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Cataclysm (Book 2, Calamity Series) - Chapters 1, 2, & 3

Chapter One

 

Todd Sneed

Washington D.C.

April 20, 11:37 am

Outbreak: Day 00

 

“How’s the president’s mood?”


“His mood?”


“Yeah, you know… is he happy? Jumping around in jubilation?”


Todd’s old eyes narrowed on the young man. He was beyond sick of this new generation.

What happened to the good old days when men just shut up, did what they were told, and died quietly?


“The president’s fine, Danny. Just peachy. That’s why he ordered his senior staff to work on a Saturday. He wanted to have a party in your honor.”


“Is there cake?” Danny asked with enough excitement to almost make Todd smirk. “It’s just, you know, he can be a little gruff sometimes. Coarse around the edges.”

“Yeah?”


Todd listened to the pregnant pause as he finished writing today’s ‘to-do’ list on a legal pad. The younger generation brought new meaning to ‘beat around the bush’ when it came to saying what was on their mind. No one had the balls anymore just to spit it out.


“I just heard about whatever went down yesterday,” Danny shrugged. “I found Amber crying in her office last night. She seemed pretty upset.”


“Okay,” Todd said.


“Just didn’t know if—”


 “Amber made a mistake in the Press Room. A big one. And she got chewed out for it. This ain’t school, Danny. If you do a good job, you don’t get a gold star; you get to come back to work the next day. You do a bad job, we don’t give you a participation trophy for trying. You get chewed out or fired.”


Todd sorted through the stack of papers he had pinched in his clipboard. Over his expansive D.C. career, Todd had received his fair share of monikers and nicknames. To his face, Congressmen and Senators who knew him would quip about him being the Taxman because he always carried his old-school wooden clipboard of papers like the Tax-Man out for collection. Todd accepted the jab as long as the one giving it did what he wanted.


Everyone else he worked with had a slew of monikers for him that were only spoken behind his back. Shit-head, mother-fucker, were among the many, but asshole was the favorite, he had heard. Todd didn’t mind those either, as long as they were done behind his back. Once they started speaking insults to your face, that was when the fear disappeared. And fear was what ran a country.


“It was just I haven’t seen Amber this morning yet, so…”


“She’s already in there,” Todd said, pointing toward the door to the right of his office.

“What?”


“Some people show up on time.”


Todd pushed himself to his feet. His knees and ankles cracked and popped. As the Chief of Staff to the president of the United States, Todd spent most of his day sitting in meetings or walking to the next meeting. The walking part was good for the joints, but the sitting, not so much. “President’s on the phone with the VP right now.”


“About the bill? Vice President won’t do it,” Danny checked his watch again. “I’m on time, right?”


“The vice president works for the president. He’ll do what he’s told.”


Danny followed Todd around his desk to the white wall with a convex shape and a gold doorknob where the door was hidden in the curve of the wall.


“It’s education,” Danny shook his head. “The backbone of the Democratic Party, we can’t make the VP set fire to all his values. Would you let President Walker do the same to the Republican Party if the tables were turned?”


Todd turned and raised a finger to Danny, “President Walker didn’t agree to be a Democrat’s Vice President. The sooner you find this out, kid, the better. Those who have power shit on others. Those who don’t clean it up. It’s time for the vice president to clean it up.”


Todd turned back to the door, put his hand on the doorknob before having another thought, and returned to his deputy, “And would you keep it down with the wisecracks and mouthin’ off with the president? I have a hard enough time keeping him from firing you as it is.”

“Good one,” Danny chuckled and nodded, then went silent when his boss didn’t reciprocate the grin, “Wait, you’re joking, right?”


Todd entered the Oval Office with his Deputy Chief of Staff on his heels. Despite the thirty-four-year-old’s irritably affable personality, Todd had allowed Danny to shadow him in D.C. for the past five years because the man was effective in a room. He thought quickly on his feet and had a sharp tongue when it was needed to get a deal done. The doe-eyed idealism kids carried with them after school still clung to Danny more than Todd liked, but another decade in politics and Danny might just be jaded enough to get something done.


“Andy, I need you to do this for me.” The president sat in his plush black leather chair and tapped the arm with one finger as he spoke, though the tapping grew harder as time passed.

The speaker on his desk phone replied, “Sir, maybe we should set up a meeting with house democrats to discuss—”


The president nodded at the pair of men entering the room, “No, that’s not—”

“Sir, a meeting so that we can discuss different elements of the bill to make it more bipartis—”


President Walker smashed his fist on the desk like a hammer, “Andy, stop talking!”


The phone bounced, and Amber Cook tensed. The White House Press Secretary sat on one of the two couches in the center of the room. Her long, straight blond hair curved over the shoulder of her gray pantsuit and white blouse. If Amber was phased from the president’s scolding, she didn’t show it now. Good, Todd thought. That’s why I hired her.Danny sat across from her as Todd moved to the president’s side.


The president stood and leaned his fists on his desk like a silverback gorilla. He was staunch, with salt-and-pepper hair, a barrel chest, and thick arms. He was as intimidating in appearance as he was in sound.


“The Democrats in the house will filibuster my education bill come Monday. Get your people in line! That’s an order.”


Todd appreciated having a president with a temper to work with. As Chief of Staff, it was often easier for the man behind the scenes to quell a raging fire than to start one.


The speakerphone crackled as the vice president released a taxing sigh. “Mr. President… this is not how we agreed this partnership would work, sir. When I agreed to be your running mate three years ago, it was to unite the country. To show the two parties could set aside their differences and put the nation first.”


“And that’s exactly what we’re doing now,” President Walker said. “This education reform bill has been argued over and sent back to committee for months now. This is our last chance to pass it before the next election cycle.”


“So the two parties can unite… behind you and the Republican bill,” Vice President Anderson said, his voice as defeated as it could become.


Danny and Amber exchanged a worried glance.


President Walker picked up the phone, taking it off the speaker. “Maybe you did

misunderstand when you agreed to be my Vice President. I said like partners. We are not co-presidents. You serve at the pleasure of the president, and the president is instructing you how to serve. Get me my votes—I’m no longer asking.”


There was a voice still coming from the phone when the president slammed the receiver down and ended the call.


“Sounds like the vice president is a big fan of the bill,” Danny said, filling the brief silence. The young man’s amused smirk disappeared when he saw Todd's glare.


President Walker stared down the Deputy Chief of Staff until he finally took a deep breath and chuckled a small laugh, allowing the tension to leave the room. Amber and Danny both sighed.

Todd cleared his throat as he approached the chair beside the president’s desk and sat down. “I’ll let the VP stew on that conversation for a few hours and follow up with him later. Do any necessary handholding to make sure he’s in line.”


The president agreed. “Just make sure he does what he’s told. What else do we have in the works?”


“Danny?” Todd cued.


“I’ve already got meetings on the books with the Whip, Minority Leader, and half a dozen other Congressmen’s Chiefs of Staff,” Danny raised and shook his black leather binder from side to side.


“Amber,” Todd said. Looking at his clipboard, he placed a checkmark next to Whip and Minority Leader on his clipboard to-do list.


Amber scooted to the front of her seat and cleared her throat, “Myself and two others from the communication department are scheduled for appearances on the Big Three Sunday morning to refute the Democrats’ claims about the bill. I’m also meeting again today with teacher union representatives.”


Todd made another check mark on his legal pad.


The president stood straight, prompting the others to do the same.


“I know neither of you had a weekend to yourselves in a while and aren’t thrilled about giving up another Saturday right now,” President Walker spoke, softening his tone to a fatherly one. “But this bill could be the deciding factor for whether or not we’re all employed this time next year. So, let's get this bill across the finish line. Anything else?”


“Danny, did you grab the morning wires?” Todd asked.


Danny flipped through a stack of papers inside his leather binder and shook his head, “Yeah, no, there’s nothing really…” his finger traced a few lines as he speed-read them. “A couple of protests in L.A., tornado last night in Omaha—we’re waiting for more updates from local to see if we’ll send FEMA, and… a riot in Miami this morning.”


“A riot?” the president furrowed his brow. “It’s not even afternoon. What the hell are they rioting over?”


“Um, doesn’t say. It happened outside a park earlier. Happening, it’s still going on. No other details,” Danny shrugged and made a face. “I don’t know. Maybe it was a high-scoring T-ball game?”


Even the president partook in the shared laugh this time.


“Get to work, guys,” Todd said, excusing his staff. “I want updates in two hours.”


“Thank you, Mr. President,” Amber and Danny said as they left the room, closing the door. President Walker and his Chief of Staff sat with a relaxing sigh. Their friendship, going on twelve years, was a strong one.


Lying, cheating, and backstabbing were the ways of life in Washington, and Todd had made it his career to perfect the art of politics. Most who played the game had families that curbed their ambitions and shortened their political careers. Todd had been married to his job for the last forty years. Never the elected official, but Todd was always the man behind the scenes making the deals that would change the nation before anyone else knew about them.

The average man saw power as it came from whoever spoke the loudest and whoever had all the lights on them. But Presidents, Kings, and Prime Ministers—those who’ve tasted power—knew the real power was in the shadows. The dark spot to the right of the man giving the speech. Real power was being the kingmaker.


“Are we going to have a problem with the vice president, Todd?” President Walker asked. “Cause I’ve got to say, I don’t think I can wait for re-election to get rid of him.”


 “He knows he’s on borrowed time. He’s not on the ticket to run again with us, and he knows the deal. This was a one-term novelty ticket to appease the far left. I’d be surprised if the vice president has the balls to challenge us, but I don’t want to get caught flat-footed, either. The closer we get to the election, the less of a stick we have to keep him in line. Republicans hate him because he’s a Democrat, and Democrats hate him because he made this deal with us. Vice President Anderson is a man with no friends and nothing to lose. It’s a dangerous combination.”


The president nodded and leaned back in his chair as he considered his words. Todd glanced at his clipboard and read the last item: it just said ‘Russia.’


“One more thing, sir,” Todd said, leaning forward. “The call with the Russian President later today? He’s canceled it.”


“Again? Goddammit. Russian fuckers. Why?”


Todd held the president’s gaze as he tilted his head.


“You think somethings going on?” President Walker asked with greater interest.


“We’ve isolated them with sanctions for years now since Ukraine. Maybe they’re trying to make a move. I don’t know. Something feels off,” Todd said.


The president nodded, leaning back in his chair. “Let’s schedule a meeting with the CIA Director and Brenda Monday morning to—”


The West Wing had many idiosyncrasies, but the one thing it wasn’t was panicked. People never ran, no one yelled, and doors didn’t slam unless it was the president doing so. That was why Todd and the president shot to their feet so quickly when all the doors to the Oval Office flung open simultaneously, and a dozen Secret Service agents flooded the room.

This didn’t happen in drills.


This was not an exercise.


“Mr. President, come with me, sir,” Agent Rollins, the president’s head Secret Service agent ordered.


“What is this?” the president asked.


“Sir, I need you to put on this mask and come with us to the P.E.O.C.,” Agent Rollins handed a surgical mask to the president and placed a hand on his shoulder, guiding him towards the door.


“The bunker—No, no, no—what’s going on, Rollins?” the president held up his hands, refusing to move.


“Sir, there’s been an incident—possibly bioterrorism—we have to go, sir. Now,” Agent Rollins insisted, ushering the president a few more steps before the president shrugged off his touch.

“Hold on, now,” the president yelled. “I haven’t gone down to the bunker, yet, aside from a couple of tests, and I’m not gonna start now so—”


“It’s not an option, sir. We aren’t asking,” Agent Rollins nodded to three of the agents who turned from facing the garden door and joined their supervisor in guiding the Commander and Chief to the exit. President Walker was about to explode. Todd could see the fury twitching in his eyes.


“Sir,” Todd said loud enough to get the president’s attention. They exchanged a look for a brief second. No words were spoken, but Todd's small nod ended any further protests. 

Through pursed lips, President Walker followed his body men’s direction and entered the halls. Todd followed the pack of black-suited agents, listening as they spoke into their radio microphones.


“Eagle on the move.”


“Oval is clear.”


Todd quickly stepped to keep pace as they hustled the president down the hall. In the front and rear of the column of agents were four Secret Service agents with compact MP5 submachine guns. Todd had never seen them in the training exercises.


“Step aside, sir. Now!” an agent snapped at Danny as the young man was shoved into the side office as he tried to escape the path of the wall of agents.


“Danny, talk to me,” Todd hollered behind him as they rushed down a hall.


Danny trailed in the rear, juggling a stack of crinkled papers and his cell phone. “It’s the Miami thing—the riot—it’s not what we think.”


“What is it?” Todd was panting by the time he reached the end of the twists and turns of the halls. The president wasn’t a young man and Todd was ten years older than him. Todd could feel his bald head beginning to sweat and heard the raspy sound his breathing made as he struggled to keep up with the agents.


A lifetime behind a desk didn’t prepare him for all this excitement.


“I don’t know, uh, news updates on my phone is calling it a ‘mass casualty event.’ Umm… ‘Bodies everywhere,’ it says. ‘Dozens of suspects,’ ‘Police officers, firefighters dead…’”


They came to the end of a second hall, and an agent swiped a key card to open a door with a badge that led to a second set of stairs.


One of the agents placed a hand on Danny’s shoulder, stopping him from entering the stairwell.


“Authorized personnel only, sir.”


Todd waved the agent away, “This is my Deputy Chief of Staff, Daniel Strafford. He’s cleared for the bunker.”


The agent shook his head, “I’ll have to see his authorization credential—”

“Let him through, goddammit,” the president bellowed from the top of the stairwell. The agent hesitated and appeared to receive instructions through his earpiece before waving Danny through.


“Is it an active shooter? Some kind of bomb? They said bioterrorism?” Todd questioned, trying to make sense of it as he jogged down the stairs to catch up to the president. Twice, Todd had to catch his glasses from falling off the bridge of his nose.


“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Danny rambled, trying to read and keep up. “The last update on the wire report from two minutes ago was, ‘Unknown situation. Possible unknown viral agent…’ there’s no further explanation, just—”


“Where’re my wife and sons?” the president yelled from the front of the column. It was clear he was sucking in air from the brisk pace as well.


“Your wife was in the residence; she’s on her way to the P.E.O.C. Your Sons’ details are securing them and their families in their houses as we speak,” Agent Rollins answered. He was the only one who didn’t sound out of breath as they jogged.


At the bottom of the stairs, they left behind the glamorous style of the White House mansion. There were no elegant red carpets or nineteenth-century paintings hung on the walls down there. They walked on concrete floors, brick walls, and dimly lit corridors. An agent swiped them into a white hallway lit with humming fluorescent lights that led to a massive metal door that resembled a bank vault. Three uniformed agents armed with assault rifles and wearing body armor were stationed outside it. To the right of the vault door was a small enclave that looked like a conference room with a dozen black plastic storage boxes affixed to the wall.


“President Walker, I’m Dr. O’Malley. I’m your physician on staff today. How are you feeling?” Dr. O’Malley walked from the small conference room with a binder in hand, already scribbling in it. His steel-colored hair was the only discernable feature with the medical mask over his mouth and nose.


“Irritated, how are you?” the president replied with a deep breath.

Dr. O’Malley laughed politely, “Very good, sir. No cough, fever, unusual pains?”

“No,” the president said as Dr. O’Malley walked the president into the bunker.


Taking deep, labored breaths, Todd put a hand on Danny’s shoulder to give him a place to lean upon.


“Danny, I need you to stay… up top for this,” Todd huffed. “Whatever, this is… it's being blown out of proportion by the Secret Service, which means the media will go nuclear with it. That’s the last thing we need right now.”


Danny nodded and eyed Todd with concern, “Okay, but are you all right?”


Todd gave his deputy a brief glare that told him to focus. What he wanted to say was, ‘You try making that jog when you’re sixty-five years old, then come talk to me.’


“I need you to get with Amber and come up with some cooling options and draft a statement,” Todd said.

“A statement to what? We don’t even know what this is?” Danny held up the crumpled papers in his hand.

“That’s what you’re going to find out, I need you to be my eyes, ears, and mouth up top, okay?”

“You got it,” Danny said, his eyes anxious.

A second doctor, Dr. Bird, waited with two nurses near the conference room enclave and approached Todd as he neared the bunker.

“Sir, I need you to put one of these on,” Dr. Bird said.

Todd swore to himself as he hooked the elastic strings over his ears and followed the second doctor and his staff inside. He turned when he heard the electronically assisted door hum closed and felt the world shrink around him as the door cinched the air-tight seal and five locking mechanisms clicked into place.

 

Chapter Two

 

Todd Sneed

Washington D.C.

April 20, 04:13 pm

Outbreak: Day 00

 

The P.E.O.C. was somewhere between a dungeon and a mansion. More commonly referred to as ‘The Bunker,’ the Presidential Emergency Operations Center had evolved since its first iteration in the opening of the Cold War as a fortified basement capable of withstanding Russian missiles to what it is now: the most advanced strategic defensive location in the known world. Comprised of a single sub-basement floor of offices, conference rooms, a Situation Room, and housing bunks, the bunker could house a handful of heads of state comfortably and a hundred or so other personnel uncomfortably for over a year without needing a resupply of food, water, or oxygen from above. But Todd was not in a hurry to test the limits of this facility.


The P.E.O.C. was always staffed by two military personnel to maintain the essential computer and communication systems in case the need for the facility occurred. Their presence was also meant to bridge the intelligence gap in an emergency so the flow of information to the president wasn’t hindered while systems were activated. This smooth transition of intelligence did not happen. The first half hour President Walker and Todd Sneed spent below ground involved the two pacing in the bunker version of the Situation Room and waiting for intelligence on what the hell was going on.


What Todd had gathered through rushed phone calls with Danny up top was that at least a hundred Miami police officers and firefighters were dead or ‘infected’ with whatever this was, as were anywhere from hundreds to thousands of civilians. Florida Governor Tillman spoke with President Walker on speakerphone and relayed that this attack went on for almost an hour before a fire chief with the Miami-Dade Fire Department reported an infection of some kind.


Every report they received on the virus was third-party and constituted rumors at best. Todd went as far as to get a Captain for the Miami-Dade Police Department on the phone from a local precinct, but he, too, had little information.


“Sir, all I can tell you is that what I hear on the radio is screaming, and every officer or Sergeant I send to the scene I lose contact with. Are you going to able to help?”


“The calvary is on its way, son. Just hold tight,” Todd had replied.


President Walker had Governor Tillman declare a state of emergency so the president could activate the Florida and Georgia National Guard to assist with whatever the situation was. It would take time for the bulk of the forces to gather and be transported to Miami, but a Lieutenant Colonel from the Florida National Guard briefed the president two hours into his stay in the bunker and said he could have a battalion of eleven hundred National Guardsmen in Miami before dark that evening. The rest of the regiment and Georgia’s National Guard would follow the next day.


Now that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the rest of the president’s Security Council had arrived in the P.E.O.C., things were just starting to seem under control when events took a global turn. CIA Director Brown advised that the Russian President had missed three expected appearances on his daily schedule, and there were unconfirmed reports that he was hospitalized for an unknown illness.


“Jesus… that’s why he rescheduled our phone calls.” President Walker looked to his Chief of Staff and then back to the Director of the CIA. “Is this a coordinated terrorist attack?”


“We don’t know, sir,” Director Brown responded. He was a younger-looking man who wore glasses too big for his face. “We don’t have double confirmation on most of this. It’s still speculative.” No one knew anything, but if true, it would make this the most advanced and well-coordinated terrorist attack in the history of the world.


Striking two nuclear powers simultaneously… who could pull that off?


Another possibility was that some unknown nation was playing a high-stakes global chess match, and Russia and the United States were just pawns being moved for a bigger plot. Todd didn’t like either option. Both meant he and their intelligence attaché were caught with their pants down picking daisies while someone was out there playing to win.


Whoever ‘they’ are, we’re going to find them and blow a crater in the Earth where they sleep.

Under the recommendation of Todd, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president heightened their readiness to Defcon-Three, placing all their military assets at the ready for war.


It was then the chaos began.


Suddenly, every department head either arrived in the bunker or wanted a video conference with Todd. Every news agency sent a dozen ‘Break News’ alerts to the American people’s cellphones. Daytime TV, live podcasts, and radio programs were all interrupted to cover the developing situation in Miami, Florida, despite no one being able to understand what the situation was. When the videos and live streams were finally uploaded to social media from Miami, half the websites crashed from the unexpected influx of viewers.


The President of the United States sat silently with his National Security Advisor, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Director of the CIA as they watched a forty-eight-second live stream video uploaded by a man with an account named ‘ho3maker9000.’ The video was recorded in the suburban streets of a neighborhood just South of downtown Miami, according to the geolocation tagged in the source of the video. It depicted in grainy graphics hundreds of people running in the street, but they couldn’t see from what. In the last seven seconds of the video, which they watched several times, a woman beside the man recording could be seen being tackled by something. The panning video was so quick it was difficult to differentiate what they saw, but it moved like an animal and was covered in blood.


“Dr. Mars, everyone from the Florida Governor to the police officers on the ground in Miami is calling this a virus of some kind. Why can’t the CDC tell us what we’re dealing with?” Todd spoke to the flat-screen TV mounted on the far wall.


Dr. Mars was at her office in Atlanta, GA, but the video conference revealed she still wore her house clothes, her black hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she wore her thick-rimmed glasses instead of her usual contacts.


“Sir, I cannot guess at what I don’t know,” Dr. Mars spoke clearly and enunciated her words more than she needed to. A familiar tactic to Todd for people who were nervous in social settings or public speaking. They over-compensated for their desire to whisper and hide themselves by speaking too loud and clear.


The doctor continued as she pulled a packet of papers that were heavily highlighted from under her binder, “At this point, I have no evidence that an outbreak has occurred. In this memo, which compiled ‘symptoms’ from first responders on the ground, I have listed heightened aggression, violence, bloodshot eyes, growling, screaming…” Dr. Mars shook her head incredulously. “Half of these aren’t even symptoms. Until we get medical professionals to examine the patients, I can’t guess at what this is.”


“We can’t get any patients for you, doctor,” President Walker said. “Governor Tillman told me every person they send to the scene doesn’t come back. So, I’m ordering you to speculate. Now.”

Dr. Mars pursed her lips as she touched her fingers to her temple and thought for a moment. “Perhaps, a substantial gas leak… an aerosolized mixture of the right chemicals in a localized area can cause altered brain states, irritability, pain…”


“This isn’t localized,” Admiral Rotoss spoke with the confidence his age and stature displayed. His military dress uniform fit him perfectly, and he sat like wooden boards had replaced his spine. “Reports indicate the incident has spread to downtown Miami. That’s ten miles in as many hours.”


“Speculate further, Dr. Mars. Let’s say this is a virus,” Todd pressed.


Dr. Mars shook her head as she shrugged, “It would have to be a novel virus. Some kind of weaponized, mind-altering agent.” Picking up the highlighted memo again, she bit her lip. “I don’t know… Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that can cause aggression; rabies is another, but they can’t spread at the rate you’re talking. Nothing can. It takes days, weeks even, for symptoms to show. We need a sample from the field. Preferably a live subject exhibiting these symptoms, but a blood or tissue sample will do. If this is a virus, and I’m not convinced it is, it's without precedent.”


President Walker looked to his Chief of Staff and shook his head as if saying, ‘Glad we have the experts here.’


“Thanks, Dr. Mars. We’ll let you know when we can get you a sample.”


Todd said as an aide from the back of the room passed another sheet to him. It was the fourth one in the last hour placed on his growing stack of disorganized memos. The last three, he could tell, were handwritten faxes from Danny. He’d given the boy a dozen impossible tasks, including getting with the speech-writing staff to develop a presidential address to the nation about the situation, even though they had no idea what the situation was.


“Todd?” the president asked as the monitor with Dr. Mars went black.


“At the rate this is spreading, I don’t care what the CDC says, I don’t want to chance it. We should order a nationwide Ground-Stop. Let’s get all of our planes on the ground until we know what this is,” Todd suggested.


“So ordered,” President Walker said, then turned to Admiral Steve Rotoss to his right. “Steve, who the hell did this?”


Admiral Steve Rotoss was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the last three Presidents and, some would say, the most capable military mind alive. He was Todd’s age but a few pounds lighter, taller, and carried himself like he was still a thirty-year-old sailor chiseled out of granite. His silver hair was cut short and parted to the side with military precision.


“We know Iran and North Korea both have advanced biolabs. China does as well, Russia is possible, but not my first choice.”


Todd waved a dismissive hand in the air, “Let’s not forget the Russian President is also sick with something, and I don’t believe in coincidences at this level.”

The president nodded approvingly.


“China has quite a bit to lose,” Secretary of Defense Kyle Warner added. The Secretary sat at the opposite side of the table from Admiral Rotoss, which seemed fitting as the two were so often bulls at opposite sides of an issue butting heads. “You can be sure our markets are going to take a hit come Monday, and we’re China’s number one customer. Our economies are too integrated. One goes down, they all do.”


“I agree,” Admiral Rotoss nodded. Todd had to do a double take at the two men. He couldn’t recall the last time he didn’t have to listen to them go three rounds on an issue. “North Korea is the most likely suspect. They have the most to gain, the least to lose, and the capabilities.”


“Have the National Guard units arrived in Miami yet?” the president asked.


“Still a few hours out, sir,” the Admiral replied and sifted through a stack of folders in front of him before finding the one he needed. “Due to the speed of this virus’ spread and our inability to control or contain this situation as of yet, we’ve activated a series of protocols as a precaution. These are plans designed by the Pentagon with input from DARPA scientists in consultation with the congressional and judicial branches for theoretical responses to various disasters—including biological attack.”


“I’d say it's not very theoretical anymore, Admiral,” the president added. “What do you want to do?”


“Yes, sir,” Admiral Rotoss conceded as he placed a green folder on the table at a distance that offered the president a chance to take it but was far enough away to suggest the Admiral did not want him to. Todd’s eyes narrowed, noting the gesture.


“I’d like us to move to Defcon-Two as well as call in all of our special operations units. As a precaution, we’ll activate the continuity of government protocols and allow extraction of Florida representatives and other essential personnel.”


“Go ahead with it,” the president nodded, ready to move on, but a hand raised over the table to Todd’s left.


“Sir,” Brenda Talbot, the National Security Advisor, added, “I think before Special Ops is on the ground, we need to address the rules of engagement.”


Admiral Rotoss squared his shoulders with Brenda in anticipation of a fight.


She continued, “By all accounts, these are unarmed Americans causing all the problems in Miami. Should a Navy Seal team or Army National Guard come face to face with whatever this is, we need to decide on the level of force to be used. On top of that, we have to address Posse Comitatus with respect to ordering Special Ops on U.S. soil.”


Todd shifted uncomfortably as he felt a headache begin to form in the front of his brain. Brenda was right to bring it up, but that didn’t mean he was any happier about having it on his plate. This was a lose-lose scenario. Should the president place too many restrictions on the soldiers, they could be overwhelmed, and the president will be blamed for the death of troops. Place too few restrictions on the use of deadly force, and President Walker goes into the next election as the president who authorized the murder of unarmed civilians.


Admiral Rotoss turned his attention back to the president, “Posse Comitatus is not an issue. We’ll have Governor Tillman sign a letter, the same as we have before. As for rules of engagement, this virus has already claimed over a hundred police officers. Officers who were trained to de-escalate and use minimal force. If you don’t want dead soldiers, we have to allow deadly force. I say, deadly force on anyone suspected of being infected.”


President Walker folded his arms over his barrel chest and glanced at Todd. The weight of the decision finally struck the president’s withered expression.


“I agree, our troops should be allowed deadly force when warranted,” Brenda conceded, “but what constitutes ‘suspected of being infected?’ How is a soldier supposed to see a virus?”

Admiral Rotoss thumped his index finger down on the table, “Any civilian disobeying lawful commands—”

Brenda clasped her hands together, “Admiral, if we use that language, every riot and protest in the United States is about to become a blood bath.”

“Enough! Geez, you people…” the president growled and raised his hands over his head. “In case there’s some confusion, you’re supposed to come to me with recommendations, not debate!”


Todd rubbed a palm over his face as the silence settled over the table.


“We’ll do a verbal challenge,” he said. “A verbal challenge plus… ‘any articulable evidence that the person or persons are of an altered mind…’ we’ll run the language through the lawyers, but if this is spreading and we’re operating under the assumption that this is a virus, we have to consider unarmed civilians carrying this virus a deadly weapon. Agreed?”

Todd looked over the long table of nodding faces.


“I agree,” Brenda said.


President Walker gave an appreciative nod to his Chief of Staff, “What’s next?”

Secretary Warner leaned forward, hesitated, and flicked a look toward Admiral Rotoss before placing a folder in front of President Walker. Todd braced himself for the war of words to begin between the Admiral and Secretary Warner.


“Sir, there is also a containment protocol I think is pertinent to this situation that, um, I would like to activate,” the Secretary said as if one of the words might be a land mine that could explode once uttered.


The president gestured for him to continue.


“Protocol is called ‘Emerald Sky,’” Secretary Warner began. “It is a hard closure response to an uncontained outbreak on pandemic levels. It was developed during the Cold War but has been updated and modernized for our increasingly connected society.”


Todd furrowed his brow as he put on his glasses to review the file. He handed off satellite images of Southern Florida and briefing memos to the president. In his experience in Washington, when he heard sentences with too much fluff and not enough substance, it meant the speaker didn’t want to say what he had to say.


Emerald Sky,” Todd repeated as he found several red Xs across downtown Miami. “What is this calling for?”


“Loading six F-15s with precision napalm ordinance,” Secretary Warner spoke casually as if he just suggested a place to get lunch. “They can be over the hot zone in Miami in eighteen minutes.”


“What?” Todd and the president said at the same time.


“Napalm burns at temperatures exceeding two thousand degrees, sir,” the Secretary of Defense continued. The look of disbelief on the president’s face matched the feeling in Todd’s stomach. “I have consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they concur. Based on the evidence at hand, I recommend bombing the targets immediately to stop the spread of this virus.”


“Kyle, have you lost your mind? What evidence? We don’t even know what this is.” Todd blurted out. The fact that this was suggested at all could be enough to end a Presidency if it ever leaked to the press.


Secretary Warner hung his head. He was a dog who knew he’d pissed on the carpet, waiting for his beating.


“Mr. President,” Admiral Rotoss added. “Let me just add to Secretary Warner’s suggestion. In a matter of hours, this unknown virus has spread to a quarter of the city and killed hundreds, if not thousands of people. This may very well be a greater loss of life than 9/11. I can verify the validity of Operation Emerald Sky from a military point of view.”


The president seemed to still be processing the suggestion that had taken the room by surprise.


“Um, Admiral, I appreciate your input, and Secretary Warner… but no. No, this is America,” President Walker shook away half of a laugh as he spoke. “We don’t bomb our own people. As Todd said, we don’t even know what this is yet.”


“Sir—” Secretary Warner started again.


“Kyle!” the president’s mood quickly switched, then considered himself and eyed the others sitting around the table. He tempered his tone before adding, “That’s enough. Do not suggest that again.”


One of the military aides in the background approached Todd and whispered in his ear, and he relayed the message to the president.


“The vice president’s on the phone for you, sir,” Todd said.


“God, what now?” President Walker huffed as he picked up the receiver and pressed the blinking light.

Other murmurs grew in the background as the meeting broke down. Todd could hear mentions of Tampa, Florida, and another voice said to pull up the video.

“What is it, Admiral?” Todd asked as he grabbed at the stack of notes passed to him.

“I don’t know. We’re getting unconfirmed reports that it spread to Tampa,” Admiral Rotoss said.

“What? Get me details,” Todd said, standing up and feeling the rise of energy in the room. He wiped his brow—surprised at how sweaty he had gotten. The same aide returned with another fax from Danny.

“For the love of God, Danny. What is it?” Todd cursed to himself, but the young aide delivering the memo shrunk away as if it were directed at him.

The latest fax was a handwritten note in Danny’s hand. It had only six words scribbled in the center of the paper.

 

‘VICE PRESIDENT ANDERSON’S DAUGHTER IN MIAMI.’

 

Chapter Three

 

Ryan Hector

Jacksonville, FL

April 20, 04:49 pm

Outbreak Day: 00

 

Hector’s fingers brushed his son’s cheek as he slept. Thomas’ skin was so soft and delicate that he was afraid the slightest pressure would hurt him. The baby’s size left him struggling to comprehend how three-month-old Thomas would be a young boy running about in ten years, a young man in twenty.


Twenty years ago, I joined the Navy. When Thomas is old enough to join, I’ll have been a soldier longer than he has been alive.


Rubbing the pads of his calloused fingers together, Hector noted how rough and harsh his skin was compared to his boy’s. It was the difference between the feeling of innocence and the touch of a warrior.


“Hey,” Sara whispered so faintly her voice barely carried. Hector snapped out of the trance he was lost in, and instantly, his body stiffened. His shoulders pushed back, and his head was on a swivel, reassessing the half-put-together bedroom his family was in and confirming nothing had changed in the interim. “Hey, hey… shhh… You’ll wake him.” Sara placed her hand on the mattress beside their son.


Thomas stirred on the king-sized bed, but his eyes never opened, and the blanket he was tucked in barely moved. Hector and his wife were on opposite sides of their boy, admiring the child in the dimly lit room. The cardboard boxes and Styrofoam insert still covered the floor of the master bedroom where he’d left them. He saw no movement or threats, and his rifle case was propped against the corner of the room nearest the door. It wasn’t often Hector could turn it off and just live in the moment. Peaceful, quaint, present.


It was an uncomfortable feeling for Hector, foreign.

“Ryan?” Sara said, but her voice edged to annoyance.


“Sorry, I zoned out there for a second,” Hector said.


“I could tell. What were you thinking about?”


Hector laid back down on his side but kept his rigidness. “Nothing, just… wondering what our boy’s going to be like when he’s older.”


The smile that grew across his wife’s face seemed to be endless as she melted into the bed. Reaching over Thomas, Sara cupped Hector’s black stubble on his cheek. “I think he’ll be handsome like his father.”


Hector smiled at his wife. She was gorgeous as ever with her silky-smooth skin, delicate features, and short brown hair. He was lucky to have her. With a sharp chin and a perpetual five o’clock shadow, Hector was unassuming in appearance. His skinny frame and quiet demeanor hid the violence he was capable of from society at large. It was for the best. Twenty years of being an operator taught him the most dangerous threat is the one you don’t see coming.


“Do you think he’ll be a soldier like his father, too?” Hector raised an eyebrow, knowing in advance the irritation he was causing.


Sara retracted her hand, and her smile disintegrated to nothing, “Not if I have anything to say about it,” Sara leaned forward and whispered softer. “Spoiler alert: I do.”


Hector snickered and leaned forward and kissed his wife’s pursed lips. Her mood was soured by the mention of the military. “Two more months,” he said.


A sparkle flared in Sara’s eyes as she repeated, “Two more months,” then leaned forward again and kissed her husband properly.


In his nineteen years and ten months in the service, Hector hadn’t met a single military wife who liked the military. The job stole their husbands away in more than one way. The hardest months of Hector and Sara’s marriage were the ones leading up to his twenty-year mark in the Navy. The late-night conversation about remaining in the Navy even after hitting the retirement marker was always followed by tepid morning talks and midday arguments that devolved into screaming matches.


It was hard for Hector to leave the teams. Being a soldier was all he’d known since adulthood, and being a Navy Seal was more a lifestyle than a career.


She’s asking me to become something else.


He never was close to his family. The youngest of three, Hector’s two older brothers were out of the house before he was in high school. Last he heard, they had their own families and still lived in Nebraska. The men he spent hours training with were the same men he spent hours drinking with. The same men he fought with were those he lived with on the many tours overseas.


They were his family.


Bzzzt! Bzzzt!


Hector had heard his cell phone buzz against the hardwood floor in the corner of the room for a while now but chose to preserve the moment rather than see the texts and notifications he missed. Thomas’ tiny fingers grasped the blanket that was tucked under his chin and smacked his lips through dreamful sleep. Sara’s fingers splayed with Hector’s above Thomas’ head. Her other hand drew circles in the few strands of the boy’s black hair.


“He’ll be a doctor or a lawyer,” Sara smiled at their son. “He’ll have a big house in Florida not far from us so he can visit. Wife and kids. You two can go on hunting trips in the winter up North. We can do Christmas here every year.”


“Fuck lawyer,” Hector made a face. “Rather him be a garbage man than a damn lawyer.”

Sara smacked his shoulder and tried to hide her smile, “Language.”


Bzzzt! Bzzzt!


“He’s three months old, Sara. He doesn’t know the difference between Santa Clause and asshole. The hunting trips sound nice, though.”


Sara’s face softened, “Three months now, but pretty soon he’ll be three years old and repeating everything you say.”


Bzzzt! Bzzzt!


“God, that’s so loud,” Sara groaned.


Their new house had bare walls and empty rooms with coffee-brown hardwood floors that echoed and carried the slightest noise everywhere. They had been building this house for six months—ever since Hector had the ‘come to Jesus’ moment, as Sara put it, and agreed to retire after twenty years in the military. They arrived this morning for what was supposed to be a long week of buying furniture and decorating the place now that the electrical and water were running and connected. They had purchased their bed and a crib so far and spent the afternoon assembling them.


Their Florida house was little more than a shell at this point. An empty canvas of the next stage of their lives, while the house back in Coronado, CA, was packed with their old lives. Hector wasn’t big on change, but if twenty years in the military had taught him anything, it was to embrace the suck.


Bzzzt!


“I should check it out. Damn phone’s been going all day,” Hector said. He slowly pushed and scooted off the bed so as not to shake Thomas awake.


“You’re on leave,” Sara reminded. “The Navy can survive a week without you.”


“Don’t tell them that,” Hector mumbled as he groaned and bent to pick up his phone from the floor. It was always funny to Hector the times he felt his age taxing his body. He could be deployed in the mountains of Afghanistan and run up shale mountainsides, no problem. But spending three hours on his knees putting a crib and king-sized headboard together made his thirty-eight-year-old joints crack and his back ache like an older man.


Bzzzt! Bzzzt!


For fuck’s sake—what?


There were dozens of missed calls and texts, along with even more news updates and ‘Breaking News’ bulletins. What isn’t ‘Breaking News’ nowadays? Before he could click on any of them, another call came in.

 

‘Axe Calling…’

 

Hector’s eyes flicked to Sara before answering, and his face caught her attention. He already knew something was up.


“What is it?” Sara sat up straight.


“Hey,” Hector answered the phone.


“Fuckn’ a, man. I’ve been trying to raise you for the last hour,” Axe’s gravel voice replied.

“Yeah, I’m with Sara. What the hell’s going on?”


“Bro, where have you been? Haven’t you seen the news? It’s on every channel.”


Instinctually, Hector surveyed the room for a TV to turn on despite them not owning one. He felt a nervous panic boiling in his gut as he imagined planes being flown into the White House and buildings collapsing into piles of gray, smoking rubble.


“I don’t—I’m not by a TV, tell me. Are we under attack?” Hector’s voice raised, making the baby stir. Sara picked him up, bouncing the child to her shoulder.


“I don’t know, man. Looks bad. Came out as a riot in Miami, but now they’re saying it's viral or something. Some kind of biological attack. They are calling us in. They’re calling everyone—”

“Miami? Miami, Florida?” Hector was reaching for his rifle case without thinking about it. “When? What time did it come in?”


“The news started on it like three hours ago. Most of the team’s already at the base, I’m like ten minutes away. You at home or—”


“No, I’m in fucking Florida, bro,” Hector put the phone on speaker and set it down on the mattress beside his gun case as he began unzipping it.


“Hector,” Sara whispered, the color fading from her face. “What’s going on?


“Fuck! Are you shitting me right now?” Axe cursed, and Hector could hear him punch something. “At the new house? That’s Jacksonville, right?”


Hector removed a Smith & Wesson Shield M2.0 handgun from a side pouch along with three loaded magazines. Smacking one magazine into the pistol, he racked the chamber, checked it, and slid the pistol into his back waistband. In his bug-out bag in the truck, he had an IWB holster he could put on later.


“Yes, Jacksonville.”


“Listen, get out of there. News is breaking now that whatever this is, they think it just jumped to Tampa,” Axe said.


Hector moved away from the phone to whisper to Sara, who had heard and seen enough to be terrified now. She wasn’t used to seeing this version of her husband. “Go get your things together by the door. Do not go outside. We’re leaving in sixty seconds.”

“But—”


“I’ll explain in the car. Sixty seconds,” Hector pointed to the stairwell, ending the conversation. After a brief hesitation, she left with Thomas downstairs.


“I’m not hearing shit about anything anywhere else,” the speaker of his phone crackled as Axe continued. “This attack seems localized in Florida.”


Ripping the straps free that secured his rifle to the case, Hector pulled back on the AR-15’s charging handle and chambered a 5.56mm round from the magazine already seated in the weapon. “Do we know the virus? Is it airborne? Hemorrhagic? Anthrax?”


“I don’t know, I don’t know. Something destabilizing. Videos and people streaming are flooding the internet right now. Just shows people fighting and trampling everything in sight,” Axe said, and Hector felt his gut twist. Sliding a spare rifle magazine into the back pocket of his jeans, he looped the single-point sling of his rifle over his right arm and head. “Look, there’s a naval airbase in Jacksonville,” Axe continued. “Get there, and I’ll let Huxley know where you are. We’re all probably heading that way anyway. Huxley will coordinate a place to link up.”


“Check,” Hector said, jogging down the stairs with the rifle case in one hand and his rifle bouncing from his neck. “Wherever we link up, bring my kit for me, will ya?”

“You got it, buddy.”


“I’ll call back once I’m there.”


“Okay, and hey. Don’t do nothin' stupid,” Axe added.


“Na, I leave all the stupid for you,” Hector said in an amused voice. The men ended their call, and Hector got to work loading his truck. The streets looked normal, and he saw no one else in the subdivision packing their vehicle, which was a good sign they were still ahead of the panic, though Sara was quickly catching up. She had put Thomas in his carrier and had been scrolling the news articles while Hector finished his conversation.


“Oh God, Ryan is this—they’re saying it's nuts in Miami. Like it’s some kind of virus,” Sara was in a trance as she read article after article. Thankfully, she didn’t start on the videos until they were in the truck and on the road. She secured the child seat in the vehicle, and Hector dug into the bed of his truck, grabbed a camouflage backpack, and tossed it at Sara’s feet on the passenger floorboard. Sara was a small-town girl from Nebraska who worked as an at-home nurse for the elderly. She was not built for this.


“Where are we going? Back to California?” Sara asked as they peeled out of their subdivision and onto the main road. They had made the long drive from California to Florida because this was meant to be a vacation as much as it was a time to fill their future home. They had taken their time, stopping at several hotels along the way, then did their sightseeing at the Grand Canyon and a few other destinations. It had taken four days to get there, but even if they only stopped for gas, Hector figured it would take two days to get home. Too much time on the road with this going on.


“No, I’m getting called in. We’re going to that airbase we passed yesterday,” Hector stopped at a red light, tapping his thumb on the steering wheel and double-checking the directions on his phone.


“Why are they calling you in?”


“I don’t know, maybe this is an attack from a foreign country or… I don’t know…” Hector gassed the truck too much as he accelerated through the green light. Thomas awoke crying in his car seat. Sara leaned back to comfort the child, but it didn’t work.


“Shit. Sorry, bud,” Hector said over his shoulder, then turned to Sara. “Listen, I don’t know how bad this is, but I’m not taking any chances. You’re going to drop me off at the base, but you’re going to keep going. You and Thomas go to your sister’s place in Birmingham.”


Sara fidgeted nervously with her phone before replying, “Why can’t we stay with you on the base? Or get a hotel?”


“I’m not staying there, and there’s no way you’re staying in Florida with this going on,” Hector took a few quick turns before getting on the highway and accelerating to ninety miles per hour in a heartbeat. “You’ve got a full tank of gas plus two ten-gallon gas cans in the bed of the truck. Drive directly to your sister’s. Take that bag by your feet and my rifle and pistol with you.”


Sara shook her head. “You know Tracy and her husband don’t like guns in their house.”


“I don’t care; they’re going to make an exception this time. Besides, I’m not giving them guns; I’m giving them to you.” Sara was familiar with shooting and knew how to work them, for the most part. But she was more scared of holding the guns than one getting pointed at her. Still, Hector would have better peace of mind if she had them at her side.


“Won’t you need them?” Sara asked.


“No, Axe is bringing me my gear. Listen. When you get there, if things look like they’re getting out of hand in Miami or if I text and tell you to, then you, Thomas, Venessa, and Mitch need to get in this truck and drive North.”


“North?” Sara furrowed her brow. “North to where?”


Hector scanned his memories for a shared location they could use as a point of reference. His mind recalled a vacation they took once on a sandy beach and driving the sand dunes. “Remember that place, um, up in Michigan where we went? With the sand dunes?”


“Traverse City?”


“Yes, drive up there and rent a house or cabin outside of town not far from the water.”

Sara screwed up her face as a half-smile curled the corner of her lip. “Don’t you think you’re being a little paranoid?”


As if checking to see if he was, Hector looked up at the rearview mirror and saw the everyday traffic of Jacksonville, FL, behind him. Teenagers were getting out of school. Men and women drove to the store and headed home from work.


Hector pursed his lips.


“I hope so,” he mumbled.




 


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