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...