The door is locked in place by a massive wheel, the sort you’d find on a bank vault. I stare at it through the monitor, waiting for it to turn. It’s been fifteen minutes since we sent a man up to the surface for a looksee. He was only supposed to do a quick survey, but since we don’t know the situation topside, there’s no way of knowing what constitutes “quick” in the current circumstances. If the White House has collapsed, there’s no telling how long he’ll take.
Unfortunately most of the cams in the security net are offline, so we can’t get a good idea what’s happening. The few that are operational are from outlying areas, and generally pointed away from the White House. We know the Eisenhower Building has collapsed while the New Executive Office Building is still standing, but that’s the best we can determine.
God damn, I’d had staff in the Eisenhower. I didn’t like them—most of them were ijits foisted on me by Kroga and Cannon—but they were still my men. Of course, if we’ve been nuked, they’d be dead even if the building remained standing.
“Any luck with the linkup?” I ask the sergeant running the comms board. I shouldn’t be asking. If she had anything to report, she’d tell me; I’m distracting her from her job. But I’ve gotta do something.
“Negative, sir. All I can tell is the problem isn’t on our end.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” the President’s son-in-law asks. I stifle a growl. I don’t him in here—I don’t want anyone in the comms room except Secret Service and military personnel—but the President had insisted I let him in. To liaise.
“When the earthquake hit—”
“We don’t know that was an earthquake,” Captain Nepotism says.
“No sir. But whatever it was, we lost all outside communications when it hit. I had lines open to Langley, the Pentagon and Fort Meade, and they all went dead simultaneously. I’ve run diagnostics on everything we have down here, and our equipment is functioning perfectly. The problem lies somewhere between us and the other ends.”
“Or at the other ends,” I suggest.
“Possibly, sir, but the simultaneity suggests a single point of failure. Langley is well to the north-west of us, and Fort Meade is halfway to Baltimore. A nuclear blast, if that’s what you’re thinking, wouldn’t be sufficient to take them all out at once. The problem is most likely with the infrastructure.”
“Isn’t there something else you can try?” Captain Nepotism says. “Don’t we have satellites?”
“Yes sir,” the sergeant says. “And my equipment says our uplink is good to go. But we aren’t receiving anything, not even a carrier signal.”
“Could something have knocked the dish out of alignment?” I ask.
“Possibly sir. My equipment says everything is pointed the right way, but those readings assume the dish is connected to a fixed surface. If the surface moves, everything goes out of whack. But we also have broadcast reception, too. I’ve scanned all the frequencies, and there’s nothing—AM, FM, VHF, UHF, citizens band. Not even shortwave. Sir, I don’t think there’s anything out there.”
“What do you mean, there’s nothing out there?” Captain Nepotism says.
The sergeant swallows and looks like she wishes she hadn’t said that last part. I remember that feeling from my days as a first lieutenant.
“Go ahead, sarge,” I tell her.
“I’m not sure this is a local phenomenon, sir.”
“I’m not following,” Captain Nepotism says. Why am I not surprised?
“She means, whatever happened upstairs goes beyond the DC area.”
“How can that be? The Norks don’t have anything that powerful, do they?”
“Kid, nobody has anything that powerful. But facts are facts.” The lack of shortwave transmissions is the tell. Unlike most radio waves, shortwaves bounce off the ionosphere, making it possible to pick them up way beyond the horizon. Back in Ye Olden Days before the Internet, weirdos would have shortwave sets that they’d use to talk with people all over the world. My father had been one of them, and he’d talked to people as far away as Tasmania and South Africa. Such things weren’t as common nowadays, but there’ll always be weirdos. Even if we’ve been hit by a massive nuclear strike, there should be somebody talking on the shortwave band—hell, a nuclear war is the sort of thing that would bring ham operators out of the woodwork. I’d bet most of the preppers who have bomb shelters out in Idaho and places like that, they’ve all got shortwave setups.
“Sarge,” I say, “let’s assume for a moment that our sat dish is intact and still properly aligned. What would that tell you?”
Her face wrinkles. “Sir, if that were the case, then our comsat is gone.”
Comsats are in geosynchronous orbit, well beyond the reach of any anti-satellite missiles we have, and almost certainly of Russia and China, to say nothing of North Korea. “Can you realign the uplink from here? Train it on a different sat?”
“Yes sir.” She opens a utility on her computer and begins making the necessary adjustments. “This will take a few—sir!” She nudges her head towards the security monitor, the one showing the airlock/decontamination chamber.
The locking mechanism is turning. After a moment, the door opens and a man steps inside wearing a suit that looks like you could walk on the moon with it—except instead of being a bright and friendly white, his gear is OD green. He closes the door behind him and seals it, then pulls his helmet off. He sets his Geiger counter on a table, then presses the intercom.
“Major Ochoa reporting.” The major is the head of the bunker’s Marine security contingent. He could have sent one of his men up for recon, but he’d opted to go himself. I’d counseled against it, but as he’d pointed out, he’d been a second lieutenant during the Iraq invasion, which means he has experience operating in full MOPP gear under field conditions, unlike the kids under his command who’ve only ever done it for training exercises.
I toggle the microphone and say, “This is General McKuen, Major. Go ahead.”
“General, I did a complete circle of the White House. My Geiger counter showed no excess radiation. Repeat, no excess radiation.”
“I understand. What about people?”
The Major breathes in heavy. “I didn’t see anyone moving about.”
“Bodies?” I ask.
“Not as such, sir. But there is a kind of … sludge on the floor in areas.”
“That’s the best I can describe it, sir. It’s purplish, with the consistency of watery jelly. It isn’t everywhere. The biggest patch I saw was when I passed through the press room, but there were others scattered about. Every patch is near a pile of clothes and personal effects. General, I think it’s the remains of people.”
That is not heartening at all. What the hell could do that? But before we can worry about the specifics, it’s best to get the full appraisal out of the way. “What’s the building look like?”
“Sir, the North Portico’s collapsed. From what I can tell, the columns snapped and the whole thing came down. The South Portico has similar damage, but it’s still standing. Everything else checks out—some cracks in the walls, but that’s it, other than the sludge.”
“Did you try the sat phone?”
“Yes sir. I couldn’t get a signal.”
I can’t say I’m surprised. Given everything the sergeant’s told me, it’d be a shock if the sat phone worked. But it’s still bad news. The phone uses the same system as the Football, the magic briefcase that’s supposed to let the President order a nuclear strike from anywhere on Earth.
What the hell could knock out our comm sats? No one on Earth should have that power.
Which raises a very uncomfortable possibility.
I check the monitors on the airlock. “You aren’t setting off any alarms, but go through the full decon procedure anyway.” The Geiger counter could rule out nuclear and radiological weapons, but the possibility of biological and chemical, though slim, still needs to be accounted for. The Major will seal his MOPP gear in a bag for incineration and then give himself a full shower. In a way, he’s lucky. None of us in here will be able to have a real shower for God knows how long.
Kellerman wanted to keep the meeting closed, but the President didn’t see the point to it, so here we are sitting in the briefing room with the door standing wide open. Everyone in the bunker is crowded around the table or huddled beyond the doorway, except for Sergeant Zimmerman, who’s still in the comm center, and the President’s wife, who’s retired to the bedroom with her son.
“So if it wasn’t a nuke, what the hell was it?” Tweedle-Dee asks once Major Ochoa wraps up his report.
“Unknown,” I say. “At this point, I wouldn’t even venture whether we’ve been attacked or if this is a natural phenomenon.”
“What do you mean whether we were attacked!? Of course we’ve been attacked!” the President says. “That damned gook—you know they’re a no good people, you can’t trust them—he knew we were gonna clean his clock, and he decided to get the first punch in like the lousy coward he is! I knew we couldn’t trust him! That first meeting we had, I said, ‘This is not a guy we can trust! We can’t cut a deal with him!’”
You fucking liar. We’d had a summit with North Korea, and the President had come out fawning over Kim. Said he was a powerful leader and America could learn a lot from him. They’d even signed off on a joint declaration that had amounted to Kim promising to keep his promises.
And we all know where that got us.
Right here. Right now.
“An attack is a definite possibility,” I concede, “but we cannot rule out coincidence.” The worst thing we can do is to start with a conclusion and fit the facts to match. That’s how we got into Iraq.
“Sure we can,” Captain Nepotism says.
His wife nods.
“We have to strike back, immediately,” Cannon says.
This is not good. If the Alt-Right and Manhattan Mafia are in agreement, we’re shit out of luck—there’s no way the President will go against them.
And the thing is, I’m not entirely convinced he should. I find it highly unlikely the Norks were behind this, or even the Chinese or Russians, but I can’t entirely rule out that possibility. Major Ochoa’s account doesn’t match any WMD I’m familiar with—a neutron bomb might come close, but it would’ve incinerated anyone on the surface, not melted them into “sludge”—but unlikely as it may be, it’s not inconceivable that somebody out there developed a new WMD. The timeline for deployment would be incredibly tight—they (Chinese, Koreans, whoever) would’ve had to’ve seen Haberman’s tweet as soon as it was posted and decided to attack with minimum deliberation—but it is barely within the realm of possibility.
“The issue is moot,” the SecDef says. “We’re off the grid. We have no way of issuing orders. By this point continuity of government is kicking in.” The Secretary of Education had been whisked off yesterday to Mount Weather precisely for this purpose. Once the White House dropped offline, NORAD would’ve put an eye in the sky, and when they saw the devastation in DC, they would’ve notified the Secretary of the situation and she would’ve taken the oath of office. Considering her brother is the founder of Darkwater, one of the grossest and most reprehensible “private security contractors” in the world, I have no doubt what course of action she’d opt for.
That’s going to create problems at some point. During the Cold War, Congress had passed legislation setting up a line of succession in case the upper levels of government were taken out in a nuclear strike, but nobody had bothered to work out what to do if, in the chaos of a nuclear war, multiple people end up believing they’re president. I know there’s been at least one thriller written on the subject.
“Absolutely no way!” the President says.
“Pardon me?” the SecDef says.
“I’m the President! I won the election, biggest landslide ever! I had the inauguration—absolutely huge, crowd for miles!”
“Yes sir, we know that, sir…” the SecDef says.
“I’m the one who gives orders! I’m in charge of the military! No one else! That’s the way it works! If anyone’s going to nuke those yellow bastards, it’s going to be me! It’ll be historic! Not something for a woman like Becky fucking DeSani to do! She’s a nobody! She can’t do something like this! I’m the one! When they write the history books, they’re going to say I’m the one who did it! They’ll say ‘Boy, he sure showed those gooks! Best President America ever had! Historic!’ That’ll be me they’re talking about!”
“Daddy,” Eviana says, “you need to calm down.”
“No! I will not calm down! No woman is going to steal my fame! Nobody would even know her name without me! They’d be, ‘Becky who!? Never heard of her!’ She can’t go down in history as the woman who destroyed Kim Jong-un!”
Most of the faces around the table are locked in a rictus of fear. Most of them. Cannon’s grinning like the evil councilor in those movies about the magic ring, and so are his minions. The Skeleton That Walks somehow manages to maintain the same phony smile she always wears.
We’ve gotten used to these sorts of tirades, but we’ve always understood them to be impotent outbursts that we could mostly ignore. Only very rarely would he push us hard enough that anyone had to actually implement his most insane policies. But he’s never screamed at us about not being able to murder twenty-five million people before.
He fixes the SecDef in his gaze. “I don’t care how you do it, but I want to give the order to nuke Korea, you understand! All of it! The whole dirty place!”
“… yes sir,” the SecDef says. “But if the comms are—”
“Why can’t we go to the Pentagon!? We can do it there, right!?”
“We could,” the SecDef concedes, “provided there’s anyone still alive over there and they have working comms.”
“There’s also the question of whether we can reach it,” I say. “We don’t have Marine One here, and we don’t know the status of the bridges across the Potomac.” If the bridges near the White House are down, we’d have to track up to Georgetown, or even into Maryland to get across the river.
“What about McNair or the Navy Yard?” Kellerman says.
Both are possibilities. They’re no farther than the Pentagon in absolute terms, and they’re on our side of the Potomac, so no worries about finding a bridge.
“We’ll have to pass the bridges to get there,” McGraw says. “The route car can swing out to make an assessment.”
“Good. How long to get a motorcade ready?” Kellerman says.
“Depends on how many are going along. We don’t have the personnel for a full caravan, so smaller would be better.”
“Understood.” Kellerman turns to the President. “I’d suggest we keep it to you, me, the SecDef, General McKuen and Captain Curtiz.” He nods to the Air Force officer in charge of the Football.
“Mr. President, the Pentagon is a nest of Deep State vipers,” “Doctor” Kroga says. “Once you get there, they will try to talk you out of retaliating. They wish the Koreans to win. We all know that.”
“Shut your mouth, Herr Doktor,” Kellerman says.
“He’s right! I want people loyal to me! No backstabbers!”
I’m not sure whether I should be insulted by this or not.
“Andy, I want you with me! And Eviana and Gerald!”
“We can manage that, but it’ll be tight,” McGraw says. “Major Ochoa, could I ask to borrow some of your personnel for the detail?”
Officially the Marines are in charge of the bunker’s security, with the Secret Service being responsible for the President’s personal protection, but given the circumstances all hands are going to have to throw in wherever they’re needed.
“I can spare two squads,” the major says. He’s got a platoon down here, so that amounts to half his force, about eighteen or twenty men.
“That’ll do. Do you know if any of them can ride a motorcycle?”
“I have a couple.”
The kitchen is a cramped space—not small, just overstuffed with equipment. Even if we’re going to be living on packaged, non-perishable foods, the cook still has to turn it into meals for a hundred people. Right now he’s dumping giant cans of condensed soup into a kettle. He has jugs of water lined up on the counter. Compared to MREs, this looks mmm-mmm good, but I doubt everyone down here will share that view. The President’s tastes are … let’s call them plebeian, so he probably wouldn’t object to having this for dinner, but his wife, kids and several cabinet members are likely to turn their nose up at it.
Thank God we’ll be gone before that happens.
I sip my coffee and savor the hot, bitter taste, unleavened by cream or sugar or any of the other gunk people use. This is good stuff. Most of what we have down here is instant, but the steward has a supply of fresh beans in the pantry. It’s supposed to be for the President, but the Prez is satisfied with Maxwell House. No point in wasting the good stuff on a palette that can’t tell decent coffee from sewer water.
The SecDef gulps his down like a high school student chugging beer. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
“What do you think?” I say.
“I don’t think it was the Koreans, and I doubt it’s the Chinese. You?”
“Agreed.” This is almost certainly a new weapon, and nobody develops a new weapon in complete secrecy. Even the Manhattan Project hadn’t managed that—people noticed the government buying up vast tracts of land and putting up fences patrolled by armed guards. Even if they didn’t know what precisely was going on inside, they knew something was up. Same thing happened with Groom Lake—nobody knew we were testing experimental aircraft out there, but people knew something hush-hush was taking place and started speculating about little green men and flying saucers. Any experimental weapons project should leave similar telltales, but we haven’t caught hide nor hair of it. “But what does that leave? Natural disaster?”
“I don’t know.” He glances over at the cook, then steps closer to me, lowers his voice. “Given what we know…”
He doesn’t have to finish. I get his gist. The Preakness option. “He’s still the President, Joe.”
“He’s going to kill millions on an unconfirmed assumption that’s probably wrong.”
“And that’s his prerogative. He gets to make that call, not us.”
“The Norks are probably innocent.”
“They are innocent, ninety-nine and nine-tenths of them. That’d be true even if we had video of Kim Jong-un launching the missiles personally. That’s how nuclear war works. Always has.”
The SecDef closes his eyes and nods. “I don’t like it though.”
“Neither do I. But that’s not in our job description.” We are instruments of the President. We can argue with him, but we don’t have agency to stop him. That’s the principle the armed services were founded upon. Civvy control. If we go against that, the United States of America is over. Even if the devastation covers the entire country, as long as we’re sticking to the Constitution, sticking to our oath, the nation will continue to exist in some form.
The SecDef drains the last of his coffee and drops his cup in the sink. “I never should’ve taken this damn job. There’s not going to be any mercy for us, not even from Christ himself.”
I can’t disagree. “We don’t even know if the decision’s in our hands. For all we know, our missiles are already in the air.”
The kitchen door opens and a Marine comes in, a lance corporal who looks like he started shaving some time last week. He snaps a salute at me but addresses the SecDef. “Sir, you’re needed downstairs.”
Mathers’ eyebrow crooks. “Oh?”
The bunker’s lower level consists of barracks for the Secret Service and military personnel present. There’s nothing either of us should be needed for down there. McGraw and Major Ochoa have responsibility for any scuffles that might arise.
“What’s the problem?” Mathers says.
“There’s um …” the corporal gulps. “Sir, the Major said not to talk about it up here. He wants you to see for yourself.”
Now that’s damn peculiar.
The SecDef looks at me and shrugs. “Very well then.”
I take one last sip of my coffee and leave the mug on the counter, still half finished.
We go out into the main room. There’s an episode of some sitcom—Friends I think maybe—playing on the television, but though the room’s full, the President’s boy is the only one paying attention to it. Everyone else is gathered is small groups having hushed conversations. Most of them are pale. The First Lady is smoking in the corner with the Rhinoceros and the Skeleton That Walks. Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum are with Scarlatti, and as we pass them by, I hear them discussing whether New York got hit and if any of their properties there might’ve survived. Jesus, some people.
Cannon, “Doctor” Kroga and one of my aides, a guy named Nicholas Leon, look up from their klatch as we pass. Their eyes follow us to the stairwell.
I let the corporal and SecDef go through the door ahead of me. When I step through, I pause for a moment to look over my shoulder. Cannon and the others are leaning together, whispering, still looking after us. For a half second before the door swings shut, Cannon catches my eye. He smiles.
I do not trust that man. A goddamn Nazi he is. So’s everyone in his orbit. His only saving grace is his utter incompetence. He thinks he’s Blofeld when he’s straight out of Get Smart. If he were the Machiavellian genius he believes himself to be, we’d be in the middle of the Fourth Reich right now, but instead he’s struggled to get his least policy enacted. Maybe in a lesser country he might’ve succeeded, but in a nation with an entrenched bureaucracy like ours—what he calls the Deep State—he’s had to chisel away a bit at a time. Still, in the long run he might succeed—the civil service is bleeding employees, workers who can’t take the bullshit anymore. If enough leave, the opposition will collapse.
Not that it matters anymore.
“Oh God,” the SecDef says. He’s on the landing below me, staring down at the bottom of the stairs, at what I can’t see from up here.
I hurry down.
When I come around the landing, I need a moment to process what I’m seeing. The SecState is kneeling on the floor next to the staircase, except … there’s no way a person can kneel the way he’s kneeling. He’s leaning forward, his body at a forty-five degree angle with the floor. If you tried to do that without support, you’d tip over—it doesn’t matter how strong your leg muscles are, gravity would take you down. It’s an impossible position. And yet I can’t see anything that’s holding him up. His arms are hanging limp at his side, and there’s nothing under him to prop him up.
Then I see it. A thick black string stretching from his neck to the banister.
Major Ochoa and Agent McGraw are standing next to him with a handful of men—a mix of Secret Service and Marines.
“What happened?” I ask.
“Suicide, looks like,” McGraw says.
He holds out a piece of paper for us. The SecDef grabs it and reads. “That sonuvabitch.” He crumples the paper then thinks better of it, straightens it out and hands it to me.
I don’t have my glasses on, left them in the command center, so I have to hold it at arms length to read. The SecState’s handwriting was a wild scrawl even when he was sitting at a desk, but this is a thousand times worse, written with jittery, looping letters. But the message is simple enough, I have no trouble making it out.
I’m sorry. I tried.
“He never pulled his weight,” the SecDef says. “Always expected someone else would take care of things, or it’d all magically work out. Goddamn him.”
“What do we do, sir?” Major Ochoa says. Halfway through the question, his eyes flick towards McGraw and the Secret Service guys.
The SecDef hasn’t told me what the Preakness Option entails exactly, but it’s a good bet the major’s in on it. His men probably don’t know exact details, but they’d be selected for a willingness to go along. The Secret Service, though, is different. They’re here to protect the President above all, and they would never support a plan to depose him, even if they agreed with us that he’s a menace to the country.
“We can’t let this hold us up,” the SecDef says. “Major, take care of the body without disturbing anyone upstairs.”
Ochoa snaps his fingers at two of his men and they spring into action. The SecState had used a simple noose made from his shoe laces, and they only have to push his body upright to be able to loosen it and slip it off his neck. When they do, it reveals his face to me. He didn’t die an easy death—this wasn’t like falling from a gallows, where the rope will snap your neck and kill you instantly. He’d strangled, the weight of his body slowly choking him against the cord. His whole face is livid, as though covered in a giant bruise, and his tongue protrudes from his mouth. The cord had dug into his neck, leaving a bloody gouge across his throat.
Once they have the body loose, the two men lay it on the floor and pick it up like they’re carrying a sofa.
This isn’t an entirely unforeseen turn of events. The designers of the bunker had known people might die down here while waiting to get out, and so there’s a mortuary behind the chapel on the upper level. If I remember the floorplan correctly, the Marines can get there through a back stairwell without disturbing the company upstairs.
Not that they couldn’t use some disturbing. Maybe seeing Millerton’s body would shock their consciences, make them rethink their rush to nuke the Norks. Those who have consciences, that is.
Under normal circumstances, a Presidential motorcade consists of three dozen vehicles, including the President’s limo, decoys, motorcycles, security escorts, a communications van, an electronic countermeasure vehicle, an ambulance and even a HAZMAT truck. The Secret Service has a plan for every eventuality.
Under normal circumstances.
These, of course, are far from normal.
Forget two dozen vehicles. McGraw’s managed to scrounge up eight SUVs and five motorcycles—though I suppose the shortage is more on the personnel side than vehicles; the Secret Service has plenty of cars in their motorpool; it’s a matter of having enough bodies to fill them.
Still, we aren’t departing from standard procedures entirely. Before the main motorcade departs, McGraw sends out a scout car—or in this case, bike—to check that the route is clear of obstacles and dangers. The rider—one of Major Ochoa’s Marines—will swing out to the Potomac to determine whether we can get across or need to proceed to McNair.
A minute after she heads out, a second scout bike follows for a double check.
“Okay everybody, let’s get ready to roll,” McGraw shouts over the roar of the departing bike.
We’ve been assigned vehicles in advance. The President, Eviana and Klausner are already in theirs—an armored SUV rather than the standard limo. The President had thrown a fit at that, threatened to fire McGraw, but Eviana and Cannon had talked him down, convinced him that an SUV would be more inconspicuous given the small size of the caravan.
Me and the SecDef are in one of the decoy vehicles, stuck, unfortunately, with Cannon. This is like being on a field trip in elementary school and having to sit next to the class booger-eater. But our destination’s not too far—without traffic, McNair and the Pentagon should only be ten or fifteen minutes away.
Still longer than I’d like to spend with Cannon.
A voice crackles from the radio in the front.
“What was that?” the SecDef says.
The driver, a Secret Service agent, turns back to us. “Route car. Just got to the river, says Arlington Bridge is down, but the Fourteenth Streets are still standing.”
“That’s some damn fine construction,” Cannon says. “America, we get things done.”
Too fine. In fact now that we’re above ground, the amount of damage we can see is far too little for any sort of explosive attack, nuclear or otherwise. The North Lawn is burnt to a crisp, sure, and the windows in the White House have blown out, but the pressure wave from an explosion should’ve done a helluva lot worse unless the bomb missed by miles.
But what else could do this? A ray-gun? Unlikely. The President’s been pushing us to resurrect the Strategic Defense Initiative, and I’ve had to read up on the state of the art in laser weaponry. The technology isn’t there to do this.
The radio crackles again, and the driver relays to us that the President wants to go direct to the Pentagon. He turns the volume up for us, and we hear McGraw come on.
“Okay, we’ll proceed to the 14th Street Bridge. Let’s roll out. ‘Cycles take the lead.”
And with that the motorcade pulls out. The remaining three motorcycles go first, then the lead car, which is jammed with Secret Service agents. Our car moves next, then the President’s vehicle and the car with McGraw, Kellerman and Major Ochoa, with the remaining vehicles falling in at the rear.
“I understand you guys have taken an interest in horse racing.” Cannon says this casually, as though offering a bit of idle chatter to kill time.
“Where’d you hear that?” the SecDef says.
“Ashley mentioned it. Said you guys were talking about the Preakness earlier. She thought it was weird, the Preakness being in May and all—what is it, seven days after the Kentucky Derby?”
“Two weeks,” the SecDef says.
“Ahh. I wonder where I got that idea from?”
“Don’t know and don’t much care.”
The motorcade turns onto Pennsylvania Avenue and our car slows for a moment, pulling to the side so the President and the other decoy can get in front of us. We’ll do this every quarter mile from here to the Pentagon, just in case somebody’s waiting on a rooftop with an RPG.
“Really, General,” Cannon says, “I think that you do. I think that under that cool exterior, your gut’s doing the flip-flops right now.”
The SecDef laughs at that.
“Did I say something amusing?” Cannon said.
“You think, Cannon? You’ve never had a thought in that head of yours. You’re like a parrot—you’ve got a pea-brain, and all it knows how to do is repeat aphorisms from Machiavelli and Sun-Tzu.”
Cannon flushes. It’s hard to tell because he always has the red tinge of a drunk to him, but his shade deepens ever so slightly. “You don’t take me seriously. You should.”
“Give me a reason to.”
“I’m not stupid, General.”
“I’m not a general anymore. I’m retired.”
“I’m bored with the conversation, that’s what I am.”
The car turns again, this time south onto 14th Street.
“Do you know who Judas was, General?”
“Stop acting cherry. You sound like a teenage boy trying to ask a girl out. If you’ve got something to say, say it.”
“I watch Turner Classic Movies just like you do. I know what ‘Preakness’ means. Seven Days in May. You think you’re Burt Lancaster, gonna save America from an incompetent president. But you’re not. You’re a used up old man.”
Cannon reaches into his coat pocket—even in DC heat, even with his hair hanging limp from sweat, he has on a suit coat—and comes out with a pistol. An FN Five-seveN. Not an uncommon gun—you can buy one at any gun shop—but it happens to be a model favored by law enforcement agencies. The Secret Service included. Did Cannon steal this from an agent, or get into the armory? Or is it his own personal sidearm that he somehow slipped into the White House?
The difference between the civilian and law enforcement models are superficial, but the one area where they do differ is ammo. The stuff sold on the civilian market is powerful, but within the range of high-powered handguns. The pro-stuff, though, was developed for NATO, and is capable of penetrating Kevlar.
Not that Mathers or I have on body armor. But if Cannon has this, he’s a threat even to people in the other vehicles.
“Stop the car,” the SecDef snaps at the driver.
We keep going.
“He’s not going to listen to you,” Cannon says. “Unlike some people, he keeps his oath.”
“Yes sir,” the driver says. “Make America great again!”
Shit. Guess that answers where Cannon got the gun from.
“This is Hedgehog. I’m at the Mall now, and there’s activity down here. A large group of people over at the Smithsonian Castle. They’re moving this way.”
There’s no answer.
“Quickdraw, do you copy? You want me to check this out?”
The SecDef and I exchange looks. There’s worry in his eyes. McGraw should be making a snap decision, whether to wait while the scout bike checks things out, or to divert to a different route. But if he’s not responding--
“Don’t worry, gentlemen,” Cannon says, “Agent McGraw is all right. I don’t know about your Major, though.”
“What the hell is going on?” I force myself to keep my voice calm and level. Calm and level.
“We’re just putting down a coup. Major Ochoa is a part of it, isn’t he? McGraw should be arresting him for treason right about now.”
The radio crackles and the President’s voice comes on. “Don’t stop! We’re going to the Pentagon! Going straight there and nowhere else, and we’re going to nuke that sonuvabitch Kim Jong-un! We’re going to nuke his whole damn country, and China too! Vietnam! Japan! All those gooks! They’ve never been good to us! They’re always causing problems!”
“Uh, yes sir. Proceeding to the bridge.”
What the hell is McGraw doing, letting the President make an operational decision? That’s the Secret Service’s purview.
The SecDef ignores the radio. “Millerton?” he says. “That you’re doing?”
“I didn’t put the rope around his neck, if that’s what you’re asking. Once Ashley told me about your Preakness discussion, I realized he must be in on it too—you don’t have many allies in the White House, and you have to take what you can get. Too bad for you, Millerton’s a weasel. Once he realized I knew what was going on, he spilled his guts to me. Afterwards… well, the weak-minded are susceptible to suggestion. Only took a few words to convince him. Went out like a proper Roman, I’ll give him that.”
“I am, yes.” Cannon actually smiles. “I may have a parrot’s brain, but I’ve read Sallust and Machiavelli and Procopius, so I know how this sort of thing works.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. My daughter had gone through a stage when she joined the drama club at school and dressed in all black, and even she had never been this pretentious.
“So what’s the plan? You kill us and tell the President what?”
“You think the President will care? He’s been asking about the possibility of ‘taking care’ of his political enemies for months. I’ve had to talk him out of it, convince him we’re not in a position to act yet. Once I tell him what you guys had planned, he won’t care.”
“We still have laws in this country,” the SecDef says.
“Do we?” Cannon makes a point of looking out the window. We’re passing what used to be the Black History Museum, but all that’s there now is a pile of rubble. “I’m not seeing much country left. You? I figured it would take another year to get everything to the point we could move, but with this … I’ll admit, it’s not ideal, but with everything knocked down, we can pick up the pieces and run things the way they’re supposed to be ru—”
“Quickdraw, this is Goldstar. Are you looking at this?”
“Whoa, that’s a big crowd.”
“We should divert. If we double back to Constitution, we can take 66 across.”
“Where the hell did they come from?”
“Quickdraw? Do you copy?”
There’s so much chatter on the radio that it takes me a moment to realize we can see what they’re talking about. Up ahead on the Mall, there’s a massive crowd of people heading west. The group’s tiny compared to the protest I’d seen on Fox earlier, but there are still a few hundred people out there. And they’re crossing 14th Street, blocking the motorcade’s progress. This is exactly why McGraw should’ve overridden the President’s order.
“Keep going! Mow ‘em down! We have to get to the Pentagon!” the President shouts over the radio.
But the lead car is stopping, and so are the motorcyles ahead of it.
“What’re you doing?” Cannon says to the driver. “You heard the President. Punch the gas.”
The driver twists his head around, shock on his face. “We can’t do that sir. They’re civilians. They’re peaceful.”
“They’re traitors. They were protesting the lawful President of the United States in support of our enemies—the enemies who did this.” Cannon points to stone nub that’s all that’s left of the Washington Monument.
“Sir, no,” the driver says.
Cannon raises his gun. “Push through.”
“Jesus!” That’s it. I am through with this asshole.
Cannon’s a drunk, and I’m pretty sure he’s a coke-head as well. His reaction time should be shit. And, not to put too fine a point on it, if Cannon pulls the trigger right now, it’s the driver who’ll take the bullet, not me or the SecDef. Sorry, guy, this is what you get for siding with a Nazi.
I reach up and hook my arm around Cannon’s elbow, yank it down as hard as I can. His finger jerks on the trigger. In the enclosed cabin, the explosion is deafening and the muzzle flash leaves a flare dancing across my vision.
“Shot fired! Shot fired!”
“Where’d it come from?”
“Anyone see anything?”
The SecDef leans across me and grapples with Cannon as well, grabbing his wrists and trying to pry the gun loose, but the man’s putting up one helluva a fight.
“Two o’clock by the trees. There’s a guy with a gun.”
“He’s in a crowd. What do we do?”
We’ve wrestled Cannon around so that the gun’s pointing towards the ceiling, but his hand is still firmly on the grip. I elbow him in the face, but it does no good.
Ker-pam! Another gunshot blasts through the cabin.
“Shit, that wasn’t the guy in the crowd.”
“There’s a second shooter!”
“Wait, I don’t think—”
“Take them down! Take them out! Clear them away!”
“This is Quickdraw. Weapons free. Repeat, weapons free.”
Gunfire erupts outside the car in a steady, sustained barrage. The way I’m twisted around, I can’t see out the windows anymore, but I hear screaming.
Cannon presses his palm into my face, pushing my head around to the side. Suddenly his other hand breaks loose from our grip. He smashes the gun butt against my temple and my vision goes wobbly. I recover in time to see him aiming the gun at the Secretary of Defense.
Cannon pulls the trigger.
The bullet goes straight through the SecDef’s throat. It’s not an instantly fatal shot, but without an emergency room around, it’s definitely fatal.
Cannon swings the muzzle down until it’s an inch from my forehead. Jesus. I’d always known there was a chance I’d die in the line of duty, but I never thought I’d get shot by a fucking Nazi.
To Be Continued...
“This is so gross,” Shreya says.
The further we move from the station, the thicker the sludge becomes. Even the street is covered with it, as the goop slowly drains off the sidewalk and onto the asphalt.
There are eight of us who’ve come up from the station to look around. For now we’re only going to take a look around and then head back to the station. That was the condition Mike the Cop had put on us going up. In return, when we get back, we’ll tell everyone what we’ve learned, and they can decide for themselves how to proceed.
We’re making slow progress down the sidewalk, our feet sticking to the mess on the ground with every step. At first I’d tried to walk on the bits of clothing that are strewn everywhere, but those slipped whenever I put my foot on them, so now I’m not even bothering.
“Maybe we should turn around and go the other way,” Nick says.
“Yes. Let’s,” Shreya says. “If this is really people we’re walking on, it should lessen up once we get away from the protest area, right?”
“Maybe,” Josh says. “But I wanna be sure. And besides, there are a bunch of Metro stations this way. We’re sure to find other people.”
“Do we want to find people?” says a guy named Hamid. He’s an older man, about the same age as Dad. If my desi-dar is correct, and it usually is, he’s Pakistani, and he’s at that stage of baldness where he’s decided, “Screw it,” and shaved his entire head. I calculate a 97% chance he owns a motorcycle.
“The more the merrier,” a girl says. Amber, I think she introduced herself as. She’s got frizzy black hair and is in clothes that are ... let’s call them vintage to be nice. She’s not much older than Josh and didi, but she looks like she came through a time portal from 1988.
“I just wanna do what we gotta do and get back,” Joe says. He’s around the same age as Amber, though a lot cooler looking. He’s in a T-shirt that says “Sarcasm is like punching someone in the face with words.” I’m tempted to ask where he got it, but I know this isn’t the right time. (Still, I want it.)
“Yeah,” our last companion says. He’s one of the cops who’d been down in the station—not not Officer Mike, but one of his subordinates. K. Porebski his nametag says. None of us are particularly comfortable with him coming along, but Officer Mike had insisted we bring him with or he wouldn’t let us go out. “This is like a monster movie, and we’re the guys heading into the danger zone.”
“Aren’t you paid to be a hero?” Nick says.
“Have you looked around? I don’t think I’m getting paid for this.”
He’s right. I don’t know what exactly had happened here, but it was bad. And I don’t just mean the sludge, though, yeah, that’s the worst of it. But the buildings, too, are damaged, even the ones made of solid stone. They all have decorative columns in their facades, and those have cracked and tumbled onto the sidewalk. It’s like that summer when my family went on vacation to Greece and we saw the what-do-ya-call it, the Pantheon? Yeah, like that. Like we’re walking through the ruins of some ancient culture, and not a couple blocks from the White House.
We reach an intersection. The road splits into three here, with the central portion sinking down to go under the Mall, while the lanes on either side continue on the surface.
“Say, if we survived because we were underground,” I say, “do you think there are people alive in that tunnel?”
“I doubt it,” Hamid says. “That tunnel is shallow, and the ends are wide open. It’s pretty different from a Metro station.”
“And besides, dummy,” didi says, “if you were in a car when it happened, would you stick around? I’d hit the gas and be in Virginia in five minutes.”
“Don’t call me a dummy, or I’m—” I’m about to say, “I’m telling Mom,” but I realize Mom might not even be alive. “Shut up, didi.”
This is so bad. What are we going to do? If this goop really is people, there must be a thousand dead just on this street. What about the rest of the city? What about Virginia and Maryland? How far out does the destruction go.
I wish Josh would put his arm around me. I don’t care what didi would think. I want somebody to comfort me right now.
But he’s acting all serious, and I can’t blame him for that, but couldn’t he leave that to somebody else. Hamid seems like he’s up to it. Or even that cop.
We cross the intersection and make our way down the next block. There are shrubs and trees planted along the sidewalk, but they’re all burnt, like somebody had come by with a flamethrower. To our left, across a low, railed wall and a small parking lot, is one of the Smithsonian museums—Natural History, maybe? All the windows on the side have been smashed, and hard enough that shards had flown all the way to the sidewalk, and even into the street.
“What do you think did that?” I ask.
“Overpressure,” Nick says. “When a bomb explodes, the shockwave will crack glass. We’re lucky that’s all it did.”
“That’s not overpressure,” Hamid says. “That would cause the windows to implode.”
“Okay. Then underpressure,” Nick says.
“Possible. It only takes a one PSI difference to break glass. But what would cause it? That’s the sort of thing that happens in a tornado.”
“Hey, what’s that down there?” Joe says. He’s pointing into the museum’s parking lot.
“A tree?” Shreya says, all unimpressed like.
“Yeah, but look where it’s at.”
My sister squints. “What the hell?”
Nobody’d really been paying attention, but at didi’s reaction, we all look over. There are a bunch of trees around the edge of the lot, and some more growing near the building, but this one… it’s right in the middle of the pavement. It’s tall, too. None of the trees near the museum are more than nine feet tall, but this one is three times that, with branches that spread out wide, almost to the walls of the museum.
“How did that get there?” Amber says.
Josh leans against the rail that separates the parking lot from the sidewalk. The street’s on a hill, and the lot is cut into the slope, so there’s a seven foot drop between where we’re at and the other side, and there are thick bushes at the bottom.
“C’mon.” Josh turns and heads back the way we’d come. As we retrace our path, the drop between us and and the lot gets smaller and smaller. When we spot a break in the brush, he hops over the rail. Me and Nick, Amber and Hamid follow him over, but Shreya, the cop and Joe keep going until they get to the end of the wall and take a path onto the museum grounds. This is no time to be a goody-goody, didi!
The good news is, there’s no sludge over here. But we do have to walk across charred grass, and each step turns up a puff of black dust as the blades crumble beneath our feet.
We reach the lot and turn towards the tree.
Nick knocks on the roof of a Honda Civic as we pass. “Don’t suppose anyone knows how to hot wire a car?”
“God, you people are useless.”
“Be quiet,” Hamid says.
We make our way around the side of the building. Once we get past the front corner, the lot widens and we find the misplaced tree.
Now that we’re up close, we see it’s even odder than we saw from the street. Its roots don’t go into the ground at all. Instead it’s standing up on them like it’s on its tiptoes. Some of the roots aren’t as strong as others, and the tree is leaning to one side.
“What would cause this?” Shreya says.
Josh approaches the tree.
“Don’t get too close,” Joe says.
“I’ll be fine.”
I’m with Joe. The way the tree’s tilting, it could tip over in the slightest breeze. But Josh walks right up to the trunk. He kneels and looks closely at the roots. He pokes them and clumps of dirt fall off.
“Careful!” Shreya says.
“It’s all right. Jeez.”
“Say,” Amber says, “what kinda tree is this, anyway?”
None of us had looked that closely. And to be honest, the only kinds of trees I can recognize are palms and pines. Oh, and the ones with the white bark. What are those, ash? I dunno. But elms and oaks and all those, they’re like frogs and toads to me. What’s the difference?
Hamid looks up at the branches. “That’s a very good question.”
“Yeah, it is a weird looking one, isn’t it?” Shreya says.
Guys, it’s a tree. It’s got a trunk, and branches, and a bunch of leaves. Other than being charbroiled, what’s the big deal?
Josh finishes his examination of the roots and stands. He walks under the side that’s tilted, where the branches hang lower. He examines the leaves and plucks one that is less charred than the others. He brings it back to us.
“Anyone recognize the shape?”
Uh, yeah, it’s a leaf. It’s got five grass-like blades growing from a stem. Okay, it’s not something you see around here, but this is the Natural History Museum. Maybe they planted something. And then somehow it got blown across the parking lot and landed here. Sure, it’s weird, but I wanna get back to the station and then head home, see if Mom and Dad are okay. I’ll even work a shift at the store tonight if they want me to, no complaints. Better than standing here gawking at a tree.
“No,” didi says. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“It looks sorta like a date frond, or a fern,” the Middle Eastern Guy says.
“Ferns don’t grow thirty feet high,” Joe says.
“No. Clearly not.”
This is gonna be a boring conversation, I can tell. I wander away and hop a seat on the hood of a car—one that’s in the shade of the building, so the metal doesn’t scorch me. Come on guys, hurry it up, please.
One thing about stepping back from the group, it’s easier to notice patterns in how people are behaving. Now Shreya, no surprise, is standing next to Josh. She’s like the heroine of some crappy YA novel, wanting to get cozy with the cute guy even though it’s the end of the world. How about some situational awareness, huh? Freak out a little, worry about getting outta here. And most of all, leave my boy alone—you’ve got no chance with him.
But Josh, he’s completely not noticing her. He’d pay more attention to her if she were another tree. Joe the Sarcasm Guy, though, he’s checking her out. He’s standing off to her side, but he keeps looking over at her. He even steps back a bit so he can see her butt. He’s on the heavy side—not disgustingly obese, but somebody should buy him a gym membership for Christmas—so he has no chance with didi. She’s shallow that way.
Amber is standing by herself, but not like she’s shy or afraid of interacting—she’s doing quite a bit of talking, in fact. She’s just disinterested. Nick’s not, though. He’s eying her up and down—no surprise there, he eyes every girl he meets. I’ve even caught him eying my mom. How gross is that? I don’t mind a guy being a little pervy, but that’s way beyond the line.
Hamid is also standing by himself, but I think that’s more to do with him being a couple decades older than anyone here except maybe the cop, who—wait a second, where’s the cop?
He’s nowhere in the parking lot. He came around with us, right? I’d seen him following Shreya. Did he get bored and wander off? I mean, no loss if he does—I’m okay with ditching him, but I’m afraid the others will want to go looking for him and we’ll end up wasting a lot of time.
Did he go into the museum maybe? I haven’t been there since ... sixth grade? Or was it elementary school? Whatever. I know there was a snack bar inside. It was pretty crap, no real selection, but food is food. Maybe the cop went to grab some.
Hmm ... is that him up there? Looks like somebody’s moving around on the third floor. Or it could be something blowing in the wind. I’m too far away to tell.
I get up and move for a better view.
“Hey, you. Girl.”
I jump. That voice came outta nowhere.
The cop’s waving to me from down the parking lot. He’s in the shadow of the museum. I go over to him.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You didn’t startle me.”
“Sure looked like it, the way you jumped.”
“I didn’t jump.”
“Right. Listen, you wanna give me a hand?”
“Hand with what?”
He holds up two sets of car keys. “Let’s find what these go to.”
“Where did you get those?”
“In there.” He jerks his head towards the museum. “All kinds lying around on the floor.”
My eyes narrow. “Eww.”
“What? The owners don’t need them.”
“Yeah, I think that’s called grave robbing.”
“Look, this is an emergency. I don’t know about you, but I wanna get the hell outta here as fast as possible. Preferably with maximum air conditioning.”
He makes a good point, I’ll give him that. But, “Didn’t you have a car?” We’d walked past it when we came out of the station, but at that point we’d been too intent on seeing what was going on to give it a second glance.
“You ever been in a prowl car?”
“They aren’t exactly made for the comfort of passengers. Rear windows don’t go down, there’s no leg room in the back.”
Maybe he’s right. “Okay.” I take a set of keys. It’s sticky. Ew. I almost drop it. “Did you wash these?”
“Yeah, I found a bottle of water, rinsed them. But that shit’s heavy duty. It’s not coming off without soap, at least. Maybe Lysol.”
I hold the keys with my finger nails. “It’s disgusting!”
“We’ve been walking in it for the last ten minutes.”
“I have shoes!”
“Don’t be so squeamish. This is the apocalypse, can’t you tell. We gotta be tough we’re gonna survive.”
He’s… not wrong. “Fine.” I hold the keys in my hand. “But how are we gonna find the car?” The parking lot’s not exactly full, but there are still a couple dozen vehicles around, and probably more behind the building and out on the street. If we wander around matching logos, we’ll be here all day.
“Easy.” He raises his arm and hits a button on the key fob. Nothing happens. “Give it a try.”
I do. I get no response either.
“Figures it wouldn’t be that easy. C’mon, let’s check around.” He waves towards the back of the building, away from didi and the others.
“Shouldn’t we tell them where we’re going?”
He turns around and walks backwards. “They’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t be a child,” he says. “We have to forge our own path through the new frontier.” He spins forward again, narrowly avoiding the bumper of a car.
Is that supposed to sound cool? Who wants to forge a frontier? If this is the apocalypse, I want people around, as many as we can get. Let’s rebuild society.
But I hurry after the cop. We keep trying our keys as we go. Still no response.
“You know, this is going to be tough,” the cop says.
“What’s gonna be?”
“The new world. Life as we know it is gone. Have you thought about what that means?”
“We don’t know for sure. There could be… I mean, it could just be DC, right?” My mom and dad should be okay. The store. Randy and Jenna, our employees.
“Even if it is, you think this country is going to hold together after this? Things were bad enough all ready. Hell, that might be the worst case scenario. If the whole world’s been done in, there’ll be less people for us to worry about. But if the country’s still out there with no government to hold it together … can you imagine that? It’ll be Iraq and Afghanistan, right here at home.”
“No way.” Americans aren’t like that. I mean, sure, that orange jerk is President, but he didn’t win the popular vote. Only a minority of Americans support him. A large minority, yeah, and they’ve got guns but .… No, things won’t end up like that. Even Republicans aren’t that crazy. They’re still Americans.
I try telling myself that, but I’ve got doubts. There are people out there who don’t necessarily see me as an American. I was born here, so was my mom, but that’s not good enough for them. We’ve always had people at the store who were kinda racist, but since the election it’s gotten worse. I’ve had customers tell me to “go back to Iraq” and things like that. They’re usually drunks, mad that they don’t have enough change for a forty-ounce, but a couple times they’ve been middle class white ladies, look totally respectable.
It’s happened to me at school, too. The guys who say it all all jerks I wouldn’t want to hang out with anyway, but some of them have been popular kids, like Nate Baranski—he told me I should wrap my face in a towel so he wouldn’t have to look at my hairy eyebrows. That still makes me mad. Why don’t any of these idiots know the difference between Muslims and Indians, huh?
I click the key fob again.
Was that ...?
“Over there,” the cop points to the back of the museum. But we’re already at the edge of the parking area—all that’s over there is the driveway and the main street.
But he’s already off and running. I should follow. I guess?
I hurry after him.
“Try it again,” he tells me.
I raise the key fob high and hit the button.
Yes! We’re getting closer. But the sound didn’t come from inside the museum grounds. It’s beyond the outer wall, out on the street.
“It’s that Toyota,” the cop says. “I saw the lights flash.”
We cross a blackened patch of grass and go around a couple trees. There’s a gold SUV parked at the curb. We climb over the little wall and go over to it.
“Perfect,” the cop says. “I was afraid we’d have to grab two vehicles to fit everyone—that’s why the two keys. This’ll be cramped, but we should fit everyone.”
“What about the people back at the station?”
“What about ‘em?” He walks around the front of the SUV.
“They can’t fit in here.”
He looks at me like I’m an idiot. “It was their decision to stay in the station. They’re not our problem anymore. Let ‘em get their own ride.”
“You’re a cop. Aren’t you supposed to, like, protect and serve and stuff like that?”
“Honey, that’s over. I keep telling you, this is a new world, new rules.” He opens the door and gets in. When I don’t follow suit, he leans across and pops the passenger door. “C’mon.”
I get in.
“That’s a good girl.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a dog.”
“I’m teasing. You gotta learn to take a joke.”
“It’s not funny.”
I hand him the keys. He slides them into the ignition and turns the power on, but he doesn’t start the engine. The radio lights up and plays ear-shattering static. He grabs a knob and turns, but that only changes the station, which does nothing but give us slightly different static. He tries the other knob and that kills the sound.
“Are we going?” I say.
He reaches across console and pokes my nose with his finger. My nose twitches like a bunny’s. “What’s the hurry?”
“We gotta get back before my sister freaks.”
“First it’s your mom who’s gonna freak, now it’s your sister. Is that all your family does? It’s a nonstop freakout with you guys?”
“They’re high strung.”
“From what I’ve seen so far, looks like your sister’s more of a stress inducer.”
He’s not wrong, but I don’t like a stranger badmouthing my family. “She’s all right once you get used to her.”
“I’m sure. If your mom’s the same way, I feel sorry for you.”
“Just an impression I get. You’re much more chill than your sis. If she went to a party, she’d sit in a corner all night. You though …”
He reaches over to me and strokes my cheek. My whole face gets hot. His fingers trace the line of my neck and down towards my—
“Uh ... what are you doing?”
His hand is on my chest. Who told him he could put his hand there?
“I dunno. What am I doing?”
I grab his hand and lift it off me.
“What’s the matter?” he says.
“Oh, c’mon. I’ve seen you drooling over that one guy.”
“I have not been drooling!”
“Please. I was above ground right before the quake. I saw you kiss him, you thought no one was looking.”
I blush. “So?” Like it’s any of his business.
“So you’re a big girl.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. I try to pull away, but he’s got strong arms. I’m pinned to the seat.”
“Please, stop touching me.”
“Look, I’m not gonna hurt you.”
You’re doing a good job of fooling me! I need to get outta here. I hafta get back to Shreya. And Josh. He’ll protect me. He’ll do something, I’m sure.
Except … this guy’s got a gun. He hasn’t pulled it yet, but it’s there. If I run away, he could shoot me. He could shoot Shreya and Josh and the others. And who’d stop him?
I’m shaking. What am I gonna do?
“You don’t have to be afraid,” he says. He’s so close right now, I can feel his hot breath on my cheek. He had something with onions for lunch—the smell is so strong I wanna gag. “I’m gonna keep you safe.”
Ha! “I don’t want you to keep me safe.”
“I’ve told you, it’s a whole new world now. The old rules don’t apply. Things are gonna get bad and quick. A pretty girl like you, you need someone to protect you.”
Yes, I’ve noticed!
“Who’s it gonna be, some scrawny college guy? Yeah, right. Especially some lib who doesn’t believe in violence. What do you think he’s gonna do? This city is full of animals—trust me, I’ve been on the force for fifteen years. I know. They barely behave themselves to begin with; what do ya think’s gonna happen when they realize there aren’t any rules anymore? Huh? Your boyfriend’ll try to talk things over with them—how do you suppose that’s gonna work? You wanna stay safe, you gotta come with me. I can protect you.”
“You have a funny way of showing it.”
“You’re being a skeeze.”
“What?” He’s shocked. How can he be shocked?
“You’re touching me!”
He snorts. “That? That’s just flirting.”
“That’s not how you flirt.”
“Oh yeah? I bet you wouldn’t object if the other guy did it.”
“Because I wouldn’t mind him doing it.”
“How’s a guy supposed to know if he doesn’t try?”
“I was giving Josh clues. Did I give you any clues? No.”
“Then why did you come out here with me?”
“You asked me to.”
“Yeah. Why did you say yes?”
“To help you find a car. Which we’ve done. Mission accomplished. Let’s get the others.”
“If I’d asked your sister, you think she’d’ve come? No way. So why did you say yes? Really.”
“What do you mean ‘really’? I told you.”
“Are you really that bad at reading people?”
“I have great people skills. It’s my superpower.”
“Why so defensive? This a sore subject?”
“How many friends you got at school?”
“What, two, three?”
“More than that. I’m in a ton of clubs. Drama, Academic Trivia, Model UN.”
“Oh, one of those.” His voice is dripping with disdain.
“One of what?”
“The girl who joins all the clubs so she can put them on her college applications.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“You think people like having someone join a club that they don’t actually care about?”
“I care.” If I didn’t, I would’ve joined forensics like my father wanted. But I hate arguing.
“You were giving all of them your full effort? Really?”
“All of them, equally? Cuz when I was in high school and people tried to play two different sports in the same season, they were always missing practice for one or the other. Pissed their teammates off—we were busting our asses, and they hadda leave for a soccer game.”
My face stings, just like if he’d slapped me. There’d been times when I skipped out on rehearsals because I had to attend a Trivia Team practice, or do research for the Model UN. But it hadn’t been any big deal—I’d had a small part in the play, and I’d already memorized my lines.
“They always said, ‘Hey we’re busting our asses off over there, too,’ but you know what? It didn’t matter? Being a team means busting your ass together. If you aren’t there to support your teammates, even if you aren’t playing, you aren’t really part of the team.”
“I guess not.”
“So you sure your clubmates were down with you skipping off to do other things?”
“I mean … nobody said anything about it.”
“To your face. But what about what they didn’t say? Did they treat you like part of the group?”
Sure they had. They’d invited me out to Denny’s after meetings, or to hang out on weekends. Of course I hadn’t been able to attend—I always had other club stuff to do, and homework, and helping out at the store. But they’d invited me. At first, anyway. After a while they gave up.
“How many people in those clubs were actually your friends?”
“I dunno. A few.”
“You hung out with any of them this summer? Bet you haven’t.”
How can he know that? “I don’t have time. My parents are always making me work at the store.” The truth is, today’s the first time I’ve been out all summer.
“Has anyone called and tried to get you to come out?”
“They know it’s no good. My parents won’t let me.”
“Friends would call.”
He’s right. I’ve spent the summer hoping Amy or TJ would call or text or anything. Even if I had to turn them down, it would’ve been nice to know I’m wanted. But we’ve only chatted a couple times on Facebook, and both of them blew me off as soon as they found something better to do.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“I’m a cop. We’re good at reading people. You’ve got it written all over you. The desperate-for-attention look. That’s why you let the guy kiss you, isn’t it?”
“No.” Josh is cute. What girl wouldn’t want to kiss him?
“You were so happy a guy showed the least bit of attention to you, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. So what?”
“You think you’re the only one he does that with? Guys throw out attention at every cute girl we come across. It’s like fishing—most of the time you don’t go out trying to catch some specific fish. You take whatever bites and hope it’s a goodun.”
“You’re wrong.” Josh isn’t like that. This guy, he’s just guessing. He’s saying whatever and hoping it fits.
“Keep deluding yourself. I bet if a buncha gangbangers show up and tell him to hand you over, he’d do it, no second thoughts.”
“It’s true. You can look at the guy and tell he’s pussy. If things are as bad as they look, you’re going to need a real man to keep you safe.”
I roll my eyes. “And where do I get one of those?”
He grabs my chin and squeezes. “You’re too sassy, you know that? I know that’s what girls are like nowadays, but you need to learn—that shit’s over. Women can only bitch and moan like they do cuz we’ve been living in a liberal fairy-world where they’re protected. But there aren’t laws anymore. Things are gonna get medieval—they’re gonna get fucking Jurassic, you understand what I’m saying? You better learn to behave the old fashioned way. A man tells you something, you listen. It’s for your own good, understand?”
I yank my head loose from his grip. I reach for the door handle, but he grabs my hair by the braid and pulls so hard I think my scalp’s gonna come off. I cry out.
He hits the lock. “I’m being nice here. I want us to get along. But I’m not putting up with any shit, you got that?”
“What’re you doing?”
“We’re getting out of here.” He shifts into drive and steps on the gas. The wheels squeal as they try to gain traction on the sludge in the road. The car skids into motion, and when he turns the wheel to get us into the street, we almost spin out.
“Hey!” I try to unlock the door, but there’s some sort of safety mechanism, it won’t unlock while the vehicle’s in motion.
He gets the SUV under control.
“Where are we going?”
“This is the end of the world, right?”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“You don’t get it.”
He drives through an intersection without even slowing. We pass by an empty square on one side, a Roman-looking government building on the other.
“Of course I don’t get it. If I got it, I wouldn’t be asking, would I?”
He glares at me. Hey, keep watching the road! “End of the world means no rules any more. You gotta take what you want before anyone else has a chance, and you gotta defend it from anyone who wants to take it.”
“You are really scaring me right now.”
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
Not very reassuring! “Then stop the car and let me out.” We haven’t gone too far. I doubt I can get back to the museum before Shreya notices I’m gone, but it’s better than sticking in the car with Psycho Cop.
“Are you nuts?” he asks. “Think about what’s happened, will you. Everyone who’s on the surface is dead. Only people who were underground are still alive. That means Metro riders. As the people in the station realize what’s happening, they’re gonna come above ground and things are gonna turn to shit. You wanna be in the middle of all that?”
Things are already turning to shit. You are the shit. Does he not see that? He is the very thing he is ranting against.
“If you say so.” I’d best not provoke him. Which, given my big mouth, means not saying anything I don’t have to.
“The best move right now is to get the hell away from the city.”
“Why are we ditching my sister, though?”
He doesn’t answer. We’ve gone through another block. The Capitol’s looming ahead of us, its dome cracked in half and part of it fallen in. But before we get there, the road is going to switch to one of those annoying diagonal streets that make it impossible to go anywhere in DC without getting lost.
“If you want me to believe you, answer my question. Why are we ditching my sister?”
“Because she’s annoying.”
“You’re not wrong, but that’s no reason to leave her behind. If things are as dangerous as you say, you should be keeping her safe, too.”
He doesn’t answer.
He steers us into a traffic circle, though he ends up going the wrong way around. And then the street he wants to take, which would keep us going east past the Capitol, turns out to be barricaded. It’s only one of those gates with the wooden arm that goes up and down, with a rusty metal plate raised behind it. Without any cops standing guard, we could smash through it, no problem, but for all his talk about there being no rules anymore, when he sees the red and white arm barring our way, he pulls out of his turn and continues around the circle. We exit onto a street the runs along a pool in front of the Capitol.
“You know,” I venture, “it might not be the way you’re saying. People aren’t all as bad as you claim.”
He snorts and turns us into a second circle. This is like being on a merry-go-round. Good thing I don’t get car sick. Much.
“Girl, I’m a cop. I know more about people than you ever will. Trust me, they’re shit, and once they realize how bad things are, they’re gonna turn into a mob.” He steers hard to the right and we’re on a street again, headed back the way we’d come, only now we’re on the south side of the Mall, behind all the museums there.
“No. No, no, no, no,” I say. “That’s only true if people decide to go that way.”
“And that’s what they’re going to decide.”
“No. We can reboot civilization. There were enough people at our station alone to at least get a village going.”
“You think we can get everyone on the same page for that? Yeah, right. We’ll be killing each other for food before the week’s out.”
We fly past the Smithsonian Castle.
“Yeah, well what’s your big idea?”
“Best way to get food is going to be hunting. If we get to the outer suburbs, there are tons of deer out there. But you can feed a small band that way, not a whole village.”
“What if all the deer turned to goop like people?” I ask.
“What if. The deer. Melted. Into goop. Like people.” I’m trying not to be sarcastic, but it’s not working.
He stares at me, like he hasn’t considered this. Oh come on! If you’re going to kidnap me, plan it out! I demand a better class of abductor than this.
“Well, I mean, we can find seeds,” he says. “We can learn to farm. You know the best place to go in case of apocalypse? Amish country. Everything you need to start over at a basic, sustainable tech—”
He’s taken his eyes off the road to talk to me, which would be fine if the street were deserted. But although there aren’t any moving vehicles or pedestrians, there are cars and trucks that had been on the road when the quake happened, and some of them have crashed or stalled. One of them, a blue minivan, is stopped in the road ahead of us.
The cop tries to swerve out of the way, but we run into a puddle of goop and the SUV spins out of control. He struggles with the wheel, but it’s no good. We hit a curb and I’m thrown forward. My nose smashes against the lock on the glove compartment hard enough that blood spurts out. The cop’s thrown against the steering wheel, and his chest sets off the horn.
We’re stopped. I grab the door handle, but it’s still won’t unlock.
“Let me out. Now.”
“God dammit, why’d you go and distract me while I’m driving?” He grabs for my hair again, but I dive under his grip and stretch across his lap. I hit the master door lock button.
I pull the door handle and slither out of the car. The cop grabs my ankle, but I pull it loose from his grip and kick him in the face.
I pick myself up and start running.
We’ve come to a stop on the Mall, not far from the Washington Monument. Or where the Monument used to be. Most of it’s fallen over, and there’s a pile of broken marble strewn across the blackened grass.
The Natural History Museum is way far down—maybe not a mile away, but far enough that I can’t run the whole distance. Not in this heat. Not with the grass covered in the purple sludge.
But I’m not alone out here. There are people, a few hundred of them, coming down the Mall in a huge mass. I wave my hand and shout to them. “Hey! Hey! Over here!”
A few people see me. Yes! A bunch of them break off and come towards me. I run in their direction.
But the cop’s managed to get himself out of the car. He’s walking like he’s drunk, but when he spots me, he breaks into a stumbling run.
“Help!” I scream.
One man breaks away from the group. He’s short and thick—the muscular kind of thick, like a professional wrestler. He runs past me and tackles the cop. Tackles him with enough force that the cop not only stops, but he goes flying backwards. They land so hard that I hear the impact, and they slide across the slick ground. The short guy lifts a fist brings it down on the cop’s face. Blood spurts out.
A woman stops next to me, nearly falls on her heiny when she does. She grabs me for balance and my feet almost slip out from under me too, but I manage to get a foothold on the slick ground.
Another woman, this one in a narrow skirt the prevents her from running too fast, jumps in the air and shouts, “Uragawa-san, yay!”
Another half dozen people are coming my way, and the strange thing is, apart from one white guy, they’re all Asians—East Asians, if we want to be precise, which I do because it pisses me off when people talk like I’m not Asian, thankyouverymuch.
“Are you all right?” the first woman who’d reached me says. Her English is a little stiff and tinged with an Aussie accent.
“Yeah. Thank you.”
I’m breathing hard and my arms are shaking. I hadn’t been scared when I was in the SUV, I was too angry, but now it’s hitting me what had almost happened. The cop tried to kidnap me. What, did he think I was going to become his wife? Were we gonna go into the mountains and live like pioneers?
“It’s okay,” the first woman says. She puts an arm around my shoulder. “You are safe.”
The other women are gathering round now. Though I say “women,” but most of them are around my age, and only the woman who shouted “yay” is much older than didi.
The girls start talking in unison, but none of them are speaking English. I think it’s Japanese. The language sounds kinda like anime.
“They want to know what happened,” the one white guy with the group says.
“He tried to kidnap me.” I point to the cop.
The white guy translates this, and the girls respond with a horrified, “Oooh!” They speak to each other quickly, then the one who speaks English and two others go over to cop.
He’s lying on the ground. His whole body is smeared red, partly from a bloody nose and partly from the sludge on the ground. He’s not moving, and it wouldn’t do him any good to try because the Japanese man is standing with a foot on the cop’s chest. The guy’s taken the cop’s gun and is pointing it down at him.
The girls and the guy confer. The guy’s face goes dark, and he kicks the cop in the head hard enough that I wonder if he’s gonna have spinal damage. Not that I’d mind.
The girl who speaks English takes a turn, kicking the cop in the nuts. He curls into a ball. The other two girls give him kicks to the back.
“Wait!” I shout.
They look over at me.
“Stop. No more.”
The girl who speaks English translates my words. The other girls argue back, but after a moment they step away from the cop. One of them, her hair dyed a light auburn, spits on him.
“Heh-heh-heh,” the white guy says. He looks around, like he expects to see cops coming to arrest everyone present.
“Who are those girls?” I ask.
“Would you believe they’re pop stars from Japan?”
“Yeah.” He nods. “True story.”
A new Japanese woman arrives. She’s about my mom’s age, and the way the girls come to attention when she’s around, I’d guess she’s in charge of them. When the three girls get back to us, she grabs two of them by the ear, like they’re kindergartners she’s caught eating mud pies. I don’t understand a word she says, but I recognize a chewing-out when I hear one.
“Misa-san,” the girl who speaks English says. She crosses her arms and launches into a long speech in Japanese.
The woman argues back, but the English-speaking girl won’t have it. She pushes on the way my mother will when she’s arguing with a vendor who’s trying to screw her on a deal.
The woman nods at last. She says something. She doesn’t sound happy about it, but I get the feeling she’s relenting. She lets the other girls go and backs away.
“What was that about?” I ask the white guy.
“Ms. Ushiguchi is their stage manager. They’re supposed to do whatever she says. But Kyouko there just told her, basically, it’s the end of the world, they don’t have any group any more.”
“Oh.” I’m still a bit unclear about this whole thing. Like, why are there Japanese pop stars running around the Mall after the apocalypse? But, you know, at some point you’ve got to accept the world is the way it is. End of the world. Psycho cops. Pop singers. I’m not going to question it.
I need to get back to didi and the others. There’s no way she isn’t freaking right now, but hopefully if I tell her I’ve found other people, that’ll get her to calm down.
I’m about to explain everything to the white guy and ask him to wait for us—or at least to tell us where they’re going so we can catch up—but before I can get any words out, I hear the sound of car engines approaching.
Not one, or even two. This is a whole bunch. I don’t see anything, but—no wait, the main crowd has come to a halt. They’re turning their attention to the far side of the Mall.
The girl who speaks English and the tough-looking Japanese guy climb up on a marble block to get a better view.
“Purejidento da yo ne?” the guy says.
To Be Continued...
I’m standing on the shore. The water’s lapping at my feet. Every wave brings sand with it, and it’s slowly building around me. Then, once the water retreats, it hardens to stone.
Already my legs are encased up to my calves.
The sun is somewhere behind me, low enough in the sky to cast everything in a rosy glow. My shadow stretches far out to sea until it meets the moon, which sits on the horizon like some distant ship.
There’s a strong breeze, but my hair hangs limp like seaweed.
The sand’s rising higher around me. It’s halfway up my thighs now.
I should move, but when I go to lift my leg, I find it doesn’t exist any more. It’s turned to stone and merged with the hardened sand.
«Madocchi,» YamaYuki says.
I’d thought I had the beach to myself, but when I look to my left, there she is. Megumin and Chiaki are next to her, and a hundred others beyond them. They stretch all the way down the beach, as far as I can see. And all of them have hardened into stone.
«There’s so much ...» YamaYuki says.
«So much what?»
«Everything. We’re part of it.»
«I don’t get it.»
«I wish you could be with us.»
«I’m right here.»
«But you’re going.»
«Hmm. That is a question.»
To my right.
What are they saying?
“mn abm waana eem nee baa”
“dt kaa yeel mii trd drrk llim.”
I can’t tell. My hearing’s muffled. I strain my ears but can’t make out a single word. Something about their cadence is off, though—they don’t sound Japanese.
Oh, that’s right. I’m in America. They must be speaking English.
But that doesn’t help me. Their words are still gibberish. I can’t recognize even one.
I’m on a hard floor, not even a futon under me. Why? What had happened?
I can remember the convention, that much is clear. We’d done a concert Saturday night, then me, Kyouko and Hana-chan had snuck away to the hotel bar. Tada-kun hadn’t found us until we’d been there for an hour, and he’d barely stopped Hana-chan from sneaking off with some American who bought her a drink.
After that, though… I kinda remember breakfast the next morning. Pancakes and bacon and sausage—it was more than I had for dinner most nights. And then Akamatsu-san told us we’d have to cut short our plans for touring Washington. We still managed to see some sights, though. I remember looking at fossils in the Natural History Museum and going up in a big stone tower and seeing the whole of of the city.
That’s where everything gets fuzzy. We’d all met up at the train station, I’m pretty sure of that, and we’d gotten on the escalators… but what happened after that?
I can’t remember. I have some hazy recollection of being on a beach with Megumin and YamaYuki, but that can’t be right. Washington has a river, but the ocean is a long ways away. Was I dreaming? Must’ve been.
I go to sit up, but a sharp pain shoots through my body, from my right hip all the way to the shoulder. I cry out.
Movement. One of the people to my right comes over and kneels next to me. Linda-san. The expression on her face is grim.
«You all right?» she asks. Her voice is muffled, as though I have cotton in my ears.
«I hurt.» Huh. There’s something funny about the way my jaw’s moving, like the hinges on either side aren’t lined up right. I can only open my mouth part way. There’s no pain, though, as long as I limit the movement.
«Where?» Linda-san asks.
«Here.» I manage, painfully, to move my arm and indicate my side.
«Mmm, I see.» She reaches into her purse and comes out with a bottle of pills. «I don’t have water, but can you swallow these?»
My mouth is dry, but if it’ll help with the pain, I’ll do it. I nod.
She shakes out two pills.
I sit up. If I use my left side, it doesn’t hurt quite so much. But only not quite.
Linda-san places the pills against my lips and I take them into my mouth. The movement of my jaw is awkward, but I manage. The pills stick to my tongue, but after some effort I move them to the back of my throat. I have to work the muscles a couple times before they go down. It hurts. My throat is raw, like I’ve had a cold and been coughing too much.
«What happened?» I ask.
«There was a disaster,» is all Linda-san will answer. «You rest. I’ll be back in a bit.» She gets up and wanders away.
There was something in the way she’d been looking at me that was strange. The look of somebody watching a gross video. Was my face messed up? Was that why my jaw felt so strange? Maybe I’d fallen on the escalator and broken it? That wouldn’t be good. I wouldn’t be able to sing for a couple months at the least.
Akamatsu-san wouldn’t fire me—he’s always loyal to the girls, as long as we don’t break the rules—but being out of the spotlight for a couple months would lose me votes in the next popularity contest. That would have a roll-on effect since it would mean I wouldn’t be on the next major single or the video, which would mean I’d have to work twice as hard to come back.
I’ve seen it before. YamaYuki had been sidelined for a couple months last year after she had tonsillitis, and her popularity still hasn’t recovered fully. Then there was the girl who’d had the bad luck to break a leg right after making her debut in Team B. She’d placed last in the next poll and been demoted back to understudy.
Having a broken jaw would be trouble, but what if it were worse than that? What if I’d cut my face? My hardcore fans would still vote for me—and since ballots are packed in with CDs and multi-voting is allowed, the hardcores are the most important for keeping my numbers up. But while having an army of hardcores is necessary to place in the top twenty, getting to the top requires support from the casuals. If my face is messed up, some might vote for me out of sympathy, but not enough. And probably only once or twice—by next year, they’ll be voting for someone else. I’ve held Hana-chan and TakaYuki off for the last six polls, but if I have a scar, I’ll be vying for twentieth place with Kyouko, who’s too tough to attract fans beyond her core.
This is terrible. My career is going to be over.
No, wait. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t know how bad the damage is. I need a mirror. But where?
I look around. My surroundings come into focus for the first time. I’m in the train station, sitting next to a ticket machine. I grab it and pull myself up. Pain shoots through my side when I move my leg, and by the time I get myself upright, I’m panting and sweating. But I manage.
Where’s the bathroom? There has to be one somewhere, right? There’s a corridor nearby. I hobble towards it.
An American man appears. He says something I can’t understand, then shouts, “Hey, Linda!”
«Madoka-san, you have to stay put.»
«I need a mirror.»
«Please, sit down.»
—We can’t let her can’t see herself.
Where did that come from?
—Honey, you don’t want a mirror.
People are speaking, but their voices aren’t muffled like Linda-san’s and the man’s.
«I’ll get you a mirror in a bit, I promise,» Linda-san says. But she’s lying. I can—how can I know that? «Sit down please.»
She leads me into a corner and I sit down. What’s going on? Where is everyone? I don’t see Hana-chan or Emi or anyone around here. There are a few people, but they’re all Americans. From what I remember, the station should be a lot more crowded than this. There’d been hundreds of people around the entrance when—yes, I remember now.
(the back of my neck’s wet)
We’d been going down the escalator when an earthquake
(what’s wrong with YamaYuki’s face?)
No, more than an earthquake. Something really bad had happened.
«Where’s Akamatsu-san?» I ask.
«You stay here and I’ll get him.»
Linda-san speaks to the other man. I can’t hear their words—and they’d be in English anyway—but I can tell she’s asking him to watch me. I don’t know how I know that, but I do. He nods, but he’s not enthusiastic about it.
Linda-san disappears into the corridor. Is that the entrance, maybe?
As soon as Linda-san’s gone, the guy she asked to watch me wanders away and begins chatting with some other people. None of them are happy to be here, but they’re scared to leave—there’s something wrong outside. And… they’re scared of something down here, too. Like there’s a plague and they might catch it.
And I’m the one who’s sick.
How do I know all that? I can barely hear the murmur of their voices, but I can… feel? That’s not the right word, but it’s the only one I have that’s even close to right. Yes, I can feel their fear and where it’s directed. It’s like when you walk into a room and everyone goes quiet, and you know they’d been talking about you a moment before. Only this is more intense.
Is that crazy? Maybe I’m being paranoid. Maybe I’m so afraid of what’s happened to my face that I’m projecting my fear onto them.
What was that?
—Please. I’m alone. It’s dark. I’m scared.
It’s one of those clear voices again. But it’s too clear, like the voice in my own head. I can’t tell what direction it’s coming from.
“Verere.” There’s a voice coming from the far side of the room. Somebody’s lying against the wall, just like me when I woke up. “Bweeese.”
The guy who’s supposed to be looking after me glances across the room. He’s revulsed. His stomach turns. The others he’s chatting with feel the same. Most of them wish they could get further away from the person over there, though one of them—yes, the woman with dark blonde hair—thinks they should kill the person. There’s no malice in her mind; she thinks it’d be a mercy.
“Halb may,” the person moans.
—There’s somebody out there, isn’t there? Please.
I stand up. I totter across the room. I get halfway before the guy who’s supposed to be watching me—his name’s Malcolm; I don’t know how I know that—notices me. He rushes over and puts himself in my way. He says something in English, speaking slowly as though I’ll understand him better that way.
—I don’t wanna touch her. I don’t wanna touch her. Please don’t make me touch her.
Those… those are his thoughts. That’s what I’m hearing. How?
Well, if he doesn’t want to touch me, then—I reach my hand towards Malcolm-san. He flinches and steps backwards. I can see why. I haven’t looked at my hands since waking up, but now that I do, I see something’s wrong with them. They’re no longer smooth and soft. They look like an old lady’s hands, with veins and bones bulging through my skin. Somehow the last two fingers of my right hand are joined together, as though they’ve been dipped in glue and let to dry. What happened? What happened to my hand?
Malcolm-san steps aside. I lurch forward—that’s the only way to describe it. The way I’m walking, it’s like I have my pants down. Not around my ankles. No, if that were the case, my legs could move like normal, just not very far. This is more like there’s something around my knees. My lower legs can move like normal, but my thighs are barely mobile. The result is that I stumble forward, always in danger of toppling over.
But slowly I make my way across the room to where the man’s lying, facing towards the wall.
Those are his thoughts. Yes.
I wonder. Can he hear me?
—I’m here, I think.
The fear evaporates from his mind.
—You can hear me? he asks.
—Thank you. Oh thank you. I thought I was alone in the darkness.
I kneel down. Or try to. My legs don’t cooperate, and I fall onto my butt.
I put my hand on his shoulder. He rolls onto his back.
His face—what happened to his face? He looks like the candle that Kyouko had given me for my birthday a couple years ago, the one shaped like a fairy. When I’d burnt it, the wax had run over its face, turning her into a lumpy mess. The guy’s face is the same way. The skin on his cheeks and chin have melted and run and resolidified into a gobby mass. It’s bright pink and glistens. There are thick pads of flesh over his eyes, as though somebody has cut the soles from his feet and sewn them onto his face. In places, the skin has melted so much that bone pokes through.
—What’s wrong? he asks.
—You’re lying. What happened to me? Where am I?
I put my hand to my face. I’d expected something to be wrong with it, but I hadn’t imagined anything worse than a broken jaw and some cuts. A problem, yes, but… my whole face is warped. There are ridges and runnels all across my cheeks and forehead. I’m as wrinkled as some old granny, except the flesh isn’t loose and soft. It’s calloused.
How can I ever go on stage like this? There’s no way Akamatsu-san will ever let me. My career’s over.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!
This cannot be happening.
I have money saved, but nowhere near enough for retirement. I’ve been spending money almost as fast as it comes in. Not just on myself, of course—I bought a house in the country for my parents, and I gave my best friend from high school a luxury sports car when she got into her top choice of college. True, there are some things I can sell for money—the woodcut paintings I collect, my vacation house in Okinawa—but nowhere near enough to support myself for the rest of my life. I always figured I’d end up married to someone with enough money that I needn’t worry about taking care of my future. But now, if I look anything like the guy on the floor, I have no hope. Nobody will ever marry me.
—What’s wrong with me? the guy on the floor wants to know. His fear feels like the heat of an oven with the door wide open. No, this goes beyond fear. He’s falling into panic. He can feel my fear, and it’s making him worse.
How is this possible? I’m not psychic. I’ve been certified as not psychic. Last year we’d taken a test as part of our variety show. This psychic researcher had come to the studio and had us guess the images hidden on cards. I’d scored so badly that he said I did worse than random chance. I literally have negative psychic powers. And there was the time Akamatsu-san had made us go into a haunted house as part of the show. Kyouko and Hana-chan both said they felt a ghostly presence, but I hadn’t felt a thing.
I have to be dreaming this. I’m still at the hotel asleep. That’s the only explanation. I’m going to wake up soon and tell Kyouko all about it—she’ll get a laugh.
—Am I going to be all right? Am I even alive? Is this Hell?
There’s no way I can hear this guy’s voice in my head. And even if I could, it’d be in English. How could I understand him?
But… no matter how much I tell myself that, I don’t believe it. There’s a realness to his thoughts that I’ve never felt in a dream. I don’t think I’ve felt it awake, either. It’s the realness of my own thoughts and feelings.
—You’re alive, I touch his shoulder and squeeze it. —I’m right here.
He struggles to sit up. I help him. He looks at me with his eyeless face.
—Yes. That’s me. You’re… My mind searches. Jacob. The name comes to me as though I’ve dredged it from my own memory. He’s my age, a college student at the University of Maryland. He…
“Look at that crowd,” Kelly said.
I blink and turn around. Akamatsu-san is here, and Linda-san, too.
«You shouldn’t be up,» Akamatsu-san says. «You need to rest.» He reaches a hand for my shoulder, but hesitates before touching me. «Come on, let’s sit you down somewhere.»
He smiles, but he’s faking it. My face makes him want to vomit. Only Linda-san doesn’t feel revulsion towards me. She pities me instead. She’s thinking, —The poor girl, she pinned her life on her looks, and what’s she going to do now?
«What happened?» I ask.
«As to that, we don’t know,» Akamatsu-san says. «The city is wrecked, but that’s all I can say.»
«Where’re Kyouko and Hana-chan and the others?»
«They went to find help,» Akamatsu-san says.
He’s lying. There’s no help. There’s nobody left on the surface. They’re all dead up there. Only people who were underground when the quake struck are still alive. Those of us who’d been on the escalator…
Akamatsu stepped off the escalator and moved to the side.
Akamatsu had come up with the idea for IKB-45 when he was in business school. He’d been researching entertainment management for a paper, and he’d come to the realization that musical groups were highly inefficient. They could only do one thing at a time. If they were on tour, they couldn’t be recording new material. If they were recording new material, they couldn’t be making TV appearances.
So that’s what happened.
I’m glad the others are safe, though I’m sorry Akamatsu-san had to stay behind because of me.
«Come on. Sit down,» Akamatsu-san urges me.
I let him lead me away from Jacob. It doesn’t matter. Even on the far side of the room, I can still hear Jacob’s thoughts as clear as if he were sitting next to me—or even better than that, considering his voice appears in my head clearer than Akamatsu-san’s.
—I’m right over here, I tell Jacob.
—I can ... I don’t know how it is, but I can feel your presence, he thinks.
—Yes. It’s the same for me.
—But how is that possible?
—I don’t know. But it is. Do you know who I am?
He doesn’t answer for a moment. And then images flash through my mind. My audition for the group. The callbacks. The training. My debut concert.
—You’re a singer. From Japan, is it?
—This is so weird. Your memories feel like my own right now.
He’s silent for a moment, then —Hey. Do you think ... if there are two of us like this, are there any others?
To Be Continued...
“Got time for a drink?” Rekha asks as she takes her headphones off.
I check my watch. A quarter past four. “Sorry, I promised Kathy I’d cook her dinner tonight.”
“Oh. Raincheck, then?”
“Raincheck, sure.” I close my laptop and unplug it.
Rekha tries Kirsten. “How about you?”
“I dunno. I try not to drink on Sundays.”
“You two are turning into old maids, I swear.”
I hold up my hand and make a yapping motion. “Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.”
“And we can’t be old maids—we’re married.” Kirsten flashes her wedding ring.
“Unlike a certain someone,” I say.
“Don’t you turn into my mother,” Rekha says. “I’ll get married when I’m good and ready, and not a minute sooner. I can’t help it if the men in this city are severely deficient.”
“In what?” Jason asks. He’s still at his computer, starting the post-pro on the podcast. He’s going to be stuck here for at least an hour working on that. Oh well. Better him than me.
“Everything,” Rekha says.
“Ouch. You know that’s sexual harassment?” he says.
“Only because the law does not recognize the factual superiority of women in most every sphere of existence.”
“Keep talking. This is gonna make my lawsuit so much more lucrative,” Jason says. Then he turns to me. “So what’re you cooking?”
“I was going to do shrimp and pasta.” I slide my laptop into my satchel and then stuff the power cord into a side pouch. Zip, zip, snap, ready to go.
“Mmm, shrimp.” He does a Homer Simpson voice.
“Shrimp tastes good,” Rekha says. “You can boil it, broil it, sauté it.”
“Shrimp gumbo, shrimp creole, shrimp kabob,” Kirsten says.
“Deep fried shrimp, pan fried shrimp,” Jason says.
“Okay guys, I’m leaving.” I stand up, grab my bottle of water and check that I have everything. Yup. I shoulder my laptop bag and grab my purse. “See you guys tomorrow.”
“God willing and the creek don’t rise,” Jason says.
“And men with tiny hands don’t nuke us all to hell,” Rekha says.
“If we wake up in hell, I’ll meet you guys at the bar.”
“It’s a date,” Rekha says.
I step out of the studio. The door swings halfway closed, then stops and opens again.
Kirsten comes out. She stifles a yawn and stretches. “I tell you, working on weekends is a pain in the ass.”
“I know. A nuclear war would almost be a relief at this point.”
“Are you actually looking forward to atomic armageddon as a way to get out of work?”
“Always look on the bright side of life, that’s what I say.” I whistle a jaunty tune.
We stop at the elevator and I hit the call button.
We’ve been doing a podcast as part of our work at the McKinley Institute for going on four years now. For the first two and change, it had been a regular weekly session, every Friday afternoon with a trip to the Blackfinn for drinks afterwards. In that time, we’d done exactly one emergency podcast—when Russia invaded the Crimea. In the last two years, we’ve been doing at least one a week, and sometimes as many as three. And half of those have been on weekends because a certain orange shit-gibbon refuses to respect bankers’ hours when stirring up global crises.
I’m seriously annoyed with the guy. His policies are bad enough, but can’t he leave my weekends alone? Ugh.
The elevator dings and the doors slide open. We get on board.
“You drive in today?” Kirsten hits the button for the first floor.
“Nah, I decided to risk the Metro.” Normally a Sunday would be the one day when driving in DC isn’t an act of insanity, but normal Sundays don’t feature city-choking protests. I decided the risks of Metro outweighed sitting in traffic for an hour. Plus it gave me a chance to start the new Brad Thor novel.
“Yeah, same,” Kirsten says. She takes her phone out, switches the ringer back on. “Dare I check?”
“What’s the worst that could happen? He tweeted something that will completely invalidate our entire podcast?”
“I am not going back up there. I don’t care if he tweeted ‘The missiles are flying. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ I am done for the day.” Kirsten slips the phone back into her purse.
My self-restraint, on the other hand, has always been lacking. I take out my phone and open Twitter. “Drezner’s tweeting about baseball. Nothing too bad could’ve happened.”
“That’s a relief.”
My mentions are going crazy. That’s what I get for going on a Sunday morning talk show. Do I really want to look at them? Probably not, but the notification isn’t going to go away until I do. I flip over.
This Is My Pistol, This Is My Gun @jeromeburke
True American @GunToter
Lovely. Such … charming people.
“That bad?” Kirsten says.
“About the usual.”
I close out Twitter and hit my inbox. Nothing but a reminder from Kathy that we need toilet paper. Guess I’m stopping by Shoppers on my way home. Well, I needed to get pasta noodles anyway.
The elevator slows to a halt and the doors open. We walk through the lobby.
“Are you ready for this?” Kirsten asks as we near the entrance.
“Gotta be done.”
We take deep breaths and push through the doors. The moment we’re across the threshold, we’re hit by a solid wall of scorching air.
Forecasting the weather for DC in August is the easiest thing in the world. Every day is exactly the same—high in the mid-90s, 100% humidity, and an 80% chance of afternoon thundershowers. Judging by the sky, though, this is going to be one of those 20% days when the sun shines and shines and shines and never lets up.
“Oh God, it’s a barbecue out here,” Kirsten says. “Wanna split an Uber?”
The idea is more than tempting, but we’d be waiting longer than it takes to walk to the Metro. “Let’s just get it over with.”
“How do you know? Did Kathy snitch?”
“Ve have sources.”
We stop at the street corner, but traffic is nonexistent so we cross against the light.
“How’s the home front treating you?” I ask.
“September cannot get here fast enough.”
“You’re at work all day. What does it matter whether Ryan’s in school or daycare?”
“Matters to the bank account. We could’ve taken a two week Caribbean cruise for what we’re paying this summer.”
We hit the opposite side of the street. Kirsten needs to take the Blue Line, so it’d be fastest for her to peel off here and cut across Farragut Square, but she keeps with me down K Street instead.
“See, that’s why I will never have kids,” I say. “They’re nothing but a money suck.”
“They’re not all bad.”
“Please. I couldn’t stand kids even when I was one. They are nothing but vicious beasts that need to be tamed. I don’t have the patience for that. If I had a baby, I’d give up after three months and flush it down the toilet.”
Kirsten laughs like I’m joking. People are always doing that.
“Sometimes I wonder, were you born this cynical, or did it develop naturally?”
“Let’s put it this way, when I saw Star Wars for the first time, I wondered which had more people, the Death Star or Alderaan. I made my father do a population density analysis.”
“What was the result?”
“Luke Skywalker is a bigger mass murderer than Tarkin.” Even if the Death Star were smaller than Alderaan and 90% of the interior were given over to the main reactor, with the crew confined to the outermost crust, the habitable volume would easily dwarf an Earth-like planet.
“Nothing.” Kirsten shakes her head. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Oh. Yeah. See you then.”
I wave after Kirsten, then head to the next crosswalk. I catch the light green and go straight across.
The station entrance is recessed under the side of a building, and I pause in the shade to check my phone one last time—Metro still hasn’t rolled out cell service despite years of promises. I need something to listen to on my way home, so I open my podcatcher app and look for anything new. Filmsack is the only thing I listen to that normally releases on Sundays, but they’re on Mountain Time, so their episodes go up late by East Coast standards. Too bad. That would’ve been a nice way to take my mind off work. No, the newest podcast in my feed is Lawfare—looks like they’d come in on Sunday for an emergency recording, too. Lawyers. Yay.
I hit the download button and wait.
“…so you could trot me out and show me off to the people you hated in high school.” A family walks by, a man, a woman and a boy. The woman—she’s in that age range where she’s too old to be the guy’s daughter, but young enough that she shouldn’t be dating the guy—looks seriously pissed. “No sightseeing, no, none. I gotta see the Washington Monument through the window of our hotel room, that’s it.”
They stop at the corner.
“What di’ y’ espet? Huh?” The guy sounds stone drunk. He clenches his fist tight, but there are enough people around that he holds himself back. For now, anyways. Who knows what’ll happen when they’re alone.
The crossing light changes and they step into the street, still arguing.
I check my phone. The podcast is finished downloading. I step around to the escalator and dig my earbuds out of my laptop bag. I plug them in and start playing as I descend to the station. By the time the host finishes preambling, I’m through the fare gate and almost to the second set of escalators.
A burst of people coming up tells me a train has just arrived. I quicken my pace. As I near the edge of the mezzanine, I see there are trains on both tracks. I need to hurry or I’ll be waiting ten, fifteen minutes for the next one—and that’s assuming everything’s functioning properly, which is becoming an iffier proposition every day. Last time I rode Metro, I’d had to take a transfer bus because three stations had shut down for electrical issues.
The doors close on one of the trains and it pulls out of the station. I need a moment to orient myself and identify it as the one bound for Shady Grove. Good, not the one I need.
The other train has finished disgorging passengers, and now new riders are crowding to get on board. I double-time it down the escalator. People are still queuing at the doors when I get to the bottom. I jump in the nearest line.
Yes! The big Four-Oh might be looming at the end of the year, but I still have it!
Most of the people on board are protesters. In years past, they would’ve been college kids mostly, and any older faces you saw would’ve been with organized groups—most of them self-proclaimed anarchists, as though organized anarchy makes any damn sense—but this being 20**, today’s protesters are middle class suburbanites.
When I get on board, things aren’t too crowded—the train’s just entering the protest area, so it’s going to fill up with the next few stops, but for now I’m able to grab a seat, no problem.
A man sits down across from me with a hand-drawn sign that says, “Regime Change at Home First.” A woman standing at the door has one that says,
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
OUR PRESIDENT & KIM JONG UN?
NO, SERIOUSLY, I CAN’T TELL
She’s illustrated it by hand, clearly copying the drawing from the end of Animal Farm where the animals can no longer tell the difference between Napoleon and the humans, though modifying it ever-so slightly so Napoleon appears to be the Cheez Puff Menace. Cute. I approve.
Other people have signs that have been professionally printed from downloadable templates—lots of Star Wars themed ones featuring Leia, Jyn and Rey (though not Padme, which I suppose is understandable given her role in Palpatine’s rise—she is the Jill Stein of the Star Wars universe).
The doors close and the train lurches into motion. The acceleration pulls me to the left, and I have to grab the side of my seat so I don’t lean into the man next to me. The train reaches cruising speed and inertia releases my body.
The moment it does, the lights flicker.
And something else—the train’s shaking. It hadn’t been noticeable during the acceleration, but now--
The lights go out completely, and at the same moment I’m thrown to the right. The guy in the next seat crushes against me.
“Sorry,” he grunts.
The trains slows and stops.
“Oh, come on!” somebody groans.
People are peering out the windows, not that they can see much. There are a few lights still operating on emergency power, but all they’re illuminating is the tunnel wall and some conduits.
“Hello? Hello?” Somebody’s opened the emergency call box, but that’s not working either.
I lean back until my head butts against the window behind me. The cool glass presses against my skin where my hair parts.
Well, so much for getting home at a decent hour. But there’s no point in panicking. We’ll get out of here when the Metro gets us out of here and not a minute sooner. Trust in the Force, young Padawan, and let it guide your destiny.
Good thing I downloaded a podcast before getting on.
The Lawfare crew are discussing the White House’s contention that they don’t need Congressional authorization for action against North Korea. Their argument rests upon the fact that the Korean War never officially ended—we’re currently in a state of cease fire—which means the original 1950 UN authorization is still in effect, and the President doesn’t need Congressional approval to recommence hostilities. The consensus seems to be that there’s no legal precedent for such a claim, but with the Senate in its current spineless state, the point is moot as far as domestic politics go. The question is whether the argument will carry water on the international stage, particularly with our allies who aren’t overly eager to get involved in a land war in Asia. Which leads to the question—what can other countries do if the President decides to launch a unilateral attack?
The answer is, after all the caveats are stripped away, pretty much nothing.
Being a legal podcast, the hosts don’t talk much about the practical ramifications of the crisis, but those are my biggest worries. Given the dog’s breakfast the President has turned the State Department into, there’s no spokesperson who can make a plausible—to say nothing of persuasive—case for whatever action our Maximus Leader settles on (which will, in all probability, be the most extreme choice the Pentagon presents him with). If the US doesn’t at least make a pretense of caring about international law, other countries will do likewise, especially those who might be next on our shit-list.
Sad to say, but the best possible outcome right now is for the North to do something preemptive that would justify an American response. At least then we could pretend the International Order is intact.
In other words, the world is screwed.
I’d tried not to sound too gloomy on the podcast, or earlier when I’d done the rounds of the Sunday shows, but my assessment is bleak. If we make it to next Friday with less than a hundred thousand deaths on the Peninsula, I’ll count the world lucky. A few million deaths around the Pacific Rim is my moderate-case scenario. If I had to quote odds, I’d put the risk of global thermonuclear war around one chance in five.
Christ, what am I doing on this train? Who knows how much time we have. I can’t be wasting it here. I have to get home. I have to fix Kathy a nice dinner that we can eat while knocking out a few more episodes in our Babylon 5 rewatch, then retire to bed for a nice snuggly evening. After all, it could very well be our last.
I stand up and go to the nearest door. Where’s the emergency exit control? Ah, here. I open the cover and pull the lever underneath.
“Hey, what’re you doing?” some guy asks.
“Self-evacuating. I can call a Lyft and be home before Metro gets us fixed and moving.”
“We aren’t allowed to do that, are we?”
“No.” I shrug. “But that’s what I’m doing.”
The lever doesn’t actually open the doors, but it releases the locking mechanism so I can pull them apart.
The people around me buzz, clearly wondering whether they should follow my lead, but in the end nobody does. I’m left alone in the tunnel.
I dig into my purse for the flashlight I keep in there. Let’s see, keys … gum … pocket book … is that—no, that’s my pepper spray. Where is it …? Ooh, flask! That’s handy. I uncap it and take a swig. Mmm, Cointreau. Okay, where was I … ah, there we go.
I take out the flashlight and flip it on. Its overall effect upon the tunnel is minimal—there’s too much dark in here, and it can only illuminate a tiny sliver—but at least I can see the walkway in the long gaps between the lights.
I still have to take each step carefully. The walls are less than smooth, with conduits and outcrops of equipment that force me to lean into the tunnel, sometimes precariously. I keep one hand on the wall in front of me, like a blind person feeling their way through an unknown house. Whatever maintenance Metro does down here, it doesn’t include power-washing the walls, and my hands quickly turn gritty with dirt. I’m sure the side of my suit must look horrible where it’s brushing against the wall—and this is my best one, too.
I didn’t think the train had gone too far from the station, but it takes me five minutes before I can see the mouth of the tunnel ahead. Of course part of that’s because the station’s on emergency power, too, which renders it a dark cathedral, with only dim, grey light reflecting off the waffled roof.
The platform’s deserted when I get there, but I don’t think much of it—after all, both trains had come through right before the quake, so there wouldn’t’ve been many people here to begin with, and most of those had probably cleared out rather than wait around for the power to come back.
The station has multiple exits, with escalators on either end of the platform leading up to two different mezzanines. I head towards the one I’d come through earlier. I don’t know why, force of habit. But at least there’s a Starbucks this way. Even if they don’t have power, at least it’s out of the sun. And I’m a regular customer, so they should let me use the bathroom to clean off.
As I climb the escalator, I hear voices up above, distant at first but becoming more distinct as I get nearer.
“…hell happened to him?”
“Looks burned up.”
“I’ve never seen burns like that. That’s ... I don’t know what that is.”
I’m about two-thirds of the way up when people come into view. They’re huddled together beyond the ticket gates. The gates block most of my view, but there’s someone lying on the floor, not moving.
As I get closer, I can see something’s wrong with his face. It’s … burned … or … no, more like melted. His whole body is puffed up like a blister. Blood and pus glisten in the low light. He’s breathing heavy and ragged, so loud I can hear him from several feet away.
“What’s going on?” I say.
They jump. None of them had noticed my approach.
“Jesus,” a woman says. I recognize her from Starbucks, one of the baristas. Don’t know her name though.
“Where’d you come from? I thought everyone was up here,” a guy in a Metro uniform says.
Besides him and the barista, there are three other people up here—well, four, the guy on the floor. One’s a guy in a camo MAGA hat, so that’s nice, and the other two are youngish men, one clean shaven and the other with a stylish short beard.
“I was on a train,” I explain. “Got tired of waiting, walked here. What’s going on?”
“There is something majorly wrong up there.” The barista waves towards the station entrance.
“Can you be more specific?”
“I dunno,” the Metro guy says. He looks like he’s in charge, the stationmaster I guess. “This guy, he was on the way down when the quake happened, and he started screaming and came tumbling down the escalator. I ran over to check him and he was like this.”
“Why haven’t you called an ambulance?” I’d sat on the train for about five minutes, and the walk here had taken another ten. Surely paramedics would be here by now if they’d called.
“Phones are out,” the stationmaster says.
“I tried calling on my cell,” the bearded guy says, “but I couldn’t even get one bar.”
“How about flagging down a car?” Even if we have to stuff this guy in the backseat, it’s better than nothing.
Everyone gets this look on their face, like a doctor about to tell you you have inoperable cancer.
“There aren’t any motorists around,” the bearded guy says.
“What do you mean, ‘there aren’t any’?”
“I mean … there aren’t any. None.”
“That’s crazy.” Even on a Sunday, there should be a couple cars moving around up there.
“He’s telling the truth,” the barista says. “I went up there, too. The city’s … dead.”
I want to ask more, but two more Metro employees appear, coming from a walkway that goes across to the other mezzanine. They both look spooked.
“Things are bad on the north side,” one of them says, an older African-American man with a goatee.
The second employee, a Hispanic man in his early twenties, says, “The building over the northeast entrance is collapsed.”
“The one over the northwest entrance is still standing, but it doesn’t look good,” the older guy says. “Could come tumbling down if somebody breathes on it hard.”
Had the earthquake been that bad. True, the city isn’t built to withstand quakes—the Eastern Seaboard is one of the most geologically inert places on Earth, after all—but we’ve had them before. There’d been a trembler just a few years ago, and it hadn’t knocked anything over. This would have to be much bigger than anything ever recorded in the area.
I suppose this could be some once-in-a-millennium quake, but …
I don’t want to consider the other possibility.
That this wasn’t a quake.
That something man-made had struck the city.
But given current events …
“I’m going to go take a look,” I say.
“I wouldn’t do that, lady,” the younger of the station employees says.
I head for the nearest escalator to the surface. At least Farragut North’s a shallow station, so the walk up is short. I’d hate to be someone stuck in Rosslyn or one of the other stations that’re a couple hundred feet down.
Near the top, the treads and handrails are coated with a fine plaster dust, and a few large bits of concrete have fallen off the ceiling. And there’s something else. There’s a patch of purplish … goo a couple steps from the top, with a pile of clothes on top of it. What the hell had happened here?
I step off the escalator and into the recess. There are more puddles of goo and clothing up here. Are these …? No. No way. That’d be crazy. Besides, if a nuke had gone off in the city, people would’ve turned to ash, not goo.
I step outside. The sun blasts my eyes and I have to hold a hand up so it doesn’t blot out my sight.
Farragut Square looks like a fire’s raged across it. The trees are burnt-out skeletons, and the grass is blackened. Only the statue of Admiral Farragut at the center is untouched. Odd. If there had been a fire, the stone plinth should be blackened, but it’s the same light grey color as always.
The buildings around the square are in a sorry state. One on the far side has gone over completely, spilling rubble across the street and into the square, but all of them have cracks in their facades, and their windows are blown out, the glass lying in a sparkling carpet on the sidewalks. God knows what sort of structural damage they’ve suffered.
I’m so taken by the sight of destruction that it takes me a moment to realize nobody’s moving on the street. It’s not just a lack of vehicles, though that’s striking in itself, but I can’t see a single pedestrian in any direction.
I pull out my phone. No signal. Dammit. I have to call Kathy, find out if she’s all right, let her know that I am. Does any place around here have a pay phone? Nothing comes to mind. Maybe a store would let me use theirs. Or I can go back to the office—it’s hard to tell from here, but it looks like the building’s still standing. I should check on Jason anyhow, and Rekha if she’s still around. Yeah, best I head that way.
I start off walking, but after a couple steps I break into a run. When I get to the intersection, I sprint straight across without checking for traffic—let somebody else take up the burdens of civilization.
When I get to the other side, though, I falter. I can hear something, a mechanical thrum. There—to the right of me, there’s a van. It’s rammed straight into a bike-share, it’s rear end jutting into the street.
I head over and look inside. It’s empty, but the front seat’s stained with the same purple sludge I’d seen on the escalator. I try the door, but it doesn’t open—it’s locked from the inside.
I suppose the driver may’ve been dazed and gotten out without shutting the engine off, then locked the keys inside. It’s an entirely reasonable assumption.
But that’s not what happened.
That puddle inside—that used to be the driver.
I have no evidence, but I’m sure of it.
I cup my hands around my eyes and peer inside. Yes. There are clothes on the floor. They’ve slid off the seat.
But what could’ve caused this?
It wasn’t a nuke, I’m sure of that. We’re close enough to the White House that even a “little” tactical nuke would’ve leveled everything in sight. A missile would’ve had to go seriously off course if there are still buildings standing here. I suppose the Norks might’ve fired something in the experimental stages, didn’t have the kinks worked out, but even then I should be able to see a mushroom cloud.
But what else could’ve happened?
Biological warfare? Doesn’t explain the damage to the buildings, or how I haven’t been affected. If this were a biological agent, it’s fast acting. I should be goopifying already.
I check the sky.
Well, I suppose the whys and wherefores are somebody else’s problem. My concerns are closer at hand.
I head back to the corner and then towards the office.
The front door’s been shattered, but there are enough jagged glass teeth left in the frame that I don’t want to step through. I have the damnedest time getting the door open, what with all the broken shards grinding underneath, but after a few tugs I finally manage it.
The lobby is in ruins. The outer facade may be intact, but the interior has suffered serious structural damage. One of the fancy marble pillars has a crack clear through it, and the upper half has slid nearly an inch from true.
I hesitate. The building’s like a giant Jenga tower after a dozen turns. It could all come tumbling down with the slightest provocation—or none at all.
But I need to see.
The elevator is out of the question, so I find a stairwell. There are windows on the landings, but they face into an alley, so I have to use my flashlight again.
I make it up three flights before I come across a giant chunk of staircase that’s fallen loose. There’s something sticky and red oozing from the rubble, but I don’t see any sign of a body.
I point my flashlight up and find there’s a five foot gap in the flight above me. Even if I get across this rubble, I’ll never make that jump. Shit.
I backtrack to the previous floor and cut across to a different stairwell. This one is intact, but there are enough cracks running through it that I’m afraid it’s going to collapse like a temple out of Indiana Jones if I try to walk across it. But I don’t suppose any of the other stairwells will be in much better shape, so I take the chance.
I make it to the fifth floor with no further problems.
The place is empty. “Hello?” I call. “Rekha? Jason?” No answer.
I go into my office and pick up my phone. I’m not expecting to hear anything, and I’m right.
I hate being right. One of the joys of being a cynic is being proven wrong. I really wanted to be wrong.
If the phones are dead, the only way I can get back to Kathy is by hiking across the city and through the suburbs. Christ, but that’s a long way to walk, especially in August. Be better if I could wait until night when it cools down, but without power the city is going to be darker than black. My flashlight’s not gonna cut it.
Maybe … maybe I can find some car keys. Who knows what the roads are like, but even if I have to creep along at ten miles an hour and backtrack around obstacles, it’s better than walking.
I head to the studio. It has a window in it—cracked but otherwise intact—so I can see inside without opening the door. Jason and Rekha aren’t here, though Rekha’s laptop is still open on the table—the battery isn’t even dead yet, and the power-light is blinking in standby mode.
I open the door and step in. There’s purple goo on the floor. Their clothes are in the seats.
I’m not surprised at this point, but my heart pounds hard for a second. I close my eyes and tell myself not to cry. I don’t have time for tears.
I step back into the hall and head for the big boss’s office. I know where he keeps his liquor—he breaks it out whenever we complete a big project—and I need it right now. I open his desk and search through his bottles until I find his Cointreau. It’s only a quarter full, but it’ll do. I take out my flask and top her up, then polish off what’s left in the bottle.
Mmm. I feel like I’m on fire now.
That’s what I needed.
I check the time on my phone. It’s past five now. I have about three hours of good light left. If I walk, I might get as far as Rock Creek tonight, but then I’d have to find some place to stay. If I grab a car, I could get further, but I don’t know how long that would take.
Perhaps its best if I head back to the station. I can bed down there tonight, and who knows, maybe rescue will show up at some point. I doubt it. But if I set off at first light tomorrow, I should have fourteen hours of daylight. Even with detours and pit stops, I should be able to make it home by early evening.
Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.
I make it downstairs and out of the building without any trouble, but I’ve gone all of three yards down the street when I hear a crash behind me. I spin around in time to see a building on the next block fall into the road. It breaks apart as it topples, the upper half snapping off and trying to fall straight down even as the lower part continues forward. The two halves pulverize each other in midair, and a cloud of dust billows out of the collision.
“Ho-lee fuck.” I flash back to 9/11, to sitting in the Student Union as the first street-level videos came in of the Towers collapsing—the dust rolling across the city as people scrambled to get indoors. Back then, we all felt like we were watching the end of the world. We were wrong, though. The world will never end. It’ll only change.
As the dust cloud envelops me, I wonder what it’s changing into this time.
To Be Continued ...
“Do you have a minute, General?”
Goddammit, can’t a man run to the pisser around here without being accosted by a goddamned reporter? “I can give you thirty-seven seconds, and that’s the max.”
“There’s a rumor going around that the NSC meeting this afternoon is going to be in the emergency bunker under the East Wing, not the Situation Room. Any truth to that?”
Sonuvabitch! “Sorry, my business isn’t rumors. Now, why don’t you do something useful and find out who’s been leaving turds in the men’s toilet without flushing?”
“I’d start with Bast Kroga if I were you. Now good day, Maggie.”
I hold my anger in as I walk down the hall, wait for her to get out of sight before I smash my fist into the wall—hard enough to leave a dent in the plaster. That hurt! Good. The pain takes my mind off my rage. Some of it at least.
Fer Christ’s sake! If I ever find the asshole who leaked that, I’m gonna kick them between the legs so hard their balls will burst out their skull like Pallas Athena.
The bunker beneath the White House is an emergency precaution in case of a surprise attack where the President doesn’t have time to evacuate Washington. It had been built during World War II, and while the designers intended it to survive a nuclear strike, their expectations were based upon the Manhattan Project. There’ve been improvements since, but whether it can survive a direct hit by a modern thermonuclear device ... I’m not particularly keen to find out.
During the Cold War, the plan had been for the President to evacuate to an alternate site if a nuclear exchange seemed imminent, someplace deep in a mountain, hardened to withstand anything short of the Tsar Bomba. But that was predicated on the assumption that such an evacuation would occur in the midst of an international crisis where the US faced the possibility of an enemy first strike. An evacuation in those circumstances would seem a reasonable defensive precaution.
Nobody—except maybe Curtis LeMay and Doug MacArthur—had ever contemplated a President seeking shelter from retaliation against an unprovoked American first strike. But by God, that’s what’s happening today.
There’s a crisis, to be sure, and not one entirely of our making, though we’re surely at fault for letting it spin so far out of control. But it’s a crisis that does not rise to the level of a nuclear attack. Or at least, it shouldn’t.
But the President, in all of his God granted wisdom, thinks otherwise, and right now we’re finalizing plans for an attack on North Korea. The Norks don’t have the capability to hit Washington yet—the Pacific Coast, sure, maybe as far inland as Denver, though our technical estimates of their missiles give them a huge CEP at that range. A shot at San Diego could hit anywhere from Ensenada to San Clemente. They do have sub-launched ballistic missiles, but they’d have to get into the Atlantic to be a threat against Washington, and the Navy assures me they’ve got every Nork sub under watch with orders to sink ‘em if they so much as open a launch tube.
No, our worry right now is the Chinese. If we launch against North Korea, China will almost certainly retaliate—and they absolutely have missiles that can hit DC. If the President evacuated to Site R right now, it would be a sure signal of our intent. What the Chinese would do in that situation is an open question, but it would not be good.
Hence our decision to use the White House bunker instead.
But the whole damn point of that decision was to keep the President’s intention secret. If it shows up on the New York Times webpage—or God forbid, Maggie tweets it without waiting to write up a story—it defeats the whole fucking purpose.
I storm towards the Press Secretary’s office. Where is that goddamn sartorially challenged idiot? If I can manage to find that man’s balls, I’m gonna yank them off. But when I poke my head through the office door, the only person there is the Rhinoceros.
“Something wrong, General?” she says.
“Where in the seven hells is Spacey?”
“He went to see the Big Boss.”
“Any thing I can help you with?”
“You wouldn’t happen to know why a New York Times reporter was wandering around the West Wing, would you?”
“The President wanted to speak with her.”
Fucking Christ on a pogo stick! “He didn’t give an interview, did he?”
“What did he say?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t in the room—that was Shane’s doing.”
My phone rings with the special chime I’d set to notify me of Presidential tweets. I’d never used Twitter before joining the White House, but once I did, it became obvious I needed to monitor what the President was saying online, otherwise I’d get blindsided by his latest change of national policy. He’s the only person I follow, and I’ve got the phone set to notify me the moment he posts something.
I dread what I’m going to find. Declaration of War, maybe? A public announcement that we’re planning to nuke Pyongyang at 5 PM? Or maybe he’s just attacking Joe Scarborough. Who knows. With him, every day is like Christmas. You never know what you’re going to find under the tree.
I open Twitter.
Lying Pocahontas calls me deranged! If she had her way we’d all be living under “communism”. SICK LADY! #MAGA
I have no idea what brought that on, nor do I wish to. Unfortunately, I suspect I’m going to find out.
But before I go, I issue a warning to the Rhino. “Make sure no more reporters come through that door. Do I make myself clear?”
“You’re not my boss, General.”
“No, I’m not. But if I see one more shit-weasel with a press badge back here, you’re gonna be moving back to Cornpone, Arkansas to live with that drooling redneck father of yours, okay Creampuff?”
“I don’t care if the President asks to see the entire press corps in his office, you do not let them back here, not even the ghost of Walter Cronkite.”
I turn to go, but I find the doorway blocked.
“I think she’s a bit young to know who Walter Cronkite is, Rob.”
“I know who he is.”
“Well Tom Brokaw isn’t dead yet,” I say. Then, “You just get in?”
“Yes,” the Secretary of Defense says. He’d gone back to the Pentagon after this morning’s NSC session. “I would’ve been here sooner, but I was being inundated by calls from our allies. None of them are getting answers from State, and the switchboard here isn’t letting anything through.”
“This is a helluva way to run a railroad. What did you tell them?”
“What the hell can I tell them?” He looks to the Rhino. All things considered, she has the most trustworthy ear of anyone in this White House—doesn’t matter what she knows, she’s just gonna deny or stonewall. If a reporter asked her if the sky was blue, she’d spend the next hour dissembling. But she doesn’t have clearance for what’s going on right now. And besides, we can’t be sure some reporter isn’t going to wander by and hear us. Instead, the SecDef changes subject. “Given any more thought to betting on the Preakness?”
“Quite a bit, Lew. Quite a bit. But I wanna see if the race is gonna be held or not. I’m not putting money down if it’s gonna get called off.”
“I understand,” the SecDef says. “But I’ve got everything ready to go, if you want in. Just waiting for post time.”
A door opens down the hall. The Oval Office. Secret Service agents come out first, then the Secretary of State. His face is pale. He’s never been up to the challenge of the job, and this last week has worn him down, but I’ve never seen him look so spooked. More of the President’s advisers come out after him—very few cabinet members, though. Mostly his buddies, and buddies of buddies. The people he has, for reasons beyond logic, put his trust into.
Like high school students, they naturally break into cliques. The largest of these, sadly, is the neo-Nazi—er, excuse me, “alt-right” alliance, consisting of “Doctor” Kroga, that leper Andrew Cannon, our new Secretary of Homeland Security, Jon Loback, and, of course, their acolytes, many of whom have been foisted on me in the National Security Council.
Then there are the GOPers—whittled down now to just Spacey, the VP and the living skeleton that is Marianne Conroy, the Attorney General being persona non grata nowadays, and Rance Prentiss having been sacked for not being enough of a suck-ass. They are, for all intents and purposes, powerless now, but they continue to hang on so the government has some semblance of being run by a political party and not a deranged cult of personality.
Next is the Manhattan Mafia, led by the President’s daughter, Eviana, and her husband, with a couple former Fox News “personalities” tagging along, along with that asshole Tony Scarlatti, who somehow manages to have access despite being fired months ago. Thankfully most of their group has no involvement with NatSec affairs, so we don’t have to deal with the full lot of them.
And then, finally, there’s the Coalition of the Not Totally Fucking Insane, consisting of myself, the Secretaries of Defense and State, and the Director of National Intelligence. Once we get down to the bunker, the Director of Central Intelligence should be calling in from Langley, which will bolster our numbers by one further. The fact that we’re including the SecState in our numbers tells you how desperate we are. But that’s why we aren’t the Coalition of the Competent.
We used to count the chief-of-staff, Kellerman, as well, but he’s been infected by the President’s madness and has been pushing for some damn crazy policies lately.
After a moment, the President emerges from the Oval Office. He’s accompanied by his two adult sons, Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum. Jesus, if it weren’t bad enough already…
The President adjusts his suit coat and runs his hands over his toupee. “Folks, we are going to make history this afternoon! This will be massive—the most massive history since Hiroshima! They’ll be saying no one has made history like this before!”
My stomach flops when I hear his words. The way he says it—nonchalant, without the least hint he understands the gravity of what he’s considering—I know he’s going to do it. He’s going to order a nuclear strike on North Korea.
His sons nod enthusiastically, and Scarlatti says, “Fucking-A, we’ll show those gooks who’s the boss.” A few of the hangers on smile, but most of the entourage remain sour faced.
My wife had warned me about this when I was offered the National Security Adviser position, told me, “Rob, you take that job, you’re going to go down in history as a war criminal, unparalleled even by Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann.” I’d agreed with her entirely, but I’d hoped, when the moment came, I’d be in a position to stop it. To talk the President around to a saner course of action.
I hadn’t reckoned with how fucked in the head the man is.
What option do I have now? I can resign. Walk out the door, go across the South Lawn to the Mall and join the protests. It’d be a pointless gesture, but at least I’d have my soul.
But I can’t abandon Lew.
We’d worked together in Afghanistan, trying to salvage that clusterfuck of a war. We’re brothers in arms. I have to stick with him.
And there’s still a possibility we can turn things around. An alliance with the GOP faction is pointless—they’d side with us, I have no doubt, but their place in the President’s esteem is so low that having them on our side would be counterproductive. But if we could get the Manhattan Mafia on our side, we could talk the President onto a saner path.
Only problem is, the Manhattan Mafia isn’t inclined to work with us. They treat all criticism of their ideas as personal insults, and their ideas are fucking stupid. If you try to explain that their third-grade understanding of America’s place in the world is somewhat less than accurate, you turn them into personal enemies, and those animosities trump the good of the nation. I’ve personally alienated the President’s son-in-law by pointing out his plan for Middle East peace would require the Palestinians to accept the worst deal since the Munich Agreement. The Secretary of State has pissed off Eviana for similar reasons, and Scarlatti told the New York Post that everyone in the Pentagon is compensating for small penises.
And that leaves the Preakness Option. If the alternative is a nuclear holocaust, that’s what I’ll go with, but please, God, let there be some other way. If there was ever a time for an obese septuagenarian to suffer a massive coronary, the next twenty minutes would be it. I’m not enamored with the Vice President, but he’s at least sane.
A Secret Service agent opens a hidden door, revealing a dark stairwell beyond. He goes in first and turns on a light, followed by the President. The rest of us gather around to await our turn.
“Excuse me, General?”
It’s the Rhino. She’s coming with us? Fucking Christ, this is turning into the worst party I’ve ever been to.
“What did Secretary Mathers mean when he asked you about the Preakness? I thought that was in May?”
“Indeed it is.” Thank God nobody here is a classic movie buff. “But it’s never too early to prepare.”
We file down the stairs and through the tunnel to the bunker. The President’s wife and son—the one who’s too young to be a shit-head yet—are waiting for us. I suppose it’s necessary. This may’ve been designed for continuity of government, but we can hardly ask the President to leave his family upstairs to be vaporized. Though I note my family doesn’t get the same courtesy. Obviously if everyone on the staff could bring their family down, we’d need a bunker the size of Mount Weather, but it rankles me to see a man who won’t lead by example. Maybe if his decision meant the death of his own family, he wouldn’t be so cavalier.
The bunker is large enough to contain the NSC and a skeleton staff for a month, though not necessarily a comfortable one, and I wonder if anyone thought to do a psych study on the likelihood of us strangling each other.
The main chamber is set up like a living room, and there’s a large screen TV on the wall with a DVD player—not Blu-Ray. A bookshelf has a nice collection of movies and TV shows, mainly light fare, comedies and classics. It strikes me as ironically appropriate that we might be stuck down here watching the complete run of M*A*S*H while the world burns.
To one side is a kitchen, and, more importantly, a large pantry. No cold storage, though. If worst comes to worst, we’ll be living off generators, and a walk in freezer would suck up too much energy. There are a couple coolers for beverages, and an ice maker, that’s it. We have a Navy steward who’ll take care of cooking, not that we’re going to be eating anything fancier than canned ravioli.
There’s a master bedroom for the President, a smaller one for his children, and then a handful of dormitories—more like barracks, really—for the rest of us. It’s been a while since I had to sleep on a metal-frame bunk. It’s going to be fun watching the President’s kids fight for the good room. I’m sure whichever little prince gets stuck in the bunk room is gonna love it. A stairwell leads down to an additional set of barracks for the Secret Service and military personnel—in addition to the cook, we have a handful of technicians for handling the bunker’s IT infrastructure and physical plant, plus a whole platoon of Marines for protection.
Apart from a bathroom—three toilets, but only a single shower that’s designed to run for two minutes max—that’s it for the living area.
The work space consists of a stripped down version of the situation room, a comm center, an armory for the Secret Service and Marines, and a single office for the President.
Once we’re all inside, a Marine guard seals the outer door behind us. He doesn’t look happy about it, nor do the Secret Service agents. None of them have been briefed on what we’re planning, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize we wouldn’t be down here if the shit weren’t about to hit the fan.
I enter the conference room. Anyone coming in here expecting to find the War Room from Doctor Strangelove is going to be disappointed. The government never has the budget that Hollywood thinks we do. The room’s something you’d find on the middle floors of a corporate office building, and a far cry from the boardroom on the President’s old TV show. If we’re going to be stuck down here for the long haul, he’s undoubtedly going to complain about it.
But, it’ll serve its purpose.
There’s a technician already inside, trying to get the video conferencing up and running. “We should have the CIA and NSA online in a moment,” she tells me.
“Get me the news channels!” the President says.
“The news channels! Skip MSNBC! They’re garbage! Pure trash! Especially that Morning Joe! I’ve never seen a show so bad! Miserable! Bottom of the ratings, too! I told Joe, if he wants to win his time slot, he should join my team, but he wouldn’t listen! Pathetic! Now he’s wallowing in third place! Nobody watches MSNBC! Their ratings are worse than Megyn Kelly’s! But CNN and Fox! I’ve gotta know what they’re saying!”
Of course the room is set up to get cable. The news nets can be iffy at times, running ahead of a story and reporting any wild rumor they hear, but they also provide live feeds from around the world, and that can be useful in a crisis.
At least assuming the President can distinguish rumor and hyperbole from solid facts.
In present circumstances, I’d rather keep him away from cable, especially Fox. But there’s no gainsaying him.
He is the President.
So on goes the cable.
“So why’ve you come out to oppose the President today?” I recognize one of the local reporters for Fox5. She’s on the street, looks like over by the President’s hotel. She’s corralled a group of protesters—kids, mostly college aged, one or two might even be in high school.
She goes right for the youngest one, shoving the mic in the girl’s face.
“I thought it ... would be ... cool. Uh-huh,” the girl says.
“You know, war’s bad.”
“Even against a thuggish dictator like Kim Jong-un?”
“Did you know he had his uncle executed with an antiaircraft gun? Those fire bullets the size of soup cans?”
The girl’s cringing and can’t think of a reply, so the reporter shifts her attention to another one of the group—the girl’s sister, looks like.
“Look at that!” the President shouts. “Look at that! We let these people into our country, probably refugees with no money, they live on welfare—everyone in this room, we’re paying for them with our taxes—and this is how they repay us! They side with our enemies! Girls like that, they should go back to Cambodia or wherever they’re from, instead of stinking up our country!”
“It is a disgrace,” “Doctor” Kroga says. He’s got a black eye, I just noticed. Looks good on him. He should get another. “The mingling of non-Western cultures with our own is a slow poison, and this is the result.”
“Cultural suicide,” Cannon mutters. “Lenin said capitalists would sell him the rope by which he’d hang us. He was close. It’s the white race doing it.”
“Actually, the President won most counties in Virginia,” the reporter says, “including a large chunk of Northern Virginia. If your college is that ardently against the President, it’s an outlier. Do you think that has anything to do with your professors?”
“That’s right!” the President says. “I won Virginia by a huge margin—absolutely historic! Nobody has ever won Virginia by such margins! You can look it up—never! Unpresidented! Where are all the protesters coming from!? Is somebody paying them!? We should look into it! Congress should look into it instead of wasting time on a useless witch hunt! Fake news!” He reaches for his breast pocket where he keeps his phone, but the Living Skeleton grabs his wrist.
“We can deal with the fake protesters later,” she says. “There’s a crisis right now. Remember?”
I mute the television. I don’t know it’s going to do much good. The President’s chair faces the screens, so as long as they’re on, he’s going to be distracted by the flashing images. But without sound, he’s less likely to explode into a rant.
The SecDef takes a seat analogous to where he’d be in the Cabinet or Situation Rooms. He opens a leather portfolio in front of him and pulls out a sheet of paper. Everyone takes this as a cue to sit down.
The technician withdraws from the room. She can control the A/V equipment remotely from the comm center, and we have an intercom directly to her, if we need anything.
“Mr. President,” the Secretary begins, “our commanders in Korea report 100% readiness—‘readiness’ here meaning that all leaves have been canceled, troops have reported for duty, and units are provisioned for combat deployment. I want to stress, this does not mean we are actually ready to fight a war. Our troops in Korea are little more than a tripwire. If things go tits-up, hopefully they can slow the Norks down while we bring in reinforcements.”
The SecDef is painting a rosy picture. The distance between the DMZ and Seoul is only thirty-some miles. Thirty-some miles from DC and you’re still in the suburbs. Our forces and the South Korean military might be able to halt a Nork advance eventually, but not before it destroys Seoul. Even without nukes on the table, the devastation would be off the charts, like nothing the world has seen since World War II. The mid-range estimate says half a million dead in the first month.
And that would include most of our troops currently in-country.
“What about evacuations?” Kellerman asks.
“We’re pulling dependents from the entire Western Pac—Korea, Japan, as far away as Guam,” the SecDef says. Getting the children and spouses of service members out of harms way is a top priority. Americans are sensitive enough about military casualties. Morale would sink like the Titanic if the news started reporting on American children getting killed or military wives being held captive. “We’ve got Korea and the Japanese Home Islands clear, but Okinawa’s bottlenecked. It’ll be tomorrow before the civvies are out.”
Kellerman turns to the SecState.
The SecState doesn’t say anything.
“Well?” Kellerman says.
The SecState looks at him puzzled.
“Civilians. Evacuation. How’s it coming?”
“Come on, man.” Kellerman snaps his fingers. “Sitrep.”
“We issued a travel advisory,” the SecState manages.
“An advisory? Your guys should be dragging people to the airport.”
“Well, I figured it wouldn’t be necessary. People are smart enough to figure it out for themselves. All they’ve got to do is turn on the news.”
“Jesus titty-sucking Christ! We’re on the verge of war, and we’ve still got civilians in forward areas? Whose cock did you suck to get this job?”
The SecState cringes. “I’m sorry. I’m ... I can’t do this. My wife ... she told me I should take the position. I never wanted it.” Tears flood over the man’s eyelids. “I never had to make decisions like this before. I thought I’d be cutting deals, not ... oh Christ, we’re gonna get people killed.”
The President slams his hand down on the table. “I don’t want any pussies on my team! Do I make myself clear!? We are in this to win it! We’re going to have so much winning, they’re going to call us the United States of Winning! Anyone who isn’t ready to give what it takes to win—anyone who isn’t going to give me 110%—you can get the hell out! Out! Now!” He’s screaming now. The room’s too small for this kind of shouting, and the walls, under a thin wood veneer, are solid concrete that reflects his voice right back at us.
“Mr. President,” the SecDef says.
“If I wanted losers on my team, I’d’ve hired Li’l Marco! I hired you guys to win!”
“We’re working on it,” the SecDef says. “Right now, we need to decide on the options we discussed this morning.”
Since the Johnson Administration, the Pentagon’s used the Goldilocks approach for presenting the President with options. The first choice is always underwhelming, usually something along the lines of a harshly worded statement. The third choice is always some kind of costly military action, or even a nuclear response. Then the SecDef presents the Pentagon’s preferred option as the middle choice. It usually works. Obama had gone for the cold porridge a couple times, but even he usually went along with whatever his generals suggested.
But our current President ... the man owns a gold-plated condominium. He doesn’t know the meaning of “going overboard.” We’d had to talk him out of a full-fledged invasion of the Venezuela back in January, and thank God that never made the papers.
“We don’t have any choice!” the President says. “Kim Jong-un is a madman!”
The irony in the room is so thick you’d need a chainsaw to cut it.
This is exactly why I try to keep the President away from cable news. The idea of Kim as a deranged tyrant has a strong hold on the popular imagination, but if the President ever paid attention to his daily briefings, he’d know the truth. Every report I’ve ever sent the President on the DPKR has stressed this point—Kim is an entirely rational thug. His mode of behavior is one familiar throughout human history, at least as far back as the Greeks and Babylonians, and maybe all the way to the first Neanderthal chieftains.
Take that story everyone likes to trot out about Kim having his uncle’s family executed. Despots murdering relatives and high ranking courtiers is nothing new, nor is killing an entire family. I can think of half a dozen English monarchs who did the same thing without anyone accusing them of being mad—not even Richard III. Kim’s preferred method of execution is brutal, absolutely, but even that’s unoriginal. After the Sepoy Mutiny, the British had tied condemned prisoners to the mouths of cannons and blown them to smithereens. Nobody thought the Tommys were insane.
Calling Kim crazy is dangerous. It means our starting assumption is he can’t be negotiated with, and if he threatens the US, a military response becomes the only reasonable solution.
Cannon and his cabal are enamored with the idea of the “Thucydides Trap,” a theory that claims conflict between rising and established powers are inevitable—it’s Oswald Spengler in a new suit of clothes.
What they should be worried about is the Cassandra Trap—making an outcome inevitable by believing it’s inevitable. Kim almost certainly doesn’t want war with the US—he’s not Saddam Hussein; he’s not deluded enough to think the US is a paper tiger that can be easily dispatched. But if the President goes into a crisis assuming Kim is ready to trigger global armageddon, the inevitable logic is that we have to get in the first punch and hope that stops him.
It won’t, though. Even if Kim doesn’t get off a retaliatory strike, China will, and then it’s adiós muchachos for everyone.
As repugnant as I find the idea, we have to find a way to negotiate with Kim. Being a thuggish dictator doesn’t mean he doesn’t have legitimate issues we can discuss. The Cuban Missile Crisis had been sparked, in part, by the presence of US missiles in Turkey, as close to Soviet territory as Cuba is to Miami. Khrushchev had been willing to withdraw his missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy removing the American missiles. That wasn’t a sign of weakness on Kennedy’s part, nor an acknowledgment that Khrushchev was a good guy. It was simply a deal—the sort of deal the President claims he’s good at making, though I’ve yet to see any support for that claim.
The Chinese need North Korea as a buffer between themselves and our forces in the South—that’s why they’d intervened in the Korean War back in the ‘50s. However, North Korea isn’t necessarily synonymous with the Kim dynasty, and Jong-un knows that. If he’s too big of nuisance, the Chinese might decide they want somebody more ameliorable in place. That means that while the DPRK can count on China’s protection, the Kims need independent surety. Hence their long march towards becoming a nuclear power.
But the nature of the problem means there is room for negotiation. Or there would be if the President hadn’t spent the last month tweeting threats.
So here we are.
This morning, the SecDef and his team had presented three options to the President:
Frankly, they all suck. America’s policy towards North Korea has been incoherent since the end of the Cold War, changing direction every couple years depending upon the political climate, and now we’re paying the price for a quarter century of fuck-ups.
All things considered, though, I’d rather avoid a major war. We still haven’t extricated ourselves from the Middle East, and frankly the DPRK’s strategic importance is nil as long as Kim’s willing to behave himself. It sucks for the millions of people living under his rule, but I’m sure even they prefer that to being vaporized.
The SecDef and his staff are leaning towards option (2), though they recognize they’re playing with fire. If the President went with (1), I’m sure they’d breathe a sigh of relief.
But that’s not going to happen. We all know it.
“Okay, now before we make any decisions, I’ve asked Gerald, my brilliant son-in-law, to do a little research! He’s got a great mind, the best, he has the best thoughts, and I want to hear his idea-things before I decide anything! A little more information is never bad, that’s what I’ve always thought! I learned that lesson with my second wife! If I’d done a little research on her, I’d be a few million dollars richer today, I’ll tell you that! Worst mistake I ever made! Absolute worst! Even the daughter I got out of it, and I mean this as a loving father, but she’s a little bit not too good looking! I mean, you compare her to Eviana, there’s no comparison! Much smaller breasts! Much smaller! And her thighs are always flabby! I’ve offered to pay for her to have plastic surgery, but she told me no! I’m trying to be a good father here! It would help her career immensely—immensely—but she got mad when I suggested it! She’s no respect for me—that’s also her mother’s faul—”
“Mr. President,” Kellerman says.
“What!? Oh, yeah! Go ahead Gerald!”
I keep a stony face, but inside I’m groaning. Captain Nepotism is, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete fucking moron. The man couldn’t count his balls and get the same number twice.
“Well, D, what I’ve found out is this. North Korea has been ruled by the same family since 1950. They’re the Kims, just like our nanny, though she says they’re no relation.” He laughs.
Nobody else does.
“Yeah, so the first Kim, Kim Il-sung—the Koreans do their names backwards, by the way; confusing as hell, but it is what it is. Well, Kim Il-sung created this political philosophy called juche, and from what I can see, it’s not too crazy. The word means—” he consults his notes, “‘subject,’ but it’s more accurate to translate it as ‘self-reliance’.”
“Isn’t he brilliant!” the President says. “I told you all, he’s brilliant! So brilliant! The kids he’s producing with those smart little sperm of his and my daughter’s beautiful, precious eggs, they’re going to be so great! So great! You will not believe how smart they’re gonna turn out to be, and good looking too!”
Captain Nepotism smiles. “Thank you, D. I’m gonna do my best. Now, as I was saying, the central idea behind juche is self-reliance, both for individuals and the nation. ‘North Korea First,’ you could say.”
“That’s so true!” the President says. “You don’t hear about North Korean companies shipping jobs overseas, do you!? You don’t hear about immigrants taking jobs from Korean workers, do you!?”
He cannot be serious, can he?
“I think we’ve heard enough,” Kellerman says.
“I’ve got a whole lot more,” Captain Nepotism says.
“Yes, I’m sure the Wikipedia article is quite extensive.”
Captain Nepotism’s face colors. His wife puts a hand on his shoulder.
“That was uncalled for, General,” she says. “We work very hard for this country, and nobody appreciates it.”
The President nods. “Eviana, tell me what you think about this!”
“I’ve been talking to people at my company, and they say a nuclear war would be very bad for our product lines. A lot of the materials we use have to go through that area on their way to the US. Someone even said China might impose an embargo on us. That would be very bad for us.”
“Those chinky little bastards!” the President says. “They’ll do anything to hurt me, won’t they!?”
“There’s a more important consideration,” Cannon says. “Nothing is guaranteed to send your poll numbers up like a good war.”
“He’s right,” the Living Skeleton says. “Look at Bush—September Eleventh was the best thing to ever happen to him. Without that, he would’ve been a one-termer. His poll numbers were in the toilet, and then the Twin Towers fell, and the country came together to support him. His numbers started to fall again, but he invaded Iraq, they went right back up. Sure, in the long run, there were problems, yes. But that’s because the Pentagon screwed everything up.”
The SecDef’s bristling.
We were all there. We know the fuck-up was deciding to go into Iraq in the first place. And this bitch has the nerve to blame us while treating the deaths of three thousand civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers as a political ploy. If it weren’t for the Secret Service agents standing outside, I’m sure one of us would leap across the table and strangle her.
“Yeah, yeah,” the President says, “we went in there and we played nice! We didn’t take the oil! Instead we dicked around trying to build a nation for a bunch of savages! No more of that! Winning means crushing the enemy, not buying them lunch!”
“No nation building this time,” “Doctor” Kroga says. “We go in and we level the country. They can pick up the pieces themselves.”
The SecState should speak up to that. He should point out that such an action would make the United States a pariah in the international community. He should point out that we’d face sanctions, embargoes and boycotts. NATO would probably collapse. And if we use nukes, nobody in this room will be able to set foot outside the US without being arrested for war crimes.
The SecState doesn’t say anything. He’s staring at his hands, fiddling with his wedding ring.
“I’m sure some on the left will continue to oppose us,” Cannon says. “They’re much more radicalized than they were in 2003. But my website is prepared to launch an all-out assault on them. I’m sure our friends at Fox will be on board as well. Anyone who questions our actions will be branded a traitor. We’ll put pressure on CNN and MSNBC not to book guests who speak out against us. The radical left has been pushing advertisers to boycott us since you took office. It’s time we turn that tactic on them. If Rachel Maddow speaks out, you can call upon your Twitter army to demand that GE, Ford, Apple—whoever—pull their ads from her show. Same if they book Rick Wilson, Paul Krugman, hell, even Elizabeth Warren. And if that doesn’t work, we can take stronger actions. I know our friends on the Hill are sick and tired of being hounded by left-wing reporters at every step.”
That’s it. This has gone too far. “Mr. President, this is a National Security Council meeting. The subject is the security of the United States. Politics does not belong here. This discussion is both off-point and beyond our remit.” I can’t stop him from discussing the political ramifications of his decisions, but goddammit, I’m not going to be part of it.
“Agreed,” the SecDef says.
Kellerman remains notably silent.
“There is no difference between national security and politics,” “Doctor” Kroga says. “They are one and the same. The radical left is a threat to this country and this administration. We will never make America great as long as they’re pushing back on our every move. The sooner you understand that, the better.”
“Mister Kroga, you do not speak that way to me or my colleagues,” the SecDef says. “Especially not when those colleagues are war heroes like Rob.”
“Lew,” Kellerman says, “hold it in.”
“Goddammit, Mike, I am not holding it in for this Nazi piece of trash. Bad enough he’s leaving his slime trail all over the White House, but I will not have him sully the honor of the armed services by suggesting we need to abandon basic principles of American democracy.” The SecDef stands up so fast his chair nearly falls over.
“You’re getting emotional, General,” “Doctor” Kroga says.
“You’re damn right Nazis make me emotional.”
“You can shut up, Doctor,” Kellerman says. He puts a hand on the SecDef’s shoulder and presses him back to his chair. “Any political considerations should’ve been discussed before now. Right now, we’re considering the military and diplomatic options available to us, and nothing else. Isn’t that right, Mr. President?”
But the President isn’t paying attention. His eyes are glued to the TVs.
“I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like it!” the President says.
We look to the screens. CNN and Fox have different camera angles, but they’re showing the same thing. There’s a discoloration stretching across the sky above the Mall. At first I think it might be a cloud, but, no, it’s more like the sky itself is being bleached. The chyron on CNN says, “STRANGE PHENOMENON OVER WASHINGTON”. Fox has “NORTH KOREAN ATTACK IN PROGRESS?”
I grab a remote and hit the volume button, making sure to aim at the set that’s showing CNN, not Fox.
“—don’t know what we’re seeing, Jake. We first noticed it a couple minutes ago.”
“Well, it doesn’t look like a nuclear missile at least,” the anchor says.
The field reporter laughs nervously. “No, we’ve got that going for—hey, Praveen, what’s wrong with your cheek?”
There’s some commotion and the camera shakes. For a second the reporter’s face flashes across the screen. At least, I think it’s her face. Something is terribly wrong with it.
“Is that blood?” Spacey says.
That’s what it looked like. Like the reporter had blood coming out of her eyes.
Over on Fox, the camera operator is doing a better job staying in control. He—she?—has the camera trained on a correspondent, but ... dear God. What is wrong with the guy? He looks like a wax dummy that’s been put on a fire. His skin is sloughing off, revealing a bloody, runny sludge underneath.
Somebody screams outside. By the sound, it’s the President’s wife. They have a TV in the outer room, and she’s probably watching the same thing.
The Fox camera operator loses control. The shot swings wildly around, sweeping across the sea of protesters on the Mall. All of them—all of them—are melting like the reporters.
“It’s Korea,” Cannon says. “They’re attacking us.”
“Can’t be,” Kellerman says. “No way they have a weapon like this.”
Nobody has a weapon like this.
“Then who the hell is doing it?” Captain Nepotism says.
“We’ve gotta launch!” the President says. “Where’s the football?”
But before anyone can respond, the room begins shaking.
A nuclear blast?
No, that’d be one short, sharp punch. This doesn’t stop. It keeps going.
“Under the table,” Cannon says. Yeah, he’s Californian, he’d know what to do.
The President is first on his knees, and he crawls under with his huge ass sticking out. His pants aren’t used to the stress, and the ass-seam rips, revealing greyish cotton briefs.
Kroga, Cannon, and the Living Skeleton follow him underneath, Eviana and her husband, the NSC functionaries. Everyone but me, and Kellerman and the SecDef. I figure, if the room doesn’t survive, better to be crushed under a ton of concrete than get stuck with those assholes for God knows how many days before rescuers get here—assuming there are going to be any rescuers to get here.
But the bunker holds. After a minute, the shaking dies down.
We still have power, and the lights didn’t flicker once, though I don’t know if that means the power grid survived, or if we’ve been on the backup genny this entire time. Cable’s out, though. The TVs are all showing blue screens.
I hit the intercom. I don’t remember the technician’s name, so I address her simply as, “Sergeant.”
“What’s our comm stat?”
“I had connections established to Langley, Fort Meade and the Pentagon, but the quake knocked them all offline. Trying to reestablish now, sir.”
No sense in getting in her hair. “Let me know when you get something.”
“What’s going on!?” The President is sitting on the floor with his head poking over the table.
“Were we nuked!? I thought you said the Norks don’t have missiles that can hit us!”
There’s a knock on the door. “Pookie bear, what is going on?” the First Lady asks.
“Let her in!” the President says.
One of the NSC staffers unlocks the door.
“What happened?” the First Lady says.
Behind her, the Rhino and the President’s youngest son are trying to peer inside.
“Must be that damned chink!” the President says.
“Gook, sir,” Kellerman corrects. What the fuck is wrong with that man? He didn’t used to be this way.
“Whatever! Get me the football! We’re gonna launch! He is going to pay for this!”
The Air Force colonel who had the (mis)fortune to be on duty today shoulders past the Hippo and enters the room. “Sir?”
“We need to launch right away! I want a full-on assault! I don’t want nothing left standing in Korea!”
“We can’t do that, Mr. President,” the SecDef says.
“What do you mean, we can’t do that!?”
“Our comms are offline at the moment. We can’t order anything.”
“What sort of shitty engineering is this!? Who built this place!? Make sure they never get another government contract!”
“Yes, sir. Of course,” the SecDef says. “But until we get comms operational, there’s nothing you can do. Don’t worry, this is what the continuity of government plan is for. If DC is out of commission, the Pentagon—well, probably NORAD—will determine the next in line of succession.”
“Excuse me, sir.” Mike McGraw, the head of the Secret Service detail is at the door. “There’s something you need to see.”
“What is it!?” the President asks.
“You better see it for yourself.” The head of detail hits the intercom. “Sarge, can you patch through the CCTV feed.”
“Roger,” she says.
The TVs switch from blue screens to security cam footage.
“What the hell happened up there?” the Vice President says.
We’re looking at the South Lawn, or what’s left of it. The grass is burned black, and so are the trees. And ...
“What happened to the Washington Monument?” the Living Skeleton asks.
At first, I don’t see it at all, but then I notice it—or what’s left of it. Only the lower third remains standing—the rest of it’s fallen over.
To Be Continued ...
I wave my SmarTrip card over the machine and step through the fare gate. I cross my fingers as I head towards the escalators. Please don’t be crowded. Please.
The platform comes into view as I near the edge of the upper deck. Ehn. Not too bad, I suppose. The station’s busy for a Sunday, but it’s far short of a weekday rush hour. I’m glad Brad let me cut out early—another hour or so and the station will be swarming with protesters. The thought of being stuck on a train with people who’ve been in the August heat all day … that is the stench of Hell.
I descend the escalator and wander to the far end of the platform. I drop onto an unoccupied bench and stretch out my legs. Oh God, that feels good. I’d only been at work five hours today, but my feet are killing me, positively killing me. Guess it’s time for new shoes. I hate the thought of it. Even if I get cheapies from Ross or Wal-Mart, that’s gonna be thirty, forty bucks out of my budget. I can afford it, but it means I can’t afford anything else for the next two weeks—no books, no pizza, no music. Not even a night out—ha-ha, that’s a good one.
I slip my iPod from my pocket, a clunky old one with a little postage stamp screen. I plug the headphones into my ears and turn it on, crank the volume to drown out the noise of the platform. Jenny Lewis starts singing about dropping acid on her tongue. The battery’s down to less than half charge—it’d been full this morning and I’d only used it for an hour on the ride to work, but it keeps losing its charge even while turned off. Well, I’ve had it since I graduated high school. Shouldn’t expect it to last forever.
Be nice, though.
I lean my head back, find myself staring up at a poster telling me, “If you see something, say something.” I drape my arms over the back of the bench—or rather, the low barrier that keeps the station lights hidden away. My fingers brush against something, come away moist. Eww. Someone had stuffed a soft drink cup back there. I wipe my hand on my pants.
This is not my day.
I’d gotten the call to come into work at eight this morning—wasn’t even out of bed yet, but Brad didn’t care. Lori had called out, he needed someone to fill in. Knowing her, she’s probably out on the Mall protesting. She’s done it five times this summer—got arrested twice. She brags about it at work, like she’s actually accomplished anything. But Brad doesn’t care. She’s cute. She gets away with murder. I’m one he calls to clean it up.
And if that weren’t bad enough, the Natural History museum was hosting the premiere of some new documentary with Liam LaGrange Bassett this weekend, and the man himself was hanging around for a Q&A after each showing. Under other circumstances, the protests would’ve scared tourists away, but meeting LLGB was too good a chance to pass up. Every time the documentary finished screening, we were inundated with customers. Only after the last showing got out at three-thirty did everything die down, and Brad said I could leave early—he’d originally wanted me to work all the way till seven.
Dammit. Why had I even agreed to come in today? I could’ve told Brad I had plans, go beg someone else. There’s nothing he could do about it. But like a fool, I said, “Okay, give me a couple hours, I’ll be there.” I always do that, I don’t know why. I wanna say “No.” Wanna say, “Hey, did you ever think I might have plans for today?” even though the only thing I ever do on my day off is laundry and reading. I want to put my foot down and say, “This is the third time you’ve asked me to work my day off this month, and it’s not even the fifteenth.” But when the moment comes, I can’t do it. I just … roll over. I tell myself, “Next time. I’ll tell him no next time.”
But I never do…
There’s a light coming from the tunnel. A rumble fills the air, audible even over my music. People move towards the edge of the platform.
I glance over at the arrival sign. Yup, this is my ride.
I stagger to my feet.
The train shoots out the tunnel and brakes to a halt with a screech. There are a lot of tourists and out-of-town protesters here, so they hesitate for a moment, making sure this is the train they need. While they’re doing that, I slip through the crowd and get onto the first car.
It’s crowded inside, but not packed to bursting. It’s not even standing room only yet. I grab a rear-facing seat all to myself at the front, behind the driver’s cabin.
Facing me from the other side of the door are two girls, college age, very pretty—very hungover. One’s passed out on the shoulder of the other, who’s sitting with her arm propped against the window, staring vacantly at the far platform.
The passed out girl is a bottled blonde. Her mouth’s hanging open, and a metal stud glints on her tongue. She’s wearing a black mesh shirt over of a tie-dye bikini top, and she has some kind of Native American tattoo around her bellybutton.
The other girl is Asian, with her hair streaked purple and red. She has a tiny diamond stud on the side of her nose, and there’s a tattoo of a roaring lion peeking out from the shoulder of her halter-top. The halter has an oval cutout that exposes the inner slopes of her breasts, along with the lion’s tail and hind legs over her heart.
The driver makes an unintelligible announcement over the intercom, presumably telling us that the next stop is Federal Triangle. Ping-pong. The doors close. The train lurches ahead.
As we plunge into the next tunnel, the girl in the halter top looks away from the window. Shit. I shift my gaze to the far end of the train, pretend I’m zoning out to my music. Yeah, I totally wasn’t checking you out just now. I’m just sitting here minding my own business.
Is she buying it?
Our eyes meet. My cheeks flush—I can’t see them, but I feel the hot blood rushing through my face right now.
I look down at my iPod and pray she’ll look away, forget about me. I can’t be the first guy to check her out, not if she’s dressed like that. Hopefully I’ll fade into the sea of pervs she must deal with every time she goes out clubbing.
A Bright Eyes song ends and Camera Obscura starts singing that we should get outta the country. Yeah, I’m with you there.
Something whaps into my forehead, tumbles onto my lap. I catch it before it slides off my thigh, look at it puzzled. Where did a pencil eraser come from?
When I look up, the halter girl has a second eraser pinned against the divider rail, her finger ready to flick it at me. She stops and signs that I should take my earbuds out. I do.
“Whachoo listenin’ to?” she says.
“Oh yeah, they’re cool.”
Why is she talking to me? Is she trying to embarrass me for checking her out? I shift on my seat.
“What other bands you like?”
“Uh...” That’s a question from nowhere. My mind blanks. “REM.” First thing I can think of.
“They’re cool too.”
The train decelerates.
“You ever hear St. Vincent?” the girl says.
“Uh, yeah. Some of her stuff. She’s good.”
The girl starts to say something else, but she’s interrupted by the driver on the intercom. The train slows to a halt, the doors open. More tourists get on board, and a gaggle of protesters still sporting their placards.
NO BLOOD FOR KIMCHI!
KNEEL BEFORE ZOD
A WOMAN’S PLACE
IS IN THE
There are still seats available, but three of the protesters opt to stand next to the door, blocking my view of the girl. A fourth guy pops his head in.
“Hey guys,” he says, “Josh and Shreya are still upstairs, you know.”
They exchange glances, but before any of them--
“Please stand clear of the doors.”
—can respond, the driver signals that we’re ready to leave. The guy gets his head out of the way and the door shuts.
“Ah, crap,” a blonde girl says.
“What do we do?” a second girl says, this one Asian. “Get off at the next station and go back?”
“What if they take the next train and we miss ‘em?” a guy says. “Nah, let’s keep on till Dunn Loring, and they’ll have to catch up.”
I put my earphones back in. The Decembrists are singing “The Bagman’s Gambit.” Now why hadn’t I thought of them when the girl asked? Or Rilo Kiley? Regina Spector? God, the band names are flooding me now.
Well, not like it woulda done me any good. The girl’s way outta my league. I’m not even sure we’re playing the same sport. Mentioning Snow Patrol might’ve gotten us another thirty seconds of conversation, but she would’ve realized I’m a loser eventually and gone back to staring out the window.
I watch the progress bar on my iPod tick slowly upwards. 7:02. “The Bagman’s Gambit” ends as the train pulls into Metro Center. A handful of passengers debark, but twice as many come on board. The few remaining seats fill up—a woman in a Marriott uniform sits next to me. The protest kids fall back to the middle of the car, new arrivals taking positions at the doors.
After Metro Center, we’re out of the tourist area, and we get through the next few stops without the train getting any more crowded. But neither does it empty out. That’s not gonna happen until we get across the river.
Speaking of which, after Foggy Bottom the train makes its descent under the Potomac, plunging so deep into the Earth that my ears pop and I have to take my earbuds out for a minute. A woman standing in front of me takes out a pack of Wrigleys, pops a piece into her mouth, gives another to her son.
The lights flicker. At first I think it might be a bulb about to give out, but no, the whole train darkened for a second, like an inverse camera flash.
There—they did it again.
The train shudders. Or is that the tunnel? The lights outside are whipping by too fast to focus on, but they seem to be shaking on the--
The lights go out completely.
“You gotta be kidding me!”
“Well this is great.”
The train’s slowing down. Wheels screech. I’m pressed backwards by inertia. There are cries and thuds as standing passengers fall over. A kid starts screaming.
The train comes to a halt with a final lurch. For a moment the car is silent save for the crying kid, but then comes the babble of a hundred people speaking at once. Lights pop up as people pull out their cell phones, but those only provide enough light to mark the outlines of people.
“Everyone all right?” a guy calls out with an authoritative voice. Probably hoping to be the take-charge leader who gets interviewed on Channel 4 News.
Everybody ignores him.
“The tunnel lights are still on.”
“They’re on batteries, probably.”
“This happen a lot?” a tourist asks.
“It’s not the first time,” someone replies.
“Should we get off? What if another train comes and hits us?”
“That can’t happen. They’ve got safety systems.”
“This is Metro we’re talking about.”
That gets a laugh.
“Wish the driver would come out and tell us something.”
“Like I said, this is Metro.”
“The intercom’s not working.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“Somebody knock on the door.”
“Get some answers.”
The woman next to me mutters something in Spanish.
The folks in the aisle nearest the door are tourists, and they look like little kids who’ve gotten lost in a warzone.
“C’mon, somebody knock.”
I stand and squeeze my way past the maid, stuffing my earbuds into my pocket as I go. “Excuse me.”
One of the tourists gives me a weird look as I step into the aisle, like, “What the hell are you doing? Sit down and wait for things to work themselves out.” Yeah, last time there was a Metro accident, people told themselves that, and somebody died while they were waiting.
I rap on the door, just a polite tap really. Wait.
I try again.
“Knock harder,” a woman shouts from way back in the car.
Harder it is, hard enough that the sound carries throughout the car.
Click. The door unlocks, swings inward. The emergency lights in the tunnel give just enough illumination for me to discern the short, tubby shape of the driver, his bald head lit up like a crescent moon. Sweat glistens on his scalp.
He steps out of the cabin and the light from someone’s cell phone falls across his face. He’s so pale I wonder if he’s having a heart attack. Thankfully only the people nearest the door can see him, otherwise I think the look on his face would be enough to start a stampede off the train.
“What’s going on?” somebody shouts.
“Um, I’m ...” the driver says. He looks out the window. “We should, ah ... we should....”
“C’mon, what’s the problem?”
“The power is ... ah, the power’s out.” The driver says this so softly that only those of us at the front of the car can hear him, but the incredulous groans at his comment more than make up for it.
“No shit the power’s out,” a man says behind me. “What do we do?”
“We’re, uh, we’re supposed to wait for, for Metro to come. That’s, uh, that’s standard. The standard procedure.”
“You call them?” The guy shoulders his way forward. He has on a blue button-down shirt and dress pants. He’s undone his tie and stuffed it in his pocket, but he has an ID hanging from a lanyard around his neck. By his voice, I’m pretty sure this is Mr. Take Charge.
“No. Radio’s out,” the driver says.
“So they don’t even know we’re stuck.”
“No, they’ll ... they’ll figure it out. They should.”
Mr. Take Charge and me exchange looks. He rolls his eyes in disbelief. “We should get off, walk back to the station. Or forward to Rosslyn—which is closer?”
“No, no, no, we can’t do that. It isn’t policy.”
Mr. Take Charge is about to say something back, and I don’t think it’s gonna be too nice, but just then somebody knocks on the outside door. We all turn and see a face peering in at us from the tunnel. At first I think it might be a Metro worker come to check things out, but there’s no way he could get out here that fast. Besides, the guy has on casual clothes, not exactly appropriate for tunnel work.
Through the other windows, I see more people, passengers from the rearmost cars. They’re pooling up behind the guy at the door, and they look anxious to get around him.
“Open the door,” somebody says.
A couple guys, tourists by the look of them, put their hands against the doors and try to slide them apart. When that fails, one of them grabs the door from the center and tries to pry it loose.
“There’s an emergency lever next to the door,” Mr. Take Charge says.
The tourists look and don’t see it.
“It’s right there to your left,” Mr. Take Charge says. He’s gone from sounding like a school teacher to an annoyed cop.
One of the tourists finds the lever and, after fumbling to get the cover off, manages to pull it down. The door shudders as the mechanism holding it in place relaxes. The guys have no trouble opening it now.
“Hey, is the driver here?” the guy outside says. He casts a glance over his shoulder.
One of the people behind him tells him to get outta the way and then jostles past him. He steps onto the train to avoid getting stampeded.
“Y-y-you can’t be leaving the train,” the driver says. “We need to—ah, we—ah, need to ... orderly. Yes, orderly. Need to.” Nobody pays him any mind.
“What’s the problem?” Mr. Take Charge says.
“There’s water leaking outta the tunnel roof,” the other guy says. “I mean, it’s not a lot, it’s not gonna kill us any time soon.” He leans back outta the car and looks down the tunnel. “But still, we don’t want to be taking any chances, you know.”
“Shit,” a protester says.
“Th-th-that’s not not not, that’s not,” the driver says.
The guy from the tunnel didn’t speak loudly enough for everyone to hear, but word of the leak makes its way to the back of the car. I don’t know how many permutations it goes through along the way, but by the time it gets to the rear, people are starting to panic. They move to open the other doors onto the emergency walkway, but the crowd outside is too thick for anyone to get out.
And then somebody realizes there are doors on both sides of the train. They open those as well, and people start pouring out—slowly, ketchup-like—onto the track bed.
“D-d-don’t do that,” the driver says, and for once Mr. Take Charge agrees.
“Hey, you can’t go out there,” he shouts, but by now there’s so much noise in the train that I doubt anyone but me and the driver can hear him. “Idiots. Don’t they know what a third rail is.”
“They probably figure power’s out, no danger,” I say. I see their point.
Mr. Take Charge glares at me. “Yeah, there’s no power here, but what about the rest of the tunnel? And even if the whole system’s dead, what if it comes on again?”
“So what do we do? Wait here until the crowd thins out?”
Mr. Take Charge doesn’t like that idea either. “No. Come on, I got an idea.”
He heads for the other end of the car. The driver, the hotel maid who’d been sitting next to me, and a handful of tourists follow.
I hesitate for a moment. Do I really wanna go after him? He acts like he knows what to do, but I’m getting an alpha-male vibe from him that I don’t like. He reminds me of that annoying guy on MSNBC, Chris Matthews, and how he always shouts over everyone who doesn’t agree with him, like he’s not there to discuss an issue but to cow his opponents into submission. At first you don’t mind, because you know he’s right about most things, but then you hear him say something wrong and still overpowering everyone, and you get a little wary. After awhile, listening to him becomes such a chore you’d almost rather be watching Fox News.
But, this is my life on the line. If I wait for the crowd to clear, God knows if I’ll ever get off this train—that ceiling could come crashing down at any minute. Do I really have a choice here?
So I start after him. But I’ve only gotten a couple steps when a girl calls, “Hey, you, can you give me an assist.”
It’s the halter-top girl from earlier. She’s managed to get her friend upright, but she’s not gonna stay that way without support. Getting her to move—ha! Good luck with that.
“Get her other arm and maybe we can, I dunno, drag her. Or something.”
I don’t like this. If we have to carry someone, we’re gonna get left behind. It’ll take forever to get out of here, and we don’t have forever. “I dunno,” I tell her and edge my way after Mr. Take Charge.
“C’mon. Don’t you wanna be a hero, get your face on the news?”
Not that badly. Not if it means drowning in a subway tunnel.
“C’mon, please. I can’t leave her here.”
God she’s cute, and she’s looking at me with pleading eyes. I shouldn’t do this, but… “Okay.” I pull the passed out girl’s arm around my neck and try to shoulder her weight. Oof! She’s not that big, but she’s dead weight, and even with two of us taking up the burden, she’s heavy as hell.
“What’s wrong with her?” I ask as we start to drag the girl forward.
“Y’know. She partied a little too hard last night.”
“It’s after four o’clock.” I can’t check my watch, but it’s probably closer to five.
“Yeah, well, we didn’t get to sleep until almost ten this morning.”
“Oh. That musta been some night.”
“Well, I’m not gonna ask for my money back.” But then, after thinking for a moment, she adds, “Well, except for my Metro fare.”
We’re almost to the back of the car now. People are still crowding around the side doors, waiting their turn to disembark, but the rear door—the one leading to the next car—is open and I can see Mr. Take Charge and the others on the far side.
Halter Top and I manage to get her friend through the crowd, but maneuvering her through the inter-car door proves more challenging. We end up having to go sideways, me in the lead, and it takes some effort to get the girl’s feet over the thresholds, but we manage in the end.
The next car is more crowded than ours—I guess the passengers didn’t receive the news they had to evacuate like we did, so they sat waiting until they noticed people on the emergency walkway.
“What’s going on?” a guy asks me as we come through.
“I dunno,” I say with all honesty and push on.
“Where are all you guys going?” a woman asks.
I ignore her and concentrate on dragging the passed out girl.
By the time we get to the third car, we’ve almost caught up with Mr. Take Charge, and we close the gap when he stops to open the next set of inter-car doors. Looks like his group’s grown by a bit, though most people are still opting for the side exits. I don’t have time to count, but I’d say there are about three dozen people with Mr. Take Charge now, myself and the girls included.
“You need help?” a tourist asks, a middle aged guy with a backpack so overstuffed you’d think he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He has his family with him, his wife, two sons and a daughter. He shrugs his backpack off and hands it to the younger son, then he and his eldest take the girl from me and Halter Top.
“Thank you,” Halter tells him and leans against a pole. She rotates her shoulder and the joint pops.
“Yeah,” I agree. Just getting the girl half the train length had been an ordeal. Dragging her all the way to the next station ... no way, man. No way.
Mr. Take Charge has gotten the next door open and we pour through to the fourth car, which turns out to be mostly empty apart from a handful of stragglers waiting for their chance to get out.
“And thank you,” Halter tells me as we come through the door.
“Sure. No problem.”
“I’m Kenzie, by the way,” she says. “And my friend there is Dallas.”
I get that a lot. “Yeah. Named after my mom’s favorite actor.”
She looks at me quizzically.
“Phoenix. River Phoenix.”
“Oh, him. He’s awesome in that new Gus van Sant movie.”
“No, that’s Joaquin. His younger brother.”
“He has a brother?”
“Had. Guy ODed on drugs when I was, like, seven.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So what movies did this guy do?”
“He played the young Indiana Jones.”
“I thought that was Shia LaDouche?”
“No, no, he was Indy’s son. River Phoenix played Indy in a flashback in the third movie.”
“Oh. Haven’t seen that one. Anything else?”
“He was in Stand By Me.”
“Is that the one about the high school in the slums? With Commander Adama as the teacher? We had to watch that in social studies, like ninth, tenth grade I think.”
We stop for Mr. Take Charge to open the next door.
“No. I don’t know what that one is. Stand By Me is about a bunch of kids who go looking for a dead body.”
“Oh. I know that one. It has the geeky Star Trek kid, right?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Mr. Take Charge gets the door unlatched and pulls it aside. Our group starts filing though.
“‘Suck my fat one,’” Kenzie says. “I love that movie.”
“Could you guys hush it,” a man in front of us says. I can’t see his face clearly in the dark, but I get the impression he’s on the old side. Not Wal-Mart greeter age, but he probably gets discounts at restaurants.
“Sorry,” I say.
Kenzie contorts her face into a grotesque expression behind his back.
We step into the next car. This one is truly deserted, but it’s noisier than any of the ones we’ve come through so far, filled with the sound of water drumming on the roof. It’s a heavy sound, but centered to one spot in the middle of the train. Water’s cascading down the windows, causing the tunnel lights to shimmer and waver.
“Goddamn, that sounds bad,” somebody says.
“Can you please stop cursing,” the old guy says.
“What could cause that?”
“I don’t think so,” Mr. Take Charge says. “The biggest quake this area’s ever seen wouldn’t even make the news in California.”
“Then what the hell happened?”
“There are children present, please.”
Mr. Take Charge thinks for a moment then shrugs. “No idea. But we’re not going to find out if we stay here. Come on.”
Even though the car’s empty, the crowd on the side hasn’t dissipated yet. They’re moving forward at a bare crawl.
Mr. Take Charge opens the door to the last car. As everyone presses to get through, a shrill child’s cry comes from the other side.
“Oh thank God,” a woman says. “You’ve gotta help me.”
At first there are too many people in front of me to tell what’s going on, but once we all get into the car and spread out, I see there’s a woman here with a bunch of kids. The oldest, a boy, looks middle school age, and he has a sister a couple years younger than that, but the youngest is strapped into a stroller that’s almost as big as a grocery cart. The woman’s sitting with a girl, just north of toddler-hood, on her lap.
“I wanna go home,” the girl screams. “I don’t like it here.”
“Please help me,” the woman repeats. “Everybody’s left, and I can’t handle them all by myself.”
“Of course,” a woman says—I think she’s the wife of the guy who took Dallas. She swoops forward and takes the girl. “It’s gonna be all right, honey. We’ll get you out of here.”
“Thank you,” the mother says. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I thought we was gonna be stuck here and nobody was gonna come.”
“It’s okay now,” the other woman tells her.
The mother slips off her seat and checks on the baby in the carriage. He—she? It? Whatever. The baby is zonked out, thank god. I don’t know how long it’ll stay that way, but the longer the better. If it can stay asleep until we reach the next station and doesn’t crap its pants or anything, life will be good.
The mother flips the brake switch on the wheels and starts to push the stroller towards the door.
“We can’t take that with us,” Mr. Take Charge says.
“Whadya mean?” the mom asks.
“It’ll never fit on the walkway.”
“Well what am I supposed to do with it?”
“You’ll have to leave it here.”
“That cost money.”
“Look, I’m sure the Metro will get it back to you, or they’ll pay for a replacement. But that’s an issue for later. Right now we want to get out of here as quickly as we can.”
“How far we gotta go?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Take Charge says. “A mile, maybe two.”
“I can’t be carrying my baby that far. And I got a diaper bag, too. That’s heavy.”
Before the mother can lose all sympathy with us, the woman who took the younger daughter intervenes. “Sarah, get her diaper bag from the stroller.”
A teenage girl steps up. The mom helps her dislodge the diaper bag from underneath the carriage. No wonder she didn’t want to carry it—it’s big enough to be suitcase. The mom gathers a few other essentials from the carriage, tosses them into her purse and hands it to Sarah. Sarah doesn’t look too happy at being treated like a bellhop, but she holds her tongue.
“Okay, everything settled?” Mr. Take Charge says.
“Just a second.” The mom unbuckles her baby from the carriage and lifts it out. Of course doing so wakes it up and it starts screaming. She boosts the kid onto her shoulder and gestures for Dallas to open the diaper bag. She rummages inside and comes out with a bottle, but the kid refuses to take it and keeps crying.
“So what is the plan?” That’s the old man, the one who shushed me and Kenzie. “Why’d you drag us all the way back here?”
Mr. Take Charge looks at him like he’s an idiot. “We get off.”
“We coulda done that from the front of the train. And we wouldn’t be stuck at the end of the line.”
“We aren’t going to be stuck at the end of the line. We aren’t going with the rest of the crowd. We’re heading back to Foggy Bottom.”
“Why would we do that?”
“I-I’m not—I-I think, uh, we’re, uh, closer to the Virginia side,” the driver says.
“If we go with the main group, we’ll be forever in getting to the next station,” Mr. Take Charge says. “We split off, we can move faster. But there’s only one way we can split.”
Silence. A lot of people aren’t convinced by his logic. I’m not convinced.
“Look, you don’t like my idea, you’re free to do what you want, but I’m headed to Foggy Bottom.” And with that he steps out to the emergency walkway.
“Who the hell cares about him?” the old guy says, and this earns some nods around the car, but the agreement isn’t universal.
“I’m going with him,” the man who took Dallas says. He looks to Kenzie. “You want us to leave your friend here?”
She doesn’t answer at first. The pause is so long I wonder if she heard the question, but then she says, “No, let’s ... let’s go with that guy.”
She looks to me.
“Um. Yeah. Okay.” The words are out before I’ve have time to think them over. Wait. Why did I agree to that? I don’t wanna go back to DC. If the whole Metro system’s shut down, I’ll need to call my parents for a ride. Easier if I’m on the Virginia side of the river.
But it’s too late now. I can’t bring myself to contradict what I’ve just said.
“Okay then.” The man and his son lower Dallas to the floor. The emergency walkway outside isn’t nearly wide enough for them to drag her between them, so they’re going to have to come up with another arrangement. The man looks at her thoughtfully for a moment before saying, “Okay, I guess we’ll have to do it this way. He crouches down with his back to Dallas. “Get her up onto my back.”
We help his son move her. The man wraps his arms under her thighs to hold her in place, but that’s only good for her lower half.
“You’re going to have to hang onto me, honey,” he says. “Can you do that for me?”
“Wha? Yeah, hmm. Sure.”
Not very reassuring. But she slips her arms around his neck.
“Not too tight,” the man says.
The man hoists himself up. He walks with a stoop, not so much from Dallas’s weight, but to keep her from sliding off him if she loses her grip. She looks like she’ll stay in place, but he tells his son, “Stay behind me and catch her if she starts to fall.”
The boy nods.
By now we’re the last ones on the train. We step out onto the escape platform.
As soon as we’re through the door, we’re hit by stagnant, muggy air. You’d think being underground, it’d be cool, what with heat rising and all, but no, it’s not much more than a couple degrees cooler than the surface, and it’d been over ninety when I got off work. There’s not even a hint of airflow down here.
Our group—what’s left of it, anyway, a little more than half I’d say—is already moving off towards DC. The rest have joined the line that’s making its way towards Virginia. Well, supposedly making their way towards. I don’t see any sign of movement. Maybe Mr. Take Charge is right.
The man and his son let me and Kenzie go ahead and we hurry to catch up with the rest of the group.
The walkway’s about as wide as a suburban sidewalk, but with a ledge on one side and a curving wall on the other, it’s not made for two to walk abreast. We have to move single file, and once we catch up to the group, our pace slows to that of the slowest walker—the woman with all the kids.
There are lights every ten yards or so, but only a quarter of them are hooked up to backup power. Even if they were all operational, they wouldn’t provide as much illumination as you get in a movie theater before the show, but right now they’re little better than nightlights. Most people have their phones out. Unfortunately mine’s an old flipper, doesn’t have any sort of flashlight feature, so I have to go off the reflected glow of Kenzie’s and the guy behind me.
The walls aren’t entirely smooth, either. There are conduits running along the tunnel, and occasionally we have to squeeze around a junction box or other obtrusion.
And then there are the cracks. Most are tiny, probably superficial, but we pass a couple that look like serious structural damage. No more leaks, though. That’s good. By the looks of the water coming in, it’ll take hours, maybe days for the tunnel to flood. We should be good getting out of here.
Assuming the leak doesn’t get worse. If the roof should crumble completely, the whole Potomac’s gonna come rushing in. It’ll fill the tunnels until it reaches the level of the river. How high is that, though? Enough to flood the entire Metro system? The trains run underground, sure, but the ground rises up beyond the Potomac, so maybe the stations aren’t as deep as the river. Maybe. I don’t know.
Whatever the case, we should get out of here as quick as we can.
But without any landmarks, there’s nothing to judge our progress by. I try counting the tunnel lights, but I get the numbers fouled in my head after ... a quarter mile? Something like that.
Does me no good, anyway, since I have no idea how far we have to travel. The trip between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom usually takes three or four minutes, so it can’t be more than a couple miles, and we’re only going half that far. If we were walking down a city sidewalk, it wouldn’t be more than twenty minutes, twenty-five if the lights were against us. But our actual pace seems slower than that. Might be an hour before we get outta here.
Well, it would be if we could keep walking nonstop
—the sound of the baby crying hits me about two seconds before the stench.
The woman with the baby stops abruptly, causing the rear of the line to stumble to a halt. I nearly plow into Kenzie and have to brace myself on the wall to keep my balance.
The front of the line keeps moving, oblivious, until somebody calls out, “Hey, wait up.”
Mr. Take Charge holds up his hand—I can see it because he has his cell phone in it—and waves for a halt.
“What’re we stopping for?” That’s the voice of the annoying old guy. Damn, I was hoping he ditched us for the group heading towards Rosslyn. The way he was talking, you’d think he would’ve, but I guess the sight of the crowd deterred him.
“I gotta change diapers,” the mother shouts, way too loud for the enclosed space.
“C’mon, we can keep going. They can wait for her and catch up, or go around or whatever.”
“No, it’s best we stick as a group,” Mr. Take Charge says.
“Who’s got my diaper bag,” the woman says.
“Here.” The girl—Sarah, I think her name was—is about five places behind the woman in line, has to squeeze around people, which isn’t easy with her load.
The woman sits down on the ledge and sets to removing her kid’s diaper. Sarah drops the bag next to the woman and crosses her arms and waits.
While we’re stopped, Kenzie leans against the wall and starts digging through her purse. She pauses over a vape pen, decides against using it down here. Probably for the best. I’m sure someone would pitch a fit. Instead she comes out with a pack of gum.
“Sure.” I take a strawberry scented cube from the pack and unwrap it, pop it in my mouth. I stick the empty wrapper in my pocket, but Kenzie drops hers on the track, which gets a dirty look from the next woman in line, Sarah’s mom.
Kenzie doesn’t even notice. “Anyone else?” She offers the woman a piece.
“No, thank you.”
Kenzie extends the pack down past me to Sarah’s dad. He shakes his head, but his son says, “I’ll have one, thanks.”
I take the pack and pass it down to him.
“I could really do with some lunch,” Kenzie says as she chews.
Sarah’s mom switches the toddler to her right hand and checks her watch. “Closer to dinner time by now.”
“Slept late,” Kenzie says. “All I had for breakfast was a Pop-Tart.”
I nod. I hadn’t even had breakfast this morning, and just grabbed a bag of chips from a vending machine for lunch. I wonder if there’s anything good in Foggy Bottom? And more importantly, cheap. I know that’s State Department territory, George Washington University, too, so hopefully there’ll be some little bistro or deli where I can grab a sandwich while I wait for a ride.
The tunnel is silent except for the wailing kid. I don’t know if I’d call it eerie per se, but I feel like we’re in a bomb shelter during the Blitz. Certainly not pleasant.
Somebody needs to break the silence.
But it doesn’t seem that anyone’s in the mood to talk right now, not even the people who know each other. Come on, a little idle chit-chat, anything for a semblance of normalcy.
I can’t stand it any longer. I look to Kenzie. “You have any way to get home?” I speak softly, don’t want the whole tunnel to hear, but I guess I overdo it because she looks at me like she didn’t catch my question.
“You guys, uh—” I point towards Dallas, who’s still clinging to the guy’s back “—you got a way to get back home. Or wherever you’re going.”
She sighs, shakes her head. “Gonna hafta call around, see if we can get anyone to come get us. Either that or splurge on an Uber. Don’t even wanna think what that’ll cost.”
“Where you gotta—”
I was going to ask where she lives, maybe offer her a ride with my parents—super lame, I know—but I’ve barely started talking when Sarah’s mom plows in with, “Isn’t there another way to get to Virginia on the subway? I thought there was on the map.”
Kenzie looks blank, so I answer.
“You’d have to go the long way around, but yeah, there’s another crossing over by National Airport. But that’s assuming the problem’s local. For all we know, the Yellow Line’s down as well. Could be the whole system.”
“Maybe they’ll have buses we can use,” Kenzie says. “Don’t they do that sometimes?”
“Yeah, they might set up a transfer to the next working station.”
Down the line, the woman with the baby finishes changing diapers. She holds the dirty one at arm’s length, not sure what to do with it. The stench is something terrible, so it’s not like she can bring it along with us. So she tosses it across the track.
“Hey,” the driver says, “that’s not where you, um, you’re not supposed to… that’s not a trash can.”
“Yeah?” the woman says. “Why’oncha go pick it up.”
The driver doesn’t respond.
“Okay,” Mr. Take Charge calls. “If everyone’s ready, let’s get a move on.”
He starts forward again. Several people have sat down on the ledge or taken off backpacks, and it takes several moments for the entire column to get rolling.
We only have to go a little ways before we reach the upslope, which signals that we’re out from under the Potomac. Doesn’t necessarily mean we’re clear of danger, but it’s a welcome turn.
That’s what I think at least, but once we start upwards, I quickly change my mind.
I’d spent enough time sitting down on the train that my feet haven’t been doing too bad, but now the soreness returns. I have on the comfiest shoes that fit my job’s dresscode, but they’re still not intended for walking across anything but a level surfaces. And that’s when they were new. The soles have worn so thin that the air cushions are exposed in spots and make a tssst-tsst noise when I walk.
As we climb higher, the backs of my shoes start rubbing against my heels. Even with socks on, I’m gonna have a blister. But not like I have a lot of options here. I’m sure not gonna walk barefoot. Besides, we can’t have much farther to go. Once we reach the top of the climb, it’ll be a straight shot to Foggy Bottom and I can take a seat and rest.
Well, that’s how things should go. But I should’ve realized already, today’s not a day when things are gonna go to plan.
Up ahead I can see the bend in the slope where the track levels out again. People are disappearing over the lip. Not much farther.
But then the line stops dead.
“Hey, what’s the hold up?” somebody calls.
“Can anyone see?” Sarah’s mom asks.
The people highest on the slope should be able to get a glimpse, but they’re not communicating back to us.
“You think the roof collapsed?” Kenzie says.
“If it did, we’d just turn around and go the other way,” Sarah’s dad says.
“Maybe they think they can clear the rubble?” his son suggests.
“Too dangerous. We’d be better off turning around.”
“What about another train,” I say. The Blue and Silver Lines use this tunnel, too.
“Hmm, could be. Can’t be in working order, though, otherwise we’d see the headlamp beam.”
Before we can speculate further, Mr. Take Charge appears at the top of the slope. But he’s not on the walkway; he’s down on the tracks. “Okay, folks, we’ve got a bit of an issue, but nothing to worry about. We’re gonna hafta get off the walkway for a bit and proceed down the track. Careful of the rails, you don’t wanna get electrocuted.”
“What’s the problem?” somebody calls.
“You’ll see when you get up here. But it’s nothing too big.”
We all look at each other. What the hell does that mean?
“Well, nothing to it but to do as the man says,” Sarah’s dad says. He leans back and sets Dallas on her feet. “Hey, honey, you’re going to have to stand on your own, you think you can do that?”
Her feet touch the walkway and her legs don’t buckle. That’s a good sign. Her arms unwrap from the man’s neck. “We there?” She sounds drunk. Or maybe stoned. I’m guessing stoned.
“Not yet.” He gestures for his son to hold her upright, make sure she doesn’t totter over.
Kenzie and I sit down on the ledge and lower ourselves to the trackbed. Once we’re down, we help Sarah’s mom get the other woman’s toddler down. The kid’s been behaving herself pretty well, but balks at having to get off the walkway.
“It’s okay hon,” Sarah’s mom tells the girl and ruffles her hair. “If you’re a good girl, I’ll get you a piece of candy.” She pulls a pack of Mentos from her pocket.
The little girl smiles and let’s us get her down without any trouble.
Down the line, Sarah jumps off the ledge, earning a rebuke from her mother. The moment her mom turns away, Sarah sticks out her tongue.
“Here,” the woman with the baby calls down. She lowers the kid to Sarah, then sets about helping her oldest daughter down. The girl takes one look over the ledge and says, “Uh-uh, I ain’t goin’. That’s too far.”
“Shut it,” her brother says and cuffs her upside the head. His mom yells something at him, but he doesn’t listen. Instead he leans back against the wall and pushes himself off. There’s not any room to get up to speed, but he manages a nice leap, landing nearly on the other side of the tracks. He smiles over at Sarah thinking he’s hot shit.
Meanwhile Sarah’s dad has clambered down and his son is helping Dallas. I go over and give them a hand.
Once her feet touch the ground, she glances around groggily. “What happen’d the train?” Her eyes latch onto me. “You’re not ...” her words trail into a mumble.
“C’mon.” Kenzie puts an arm around her. “Only got a little ways to go.”
Kenzie leads her friend up the slope.
Sarah’s dad takes a pack of tissues from his pants pocket and pulls one out, dabs at his forehead.
“Don’t overexert yourself,” his wife says.
“I’m fine. Feel better down here than while we were schlepping around the city.”
“Tourists?” I ask.
“Yeah.” He nods. “Out from Chicago—well, Shermer, if you want to be exact. I’m Dan, by the way. Dan Schorr. This is my wife Susie, my son Sam, my other son—where’d Zac go?”
Mrs. Schorr looks down the track, “Isaac, get over here. Sarah, you too.”
The younger son is over with Sarah and Mr. Show Off. The two Schorr kids snap to attention and trot over to their parents.
“Yeah mom?” Isaac says with the fake smile of a kid who knows he can pull one over on his parents with very little effort.
“Don’t go wandering off. Stick tight to us. You too, Sarah. I know you’re helping that woman, but don’t get yourself separated.”
“Yeah, mom.” She gives me a please don’t judge me by my parents look.
“Here.” Mr. Schorr steps behind Isaac and digs into the heavy backpack he’d foisted on his son. He comes out with a giant water bottle, about one third full. “Not very cold, but it’ll do the trick,” he says after taking a swig. He wipes the top and hands it to me.
“Thanks.” I push my gum to the side of my mouth and take a quick drink. It’s more than a little warm, but he’s right—it’s good to have. I wipe it down and offer it around.
“I’m good,” Mrs. Schorr says.
Sarah waves it off, the two sons shake their heads.
“Let your girlfriend have some,” Mr. Schorr says.
“My girl—no, I met her about thirty seconds before I met you.”
“Oh. Sorry. Well, you know what they say about assumptions?”
I’ve never seen three people roll their eyes in unison before, but his kids manage.
“When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” Mr. Schorr not only feels he has to finish the statement, but he actually laughs. Realizing nobody else finds the line funny, he turns serious. “Well, you know when a guy helps out a pretty girl in a situation like this ...”
Mrs. Schorr elbows him. She shines a smile on me. “Why don’t you see if anyone needs water?”
I head to the woman with the baby first, figuring if anyone could use water, it’d be her, but she has her hands full with the sprog. “Fantasia,” she calls over to her eldest daughter. “Take some water.”
“Not thirsty.” The girl’s probably ten, eleven, right on the divide between elementary and middle school. Her hair’s done up in short, tight braids that are capped by those ties that have the colored balls on the end. Her hair clacks when she shakes her head.
“Girl, you best be drinkin’ now, cuz I don’t know when we be gettin’ home.”
Fantasia accepts the bottle and pretends to drink, but I don’t think any gets in her mouth. I offer some to her brother; he takes a long pull.
“Don’t be guzzlin’,” his mom warns. “Other people gotta drink that.”
“We ain’t gonna be down here that long.”
“Don’t you go sassin’ me, boy.”
The boy shoves the bottle back at me and walks away.
I move up the slope. Maybe half the people accept a drink. Some have their own water stashed in bags and offer to add it to my bottle, but I decline. Bad enough we’re all sharing one bottle, but at least the Schorrs seem like okay people. Some of the other passengers, though ... like this one guy, looks like his clothes are patched together from stuff Good Will threw out. His cheeks are crusted with dirt, and you can’t help but notice the stench of ass when you get within ten feet of him. When I offer him water, he tells me he only drinks natural “heaven water” that he purifies with the power of Christ. He shows me a bottle that looks like it has sea monkeys floating inside and offers to share it with the rest of us.
I move on.
Once I get to the top of the slope, I find out what the problem is—the tunnel really did collapse.
“Collapse” is the wrong word. It implies the roof came down under its own weight. If that were the case, we’d’ve just turned around and headed for Rosslyn.
This is different. It looks like a bulldozer crashed through the tunnel wall. From the outside. There’s rubble strewn halfway across the tracks. Dirt, too, and rocks. The tunnel isn’t completely blocked—the emergency walkway is covered in chunks of concrete and stone, but the trackbed itself only requires a vigilant eye to navigate.
Still, everyone’s gathered around the hole, rubbernecking.
“Hey,” I say to Kenzie. “What’s going on?”
I offer her the bottle, but she declines.
I squint at the hole, trying to see into its depths, but there’s too much darkness in there. It might only go back a few yards, or it could go on forever. But I know this much—no earthquake made this. This is something that was dug.
“I don’t like this,” Kenzie says. “I wanna get outta here.”
“Yeah.” I look around. “Where’s your friend?”
Kenzie nods over to the other side of the tunnel. Dallas is leaning against the far wall, puffing on an e-cig. The tip lights up briefly as she inhales. When she exhales, the vapor passes in front of a tunnel light and glows a sulfurous orange.
We go over and I offer her some water. “Thanks.” She takes a long drink and wipes her mouth. “That’s good.”
“You think you can walk?” Kenzie says.
“I’m not that hungover.”
I could point out that she had to be carried off the train, but I don’t see any point in arguing. “Well, I don’t see any harm in going ahead of the others. Not like we can get lost or anything, right?”
“Dude, don’t jinx us,” Dallas says.
To Be Continued...
«I’m gonna melt,» Hana-chan says.
«Too hot!» Rinko says.
«I liked the museum better,» Emi says. «Air conditioning!»
I agree, but as the senior here, I have to project strong confidence. «If you guys don’t quit complaining, I’m gonna declare an emergency dance rehearsal.»
«Here?» Rinko says.
I spread my feet and point at the marble floor of the temple. «Right here, right now.»
«In front of all these people?» Emi says.
«We were at Budokan last month.» This is the thing I dislike most about Emi. She acts like she doesn’t want any attention, as though a girl would join an idol group otherwise. She thinks acting modest will get her more support from fans, but she doesn’t realize that everyone can see how insincere that modesty is. That’s why she languishes in the lower half of the popularity polls.
«That’s different,» Emi says. «We didn’t have a god watching us at the concert.» She points at the statue that’s towering over us.
«Who is he anyway?» Hana-chan asks. «Thor? Zeus?»
«I could use some juice,» Rinko says.
«No comedy routines!» I do a pretend karate chop upside her head. «And you guys don’t recognize George Washington? The most important American ever?»
«Is that who he is?» Emi says. «I thought he was better looking than that? And didn’t have a beard?»
«All generals have beards,» I say. «You think they have time to shave on the battlefield?»
«Actually, that’s Abraham Lincoln,» a young woman speaks up. She’s an incredibly pale shade of white, with hair the color of flames. I’ve seen red haired actresses in movies before, but I’ve never seen a shade this vivid in person. I can hardly believe it’s real, but I asked her last night and she swore to me it’s her natural color.
«The Washington Monument is down there.» She points towards the marble tower further down the Mall.
«I’ve been meaning to ask,» Hana-chan says, «is that supposed to be a giant dick?»
«Hana!» Emi and Rinko cry out.
«Ah ... I do not know,» the red haired woman says. Her name is Linda, like that old Blue Hearts song. When I’d found that out, I’d asked Akamatsu-san if we could include it in our performance on Saturday. He’d been against it—we were at an anime convention, he said, so we should focus on songs we’d done for soundtracks—but I’d convinced him in the end. After the concert was over, I’d gone to find Linda-san and get her reaction, but it turned out she’d left before we went on stage.
I point towards the monument. «Can we go see it?»
Linda-san checks her watch. «We have time, but ...» She looks at the wide stretch of grass between us and the tower. There are tens of thousands of people out there—hundreds of thousands, maybe. I know Akamatsu-san had told our guides to keep us away from the protests, but I don’t see what’s so dangerous. Everything looks peaceful. The police are watching silently from the sidelines, making no move to interfere.
«Come on,» Hana-chan says, «I wanna say I touched the world’s biggest dick.» Without waiting, she runs down the temple steps.
«Ah-ah-wait!» Linda-san says and runs after her, then stops and looks back at us. «I guess we’re going?»
We follow her out of the marble building, which really does look like a temple to some ancient god. The moment we’re out in the sun, the temperature jumps five degrees, which is amazing considering it was as hot inside as I’ve ever felt before, even that time I’d had a photo shoot in Okinawa in August. Who knew America would be this hot? I’d thought it was mild like England and France.
There’s a vast pool between the Lincoln temple and the Washington Monument, and I wish I could dive into it, even for a few minutes. I’d seen that in a movie once, a woman in a white dress and a soldier wading through the pool as a crowd of protesters cheered. But even with the temperature over thirty-five degrees, nobody is going near the water, so I guess that’s not allowed in real life.
We try to stick close to Linda-san, but there are so many people about that we quickly fall behind. I’ve never seen a protest like this—I doubt Japan’s ever had anything like this, even back in the ‘60s. It’s not simply the number of people that’s amazing. Look at their placards. Many of them are homemade, but people clearly put a lot of work into them. Many of them sport hand-drawn illustrations. The talent is variable, but the effort is evident. I don’t understand most of the illustrations, but I see more than a few anime characters.
The spectacle is heartening. I’d been afraid to come to this convention given everything that’s happened in America recently. The people I met at the convention had seemed nice, but the whole time I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them supported that person. Seeing so many people turn out to protest him is a relief. Maybe America isn’t a total waste.
But couldn’t they find a way to get rid of him?
I’d barely had a chance to glance at the news while I was at the convention—I’d tried to watch an American news channel on Friday night, but in addition to only understanding one word in ten, the people on the discussion panels were all incredibly rude and spent their time shouting at each other. I’d had to turn it off after a minute. I’d glanced through the Asahi Shinbun on my phone this morning, but I hadn’t had a chance to do more than read the headlines. What I saw did not look good. The Americans were worried that North Korea had a nuclear missile that could reach their Pacific coast, but if that’s true then all of Japan is in range as well. If anyone does something rash, we’ll be the first to suffer.
Hana-chan had told me over breakfast that she’d had a nightmare where our plane was almost back to Tokyo when the pilot came over the intercom to announce that Japan no longer existed and we didn’t have fuel enough to reach another destination, we’d have to ditch in the ocean and paddle for Guam. I’d laughed and told her she was being ridiculous—that’s my job as her senior, of course—but the dream didn’t sound ridiculous to me. Especially not now, surrounded by all these people who clearly believe something awful is on the verge of happening.
“Excuse me.” A blonde woman stops us. She has a large stack of fliers in a messenger bag. She offers one to me and spouts off a long spiel, though after those first two words I can’t understand a thing she says.
“Ah ...” My mind dredges up half-remembered high school English lessons. I’d joined the group halfway through my second year, and though Akamatsu-san hired tutors for us, we hadn’t had one for English—Akamatsu-san told us we’d be better off learning Chinese or Tagalog since his expansion strategy for the group lay in Taiwan and the Philippines. After a few seconds, the proper words come to mind—“I ... not English speak”—though I’m not sure about the word order. That was the part that had always tripped me up. English does everything backwards.
The woman laughs and says more stuff I don’t understand. She waves another woman over, and the next thing I know, they’re taking pictures with us. I don’t think they recognize us or anything. They just think pictures with Japanese tourists would be cool. I don’t get it. We’re hardly the only Asians present—that was one of our biggest shocks about America, in fact. I’d always thought Americans were almost all white—that’s what you see when you watch Hollywood movies, but the truth is so much more diverse.
We pose with the women for a bit, shooting V signs at the camera and striking poses. It’s like a handshake event with fans, only less creepy.
The women finally let us go, and as they’re waving us goodbye, I notice one has a tattoo on the underside of her arm. She’s so pretty. Why would she mark herself up like a gangster? I’ve seen a lot of tattoos this weekend. People don’t try to hide them—they have them in places where they’ll be visible even in business suits. It’s crazy.
We’re almost to the Washington Monument now. I scan the crowd for Linda-san and Hana-chan, but I don’t see them anywhere. However--
—another Japanese woman comes running over to us.
«Michi!» Emi and I shout in unison. We throw our arms around her.
«Eh? Who’s this?» Rinko says.
Oh, that’s right, Rinko hadn’t been in the group back when we worked with Michi. «This is Ogawa-sensei. She writes anime.» She’d been the head writer for the show we’d done a few years ago. It had been one of Akamatsu-san’s crazy plans to expand our audience, and he’d dictated most aspects of the show. To be honest, his ideas were pretty bad—we were magical girls who flew mecha from a secret base beneath a bakery where we worked, and we were also pop idols on the side. But I thought Michi had done a brilliant job taking those ideas and turning them into something watchable. When you saw the show, the ridiculous premise seemed rational, and our characters ended up being very deep. But Akamatsu-san didn’t like her work. He said she’d made the story too dark and grim, and even though people at the studio told us it had been a success, we had a different writer for the second season. He’d made everything much sillier and inserted a ton of lezzie subtext into the story, not to mention gratuitous fanservice. I couldn’t even let my mother watch the Blu-Rays because they come with uncensored scenes, including one where my character has her clothes ripped off in a battle and has to fight naked, with my breasts bouncing around in ways that would be simultaneously painful and impossible in real life.
Despite that, the second season had bombed and we hadn’t done a third.
«Ah.» Rinko nods with feigned interest. She doesn’t watch any anime besides Sazae-san and Chibi Maruko-chan.
I notice a man standing behind Michi, watching us with a bemused expression on his face.
«I’m sorry.» I bow to him. «I’m Mizuhara Madoka .»
«Yeah, I recognize you,» he says with rude casualness.
«Ha-ha-ha. Don’t mind him. This is Uragawa-sensei,» Michi says. «He writes anime like me.»
«Pleased to meetcha,» he says and bobs his head.
«Pleased to meet you,» we say back. Emi bows low when she does, and Uragawa-sensei takes the opportunity to look down the front of her shirt.
«Uragawa?» she says. «Would that be the Uragawa-sensei who wrote Magical Girl Death God?»
His face brightens. «That would be me, yes.»
I kinda recognize the title—there’d been signs for it around Tokyo earlier this year, and there’d been people at the convention dressed up as characters—but it had looked too gruesome for me. When I watch anime, I like it to be bright and happy, with a good love story.
«That show is soooo good,» Emi says.
«Nah, nah, you’re embarrassing me.» He isn’t the least bit embarrassed.
«But the ending—I really thought you were going to kill everyone.»
«Yes, that was brilliant,» Michi says. «Even I didn’t think you were going to go with a happy ending at the last second.»
Uragawa-sensei smirks. «It’s all about payoff. If you rack up a big enough body count early in the story, you can stay your hand at the end and the audience will be grateful to you.»
«That is exactly why I don’t like that kind of show,» I say. «I don’t think characters should suffer for the sake of shocking the audience. That kind of attitude reduces the story to a clockwork.»
«Really?» he says. «That’s an interesting point of view. I can’t say that I disagree, but I’m not a good enough artist to do otherwise.» Something about his modesty, though, strikes me as fake. He doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. He’s trying to deflate my criticism. «So what are you ladies doing out here alone? I didn’t think your master let you out unsupervised.»
«You’ve been reading too many tabloids,» I say. It’s true that our group works under strict rules of behavior, but Akamatsu-san trusts us to obey without setting chaperons on us. I mean, who’s going to break the rules after what happened to poor Saki?
«Maybe, maybe,» he says.
«We were looking for Hana-chan, though,» Emi says. «You didn’t see her anywhere?» she asks Michi.
«Hmm, no, I don’t think so.»
«Our translator ran after her,» I say. «She’s a woman with flame-colored hair.»
«Oh, her,» Uragawa-sensei says.
«Our translator ran into her right before we saw you guys. They said they were going to get tickets to go in there.» Michi points to the Washington Monument.
«You can go inside?» I’d assumed it was solid stone all the way through.
«Oh yeah,”» Uragawa-sensei says. «C’mon, I’ll show ya.»
He leads us through the crowd of protesters. It’s not easy. The throng is even thicker here than by the Lincoln temple. But at last we reach a low stone building. There’s a good sized crowd inside, all waiting in line, though on the bright side the air conditioning is blowing on full blast.
«Took you guys long enough,» Hana-chan says.
She’s in line with Linda-san and a man we don’t know.
«I finally found her,» Linda-san says.
«I tried to get into the Monument, but they kept pointing me over here,» Hana-chan says.
«I am terribly sorry about all this.» I bow my head to the translators who’ve been inconvenienced by Hana-chan’s behavior.
«It’s no big deal,» Linda-san says.
«Thankfully there’s not much demand for tickets today, otherwise we could be here all day,» the second translator says. «I’m Mike, by the way.» He offers us a hand to shake.
I introduce the rest of our group.
«Ah, you’re those idols, aren’t you? I saw your concert last night. It was awesome.» He says the last word in English, but he gives it a Japanese pronunciating—ah-sa-mu. It’s kinda cute the way he says it.
The line inches forward. After a few minutes we reach the desk and get tickets for everyone.
«I don’t wanna do this,» Rinko says as we head back outside. «I like the air conditioning.»
«Why is it so hot?» Emi says.
«They say George Washington picked this as the capital because the summer weather is so horrible,» Mike-kun says. «In fact, this whole area used to be a swamp until they drained it.» For some reason that makes him chuckle. «The idea was, with the weather so hot during the summer, Congress would only meet for a few weeks in the spring and fall, and so they would have less chance to make trouble for the country.»
«Unfortunately George Washington didn’t predict air conditioning,» Linda-san says.
«Though even AC can’t make DC livable in August,» Mike-kun says. «Even nowadays, Congress goes on recess for the entire month, and everyone who can afford a vacation leaves town. At least normally.»
Linda-san nods and says something in English that I can’t understand. «Sorry,» she adds. «I said, this isn’t normal.» She waves around her to indicate the vast crowd assembled on the Mall. I should hope this isn’t ordinary.
We reach the Monument again, and right on time for a tour to start. A guide leads us through a stone hall that feel like something from ancient times, though he tells us—through Linda-san and Mike-kun—that the Monument was only finished in 1888. That’s Meiji Era. That’s after the Black Ships arrived in Tokyo Bay—and those were steam-powered. Compared to, say, Himeji Castle, this place is brand new.
The tour guide shows us to an elevator—I’m so glad there’s an elevator; I was afraid we’d have to climb a thousand stairs to reach the top. On the way up, he relays various facts about the Monument’s construction and history. He tells us it’s the tallest building in Washington, and a city ordinance prevents anything taller being built. Ah, so that’s why the city seems so flat. When we were coming into Washington on Thursday evening, I’d seen a cluster of vast towers and thought that must be the city, but Linda-san had told me that was merely a suburb. When we crossed the bridge into Washington, I’d been disappointed. For the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth, it was less imposing than even Sapporo.
The elevator stops and we get off. The room at the top of the Monument is ... underwhelming. It’s a dingy stone room. Because it had been built before electricity became common, the lights in here were added later, and there’d been no effort to cover up the power conduits, nor the vast air ducts that run up from the floor and across the ceiling. I suppose I should be grateful for their presence, but the fact they make the place feel like a warehouse undercuts the grandeur of the location. Shouldn’t a towering monument like this be a sacred place? Shouldn’t there be an atmosphere of holiness?
«Oh, look at that, Madocchi!» Emi exclaims. She’s standing at one of the windows.
I go over and peer out. The entire Mall, from here to the Congress building, is visible, and much beyond that. There are so many people crowded below us, the ground isn’t even visible. Forget hundreds of thousands. There might be a million people down there.
«You know,» Michi says, «if Congress had two domes, they’d look like boobs.»
«But this monument looks like a giant dick, so would that make the city a futanari?» Hana-chan says.
«Hana!» Rinko says.
«Hmm, moé personifications of world capitals ...» Michi says. «I need to remember that. What studio should I pitch it to ...?» I have a feeling Hana-chan’s words have unleashed something unfortunate upon the world.
I move to the next window. Uragawa-sensei and Mike-kun are there, along with a couple Americans who were in our tour group. I can’t get a good view with all of them in the way, but I glimpse the White House. It’s smaller than I expected, only about the size of an apartment building—and not even a large one. Hard to believe that so many of the world’s problems come from that little place.
As though he’s reading my mind, Uragawa-sensei says, «If I had a rocket launcher right now...»
Mike-kun looks around nervously to see if anyone heard that comment, but then he remembers that Uragawa-sensei is speaking Japanese. A good thing, too. I wouldn’t want to be arrested by the American police.
I make my rounds to the other windows. One shows the Lincoln temple, so I pass that by quickly, but the fourth reveals a second temple that we hadn’t seen on our walk. It looks much like Lincoln’s, but smaller, and the roof is domed rather than boxed. It sits on a small island that shelters a placid pool between the city and river.
«That’s the Jefferson Memorial.» Linda-san comes up beside me. «It’s not as popular because it’s so far out of the way. They say he gets lonely out there.»
«Yeah, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, bought the Louisiana Purchase, and invented the dumb-waiter.» Linda-san snickers. This seems to be some sort of joke, but I can’t understand it.
To change the subject, I ask, «Are those cherry blossom trees?» I thought I’d seen some around the Lincoln temple, but I hadn’t had a chance to look closely.
«Yes. Your country gave them to us as a present a hundred years ago. There’s this huge festival every year when they bloom.»
Ah. I could imagine what it’d look like with the entire riverside blooming in pale pink. Why did the convention have to be in August? Why couldn’t it be in April?
Having taken in all the sites, Linda-san and I wander down a flight of stairs to a museum. Compared to what I’d seen in the Smithsonian earlier, it’s a paltry collection, and we’re well bored before the rest of our group is ready to leave.
«Can I ask you something?» Linda-san says.
«Being an idol ... do you like it?»
«Being an idol is wonderful. We bring joy to fans all over Japan, and even around the world. Making so many people happy is a tremendous honor.»
«Is that what you’re told to say?»
«I don’t hate it. I’d never get to see America if I weren’t an idol. I never got good grades, and even if I did, my family wouldn’t’ve been able to afford even a halfway decent university. If I hadn’t lucked into this, I’d probably be stuck as a part-timer at McDonalds or a convenience store or something. Maybe if I got lucky, I’d meet a salaryman and get married. But the area I lived in, an auto-mechanic or a truck driver would be more likely. But now I don’t have to worry about any of that. I travel around Japan performing, make a couple trips overseas each year, and in between I do guest spots on TV dramas, or small roles in movies. It’s a good life.»
«But what about the ... I mean, I’ve seen stories.»
«Yes. And the girl from C-breeze. Midori Aoyama?»
Saki had been one of the founding members of our group. For the first five years, she’d won every single popularity poll we held. She’d been Team I’s leader. When she got offered parts in movies, they were leads. She’d even had a TV series built around her.
Then one day a tabloid reporter got a scoop that Saki was dating the son of an executive at our record company. Officially our group had a ban against romance. Our fans expected us to remain “pure,” and even being seen in public with a guy could cause a scandal—when pictures of Kyouko eating lunch with a young man had appeared online, she’d had to go on TV to explain that he was her brother.
Unofficially, Akamatsu-san and the rest of management understood it was ridiculous to expect us to eschew all romance, especially those of us in our twenties. As long as we kept everything out of sight, we could have boyfriends.
But if any of us got caught, we were on our own. In the eight years I’ve been in the group, we’ve dropped a dozen members who got caught with boyfriends. Most of them had either been understudies or just promoted to full membership, so they didn’t create huge scandals.
But Saki was different.
She was the face of the group.
When fans found out about her boyfriend, they didn’t think she was one bad apple. They felt the entire group had betrayed them. If Saki could have a secret lover, then all of us were probably sluts. Fans started believing the worst conspiracies from the Internet, like the one that we worked as prostitutes on the side, servicing yakuza, politicians and famous actors. A sports paper published an outrageous story claiming that three members of our group—unnamed, but clearly Saki, myself and Hana-chan—had been paid to sleep with a certain (also unnamed) American actor while he was in Japan to promote the latest installment of his spy series.
Akamatsu-san hadn’t had much choice. The only way to save the group was to fire Saki. And not just fire her, but to repudiate her. He’d gone on a morning show to make the announcement. He used polite words, but the statement had been anything but polite. Saki had betrayed the group with her behavior. What she’d done was a slap in the face of every single member. Effective immediately, she was no longer a member, and our latest single, featuring Saki as the lead singer, was being recalled.
We weren’t even able to throw a farewell party for her. Me and Kyouko and Hana-chan went to see her the next weekend, but her boyfriend, who was staying with her to give her support, had told us she’d gone home to see her parents. That was the last anyone saw of her. Her mom said she never arrived home, and her bank cards didn’t show the purchase of a train ticket or a withdrawal large enough to pay for one.
Two weeks later, a group of kids doing radio calisthenics at a beach had found her body washed up on the shore. The coroner later concluded she’d drowned herself in the Sumida River and been carried out to Tokyo Bay.
There were a few editorials against the idol industry after that, and we saw a drop off in new member applications for a while, but Saki’s death was gone from the headlines in a few days, replaced by the next scandal du jour—a popular actor busted for drug possession, the daughter of a prominent Tokyo politician being linked to a “compensated dating” service, a talk show host being caught in an affair with a staff member….
As for Midori Aoyama, she was before my time. She’d been in the group C-breeze, which had been popular in the early 2000s, and retired a few years before I entered the industry. Soon after, she announced her marriage to an executive at a major auto company. Six months later, she gave birth to a daughter.
Most fans were supportive and wished the best for her new family, but a small minority felt betrayed when they realized the timing of her pregnancy meant that she’d been having sex while still active in C-breeze. One fan in particular decided to “punish” Midori for her supposed transgression. He broke into her house late one night and murdered her and her husband and her infant daughter, and then set the house on fire with himself still inside.
Afterwards the police searched the man’s apartment. He was a part-time clerk at a convenience store, but his parents provided him an allowance to get by and he had a much larger apartment than someone in his situation normally would’ve. He skimped on food, living mainly off ramen cups, in order to afford C-breeze merchandise. Not only did he own every album, EP and single the group put out, he owned every variant cover—in some cases dozens of them. He had posters, and book marks, and mouse pads. He even owned notebooks and pencil cases that were meant for teenage girls.
The severity of his obsession had been a hot topic on talk shows at the time, and the man was treated as an extreme obsessive, but since joining IKB-45, I’ve found that such people aren’t that far out of the ordinary. Most of them, thankfully, are not killers.
«If living my best life means I can’t have a boyfriend, is that so bad?» I ask.
«No, I suppose not. But it should be your choice. Not something forced upon you by creepy fanboys.»
I don’t know what fanboys are, but the way she says the word, I can imagine.
«Don’t Christian priests have to give up sex?»
«The Catholic ones, yes.»
«Idols are like priests in a way. What I said earlier, about bringing joy to people, it’s not just what Akamatsu-san wants me to say. Many of our fans have miserable lives, and they look to our songs for hope. And to give that to them, they have to see us as pure maidens.»
«You believe that?»
«They believe it. My job is to sell them the illusion.»
«But are you happy with it?»
What a weird question. Was my father happy as a crane operator? Was my mother happy staying home to take care of the house every day? What does happiness have to do with life? It’s something you take when you can get it, but it’s nothing you should expect. «I’m comfortable.»
Just then we hear footsteps coming down the stairs.
«I didn’t fart!» Hana-chan says.
«Liar! I know the smell of your farts!» Emi says.
«Since when are farts individualized? They all smell the same.»
«No, yours are recognizable.»
«She’s right,» Rinko says. «Yours all smell like beef.»
«They do not! I hardly even eat beef.»
The girls are followed down by the rest of our tour group. The guide gives them a quick circle of the museum, then ushers us all into the elevator.
We descend slowly, and the guide points out carvings on the interior walls. Mike-kun and Linda-san translate, but none of it is particularly interesting. Various civic groups and local governments had donated money for constructing the monument, and they got to place commemorative stones in the walls. So boring!
We’re nearing the ground when Linda-san’s phone rings. She talks into it in English for a few moments, then hangs up. «The protest is starting to break up,» she tells us, «so we should be leaving before the rush gets too bad.»
A moment later Mike-kun’s phone rings. Even though I don’t understand his words, I can pretty well figure out he’s saying, “Yes, I already heard.”
When we’d arrived on Thursday, the convention organizers had sent a charter bus to pick us up and take us into the city, and the plan had been for us to leave the same way. The organizers had mentioned something about a protest on Sunday, but they didn’t think it would interfere with our plans. However, when we woke up this morning, we heard that the protest was larger than had been predicted. The organizers said we had two options. We could cut short our sightseeing and take the bus directly to the airport so as to avoid traffic, or we could do our tour as planned, and ride the subway to the end of the line to meet our bus, thus bypassing the worst of the traffic. Akamatsu-san had been in favor of taking the bus the whole way, but none of us in the group thought it’d be fair if we had to leave Washington without seeing the sites. Akamatsu-san pretends he’s a tough manager, but the truth is he gives up if we push against him as a group.
«But we didn’t get to see the White House or Capitol,» Hana-chan says.
«I’m terribly sorry,» Linda-san says.
«Nah, nah, I don’t want to go near that person,» Rinko says.
The rest of us nod, even Michi.
«I’m more interested in the subway,» Uragawa-sensei says. «They say the stations are some of the most impressive in the world.»
«I don’t know about that,» Mike-kun says. «I’ve always thought they look dystopian.»
«Yes. They use brutalist architecture. Kawamori-san asked me to get pictures so he could use them as reference for his next series.»
The elevator reaches the ground floor and we disembark.
«We’re supposed to meet at Smithsonian Station,» Linda-san says.
This, it turns out, means we have to walk further down the Mall. Despite what Linda-san had said, the crowd isn’t any thinner than earlier, though as we near the station, we do see people streaming underground. There’s a huge crowd building up around the entrance, and we’re going to have to wait a while before we can go down.
At the far end of the Mall, there’s a stage set up and somebody’s giving a speech. Loud speakers relay the words to us, and there are giant televisions showing us a woman standing at a podium.
«That’s Elizabeth Warren,» Linda-san says. «Some people think she’ll be our next President.»
«If there is a next President,» Mike-kun says.
«If you still have a country for a President to rule over,» Uragawa-sensei says.
«Yes.» Mike-kun nods sadly.
«Oh, look! There they are!» Up ahead, Yumeko is jumping up and down and waving to us. She’s only an understudy, but her online fanbase is astounding and she’ll probably be promoted to full membership after the next popularity poll. She’d been invited on this trip in case anyone got sick—something that happens almost any time we do a foreign tour, though we’d lucked out this time.
She’s with the other five regular members of our team, Kyouko, Megumin, YamaYuki, TakeYuki and Chiaki, along with Akamatsu-san, his assistant Tada-kun, and our team manager, Misa-san. When it came time to decide which museum to visit this morning, all of them had voted for Air and Space, while the rest of us wanted to see the Natural History. Akamatsu-san had wanted us to stick together, but he quickly realized that would mean listening to Rinko give a non-stop commentary on how much she hates space stuff, so he let us go off with Linda-san.
«Madoka-senpai, they let me fly a jet fighter!» Yumeko runs over to me.
«Computer simulator,» Kyouko says. «And she crashed after two minutes.»
«It was awesome! You should’ve come, Madoka-senpai.» She hugs me. She’s adorable when she gets like this. I can see why fans love her. Once she becomes a regular member of the group, she’s gonna be a force to deal with. I wish I could kiss her, but a hug’s as far as I dare go in public.
Kyouko clicks her tongue. «It wasn’t that great. They had models of certain famous spaceships from movies, but not one single Gundam. What kinda museum is that?»
«When we get back to Tokyo, we’ll go by the Gundam statue, will that make you happy?» Akamatsu-san asks.
«It would,» Kyouko says.
«For now, we should be going,» an American man says. He’s the translator who went with Akamatsu-san’s group, an older man with graying hair who’s some big-wig in the convention organization. «Otherwise you guys are going to get stuck in the US.»
«Let’s go!» Kyouko shouts and points towards the station. She raises a foot, then stops. She turns back to the big-wig and says something in English. Her dad worked for the foreign service, and she spent most of her childhood in New Zealand and Britain, so she speaks fluent English.
Whatever she says, the big-wig laughs it off.
Akamatsu-san gets on the escalator, followed by Hana-chan and Michi, then Uragawa-sensei and Emi.
I step towards the escalator, but Yumeko taps me on the shoulder. «Hey, hey, what’s that up there?»
She’s pointing at the sky. High up, the color has drained away, going from a deep indigo, to a pale haze. There are few clouds today, but is it my imagination or are they being blown away? Not in a straight line, the way clouds normally blow, but outwards from that hazy patch. Yeah, that’s weird. They’re forming into a ring, like the clouds around the eye of a typhoon, except they aren’t being whipped around by the wind.
«I don’t know,» I say.
«It’s a gate to another world, of course,» Kyouko says, «and if you don’t wanna get attacked when a dragon comes through, you better get into the subway right now.»
«Yeah, yeah,» I say.
Kyouko and Yumeko get on the escalator ahead of me. As I step onto the treads, my neck prickles with that creepy sensation you get when your hair stands on end with static electricity. I swipe my hand across the back of my head to smooth it down, but it barely makes a difference. Yumeko’s hair is too short for the effect to be noticeable, but Kyouko’s is standing up too.
«Madocchi, what’s wrong with your neck?» Megumin asks from behind me.
She puts a hand on my nape and I feel something sticky smear across it.
«Ew!» Megumin says.
I turn. Her hand’s covered in a purplish jelly. Did that come from my neck? I wipe my hand back there again, this time running it across my skin. It comes away covered in blood and pus. What’s this?
Before I can react, though, a tremor runs through the escalator. My first thought is of some kind of fault in the motor, but this isn’t a mechanical issue. The whole span of the escalator is trembling—the entire shaft.
Earthquake! I didn’t think they had them in Washington.
People on the upbound escalator are murmuring to each other as they pass. But it’s not simply the earthquake they’re worried about. Some of them are pointing over at me and the other girls.
I look up.
Their faces are—what’s wrong with their faces? Megumin’s is all puffed up with blisters, and in places they’re cracking open and pouring blood and pus down her cheeks. Chiaki’s in an even worse state. The skin on her face is drooping, like there’s nothing holding it to her skull underneath. She must sense something’s wrong, because she lifts her hands up. When they touch her cheeks, the flesh falls apart like peeling paint. YamaYuki ... I can’t even tell what’s going on with her, but her body’s slumping like an inflatable figure that’s sprung a leak.
Whatever’s wrong with me is spreading. A burning sensation spreads across my neck and onto my face. My right eye twitches—something inside my cheek is pushing the lower lid up. My vision’s half-obscured.
Over on the other escalator, people are screaming. The ones who are closest to the top are falling apart, melting like wax figures on a hot stove. People turn around and try to run, but with the upward motion of the stairs, they’re barely able to stay put.
Megumin opens her mouth to speak, but all that comes out is a mist of blood. Her hands clasp her throat. Is she choking? My instinct is to move to help her, but something holds me back. The people highest on the escalators are suffering worst. The people on the other track have the right idea—we need to get down. Kyouko and Yumeko are already fleeing.
I’m about to do the same when the stairs lurch to a halt and the lights go dead. The escalator shaft isn’t pitch dark, though—there’s enough sunlight coming from above ground that I can still make out outlines around me. I move my feet to run, but my knees give out from under me and I tumble down the stairs face first. The last thing I feel is the ridged edge of a stair smashing into my chin.
To Be Continued...
“No, mom.… No…. Mom... mom... listen... no... nobody’s been beat—Mom. We’re fine.… Yes, we’re fine.… No, we haven’t been arr—we haven’t been arrested.… Who got punched? ... He’s a Nazi, who cares.… Look, mom, we’re leaving now. We should be home in an hour or so.… Yessss, she’s safe.… No, nobody’s been hit by a car.… Look, I’ll call you when we get to Dunn Loring. Bye.” Shreya ends the call.
“Didn’t say anything.”
“Is your mom always like that?” Brook asks.
“All. The. Time,” I say.
“I thought Korean moms were supposed to be the worst,” June says. “God.”
“We had to twist her arm so she’d let us come without dad tagging along,” Shreya says.
“Aren’t you an adult?” Nick says.
“Yeah I am, but the brat’s not.”
“Don’t call me a brat.”
“Stop acting like one.”
I flip her off. She’s walking ahead of me so she can’t see, of course. If she could, she’d beat me down, even in the middle of a crowded street. Didi’s an ogre. And not the cute Shrek kind, either. One of the ones with clubs who attack unwary travelers in the mountains. Or are those trolls? I can never remember.
Josh pats me on the head. “Don’t listen to her,” he whispers. “You’re fine.”
“Thanks.” He is such a cutie. Look at those eyes, and those lips. Oooh! I’m lucky I don’t go into blabbering idiot mode like I usually do around guys. Shreya has a huge crush on him—she hasn’t said anything specific, but the way she talks about him, which is like incessant, it’s obvious. But we’ve been out with him since nine this morning, and he’s barely shown any interest in her. Me however… I will crush her.
“Excuse me,” a woman calls out to us from a van that’s parked on the side of street. She’s incredibly beautiful and made up like a movie star, though her outfit is a bit plain. She looks vaguely familiar. “Are you guys coming from the protest?”
“Yeah ...” Owen says cautiously.
“Would you mind if I interview you?”
“Who’re you with?” Owen says.
We look at each other.
“It’s Fox,” Brook says.
“But it’s the local station,” Josh says. “I don’t think they’re run the same way.”
“I dunno,” Shreya says. “Don’t we wanna get outta here before the rush?”
The protest is supposed to last until five, but we’ve ducked out a little past four. I’d wanted to stick around, but everyone was like, “No, we don’t wanna get crowded on the train.” Like we couldn’t hang out in DC until the crowd disperses? When I’d asked didi to take me along, I’d been hoping we’d hang out afterwards and get into, like, escapades and shenanigans and cool stuff, or at least hang out at a diner for a few hours. But at this rate it looks like we’ll be home in time for dinner. Mom will probably even make me go into the store to sweep and mop and all that tedious stuff. I swear, I’ll be in college and she’ll still expect me to work at the store every night. What a pain.
“C’mon,” June says, “we get to be on TV.”
“Yeah, why not?” Nick says.
But Brook, Owen and didi are against it.
“Guess you’re the tie-breaker,” Josh tells me.
I’m not sure I want to be on TV right now. Sure, it’d be cool, I could brag about it when school starts, but I’ve been out in the heat and humidity all day. I must be a mess right now.
But I don’t want Josh thinking I’m a--
“She votes no,” Shreya says.
“I do not.”
“You arguing with me, brat?”
“Yeah. I say we do it.”
Shreya lets out a dramatic sigh, but says, “Fine, we’ll do it. But if mom freaks out because we’re late, it’s your fault.”
The reporter brightens up. “Excellent, excellent.”
She and her driver get out. The driver goes around to the back of the van and retrieves a camera. It’s a lot smaller than the ones you see in movies, though it’s still huge compared to the one dad had when I was a kid, in the olden days before cell phone cameras.
We’re on a street with lots of huge, hulking government buildings, and the reporter directs us to stand with our backs to the street so she’ll get a good shot of them in the background. She’s very particular about arranging us, putting me, Shreya and June together in the front.
“Before we begin, I just wanna get to know you a bit. What are all your names?”
We go around and introduce ourselves.
“You all in college or something?”
“We are, but she’s in high school.” Owen points to me.
“Oh?” She focuses on me. “Do you follow politics a lot?”
“A little, I guess. I had to keep a journal on the news for AP Government last year.”
“But school’s out now, right?”
“Yeah, we’re on break until next month.”
“So you haven’t been following the news as much lately?”
“I still watch a bit.”
“Well that’s great.” The reporter smiles. “Always good to know the next generation is tuning in.”
I didn’t say I watch her channel.
“So why did you decide to come down here today?” She’s still directing questions at me.
“It seemed like fun.”
From the corner of my eye, I catch didi facepalming. What?
“I see. How about the rest of you?”
“We don’t want the US to go to war,” Owen says.
“Yeah, we’re old enough to remember Iraq and Afghanistan. We never want to see that again,” Brook says.
“Kim Jong-un’s a bad guy, but that doesn’t mean war is the answer,” Josh says.
“There’s talk of bringing back the draft,” Nick says. “That’s crazy. If rednecks wanna die for Cheeto Benito, let ‘em, but leave the rest of us out of it.”
The reporter perks up at that last bit. “Mm-hmm. So I know college isn’t in session right now, but if it were, do you think your classmates would all feel the same way?”
“Most of them, yeah,” Owen says.
Nick adds, “There are only a few guys at our school who like the President, and they’re all troglodytes who spend their time playing Warcraft and spanking to anime.”
“Dumbass,” Brook says.
“You can leave that part out when we’re filming,” the reporter says. She checks with her cameraman. He gives a thumbs up. “Well, let’s do this.”
“And three, two, one ... go,” the cameraman says.
She flashes a smile like the sun on that one cereal box, you know, with the raisins. “This is Kelly Kowalski, and I’m here in Federal Triangle, near the site of today’s anti-war protest. Despite being organized at the last minute, tens of thousands of liberal demonstrators turned out on the Mall to voice their opposition to US action against brutal Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. I have a group of protesters here with me right now.” She turns to our group. “So why’ve you come out to oppose the President today?”
She thrusts the mic in my face.
“Uh...” Shiiiiiit. “I thought it ... would be ... cool. Uh-huh.”
“You know, war’s bad.”
“Even against a thuggish dictator like Kim Jong-un?”
“Did you know he had his uncle executed with an antiaircraft gun? Those fire bullets the size of soup cans.”
What? I never heard that.
I look to didi. She’s cringing. The reporter uses that as an excuse to shift focus to her.
“So where’re you from?”
“Fairfax,” Shreya says.
“And you’re in college?”
“Now earlier, you guys were telling me there are extreme anti-administration sentiments on campus.”
“There are strong anti-administration feelings everywhere in Virginia,” Owen says.
“Actually, the President won most counties in Virginia,” the reporter says, “including a large chunk of Northern Virginia. If your college is that ardently against the President, it’s an outlier. Do you think that has anything to do with your professors?”
“No, it’s common sense,” Nick says. “Anyone smart enough to get into college can see the truth—the President has been a nonstop disaster.”
“But do your professors push a liberal agenda?” the reporter says.
“No!” June says.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Brook says.
“What would happen if a student espoused support for the President in class?”
“Nobody would do that,” Nick says.
“Out of fear of receiving bad grades? Social repercussions?”
“No, because they’d look like complete morons,” Nick says.
The reporter turns to the camera. “Well, I’ll leave that to our viewers to judge. This is Kelly Kowalski reporting from Federal Triangle. Back to you.”
“Aaaaand, cut,” the cameraman says. “That was great, Kel.”
“That’s gonna get picked up for Fox and Friends, I know it,” she says. They high five, then she turns to us. “Great job, guys. Great job.”
“What the hell?” Owen says.
“What kinda interview was that?” Josh says.
“The kind where I ask questions and you answer.” She opens the door to the van and climbs inside. She picks up a half-melted iced mocha and sips.
“I’m gonna edit and upload,” the cameraman says and gets into the back of the van.
“I told you guys this was a bad idea,” Brook says. “But would you listen? No.”
“Good job, brat,” Shreya says.
“What did I do?”
“Cast the deciding vote.” She flicks me in the forehead. Ouch. I slap her hand away.
She turns and heads towards the Metro entrance. The others fall in behind her, except for Josh.
“Doesn’t really matter,” he says. “Fox does that to anyone they interview. If it weren’t us, it’d be somebody else.”
“Yeah, probably.” I rub my forehead. I think didi left a divot with her nail.
“Here.” Josh kisses his first two fingers and then presses them against the hurt spot. “All better.”
I smile and blush and I must look like an idiot right now. “You know, using your fingers is homeopathy. You have to apply your lips for it to actually work.” Oh no, did I say that out loud? He’s gonna think I’m such a dork.
“You raise a valid point.” He looks down the sidewalk, but my sister and the others are all facing away from us. He leans down and pecks me on the forehead. “Does that work better?”
I want to say yeah, but my mouth is caught in a stiff grin right now. I can’t move it at all. With some effort, I manage a nod.
“C’mon,” he says and heads for the station.
I try not to skip after him. I don’t succeed.
Take that, didi, you eternal virgin. Second year of college, you’ve never even had a boyfriend. And I just got kissed by the guy you think is cute.
The only problem is, I can’t rub her nose in this—she’d freak out if I told her, and then she’d turn it into blackmail with mom. No way.
There are a pair of cop cars parked on the street, and an officer is standing watch near the station entrance. He gives me an especially long glance. Yes, I’m brown. That doesn’t make me a terrorist. Jerk.
We get on the escalators. We should hurry down to catch up with the others, but there’s a fat man ahead of us. He’s not walking and he’s too wide for us to get around. We don’t have any choice but to let the escalators do all the work.
Shreya’s waiting for us at the bottom, but the others have gone on ahead. “What took you so long brat?”
“I’m just slow.”
“Well speed up, we don’t wanna miss the train and get separated.”
“Well gimme my fare card,” I tell her.
“What’re you talking about?”
“My ticket. I gave it to you when we got up here, remember? I didn’t bring a purse and my pants don’t have pockets.”
“Did you?” she says.
She opens her purse and searches through.
From the platform downstairs, we hear a train arriving. We can’t see it from here, though, and if there’s an announcement, it’s too faint to hear over the sound of the crowd.
“Relax,” Shreya says, “there are like three lines that go through here. There’s only one chance in three that’s our train.”
“One in six,” I say. “Trains go both ways. Geez, how’d you get into college, dummy?”
“Whatever.” She’s finished searching her purse, no luck—she’s come up with one fare card, but that doesn’t do much good when there are two of us. I suppose we could try to run through the gate together when it opens ...
“Don’t worry about it,” Josh says. “I’ll buy her a new card.”
“It’s only four bucks, I got it.” He takes out his wallet and goes to the ticket machine. He returns a minute later with a fresh card for me.
“Thank you.” I shall treasure this always, the first thing you ever bought me.
“Not a problem.” He winks at me. My sister doesn’t notice.
We go through the gates and get onto the next set of escalators. Shreya cranes her head to see around the guy in front of her, who, despite being one step lower, is still a head taller than her.
“I don’t see Owen or Brook or any of them.”
“They wouldn’t leave without us,” Josh says.
They better not! We carpooled to the station in Owen’s SUV. We need them to get home from Dunn-Loring.
“There, look, it’s Nick,” Josh points.
Yes, there he is, but he’s all alone. He’s leaning against one of those poles that tell you what stations are in each direction, much to the annoyance of a man who’s trying to read the sign. Nick has his eyes on the escalators and spots us almost as soon as Josh points him out. He waves.
We step off the escalator.
“Guys, the others—”
He’s cut off by a train rocketing out of the tunnel. It slows to a halt, but one glance at the sign tells us it’s a Blue Line train, not the one we need.
Once the noise dies down, Nick tries again, “Owen and the others got on the train without realizing you weren’t here. I tried to warn them, but the doors closed before they could get off.”
“Ah, crap,” Shreya says.
We look to the arrivals board. The next Orange Line train isn’t due for another twelve minutes.
“Silver Line’s coming in five,” I point out. “Could we take that?”
“No good,” Nick says. “Silver splits off from the Orange before our stop.”
“Don’t worry,” Josh says. “Once we get to Virginia and out of the tunnels, we can call them and tell ‘em where we are.”
In the meantime, though, we grab some seats. As we wait, the station starts filling up with people leaving the protest. The Silver Line train relieves some of the congestion when it comes through, but most of the crowd sticks around. It’s getting noisy down here. A couple guys stand next to our bench, talking loud.
“I tell you what, if that idiot starts a war, I ain’t fucking around with letters to Congress no more. It’s militia time. Conservatives have been doing it for years. About time we realize we gotta adopt their tactics.”
“Yeah, but what did those militias ever accomplish? Took over a wildlife refuge for a few weeks? One of ‘em got shot for being an idiot.”
“It’s time we do more.”
“Yeah, but it’s like Warren Zevon said, you wanna accomplish anything, you gotta have lawyers, guns and money. All three.”
“Do we hafta bring lawyers into it?”
The men laugh. They’re still laughing when the station starts shaking.
My first thought is a train’s coming, but after a second I realize this is an earthquake. I look up at the ceiling. I sure hope they built it strong.
Somebody screams. It’s from the upper floor of the station.
The shaking gets worse.
Shreya stands, but Nick grabs her arm and pulls her back. “We aren’t going anywhere in this crowd.”
There’s another scream. Shouting. What’s going on up there?
But I’m distracted a moment later by a loud crash. My head whips around in time to see part of the tunnel collapsing. Oh crap, that’s the one our train is supposed to come through! How’re we gonna get home now?
Before I can worry any more, though, I’m hit by a cloud of dust that flies out from the rubble. Some of it gets in my mouth and I break out coughing so hard I feel like I’m gonna tear out my throat. My eyes tear up, partly from the coughing, partly from dust getting in there. I press my palms to my eyes and rub them.
When take my hands away again, I can’t see anything. Did I go blind? You can’t go blind from dust. Can you? But a second later my sight return. The power had gone out, and it took a second for backups to start. The lights aren’t at full power, though, and with the air full of dust, the station has a dim, smoky atmosphere.
It takes me a moment to notice the shaking’s stopped. Everything’s quiet down here, but there are still people shouting and screaming on the upper floor.
Josh has his backpack on the floor, and he’s unbuttoning his shirt—he has a tee on underneath, though, so I’m disappointed. He rips his shirt into pieces, then pulls a bottle of water from the bag and pours it onto the scraps. Huh? What’s he doing?
He takes a sleeve and wraps it around his head so it’s covering his nose and mouth. He hands the other sleeve to me.
Oh, I get it. I tie the sleeve over my face. That’s so much better. I can breathe clear.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Not a problem.” He hands another scrap of shirt to Shreya, and the last one to Nick.
“Thanks, man.” But instead of putting the cloth on right away, Nick first uses it to wipe his glasses clean.
Other people aren’t so lucky. They’re hacking their lungs out from the dust. Some try to get on the ground like you’re supposed to in a fire, but this isn’t smoke. The dust is slowly—slowly—settling to the floor, not rising to the ceiling.
A lot of people are heading for the escalators, but they’re so jammed that I don’t see them making any progress.
“I’m going up,” Shreya says.
“Are you nuts? You’re not getting up there with that crowd,” Nick says. “Better to wait here until it clears up a bit.”
“I’ve gotta call mom, let her know we’re all right. She’s gonna be freaking.”
That’s definitely true. She’s probably calling us right now and going into panic mode because she can’t get through.
“It’ll take you half an hour to get out of here, minimum,” Nick says. “If you wait, it’ll take the same amount of time, but you won’t be standing.”
Shreya doesn’t care, though. “Come on,” she tells me.
I’d rather wait down here. Nick’s right. It’ll take us forever to get up those stairs. The station looks to be in one piece, apart from the tunnel mouth, so let’s sit here. I’ve been on my feet all day. I don’t wanna be standing if I don’t have to.
“We don’t have all day,” she says and grabs me by the shoulder. “Get your butt moving.” There are times when she sounds exactly like mom.
“Fine, fine.” I stand.
“I’ll come with you guys,” Josh says. That changes my mind. Not only would I rather be around him, but I don’t wanna be left alone with Nick. He’s one of those dorks who thinks he’s ten times cooler than he is, and he’s always trying to show it off. If I stayed down here, he’d probably talk to me about how awesome Ed Sheeran is. Ugh.
“Thanks,” Shreya tells Josh. I can’t see her mouth, but I can tell she’s smiling. She thinks he’s coming because he likes her. Sorry, loser, it’s not you.
“Whatever, guys,” Nick says. “I’ll be up when the crowd clears.”
We leave him sitting on the bench.
The crowd around the foot of the escalators is twenty deep, and the people who are on the stairs are taking one step forward every five minutes or so.
“What’s the hold up?” Shreya asks.
“No one knows,” a woman tells her.
“Do you know what the screaming was about?” Josh says.
The woman shakes her head.
“I heard somebody got crushed when part of the ceiling came down,” a man says.
“I dunno, that’s what I heard.”
“Are you sure we should be doing this?” I ask didi.
“If something’s gonna collapse, it doesn’t matter where we are.”
“It matters if we’re under it.”
She flicks me in the forehead. “Don’t argue, brat.”
“You should be nicer to her,” Josh says.
“No. She’s a brat. She’s daddy’s little girl. She always gets what she wants.”
“Do not.” And besides, you’re momma’s little girl. You do everything she expects of you, no questions. You’re going to turn out just like her, a little-miss-bossy pants. Oh wait—too late.
“If I’m not mean to her, she’s gonna end up spoiled,” Shreya says.
“I am so glad I’m an only child,” Josh says.
“I wish I were,” Shreya says.
“I’m telling mom you said that.”
We move slightly closer to the escalators. Then we stand there for five minutes before we manage to take a couple more steps.
“Smart plan, didi. Smart plan.”
“Here, let me adjust that for you.” She grabs my face mask and pulls it tight across my mouth so I can’t talk.
Hey, hey! Quit that! I slap her hand away, loosen the mask.
Some of the people around us are giving us weird looks now. Look what you did, didi. You are so stupid sometimes, I swear.
There’s a commotion at the top of the escalators.
“Let me through.”
“Where’re you going?”
“You can’t get down there.”
There’s a woman up there, she’s pushing her way through the crowd, trying to get down here. What is she, crazy? There are so many people on the steps, she’ll never get through. She must realize that, because she climbs onto the thick metal banister between the escalators. She tries to slide down, but as she nears the bottom, she goes off course and bowls into the people who are standing on the stairs. She knocks them over, and that causes a chain reaction.
Me and Josh jump back in time not to get hit, but Shreya falls on her butt with a fat, bald guy on top of her.
“Sorry, sorry,” the guy says and rolls off her. He stands up and dusts himself off, then realizes he should help the girl he knocked over and offers a hand to Shreya.
“Thanks,” she says.
“What do you think’s so funny?”
“To think, I would be here to witness the first time my sister ever had a man on top of her. You are such a wanton hussy.”
She slaps me upside the head. “Shut up.”
She looks to Josh. He’s biting back laughter. She looks away embarrassed. That was worth it.
The woman who slid down the banister has gotten up and pushes her way out of the crowd. People give way, giving her nasty looks as she goes.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” the woman says. She’s middle aged, but wearing a tank-top and shorts that girls my age would have a hard time pulling off.
“Going the wrong way for that,” says a man.
“We can’t get out up there!”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I didn’t hear, what’d she say?”
“What, did the escalator shaft collapse?”
“They’re all dead!” the woman screams. “You’ve gotta get away!”
She turns and runs to the edge of the platform, jumps. She lands on a rail and falls over. I don’t have a good view, but it looks like she twists her ankle when she goes down. “Aaa-aah,” she cries.
Shreya moves to check on her, but the woman pulls herself up and limps into the train tunnel.
What was that?
“Crazy people,” the fat man says. He turns around and sees that the crowd’s been disrupted enough that he has a chance to slip ahead.
Shreya sees it too and grabs me by the arm. “C’mon.”
We move ahead. A little bit at least. We’re up to the metal plate that covers where the steps disappear into the floor.
A few minutes later and I’m actually standing on a step—one of the ones near the bottom that’s half retracted, but counts.
We start moving faster after that. In five minutes, we’re halfway up the escalator.
“I told you you should’ve waited.” Nick joins us. He’s on the next escalator over, but people are moving faster on that one for some reason, and he actually gets to the top before us. I have decided that he’s a loser, and I intend to make him pay. I undo my ponytail, and I’m gonna shoot him with my hair-tie, but Shreya stops me.
“Behave yourself, brat.”
“What, you got a crush on him?” I put my ponytail back up.
“No! Eww. You know what Nick’s like. Yeeagh.”
“Yeah, he’s perfect for you.”
“Not in the slightest. I can do so much better than that.” Her head twists and she looks back at Josh. He’s fallen a bit behind us, three or four people back. Too far to hear.
“Keep dreaming,” I say. “You’re gonna end up disappointed. You should set your eyes on someone more your level.” I nod towards Nick.
“Brat, I am going to kill you.”
“What would mommy say?”
We finally make it to the top. It’s really crowded up here. Why aren’t people moving out of the station? It’s been long enough, you think they would’ve cleared out by now.
“They say the station manager won’t let us leave,” Nick says. He’s had time to go investigate while we were stuck on the escalator. This is the last time I ever listen to one of didi’s plans.
“Why not?” Josh says.
Nick shrugs. “I heard a bunch of things, they’re all crazy.”
“Such as?” Shreya says.
“Some people died on the escalators during the quake.” He points back towards the station entrance and the escalators to the surface.
“Died?” I say. The crazy woman had mentioned dead people, but I figured maybe somebody had a heart attack, or got conked on the head by something falling out of the ceiling.
“Is the entrance all right?” Josh says.
Nick shakes his head. “No clue. There’re a couple cops who are holding the crowd back, won’t let us go down the hall to where the escalators are.”
“Well that’s good, at least,” didi says. “If cops are here, there must be ambulances and fire crews too.”
“No,” Nick says. “The cops didn’t arrive. They were already here. Didn’t you see them when you came in?”
“There was one up above,” Josh says.
“There were a couple down here, looking for someone,” Nick says. “And now they’re telling everyone to stay here.”
The problem is, now we’re crowded into the area between the escalators and the fare gates, along with everyone else. And there isn’t even a place to sit down, except the floor—and you’d get trampled if you tried.
Shreya checks her watch. “It’s past five. I really gotta call mom.”
If we’d gotten on the train with Owen and the others and there hadn’t been an earthquake, we’d be home by now—or nearly so, depending who Owen dropped off first.
But mom must realize the earthquake stopped the Metro. This should be all over the news. There’s probably a strip running across the screen with all the closings listed. But even so, she’s gonna be worried until she hears from us—well, with her, she’ll be worried even after she hears from us, but knowing we’re alive will be a big help.
“I don’t see how you’re gonna do it,” Nick says. “We’re stuck here.”
“I’m gonna talk to the cops. We tell them it’s an emergency, they have to let us out.”
I doubt it’ll be that simple, but I don’t want to stand around here with people pressing in on me from all directions. If we can’t go back to the platform to wait, sure, let’s go see the guy in charge.
Nick doesn’t argue this time. “Whatever”
“Okay,” Josh says.
We push our way through the crowd. That gets us a few dirty looks, but nobody’s in a mood to argue. With the power out and so many people squeezed in here, the air is turning stuffy—though at least the dust didn’t get up here. In fact—I take my mask off. There aren’t any trashcans, though, so I don’t have anywhere to toss it. But then, Josh gave it to me—ripped the shirt off his own back, almost literally—so maybe I should keep it as a souvenir. Too bad didi has one, too.
As we get near the fare gates, our movement slows to a crawl. Nobody’s going through, but they’re milling around and blocking the gates, and it takes some effort to get them to step aside for us.
“It’s no use,” one guy tells us, “they aren’t letting anyone up.”
“We’ll see,” Shreya says.
At last we get to the gates. They consist of waist-high barriers set up so one person can get through at a time. There are pizza-shaped wedges that come out to prevent you from getting through without a ticket, but without power they seem to’ve retracted into the barriers, so we don’t have to climb over or duck under or anything.
Didi goes first, then Nick.
“Ladies first,” Josh tells me.
I’m tempted to ask what that makes Nick, but I don’t want to be mean to Josh’s friends. Even when they are dorks. Instead I mumble, “Thanks,” and step through.
I get two steps when I feel his hand on my butt. At first I think he’s just brushing against me, but no, he’s cupping my butt, and that doesn’t happen by accident. He squeezes.
I go stiff in surprise, but ... I kinda like it. He has strong hands, big too. That feels nice.
I twist my neck around.
His hand lets go, but he smiles and leans in to whisper, “Sorry, it was too good to pass up.”
Really? Shreya always tells me I have a flat butt. Well take that, didi! “That’s okay,” I mumble, though what I want to say is, “Please, do it again.” Maybe next time without any clothes in the way. Mmm, that could be fun.
Too bad it’ll never happen. Shreya’s in college, but mom still won’t let her go on dates—not that she’s forbidden or anything, but mom expects her to be at the store so much that she doesn’t have time to go out. Me, in high school? I’ve got no chance, even with guys my own age. A college guy ... forget about it. If Josh came to pick me up on a date, mom would lock me in my room and wouldn’t let me out until I’m thirty.
Though that would get me out of work, so ... hmm.
“Guys, you’re taking forever.” Nick’s stopped on other side of the gate and is tapping his foot super dramatically. He didn’t see what Josh did, did he? Well, at least didi’s moved off. I can imagine the fit she’d have if she knew. Especially with Josh, the guy she’s crushing on.
We get through the fare gates and head towards the hall.
“Hey, you guys shouldn’t be out here,” a cop says as we approach. “It’s not safe. Structural issues. We’ll need somebody to check it out before we can let people through.”
“But it’s safe to stay down here?”
“How long are we talking?” Josh asks.
The cop shrugs. “Dunno.”
“Come on, I’ve gotta get upstairs so I can call my parents,” Shreya says.
“Is there a landline down here?” Josh asks. “Maybe you could let people call out. I’m sure she’s not the only one with family that’s worried.”
That stops the guy. “Let me go talk with my boss.”
He retreats around the corner, but another cop comes over and blocks our way, so we back off a bit.
“What the hell is going on?” Nick says.
“I don’t know, but I’m not buying it,” Josh says. “It’s been more than half an hour since the quake. We should have first responders here by now—firemen, paramedics. Not just a couple pigs on patrol.”
“You think they’re hiding something?” Shreya says.
“Yeah, but what?” Nick says.
“If the entrance collapsed, they could tell us.”
“Maybe they’re afraid people would try leaving through the tunnels like that one woman,” I say.
“If the entrance is collapsed, we’re going to have to anyway,” Shreya says.
“Not necessarily,” Josh says. “If they get the power fixed, they could send a train to take us out. If people are in the tunnels that would complicate things.”
“Maybe,” Nick says, “but that’s not the impression those guys were giving me.”
I agree. Those cops were acting like the soldiers in sci-fi movies who tell people, “There definitely aren’t any aliens back here. Please ignore the funny lights you saw in the sky.”
But I’m not going to say it. Agreeing with Nick is ... gross.
“Excuse me.” Yet another cop appears, this one accompanied by a Metro employee.
“Yeah,” Shreya says. “Look, I don’t know what the trouble is, but I need to get in touch with my parents before they freak out and call the…” She was going to say “cops,” but that’d sound silly given the circumstances.
“Yes. That’s not going to happen,” the one cop says. He’s clearly the guy in charge here.
“What do you mean it’s not going to happen?”
“The phones are out,” the Metro employee says. “Cellular and wired both, I’ve checked.”
“Phones and power?” Josh says. “Don’t phones normally have a separate power supply?”
“Yeah, and it’s out,” the Metro guy says.
“Wait,” Nick says. “You said you’ve checked cell service. So you’ve been up to street level?”
The cop shoots the Metro employee a dirty look. “We’ve been up,” he says.
“So it’s possible to get up there?” Josh says.
“...It’s not impossible.” The way the cop says it, there’s something he’s holding back. If we could go up but he doesn’t want us to ...
“Is there something wrong up there?” I ask.
The cop doesn’t say anything.
“What happened?” Josh says.
“We should wait for emergency services,” the Metro employee says. “I’m sure they’ll be here soon enough.” His voice cracks.
“What happened?” Shreya says.
“I don’t know! Okay. A nuclear bomb? It’s bad, that’s all I can—”
“Quiet,” the cop hisses. “You want a stampede on your hands?”
“What the hell are you guys hiding?” Nick says.
“Shut up and go wait. We’ll ...” but the cop has no clue what he’s gonna do. “We’ll ...”
“If we go back,” Josh says, “we’re gonna start talking to the other riders. They’re going to want to know what’s going on. There are at least two hundred people back there. What do you think’s going to happen when they come over here and demand answers?”
“Hey, Mike,” the first cop we’d talked to says, “maybe we should ...”
The cop, Mike, he nods. “Fine, whatever. You wanna go up, go up. But don’t say you weren’t warned.”
Now that we have permission to go, though, I don’t know if I want to. The way these guys are acting, I’m afraid of what we’re going to find upstairs. “Maybe we should wait,” I say.
“Don’t be a scaredy cat,” Shreya says. She walks around the corner.
Nick looks back to the crowd. “I don’t see how we’re not screwed no matter what.” He follows my sister.
“I guess we might as well,” Josh says.
“Don’t worry, there’s any trouble, I’ll protect you.” He puts an arm around my shoulder and pulls me tight against him.
I don’t know that it makes me feel any safer, but it gives me a good feeling at least.
But as soon as we reach the corner, he lets me go. I understand why, and I don’t want my sister seeing us like that either, but I do wish he’d keep holding me.
The escalator area is dimmer than the rest of the station. The lights are glowing with the same low intensity as everywhere else, but sunlight’s pouring down the escalator shaft. The beam’s no wider than a spotlight, but it’s so bright that it makes the rest of the room pale in comparison. All I can see are the escalators and the floor in front of it.
And the clothes.
They’re all over, like people had been stripping naked as they came down and left their shirts and pants and underwear lying on the steps. After a moment, I notice it’s more than clothes. There are purses, and wallets, eyeglasses, cellphones, all kinds of things strewn on the escalators and floor.
I step into the room—or I try to. My shoe’s stuck to the floor and nearly comes off my foot. It’s like walking through a movie theater that hasn’t been cleaned properly. I twist my foot and the shoe breaks loose. There’s some thick, purple sludge all over the floor.
“What happened here?” Josh says. “What is this gunk?”
“That’s people,” Mike the Cop says. “What’s left of them.”
To Be Continued...