best for you at the moment. This place is going to be a madhouse once all this news gets out. If you want to get any work done, you need to be somewhere other than this building.”

Norma looked at her Chief of Staff. This was turning out to be nothing at all like what they had planned.

Reading time: 54 min
Part 10: Another Tuesday in Another Coffee Shop

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

All You Can Do Is Watch

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

“I need more gauze over here!”

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

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

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

“Corpsman! We need blankets over here!”

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

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

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

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

“Charlie unit clear!”

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

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

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

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

“Roll on my mark!”

“Get that transport over here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cover fully secured, sir!”

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

“We’ve got five minutes, sir!”

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

“No visible personnel on the yard, sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Medic! I’ve got a bleeder!”

“Make sure those air vents are open!”

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

“Where are the fucking sandbags?”

There Is No Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Yet Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“People who are against technology,” Amber answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie and Amber laughed at the popular reference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inconclusive Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger and Adrian both sighed at the same time. 

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

What Was Is No More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There Is No Down

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

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

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

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

“But he …” Terri started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Chance To Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading time: 53 min
Another Tuesday in Another Coffee Shop

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Facilitating Disaster

Hayward, Wisconsin was one of those places one doesn’t come across by accident. Interstate 35 running between Minneapolis and Duluth was several miles away. US Highway 63 provided the bulk of whatever could be called traffic through town. Most people were there for fishing in Hayward Lake. A few people would people stop by to visit the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame but even those visitors tended to have a fishing pole or six in the back of their vehicle, looking for a good spot to catch “the big one.”

Tom Russet had lived almost his entire life in Hayward, not so much because he wanted to but because that’s just the way his life had turned out. Nothing about his childhood had stood out as especially remarkable. His mother taught school, his father was a mail carrier. He was an average student who excelled in math but found the lack of practical application boring. In fact, that was his issue with most of the subjects taught in school—a severe lack of practical application. What good was it to know anything if there was not a direct connection with some aspect of life? So, he had muddled through school working hard enough to graduate in the upper portion of his class but not enough to stand out or draw attention to himself in any way.

One of the benefits of growing up in a small town so far removed from the problems of major cities was that Tom had been able to ride through the streets on his bicycle without any significant worries. For a while, when he was 12 years old, he had a weekly paper route that gave him enough spending money for comic books and the candy his mother refused to buy for him. He got to know people and they knew and trusted Tom. He was a good kid who never caused any trouble, was always around to mow a lawn or help carry groceries, or just sit and chat if someone offered him a cold soda. Had life been fair and reasonable, Tom would have lived and died in Hayward without anyone outside the county ever noticing.

Four years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison had been the furthest Tom had ever been from Hayward. The size of the student body alone was several times that of his home town and the atmosphere of intellectual questioning had piqued Tom’s interest. He had gone there to study physics but had also developed a strong interest in environmental issues and their relationship to economic issues. While he had started school thinking he might like to work in a lab somewhere looking for solutions to quantum overheating, by the time he graduated he was more concerned about molecular erosion deriving from increased moisture as a result of global warming. 

When Tom graduated, he was looking at a number of possible positions that would have allowed him to utilize both his physics and environmental knowledge to not only study the planet but perhaps develop a method for either slowing down or, hopefully, reversing the effects that were slowly destroying the planet. That none of the jobs paid all that much was irrelevant. Neither did Tom mind that it would likely take him away from Wisconsin and his family. There was a world to be saved and maybe, if everything went well, Tom might have a part in rescuing the planet.

Tom had temporarily moved back home while he considered two different employment offers when, as too often happens, tragedy struck. His dad, Bill, had been making his mail rounds when a semi tractor-trailer coming through town just a little too fast failed to make a turn and tipped over on top of the mail truck Bill was driving. Trapped in the wreckage, Bill was almost certainly still alive. Members of the largely-volunteer fire department came rushing to the scene claim they heard Bill calling for help. Then, without warning, the contents of the trailer exploded sending a fireball over 100 feet into the sky and leaving a crater seven feet deep. There was nothing left of Bill or his delivery vehicle.

Everyone in town heard and felt the explosion. There was no denying it happened. Tom, like many others, went running to the scene. Since there was no longer any physical evidence of Bill or his mail truck, Tom didn’t realize that his father was dead. Only when a firefighter spotted him and suggested that Tom find his mother and take her home was there any suspicion that something was wrong. Both the fire chief and police chief came by the house with the devastating news. That alone was enough to change Tom’s plans. He instantly knew he would have to delay any out-of-town employment to help his mother recover and get back on her feet.

What happened next was rather surreal. Two men in dark suits arrived at Russet home early the next morning claiming to be from the Postmaster General’s office. Since Bill was a federal employee, they said, there were certain benefits Rachel, his widow, was entitled to receive. They talked about pension and life insurance and everything about that conversation seemed perfectly normal until they pulled out the paperwork for Rachel to sign. Since the whole topic was upsetting, Rachel handed the papers to Tom to look over and there in the indemnity clause he noticed that it was the Department of Defense, not the Postal Service, they were being asked to hold harmless. A dozen questions immediately raced through Tom’s mind. This couldn’t be normal. What did the Department of Defense have to do with mail delivery? Why would they even be involved in his mom receiving death benefits? Nothing else in the paperwork mentioned the DoD at all. Why did they need to be indemnified at all? What possible role had they played? For all his questions, though, Tom handed the papers back and gave his mother the go-ahead to sign them. She was already distraught at losing her husband. He wasn’t going to make matters worse by questioning a seemingly insignificant part of the paperwork. Tom mentioned the clause to no one.

Had anyone known about the inclusion of the Department of Defense in the indemnity clause they might have found it curious that the hole in the street was completely filled and paved over by noon the next day. Someone might have questioned that the contractor who did the job was from Virginia. A more astute observer might have said something about the special liner placed in the crater before it was filled or inquired about the “mosquito repellant” that was only sprayed on the lawns and buildings within a three-block radius of the explosion. 

A few people did find it interesting that nothing about the explosion appeared in the local paper but the editor explained that they had already committed to running the story about a planned addition to the hall of fame and covering the high school graduation. They did run Bill’s obituary on the front page, below the fold with a nice picture, but no mention of the explosion occurred there, either. In less than a week, everything in Hayward appeared to be back to normal. A year later, hardly anyone mentioned the event’s anniversary. 

Tom stayed in town, secured a decent enough job with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, and took care of his mother. The pension checks arrived on time, directly deposited into her bank account. There was no grave to visit but Bill’s picture remained by her bedside and Tom knew that most nights his mom cried herself to sleep. When the doctor diagnosed her with an aggressive form of cancer two years later, Tom wasn’t surprised. He was completely unaware that more than 200 people in town were also diagnosed with various cancers within two years of the blast. Rachel fought cancer for eight years before finally leaving Tom alone in the house where he had grown up. 

Three weeks after his mother’s funeral, Tom finally decided it was time to go through all the family papers, get things organized and perhaps eliminate what he no longer needed. Life wasn’t exactly horrible. His father’s life insurance had paid off the mortgage so he only had to worry about utilities and taxes. He had seniority at work and while he perhaps wasn’t saving the entire planet he was effective in creating local programs that kept the lake from encroaching onto surrounding land and controlling runoff. He had even been dating a girl from Stanbury for the past five years. Perhaps now he could focus a bit on his own life.

Going through his mom’s files, though, Tom noticed several envelopes marked from the Department of Treasury that had never been opened. As he looked at them, he realized they were receipts for additional deposits made to her account marked as “reparations.” What those reparations might be he didn’t know. He knew that by the time her medical bills were paid there wasn’t a lot of money left and these receipts were each for well over $10,000 each. 

When his mother’s final death certificate arrived in the mail, Tom took it to the bank to close his mother’s account. After filling out the necessary paperwork, the bank manager asked if Tom wanted them to simply move the remaining funds into his account or if he wanted it divided into investment accounts as his mother had done. Tom had never realized that his mother had more than one account. By the time everything was totaled the full amount his mother left was over seven million dollars. 

Working for the state of Wisconsin, Tom knew that the government, state or federal, didn’t just hand out millions of dollars without Congress being involved somewhere along the line. He had the money transferred to a separate account, one that he wouldn’t report on his taxes, and quietly started looking into why his mom had received so much money and why she hadn’t said anything or spent any of it.

Another four years would pass before Tom started getting any answers at all and the ones he did get only led him to more questions. What he knew was that the truck that had killed his father was carrying a proprietary explosive the government had been researching. He also knew that the truck was never intended to go through Hayward at all. However, many of the documents he was able to retrieve through the Freedom of Information act were heavily redacted. He didn’t know where the truck should have been or exactly what it had been carrying. He also knew that whatever was in the truck was likely a violation of the Geneva Convention which would explain why the government had tried so hard to cover up its existence. The of the last documents he found claimed that the project had been scrapped because the material proved too volatile. However, there were also indications that the explosion in Hayward hadn’t been the only one and that everywhere there had been an explosion there was also a severe increase in cancer deaths over the next ten years. 

Tom was angry. Not only had government ineptitude caused his father’s death, but it also had contributed to the early and painful deaths of his mother and over two hundred other people in Hayward. The reparations payments came in exchange for avowed silence. Everyone in town, it seemed, had been paid to keep quiet. There were several who even denied the explosion had actually happened.

Frustrated, Tom went to his ten-year college reunion which wasn’t all that big of a deal considering that most of his former classmates were just settling into their careers but big enough that he was able to find a handful of people who were similarly disheartened. One had lost a spouse in an unexplained chemical spill. Another person’s roommate, a federal employee in what seemed to be a nondescript office job, suddenly “disappeared” and had all her personal belongings confiscated by federal agents. One person told the horrific story of how he had been on vacation with his parents in Honduras where his parents were kidnapped. He contacted the US embassy and wrestled with paperwork and delays for over three months. When a military team was finally sent in to “rescue” them, they returned with a story that his parents had “unfortunately been killed in the crossfire.” Both his parents had been federal employees. 

As they left the reunion, the small group that had formed exchanged email addresses and promised to keep in touch. They found others who had similar stories: homes mysteriously flooded, unexplained disappearances, “accidents” that seemed too easily covered up. Each left someone resentful and bitter. As email conversations flew between members of the group, the universal feeling was that the government wasn’t just hiding something, it was hiding many things across many agencies and going to great lengths to keep all those things hidden.

That’s when Tom floated the idea of trying to infiltrate federal government programs as employees, getting inside the top-secret facilities, finding out what was going on, and then broadcasting those findings to the world. Everyone liked the idea and having grown to over 500 members the group found it almost too easy to be hired for jobs deep inside top-secret government facilities. They provided cover stories for those whose background didn’t quite fit and vouched for each other when federal security status was being set. While not everyone in the group was accepted, over 300 were.

What they quickly discovered, however, was that many of the programs to which they were assigned were experimental, easy for the government to deny even existed. The group realized that if they leaked information to the press, the government would simply shut down the operation and either move it somewhere else or kill everyone involved and call it an accident. At the very least they would be dismissed as nut-job conspiracy theorists with a loose grip on reality.

Tom was active in all the conversations. He worked his way into a position at the Bureau of Land Management where he became part of a group looking to extract uranium deposits from under private property in urban locations. As he saw what was being done, the excuses, the elaborate deceptions, the money being spent on covering up flaws and accidents, his anger grew. When finally someone suggested that these programs needed to be stopped and that sabotage was the only way, Tom was quick to volunteer.

The scheme was elaborate and members of the group constantly questioned whether they could ever achieve their goals without being discovered. If they were ever caught they could be tried for treason. More likely, they would be killed and their deaths covered up in the usual manner, explained away by what seemed to be a publicly-witnessed accident. Still, they remained surprisingly committed and when they learned of a special satellite-driven program in Virginia, Tom and seven others managed to get hired as analysts. They were determined to bring down the program no matter what the costs.

Tom and two others were part of the green team, and the group had two members in both the blue and yellow teams. After the initial test of the system, they knew the only way to bring it to a halt was to take control of the satellite’s used to distribute the message and alter it in such a way so that the next test would fail spectacularly, bringing down the nation’s cell service and upsetting international communications. Inserting lines of code into the program, even with all the double-checking that occurred, was almost too easy. Teams were under so much pressure to deliver a product that code inserted late into the process was not as fully tested as was the original code. Falsified explanations embedded into the code were overlooked as being legitimate and never questioned. Even if an analyst had raised an alarm, there were enough team members in each group to challenge any negative opinion. 

Two weeks before the final test at the White House, Tom moved from the green team to Holly’s yellow team. There he discovered that the FBI agent running the test, Tony Briscane, had made some tweaks of his own. The only way Tom’s takeover could work would be if there were a two-second break in the delivery of the message—enough of an interruption to send the system into pause mode. The odds of that happening were practically nill. Tom and the team thought they had been defeated.

But then, the president himself had provided the break they needed. Two seconds, almost exactly, and Tom’s code went into effect. So did all the code the other team members had written, not all of which Tom had seen. No one in the group was aware of everything that was about to happen.

Almost immediately after the interruption took place, Tony sent a text to Claire who forwarded it to her counterparts on the other team: they had a mole, the code had been altered. Claire didn’t know the message on her cell phone reflected onto a monitor behind her where Tom was able to read it. He quickly sent a message to Rodney Hampton, a seven-year veteran of the Secret Service, suggesting that “extreme measures” be taken to preserve their secrecy. Two seconds later, the entire national cell system went dead. 

Tom didn’t know one of his partners had included a line of code that effectively caused 18 major power stations across the country to overload, creating a cascading event that knocked out the nation’s power grid. Even the person who wrote that code did not expect the resulting electromagnetic pulse that momentarily stopped every combustion- and electric-powered engine. 

As the entire bunker went into damage control, Tom knew he had no choice but to take extreme action. Commandeering another satellite, which was easy at this point, he located a fighter jet with a payload that would be effective. Trigger systems that would have allowed the pilot to drop that payload had been disarmed, but Tom knew that everything on the plane could be controlled remotely. As everyone around him appeared to be trying to get systems back online, Tom was feverishly working to control the plane, setting the precise coordinates for dropping the bombs then crashing the aircraft. He didn’t have time to warn the others. 

Now, he sat in the dark, wearing a gas mask, pinned down by falling rubble. The instant he had mentioned the food trucks he knew he had made a mistake. Perry Hawkins was too intelligent. His only hope of survival was to slip away into the darkness. Two other members of the group had survived the initial blast, Harold House on the green team and Sarah Weller on the yellow team. Harold had been lifted out of the bunker badly wounded. Tom knew Harold would be safe. He had no idea whether Sarah had survived the cave-in. He would have to take his chances. As the lights of rescuers approached, he unwedged himself from the concrete and slipped away into the darkness. No one noticed.

The Evil Among Us

From the beginning of time, humans have been easily manipulated by the supernatural. Not that any of them could force a human to take any specific action, good or bad, but they were susceptible to influence on a level unlike any other being in nature. All it ever took was a suggestion given at just the right moment when emotions were set or hormones were sufficiently active. Good or bad, whatever “voice” or “thought” entered the human brain had a high probability of being acted upon. The battle to place the right thought in the right brain at the right time could be fierce. Other times, though, it was exceptionally easy.

Like humans, the supernatural forces were part of what was created out of the Big Bang, though no one had yet developed the technology to record the presence of any spiritual energy in that blast. They had evolved with time, moving from being the grotesque monsters of ancient nightmares to inhabiting other bodies to replicating life forms for themselves, any life form, so as to better manipulate the actions of the humans who laughably thought they controlled the planet. They had developed neural communication networks that allowed them to know what was happening within certain groups anywhere in the world. Both had extremely intricate hierarchies that didn’t fit on anyone’s flow chart and as much rivalry and contest as there was between them, both knew the other side was absolutely necessary.

Of course, the good guys took most the credit even when they had little to do with the matter. When the great books were being written, they latched themselves to the souls of writers to make sure that they were painted as the champions of civilization’s forward progress. Angels had created the concept of inspiration and authors and artists alike happily claimed that as the source of their work, never realizing they were being manipulated the entire time. They had also heavily influenced the concept of religion so they would be seen as messengers of good, even infallible though that was far from the truth. Both sides made their share of mistakes, their efforts having unanticipated results.

The biggest challenge faced by the supernatural was the binary nature of the human mind. First of all, it had taken an incredibly long time for bipedal beings to develop a sense of reason in the first place. Evolution could move incredibly slow and tens of thousands of years had passed before this late-arriving infestation acted on anything beyond their own instincts. Early observers of the species often mistook them for a relative of the great apes who were powerful but frustratingly limited. Only as humans developed specific patterns of speech and communication did the supernatural entities start paying attention. Once they realized the slow-moving intellectual development of these creatures could be more easily manipulated than with other animals, they began being more directly involved. 

Human curiosity was the biggest problem they faced. The development of written language, symbols carved into stone or stained onto papyrus, had come about through an attempt to answer the philosophical questions of “why am I here?” and “what is my purpose?” Supernatural beings quickly realized they needed someone to blame, an entity whose identity they could hide behind so that humans remained largely unaware of the aggressive ways their lives were being shaped by things they could not see or feel. Thus, they created the concept of deity. How that concept developed differed based on culture and intellectual capability but for all of them the concept that there was an unseen force who more or less controlled everything everywhere all the time provided both sides with the cover they needed to continue their work.

At the same time, however, as the concepts of deity and religion eventually merged, it partitioned the supernaturals into distinct camps. Fear and Death began to be considered bad things. Humans lost the ability to see that agents of Fear kept them safe while allies of Death held the ability to reduce or eliminate suffering and prevented the spread of diseases that would have wiped out the entire species before they were millennia old. Agents that encouraged and sometimes facilitated reproduction were rebranded as lust. Influencers that provided the drive to achieve and succeed were given the label “greed,” which the angels deemed a sin. Attendants who pushed for humans to enjoy as much as they could saw their efforts vilified as gluttony while those saw danger in overactivity, encouraging rest and moderation, were referred to as employees of sloth. What began among the tribes as an attempt to ensure equality among everyone was demonized as envy. People who listened to operators encouraging them to share and communicate their achievements were told to sit down as they were being prideful. Supporters of justice were recast as purveyors of wrath. 

As the number of deities and religions slowly consolidated and gained power, humans lost the ability to see how the traits and activities their religions villanized were necessary to achieve the balance of nature. Harmony was not possible without those influences commonly referred to as sins. As humans slowly developed their ability to reason, conflicts began to arise between those who could see outside religious boundaries and those who could not. Pure concepts became polluted and the minds of humans shifted away from the natural order. 

Human reasoning was forever altered, however, when the Archangel Raphael mistakenly implied to a religious leader that there might be something that perpetuated existence beyond the effects of Death. He hadn’t meant for it to come out that way. Raphael was only trying to mitigate the fear associated with the finality of ending life by suggesting that the memory of one’s good deeds and achievements effectually extended the influence of their lives forever. Nuance and subtlety were almost always lost on humans, though. Their underutilized brains couldn’t keep up and as a result, the religious leader took Raphael’s “inspiration” to mean that eternal life could be achieved through good deeds. Nothing anyone did could keep the concept from spreading through all the deities and nearly all the religions. 

Understandably, the forces of Death took the slight personally. This concept of eternal life was a direct afront to their purpose. Life ends. Good deeds or not, regardless of belief systems or ritual acts, the cessation of existence was final and critical to maintaining the balance of the universe. Nothing else could possibly exist beyond that point without upsetting the essence of all matter. Everything that exists is made of energy. When that energy expires or changes its form, the “life” it inhabits dies. Everything dies. Stars die. Planets die. Light dies. There can be no exception for anything on any level of being. To suggest otherwise not only brought chaos to the universe but completely derailed human intellectual development for thousands of years, doing irreparable damage along the way.

Death and its allied forces did not respond well to this change. Mercy, the concept of making the end of life as painless as possible, was thrown out the window. Instead, Death became aggressive and allied with Pain whenever possible. Death vowed it would no longer stand in the way of violence, either natural or of human creation. If humans wanted to believe Raphael’s nonsense, Death would introduce them to reality in the most vivid and unquestionable method at its disposal. 

Raphael, embarrassed that he had been the source of such misunderstanding, doubled down on the concept of an afterlife and encouraged his counterparts to do the same. While they lacked the power to actually create a post-life utopia of any kind, they could, in some cases, ease the effects of death if they arrived early enough, calming one’s last breaths, making the transition into nothingness a bit more gentle. Often, they would show a hint of themselves to the dying person, appearing as bright light, giving the human hope that they were moving onto a better form of existence. Yes, that hope was a lie, but angels considered that matter irrelevant given that without any post-conscious existence the humans would know no better, dying peacefully, possibly even happily. 

Ultimately, this difference set up a great and powerful conflict between the supernaturals aligned with light, the positive energy of the universe, and those aligned with darkness, or negative energy. Both waged wars for the minds and actions of humans, mounting great public relations and marketing campaigns furthering their own power and gaining favor in the minds of humans. At the same time, though, both sides were aware that the universe could tolerate only so much tilt in either direction before it would force a correction. Balance would be maintained at all cost.

Ironically, what often started in the camp of the light ones often ended up exploited by those on the dark side. Exploration, searching for new places to grow food and live in peace almost inevitably led to tribal conflicts, a battle between competing concepts of deity and the ability to control the land. Forces loyal to Pain and Trouble excelled at this maneuver, so much so that they eventually took over the whole concept, leading human leaders to mount expeditions to take over land to which they had no reasonable right of control. Within a matter of a couple of centuries, no exploration was done without the express intent of dominating and controlling whoever or whatever might be found.

Similar transitions occurred in fields of medicine, science, and technology as every advancement achieved through the influence of the light could be countered with tools of the darkness such as addiction, domination, inequality, and restriction. The harnessing of electricity opened the door to power struggles and eventual dependence on artificial power. The natural balance between day and night was lost, humans no longer rested the amount their bodies required. The Industrial Revolution brought many new conveniences to the planet but also furthered the causes of pollution, inequality, racism, sexism, and ultimately weapons of war that were more efficient at killing than entire armies had been previously.

Through everything, a tentative balance was maintained. Sure there was a lot of wobbling back and forth, but it wasn’t until the election of Rudolph Blackstone that the planet experienced an imbalance so severe that the planet was obligated to respond. Blackstone was not only completely under the influence of dark powers, he regularly originated ideas of destruction on his own without any supernatural assistance. He completely disregarded established safety measures and well-supported science and totally ignored the lessons of history. Single-handedly, Rudy Blackstone had made air unbreathable, water undrinkable, international peace unattainable, and severely reduced global food supplies. Agents of Death and Destruction were delighted. Principals of Fear were on the federal payroll. Anxiety attendants were at every Cabinet meeting and influenced the president’s social media outbursts. Within 24 months, the careful balance that had existed for centuries was completely lost despite every effort to keep it in play.

Now, Nature was in control. The instant the artificial power went out, she stepped in. She had seen it coming and was well prepared. Horrific storms and tornadoes plagued the central regions of North America. Shifts in plates well beneath the Pacific ocean set up an overdue realignment of landmass creating massive tsunamis in the process. Extreme temperatures never previously recorded left polar animals with heatstroke while ice melting contributed so dramatically to the desalination of oceans that hundreds of species began to die. Heavy winds displaced snow and sand, completely covering small villages that would never again know life. Not content with incremental change as she had always advocated before, Nature was pissed and determined to clean house. If that meant two billion people had to die, she was okay with that. Restoring balance was more important.

Archbeings on both sides saw Nature’s move as a chance to gain influence among the humans. If death on this level was inevitable, it would be up to them to shape how humans responded. If mass deaths were seen as sudden and painless, humans were more likely to accept the natural acts as their own doing and work toward making corrections. If deaths were perceived as painful and merciless, especially toward those who were weak and defenseless, humans would look for someone to blame and the result conflicts could last for centuries. There was a lot at stake and it would take everyone on both sides to keep the humans from becoming stunned into a state of paralysis.

Caim, as one of Death’s strongest supporters, was not going to willingly let anyone pass unattended, or worse yet, guided by angels. He had given Djali and thousands of his counterparts specific assignments. Death had not readjusted the account. Nature seemed to be taking a breath but there was a second wave coming. Caim reissued orders, sent Djali back to his original coffee shop group. “Wait,” he was told. “Don’t look for the obvious or the weakest.”

Djali didn’t like the order. He had a finely honed sense of when death was imminent and there was nothing about the occupants of that apartment that made him feel that any of them were close to getting anything more than a dry cough. He knew Caim rarely made mistakes, though, and challenging such a powerful entity could have bad results. He lurked at the far side of the building, away from Amber’s watchful gaze. He wasn’t feeling especially aggressive after the tornado. He could wait.

There Is No Normal

A phalanx of the press had gathered outside the Emergency Room doors of Walter Reed Hospital by the time Roger returned. The reporters all recognized his vehicles and immediately started shouting questions the moment he stepped out of the SUV. He waved and rushed in where Ann was waiting. “How’s she doing?” he asked, referring to the First Lady.

“She’s faking distress well,” Ann said. 

Roger looked at her cautiously. “Faking?” he questioned. “Are you sure?”

Ann grabbed Roger’s elbow and led him away from the door to an area where the eyes of the press weren’t persistently trying to read their lips. “Yes, faking,” she answered. “I’ve been her friend since college, Roger. I’ve seen her more upset over getting a B on a final than she was at Dr. Zinky’s news. It’s like she knew this was coming. Her sentences were complete, not broken up by sobbing. She dabbed the tissue at her eyes, being careful to not smear her makeup. She’ll fake cry for a few seconds then look up to see if anyone’s paying attention. I’d swear she had something to do with this, I just don’t know what or how.”

Roger sighed heavily. “Fuck. If this shit gets any deeper we’re all going to drown.”

A look of concern crossed Ann’s face. “What do you mean? Andrew was sworn in okay, right?”

The Chief of Staff looked carefully around before answering. “Sure, he was sworn in, right before he and Lang were shot. Norma’s sitting in the Oval now, too scared to make a move. The shooter is still at large, the entire White House is on lockdown, and neither Congress nor the Pentagon has a clue what’s going on.”

Ann suddenly felt like throwing up. “We’ve got a Constitutional crisis, don’t we?”

“Kruegel says we do. Until we get the Chief Justice back, no one is technically in control. Norma’s been sworn in, of course, but Kruegel says she can’t sign anything that extends beyond the moment and even that has to be an absolute emergency. Everything anyone does is subject to either a legal or Congressional challenge, if not both. I would have thought there was no way anyone could have predicted this absurd chain of events, but if what you’re telling me about the First Lady is true, maybe someone did.” 

Roger ran his hands through his hair then shoved them deep into his pants pockets. He looked at the floor a moment before continuing. “We need the president to not die until the Chief Justice can swear Norma in legally,” he said quietly. “And we need the electricity back on. It’s going to get dark in a couple of hours. Those generators aren’t going to last forever.”

“Ann! Ann, dear! Can you come here for a minute?” the First Lady called from across the waiting room.

Ann walked over, closely followed by Roger. Tasha was still dabbing a tissue at the corner of her eyes, fully aware that the press outside was watching every move. “Andrew has been sworn in as acting President, am I correct?”

Ann looked hesitantly at Roger. “He was, but …”

“He can go back to being Vice President now,” Tasha said before Ann could finish her sentence. “Rudy’s going to be fine. There’s no reason for the American public to know he’s temporarily unavailable. I’ll address the press on his behalf and let everyone know we’ll all be back in the White House soon.” Tasha smiled in a way most frequently ascribed to comic book villains. 

Roger looked at Ann and noticed her fists were clenched and she was almost certainly grinding her teeth. “Mrs. Blackstone, I’m afraid there have been some complications that you’ve not yet been made aware of,” he said, taking some of the pressure off his counterpart. “Andrew was gunned down in the White House shortly after taking the oath of office. General Lang and a member of Andrew’s Secret Service detail were killed as well.”

Roger paused a moment to let that sink in. He had not bothered to lower his voice and the First Lady’s security detail stepped in closer to hear what was going on.

“Norma Watkins is currently acting president, according to the Constitutional line of succession,” Roger continued. “However, until Congress and the Pentagon have both been duly informed of the full situation, no one, including you ma’am, is addressing the press in any way, shape, or form. There will be no lying to the press, no misdirection to try and make anyone think that president Blackstone is still in charge. We are in uncharted territory and the legal implications are severe. No one is doing anything. I’m sorry.”

“Who gave the oath of office,” Gloria Fastbaum spoke up from behind Tasha. “I didn’t think the Chief Justice was available.”

Now it was Roger’s turn to clench his fist. Only a handful of people knew that the Chief Justice wasn’t in town and he was quite sure that Ms. Fastbaum wasn’t on the list of people who should have that information. “Excuse me, who are you, exactly?” he asked in a stern voice that made everyone else in the room shudder.

Gloria seemed unfazed. “I’m Gloria Fastbaum, the First Lady’s personal attorney,” she said.

Roger took a couple of steps closer so as to look Gloria dead in the eyes. “As her personal attorney, you are not privileged to receive confidential or classified information. The location of the Chief Justice, as well as that of the other members of the Supreme Court, is a matter of national security. You may not have been informed when you arrived, but you are, like every member of the White House staff, subject to the rules and protocols we have established and if you violate those rules, in any way, Ms. Fastbaum, you’ll be the one needing an attorney.”

Roger took a couple of steps back and caught smirks on the faces of Mrs. Blackstone’s staff as well as her security detail. “Now, there will be no statements to the press. None. The official position of the White House is that we do not comment on situations that are currently fluid and if this situation were any more fluid we’d all need gallon jugs. I don’t want to see any member of this staff talking to the press directly, sending them notes, making faces at them through the windows, or any other inane form of communication. Any statement you make outside this room is subject to legal action from the Attorney General’s office and possibly Congressional oversight committees. I don’t want to catch any of you being stupid.” 

Tasha dabbed at her eyes again. “I just thought the American people might appreciate hearing …”

“The American people would appreciate having their electricity back,” Roger interrupted. “There is no power. No television. No radio. No internet. Any statement anyone makes under these conditions only fuels speculation and leads to further confusion. It’s not going to happen, ma’am. Not from you, not from anyone else.”

Tasha dropped her head and retreated back to the corner of the waiting room. Ann stood next to Roger and said, “You realize that just put you on her shit list.”

“I thought I was already there,” he replied.

“You were, but you’ve moved up a few places,” Ann confirmed. “How do you suppose Gloria knew about the whole Chief Justice situation?”

“I’m not sure, but he’s due at the White House in less than an hour. I’m going to have some questions about his trip after he swears Norma into office officially.”

Ann nodded. 

Roger walked over to the four Secret Service agents guarding the door to the treatment rooms. “Let Zinky know I need an update on the president’s condition, ASAP,” he said.

The lead agent nodded and slipped through the door. Roger walked back over to where Ann was standing, observing the First Lady and her attorney chatting angrily in hushed tones that weren’t nearly as quiet as they might have wanted. Ann and Roger could hear every word.

“No one told me that they were going to kill Andrew,” Tasha said. “I thought we were supposed to challenge his authority, not kill the man!”

“It wasn’t part of the plan,” Gloria said. “We were only focused on your husband, no one else. This definitely puts a wrinkle in things but I think we can still make a go of it.”

“Roger isn’t going to let me talk, though,” Tasha said, her pout not remotely subtle. “He’s got all the power now.”

Gloria leaned in close, “Listen, we didn’t poison the president for you to just sit here and play the distraught wife. I don’t know who swore in Speaker Watkins, but I know it’s unconstitutional. I made sure the Chief Justice would be speaking at different events throughout the weekend. We won’t even have to be the ones who challenge her. Congress will take care of that for us and we’ll step in to take charge then.”

Tasha looked up at the attorney, “And if Rudy wakes up before then?”

“Don’t worry,” Gloria said, smiling, “I’ve taken care of that as well.”

“You stay here,” Roger told Ann. He looked at the nearest Secret Service agent. The agent nodded. Together, they walked toward the First Lady’s group.

“You know, acoustics are really interesting,” Roger said as he stepped within the First Lady’s circle, looking more at Gloria than Mrs. Blackstone. “You put together the right combination of elements, a hard surface like the marble on these walls, the right tiles on the ceiling, the high polish on the floor, set at just the right angle so that even the softest sounds have the ability to bounce around until they’re magnified, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make it impossible to keep secrets.” 

Gloria’s mouth dropped open. Tasha, not quite getting Roger’s reference, looked at Gloria wondering what was going on. Other members of the First Lady’s staff shuffled backward in an attempt to physically distance themselves from what was about to happen.

Adrian Campbell, head of the president’s security detail walked up to Gloria. “Gloria Fastbaum, you are under arrest for conspiracy attempting to kill the president of the United States. You have the right to remain silent …”

As Agent Campbell read Gloria her rights, other agents took and began going through her purse and the attache case she had brought with her. The First Lady stood and covered her mouth in feigned horror, then started walking toward the exit. Ann quickly stepped in her way.

“Mrs. Blackstone, I’m pretty sure the agents are going to want to speak with you as well,” Ann said. “I strongly recommend cooperating to the fullest extent.”

Agent Campbell walked up next to them. “Mrs. Blackstone, I’m afraid I have to place you under arrest as well. We’re not going to handcuff you in sight of the press, but you will need to go with us,” he paused and looked at Ann, “as will all of the First Lady’s staff members who are present. We’ll be going to a secure facility out of public view.”

“What are you talking about?” Tasha protested. “I had nothing to do with whatever scheme Gloria concocted! She did all the dirty work She just told me about it this morning.”

Ann buried her face in her hands not quite believing what the First Lady had just done, essentially admitting to conspiracy.

Agent Campbell motioned for Ann to step off to the side with him. “I suspect none of the First Lady’s staff had anything to do with this,” he said, “but we’ll still need statements from everyone, including you. We’ll want to know about any communication anyone might have overheard or seen between Mrs. Blackstone and Ms. Fastbaum prior to Ms. Fastbaum’s arrival, as well as any conversations staff might have been privy to over the past three days.”

Ann nodded. “I’ll make sure everyone cooperates. Gloria was pretty secretive in her meetings with the First Lady, though. I don’t think anyone had a clue she was coming until she was already here.”

“So we’ve noticed,” Campbell said. “Still, we’ll need to interview everyone and then we can take them back to the White House. They can collect their personal things and agents will escort them home.”

“They’re all fired?” Ann asked, caught by surprise herself. “Effectively, yes ma’am. Technically they’ll be listed as being on unpaid leave until the First Lady is arraigned, then they’ll be formally separated from the White House staff. I’m afraid that includes you, ma’am. None of you will be allowed back into the White House after today unless the First Lady is absolved of all charges.”

Ann took a deep breath. She should have seen this problem coming but her mind had yet to catch up with what had just happened. Arresting the First Lady of the United States was unprecedented. The media would have a field day and anyone connected to Tasha Blackstone or Gloria Fastbaum would be regarded suspiciously without any consideration for the facts. The First Lady would need a good public relations person to handle all the press, someone who was fantastic in dealing with the media. Ann knew that person wasn’t going to be her. Walking back over to the First Lady, Ann said, “Ma’am, I hereby tender my resignation as your Chief of Staff. Please do not contact me or anyone in my family for any reason ever again. I am angered and disgusted by your actions and I want nothing to do with you.”

“Fine, you were never more than an enabler, anyway,” Tasha seethed. “There are people better than you. They will take care of me.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Ann countered. “You’re a political pariah in this town now. No one wants to be near you. Any association with you is an instant career killer. Plotting to kill your husband is one thing, but your husband is president of the United States! What kind of maniacal power grab did you think you were making? How insane do you have to be to even start to think your short-sighted plan might work? You’re not a natural-born citizen, so you can’t be president yourself. Congress would never support you anyway, not even as the grieving widow. I know you’re smart, Tasha, but you’ve painted yourself as window dressing for so long no one in their right mind is going to take you seriously now. Once this gets out, all the sympathy falls to the president, not you!”

By the end of her rant, Ann was shouting loud enough to have caught the attention of the press members waiting outside. Cameras were up against the window, clicking away. Roger walked over and stepped between the two women.

“Look,” he said firmly, “this is just the sort of shit the media feeds on. I can’t let you go there. I need the country focused on the president, not the sideshow you two are starting.” He paused for effect then addressed Tasha directly. “ The Secret Service has agreed to not handcuff you in front of the press. We don’t want them knowing what’s going on just yet. They’re going to put you back in your SUV and everyone is going to think you’re going back to the White House, but instead, you’re going to an FBI holding facility. No one in the press will know you’re there. You’ll be allowed to contact an attorney but you are not allowed to contact or attempt to employ any member of the White House staff.”

Tasha slapped the Chief of Staff. Three Secret Service agents immediately stepped between them and restrained the First Lady. She pulled away from their grasp and stomped back to the corner of the waiting room she had been inhabiting and sat down, her arms folded in front of her.

Roger rubbed the stinging side of his face.

“You have no idea how long she’s wanted to do that,” Ann said, smirking. 

“She’s not going to like what’s about to happen to her,” Roger said.

“Especially the strip search,” Ann added.

Roger shook his head. “This has to have been the most abnormal day in US history since Pearl Harbor.”

“What do you mean?” Ann asked wryly. “This is Washington. There is no normal.”

Looking For Hope in the Darkness

Adam was amazed when Amber told him everything that had happened since he passed out at the coffee shop. He was still confused, everything in his brain feeling muddled and blurred to the point he wasn’t completely sure what day it was nor what he had done prior to going to the coffee shop. He was cold, disoriented, and nauseous. He was also embarrassed by his lack of clothing. While the blanket kept him covered, Adam still felt uncomfortably exposed, especially as all these people he didn’t know kept coming into the room to see how he was doing. 

After several minutes, Amber suggested everyone leave the room and let Adam get some genuine rest. He still needed to be connected to the IV, especially since food supplies were low. Shooing everyone from the bedroom as though they were a clowder of cats, Amber closed the door with the promise she would be back to check on him regularly.

Gray skies eliminated the subtlety of sunset. Only the portion of the living room directly in front of the glass patio doors received any of the remaining light. With the rest of the room in darkness, Natalie opened another can of fuel. “I have some more pasta if anyone is hungry,” she offered. “I just don’t have anything left to go with it.”

Murmurs passed around the room with everyone deciding they really weren’t that hungry and would rather save the food for tomorrow. With night coming on quickly, depression hung over the group heavier than the humidity of a hot summer’s day. They each quietly worried about family, jobs, and vehicles but no one ventured too deeply into those conversations. Everyone had lost a lot. Everyone felt alone. Everyone was exhausted.

Amanda, sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaned back against the wall. “What if this is all just one very long and very disturbing dream?” she asked. “What if none of this is real and we’re all going to wake up and discover that it’s still Tuesday morning and we have a chance to do things differently?” 

The question was just interesting enough to cause some stirring, though no one jumped too quickly to provide an answer.

“I would spend another ten minutes in bed with Timora and Ravvi,” Reesie finally said. “And I’d give Reggie a raise. That boy was indispensable and I never told him.”

After another pause of several minutes, Barry said, “I would have worn more comfortable shoes. My feet hurt the entire trip over here. It’s not like anyone ever looks at my feet anyway. Comfort over style.”

Some giggled, others just smiled.

Gloria spoke up. “I would have risked taking Toma to my mom’s house rather than insisting we meet somewhere neutral like the coffee shop,” she said. “I was so afraid that she would be judgmental. She wasn’t. She was great.”

Toma leaned over and squeezed Gloria’s hand.

“I would have stocked up on food,” Natalie said. She smiled as she spoke, but she was still concerned about what would happen when everyone eventually became hungry again.

The bare flame of the fuel can emitted an amber glow, not unlike that of a very small campfire and around the room the damp residents started sitting up, listening to the stories and wondering to themselves whether to say anything.

Carson looked down at his bare feet and admitted, “I should have gone home rather than the coffee shop,” he said. Almost all his swagger was gone, though enough remained that there still wasn’t anyone in the group who would risk getting close and having a conversation with him. “I’ve not seen my wife in over a week, always finding an excuse to spend another night out of town. I should have gone home.”

Amanda looked over at Barry, his face almost completely obscured by shadow. “I would cancel the meeting and stay home,” she said. “I’ve been over-reaching, looking for something I think I need to prove my value and you know what? I’m good, just the way I am. I’ve already proven I’m a good photographer. I’ve not proven I’m a good mother, though. Give me another chance at today and I stay home.”

“Give me another shot at today and I make sure I’ve picked up my laundry off the floor,” Darrell said, causing everyone to laugh just a little.

“I was thinking earlier,” Hannah said, her voice barely above a whisper, “I was wishing that I had never left home this morning.” She looked over at Gloria and Toma. “No offense to you, dear, but it would have been so much easier for me had your mother brought you all over to my house. You loved it there when you were little, and it would have been nice to show Toma where you colored on the walls in the closet and tell her some of the stories I would never tell in a coffee shop.”

Gloria sat forward. “Wait, you never let a stain sit for more than a second. You mean you never washed the walls in that closet? That was my favorite place to hide and read!”

Hannah shook her head. “One doesn’t wash off their grandaughter’s masterpieces,” she said, “especially when they’re hidden in the first place.”

Gloria felt her way through the dark and moved over next to her grandmother and gave her a big hug. Toma followed along behind her and felt a wave of relief when Hannah reached over and hugged her as well.

Wiping a tear from her eye, Toma added to the story. “I almost backed out this morning. I was so scared Rose wasn’t going to like me and that we’d all end up fighting. I’m glad I didn’t. Whether at the coffee shop or at Hannah’s, not everything about today was horrible.”

The emotional story lent a momentary sense of peace for those in the room. As traumatic as the day had been, as frightened of the future as they all were, the possibility that some good had still come from it all was enough encouragement to buoy emotions for a while, reducing a bit of the perpetual anxiety they were all feeling.

After a few minutes of silence, which seemed like half an hour but was considerably shorter, Amber said, “Give me another shot at today and I’m up early, checking on Adam. I’ve sensed for a while that something was off. If I’d caught him at breakfast I could have checked his blood pressure and taken him back home. Even if everything else still happened the way it did, I could have saved him the ordeal he’s been through.”

“But what if this was the way it needed to be?” Gwen asked from her corner. It had been so long since she’d said anything some in the group had forgotten she was there. Roscoe hadn’t even budged from his position in front of the chair throughout the conversations. “We’re here. We survived. A lot of people can’t say that. People you all care about can’t say that, but we can and had we changed our activities this morning, we might have been swept away or caught up in the tornado, or who knows what else?”

Gwen paused for a moment, her dry throat making it difficult to talk loudly enough to be heard. She couldn’t see everyone in the group but could sense that she had everyone’s attention. “Give me this day over and I’m still going to start the day exactly the same. I’m going to fail at doing yoga, I’m going to spill my protein shake, and I’m going to make up for it by binging the cold pizza leftover from last night. But what if Darrell had been somewhere else when the flooding started and hadn’t given me a place to go? What if his laundry hadn’t conveniently been on the floor so I could have something dry to wear? I wouldn’t have known where to go. Yeah, I’d have probably come upstairs and stood on the landing or something, but I’d be cold and wet and probably wouldn’t have survived the tornado. Had any of you changed your plans we might not have met, we wouldn’t be friends, and you can be damn sure I wouldn’t know I am pregnant.” Roscoe chose that moment to sit up. Gwen reached down and scratched behind his ears. “And I probably wouldn’t have found this sweet guy.”

Gwen smiled and that gave those close enough to her to see her smile permission to laugh a little at her last statement. 

Once again, the room grew quiet. No one knew how or had any genuine desire to comment after Gwen. Her perspective on their little game reminded them all that there was a lot they didn’t know. Only Miranda knew the fate of her family. Everyone else was left with the bitter taste of uncertainly lingering like the memory of a meal one wished they hadn’t eaten. As bad as things had been, as difficult and terrifying as events were, they had still managed to survive and the fact that there were fewer of them now than when they left the coffee shop bore witness to that fact. One wrong move and any of them could have been swept away, just like Rose and Reggie and Marti. 

Amber felt a cold chill across her back and instinctively reached for a blanket that wasn’t there. “Djali,” she thought. “That son of a bitch is still out there.” She stood up, walked over to the glass door leading to the balcony and locked it. She looked over at the keyed deadbolt on the front door and looked at Natalie. The message was easy enough to follow. Natalie got up and retrieved the spare key from a hook in the kitchen and locked the front door. 

No one felt the need to say anything. The fact that they were three floors up and hadn’t seen another living soul in several hours was of little comfort. 

Amber checked in on Adam who was now legitimately sleeping peacefully, as evidenced by his light snoring. She checked to make sure his blankets were still dry then slipped back out of the room. Natalie and Reesie were waiting for her in the hallway.

“Think he’ll be okay?” Reesie asked. 

Amber nodded. “He’ll do okay during the night. The challenge is going to come in the morning. He doesn’t have his meds and that’s going to cause a problem. He’s going to need food as well to keep his blood sugar at a reasonable level.”

Natalie sighed. “I’m sorry, I wish I had more food in the house. We just so rarely eat at home.”

Amber put an arm around their host. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not like we all failed to RSVP to a party you were throwing. In the morning we can try to scavenge the other apartments, see what we can find.”

“Assuming no one comes back during the night,” Reesie said. “Doesn’t it seem strange to anyone that all these apartments are here and ya’ll were the only ones at home when the storm hit? All the old people were conveniently gone, the drug dealers are dead, the families with kids all out for the day …”

“Hold it,” Amber interrupted. “What do you mean the drug dealers are dead?”

Reesie winced. She had forgotten that they hadn’t told anyone about the drug dealers when they returned from the apartment with the needles. Everyone had just assumed that the apartment was empty and Reesie and Darrell had let everyone run with that assumption. She sighed before explaining. “There are three mutilated bodies in the apartment below us. It’s not pretty.”

“Shit,” Amber whispered. “That explains all the noise I heard up there a couple of nights ago. Did you happen to see if there was any meth or anything else lying around?”

Ressie shrugged. “Once I saw the bodies, I stopped looking for anything. I just wanted to get the fuck out. Nothing stood out, though. We grabbed the fuel and the needles and split.”

“Do you think we’re in danger?” Natalie asked. “I mean, everyone in the building knew what they were doing down there, we had all complained to management more than once, but I think they were getting a cut of the profits so they didn’t do anything.”

“Darrell and I were going to slip out tonight and dump the bodies in the water,” Reesie confessed. “We figured that would reduce the likelihood that either of us would be charged for the crime. Doesn’t mean whoever killed them won’t come back, though.”

“If they can get back,” Amber said. “I think dumping the bodies is a good idea. No one else is around, the water’s still flowing pretty fast so it will take them downstream quickly, and even when they do wash up somewhere there are going to be so many others that no one’s going to investigate anything too closely.”

Natalie shuddered. “When are you going to do that? Do I need to create some kind of distraction?”

Amber laughed. “Maybe we can just convince everyone to go to sleep. It’s not like everyone isn’t exhausted.”

“We’ll see,” Reesie said. “I know everyone’s exhausted, but everyone’s pretty anxious, too. I’m not sure how well anyone is going to actually sleep.”

Amber nodded. “Yeah, let’s give it a couple more hours. I’m going with you, though. I’m still getting the sense that we’re not completely safe just yet. I can’t put my finger on anything, but you and Darrell aren’t going down there alone.” Before Natalie had a chance to respond, Amber continued, “Natalie, you stay up here and keep a close watch on Gwen and Miranda. At the moment, I think they’re the ones most emotionally vulnerable, though I’m not sure Barry isn’t right there with them. He’s more difficult to read.”

Natalie nodded. “Did anyone else feel a chill down their back a while ago?”

Amber and Reesie both nodded. 

“I thought it rather odd considering no doors or windows are open and there’s obviously no air conditioning,” Reesie said.

Amber sighed. “Like I said, something’s not quite right. We probably shouldn’t all sleep at the same time. Maybe it’s nothing. It’s not like today hasn’t been sufficiently traumatic.”

“Maybe it’s all a dream,” Natalie said, giggling.

“And that would be fine with me,” Ressie said, leaning against the wall. No nightmare could be worse than the reality she had just endured. Tomorrow had to be better.

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