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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.

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In A Spirit Of Uncooperation

Gathered in the office of Senate Pro Tempore Graham Norman were five of the most powerful men in Congress: House Minority Leader Richard Childress, House Whip Andrew Delaney, Senate Majority Whip Christian Archibald, and Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Whisk. The lack of communications allowed them to meet in relative secret while other members of Congress scurried around trying in vain to figure out exactly what was going on around the country.

“This is the type of problem that could have a devastating effect,” Graham told the assembled leaders. “If Norma Watkins remains acting president more than 48 hours, she’ll have little choice but to begin taking on presidential tasks regarding legislation. If, God forbid, she remains in that position for more than two weeks, she will have the ability to irreversibly alter the entire legislative agenda. We could lose everything we’ve carefully planned. All that time we put into grooming President Blackstone will be a waste. We have to do something to stop this and we have to do it now while no one is paying a damn bit of attention.”

“I don’t get it,” grumbled Representative Childress, the senior member of the group, “the President made a phone call that went bad, the power on everything on the planet goes out, he passes out in the residence, the Vice President gets assassinated, and Speaker Watkins is suddenly acting president and all this happened without Congress ever being notified of a damn thing. How is that even possible?”

Senator Norman leaned forward, his hands folded on his desk. “Dick, you would have had to be there to believe it. Everything happened so quickly it would make your head spin. There’s no way this was all an ‘accident.’ It was planned and coordinated and I’m willing to bet that when we look into we’re going to find Speaker Watkins and probably several other Democrats behind it. They have effectively attempted a coup to take over the government of the United States.”

“Then they need to be arrested,” Senator Whisk said, his southern drawl a sharp contrast to Graham’s clipped tones. “We cannot stand for such criminal insubordination. They’re taking advantage of a stupid loophole in the Constitution that never should have been passed in the first place. We should never allow anyone to be president who wasn’t elected to serve in that capacity.”

Senator Archibald held up his hand to interrupt Senator Whisk, “Woah, hold on there, John. Let’s not go off half-cocked. We go making accusations without something more than circumstantial evidence and that’s going to bite us in the butt. We’ve got an election next year to worry about. Too many of us are already facing some strong opposition and for one I don’t want my name attached to something that might later be described as treason.”

Senator Whisk waved off the challenge. “That’s bullshit, Chris. If Democrats have put the President in danger and in any way contributed to the murder of the Vice President, explain to me how its treason for us to take action against that? We have to stop them, we have to stop them now, or we’re going to lose the country! The original Constitution only allowed for the Vice President to succeed the President. Anything else is bullshit, I don’t care what the 25th Amendment says.”

Congressman Delaney sat forward. “Graham, you were there. We all know Norma to be an emotional person at times. How did she respond when Andrew was shot? Was she phased at all?”

“I honestly can’t say,” Graham said. “She and I were both in separate vehicles ready to head back here after Andrew had been sworn in. When he and General Lang were shot, Secret Service us grabbed us out of the cars and brought us back inside the White House. She was ruffled to be sure but that could have just as easily have been from the rather rough treatment of the Secret Service. I know Justice Kreuger didn’t waste any time swearing Norma into office. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t in on the whole thing. I’m finding it very suspicious that the Chief Justice just happened to be out of town when all this happened.”

Rep. Childress coughed hard. “I want to know who’s doing the shooting,” he said. “How did anyone get into the residence with a gun, Graham? Has our Secret Service fallen completely apart or are they in on this whole thing?”

Graham shook his head. “The President wasn’t shot, Dick. He collapsed—passed out. I assume the Chief of Staff is still at Walter Reed with him. This damn communications outage has turned this travesty into a nightmare. I don’t know how they did it, but they’ve created this perfect storm that allows them to take over the government while the American people are blinded.”

Senator Archibald sat forward in his chair. “What’s this I hear that the Secret Service was shooting at each other? We’ve been getting such scattered pieces of information I’m not sure anyone here has a complete picture of what’s going on at the White House.”

Graham shook his head. “That’s not true either, Chris. Although, the possibility that the Service has an imposter in their midst has been raised. With both shootings, whoever was wielding the gun managed to slip into the crowd unnoticed. It’s absolute chaos over at the White House right now. Everything’s on lockdown. Staff members aren’t allowed to leave their offices. No one knows what’s going on or what’s being planned in the office right next to them. The Chief of Staff is at the hospital and I’m not sure who’s running the ship over there right now.”

“Good God, the entire government is crumbling over the lack of a phone system,” Rep. Delaney groused. 

“I told ya’ll four years ago this whole Blackstone experiment wasn’t going to work,” Sen. Whisk said. “The absence of firm leadership in that White House is coming back to get us. We don’t have the control over the White House we thought we’d have. We can’t be pulling all the strings at the same time and right now it looks like someone’s done cut the damn strings! I don’t know how we get this back under our control, Graham. We need you to step up and oppose the Speaker. Say she’s too incompetent to serve.”

“Yeah, right,” Delaney countered. “We put an idiot in the White House thinking we could control him and we’re going to charge someone else with incompetence? The press will roast us live on the evening news.”

“Remember, right now, the press is mute,” Sen. Archibald countered. “We can say what we want now and claim that they’re misquoting us or taking us out of context when or if they eventually get back up and running. As bad as things are, we’ve been given an opportunity to address this tragedy without some goddamn reporter breathing down our necks, dissecting every word we say. I think the incompetence argument works. She’s too emotional. She’s too distracted.”

“She doesn’t even want the job,” Graham added. “She as much as said so herself. I heard her.”

“And if she were to abdicate the presidency,” Sen. Whisk chimed in, “that would make you next in line, wouldn’t Graham?”

Graham chuckled, “Why yes, I do believe you are correct, Mr. Whisk. All we have to do is convince Norma and a few of those loud mouths over in the House that she can’t handle this job and the biggest part of this crisis goes away. I can manage things from the White House until the President returns and then …”

A knock on the door interrupted the meeting. Graham’s Chief of Staff opened the door and handed the Senator a piece of paper. Graham looked at it and his face went pale.

“What is it, Graham?” asked Sen. Whisk, who was seated closest to him.

“Apparently the First Lady has been arrested for attempting to poison the President,” he said. “Secret Service is taking her and most of her staff in for questioning.”

Rep. Delaney tried to swallow his instinctive reaction to laugh. “I gotta say, as conspiracies go, that one kind of makes sense. We’ve all known she hates his guts. They’d be divorced if he wasn’t president.”

“That’s going to make it more difficult to pin this coup on the Democrats, though,” Sen. Whisk said. “And mute or not, the press is going to have a field day with this. They’ll probably say she had something to do with the Vice President’s assassination as well. Once again, Graham, the plan isn’t working!”

“Settle down, John,” Graham said. “Let the press run with that while we work on Norma. That will be sensational enough to run for several days and meanwhile, we can use whatever means are at our disposal to prevent her from solidifying power. If we can get her to step down, one more transition isn’t going to affect the general public at all. Hell, the majority of people have never even heard of the 25th Amendment. We get her out, me in, and blame the whole damn thing on the First Lady. I don’t see how we lose in that scenario.”

Almost immediately, the mood felt lighter in the Senator’s office as they joked back and forth about the First Lady attempting to poison the President.  The consensus was that this was a better outcome than they could have orchestrated for themselves. Everyone was enjoying the moment so much that they forgot Graham’s Chief of Staff was still in the room until he cleared his throat.

“Senator, I’m afraid there’s another piece of news. Speaker Watkins is on her way back to the Hill and she’s inviting the members of the Senate to a joint session,” he said. “She should be here within the hour and the session will commence 30 minutes after her arrival in the Chamber.”

The joyful mood instantly reversed. 

“She can’t do that,” Sen. Childress said.

“Yes, she can,” Rep. Delaney countered. “She’s only acting president. She can still operate as the Speaker as well and it’s well within her purvue to call a joint session either as part of the emergency or …” he paused and swallowed hard, “as acting President of the United States.”

“Fuck!” Graham exclaimed, pounding both fists on his desk. “I knew that bitch couldn’t be trusted.”

Senator Archibald stood up, signaling an end to the meeting. “Gentlemen, we can have but one goal. We cannot allow Norma Watkins to become President of these United States and I really don’t care what it takes to stop her.”

Longing For More

The site of several bags crammed full of food was enough to make everyone in the apartment happy for several minutes. Even Miranda managed to find a smile again as Amanda guided the group through the creation of a decent meal that was actually sufficient for everyone, including Barry. Adam woke up and joined them as well, which brought additional joy to the group. As they sat around the living room eating and chatting, an outside observer might have gotten the impression that this was a group of friends with long-standing ties. They shared stories of places they’d been, experiences they had, and the types of coffee they liked, which Reesie noted.

As they finished the meal and cleared the dishes, conversation tilted more toward speculation as to when the water might go down and how difficult it might be to get back to their families.

“I live 17 miles away,” Amanda said. “Even if I were in good enough shape to make that hike at all, I don’t think I could ever do it alone and I know I couldn’t do it in one day. The thought of having to camp out by myself in between here and there scares me.”

“Everyone’s welcome to stay here as long as they need to,” Natalie offered. She looked at Darrell who nodded in agreement. “It’s not like any of us made plans for this and I doubt it was covered in anyone’s wilderness training course.”

“The fact that we don’t know what’s going on outside our own neighborhood doesn’t help,” Darrell added. “We’ve not seen anyone around here because the water’s too high and the storm pretty much leveled everything. Other places might not be so safe. People do crazy things when they’re scared.”

“Or when they think no one’s looking,” Carlson added. “I’d be willing to bet places like the malls and grocery stores are being looted of everything on their shelves. If people think they can get something for nothing, they’ll be there and they’ll shoot you over a flat-screen TV.”

Hannah sat on the couch and tried to find a comfortable position. “I’ve seen it happen too many times,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re nearly as civilized as we think we are when we can’t be trusted to behave reasonably. I don’t think there’s ever been a disaster or storm of any kind that didn’t bring out the looters.”

“I think it’s because so many people are so poor, though,” Gloria said as she sat on the floor next to her grandmother. “When people live their entire lives in poverty, doing without the things they see other people enjoying, we kinda have to expect them to jump at the opportunity to get some of those things, especially food.”

“Perhaps if people had better morals,” Hannah said. “Jesus told us to not worry about material things, that God would provide. Just like today, we had a need, and God took care of us.”

Reesie rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s just like God. He takes care of the 13 of us and how many people did he let die? Have you taken a look outside? That tornado took out hundreds of people right here in our own neighborhood. They never had a chance. And I can promise you, there were plenty of church-going, upstanding, helpful people who lived there. They’re gone now. That doesn’t exactly seem like God providing a damn thing.”

“Sometimes God lets people die to save them from having to endure something worse,” Hannah said defensively.

Reesie sat up on her knees, her aggravation showing in her face. “Something worse than dying in a moment of sheer terror as your own daughter is dragged under, her lungs filling with water as she drowns? There’s something worse than that? God didn’t do a damn thing to save her or Reggie or Marti. They were all gone in a second, scared, helpless, and without any hope. And while I can’t speak for your daughter or Marti, I know damn well Reggie was as moral as anyone sitting on the front row of a church on Sunday morning. He took good care of his Momma and three little sisters. He was a mentor in Benton High’s after school program. Every day, when he finished his shift at the coffee shop, he would take the day-old pastries to the homeless shelter and then stay and try to help people get back on their feet. He was a good person. Reggie was the epitome of morality.  So why the fuck did God let him drown?”

The mention of her mother was too much for Gloria. She began sobbing and ran toward the shadows of the hallway with her hands covering her face. Toma glared at Reesie as she followed. “Thanks, that was anything but helpful,” she said as she passed.

Hannah seemed unfazed. “God’s ways are not our ways,” she said. “Who are we to know the mind of God? He sees what we cannot see. His gaze extends beyond time so that he knows the outcome of our lives even before we begin living them. All things work together for God’s purpose, not ours. I’ve seen so many tragedies in my life, endured so much heartache and pain. I’ve lost my husband. I lost a little boy when he was only two. Both my sisters and brother are already gone. So why does God insist that I keep living? Why am I the one sitting here and not someone else? The only reason can be that God still has something planned for me, something he wants me to do that furthers his kingdom.”

“That’s the biggest pile of apologetic bullshit I’ve ever heard,” Reesie scoffed. “Don’t give me that ‘God’s ways are not our ways’ bullshit. All that does is excuse and try to cover up the horrors that have plagued our existence for thousands of years. Why did God allow black people to be slaves? ‘His ways are not our ways.’ Why did God allow three million Jews, his own ‘chosen’ people, to be exterminated at the hands of a fucking mad man? ‘God’s ways are not our ways.’ Why does God allow innocent little children to be shot at school by fucking white teenage sociopaths who were too fucking crazy to be accepted by their peers or anyone else with a brain? ‘God’s ways are not our ways.’ Every time something horrible happens God gets a pass because we’re supposed to believe that this is all part of some greater plan. I call bullshit. There is no plan. There is no God. We’re all here on our own, fending for ourselves in a world that would just as soon eat us all alive.”

“Careful, Reesie,” Amber whispered from the back of the room.

“That doesn’t seem like a very inclusive opinion,” Amanda said from the kitchen. “We don’t all have to agree on matters of religion. Even religion doesn’t agree with itself.”

Barry shifted his weight in the chair. “God or no God, we’re in a difficult position. Maybe ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ or maybe we just have to figure things out on our own. Either way, the end result is the same. We can’t sit here waiting for someone to save us. I don’t have to make that trip back to my house to know that I’ve lost everything. Even if all this hadn’t happened, I was probably going to lose everything anyway. I’m broke. No one wants to hire the fat guy. If Amanda didn’t hire me, I’m getting evicted at the end of the month so either way, disaster or no disaster, the end result is the same. All the storm did was shorten the time frame a bit. Blame God, blame fate, it doesn’t matter. I’m still homeless, broke, and without a job any way you look at it.”

“Don’t worry,” Amanda said. “You’re a good person. We’ll figure something out.”

“I think it helps to have something to believe in,” Adam said, leaning on the wall next to the kitchen. “I don’t know what all happened today and I don’t know anyone here except Amber, but I like to believe God is at the very least watching out for us. Why else am I here? How else do I explain Miss Amber being here to take care of me?” He paused and looked back at Amber. “I’ll be honest, when I first opened my eyes and saw you standing over me, I thought I must be dying. It brought back so many memories of you taking care of my Angela.” He wiped back a tear. “How could I ever believe you were not a godsend then and even more now? When things have been the darkest, you’ve been that light. How can I not believe God sent you?”

Amber walked over and gave Adam a hug. “I promised I’d take care of you, Adam,” she said softly. 

Carlson, who wasn’t one to let a sentimental moment get in the way of utter depression, stood up from his place in the middle of the floor and said, “I don’t care what anyone believes. We’re all screwed. We’ve all lost our homes. We don’t even know yet how many of us have lost our families. We’ve lost jobs. Reesie lost her coffee shop. The whole neighborhood is gone and for all any of us know the entire city could be nothing but trash at this point. I’m with Barry, we need a plan. The only problem is, I don’t know what we have to work with. There’s no power, no cell phone service, and no transportation. Until we can get out of here and look around everything else is kind of meaningless.”

“I wouldn’t plan on anyone leaving any time soon,” Darrell said. “There’s a good five feet of water covering everything and it still looks like it could rain more. Just chill here and we’ll figure shit out as the water goes down and we know what we have to work with.”

“I need my meds,” Miranda said quietly.

Natalie walked over to the young woman who had been sitting curled up in the corner and crouched down beside her. “Are they in your apartment?” she asked.

Miranda nodded. “Mom kept them on the shelf next to the coffee mugs. But we can’t get to them. My apartment’s flooded.”

Putting her arm around the girl, Natalie said, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out.” She looked up at Darrell for backup.

“She’s in 104, right behind the stairwell,” Darrell said. “I can wade the water easily enough, it’s the current that’s the issue. One wrong move and you’re gone. We would need a rope. Tie off to the stairwell for safety.”

“And I’m guessing neither of you are mountain climbers,” Carlson said wryly. 

Darrell laughed. “Two nerds like us? She sometimes gets all brave and daring when she’s chasing a story, but the most adventurous I get is trying a new beer every once in a while.”

Natalie smiled. “You know, maybe if we dug around a little bit we might be able to string together enough extension cords to get you into her apartment.”

“That’s a thought,” Darrell said. “Or I think I have some 12-foot cabling in a closet. That could probably work. Just enough to keep me from being swept away.”

Natalie looked back to Miranda. “How soon do you need your medicine?”

“I take it in the mornings,” the girl said. “Mom always came by at 8:00 to make sure I took it.”

“Then we’ll make sure you have it by then,” Natalie said assuringly. “Maybe the water will go down overnight.”

Amber walked over and looked out the glass door. There was little question that the scene outside was about as depressing and hopeless as anything could be. The water was still as fast and swirling as it had been earlier. Clouds to the North looked ominously threatening. There was no other sign of life than what existed inside that apartment. Yet, she knew they were not alone. There were others out there, somewhere. She could feel it. What she didn’t know was whether they could be trusted to help.

“You know, I believe in miracles,” Amber said, turning from the door. “Regardless of one’s belief system, I think amazing things happen outside the realm of reasonable explanation. I believe in hope, not because of what I’ve read in a book or heard from a pulpit but because I choose to not give up. I choose to believe that everything eventually turns out okay. Good wins. Why? Because I’ve gone to war with every form of darkness imaginable and I’ve kicked its ass every time. We’ve got this, guys. We’ve got all the resources we need right here in this apartment.”

Roscoe stood up and shook himself before delivering a shrill bark.

“Well, maybe everything except pee pads,” Amber said, laughing. She walked over and hooked a finger through the leash loop of the dog’s collar. “C’mon, big guy, let’s find a place for you to pee.”

Into The Storm

“Major Davis, sir! We’ve got a loose tarp!”

Between the din of the constant activity and the pounding of the rain on the hangar’s corrugated tin roof, it was difficult for anyone to hear anything that was being said. When the Major failed to respond, the Lieutenant shouted again, “Major Davis, sir! “The tarp is loose! We’ve got water breaching into the bunker!”

This time the Major heard the warning and turned to address the Marine. “How bad a breach are we talking about, Lieutenant?”

“Looks pretty bad from here, sir. The whole Northwest corner is unsecured,” was the response.

Major Davis paused for a moment and looked up at the roof as he listened to the unrelenting storm before turning to his right and shouting, “Sergeant Mullen! Give me ten men in tactical assault gear. You’ve got 15 minutes!”

“Sir! Yes, Sir!” was the automatic response.

“Pardon me, Major, but tactical assault gear?” The Lieutenant asked.

Major Davis explained, “The storm out there is as bad as any combat situation you’ll find, maybe worse. The wind is unrelenting. That hail can take a Marine down in a matter of seconds. At this velocity, the rain is blinding. Anyone running out there without heavy gear is going to be downed before they get five feet from the door. They’ll also need plenty of rope to make sure none of them get lost because once they’re out there finding their way back here could be next to impossible.”

Outside, Tom Russet was finding the Major’s words to be true. Protected only by the lightweight lab coat, Tom had barely taken a dozen steps from the enclosure before he was knocked over by the high winds. Getting back up as the rain and hail relentlessly pounded on him had been difficult. Holes were torn in the coat. When Tom reached up to wipe the rain from his face, he discovered that he was bleeding, though he couldn’t tell from where or how severely. 

Struggling to his feet, he kept hunched over, trying to stay lower to the ground so that the wind could not catch him as easily. He had no idea if he was still headed toward the administration building. For that matter, he wasn’t sure he was heading toward any building at all. He couldn’t see the enclosure he had just left. He was surrounded by massive walls of rain and hail. Tom considered that his only option was to try and keep running in one direction or die. At least if he kept moving that increased his chances of running into one of the buildings somewhere. Eventually. Wiping the blood and rain from his face yet again, he tried moving yet again.

Sgt. Mullen and his men reported back to Major Davis in less time than they had been given. Major Davis’ instructions were precise. “You’ll need 300 yards of rope. Tie off to the concrete posts just inside the hangar doors. Treat it like a horizontal repelling exercise. Everyone stays connected to that rope at all times. Go out, secure that tarp, and get back in here. That’s it. Keep your men close because no one’s going to hear you at all and they won’t see you from more than a couple of feet away. Use combat protocol. The weather is your enemy. Assume that anything encountered out there is unfriendly and respond accordingly. This is a helluva lot more dangerous than it looks, Sarge. Don’t fuck it up.”

“Sir, yes sir!” The sergeant said as he saluted. Turning to his team he yelled. “You heard the Major, let’s tie off that rope and get started before this storm gets any worse!”

As they trotted off toward the hangar door, Major Davis grabbed the arm of a Master Sergeant standing nearby. “I don’t trust this storm. Give me another 12 men standing by. If that rope goes slack for more than three seconds, pull ‘em back in. No hesitating. We’re not risking losing anyone in the rain.”

“Aye, sir!” the sergeant responded. “Echo Company, fall in!” he yelled. He looked back at the Major, smiling. “We’re about to put all those tug-of-war skills to good use.”

Major Davis smiled and saluted, dismissing the Master Sergeant. He was going to watch the operation carefully. Water in the bunker was inevitable in a storm like this but the last thing he need was for the place to flood. As soon as the storm passed they would want to return to search and rescue operations. The job was difficult enough when everything was dry. Attempting it in knee-deep or deeper water would reduce the chances of finding survivors.

Sergeant Mullen double and triple checked to make sure that the rope was tied off securely then latched his gear onto the rope. Privately, he questioned the wisdom and methodology of what they were doing. Full assault gear not only meant they were wearing heavy kevlar vests but that they were also carrying numerous weapons necessary for combat. He understood needing the protection of the vests—this storm was worse than anything he had ever seen, but he failed to see the need for the weaponry, especially their rifles. Even if they did somehow encounter an unfriendly, and he couldn’t imagine how such a person could have gotten on the base or why they would be out in this weather, the heavy rain would make it difficult if not impossible for the rifles to function properly. These were thoughts to be saved for after the operation was completed successfully, though. Challenging the Major now would be insubordination and the sergeant didn’t want that on his record. There was a job to do. Talk could come later.

The rope was marked every ten yards so that the sergeant could keep track of how far out they were. Visibility was even worse than he had suspected. The protective goggles he wore helped protect his eyes from the hail but the need to stop and wipe off the rain every two or three steps slowed their progress. As they neared the point where the tarp should be, the sergeant used the butt of his rifle to feel in front of him so that he wouldn’t inadvertently fall into the bunker himself. When he finally found the edge of the tarp, he picked it up and handed it to the Marine behind him, who in turn handed it to the one behind him, the sergeant slowly pulling the flapping tarp to him as they formed a line ten feet from the edge of the bunker. More than once the wind pulled the tarp from their hands, forcing them to back up and start again. 

Pulling and straining at the immense canvas was more difficult than any of the Marines could have anticipated. Completely soaked by the rain, the canvas now weighed more than twice its original weight and still, the wind played with it as though it were tissue paper. The metal grommets along the edge had the force of small hammers as they slapped upside the Marine’s heads. Only after several minutes of struggling was the team able to gain control of the tarp and get it resecured. Mission completed. 

Turning around, Sergeant Mullen motioned for the team to begin returning to the hangar as quickly as they could. 

Inside the hangar, the Master Sergeant took the intermittent slack in the rope as a sign that the team was heading back. “Keep that rope taut,” he instructed the 12 Marines who had “volunteered” for the assignment. Both he and Major Davis watched intensely. For over 40 minutes the continual bouncing off the rope was the only clue they had that the team was still out there. They couldn’t see more than a couple of feet past the edge of the hanger. Everything beyond that was a solid wall of gray.

Tom couldn’t see where he was going, either. He had completely lost his bearings in the first few minutes of being out in the storm. Crawling along the tarmac more than walking, he wondered if he was going in circles and feared that he could easily fall into the bunker if he wasn’t careful. Feeling as though he had been out in the storm for hours, there was a sense of relief when he fell blindly into the rope. What surprised him was the Marine that fell on top of him.

There was a sense of surrealness as Tom first felt his hands being restrained by zip ties and then lifted from the ground by his shirt collar. Next came the unmistakable feeling of a rifle barrel in his back. Something was slipped around his waist and the next thing he knew he was secured to the rope, forced to move forward, at times feeling as though he were being dragged toward a destination he could not see. There wasn’t a chance to run but at this point, Tom didn’t care. He was too exhausted and in too much pain to consider running. If this was the beginning of the end, so be it. He had still managed to disrupt the world. They would have no choice but to change.

Inside the hangar, the disruption in the rope and the team’s sudden stop was cause for concern. “What’s wrong?” Major Davis shouted. “Get those Marines in here, now!”

The Master Sergeant added two more people to the pull team. “I don’t care if you knock them off their feet, get them in here now.

The Marines at either end of the rope weren’t sure what had happened, either. They had felt the hard tug that forced them to stop, then sensed something of a minor struggle but everything seemed to have been resolved before anyone at either end could move enough to see what was really going on. 

Cheers and applause rose from those watching as the first team member emerged from the massive gray wall of water and stepped into the hangar. Whoops and yells continued for the second, third, and fourth thoroughly soaked, muddy, and worn out Marines returned. The group went silent, though, at the sight of the bloody, drenched, and restrained analyst in the white coat. Only modest applause continued as the remainder of the team entered while Major Davis ran over to figure out where, how and why the analyst became part of the group.

“Lieutenant,” Davis said addressing the Marine whose rifle was still at Tom’s back. “You seem to have picked up something extra along the way. Care to explain?”

“He fell into the rope on our way back, sir,” the lieutenant explained. “I didn’t see where he came from. He was just suddenly there. So I did what you ordered us to do. I treated him as an unfriendly, restrained him, secured him to the rope with my belt and a carabiner, and brought him on in.”

“So you did,” Davis responded. He reached out and took the ID still hanging around Tom’s neck. “Mr. Russet, please come with me. I think there’s someone who will be very interested in talking with you.

Perry knew something significant was taking place at the front of the hangar but was unable to see over all the other tents standing between him and the opening. Neither had any of the Marines nearby been able to explain the commotion. When he saw Major Davis approaching with a person in a white lab coat he became momentarily excited that they had rescued another analyst from the bunker. The man was still wet and bloody to the point that Perry couldn’t tell who it was.

Major Davis handed Tom’s ID to Perry and said, “This seems to be one of your guys, Colonel. He just happened to fall into our team while we were resecuring the tarp over the bunker.”

Perry looked at the ID. The photo looked almost nothing like the person in front of him. “Glad you could join us, Tom. Tell me, what team were you on?”

Tom hesitated a moment before answering. “Green team, sir.”

“Major, get this man cleaned up and given the necessary medical attention to treat his wounds then put him in the most secure facility you can create under 24-hour guard. This man is to be held as an enemy combatant until we have a chance to more thoroughly address his situation.”

Major Davis looked at Perry as though he’d lost his senses. “Sir, with all due respect, do you think that’s necessary?”

Perry shifted himself into the most upright position he could manage. “Major, this man is a traitor and is likely responsible for this whole mess. I don’t trust him and you shouldn’t either. If I had a brig I’d throw him in it myself. Get him cleaned up but make sure he’s secure at all times. No exceptions. He doesn’t even get to take a shit without a guard watching him.”

“Yes sir,” Davis responded. He motioned to the Lieutenant whose gun was still pointed at Tom. “You heard the Colonel. Let’s go build a brig and toss him in it.”

Tom glared at Perry as he was led away. He knew this wasn’t yet the end.

An Unexpected Life

Natalie let Amber and Roscoe out the door and that served as an inaudible hint for everyone else to stretch or reposition themselves. Gwen left the chair in the corner for the first time in over an hour, walked to the patio door and looked out at all the nothingness below, wondering if there was anyone still out there. Barry pulled himself to his feet and joined her. She looked at him and smiled. Neither said anything. Looking into that discouraging abyss was its own mood, a somber scene that didn’t speak well for their future or anyone else’s. 

Gloria and Toma returned to the living room but conspicuously avoided sitting close to Hannah. Reesie stood and walked over to them. “Look, I’m sorry if …”

Toma waved her off. “Not now, please. I know you mean well, but there are other issues we don’t want raised in public. You couldn’t have known.”

Reesie looked compassionately at the grieving young woman and walked to the kitchen more because there wasn’t really anywhere else to go than for any specific purpose. She leaned back against the sink and let her thoughts regurgitate the events of the past several hours. Pushing down her worries about Tinera and Ravie had allowed her to focus on surviving, getting through the moments that had threatened her own life. Now, though, it was getting increasingly difficult to hold them back. 

She wondered if Tinera had made it to the daycare in time to rescue Ravie before the flood had gotten too bad. Some comfort was found in knowing they hadn’t been in the line of the tornado but she also knew that fear wasn’t something her little boy handled well. His inability to see well or communicate clearly made it difficult for his daycare teachers to always know how to help him. He would often express his exasperation through violent outbursts. Tinera was great at helping him through those moments. 

Natalie wandered over and provided Reesie with some distraction from her thought. “Not the day we had planned, is it?” the young writer said. “I keep telling myself this will make one hell of a story when it’s all over.”

“Assuming any of us are alive to tell it,” Reesie said. The tone of her voice was tense and emotional. “I lost my shop. I don’t know where my wife or my baby are. One of my best friends was swept away and drowned. Who knows what else I’ve lost? This day can fucking go to hell.”

Natalie sighed as she leaned back on the counter next to Reesie. “Yeah, one thing today has reinforced is that there are zero guarantees. No matter how hard one works, never mind all the precautions you take to make sure you’re ready for financial emergencies and all those other things my Dad warned me about, it can all be taken away without warning in a matter of minutes. This morning I was ready to kick Darrell out. Now, I don’t know what I’d do without him. I’m scared. Everyone here is scared.”

Amanda, who had been standing with her back to them, looking out across the living room, turned around to join the conversation. “We’ve all lost, haven’t we?” she said quietly. “Even if we get through this and everyone we love is still alive and okay, we’ve still lost. I don’t have to walk over to the balcony to know that there’s nothing out there. And the more we don’t know, the more frightened we are. My older kids were at school. They should be safe but I don’t know that. My baby’s at home, which should be flood-proof, but is it? I’ve no idea where my husband is, either. It’s all rather maddening.”

“I keep telling myself, at least it’s not war. Nobody is shooting at us,” Natalie said. “As the day goes on, though, that’s less comfort than it was when this all started. At least if someone were shooting at us we’d know someone else is out there. This quiet is unnerving.”

Reesie and Amanda both agreed.

“I’m used to there being noise of some kind almost 24/7,” Reesie said. “I mean, I run a coffee shop. From the moment I unlock the door every morning, there’s noise. Even after I close up, we’ve got the music going, we’re dancing around as we clean up and do prep work. I go home, Ravie’s squealing, there’s dinner cooking, more music, more dancing … This quiet is not natural.”

Amanda smiled. “I used to wish for this kind of quiet. With three kids running around the house, especially on a rainy day, the noise level was excruciating. How many days have I spent yelling at them to be quiet?” She paused and bit her lower lip. “And now I’d give anything for that noise. Any noise.”

Reesie reached over and pulled Amanda in for a hug, then pulled Natalie in to join them. “Maybe we just need to make some noise of our own,” she said as she pressed the other two close to her.”

“Sure, let’s talk about God some more,” Natalie teased. “That went over really well, don’t you think?”

Amanda and Reesie laughed but it was that nervous kind of laugh one uses when trying to brush off a comment that hit a little too close to home.

Darrell walked over and joined the women. “You know, seeing the three of you over here like this scares me,” he said. “What are you plotting?”

“How we’re going to use this opportunity to take over the world,” Reesie said, smiling.

Darrell chuckled. “I believe you could do it,” he said. He looked at Natalie and said, “The fact you guys got all these people over here from the coffee shop through all that water is pretty fucking impressive. If you can do that, you can do anything.”

Natalie shrugged. “We lost three people,” she said, leaning tighter into Reesie’s side.

“But you didn’t lose everyone,” Darrell countered. “And that could have happened. I’m still scared to go down into that water, even tied off to the stairwell. But you not only fought the current and the rising water, but you also saved a person who was completely unconscious the entire trip! Who does that? You guys aren’t giving yourselves enough credit. You made it here, where it’s at least sort of safe. That’s saying a lot.”

Just then, they were all startled by the sound of Roscoe barking outside. Darrell and Natalie ran for the door with Reesie and Gwen just a few steps behind them. Stepping out onto the landing, they found Roscoe standing at the top of the stairs, barking. Amber was nowhere to be seen. Gwen rushed to the dog, kneeling by his side. He gave her face a quick lick and then barked at the stairs again.

Darrell, Natalie, and Reesie peered over the railing, looking for Amber but not seeing her. 

“Where could she have gone?” Reesie asked. “I thought she was just taking the dog to pee.”

“Maybe she heard something downstairs,” Darrell said, looking knowingly at Reesie.

“Shhhh, listen,” Natalie instructed. They leaned over the railing and heard a series of thumps and then the crash of breaking glass.

“I’m going down there,” Darrell said.

“Right behind you,” added Reesie.

The three of them shoved past Gwen and Roscoe and headed down the stairs. Gwen had to keep a tight hold on the dog to keep him from joining them. As they reached the second-floor landing, they found Amber lying on the concrete, her face and arms bleeding from cuts and broken glass. They rushed over to help but Amber motioned for them to stay back.

“Hold on,” she said as she pulled herself up. “I’m not done with this jackass yet.” She ran back into the apartment, the same one where they had found the food, and once again there were the unmistakable sounds of punches landing hard on someone’s body, furniture thrown and crashing against walls, and then, finally, breaking glass as the patio door shattered, followed shortly by the splash of someone, or something, falling into the water below. 

The waiting trio looked at each other and ran into the dark apartment, hoping that Amber hadn’t been the one to go for a swim. She met them in the apartment’s kitchen, having grabbed towels and pressing them against her face to stop the bleeding.

“What happened? Who was that?” Reesie asked, grabbing more dish towels and holding them to the cuts on Amber’s arms.

“We are definitely not alone,” Amber said. “People are floating on the debris, climbing into whatever, wherever they can. I heard someone down here and thought it might be whoever had furnished the food. I came to check and this idiot decided to take a swing at me.”

“Do you think it was someone who has something to do with …” Darrell started.

“No,” Amber interrupted. “This guy was only interested in what he could grab and take with him. Small stuff, like cash and jewelry and we know there’s none of that here.”

“So, we have floating looters,” Natalie said. “That’s great.”

Roscoe barked from the landing above them and Amber suddenly realized who all was in the apartment with her. “Wait, if you guys are down here with me, who’s watching things upstairs? Please tell me you didn’t leave the door open.”

They all looked at each other and quickly turned, running up the stairs as fast as they could. Reaching the third-floor landing, they found Gwen crouched against the wall with Roscoe standing protectively in front of her. She pointed toward the far end of the hallway. “Someone climbed over the railing and went into that apartment on the end.”

Amber, Darrell, and Reesie raced to the last apartment on the floor and found the door slightly open. Amber motioned for the others to stay back. Natalie quickly ushered Gwen and Roscoe into her apartment and shut the door behind her. At the end of the hallway, they could hear the intruder ransacking the unoccupied apartment. Amber motioned for Darrell to get on the opposite side of the door while Reesie crouched behind her. Going into the apartment was too dangerous. The walls and lack of escape could too easily become an entrapment if something went wrong, and there was a lot that could go wrong.

Soon enough, the noise stopped and a dark-clad person came running out of the apartment. Amber’s arms wrapped tightly around the body. Darrell grabbed hold of the legs, lifting the person off the ground as they struggled to get away. Reesie grabbed the head and found herself looking in the face of a child, one no more than 14 or 15 years old.

“What the fuck? This is just a kid,” she exclaimed. “Child, what are you doing out here?”

The teen continued to struggle and kick against the tight constraints. “Let me go!” the young voice said. “What do you think I’m doing? I’m trying to survive, just like you are sister.”

“I am not your sister,” Reesie warned. “Where did you come from? Why aren’t you at home or someplace safe?”

“I got no home no more,” the child said. “Everything’s gone. They all left without me.”

“Your family left without you?” Reesie asked.

The child shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I went to where home used to be and there wasn’t nothin’ there no more. No house, no Mom, no sisters. I guess they all just left.”

Reesie and Amber looked at each other as Darrell carefully put the teen’s feet back on the ground.

“I’m just lookin’ for food and a place to chill, you know?” the kid said. “I gotta take care of myself now.”

“You’re coming with us, at least for now,” Reesie said.

At that, the teen immediately started trying to escape again but Amber’s grip on him was too tight. “Hold it,” Amber said. “You’re not in trouble. We’ve got an apartment down the hall. You can stay with us until the water goes down and we can figure out something safe for you. What’s your name?”

The child looked up at Amber, her body nearly three times the size of the teen’s. “You’re not gonna call the cops, are you?”

Amber shook her head. “We can’t. Cell service is dead.”

“My name’s Camille but you all can call me Cam,” the girl said, shrugging. “You guys got anything to eat that isn’t like soaking wet?”

The three adults laughed but Cam was still on guard. She had swum and floated from place to place for hours looking for anything still edible, any place that might be safe. She had already resigned herself to the reality of being on her own. Trusting these three strangers, especially two white people she’d never seen, was against her basic nature.

“Come with us,” Reesie said. “I think we can find something for you. Do you like pasta?”

Cam nodded.

“Good, we have a lot of that.”

Reesie carefully took Cam’s hand and headed toward the apartment. As she did, Darrell put his hand on Amber’s shoulder, motioning for her to hang back. When the other two were a safe distance away, he asked, “What the fuck happened down there? We need to get you patched up. Those cuts look deep.”

Amber smiled. “Desperate times lead people to do desperate things, just like with Cam. Not everyone’s going to be nice. We have to be ready for that. It’s likely to get worse before it gets better.”

“Yeah, but you look like someone tried killing you,” Darrell countered. “That doesn’t make sense if someone’s just looking for food.”
“I don’t think that’s all they were looking for,” Amber said. “Fortunately, I heal quickly.” She removed a blood-stained towel from her arm. The worst of the cuts had stopped bleeding, it’s depth and severity hardly noticeable. “Probably wouldn’t hurt to hit it with some Neosporin and a bandage or two,” she laughed.

Darrell gave her a cautious side-eye. “You are one interesting person, Amber.”

She smiled. “Thank you very much. You’re rather entertaining yourself.”

What To Say

The White House conference room was buzzing with chatter as Wilson took his place at the center of the table. He cleared his throat and waited for the noise to die down. “I’ve read through the first draft and let me tell you right now, that’s the worst piece of political bullshit I’ve seen and I’ve been working in this shit pile for 30 years. I’m not even going to show this to the acting president.” Wilson looked sternly around the room. “I told you we needed to shelve the partisan rhetoric on this one. This isn’t the time to try to make anyone look good, not President Blackstone, not acting President Watkins. We’re not merely addressing Congress. We’re addressing the nation. Sooner or later all this is going to get out to the press and it’s going to be one of the most frightening messes this nation has encountered since the start of World War II. Now, sit down and let’s do this right this time.”

Wilson sat down, pulling his chair up to the table. Others in the room did the same, waiting for him to take the lead. Instead, he nodded to Terry and asked, “Where do you think the press is on this?”

“There’s a lot they still don’t know and much of what they know, or think they know, they don’t understand,” Terry said. “I’ve been asked enough questions about the 25th amendment this afternoon to fill a textbook. If the press is uncertain about how the whole successorship thing works, you can bet the public isn’t going to understand and I’m not sure how many of the people on Capitol Hill understand.”

Wilson nodded. “Makes sense. This has all happened quickly and when it finally gets out it’s going to hit the entire country like a ton of bricks. They’re not going to know how to handle it all. Karen, how’s this going to go down on the Hill?”

Karen leaned forward on the table, looking as though she’d run a marathon in her Armani suit. “It’s not,” she said. “Norma has too many enemies even within her own party. They might understand the 25th amendment better than most people but this is the first time we’ve actually had to use it and it’s not being met with any degree of friendliness. We’re theoretically 20 months from the next election. They’re not going to let her actually do anything and I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets some negative response when she starts to speak.”

“That’s because she’s a full-on bitch,” responded Wick Washerman, President Blackstone’s head speechwriter. “She’s spent her entire career kicking Congressmen in the balls and then daring them to kick back. She’s been extremely partisan and rules the House with a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of attitude. You all saw how she shut down the freshmen class coming into Congress after the last election. None of the bills they proposed ever made it out of committee. She was only elected speaker because too many of those old men were afraid of what she might do if they didn’t vote for her. She knows where bodies are buried. We can’t just write a speech and pretend she’s not bringing that reputation to the podium.”

Wilson sighed. “I get that. She’s not the most popular person in town. Whether we like it or not, though, she’s the one the Constitution has put in charge of the country for the time being. She needs to deliver some very bad news to Congress, officially, and by extension to the rest of the country who has no idea what’s going on up here. We don’t have to do much more than state the facts, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t leave the American people feeling that their country is falling apart at the seams.”

“Can we even be clear on the facts?” Wick asked. “Do we have permission to say that an FBI agent was gunned down without any witnesses? Can we address the rumors of planes falling out of the sky? There was some pretty bad shit coming across the wires before everything went silent. What can we admit to?”

“Only what is pertinent to the country,” said Jerry Riordan, an assistant to the National Security Advisor. “There are two factors to consider. First, we don’t want to give any impression to our enemies or potential enemies the degree to which we are currently vulnerable. We know that comms are down, for example, but we don’t know that anyone else knows are comms are down. At least not yet. We can’t give anything away. Second, we don’t want to panic the public into rioting any more than they already were before things went silent. We don’t have any idea what the status is across the country but we do know that people are scared and if we leave them with the impression that things here are out of control we’re going to see a level of rioting the United States has never experienced. Say the wrong thing and a bad situation can get a lot worse in an instant.”

“So what can we say, then?” Terry asked. “I mean, this whole situation is scary. We still have an active shooter hiding somewhere here in the White House! Talk about the American people panicking, I’ve kind of been in that mode myself most of the day! I don’t like hiding under my desk every time I hear a noise outside my office!”

Wilson sat back in his chair and drummed his pen on the legal pad in front of him. “Let’s make a list,” he said quietly. “Make a list, rank the things on that list, then we only mention the top three. That’s it. Everything else can be done via a press conference or something later. The acting president doesn’t need to get into details. She needs to summarize the situation and how we got here then she needs to try to convince people that we can get through this with the same American resolve that got us through every challenge and tragedy we’ve faced before. We have to remind Congress and the American people that we are not a nation of cowards. We don’t go into hiding when the lights go out. We fight. We turn the damn lights back on.”

“So, the top of the list, President Blackstone is in the hospital after having collapsed in the residence,” Terry said, writing on her legal pad. “Second would have to be that the Vice President was assassinated, along with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a brave Secret Service agent, leading to the Speaker taking on the role of acting President.” She paused and looked at her pad. “Can we put all that under a single point or is that too much?”

Before anyone had a chance to answer, another voice spoke up. “I have something you should add to that list.”

Heads turned and then everyone at the table quickly stood up as they realized the acting president was on the room. 

“I’m sorry, Madam President,” Wilson said. “We didn’t hear you come in.”

“That’s all right,” Norma responded. “Everyone, please have a seat. I’ll only be a second. I just want to make sure everyone knows that I intend to hand power back to President Blackstone as soon as he is able to take it.”

There was an uncomfortable silence across the room before Wick finally asked, “And what if he’s not able to resume the office, Madam President?”

“We have a scheduled election in 20 months,” Norma replied. “And I won’t be running.”

“Point of clarification, ma’am,” Terry said. “You won’t’\ be running for president, is that correct?”

Norma smiled. “I won’t be running at all,” she said. “If the past few hours have taught me anything it’s that the 25th amendment needs to be reconsidered so that we don’t accidentally end up with a president who is totally unprepared and unqualified to assume the role. I’ve only been acting president a couple of hours and in this case, I’m thinking the Constitution has made a mistake.”

“Are you saying you’re going to resign, Madam President?” Wilson asked, the concern evident on his face.

“No, I considered it but I’ve been convinced that the country doesn’t need us playing musical chairs with the Oval Office,” Norma answered. “I’ll stay until either President Blackstone returns to office or we elect someone new. Then I’m retiring from public office.”

The room went quiet for a few seconds before Wilson said, “Thank you, Madam President. I think we can work with that.”

Norma smiled and quietly left the room. Katy Lamb, her chief of staff, was waiting for her. “Do you think they bought it?” she asked.

“Hook, line, and sinker,” Norma said as she smiled. 

Reading time: 52 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.

Reading time: 54 min
Wheels Flying Off The Wagon

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A Sliver Of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One!” shouted the Marine.

“Two,” came another reply.

“Three,” sounded considerably weaker.

“Four,” said the person next to him.

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

Still, nothing.

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

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

“Three, can you touch two?”

Again, shuffling and an affirmative answer.

“Marine, can you touch Two?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caught In The Middle

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

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

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

Roger started to speak, “Madam President …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting To The Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both young women laughed. Roscoe thumped his tail.

New Orders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By all means, Admiral,” Norma replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under The Threat Of Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Ray Of Light

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

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

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

Perry held up his hand indicating there were five others.

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

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

Reading time: 50 min
Chaos Out Of Order

Just starting out story? You may want to begin here.

Don’t Forget To Breathe

“How long do you think it will take them to find us,” one of the specialists asked to no one in particular.

No one had said anything for several minutes. The air was still thick with dust from the collapsed bunker. Had it not been for their gas masks, breathing would have been impossible. They sat with their backs against a concrete wall crouched tightly with their knees against their chests and no room to move as the slab of concrete and steel laid tightly against them. The initial moments hadn’t been too bad but the longer they sat in that same position the more uncomfortable they became. Of the six of them, four were over six feet tall, including Perry. Being in such tight quarters risked permanent circulatory and nerve damage if they didn’t get out within a couple of hours. 

When no one else said anything, Perry eventually spoke up. “There’s no way of knowing. We don’t know how much of the bunker collapsed, how many more people were hurt, or how it affected the overall structure. They’ll need to do some kind of rudimentary engineering analysis before they even start or else more people could be hurt. I wouldn’t expect anyone down here at all for at least an hour.”

Had there been any light, Perry would have looked down the short row of specialists and seen the fear in their faces, the tears in their eyes, and the sense of desperation scattered among them. Only the Marine who had been bringing up the rear seemed relaxed, leaning his head back against the wall, trying to slow his breathing and practicing meditation techniques in an attempt to stay calm. 

“Maybe we could play a word game or something to pass the time,” another specialist suggested. 

Again, the comment was met with silence.

“Okay, maybe not …” the specialist said, feeling all the more defeated.

Staying calm, quiet, and in place was their safest move. Only half of them had the training to know that, though. Three of the specialists were technicians who spent all their time in front of a computer screen. Even when they weren’t in the bunker, they all had side projects that tested their skills and allowed them to explore ideas they would later use in their work. These weren’t especially athletically-minded people who went exploring outside their own homes. What they were facing now was a situation they had never dreamed they would experience.

Perry measured his breathing, which was made a bit easier as the gas mask magnified the sound of every breath he took. He inhaled slowly through his nose, counting to himself, “one, two, three, four,” hold for another four seconds, then slowly back out his mouth with his lips pursed as though he was trying to move the flame of a candle without blowing it out. He closed his eyes and tried to think of a more relaxing environment but every time he found a mental picture that worked for him something else would jar him back to the present—the sound of falling concrete, stabbing pain in his legs, a whimper from one of the specialists. The minutes passed slowly, quietly, as though trapped in a tomb.

Only the knowledge that somewhere above them there were people rushing to try and find a safe way down into the massive crater that was the remains of the bunker provided Perry with any comfort. He knew there would be engineers questioning the structural integrity of the remaining portions, looking for ways to search for survivors without potentially weakening the existing walls, and creating a rescue plan. The Marine Corp had manuals full of procedures for how to perform this kind of rescue. There were steps in place outlining exactly what had to be done. The challenge, Perry knew, was finding those manuals and assembling the people who could take those instructions and turn them into an actionable plan. Perry knew that enough time had not passed for anyone to begin looking for them yet.

In the dark, Perry wasn’t sure how much distance was between each of them. He knew the Marine was far enough away talking to him meant trying to shout through the mask. At least they had masks. He thought of the specialists he had left in the lab. Had they survived? How many of them were injured? How long would they be able to breathe air permeated with concrete dust? He quietly pounded the side of his fist against the wall behind him. No matter how quickly they had tried to work after the phone, they hadn’t been fast enough. One disaster followed another. Too many people were dying or injured. There was no way this could be an accident. 

He thought about the voice he had heard earlier, the one who had joked about missing the lunch trucks. Lunch trucks were never scheduled in advance. Perry would have his assistant call them on days when the testing was too hectic for specialists to leave or needed to work extended shifts. Most days, they brought lunch with them. Each lab was equipped with refrigeration units anyway, so few people ever complained. Meetings were occasionally catered if they consumed the lunch zone from 11:00 through 1:30, but food trucks were a relatively rare occurrence.

However, they were part of the emergency response plan. The assumption had been that in the event of a fire or some other unimaginable disaster that specialists would evacuate too quickly to retrieve their food. The food trucks would provide food and water to both the specialists and emergency personnel as long as needed. The emergency response plan was not a widely distributed binder. In fact, only five hard copies of the document existed, none of which were located in the bunker except for Perry’s own office. While access to the plan was not necessarily restricted, it certainly wasn’t on anyone’s “must read” list. Specialists had not been involved in its creation. The handful of people who had bothered to request viewing it, primarily those from the engineering section, had only browsed sections directly related to their own work. For a specialist to know that there would be food trucks meant that they had, at the very least, read through the details of the plan. The information wasn’t something part of general conversation.

The more Perry thought about the emergency response plan, the more it bothered him. The plan had, of necessity, covered the various potential weaknesses of the bunker and the outside facilities. While the bunker was constructed to the most rigid requirements possible, every structure has its weak points. Going through the various aspects of that risk analysis in his mind, Perry shuddered as he realized what had happened. 

Three critical weak points had been identified. One was the single-point-of-entry accessible only by a single road between the base and town. The first bomb had blown a crater in that road. The second was the bunker’s central dome, the main access point. Most of the load-bearing elements were contained right here. Destroying the dome put much of the rest of the bunker at risk, as was obvious in their current circumstance. The third was the limited number of emergency exits. With the main access tunnel destroyed, there were only four other exit-only points away from the facility, two of which were accessible only with emergency codes. While events had happened too quickly for Perry to be certain, the location of the plane crash was such that it likely eliminated the exit that was accessible to the highest number of people. This would force them to migrate to other sections and require opening one if not both of the coded exits.

Perry felt a chill as he realized what had happened. The plane’s downing wasn’t an accident at all. Rather, it had been a deliberate suicide mission carefully planned to attack them at their most vulnerable points. This hadn’t been the work of a single individual—it was too complicated and required too much coordination for that. That meant there were multiple traitors among the group of specialists and they had organized, planned, and carried out their attack right under his nose. 

Perry had never suspected a thing. He had trusted every person in the bunker. They had all undergone the most severe background checks possible, more stringent than top-level CIA agents. Each of the 486 people working there had a security clearance vetted by top NSA and FBI personnel. As an added precaution, over half had been subjected to a post-employment test where an undercover FBI agent pretending to act on behalf of another country or special-interest group attempted to convince the employee to reveal information about the bunker and the work going on there. Only three people had ever failed and they were terminated and in federal prison. 

Still, somehow, at some point, a group of traitors had come together and developed and successfully implemented a heinous plan that not only took out the bunker but killed dozens of people and put the security of the entire nation at risk. Perry wondered if they had been there from the beginning or if they had somehow become disillusioned along the way. They had anticipated a certain amount of disappointment among those hired. There was no such thing as a perfect work environment and any number of psychological factors could turn a person sour on their employment. Internal security had worked with HR to carefully watch for signs of those conditions, though, and had presumably addressed those situations quickly before they had a chance to become severe. What had they all missed? With so many people watching, how could they all have missed the signs unless someone in the security team had been in on the plot as well?

Perry refused to believe that such a large-scale rebellion could exist within the closely-watched and carefully guarded confines of their operation without him knowing. As they had grown closer to the final test date, he had increased security scans and monitoring of external activities nearly 300 percent. He knew whose marriages were crumbling. He knew which specialists were sleeping together. He even knew which women had yet to tell their partners that they were pregnant. Yet, somehow, this had slipped past him?

An overwhelming sense of failure engulfed Perry and a tear involuntarily ran down his cheek. He realized that from this point forward he could trust no one, not even the Marines. Anyone could be the enemy. Someone had just deliberately and maliciously attacked the United States. That meant Perry’s responsibility no longer focused on the survival of anyone in the bunker, but rather the survival of his country. 

He took a long breath, held it, counted to four, and slowly let it out through his lips. In the darkness, Perry had found clarity.

Puzzles With Missing Pieces

As the line of black armored SUVs pulled around Palmer Road cruising toward the emergency room entrance, Roger could already tell that the situation at the hospital was anything but normal. Non-hospital personnel and patient visitors had been evacuated and everyone was being held behind heavily-guarded barriers well away from the hospital. No one was happy and the level of protest was audible even from his secure seat in the vehicle. 

The very fact that they were here spoke to the seriousness of the situation. The White House Medical Unit (WHMU) had been created as part of the 25th amendment to take care of the ongoing health needs of the president, vice president, Cabinet members, and any visiting dignitaries. They had a large, well-trained team headed up by a director who served as the president’s personal physician. Any time the president or anyone around him was feeling the slightest bit ill, it was up to this team to provide sufficient care without doing anything that might accidentally cause the press and/or the public to panic. Therefore, they were thoroughly equipped to handle a large number of emergencies without leaving the White House.

This was President Blackstone’s first non-ceremonial visit to Walter Reed hospital but there had always been plans in place, as there were for every president, to establish a specific protocol should he ever need their care. Most importantly, WHMU Director Bernard Zinky would remain in charge of the president’s medical care, over-riding the authority of existing hospital staff. Zinky called the shots at all time knowing full well his responsibility to inform Roger and the vice president should, in his opinion, the president, even temporarily, not be able to fulfill his duties.

Who assisted Dr. Zinky was not a matter left to chance, either. Each shift contained designated personnel, doctors, nurses, residents, and assistants, who were vetted to help attend to the president. Only these personnel would be allowed in the same room as the president and even then there had to be at least three of them at all times for security purposes.

As Roger’s SUV pulled up to the emergency room and his door opened, he was immediately struck by the large number of Secret Service members standing outside rather than at their post indoors. “Why’s everyone standing around out here?” Roger asked the nearest agent.

“No comms,” the agent replied. “The only way we can communicate with each other is to keep messengers running back and forth.”

Roger considered the size of the hospital and how many people would be needed to relay messages across the large group. They needed cell and phone service back up quickly.

Walking into the emergency room, Roger walked straight to the head of the president’s security detail. “What do we know?”

The agent shook his head. “Dr. Zinky has yet to give us any update.”

Roger nodded and turned around. The waiting room had been cleared except for the First Lady and primary members of her staff huddled over in a corner. Roger walked toward them and the group stepped back to allow the president’s Chief of Staff into their circle. He gave the First Lady a hug. “How are you holding up, Tasha?”

The president’s wife had obviously been crying. She held a crumpled tissue in her left hand, her eyes were red and slightly swollen. “They’re not telling me anything, Roger,” she said, her native French accent obvious. “All I know is that he was in there fussing at someone about wanting to look out the window and then suddenly he’s passed out on the ground. That’s all! I have no idea what happened.”

Roger put a comforting arm around the young woman some 30 years the president’s junior. She was his third wife, a former model, and junior member of the French diplomatic corp when Rudy had first met her some fifteen years ago. Roger had known the president’s other wives as well. Tasha was probably the most intelligent of the three but she was also the one most likely to cause the president trouble. Many of her private views were exactly the opposite of Rudy’s. A significant amount of energy went between Roger and his counterpart on the First Lady’s staff, Ann Morrow, to prevent situations where the First Lady directly contradicted the president. They hadn’t always been successful.

“I’m sure Bernie’s taking good care of him,” Roger said, trying to sound as encouraging as possible.

Tasha huffed. “Bernie prescribes whiskey as Rudy’s bedtime medicine. You’ll pardon me if my confidence is a little lacking.”

Roger smiled, chuckling on the inside but trying to not let on that the president’s “whiskey” was actually ulcer medication laced with apple juice. Even the president didn’t know all the tricks the medical staff used to make sure he was properly medicated. The public would have been alarmed had they known just how much medication the president was taking. “He has the best help in the world in there, Tasha. I’m sure they’ll diagnose the problem quickly.” 

Roger turned and motioned for Ann to follow him. They stepped a few feet away, where the group wouldn’t be able to hear them. “Have you prepped her for what’s about to happen?” he asked.

Ann nodded. “I’m not sure she fully understands how it all works, but I’ve already sent a couple of people over to coordinate with Mrs. Abernathy. I’ve made reservations for Mrs. Blackstone and the family at the Washington Conrad. We’ll have people transfer them over while she’s still here. We’ll be ready to adjust no matter which way this goes.”

Roger nodded. “Thank you, that helps a lot.”

“Which way do you think this is going, Roger?” Ann asked. “Usually there’s enough scuttlebutt running around to fuel a dozen theories but I’m not hearing a thing today and all these agents are tight-lipped.”

Roger shrugged. “You know about as much as I do, Ann. Al was talking to him, he was animated, and then he wasn’t. He’s not exactly a young man. The options are frightening.”

Ann dropped her voice to a whisper. “So, they’re swearing in Andrew?”

“Not yet,” Roger said, shaking his head, “which puts us on really shaky ground. I need the doctor to sign the paperwork and we are still looking for the Chief Justice. We need him sworn in quickly. There’s not supposed to be any gap in leadership.”

Ann looked around, grabbed Roger’s elbow and pulled him further away from the First Lady. “Don’t expect this to go smoothly,” she warned. “Tasha’s got something up her sleeve and she’s not telling me what. See that woman in the blue suit with the red scarf? That’s Gloria Fastbaum. She’s a constitutional expert at Yale and a practicing attorney, specializing in, get this, presidential succession. She’s been ‘visiting’ Tasha, staying in the guest room of the residence, for three days.”

Roger struggled to keep his voice down. “Why did I not know this? I should have been informed the moment she arrived!”

“I know! So should I,” Ann said. “Somehow, because no one pays any attention to what the First Lady is doing,” she paused to give Roger a knowing look, “she was able to sneak her in. I just found out this morning before everything else went to shit.”

“So, she’s been here the entire time?” Roger asked.

Ann nodded her head. “Yeah, and the whole rule-breaking secrecy of it all has me more than a little concerned. You know as well as I do Tasha only plays dumb for the cameras. She’s intelligent and ruthlessly conniving. I don’t know what she’s up to but the fact that I’m allegedly her best friend and have been left out of the loop on this is disturbing.”

Roger nodded his head. “Keep your ear to the ground, let me know what you hear, even if you don’t think it’s relevant. There’s something completely off about today and I’m not sure who we can trust even within the party.”

Ann nodded her agreement and then returned to the First Lady’s group just as Dr. Zinky stepped into the lobby. He headed straight for Roger. “This isn’t looking good, Roger,” the doctor said. “You have the papers?”

Roger handed over the necessary forms and a pen. The WHMU director quickly signed in the necessary places and handed back the paperwork. 

“Any idea what happened?” Roger asked.

“Everything all at once,” the doctor replied. “His blood pressure dropped. He has unusual bruises that would seem to be related to diabetes but I can’t confirm that until I get blood work back from the lab. There’s cardiac arrhythmia, seizures, hemorrhaging … So much is going on I hardly know where to start. He’s not going to be jumping up off the table anytime soon. I’d go ahead and prepare an illness statement for the press. Say the president is having some blood pressure issues. Don’t let it go any further than that. And get Andrew sworn in quickly. He’s going to be president for a while.”

Roger nodded, took the papers, and motioned to Ann as he walked toward the exit. When the First Lady’s Chief of Staff reached him, he said, “This isn’t good. Watch her closely and don’t be afraid to completely sequester her. Talk to her detail. Keep her group small and avoid the press. We’ve got to be ready to transition quickly.”

Ann nodded and returned to the First Lady just as Dr. Zinky was telling her a slightly less frightening version of what he had told Roger. Ann handed Tasha more tissue as the First Lady’s tears flowed heavily.

Called To Duty

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Eliana Kruegel, was sitting in her home office in Georgetown, sitting in a Queen Anne chair in front of a large window, sipping at a cup of cold tea. Like everyone else, she had gotten the morning’s cell phone call but her secretary had answered it and disregarded it as unimportant. As a result, when the power went out and everything stopped working Justice Kruegel was just as mystified about the cause as was every other person across the United States. Like many, she had no indication that the problem was wide-spread and assumed that everything would be back to normal shortly. 

Justice Kruegel didn’t mind the downtime. There had been very few quiet moments since she was first appointed as a federal judge in Denver some thirty-plus years ago. She had enjoyed the frantic pace of the judiciary back then but now, as she was approaching her 68th birthday, she appreciated the rare moments when someone wasn’t handing her yet another brief or asking her to speak to another women’s political action group. She didn’t mind the work so much but she knew she would need to take better care of herself, allow for more moments like this if she was to outlast what she considered this fraudulent presidency. Eliana had absolutely no intention of retiring and allowing this “backward-minded brute of a president” to nominate her replacement.

Eliana was noticing how the raindrops beaded on the petals of the peonies just outside the window when her secretary, Lillian Hamilton, rushed into the room. The justice looked up, somewhat surprised by the sudden intrusion.

“There are Secret Service people demanding to see you,” the young woman said. “They say it’s extremely urgent.”

Justice Kruegel set down the teacup and moved back to her desk. “Then urgently show them in, please,” she said. As the two Secret Service agents entered, Eliana could see others in the outer office as well. “This is a bit of a surprise,” she said.

“Yes, Madam Justice,” the lead agent said. “We normally would have called first but with communications down, we had to come in person. We need you to come to the White House immediately, please. A situation has arisen with the president involving the invocation of 25th Amendment of the Constitution and we need you to swear in the Vice President as acting President.”

Justice Kruegel involuntarily winced and immediately regretted doing so. Such displays of personal emotion were unbecoming of a Supreme Court justice, in her opinion. “That’s the job of the Chief Justice. Why are you here asking me?”

“The Chief Justice is out of town on a speaking engagement,” the agent said. “With communications and a significant portion of the transit system still down, we are unable to get him back with the urgency the matter requires. You’re the justice with the most seniority.”

Eliana gave a long sigh. “This is unprecedented and most certainly challengeable,” she said. “The Constitution specifically requires the Chief Justice to swear in the president and only the Chief Justice. There is no accommodation for a transfer of power in his absence. This is a severe problem.”

The agents stood there, not knowing if the Justice was refusing to come with them or not. This was, after all, a sitting member of the Supreme Court. They couldn’t force her to do anything. The rules for her were different than most people.

Eliana kept talking as she attempted to work out the problem. “At the same time, there cannot be any lapse in the executive office. We must have an acting president at all times to maintain the rule of law. One might claim that the action was done in a sense of emergency but if so it can only have temporary authority until such time as the required action can be carried out.” She paused for a moment, staring at the unrelated briefs sitting on her desk. “Lillian,” she called out to her secretary, “grab my black pumps and my robe, please. We’re going to the White House.” The Justice then turned to address the agents, “But you guys have to find the Chief Justice and get him here quickly so we can do this all over again with him. We’re on very tentative legal ground here.”

The agents nodded in agreement. They had been among those who had frantically rushed to the Chief Justice’s office, his country club, and finally his home attempting to find him. Even as they were there, another team was on their way to New Hampshire to retrieve him.

Lillian brought Eliana a pair of sensible black pumps and set them on the floor. Justice Kruegel slipped out of her house shoes and into the pumps, then took the robe and draped it over her arm. “We’ll save this until we get there,” she said, presumably to Lillian but no one in particular. At that moment, it also occurred to Eliana whom she would be swearing into office. “Ugh, I hope Mr. Abernathy understands this is temporary and his powers are limited. So help me, I will fight with every ounce of power I have if he starts getting sneaky with legislation.”

The agents nodded and followed the Justice to the door. 

Havoc and Mayhem

One of the primary problems with cloudy or rainy days such as this one was that there were few natural shadows in which to hide. Of course, Djali could create the illusion of a shadow for a time, but it wasn’t something that fooled someone with as much experience as Amber. She had seen demons since she was an infant and knew well how they worked. He was certain she had just seen him as he had attempted to dart around the corner of a warehouse across from the apartment building the group from the coffee shop currently inhabited. The demon had been quite sure that there would be two more deaths among the group. Caim had made that point rather clear.

What was also clear, however, was that other demons and ministers of Di Inferni had left their mark on the apartment building as well, and those marks were recent. The current storm and varying conditions could well claim a number of lives but Djali couldn’t just jump in and take the first one to drop. To trespass on another demon’s claim was a crime with severe consequences. He could find himself starving in the Alps again if he wasn’t careful.

Who would have suspected that being a demon of death came with so very many rules? Djali wasn’t an actual administrator of death. He was not allowed to take one’s last breath or even be the direct cause of a human’s demise. Instead, he had to wait until the last minute to jump in and snag a person’s soul at the precise instant it left the human’s body. If he was too early, he could be denied; too late and another demon, or worse yet an angel, could claim the soul before him.

Fortunately, he was good friends with Caim, one of the Great Presidents of the underworld. Caim knew the truth about the future and would let Djali know when someone was about to die who wasn’t quite likely to have an angel swooping in early. Djali hated having to fight angels for a soul. He always lost. Caim had altered him to the situation at the coffee shop.

Djali’s biggest problem at the moment, though, was that a single soul wasn’t enough to sustain him. Five was enough to keep him powered for a couple of weeks. Anything less than that was like a snack that left him wanting more. 

In truth, he only needed one more. The group had neglected to tell Amber about Macy back at the coffee shop. No one considered that he’d had any role in her death at all so they forgot about her. He liked that. If he played his cards right, he might make it six for the day and be able to sit back and just watch while everyone else rushed around taking advantage of the disaster.

Water wasn’t exactly Djali’s favorite environment. On one hand, it didn’t affect his regular, handsome appearance. He had walked the entire distance from the coffee shop, enjoying pretending to be human, but had never gotten wet or slightly ruffled. At the same time, though, he couldn’t move through water as quickly, couldn’t jump as high nor as far as he could in drier conditions. If someone in the apartment building did croak, he’d have to work hard to be the first one there.

When he saw Amber look away for a moment, thanks to the seemingly random appearance of a dog that hadn’t been there earlier, Djali took advantage of the distraction and moved into the upper branches of a large elm tree on the edge of the apartment property. This was a little closer, a little easier space from which to maneuver, and easier to hide in the shadows of the leaves. He was growing impatient. The storm was claiming victims by the dozen, all souls available for the claiming. Angels were whizzing back and forth overhead but people were dying with no one available to administer last rights. That meant their souls were available to whoever got there first. Demons everywhere were enjoying the feast.

Djali felt the air move, a cold breeze counter to the direction of the wind. He turned and saw Aamon and Demogorgon taking human form on branches near him. He shuddered. Aamon was a fire-breathing Marquis with 72 legions of demons at his command. His appearance was fierce but at least he could be reasonable. Demogorgon, on the other hand, was so horrible that even the mention of his name had been outlawed by various civilizations for tens of thousands of years. He was the Master of Fate and his presence was never a good sign.

“Uh, hi, guys,” Djali said nervously. “What brings your eminences to this neck of the woods?”
“We’re having a party,” Aamon said, half-laughing, “and we thought we’d drop by and invite you to attend rather than sitting up here in this stupid little tree.”

“And maybe do some harvesting while we’re here,” Demogorgon added gruffly.

Djali smiled. “Well … uhm … thanks, guys. I appreciate it. You see, I’m just waiting for a couple more souls here that Caim said should expire soon …”

“Caim is a fool,” Demogorgon interrupted.

Djali looked desperately at Aamon for cover.
“Let’s just say Caim misread the situation by … a lot,” Aamon said calmly. “He thought this was a simple flooding situation.”

“It’s not?” Djali asked, surprised.

“It’s a fucking global disaster,” Demogorgon growled, laughing at the same time. “Fucking angels were caught totally off guard on this one. Apparently, they misread the fucking memo.” He laughed again, hard enough that the entire tree shook. Of course, to anyone watching it looked like the wind.

Djali gulped hard. This was not a comfortable situation. Either demon could turn him to dust with a quick look. “So, what would your eminences request of me?”

Aamon smiled. “Sit back and enjoy the fun, little one,” he said. “Things here are about to get wild and crazy.”

“Here?” Djali questioned. “There are only a handful of people in the apartment …”

“Oh, it’s not the apartment,” Aamon said. “Well, maybe, I guess they could get caught up in the excitement and have heart attacks or something, but that’s almost irrelevant. The flood’s about to deliver a fucking party.”

Demogorgon laughed again and this time Djali almost fell from his perch.

“Hang with us, little guy,” Aamon continued, his tone cheerfully condescending. “You’ll score enough souls to last you the rest of the year, maybe longer!”

Djali knew better than to ask any more questions. If Aamon and Demogorgon wanted him to join them, then join he would. After all, it sounded as though they were about to have a lot of fun.

How Quickly Moods Change

News of Gwen’s pregnancy cheered everyone in the apartment. They had all felt as though they were surrounded by death. The promise of this new life was a welcome distraction worthy of celebration. Even Amber stepped away from her watch at the balcony door. 

Amber’s celebration was short-lived, however, as she felt the cold chill sweep across the room. She ran back to the balcony door and stepped onto the balcony not caring if she was hit by rain. Through the rain, she saw the elm tree shaking severely, seeming to move harshly in the wind. She knew something was up. She stepped back inside, closing and locking the door as she kept a careful watch. 

Feeling something brush against her leg, Amber looked down and saw the German shepherd standing next to her, its ears attentive, it’s gaze fixed, a low, soft growl emanating from its throat. She reached down and scratched the top of its head. The dog acknowledged by leaning into her leg, letting her know it was there to protect her.

In the living room, plates were filled, smiles were on faces, and Gwen blushed as the other women fawned over her and the unexpected discovery. Gwen wasn’t accustomed to being the center of attention and her anxiety increased every time someone put their hand on her shoulder. She still smiled, though, because that seemed like the thing to do.

Natalie found dry clothes for Gwen and again took a lit can of fuel with them into the bathroom while the smallest of them changed from the clothes that had gotten wet rescuing the dog. They didn’t talk much, though Natalie never stopped smiling. 

“So, the dog was just swimming down the street, huh?” Natalie asked, attempting to break the awkward silence.

“Yeah, he looked desperate and lost,” Gwen said quietly. “No telling how long the poor thing’s been swimming. I’m sure this has to be traumatic for him.”

“He sure seems to like you,” Natalie responded.

Gwen giggled. “Yeah, I think I may try to keep him if I can’t find his owner.” She paused as she pulled on a pair of dry tights. “He may be chipped, though. I wouldn’t want to keep him away from his owners. I’m sure their frantically looking for him.”

Natalie helped Gwen brush her hair and put it into a bun. “This has been a strange day,” she said. “I’ll be glad when phones are working so I can check on people.” As soon as she said the words she remembered that her phone was still on the top shelf of the coffee shop with her laptop, almost certainly soaked with water at this point. “Fuck,” she said quietly, but not quietly enough.

Gwen pulled back. “What happened?”

“Oh, nothing here,” Natalie assured her. “I just remembered that my phone is still at the coffee shop and probably useless by now.”

“Oh,” Gwen said quietly. “That sucks.”

As Gwen and Natalie emerged from the bathroom, Gloria handed them both a plate of food which they happily took as they rejoined the group in the kitchen. The communal conversation had shifted to telling of pets owned, both current and former, and how remarkable it seemed that Gwen has stepped outside just as the German shepherd was swimming past. There were also intermittent comments as to how good Amanda’s food was, especially considering the circumstances. Even Barry had finally left his chair and was chatting as though he’d known everyone in the group his entire life.

Hardly anyone noticed the small whine that came before the dog’s soft bark, but Amber, Hannah, and Reesie all heard it and paid attention. The dog left Amber’s side and wove its way through the group to find Gwen. He bumped her forcefully with his forehead, which hit the young woman’s hip strong enough to push her forward. He waited for a second and then hit her again in the same manner.

“I think he wants you to move,” Reesie said. The sense of caution was evident in her voice.

Gwen started working her way out of the kitchen and toward the living room, the dog effectively separating her from the group and herding her toward the corner of the living room furthest from the outside wall. When she reached the chair in which Barry had been sitting, the dog put his paws on the seat cushion and whined, waiting for Gwen to sit down. He then turned around and took a guarded position in front of her.

Reesie looked at Hannah who, in turn, looked at Amber. Amber’s grimace was the only response they needed.

“I think we all should move toward that corner of the living room,” Reesie suggested. “I have a feeling the storm’s about to get a lot worse.”

Everyone except Amber moved into the living room quickly, taking their plates of food with them. Only Carson complained. “If it’s not one damn thing it’s another,” he mumbled. 

Lightning flashed close enough to the apartments that it looked for a second as though someone had thrown a spotlight on Amber. The resulting thunder shook the entire building, causing screams and whimpers from within the group. 

Amber took half a step back from the glass door but kept watching the elm tree, its branches waving wildly now. They looked heavier than they had a moment ago.

Then, she heard the sound, part roar, part screeching, what some often described as a distant train whistle. The ground under the apartment began to shake. Amber shifted her position so she could get a better look to their north and she caught her breath as the looming black mass of the largest tornado she had ever seen barreled their direction.

“Tornado!” she yelled, as the ambient noise in the room grew louder. “Quick, get on the floor and cover your heads!”

Reesie pulled Gwen from the chair and covered her as the dog pressed in from the side. Darrell picked the chair up and half-threw it out of the way so there was space for the group to huddle closer to the corner where, conveniently enough, two load-bearing walls met. Amber skidded to the floor in front of the group as though she were sliding into home plate, positioning her body to protect as many of the people in front of her as she could.

For the next four and a half minutes, the group huddled closely together as the building shook and swayed from the power of the tornado. The air filled with a sound that seemed as though all nature were crying out in pain. They could hear pieces of metal being slammed against the outside wall and braced for the wall to be ripped away, sucking them all into the storm. 

Then, with an uneasy suddenness, the tornado was gone, shifting strongly away from them to the West as it continued its destructive path. Their building was still largely intact. The rain that had soaked them for the past four hours was gone. An eerie quiet fell over the room.

Carson was the first to stand up and brush himself off. “You know, I’m quite done with all the fucking disasters today. If it’s not my boss fucking things up, it’s Mother Nature. So help me, if an earthquake hits next I’m just jumping in and letting the fucking earth swallow me.”

No one felt like directly responding to Carson’s complaint, though some of them felt similarly. Amber ran back to the patio door, pushed it open and stepped outside. Reesie and Natalie were close behind her. The core of the tornado had missed them by about 100 yards. A two-foot-deep trench, now rapidly filled with water, marked the storm’s path. The elm tree was gone. The building across the street was in ruins. Almost every structure at the center of the home had seemingly evaporated. Along the edges, the storm had deposited piles of rubble, elements of structures from miles away with which the swirling winds had grown tired of playing just dropped like a toddler tired of playing with its toys. 

Natalie was the first to speak. “Holy shit, this is bad. I can’t even see to the other side.”

Reesie looked across a horizon that was barren compared to what had been there before and said, “It took half the town.”

Slowly, others joined them on the balcony, each compelled to make a comment.

“Shit, that was almost us,” Darrell said as he put his arm around Natalie.

Amanda, not sure whether the balcony was all that secure, grabbed ahold of Amber’s arm as she assessed the scene below. Tears filled her eyes as she pointed toward a bare place to their North where nothing existed. “I grew up over there. It’s all gone. All the people who were there, they’re gone! My friends, my first piano teacher, my elementary school … “ She broke down sobbing as Amber pulled her close.

Miranda was one of the last to step onto the balcony, having taken the time to first check on Gwen, who the dog still was guarding in the corner. Of everyone in the group, she had seemed the least bothered and the least concerned. As she stepped onto the balcony and looked at the nothingness below, she dropped to the floor and grabbed the railing with both hands as she began crying, “No, no, no, no, no! They’re gone! They’re all gone! Why? WHY?!

Natalie rushed over to her, taking the young woman into her arms. “I know, it’s bad,” she said as comfortingly as possible.

Miranda sobbed into Natalie’s shoulder. “No, it’s not bad, it’s horrible. They’re all gone. My whole family. My mom, my sister, my Aunt Eleanor, everyone is gone!”

Natalie looked back at the others, not sure what to say.

Miranda pointed toward the blank space just West of the building. “My mom’s house was just three blocks that way, a big, three-story Victorian where I grew up. All my old things were still there.” She paused, choking on a heavy sob, then continued, “She helped me move in here because I’m autistic, well, a little autistic, like I went to a normal school and everything but I have problems with some stuff and with, you know, like self-control and things and the doctor said I wasn’t ready to be completely on my own yet. Mom walked over every morning to make sure I’d taken my meds and help me organize my day, then Aunt Eleanor would take me to work in the afternoon and Sissy would pick me up, and … “ Her body shuddered as she was consumed by the grief. “I can’t live without them,” she cried. “They protected me, they kept me safe, they wouldn’t let mean people hurt me!”

Natalie pulled Miranda more closely to her. “I’m so very, very sorry,” she whispered, knowing there was no way she could fully appreciate the grief Miranda was feeling.

Amber slipped through the group and knelt beside the two women, putting her arms around both of them. “Miranda, dear,” she said, putting her hand softly on the girl’s tear-soaked cheek, “We’ve got you. You and I are going to be roommates now, okay? We’ll find us a new place to live, we’ll both get new jobs, I’ll make sure you take your meds and help organize your day, and if any mean people try to hurt you at all they’ll have to deal with me, okay?”

Through the tears, Miranda nodded, not wanting to move from the comforting embrace of her new friends, her only friends.

Barry stood in the doorway. He didn’t say anything. Compassion was an emotion he felt but didn’t know how to share. He felt he was too big to give anyone a hug, his size too overwhelming to possibly be gentle or comforting in any way. Intellectually, he knew he was wrong, but his emotions ruled in this area. He understood better than anyone knew, though. His own house had been in the path of the tornado. Like Miranda, everything was gone. His house with all his equipment, his entire means of livelihood, his memories. He had nothing. Nowhere to go. No one to whom he could turn. Barry felt the depression creep in. He did nothing to stop it. Feeling something was better than feeling nothing. 

Only Carson and Gwen stayed inside the dark apartment. The dog still sat at attention with Gwen huddled safely behind him. She could tell from the sounds the others were making that she didn’t want to see what had happened outside. Knowing it was horrible was enough. She didn’t need a first-hand account. Behind her new dog was the safest place to be.

Carson leaned back on the counter between the kitchen and living room assessing everything that had happened that day. His job, the flood, the tornado, one disaster following directly on the heels of another. He knew the company car he had been driving was worthless now after being completely flooded out. He wondered briefly if it was even still in the same parking space as he had left it. He didn’t really care. 

He slipped his left hand inside the pocket of the ill-fitting pants Darrell had given him to wear. He felt the cell phone sim card he had slipped into his shirt pocket earlier that morning. He flipped it back and forth between his fingers. Carson was angry at the whole situation. From the moment he had walked up to the rental counter at the airport in Milwaukee things had gone from bad to worse. The information on that sim card would settle the score, though. He had their dirty secrets and after everything he had been through he couldn’t wait to divulge them. Kostenrawki would pay and pay dearly.

Flies in the ointment

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Norma Watkins, sat across the desk from Vice President Andrew Abernathy and to the left of Senate President Pro Tempore Graham Norman. Everything that had happened so far had come rushing at her too quickly. She hadn’t had time to stop and consult about anything with her staff. She felt horribly unprepared for the conversation they were having now and wanted to make sure that what they were about to do was not only legal but wouldn’t come back to bite her in the next election.

“So, we’re agreed that, at this juncture, we’re treating this as merely a temporary transfer of power, nothing permanent that would require eventual approval of the Cabinet?” Norma asked.

“As temporary as possible,” Graham said, looking suspiciously at Andrew.

Andrew looked first at the papers on his desk and then at the two congressional leaders across from him. “I think that’s the most prudent path,” he said. “Look, the reason and conditions for our meeting still exist, let’s not deny that, but don’t think I’m in a rush to act on them.”

“It certainly seemed that way,” Graham said. “You seemed quite willing to go ahead and call a Cabinet meeting right then and there.”

“Yes, I was,” Andrew said, nodding. “The perspective I had earlier showed a chief executive who had no awareness of the disaster he had caused and no clue how to handle the consequences. I still stand by that opinion as being accurate at that time. Our situation has changed, though. We have a president who is down for unknown reasons for an undetermined period of time. The Constitution is fairly specific as to what has to happen. The country cannot be without a leader.”

“We cannot afford to be seen as making a power grab, though,” Norma countered. “We have to play this strictly by the book or else there will be unending blowback within your party as well as other members of the legislature. We’re catching a bit of a break on public opinion for the moment, but don’t expect that to hold off too long, either. The press will find a way to keep people informed.”

Andrew nodded in agreement. This wasn’t the way he wanted to become president. Ascending to the nation’s highest office in this manner put every decision he made under intense scrutiny and held the possibility that, should the president recover, everything he did could potentially be reversed. Legal challenges could come from almost any direction. An acting president was meant to be little more than a figurehead for the purpose of keeping the government running. 

“Why don’t we do this,” Andrew said, trying to think of a solution that would keep everyone happy. “Why don’t we announce that while I’m technically acting president, I’ll only appear in the Oval Office for the purpose of conducting official affairs of state. Everything else I’ll keep right here. No Oval Office staff meetings or briefings. I stay out of the Oval unless the situation demands it. How do you think that will play?”

Graham shrugged. “I think that would certainly appease most people in our own party. It shows respect for both the person and the office, not to mention that looking humble and unaggressive in assuming the office ultimately puts you in a stronger position should a longer-term solution be necessary.”

Norma leaned forward in her chair, thinking through the scenario. “I think that works as long as you don’t push any new legislation or sign any presidential orders that are not absolutely necessary,” she said. “We’ll have some members who see this as an opportunity to push through some bills they know Blackstone would never sign. You can’t sign them, either. Just let them sit.”

“Even appropriations?” Andrew asked, seeing a potential funding problem.

“We’ve got a month before that hits the calendar,” Graham said, “and portions of that can be delayed if necessary.”

“What about emergency funding?” Andrew asked. “If things are half as bad as we were hearing earlier, we’re going to need an aid package sooner rather than later and delaying on that is going to piss people off.”

Norma and Graham both nodded in agreement. “The problem there is going to be structuring it in a way that doesn’t appear partisan. We have to send the money where it’s needed, even if the optics appear to favor one party over the other,” Norma said.

“Do you think you can keep the radicals in your party in line?” Graham asked the Speaker. “You’ve got some feisty loudmouths over there who tend to not like to cooperate.”

“And you don’t?” Norma shot back, looking angrily at the Senator. “We both have members that would argue over a resolution declaring water as a necessary life source. We have to marshall our key members and run an aid package through that is broad and open as possible.”

“And you know damn good and well my chamber isn’t going to give anyone a blank check,” Graham said sternly. “Like you said, it has to be structured so that the people who need the help get it, not the local politicians looking to score points for the next elections.”

“Or the private contractors looking to make a quick buck off the government,” Norma countered. 

The conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door and Andrew’s secretary slipped her head into the room. “Excuse me, the three of you are needed in the Oval Office immediately.”

As they stood, Andrew asked, “Can we at least agree to try and keep things civil until we have more information about the president’s condition? If this is worse than dehydration or something of that nature, we have a different set of conversations to explore.”

Both leaders nodded their head in agreement as they left the room for the short walk to the Oval Office.

Gasoline-powered generators hummed in the background as the power trio walked through the narrow corridors of the White House. White House staff, still under orders to remain in place, stood and watched the short procession. Even with limited communication, they all had some sense of what was about to happen and the historical significance the moment could potentially have. They also knew that, for some of them, they could soon be without a job, or have to fight to keep it. No one in the West Wing had come to work that morning expecting to witness a transfer of power.

Walking into the Oval Office, the three were only mildly surprised to see Justice Kruegel standing there in her judicial robe, holding a Bible in her left hand. Roger stood behind her several feet to her right. Only the Cabinet members who had been in the White House earlier that morning, Phillip Eagleson, the Secretary of Commerce, and Secretary of the Interior, Jules Robinero, looked on. The group exchanged handshakes and appropriate formal greetings. An anxious nervousness filled the air, waiting.

Finally, certain that all extraneous conversation was done, the Supreme Court Justice looked at Andrew and asked, “Andrew James Abernathy, are you prepared to take the oath of office as the acting President of the United States?”

Andrew nodded and replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

Eliana then looked around the room and asked, “Does anyone here know of any reason why we should not proceed?”

No one answered.

“Fine then,” she continued. “Let me first say that this is a highly unusual circumstance to not have the Chief Justice performing this duty. Without time for further study, I have to present a caveat that what we are about to do here is worthy of discussion by the full court and should the president not return to sufficient health in a timely manner it is one we will most certainly take upon ourselves.” She looked around the room. “You are all witnesses and as such, you may all be culpable if it turns out the actions we are about to take are illegal.”

Feet shuffled uncomfortably and worried glances were exchanged, but no one felt compelled to speak.

Seeing that no one was going to object, Justice Kruegel raised the Bible and instructed, “Place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right hand.”

Andrew complied, wishing that at least his wife could have been present for this moment. As it was, there wasn’t even a photographer in the room.

Eliana cleared her throat and said, “Please repeat after me.
I Andrew James Abernathy,
do solemnly swear
that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,
and will to the best of my Ability,
preserve, protect and defend
the Constitution of the United States.”

Andrew repeated each line, feeling the weight of an incredible burden being placed on his shoulders, a burden he had not necessarily earned and one that could dramatically affect the lives of millions of people not only in the United States but around the world.

As Justice Kruegel finished the oath, she extended her right hand and said, “I would like to be the first to say congratulations, Mr. President, and good luck.”

She stepped back as others in the room stepped forward to shake Andrew’s hand. Eliana still had an unsettled feeling in the pit of her stomach that this was not the right move but for the life of her she couldn’t think of specific overriding case law that would apply and the urgency of the moment would be sufficient excuse for modest indiscretion.

The congratulations continued, though the tone was subdued. No one seemed inclined to make too much of the moment. Roger made sure the necessary papers were signed and prepared to return to the hospital. Norma and Graham both mentioned that they needed to return to the Capitol and notify the respective members of Congress. Likewise, neither Cabinet member felt compelled to stay. The temporal nature of the transition left them somewhat in limbo for the time being. 

No one heard the door open and shut as General Lang quietly entered the room, startling everyone when he spoke. “I guess my invitation was lost in the mail,” he said sternly, looking around the room.

“That would be my fault, General,” Roger said, stepping forward. “I just told Terri to grab whatever Cabinet members were still in the building. The oversight is totally mine.”

Al smiled. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I knew it had to happen, just wasn’t sure when.” The general turned and looked at Andrew, “We do have several matters on which you urgently need to be briefed, though, Mr. President.”

Andrew nodded. “Mr. President,” sounded wonderful yet unfitting at the same time.

Gen. Lang continued. “Would you like to receive that briefing here or in the War Room downstairs?” 

Andrew wasn’t prepared to answer the question. The president’s daily briefing was normally given by the head of National Security, which could happen almost anywhere. For General Lang to suggest the War Room, the highly secure basement location from which the most critical of military and national security decisions were made suggested that more people might be involved. “Let’s use the War Room, General,” Andrew said, trying to sound authoritative but feeling as though he blew it. 

General Lang nodded and said, “If you’ll follow me then, please, sir.” 

Andrew didn’t see who opened the door, he just went through it. General Lang’s build was significantly larger than Andrew’s so seeing past him as they left the Oval Office and wound through the corridors was impossible. Staff members stood and applauded as he passed. He did his best to smile and wave but was feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the whole situation as though he were caught in some strange, surreal dream.

No one heard anything that sounded like a gunshot. No one saw a gun. No one was immediately aware that anything had happened. Andrew appeared to stumble as though the toe of his shoe had gotten caught on a loose piece of carpet. Then he fell. He didn’t get up. Blood began to pool under his body.

A moment passed before anyone realized General Lang was down as well. So was the Secret Service Agent who had been directly behind Andrew. 

There was a faint aroma of gunpowder, then suddenly, a chorus of screams.

Reading time: 50 min
Another Tuesday At Another Coffee Shop

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A Drying Off Period

Natalie and Reesie removed Adam’s soaked shoes and socks. They thought about removing his pants but considered the reaction the man might have should he wake up and find himself in a strange bed nearly naked. Instead, they covered him with a blanket and made sure his head was elevated.

“That’s about all you can do for him now,” Amber told them. “He needs fluids and without any way to administer an IV or Hypodermoclysis we’re rather helpless.” She paused for a moment and considered how little she actually knew about the people in the apartment. “Unless someone happened to have a needle of any kind on them. Even a used needle could work. I can do quick sterilization.”

Reesie and Natalie looked at each other for a second and then Reesie turned and walked into the living room. “Anyone here insulin-dependent diabetic or anything?” she asked.

Conversation stopped as everyone looked at her. For a moment, the only sound was that of rain beating hard against the glass patio doors, then a low murmur consisting of phrases such as, “My sister is but I’m not,” and “I had a roommate in college who had to take shots,” filtered among the group.

Reesie returned to the bedroom and shrugged. “No luck. Even if someone was, they probably wouldn’t have their meds with them. No one brought anything. We’re all here without purses or wallets or IDs … Nothing.”

Darrell had been standing in front of the bedroom window looking forlornly at the never-ending rain, not making a sound so it startled the three women when he spoke up. “How big a needle would it need to be?” he asked.

Natalie looked suspiciously at her boyfriend and asked, “Wait, you’re not using are you?”

“Something between 18 and 22,” Amber said, answering Darrell’s question and trying to avoid a fight at the moment.”

“There might be some people on the third floor who have something,” Darrell said. He could feel Natalie sigh in relief but couldn’t help being upset that her first response was to accuse him of drug use.

“Are any of them home?” Amber asked.

Darrell shrugged. “Probably. I’ve not heard any noise down there, though, so maybe their still asleep or something. I can go check.”

Reesie glanced at Natalie, who was still eyeing Darrell suspiciously, before offering, “I can go with you. I don’t think anyone needs to go knocking on doors alone.”

Amber nodded her approval then added. “I can make anything work,” she said. “We’re going to have to rig our own bag system anyway. Anything you can find will help.”

Darrell nodded then glared briefly at Natalie before walking out of the room. 

“Ease up on that judgment, girl,” Reesie whispered in Natalie’s direction. “He didn’t do anything.” She took off after Darrell, who hadn’t said anything more as he left the apartment.

Natalie and Amber looked at each other. “Any chance you have an old t-shirt I could cut the arms out of?” Amber asked. “I’m starting to feel a little chill here and these nipples become lethal weapons when they’re cold.”

Natalie forced a chuckle and walked over to her dresser, pulling open a drawer stuffed full of t-shirts. She felt a bit guilty for having accused Darrell of using drugs but how else would he have known who in the building had needles? One thing she was sure she couldn’t tolerate was having drugs or druggies in the apartment. She pulled an oversized t-shirt from the drawer and handed it to Amber. “Hold on, I’ve got scissors around here somewhere,” she said.

Amber took the t-shirt and examined it, considered how large a hole she would have to make to get her arms through. “How long have you and Darrell been together?” she asked.

“A couple of years,” Natalie said as she rifled through drawers looking for the scissors she knew were there somewhere. “We were, like, the second tenants in the building.” 

“I knew you guys had been here a while,” Amber said. She found a loose string in the seam holding the sleeve to the t-shirt and began removing the stitching from around the sleeve. “You guys seem to know everyone in the building.”

“Where are those damn scissors,” Natalie fussed, then added, “Yeah, when we first moved here we really expected most the people to be younger, like us, and wanted to make as many friends as we could. We’ve been surprised at how many people with little kids moved in, and then older people on the bottom two floors. They didn’t even have an elevator or anything at first.”

Amber didn’t say anything as she continued pulling at the string on the sleeve.

“Ah, here they are,” Natalie said as she found the scissors and handed them to Amber, who already had most of one sleeve unstitched. “Damn, is there anything you can’t do?”

Amber smiled as she took the scissors and started cutting. “When everyone in your family resents you being alive, you learn to do things for yourself,” she said. “My mom decided when I was 12 that she didn’t want to ‘waste money’ buying clothes for me anymore. So, I learned to take the cast off stuff I found in the trash and or wherever and make it work for me.” She paused to examine the hole she had created and seen how well her arm fit through it before starting on the other side. “Of course, I was growing so fast back then that nothing meant for kids my age came close to fitting. I had to take adult-sized clothes and cut them down.”

Natalie watched entranced as Amber easily removed the seam from the other sleeve and then modified the hole to match the one on the other side. Amber then cut out the ribbing from the neckline then slipped the shirt over her head. What had been oversized for Natalie still only came to Amber’s midriff. 

“You make everything you wear look hot,” Natalie said. She grabbed her own A-cup breasts. “These lazy things don’t give me any help at all. I wear a t-shirt and everyone thinks I’m a boy.”

Amber chuckled. “I remember that feeling. I remember the teasing that comes with it, too. That’s why I got the girls,” she said, lifting the shirt to show her breasts. “They made me feel better about myself but then a whole new set of problems came with them.” Amber sighed and let the t-shirt fall back.  “Guys can’t seem to stop themselves from being jerks no matter what we do.”

Natalie had talked with Amber enough on the stairwells to know that all the things people tended to envy about the tall and attractive young woman had come with a pretty severe price. Amber had told her about the bullying in high school and then the sexism and misogyny she’d had to fight in college.

What Natalie didn’t know was that Amber had grown up in rural Kentucky in a family that considered the law something to be challenged as often as possible. Not only were both her parents drug addicts who regularly stole to support their habits, her grandfather still operated an illegal still and ran moonshine while her grandmother ran a phone scam that defrauded people of hundreds of dollars at a time. Amber’s two older brothers had both landed in the state’s juvenile detention facility by the time they were 14. Her sister, born two years after Amber, had died when the child was only three years old from pneumonia because their parents refused to take the baby to the doctor. Their reasoning was that the doctor would likely turn them in to Child Protective Services who would take both girls away from them.

Watching children’s programming on public television had helped Amber become a bookworm, something the rest of her family considered a waste of time. Her parents chided her for staying in school, never attended a parent-teacher conference of any kind, and made fun of her for getting good grades on her report card. School counselors did what they could to help but the sad fact was that Amber wasn’t the only child in the school who struggled to survive such circumstances. The county was one of the poorest in the country. Drug use among adults was so rampant that even the local grocery store had to close because of all the theft and inability to keep people on the payroll. 

Amber had an intuitive talent when it came to mathematics or anything to do with numbers for that matter. Watching astronaut Sally Ride on television had inspired a love of science as well. Her teachers were amazed at Amber’s ability to resolve complex problems in her head and helped her prepare for, enter, and almost always win the various contests throughout high school. Winning academic contests had not helped the social nor the familial situations, though. Amber was already 6’ 3” by the time she was 14 years old, and she kept growing. Tall, lanky, and flat-chested were enough problems for the teenager. Adding intelligence on top of that, especially when she regularly outscored the boys by several points, only made her more of a target for teasing and emotional abuse. At home, her successes were met with insults, accusations that she was “too upitty” and regular charges that she must have been adopted (from her own mother)  and that all that “book learning” wouldn’t do her any good when she got knocked up.

The efforts of her high school math teacher and the school counselor helped Amber land enough scholarships to attend Purdue University in Indiana, a move that got her not only out of her parents’ sorry excuse for a home but away from the state of Kentucky as well, which pretty much guaranteed that her parents nor any other family member would surprisingly show up without any warning. She hadn’t seen anyone in her family in over ten years and couldn’t care whether any of them were still alive.

College hadn’t been a cakewalk either, though. While Amber had breezed through her undergraduate courses easily enough, she had found more than a little bias not only against her but any woman in several of the science and physics classes. Male students were routinely assigned better and newer equipment, given more assistance from professors, and challenged less often on their hypothesis than were female students. Her own faculty advisor had discouraged her from taking a double major in mathematics and physics and continually reminded her that women in science had more difficulty finding jobs and were far less likely to have their research published in leading journals. 

By this point, though, Amber had grown calloused to the constant criticism. She didn’t care what anyone said or what might have stopped her peers, she was going to succeed for no other reason than because it’s what she deserved. She refused to accept anything else.

Eventually, Amber ended up changing her surname from Cox to O’Conner because of all the porn inferences and moved out of campus housing into her own apartment to avoid the constant harassment. 

Her first non-academic roommate, Liza, had introduced Amber to the thrill of bodybuilding competition. Almost immediately Amber was addicted. Her muscles responded promptly to all the attention and she found that the physical exercise had a positive effect on her mental health and intellectual acuity as well. Her height gave her an immediate advantage over other competitors and adding breast augmentation helped fill out a swimsuit because, as she mentioned more than once, all contest between women have a hint of underlying misogyny to them. By the time Amber completed her master’s degree in physics, she was an immutable force on almost every level and she liked it that way.

Amber and Natalie emerged from the bedroom to find the group had once again divided into conversation groups much as they had at the coffee shop. In fact, Natalie noted, the only the missing was the coffee.

“I guess I should make coffee or something, try to be a tad hospitable,” Natalie said, not actually to anyone.

“I don’t think your coffee maker is going to work without electricity,” Amber reminded her. “Do you have anything in the refrigerator that needs to be consumed before it goes bad.”

Natalie thought a second then replied, “Not really. Most of what’s in there had already gone bad before today.”

Amber chuckled. “How long do you think we have before we start trying to eat each other?”

Unanticipated Opportunities

Walking between the Oval Office and his own typically took Andrew a little less than two minutes and today it seemed to be quicker. He hadn’t been there when the order went out for all White House staffers to stay in their offices while Secret Service looked for the shooter. Still, there was enough noise from the open cubicle system that the vice president barely noticed that the hallway was empty except for Secret Service agents running back and forth.

Andrew had been seven years old in 1981 when he watched Ronald Regan take the oath of office for the first time. He had instantly fallen in love with all the pomp and circumstance and decided then and there that he wanted to be president of the United States one day, the first president from the state of Alabama. He had worked hard, went to the right schools, studied public policy at Harvard, made sure he finished in the top ten percent of his class and even took his goals into consideration when deciding who to date. He had never lost an election. He first ran for state senate, then the US Senate, and when he had decided to run for president three years ago, it initially looked as though he was going to win that one, too.

Then, along came Rudolph Blackstone, a loud, brash, politically incorrect billionaire populist from California with good looks, a questionable reputation, and the ability to say things that scared moderates and liberals alike while igniting the conservative base in a way no one had since Regan. His candidacy went from impossible to front runner in a matter of three months. Andrew never gave up until after the last primary and made sure Blackstone’s team came to him first when looking for a running mate. He knew Rudy had no public policy experience and that the Washington machine would chew him up and have him on the ropes in a matter of weeks without someone who understood how things work inside the beltway. 

Having guided the president through one political landmine after another, Andrew had decided that if he could help this president survive two terms, he would be in a good position to run unopposed within the party. Lately, though, it had started looking questionable as to whether Rudy would make it through his first term in one piece. Not only had multiple agencies and courts opened an investigation into the president’s former business dealings, the president increasingly seemed to have difficulty focusing on conversations more than a few seconds at a time. His hastily scribbled notes to White House staff were too often unintelligible and worst of all, his public rantings on social media not only defied White House policies but became immediate targets for ridicule because of his sloppy grammar and spelling. Andrew hadn’t been the first to question the president’s ability to fulfill his constitutional obligations but over the past few weeks, he had grown increasingly more certain that something needed to be done.

And now this current situation, one where the president’s own babbling may have inadvertently caused a disaster that led to his own physical collapse. The reality as he walked into his office was that Andrew could easily be acting President by the middle of the afternoon, and once there, making sure Rudolph Blackstone never returned to the White House would be easy.

The vice president waited until Norma and Graham had taken seats across from his desk and then said, “Let’s talk about what we can get done in a day, a week, and then 30 days. We don’t yet know what’s going to happen. Let’s plan for the worst … and pray.”

Committing Crimes of Humanity

Darrell was happy to get out of the apartment for a minute, even though he wasn’t especially certain about Reesie tagging along. He had offered Amber, Miranda, and Gwen a place to stay when he first noticed the water was over the curb and creeping into their apartments. They had all turned him down at first. No one could have anticipated how quickly the water would rise, though, and by the time they each came knocking on the apartment door, they were all soaked to the skin. Then, before he could find them each dry clothes, Natalie had shown up with an entire coffee shop full of people! He was feeling overwhelmed by the numbers and attacked by Natalie’s implication that he was using. Any excuse to get out of the apartment for a few minutes was welcome. 

When they reached apartment 304, Darrell knocked gently three times, paused, then knocked again. He knew the code because their apartment was directly below Darrell and Natalie and he had heard that particular knock hundreds of times over the past few months since they had moved into the apartment in the middle of the night. He waited, looked at Reesie and smiled nervously.

“I’m impressed that you know their knock,” Reesie said returning his smile. 

“We hear it several times a day,” Darrell said. “I’m sure Natalie knows it, too.” He waited a few seconds more and then knocked again. “They’re usually up and busy by this time of day,” he added. “Their buyers and dealers typically start dropping by around 3.”

Reesie nodded, looking at the door both nervous and excited.

Darrell knocked once more and waited. When no one answered he looked at Reesie and said, “This doesn’t feel right. There’s always someone here and they always answer that knock.”

“Try the door, see if it’s locked,” Reesie suggested.

Darrell looked at her alarmed. “Are you kidding? What if they have it booby-trapped or something?

Reesie rolled her eyes. The white boy watched too much television. “They wouldn’t do that because not everyone knocks. You know, close friends and family, they’re just going to walk on in. No one’s going to to take the chance of blowing away their own grandpa.”

Darrell considered the common sense of what she said and shrugged in acceptance. He tried the doorknob, fully expecting it to be locked, only to be both frightened and excited when it moved. Carefully, still half expecting a booby-trap, he opened the door and stepped into the dark apartment. The curtains were closed and no lights were on. Even in the shadows, he could see that the apartment was a mess of drug paraphernalia and all the equipment necessary for running a meth lab. Plastic bags full of unmarked pills and powders were stacked across the furniture. Alternating fragrances of ammonia and ether reached their noses quickly, causing them to instinctively raise their t-shirts over half their faces. 

In the center of the room stood an old dinette table from the 1960s, the kind with a laminated top on steel legs that once pulled apart so a long-lost extension piece could be added. The top of the table was filled with unopened cans of portable alcohol-based fuel and glass beakers along with more raw ingredients. The chairs were covered with old clothing. Empty pizza boxes and soda bottles filled the kitchen.  There was no sign of plates or dishes of any kind.

Darrell rifled through the bags on the couch and found one with unopened packages of sterilized needles. “What size did Amber say she needed?” he asked.

Reesie thought for a moment. “Uhm … anything between 18 and 22, I think.”

Darrell looked at the packaging. “These are all 20 and 22,” he said. He took a look at one of the needles and added, “Damn, those holes are fucking big. I guess these get you high in a hurry.”

“They kill you in a hurry is what they do,” Reesie said. She found an empty grocery bag and started filling it with the cans of fuel.

“Wait, why are you taking those?” Darrell asked. 

Reesie rolled her eyes again and looked at him incredulously. “So we can cook? Assuming we can find anything to eat.” She walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. The fragrance of rotted food assaulted her nose. “Damn, that was a truckload of funk,” she said, quickly closing the door. “I’m guessing these folks didn’t make too many trips to the grocery store.”

Darrell looked around for anything else that might be useful. “Pizza guy typically makes three deliveries a day,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they tip him in product. It’s always the same guy.”

Reesie started down the hallway toward the bedrooms. She carefully pushed open the first bedroom door. With the curtains drawn, it was too dark to see what might be in there and Reesie wasn’t feeling all that adventurous. She took a couple of steps toward the master bedroom, which, like Natalie’s, had the benefit of a large window along the outside wall. She pushed open the door and then quickly backed away. “Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!” she exclaimed as she grabbed the bag of fuel and stumbled toward the door. “We’ve got to get the fuck out of here now!

Darrell looked at her curiously. “What? Why? What’s wrong?”

Reesie pointed toward the hallway. “Your neighbors didn’t answer the door because your neighbors are dead and they did not die of natural causes! We need to stop touching stuff and get the fuck out of here. Grab the needles and let’s go.”

The scene in the bedroom was as gruesome as anything from a Quentin Tarantino movie. Three bodies were on the floor. Mattresses were up against the walls. Splattered blood covered everything. The cream-colored carpet was wet with crimson. 

There was no way to tell exactly what had happened. The bodies had been cut and slashed to the point of being unrecognizable. Had they done this to each other? Reesie looked around quickly. No one was holding any kind of blade, there was nothing else on the floor. Her stomach wretched and she closed the door as she backed down the hallway.

“They’re all dead, man,” Reesie said, trying to not throw up. “Someone cut ‘em all into pieces and then took off.”

“Oh shit!” Darrell exclaimed. He started to run down the hallway but Reesie put a hand up to stop him.

“Don’t,” she said. “Every second we’re in here we’re creating more evidence to be used against us. We’ve got to get the fuck out.”

From the hallway, Darrell could see into the bedroom enough to know that he didn’t really want to go any further. Blood made him squeamish. He didn’t like slasher movies and he sure didn’t want to see it in real life. Reesie didn’t need to warn him twice. Darrell reached for the bag of needles and accidentally dumped them onto the floor. He shoved them back in as quickly as he could as Reesie’s mantra of “Oh shit, this is bad,” repeated in an endless loop. Grabbing the bag, he followed Reesie out the door then used his t-shirt to pull the door shut, hoping to at least wipe his fingerprints from that one surface.

They both ran back up the stairs and stopped right outside the door to Darrell’s apartment to catch their breath before going inside. “We need to find a way to tell someone,” Darrell said. “Get the police over here to help.”

“Like hell we do,” Reesie answered. “Cops are going to dust that apartment and then they’re going to start asking some very uncomfortable answers, such as why we needed a bag of needles. Doesn’t matter that we’re tryin’ to help somebody. They will put our asses in jail and throw away the key. Cops don’t mess around when meth is involved.”

Darrell looked down at the bag of needles he was holding. “Yeah, I guess out of context …”

“Man, when it comes to cops there is no such thing as context,” Reesie interrupted. “When they see a meth lab, everyone is presumed guilty. They’ll take you, they’ll take all your shit, they’ll take all your Momma’s shit and call it all ‘evidence’ and you won’t get a bit of it back. We want to be well away from here when they ‘accidentally’ find those bodies.”

Darrell looked over the railing at the rising water below. “Maybe no one will find them,” he said softly.

Reesie had no trouble catching the implication. Dump the bodies in the water. No bodies made it difficult to convict someone. She had a feeling there were going to be a lot of bodies showing up somewhere downstream anyway. No one would know where they “fell” into the water. “We can’t do that now,” she said, “but soon. We should definitely do something soon.”

Darrell nodded as he put his hand on the door to his own apartment and walked inside.

Assessing The Situation

Staff Sargeant Alberto Moralez had woken that morning sure that he had to have the most boring assignment in the Marine Corp. He had signed up seven years ago out of a sense of patriotism after a friend’s brother had died in Afghanistan. He was going to go over there and kick ass. He was going to get revenge.

What Alberto quickly discovered is that the Marine Corp, in fact, the entire United States military, did not exactly work that way. Just because someone wanted to go kill people and break things didn’t mean they would get to. His ASVAB scores showed he was good at math and skills that required long-term thought, not so much at quick response skills and thinking on his feet. Boot camp had proven that to be true and by the time he graduated from Parris Island he had been saddled with a MOS (military occupation specialty code) that largely guaranteed he would spend his career pushing papers and attending meetings. “This is a critical aspect of keeping the Corp working and ready,” he was told. This morning, he wasn’t buying that argument.

Perhaps it had been those final three shots of Jack Daniels last night that had him in such a sour mood this morning. Perhaps it was the fifteen shots that had come before those last three. Alberto’s head was pounding as he dressed, checking the full-length mirror a dozen times to make sure that his gray camouflage uniform was perfect before leaving his room. A responsibility of his rank was to lead by example, something he questioned on mornings like this one. He noticed a button was loose and made a mental note to fix it later. He placed a couple of drops of over-the-counter medication into his eyes and blinked hard. Having bloodshot eyes and being hungover wasn’t technically against regulation, but it certainly wouldn’t help any.

“At least it’s only Tuesday,” he thought as he shut the door behind him. The paperwork load wasn’t too heavy on Tuesdays.

Now, as he stood overlooking the massive crater where the bunker had once been, he was thinking that perhaps the paperwork wasn’t so bad after all. By quick count, another 14 Marines had fallen into the pit with the last cave-in. Both Col. Brinkman and Lt. Col. Hawkins were still down there, somewhere. He had no way of knowing whether either of them was still alive. The combination of smoke and dust rising up from the crevice was too thick for him to get a good view of how severe the damage actually was but he knew the entire situation was critical.

The bunker itself, a series of underground labs whose purpose was something well above the staff sergeant’s paygrade, was honeycombed across the valley, connected by massive corridors large enough for two humvees to pass. The Marine station here was technically for protective purposes only, but Staff Sgt. Moralez knew there was more to it than that. Military intelligence personnel was constantly coming and going, attending top-secret meetings whose minutes were locked tightly away in the room directly behind his office. Every person in that bunker, he had been told, held a special skill critical to the national security of the United States. 

The bomb had struck the most central part of the bunker, threatening the structural integrity of the entire system. Moving in heavy rescue equipment would magnify that risk. The staff sergeant looked around, wondering who was left in charge. He needed a quick engineering assessment, a structural assessment, to know how to continue. There were almost certainly survivors down there in all that mess. The question was how to get to them without putting more people at risk. 

Alberto scratched his head and carefully backed away from the opening. His head was pounding more than ever but not from last night’s alcohol. There had to be an officer around here somewhere. They would be responsible for the rescue, not him. He just needed to find that person. 

Reflections In A Disaster

Amber’s ingenuity showed as she rigged a makeshift IV and started Adam on a saline drip using modified bottled water and tubing from the refrigerator’s ice maker. Adam’s blood pressure was extremely low and another blanket was added in an attempt to raise his body temperature. No one felt confident that Adam would survive. In fact, had an anonymous poll been taken at the outset, most of the group would have left him at the coffee shop on the assumption that even before traveling in the rain his chances for survival were too low. Amber and Reesie were committed to saving him, though, and weren’t going to let anyone convince them to take any different course of action. 

Similarly, the older woman who had sat at the back table of the coffee shop and rode over on the table with Adam was slowly recovering with the aid of her granddaughter and the young woman who, everyone was just learning, was the grandaughter’s roommate. They had names, of course, even though no one had bothered to ask what they were. The trio was huddled in a corner of the living room, trying to stay dry and alive. 

The grandmother’s name was Hannah Kamaleski, a first-generation immigrant from Poland who had fled Soviet occupation following World War II along with her boyfriend, Alfred, who would later become her husband. They had raised four children, including her daughter, Rose, who was swept away when Reggie fell into the water. All her life she had been a small woman who no one expected to do much but she had always been strong. That strength was what kept her going now. She had no intention of giving up. 

Gloria Banning was Hannah’s youngest grandchild, the last of 16, and Rose’s only child. Gloria was a musical theater major at the state university and had brought her roommate, Toma, with her to tell her mom and grandmother that she had been accepted as an intern with the Broadhollow Theater Company in East Islip, New York. She was looking forward to graduating and pursuing her dreams despite the fact that her father, Gary, whom her mother had divorced when Gloria was only eight years old, had told her that she was being impractical and unreasonable. Rose had always been Gloria’s champion, a constant source of encouragement. She had been thrilled with the news.

Gloria’s roommate, Toma Pritchet was so quiet and so rarely spoke that many people assumed she was either an immigrant or the child of immigrants who spoke little English. Neither was true and Toma’s English was just fine. The reality was she was a fourth-generation New Jersey native with three very loud and very successful brothers. With all their noise and activity, Toma had found it much easier to stay quiet and lurk in the shadows. She got away with much more than her brothers could, including smoking marijuana and having sex in her bedroom, simply because no one in her family bothered to pay attention. Leaving New Jersey to study engineering was her way of escaping that ruckus, but on campus, she quickly discovered that those same quiet skills she used as a teenager helped her quietly navigate the male-dominated field, moving to the top of the class with hardly anyone other than Gloria and her advisor noticing. Falling in love with Gloria was not something she had expected and had they known her family would have been furious. Rose, on the other hand, had been accepting as was happy to, in her words, have a second daughter to love. 

The shock of the experience from the coffee shop to the apartment had taken a toll on everyone and once the initial activity of getting everyone dry clothes had been resolved for everyone except Barry, they settled into a quiet lull. There was a unifying sense of loss and grief. Even those who didn’t know Reggie, Rose, or Marti felt as though they’d lost a family member. Without the distraction of immediate survival, that pain grew stronger. Sobs were the most common sound punctuating the silence. No one spoke for several minutes. There was nothing any of them wanted to say.

A pallid gray light was all that came through the glass balcony doors. As the storm waxed and waned in intensity, so did the amount of light with shadows at the far ends of the room so deep that it might as well have been night. The steady white noise of the rain punctuated occasionally by distant thunder held everyone in a trance that encouraged depression as their thoughts of loss moved from not only those who had died but also the other ways their lives had changed over the past three hours. 

Reesie had lost her business and everything for which she had worked so hard and had no idea whether Timora and Ravi were safe. 

Without being there, Barry knew that his house had to be flooded. All his computers, his notes, his books, everything he needed to make a living was almost certainly ruined and there was no insurance or savings to replace them. 

Amanda couldn’t stop worrying about her children. She knew that by now they would be scared, wanting Mommy and Daddy, the inability to contact anyone making the trauma worse. 

For Carson, sitting alone in a darkening shadow wearing clothes that weren’t his and didn’t fit was the perfect metaphor for burning trash heap his life had become after losing his job, his car, and quite possibly his marriage.

Natalie had never imagined feeling so alone in her own apartment. Even as she sat on the floor huddled next to Darrell, he felt to her more like a piece of furniture than a person. Her confidence in herself and the world was gone.

Darrell wasn’t feeling much different. How he viewed himself, Natalie, their relationship with each other, and the safety of their existence in this neighborhood had all turned negative with little hope of anything changing.

Miranda and Gwen huddled together on the floor in front of the counter separating the kitchen and living room. Until this morning, they knew each other only in the context of living on the ground floor in the same apartment building. They had both lost everything in those apartments. Each other was the only thing left that was slightly familiar.

Amber stood to the side of the patio doors, staring out into the rain, occasionally adjusting the tights that were about ten sizes too small for her. She would have much preferred to be naked but she had seen the way Carson looked at her and could feel how uncomfortable her nudity made Amanda. She decided she would rather deal with her own discomfort than heap onto the problems everyone else was experiencing. 

The loss of everything in her apartment wasn’t affecting Amber in the same way it was others. She had lost everything and started over so many times in her life that this almost felt like part of a routine. She knew that when the water eventually receded that she would walk away, start over somewhere else, replace what she could and not worry about what was lost. What wasn’t replaceable wasn’t important. There were no baby pictures or family albums. There were no mementos with emotional value. No trinkets sat on her shelves, no concert tickets were crammed in a scrapbook, nothing to tie her to anything in the past existed. She could walk away at any time and pick right back up in another place. 

Amber knew there was something different about this disaster, though. She could tell the difference between the sound of thunder and a distant explosion and she knew there was more of the latter than anyone suspected. Her instincts told her that something disruptive on a universal level had happened with that phone call this morning. She had dropped her phone and fell backward onto the floor at the sound of the disruptive tone. While she couldn’t know all the details of what happened next, she knew that the entire world had changed this morning and adapting this time would not be as easy as it had been before. 

Lightning flashed just outside the glass and the resulting crash of thunder startled everyone from their internalized suffering for a moment. For everyone else, the sight of Amber’s tall frame at the doors was comforting—she was like the sentry protecting them from any further harm. Amber saw something else, though, a shadow lurking in the water below. She was certain it was Djali. He was still hanging around, still waiting to collect the soul of whoever might die next. She knew he wouldn’t care if it was one of them or someone else in the building. His continued presence meant that death, for someone, was imminent and there was likely nothing she could do to stop it.

Only Reesie recognized the slight change in expression on Amber’s face. She stood up and walked over to the patio door, putting her arm around the woman she barely knew, getting close enough that she could whisper without alarming the others. “He’s still out there, isn’t he?”

Amber nodded. “You feel it, too, don’t you?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Reesie sighed. “You don’t grow up in New Orleans not recognizing that feeling. I knew when he came into the coffee shop something was wrong. I didn’t know he was Di Inferni, though. I missed that.”

“We’ll have to keep a close watch on everyone, not just Adam and Hannah,” Amber said. “There’s something here that I’ve not felt before and it’s not a good feeling.”

The two stood together in silence for a moment before Reesie responded, “Adam’s not the most vulnerable among us, is he?”

Amber shook her head slightly, aware that there was always someone watching. “Neither is Hannah. They’re both strong. They were fighting when they got here and they’re not going to stop. If he was able to do anything to them he would have done it before you all got here. Demons like Djali tend to not like spectators. They do their job and disappear.”

Reesie waited a minute before asking the uncomfortable question that had been sitting in the back of her mind since they had arrived at the apartment. “So, you’ve encountered this guy, Djali, before?”

Amber grimaced. She knew this question was inevitable. Had the sight of the demon not caught her by surprise earlier she would have dealt with him privately as she had before. Her public confrontation opened her to questions she would likely have to answer more than once. “Yeah, we have a history,” Amber said. “He tended to follow my dad and brothers around quite a bit when I was a kid. They made his job easy and Djali is one of the laziest demons in the universe. Other members of Di Inferni would come through on occasion all aggressive and brutal but not Djali. He’s perfectly willing to sit back and wait, let nature and circumstances make it easy.”

“So, he’s more of a precursor to trouble and not the cause of it?” Reesie asked.

“Sort of,” Amber said quietly. “Think of him more like a place marker. When he shows up trouble has already started and is heading down a path that can’t be stopped. His presence also sends out a message to others like him that there is a situation to exploit. Djali is content to take the low hanging fruit, so to speak, but he attracts others who compound matters, makes a bad situation worse, increases the body count.”

Reesie shuddered at the thought. This could mean they were all sitting ducks like victims in a horror movie.

“How many bodies did you find downstairs?” Amber asked.

Reesie looked up with a startled expression on her face, one that Darrell noticed. “How did you know about that? Did Darrell say something?”

Amber was careful to not change her expression as she replied. “There are still hints of blood on your feet,” she said softly, fully aware that Darrell was trying to listen in on their conversation. “That Djali couldn’t claim them and leave means they’ve been dead a while. One of his colleagues was probably here when whatever it was happened.”

Reesie looked through the rain-splattered glass of the patio door at the water-filled streets below. The whole scene felt surreal, as though they were living in a different world on a different planet. For the first time in many years, Reesie wished she could call her mom. 

Preserving The State Of The Union

Roger collapsed into his office chair and buried his face in his hands. This couldn’t be happening. The president collapsing put everything else in the White House on hold. No one could do anything until the doctor made a diagnosis and, if necessary, Andrew was sworn in as temporary president. When that happened, everything would change. For the moment, though, all the other trouble he had faced today was back burnered.

By his estimation, Roger figured he had two minutes to gather everything he needed for the ride to the hospital. In addition to a Statement of Presidential Incapacitation that the doctor would need to sign, there were also a half-dozen other forms necessary. One gave the hospital staff permission to treat the president. Another authorized Secret Service to take over hospital security. A third allowed for a search of the entire hospital as well as background checks on anyone who might touch the president for any reason. Not that they could actually perform the background checks at the moment, but the instant it was possible they would have to be done. Hospitals made it too easy for someone to potentially sabotage the president.

Roger also knew that a critical conversation was taking place in Andrew’s office. If there was going to be a transition of power, even temporarily, the vice president needed the cooperation of the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. As much as anything, Andrew needed Graham’s support if the president was going to be out of service more than a few hours. The government doesn’t stop no matter how complicated the disaster might be. Matters of finance, trade, and foreign relations would be especially important over the next several hours. 

“Come on in, Terri,” Roger responded to the knock on the door. He waited only until she was half-way through the door before continuing. “Tell them that the president wasn’t feeling well so he was transferred to the hospital as a precaution. When they ask about a transfer of power tell them that the need for such has yet to be determined but if it is they’ll be the first to know.”

Terri nodded and ducked back out the door.

They both knew the last bit was a complete lie. In truth, there would be several people who knew and who would sign papers before the press was informed of any change. Andrew would have already been legally sworn in but they would put on a repeat performance for the cameras so that no one could charge them with any sort of subterfuge. 

Roger looked at the dead cell phone sitting on his desk and dropped it into the inside pocket of his suit coat. “Who knows,” he reasoned, “they might accidentally come back online. The way this day is going, nothing is going to surprise me.”

A second knock on the door was a Secret Service agent who handed Roger a folder containing all the necessary forms and then escorted him to the black SUV waiting to take him to the hospital. Leaving the White House at this moment bothered him. Sure, technically, Andrew was in charge and could handle any major issues that came up, but the daily operations of keeping the whole mess going were not something Andrew nor his chief of staff fully understood. He settled into the back seat of the SUV flanked by members of the president’s security detail who hadn’t been able to ride in the ambulance. Roger wondered if the hospital was ready for what was about to hit them.

Nothing about this day was going as planned. That phone call was to have been little more than a publicity stunt and a warning to international adversaries that the United States could get a message out to the entire world all at once. After that, the president should have had a meeting with Norman to go over the strategy for pushing his budget through the Senate and then a number of brief meetings and photo ops with people who had donated to the re-election campaign in order to get their cause or issue in front of the president for five minutes. 

None of that had happened, of course. The phone call had set up an international disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Roger still didn’t have any good idea of the severity of the crisis. He knew several thousand had already died, that the nation’s largest cities were in complete chaos, and that there was no reliable estimate for when even part of the nation’s electric grid might come back online. At the moment, the nation was running on generators and sooner or later those were going to run out of gas. When they did, this impossible disaster would get even worse.

Sitting stoically between the two agents, Roger wondered if there could actually be any recovery from a disaster that was so thoroughly devastating. The great experiment that was the United States was now and always had been an extremely fragile thing. Issues that had plagued the country from the very beginning, matters like the states’ autonomy and power versus the overarching authority of the federal government, had never been sufficiently resolved. Ever since Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Governors of Southern states had quietly plotted, looking for any chance of legally seceding and starting a separate country. As ideological divisions had widened, there was a growing caucus in the North that would happily allow such a secession to happen—good riddance to bad trash, so to speak. At the same time, both the Chinese and the Russians had been actively using various methods of subversion in an attempt to quietly overthrow the government, or at least weaken it to the point where a substantial part of the American population would support a significant regime change. That was in addition to the continuing problems of poverty and hunger plaguing inner cities and rural areas of the country alike. The state of the Union was not good before today. Now, a disaster of this size could easily cause the whole thing to collapse. One wrong move on any number of issues was all it could take. Every step, every decision was critical.

Easing The Hunger

Amanda couldn’t help hearing the rumbling of Barry’s stomach growing more frequent as time passed. She had decided when she first met him that his size was not an issue. He had an excellent reputation as an app designer and that was all that mattered. Over the course of the morning, he had proven to be compassionate and soft-hearted as well which enhanced how she thought of him. Barry was a nice guy and none of his physical issues distracted from that.

She knew he had to be hungry, however. 

Getting up from her spot on the makeshift couch, Amanda walked across the room and sat down on the floor next to Natalie and Darrell. Leaning in close, she said, “Look, uhm, I know you guys couldn’t have been expecting this many people just showing up and camping out at your apartment. I’m sorry for all the inconvenience.”

Natalie smiled. “It was the solution that made the most sense. I love having everyone, I’m just embarrassed that we don’t have anything to drink or anything. I can’t even make coffee.”

Amanda reached out and took Natalie’s hand in the way inherent to mothers comforting children. “Don’t worry about it. I saw they brought cans of fuel back. If you have some noodles or something I can probably fix something that would feed everyone.”

Natalie thought a minute. “I know I have a couple of boxes of spaghetti in the cupboard and probably a jar of marinara though I don’t know how old it is. We neither one really like cooking so all we have is some quick stuff. Like, I think there’s a packet of stir fry veggies and rice in the freezer but it’s an individual serving so I don’t know how that helps any.”

“That’s perfect,” Amanda said. “Mind if I snoop around your kitchen and maybe make something?”

Natalie stood up and offered Amanda a hand, “Sure! Maybe I’ll learn something!”

Amanda took Natalie’s hand and laughed. “If nothing else, at least its a distraction.”

The two women went into the kitchen area and started looking for what they would need. Natalie found the spaghetti and then checked the label on the marinara to make sure it hadn’t expired. Fortunately, it was still good. 

Amanda rummaged around and found a pot of suitable size. She turned on the tap, thankful that it was still working. That action brought the attention of others, though.

“Do you think that water is safe?” Carson asked, suddenly interested in what was going on.

“I don’t see why not,” Amanda said. “We’re going to boil it for a while, anyway, so any lingering impurities should be eliminated.”

“How are you going to do that if you can’t use the stove?” Carson continued pressing, his voice sounding rather indignant.

“We have canned fuel,” Amanda responded, keeping the same cheerful tone despite Carson’s grumpiness. It occurred to her that there were times when adults had to be treated like small children in need of a nap.

That response got Reesie’s attention. She hadn’t really paid any attention to exactly what she had put in the bag. She knew there were different labels on some of the cans but hadn’t taken the time to examine any of them. She walked over to the counter and started taking the cans out of the bag, separating them according to their purpose: some for chaffing and warming, others for cooking, and still others for heating. She didn’t think they would have an immediate need for the latter group and set them off to the side. “How many do you need?” Reesie asked.

Amanda looked at the fuel and then at the pot full of water and realized she had a problem. “Well, I should only need one, but I need a grate of some kind between the fire and the pot.”

The three women looked around, not sure what could possibly work without burning or melting. Natalie reached to the very back of a cabinet and pulled out a couple of wire cooling racks. “Think these would work?” she asked, holding them up. “My mother gave them to me and I have absolutely no idea what they’re even for.”

Amanda laughed and took the racks from Natalie. “They should be fine, dear. They’re cooling racks for cakes and cookies and things like that. They should be just about the right height, too.” She placed a rack over one of the cans of fuel the removed the fuel to see how to light it. “Anyone have a match or something that can start a fire?”

Darrell jumped up from his spot on the floor. “Hold on, I’m pretty sure those cans are self-igniting.” He examined the can to make sure then popped off the lid. As soon as the fuel came into contact with oxygen, a clean blue flame sprung up in the center of the can. He sat it down on the counter and placed the rack over the top. “There you go,” he said.

Amanda placed the pot on the rack and, as though by instinct, everyone gathered around as though this was their first time seeing a fire. Everyone, that is except Barry who stayed seated on the in the one chair that he knew was safe for someone of his weight. 

As the chatter in the kitchen came to life, no one noticed as Gwen slipped out the front door. She hadn’t said much all morning and even Miranda didn’t think anything about her new friend not being in the kitchen. 

Natalie leaned back against the counter. This felt a little bit more like the kind of entertaining she was accustomed to hosting. She enjoyed having the company as long as everyone was happy and comfortable.

Amanda was enjoying the distraction of being able to cook. As long as she was busy in the kitchen her mind wasn’t constantly on her kids, though references to them peppered her conversation more than she realized. 

Berry didn’t mind not being part of the group in the kitchen, either. The apartment was small anyway and the kitchen was already crowded without adding him to the mix. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be social but more that he enjoyed having the living room to himself for a minute. He wasn’t accustomed to so much public interaction. A little bit of space and relative quiet went a long way toward calming his nerves.

Amber kept her post by the patio door, looking over at the kitchen occasionally and smiling. She realized that this was already a life-changing event for everyone involved. One didn’t have to be a genius to see how circumstances were already bringing the group together. She watched Barry for a moment, slightly concerned that he hadn’t left his chair but the expression on his face convinced her that he was comfortable and content. 

As the water in the pot began to boil, Amanda took the box of frozen stir fry and added it to the pot. They all watched as the temperature of the water dropped and Amanda wondered if anyone other than Hannah had ever cooked before. The conversation picked back up as everyone recounted memories of a favorite meal or having watched a parent cook when they were little. This pattern repeated itself when Amanda added the spaghetti to the mix. Everyone had a story about noodles, whether it was a matter of taste or the humor of them occasionally being messy. Natalie dug around in her cabinets and came up with a colander she had perhaps used once and had it ready in the sink when the spaghetti reached the proper stage of al dente. Amanda handed the colander to Natalie with the instruction to keep the noodles moving so they wouldn’t stick together.

Heating the marina sauce took very little time by comparison but unleashed an aroma in the apartment that soon enough had everyone’s stomach rumbling. Only Amanda, Hannah, and Reesie had bothered with breakfast that morning. While no one had given much thought to the matter during the trip from the coffee shop, they realized now how hungry they all were and their mouths instinctively began to salivate with anticipation.

Darrell, following Natalie’s instructions, found a bowl large enough to hold the food. Gloria and Toma pulled plates and utensils out and wiped them all down. Amanda poured the marinara into the bowl and then added the noodles and vegetables and stirred them all together. Everyone was eagerly anticipating the meal when they were suddenly distracted by the front door opening and shutting forcefully.

There stood Gwen, once again totally soaked head to foot, attempting to carry a full-grown German shepherd that likely weighed as much as she did. All eyes turned and jaws dropped. 

“I saw him trying to swim in the street,” Gwen explained. “I called to him and he came right over. I think his home’s flooded and he doesn’t know where to go. I couldn’t leave him out there to drown.”

Darrell grabbed one of the discarded towels and rushed over to take the dog from her. He dried the animal as best he could, being careful to clean its paws and making sure its snout was unobstructed before letting it loose on the carpet. The dog took a few cautious steps into the living room, looked curiously in the direction of the kitchen, then saw Amber standing by the patio window. He ran over and put his front paws up on her.

“Hi there, big guy,” she said in the same voice that one uses to talk to infants. “Have we met before?”

The dog gave a loud, sharp bark then ran back over the Gwen and barked again.

Amber looked curiously at the small, wet young woman who was still standing in the doorway, shivering. She looked around and found a couple more towels and took them to her. Gwen was nearly two feet shorter than Amber prompting the taller woman to drop to her knees as she might with a child. Amber wrapped one of the towels around Gwen’s shoulders and placed the other on the girl’s head. “Sweetheart, why on earth were you outside in this mess?” The instant the words came out of her mouth she realized she sounded like a mother scolding a young child.

Gwen leaned in close so only Amber could hear. “I needed to pee,” she said. “I don’t like dark bathrooms.”

Amber smiled and used the towel to help dry Gwen’s long blond hair. “I totally get that,” she whispered back.

The dog barked again and used his snout to push Amber’s arm down, toward Gwen’s abdomen, insisting that she place her hand on the girl’s stomach.

Amber’s expression changed to one of concern. “Gwen, are you feeling okay?” she asked. “This dog seems very concerned about your stomach for some reason.”

Gwen shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been having some mild cramps but I figure it’s just because I’m a couple of days late. Not really a big deal.”

Amber rocked back on her heels a bit. She was in full scientific examination mode now. “What else? Think over the past two weeks or so. How have you been sleeping?”

“Okay, I guess,” Gwen said, her voice uncertain. “I mean, I’m not having bad dreams or anything. I just never seem to get enough sleep. I’m always tired.”

Amber looked toward the kitchen and Hannah worked her way past the others to come over and join the conversation. She studied Gwen’s eyes for a moment then asked, “Have your breast been aching a little, dear?”

Amanda and Reesie both tried unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle.

Gwen looked surprised. “Yeah, how did you know?”

Hannah straightened all the way up which made her just a couple of inches taller than Gwen. “You’re pregnant, dear.”

Everyone in the room gasped, including Gwen. The dog gave another sharp bark and wagged its tail.

“Wait!” Natalie exclaimed. “I have a pregnancy test!” She ran over and took Gwen by the hand. The young woman resisted, shaking her head. 

“No, I can’t go in the dark,” Gwen said, her voice trembling.

Natalie looked around for a moment and grabbed one of the cans of fuel marked for chafing. She popped it open and then took Gwen’s hand again. “Don’t worry,” she said softly. “I’ll light every damn one of these if I have to.”

“I thought it had to be the first pee of the morning to be accurate,” Miranda said, somewhat confused.
“Those are the cheap ones,” Amber explained. “It doesn’t really matter with the newer ones. They pick up the presence of the enzyme rather accurately.”

Hanna shrugged. “I don’t think you need the test. The dog and I don’t lie.”

A chuckle wafted across the room.

Natalie and Amber went into the bathroom with Gwen while the others waited in anticipation, totally forgetting that the food was getting cold. A few minutes felt like an eternity, but the women emerged from the bathroom smiling.

“We’re having a baby!” Natalie announced. 

Everyone in the room cheered. The dog barked. Gwen felt happy, though totally overwhelmed. They all were feeling positive and cheerful as they filled their plates and began to eat. 

Reading time: 52 min
Not The Average Tuesday

Note: If you’ve not been keeping up with our story, you’ll want to start here. Also, I’m eliminating the use of photos between chapters/sections as finding imagery remotely relative is a time drain. I’ll just use separators from here on out.

For Fear of a Dull Moment

Rudy Blackstone paced in the living area of the residence on the third floor of the White House. Being without his staff or any other form of communication was driving him nuts. He was accustomed to there always being people at his beck and call. The expanded security detail meant there were plenty of people in the residence but none of them could tell him what was going on or how soon the problem was going to be fixed.

The president started walking toward a window and quickly a Secret Service agent blocked his way. “What the fuck, I can’t even look out the window now?” he asked angrily.

“I’m afraid not, sir,” the agent responded, his voice absent of any emotion.

Rudy growled. “I thought those windows were supposed to be bulletproof,” he said.

The agent broadened his stance. “It isn’t bullets we’re worried about at the moment,” he said. “Until we’ve identified and eliminated the threat, Mr. President, we’re taking no chances of any kind.”

The president stomped back toward the kitchen area. “Goddammit,” he mumbled under his breath. “What good is it to be president if you can’t even leave the residence?” He sat down at the small kitchen table and said, “Can someone at least get me a diet soda from the fridge? Can I have that? Can I have a diet soda?”

The other Secret Service agents looked at each other, fighting the urge to roll their eyes. One of them reached into the sparse refrigerator and pulled out a can of the president’s favorite diet soda. There wasn’t much else in the unit, just some of the president’s frequent snacks. All the real food was kept downstairs in the main kitchen. The agent took a clean glass from the cabinet and poured the contents of the can into the glass before handing it to the president.

“Thanks,” Rudy said condescendingly. “At least I don’t have to do everything for myself.”

A fourth agent appeared and whispered something into the ear of the agent who had served the president the soda. The agent nodded and then turned to the president. “Sir, General Lang is here to brief you on the situation.”

Rudy gulped down the soda and stood up. “Good, maybe we can finally get some answers.”

As General Lang entered the room, the president shook his hand and slapped him on the back of the shoulder, a move the general did not appreciate. He was not here to be the president’s best friend or fishing buddy. The matter was serious.

“So, Al, tell me what’s going on out there. We’ve got a handle on this, right?” the president asked.

General Lang summoned his most serious expression, the one that frightened the hell out of even his closest advisors. “No sir, we don’t even know what ‘this” is yet. What we do know is that the entire country has been attacked and some of our NATO allies as well.”

The president put his hands into his pants pockets and looked at the floor. “So, what you’re telling me is that we’re fucked.”

“For the moment, yes, sir,” Lang said. “That would seem to be the case.”

Rudy paused. “We need to find someone we can bomb.”

General Lang carefully considered his next words, knowing that even in the residence conversations with the president were typically recorded. “I assume you mean we need someone to blame.”

“Blame, bomb, same thing,” the president said. “We have a disaster on our hands, probably the biggest disaster in the history of the country, and we can’t let the American people blame this administration. We need to find who’s responsible, or pin the blame on someone, and bomb them back to the stone age. We need someone we can villanize.”

His words made the general uncomfortable. “Yes sir, we’re looking at the most obvious sources right now and seeing who can be ruled out. Russia, China, North Korea …”

“Yeah, forget those,” Rudy said interrupting. “Even if they did do something, I don’t make any ground by going to war with them. We need someone we can put in their place, someone Americans won’t get all butt hurt if we kill a few thousand people.”

“I think the American people are going to care even if a few hundred people are killed,” Land said, wondering if he should leave now before he could potentially be incriminated in an international war crime.

The president started pacing. “Not if we frame them as bad people. Besides, it doesn’t matter if some of the American people get upset, we just have to placate the people who matter.”

Al turned his head to the side, not quite sure if he was understanding all the president seemed to imply. “Sir, you have re-election coming up next year. Don’t you need to stay on the good side of as many voters as possible?”

“Al, you’re a good guy,” the president said, chuckling in a way that tended to be both condescending and unsettling. “You know all about fighting wars with guns and tanks and stuff but I know how elections work and the thing is, the majority doesn’t actually rule anything in America. As long as we have that precious electoral college, all that matters is that we win seven key states. That’s all it takes. Seven out of 50. What’s that leave, 42?”

“43,” the general corrected.

“Whatever,” the president said, waving a hand dismissively. “What I’m saying is that worrying about polls or elections is a waste of time. Focus on the people who matter. 51 votes in the Senate, 218 in the House, five in the Supreme Court. Control the votes of those people and you control the entire country. And you know what, Al? I control those votes. I’ve got ‘em locked up tight and every last one of ‘em is going to vote exactly the way I tell them to vote.”

The general shifted his weight uncomfortably. What he was seeing at this moment was either a person who was either incredibly insane with delusions of power or viciously conniving and evil. He wondered for a moment if the president could be a bit of both, and which might win out over the coming hours.

The president continued. “You know, Al, since we’re under martial law I’m wondering if we need to suspend that habeas corpus thing. Might be a good opportunity to round up some of those fake news people while the courts aren’t able to do anything about it.”

Al knew he was in dangerous territory now. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to hear what the president might say next. He shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “Mr. President, you could face some serious repercussions once everything is back up and working again if you do that,” Al said. “The federal courts would have a field day …”

The president took a long drink from his diet soda while the general was talking, licked the residue off his lips and then interrupted. “Who said the courts are going to be back up and working again, ever?” Rudy said. “I mean, we don’t know how long this might carry on, this national emergency we have in front of us here. We’ll have to make sure everything is back up and working in the entire country before we release martial law and that might take some time.”

General Lang took a quick read of the room. He knew the Secret Service agents in attendance were under orders to not repeat anything they heard while in service to the president. They were one of the few groups protected from a court or congressional subpoena. No matter what the president might say or do that was later ruled illegal, they could not be forced to testify against him. Neither were they allowed voicing their opinions on any issue the president might address, even if he asked them directly as to what they thought. Yet, he could tell from the way they shifted their weight, glanced quickly back and forth at each other, and winced when they thought the president wasn’t working, that many of them were as uncomfortable with what the president was saying as he was. Finally, Al said, “Mr. President, Congress is going to reconvene the instant their backup generators bring the majority of the building back online. They’re going to demand a say in what happens and they’re not likely to allow martial law or habeas corpus to continue once the majority of the country has power and communications. Extending this martial law beyond a few days would be seen as a dissolution of the government or at least an attempt to that end.”

Rudy looked at the general and smiled, then took a few steps toward the nearest window. Again, a Secret Service agent blocked his way. “Damnit, Al, can you do something about these window restrictions? All I want to do is see what’s going on outside.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. President,” the general said. “We’ve not yet ruled out the possibility that we are under attack. Those window panes might stop a bullet but they won’t stop a sidewinder missile and, quite honestly, with communications down, you’re almost a sitting duck up here. Personally, I wouldn’t mind moving you and your family to a more secure underground facility, or at least the basement of the White House. For the time being, windows are a high-risk area.”

The president walked a few steps away from the direct path of the window and sat in a soft chair, a replica of a Louis XIV design, crossed his legs, rested his elbow on his knee and his chin on his fist, looking blankly off into space. He did not like being told no. He did not like not being able to see out the window. Rudy was beginning to feel claustrophobic up here in the residence, despite the size of the space. He drank the remaining soda in the can and then held it out, waiting for someone to take the can from him. A Secret Service agent walked over and took the can then disposed of it in a container marked for recycling.

“If that is all, Mr. President, I need to see what progress is being made downstairs and at the Pentagon. We’re trying to at least get landline communications back up as quickly as possible,” General Lang said.

Rudy nodded. “Sure. Get me a phone up here as soon as …” The president paused. His right leg fell to the side. His elbow slipped off his knee. His vision blurred. Lang caught him as he began to fall from the chair. Instantly, four Secret Service agents were at his side.

“Protocol 174-A,” said the agent in charge. Two other agents immediately ran out of the residence.

“What’s protocol 174-A?” the general asked.

“The president’s down, condition unknown, medical help needed ASAP,” the agent said. “General, if you don’t mind stepping back and let us do our job,” he added.

Al stood up and took a couple of steps back, watching in disbelief as the agent checked the president for a pulse.

“Eagle’s still alive,” the agent said. “Protocol 253.” Three more agents went running from the room. The agent looked up at the general and explained. “Notifications have to be made to the Chief of Staff, the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”

Al nodded. His mind felt flooded by at least a million different thoughts. Had the president somehow been physically affected by this morning’s call? If so, could other people in the building be at risk as well? At the very least, a temporary transition of power seemed imminent and necessary. It would take six minutes for an agent to deliver the message to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where the Vice President and his staff were located. At least 11 minutes would pass before anyone could get through the crowd to the Speaker’s office. The Court was not scheduled to hear arguments today so there was no certainty that the Chief Justice was even in town, much less at his office.

The room was suddenly buzzing with activity. Al stepped further back, watching as the First Lady rushed to her husband’s side and was then gently pulled back by the Secret Service agents. He knew that the White House physician was located within the building, but with everything else going on critical minutes were passing. Al would have given almost anything for his cell phone to be working right now. He removed it from the inside breast pocket of his uniform coat and stared at the screen. Nothing. Dead.

Trapped With A Traitor

Perry rushed forward and barely caught Holly before she hit the floor. A trickle of blood ran from the right corner of her mouth. He picked her up in his arms and carried her to the nearest Marine. “Get her out of here and find a medic as quickly as possible,” he ordered.

The Marine nodded, took Holly and trotted off across the debris to the staging area they had set up. Wire mesh baskets typically used for helicopter rescues were already set up and waiting. Holly was laid in the nearest one, covered with a blanket, then lifted up through the hole in the bunker.

Anger flushed across Perry’s face as he turned back to the remaining team members. “Has anyone come or gone in here since she returned from talking to me?”

Everyone shook their head. “The only time the door opened was when the four people from the Green Team joined us,” Sansibal said meekly. “We’ve not seen anyone else.”

Perry looked around the room, noting Tia’s condition as well as the other survivors of the green team. He motioned for the Marines to enter. “Take her up first,” Perry said, pointing toward Tia, “Then these three next,” he said as he motioned toward the others from the Green team. “I want them to each see a separate medic if possible. Address their external injuries and to whatever limited extent possible, I want to see blood work.”

As Perry stepped back, a group of Marines rushed in and gently put Tia on a cot and carried her out. Others did quick checks of the other three and escorted them to the exit stage.

As those Marines left, another group stepped through the door. Perry turned and addressed the rest of the yellow team. “Something’s going on here,” he said in his most stern and intimidating voice. “I don’t know exactly what it is or how it’s happening, but your team lead was just fine less than ten minutes ago. We can only take a few up at a time. Let me get the blue team settled and then I’ll be back for you.

He turned to the Marine nearest him. “Sergeant, I want you to post guards on this room. Two in, two out. No one and I mean absolutely no one, comes in or out unless I’m with them, understand?”

The sergeant saluted. He assigned two Marines outside the door while he and a lieutenant took positions inside the lab.

Perry took the remaining Marines with him and returned to the staging area where the last of the green team survivors was being lifted through the opening. He looked back at all the devastation in the cavernous space that should have been bustling with activity. Everything was dark now, the only illumination coming from flashlights and the massive hole in the roof. There had been generators but half were taken out by the explosion. The remainder were needed to help with rescue efforts.

Something was bugging Perry and he couldn’t exactly pinpoint what it was. Holly had been just fine, there were no signs of any lacerations or injury when he had last talked with her. Just now, however, he had noticed bruises on her arm, fresh injuries that had popped up quickly. If no one in Holly’s lab had been wounded by the blast, and that certainly seemed to be the case, then something else had to cause those injuries. Perry knew he didn’t have long to figure out who, or what, that something was.

As the last green team member was lifted out of the bunker, another Marine slid down a rope carrying a new set of gas masks. He walked over to Perry and handed him one of the apparatus. “Sir, we’re detecting high amounts of methane and carbon monoxide in the air down here. You should probably wear one of these if you’re going to stay very long.”

Perry took the mask and fit it to his head. “Methane,” he thought. “Because what we need now is another explosion.” Turning to the Marine he asked, “How many of those things do you have? There are a lot of people still down here.”

“Four plus yours, sir,” came the answer. “On my way to find Col. Brinkman next. We have more on the way, though. We’ll get them distributed ASAP but evac is still the better option.”

Perry nodded. The Marine saluted and trotted off in the direction of the shaft where Colonel Brinkman and others were still working.

Perry started back toward the lab, making his way carefully through the rubble. Strangely enough, the dust in the air had initially provided some illumination as the sunlight reflected off the airborne particles. As the dust settled, however, the massive cavern left was darker and obstacles became more difficult to see. Concrete, rebar, and various pieces of wires and electronics were scattered everywhere. Perry knew there was also a heavy layer of lead in much of the construction, making them all susceptible to lead poisoning the longer they were down here. The more he thought about it, the more he realized they were still sitting in a highly volatile situation, one that could explode at any moment from the tiniest of sparks.

When he reached the lab, the Marine guards let him in and he stood in the doorway looking over the remaining specialists. Perry couldn’t stop wondering if one of them had been the saboteur or if the guilty party had died in the blast to avoid being identified. He had been leaning toward the likelihood that the traitor had essentially committed suicide, most likely someone from the blue team, until Holly had passed out. Her rapid decline had him worried that either his earlier theory had been wrong. Someone was still causing trouble, and the chances that more than one person was involved seemed to be increasing. Too many things were going wrong from too many different directions for there to not have been some previous coordination of events. That meant that not only were all the team members potential suspects, so were the Marines guarding them. Humanity demanded he get everyone out of the lab and away from the bunker as quickly as possible. At the same time, he needed to keep people isolated so no further collusion could continue.

Perry raised his gas mask so everyone could hear him clearly. “We need to get everyone out of here but obviously we can’t all go at once. We have gas masks coming. As they arrive, the Marines will help each of you get them fitted properly to your head. We’re taking everyone up by rope so if you have any issues with heights you have about two minutes to get over it.” He paused and pointed to the three specialists nearest him. “You three and …” he looked toward the back of the group, “You, sir, in the back, please come with me.”

“What about our personal effects?” someone asked.

Perry looked around at the disheveled lab. “I’m afraid you’ll have to consider them lost. We don’t have time to go looking for things and, quite honestly, the less we move things around the better.” He knew that answer was not what anyone wanted to hear, but not only did he not want to risk them causing a spark he didn’t want to give a potential terrorist an opportunity to conceal something that might cause additional problems later.

A knock at the lab door revealed a Marine with four more gas masks. The specialists were fitted with the apparatus and given instructions to breathe as normally as possible, something easier said than done given the level of anxiety that everyone was feeling. Only someone who felt like they had some level of control could be calm in this situation and no one here, including Perry, felt as though they had any control at all. Too many things seemed to be happening too quickly.

When he opened the door to step back into the demolished hallway, the view reminded Perry even more of being deep inside a cave. Taking the lead, he stumbled more than ever over the debris he had missed just a few minutes ago. He tried motioning to the specialists behind him when he came across something particularly obtrusive, but they couldn’t see any better than Perry could so his efforts had little effect. The Marine who had delivered the masks was bringing up the rear and Perry chuckled quietly at the frequent cursing he heard behind him as they reacted to all the stumbling. Manners and protocol were set aside when pain and frustration met.

A span of 200 yards littered with rubble stood between the lab door and the opening in the top of the bunker. The small lights being carried by various Marines almost looked like lightning bugs in the distance. Breathing through the filtered gas masks created a specific white noise that was fodder for various references to the Star Wars saga. Any chance to giggle or groan at attempted humor was a welcome break from the intensity of the moment. Every specialist realized that not only had their past 15 years of work been a failure but had contributed to the deaths of their friends and co-workers. Only Perry was slightly aware of what was unfolding elsewhere and even he didn’t have anything close to a full picture of the devastation.

They were still roughly 50 yards from the opening when Perry heard a faint noise behind them. At first, he thought perhaps it was someone’s anxious stomach rumbling but as he listened it became louder and more continuous. Soon, the others heard it as well and the group stopped and looked behind them. The rumble became more of a groan as the ground began to shake. The slow bending of metal and steel turned into a long, low scream and dust began falling around them.

Perry quickly realized what was happening. “The roof’s caving in!” he yelled as best he could through the gas mask. “Get to the wall,” he added, motioning them toward the nearest upright structure.

As the ground shook and more dust filled the air, it was difficult to not panic as they stumbled and fell trying to reach the wall. At one point, the ground beneath them heaved and pushed them in the direction they needed to go but at the same time created another barrier between them and the opening.

Topside, the Marines manning the rescue lines quickly pulled them up and backed further away from the top of the bunker. They could see the far end of the bunker beginning to collapse and moved as quickly as possible to avoid being caught in the tragedy unfolding underneath them. There was nothing they could do to stop it from happening. Everyone in the bunker was about to be buried alive.

What little light they had was quickly eliminated. Perry tried moving in the direction he thought the wall should be, but as they had to keep dodging debris in the floor he was no longer certain of which direction was what, nor was he sure he had all the specialists and the Marine still with him. Suddenly, after stumbling forward for what felt like an eternity, Perry felt a hand grab the back of his shirt collar and push him forward into the wall just as the ceiling completed its descent, piling more lead and concrete and steel around them. The wall provided enough safety to keep them from being crushed for the moment.

As the noise died down, Perry commanded, “Count off!”

“One!” the Marine immediately answered, setting the example for the others.



There was a pause just long enough to worry them that someone had been lost, but then a weak “Four!” was heard, allowing everyone else to feel a moment of slight relief.

The group sat in the silence for the moment, not sure what to say or do just yet. Finally, someone decided to ask, “What do we do now?”

“We wait,” Perry said. “There’s probably trouble topside as well. They’ll have to figure things out up there before they can come looking for us.”

“Well fuck,” said one of the specialists through his mask. “I guess we’re missing the lunch trucks.”

The group chuckled at what seemed like a humorous reference, but Perry suddenly felt cold. He knew he was trapped with a traitor.

Strength To Keep A Promise

Natalie and Darrell’s two-bedroom apartment was far from being large. Coming in at a little over 700 square feet, the open floor plan and a lack of excessive furniture made it easy to entertain friends as long as they kept the guest list under ten. A large television was mounted to the wall at one end with a shelf filled with old DVDs and vinyl albums directly beneath it. In the corner sat all the necessary electronic equipment including a turntable for the albums. Along the other wall was a large bookcase full of the various books Natalie had collected. Darrell had one of similar size in his room full of books related to software and coding, most of which were now outdated as the various protocols and languages seemed to be in a constant state of change.

Furniture was limited to a makeshift couch of plywood stretched across old milk crates and covered with overside pillows, a giant bean bag, and an old upholstered chair that had been rescued from someone’s trash. The chair was never in the same place, though, as Natalie frequently moved it around to avoid the glare from the balcony’s sliding glass doors as she wrote.

An open floor plan meant only a small counter separated the kitchen from the living room, which, again, was convenient for having guests over. More often than not, Darrell and his friends would congregate there, next to the refrigerator while Natalie and her friends were either playing her latest vinyl find or watching an old movie.

Natalie’s bedroom was the larger of the two, though not by much. The biggest difference was that hers had a massive window on one wall which meant waking up to sunlight most mornings. She had a queen-size bed with no headboard in the middle of the room with smaller bookshelves scattered around the perimeter with other books haphazardly across the floor.

The walls were still the stark white they had been when they moved, the larger portions of flat space broken up by random pieces of artwork they had purchased in support of various friends who were artists. Many people thought that one abstract nude hanging in her bedroom looked a lot like Natalie but she always denied that it was her.

Their apartment was always cluttered, typically with old mail and laundry occupying any available flat space. Cleaning before a party amounted to throwing away the mail and hiding the laundry in the bathtub until everyone was gone. Unfortunately, Natalie hadn’t expected the “party” taking place in their apartment now. Nothing had been put up. She still had a pile of bras and panties on the kitchen counter and Darrell’s old band t-shirts were still draped on the back of kitchen chairs with a mountain of junk mail in the middle of the small kitchen table at which no one ever actually sat.

Natalie looked around her crowded living room. She liked people, for the most part, but those who were currently her guests were all wet, barely dressed, and not necessarily happy to be there even though her apartment was unquestionably better than the rising water they had endured over the past two hours. At the very least, this was a markedly different crowd from those she typically invited over to try some new exotic food or watch a foreign documentary she had uncovered.

She also realized that she didn’t know everyone’s name. Three women from the coffee shop’s back table had survived the trip, though Natalie was still unsure whether the older woman would fully recover from the ordeal. And while she knew Miranda and Gwen, they didn’t know any of the people she had brought from the coffee shop, except for Reesie, who seemed to inherently know everyone, or they knew her.

Making it back to her apartment hadn’t eased Natalie’s anxiety all that much but had merely shifted its focus. All her towels were in use along with some blankets she had stored in the closet. The washer and drier in her apartment were small capacity but at least she could get everyone’s clothes clean and dry within a couple of hours. Only Barry had refused to give his up and no one had argued with him. Food, though, was a worry. She and Darrell both ate out often enough that filling the cupboards and refrigerator didn’t seem practical. It was past noon now and even if anxiety still had most stomachs churning they would still need to eat.

She couldn’t help looking toward Barry. Judging him was obviously the wrong thing to do but she wondered how much he actually ate on a daily basis. Did she even have enough food to get him through a single meal, much less whatever extended time they might have to stay there? With rain still falling it seemed unlikely that her guests would be able to go to their own homes very soon. Natalie looked over at the kitchen counter. She didn’t even have a full loaf of bread.

Reesie looked over at Natalie and recognized the look of panic on the younger woman’s face. Reesie walked over and put her arm around her new friend. “I’m guessing this probably isn’t anything like the crowd you have over for movie night,” she said.

Natalie giggled. “How’d you guess?” she asked.
Reesie nodded toward the posters on the wall. “No one has ever heard of any of those movies,” she said. “Nor has anyone read the books on your shelves. Is the vinyl yours or your guy friend’s?”

“It’s a mix,” Natalie said. “The EDM is mostly his. He likes to listen to it while coding. I’m more the indy rock and jazz type. We both like the old classics from the 60s, though.”

“You two do realize you’re a walking, living, breathing stereotype, right?” Reesie laughed.

Natalie rolled her eyes. This wasn’t the first time that accusation had been made against them. “Yeah, we work hard to maintain our status as a valued demographic,” she teased, “right down to the stifling college debt.”

The conversation lulled a moment as both women stood there watching the interactions around the room. Barry had resumed his conversation with Amanda, but their tone and topic had changed. Amanda was more concerned now about creating an app that would let her work with clients without having to leave home as often. Miranda, still topless, was pretending to listen to Carlson who was busy making up some story that exaggerated how important he was and completely ignored the fact he was actually unemployed. Gwen was talking with the women from the back table, particularly the younger of the three, nodding her head and smiling at whatever she was being told.

After a moment, Reesie said, “I guess we should go help figure out how to get Adam up here.”

“Yeah,” Natalie agreed, almost absent-mindedly. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, but she had shifted to wondering how she was going to make up for the work she was losing and how she was going to replace her phone and her laptop. “I guess the best move would probably be to make some kind of sling.”

“That makes sense,” Reesie said. “Distribute the weight so he’s easier to carry.”

Natalie gave the matter some thought for a moment. “There are probably a couple of other options, but let me grab a duvet just in case. I think I have one that should be strong enough.” She trotted off to her bedroom and returned quickly, motioning with her head for Reesie to follow.

As they bounded down the stairs, Reesie commented, “I guess it’s a good thing cops in the neighborhood have other things to worry about than two women running around half naked.”

Natalie laughed. “You’ve not met the cops around here. They’d stop and want to take pictures with us.”

They quickly reached the landing where Amber and Darrell were keeping watch over Adam. “I brought this thinking we could make it into a sling and use that to carry him up the stairs,” Natalie said holding up the duvet. “Unless either of you has a better idea.”

Darrell took the duvet and placed it on the landing next to Adam. There was no way to completely unfold it without getting the duvet wet in the flood water that would soon overtake the landing. “How do we get him on it without getting it, him, and us all wet?” he asked.

“Think we could slip it under him from the other side, roll him a bit like they do when changing sheets under a comatose person in the hospital?” Reesie suggested.

Amber and Natalie nodded. They carefully rolled Adam to his side while Reesie and Darrell slipped as much of the duvet under him as they could. The women then rolled Adam the other direction, while Darrell pulled the duvet on through until it was completely under the comatose man. There was still plenty of the duvet left to keep Adam covered and still give them something to hold as they carried him up the stairs.

“Okay,” Natalie started as they all evaluated the situation. “Who’s going to take which corner?”

Looking at the stairs and considering the options available, Amber said, “I think we have to put you two in front and let Darrell and me handle things from here. I’m sorry Natalie, but you’re so much shorter than the rest of us you’d be swamped if we put you anywhere else.”

Natalie looked around. Rarely had she been called short, but Darrell was 6’ 3”, Reesie was 6’ 2”, and Amber was an astonishing 6’ 7”. Natalie was a miniature figurine by comparison. “Great, thanks for giving me another reason to challenge my self-worth, ya’ll,” she said as she attempted to pick up the corner closest to her.

The other three grabbed the corners closest to them and lifted. Quickly, it became apparent that the dead weight of an unconscious person who was soaking wet was not something they were going to move in this manner. They sat Adam back down and looked at each other, not quite sure what to do next.

Reesie sighed. “I feel bad. There’s got to be something we can do. Like, if we had a wheelchair or something we could put him in.”

Darrell looked over to Natalie. “Mrs. Liebovitch in 207, isn’t she in a wheelchair? I know she uses that motorized thing now, but she’s the reason we have the lift at that end of the building. She’d almost certainly have a regular one, wouldn’t she?”

“Probably,” Natalie agreed, “but she went to stay with her niece in Florida last week. And she’s always been a bit paranoid. Her door has like five locks on it.”

“We can get past the damn locks,” Darrell said. “If the choice is vandalism and theft or letting a man die, I’ll risk the vandalism and theft.”

Reesie looked at him a second then sarcastically said, “Good thing you’re a white boy. They’d hang me out to dry for something like that no matter what the reason.”

Darrell’s face flushed with embarrassment as he looked down and Natalie looked over the railing at the rushing water below, pretending to ignore the conversation.

“Or,” Amber said, breaking the unexpected tension, “I can just carry him.”

The other three looked at the tall, bare-breasted woman incredulously.

Amber read the doubt in their faces. “Look, I’ve been benching between 300 and 325 for the past two months. If Darrell can help position him so I can get him on my shoulders, and then you all spot me on the stairs, make sure I don’t whop his head on something, I think I’ve got this and I think it’s our best option without breaking any laws.” She gave a quick side glance in Darrell’s direction. “We can’t leave him here and honestly, all the jiggling and everything he’s had to go through to this point can’t be doing him any good. Even if we had something with wheels, wrangling him into it and securing him could do more damage. I fireman’s carry him up and he’s moved less and we get him to a safe place sooner.”

“And if you fall … “ Natalie started.

“I’m not going to fall,” Amber said firmly. “I’ve done a fireman’s carry with a buddy that was 285 and that was easy. I ran the length of a football field with him on my shoulders and he giggled the whole time.” She paused and looked at the unconscious man on the landing. “Besides, I promised Angela I’d look after him. He’s an independent cuss who doesn’t like being helped, but he doesn’t have any choice now. I’ve got him, guys.’ She stretched her arms above her head and twisted her waist a couple of times. “Darrell, help me set him up a little bit so I don’t strain my back.”

Darrell helped Amber set Adam upright, propping him in the corner of the railing and then continued to hold him upright while Amber stretched a couple of more times. She put her right foot between Adam’s legs, then leaned over and grabbed his right arm just above the wrist. In a move that looked a lot easier than it actually was, Amber ducked and lifted Adam onto her shoulders, shifted a little to balance his weight better, then stood up carefully.

Natalie and Reesie looked at each other, consciously not letting their mouths drop open. Seeing Amber standing there, her muscles flexed, her tanned skin glistening with the rainwater, both were thinking that they had never been more attracted to another woman before in their lives.

The sight wasn’t lost on Darrell either, who was equally impressed and a bit ashamed at the same time. He had held some fantasies about the woman who lived in 106 before but at this moment he realized she was so far out of his league that even his fantasies were inappropriate.

Amber started off up the steps, Natalie in front of her to make sure Adam’s head didn’t hit anything, Darrell and Reesie cautiously spotting her from behind. Adam’s weight was more than she had carried before and his softer features made it more difficult to keep him balanced on her shoulders. At each landing, she stopped and shifted him just a little. She hated having to move him at all but knew this was still better than the jostling he would have gotten from backing a wheelchair up the stairs.

As they hit the landing for the third floor, they realized they had an audience. Everyone had left Natalie’s apartment to see what was going on and was now cheering Amber on as she continued up the stairs with Adam on her shoulders. Cheers went up as she reached the fourth-floor landing. Natalie guided them through the small crowd and the narrow doorway of the apartment, instructing Amber to take Adam back to her bedroom. As Amber placed Adam gently on the bed, everyone else cheered again, congratulating her for her strength.

Amber looked at Natalie and sighed. They both knew this was far from over.

Transfer of Power

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building is a massive structure in the French Second Empire style of architecture that sits next door to the West Wing of the White House. Completed in 1888, it had originally housed what was generally considered the most important Cabinet offices: State, War, and Navy. Having undergone multiple revitalization efforts over the years, and having multiple times been slated for destruction, the ornate building now housed a number of offices for the ever-expanding White House staff. One of those including what is formally considered the “ceremonial” office of the Vice President, who also maintains a working office in the White House.

Today, however, the ceremonial office had seemed to be the better choice for getting work done because, primarily, this office had massive windows which meant they had light, something that the smaller White House windows did not provide well. Vice President Abernathy also found that the size and constant motion of the Eisenhower Building made it easier for him to come and go rather innocuously, away from the press whose eyes were constantly on the West Wing.

Andrew knew something was up, though, when the typical white noise of conversation dipped at an undeniable level. He stepped to the nearest window and noticed multiple Secret Service agents running to get into waiting black SUVs parked under the portico. Something was up. Either the president was about to take action or was leaving the White House. With phone communications between the buildings still down, though, he could only guess until someone bothered to fill him in.

Andrew stepped back to his desk, setting down the piece of legislation he had been discussing with aides. “Something’s up next door,” he calmly said to the staff gathered in the room. “We should probably be ready to respond whenever we get the message. If the Pentagon has identified a responsible party, I’m sure the president is going after them in the most aggressive way possible. We’ll likely need to head toward the Senate.”

His aides murmured and a couple excused themselves to run and obtain documents relative to the Senate’s role in authorizing acts of war. As president of the Senate, the Vice President technically presided over every session of the deliberative body. However, the practical aspects of the role meant that most days he never set foot in the building, instead, delegating the presiding role to various senators on a rotating and partisan basis. Only when the topic at hand was of the utmost seriousness with the possibility of a tight vote did the Vice President bother making the trip over.

Andrew waited, doing his best to squelch the impatience of having to wait for obviously critical information. Had he been in the White House, he would already know what was going on. Maybe. President Blackstone wasn’t known for consulting him very often before taking action. In fact, it had fallen to Andrew on multiple occasions to rush to the Senate and smooth things over after the president had said something off-the-cuff that caught everyone, including him, off guard. He was hoping that this wasn’t going to be another one of those occasions. Being in the position of attempting to explain the president ultimately made him look weak, more like an errand boy rather than a valued advisor.

Andrew knew the severity of the situation would be telegraphed by who delivered the message. The arrival of an intern meant that the matter was a relatively low priority, something he could likely delegate to one of his own staff members. A member of a White House staff, especially senior staff, meant that the matter was serious, one that likely required some study and consultation directly with the White House. This morning, though, it was none of those. A member of his own Secret Service detail walked through the door and came directly to the Vice President and whispered into his ear, “Eagle is down. Your presence at the White House is required immediately.”

Andrew’s face went pale. “Eagle is down” was the one phrase he had never wanted to hear. As much as he had grown to loathe his former running mate over the past two years, he wanted a transfer of power to be quiet and as uneventful as possible, especially if it happened now when the majority of the country wouldn’t get the news for several hours, possibly days. He felt his knees begin to buckle, then the firm hands of the agent holding him up.

“Are you okay, sir,” the agent asked, looking Andrew hard in the face.

Andrew swallowed hard. “Yes, I’m fine,” he said, his voice quivering. “That just wasn’t a message I was expecting.”

Another agent appeared and flanked the Vice President.

“We need to go now, sir,” the first agent said as they led Andrew toward the door at the opposite end of a room that now seemed eternally long.

Andrew looked over at his chief of staff who was standing there completely bewildered. “Transfer everything to the White House office,” he said. “We’re going to be there for a moment.”

Secret Service agents quickly escorted Andrew out of the building and into a waiting SUV. At times, it struck Andrew as rather ridiculous that he couldn’t just walk to the building next door; that would have been considerably faster, especially in moments such as this where time was a serious factor. Security concerns being what they were, however, he knew that the heavily-armored SUV was the only way to make sure he actually made it to the White House. The trip would take three minutes, minimum.

Andrew also knew that all over town at that same moment, a flurry of Constitutionally-required activities was taking place. In a couple of minutes, Secret Service agents would be pulling aside Norma and Graham, delivering similar messages and rushing them to the White House. Had this been a different Tuesday on a different week, agents would have rushed to the Supreme Court building to alert the Chief Justice, Barclay Ellinsworth. However, the court was on recess this week. While his office would know of his whereabouts, the Chief Justice did not typically make his itinerary public for security reasons. No matter what might be happening with the president, nothing could officially take place until the Chief Justice was on the scene.

On other trips where Andrew had been summoned to the White House, there was an aide waiting in the SUV to update him on the pressing matter at hand. Today, though, there was no one, which meant whatever had happened was unexpected and sudden. He thought over the possible circumstances facing him. The president wasn’t exactly young at 73-years-old nor was he exactly the picture of health. He had all but ordered the White House physician to fake the information delivered to the press after each mandatory check-up. Only his closest advisors knew that the president was on medication for high blood pressure, pulmonary disease, liver disease, and diabetes. Neither did they know that the doctor was regularly running tests for signs of cancer and dementia. Any of those, especially in combination, could result in the president suddenly falling ill.

The instant the SUV pulled under the West Wing portico, the door was yanked open from the outside and the Vice President was escorted into the Oval Office. Only the president’s chief of staff, Roger Mukasi, was waiting, and the expression on Roger’s face was one of fear.

Roger waited until the door had closed before speaking. “You might want to take a seat, Mr. Vice President.”

The fact that Roger referred to him by his formal title was troubling. Like the president, Roger preferred more casual interactions between senior administration members. Andrew took a seat on the sofa opposite the president’s desk.

“Andrew, the president collapsed in the residence a few moments ago while talking with General Lang,” Roger said. “Al says the conversation wasn’t especially intense, Rudy wanted someone to blame for today’s incident. They didn’t even know about Tony yet.”

Andrew put up his hand to stop him. “Wait, didn’t know what about Tony?”

Roger swallowed hard, mentally kicking himself for forgetting that Andrew had been in another building and wasn’t aware of everything that had happened in the White House. “He was murdered, Andrew, right here in the White House, and stuffed in a janitorial closet.”

Andrew felt his stomach begin to churn. “Please tell me they got the person responsible. Secret Service is on top of it, right?”

Roger shook his head. “At this point, all they know is that it looks like the shooter is carrying the same caliber handgun as the agent’s service weapons, only with a silencer. No one heard a thing.”

“Fuck,” Andrew said, sitting back on the couch for a second, then remembering why he was here. “So, the president, he wasn’t … was he?”

“No, not that,” Roger said quickly. “Al says he just collapsed. He’d been doing most of the talking, as usual, and drinking a diet soda, as usual, and was sitting in a chair and just fell over without any warning.”

Roger sat back and gave Andrew some room.

The Vice President put his head in his hands for a moment, trying to take in the gravity of the situation, then stood up and shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets as he walked slowly toward the president’s desk. “You realize that if this morning’s meeting gets out …” he sighed.

“Yeah, I’ve already considered that,” Roger said. “I don’t think we have to worry about Norma, but for Graham’s sake, we need the doctor to give us a hard cause quickly, not a guess. We don’t need any accusations floating around out there. The doctor’s up there with him now. Everyone else has been removed from the residence except for Secret Service and the First Lady.”

Andrew tapped his fingers along the front edge of the president’s desk. There had never been any question that he eventually wanted the top job, but he had been careful to keep a public perception that he would only run after President Blackstone’s second term. “So, where are we within the reaches of Article II? 12th Amendment? 20th?” he asked, referring to the different places within the Constitution that dictated the circumstances for a transfer of power from the president to the vice president.”
Roger turned in his chair. “Currently, the second article of the 25th. It would be a presumed temporary transfer, the same as if the president were having routine surgery or something. It communicates an assumption that the president will return to authority once he comes out of the effects of anesthesia or whatever. As long as his heart is still beating, that’s where we’re at.”

“So the Chief Justice isn’t required?” Andrew asked.

“Had the president had time to sign a temporary transfer of power we wouldn’t need him. As it is, he has to swear you in as soon as possible. They’re looking for him now.”

“And if he’s out of town?”

“The most senior associate available can swear you in,” Roger said. “I think Justice Kreugel is available. She deplores public speaking events. She’s most likely at home lecturing her cats.”

Andrew smiled and nodded. Justice Eliana Kreugel was the most liberal member of the court and frequently opposed to many of the president’s policies. Swearing him in, knowing he was even more conservative, would not be something that would make her happy.

“How long do we wait before calling Justice Kreugel?” Andrew asked.

Roger thought for a second. “I don’t think we can do anything until we have a definitive word from the doctor,” he said. “And that should be coming shortly.”

The door opened and both the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate walked into the Oval Office. “They let us ride over together this time,” Norma said. “What’s the president’s condition?”

“And what happened to cause it,” Graham added, looking suspiciously at Andrew.

“We’re waiting for a word from the doctor,” Roger said. “He was getting his briefing from General Lang and slumped over without warning.”

“And the Chief Justice?” Graham asked.

“We’re looking for him,” Roger answered, feeling strangely attacked by the senator’s tone. “There’s a good chance he’s out of town. If so, Justice Kreugel can administer the oath on a provisionary basis.”

The door opened again and the White House physician, Dr. Bernard Zinky, came in, his stethoscope around his neck. His face was flushed and he appeared out of breath. “I’m sending for an ambulance,” the doctor said without bothering with formalities. “You’ll want the Chief Justice here as quickly as possible and you’ll want to keep him here until we know something more definite.”

“That’s not sounding good, Bernie,” Roger said. “What happened?”

“I’m not sure just yet,” the physician replied. “His blood pressure dropped severely and he has some unexplained bruising. The symptoms are consistent with diabetic ketoacidosis but this severe reaction should only happen with long-term insulin issues, such as ingesting too much sugar and assuming the kitchen has been maintaining his diet that shouldn’t be the case. I’m taking him to Walter Reid and doing blood work to be sure. At the very least, the president is unable to fulfill his duties for the rest of the day. I’ll sign the necessary documentation to that fact, just have it delivered to the hospital.”

All heads turned as an ambulance pulled under the West Wing portico.

Bernie looked directly at Roger, “I suggest for now that you tell the press this is just a precaution. At this point, given everything that has happened this morning, I don’t even know that all the equipment is back up and working at Walter Reid. This could be nothing more than exhaustion. No point in  getting everyone panicked.” He turned and headed toward the door. “Don’t forget that declaration,” he called over his shoulder as he closed the door.

Bernie trotted out to the waiting ambulance. Two Secret Service agents helped him into the back and closed the door. The First Lady was helped into an SUV directly behind the ambulance. The line of vehicles moving in unison toward the gate looked like a small parade.

Another Secret Service agent popped his head through the Oval Office door. “Mr. Mukaski, I’ll have a vehicle here for you in two minutes,” he said.

“Thank you,” Roger replied, then he turned to the others. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some papers to fill out real quick. I’ll take the physician’s statement with me to the hospital and leave the transfer of power stuff here for the Chief Justice or whoever they can find.” He paused and headed toward the door leading to his office, then turned around as though suddenly remembering something important. “You three, don’t leave the building. We’re going to need you.”

As Roger disappeared into his office, Andrew looked at Norma and Graham and said, “Well, I do happen to have my own office in this building. Why don’t you join me and we’ll talk about what happens next?”

Struggling To Breathe

Perry leaned back against the wall and tried to catch his breath. He was quickly getting frustrated with the number of compounding problems beating down on him today. Having the test go sideways was enough. That it took the entire country offline and had already caused unknown thousands of deaths was a horror he still hadn’t had time to fully comprehend. Then, the blast costing him half of his team, and now a cave-in that quite possibly could have killed some of the remaining specialists. He had no way to know whether anyone left in the lab had survived.

“This is one helluva nightmare,” Perry thought to himself, “and I’m ready to wake up at any time.” He reached over and pinched his left arm, just to be sure. There was no light. Neither he nor the Marine accompanying them had lights on their breathing apparatus. The dust and debris from the cave-in filled the air with a cloud of heavy smoke. Even if they had not been stuck behind a massive slab of concrete, they wouldn’t have been able to see much of anything beyond their own shadows. To some degree, they were probably safer here than they would be out in the open.

Through the darkness and the filter of a gas mask, one of the specialists asked, “Hey, Mr. Hawkins! How long do you think it will take them to find us? I’m kinda down here without my meds, which is okay for now. I can probably go a day or so.”

“They’ll go rescue the Colonel first,” said another voice that sounded slightly closer to Perry. With the air filters in place, telling the difference between them was difficult. “We’re all just little cogs on a big wheel.”

A deeper voice spoke up from the back. “No, we’re not, we’ve got the Lieutenant Colonel with us,” the voice argued. “They’ll be looking for us first because he’s the only one who has any idea what’s going on.”

Perry wished that was true. At the moment, he wasn’t sure anyone had a clue as to what was really going on.

“Wait, I thought Hawkins was civilian,” said another voice. “You mean we’ve been working for the military this entire time? No wonder everything blew up. They’re trying to eliminate any witnesses.”

This conversation was going in a bad direction quickly. Perry spoke up. “I’m former military and have been a civilian for over 20 years,” he told the others. “The colonel reactivated me when the president declared martial law.”

“Martial law? You mean the military is running the government now?” asked the same voice. “Damn, we’re all fucking doomed down here.”

Perry wished he could see people’s faces so he could directly confront the ignorance he was hearing from the specialists. “Look, a lot of things happened outside when that test blew up this morning,” he said as firmly as he could through the mask. “A lot of bad things happened and a lot of people died. The only way the president could send people to help was to declare martial law. That’s it. The military is not taking over.”

“Although, it might be better if they did,” said a specialist.

Even through the mask, Perry recognized that voice.

Reading time: 50 min
Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop, Pt. 4

Editorial Note: I’ve reached a point where keeping the separate sections/chapters around 1,500 words is difficult and when those run long the whole post runs long. We’re at 11,332 words this week. All total, so far, we’re looking at roughly 42,000 or so words for the whole thing. If you’ve not yet started the story, you’ll want to go back and begin here.

Thank you for sticking with the story this far! We’ve not serialized anything like this ever before and it really puts the entire website in a different genre. I know anything over 1,000 words is considered a long read and each week we exceed that by ten times or more. Please, keep reading, and I really wouldn’t mind if you shared. Now, let’s see what’s going on down in that bunker, shall we?

Calculating The Risk

Calculating The Risk

Perry looked up at the gaping hole in his bunker, the place he had, until a few short minutes ago, considered impenetrable. He had even suggested that it might be a closer alternative to the NORAD facility inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado should the president ever need to be evacuated. After all, the bunker was only a 30-minute helicopter ride from the White House.

“Shit,” Perry thought out loud, “if things are this bad here, what’s going on at the White House?” He looked at his watch. 72 minutes had passed since the failed test. He had expected Special Agent Biscane to be back long before now, or to at least call. Obviously, he wasn’t back and cell phone communications weren’t possible. He worried whether the White House had been attacked in a similar fashion as the bunker. The White House was secure from minor weapons but bombs like the ones dropped here would completely decimate the historic structure and likely kill most of those inside. Still, he reasoned, there had been enough time before the attack for the Pentagon to have warned him had there been any previous incident. Now, there was no way to know.

Looking around, Perry knew the next question was how to get out of the bunker now that the entrance/exit shaft had been destroyed. All munitions were kept topside for safety reasons. Regulations prevented anyone from carrying a weapon into the bunker. Topside, however, was 150 feet up. He was going to need more than a ladder.

Perry wondered how many people topside were still alive. Col. Brinkman has estimated 30-40 Marines killed with more civilian casualties on top of that. Of those still living, how many were wounded and unable to help in any significant way? Without any form of communication, it was impossible to know what their options might be.

Looking over at those working on the shaft, he knew that would be the one safe way out if they could ever get it open, but at the moment, with massive pieces of concrete and steel lying on top of it, that didn’t seem like it would be available expeditiously. Not only was removing the rubble going to be difficult, but there were also bodies under there that needed to be treated with respect.

Perry looked around at the carnage and felt a wretching deep in his stomach. 15 years of work. 15 years of relationships. All that he had done and it was gone in a matter of minutes. The experiment had not only failed but, from what he could tell, had brought catastrophic consequences to the entire country, if not the whole world. He had done this. HE was responsible even if nothing that had happened was intentional on his part. There would be no rectifying this. Too many lives were lost. His work had inadvertently changed the face of the world.

Standing in the midst of the rubble, he became aware of the smell surrounding him; a mixture of concrete dust, jet fuel, and charred human flesh. His stomach wretched. His dark suit that had been blue when he put it on that morning was now a pallid gray. In the air hung minuscule flakes of unrecognizable material, perhaps drywall, or paint, or pieces of human flesh, the remnants of those he had promised to keep safe.

Perhaps in a more private moment, he would shed multiple tears and grieve for what was lost but right now he still had a responsibility to those who survived, who were frightened and grieving on their own. He also had a responsibility to a traitor, the person who had sold them all out for reasons he didn’t yet understand. Perry knew that he alone would have to be the person to find that mole and believed to his core that the person wanted to be caught, wanted someone to step in and stop what was happening.

All the different thoughts flooding Perry’s brain at that moment were disturbed as a body harness secured to a rope nearly hit him in the head as it dropped into the cavern created by the explosion. Around the perimeter of the cavity, other harnesses fell. At the top stood a group of Marines in hastily assembled combat gear. They may not have known exactly what was happening or who was in charge, but they did know they had to take action and had secured the ropes to safely lift anyone who had survived.

Perry slipped into one of the harnesses, tightening it in all the places that, of necessity, make a harness uncomfortable. He tugged twice on the rope and felt the pull and momentary loss of control as his feet left the ground. His mind flashed back to basic training and Parris Island so many years ago. His body instinctively responded by gripping the rope hand over hand, leaning in and tucking his legs under him.

Riding up would be easy. Actually getting up, over the threshold would be the challenging part. There would be no way to know whether the material that had been at the top of the bunker was stable enough to hold his weight. The Marines pulling him up had stayed well away from the edge. As he reached the top, he grabbed hold of a piece of rebar extended from the concrete and pulled himself up onto the surface, lying still to see whether it was going to hold. Rising cautiously to his hands and knees, he crawled to the nearest Marine who helped him to his feet.

Once Perry was standing, the Marine took a step back and stood at attention. “Lieutenant Santino Rodriguez, sir, at your service.”

Perry dusted himself off then saluted, “Lieutenant Colonel Perry Hawkins. Are you the senior person up here?”

“No sir,” Lt. Rodriguez answered as he returned the salute. “Staff Sargeant is team lead and there are other officers back at base command. Someone said they saw Col. Brinkman down in the hole as well, sir”

Perry nodded. “I can confirm that,” he said as he looked around at the damage to what was supposed to have been a top secret base. Wreckage from the B-2 was still strewn across the field around him, pieces of debris still smoldering, small fires still burning around the torn trimming of the fuselage pieces surrounding him. Modern B-2s only required a two-person crew: a pilot and a mission commander. A high level of automation provided the pilot with near-real-time information and the target status. For a wreck like this to have been possible, either massive systems failure had occurred or the plain had been damaged. There was almost no way the crew could have taken all the systems offline manually without it being noticed wherever their control base was located.

“I assume there was no warning prior to the crash,” Perry said.

“No sir,” the lieutenant responded. “Our only warning was the second between the bombs dropping and the plane hitting the deck, sir. We had no warning nor response time.”

Looking down into the crater caused by the bomb, Perry was still surprised that more damage hadn’t been done. GBU-57As were designed to root out terrorists hiding deep in the caves of Afghanistan. The fact that anyone in that bunker had survived left him feeling uncomfortable for reasons he couldn’t yet explain. Not that anything about this entire situation made a lick of sense in the first place, but he had seen the full-scale damage one of those bombs could do and what lay below him was less than half the destruction there should have been. Something was off.

“Sir, do we need to send down rescue teams to evacuate survivors?” Lt. Rodriguez asked. His voice snapped Perry’s attention back to reality.

“Yes,” Perry answered. “There are four remaining in Lab B, 18 in Lab A, but they’re under orders to wait until I come and get them. They need to come up and remain housed as a single unit. I’m the only one who debriefs them on any level. No visitors and no one leaves. Understood, Lieutenant?”

Rodriguez confirmed, “Absolutely, sir. All together, total sequestration. Permission to assemble a team under your command, sir.”

Perry nodded. “Go. Bring me the best we have.”

“Sir, aye sir,” the Marine said as he saluted.

Perry returned the salute as the Marine ran off to assemble a team. He knew the young man would choose his buddies, people from his outfit that he trusted. Marine units are close-knit groups committed to having each other’s backs.

Protecting Holly and her team was paramount, but it still bothered Perry that he didn’t have any way of knowing whether the mole was in her team or one of the others. For all he knew, the mole might have been killed in the explosion. The uncertainty was troubling, though, and until he knew the threat had been eliminated there was no choice but to act as though someone was still trying to destroy them—and the entire United States.

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

They all might as well have been blind for all practical matters. As rain battered against the faces of the 13 who had left the coffee shop holding onto a makeshift raft, they were making their way more by feel than by sight. Even if they had been able to see it wouldn’t have helped much. The water was over four and a half feet deep now. Half the group was struggling to keep their heads above water. For the three women precariously perched on the shoulders and hunched over the heads of Reggie, Carlson, and D, every move by their host threatened to plunge them into the swift current of the flood water.

At the foot of the small bridge, Natalie was beginning to wonder if there was any chance of them all making it to her apartment. Until now, she had been ferociously guarding her hope for their survival, pushing back any thought of despair. Now, however, she realized for the first time that, slight as it might be, there was an arch to the bridge. Finding footing through the dark waters had been difficult coming across the sidewalk and onto the rapidly disintegrating street. Adding any degree of slope made the journey over the bridge treacherous.

Natalie tried wiping some of the water from her eyes as she looked for the lamp posts she knew were there. All she could see were blurred gray shadows she hoped were the street lamps. She looked over at Barry who was close enough to touch but whose features were still blurred by the rain. They nodded to each other and began to pull the raft forward.

For Barry, the danger of the bridge was not knowing whether the entire deck was still intact. Asphalt in the road was rapidly eroding against the relentless pressure of the water. In theory, he knew, the water level on the bridge should go down. Typically, there were over ten feet of space between the bottom of the bridge and the normally shallow creek beneath it. For all the years he had been using the Burns Coffee shop as a meeting place, he had never known it to be more than a couple of feet deep, and that had only been after the most severe of rains.

Today was different from anything Barry had ever experienced and as he struggled to gaze ahead he instinctively knew that the natural canyon carved by the creek was well beyond its boundaries. Were it not, the current would have rushed toward the recess. As it were, everything was flowing downstream, ignoring that there had ever been any creek there at all. As he felt the slope of the incline beneath his feet he worried. The bridge was made of concrete and steel but it was certainly not a recent construction. In fact, he tried to remember, was it last summer or the summer before when the bridge had been closed while repairs had been made? There could easily be a massive hole in the middle of the bridge and there would be no way to tell until they disappeared into it.

Ressie looked at Adam’s body being pelted by the rain. His body was soaked to the point now that his physical features were embarrassingly apparent. If he had indeed had a stroke or some other coma-inducing event, all this rain had to be making conditions worse. She wished she could have done more to protect him.

At the same time, the practical part of her brain wondered if she had done the right thing in attempting to save him. If in saving him, her brain reasoned, the rest of them perished in conditions they would not have otherwise known, had she possibly doomed them all? She hated ethical dilemmas like this for there were arguably no correct answers. In college, any situation her ethics professor had given them seemed to create more problems rather than solving anything. Doing the “right thing” was never clear cut nor without potentially deadly consequences. Reesie had long reasoned that it was best to do what was right at the moment because consequences would be waiting on the other side no matter what one did. Rarely had that reasoning been incorrect.

Hunkered down on the table next to Adam’s right leg, her face hidden from the rain that was beating fiercely on her small body, Amanda was thankful that, at the very least, none of the others could see her bawling. With every cell of her body, Amanda was regretting having ever left home this morning. She kept telling herself that she shouldn’t have been so aggressive in trying to grow her business. She had children. They had enough money already, they didn’t need her to make more. Her greed had pushed her out of the house, away from her husband, and her babies. She had been wrong, she knew, and she promised herself that if she made it out of this alive that she would stay home and never leave her babies with someone else again.

Four-year-old Devin was at the top of her mind. Elise and Alexander were at school. There would be people looking out for them and schools would be the first place rescue services would go. Plus, the school was built on a hill. They might not even have the flooding she was currently experiencing. Bruce would be okay. He worked on the 14th floor of a tall office building. Nothing would be able to get to him, but at the same time, he was as stranded up there as she was on the table. Devin, though, her baby, she had left with a sitter. Sure, Sarah seemed like a nice person and she knew she wouldn’t just abandon the baby and run away, but did she have the common sense necessary to keep them both alive under these conditions? Was the house flooded? Sure, they could go upstairs but there was no food upstairs and Devin could be annoyingly fussy when he was hungry. Leaving home this morning had been the most selfish thing she had ever done. Amanda was sure of it.

Carson struggled under the weight of the woman on his shoulders. He didn’t even know her name. He didn’t especially care that she had a name. More than once, every time her weight had made it difficult for him to find and keep his footing, he had considered lunging to one side or the other and letting her fall off. What did he care? None of them were likely to survive to wherever the hell that girl was taking them. This day was going to be the end of him, he was certain. It had started bad right from the moment he opened his eyes and there was little chance of it ending any better than it had started. He saw no reason to care about anything or anyone.

Yet, Carson knew there was someone he cared about. He had a wife, Carolyn. He had kids and yeah, they were both teenagers almost grown and anxious to get out of the house, but he still loved them. Their names were Carly and Bruce. As Carson tried in vain to see anything past the form of Reggie’s body in front of him, he wondered how they were, would they miss him, would his death even change their lives. He had life insurance that should pay off the mortgage at least. He could give them that. He certainly hadn’t given them much else.

Slowly, the group began inching their way up the subtle incline of the bridge. Any other time, under any other circumstances, most of them wouldn’t have felt any incline here at all, it was so slight. Now, though, it might as well have been a mountain, another obstacle in this constant challenge to survive through conditions none of them had ever imagined having to endure. The rain, the wind …


Out of nowhere, the entire bridge shook, having been hit on its North side. They all looked in the direction of the strike but could see nothing with the rain directly in their faces. They could feel the bridge move, though, as whatever had come into contact with the bridge had jarred it sufficiently to separate the steel undergirding from its center support structure.

Below the water, completely out of sight, a black SUV picked up and turned on its side by the flood had been swept from a nearby parking lot at a fast food joint, swept into the stream and held under by its own weight. Had the vehicle been upright, someone might have seen its roof as it bobbed in the water. If that roof had been what hit the bridge, its soft aluminum would likely have folded with the impact and done little damage, But none of that was what happened.

Instead, the vehicle had turned and swirled as it took on water until it was heading downstream wheels first. That meant it was the undercarriage, the only part of the vehicle where there was any form of rigid steel in its construction, that would hit the center support of the bridge with the full force of the rushing water behind it. The decorative stone on the outside of the support had provided little barrier in the collision. The SUV hit the first steel girder with enough force that two of the massive bolts securing it to the bridge snapped.

Engineers could not have anticipated the bridge having to endure conditions like this. On larger, more heavily traveled structures, there would have been additional safety mechanisms in place to make up for the loss of the two bolts. For a small urban bridge over a tiny creek that had never been known to leave its banks, however, those backups had seemed unnecessary and expensive. No one gave any thought to adding them to such an insignificant little bridge.

One opening was all the water needed. As the bridge deck lurched in the loss of support, a massive chunk of the roadway crumbled. Everyone reached to hold on to the table as well as they could.

Reggie failed. Before anyone’s brain could think fast enough to react, his feet were swept from under him and down he went, taking the woman on his shoulders with him. With all the commotion and focus on trying to keep themselves upright, by the time anyone realized that Reggie and his rider were gone, it was too late to help. Their bodies, struggling as they were to at least reach the surface and breathe, were dragged away quickly by the strong undercurrent that moved them downstream while holding them down as though they’d been chained.

As they passed under the table, Reggie had reached for the water bottles, hoping desperately to find something to which he could hold, but his hands had no time to find a grip. Instead, he felt his feet his something. At first, he thought perhaps it was the guardrail on the bridge, something, again, to which he could potentially grab hold, but it slipped away as well.

As the others were beginning to realize the horror of what had just happened, everyone was looking where Reggie had stood so no one saw Marti disappear when her feet were suddenly knocked out from under her. The movement had come so unexpectedly that by the time the girl’s brain communicated to her arm that it should reach for the table, she was already well out of reach.

“Mom!” cried the woman on Carson’s shoulders. The others looked at her, realizing they knew none of these women nor understood what this crisis meant to them.

Then, in the next second, Natalie realized there was a blank space between her and D. “Marti!” she yelled, looking hopelessly downstream.

Looking was all they could do. They didn’t dare let go of the table. Rescue was not a service they were in any position to provide. Tears merged with the rain on their face as they quickly tried to adjust and regain their balance. They needed to get off this bridge.

Magnitudes of Scale

Magnitudes of Scale

Roger wasted no time running through the maze of cubicles and offices in the West Wing of the White House, trying to get to the basement office area where Special Agent Biscane had allegedly been shot. Finding the correct spot hadn’t been difficult. The number of people through which he had to push was enough of a map to get him right to the spot. Secret Service officials were already there, doing their best to secure the crime scene while attempting to keep back the White House staffers without losing their temper. No one other than the agents seemed to understand how important it was that the area not be contaminated.

Roger recognized one of the agents as having previously been in rotation for guarding the president. “Kelly,” he yelled above the crowd, “what the hell happened.”

The agent stepped back and pulled the Chief of Staff through the crowd. “We’re still trying to get a handle on the details,” he said. “A member of the maintenance staff found him when they were looking for cleaning supplies.”

“Was he poisoned or did someone shoot him?” Roger asked, frustrated by the knowledge the agent wouldn’t be able to give him the answers he so desperately needed.

“He was definitely shot,” Agent Kelly told him. “One chest, one head. We’re looking for any shots that might have missed but I’m not expecting to find any. Judging by the wound, this appears to have been done with the same caliber weapon as is carried by all the federal officials in the building.”

“You’re saying one of our own did this?” Roger asked, his temper ramping up.

“I’m saying someone pretending to be one of our own did this,” Kelly replied. “No one I’ve talked to yet remembers hearing anything that sounded like a gunshot. That likely means some kind of silencer was used and he was shot at close range. No one on the federal payroll is allowed to carry that kind of equipment.”

Roger gave a long, heavy sigh. There was nothing about this day that wasn’t compounding one problem on top of another. “Okay,” he started. “I’ll have this corridor sealed for you. Take a good look and let me know what you find as soon as possible. We have to assume the shooter is still in the building and still armed, which means they could have more targets.”

Agent Kelly nodded. “I don’t suppose locking people in their offices is a possibility?”

Roger thought a minute. The lack of traffic running around the White House would make it easier to notice if the shooter were heading toward another target. “I think I can sequester everyone except senior staff, and I’m having them all in my office to figure out a way to address all these disasters.”

Roger was actively attempting to avoid asking himself whether this day could get any worse because he knew it could and he didn’t want to invite any more disasters than they already had. He also knew that people would be expecting the White House to respond and provide some answers. With digital and broadcast communications down, though, he wasn’t sure exactly how they were going to communicate with anyone. Even the country’s newspapers relied on satellite communications these days.

As he returned to the office area of the West Wing, Roger could see Terri waiting on him, as well as the Director of Communications, Wilson Niedermeir, standing near his office door, obviously waiting for him to return. Roger headed off their inevitable questions by speaking first as he walked through the outer door. “You’re just the people I need to see,” he told them, then to Tina he added, “Get me Rick, Karen, Marty, Will Tucker, and Ann Morrow. I need them in here immediately.”

Terri and Wilson looked at each other knowing that whatever was coming next had to be pretty serious. Roger had just instructed his secretary to bring in the directors of the offices of Public Affairs and Political Liason as well as the White House Council, head of national security, and the First Lady’s Chief of Staff. Rarely was there any reason to have those people in the same room and when there was it was never a happy occasion.

Following Roger into his office, Terri asked, “So it’s true, someone was shot right here in the White House?”

“Yeah,” Roger replied before hitting the intercom button on his phone. “Tina, send an urgent memo to all White House staff that everyone needs to return to their office or cubicle and stay there until further notice. No exceptions.”

The Chief of Staff turned back to Terri. “It was a professional hit using the same caliber weapon as our own people use, and they may have had a silencer. That means they’re probably still in the building, most likely have either Secret Service or FBI credentials, and may or may not have previously had access to the President.”

“Shit!” Wilson exclaimed. “So we’re on full lockdown?”

“You can bet on that,” Roger replied. “No one in or out until we have some answers and can be sure that everyone, especially the President, is safe. Meanwhile, I need as accurate a picture as possible of all the disasters that seem to be taking place across the country.”

“That’s going to be a long list,” Terri said. “And perhaps the biggest question at this moment is whether we’re the only ones attacked or not. Before everything went down, there seemed to be some indication that other countries were having problems as well.”

Wilson took a seat on the sofa sitting across from Roger’s desk. “If someone hacked the satellite grid, they could cause havoc for every country on the planet.”

Roger sat in his chair and pulled out a legal pad. “We have a responsibility to our own country first. We have to keep this president safe and we have to do the best we can to keep our people safe.”

Quickly, the office began to fill with the requested participants. The First Lady’s Chief of Staff was the last to arrive because she had to come from the opposite side of the building. The expression on her face wasn’t a pleasant one.

As the office door shut, Roger began talking. “Listen, what I’m about to say is effectually law until I say it’s not. We appear to have an active shooter in the building. We have no idea who this person is but given that only Secret Service and FBI are allowed to carry weapons in this building we have to assume that they are carrying those credentials. All meetings are canceled. I want everyone’s door shut. Established attack protocols are now in place. The First Family stays in the residence until all this is over. Only Senior Staff are allowed to enter and I’d like to keep that on a limited basis. Everyone has to come to see me first or they don’t get in.”

Ann Morrow, the First Lady’s Chief of Staff, was the first to respond. “Are we adding additional Secret Service within the residence?”

“They’re already up there,” answered Rick Angel, the president’s National Security advisor. “Their normal assignment plus an additional eight agents previously cleared for presidential detail. Nothing nor no one gets close to the first family without scrutiny, and that includes changes in personnel. I’m ordering the detail adjusted so that only those most trusted with previous experience are assigned.”

“Karen, what’s the mood over on the hill?” Roger asked.

Karen Ladovsteski was the president’s chief political liaison. “Fear more than anything,” she said. “With communications down, their having difficulty communicating with their home states and districts. Many of the younger members didn’t even have secure landlines in place. In that brief moment, before everything went dark, though, there was just enough information to scare the shit out of everyone. Planes falling from the sky. People experiencing random nose bleeds. The Midwest is apparently experiencing the broadest storm event ever with rain in excess of six inches an hour. Add to that uncertainty about the nation’s hydroelectric damns which may have lost power, causing them to fail.”

“They all have gasoline generated backups,” Rick said quickly. “Any interruptions would have kicked on the backups, allowing everything to be shut down safely. We shouldn’t have any compromise there.”

Karen nodded. “That’s good to know. What concerns me at this point, though, is that fear inevitably leads to anger and without the ability to leave town or even go home at this point, don’t be surprised if we see some knee-jerk legislation coming up later in the day.”

“Do you think leadership over there can keep a lid on the stupid at least until we have more concrete information?” Roger asked, knowing that Norma and Graham had their mind on other things.

“Today, yes,” Karen said. “Tomorrow, don’t bet on it. We need communications back up ASAP or people on the hill are going to try creating their own solutions without the benefit of any real information.”

“The rest of the nation is likely to be feeling the same,” added Marty Wilson, director of Public Affairs. “They’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other, including family. Panic sets in quickly and when that panic isn’t relieved anger is the next response.”

Roger looked up from the notes he was taking on the legal pad. “Rick, where are we on deploying the National Guard?”

“Initially, we were getting some resistance, especially from governors in the South,” the National Security Advisor said. “As conditions have worsened, though, I’m not expecting as much push back. I think they’re more likely to welcome the help and in those Midwestern states, they’re probably going to be asking for a lot of assistance. We’ll need the president to be quick about issuing disaster declarations when this is over.”

“So, we’re probably not looking at riots or anything?” Roger asked hopefully.

“Certainly not on a large scale,” Rick said. “From what little we know, every region seems to be dealing with its own set of disasters. We need communications back up, though, or we’re going to start seeing all that fear and anger begin to hit the streets.”

Roger sat back in his chair, thoughtfully. “I want us to have a prepared set of statements,” he said to no one in particular. “As things start coming back online, I want the first thing everyone sees to be some assurance that the president is aware of all the problems and that the White House, and make sure it’s worded that way, the White House is working to address all the problems as quickly as possible.”

“And how accurate is that?” asked Will Tucker, the White House Counsel.

“We’re working with everything we have under the conditions we’re faced with,” Roger said.

Will leaned in. “Yes, but how much does the president actually know?” He paused and took in the uncomfortable expressions around the room. “Look, we all know this president isn’t exactly a hands-on kind of guy. He’s a delegator and that’s fine as long as he knows who is being delegated to do what. The problems begin when we think we need to keep anything from him. What I’m asking is what does the president actually know?”

“He knows what he wants to know,” Roger said.

“And that’s what bothers me,” Will replied. “We already know that there are those in Congress who would be happy to see the president forced out of office. If he’s not being updated regularly on everything, for any reason, we could be looking at some serious vulnerabilities. Obstruction and lying to the American public would be the first volley. If he refuses updates, then we could be looking at a refusal to uphold his Constitutional responsibility.”

Roger tapped the tips of his fingers together. “Does the fact that we’re under martial law protect us to any degree?”

“Not really. If he’s not getting or accepting updates from General Lang then it’s just as bad,” Will said.

Roger glanced over at Terri who was furiously taking notes. “Okay, let’s do this then, Wilson, have someone create a written brief that can be given to the president. Update it every four hours. Make sure Lang has input and that his input is noted. That way, at the very least there’s a paper trail. We can say the president was informed. Let’s try and keep a tight lid on this one, okay? We don’t know when comms are going to come back but be sure when they do people are going to be glued to their televisions for at least 48 hours. We’ve got to make sure we’re not providing any ammo they didn’t already have. We’re good here. Thank you. Terri, hang back a minute, please.”

As the other senior staff members left the room, Terri kept her seat in a chair she had pulled in front of the door leading to the Oval Office. She waited until the room was clear and the door was shut then said, “What do you think? Do we have support to move forward?”

Roger drummed his fingers on his desk for a moment. “I’m not sure. I think we may still have to give the president a little latitude. What we’re seeing as incompetence isn’t something substantial enough to take public. There are good people in place who are doing their best to make up for the president’s fallibilities. I will say this, though, we want Will on our side if and when we do make any kind of move.”

“It sounded to me as though he’s already leaning that direction,” Terri said.

“Will Tucker holds no political allegiance to this president, the party, or any other political figure in this town. He’s the anomaly that has managed to endear himself to everyone while staying clear of their liabilities,” Roger said. “If there’s anyone who can definitely say the president is unfit for office it’s Will Tucker and everyone knows it.”

Out of the Frying Pan

Out of the Frying Pan

Holly and her team waited anxiously in their lab with no knowledge of what had happened. All they knew is that half their group from the other labs, including the other team leads, were dead. Nothing in their lab worked, not even the coffee pot. They’d been ordered to stay put until Perry personally came to move them but there was no indication as to how long that might take.

Holly looked around the room at her team. She could see the fear on their faces. It had only been the luck of the draw that had put any of them in that lab. All three teams had been equal, populated with specialists assigned to identical tasks. What was different about their assignments was the specific geography for which each team was responsible. Claire’s team was responsible for the United States communications network, which was arguably the largest in the world. Holly’s team was responsible for communications directly to US Embassies on foreign land and military units including all deployed naval vessels.

Kenneth’s team was responsible for satellite interface, making sure that everyone received the same message at the exact same time with minimal lag. The reasoning was that in the event of a genuine emergency, everyone needed to have the same information at the same time. “Trickle down” communications, a term that had elicited a number of bathroom-humor jokes were not an option. By making sure that everyone had the information simultaneously they had hoped to eliminate the possibility that a foreign power or greedy oligarch could take advantage of any lag that might occur.

From Holly’s perspective, Kenneth’s Blue team had been the target. Claire’s team were victims of being too close to the blast, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eliminating satellite synchronization, creating the possibility that several minutes, even hours, could lapse between the information being received at the embassy in Germany and the embassy in Japan. It also increased, if not practically guaranteed, that any message could be interrupted and changed by an unfriendly power. Different people could get different messages at different time, creating a tremendous amount of confusion.

She couldn’t say any of that to her team, though. She knew they would each individually be debriefed as to precisely what part of the program each of them had a part in creating, whether they had been contacted at any part by a foreign player and whether they had knowingly mentioned their involvement with the program to anyone outside the three teams in the bunker. Her team had been through those interviews before and up until today, she had trusted them all completely. Now, however, with so many of her colleagues and friends dead, she was second guessing whether her trust was appropriate.

Shawn Begrebatti, a military protocol specialist critical to achieving properly-formatted military communications, walked over from his non-working station and asked Holly quietly, “How long are we supposed to stay down here by ourselves? Did Perry give you any sort of time table?”

Holly shook her head. “How could he? It hasn’t even been five minutes since a fucking hole was blown in what was supposed to be an impenetrable facility. He doesn’t know what’s going on any more than any other person in this hell. The only thing we know is that someone in one of these groups fucked up, said the wrong thing to the wrong person and now half our group is dead.”

Shawn backed away. Of the three team leads, Holly was normally the quiet, level-headed one. He hadn’t expected such an outburst. Neither had anyone else on the team. If Holly’s intention had been to scare the shit out of them all, she had succeeded. They had not considered that one of them might be responsible for whatever had happened. There was no way now that they could not look at each other without suspicion.

Holly walked around the perimeter of the room, taking in all the destruction. So much detailed work, work that could have set new standards for AI in systems all over the world, was now gone. Sure, there were tape backups stored somewhere in some off-site location, but she couldn’t assume those were any safer than what had existed here.

The lab door opened and Holly jumped, expecting to see that Perry had come to get them. Instead, it was Gary Chu, Claire’s assistant, along with the three other survivors of the Green team. “One of the military guys told us to stay here with you until they can get a team to get us out,” he said.

Holly looked at them and felt the tears coming to her eyes again. Their clothes were scorched and torn. They all had cuts, some of which were severe. They had obviously used their own clothes in an attempt to stop the worse of the bleeding. Her own dust-covered team looked pristine by comparison.

“Sure, come on in,” Holly said. She grabbed a vacant chair and pushed it toward him. “Here, have a seat. Tell us what you need. Clean bandages? Alcohol?”

Other members of the yellow team quickly gave up their seats as well for the wounded members of the green team. Only Holly had been outside the lab so this was their first exposure to just how bad the explosion had been.

“Thank you,” Gary said as he took the chair Holly had offered. “We did the best we could to stop the bleeding. Tia’s leg is probably the worst injury among us. It could definitely stand to be cleaned and rebandaged.”

Holly walked over to where the bespectacled Tia sat, obviously trying to not scream from the pain she was feeling in her left leg. The lower half of her slacks had been torn away, part of it used to make the tourniquet that was keeping her from bleeding out. The fabric was soaked in blood and Holly could only guess that an artery had been severed. Removing the tourniquet without the ability to immediately replace it could be dangerous.

“Sansibal,” Holly said, addressing one of the women on her team, “Run to the women’s restroom and grab me like three tampons and a roll of toilet paper.”

As the young woman ran to the restroom, Holly looked at Shawn and ordered, “There are sheets in the supply closet, along with a number of blankets. Take Lila and Chuck and grab all of them and bring them back. We’re going to need the sheets torn into 3-inch strips.”

Holly then took Tia’s hand and said softly, “We need to get you inverted. Your leg needs to be higher than your head. Let’s ease you down here onto the floor and put your foot in the chair. That should do the trick.”

By the time the remaining team members helped ease Tia to the floor, both Sansibal and Shawn had returned with their assigned supplies. Holly took the tampons first and opened the sterile packages, discarding the applicators. The women on her team looked horrified while the men were totally confused. “Government efficiency,” Holly explained. “The tampons are sterile and since they’re government issued we don’t have to worry about any perfumes or other chemicals that might introduce poisons to her bloodstream. They’re designed to do one thing: absorb.” She paused for a moment and looked at Shawn. “You have those strips ready?”

He passed her a neatly folded stack of hastily ripped sheets. Holly had to admit that she was impressed by his efficiency.

With the tampons and new bandages at the ready, she started to remove the bloody bandage but then stop. “Duct tape,” Holly said, seemingly randomly. “There’s a roll of duct tape in the supply room, second shelf on the left, third bin back. Someone get it.”

Shawn was immediately up and running, retrieving the duct tape in a matter of seconds.

Holly propped Tia’s head with one of the blankets and then began removing the bloody cloth. The instant the pressure was released, the blood flow grew to nearly a gush. Quickly, Holly placed the tampons inside the massive wound, then used the bandage strips to wrap the leg as tightly as possible. Finally, she used the duct tape over the strips to apply additional pressure that would hopefully stop the bleeding.

Tia’s body shuddered. Holly covered her with another of the blankets and instructed Sansibal to fill a water bottle and make sure Tia stayed hydrated.

Standing, Holly looked at the remaining members of the Green team. None of them looked great, but none of the other injuries appeared to be life-threatening at the moment.

The lab door opened again. There stood Perry, outfitted in a climbing harness. Behind him stood similarly-clad Marines. “Holly, give me a run down. Who can walk and who can’t?”

Holly looked at Tia and was about to suggest that she needed to be taken out first. Then, before she could speak, everything went dark.

The Evil Among Us

The Evil Among Us

Carson and D looked at each other, knowing that some adjustment would have to be made before they could continue. There was now a massive hole in the bridge where moments ago Reggie had stood. If Carson took another step forward, his fate and that of the woman on his shoulders would be the same as Reggie’s. The obvious solution seemed to be for Carson to move around the table to D’s position and for D to move up where Marti had been. The men nodded at each other and began the careful shuffle while Natalie, Barry, and Reesie struggled to hold the table in place. Just as there was the risk of the two men falling into the hole, the current was pulling back against the table. Considerable effort was necessary to prevent Reesie or Natalie from being dragged into the crevice from the other side.

Every moment felt like an eternity. Every decision beyond whether to breathe felt like a life or death matter. For all the altruism that might have existed between Reesie, Barry, and Natalie when they left the coffee shop, each felt now that their own survival was paramount to anything else. There was no guarantee of anyone making it to Natalie’s apartment building and even if they did make it that far there were still other threats that might keep anyone from seeing their families again. Without saying a word, they had each privately decided that if it came down to making a choice between themselves or anyone on the table, they would act to save themselves first.

Slowly, the men eased into their new positions around the table and the group began the precarious venture down the subtle incline of the bridge. Carson could feel the edge of the hole beneath his right foot. Only the young woman on his shoulders heard his whimper and she didn’t care. She had just watched her mother being swept into the flood, her grandmother lied motionless next to Adam on the table, both her hope and her will to live had vanished. She wondered if she would really be that upset if Carson was to stumble and dump her into the same muddy water that had claimed her mom. Carson, however, was determined to not let that happen. He had already decided that if he began to feel himself slipping he would intentionally lunge in whatever direction necessary to toss the girl onto the table. Maybe she’d make it, maybe she wouldn’t, but at least he would have tried.

Reesie couldn’t stop crying. Reggie had been her right hand at the coffee shop. He was the first person she hired on her own and he had volunteered countless hours to help with the restoration of the space. In some ways, she felt he was as responsible for the coffee shop’s success as she was and now, with no warning, with no chance of recovery, he was gone, swept away, without so much as a chance to call for help. The pain was almost too much to bear.

Natalie could hear Reesie’s sobbing over the rain pounding against her own head. She looked across the table at the woman she had begun to admire and knew that she could only imagine what she was feeling at the moment. Natalie had seen a lot of things in her career as a reporter, but she had largely been spared having to cover much that actually involved death. On the few occasions where it was necessary, the deceased was never anyone she had known at all. She was able to remain detached, a cool observer whose only job was to write about the tragedy, not join in it. Losing people with whom she had any kind of relationship was new. The fear of losing anyone left around the table was not something she wanted to consider.

When the group finally made it off the bridge to more level ground, they paused, wiped the water from their faces, and readjusted their positions around to table to keep it balanced. Reesie was now directly across from D. She noticed that the middle-aged woman on his shoulders hadn’t said a word through the entire process. Clinging desperately to the top of D’s head, her body seemed to affect him no more than would an oversized hat. Carson was alone with his rider at the back of the table, a position he didn’t necessarily enjoy. He feared he could slip into the water and those in front of him might not even notice.

The gray outline of Natalie’s apartment building was vaguely visible in front of them, She knew no one could hear her above the rain, but Natalie still caught everyone’s attention and pointed toward the large structure ahead so that even if something happened to her they would know where to go. They wouldn’t know what to do when they got there, but they would have a destination and that was better than nothing.

No one spoke the remainder of the trip. Seeing the apartment building gave them a sense of focus for something outside themselves. All they had to do was make it this last, short distance and they would be safe, or at least, safer than they were out here on the street.

Barry thought it a bit strange that they hadn’t seen anyone else outside in the rain. He knew that the houses crowding the popular neighborhood contained a mix of retired people and young families. As water filled their homes, he wondered why he didn’t see anyone climbing onto rooftops or into trees, the sights he remembered always seeing when the television news sent helicopters flying over flooded areas. Neither had they seen anyone in boats or canoes. Their solitude struck him as strange and unnatural. He kept his concerns to himself, though. They had enough trouble just trying to make it to safety. He had no business inviting more.

He wondered how they must look to anyone who might happen to see them navigating the makeshift raft down the middle of the road. They were the most unlikely grouping of strangers now dependent on each other for survival, so thoroughly soaked by the rain and beaten by the wind that their features were hardly distinguishable. The only thing, he told himself, was that while the rain had slimmed down everyone else to the point that they looked like sticks protruding from the water, he was still the fat one, a single bobber surrounded by four fishing poles. Barry hadn’t needed to exert this much physical effort at any point in his life. Breathing had quickly become difficult but at this point, even that challenge felt like something he had been doing for years. This trip was taking forever.

As they neared the apartment building, Natalie realized there was a new problem facing them: there was no way the table was going to fit through the stairwell. Sure, had it just been a piece of random furniture they could have gotten it up the stairs by turning it on end and twisting it around. This was no longer furniture, though. As a raft carrying three people, it needed to stay flat and in that position, it wasn’t going past the first landing.

Natalie looked back at the three people on the table. At least Amanda could walk up the stairs on her own. The older woman could probably make it with some assistance. Getting Adam upstairs was a problem, though. She and Reesie had struggled enough to get his coats off him back at the coffee shop. Now, he was thoroughly soaked, she guessed 300 pounds or more of dead weight. Even if everyone worked together, she wasn’t sure they could move him to safety. Had they really brought him all this way, endangering their own lives, for nothing?

Reesie and Barry soon realized the problem as well and everyone else caught on quickly. Amanda was now sitting up, anxious to get off the table. Only now did they realize that the older woman hadn’t moved for several minutes, either. Yet, her condition was secondary at the moment, even for her granddaughter who was clinging to Carson’s head.

When they reached the base of the stairwell, Natalie turned to the others, yelling above the rain, “Stay here, I’ll see if I can find some help. I know there have to be people at home.”

The others felt the table shift as Natalie released her grip and bounded up the stairs.

Carson started to ask what they would do if Natalie didn’t come back, but the wind blew water into his mouth, effectively keeping him quiet. The thought had gone through everyone else’s mind, though, and they waited nervously, hoping.

Natalie hoped that Darrell was still home. She couldn’t be sure. Hadn’t he said something about meeting someone for lunch? If he was gone, she had no way to get into the apartment. Her keys had been in the same bag as her laptop which was now likely underwater back at the coffee shop. She tried the door and was immediately thankful that it was unlocked. What she saw in her living room, however, was not what she had expected.

Darrell was not alone. Two very naked young women were sitting in towels on the couch. A third was approaching from the hallway, drying her hair with another towel, just as naked as the other two.

Hearing the door, Darrell moved quickly to see who was there and was genuinely surprised to see Natalie standing in the doorway. “I … I … It’s not what it looks like, I swear, it’s …”

Natalie rolled her eyes and motioned for him to be quiet. “No, I get it,” she said, then looking at the girls, she called each by name. “Miranda, Amber, and Gwen. Apartments 104, 107, and 106, all of which are flooded. We’re good. Did anyone think to check on Mrs. Applegate in 103?”

“I knocked but didn’t get any answer and the door was locked solid,” Darrell said. “Same for the other first floor apartments. They were the only ones at home.”

“Everyone else works day shift,” Natalie said. “Will and Caroline in 102 would have been the last to leave around 9:30.”

“It’s Tuesday, Mrs. Applegate is probably at the senior center over on Clermont,” Amber said as she finished drying her hair and sat the towel on the back of a kitchen chair. Her tall, tanned, and fit physique was the kind that made many women jealous. More than a few of the building’s residents referred to her as “The Amazon.” Natalie was one of the few people who had actually taken the time to get to know her, however, and knew that she held two masters degrees, one in physics and other in applied mathematics, and did competitive bodybuilding to counter the nerd stereotype she had battled in high school.

“We have a problem downstairs,” Natalie said. “I brought everyone from the coffee shop home with me and one, maybe two of them are unconscious. We’re going to need a lot of help getting them upstairs.”

“All of them?” Darrell asked. “The entire coffee shop? Like, how many people are we talking about?” He looked around the room wondering how many people they could possibly accommodate.

“We’ll deal with it,” Amber said, immediately taking charge. She looked around for something reasonably dry to wear and found a pair of Natalie’s stretch leggings. “You mind if I toss these on?” she asked. “I might stretch them a bit but I can buy you more later.”

Natalie laughed. “Go ahead, if you think you can fit into them.”

Everyone in the room giggled a little as Amber struggled to get the leggings up to her thighs and over her hips. Natalie reached over to the pile of clothes on the table and tossed leggings at Miranda and Gwen as well, both of whom were considerably smaller than Amber.

“Let’s go!” Amber said as she headed for the door.

“Uhm, don’t we like, need shirts or something?” Gwen asked. She was small, not much if any taller than Amanda and looked more like an elf than a human as she stood there covering her chest with her arms.

Amber laughed. “I don’t think anyone is really going to care at this point,” she said as she headed down the stairs.

Natalie looked around the room and tossed Gwen the first t-shirt she could find, one of Darrell’s old band shirts. He started to object but the look on Natalie’s face warned him against it. She grabbed another and offered it to Miranda, but the young woman everyone in the building regarded as a too quiet and stuck up waved it off and followed after Amber. The others quickly followed.

The group at the table looked up as the sound of footsteps running down the staircase made it feel as though the whole structure might fall on top of them. Their mouths involuntarily fell open as Amber was the first person they saw, her ample breast bouncing in an involuntarily seductive way as she bounded down the stairs. Amber was about to laugh at their reaction when she saw a face she recognized.

“You?” she asked credulously. “What the fuck are you doing here? You can get the fuck out right now!”

All eyes followed Amber’s stern gaze and quickly realized that it was D she was yelling at. Amber ran down the stairs, through the water, and quickly retrieved the woman from the top of his shoulders, putting her down safely on a step just as Natalie and the others were arriving, surprised by the commotion. Amber turned and looked at D again. “Djali, you fucking demon, what the fuck have you done to these people?” Without giving him a chance to respond, she turned to Natalie and asked forcefully, “How many people did you start with?”

Natalie had to stop and think for a second, counting in her head. “Uhm, 13, I think. We lost …”

“Three,” Amber interrupted. She looked at the table, “And he’s waiting on these two because five is his favorite number.”

All eyes were still on D. He grinned and took a step away from the table. “Hey, you wouldn’t expect me to miss an event like this, would you? And most of them made it here. It’s not like I’m completely barbaric or anything. They did lose one back at the coffee shop, though.”

Reesie spoke up, a look of complete bewilderment on her face. “I don’t understand. Is he like your ex or something?”

Amber looked around for something she could use as a weapon but there was nothing but water. “Oh, he’s something, alright,” she said. “Djali is a straight-up demon of death, the kind your Sunday School teacher warned you about. He’s part of Di Inferni, but this one is Albanian rather than Roman and has a thing for making accidents happen.”

The others exchanged looks and Carson carefully moved to the other side of the table.

Djali smiled broadly, baring his teeth, a look that felt sinister to everyone watching. “You give me undue credit, dear,” he said. “I don’t make those accidents happen. I merely take advantage of them when they do.”

Amber glared at the demon then looked at the group still standing in the water holding onto the table. The current had only eased slightly and the rain was still pounding. The roof over the stairwell offered some limited protection for those closest to it but Carson and the young woman he carried were still getting soaked. The tall woman stepped into the current and took the girl from Carson’s shoulders and then guided them both onto the staircase.

Amanda took that as her cue and climbed over Adam and onto the stairs, thankful to be on more solid footing, even if she still wasn’t sure this would be survival. This left Reesie and Barry struggling to hold onto the table, the strain evident in their faces.

Amber looked up the stairs at Darrell. “Why don’t you come down and help them hold on to this thing,” she said in a tone that gave Darrell no option but to comply. “Gwen, dear, why don’t you take the soaked ones upstairs. See if you can find more towels or something.”

“Second shelf of the hallway closet,” Natalie instructed. “There are clean sheets and blankets they can wrap in as well.”

Miranda eased her way down the staircase and saw the two remaining people lying on the table. “Are they … dead?” she asked nervously.

“No, not yet,” Amber said. “If they were Djali would have conveniently disappeared by now. He doesn’t like sticking around for the aftermath.”

“How can you tell?” Reesie asked. She had been wondering for some time whether both of the table’s occupants were still breathing.

Amber moved closer to the table. “This is Adam Hirschfeld, isn’t it?” she asked.

Reesie nodded, wondering how Amber knew his full name.

“I took care of his dear wife before she passed,” Amber said as though she anticipated Reesie’s questions. She leaned over the table and checked his pulse then opened an eyelid. “He’s in a coma from diabetic ketoacidosis. He’s in desperate need of fluids and insulin therapy, neither of which we’re adequately prepared to give him.” She looked across the table and glared at Djali who was still smiling.

Amber turned her attention to the older woman on the table. She checked for a pulse the checked the dilation of her eyes. “She’s suffering cardiac arrhythmia because of the exposure.” Amber picked up the frail woman and handed her to Miranda who was not quite ready to accept the weight. “Natalie, if you can help her up the stairs, get her into something dry, see if you can get her conscious enough to drink something warm, even if it’s just warm water from the tap.”

Natalie helped Miranda carry the woman up the stairs, looking back nervously at the three people remaining. Having come this far with Barry and Reesie, she worried about something happening, especially with Djali still standing there. She still didn’t understand who he was but there was little question that he was evil.

Amber looked at Barry, Darrell, and Natalie. “This isn’t going to be easy,” she warned. “He’s a big boy. The good news is that he’ll float a little. We’ll ease him off the raft and let the raft float away.”

Reesie looked at the table, the last remnant of her coffee shop. She hated to see it go but didn’t feel like there was any room to argue the matter.

“When we get him to the stairs,” Amber continued, “Barry, it is Barry isn’t it?”

Barry nodded.

“You get under his left shoulder, I’ll take the right,” Amber instructed. She then looked over at Reesie. “You’re Tinera’s wife, Shyreese, aren’t you?”

Reesie felt her mouth drop open again and quickly shut it. “Yes, how did you …”

“Griddleiscious is an addiction Adam and I share,” Amber said, “And your wife is extremely proud of you and baby Ravie.”

Reesie smiled. “I guess I get his feet?” she said.

“As best you can,” Amber replied. “His greater weight is in his hips and midsection. Lifting him is going to be awkward at best. Darrell, try to lift where you can between his knees and his hips.”

“Maybe if I move down a little I can help,” Barry said, using his size to his advantage. “I’m not overly strong but I should at least be able to help keep him up.”

Amber smiled. “You’re a lot stronger than you think,” she said.

Together, the quartet lifted Adam off the table and let it float away. Getting him over to the stairs was easy enough but lifting him up to the first landing was a struggle. Getting him up the remaining three flights of stairs without assistance was impossible.

“What do we do now,” Reesie asked as they propped Adam into a corner. “We can’t just leave him down here.”

“I can stay with him,” Barry offered.

Amber shook her head. “You three go upstairs. See if there’s still an available blanket or something I can use to cover him. I’ll say here and protect him from Djali.”

They looked back down the staircase expecting to see the black-clad demon standing there but he had disappeared.

“Oh good, he’s gone,” Reesie said. “That guy creeped me out the minute he walked into the shop.”

Amber took a few steps down the stairs into the water. “He’s not gone. He never leaves until his body count is complete and he’s still one person short. He’s just waiting for his moment.”

For Fear of a Dull Moment

For Fear of a Dull Moment

Rudy Blackstone paced in the living area of the residence on the third floor of the White House. Being without his staff or any other form of communication was driving him nuts. He was accustomed to there always being people at his beck and call. The expanded security detail meant there were plenty of people in the residence but none of them could tell him what was going on or how soon the problem was going to be fixed.

The president started walking toward a window and quickly a Secret Service agent blocked his way. “What the fuck, I can’t even look out the window now?” he asked angrily.

“I’m afraid not, sir,” the agent responded, his voice absent of any emotion.

Rudy growled. “I thought those windows were supposed to be bulletproof,” he said.

The agent broadened his stance. “It isn’t bullets we’re worried about at the moment,” he said. “Until we’ve identified and eliminated the threat, Mr. President, we’re taking no chances of any kind.”

The president stomped back toward the kitchen area. “Goddammit,” he mumbled under his breath. “What good is it to be president if you can’t even leave the residence?” He sat down at the small kitchen table and said, “Can someone at least get me a diet soda from the fridge? Can I have that? Can I have a diet soda?”

The other Secret Service agents looked at each other, fighting the urge to roll their eyes. One of them reached into the sparse refrigerator and pulled out a can of the president’s favorite diet soda. There wasn’t much else in the unit, just some of the president’s frequent snacks. All the real food was kept downstairs in the main kitchen. The agent took a clean glass from the cabinet and poured the contents of the can into the glass before handing it to the president.

“Thanks,” Rudy said condescendingly. “At least I don’t have to do everything for myself.”

A fourth agent appeared and whispered something into the ear of the agent who had served the president the soda. The agent nodded and then turned to the president. “Sir, General Lang is here to brief you on the situation.”

Rudy gulped down the soda and stood up. “Good, maybe we can finally get some answers.”

As General Lang entered the room, the president shook his hand and slapped him on the back of the shoulder, a move the general did not appreciate. He was not here to be the president’s best friend or fishing buddy. The matter was serious.

“So, Al, tell me what’s going on out there. We’ve got a handle on this, right?” the president asked.

General Lang summoned his most serious expression, the one that frightened the hell out of even his closest advisors. “No sir, we don’t even know what ‘this” is yet. What we do know is that the entire country has been attacked and some of our NATO allies as well.”

The president put his hands into his pants pockets and looked at the floor. “So, what you’re telling me is that we’re fucked.”

“For the moment, yes, sir,” Lang said. “That would seem to be the case.”

Rudy paused. “We need to find someone we can bomb.”

Reading time: 58 min

Editorial Note: Now we’re definitely into new territory. I’m curious how many of you will stay with me to the end. I’m also curious as to where the end might be. I’m writing rather extemporaneously so while I have some sense of where this ends, I don’t have details on how to get there. When I’m done, the whole thing could probably use good editing.

I’m also curious as to whether this format is preferable to a single non-fiction issue addressed each week. You know, there’s a comment section at the very bottom of the page that no one has ever used. You might give it a try, let me know which format you prefer. I’m not set up to spam people who comment, so you can feel relatively safe. I can’t promise that the NSA isn’t watching, though. One never knows with them.

Thank you for taking the time to read. If you need to catch up, click here for part one, and click here for part two. Now, let’s pick up where we left off.

It Can Always Be Worse

It Can Always Be Worse

The backdoor was compromised first. Starting with a heavy gust of wind then what sounded like a small explosion outside, the door broke free of its hinges and floated toward the storage room swept along by a torrent of water that had been looking for somewhere to go. The water rushed from the back toward the front, quickly covering the entire shop in six inches of water with more coming in.

Reesie heard the front door squeak. Natalie, Reggie, and Barry helped move the heavier furniture toward the door, stacking it on top of and around the chair that was already there. What none of them realized was that the door wasn’t the weakest point. With a crash of thunder, the giant display window fell and what had been six inches of water was now nearly three feet of water, which meant Adam was floating, and he still hadn’t awakened.

Reesie and Reggie grabbed hold of Adam’s legs while everyone else started climbing onto table tops and the counter, looking for any safe space not covered in water. The four women at the back table were all crying now. The two at the bar top were standing in their chairs looking completely bewildered and helpless.

Reesie looked at Natalie and said, “I don’t suppose you’ve ever built a raft before, have you?”

Natalie smiled. Yes, actually, she had. Three years ago she had written an article on surviving unexpected emergencies. One of those emergencies had been flash flooding. As part of her research, Natalie had learned how to make a raft from available materials without using a rope. She started looking around to see what might work. She would need three basic elements: a sturdy floor, something to keep that floor floating, and a way to hold it all together. This wasn’t going to be easy. As she looked around the coffee shop, Natalie realized not much here was capable of floating. The large tabletop at the back of the room was her best choice.

Turning to Ressie, Natalie asked, “Are the legs detachable from that table?”

“Yes! That’s perfect,” Reesie said. “There’s a large screwdriver on my desk in the office … or there was.”

The swirling water around them was growing deeper as massive amounts of rain continued to fall from the sky. Natalie swished her way through the water, glancing angrily at the bigger, taller men who were standing helplessly on the counter. “I’m going to need that table, ladies,” she said as she passed. ‘You might want to join the guys on the counter.”

The women whimpered as they crouched on the table and eased into the water. “I just spend $600 on these shoes,” one of the women complained.

“I should never have left home,” whined another.

Natalie rolled her eyes and kept moving. The small size of the office and the fact that its door had been closed had kept the things on top of Reesie’s desk intact. The screwdriver was exactly where it was supposed to be. Natalie also grabbed three extension cords used to power holiday decorations. They were as close to rope as she was likely to find. Now all she needed was something to keep the tabletop afloat.

Wading back into the main room of the coffee shop, Natalie handed the screwdriver to Carson, who was still griping about how inconvenient the situation was as he stood on top of the counter. “Here, grab one of the other guys and get that tabletop off its legs,” she ordered. She then waded over to where Reesie and Reggie were still trying to keep Adam afloat. She couldn’t believe he was still unconscious.

Reesie wasn’t sure how much longer she would be able to keep Adam from sinking. Not only was his body heavy, his clothes, which seemed more fitting for winter than late spring, were now completely waterlogged and weighing him down. She hated the thought of messing with anything, but at this point, she didn’t seem to have any choice. “Let’s get these coats off him,” she told Reggie. “They’re just weighing him down and making our job more difficult.”

Reggie nodded and they began struggling to remove the coats. While both of them had experience dressing sleeping children, the swirling water and Adam’s weight made this task much more difficult than either of them could have anticipated. The coats continually became stuck on every bend and curve in his body. Had they not already been completely soaked the task would have caused them to work up a sweat.

Natalie waded over and grabbed Adam’s shoulders in an attempt to help. “I need something large and floatable under the table to keep it afloat,” she said. “I don’t suppose you have any large chunks of styrofoam lying around, do you?”

Reesie laughed. “No, I guess that’s what I get for trying to be environmentally friendly.” She thought for a minute. “You know what, the water delivery guy hasn’t come yet this week. He was due this morning. There’s like six of those huge empty water bottles in the back if they’ve not already floated away.”

“That’s perfect,” Natalie said, excited to have found something so perfect. “Do you have any duct tape? I’ll need to cover the spouts.”

“File cabinet, second drawer,” Reggie answered.

“Fantastic,” she said as she waded off. As she passed the counter, she grabbed the mysterious man in black. “You’re coming with me,” she commanded. She was surprised at the authority she heard in her own voice. This was a new feeling and she was liking it.

The man carefully stepped down from the counter and they made their way toward the back room. A small, eight-foot-by-six-foot space at the back of the shop served as a kind of second seating area, though it could only hold about six people, max. Most of the time it was occupied by people working on laptops. It also served as temporary storage for whatever random material was on its way out the back door. Sure enough, there in the back corner, six large water bottles were bobbing in place, conveniently trapped by two chairs and a table. Natalie handed three to the mystery man. “You know, it would probably help if we had a name to call you, given the situation,” she said.

“D is good enough,” he said.

Natalie gave him an incredulous stare. “Look, if this rain keeps up, there’s every good chance all of us could die here. There’s no point in pretending to be all dark and mysterious.”

“Says the writer who uses four different pseudonyms,” he replied.

Natalie stood there with three large water bottles in her hands, water now up to her waist. Not even Darrell knew how many fake names she was using to navigate through the freelance system. “How the fuck did you know that?” she asked. “Have you been spying on me? On all of us?”

D turned and started walking toward the other room. “Let’s just say I have access to information most people don’t. It’s my job.”

“Interesting job,” Natalie replied, instantly not trusting the man.

They waded back toward the main room. Natalie stopped by the office long enough to grab the duct tape. By the time they made it back to the counter, Carson had the tabletop off its stand. Natalie and D helped turn it upside down and she began trying to determine how best to attach the empty water bottles. While covering the open spouts Natalie mentioned possibly using the duct tape. There seemed to be enough to do the job.

“Only for about ten minutes,” D warned. “This is moving water. Even the best duct tape is only going to hold for so long under such soaked conditions.”

Carson was feeling argumentative. He needed a way to vent his anger and D seemed an easy target. “Well then, Mr. Smarty Pants, just what the fuck would you suggest?”

D ignored him, refusing to look in Carson’s direction. “This table is designed for an extension, so it separates at the center. Pull it apart just a bit and use the extension cords to strap down the bottles. Then, make additional cords by twisting lengths of the duct tape together. That should do it.”

Natalie didn’t want to trust the man in black, but what he said seemed to make sense. It was certainly a better idea than anyone else had. They opened the center of the table just enough to weave the extension cords and twisted tape through then shut it back as tightly as they could before flipping the tabletop back over. To everyone’s joy, it floated.

Natalie and D guided the table-raft over to where Reesie and Reggie were holding on to Adam. Gently, they eased him onto the large table.

“There,” Reesie said, shaking the tension from her strained muscles. “At least he’s safe for now.”

“There’s room for another person on that table,” said one of the women on the counter. “Mom here isn’t doing especially well. Maybe she could get on there, too.”

All eyes turned to the four women standing on the counter. Sure enough, the eldest of them, a woman who appeared to be well into her 70s, her dress, and undergarments, completely soaked, was coughing and having difficulty breathing.

As Reesie and Natalie guided the raft over toward the counter, Amanda spoke up. “Wait, I want on there, too. There’s room, and I have small children depending on me to survive.”

“Yeah, well you’re not the only one,” Reesie snapped. “Your kids aren’t any more special than mine.”

“But you’re tall,” Amanda insisted. “Look at me, in a few minutes, this water is going to be up to my chin!”

Sure enough, the water was already over the top of the table at which she and Barry had been sitting and rising quickly.

Reesie looked around the room to see who was the shortest. The elderly woman and Amanda were the most at risk. “Okay, let me get her,” she said motioning to the woman on the counter, “then we’ll come get you.” She looked at Barry, “You think you can help her get up there?”

“No problem,” Barry said, giving Amanda a reassuring smile. He leaned over and whispered, “Remember, if all else fails, I float.”

With both the smaller women on the makeshift raft, Reesie looked at Natalie and offered her a high five. “We did it, girl,” she said.

Before Natalie could respond, there was a scream and a hard thump behind them. They turned quickly to find that one of the girls standing on the bar top had slipped and fallen. Making matters worse, her head had hit the corner of the table on her way down. A heavy flow of blood was mixing with the flood water as the young woman floated face down.

Reggie was the closest and quickly turned her over and picked her up in his arms, but doing so left him with no way to anchor himself against the strong current. He wasn’t going to be able to hold her and stay on his feet for long.

“Quick, put her on top of Adam,” Reesie said, not knowing what else to do. “We’ve got to stop the bleeding.”

Reggie carefully draped the young woman’s body across Adam’s. Amanda moved out of the way as best she could to avoid being covered in the blood.

Reesie looked at Reggie. “Towels,” she said.

“Fuck that,” Natalie said and she stripped off her shirt and placed it under the girl’s head. “Every second counts and anyone who hasn’t seen boobs before is just going to have to deal.”

Reesie smiled and removed her shirt as well, a move she knew would make the men uncomfortable as her ample breasts swayed just above the water. At this point, she didn’t care. Surviving was most important.

Nothing Ever Gets Done In Washington

Nothing Ever Gets Done In Washington

The conference room at the Hilton Hotel in Tyson’s Corner was just far enough out of the beltway to not legally be in the District of Columbia yet close enough government officials could slip in and out without having to travel too far from their offices. Insiders knew it as the Washington Affair, the place where underpaid government workers slipped away for a quick rendezvous using IDs and credit cards that did not reveal their actual names. High-level administration officials knew to go further out toward Reston, or better yet past Dulles. It was too easy to get caught by random paparazzi all too anxious to hit tomorrow’s front page with a photo of a member of Congress or high-ranking administration official sneaking in with someone other than their spouse.

That wouldn’t be a problem this time. With everyone in a panic over the lack of communication, everyone was afraid to venture outside their office. Almost everyone had hunkered down in place for fear that the country was somehow being attacked. Tyson’s Coner was a quick drive.

Such short notice made it a little difficult for the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader to slip out of the Capitol, but then, both had considerable expertise at moving around undetected. Between the two of them, they had over 80 years of experience in Washington. While they were among the most easily recognizable faces in town, they also had security teams that rivaled that of the president. Getting them in and out of places without anyone knowing was part of the job of the Secret Service agents assigned to them.

Only seven minutes elapsed between the time Terri arrived and Senator Graham Norman of Louisiana walked through the door. In the interim, Roger and Speaker of the House Norma Watkins of Seattle had slipped in through back doors. General Lang had brazenly walked through the front door, but out of uniform, no one was likely to recognize him too quickly. No one expected the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in blue jeans and a Baylor University sweatshirt.

Once Senator Norman took his seat, a Secret Service agent closed the door, locking it behind him. There were no recording devices in the room. A thorough sweep had been done to make sure. When they left, no one would admit this meeting had ever taken place. With all the computer systems down, not even the hotel would have a record of the room ever being used.

The instant the lock on the door clicked, Sen. Norman began talking. “Look, I want it made very clear that I do not approve of the reason for this meeting. There is absolutely no way I am going to allow anyone, anywhere, anytime to unseat the duly and fairly elected president of these United States. This meeting is preposterous and the only reason I’m here is to prevent you idiots from trying something behind my back!”

The words had barely come out of his mouth when the lock on the door clicked again. All five of them startled at the sudden sound, then stood when Vice President Andrew Abernathy strode into the room.

Sen. Norman felt his jaw drop open but quickly rectified that faux paux by speaking. “Mr. Abernathy! Don’t tell me you are in on this attempted coup as well!”

The vice president looked at the senator a moment, his face set and stern. “Senator, as the last person in this room to have spoken with the president about this crisis, or at least, attempted to speak with the president about this crisis, I am probably more convinced than anyone that we have to do something to provide other leadership until we know what happened and our country is back on stable footing. I’m in favor of a temporary reduction in powers if we can legally find one, but at the end of the day, every last one of us took an oath the defend the Constitution, not the president.”

Sen. Norman was resolute and not willing to give any ground. Debate was what had gotten him where he was. “Mr. Abernathy, are you telling me, for sure, that our president is unable to uphold his oath of office? I find that opinion stupefyingly derisory and objectionably contemptible!”

Abernathy leaned in. He knew the senator’s habits and wasn’t about to give him the upper hand. Calmly, he said, “With all due respect, Senator, you don’t have all the facts in evidence. Let’s have a seat and I’ll tell you what just happened. The vice president pulled a chair back and sat down and the others did the same, Sen. Norman being the last to be seated.

Roger sensed a new urgency in the vice president’s voice and wanted everyone to hear the latest. “Mr. Vice President, I am concerned that there has been an additional incident. I thought the president was secured in his private quarters until we can figure out what happened.”

“He is,” the vice president confirmed. “He had sent a messenger to my office just before I was leaving to come here. The messenger said the president had an urgent need to speak with me so, naturally, I went there first. His only complaint, and I quote, ‘None of my stuff is working, Andrew. I get there’s a problem out there in the nation, but shouldn’t the president’s stuff be working? I mean, I have to send someone to the kitchen just to get a sandwich. No one’s answering their phones, either. Not Roger, not Graham, I had to send someone over to fetch you. And they won’t let me leave the residence. Something about national security, blah, blah, blah. Do something about this, Andrew. Form a committee or something.”

Everyone except Sen Norman chuckled at the vice president’s impersonation of the president.

VP Abernathy continued. “I asked him what he was going to do about martial law. He said that General Lang was handling it and that he expected it all to blow over by morning. I asked about the possibility that we had been attacked and he waved me off with, “Please, Andrew, no one on the planet is that stupid.” We’ve babysat him through a number of potential crisis, but this is the real things. Real lives are at stake. Millions of lives are at stake and Senator, it’s our party that’s going to take the blame if we allow this president to fuck everything up worse. We blow this right now, if we don’t replace him this instant, the GOP won’t be able to elect anyone to dog catcher for another twenty years or more. You can kiss your seat goodbye for sure.”

The vice president paused long enough to let the last bit sink in. He could see the softening on the senator’s face as he realized the truth of what the vice president had said.

Speaker Watkins spoke first. “Andrew, may I be informal here?”

The vice president nodded and smiled.

“Andrew,” she continued, “If we go through with this, there are those in your own party who are going to demand hearings and it would be almost impossible for me to stop them. My own party isn’t going to shy away from asking questions, either. We’ve gone over how this works. Congress has to approve the move within 21 days or it’s moot and, quite possibly, and you members of the Cabinet could be charged with treason. Are you convinced enough that there is sufficient evidence to convince all the people necessary?”

“Norma, I can, within 24 hours, submit the written opinion of 15 different doctors who have examined the president in some capacity, and are willing to state that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office as required by the Constitution.”

“But the president’s personal physician and the White House physician have both gone on record as stating otherwise,” Roger said. “The weight of their words is going to go further than 100 physicians without official capacity. “

Terri leaned forward to speak, “Can we, with or without physician compliance, enumerate specific Constitutional insufficiencies that would justify his removal from office, even temporarily? We have to consider public opinion, because they will eventually, somehow, find out and they will be very vocal if they feel we’ve pulled a fast one while the light was out, so to speak.”

“So what you’re telling me,” Sen. Norman started, his slow drawl pulling at the vowels of every word, “Is that we’re fishing for a critter we’re not sure can be caught. Even if we think we have sufficient evidence, and I’m still not totally convinced that we do, this whole thing could blow up in our faces.”

Andrew leaned back in his chair and sighed with exasperation. He didn’t like what the senator said but he knew it was true. One doesn’t just replace the president of the United States. They had to be dead certain of what they were doing. “We need the cooperation of myself and nine cabinet members, correct? What else do we need?”

“There are some interesting vagueries once we actually look at what the amendment says,” Norma said, opening a thick law book she had brought with her. “Listen to this carefully,”

“Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”

Looks were exchanged around the room. There were some massive holes that could potentially be manipulated if they were sufficiently careful.

Norma continued, “What I see is this: if we don’t have the willful cooperation of nine members of the Cabinet, we can call an emergency session of Congress and elect among ourselves another body of our own construction that will provide the necessary cooperation. Second, and I think this may be critical to getting Congressional approval, we can make this as permanent or temporary as we need. The Amendment says ‘Acting President,’ which implies to no small degree that either the elected president returns to office when sufficiently capable or that a new president is elected following the Constitutionally prescribed procedures.”

At this point, General Lang sat up and leaned into the table. “That’s assuming the country is in a position to have elections on time. Ladies and gentlemen, may I remind you that what is happening outside right now is not normal by any stretch of the imagination. No offense Mr. Vice President, but for all practical purposes, the president signed all authority over to me for the time being. And I don’t care who’s sitting in the White House, until that authority is revoked my only focus is to keep the people of this country safe. Ya’ll go messing around with replacing the president, that could easily set off riots that would just make bad matters worse. I’m all for ya’ll getting everything together and making sure you have everything you need, but you don’t make a move without my permission, do you understand? I can’t risk ya’ll starting a bunch of riots around the country. I don’t have the manpower for that.”

As if to underscore his statement, a military aid suddenly burst into the room and saluted the general. The general stood and returned the salute. “This had better be important,” Lang said, the robust voice booming in the empty room.”

“Yes sir,” the aide replied. “You need to know that in the past 30 minute, 27 airliners and 43 cargo planes fell from the sky without warning. No one is sure what happened. All were in route to the nearest available airport, per FAA instructions. Most made it, but not all. Sir, we have 70 planes down.”

There was a gasp that sucked all the air from the room. The general turned back to the table. “I need to go now. Remember what I said. Make all the preparations you want, but nothing happens until I say so.”

Wheels Flying Off The Wagon

Wheels Flying Off The Wagon

Perry turned and walked back into the room where Claire and the green team were doing everything they could to try and get their equipment back online, or at least figure out what it wasn’t working. He watched for a couple of seconds then said to Claire, “Please tell me you have some good news, Ms. Fielding.”

Claire hated it when Perry used her last name. Not only did the way he emphasized the Ms. sound condescending, but Fielding was also her husband’s last name, one she planned to jettison as soon as the divorce was final. She also knew he only addressed her that way when he was under pressure to provide answers and right now she had no answers to offer him. “I have no news, good or bad,” she said. “We’ve looked at everything reasonably possible and nothing’s matching up. It wasn’t a nuclear EMP, we know that. We would have been able to simply restart most things if that were the case and there’s no way it could have affected the entire country like this has. In fact, it’s almost impossible that it was any kind of electromagnetic event at all. Engines would still be able to re-start. Replacing certain circuits or boards would allow computers to restart. None of that is working. None of that. This is more like a massive bolt of lightning from Thor’s hammer struck the center of the planet and blew everything up.”

Perry’s fingers reached instinctively for the top of his head again. “You mean to tell me that every piece of electronics in this $50 million lab is completely irreparable?”

Claire continued working on the motherboard in front of her. She removed a chip and showed Perry the scorch marks. “See those? Short of a direct lightning hit, and by direct I mean at the base of this machine, that should never, ever, ever happen. It did. It happened to every machine in this room, on this base, and from what we’re hearing, around the world at the same time. Now, pardon my language sir, but that’s one fucking massive lightning strike.”

Perry was still examining the chip Claire had given him when another Marine private came running into the lab. “Lt. Col Hawkins,” the private said, saluting, “Message from Col. Brinkman. He said that everyone should immediately take …”

The private didn’t have time to finish his warning. A massive explosion struck the lab, knocking everyone off their feet and opening a gaping hole in the side of the lab. Perry pushed a piece of drywall away and dusted himself off. The private, likewise, kicked away some debris and bounced to attention, awaiting Perry’s orders.

Claire, however, was not so lucky. The massive server that had been standing behind her was now on top of her, its memory cards having run completely through her body in multiple places. Perry motioned to the private to help him move the server’s case, but there was nothing anyone could do. He looked around the room. Three others were motionless under other pieces of equipment. He ran to each to check, but it was of no use.

Running out into the hall, Perry was met by Holly, whose lab was some thirty feet away from the blast. “What happened?” she screamed. “I thought we were supposed to be safe down here? What the fuck just happened?”

Perry shook his head. “I don’t know yet.” He was looking across the hall where Kenneth’s lab had been. There was nothing left but burning paper and magnetic tape, and not much of that. Holly followed his gaze and immediately slumped to the ground in tears.

Perry turned to the private. “I need a report and I need it now. I need to know what that was. I need to know how it got into my bunker, and I need to know what conditions are above ground and I need that information pronto, do you understand, private?”

“Aye, sir, right away sir,” came the automatic reply as the private ran off to find the answers.

Perry reached down and put his arm around Holly. “Is everyone on your team okay?” he asked.

She nodded affirmatively. “Everything rattled, a couple of things fell off the wall, but no one was hurt.” She looked up again at the smoldering remains of the blue team’s lab. “Oh my god,” she cried. “We were supposed to be safe here,” she whimpered.

“I know,” Perry said, trying to be comforting while staying alert. There was nothing in his immediate assessment that could assure him that there might not be another explosion. “I thought we were safe, too,” he said. “I thought we had taken every precaution, anticipated every threat.” He felt the moistness of a tear roll down his cheek. He had just lost two team leads and 14 technicians at the very least, not to mention potential casualties on the surface. Nothing about the start of this day could have possibly prepared him for what had happened. As tough as he needed to be, keeping his own emotions held back was a battle he might not be able to win.

Perry helped Holly to her feet and walked her back to the yellow team’s lab. “Keep everyone on your team right here. No one leaves for any reason until I personally come to get you. No one else. Unless I’m standing in this door, every one of you stays put.”

Holly nodded and shut the door as Perry turned and trotted toward the imposing hole that had taken out half the bunker. The scene before him looked like something out of a Hollywood movie. Jagged pieces of rebar, concrete, and steel were strewn everywhere. Where the entrance shaft had been, Marines were working frantically to remove the debris. Perry could only assume they were looking for people who had been in the shaft at the time of the explosion. He stepped over the various layers that were supposed to have provided them protection. The bunker was more than 180 feet underground. Normal ladders would not be long enough to get survivors out. They were stuck.

As he stepped into the full light, he could see that the bunker was not the only thing that had been damaged. There was smoke rising on either side of the installation, indicating that they were victims of an ariel attack. He wondered if the private he had sent in search of Col. Brinkman had found him yet, or if he could.

His answer came quickly enough as the colonel approached from behind a pile of rubble to Perry’s left. “Unintended consequences,” the colonel said. “One of the airforces B-2s just fell from the sky and landed on top of us. Unfortunately, he happened to be carrying a couple of GBU-57A MOPs and for reasons currently unavailable, they happened to be armed. He dropped them both seconds before the plane hit the ground. They shouldn’t have been able to go off, but they both did.”

Perry looked around at the destruction, surprised that any of them were alive. The GBU-57A was a 30,000-pound bomb commonly known as a “bunker buster.” They were specifically designed to take out munitions stores held in difficult to reach places, such as underground. Their bunker was supposed to have been deep enough to have withstood the impact of one. Obviously, someone had miscalculated.

“How many people did you lose?” Col. Brinkman asked.

“!4 that I know of. There could have been some in the shaft.” Perry said. “What about topside?”

“Somewhere between 30-40, I’m guessing. The first bomb hit outside the gate so there are civilian casualties as well. Don’t have a count on that yet, obviously.”

“This wasn’t a scenario we anticipated,” Perry said.

“This isn’t a scenario anyone would have anticipated,” Brinkman replied. “B-2s don’t fall out of the sky. Certainly not over their own soil. Never with their bombs armed.” The colonel sighed heavily. “I’m sure someone in Washington has an explanation and I’m sure I’m not going to like it.”

“Can we even communicate with Washington?” Perry asked.

The colonel shook his head. “No, the fucker took out the teletype, too. We’re out here on our own where nothing works and no one knows what to do. It’s like trying to drive a wagon with no wheels and a dead horse.”

Perry looked at the devastation around him. He had managed to avoid a combat assignment before, but now the combat seemed to have come to him. He didn’t feel prepared at all. “Colonel, request permission to arm everyone who has had weapons training. Not all our agents are ex-military, but a number of them are and several of those who weren’t have had handgun training for the field. I’d like to make sure everyone who can handle a weapon has one.”

Brinkman looked carefully at Perry before responding. “That’s an interesting request, Mr. Hawkins,” the colonel replied. “First of all, I’m not sure how many personal munitions we have left at this point. Second, exactly what is it that makes you think your people need to be armed?”

“Remember what I told you about the possibility of a mole?” Perry asked.
“Yeah, but you said NSA couldn’t find anything,” Brinkman answered.

Perry paused to measure his words carefully. “Yes sir, but since nothing here today is something we might have or could have anticipated, what about the possibility that our mole had someone at NSA covering for him, making sure he didn’t get outed? I know that’s unreasonable under normal conditions, but sir, MOPs are designed to explode at an altitude of 200 feet above the ground. From what you’re telling me, that B-2 was below that deck. Those bombs should not have detonated. Something’s wrong. Our people need weapons.”

The colonel nodded. “Sound reasoning. Scary as fuck and I hope to god you’re wrong, but in this situation, it’s sound. My only concern is what if you’re handing a gun to the mole as well. Couldn’t more people get hurt?”

“At least this way we have a fighting chance, sir.” Perry said.

“Very well, let’s see what we’ve got. Outfit former military first. No one who hasn’t been sufficiently trained. Make it happen.”

And The Water Rises

Reggie returned with an armload of towels that were only slightly wet. Natalie and Reesie’s shirts were already soaked in the girl’s blood. They tossed the shirts into the water and Reesie used the towels in an attempt to clot the blood, but nothing they did seemed to be helping. The blood was draining from her body quickly. Her face had already gone pale.

Natalie looked up at the other girl, sobbing on top of the small bar table. “What’s her name?”

“Macy. Macy Gavin,” the girl said. “Yesterday was her birthday. I was going to take her to lunch to celebrate.”

Natalie leaned in. “Macy, if you can hear me, hang in there. You’re going to pull through this. It’s going to be okay.”

Looking up, she saw D standing toward the back door. He looked at her and shook his head. She looked back down at Macy and checked for a pulse. There was nothing. Reesie checked the girl’s carotid artery. Nothing there. They looked at each other, neither one wanting to say what they knew to be true.

“No! No! She can’t be dead!” the other girl screamed. “No! Please!”

Reesie looked at Reggie. “Go clean off the top of the file cabinets. Just toss the papers. No one is going to be wanting to see those now anyway. It’s all just part of the insurance claim that they’re not going to want to pay. We can put her in there and hopefully, she’ll be safe until we can find an authority of some kind.”

“Assuming there is any authority left,” Carson said morosely as he gazed at the front window where the water inside was finally level with the water outside, but all of it was still rising.

They floated the raft toward the hallway as far as they could, then Reggie, Carson, and D took the girl’s lifeless body and struggled to set it carefully on top of the row of file cabinets.

“Should we say something,” Carson asked.

Reggie shoved the cantankerous man. “This isn’t a funeral, dummy. Just be respectful, okay?”

By the time the men came back out, Reesie had used the towels to form bandeau tops for herself and Natalie, though she doubted they would do much good once they got soaked. They waded over to the bar top and helped the other girl get safely down and into the water.

“What’s your name, dear?” Reesie asked.

“Marti, er, Martina, actually. Martina Espanoza” came the reply. She sniffed back another sob and asked, “Can I stay with her? I don’t want her to be left alone.”

“Sure, baby,” Reesie said, trying to be as reassuring as possible. “Come with me and we’ll fix up a place for you in there.”

While Reesie took Marti back to the office, Barry, Carson, D, and Reggie were all gathered where the front window used to be, visually measuring the water level.

“It’s not any more shallow out there than it is in here,” Carson said.

“Yeah, but at least out there you’re not going to be trapped by a ceiling,” Barry replied. “This room is already more than half full. We’re about to hit a point where being able to float doesn’t matter.”

“There’s the current out there, though. One misstep and it drags you under,” Carson argued. “I’m sure both the dikes upstream on the creek have already given way. There’s nothing to stop the flow of water.”

“But you have a chance,” Bary insisted. “In here, there aren’t any options. Once the water reaches the ceiling, we’re done.” He looked back at the narrowing gap in the window. “I can barely fit through that gap now. Another thirty minutes and we’re all going to have trouble. I say we go now, take everyone with us.”

Natalie had waded up at the end of the conversation. “Do you think we can still get the raft through there?” she asked. “I don’t’ want to leave anyone behind who still has a chance.”

“What about three women still on the counter?” Reggie asked. “None of them are all that tall. The water may be close to being over their heads already.”

“We need a way to tie everyone together,” Natalie said. “That way we can help those who are shorter and are going to struggle more. Are there any more towels left?”

Reggie shook his head. “None that are dry, and trying to tie wet bar towels is a waste of time.”

Reesie noticed the crowd by the window and waded toward them. “What’s going on up here?” she asked.

“We need to get everyone out before we get trapped,” Barry said. “We can use the window, but we don’t have much time. The raft isn’t going to fit through the gap 20 minutes from now.”

Reesie looked back at the raft bobbing by the hallway door then at the gap between the water and the top of the window frame. “I agree,” she said firmly. “The shop’s a complete loss. We need to get everyone out now before we lose anyone else. The question is, where do we go and how do we keep everyone safe? We don’t know how bad the flooding is elsewhere.”

There was a long, uncomfortable pause as everyone tried to think of a safe option. “My place, Holiday Manor” Natalie finally said. “I’m on the fourth floor. If it floods the whole planet is gone. It’s downstream, so we should be able to get there even in high water in about 30 minutes if we can keep everyone together.”

“Isn’t that across the creek?” Carlson asked. “How are we going to know when we’re still on the road or wading directly into the stream?”

Natalie rolled her eyes. “The street is lined with those decorative lamp posts, remember? Stay between those and you’ll know you’re on the bridge. Besides, I walk that path every day. I could do it in the dark.”

Reesie looked back at the shop, thinking of all she had invested here, both in finances and hard work. She hated the thought of abandoning it. There was no way there would be enough insurance money to rebuild. Burns Coffee had been struggling when she took it over and now, every day, it had grown stronger. She had been proud of what she had done here. And she still would be, even if it became nothing more than another line on her resume.

Turning back to the group, Reesie said, “Okay, let’s go for it. Get any personal belongings if you have any. I’ll get Marti from the back. Reggie, Carson, and D, you help the women on the counter. They may need to ride on your shoulders. Barry, you and Natalie have the raft. Let’s go.”

Natalie looked up at the shelf where her laptop was sitting. There was no way of getting it home safely now. Most of the files were backed up on the cloud anyway. She could get a new laptop. Maybe. She grabbed hold of one side of the raft and headed for the window.

Reesie waded into the office and looked at Marti. “It’s time to go,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

The girl sobbed, kissed Macy’s forehead, and slipped off the file cabinet into Reesie’s waiting arms. “Will she be safe there,” Marti asked.

“As safe as anywhere,” Reesie said. “What’s important right now is that we get you to a safe place. Do you think you can walk?”

Marti nodded and slipped fully into the water. It was up to her shoulders.

They waded toward the front of the shop and joined the others. No one looked confident. Of the three women who had been on the counter, only one was tall enough to walk on her own. They all looked scared. The older woman on the raft was having trouble breathing. Amanda kept moving around, trying to avoid falling off the raft. Adam was still asleep.

With everyone standing around looking at each other, Reesie took charge. “Barry and Natalie take the raft out first, then the women, guys, and I’ll close up. Try to hold onto the raft somewhere if you can without weighing it down. Use it as a guide, not a crutch. Natalie knows where we’re going so follow her.”

Everyone nodded their agreement. Barry and Natalie slipped through the window first then pulled the raft out behind them. Amanda had to duck to keep from hitting the top window sill. The instant everyone stepped out of the coffee shop, they felt the tug of the current flowing rapidly downstream. Natalie was careful to try and stay where she knew the sidewalk would be. There were cars parked along the curb, the tops of a couple were still visible, but they would make for slippery, uneven footing. It was better to stay away.

Reesie took one last look at the Burns Coffee shop. Tears stung her eyes and then rolled down her cheeks. Everything she had wanted was in that shop and now it was all gone. She turned and caught up with the rest of the group, confident that there would be a better day.

When No One Is In Charge

When No One Is In Charge

Terri and Roger decided to risk sharing a car back to the White House. They correctly assumed that at this point traffic in and out of the North entrance was so heavy that no one would notice. As soon as the black SUV pulled away from the curb, Terri started talking. “That certainly didn’t go anything like what I expected. Yes, I expected Senator Norman to object, but I forgot that General Lang is actually the one in charge now and we totally left him out of the conversation.”

Roger sighed. “Don’t think Travis’ feelings were hurt. If he had wanted to say anything he would have spoken up. He’s right. We’re under martial law and as such he has a responsibility to keep the country from getting any worse than it already is. We have to tread carefully with this and he understands the dirty underbelly of political backlash better than most of us do. He’s had to navigate that mess his entire career and he’s where he is now because he’s good at avoiding unnecessary controversy. We’re not leaving him out of the loop, that’s for damn sure.”

Terri sat back and looked out the tinted windows. Traffic was light as travel had already been limited to emergency and government vehicles only. Not that anyone could go anywhere. Traffic lights were still out and there were still a number of stalled cars sitting in the middle of roads. Terri thought the SUV felt a bit like the inside of a carnival ride and it swerved in and out around the stalled vehicles. At one turn, Terri could see storm clouds forming in the West. She worried that might be an apt metaphor for what was coming later in the day.

“So, what do you want to do when we get back? Just pretend like it’s every other Tuesday? Go on with the normal schedule?

Roger nodded. “Yeah, this is just another Tuesday. We can’t appear to be panicking even if we are. We hold regular press briefings even if communications are still down. We’ll give them the information we have, which isn’t much, and let them worry about how to get that to their readers or viewers. Our job is only to provide information. Dissemination is their responsibility.”

“Which means the general public might know what is going on within a week,” Terri quipped.

Roger thought a second before replying. “Maybe. I think everyone will figure out a way to get things back up and running before then, even if they have to replace a lot of stuff. There are redundant systems on top of redundant systems. It should simply be a matter of finding the right combination of systems that are still operational. I think they’ll be back up in two days, max, and then people are going to have a lot of questions.”

“Maybe by then we can have some answers,” Terri said.

“I certainly hope so,” Roger replied, “because at the moment the only thing I know is that everything is falling apart.”

The remainder of the trip was made in relative quiet. Terri noted how odd it seemed to not have a cell phone constantly buzzing in her pocket. Roger wondered how his kids in Minnesota were doing. The two weren’t especially close friends. They hadn’t known each other until the president’s election campaign and there they had often butted heads. Work forced them together but there was never any desire to “hang out” and get to know each other.

Sure enough, no one gave a second thought to the site of the president’s press secretary and chief of staff arriving at the White House in the same vehicle. There were a string of black sedans and SUVs lined up at the North gate ferrying officials back and forth between offices scattered all over the DC area. The outage highlighted how truly dependent the government had become on digital forms of communication.

The same thing was taking place at the Capitol building, where members of Congress were having to rush back and forth to hastily arranged meetings that would have earlier that day ben handled either by email or, preferably, a text message. The House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader arrived at separate entrances but no one cared. With communications plunged into chaos, reporters that normally watched the entrances like hawks had largely dispersed. Those that remained were still trying in vain to get their equipment to work.

Terri and Roger took different paths once they entered the White House. Terri had barely taken two steps down the hall leading to her office when Carli met her looking frantic.

“Let me guess, the situation has gotten worse,” Terri sighed.

Carli matched the Press Secretary’s pace as they walked toward her office, a space that was barely larger than a closet. “We’re getting unconfirmed reports that every hydroelectric dam in the country may have failed. If so, hundreds of small towns could be swept away, millions could die, and within a couple of days we could have a significantly different coastline along the Gulf.”

“That certainly ratchets things up a notch,” Terry said. “How reliable are these reports?”

“That’s the problem. We’re not sure,” Terry said. “These are landline communications so the sources can’t be quickly confirmed nor can the situations. The Department of Interior is asking the Air Force to do a flyover, but the Pentagon has all their aircraft grounded until they’re sure it’s safe for anyone to be up in the air. They’re not disclosing the number of planes or servicemen they’ve lost.”

“Well fuck.” Terri cursed, hoping that the reports weren’t true. Her parents lived downstream from one of those damns. “Aren’t most of those dams Corp of Engineers projects in the first place?” Terri asked.

Carli paused for a second. “I’m not sure but I can have someone check. Do we say anything?”

“No, leave that out of the next press briefing. We have more rumors than we have facts at this point so I’m going to have some very frustrated reporters on my hand. Let’s not give them more rope with which to hang me later.”

Carli nodded and scurried off.

Roger waived off a number of people shouting, “Mr. Mukaski!” as he walked toward his office. Before stepping into his office, he turned and addressed the growing crowd. “Look, you probably know more than I do at this point. We’re doing our best to confirm what we can and Terri will have a press briefing at noon just like she does every day. In the meantime, we’re working on everything all at once, trying to keep the government working and address as many of the concerns as we can. Now please, let me get some work done. Save the rest of your questions for Terri.”

“Mr. Mukaski, is it true the president has abdicated power to the military?” shouted someone from the pack.

Roger felt his face flush with anger. “The president has abdicated nothing. He has invoked martial law in an effort to maintain peace and provide a coordinated point through which problems can be addressed. As Commander in Chief of the military, that means he’s still very much in charge and is being kept informed of everything that’s happening.”

“Then why is he being held captive in the residence?” shouted another voice. “We’re being told he’s not allowed to leave.”

“He has been requested to stay in the residence until we are quite sure there is no imminent threat to his life,” Roger shouted back. “You know this president; he’s going to do what he wants to do. If he wants to leave the residence he’ll leave the residence. We’d rather he didn’t just yet, though. The lack of communications makes the entire White House a bit vulnerable, including each of you.”

He turned and slipped into his office as the crowd of reporters and staffers murmured behind him. “Tina, don’t let anyone who’s not a senior member of the president’s staff get past that door,” he ordered.

“Yes sir,” she replied.

Roger walked into his office and closed the door behind him. Already there was a stack of messages from nearly all of the Cabinet secretaries wanting to meet with the president. Every area of government was being affected and no one was sure exactly what to do. He pulled a stack of official letterhead from a drawer in his desk and a pen from inside his suit coat to reply to the messages. He had just started writing the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development when he heard a loud scuffling and then a scream outside his office. He put down the pen and walked to his office door, opening it just enough to ask, “Tina, can you ask them to hold it down out there, please?”

Before she had time to respond, the outer door burst open and a random staffer declared, “Special Agent Biscane was just found inside a closet in the basement. He’s been shot.”

Take Me To The River

Take Me To The River

Nothing about walking through flood waters in the midst of pouring rain was easy. Every step contained the possibility of stepping on something sharp, tripping over something unexpected, or a change in terrain that put the water above one’s head. The water level on the sidewalk was nearing five feet which meant that at street level it was more like 5’ 4”. Had the current not been so strong, swimming might have been safer than trying to walk. As it was, though, losing one’s footing was an almost-certain death sentence.

Water swirled around the drenched baker’s dozen, their combined presence making for a significant obstacle to the natural flow of the runoff. Barry, Reesie, Reggie, and Carlson were on the upstream side of the table, taking the brunt of the oncoming water. The current was constant pressure on their bodies, attempting to knock them out of the way. For perhaps the first time in his life, Barry’s weight was an advantage, giving him the ability to maintain firm footing as he guided the makeshift raft forward. Reggie and Carlson both had women on their shoulders, however, and that made them extremely unstable. Each step threatened to pull them under. Reggie was making do by shuffling his feet, never letting them leave the ground any more than absolutely necessary. Carlson, however, encumbered by his heavy black wingtip dress shoes, had more difficulty and nearly fell twice before the group reached the street corner.

At 6’ 3”, Reesie was the tallest of the group and also the most physically fit. The water barely seemed to notice her as it passed her body and splashed into the water bottle at her side. Her cross trainers had been soaked for so long she no longer gave any thought to the added weight they placed on her feet. Like Reggie, she shuffled carefully, alerting Carlson to any crack or bump that might cause him problems.

On the other side of the table, Natalie, Marti, and D were having a slightly different experience. Displacement by the others and the raft didn’t completely mitigate the pressure from the current, it just meant they were feeling it at their knees rather than their chests. Water flowing rapidly under the table made forward movement difficult and as a result, the raft tended to turn as they fell slightly behind the pace of the others.

For Natalie and Marti, the water level was at their shoulders. Keeping a grasp on the table was difficult. To lean on the craft risked a weight imbalance resulting in their feet being swept out from under them. At the same time, holding on to either the wood top or the plastic water bottles required a level of effort that had their hands cramping in a matter of minutes. Making matters worse, Marti had been wearing flip flops. As much as she tried to hold on with her toes, the footwear left her quickly after they stepped into the flood, leaving her barefoot and in perpetual danger.

Sitting atop the table, Amanda constantly moved to try and stay as much toward the center of the raft as possible, even if that meant putting parts of herself on top of Adam’s body. She was already considering him dead and, while that thought made her sad, it did not diminish her instinct for survival. She knew that if she were to slip off the table for any reason, she would drown. She was too small, her clothes too heavy, and she never had been a strong swimmer in the first place. Staying atop the table was a priority and she didn’t care who or what she had to sacrifice to do so.

Amanda looked across the table at the ailing woman on the other side. The elderly woman’s sodden body was huddled down between Adam’s left arm and his body. Her once-white dress and dripping gray hair left her looking like little more than waterlogged newsprint that coughed. Her shivering was nonstop and the compassion that Amanda normally felt briefly wished that she could cover the woman with a warm, dry blanket. There was nothing dry about their circumstances, though, and compassion took a back seat to durableness. Amanda knew she was being a bitch but at this moment she didn’t care. She had children. Survival was not an option.

Only D seemed to not have any difficulty navigating the water. He was about an inch or so shorter than Reesie and possibly just as fit. His black suit, despite being full of water, still looked impeccable. His short-cropped dark hair fell perfectly in place despite the wind. He seemed totally unflappable and completely out of place in the group. He was also the only one smiling which might have upset the others had anyone noticed but as he was at the back of the group and everyone was focused on their own forward movement, no one bothered to look.

Debris of every kind filled the water, from sticks and twigs to fast food containers and bicycles and anything else that had not been securely fastened to the ground. A snow cone stand that had sat for decades on a corner just North of the coffee shop had escaped and was now caught in the low forked branches of a tree. Lightweight outdoor furniture from the patios of nearby apartments floated downstream as though they were enjoying a mid-morning cruise.

Rain continued to fall in torrents, the wind driving the water against the bodies of the hapless crew with all the force of a fire hose. Vision was blurry to the point that Carson could barely make out the shadow of Barry’s figure at the front of the raft. Every step was taken in caution, slowing their movement to barely more than a crawl. Ten minutes passed before they made it to the street corner.

Being on the South side of the buildings offered momentary relief from the strength of the wind but now the current, instead of hitting them from the side, buffeted them from both front and back as it flowed around the corners of the building. Natalie could hear Marti whimpering behind her and correctly assumed that her feet were already bleeding and raw. She wanted to help but couldn’t think of a solution that didn’t somehow put them both in greater danger. They were moving against the current. To stop meant getting swept away.

Ahead, Natalie and Barry began to make out the outline of the lamp posts on the bridge. Quietly, Natalie did a quick count: one, two, three, four, five … she strained to see further. Yes, there were six. While the curved structure of the bridge would offer some relief from the depth of the water, Natalie was also very much aware of the structure’s age. She had seen city engineers out several times that Spring going over the bridge, making minor repairs, and constantly inspecting it. She worried whether it might hold up against the onslaught it was now facing.

Each step felt like an eternity and as they emerged from behind the buildings the full force of the wind pummeled them again, forcing them to each huddle down, staying as close to the raft as possible, using whatever they could to protect their faces.

For the women desperately clinging to Reggie and Carlson, the sudden return of the wind nearly knocked them both off their perch. As they involuntarily lunged to one side, the men holding them up struggled to maintain their balance. Wrapping their arms around the men’s foreheads and leaning forward took some of the weight off the men’s shoulders and protected their faces a bit from the rain. Balance was a problem, though, as the top-heavy condition to which they’d already adapted was now more condensed, forcing them to consciously lean back to keep from tumbling forward into the water.

Reesie couldn’t help thinking how this felt similar to the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. She had just turned 20 and rushed home from college to help her mother move to higher ground before the storm hit but that still didn’t save them from having to deal with high water and torrential rain. Afterward, her mother had insisted on returning home. The cleanup took months and none of the promised financial aid had ever arrived. She wasn’t going to get her hopes up for any help this time. She was just hoping to survive.

Calculating The Risk

Calculating The Risk

Perry looked up at the gaping hole in his bunker, the place he had, until a few short minutes ago, considered impenetrable. He had even suggested that it might be a closer alternative to the NORAD facility inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado should the president ever need to be evacuated. After all, the bunker was only a 30-minute helicopter ride from the White House.

“Shit,” Perry thought out loud, “if things are this bad here, what’s going on at the White House?” He looked at his watch. 72 minutes had passed since the failed test. He had expected Special Agent Biscane to be back long before now, or to at least call. Obviously, he wasn’t back and cell phone communications weren’t possible. He worried whether the White House had been attacked in a similar fashion as the bunker. The White House was secure from minor weapons but bombs like the ones dropped here would completely decimate the historic structure and likely kill most of those inside. Still, he reasoned, there had been enough time before the attack for the Pentagon to have warned him had there been any previous incident. Now, there was no way to know.

Looking around, Perry knew the next question was how to get out of the bunker now that the entrance/exit shaft had been destroyed. All munitions were kept topside for safety reasons. Regulations prevented anyone from carrying a weapon into the bunker. Topside, however, was 150 feet up. He was going to need more than a ladder.

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