Skip to Content
How to Write
Red Planet Blues
End of an Era
SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Triggers > Opening Chapters
Copyright © 2012 by Robert J. Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.
by Robert J. Sawyer
This is how we began ...
Susan Dawson thirty-four, with pale skin and pale blue eyes was standing behind and to the right of the presidential podium. She spoke into the microphone hidden in her sleeve. "Prospector is moving out."
"Copy," said the man's voice in her ear. Seth Jerrison, white, long-faced, with the hooked nose political cartoonists had such fun with, strode onto the wooden platform that had been hastily erected in the center of the wide steps leading up to the Lincoln Memorial.
Susan had been among the many who were unhappy when the president decided yesterday to give his speech here instead of at the White House. He wanted to speak before a crowd, he said, letting the world see that even during such frightening times, Americans could not be cowed. But Susan estimated that fewer than three thousand people were assembled on either side of the reflecting pool. The Washington Monument was visible both at the far end of the pool and upside down in its still water, framed by ice around the edges. In the distance, the domed Capitol was timidly peeking out from behind the stone obelisk.
President Jerrison was wearing a long navy-blue coat, and his breath was visible in the chill November air. "My fellow Americans," he began, "it has been a full month since the latest terrorist attack on our soil. Our thoughts and prayers today are with the brave people of Chicago, just as they continue to be with the proud citizens of San Francisco, who still reel from the attack there in September, and with the patriots of Philadelphia, devastated by the explosion that shook their city in August." He briefly looked over his left shoulder, indicating the nineteen-foot-tall marble statue visible between the Doric columns above and behind him. "A century and a half ago, on the plain at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln mused about whether our nation could long endure. But it has endured, and it will continue to do so. The craven acts of terrorists will not deter us; the American spirit is indomitable."
The audience such as it was erupted in applause, and Jerrison turned from looking at the teleprompter on his left to the one on his right. "The citizens of the United States will not be held hostage by terrorists; we will not allow the crazed few to derail our way of life."
More applause. As she scanned the crowd, Susan thought of the speeches by previous presidents that had made similar claims. But despite the trillions spent on the war on terror, things were getting worse. The weapons used for the last three attacks were a new kind of bomb: they weren't nukes, but they did generate super-high temperatures and their detonation was accompanied by an electromagnetic pulse, although the pulse was mostly free of the component that could permanently damage electronics. One could conceivably guard against the hijacking of airplanes. But how did one defend against easily hidden, easily carried, hugely powerful bombs?
"Each year, the foes of liberty gain new tools of destruction," continued Jerrison. "Each year, the enemies of civilization can do more damage. But each year we the free peoples of the world gain more power, too."
Susan was the Secret Service agent-in-charge. She had line-of-sight to seventeen other agents. Some, like her, were standing in front of the colonnade; others were at the sides of the wide marble staircase. A vast pane of bulletproof glass protected Jerrison from the audience, but she still continued to survey the crowd, looking for anyone who seemed out of place or unduly agitated. A tall, thin man in the front row caught her eye; he was reaching into his jacket the way one might go for a holstered gun but then he brought out a smartphone and started thumb-typing. Tweet this, asshole, she thought.
Jerrison went on: "I say now, to the world, on behalf of all of us who value liberty, that we shall not rest until our planet is free of the scourge of terrorism."
Another person caught Susan's attention: a woman who was looking not at the podium, but off in the distance at ah, at a police officer on horseback, over by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
"Before I became your president," Jerrison said, "I taught American history at Columbia. If my students could take away only a single lesson, I always hoped it would be the famous maxim that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it "
Susan's heart jumped and she swung her head left and right, trying to spot where the shot had come from; the marble caused the report to echo. She looked over at the podium and saw that Jerrison had slammed forward into it he'd been shot from behind. She shouted into her sleeve microphone as she ran, her shoulder-length brown hair flying. "Prospector is hit! Phalanx Alpha, shield him! Phalanx Beta, into the memorial the shot came from there. Gamma, out into the crowd. Go!"
Jerrison slid onto the wooden stage, ending up face down. Even before Susan had spoken, the ten Secret Service agents in Phalanx Alpha had formed two living walls one behind Jerrison to protect him from further shots from that direction; another in front of the bulletproof glass that had shielded him from the audience, in case there was a second assailant on the Mall. A male agent bent down but immediately stood up and shouted, "He's alive!"
The rear group briefly opened their ranks, letting Susan rush in to crouch next to the president. Journalists were trying to approach him or at least get pictures of his fallen form but other agents prevented them from getting close.
Alyssa Snow, the president's physician, ran over, accompanied by two paramedics. She gingerly touched Jerrison's back, finding the entrance wound, and presumably noting that the bullet had missed the spine rolled the president over. The president's eyes fluttered, looking up at the silver-gray November sky. His lips moved slightly, and Susan tried to make out whatever he was saying over the screams and footfalls from the crowd, but his voice was too faint.
Dr. Snow who was an elegant forty-year-old African American soon had the president's long coat open, exposing his suit jacket and blood-soaked white shirt. She unbuttoned the shirt, revealing the exit wound; on this cold morning steam was rising from it. She took a length of gauze from one of the paramedics, wadded it up, and pressed it against the hole to try to stanch the flow of blood. One paramedic was taking the president's vital signs, and the other now had an oxygen mask over Jerrison's mouth.
"How long for a medical chopper?" Susan asked into her wrist.
"Eight minutes," replied a female voice.
"Too long," Susan said. She rose and shouted, "Where's Kushnir?"
"Into the Beast!"
"Yes, ma'am!" Kushnir was today's custodian of the nuclear football the briefcase with the launch procedures; he was wearing a Navy dress uniform. The Beast the presidential limo was five hundred feet away on Henry Bacon Drive, the closest it could get to the memorial.
The paramedics transferred Jerrison to a litter. Susan and Snow took up positions on either side and ran with the paramedics and Phalanx Alpha down the broad steps and over to the Beast. Kushnir was already in the front passenger seat, and the paramedics reclined the president's rear seat until it was almost horizontal, then moved him onto it.
Dr. Snow opened the trunk, which contained a bank of the president's blood type, and quickly set up a transfusion. The doctor and the two paramedics took the rearward-facing seats, and Susan sat beside the president. Agent Darryl Hudkins a tall African American with a shaved head took the remaining forward-facing chair.
Susan pulled her door shut and shouted to the driver, "Lima Tango, go, go, go!"
Kadeem Adams knew he was in Washington God damn it, he knew it. When they'd brought him here from Reagan, he'd seen the Washington Monument off in the distance giving him the finger, but ...
But in every fiber of his being, he felt like he was in another place, another time. A cruel sun hung high overhead, and countless bits of burnt paper, ash, and debris swirled about him a ticker-tape parade commemorating the destruction of the village.
Sweet Jesus, why couldn't it stop? Why couldn't he forget?
The heat. The smoke not quite the smell of napalm in the morning, but bad enough. The relentless drone of insects. The horizon shimmering in the distance. The buildings torn open, walls collapsed to rubble, rude furniture smashed to kindling.
His right arm ached and so did his left ankle; it could barely support his weight. He tried to swallow but his throat was dry and his nostrils were clogged with sand. His vision was suddenly obscured, so he wiped a hand in front of his eyes and his palm came away wet and red.
More sounds: helicopters, an armored vehicle moving along the dirt road crunching wreckage beneath its tracks, and
Yes, always, overtop of everything, unending.
People shouting cursing praying in Arabic.
The cacophony of a ruined place, a ruined culture.
Kadeem took a deep breath, just like Professor Singh had taught him to. He closed his eyes for a second, then opened them and picked an object in the room here at Luther Terry Memorial Hospital, focusing his attention on it and nothing else. He selected a vase of flowers clear glass, with fluted sides, like a Roman column that had been squeezed in the middle
by a fist
And the flowers, two white carnations and three red roses
And ... and ...
Glass could cut.
No. No. The flowers were ...
Life. Death. On a grave.
The flowers were ...
Beautiful. Calming. Natural. Unspoiled.
Deep breaths. Trying to relax. Trying to be here, in this hospital room, not there. Trying, trying, trying ...
He was here, in DC. That other place was the past. Done. Finished. Dead and buried.
Or at least dead.
Professor Singh entered the room. As always, the Sikh's eyes went first to the vital-signs monitor and he doubtless noted Kadeem's elevated pulse, his increased respiration, and Kadeem looked himself and saw that his blood pressure was 190 over 110.
"Another flashback," Singh said, as much diagnosis as question.
Kadeem nodded. "The village again."
"I am so sorry," Singh said. "But, if we're lucky and we both deserve some of that today's the day we may be able to do something about this. I've just come from seeing Dr. Gaudio. Your final MRIs are fine. She says we can go ahead with the procedure."
The same hospital, but another room: "Ready, Mr. Latimer?" asked one of the two orderlies who had just entered.
Josh Latimer was more than ready; he'd been waiting many months for this. "Absolutely."
"What about you, Miss Hennessey?" the other orderly asked.
Josh lolled his head, looking over at the daughter he'd recently been reunited with after a thirty-year separation.
Dora seemed nervous, and he couldn't blame her. He'd be better off after this operation, but there was no denying it she'd be worse off. Parents often made sacrifices for their children, but it was a rare child who was called upon to make a sacrifice as big as this for a parent. "Yes," she said.
One orderly went to the head of each gurney. Josh's was further from the door, but his orderly started pushing him first, and he passed close enough by his daughter to reach over and touch her arm. She smiled at him, and just then she reminded him of her mother: the same round head, the same astonishingly blue eyes, the same lopsided grin. Dora was thirty-five now, and her mother would have been sixty-one, the same age as Josh, if breast cancer hadn't taken her.
They made an odd train, he knew, as they were pushed along: him as the locomotive, thin, with white hair and beard; her as the caboose, still a little on the hefty side despite dieting for months to get in shape for the operation, her long brown hair tucked into a blue cap to keep it out of the way. They happened to pass the door marked "Dialysis." Josh had spent so much time in there he knew how many tiles were in the ceiling, how many slats in the blinds, how many drawers in the various cabinets.
They continued down the corridor, and Josh was pushed feet-first into the operating room, followed by Dora. The orderlies joined forces to transfer him to one of the surgical tables and then her to the other. The second table wasn't normally here; it was mounted on wheels. Overhead was a glassed-in observation gallery that covered two adjacent sides of the room, but its lights were off.
The surgeon was present, along with her team, all in their green surgical garb. Her eyes crinkled as she smiled. "Welcome, Josh. Hello, Dora. We'll start by putting you both under. All right? Here we go ..."
Secretary of Defense Peter Muilenburg a broad-shouldered sixty-year-old white man with silver hair and hazel eyes stood looking at the giant illuminated world map stretching the length of the subterranean room at the Pentagon. Above the map a large red digital timer counted down. It currently read 74:01:22. In just over three days, Operation Counterpunch would commence.
Muilenburg pointed at the big screen, where the string "CVN-76" was displayed in the middle of the Arabian Sea. "What's the status of the Reagan?" he asked.
"She's making up for lost time," replied a female analyst, consulting a desktop monitor.
"We need the aircraft carriers in position within sixty hours," Muilenburg said.
"It'll be tight for the Reagan and even tighter for the Stennis," the aide replied, "thanks to that hurricane. But they'll make it."
Muilenburg's BlackBerry buzzed and he pulled it out of his blue uniform pocket. "SecDef," he said.
"Mr. Secretary," said a woman's voice. "This is Mrs. Astley." The next words were always, "Please hold for President Jerrison," followed by silence, so he lowered the handset a bit, and
He quickly brought the phone back to his ear. "Repeat, please."
"I said," the president's secretary replied, and Muilenburg realized that her voice was shaking, "Mr. Jerrison has been shot. They're rushing him to LT right now."
Muilenburg looked up at the bank of red digits, just in time to see it change from 74:00:00 to 73:59:59. "God save us," he said.
There were always two members of the Secret Service Countersniper Team on the roof of the White House; today one of them was Rory Proctor. The chill wind cut through him. He was holding his rifle in gloved hands and walking back and forth, scanning the grounds between here and the Ellipse, the fifty-two-acre public park south of the White House fence. The Washington Monument was visible, but even from this elevated position, Proctor couldn't see the Lincoln Memorial where all of the action had been taking place, although he was listening intently to the chatter in his earpiece.
Proctor was so used to scanning for things in the distance, he didn't pay much attention to the rooftop, which had a stunted colonnade around its edges and a few potted shrubs. But a dove happened to catch his eye as it flew into view. It landed a few yards from him, by a squat metal enclosure at the base of one of the rectangular chimneys on the south side. There was some odd scuffing of the white roofing tiles in front of the enclosure. He took one more look at the grounds on the south side, saw nothing of interest, then walked over to look at the enclosure.
The padlock had been jimmied, and although it had been closed, it wasn't locked. He swung the lid of the enclosure up, leaning it back against the white chimney, and
Oh, shit. Inside was a hexagonal contraption of squat metal about two feet in diameter and, judging by the depth of the enclosure, about a foot thick; it looked like someone had taken a slice through one of the lava pillars from the Devil's causeway. Proctor recognized the device from intelligence briefings. The attacks on Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia had been successful meaning the bombs used there had been utterly destroyed when they exploded. But a planned attack on Los Angeles International Airport had been averted ten days ago when a terrorist from al-Sajada, the al-Qaeda splinter group that had risen to prominence after the death of Osama bin Laden, had been intercepted with a device just like this one in the trunk of his car.
Proctor spoke into his headset. "Proctor, Central. I'm on the White House roof and I've found a bomb."
The doors to the operating room burst open, and Dr. Mark Griffin, the CEO of Luther Terry Memorial Hospital, strode in, wearing a hastily donned green surgical smock, surgical hat, and face mask. "Sorry, Michelle," he said to the startled surgeon. "You've got to clear out."
Michelle sounded shocked. "I'm in the middle of a kidney transplant."
"We've got a priority patient," Griffin replied, "and no other operating room is available."
"Are you nuts?" Michelle said. "Look at this woman we've opened her up."
"Can you stop?"
"Stop? We've just begun!"
"Good," said Griffin. "Then you can stop." He looked at the assembled team. "Clear out, everyone."
"What about the patients? They're intubated and we've put them both under, for God's sake."
"Sew her up, then move them out to the corridor," Griffin replied.
"Mark, this is crazy. The donor flew in all the way from London for this, and "
"Michelle, it's the president. He's been shot, and he'll be here any minute."
As soon as the bullet hit President Jerrison, Secret Service agents swarmed into the Lincoln Memorial. The interior was divided into three chambers by two rows of fifty-foot-tall columns. The large central chamber contained the giant statue of a seated Abe made of starkly white Georgia marble, mounted on a massive oblong pedestal. The small north chamber had Lincoln's second inaugural address carved into its wall, while the small south one had a carving of the Gettysburg Address.
Agent Manny Cheung, the leader of Phalanx Beta, looked around. There were only a few places to hide: behind the columns, in the narrow space behind the statue's pedestal, or somehow clambering up to perch on Lincoln's back. Cheung held his revolver in both hands and nodded to Dirk Jenks, the thickset young agent on his left. They quickly determined that there was no one else in here, but
But the elevator door was now closed. It was in the south chamber, in the wall adjacent to the Gettysburg Address, and had been locked off here at the top with the door open; Cheung knew that Jenks had checked it before the president had arrived. The elevator used to provide handicapped access to the statue went from here down to the small exhibit hall in the lower part of the memorial. Cheung barked into his sleeve. "He's in the elevator heading down."
There were security people guarding the entrance to the basement gallery anyway, but Cheung took off, running on the hard marble floor and down the wide outside steps. He passed between the two signs that flanked the entrance. The white one on his right said, "Warning: Firearms Prohibited," and showed a silhouette of a pistol with a barred red circle over it. The brown one on his left said, "Quiet" and "Respect Please."
Cheung hurried down the steps past the seating area that had been erected for the presidential party, rounded a corner and headed down again to the narrow entrance to the lower level. He had looked through the gallery just yesterday, as part of the preparations for the president's speech. It had been his first time in it like most Washington residents, he tended to visit the sites only when he had company from out of town, and there were so many things to see on the Mall, he'd never bothered with this little museum before.
The exhibit hall, opened in 1994 and occupying just 560 square feet, had been partially paid for by school kids collecting pennies. Since the back of the penny had depicted the Lincoln Memorial then, it had been called the "Pennies Make a Monumental Difference Campaign." Cheung had read the Lincoln quotes carved into black marble slabs, including one that had startled him: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."
He tore past the exhibits, heading to the little elevator lobby in the back. Of course, by the time he got there, the elevator had completed its descent. Three other men two uniformed DC cops and another Secret Service agent were already there, with guns aimed at the elevator door. But there was no sign of anyone else, and the brass door was closed; whoever was inside must have a key for the elevator's control panel, which would explain how he'd started it after it had been locked off on the upper level.
"Anybody try pushing the button?" Cheung asked. There was just one button, since the elevator could only go up from here.
"I did," said one of the uniforms. "Nothing happened."
Cheung pushed the button himself. The door remained shut. "He's definitely got a key, then," he said.
"And he's armed," noted the other Secret Service agent.
Cheung judged the brass door sufficiently sturdy that the would-be assassin probably couldn't shoot through it. He rapped his knuckles loudly against one of the metal panels. "Secret Service!" he shouted. "Come out with your hands up!"
"Everyone, attention please! We need to evacuate the White House and the surrounding buildings immediately. Do not assemble at your fire-muster stations; just keep going. Get as far from the building as you can. Exit right now in an orderly fashion. Don't stop to take anything; just get out. Move!"
"Are we sure he's in there?" Agent Manny Cheung asked.
"There were guards at the outside door the whole time," replied the other Secret Service man, "and we've looked in the exhibit space and the restrooms. He's got to still be in the elevator."
Cheung spoke into his sleeve. "Cheung to Jenks: make sure the elevator shaft is guarded at the top, in case he tries to ride up again."
"Copy," said a voice.
"Sir," said one of the DC cops, "this is bullshit. There are three of us, and dozens more if we need them. Look at that door." Cheung did so. It was an old-fashioned elevator, and the door consisted of two parts but they didn't separate in the middle. Rather, the left part tucked behind the right part as the door opened, and both parts slipped into a pocket on the right side of the elevator shaft. "If we pull on the right-hand part in the middle, there, the left-hand part will draw away from the wall."
Cheung wondered at the wisdom of talking just outside the elevator; although the heavy door probably muffled the sound, whoever was inside could doubtless hear some of what they were saying. Nonetheless, the plan made sense. He nodded at the officer, who was the biggest of the three of them, easily six-five and 280 pounds. The man grabbed the right-hand panel by its edge, near the centerline of the door, and put his back into it, pulling it aside so that it slid with a grinding sound into the pocket hidden behind the beige wall. Cheung, the other Secret Service agent, and the other cop, had their guns trained on the left side, which was now showing a crack, then a sliver, then a strip of light from within. The big cop grunted and pulled again, hard, and the door opened to eighteen inches but no gunfire hailed from the interior.
Another yank, and the right-hand leaf was now all the way into its pocket, leaving the entire left-half of the elevator's width open now, and
And there was no one inside.
Cheung looked up, and ah hah! There was a service door in the roof of the elevator. He tried to reach it but wasn't tall enough. He gestured to the big cop, who had no trouble pushing the roof door aside. The cop then immediately stepped out of the way, and Cheung craned his neck to hazard a peek. It was dark in the shaft, but Christ, yes, there was someone there, illuminated from below by light coming out of the elevator. He was shimmying up the thick cable.
"Cheung to Jenks: the suspect is climbing the elevator cable. He's about ten feet shy of the top."
"Copy, Manny," Jenks replied.
The elevator door started shuddering shut. Cheung wheeled around, going for the rubber bumper at its edge at the same time the tall cop moved for the "Door Open" button; they collided, and the cab lurched into motion
and through the open roof Cheung could see the cable moving. There was a massive thud and the cab shook violently. The assailant must have lost his grip and fallen the twenty feet or so he'd climbed. One of his arms flopped down through the roof hatch.
There was no stopping the elevator's ascent now, and Cheung hoped there was enough clearance to keep a downed man from being squeezed against the top of the shaft.
But, yes, there must be enough clearance! The assailant must have entered the elevator yesterday, when it was announced that Jerrison would give a speech here, and had simply hauled himself up onto the cab's roof and waited; doubtless when they did finally get to examine the roof, they'd find blankets and whatever else he'd needed to survive overnight in the shaft.
The elevator came to a stop, and the door opened revealing a crowd of agents and dour Lincoln off to the right.
"Who the hell pushed the button?" Cheung demanded.
"I did," said Jenks. "I thought "
"Jesus Christ," said Cheung, cutting him off. "You!" he pointed at a female agent. "In here."
The woman hurried forward, and Cheung motioned for the tall cop to boost her up. She placed a finger on the wrist that was dangling through the hatch and shook her head. The cop lifted her higher so she could stick her body through the roof hatch. After a moment, she signaled that she wanted down.
"Well?" Cheung demanded as soon as she was standing again.
"It's not pretty," she said.
Agent Susan Dawson spoke into her wrist microphone. "Dawson to Central: Prospector secured in the Beast. Tell Lima Tango that he's got a severe gunshot wound shot in the back. His physician, Captain Snow, is with us."
The Beast had bulletproof windows and five-inch-thick hull plating. There was a presidential seal on each of its rear doors. A small American flag flew from the right side of the hood and the presidential standard flew from the left. The vehicle had a blue emergency light that could be attached to the roof; the driver himself a Secret Service agent had already deployed it. Motorcycle escorts with sirens blaring were out in front and following behind.
The car took a hard right onto 23rd Street NW. It was only 1.3 miles to Luther Terry, Susan knew, but the traffic was heavy with the tail end of Friday-morning rush hour.
Dr. Snow was still trying to stop the flow of blood, but it was all over the president's gray-haired chest; even with the transfusion, it seemed clear he was losing blood faster than it was being replaced.
"Where's the vice president?" asked Agent Darryl Hudkins.
"Manhattan," said Susan, "but "
A male voice came over their earpieces: "Rockhound is en route to Air Force Two. Will be at Andrews in ninety minutes."
Despite the siren and the driver leaning on the horn they'd slowed to a crawl. Those motorists listening to the radio might already have heard that the president was being rushed to the hospital, and that might make them slow down for a look: would-be Zapruders hoping to catch the moment of presidential demise.
"This is ridiculous," the driver said over his shoulder. "Hold on." He pulled a hard left onto E Street, and Susan did her best to keep the president from sliding out of his seat as the car careened onto its new course. They were now heading directly toward the Kennedy Center. The limo then took a sharp right onto 24th, and the president pressed against Susan. She gently pushed him back into place, but the hip of her dark jacket was now soaked with his blood.
A voice came over Susan's earpiece: "They've got a stretcher waiting at the ambulance entrance, a thoracic team is assembling, and they're clearing an operating room."
"Copy," Susan said. They were doing better than when Reagan had been shot decades ago. Back then, the Secret Service had started taking the president to the White House, not realizing he'd been hit until he began coughing up bright, frothy blood.
Mercifully, some cars were pulling aside to let the Beast pass. Susan looked into the rear-view mirror, catching the driver's eyes there. "Maybe two more minutes," he said.
At last the car made the forty-five degree turn onto New Hampshire Avenue, paralleling the longest side of the hospital, which was shaped like a right-angle triangle. After some deft maneuvering, the driver got the Beast up the ramp into the ambulance emergency bay. There was indeed a team waiting at the side of the curved, covered driveway with a stretcher.
Susan jumped out into the cold air, but by the time she was around to the other side, Darryl Hudkins and the two paramedics were heaving the president onto the stretcher. As soon as Jerrison was secure, they rushed him through the sliding glass doors. Susan put a hand on the stretcher and ran experiencing an eerie echo of all the times she'd run alongside the Beast, holding onto it with one hand.
"Susan Dawson," she called across the stretcher to the tall, handsome black man on the opposite side. "Secret Service special-agent-in-charge."
"Dr. Mark Griffin," he replied. "I'm the hospital's chief executive officer." He looked behind Susan at the president's physician. "Captain Snow, good to see you."
They hustled the stretcher into Trauma, which had two beds separated by an incongruously cheery purple, yellow, and blue curtain. There was a patient in the other bed a white teenage boy, who, despite having a mangled leg, sat up to try to get a glimpse of the president.
"On three," said one of the doctors. "One, two, three!" He and two other men transferred Jerrison to the bed.
"The bullet obviously missed his heart," Griffin said to Susan as a swarm of doctors, including Alyssa Snow, surrounded Jerrison. "But it looks like a major vessel has been clipped. If it's the aorta, we're in real trouble; the mortality rate for that is eighty percent."
Susan couldn't see what was being done to Jerrison's chest, but a new transfusion bag had already been set up on a stand beside him; of course, they had Jerrison's records on file here, and knew his blood type. Four more pint bags were on a tray next to the stand, but she guessed he'd already lost more than that; the back seat of the limo had been sodden.
A DC police helicopter deposited a bomb-disposal robot onto the roof of the White House. Secret Service sharpshooter Rory Proctor was now on the far side of the Ellipse, along with a hundred White House staffers who had decided they had evacuated far enough; many others, though, had headed further south, crossing Constitution Avenue onto the Mall.
Proctor looked north across the grass at the magnificent building. He'd had binoculars with him up on the roof, and still had them: he used them to watch as the squat robot, visible through the columns of the balustrade, rolled on its treads toward the second chimney from the left. Listening to the chatter on his headset, he gathered that the original notion just winching the bomb into the sky had been vetoed, out of fear that there might be a switch on its underside that would detonate it as soon as it was lifted.
"Stand by, everyone," said the calm male voice of the bomb-squad leader, who was operating the robot remotely from a police truck parked on the far side of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which had also been evacuated, along with the Treasury Building and the buildings on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. "I have the bomb in sight ..."
"Let's get him into the O.R.," said one of the doctors.
The trauma bed was on a wheeled base. Susan Dawson followed as they rolled it out of the room and down a corridor. They came to a metal door with a sign next to it that said, "Trauma Elevator DO NOT BLOCK." Susan made it inside with the president, Dr. Griffin, and two other physicians, and they rode up to the second floor. Dr. Snow who wasn't a surgeon headed to the ICU to make arrangements for Jerrison, who would eventually be taken there, if the surgery was successful.
The president was wheeled out of the elevator, down another corridor, and into an operating room. More Secret Service agents were already up here. Susan took a moment to deploy them. Rather than piling them all in front of the door to the operating room, she spread them out along the corridor; she didn't want any unauthorized personnel getting anywhere near Jerrison. When Reagan had been shot, a dozen Secret Service agents had crammed into the O.R., but they'd gotten in the way of the surgical team and had represented an unnecessary infection risk; protocol now called for only a single agent to actually go in and she designated Darryl Hudkins, who had the most EMT training.
Susan pointed to two occupied gurneys a short distance away, one with a thin white-haired man in his fifties, the other with a plump younger woman; they were attended by a nurse. "I want them out of here."
"They'll be gone in a few minutes," Griffin said. He led Susan up a steep narrow staircase to the observation gallery. As they settled in, she heard, "Rockhound is airborne" in her ear, and then, a moment later, she received a report about the discovery of a bomb at the White House. She looked down at Darryl Hudkins just as he looked up at her, his face a question. She shook her head: no point distracting the surgical team with this awful news; they needed to focus. Darryl nodded.
People in the operating room were working rapidly. The anesthesiologist was the only one sitting; she had a chair at the head of the surgical bed the president had been transferred to. A nurse was cleaning the president's chest with antiseptic soap.
"Which one is the lead surgeon?" Susan asked.
Griffin pointed at a tall white man, who, now that the nurse had stepped aside, was applying the surgical drape over the president's chest. The doctor's features were mostly hidden by a face mask and head covering, although Susan thought he perhaps had a beard. "Him," said Griffin. "Eric Redekop. A doctor of the first water. Trained at Harvard and "
They were interrupted by the sound of a bone saw, audible even through the angled glass in front of her. The president was being cut open.
Susan watched, fascinated and appalled, as a chest spreader was used. Jerrison's torso was a mess of blood and bone, and her stomach churned looking at it, but she couldn't take her eyes off the spectacle. One of the doctors replaced a now-empty bag of blood with a fresh one.
Suddenly the whole tenor of the room changed: people rushing around. Griffin stood up and leaned against the glass with splayed hands. "What's happening?" demanded Susan.
Griffin's voice was so low she almost didn't hear it. "His heart's stopped."
The O.R. had a built-in defibrillator, and another doctor was adjusting controls on it. With the open chest, they didn't have to use the paddles; the doctor applied electrical stimulation directly to Jerrison's heart. A nurse in a green smock was obscuring Susan's view of the vital-signs monitor now, but she saw the woman shake her head.
The man administered another shock. Nothing.
Susan rose to her feet, too. Her own heart was pounding but the president's still wasn't.
Something else happened Susan didn't know what and various people changed positions below. The defibrillator operator tried a third time. The nurse watching the vital signs shook her head once more, and that famous phrase echoed through Susan's mind: a heartbeat away from the presidency ...
The nurse moved, and Susan could at last see the flat green line tracing across the monitor. She spoke into her wrist. "Do we know where Hovarth is?"
Griffin looked at her, his jaw falling. Connally Hovarth was chief justice of the United States.
"He's in his chambers," said a voice in her ear.
"Get him out to Andrews," Susan said. "Have him ready to administer the oath as soon as Air Force Two touches down."
Kadeem Adams desperately wanted the flashbacks to end. They came all the time: when he was out for a walk, when he was in the grocery store, when he was trying to make love to his girlfriend. Yes, Professor Singh, and Dr. Fairfax at the DCOE before him, had told him to avoid triggers things that might set off a flashback. But anything everything! could provoke one. A chirping bird morphed into a baby crying. A car horn became a wailing alarm. A plate falling to the floor turned into the rat-a-tat of gunfire.
Kadeem knew better than to hope for the best. If things had worked out for him in the past, he wouldn't have failed to get that scholarship, he wouldn't have been working at a McDonald's, he wouldn't have enlisted because it was the only halfway-decent-paying job he could get, he wouldn't have ended up on the front line in Iraq.
Still, he was grateful for Professor Singh's attention. Kadeem had never met a Sikh before there'd been none in the 'hood and he hadn't known what to expect. At first, they'd had trouble communicating; Singh's accent was thick and his speech was rapid-fire, at least to Kadeem's ears. But slowly he'd gotten used to Singh's voice and Singh had gotten used to his, and the seemingly endless alternation of him saying "What?" and Singh saying "Pardon?" had fallen by the wayside.
"Okay, guru," Kadeem said. He knew it amused Singh when he called him that, and Singh's beard lifted a bit as he smiled. "Let's do this."
Kadeem walked over to the low-back padded chair and sat down. Next to it, on an articulated arm, was the latticework sphere. Kadeem had once quipped that it looked like the skeleton of God's soccer ball, but he knew that wasn't quite right. It was about two feet in diameter, and it was, as Singh had told him, an open geodesic, made up of triangles fashioned from lengths of steel tubing. Singh unclipped its two halves and opened it. The hemispheres, joined by a hinge, swung apart.
There was an open section at the south pole of the sphere. As Singh jockeyed the articulated arm to move the hemispheres closer to Kadeem's head, that opening allowed for his neck. Singh rejoined the two halves, enclosing Kadeem's head. There were about eight inches of clearance on all sides, and Kadeem could easily see through the open triangles. Still, it was unnerving, as if his head were now in some bizarre jail cell. He took a deep, calming breath.
Singh loomed close like an optician adjusting glasses even Elton John wouldn't wear. He moved the sphere on its arm a bit to the left, and a bit up, and then, apparently deciding he'd gone too far up, a bit down. And then he nodded in satisfaction and stepped away.
"All right," Singh said. "Relax."
"Easier said than done, guru," replied Kadeem.
Singh's back was to him, his turban piled high. But his voice was warm. "It will be fine, my friend. Let me just calibrate a few things, and yes, yes, okay. Are you ready?"
"All right, then. Here we go. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero."
Singh pushed a button; it made a loud click. At the vertices of each triangle in Kadeem's vision, blue-green lights appeared, like laser pointers. In the demos Singh had done for him, colored dots had shown up on the dummy head. They'd stood out brightly against the white Styrofoam, but were doubtless hard to see against Kadeem's dark skin. He'd thought there might be some sensation associated with them: heat, maybe, or a tingling. But he felt nothing at all. The lights weren't strong enough to blind him, but he did nonetheless shift slightly to stop one of them from hitting his left eye.
Singh moved around, looking at Kadeem again. He seemed satisfied and said, "Okay. I'm going to run the program now. Remember, if you feel any discomfort, tell me and we can abort."
Kadeem nodded. Since the sphere was supported by the articulated arm, it didn't bob at all as he did so. Singh reached over to a laptop computer sitting on a surgical-instrument stand, moved the cursor with the trackpad, and finished off with a rapping of his forefinger.
The program started executing. The blue-green lights began to dance; they were on tiny gimbals and moved in patterns Singh had programmed. It was impossible to keep the teal points from hitting his pupils every few seconds, and rather than fight that, Kadeem just closed his eyes. The beams were bright enough that he could still tell when one was touching his eyelid, but it wasn't irritating, and the darkness helped him clear his mind.
This was going to be hard, he knew. He'd spent years trying to avoid triggering flashbacks and now Singh was going to find whatever switch in his brain caused them and throw it, hopefully for the final time. The only small mercy there'd been with the previous flashbacks was never expecting them they just hit him upside the head, with no warning. But now Kadeem felt dread, knowing one was coming. He was hooked up to a vital-signs monitor, and he could hear the soft ping of his pulse accelerating.
The intersecting lasers were specially tuned to pass through bone and flesh; the teal dots were mere markers for invisible beams that coincided with them. The beams entered his skull without having an effect, but when two or more beams crisscrossed inside his brain, they stimulated the neural net at the intersection and caused it to fire, providing, as Singh had explained to him, the equivalent of an action potential. First one net was brought to life, then another, then another. Singh's equipment bypassed the usual excitatory disinhibition that frustrated other brain researchers: normally, if a neural net had fired once recently, it was disinclined to fire again. But Singh could make the same net fire as often as possible, until it had, at least temporarily, exhausted its supply of neurotransmitters.
Singh was doing that just now, and
A picnic, one of the few happy moments of Kadeem's childhood.
Five big kids taking his lunch from him on the way to school.
His mama, trying to hide her bruised eye from him, and his rage at knowing she was going to let that man back in their home.
His first car.
His first blowjob.
A sharp pain but but no, only a memory of a sharp pain. Ah, it was when he broke his arm playing football.
More pain, but of a good kind: the short, sharp shock of Kristah playfully biting his nipple.
A flock of birds blocking the sun.
Hot, beating down. The desert sun.
His heart pounded; the sound from the monitor had the tempo of the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive."
Singh was homing in, getting close, circling his prey.
Kadeem gripped the padded arms of the chair.
Sand. Tanks. Troops. And, in the distance, the village.
Shouts. Orders. The roar of vehicle engines fighting against the drifting sand and the heat.
Kadeem's breathing was ragged. The air he was taking in was cool, but his memory was of searing hotness. He wanted to shout for Singh to abort, abort, abort! But he bit his lower lip and endured it.
The village was growing closer. Iraqi men in desert gear, women who must have been sweltering in their robe-like black abayas, children in tattered clothes, all coming to see the approaching convoy. Greeting it. Welcoming it.
Kadeem tasted vomit at the back of his throat. He fought it down and let the memory wash over him all the screams, all the pain, all the evil one last time.
Sharpshooter Rory Proctor continued to watch the activity on the roof of the White House from what he hoped was a safe distance. He was angry and worried: the nation had been pounded for months now by al-Sajada. How much more was yet to come? How much more could this great country take?
He'd tuned his headset to pick up the appropriate police channel and was listening to the running commentary from the man operating the bomb-disposal robot: "I'm going to try cutting into the side of the enclosure so that we can get at the device. In five, four, three, two ..."
Agent Susan Dawson kept flashing back to an episode of Columbo she'd seen years ago, in which Leonard Nimoy had guest-starred as a surgeon who'd tried to arrange the death of someone while supposedly saving his life: when installing an artificial heart valve, Nimoy's character had used dissolving instead of permanent suture. But as far as she could tell, Eric Redekop and his team had worked fervently to save Seth Jerrison.
"Central to Dawson," said the voice in her ear. "Justice Horvath is en route to Andrews, but says he can't proceed without an official death notice. Has the president actually "
Susan yanked her earpiece out; the wail from it was unbearable. The lights in the observation gallery flickered then died, as did the ones down in the operating room. A few seconds later, emergency lighting kicked in below. Mark Griffin bounded up the steps in the small gallery and opened the door at the back. More emergency lighting spilled in from a ceiling-mounted unit containing what looked like two automobile headlamps.
"Those are battery-operated lights," said Griffin. "The main power is off meaning so is that defibrillator, as well as the perfusion pump." Susan saw someone run out of the O.R., presumably to get a crash cart with a portable defibrillator.
Eric Redekop, starkly illuminated from the upper left by the harsh emergency lights in the O.R., reached his gloved hand into the president's chest and began squeezing Jerrison's heart. The surgeon glanced at the paired digital wall clocks the actual time and the event timer but their faces had gone dark.
After a moment, the regular lighting flickered back to life. Susan looked down at the surgical bed. Redekop continued to squeeze the heart once per second. Other doctors were frantically trying to reboot or readjust equipment. She turned to Griffin. "What the hell happened?"
"I don't know," he said. "The emergency power is supposed to kick in automatically. An operating room should never go dark like that."
Susan picked up her earpiece and, after making sure it wasn't still wailing, put it back in her ear. "Dawson," she said into her sleeve. "Whiskey tango foxtrot?"
A deep male voice: Secret Service agent Darryl Hudkins, looking up at her from down in the operating room. "Could it be an electromagnetic pulse?"
"Christ," said Susan. "The bomb."
"Agent Schofield cutting in," said another voice in Susan's ear. "Affirmative. The bomb at the White House has gone off."
"Copy that," replied Susan, stunned.
"How are they managing with Prospector?" asked Schofield.
Susan looked through the angled glass at the chaos below. Redekop was still squeezing the president's heart, but the vital-signs monitor continued to show a flat line. "I think we've lost him."
Rory Proctor had been using his binoculars when the bomb went off. As soon as he saw the flare of light, he lowered them just in time to see the entire curved back of the White House blow out toward him. A plume of smoke started rising into the gray sky, and gouts of fire shot out of the shattered windows of the east and west wings. Screams went up all around him.
Seth Jerrison's deep, dark secret was that he was an atheist. He'd managed to secure the Republican nomination by lying through his teeth about it, by periodically attending church, by bowing his head when appropriate in public, and after numerous reprimands from his wife and campaign director finally breaking himself of the habit of using "Jesus" and "Christ" as swearwords, even in private.
He believed in fiscal conservatism, he believed in small government, he believed in taking a strong stand against America's enemies whether nations or individuals, he believed in capitalism, and he believed English should be the official language of the United States.
But he did not believe in God.
The handful of RNC members who knew this sometimes chided him for it. Rusty, his campaign manager, had once looked at him with a kindly smile the sort one might bestow on a silly child who had claimed that when he grew up he was going to be president and said, "Sure, you might be an atheist now, but just wait until you're dying you'll see."
But Seth was dying right now. He could feel his strength fading, feel his life draining away.
And still he felt secure in his atheism. Even as his vision contracted into a tunnel, the thoughts that came to him were of the scientific explanation for that phenomenon. It was caused by anoxia, and was, after all, commonly experienced even in situations that weren't immediately life-threatening.
He was momentarily surprised not to be feeling any panic or pain. But, then again, that was normal, too, he knew: a sense of euphoria also went with oxygen deprivation. And so he managed a certain detachment. He was surprised to be conscious at all; he knew he'd been shot in the torso. Surely they'd given him a general anesthetic before performing surgery, and he must be in surgery by now, but ...
But there was no doubt his mind was active. He tried, and failed, to open his eyes; tried, and failed, to sit up; tried, and failed, to speak. And, unlike some horror stories he'd heard about patients feeling every scalpel cut and stitch while supposedly knocked out, he was experiencing no pain at all, thank well, thank biochemistry!
Ah, and now the white light had begun to appear: pure, brilliant, but not at all painful to ... well, not to look at; he wasn't seeing with his eyes, after all. But to contemplate.
A pristine, bright, soothing, inviting light ...
And then, just as those who'd come back from the brink said it sometimes does, his life began to flash in front of his eyes.
A kindly female face.
A public school.
But he didn't remember all the graffiti, all the litter, the broken stonework, and
No, no, that was ridiculous. Of course he remembered it or he wouldn't be seeing it now.
A knife. Blood.
The air shimmering. Unbearable heat. Screams. The stench of ... yes, of burning flesh.
No, no, he'd been a good person! He had. He'd done his best always. And even with him agreeing to Counterpunch, he couldn't be going to hell!
A metaphoric deep breath; he had no control over his body, but it felt like he was inhaling.
There is no hell. No heaven, either.
But the heat. The flames. The screams.
There is no hell!
All of it was explicable, a natural phenomenon: just the way the brain responded to oxygen starvation.
The images changed, the smells changed, the sounds changed. The hellish vista was replaced by a city street at night.
Another woman's face.
And much more, in rapid succession: people, incidents, events.
It was a life review flashing before him.
But it wasn't his life that he saw.
"EEG is erratic!"
"BP continues to fall!"
"We're losing him!"
Eric Redekop lifted his head to look at his team as he continued the manual heart massage. A nurse named Ann January daubed his forehead with a cloth, picking up the sweat. "No," he said simply. "We are not. I'm not going down in history as the surgeon who couldn't save the president."
Nikki Van Hausen looked at her hands and an image of them covered with blood filled her mind. She shook her head, trying to dispel the grisly sight but it came back to her even more forcefully: her hands red and dripping, and
And she was holding a knife, and its blade was slick and crimson.
More images: cutting into skin, blood welling up from the wound.
Again: another cut, more blood. And again: another thrust, this time blood spurting.
She sat down and looked really looked at her hands: the smooth pale skin, the tiny scar along the side of her right index finger from a wineglass that had broken while she was washing it, the silver ring she wore with a turquoise cabochon, the painted nails red, yes, but not blood red.
But again images of her hands covered in blood came to her. And beneath the blood, peeking out here and there: gloves. Like a murderer who knew that fingerprints would otherwise be left behind.
Her heart was pounding. "What's happening?" she said softly, although no one was paying any attention to her. She raised her voice. "What's happening to me?"
That caught the interest of a doctor who was walking past her here on the fourth floor of Luther Terry Memorial Hospital. "Miss?" he said.
"What's happening to me?" she asked again, holding her hands in front of her face, as if he, too, could see the blood on them. But, of course, they were dry she knew that; she could see that. And yet visions of them glistening and red kept coming to her, but
But her real hands were shaking, and the bloodied hands never shook; she somehow knew that.
The doctor looked at her. "Miss, are you a patient here?"
"No, no. Just visiting my brother, but but something's wrong."
"What's your name?" the doctor asked.
And she went to answer, but
But that wasn't her name! And that wasn't where she lived! And that wasn't her hometown! Nikki felt herself teetering. She was still holding her hands up in front of her, and she fell against the doctor, her palms pressing into his chest.
More strange thoughts poured into her head. A knife slicing through fat and muscle. Being tackled in a football game something that had never happened to her. A funeral oh God, a funeral for her mother, who was still alive and well.
Her eyes had closed when she'd fallen forward, but she opened them now, looked down, and saw the doctor's little engraved plastic name badge, "J. Sturgess, M.D.," and she knew, even though she'd never seen him before, that the J was for Jurgen, and she suddenly also knew that M.D. didn't stand for "Medical Doctor," as she'd always thought, but rather for the Latin equivalent, Medicinae Doctor.
Just then, two nurses walked by, and she heard one of them spouting medical gobbledygook. Or it should have been gobbledygook; she shouldn't even have been able to say, a moment later, what words the nurse had used but ...
But she'd heard it clearly: "Amitriptyline." And she knew how to spell it, and that it was a tricyclic antidepressant, and ... My God! ... she knew that "tricyclic" referred to the three rings of atoms in its chemical structure, and
Her flattened hands balled into fists and pounded into the doctor's chest. "Make it stop!" she said. "Make it stop!"
The doctor Jurgen, he played golf badly, had two daughters, was divorced, loved sushi called out to the passing nurses. "Heather, Tamara help, please."
One of the nurses it was Tamara, she knew it was Tamara turned and took hold of Nikki's shoulders, and the other one, Heather, picked up a wall-mounted phone and dialed four digits; if she was calling security ...
How the hell did she know all this?
If she was calling security, she'd just tapped out 4-3-2-1.
Nikki half-turned and pushed Tamara away, not because she didn't want help but because it welled up in her that it was wrong, wrong, wrong to touch a nurse during duty hours.
She felt dizzy again, though, and reached out for support, finding herself grabbing Dr. Sturgess's stethoscope, which was hanging loosely around his neck; it came free and she was suddenly falling backward. Heather surged in to catch her. "Is she stoned?" the nurse asked.
"I don't know," said Sturgess, but Nikki was incensed by the suggestion.
"I'm not stoned, damn it! What's happening? What's going on here? What did you do?"
Tamara moved closer. "Security is on its way, Dr. Sturgess. They're sending someone down from five; everyone normally on this floor is downstairs, helping guard the president."
And suddenly she saw him, Jerrison, his chest split wide, and her hands plunging into his torso, seizing his heart, squeezing it ...
And that name again: Eric Redekop.
"Make it stop!" Nikki said. She moved her hands to the top of her head and pushed down, as if she could somehow squeeze the alien thoughts out. "Make it stop!"
"Tamara," said Sturgess, "get some secobarbital."
And that, Nikki found she knew, was a sedative.
"It'll be okay," Sturgess said to Nikki, his tone soothing. "It'll be fine."
She looked up and saw a middle-aged white man: lean, bald, bearded, wearing green surgical garb, and
"Eric!" she called. "Eric!"
He continued to close the distance but had a puzzled expression on his face.
Sturgess turned and looked at Eric, too. "Eric! My God, how's " He glanced at Nikki. "How's your, um, your special patient?"
Eric sounded weary. "We almost lost him, but he's stable now. Jono is closing."
"And you?" asked Sturgess, touching Eric's arm briefly. "How are you?"
"Dead," said Eric. "Exhausted." He shook his head. "What's the world coming to?"
Nikki was reeling. She'd never seen Eric before, but she knew exactly what he looked like, and God! even what he looked like naked. She knew him, this Eric, this man who
who was born fifty years ago, on April 11, in Fort Wayne, Indiana; who has an older brother named Carl; who plays a killer game of chess; who is allergic to penicillin; and who yes! had just performed surgery, saving the president's life.
"Eric," she said, "what's happening to me?"
"Miss," he replied, "do I know you?"
The words struck Nikki like a knife like a scalpel. Surely he must know her, if she knew him. But he didn't. There was no hint of recognition on his face.
"I'm Nikki," she said, as if that should mean something to him.
"Hello," Eric said, sounding bewildered.
"I know you," Nikki said, imploringly. "I know you, Eric."
"I'm sorry, um, Nikki. I don't think we've ever met."
"Damn it," said Nikki. "This is crazy!"
"What's wrong with her?" Eric asked Sturgess.
Tamara was gesturing to someone; Nikki turned to see who. It was a uniformed security guard.
"No," she said. "No, I'm sorry I hit you, Jurgen."
Sturgess's eyebrows went up. "How did you know my name?"
How the hell did she know his name or Eric's?
And then it came to her: she knew Jurgen's name because Eric knew it. They were old friends, although Eric found Jurgen a tad brusque and a bit too humorless for his taste. She knew ... well, everything Eric knew.
"It's all right," Eric said, motioning for the guards to halt their approach. "Nurse Enright here will look after you. We'll get you help."
But that was even worse: suddenly a flood of memories came to Nikki: recalcitrant patients, patients screaming obscenities, a heavyset man throwing a punch, another man breaking down and crying a cascade of disturbed patients Eric had dealt with over the years.
"I I'm not like that," Nikki stammered out.
Eric narrowed his eyes. "Like what?"
Christ, she was a real-estate agent, not some fucking psychic. Her sister believed in that shit, but she didn't. This was impossible she must be having a stroke, or hallucinations, or something.
"Come with me," said Heather Enright. "We'll get you taken care of."
"Eric, please!" implored Nikki.
But Eric yawned and stretched and he and Jurgen started walking away, talking intently about the surgery Eric had just performed. She resisted Heather's attempts to propel her in the opposite direction until Eric had turned the corner and was out of sight.
But not out of mind.
The secretary of defense continued to study the wall-mounted deployment map; it had flickered off for a few seconds, but now was back on. The aircraft carriers were mostly on station, and, as he watched, the Reagan moved a little closer to its goal.
"Mr. Secretary," said an analyst seated near him, looking up from her workstation, "we've lost the White House."
Peter Muilenburg frowned. "If primary comm is down, switch to aux four."
The analyst's voice was anguished. "No, sir, you don't understand. We've lost the White House. It's it's gone. The bomb they found there just went off."
Muilenburg staggered backward, stumbling into a table. As he flailed to steady himself, he knocked a large binder onto the floor. His eyes stung and he tasted vomit.
An aide burst into the room. "Mr. Secretary, they're asking if we should evacuate the Pentagon as a precaution."
Muilenburg attempted to speak but found he couldn't. He gripped the edge of the table, trying to keep on his feet. The Oval Office, the Roosevelt Room, the Press Room, the Cabinet Room, the State Dining Room, the Lincoln Bedroom, and so much more ... could they really be gone? God ...
"Mr. Secretary?" the aide said. "Should we evacuate?"
A deep, shuddering breath; an attempt to regain his equilibrium. "Not yet," Muilenburg replied, but it was doubtless too soft for the aide to hear. He tried again. "Not yet." He forced himself to stand up straight. "Have them continue to sweep for bombs here, but we've got a job to do." He looked again at the deployment map and found himself quaking with fury. "And no one can say they don't have it coming."
Bessie Stilwell looked down at her wrinkled hand; the skin was white, loose, and translucent. She was gently holding the hand of her adult son, which was smoother and not quite as pale.
Bessie had often imagined a scene like this: the two of them in a hospital room, one lying in bed and the other providing comfort. But she'd always expected it to be her in the bed, waiting to die, and Mike sitting next to her, doing his duty. After all, she was eighty-seven and he was fifty-two; that was the way the scene was supposed to be cast, their parts ordained by their ages.
But she was well, more or less. Oh, there was a constant background of aches and pains, her hearing was poor, and she used a cane to walk. But Mike should have been vigorous. Instead, he lay there, on his back, tubes in his arms, a respirator covering his nose and mouth.
His father had made it to sixty before having the heart attack that took his life. At least the coronary Mike had suffered hadn't killed him although it had come close. The stress of a Washington job had doubtless been a contributing factor; he should have stayed in Mississippi.
Mike had no family of his own at least, not anymore; his marriage had ended over a decade ago. He was a workaholic, Jane had said when she left him or, at least, that was the story Mike had conveyed to Bessie.
"Thanks for coming, Mom," Mike said, each word an effort for him.
She nodded. "Of course, baby."
Baby. She had always called him that. It had been five decades since he'd been as helpless as one, and yet he was again.
She moved over to his bed and leaned in painfully, her back and knees hurting as she did so and kissed him on the top of his bald head.
"I'll come back tomorrow," she added.
"Thanks," he said again and closed his eyes.
Bessie regarded him for another half-minute; he looked like his father had at the same age. Then she started the slow walk out of the hospital room and down the long corridor, heading toward the elevator.
Her eyesight wasn't as good as it used to be, but she read the signs on the doors, noting landmarks so that she could easily find Mike's room again tomorrow; she'd gone down the wrong corridor earlier and, when every step hurt, that was the sort of thing she didn't want to have happen again. There were a lot of people further down the corridor, but the stretch she was in now was empty. As she passed a door labeled "Observation Gallery," the lights in the corridor suddenly went off, startling her. Emergency lighting soon came on, but she was terrified that the elevators would be off; she was on the third floor, and doubted she could manage that many stairs.
She continued to shuffle along, and after a short time the overhead lights spluttered back to life. Up ahead, she saw the elevator door open, several people get off, and several more get on; everything seemed to be back to normal.
She finally made it to the elevator and rode down to the lobby. To her surprise, there were uniformed hospital security guards and several men in dark blue suits there, but they seemed more interested in who was trying to come into the hospital than who was leaving. She headed out into the cool air, and
and the world had changed since she'd entered earlier today. Thousands of car horns were honking, the sidewalk outside the hospital was packed with people, there was the smell of smoke in the air. A fire, perhaps? A plane crash? Reagan was only a short distance away ...
Numerous TV crews crowded the sidewalk. Near her, a reporter a colored man wearing a tan trench coat was holding a microphone, waiting for a signal, it seemed, from another man who was balancing a camera on his shoulder.
It came to her that the reporter's name was Lonny Hendricks although why she knew that, she didn't know. But, well, this was Washington, and stories from here often got national exposure; she supposed she must have seen him on the news back in Mississippi at some point.
She'd had trouble finding her way inside the hospital the corridors took odd bends. But now that she was outside, she found herself feeling confident. Her hotel was that way, down New Hampshire Avenue, and well, if she continued up there, she'd run into Dupont Circle, although ...
Although she didn't know why she knew that, either; she hadn't had cause to go that way yet. She supposed she must have seen it while flipping through a tourist guidebook.
She slowly made her way over to the taxi stand, wondering what all the panic, all the commotion, all the noise, was about.
Seth Jerrison opened his eyes. He was lying on his back, looking up at a ceiling with fluorescent tubes behind frosted panels; one of the tubes was strobing in an irritating fashion. He attempted to speak but his throat was bone-dry.
A face loomed in: black, perhaps fifty, gray hair, kind eyes. "Mr. President? Mr. President? Can you tell me what day it is?"
Part of Seth recognized that this was a test of competency but another part wanted his own questions answered. "Where am I?" he croaked out.
"Luther Terry Memorial Hospital," said the man.
His throat was still parched. "Water."
The man looked at someone else and a few seconds later he had a cup of ice chips in his hand. He moved it over and tipped it so that a few went into Seth's mouth. After they'd melted, Seth asked, "Who are you?"
"I'm Dr. Mark Griffin. I'm the CEO here."
Seth nodded slightly. "What happened?"
The man lifted his eyebrows, wrinkling his forehead in the process. "You were shot, Mr. President. The bullet ruptured the pericardium the sac that contains the heart bruised the right atrium, and clipped the superior vena cava. A centimeter to the left and, well, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Seth wanted to speak again, but it took him several seconds to find the strength. "Anyone else hurt?"
"Not by gunfire. Some members of the crowd were injured in the panic that ensued broken bones, bloody noses but nothing life-threatening." Griffin paused for a moment, then: "Sir, forgive us for waking you up. Normally, we'd keep you under as long as possible while you heal, but, well, you are the president, and you need to know. First let me assure you that no one was hurt the First Lady, as you know, is in Oregon. She's fine, and so is everyone else. But there's been an explosion at the White House. The bomb was spotted before it went off, and they got everyone out."
Seth's head swam. He'd long lived in northern California; he'd felt the ground literally shift beneath his feet before but this was more disorienting, more terrifying: the whole world shifting, changing, crumbling. His heart pounded, every beat a knife thrust.
"They're relocating most of the White House staff to a facility in Virginia, I'm told," said Griffin. Mount Weather was an underground city there, built during the Cold War; there were contingency plans for running most of the Executive Branch from it.
"Take me ... there," said Seth.
"Not yet, sir. It's not safe to move you. But your chief of staff will be at the Virginia facility soon. He can be your eyes and ears there; we'll get you a secure line to him." A pause. "Mr. President, how do you feel?"
Seth closed his eyes; everything went pink as the overhead light filtered through his eyelids. He tried to breathe, tried to hold on to his sanity, tried not to let go not to let go again. At last, he managed to speak. "Were ... were my ... injuries ... life-threatening?"
"Yes, sir, to be honest. We almost lost you on the operating table."
Seth forced his eyes open. To one side, he saw Susan Dawson and another Secret Service agent whose name he didn't know. He felt weak, still parched, emotional agony layered atop all the physical pain. "Did you ... open my chest?"
"Yes, sir, we did."
"Did my heart stop?"
"Sir, yes. For a time."
"They say ... if you're about to die ... your life ... flashes in front of your eyes."
Griffin, still looming over him, nodded. "I've heard that, sir, yes."
Seth was silent for a few moments, trying to sort it all out, trying to decide if he wanted to confide in this man but it had been the damnedest thing. "And, well," he said at last, "something like that happened to me."
Griffin's tone was neutral. "Oh?"
"Yes. Except ..." He looked at the doctor for a moment, then turned his head toward the windows. "Except it wasn't my life that I saw."
"What do you mean, sir?"
"Someone else's memories," said the president. "Not mine."
Griffin said nothing.
"You don't believe me," Seth said, with effort.
"All sorts of weird things can happen when the brain is starved for oxygen, Mr. President," Griffin said.
Seth briefly closed his eyes but the images were still there. "That's ... not it. I ... have someone else's ... memories."
Griffin was quiet for a moment, then said, "Well, you're in luck, sir. As it happens, we've got one of the world's top memory experts here a fellow from Canada. I can ask him "
Griffin's BlackBerry must have vibrated because he fished it out and looked at the caller ID. "Speak of the devil," he said to Jerrison, then into the phone: "Yes, Professor Singh? Um, yes, yes. Wait." He lowered the handset and turned to Susan Dawson. "Is your middle name Marie?"
Susan's eyebrows went up. "Yes."
"Yes, that's right," Griffin said into the phone. "What? Um, okay. Sure, I guess. I'll tell her. Bye."
Griffin put the BlackBerry away and turned to face Susan. "Our resident memory expert would like to speak to you up in his office."
You've just read the opening of of Triggers by Hugo and Nebula Award-winner Robert J. Sawyer. To read the rest, pick up a copy of the book.
Buy the Triggers HARDCOVER from your Favorite Local Bookseller, or
Or buy an Autographed Copy directly from Rob!
And if you'd like a supply of free autographed Triggers bookplates for your customers, just let Rob know how many you need and where to send them.
More Good Reading