We’ve been walking for five minutes now, but there’s still no sign of the next station.
Please, it can’t be that much farther. I just wanna get somewhere I can sit down. Even a couple minutes would be a relief. Being up on the walkway had been bad, but, despite being roomier, the trackbed is even worse. There are bits of gravel and other debris that have built up on ground, and every time I step on some, I feel it through my shoes.
“So what were you doing in the city?” Kenzie says. “Protesting?”
“Hadda work,” I say.
“On a Sunday? That sucks.”
“Where ya work?” Dallas says.
“You must be really smart.” Kenzie sounds super impressed, like I told her I’m a doctor or an architect.
I open my mouth to say, no, I work in the gift shop, but before I can get a word out, Dallas asks, “Whatcha major in?”
“History.” The response is automatic on my part, and it takes me a moment to realize it sounds like I’m saying I’m an historian at the Smithsonian.
No. No, no, no. I hadda drop out before even completing my bachelor’s degree. I’m just a minimum wage monkey working a register.
But it’s too late. They already have the misconception in their heads, and I can’t bring myself to disabuse them.
Well, it’s not like they’re going to know me long enough to discover the lie. Once we get up to the surface, it’ll be, “Nice meeting you, maybe see you around sometime,” and then we’ll go our separate ways, never to see each other again. If they leave thinking I’m some exhibit curator… I’m not going to worry myself.
“You get to handle the Constitution and stuff?” Kenzie says.
“Nah, nothing like that. I just catalogue artifacts—it’s very junior stuff.” I mean, I put geodes on the shelves, so it’s sorta true.
Dallas does a fake cough. “Humblebrag.”
“Be nice.” Kenzie gives her a playful shove, but Dallas’s still wobbly and stumbles over a rail, barely catches herself.
“That musta been some party you guys were at.”
“Enh. I thought it was a fizzle,” Dallas says.
“You certainly seem to be experiencing the aftereffects of a good time.”
“Ooo, listen to the professor. You ever been out partying, or you only study them in books?” Dallas says.
“Okay, maybe not in a while, but I’ve been out drinking before.” One time, really—I’d gotten dragged to a party by my roommate in my first semester at college. Spent the whole night in a corner nursing a beer. It tasted like piss and I’ve never had any desire to try another one.
“Twenty bucks says he’s a virgin.”
“Leave him alone,” Kenzie says.
“You are, aren’t you?”
“Well, I mean …” What am I supposed to say to that? If I deny it, Dallas will keep badgering me for details about my experience—I’ve known girls like her before, and if they once they sense something embarrassing, they never let up.
“Uh-huh. Toldja,” she says.
“What?” Kenzie’s shocked. I guess I should be happy she has a higher opinion of me?
But maybe it’s better to let Dallas think she’s right, that way she’ll back off. I shrug. “I just never… you know.”
“Never had a girlfriend?” Kenzie says.
“Yeah. I did. One.”
But that sets Dallas off again. “How long were you together?”
“About three years, a little less.”
“And she never put out?” Kenzie says.
“Said she wasn’t ready.”
“What was this, high school?” Dallas says.
“You shoulda dumped her,” Dallas says. “I’m sure you coulda found something.”
“Okay, so when you say you’re a virgin … like, how far did you get with her?” Kenzie says.
Shit. I guess the conversation is going down this path whether I want it to or not. “Sometimes … if we were hanging out in her dorm at night, she’d change into her pajamas in front of me. I mean, she wouldn’t get naked, but she’d take her shirt off and then put a nightgown on overneath before taking the rest off.”
“That’s it?” Kenzie says.
“She never let you touch her or anything?” Dallas says.
I shake my head, then realize they can’t see it in the dim light. “No.”
“Why would you put up with that?” Kenzie says.
Shrug. “I was in love.”
“Man,” Dallas says. “You shoulda pushed harder.”
“She said she didn’t want to go further.”
“She was begging you. You didn’t pay attention.”
“I dunno,” Kenzie says. “Some girls can be—” She stops walking. “I think I see something.” She points up ahead.
“The end of the tunnel?” I squint but don’t see any light ahead.
“No, something in the tunnel.”
“Yeah… I think I see it too… maybe,” Dallas says.
“It’s not moving, is it?” A train would have its lights on if it were moving, wouldn’t it?
“No, doesn’t look like.”
We hurry on. After a few more paces, I start to make out an outline. It is a train, but it’s stopped dead. Without power, the electronic sign on the front isn’t working, but I’m guessing this is a Blue or Silver Line train—all three of them use this tunnel.
As we draw closer, though, there’s something not right. The train’s not sitting level on the tracks, and part of the roof is dented.
“Maybe something fell on it, a chunk of ceiling,” Kenzie says.
“Yeah, could be.” If that’s so, we better be careful. Even if we’re not under the river now, there’s still a million tons of dirt over our heads.
“What happened to the window?” Dallas says.
The glass in front of the driver’s compartment is opaque with a spiderweb of fractures, like the train hit something, though I don’t see anything in the tunnel that could cause that.
“Maybe we should wait for the others,” Dallas says.
Wait for them? Hell, I’m about ready to turn around and head the other way. If we hurry, we can be in Rosslyn by 6:30, I’m sure.
But Kenzie doesn’t listen. “C’mon, we can get around the side.” She pulls herself up onto the walkway. “Doors are closed. People must still be on board.” She knocks.
There’s no response.
“Hello.” She tries again, harder this time. When there’s still no answer, she presses her face to the glass, cupping her hands around the side of her eyes to protect from the reflection of the emergency lights.
“See anything?” Dallas asks.
“Nothing. It’s too dark.”
You’d think people inside would have their cell phones out for light.
“Maybe they got off,” Dallas says. “They’re a lot closer to a station than we were. They could’ve left through the back.”
Why would everyone leave through the rear of the train, though? Going through one or two doors would slow things down even worse than it had been on our train.
“The only thing to do is keep going,” Kenzie says. “C’mon.” She waves for us to come up.
Dallas looks at me like, I don’t wanna do this, do you?
Yeah, tell me about it. There’s something hinky about all this. If this were a movie, the audience would be screaming at us to turn around and run the other way.
“What’re you waiting for?” Kenzie says. “The next station can’t be that far. We get around this, we can be outta here in ten, maybe fifteen minutes max.”
She does have a point. Why spend another hour trudging to Rosslyn in this sweltering darkness when we’ve come so far already. It’s not like this is really a movie. There’s no monster gonna jump out at us. Backtracking through the leaky section of tunnel would be more dangerous than going forward.
Besides, I don’t want her thinking I’m chickenshit.
“We should probably keep going,” I say.
Dallas scowls, then shrugs. “Sure whatever.”
The walkway comes a little higher than my waist, so getting up is a bit of a challenge. I have to jump and get my chest onto the platform, then pull the rest of myself up. Then I turn around and give Dallas an assist.
“Thanks.” she brushes herself off, though by this point she’s so filthy it makes no difference. Not that me and Kenzie are in much better shape. Everything down here is covered in grime—if you even brush against the wall, you’re going to come away covered in dirt.
Kenzie’s wandered further down and is knocking on the windows of the second car. “Train’s deserted. C’mon, let’s get to Foggy Bottom, get outta here.”
We start towards her, but just then something skitters on the roof of the train. I can’t see it, but whatever it is, it’s heavy enough that the roof creaks under its weight.
After a moment, it stops moving.
“Somebody up there?” Kenzie calls.
Why would somebody be on the roof? There can’t be more than a couple feet of clearance up there. You’d have to crawl on your belly to get around. Maybe rats or something?
Whatever’s moving is heavy.
“Hey, gimme a boost,” Kenzie says.
“Cradle your hands like this.” She shows me.
“I dunno that’s a good idea.”
“C’mon, it’s not like the Babadook’s up there or anything.”
The what? Nevermind. Probably some movie I never saw—there’re like a million of them.
I lace my fingers together and hold them out for her. She steps onto my hand with one foot and hops up with the other. She grabs the edge of the roof.
“See anything?” Dallas says.
“No, nothi—whoa shit!” Kenzie lets go the roof and the full weight of her body goes right into my hands. I lose my balance and stumble back into the wall. Kenzie falls against me. She’s not that big, but she’s still got enough weight to knock the breath outta me.
“What happ—” Dallas starts.
“Run!” Kenzie pushes herself up.
“What?” Dallas says.
Kenzie grabs my shoulder so hard I feel her nails through the shirtsleeve. I push myself off the wall but nearly fall over from the force of her tugging me.
She lets go of me to give Dallas a shove. “Move! Run!”
We pelt down the walkway.
“Hey!” A door at the end of the train slides open and a man with a shaggy beard and black-rimmed glasses sticks his head out. “In’ere, in’ere!” He waves us on.
Kenzie sprints ahead.
I’m about to follow suit, but the strap on Dallas’s shoe chooses that moment to snap. She stumbles, but I grab her to keep her upright.
Behind me, there’s a noise like a thousand tiny feet on metal. Something hisses.
“We needa shut it,” somebody in the train says.
“Give ‘em a minute,” a woman says.
“C’mon,” I tell Dallas.
She takes a step, but her shoe is sliding off her foot. It’s a cloppy, high heeled sandal, so ditching it while keeping the other one on would only make things worse.
I wrap an arm around her waist and lift her up. Ooof. I didn’t think she’d be that heavy. Even when she hooks an arm around my neck, I can barely stay upright.
“You gotta run,” the hipster-looking dude calls out.
Yeah, easier said than done. I’m moving as fast as I can, but when you’ve got a hundred and some pounds of girl in your arms, it kinda slows you down.
We’re almost to the door, though. Kenzie’s already through. Just a couple more steps. Couple more, c’mon. We can do it.
But as I get closer, I see they only have one of the door panels open. There’s no way I can get through with Dallas in my arms. I drop her to the ground and swing her around, sending her flying through the door. Kenzie and the Hipster grab her.
I’m about to follow, but my curiosity gets the better of me. I look behind me.
That’s a mistake.
Clinging to the side of the train is giant, segmented bug. I can’t see its whole body because it snakes onto the roof, but what I do see is more than twelve feet long and at least three across. Each link in its body is flanged on the sides, bulging in the center, with a pair of triple-jointed legs growing from each join. Its eyes glitter like a geode, and a pair of pincers the size of my arms project in front of its maw.
Jesus fucking Christ!
The thing rushes towards me, its legs moving in smooth waves.
I jump into the car.
A man and woman crouched next to the door slide it shut, and then a third pulls up the emergency lever, securing it in place.
The train lurches. The ambient light dims as the creature passes across the windows.
“Holy hell,” somebody says.
“Shhh,” the woman at the door says.
The thing slows. Its head twists back and forth, looking for where we disappeared to. The man and woman plaster themselves against the wall and the rest of us go stock still as the thing peers inside with shining, violet eyes.
How well can it see? Does it have night vision? Can it see detail, or just spot movement?
It taps the glass with its pincers. They have three finger-like extensions on the ends. It uses them to feel for the seam between door halves. How much dexterity does it have? Are those fingers just for pulling food into its maw, or can they pry as well?
The creature stays at the door for what seems like forever. If it has that much curiosity, is it intelligent in some way? Even if it’s only as smart as a cat, that would be serious trouble.
But after several long minutes, it finally gives up, scurries away.
We wait to be sure it’s gone, and then everyone starts breathing again.
“What was that?” Dallas says.
“Millipede, looked like,” the hipster guy says.
“Nah, millipedes are nice guys. That was a centipede,” someone down the car says. “They’re nasty bastards.”
“Can’t be,” a woman replies. “Arthropods don’t get that big. Square-cube law.”
“Whatever it is,” the Hipster says, “we don’t wanna tangle with it.” He looks from me to Dallas to Kenzie. “You’re not from this train?”
“No, we were on the Orange Line,” Kenzie says.
“That explains it,” the Hipster says.
“Explains what?” Dallas says. She sits down on a bench and takes her shoe off, examines the broken thong.
The woman by the door is peering outside. “If you were on this train, you’d know that thing by now.” She’s an older woman, mid-forties at least, with weathered brown skin under a tank-top. Her hair’s pulled back under a bandanna.
“I thought you might’ve been hiding in one of the other cars, but guess not,” the Hipster says.
“We didn’t see anyone in the rest of the train,” Kenzie says. “We figured everyone had split.”
“We tried to.” This from the guy who’s standing by the door. He’s about my age, with his hair done up in cornrows, and dressed in a blue button-down shirt with a yellow tie. “We was about half unloaded when that bastard appeared.”
“Do we want to know what happened?” Dallas says. She’s pulled a barrette from her hair and uses that to repair her shoe.
“Take a look out the back door,” the woman in the bandanna says.
I don’t think I wanna, but I step towards the rear of the train. Kenzie moves to follow, but Dallas stays seated.
Outside on the tracks, there are bodies everywhere. They look like toys that were thrown in their air and left where they fell. Some of them are intact, but others are in pieces. The tunnel walls are spattered with blood, drips and drabs in places, a thick, solid coat in others.
And in the center of it all, there’s the creature. It’s curled around itself, like a cat napping in a pile of blankets, but it’s not asleep. It’s mouth-end is gnawing on… on… oh, I think I’m gonna be sick. The beast has a human leg sticking from its maw, its mandibles holding it in place and slowly easing it down its throat.
“What the hell is that?” Kenzie says. “Where did it come from? Jesus fuck.”
Those are very good questions, and I haven’t clue one for an answer. The thing sure looks like a centipede, but there’s never been a centipede that big on Earth.
“Keep your voice down,” the woman in the bandanna says. “The thing can hear.”
We back away from the window.
“We’ve gotta tell the others,” Kenzie says.
“What others?” Hipster says.
“The other people on our train,” Kenzie says.
“You aren’t alone?” Bandanna says.
“We got ahead of our group. They stopped to examine this kinda hole in the…” I trail off.
“What is it?” the Hipster says.
“About maybe halfway between our train and here, we found a hole in the wall, like something had burst into the tunnel from outside.”
Hipster blinks several times fast. “Like Shai-Hulud or something?”
I don’t know what that is, but I nod anyways. “Yeah, something like that.”
The Hipster turns his head towards the back of the train. “You don’t think it was that thing, do you?”
Shrug. “Well, it came from somewhere, right?”
“Sure as hell not from around here,” Bandanna says.
“Anyway, we’ve gotta tell the others,” Kenzie say. “If they get caught out there….”
Yeah, but shit, I don’t wanna go out there. Not with that thing outside. I mean, I don’t want anyone to get eaten, no way, but that especially goes for myself. As long as we’re on the train, we should be safe—we’re high enough that the river’s not gonna drown us if the tunnel busts, so all we gotta do is wait for rescue to arrive. It has to get here sometime. They can bring in police, or, okay, maybe National Guard would be more appropriate, but let professionals with guns deal with it. We can sit here for a few hours until everything’s safe.
“I think we should stay here,” Dallas says.
She’s voicing the sentiment of the entire car. Nobody wants to go outside. They all stare at their feet rather than meet Kenzie’s eyes as she looks around the train.
Her eyes lock on Dallas. “What about the people who helped carry you?”
“Yeah, that was great of them. But that was when we thought the tunnel was empty. If they knew there was a freakin’ monster out there, you think they’d’ve volunteered? Hell no. They’d’ve hightailed it straight outta here.”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a nice sentiment,” the Hipster says, “but, uh, you go outside and you’re gonna get eaten.”
“And what about the others?” Kenzie says. “They can get eaten, no problem?”
The Hipster thrusts his hands in his pockets and shuffles his feet. “Yeah. I mean, we can’t make the whole world our problem. We gotta worry about us.”
Kenzie shakes her head. “Fine then, we can do it without your help.”
Wait, we? What’s this we stuff? Who’s we?
She looks at me. Her eyes have this look in them like she knows I’m on her side, of course I’m gonna come. Where did she get that idea? I think she’s crazy if she wants to go outside. There’s no way I’m going.
“C’mon.” She flips a finger for me to come with her.
If I tell her no, she’s gonna nail me with that same disdainful look she gave Dallas and the Hipster. She’s gonna decide I’m another one of these loser cowards, completely not worth her time to talk to. Which, to be fair, I totally am.
But when I imagine the look she’s gonna give me, I’m too much of a coward to face that, either.
“Sure,” I say, and I step towards the front of the car.
Oh my God, what am I doing? Am I crazy? Yeah, definitely crazy. Completely. Fucking. Nuts.
But now that I’m moving, I can’t back out. That’d be even worse than telling her no from the beginning. So I keep moving, one foot in front of the other, towards the door at the front of the car.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m gonna get killed, and for what? Because I don’t wanna embarrass myself in front of a cute girl? How can I be that much of a moron?
“Hey, I’ll come too.” It’s the woman in the bandanna.
The guy with cornrows is at her shoulder. “Yeah, me too.”
In a movie, this would be the moment the damn bursts. The Hipster would be next up. He’d probably say something about how completely fucking ridiculous this plan is, and then agree to come anyway, because, hey, why not, and then everyone in the train would join in.
But this isn’t a movie. Nobody agrees to come with us but those two.
Well, it’s better than nothing. And the more of us there are, the better our chances of someone getting away if the beast comes after us.
It doesn’t seem to’ve made a difference to the bodies outside. Only a small fraction of them had made it back onto the train. But then, they’d had no idea the monster was coming. We know it’s out there, we can be on our guard.
Yeah, if I keep thinking that, I might start to believe it.
We’re almost to the front of the car when I catch a familiar face from the corner of my eye. Not somebody I know, but somebody I see all the time in the cafeteria at work. She’s from the Natural History Museum—the actual museum, not the gift shop.
Our eyes connect for a second, but I don’t think she recognizes me. But hey, I’m not that memorable. I’m just some flunky from the gift shop, not worth paying attention to, especially if she’s an actual scientist. I recognize her because she’s cute and near my age, but there’s no reason for her to return the favor.
Kenzie grabs the handle on the inter-train door and tries to open it, but after a couple yanks, the latch doesn’t budge. I step up and give her a hand. Between the two of us, we get the latch open.
Thankfully the door on the other side is easier to deal with, and we’re able to file through quickly, closing the doors behind us, just in case that beast can squeeze between cars.
This car is deserted completely. A copy of the City Paper on an empty seat is the only sign of human occupation.
“I’m pretty sure everyone still alive,” Bandanna says, “is in the last car.”
There’d only been a few dozen people back there. Assuming this train had been as crowded as ours… that’s a lot of dead people.
“Do you think anyone escaped down the tunnel?” Kenzie asks.
The woman shakes her head. “Maybe somebody managed, but when that monster first appeared, it charged right past us before turning around and trapping us.”
“It’s not just its mouth,” Cornrow says, “the thing’s got barbs on its legs, I think they must be poison. It was knockin’ people over, and I didn’t see any of ‘em get up again.”
We reach the end of the car and I pull open the door latches. We pour into the next car and Cornrow seals the doors behind us.
“What I wanna know,” he says once the car’s closed, “is where something like that comes from?”
“It’s an alien,” Bandanna says.
“Yeah, a twenty foot long centipede crawling around in train tunnels is ridiculous. But here we are.”
“Alien sounds right,” Kenzie says.
“Yeah. I mean, who’s ever heard of anything like that on Earth?” I say.
Cornrow shakes his head. “Could be a government experiment. They do that stuff at the National Zoo, you know. Genetic engineering for the military.”
I don’t think that’s true, but I’m not going to argue it. I start down the car.
“If it is an alien, you think it has anything to do with the earthquake?” Kenzie says.
“Be a weird coincidence if it didn’t,” Bandanna says.
“Could’ve escaped from the zoo during the quake.”
“Zoo’s on the Red Line, and besides, the thing came from the other direction,” Bandanna says.
“Okay, but if it is aliens,” Kenzie says, “what does that mean? What’s going on up above?”
We all stop.
This whole time, I’ve been assuming our problem is local—something wrong with this particular line, or maybe—maybe—the whole Metro system. But if there are aliens, and they’re dropping giant centipedes on us, what’s going on topside? I’d figured we’d get up there, there might be a little structural damage, but nothing major. What if it’s Independence Day, though?
That also means there might not be anyone available for rescue attempts. We could be stuck down here a while.
“I’m tellin’ you, that’s nonsense,” Cornrow insists. “There ain’t no Darth Vader or Mr. Spock, none of that shit.”
“How can you be so sure?” Kenzie says.
“The Bible. God didn’t create no other worlds. We’re the center of creation.”
“Well, believe what you wanna believe,” Bandanna says, “I say it’s aliens.”
We move through the next couple cars in silence. We’ve got the process of opening and closing the doors down to a science, and it looks like we’re gonna make it all the way to the end with no trouble, when--
“Errrnk.” I tug the latch to the last car, but it won’t budge. The metal on the underside of the handle is biting into my fingers to the point that I have to stop and massage them. There’s no blood, but the skin is red and raw.
“Lemme have a try,” Cornrow says. He squats down and grabs the handle, pulls it with all his weight.
The latch moves halfway to open, but when it does, the handle screams.
“Oh shit,” Bandanna says.
We hold quiet for a moment. Did the beast hear?
Seconds tick by. Five. Ten. Twenty.
Cornrow gives the latch another tug, manages to move it another half inch.
“Did you feel that?” Kenzie says.
“Feel what?” Bandanna says.
I shake my head.
But then I do. The train’s vibrating.
Tudh-tudh-tudh-tudh. Something’s beating a steady rhythm on the roof. It sounds a couple cars back, but it’s drawing closer.
“Got it!” Cornrow says as the latch gives way. The door to the last car swings inward. “C’mon!” He jumps up and starts through, but Bandanna catches him.
“No, stay back.” She grabs the door to our car and slams it shut.
“What’re you doing? We could get across,” Cornrow says. He’s right. The beast is coming on fast, but even so, we have plenty of time to get into the next car and seal the door.
“And then what? We’re stuck inside with that thing crawling around.” Bandanna says.
“So? Now we’re stuck in this one.” Cornrow says. “Same diff, but we’re further from where we wanna be.”
“Uh-uh,” Bandanna says. “I’ve got an idea.”
Our car shakes. The beast is on top of us, its hundreds of legs beating on the roof. We can follow its movements even without seeing it.
This is what I was afraid of. We’re gonna die in here. Why the hell did I agree to come along? Did I think I was going to impress Kenzie with a show of bravery? Ha-ha-ha, yeah, that’s a good one.
The beast’s head slides into the gap between cars. It’s eyes are facing away from us, but it’s mandibles grope around. They home in on the window in the door and start pounding. There’s not enough room for the mandibles to make a big swing, but they still have enough power behind them that a crack appears in the glass. A second swing, the crack expands. New fractures appear.
It raises the mandible one more time.
I grab Kenzie and pull her behind a seat. I crouch over her.
The window shatters. The seat back shields us from most of the shrapnel, but some of it bounces onto my back.
The beast screams.
What do I do? Do I keep cowering back here and hope the thing can’t get in through the tiny window, or should I move, try to get away?
“It’s okay,” Bandanna says.
I look up. The creature has the tip of its head inside, but the window isn’t big enough to let any more of it through. As long as we stay out of reach of the mandibles, we’re safe.
For the moment.
There are two other windows at the end of the car, both of them much larger. Big enough for the thing to crawl through. Not to mention the ones on the side of the train. In the long run, we’re screwed.
Bandanna has a gash across her cheek. She wipes away the blood, but only manages to smear it.
“Jamal,” she says to Cornrow, “I want you to go to the other end of the car. Make some noise.”
He considers for a second and does as he’s told.
“Don’t open the door,” Bandanna calls after him. “Just pound on it or something.”
The beast can’t see us through the window—its eyes are blocked by the door—but it can hear, and it gets more frantic at the sound of voices. One mandible latches onto a pole, tugs it hard enough to bend it, but it must realize it’s not something edible and lets go.
Jamal kicks the far door. He bangs on the glass.
The beast withdraws its head. It holds for a second, listening, then scampers across the roof.
“Okay, go,” Bandanna says. She dashes forward and grabs the door. “Jamal, keep it busy.”
I jump to my feet and follow Bandanna. Bits of glass crunch under my feet. I look behind and make sure Kenzie’s with me.
Jamal hadn’t had time to re-latch the door to the next car, so once Bandanna has our side open, we get across no problem. I close the door behind us, being careful not to slam it.
“Oh my God,” Kenzie breathes. “That was intense.”
Bandanna grabs the hem of her shirt and wipes the blood off her face. More’s trickling out, but at least she doesn’t look like she stepped out of The Walking Dead now. “Hopefully that’s all the intensity we’re due today.”
Her lips to God’s ear.
“Let’s roll,” she says. “No telling how long Jamal can keep that thing interested.”
We head up to the front of the train. The driver’s box is open. I duck inside and peer through the front window, the part of it that isn’t shattered. The emergency lights barely give off enough glow to make out the tracks. The tunnel looks deserted. Are the others still back gawking at the hole?
In the distance, where perspective makes the lights run together, there’s movement. I can’t make out details, but I don’t think it’s another one of those monsters.
I step back to the passenger compartment. Bandanna has the cover off the emergency door release.
“I’ll pull it on three,” she says, “then you two pull the door open.”
“Sure,” Kenzie says.
“One… two… three.”
Bandanna pulls the handle. Something in the wall thunks and the rubber seals between the doors relax. I grab one side and pull. The door moves stiffly, stops halfway open. I dig my fingers into the seal and I’m about to yank it when Bandanna puts a hand on my forearm. She shakes her head and touches her lip with her index finger. She points to Kenzie, who has her side about three-quarters open. There’s enough of a gap for us to get out.
We step through to the emergency walkway, Bandanna in the lead, myself in the rear. I cast a glance behind me to make sure the beast isn’t gonna appear. Looks like we’re safe for the moment.
Bandanna sets a fast pace—not quite jogging, but a brisk, brisk walk. We need to intercept the others as far out as possible, that way any conversation we have will be unlikely to attract the beast. Who knows how good the thing’s hearing is.
Bandanna and Kenzie pull ahead of me and I struggle to keep pace. I’m not out of shape by any stretch—when I go to work, I have to walk a mile to catch the bus to Vienna and back again. But unless I’m running late, that’s a leisurely stroll. Hurrying is another matter. I’m not used to it.
Bandanna isn’t paying any attention. Why should she? It’s like that old story about the guys on safari, they’re camping out one night when they’re woken by the roar of a lion near camp. One of them immediately gets up and starts putting on his shoes.
“What’re you doing?” the other guy says, “You can’t outrun a lion.”
The first guy smiles and goes, “I don’t have to outrun the lion.”
Predators aren’t killing machines. They’re eating machines. They catch lunch, they’re satisfied. There’s no need to kill every zebra in a herd; the slowest will do. If Bandanna leaves me in the dust, her chances of survival go up.
But this thing isn’t behaving like a predator, not really. Look at how many people it had killed back at the train. Sure, it was munching on some of them, but unless it has an appetite big enough for King Kong, it’s not going to get through all of them before they start rotting.
Though I suppose it might not mind rotting flesh.
Still, its behavior doesn’t strike me as that of a predator. Only in sci-fi movies are predators ever that kill-happy.
But the fact remains, it did kill a train load of people. Why? That sort of viciousness could be a sign of malevolent intelligence. Its mandibles look like they could use tools. If it is an alien…
But if it were an alien intelligence, wouldn’t it have brought tools with it. Why smash through a window if it has ray-guns?
And besides, other parts of it behavior seem more instinctual. It chased after sounds the way my cat does, when an intelligent being would’ve kept focus in one place.
I can’t help but think we’re missing something here.
“Hey!” Mr. Take Charge calls out.
We’re close enough to his group to make out the shadowy line of people behind him, though not close enough to see faces yet.
He lifts his hands over his head and waves them back and forth. “Up here.”
They’re still walking on the tracks. Probably figured that climbing back onto the walkway was too much trouble, third rail be damned.
Bandanna jumps off the walkway without slowing and lands in a crouch. She jumps up and waves her own hands in front of her in a shushing gesture.
“Shh! Quiet,” she hisses.
Mr. Take Charge halts about twenty feet ahead of her, which in this darkness is the furthest we can see clearly. The rest of his column takes their time in stopping, and they end up bunching up around him.
Kenzie and I lower ourselves onto the track.
When Mr. Take Charge catches sight of us, he grimaces. “Where’ve you two been? What happened to the other girl?” He’s speaking in his normal tone of voice, which is loud and booming.
“I said quiet,” Bandanna tells him.
Mr. Take Charge glances at her for half a second, then back to us. “We were worried, thought something happened to you.” He’s a little softer now, but still too loud for comfort.
“We went on ahead,” Kenzie says, keeping her voice low.
“You should’ve said something.”
“We didn’t think it was a big deal. There’s only one way we could go. And it’s not like you’re in charge or anything official like that.”
That’s not the thing to tell Mr. Take Charge. “Somebody has to keep things together.”
“What part of quiet do you not understand?” Bandanna says.
Mr. Take Charge focuses on her. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes, there’s a huge problem, and if you keep talking like that, the problem is going to notice us and come over here.”
That gives him pause—only maybe half a second’s worth, but it’s noticeable. “What’re you talking about?”
“There’s a—” Kenzie starts, then hesitates before finishing, “—a monster up ahead.”
The reaction from the crowd is more confused than concerned.
“Excuse me, a what?” the annoying old guy says.
“We don’t know what it is,” Bandanna says. “But it’s big, and it killed half the people on my train.”
“Killed” is the magic word.
“Oh my God.”
“Who’s been killed?”
“Who’re these guys?”
“What did she say?”
“There’s another train?”
“Somebody got killed?”
“Christ, do you people not know what ‘quiet’ means?” Bandanna says.
Mr. Take Charge turns back to the group. “Hold it down. Hold it down, please.”
The chatter subsides.
“Now, what, exactly, do you mean by ‘monster’?”
“Twenty feet long, about a hundred legs, it eats people,” Bandanna says. “Monster.”
“It eats people?” Mr. Take Charge says. He looks over to me. “What’s she talking about?”
“What she said is exactly it. Like a giant centipede, and it eats people.”
“Okay.” He doesn’t believe us, but, “Let’s go take a look.”
“We need to get up on the walkway,” Bandanna says.
Mr. Take Charge looks to me again.
“Yeah, we need to be up there to get on the train, and better to do it here than down there with the monster around.”
He keeps staring at me for another moment, like he expects me to crack a smile and tell him, “Nah, we’re fucking with you man. Course there’s no monster.” When I don’t, he tells the group, “Okay everyone, back up on the walkway.
A groan goes through the group. Bandanna checks behind us again, makes sure the monster hasn’t heard.
Everyone starts climbing onto the walkway. Some manage it on their own, but most need help getting up. I assist a middle aged woman, crouching down and letting her use my back as a stool. While I’m doing that, Kenzie goes to the woman with the baby and helps her while Sarah holds the kid. Mrs. Schorr helps the woman’s two daughters up.
“Can you give me a hand with this?” Mr. Schorr asks. He sets his backpack on the tracks. “Didn’t have any trouble lugging this around DC, but I tell you, carrying it up that slope took the wind right out of me.”
“You need to be careful, Dan,” his wife says.
“I’ll be fine. Not a problem.”
I help his eldest son—Sam I think his name was—get Mr. Schorr onto the walkway, then we lift the backpack up to him.
“You really should let someone else carry it,” Mrs. Schorr says as he pulls the straps over his shoulder.
“I’ve got it, don’t worry about it.” He waves her off.
Me and Sam help her onto the walkway, then Sam scrambles up after them.
Me and Kenzie are all that’s left on the track. Bandanna’s all the way down at the front of the line, taking a spot in front of even Mr. Take Charge. He doesn’t look pleased.
There aren’t any gaps in the line, so me and Kenzie end up taking spots at the rear, behind the homeless guy. He walks with a stumbling stoop, and I half expect him to take a tumble after a couple steps, but he manages to remain upright.
“… the beast coming out of the sea… the beast coming out of the sea…” he mutters incessantly. “The beast, the beast, the seven crowned beast… and his number is six hundred three score and six.” He stops abruptly and turns. “What is the beast you saw? How many heads had it?” He’s clutching a wooden crucifix in his fist.
Kenzie takes a step back, either in surprise or from the rotten stench of his breath, and bumps into me. I put an hand on her shoulder to keep my balance. “Just the one,” she says.
“Mmm. Just one. Then he’s not the beast of Revelation. That’s good. That’s good.”
“Okay dude, yeah.” Kenzie says. “We should keep going. And be quiet.” She puts a finger to her lips. “Don’t want the demons to hear.”
The man smiles, revealing a mouth full of brown and yellow teeth. “Heh-heh-heh. Even though you dress like that, you understand.” He digs in his pocket and pulls something. “Take this. It is a holy book. It can protect you.” He grabs Kenzie by the wrist and pushes a small pamphlet into her hands. It’s called “The Last Generation” and has a drawing of a guy looks like a super villain on the cover.
She pulls her arm back, gently but forcibly so as not to provoke the guy further. “Yeah. Thank you.”
“Heh-heh-heh. The end times are upon us. Soon we will know the power and the glory.” His eyes beam.
He turns and resumes walking.
We wait a moment, let him get a ways ahead before following.
“You meet all kinds,” Kenzie whispers.
The walk back to the train takes far longer than the journey out, and as we draw nearer, I brace myself. Bandanna had said when the monster first appeared, it had raced past everyone and blocked the tunnel. If it pops up now, we’ll have to turn and run right away if we’re to have any chance of getting away. I’m half tempted to go now. But if there’s one beast loose down here, why not two or three? Though if that’s the case, we’re probably dead no matter what we do.
Pray it’s a lone monster. We might have a chance.
The train’s in sight ahead. Last time we’d approached without even glancing at the roof, but this time that’s all my eyes focus on. There’s not much to see, just a shadowy crevice. It looks empty, but…
My palms are sweating. My heart’s banging out a wild beat. If the beast is lying in wait, this is when it’ll jump out.
The seconds slip by, tick-tock, tick-tock.
We get closer and closer.
The front of the line reaches the train and we slow to a halt. Up ahead, Bandanna steps inside, then Mr. Take Charge. The rest file after them.
Maybe we can relax. We’re almost to safety and the beast hasn’t put in an appearance.
But then, what’s going to happen next? Once we get on board, we’ve got nowhere to go, not with the beast still out here. The train only represents relative safety. We still need a way out of the tunnel, and how’re we gonna manage that? We’ve been down here long enough that if rescue hasn’t shown up by now, it’s not going to.
Maybe we should’ve kept walking towards Rosslyn after all.
Ah, who knows? I’m tired. I don’t wanna think right now.
Most of the crowd is on the train by now. There are only a few people between us and the door. If the beast hasn’t attacked yet, it’s probably not gonna.
Provided we don’t do anything to attract its attention.
The last couple people step through the door. The homeless guy hesitates on the threshold, like he actually prefers the tunnel, but he finally steps inside. Kenzie and I follow.
“That everyone?” Bandanna says.
“Yeah.” Thumbs up.
She pushes one door shut, and Mr. Schorr’s eldest son gets the other one. She pulls the emergency handle to lock the doors in place.
Some people have decided to take a break and grab seats, but Bandanna claps her hands—not loudly, but enough to get attention. “Hey, hey! No time for rest.”
Mr. Take Charge glowers at her. “I thought you said we hadda get on the train.”
“Yeah, and my peeps are at the other end. Don’t worry, it’s not much farther.”
People struggle back to their feet. The journey may not’ve been that far, but most of the people here are tourists or protesters, they’ve spent the day schlepping around DC in the August heat. They’re exhausted.
“Hey, you.” Bandanna snaps her fingers at me.
Her eyebrows quirk.
“My name. River.”
“Yeah, River. Could you handle the doors again? Get them open, make sure they close and latch behind us.”
Do I have to? I remember what happened on our way out. Last thing I want is to get caught between cars struggling with recalcitrant latches. Good way to get killed. “Sure,” I say. I don’t know why.
I follow her to the end of the car. We wait for everyone to gather round and I pull the latch. This is the one that gave us trouble last time, but from the inside it opens, no problem.
I sigh with relief and step into the gap between cars, open the next door, the one with the shattered window.
When I get inside the second car, there’s Jamal waiting for us. He’s sprawled out on a side-facing bench. “Thank God you guys are back.”
“Where’s the beast?” Bandanna says as she comes inside.
“I dunno. It lost interest after a few minutes, scampered off somewhere. That way I think.” He waves towards the back of the train.
Hopefully it’s chowing down on leftovers—it’s a horrible thought, I know, but as long as it’s stuffing its maw, it’s not here.
More people pour into the car—Mr. Take Charge, the Schorrs, the woman with all the kids, I count them off. We’re twenty-seven strong including Jamal and Bandanna. Twenty-eight if I count myself.
Once I’m sure everyone’s out of the previous car, I pull the door shut. It creaks and won’t fit into the frame. Shit.
“Leave it,” Bandanna tells me.
Not gonna argue. I shut the door to this car—it closes and latches like it’s oiled with butter.
“What happened to the window?” somebody asks. “Why’s there glass everywhere.”
“Toldja. Monster,” Bandanna says. “C’mon.”
We get through the next two cars without incident. Only one more to go before we’re back to Dallas and Hipster and the others.
So of course, that’s when everything goes to shit.
To Be Continued...
“Back up! Everyone, now!” the station manager shouts.
“What’s going on?”
“C’mon, let us out!”
“Listen to the man,” I say. “You can’t get out up there.”
The burning engine is roaring behind me, though the way the escalator shaft is shaped, you have to be standing right there to hear it. The flames are also sucking air upwards. It’s not a strong updraft, but I can feel the air flowing around me. Good thing this isn’t a closed space, or we’d be suffocating right quick.
“What’s wrong?” a woman asks. She’s about my age, in a business suit that’s coated with dust.
“Looks like a plane crashed right on top of us. The entrance is blocked,” I say.
“Oh, fun,” says a man in a polo shirt and khakis.
“Isn’t there an elevator around here?” another man says. This guy’s with his whole family, tourists probably.
“Power’s out,” the manager says.
“Whaddaya mean power’s out?” a young guy says. “Light’s are still on.”
“Backups,” the manager says. “We’ve got about eight hours of battery.”
“So what’re we gonna do?” the woman in the business suit says.
The station master looks up the shaft. He blows out through his mouth. “I think we needa evacuate.”
“How do we do that?” the young guy says. “Is there an emergency exit?”
“Tunnels,” the guy in the polo shirt says.
“Yeah,” the manager says. “There are emergency walkways. They’re meant for people on trains to get to the next station, but they work the other way, too.”
“We’re gonna miss our flight,” the tourist guy says.
“Don’t worry,” Polo Shirt says, “if there’s a plane crash, there are gonna be delays. C’mon.”
We turn as a group and head into the station. When we get through the fare gates, we see the woman who’d been beaned by the falling concrete earlier. She’s sprawled on the floor like she’s taking a nap, except the side of her face is painted with blood. The guy who’d stopped to help her is kneeling beside her, his head cupped in his hands. He hears us and looks up.
“What the fuck?” he says.
“What happened here?” the station manager says.
“Part of the ceiling fell in,” Polo Shirt explains. “She took it on the head.”
“And you guys, you just pushed past her, not even bothering to stop, see if she’s okay.”
“Hey man,” Micah says, “it was pandemonium. We were panicked. Situation like that, you do what you gotta do to survive.”
“Yeah?” the guy on the floor says.
Nobody says anything for a moment, then a teenage girl with a teddy bear backpack says, “Is she …?”
“She’s dead,” the guy says. “I’m pretty sure. We should get an ambulance just in case. You’ve called 911?”
“We can’t get out,” Polo Shirt says and explains the problem.
“Great.” The guys stands up, brushes himself off. “Well come on then, let’s get the hell outta here.”
As we move to the escalator, I put an arm around Ali. “You okay?”
“No. I’m terrified.” She looks it. It’s like when we’d tried pot, back when we were first going out. Weed’s supposed to make you mellow, and back then Ali really needed some mellow, so we decided to give it a shot. Didn’t work. It made her paranoid. We’d been in our apartment with a couple friends, and Ali had freaked the fuck out, convinced the cops were going to bust in and arrest us. We’d had to hold her down and stuff a washcloth in her mouth to keep her from shouting so loud that one of our neighbors would’ve called the police. That was before she started her medication.
“Nothing to worry about.” I give her a squeeze. I’m still pissed at her, don’t think I’m not, but a freak-out is the last thing I want right now.
We file down the escalators. There are few enough of us that we don’t end up crowded. Ali and I have one almost to ourselves, just the station manager a few steps ahead of us, and the woman in the business suit behind. Micah’s on the next one over. We look at each other, nod, but don’t say anything. Good. He’s gonna respect our space.
At the bottom, there’s a guy still on the platform. He’s sitting on a bench, reading a novel in the dim light. I’d thought everyone had gone upstairs after the explosion, but apparently not. He has a bicycle parked next to him.
“Uh, excuse me. Sir?” the manager says.
The guy looks up. He’s got a salt-and-pepper beard, short cropped. Just thick enough to give his cheeks texture. “When will the train get here?”
Nobody says anything.
“It was supposed to be here three minutes ago.”
“I don’t think it’s coming,” Polo Shirt says. “Didn’t you feel the earthquake?”
“A properly functioning subway system should be impervious natural phenomenon.” Is this guy for real? His expression doesn’t look like he’s trying to make a joke.
“Yeah, this is Metro,” Polo Shirt says.
“They charge enough. They shouldn’t have service interruptions.”
“Well. They do. They’re having one right now.”
“Mmm. So when will service be restored?”
“We’re not sure, but there are some problems above ground,” the manager says. “We’re going to evacuate through the tunnel.”
“We shouldn’t have to evacuate. The Metro should restore service, or provide us a bus for transport to a functional station.”
“Well, be that as it may,” the manager says, “that’s the situation we’re in.”
“Will I be charged for my ticket if I have to walk to another station?”
“No ... we’ll let you out for free.” The manager looks to the rest of us, like, This guy’s nuts, isn’t he? It’s not my imagination?
“But my ticket was already processed through the turnstile. Even if I leave through the same gate, I’ll be charged a minimum fee.”
“We’ll reimburse you.”
“I still don’t think this is fair. I will be writing to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to complain.”
“You do that, man,” Polo Shirt says.
“Okay. I will go.” The man stands up and grabs his bike. He raises the kickstand.
“You can’t take that,” the manager says.
“But it is my bike.”
“I understand that, but the emergency evacuation platform isn’t big enough.”
“But if I leave my bike here, how can I be sure it will be returned safely? I need this to get to work and to go grocery shopping.”
Jesus! What is this guy’s issue?
“Look,” I say, “if the power’s out, that means the third rail’s off, there aren’t any trains moving, right?”
“Yeah,” the manager says. “There might be a static charge, I dunno, but should be safe, I think.”
“So why don’t we let the guy take his bike on the tracks if that’s what he wants?”
There’s a murmur of agreement from the rest of our group. Nobody wants to be stuck here arguing with the guy.
“Okay, yeah,” the manager says. “Do you need help getting the bike down?”
“It is my bike. I will move it.”
“Okay, dude, you be you,” Polo Shirt says. “Now, which way do we go?”
“The next stations are about the same distance from here,” the manager says, “but Reagan National is above ground. We’re only a couple blocks from where the tunnel comes to the surface.”
“That’s my vote,” the woman in the business suit says.
“Good by me,” the young man says.
“That’s where we were headed anyway,” the tourist guy says. “Though I don’t suppose we’ll be taking our luggage.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Micah says.
“Yeah.” The sooner Ali gets some fresh air, the better.
“I need to go the other way,” the guy with the bike says. He’s managed to get onto the trackbed and is wrestling his bike down. “I live in that direction.”
“We’ll call you a cab,” Polo Shirt says.
“A cab might not have room for my bike.”
“Go whatever way you want, man,” Micah says. “Nobody gives a shit.”
Nobody had wanted to be the asshole to say that, but now that it’s said, everyone nods agreement. Even they guy who’d stopped to help the dead woman.
The bicyclist considers. “I will go with you. Never split the group is the number one rule in situations like this.”
“So we’re all agreed?” the manager says. “Let’s roll out, then.”
We head into the tunnel. At first, the bicyclist is the only one on the trackbed, but once we get a look at how narrow the walkway is, people start climbing down. The station manager tries to stop them at first, but he gives up once it’s clear nobody’s gonna listen. He gave one person permission, so nobody sees a reason not to.
But once the walkway clears, it isn’t so bad. So I figure, why get off? The woman in the suit is the same way, and the station manager doesn’t want to give into the demands of the crowd.
I put a hand on Ali’s shoulder. “You doing o—” I don’t get the sentence out. She jumps when I touch her, nearly falls off the walkway. I catch her by the waist.
“Jesus, don’t do that!” She says it loud enough that Polo Shirt looks up at us.
“Sorry. I just wanted to see if you’re doing okay.”
“I’m not a baby, you know.”
“As long as I can get out of here fast, I’ll be fine. Okay?”
We haven’t traveled far when the literal light at the end of the tunnel appears. The closer we get to it, the fresher the air tastes, though it’s also getting hotter as we go. More humid, too.
Micah’s the first one to reach the mouth, then the other young guy, but they only step out a few feet before turning around and coming back in. The light outside is too intense to see what’s wrong.
“The track’s blocked,” the young guy says.
“Is the tunnel collapsed?” the station manager says.
Oh please, no. I don’t wanna have to backtrack.
“No, not that,” Micah says. “There’s a car, an SUV in the way.”
“What?” Polo Shirt says.
“There’s an overpass,” the young guy says, “just outside the tunnel, looks like the car flew off it, straight through the guardrail.”
“What the hell?” the woman in the business suit says.
“What about a rescue crew?” Polo Shirt says. “Are they out there.”
Micah and the other guy trade looks.
“Didn’t look like it.”
“I’ll go check.” Micah turns back.
The rest of us hurry towards the entrance, and those of us on the walkway climb down to the trackbed.
“There’s nobody out here,” Micah says.
“What about people in the car?” Business Suit says.
“I can’t tell. The way it fell, it’s on its side, its wheels towards us.”
“I dunno,” the manager says, “maybe the rescue crew has already gotten people out and they’re waiting for heavy equipment to move the car?”
“Maybe,” Polo Shirt says. “Let’s check it out.” He looks around our group. “You two, you and you.” He points to Micah and the other young guy, me, and a teenager I think’s with the tourist family. I don’t know who put him in charge, but his choices make sense so there’s no reason not to go along with him.
“Okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” I kiss Ali on the cheek. She scowls but doesn’t say anything.
The tunnel comes out on the slope of a hill, and there’s a retaining wall on one side to keep soil from spilling onto the track. A crack bisects the wall, and given the way it bulges out, I dunno how much longer it’s gonna be retaining anything. To our other side is a freestanding concrete wall that separates the tunnel we’re in from the one going the other way. That one at least is still solid.
We can’t see down the tracks thanks to the SUV, but the overpass—looks like an on-ramp if you wanna get technical—is deserted. No firetrucks, no ambulances, not even regular cars and trucks moving up there.
The SUV landed smack in the middle of the track, with its front end pancaked against the retaining wall. I doubt anyone survived that, but Polo Shirt insists we should check inside first.
“Here, get on my shoulders.” He crouches down and gestures for me to step up.
I do, grabbing the side of the SUV for balance.
“Careful,” he says. “We don’t wanna tip it”
“Yeah.” Like it’d be that easy.
He stands up and my view elevates.
Something is seriously wrong. The hillside is black. All the grass on it is burnt to a crisp. There are trees a little ways beyond the SUV, and they’re likewise burnt—there’s still smoke curling from their branches. It’s like a wildfire swept the area. Except we’re in the middle of a spaghetti bowl of roads. There shouldn’t be enough open space to sustain a fire. What the hell happened?
“Can you see into the car?” Polo Shirt says.
Yeah. That’s what I’m up here for. I lean forward, one hand on the retaining wall, but my vision’s all messed up from the sudden change in light, and I can’t see into the dark interior.
“Hang on.” I step off his shoulder and onto the door.
Yeah, I heard you the first time.
I grab onto the retaining wall and scramble over to the hillside. My hands come away black with ash when I stand up. My pants are a mess too. No time to worry about that, though. I rush down the hill until I’m low enough to jump onto the track bed, and then double back towards the tunnel.
I approach the SUV from its top side. The windshield is smashed almost opaque, but there’s a clear patch in the upper—well, it would be the upper left corner if the SUV were on its wheels, but the way it’s lying, it’s actually the lower left. I crouch on the tracks and peer inside, but I still can’t see anything. I take out my phone and activate the light, shine it through.
“Empty,” I call out.
“Empty?” Polo Shirt shouts back.
“I don’t see anyhing, dead or alive.”
But that’s not exactly true. There’s a thick sludge on the ground, looks to be oozing from the SUV. It has a nasty smell, like meat that’s gone bad. The toe of my shoe’s in it, and it acts like glue when I lift my foot, nearly sucking my shoe off.
“Okay, get back over here and we’ll push it over,” Polo Shirt says.
I climb back up the hill, and then lower myself over the retaining wall. Micah and the other young guy help me down.
“What’s that black gunk all over you?” the young guy says.
“This ...” How do I explain what I saw? I don’t even understand it myself. Honest to God, it looked like the end of the world out there, but I don’t wanna say that out loud. They’ll think I’m crazy. “There’s something wrong out there.”
“Wrong how?” Polo Shirt asks.
“I think it’s best we push this over and you can see for yourselves.”
They all look at each other.
“Okay. Might as well,” Polo Shirt says.
We line up along the SUV.
“Let’s go on three, okay?” Polo Shirt says.
We lean against the chassis and dig our feet in. I’m on the tracks, so I lock my heels against the ties.
“One ... two ... and three.”
We push. The vehicle tips maybe two degrees.
I remember in college, my friend Brian’s car had broken down while we were on our way to Virginia Beach. We were actually at a gas station when it happened, just finished filling up, and the engine wouldn’t start when he cranked it. There’d only been three of us, but we’d had no problem pushing it away from the pumps.
Of course, that had been a Honda Civic. And on its wheels. This SUV probably weighs three times as much. But still.
“C’mon, dig those feet in,” Polo Shirt says.
They are dug in! I push with all the power in my knees. My calves feel like they’re gonna explode.
We’ve got the SUV about fifteen degrees from vertical. The tires are a good eight inches off the ground. A little bit more. A little ... bit ... more!
“We need more help,” the young guys says.
“Nah, we got this,” Micah says.
The vehicle’s standing on the edge of its roof. All we gotta do is move its center of gravity another foot or so, and it’ll go over.
I’m leaning way in now. I lift my rearmost foot and bring it forward. There, I can put the weight on my other leg now.
The vehicle’s moving on its own. Gravity’s doing the work now.
“It’s good! It’s good!” Polo shirt says.
The car crashes onto its roof. A cloud of dirt flies up. We cough and step back towards the tunnel.
“Can we get through?” the woman in the business suit asks.
“Dunno,” Polo Shirt says.
When the air clears, the SUV ... well, it’s not totally blocking our way now. There’s a space between the rear fender and the tunnel divider that’s wide enough for a person to squeeze through if they turn sideways.
“Probably the best we can do,” I say.
“Yeah,” Micah says. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
Getting everyone past the SUV takes a while. While everyone’s lining up for their turn, I go and find Ali. She’s still in the tunnel, sitting on the track with her back to the wall. She keeps squeezing her hands into fists and then opening them.
“How you doing?”
I wanna ask, “Are you sure?” but I don’t wanna risk a blow up, so I let it go. Instead, “We can get out.”
“I heard.” She gets to her feet. She’s wobbly, but when I offer her an arm, she slaps it away. “I don’t need your help.”
“Sorry, I just ... whatever.” I go outside. She’ll be out eventually.
“What the hell happened out here?” the woman in the business suit asks. She’s on the other side of the SUV now, along with Micah, Polo Shirt and the tourist family. They’re standing far enough out to see the state of vegetation on the hillside, though i doubt they can tell how far the devastation spreads.
“I dunno,” Micah says, “but this don’t look like no earthquake to me.”
“This is really strange,” Polo Shirt says.
They all have their cell phones out, but they’re holding them the way you do when you’re searching for a decent signal and can’t find it.
“Hey man, c’mon, leave the bike already,” the young guy says.
The bicyclist is trying to get his bike around the SUV. He’s not having any luck—the handlebars are snagging on the grille.
“I need this bike for commuting to work.”
“Here.” I pick the bike up and lift it over the chassis. “You can grab it from the other side and get it down. Jesus.”
“Thank you, I most appreciate that.”
“Yeah. Uh-huh.” Weirdo.
The young guy goes next, then the teenage girl with the teddy bear backpack. She’s got a bit of a limp I notice, and she has a friend who’s helping her.
“You okay?” I ask.
“I fell when we were running up the escalators, twisted my ankle. I’ll be fine once we can sit down.” She’s skinny enough that she can get through the gap without turning sideways, though her friend’s on the pudgy side, and even sideways with her gut sucked in, her belly scrapes against the bumper.
That leaves me and Ali as the last to go through. I gesture for her to go ahead of me.
“I just wanna look at your ass, that’s all.”
She flashes a weak smile. It’s something. Hopefully if I can keep her happy, she won’t have another panic attack.
Once we’re over to the group, Polo Shirt says, “Looks like there’s a fence on either side of the rails. We can either try knocking it over—God knows how long that’ll take—or we keep going to the next station.”
“The station’s not that far,” the manager says. “I don’t think it’ll take more than half an hour to get there.”
“I dunno, half an hour in this heat, I’m gonna be exhausted,” Micah says.
“I already am,” the young guy says. His T-shirt’s soaked through.
“Knocking over the fence isn’t going to be easy, either,” Polo Shirt says. “I vote for the next station.”
There’s a general consensus that we should go on.
“You know, it’s funny though,” the woman in the business suit says. “If we’re that close to the airport, where are the planes?”
She’s right. They should be coming in for landings almost on top of us, but the sky’s clear.
“Maybe they had to shut the airport down from the quake,” the tourist man says. “Or the crash.”
“Could be,” Business Suit says, “but that doesn’t explain the grass. Or the lack of emergency equipment. Or our cell phones not working.”
“You don’t suppose we got nuked?” the young guy says.
“The mushroom cloud would still be visible,” Polo Shirt says.
“It’s aliens,” Ali says. Everyone laughs except me. I know she’s not joking. And honestly, it’s as good an explanation as anything.
“Well, only way we’ll ever find out is if we get moving,” Polo Shirt Says.
“Yup,” Micah says.
And so we start trudging down the tracks.
After a few steps, the chubby girl starts singing, “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” That draws stares and head shakes.
Her friend with the limp hangs her head. “Shut up, Nicole,” she mutters.
But not only doesn’t Nicole shut up, Ali joins in. Now it’s my turn to be mortified. I don’t know this person, swear to God. Just met her.
Though I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Ali’s always liked singing, and her therapist says it’s a good outlet for stress if she’s ever without her medication.
We pass under the highway ramp, and when we come out the other side, the control tower for National is visible. It’s intact. We’re still a good ways away, but I don’t see any activity around the airport, either in the air or on the ground, though we don’t have a good view of the roads yet.
That changes as the ground continues to slope down towards the Potomac while the rails remain on the same level, running atop an embankment. As we rise—or rather, as the grounds sinks—we can see down onto the roadways. They’re far too empty, even for a Sunday. I don’t see any vehicles at all.
No wait, there’s one up ahead, a sedan of some sort, a newish model. It’s run into a Jersey barrier at an on-ramp. Must’ve hit it at full speed, too, because the barrier cuts halfway through the front end.
“I’m getting a bad feeling about this,” Business Suit says.
“I hear ya,” Micah says. “It’s like, Denzel’s gonna come walkin’ down the road at any moment.”
“I prefer the one with Aragorn and the kid,” Business Suit says.
“Book was good, movie was shit.”
Ali and Nicole have finished with their song and switch to Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Favorite Things.” The tune is utterly out of place given the environment, though the incongruity is itself comforting. Makes it feel like we’re on a nice little stroll in the country, not walking through a wasteland.
The track curves slightly, and when we turn onto the straightaway, we see the embankment ends ahead and turns into a pair of bridges that pass over the roadways below. One of those bridges is clear, but a train’s derailed on the other. The front-most car is lying on the ground, and two more are dangling like sausage links, with the rest still on the tracks.
“Ouch,” the young guy says. “What the hell happened?”
“Good question,” Polo Shirt says.
There aren’t any rescue vehicles around. With the SUV, you could suppose that emergency services were busy elsewhere, dealing with the plane crash and other earthquake damage. But a train derailment—that’s major. The place should be crawling with ambulances and firetrucks.
“Do we check it out,” I ask, “or go around?”
“I just wanna get to the station,” the girl with the limp says.
“Yeah,” the tourist man says. “I’m about ready to fall over. Get me some shade and a place to rest my legs.”
“We should at least look inside,” the young guy says. “There might be people hurt in there.”
“Yeah,” Polo Shirt says.
“Well, nothing says we all hafta go,” Micah says. “Why don’t everyone wants a rest go on to the station, we’ll catch ya up later.”
I remember what the bicyclist said earlier, about not splitting the party. It’s been a while since I played D&D, but that’s always sound advice. Though in a D&D game, you never have players saying, “Let’s go rest.” There’d be no question we should check out the train.
Of course life isn’t a D&D game. Who cares if we split the party? What’s going to happen? We get attacked by orcs?
“Yeah, that sounds like an idea to me,” I say.
We divide up. Most people opt to go on to the station, but me, Micah, Polo Shirt, Business Suit and Young Guy opt to check the train.
“If we’re gonna be more than half an hour, we’ll send somebody to let you know,” Polo Shirt tells the others.
Ali frowns at me. Looks like the therapeutic value of song is short lived. “Why are you going?” she asks me.
“Seems the thing to do.”
“Why aren’t you staying with me? I’m your wife.”
“What happened to you can get along without my help?”
“I can. That doesn’t mean I don’t want you there.”
“Look, you can see the station from here. We’ll be maybe a hundred yards apart.”
“The bridge could collapse.”
“So could the other one.”
“Yeah, but if we’re going to die, I want it to be together.”
“I don’t want either of us to die.”
“Don’t abandon me.”
“You are. You hate me now.”
“I don’t hate you. I’m kinda pissed, yes, and we have issues that need working out, but I don’t hate you.”
“I saw you talk to that girl earlier.”
“The one with the limp. You were hitting on her.”
“No. I wasn’t.” She’s like sixteen! “I asked her if she needed help.”
“Her friend was helping her. She didn’t need you. You wanted to play the White Knight, didn’t you?”
“She’s a bit young for me.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not lying. If I were lying, wouldn’t I be going with everyone else so I could be closer to the girl?”
“Maybe you want to try your luck with the other woman.”
“Jesus, what’s wrong with you?” Ali’s the one who fucked around without telling me, but I’m getting the four lights treatment? How does that work?
“I don’t want you to leave me,” she says.
“I’m not going to leave you. All I’m gonna do is pop my head into this train and see if there are any survivors. Nothing more.”
“Are you coming or not?” Polo Shirt calls to me.
“Yeah, be right there.” I kiss Ali on the cheek. “Half an hour, no more, ‘kay?”
“Everything all right?” Micah whispers to me when I join the group.
“Yeah. She’s freaked out, doesn’t like me leaving her alone.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. We got enough people, makes no difference whether you’re here or there.”
“She’ll get over it.”
The train derailment is about a third of the way down the left-hand bridge. For that first length, both groups keep pace with each other. I keep one eye on Ali, but she’s staring straight ahead, ignoring me. Ignoring everything. Nicole strikes up first verse of “Anything Goes,” but peters out when Ali doesn’t join in.
I’m tempted to double back and switch groups. If I don’t, I’m going to walk into a mess when we finally make it to the station. When Ali’s mad, she’s vindictive. She’ll find ways to make me pay.
But I’m not gonna give in. Not after what she pulled. I’m the one who has the right to be mad here, not her. She’s not gonna pull this bullshit where she changes the subject and makes me into the bad guy. No way.
We reach the train. There’s a car hanging half on/half off the track, though it’s not see-sawing like in a cartoon, so we might be able to get on board, as long as we stay to the one end.
Polo Shirt and Micah peer through the windows.
“I don’t see anyone,” Polo says.
“No, but the place is smeared with, I dunno, looks like jelly.”
“Can we get the doors open?” Business Suit says.
“I don’t see any controls,” the young guy says.
“There have to be some,” Polo Shirt says. “Emergency crews need some way to get inside.”
“What about the doors between cars?” Micah says. “They’d be useless if you can’t open them from outside, right?”
“Yeah,” Business Suit says. “Only problem is, how do we get to them?”
The way the train’s run off the tracks, the rear end of this car is tight against the safety fence.
The young guy kneels down and peers at the space between the carriage and tracks. “I think I can crawl under here.”
“Don’t do it if you aren’t sure,” Polo Shirt says. “If needs be, we can circle around to the other end.”
“I can do it.” The young guy gets on his belly and shimmies his way through the space. It’s a tight squeeze, and he nearly pulls his pants off doing it, but he comes out on the other side.
While the rest of us are watching him, Business Suit has her eyes directed towards the sky.
“See something?” I ask.
“I dunno. I thought it was a plane, but it’s wings are moving, so it must be a bird.” She points eastwards.
I squint, but don’t ... no, there is something. I can understand her confusion. It has the faded indistinctness of a distant object, but if that’s so, it must be the size of a Leerjet. No way that’s a bird. But as I watch, I catch the distinct motion of a wing flap.
Well, with everything being burned, there’s probably a ton of soot in the air. That’s making things look more distant than they are.
The young guy’s gotten into the train, and he releases the lock that keeps the doors closed. Without that, he’s able to slide the twin panels apart.
Polo Shirt moves to step inside, but the young guy elbows him aside and jumps out of the car.
“Ker-riest!” The young guy waves his hand in front of his nose. “Outta the—hurk!” He pukes all over the track.
“You all right?” Micah says.
“Jesus God, it stinks in there like you would not believe.”
He’s right. The stench is wafting out the doors, that same rotten meat smell I’d noticed earlier around the SUV.
“Did you see anyone in there?” Polo Shirt asks.
“I—maybe. Kinda. I think.”
“What’s that mean?” Business Suit says.
“You better look for yourselves. You’ll think I’m crazy otherwise.”
Polo Shirt takes a deep breath and climbs into the car. Business Suit follows, and then me, with Micah bringing up the rear.
The interior is covered in that thick jelly from the SUV. It’s dripping from the seats and running across the floor.
“What is this shit?” Polo Shirt says. He’s speaking funny, trying not to breathe as he does.
“The passengers,” I say. I understand what the young guy was talking about. In the seats with the biggest puddles, there are discarded clothes, wallets, glasses ... pretty much everything people would be carrying with them on the train. “They melted.” I have to draw a breath, but I do so through my mouth. A taste of rancid meat glides across my tongue, and I nearly gag.
“Don’t be stupid,” Polo Shirt says.
“I don’t think he is,” Business Suit says. “Something happened.”
“Something ... I mean, I don’t wanna go all sci-fi, but something not of this world.”
“What does that even mean?” Polo Shirt says.
“It means we’re in trouble, I’m pretty sure,” she says.
“I’m thinking she’s right,” Micah says. “I didn’t wanna say this before, I thought it was too crazy, but this is straight outta a sci-fi movie.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“You’re all nuts.” Polo Shirt sits down on the threshold and slides himself down to the ground. “There’s a ration—”
He never finishes the sentence.
I catch a flash of movement on the edge of my vision. It starts from the farthest window on the train, but in a second it traverses half the car. A second after that, it hits Polo Shirt. Whatever it is, it catches him by the head and whips him after it. His legs fly up off the ground, and his neck snaps.
“What the hell?” Micah says.
We rush to the windows.
There’s a ... well, I was going to say a bird, but that’s no bird. It has wings, yes, but no feathers. Its skin is a leathery amber, with a texture—it’s moving too fast to tell for sure, but it sure looks like scales. Its head is a bit like an iguana, with a snub nose and two horns over its eyes, though it also has spines protruding from its cheeks, with thin membranes stretched in between. If I were to call it the first word that pops to mind, it’d be a dragon, though it only has two legs—talons, really, thin but vicious. And those talons are holding Polo Shirt tight.
The dragon rises up until it’s a hundred feet above the roadway. Then it drops Polo Shirt. He plummets like a load of bricks, not flailing at all. I hope that means he’s dead already, or at least unconscious. But if he’s not, he is the moment he hits the concrete. His head shatters, and pulp shoots across the pavement. His body flops to the ground.
The dragon lands on top of him. Its head dips and tears off a hunk of his arm.
“Oh God, we’re in trouble.” Business Suit points to the sky. There are three more dragons circling.
To Be Continued...
I’m sooo bored.
We’re sitting here and waiting, and we’ve been doing it for… I don’t know, but it must be hours by this point. A couple people have gotten off and trekked to the next station, but Elijah’s dad insists we should stay here, wait for Metro to get things fixed. I kinda agree. I don’t wanna walk through a dirty, dark tunnel, who knows how many miles. But sitting here isn’t so boring.
Everyone else has their phones out and are playing games, but I only have a shitty old flip-phone, my dad got it at Office Depot and buys minutes for it every couple months. It’s got Tetris, that’s it, and playing on the tiny little screen gives me a headache. Well, I already have a headache from the stuffy air in here, but playing a game would make it worse.
So I’m sitting on the floor, leaning against a pole. Every once in a while someone will decide to move to the other end of the train, and I’ll have to scooch over to let them through. That’s what qualifies as excitement around here.
I rest my forehead on my knees and wish I could go to sleep.
I hate waiting like this. There’s nothing worse. It reminds me of that day.
It was back in middle school, seventh grade to be exact. I don’t remember exactly when, except that it was a few weeks after Christmas break, when the weather was at its absolute coldest.
Mom was supposed to pick me up after school so I could go to an optometrist—one of the cheap ones where you get an eye exam and two pairs of glasses for sixty bucks. Grandma was paying for it—I wasn’t supposed to know, but I’d heard Mom and Dad talking about it a couple nights before. Money was tight right then. Dad had gotten laid off back before Thanksgiving and still hadn’t found work, and Mom’s hours at J.C. Penney’s had been cut after Christmas. But I needed new glasses. I’d been wearing the same pair since fourth grade, and it was to the point I couldn’t see the board if I wasn’t in the front row at school.
When classes let out, I went over to the parking lot instead of getting on the bus like normal. Mom had to work until three that day, and it was faster for her to come by the school than to drive all the way to our apartment. School ended at 3:20, so I figured she’d be waiting for me when I got outside. As I went around the side of the building, I looked around for her car but I didn’t see it. Still, I knew traffic could be bad at this time of day, so I didn’t think anything was wrong at first.
There were a few other kids waiting to be picked up, so I went over and joined them. I didn’t know any of them, except Rina Michaels who was in my gym class. She kinda nodded at me but didn’t say anything. We all stood there in silence, shuddering in the cold wind.
“God, I’m freezing my titties off,” an eighth grade boy said. He was hoping for a reaction, but when nobody laughed, he sneered at us.
Rina was the first to get picked up. Her mom came in a big purple SUV, with a golden retriever staring out from the back seat. It reared up and pawed at the window when it saw Rina, and started yapping when she got in.
The eighth grade boy got picked up a few minutes later, then the others disappeared one by one until only me and a blond boy who had headphones on were left. I didn’t have a cellphone back then, and didn’t have a watch either, so I had no way of checking the time. I wanted to ask the boy, but the way he was bopping his head to his music, I thought he might get mad if I interrupted him.
But it must’ve been fifteen minutes already. I could understand Mom being a little late if traffic were bad, but this was a bit much. The buses had pulled out already, so I didn’t have any choice but to keep waiting.
I shoved my hands deep in my coat pockets to keep them warm and stared at the flag in front of the school as it whipped in the wind.
I wondered if anything had happened to Mom? Had she been in an accident? I strained my ears but couldn’t hear any sirens. But Penney’s was way over in Gaithersburg. There was no way I could hear that far.
Or maybe somebody hadn’t shown up at work. It had happened before, she got asked to cover for someone at the last minute. I didn’t think she’d do it today, not with me waiting for her. But we did need money. And if it was just an extra hour… maybe.
Of course, there was another possibility. One I didn’t want to think about. Even worse than an accident.
What if she’d forgotten me? She had a habit of forgetting appointments, and she’d gotten in trouble at work because she thought she had the day off when she was on the schedule. Plus there was the time last summer when she’d promised to take me to the bookstore and didn’t remember even when I reminded her.
But this was different.
She couldn’t forget to pick her daughter up, could she? That was too much.
I was sure she’d have a good excuse for being late.
She had to.
I heard a car approaching, and I looked away from the flagpole expecting to see Mom’s blue Corolla. But it was a silver Honda with a teenage boy at the wheel—a high schooler, I guess. It rolled to a stop in front of me and the boy with the headphones got in. The door hadn’t even closed when it sped away.
I was alone. I knew there were still teachers and people inside, but outside, the school grounds were deserted except for me. I thought about going inside, asking one of the office ladies to call my dad, but I was afraid Mom would pull up the moment I went inside.
She had to be coming. I just needed to wait.
I took my backpack off and pulled my book out—I remember I was reading a Stephen King novel, The Tommyknockers, about a town that’s taken over by aliens. I only had a couple hundred pages to go (which in a Stephen King novel counts as being almost done), but I never finished the book. After what happened that day, I’ve never been able to pick it up again. It’s still sitting on a shelf at home, but the bookmark hasn’t moved since that day.
Even that afternoon I wasn’t able to make any progress. It was too cold to take my mittens off, and turning the pages with them on was nearly impossible, even if the wind hadn’t been blowing so hard that any time I lifted my fingers, I’d lose my place. But I didn’t have anything else to do, so I forced myself to read, even if it took ten minutes to get through one page.
Every time I finished a paragraph, I’d look up, hoping to see Mom’s car coming. I’d peer down the street in both directions, and if I saw anything remotely bluish, I’d watch intently until I could be sure it wasn’t her.
The sky was overcast, and the streetlights started coming on.
Now I was getting worried. My appointment had been for four-fifteen, and it had to be long past that. Maybe I should try walking home? How far was it? The bus took ten minutes to get here, but a lot of that was spent picking students up and waiting at stoplights. The trip couldn’t be more than five miles, and probably closer to two or three.
I could walk that. Probably. It meant crossing some major roads, though.
The better idea would be to go inside before the school closed up and ask someone to call my dad. It’d be embarrassing though. Mom would kill me, making her look negligent. I couldn’t do that.
I headed towards the road, but then I stopped. Even if we couldn’t make the appointment, there was still a chance she might come. If I wasn’t there, she’d panic. She’d go into the school and raise hell. They might even call the cops.
I really should let someone know. An adult could figure out what to do.
A car pulled into the parking lot. For a second my heart leapt, but then I saw it was a purple SUV. It pulled up to where I’d been waiting earlier and parked. Nobody got out. A few minutes later another car came, then a van.
The door to the school opened and a bunch of kids came pouring out, all boys, all laughing and shouting at each other. I recognized a couple of them—Todd Sickles and Bryan Frazer—and knew they were on the basketball team. They musta been getting out of practice.
Most of the boys got in the waiting cars, but a handful stuck around, still laughing and horsing around.
I’d wandered halfway down the parking lot, and I didn’t want to go back now, not with them there. They’d want to know what I was doing out here and I didn’t wanna explain. Todd wasn’t too bad—I’d let him copy my math homework once and he’d given me a Jolly Rancher for it—but Bryan was always making fun of my hair and the way it frizzes out everywhere. At the beginning of the year in Social Studies, he’d been assigned the seat behind me and kept complaining that he couldn’t see the board, so Mr. Moreland had made us switch seats, putting me all the way in the back. Anytime I had to get up in class, he’d stick his foot out and try to trip me.
A van pulled in and Todd got aboard. He said something to the driver—his mom?—and then waved one of the other boys to join them. As the van left, Bryan said something to the two remaining boys and they laughed. Then one of them noticed me and pointed. Bryan made a comment and they all laughed again. I was too far away to hear, but I was sure he was making fun of me. One of the boys made a poof gesture around his head. Yeah, they were definitely making fun of me.
I leaned against a lamppost with my back to them and tried to read again. I knew the post couldn’t hide me, and I knew they were still talking about me, but I acted otherwise.
But it didn’t work.
Bryan and his friends blocked me in on three sides, the lamppost on the fourth.
“Hi,” I said.
“You know that’s rude.”
“You saw us standing over there, you didn’t come over to say hi.”
“Di’ncher momma teach you ta be polite?” one of the other boys said. He was more than six feet tall, and there were tiny, curling whiskers on his cheek.
“We can’t hear ya,” Bryan said. “Speak up.”
“I said, I guess.”
I looked down at my book, wishing I was at home in my room where I could read it in peace.
Bryan snatched it from me. “Tommyknockers? What’s that?”
“Sci-fi shit, huh?”
“You’re a whore?” the third boy said. He had red hair and so many zits that his face was almost the same color.
“Yeah, fi’ dollahs,” Bryan shouted.
“Whatcha doin’ back here? You gotta walk the streets you wanna get some tricks,” the tall boy said.
“Maybe she’s hopin’ to hustle some teachers,” the redhead said. “Betcha Mr. Morales would take her.”
Even though it was freezing out, my face was burning. I blinked five times quick, trying to keep the tears from building up behind my eyelids, but I could feel them squeezing into the corners of my eyes.
“I don’t know he could afford fiiiii’ dollahs,” Bryan said. “Make it two-fiddy for around the world, though…”
All the boys laughed.
“You’re never gonna make money like this,” Bryan said. “You gotta show some hustle. C’mon.” He grabbed me by the shoulder and tugged me towards the street.
I dug my feet in and tried to stay put, but the tall boy got behind me and shoved. I stumbled forward and had to keep going so I wouldn’t fall. They pulled me all the way to the street. Cars were whizzing by, and I prayed that this would be the point when my mother finally showed up. But of course she didn’t.
“Hey man, she fi’ dollahs!” Bryan waved at the passing cars while pointing at me.
The other boys thought this was the most hilarious thing ever.
“Hey, you’re never gonna attract no one you just stand like that,” the tall boy said.
“Yeah,” Bryan said. “You gotta flaunt it.”
“What’s she got to flaunt?” the redhead said. “No tits, no hips.”
“Booty’s not bad,” the tall boy said.
“You serious?” Bryan said.
“A great poet once said, ‘I like big butts.’” He turned back to me. “C’mon girl, shake it.”
What the hell did they want from me? If they were gonna spit in my face and call me names, I could’ve taken it. I’d been putting up with that since elementary school. But right then I wanted to run out into the street, I didn’t care if cars were coming or not.
“C’mon, just walk down the street. Walk to the corner and back.”
I did what they said.
“Nah, nah, you gotta swing that ass,” the tall boy yelled at me.
“Shake it so cars will stop,” Bryan said.
“Fi’ dollahs! Fi’ dollahs!” the redhead was shouting.
I reached the corner and turned around. The three boys were leering at me.
“Hey, you know what,” the tall boy said, “I got five bucks. Whatcha say?”
He pulled a wallet out of his pants and took out a bunch of ones.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned and ran back towards the school. I couldn’t wait outside anymore. I didn’t care if Mom showed up, I didn’t care if she got pissed that I wasn’t there.
“Now she’s shakin’ that thing,” the redhead shouted.
“Betcha she’s tiiiiight,” the tall boy said.
But they were satisfied with talking. They didn’t come after me.
I headed straight to the entrance, only slowing long enough to pull the doors open.
Custodians were mopping the lobby, and I slipped on the wet floor, planting my butt on the linoleum hard.
“Hey, no running in here.”
I looked up and it was Mr. Morales. He was my English teacher.
When he saw me, he checked his watch. “What’re you doing here? I didn’t think you were in any clubs.”
“I’m not.” I stood up. My legs were all wobbly now, and my heart was pounding a million times a second. I could barely breathe.
I wanted to tell him about Bryan and the other boys, but that would only create trouble. More for me than them. The worst that would happen to them was they’d get detention, if they even got worse than a lecture. But they’d want revenge on me. I could avoid the two boys I didn’t know, but I had three classes with Bryan. And he might repeat those things he was saying. He was part of the cool gang, so even if nobody actually believed him, they’d start repeating them too.
So instead I say, “My mom was supposed to pick me up. I have an optima—optora—oppo—” I couldn’t get the word right in my mouth, so finally I said, “An eye doctor, supposed to go see today.”
“When was that?”
“Supposed to be four-fifteen. She was gonna pick me up right after school.”
“It’s almost five.”
I’d known it was late, but that late? Now I was really worried. Something bad must’ve happened.
“You don’t have a phone?” Mr. Morales said.
I shook my head.
He pulled out his own cell phone. “What’s your mother’s number?”
I told him and he dialed. It rang and rang and finally went to voice mail.
“Uh, yes, Mrs. Kratstein, this is Mr. Morales from McClellan Middle. I’m here with your daughter, and she’s worried about you. If you could give me a call when you get this, thanks.” He hung up. “What about your father?”
“He doesn’t have a phone right now.” Well, he did, but he’d run out of minutes and couldn’t afford any more.
“Do you have a home phone?”
I shook my head.
He gestured for me to follow him, and he went to the office. He and the office ladies talked for a minute, then one of them got Principal Liu and they all had a chat. I hung back in a corner, as though the conversation had nothing to do with me. Every once in a while, one of the office ladies would glance over at me and smile sympathetically, which made me feel even more pathetic.
After about five minutes, Mr. Morales came back over to me. “I’m going to give you a ride home. Is that okay?”
“Yeah.” That’s all I wanted right then. To get home and see my father and find out what was going on.
Mr. Morales led me back to the parking lot. Bryan wasn’t around, but his two friends from the basketball team were still out there. For a moment when they saw Mr. Morales and me, they looked scared, but once they realized we weren’t heading towards them, their expressions relaxed. They started laughing. One of them made a cocksucking gesture—I didn’t know what it was back then; I only realized it in eighth grade when I heard some girls gossiping in the locker room. I’m glad I was ignorant back then, otherwise I would’ve broken down crying right there.
We got into Mr. Morales’ car, which smelled of cigarettes and air freshener. He docked his phone on the dash and it started playing classic rock, that song where the singer has a super deep voice and keeps repeating, “Breathe in, breathe out.” It was a good song to play. It reminded me to keep breathing.
I wanted nothing more than to zone out, but Mr. Morales didn’t know where I lived and I had to keep telling him, “Turn left here,” and “take the next right.” Once my mind drifted, and we missed a turn, had to go down a couple blocks and make a U-turn, but he didn’t get mad at me. Even though I was being a bother, making him do all this, he understood.
We finally got to the apartment complex. I thought he’d just drop me off in the parking lot and leave, but he insisted on coming up with me. I was kinda grateful. I didn’t wanna be alone. But I was afraid he was going to chew my dad out, and I didn’t want that. It wasn’t Dad’s fault he didn’t have a working phone. We didn’t have money for it.
When we got to my apartment, I reached for the knob, but Mr. Morales stopped me and knocked instead.
The door didn’t open, and there was no sound inside.
Mr. Morales tried again, louder this time, but it was no different. At last he nodded for me to open up.
The door was locked and I had to use my key. There wasn’t anything strange about that—there was a convenience store behind our apartment complex, and Dad walked down there all the time—but even so, my stomach did a flop. I knew right then, something was seriously wrong. He hadn’t popped out for a Slim-Jim and scratch-off.
The inside was dark and there was no sign of Dad at all. Two possibilities flashed through my mind. The first was that Mom had been in an accident and Dad had rushed to the hospital. But though that was the most realistic possibility, my brain fastened on the other one: What if Mom and Dad had run away? Money was tight, and a lot of that was because of me. Last fall Mom had been complaining about the cost of my school supplies, and that was when Dad still had a job; and one night around Thanksgiving, I’d heard her and Dad talking after they thought I was asleep, and Mom said she was worried how much it’d cost when I hit my growth spurt. They’d given me a good Christmas—I’d gotten five books, one of them a hardcover, not to mention two new T-shirts, a pair of jeans and a set of socks, though I suspected Grandma had paid for the clothes—but even at the age of twelve, I could sense that they overspent. Mom had cut back on beer and cigarettes, and Dad had stopped buying lottery tickets. The one time we’d ordered pizza recently, it was because we saw a commercial for a buy-one-get-one deal.
So could they’ve …?
Could they’ve ditched me?
Is that what had happened?
I knew it was ridiculous. They both loved me. But once the thought crossed my mind, I couldn’t shake it. It was all I could think about.
Mr. Morales was on his phone. I think he was talking to Principal Liu. “Yeah, I dunno… No, let’s not do that yet. I wanna go by her mom’s work first, see if they know anything… Yeah, I’ll keep you informed.” He hung up and looked at me. “You all right?”
I nodded, but I couldn’t open my mouth because I knew anything I’d say would come out as a sob.
“You said your mom works at Macy’s?”
“J.C. Penney’s,” I managed to squeak.
“The one at White Flint Mall?”
“Okay, let’s go over there.”
I followed him back to his car and we drove over to the mall. He kept trying to get me to talk on the way, but I answered anything he asked with a “Mmm-hmm,” or “uh-uh,” and after a while he gave up.
It was totally dark when we got to the mall, and the parking lot was mostly empty. Mr. Morales parked near the store and we went inside.
“Excuse me,” he said to the first employee he saw, a woman who was hanging up a rack of new clothes, “we’re looking for someone. Is there a Mrs. Kratstein here?”
The employee looked at him dumbly.
“What’s her first name?” he asked me.
“Karen,” I said.
“Oh,” the employee said. It was only a single word, but the way she said it was not good. She looked around and spotted another employee. “Wait here.”
She went over to the second employee and started talking. They were too far away for me to hear much, but I caught my mom’s name, and then the second employee looked over at us. There was something unpleasant about his expression, like he was looking at a piece of dog doo that had been left in the middle of the floor. He said something more, and then wandered off.
The first employee came back to us. “Sorry, could you just wait for a minute. We’re getting a manager.”
What did that mean? If she knew what had happened to my mom, why didn’t she just say so? Why did she need her boss?
“Is everything all right?” Mr. Morales asked.
“Everything’s … yeah.” She shuffled her feet and looked back at the rack she’d been putting away, like she wished she could get back to work, but wasn’t sure she should leave us alone.
After a couple of long, awkward minutes, the second employee reappeared with another woman. He pointed to us and she nodded, then both the employees went back to their tasks, though they kept casting glances our way.
The new woman was Mr. Morales’s age, with her hair done up in tight braids. As she approached us, she put on a wide, fake smile. “Hello,” she said with an accent I’d never heard before, “may I help you?” I’d never seen her before in my life, but I’d heard Mom talk about work enough to realize this must be the store manager, Miss Imelda.
“Yes,” Mr. Morales said and introduced himself. “I’m a teacher at Wright Middle. This is Persephone, one of my students. Her mom was supposed to pick her up today after school, but she never showed up. We’re wondering if you know what happened to her?”
Imelda’s smile turned extra fake. “You’re Karen’s daughter, eh? Well look at you, you’re so cute. Yes.”
I didn’t react. Neither did Mr. Morales.
“Yes, Karen was … there was an issue with her employment.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Karen no longer works here.”
“Did she quit or was she fired?”
“I’m not allowed to discuss personnel matters.”
“We need to know where she is.” Mr. Morales was getting pissed. He was using the same voice he used when people were goofing off in class. “If you won’t tell us, we’re going to need to call the police so they can start a search.”
Imelda looked over at the employee we’d first talked to. She was hanging skirts on a rack. Imelda stepped closer to us and lowered her voice. “The police know where she is. They have her.”
“What?” I said. That didn’t make any sense.
Imelda dropped her smile. “Your mother was caught stealing. She was reprinting receipts and using them to make refunds to her credit card. Our loss prevention supervisor noticed something was odd and he investigated. We had her arrested when she came in this morning.”
“No!” That was a lie. That was a fucking lie. My mother would never do something like that.
“Now if you are not making any purchases, I would please ask you to leave.”
After we left the store, Mr. Morales called Mr. Liu and told him what was going on, and Mr. Liu said he’d find out where my mother was.
While we waited, Mr. Morales took me down to the food court and bought me a slice of pizza. I didn’t feel like eating, but I could feel my stomach grumbling so I forced myself. I might as well’ve been chewing cardboard for all that I tasted it.
For his part, Mr. Morales only had a smoothie—bright neon red, I remember that clearly for some reason. He sat across from me, sucking slowly at it and not saying anything. I was so grateful. The last thing I wanted was to talk.
How could Mom get arrested? How could she be stealing? One of my earliest memories was of being in a 7-Eleven with Mom. She was buying some smokes, and when she wasn’t looking I went wandering down the candy aisle. I caught sight of some yummy looking candy—Gobstoppers, I think, or one of them that comes in a little bright box. I couldn’t’ve been more than three at the time, the age when you think everything in the world belongs to you, so I grabbed it off the shelf not knowing it was any big deal.
My mom yelled at me to get over to her, but she didn’t look at me, so she didn’t see I was carrying the box of candy. She grabbed my hand—the empty one, that is—and dragged me towards the door, lecturing me about how I had to stay with at all times. And that’s when the clerk started yelling. “Hey, hey! You didn’t pay for that.”
At first my mom didn’t realize he was talking to us and kept going, but the clerk went shouting, “Excuse me! Hey! Miss!”
Finally my mom looked back and saw the guy was pointing at me, and she looked down and saw I had the box in my hand. “What are you doing?” she said and she smacked me upside the head.
I dropped the candy and she picked it up.
“You don’t take things that aren’t yours.”
She put the box onto the nearest shelf, but that just got the clerk yelling at her again. “Hey, that doesn’t belong there.” Mom glared at him, then went down the candy aisle. It took her a moment to find the right spot, then she apologized to the clerk. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve watched her.”
“Uh-huh,” the clerk said.
She grabbed me by the shoulder and ushered me outside, then over to the car. She got me inside and buckled up, then she looked around to make sure nobody could see us, and she slapped me hard across the cheek. “What do you think you were doing? I’ve never been so embarrassed. You do not steal. Do you know what happens to people who steal?” She shook me by the shoulders. “The police come and arrest you and take you to jail, and you go in with all the bad people, and they do bad things to you. Do you want that?”
I remember her face was right in front of mine and she was screaming at the top of her lungs. I started to cry, but she slapped me again. “If you ever do that again, I will give you something to really cry about. Trust me on that.”
When we got home, she’d put me in my room and didn’t let me come out until dinner—and even then, only because Dad made her.
And now she’d gone and done this?
How could she be such a hypocrite? Had she even believed what she’d told me back then? Or was she just mad that I’d been caught?
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got.
I’d waited at school in the freezing cold.
I’d put up with Bryan and his friends.
I’d been humiliated in front of Mr. Morales.
Who knew what would happen if word got around school.
And it was all her fault.
All of it.
I should’ve been at home, watching Jeopardy with my brand new glasses while Dad fixed dinner. But instead I was gnawing on lukewarm pizza in a mall with my English teacher. Because Mom stole from work.
I looked down at my pizza. I’d eaten most of it. What was left was mostly crust. I sipped my soda to clear the grease from my mouth and wiped my lips.
“Done?” Mr. Morales said.
He checked his phone, but Mr. Liu hadn’t called back yet. “I think there’s a bookstore around here. Do you wanna go look?”
I didn’t wanna, but … I had no place to be, nothing to do.
We got up and I took my tray to the trashcan while Mr. Morales consulted a map of the mall. It turned out the bookstore was all the way on the far end, and we had to walk past practically every store in the mall to get there. Given how cold it was, and how soon after Christmas, the place was mostly deserted. There were probably more people working than actual customers.
When we got to the bookstore, I poked around the shelves, but in my mood nothing caught my eye. Horror was too dark, classics too dry. Fantasy was bullshit.
I wandered through the aisles in a daze, and eventually found myself in the rearmost corner of the store. I wished I could curl up there and go to sleep. Maybe when I woke up, everything would be gone—poof—a dream. It’d be nice, but I knew it couldn’t happen.
Instead I picked up a book from the shelf. Weird, it was backwards. The front cover had the plot description, and the back had an illustration of a girl in a funny outfit, it looked like something Donald Duck would wear, except she had a skirt on, too. The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan? When I opened it up, I discovered it was a comic of some kind, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The dialogue was all jumbled, like characters weren’t responding to each other.
“You like manga?” Mr. Morales asked.
I jumped. He’d been off in the main fiction section the last I saw of him.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Oh. They’re Japanese comics.”
“I think this one’s messed up. They have the dialogue in the wrong order or something.”
“No, actually. The Japanese read backwards. You’ve gotta start on the right and work your way left.”
“They probably think the same about us.”
I opened the book again and gave it another try. Forcing myself to go backwards took a lot of effort, but the story made more sense this way. Kinda. I was in the middle of the story, so I didn’t understand any of the plot, but the conversations at least flowed logically.
“Why don’t they just flip the pictures?” I asked.
“It messes some things up,” Mr. Morales said. “Everyone becomes left handed, maps are backwards, keyboards are backwards. Sometimes there are signs with English letters on them, those are backwards. Oh, and in baseball people end up running the wrong way.”
“Oh.” I guess that made sense, but it still seemed kind of annoying. “Do you read this stuff?”
“Some of it. A lot of it’s … kinda not good. But the good stuff is great.”
He examined the shelf and pulled a book off. “This one, for instance, is one of the best.”
The cover showed a simple line drawing of an wicked looking girl. She had on a button-down shirt with a loose, drooping bowtie around her neck. Why did all the Japanese girls dress so weird? The title on the cover said The Flowers of Evil. It sounded like the sorta thing I’d normally like, though I wasn’t much in the mood at the moment. Still, I took it from Mr. Morales and flipped through the first few pages.
There was this boy in middle school who liked to read weird books. Even his friends made fun of him for it. He had class with this beautiful girl who got good grades, and he had all kinds of dirty thoughts about her, even though she never talked to him. But there was another girl. She sat behind him, and she was a real freak. At the start of the story, the teacher yelled at her in front of the entire class for turning in a blank test paper, but instead of being chagrined or taking it meekly, she screamed back at him, “Shut up, shitbug!”—when I got to that line, I laughed despite myself. The teacher was so pissed at the girl that he went to slap her, but she stared at him so intently that he stopped himself and quietly told her to go sit down.
That girl was cool. I wished I could be that way. To tell off anyone who pissed me off. To stare down Bryan and his friends and make them run away in fear of me. That’d be cool.
“You like it?” Mr. Morales asked.
I went to put it back on the shelf, but he stopped me. “Here, I’ll buy it for you.”
“No, you don’t have to.” He was taking pity on me. I didn’t want pity. This wasn’t his problem. He’d already done enough by driving me around and buying me dinner.
“I insist,” he said.
We went up to the registers and checked out.
As we were leaving the store, Mr. Liu called, said he’d found my Mom.
We had to go back to Rockville to find my mom. It was the middle of rush hour and the highway was clogged, though since we were headed against the rush, things were less bad for us. We moved down 270 at a steady pace, while the oncoming lane was a frozen river of headlights.
We reached the jail in half an hour. Mr. Morales parked and got out of the car, but I just sat there. I didn’t want to go inside. I didn’t want to see my mother. I was going to cry if I did. Or yell at her. Or maybe both. I didn’t know.
Mr. Morales came around to my side of the car and opened the door. “C’mon, Purse.”
I unbuckled my seatbelt and got out. I trudged across the parking lot and to the front entrance. Mr. Morales held the door for me and we went inside.
The lobby was brightly lit, with the heat cranked up to make the room nice and toasty. There were brightly colored plastic chairs, and tables with magazines, just like any other waiting room. If you were magically transported there, you wouldn’t’ve realized you were in a jail.
As long as you ignored the people.
Despite the warm, cheery look of the room, you could feel the grimness the moment you walked inside. Like a dentist’s office where everyone in the lobby was waiting for a root canal. One taste of the air and I wanted to leave. Even if the only way I’d ever see my mother again was to come through this room, I would’ve preferred to never see her again.
But Mr. Morales ushered me over to the reception desk.
“May I help you?” a woman said in a tone that made clear she had no desire to help anyone.
“Ah, yes. I’m James Morales. I teach over at Wright Middle …” He trailed off, realizing the woman was barely listening. “I have a student here. She was supposed to be picked up by her mother this afternoon, but she never showed up. We’ve been told she might be here?”
“Kratstein,” Mr. Morales said.
The woman pecked at her computer, examined the scream. “Yup, she’s here.”
“What about my father?” I asked.
“Was he arrested too?” the woman said.
My face colored. “I don’t think so.”
“Then I wouldn’t know, now would I?”
The tears were about to come. Where was Daddy? Where the hell had he gone? Why had he left me?
Mr. Morales put a hand on my shoulder, but he misinterpreted what I was thinking. “Can she go back and see her mother?”
No! That was the last thing I wanted. Absolutely not!
“She needs a parent or guardian present.”
“As a teacher, I’m in loco parentis.”
“She needs a parent or guardian.”
“Jesus, woman. Do you have any humanity?”
The woman stared at him.
“It’s okay,” I whispered. I had to whisper. If I spoke up, my voice was going to crack.
I turned around. I needed to get out of there. I needed to get outside, where the air didn’t taste like poison. But I’d only taken one step when I noticed a man standing up on the far side of the waiting room. “Daddy?”
Mr. Morales turned around when he heard me.
Dad ran across the room, moving up and down aisles and dodging around chairs. “Persephone.” He dropped to his knees in front of my and hugged me tight. I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his chest and started crying.
There was another man with Dad, a lawyer from the public defender’s office. He had on a purple shirt with a Daffy Duck tie—even though we met him plenty of times over the next few months, that’s the outfit I’ll always remember him wearing. Dad introduced him as Mr. Freeman, but he insisted I call him Gabe.
They’d been having a conversation before I came in, and once I’d calmed down, we all went back to the rear corner of the room to talk.
“So as I was saying,” Gabe said, “the store’s accusing Karen of stealing one thousand and seventeen dollars. The threshold to make this a felony is one grand, so she’s just north of that. I’d almost think the company waited so they could bust her on felony charges. She’ll be arraigned tomorrow. I’d expect bail to be around 10k.”
“I can’t afford that,” Dad said.
“A bail bondsman will pay it if you put up ten percent, non-refundable.”
“I don’t have a job right now, man. I couldn’t afford it if it were a hundred bucks.”
“You have family you could get it from?”
Dad shook his head.
“Then she’ll have to stay in jail until the trial. Good news is, it’ll be counted as time served.”
“Yeah, that’s good news.” Dad snorted.
“I know it’s tough, but I’m trying to be honest here.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Since this is right on the threshold, our best hope is to argue this down to a misdemeanor. Even if we can’t prove her innocence, we only have to knock seventeen bucks off the charge. Or, we can plea bargain—that’ll be up to her, of course. I just wanna give you an idea of what you’re facing. For a felony conviction, she’s on the hook for up to ten years in prison, though as a first timer, it’d be more like eighteen months. If it’s a misdemeanor, eighteen months would be the maximum. Our best bet would be to strike a deal where she does the eighteen, but it’s written on her record as a misdemeanor. Most job applications only ask about felonies, so it wouldn’t destroy her job prospects.”
“Sounds good, I guess,” Dad said.
“I’ve told all this to Karen. She’s going to sleep on it overnight, make her decision in the morning.”
“Okay.” Dad rubbed his face. “Can Persephone get in to see her tonight?”
Gabe checked his watch. “Should be able to.”
I didn’t want to, but Gabe talked to the woman at the desk and arranged for me and my dad to go back. I expected it to be one of those rooms like you see in movies, with the glass partition and you have to speak into a phone, but they put us in a cafeteria-type room instead. Well, it was like a cafeteria if cafeterias had armed guards in the corner. We had to wait for five minutes before they brought Mom in.
“Honey,” she said when she saw me, “I’m so sorry. I meant to be there. Really, I did.”
I didn’t say anything.
“It’s just …”
I didn’t even look at her.
“I said shut up!”
Mom looked like I’d punched her.
“How could you do this to us?”
“It was for you. I needed… with your dad outta work…”
“You’re blaming me?” Dad said.
“You… you know one income’s not enough. We were struggling with two. Your unemployment’s barely enough to cover water and electric. We needed—”
“Don’t you do this,” Dad said. “Don’t you dare. Not in front of Purse.”
Mom looked at us, her eyes swinging from me to Dad and back again. “You think I’m the bad guy here?”
Dad sighed. “I think… it might be best if you don’t come home. You get outta here, go stay with your mom.”
“You can’t kick me outta my own apartment. Who do you think pays the rent?”
“That is not the issue.” Dad stood up. “C’mon, Purse.”
I stood too, and we headed back for the lobby.
“Don’t hate me, Purse,” Mom said as we walked away.
Mr. Morales gave my dad a ride back to the mall, where we picked up Mom’s car and drove home.
“You two going to be all right?” he asked along the way.
“I dunno,” Dad said. “Honestly, I don’t. Rent’s paid for the month, and all the bills, but February’s a short month. Even if I got a job tomorrow, I’d be lucky to have one paycheck between now and the end of the month.”
“What did you do before?” Mr. Morales asked.
“I was a loading dock manager. Made good money too. But then the company decided they didn’t need the distribution center, they let everyone go.”
“So you have management experience?”
“I suppose you could call it that. Mainly told guys to move their asses faster.”
“I might know something,” Mr. Morales said.
A couple days later, he asked me to stay behind after class and gave me a number to call. Turned out the head of custodial services for Parker Elementary had won the lottery—not the big jackpot, but like two, three million—and decided to quit, no notice. Mr. Morales was friends with the woman who did hiring for the school district, and recommended my dad to her.
The job didn’t pay half so well as his old one, but it did pay, and that’s what counted. We had to move in with my aunt for a while, though, and even when Dad could afford a new place, it was much smaller than the old one.
Not that it mattered. Mom pled guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to eighteen months. She got out after only four, but Dad wouldn’t let her come home. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t want her around either. She moved back with her parents and got another job, got fired, got another, got fired. She’d call Dad and beg for money, but he refused until she threatened to go to court—he tried to hide it from me, but in a tiny apartment there was nowhere he could talk on the phone without me hearing.
Eventually she started getting arrested again. Dad wouldn’t tell me what for, but I heard him and Aunt Sophie talking and they said Mom was charged with soliciting—I guess she was working as a door-to-door saleswoman and got busted for being in one of the fancy neighborhoods where they’ll call the cops on strangers walking around. I didn’t think that was a serious crime, but it counted as a probation violation and she had to go back to jail for the rest of her sentence. By the time she got out, she and Dad were divorced.
“Hey, whatcha doing.” Somebody kicks me in the thigh—only a little tap, but it jolts me back to reality.
It’s Ed. He’s towering over me.
I shake my head. “I dunno.”
“Hey, c’mon back with us.” He jerks his head towards the end of the car where Krissy, Tim and Jay are all gathered. Out of everyone on the train, they’re the only ones making any significant noise. Mrs. Hurlburt’s been back to quiet them down a couple times, but they start inching the volume back up the moment she leaves, and within a few minutes they’re back to laughing and shouting like before.
“I dunno,” I say.
“Whottsa matter? We got AIDS or something?”
“Then stop being a gloomy gopher.”
He extends a hand towards me. I don’t wanna take it, but I know he’s not going to leave me alone if I don’t, so…
I stand up on my own. My legs are stiff from sitting down too long, and I wobble on my way to the back of the car.
“Dude, you see lesbians everywhere,” Tim says. “Two girls hold hands or hug, you assume they’re lezzie.”
“Lesbians are everywhere,” Jay says. “All girls secretly are.”
“We are not,” Krissy says.
“Riiiight,” Jay says. Then he sees me. “Hey. Wallet, right?”
“Yeah. What do you say? You got a lesbian side?”
“Would you ever make out with a girl?”
I laugh. Like I’m ever going to have a chance to make out with anybody, boy or girl. I’ve thought about it. Some of my favorite manga are yuri series like Bloom Into You and Kase-san. If real girls were like that… “Yeah, maybe. I guess. I dunno.”
“Hawt!” Tim says.
“Pervs.” Krissy rolls her eyes. Then she glares at me for some reason.
“Okay,” Ed says. “So who’d you wanna do it with?”
“Like, out of all the girls here, who turns you on.”
“No one, really.” I’ve never actually thought about it in real life.
“Come on,” Jay says, “you and Faythe would be awesome together. Hot chick and dorky girl—” Krissy punches his shoulder “—is always hot.”
“Uh. Okay.” Why did I come back here? I don’t wanna be back here. I should’ve told Ed to leave me alone. And if he hadn’t, I could’ve gone to talk with my father, that’d scare Ed away, I’m sure.
“Oh yeah,” Tim says. “I’d pay to see that.”
I wish I could be anywhere but right here right now.
“Can you guys go five minutes without masturbating?” Krissy says.
“Maybe if I was getting a blowjob,” Jay says. “Maybe.”
I wanna turn and leave, but my feet are rooted to the floor. I feel like when Bryan and his friends were pushing me around. Please. Let me go. Let me go. Let me get away from here.
Suddenly the door next to us opens. A man comes through from the next car.
For a moment I think I’m saved. Maybe he’s a rescuer, or the driver come to tell us we have to walk to the next station, or just some guy who needs an aspirin. I don’t care as long as he gets me out of this conversation.
But then I get a good look at the man. There’s something wrong with his face. Half of it’s twisted in agony, but the other half is slack and expressionless. Blood’s dripping from his scalp, which has a bloody hole in it—a deep, deep hole—too deep, way, way, oh my God, is that his brain I can see?
“Therrrere,” he says and falls forward. He topples on top of me and I go down with him, his blood spurting across my face.
As I fall, I see something moving in the next car. Something big, with a lotta, lotta legs, and glowing green eyes.
To Be Continued...
Help me! Help!
I’m being crushed.
When I try to breathe, all that comes in is dirt and I end up coughing it straight back out. My eyes are on fire—which is weird, because they’re flooded with tears, too—and my throat feels like somebody’s shoving a scrub brush down it.
I’m going to die.
Great Selene, I’m going to die crushed and choking on dirt.
I have my sister, my parents.
My dog Brewster. If I don’t get home, who’s going to feed him? What if nobody realizes I’m dead until it’s too late, and he starves to death, alone and forgotten. What’ll he think? That I abandoned him?
I’ve gotta get outta here.
I flex my arms, but there’s nowhere for them to flex. I claw my fingers, and thick, dry dirt squeezes through them, but … I can’t move. The weight on me, I’m immobilized.
Ah! Ow! Damn. More weight just fell on me. Please, stop. This is already too much.
No, wait. Something’s moving above me.
The weight, I think it’s getting less … I think … or maybe I’m losing consciousness.
I was dreaming. The worst dream I’ve ever had. I’d been in DC, and somehow I’d been trapped underground when an earthquake hit and I’d been buried under a ton of dirt.
“C’mon, Lori, wake up.”
I open my mouth and… what’s that taste? It’s like a mud pie, but dry and gritty and… my body shudders. I’ve got something in my throat, and when I breathe in--blehgh.
“Roll her over, quick.”
I’m on my belly. Or not quite. Somebody has their hands around my waist, keeping me from lying flat.
I convulse and vomit. It hurts! Oh Selene, it hurts! And not the normal way vomiting hurts. Oh no, this is far worse. Like somebody’s ripping my insides out.
“She needs water.”
I keep vomiting and coughing, and it won’t stop. I try to fight it. I need a chance to breathe, but my body doesn’t want anything getting into me.
I go on like this forever and I want to die. I don’t care. If it’ll make this stop, I don’t care. Let me die. Let this end.
At last I’m able to breathe. When I do, the air comes in a rough, jittering stream, like a car AC that’s on the verge of dying. The back of my mouth tastes hot and vile, and my throat burns.
But I can breathe.
Thank the Goddess, I can breathe!
I try looking around, but my neck twinges at the slightest movement. I have to twist my waist around—that still hurts, but it’s a dull, manageable soreness.
I’m in the dark. The only light is coming from a phone in the hand of a dark and shadowy figure.
“You okay?” His voice is familiar. My boss at the gift shop. I grope for his name. I should know it. We’ve been working together three, four days a week for two years, but all that’s coming up is ████.
“No,” I croak. “What happened?”
“I dunno, an earthquake or something.”
I vaguely remember that. Everything had started shaking and then—the others? Where are the others? Where’re … where’re … their names aren’t coming to me either. ██████ and ████ and █████████. I can see their faces in my head, but why can’t I think of their names?
“I found another one,” a woman says. It’s … it’s … oh Goddess, what is her name? My co-worker, she’d been in the gift shop earlier. “Gimme a hand.”
“Here.” ████ hands me his phone, then he gets on the ground with the girl.
There’s another phone lying on the ground, its flashlight on but shining at the ceiling where it doesn’t do much good.
I hold ████’s phone up to shine the light on him and the woman. Yes, that’s definitely her, my coworker. She’s facing away from me, but the way she’s crouching reveals the tattoo on her lower back, a Native American Thunderbird with its wings stretched out over her buttocks.
There’s another person next to her—██████! The cutie from my group. He’s alive.
The tunnel in front of them is filled with dirt that’s fallen in from the ceiling. Is that what I’d been under? No wonder I feel like a piano fell on me.
“C’mon, pull.” My coworker’s gotten a figure half uncovered, and now she and my boss are pulling him out. It’s that science guy—my mind’s blanking on his name, too, though I do remember that a lot of people called him by his initials … BLT? LGBT? No, those aren’t right.
“He’s not breathing,” Coworker says. “Brad, can you CPR him?”
Brad! Brad! That’s my boss’s name. How could I not remember something so simple?
“Yeah. I’ll try,” he says.
They’ve got the science guy loose now, and they drag him down the tunnel a ways. I have to step out of the way to let them pass.
“You get back to digging,” Brad tells Coworker and Cutie. “Lor, get the light up so I can see.”
I hold his phone as high as I can get it. Brad presses his fingers to the science guy’s throat for what seems like an awfully long time.
“Nope,” he mutters, and repositions himself. He presses his hands onto the guy’s chest and pumps them up and down. I’ve only ever seen CPR in movies, and the way Brad’s doing it is nothing like that. In the movies, mouth-to-mouth is the main part, with the actors spending whole minutes blowing into the victim’s throat, then getting up to do a couple pumps. But Brad, he keeps pumping on the guy for close to a minute before going down for the mouth-to-mouth part, which he only does a couple times before restarting the chest compressions.
He switches back and forth three, four times, but Mr. Science doesn’t—no wait! His eyes just twitched. Or maybe I was seeing things. It’s so dark in here, and if my arm moves in the slightest, it makes a hundred shadows dance. But no, Mr. Science is moving. His eyelids flip open for a moment, then snap shut against the light of the phone. I bring my arm down and angle the light towards the ceiling.
Brad leans back. He’s slick with sweat and panting for breath. He wipes his face on his shirt, though all that does is smear the sweaty grime around.
The science guy rolls onto his side and hacks for air, but he manages not to vomit. After a few moments he pushes himself into a sitting position. “Where’m I?”
“You don’t remember?” Brad says.
“I was … on an airplane. Going to DC? What happened, we crash?”
“No, you got to DC.”
“I don’t—wait, yeah. The premiere. I remember that. And a party afterwards? I had a couple drinks but … not enough to blackout. Did I?”
“No. Not that kinda blackout at least.”
“Ah, Christ,” Coworker says from down the tunnel.
“Something wrong?” Brad calls.
“We found another one,” she says.
“They need CPR?” Brad says.
“That’s not gonna do her any good.”
Me and Brad head back towards the dig, leaving Mr. Science to himself. As we approach, my light flashes across an arm sticking out of the dirt—a woman’s arm. I recognize the rings on her fingers, but her name—████—is as much a blank as everyone’s. She hadn’t quite been our leader—we’re anarchists, after all—but she’d always kept us organized. She collected phone numbers and email addresses, made sure people knew when our meetings would be. She referred to herself as our facilitatrix.
But she’s not that anymore.
She’s not anything.
Coworker’s only been able to get the left side of her body exhumed so far—her arm, her shoulder, and … her head.
It’s not pretty. A piece of concrete must’ve hit her, cuz her forehead’s dented like a soda can that somebody’s pressed their thumb against too hard. The side of her face is black with blood that’s mixed with dirt. Her eyes are still open, and when my light passes over her face, her pupils remain glassy and wide.
We keep digging, taking turns at it, everyone except … except … dammit, I’ve forgotten his name again. My boss. ████. Since he’s the only one here who knows CPR, we tell him to sit to the side when he isn’t needed.
He hasn’t been needed so far.
The mound of dirt we’re dealing with is huge, and we’re barely making a dent in it. In the last half hour we’ve found one more body, a museum bigwig, but like ████ he was as dead as dead gets—a piece of rebar had gone through his chest; there was no way for Boss to perform CPR on him.
At this rate we’re not going to get anyone else out alive. Anyone who’s under there has probably suffocated by now, and even if there’s an air pocket somewhere, it won’t last long enough for us to get to it.
Maybe if we had help—a team of diggers, paramedics with medical gear—we might have a chance, but when Mr. Science suggested we go and find some, Coworker had said it wouldn’t do any good.
“After you guys left, the cops showed up and made me open the backroom. I let them back there and went back to the counter. I rang up one customer, and then the store was empty. Then, about five minutes later, the fire alarm starts blaring. Freaked me out at first, and I was about ready to run out the store, but then it occurred to me that maybe the cops had decided to go back to the loading bay. Sure enough.
“I followed them back and tried to yell at them—‘You’re gonna be in so much trouble for this, you just caused a major museum to be evacuated’—but they ignored me. Like my one chance to get legitimately angry at a cop and they blow me off.
“Anyways, they noticed the stairwell door was ajar and headed over that way. I told them it was off-limits to anyone but museum personnel, but again with the ignoring.
“The alarm was still going off, so I figured there was no harm in leaving the store unattended. I followed them down. I dunno why, honestly. Seemed a thing to do, y’know.
“We’d barely reached the bottom of the stairs when everything began shaking. We heard something crash down in the tunnel and the lights went out. I’m like, ‘Shit, gotta get outta here,’ but, y’know, no lights, can’t exactly go anywhere.
“Once the rumbling stopped, the cops pulled their flashlights out and ran back up the stairs—one of them damn near pushed me over the stair rail, asshole. I didn’t know what to do—should I go look for you guys in the tunnel (I figured that’s where you were) or get the hell out. I decided to get the hell out—sorry, but yeah.
“When I got to the top of the steps, the cops were already gone, and the emergency exit—the one for the outside—was wide open. I was going to jump out, but when I got to the door … I dunno what happened, but it sure as hell wasn’t a quake. Looks like a fire swept over the Mall, and when I tried my cell, couldn’t get a signal.”
Part of me wants to go up and see for myself, but I know we can’t. Not while there’s a possibility that people—my friends even if I can’t remember their names—are still alive under this dirt. We have to keep going as long as we can.
I dig my hand into the pile. I have to be careful. There’s rebar and chunks of concrete mixed in with the soil, so if I scoop the dirt away too fast, I risk mangling my fingers. I work at a steady pace, but in the ten minutes I’ve been doing this, I haven’t cleared enough dirt to move forward even an inch. Maybe if we had shovels, we could improve our pace—but even then we’d have to be careful not to injure anyone who’s trapped down here.
Mr. Science is next to me, taking his turn at the digging. For an old guy, he’s managing pretty well, and his bigger hands allow him to clear more dirt than me, but even so, he’s barely made a scratch in--
Whoa, what just happened? Everything’s black all of a sudden. I can’t even see my hands.
“Ah crap,” Boss says.
“What is it?” Coworker says.
“My cell’s down to twenty percent battery, went into power saving mode. Damn, I had a full charge this morning.”
“Did you put it in airplane mode?” Cutie says.
“That explains it. If there’s no signal, it’s going to burn through the battery trying to get one. Add in the flashlight, yeah, that’ll do it.”
Coworker has her phone out. “I didn’t charge mine last night. It’s at thirty-five percent.”
“That’s not good,” Mr. Science says. “I don’t know about you folk, but I’m not keen on getting stuck down here in the dark.”
“No,” Cutie says.
“Don’t we have a flashlight in the store?” Coworker says.
“Do we?” Boss says. He fiddles with his phone. After a couple seconds, the light comes back on.
“Yeah,” I say. “In the drawer with the stapler and tape and all that stuff.”
“I’ll run up and get it,” Coworker says.
“Grab some spare batteries, too,” Boss says.
“What, just off the shelf?”
“If the surface is like you say, who’s going to care?”
“If you’re going up,” Mr. Science says, “think you can scrounge up some food? I dunno about you guys, but I haven’t eaten since eleven this morning. I am starving.”
“I could go with some eats,” Boss agrees.
“Yeah.” All I’ve eaten today was some avocado toast this morning and the nacho’s I’d appropriated from the taco truck. “Something vegetarian.”
“Well yeah,” Coworker says in a tone that suggests I’m an idiot. “I ain’t cooking anything—if the gas is even working—and any meat that’s been left out is gonna be cold by now. I’ll see what I can find, but it’s probably gonna be cold fries and candy bars.”
“I can live on that for now,” Boss says.
“Why don’t I go with you,” Cutie says, “give ya a hand.”
“Sure,” Coworker says.
They disappear down the tunnel.
“So how long you want us to keep digging?” Mr. Science says. He scoops his hand into the dirt and tosses it aside.
“As long as it takes,” Boss says.
“If we haven’t found them by now, there’s not much hope,” Mr. Science says.
“People have survived under rubble for days.”
“Rubble, yes, but this isn’t rubble. Rubble has air pockets for people to breathe in. As far as I’ve seen, this is solid dirt. Unless they’re megadriles, nobody can breathe under this.”
“That may be so, but we can’t give up. Not this quickly.” Boss checks his watch. “It’s not quite five-thirty yet. Why don’t we keep this up until seven? We’ll have an hour of daylight left. We can check things out on the surface and figure out what to do. I’ve got a van, plenty of room for everybody. If the streets are in good condition, we can drive outta here.”
“Drive where?” Mr. Science says. “If things are like the girl says, we have to face the prospect that there’s been a nuclear war. Is there anywhere to get to?”
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “There hasn’t been a nuclear war.”
“What?” Boss and Mr. Science say in unison.
“Why would there be?”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Boss says. “Weren’t you protesting this?”
“We were protesting the corrupt, fascist regime.”
“Which was going to start a war with North Korea,” Boss says.
“A war, sure, but the kind with tanks and planes. The capitalist interests would never let the President go nuclear—too much risk to their precious assets.”
“I … don’t think that’s how it works,” Boss says.
“No,” Mr. Science says.
Of course they don’t. Boss, just like Coworker, comes from a comfortable bourgeois background, and Mr. Science is part of the Hollywood-Military complex—he’s always on TV hyping NASA, when anyone who does the least bit of research knows that 90% of NASA’s work is military in purpose. The Space Shuttle was designed specifically to carry military satellites into orbit—the Hubble Space Telescope is a spy satellite with the lenses flipped around so the public thinks NASA does actual science.
Boss and Coworker and Mr. Science are sheeple. They support the system. They don’t think it’s wrong. They think the President is a deviation from what’s good and proper rather than the logical end point of Republicrat government. I’m kinda thankful the guy got elected. Yeah, he’s evil, but only marginally worse than his opponents. People are only upset because he says the quiet parts loud.
“That’s naiveté talking,” I say. “That’s—” I break off suddenly. My hand’s plunged into the dirt, and it’s found something soft and fleshy—and, more importantly, warm. And there—a muscle just flexed beneath my touch. “I found someone! Get the light up.”
I clear away the dirt as fast as I can, revealing a dark elbow—naturally dark, not just because it’s covered in dirt. █████████! I can’t remember her name, but I know it’s something suave and sophisticated, and she insists that we pronounce it with a French style, but everyone shortens it to something simpler—something like Mike or Rob or—I know it’s a man’s name like that, but it won’t come to me. Damn. I can see her face in my mind. Why can’t I come up with her name?
Mr. Science joins me, and we’ve soon discovered which way her arm’s going. We ignore the lower part and dig towards her shoulder, towards her head. But then we encounter an obstacle, a huge chunk of concrete that fell out of the ceiling. It’s slanting diagonally—there must be an air pocket underneath. That’s how she’s alive.
But this means we have to be careful. If the concrete slab comes loose, it’s gonna crush her. We have to slow the pace of our digging. We excavate around the side of the concrete, digging down to get at the underside, open up some air to Frenchy. If we can do that, we can relax a bit.
There—there’s a tiny, dark gap open between the concrete and dirt.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
“Lori? Thank God. I thought I was gonna die in here. Yeah, I’m a little busted up, but just cuts and bruises. Nothing feels broken. But Leslie’s in here too, and they haven’t moved since the quake.”
“Okay, we’re going to dig you out,” Mr. Science says, then he looks to me. “As long as we stay towards the middle of the slab, it should be stable. I think we can make a gap that’s big enough to pull them out.”
We get to work, moving as fast as we dare, but there are chunks of concrete mixed in with the dirt, and when we come across them we have to dig them out and toss them aside. Though some of them are too big to toss. We find one that has two pieces of rebar sticking out of it, and even with both of us lifting it, we’re barely able to move it. We carry it far enough it’ll be out of our way, and then set it down.
“I thought rebar was supposed to make concrete stronger.” I’m panting and sweating even worse than when I’d been running around in the heat outside. I sure hope Coworker and Cutie get back soon with some bottles of water, or else I’m gonna shrivel into a husk.
“It is,” Mr. Science says, “but this tunnel is over a century old, and metal fatigues over time. If I had to guess, we’re under a street here. A hundred years of cars and trucks driving over it probably stressed the metal to the point it couldn’t withstand a major earthquake.”
“Guess we’re lucky there haven’t been any aftershocks,” I say.
“Knock on wood,” Boss says and taps his head with his fist.
“That’s a superstition,” Mr. Science says. “There’s no reason to believe knocking on wood could affect the outcome of events.”
“Oh. I never realized that.”
“We hear all kinds of things as children that we integrate into our worldview. It’s important to evaluate those ideas, so they don’t distort our understanding of reality.”
“Right,” Boss says.
“What the hell’s taking them so long?”
Boss gives voice to what I’m thinking. Coworker and Cutie have been gone for—well, I don’t know exactly, I don’t have a watch on, but long enough that my hand is seriously sore from all this digging. I need a break.
How long does it take them to find food? The flashlight should’ve been simple—they could’ve gotten that and been back in five minutes, I’m sure—so the food must be what’s taking them. But the food court is right there in the lobby—just grab some bags of chips and some bottles of water and soda, maybe some candy bars. Nothing fancy.
“Something wrong?” Frenchy’s voice has an echoey effect to it, like she’s talking through a toy megaphone.
“No, nothing important,” I say. We haven’t told her what Coworker saw on the surface. No sense in freaking her out yet. Let’s get her free first.
At least that’s what common sense says, but Mr. Science butts in. “We sent some people up to get food and extra flashlights, they aren’t back yet.”
“Food and flashlights? Why aren’t they calling for help? Hell, as long as I’ve been under here, shouldn’t we have firefighters up in here by now?”
Mr. Science opens his mouth, but I don’t let him get a word out.
“There seems to be some trouble up above, too,” I say.
“What kind of trouble?”
“We don’t know yet. We’ve been busy down here. You think you can get out yet?”
We’ve cleared a gap about two feet high and wide. Frenchy’s skinny enough, she should have no problem getting through there.
“Yeah. But what about Leslie?”
“Let’s get you out first,” Boss says, “then we’ll worry about … her?”
“Them,” I say.
“Leslie’s a gender nonconformist. They prefer to be addressed with they/them/their.”
“Ah … okay? We can do that.”
“I’ve always felt that third-person singular creates unnecessary ambiguity. I much prefer ve/vim/ver from Greg Egan’s—”
“Yeah, well Leslie likes ‘they’. Could you guys move, yer in my way?” While we were talking, Frenchy’s crawled through the hole up to her waist.
“Here.” I offer her my hand and haul her out. She’s covered in dirt from head to toe, and her hair, which she normally keeps in a cute puff, has frizzed out like a mad scientist’s.
She stumbles over the mound of dirt and has to steady herself against the wall. She grimaces and bends over to rub her calf.
“You okay?” Boss asks.
“Cramp. When I was under there, my leg was bent funny and now it’s …” She inhales sharply. “Ohhhh.”
“Do you need a muscle massage?” Mr. Science asks.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “It’ll be gone in a minute.”
I kneel next to the hole and peer inside, but all I can see is blackness. “I need the light.”
Boss comes over to me and holds his phone up.
“I’m down to twelve percent battery.”
“The others should be back soon.”
“I sure hope so. But while you guys have been digging, I’ve been stuck with nothing to do but think.”
“Crazy stuff. Like, if what Amy said is true, something pretty bad must’ve happened upstairs. What if … I dunno. What if something happened to them?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what I mean, and that has me terrified. Who knows what’s going on.”
While we’ve been talking, I’ve been examining the inside of the hole. There’s a wedge-shaped chamber beneath the slab, maybe five feet by six across, and three feet at its tallest. Leslie—I’ve gotta remember that name—is on the farthest side from me, curled up and facing away. They don’t look injured, but if the slab had conked them on the head as it fell, they could have a concussion and we couldn’t tell.
“You’re the smallest one here,” Boss says. “If me or LLGB try to get in there, we’re gonna have to enlarge the opening first.”
We’re gonna have to enlarge the opening one way or another to get Leslie out, but if I go in, Boss and the others can work on it while I’m moving Leslie. Les is big—maybe eighty or ninety pounds heavier than me—but I can manage.
I grab the side of the opening and pull myself in. It’s awkward to do, and once I get my upper half inside, I have to walk on my hands until I get my waist through. But at last I’m inside.
The concrete slab had served as an umbrella against the dirt, leaving the floor mostly clean, though a bit has spilled in from the sides, some of it onto Leslie.
I start by dusting them off, then try to rouse them. They don’t respond.
Should I turn them onto their back? I know you aren’t supposed to move somebody who might be concussed or have a spinal injury, but that assumes there are paramedics on the way who can do things properly. We don’t have that luxury.
I grab their shoulder and pull them over. They’re breathing, steady and deep. That’s good, right?
“Leslie. Hey. Come on, wake up.” I poke them and lightly slap their face, like people do in movies, but to no avail. Guess I’ll have to do this the hard way.
There’s not enough room to stand up in here, so that constrains my options. I try to drag Leslie away from the wall, but I can barely budge them the way I’m crouched. I flip myself onto my backside, and that works a little better. I lift them up and wrap my arms under their shoulders, then pull them towards me. They slide across the ground an inch at a time.
After a few tugs, I have Leslie sitting up against me. I scoot out of the way and leave them propped against the wall, then turn around.
Boss and Mr. Science have widened the hole a little, but not nearly enough for Leslie to get through even if they were able to move on their own.
“Get back,” I say.
The guys do as I tell them and I lift my legs up. One good kick explodes the top of the dirt pile. I try again a little lower, but this time my heel hits against a piece of rubble. A jolt goes up my leg. That’s not gonna work, so I try applying a steady pressure against the block of concrete, shifting it out of the pile.
Thup. Thup. Bop.
The block tumbles loose.
I make a couple more kicks, and at last the hole is wide enough that we can move … move … ah dammit, their name’s gone. It was right there a moment ago. ██████. Shit. Is there something wrong with my brain? Is that it? Is this going to be permanent?
I think about my parents, my sister… but no names are coming. My best friend from high school, my first boyfriend, my college roommate—all blank.
I dig through my brain. There has to be a name in there somewhere. The President and First Lady… the Speaker of the House… who I voted for in the last election… the host of The Young Turks… the princess from Star Wars… nothing’s coming.
Then I remember when I was really little, like three or four, watching TV in the mornings. Sesame Street and Square One Television and … Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood! Mr. Rogers! Yes. Never have I been so grateful to an avatar of white patriarchy!
Other names come now. I Love Lucy, and ALF and Ally McBeal. It’s like I can remember names when they’re in a title, but not when I try to associate them directly with people.
“Yo, Lor. Earth to Lori.”
“I’ve only got eight percent,” Boss says.
Oh, I was spacing out there. Can’t do that. We’re in an emergency.
“Yeah. Okay. I think we can get ‘em through now.”
I push Leslie to their side so that they’re lying against the mouth of the hole. Boss and Mr. Science reach through and grab them by the shoulders.
“Try and lift her waist,” Boss says, “that way she isn’t scraping her back when we pull her out.”
“They,” I say.
I get my arms under ██████ and lift ‘em up as much as I can while Boss and Mr. Science haul ‘em through the opening. They’re too heavy to make a go of it all at once, so we go in fits and spurts, moving ‘em a couple inches at a time. We’ve got ‘em out to their waist when--
“Uh, we got a problem here,” Mr. Science says.
“Wha—oh, shit,” Boss says. “That’s not good, is it?”
“Very not good.”
“Mind filling me in?”
“We’ve got water leaking through the ceiling,” Boss says.
“… okay?” Not seeing how that’s a huge problem. Annoying, sure, but— “So?”
But he doesn’t answer. Neither does Mr. Science. Instead they grab ██████ and haul ‘em through the hole without waiting for me to help.
“Come on,” Boss says as soon as ██████’s shoes disappear over the lip of the hole. “We gotta get outta here.”
What? But the look on his face tells me this is no time to be asking questions. I pull myself through the opening. As I’m coming out, a trickle of icy water falls onto the small of my back—I let out a yip of surprise and whang my knee against a chunk of concrete. I nearly faceplant, but Boss grabs me and pulls me up.
Mr. Science is already dragging ██████ backwards, and Frenchy pitches in to give him a hand.
“What’s the matter?” I say, still not sure why they’re panicking.
Boss jerks his head towards the ceiling rather than answering.
I turn and look up. There’s a steady stream of water leaking out from the top of the dirt pile, about as much as my bathtub faucet on full blast. But that’s not the real problem. Boss flashes his phone across the top of the tunnel. When the roof had collapsed, a ton of dirt had fallen in here, but there are many more tons still above us. The dirt up there is turning a darker brown as water builds up behind it. In places it’s so saturated that it’s turning into runny mud and flowing on its own.
A water main must’ve busted. Somewhere up there, a pipe must be spewing water into the soil and slowly eating it away. We’re looking at a sink hole from the underside, and it’s only a matter of time—hours? Minutes?—until it collapses. We still have a partial ceiling over us, so the whole tunnel shouldn’t fill up, but that semi-liquid mud will flow in here like lava. If there’s anyone else alive under that mound, there’s no way we can dig them out now.
“I’m at six percent,” Boss says. “We need to move it, like now.”
I turn and head down the tunnel. We pass the bodies on the floor, poor ████ and the museum bigwig. Will the incoming mud cover them up again, or are they going to be left like this? I know it doesn’t matter, not really, but I’d rather they get covered up. Maybe that’s my parents’ Christianity poking through, but burial seems more natural.
The loading dock is deserted when we get up there, but the door into the store is propped open with a trashcan. Other than that, there’s no sign of Coworker and Cutie.
“Whoa. Amy was not kidding.” Boss is over at the emergency exit, looking outside. I go over to join him. There’s no wind outside, not even the slightest stir of a breeze, but after the stuffy, stale air of the tunnel, even the humid soup outside is a relief.
We don’t have much a view from the doorway—the parking lot outside is sunken beneath the level of the main entrance, so mainly all we can see is a retaining wall around the edge of the lot, though there are a few bushes and trees visible over the top. They’re burnt bare, every one of them. My heart skips at the sight of the ruin. It’s one thing for people to die, but such beautiful plants… that’s a far deeper tragedy. Oh Gaia. I don’t know what humanity’s done to you now, but I’m so sorry.
To our right there’s a break in the wall where a staircase leads up street-level, and through the gap I can see the Smithsonian Castle. The main structure is still standing, but several of the towers have broken off.
“Check it out.” Boss points to the left. At first I can’t tell what he wants me to see, but then, through the blackened branches of trees, I catch sight of the Capitol. Or what’s left of it. The dome’s cracked clear through.
“What the hell happened?” Mr. Science says.
“I got no idea,” Boss says. “But this doesn’t look good, that’s for sure.”
“They went and did it, didn’t they?” Frenchy says. “They blew it up.”
“I don’t know about that,” Mr. Science says. “This is bad, but a nuclear bomb would be worse. Maybe… I dunno, a gamma-ray burst?”
“What kinda bomb is that?” Frenchy says.
“Not a bomb. It’s a stellar phenomenon. We aren’t sure what causes them—we mainly observe them in distant galaxies, too far away to see in detail—but one theory is they’re caused by colliding stars. If one were to occur within a few thousand lightyears of Earth, and if the gamma-ray emission were aimed in our direction, it would be extremely bad.”
“Yeah, I saw that Discovery Channel special,” Boss says.
“There you guys are. I was just coming to look for you.”
We turn and see … see … ah damn, I had her name for a second, but it slipped away. Something with an “A”—Amanda? Allison? Alicia? No, not quite, but I think Amanda is close. So close. My brain aches as I try to remember Coworker’s name.
She’s standing at the door to the store. Cutie’s not with her, and she doesn’t have any of the supplies we wanted other than a flashlight.
“Where the hell were you?” Boss says.
“Sorry, we got a little sidetracked. You guys better come see this.”
“See what?” Mr. Science asks.
“It’s … really something you gotta see for yourselves. I don’t even have the words.”
“What about Leslie?” Frenchy asks.
They’re still unconscious. We had to carry them out of the tunnel, but I don’t know that it’s a smart idea to keep hauling them around in this state.
Boss is thinking the same thing. “Somebody should stay with her—them. Sorry. You wanna do it?” he asks Frenchy.
She shrugs. “Yeah. I can. Gimme a chance to sit down, wrap my head around—that.” She points vaguely towards the parking lot.
“We’ve got chairs in the break room, you wanna grab one,” Coworker says.
“That’d be nice, yeah.”
While she goes to grab one of the plastic chairs, the rest of us head into the store.
Nothing’s changed since we were in here earlier, except the lights are all off. That’s one giant exception, though. Even when we close up at night, there are always a few lights that remain on so whoever opens in the morning isn’t bumping into things when they get here. Right now the place is pitch black except for Coworker’s flashlight and a bit of sun filtering in from the lobby. Makes the place creepy, like something out of a zombie movie.
“Remember I said how after I let the cops into the backroom, I came back here and rang up a customer?” Coworker says.
“Not really,” Boss says.
I vaguely recall that. It was hardly the most noteworthy part of her story, and we were preoccupied with digging people out at the time.
“Okay, so the guy I checked out, he bought a bunch of puzzles—the big, thousand, two thousand piece kind.”
“O~kay?” Boss says.
I’m not seeing the relevance here, either.
Coworker leads us out of the store. “Well, check this out.” She points her flashlight down the lobby, though there’s enough light coming in from the entrance that the beam gets washed out. Still, we get what she’s pointing at. In the middle of the floor, there’s a pile of shoes and clothing with a plastic bag next to it. And a puddle of … something.
“What is that?” Mr. Science says.
“Take a look in the bag,” Coworker says.
I don’t particularly want to go over there. Something about the puddle is … I don’t wanna get near it.
Boss, though, he goes. Mr. Science too. They approach cautiously, like there might be a cobra hidden in the clothes. Boss toes the bag open.
“…” he says.
“What is it?” I ask. I think I know, but I’d rather somebody put it into words.
“There are four boxes of puzzles in here.”
“That’s…?” I say.
“Yeah,” Coworker says. “I knew it was him right away, even before I peeked in the bag. I recognized his shirt.”
“What could do this?” Boss says.
“That’s a very astute question,” Mr. Science says. “I suppose, maybe, a gamma-ray burst might, but… I don’t know.”
“There’s more,” Coworker says. “We checked out the food court and found a couple more of these puddles. And… it’s not just people. The hamburgers are melted the same way, and the veggies on them are crisped like the trees outside. Only thing intact are the buns.”
“Hell,” Boss says.
“Okay, hypothesis,” Mr. Science says, “whatever happened affected cells—and it did so regardless of whether they were alive or dead. Animal cells simply burst, whereas plant cells burned—probably because of cellulose, though I don’t understand how. But we were protected because we were underground at the time—the soil over our heads must’ve had a canceling effect on the phenomenon.”
“Dirt canceled it, but stone and concrete didn’t?” Boss says.
“I don’t claim to understand. I’m merely stating my observations.”
“Fair enough, I suppose.” Boss looks to Coworker. “Now what happened with the guy you came up here with?”
“After we saw this, we decided to do a little more exploring,” Coworker says. “Went upstairs to look around. It’s more of the same. The main lobby is a real mess—everyone was trying to get out because of the fire alarm when the … whatever happened. The floor up there is virtually covered with this sludge. Once we saw that, Duncan said I should go back and get you guys, he was going to look around further.”
Duncan! I have to remember that name.
Duncan. Like donuts. I’ll think of that when I see him, maybe that’ll help.
“Hey, did you hear that?” Mr. Science says.
“Sounded like a car unlocking,” Coworker says.
Nobody says anything. We simply take off for the entrance all as one.
The glass on the doors has shattered outwards, but the stampede bars prevent us from simply stepping through the door frames. Boss pushes one of the doors, but it only opens partway before it jams on the broken glass outside. He pushes again and it lurches a few inches further. Mr. Science tries a different door, but this one barely moves at all.
“C’mon,” Boss says.
Mr. Science and Coworker join him and shove. Glass grinds against the concrete as the door inches open. At last the gap’s wide enough that Coworker can slip through. She goes around and kicks the glass loose until the door can swing freely.
We pour out into the heat. The inside of the museum had been sweltering, but at least it held the lingering residue of air conditioning. Out here we’re getting the double whammy of being broiled by the humid air while the light of the sun bakes our skin. I have to close my eyes for a moment it’s so bright. When I open them again, Boss is shading his eyes and Mr. Science is putting on a pair of sunglasses.
“I don’t see anyone,” Coworker says. “You guys?”
“No, I—over there!” Boss points towards the street.
There’s a gold SUV pulling away from the curb. The sun glints off its window, leaving a dazzle across my vision. I blink several times, but a smeared afterimage remains.
“Hey! Hey! Wait!” Coworker shouts and runs for the street, but it’s too late. By the time she reaches the sidewalk, the car’s halfway to the Capitol. She chases after it, arms waving, but the driver never sees her.
“Well, we know we’re not the only ones left alive,” Mr. Science says.
“If you’re right that being underground protected us, then anyone who was in the Metro…” Boss says. “What’s the closest station?”
“Federal Triangle and Smithsonian, they’re both about the same distance,” I say.
“We can split up, check them both out,” Mr. Science says.
“Sure, but we need to find…” ██████. I’m blanking on the name again, it hasn’t even been five minutes. But this time I remember it has something to do with donuts. Donuts? Chocolate? Sprinkles? Bavarian cream? Dunkin’? Dunkin’! That’s it. “Find Duncan first, that way he’s not wandering around looking for—”
I stop. I thought—yes. Voices. Coming this way.
“…they run off like that?”
“My sister, who knows.”
Across the dead lawn, there’s a group of five or six people—it’s hard to tell with the sun glaring in my face—coming up the driveway from the employee parking lot. They stop dead when they spot us.
“Hey!” Boss shouts. “Are we glad to see you.”
“Yo,” a guy says.
The group comes towards us. There are indeed six of them—a South Asian woman and three white guys who look to be college age, a Rubenesque woman around my age, and an older South Asian man, though he doesn’t look related to the woman.
“Have you seen a girl?” the South Asian woman says. “Seventeen, dark skinned like me, with her hair in a braid.”
“Sorry, no,” Boss says.
“She was with a cop,” one of the young men says, a generically handsome guy in preppy clothes. “Middle aged guy, red hair, fish-belly white.”
“There were a couple cops around here earlier,” Coworker says, “but they am-scrayed right after the quake.”
“No, this would’ve been in the last few minutes,” the preppy guy says.
My stomach’s sinking. I can tell exactly where this is going. “We haven’t seen them, but when we came out here, we saw a car take off.” I point down Constitution.
“Oh fuck,” the second white guy says. He’s potbellied, with long sideburns and a goatee.
The South Asian woman dashes out to the street.
“Wait! Shreya!” The preppy guy takes off after her.
The rest of her group looks at each other, but nobody follows.
She runs most of the way to the end of the block before the futility of what she’s doing hits her. She stops abruptly and sways on her feet. The preppy guy catches her before she can fall, and she leans against his chest.
“You think the guy actually took Vina?” the Rubenesque woman says.
“Who knows,” the South Asian guy says.
“Wouldn’t surprise me. Cops, man, you can’t trust them,” the guy with sideburns says. “’Specially not in DC.”
The preppy guy comes back with the South Asian girl leaning limply against him.
“Why would he do that?” She sniffles. “Why? And what was she thinking, going with him?”
“He musta lured her out somehow, tricked her,” Preppy Guy says.
“He’s a cop. He’s got a uniform and a badge, and, well, Vina’s not exactly streetwise, you know,” Sideburns says.
“Question is, how do we get her back?” This is the third white guy, who’s been silent thus far. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says something about sarcasm. “He could be anywhere by now, and we’re on foot.”
“I’ve got a van,” Boss says, “and Amy, you drove in today, right?”
“With two vehicles, we can cover—”
“Like that’s gonna help?” Sideburns says. “He could be in Maryland already, halfway to Baltimore, or doubling back to Virginia, or holing up two blocks from here. We’ve got no idea. Where would we even start looki—”
“Nick, shut your mouth,” Preppy Guy says.
The South Asian woman’s started crying harder, and Preppy Guy pulls her tighter against him.
“Sorry,” Sideburns says. (Sideburns—as in he’s afraid of nicking his cheek shaving. Nick. Shaving. Gotta remember that.)
“What’s going on?” The door to the museum grates against glass as Dunkin’ comes out.
Boss gives him the rundown on the situation.
“What color was the SUV?” Dunkin’ asks.
“I know exactly where it is.”
We’re jogging down 12th Street towards the Mall. In the distance there’s a throng of people streaming towards the Potomac. As we get closer and my field of vision expands, I can tell there are a couple thousand of them at least.
“I found a window up on the top floor—” Dunkin’s explaining as we go.
“Wait, there aren’t any windows in the public parts of the museum,” Boss says.
“No,” Dunkin’ says. “I forced a door into the research area. Sue me. The point is, from up there I could see all this—” he gestures at the crowd.
“Okay, but what does that have to do with my sister?” the South Asian woman says.
“Well, as I was watching, I saw this gold SUV come down Independence Avenue. Only vehicle I could see moving about. But as it was about to pass the Washington Monument, it spun out of control and crashed.”
“Oh my God,” (cut himself shaving) Nick says. “Not only a kidnapper, but fucking incompetent.”
“Don’t worry, I saw somebody get outta the SUV—passenger side—and go running towards the crowd. Your sister should be safe.”
“Hey, what’s that down there?” Mr. Science says.
We’ve come around the corner of the National History Museum now and have a view out to the Washington Monument—or what’s left of it. The tower’s broken off a quarter of the way up, and rubble lies on the dead grass. But that’s not what Mr. Science it talking about. There’s a line of motorcycles and black SUVs stopped on the road in front of the Monument, their path blocked by the crowd of people.
“Holy shit, don’t tell me that sonuvabitch lived through this,” (cut himself shaving) Nick says.
A sound like somebody letting off a firecracker echoes across the Mall. The guys on the motorcycles react instantly by dismounting and drawing guns.
“Vina!” the South Asian woman shouts and takes off running towards the Monument.
“No! Wait!” Preppy Guy tries to grab her, but when she slips his grasp he runs after her.
“Aw, shit,” Coworker says. She turns and hightails it back towards the museum.
So does (cut himself shaving) Nick.
“Come on,” Dunkin’ says. He reaches behind his back and pulls up the hem of his shirt. There’s a gun poking out from his waistband. He pulls it loose and flips a switch on the side.
“Where did you get that?” I ask, but he’s already running towards the motorcade.
Boss follows, then Mr. Science and the South Asian man. That leaves me and the Rubenesque woman standing on the street corner.
A second explosion echoes around us.
“We should get outta here,” the Rubenesque woman says.
Yeah, but where? Back to the museum, or--
The men on the motorcycles open fire on the crowd.
To Be Continued...
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 ...