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...
“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 ...