Flash Fiction: If Only

The gowned figures loomed over Adelaide Green, two on each side, casting long shadows across the white draping. A curtain separated Ms. Green’s head from her body, like a sterile sideshow act.

“It’s bigger than we saw on the MRI,” the left-hand resident said, “and not as well encapsulated. You think there’s still a way to get it out without endangering anything else?”

Silence save for beeps and blips of machinery. Then, “We can only try. But the odds are not with us.”

The nurse glared at the lead surgeon.

“Yes, I know,” the surgeon said with a weary sigh as he poked and prodded. “Patients have been shown to understand what’s being said in the operating theater. But current thinking is that honest assessment by an operating team can stimulate a patient’s immune system to fight harder.”

“You mean your current thinking,” the right-hand resident said under his breath.

But the renowned brain surgeon heard all. Behind his magnifying goggles his eyes narrowed. “I highly doubt that attitude is patient-positive nor useful right now. I’d throw you out of my theatre but we’re shorthanded enough as it is. Scalpel.”

The instrument appeared in his outstretched hand. It hovered above the exposed brain. “We’re almost there, Ms. Green,” he said to the left hemisphere of her frontal lobe. “Just a few more minutes and soon you’ll be back in your chair doing your thing.”

The nurse cast a sharp glare up to the gallery, where a man in an expensive-looking suit jabbered on his cell phone, when he wasn’t scowling down at them like a displeased god. “We’ll make him happy, at least.”

A few more minutes turned into an hour. An hour turned into three. Tissue was severed; the intruder made its boundaries known. And then, as the lights burned bright and sweat beaded on residents’ foreheads, a louder-than-expected thunk of success sounded in a metal pan.

Four held breaths, it seemed, released at the same time.

“Wow,” the left-hand resident said. “I think you got it all.”

“Congratulations, Doctor,” the nurse said.

He patted Ms. Green’s shoulder. “Congratulations all around,” he said. “That was the largest writer’s block I’ve ever removed. Now”—he cast a quick glance to the gallery—“let’s put her agent out of his misery.”

Questions: Flash Fiction

“So what do you want to know.”

It’s not even a question, the way he says it. He never asks questions. He tells them, then moves on along the dusty road, as if not expecting or even wanting an answer. You can almost hear the whoosh of the syllables flying by, dissolving into the air. Doppler talk. Here and gone.

You want to see his face. It’s easier to see if he’s telling the truth that way. Lord knows what he’s doing with that left eye, with that crook of his mouth, if you only see the half that’s telling you what he thinks want to know. You stop. He doesn’t. Then does. Waits for you to catch up. A slight shake of his head as if you’re a misbehaving child.

You try not to let it get under your skin. When you do that, it pools up and itches like madness in the middle of the night. You firm up all over, clench muscles that will hurt later. The words. So small and delicate you don’t know how they could possibly form and exit. Soap bubbles.

“Do you love her?”

Your questions are always questions. You want answers, you expect them, but you don’t always get what you want. The Mick Jagger song plays in your head, that “get what you need” so damn loud, arrogant, taunting. You think of the last time you got what you needed.

It’s been a long time. Another song lyric flows through your mind. It’s been a long time coming…good things are gonna come my way…

His eyes cut down and left and he walks, assumes you’ll follow. Because he knows how badly you want an answer to that awful question.

Yeah. You don’t always get what you want.

You start after him, head down. This. This is what you need. If you found a magic lamp and roused a genie, this is what you would ask. An answer. Not sound effects. Not soap bubbles. Not the side of his face, turning away.

“If I answered at all, I’d lie.”

The words are gone. By the next morning, so are you. You doubt he heard the whoosh of you in the wind.

Perhaps it was too much to ask of the genie, or any song lyric, that the response to your question should be the truth.

The Bargain

Hi. I can’t help it. When I’m creatively blocked, I tend to default to satire. I hope you enjoy this little story.

—–

He recognized the entity by its odor—a blend of methane and alcohol. He tried to ignore the presence; maybe it would go away. A couple of times it had worked.

This time, it didn’t.

“What? I’m busy, here.” The stack of pardons wouldn’t sign themselves.

He could swear it peered over his shoulder. “Stop breathing on me. It’s giving me the creeps. You smell like Rudy.”

“Interesting,” it said, the voice reminding him of the mad scientist in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. “How often you pair the two of us together.”

Ignore it and it will go away. Ignore it and it will go away. Ignore it and—

“You’re pardoning that waste of human skin? I didn’t know you cared.”

“Shut up.”

“It will have repercussions.”

“They got drugs for that. The best drugs.”

“You say that now. You think you’re making light. But one day it will be dark.” He swore he felt cold fingers stroke his cheek and he shivered. “One day it will be dark and you’ll have to honor our bargain.”

“Get out of here. I’ve kept up my end.”

“Sadly, you have not. Would you like an enumeration of the many, many ways you have not lived up to the agreement you signed in your own blood?”

He smirked. Little did that two-bit whatever-the-hell-it-was know that he’d penned that dotted line with Michael Cohen’s blood. The putz had it coming.

“I know what you did,” it said. “We have the receipts. It doesn’t make our bond any less real.”

“Get lost,” he snarled. “Or I’ll turn my very powerful Secret Service agents on you.”

The laughter froze his bowels. “As if they would save you from your fate, when so many times you callously put them in danger.”

This has to be a dream. I’m dreaming. I mixed Adderol with the steroids again and I’m trapped in some damn twisted version of A Christmas Carol. I always hated that story. That Tiny Tim kid—what a loser. He blinked, blinked again. But he was still in the Oval, behind the Resolute desk.

“Hope!” he yelled. “Hope, honey! A little help in here?”

A feminine hand curled around the door. And in she walked.

“Donald. We had a deal. I give you ten minutes to play president, and then Melania takes you out for ice cream.”

As Hillary’s face swam into his vision, so did the voice of the entity.

It said, “Time’s up.”

The Council: Intervention Edition

Forty-four never wanted to have this meeting. It was the wrong message to send, that the incoming president needed their kind of assistance. But when Michelle finally looked at him in that way she had, and said “Just call the damn meeting already, I’m going back to sleep” he took to his laptop.

He slugged down yesterday’s coffee as the various windows winked to life, revealing backdrops of living rooms and dens and home offices and bookshelves he’d become all too familiar with over these last few months. “I apologize for the short notice and the unholy hour,” he began, “but given the circumstances, and with Joe’s blessing, it’s incumbent upon us, as unofficial stewards of American democracy and those who have known a peaceful transference of power, to act.”

Hillary brightened. “We’re locking him up? Wait.” She fumbled through her desk drawer. “I’ve already got the handcuffs. I had them custom-made back in 2016…they’re around here somewhere. Bill. Did you take them again?” The forty-second president’s naturally florid cheeks turned redder as Forty-three chuckled.

Thirty-nine’s soft voice flowed over them. “No disrespect meant, but can we please continue? I have an online prayer group to lead in twenty minutes, then I got some houses to build.”

“Noted.” Forty-four took a deep breath and said, “We’ve had little success with our other initiatives. Putin won’t take our calls. I think it’s time we stage an intervention.”

Forty-three’s eyebrows shot up. “What, just bust into the Oval and tell him it’s time to get his ass to a meeting?”

He paused. “Well, not exactly like that, but essentially, yes.”

“You think they’re actually gonna let us in?” Forty-two said. “Have you seen that wall?”


Forty-four tented his fingers under his chin. “Tell me something he is in dire need of at the moment?”

Hillary jumped in. “Sanity? Intelligence? More Adderol?”

“A friend.”

“I kinda thought that was the Adderol,” Hillary said.

“A friend with money,” Forty-four added. More silence. “He wants a next act.”

“That would be prison,” Hillary said.

Forty-four fought a smile. “If there is any justice in the world, yes. But we can’t count on that happening immediately. We need to give him an incentive to get off the dime. He wants a post-presidential media presence to feed his voracious ego, and that requires major funding. And someone friendly to his cause.”

“Murdoch,” the Texan said. “Of course. But will he listen to any of us?”

“I think he might listen to me,” Forty-four said. “He’s been amenable in the past. I’ll offer a simple deal: give Forty-five the money he needs if he’ll concede and start a peaceful transfer of power.”

“If you need to give Rupert a nudge, I can help,” Hillary said. “His wife backed my campaign, maybe I’ll have a chat with her.”

“She’s that model, right? Maybe I’ll have a chat with her, too.” Forty-two grinned and Hillary shot him a dirty look.

“Hopefully this will work. See you at the inauguration,” Forty-four said, and the meeting adjourned. He sat back in his chair. The sun cast blind-shadowed rays across the carpet. Through the crack in the door, he caught the scent of fresh coffee brewing. For a reason he couldn’t pinpoint, a quote came to mind, from an oft-satirized Reagan campaign commercial: “It’s morning in America.”

Last Words

A shadow filled Kate’s doorway.

“What.” Her voice came out more like a declarative than a question as she pounded away at her keyboard, the soft clicks barely audible above the hum of fluorescent lights and the rattle of the ancient heating system.

“It’s over.”

She stopped. Took a deep breath, let it out. So much for her story. She knew what her editor would be calling for, in about five minutes when he got the official announcement, so she pulled up the document for the final update.

“And?”

He slumped into the chair next to her desk. Answer enough for her. She resumed typing. Stories might change, but deadlines waited for no man or woman. Especially those of publications whose existence hung by a thread.

He smelled of hospital disinfectant, of bad coffee, of sweat. He wore the same shirt he’d had on yesterday. And maybe the day before, too. He leaned back, tented his hands together on his chest. “His last words were ‘fuck you.’ He was looking right at me when he said it.”

Kate looked up, readying a version of “What did you expect after you turned on him?” that wouldn’t sound coldly flippant. But the depth of pain and loss in his eyes stilled her tongue. “I’m sorry.”

He shrugged. “At least it’s done. Nothing left now but the shouting. And the lawyers, of course.”

She gazed into the copy on her monitor, imagining that shitshow. Not for the first time, she was grateful that she’d gotten out while she had the chance. Before it could destroy all her credibility. Before she became one more short-skirted blond Barbie doll off the factory line. She was broke, and it was pushing midnight and nearly everyone else in the newsroom had gone home, and while she wasn’t exactly happy, at least she could look into the mirror without hating herself.

Most of the time.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said. “That I could try to, I don’t know, justify why I did it. And then, crazy me, to apologize for it.”

She felt for him in that moment. He hadn’t been the first to try to make the world see the consequences of what the man was doing, all the pain he was causing—to his staff, his family, all the people he ordered around like living chess pieces in some bizarre plan in his head. Nor had he been the first to come sniveling back, although she would never throw that in her old friend’s face. Not now. Maybe later. But not now.

“You guys hiring?” he said.

She lifted a corner of her mouth. “Look around. You think we’re hiring? I’m lucky that I’m still getting paid.”

“I was joking.” He paused, looked at the ceiling. “Kind of.”

Her phone rang. She snapped up the receiver. “On it,” she said, and hung up. “I gotta finish this, and a few other things. You want to stick around, get a beer or something?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure. Call me when you’re done.” He got up slowly. Drifted toward the door.

She resumed typing.

“Hey, Kate?” One hand gripped the doorframe as if it was the only thing holding him up. “What he said to me…that’s off the record, right?”

“Of course,” she said.

His footsteps disappeared down the hallway, lost in the sound of her keyboard and the balky HVAC system and the lights. She finished the obit, adding the copy from the two-line official statement, and submitted it to her editor. He quickly responded with his okay and invited her to call it a night.

She was about to shut down her system but then stopped. She pulled up the obit again, disappointed with the boilerplate quality of it. More would come tomorrow, she was sure, but this was all she could do for now.

But she could do something else. Her eyes misting over, she made a copy of the document and edited the first paragraph to include “…the former president’s last utterance was to tell his unofficial biographer—a talented journalist and author who is also his son, although the family had disavowed his existence and paid her mother for her silence—to go expletive himself.”

Then she printed out the file for her dear bereft friend, tucked it in her pocket, shut down her computer and left. Maybe for the last time.

Flash Fiction: According to the Latest Poll

Private Dave Duncan sensed his superior officer looming up behind him in the darkened control room. His shoulders tightened as he waited for the inevitable question. But the captain seemed to be holding off, timing his response for the highest possible dramatic effect.

“No, Captain, I don’t have the poll results yet.” Dave held back a grin, enjoying the wave of irritation emanating from his boss at being denied his moment.

“Well, when will—”

“Ah…wait a second”—Dave performed a few machinations over his keyboard, which he’d programmed to emit soft clicking sounds that he found oddly satisfying—”the report’s just coming in now.” He sat straighter as the results filled his screen. Did they really just agree to…? He squinted into the monitor as if he hadn’t read it right the first time. “Yes, Captain. Ninety percent say it’s time. Eighty percent say it’s far overdue.”

“Really.” The captain tapped a finger against his chin, another irksome habit, but Dave hadn’t developed a workaround for it yet. “Exactly how did you phrase the question?”

“Cloaked and open-ended, as usual. Confirmed by two other cross-wordings. Following your own protocols.”

The captain stopped pacing at the private’s work station and leaned closer. “Show me your back end.”

I’ll show you my back end. He’d been working for this insufferable prig for what felt like eons, and where was the trust? As if he’d make up a statistic with such profound consequences. He took a deep breath and toggled to the detail page.

Dave pointed to the line of code in question. “See? It’s all there. According to the algorithm, they knew exactly what they were responding to. Captain. They’re ready. They want this. They want to be put out of their misery. Believe me.” He’d also been doing satellite surveillance. What he saw from space confirmed the psychographics from the ground and the communications chatter. But if he tried to explain that to the captain it might be even more confusing.

“And you’re absolutely sure about that?”

“Captain…”

“I know, I know. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. But if we act on this data, it’s not something we can undo. Private Duncan, we are no longer in simulation mode. If we’re wrong, we will be facing grave accusations.”

Silence fell between them.

“I know what I’m doing,” Dave said softly. His voice blending with the low hum of the equipment. “The data is there.”

More silence. “All right,” the captain said. “Start launch sequence.”

Dave pulled up the launch app. Entered a series of increasingly complicated passcodes.

The red button pulsed on the screen.

“Wait—”

Dave sighed. “What, you want to push the button?”

“You scoff, but as commander of this ship, I feel it’s my responsibility.”

Dave backed off. The captain leaned forward and pressed the “enter” key. The screen did what screens do.

LAUNCH ASTEROID

A series of dots, like drumming fingers, pulsed along the screen. That part of the script seemed amusing to Dave while he was writing the program, an homage to certain apps he’d seen, but now it rang hollow.

ASTEROID LAUNCHED

More dots. A small doubt inched its way into Dave’s mind, making him queasy. What if—

SUCCESS. TARGET DESTROYED.

Silence. Except for the hum of the equipment, and the blood pounding in Dave’s ears.

Two pats landed on his shoulder. “Good work, Private.”

His footsteps retreated. Dave felt cold suddenly, blood draining from his face. Did I correct for—

“It’s really too bad, in the scheme of things,” the captain said, pausing at the control room door. “It was a pretty little planet, at least from a distance.”

Then he left. Mouth dry and fingers fumbly, Dave flew through the program’s code. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t there.

He hadn’t included a sarcasm filter.

Flash Fiction: Once Upon a Times

Margie doesn’t think of herself as old. That’s the trouble. Inside she feels like a young girl, tugging up her socks as she chases after the neighborhood boys for a chance to play ball. And then she’ll glance at her gnarled hands or pass a mirror and wonder who that friggin’ old lady is and why she’s back again to terrorize her day. But Margie’s body…well, there are changes that can’t be denied. She doesn’t bounce back as fast, be it a bout with illness or a joint that wasn’t happy with what it was asked to do. She’s slower in the morning, sometimes an ache in a place she didn’t expect but then remembered her mother complaining about the same malady. “Och,” she’d say, collapsing into her Edith Bunker armchair. The Archie version untouched since her father’s death. “Gettin’ old ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, kiddo.”

She again catches a glimpse of her own hands, as she sits on the curved wooden bench in the park. It’s a nice park, with a walkway along a calm tributary of the mighty river that cuts through their valley. In better days vendors abounded. Flowers and coffee and gelato. Not that she spent much on those. She never had much use for flowers, they died so fast. Waste of money, she’d tell Dan, although she couldn’t get him to stop. Back then. Now, maybe she’ll spring for a fancy coffee every couple of weeks, but otherwise her disposable income is stretched so thin you can see sunlight through the threads. The activity, though. That’s what she’s missing. It would be nice for atmosphere, and she could imagine being on the banks of the Seine. People walking little dogs. Children flying kites. And all the old women, with their string shopping bags and elegance. Old women aren’t so scorned in France, aren’t so invisible.

Not that she’d know; it’s just something she’d been told once upon a time.

Oh, how weary she is of all those once upon a times. She wishes she’d gone to France. Hell, she wishes she’d had the gelato. Would that small amount of change have really mattered? What had it purchased, back then? Cotton balls or magazines or some other thing that she would not have missed doing without that week?

Useless thoughts, she scolds herself. She breathes in the damp, muddy air, watches an egret sail by, pulls herself up a little taller, trying to be elegant. Thinking of string bags and cheese and long loaves of French bread.

He’d laugh at her attempts, that man who’d brought her the soon-to-be dying flowers, and she conjures up his face, and laughs right back. “Yeah, yeah,” she mutters at him, shaking her head, sinking back into her usual slouch. “I’ll get the damn gelato.”

Flash Fiction: Quarantine

You can’t watch the news. You can’t read the paper. The crawl, the front page list the dead, every morning, like baseball scores. For some in the media, it’s become sport. Breathless reportage from the bland blonds on the TV screen, and it reminds you of that long-ago song lyric, “it’s interesting when people die, we want dirty laundry…” Your own laundry leans over the basket in an accusatory pile. There’s a poem in the sweaty T-shirts and mildewing towels, the language of everyday life carrying on no matter what. You could die at your kitchen table, slumped over your fourth or fifth cup of increasingly weak coffee lightened with an off-brand flammable creamer, all that was available at the time, and mother nature will do her unceasing work. Decay. Microbes. Tree roots upending the foundation of the house. The neighbor’s cat eating your face. You know the danger in fanning the flames of those thoughts, and double-check that you’ve taken that morning’s dose of happy pills. Yes. Tuesday’s slot is empty. Or is it Thursday. You wonder if there’s an app for that. One that will wake you with the time, day of the week, the year, a reminder to do the laundry or refill your prescriptions or make sure you’re still breathing. “If you can no longer remember your password, press one…if you need CPR, press two…if you need a hug, I’m sorry, due to these uncertain times, that service is no longer available.”

You regret the argument. The last one, the one that made her leave. Not like the other times, with just her phone and keys, slinking back later, tearful apologies, the silent, careful lovemaking like you’re both made of spun sugar and dynamite. This was different. This involved shoving random clothing into a bag, doors closing with a quiet finality, all your calls ignored until you gave up trying. For a few days you sat stunned, okay, possibly drunk, and when that wore off, about a week into the stay-at-home order, the loneliness crept in. Again the TV taunted you, the Zoom videos of families quarantined together, singing Disney songs, making ink stamps out of potatoes, baking loaves of bread or churning butter like we’re all pioneers or something. But the silence is worse. The devil’s playground, paraphrasing your late, churchgoing mother. You dare to try it, to invite the demon in. A minute, to start. Then two. Then five. Then fifteen.

It doesn’t kill you.

And in that last silence, eyes closed and doing a meditative breathing technique you learned on YouTube, you trace the razor’s edge between solitude and loneliness. When you return to your body, you delete her from your phone. Maybe it’s for the best. Or maybe you’re just telling yourself that to make it through the next minute, hour, day. Maybe you’d been lonely with her for a while, but you never really noticed because you were always together. Whatever. You convince yourself that it’s better to be alone than to want to be with someone for the wrong reasons. Like having someone to sing Disney songs with on Zoom videos.

Then you do the laundry. It’s time.

The Landlord’s Son: A Fable

“Tell me a story, Papa.”

He chuckled to himself, and patted the boy on the head. Already he could feel the nubbins where his horns were beginning to make themselves known.

“A story? Surely you have a devilish enough imagination to come up with the most entertaining stories on your own.”

The boy stamped his small cloven hoof. “But I want to hear one of your stories, Papa!”

“All right, no need for such displays. Come, sit beside me and I’ll tell.”

Beelzebub then took his only son to his private chamber, cozy and dark save for the ring of fire, and there he began his tale.

“It was many years ago that I made the acquaintance of the son of a powerful landlord. This landlord was indeed feared by many who had no other choice than to live in one of his hovels. And, not to toot my own horn”—he laughed at the old family joke—“but I am the reason for his success, or at least what he chose to call success.”

“He offered his soul?”

“Yes, when he was but a young man. And a fine soul it was, too.”

The boy frowned. “He had a son. The son was born to a man who had sold you his soul? How is that possible?”

“Oh, it is, my boy. In nearly all cases, a soul is given anew to each at birth, and when they grow up, it is each mortal’s choice to do with it what they will.”

“But isn’t that quite painful for mortal children? To have a father who has bargained away his soul?”

“Yes. Quite. At least from what they tell me. Maybe that’s why the landlord’s son…oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Anyway. The man made himself a tidy business of our transaction. He asked to become rich beyond his wildest dreams, and when he married and reproduced, to bequeath his wealth to his family. He indeed grew as rich as a king, purchased more of his distasteful properties…and willed his fortune to his son.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “Just as he wished!”

“Yes. Just as he wished.”

“So, all should have been well for him in the end. But I’m getting the idea that this story is not quite over.”

“No, indeed it is not. Many years later, and of his own accord, mind you, I made the acquaintance of the son. He was about as young as his father had been, but his request was very different. He claimed he had all the riches he needed. What he most desired, though, was love. He wanted the love of beautiful women, he wanted love from his future children, he wanted love from every mortal in the land. But what he wanted most was the love of his father.”

“So it was painful for him,” the boy said.

Beelzebub nodded. “So very painful that he signed away his soul without another thought. And I monitored his goings-on, as I do with those who have struck the bargain. See, I blame myself in part for what resulted. Because his father had honored the bargain, and because foolishly I felt a little sorry for him, I gave the son the benefit of the doubt. I waived my due diligence and chose to collect at a future time. He did have the love of beautiful women…who all eventually left him. He had the love of each child in turn, until they grew old enough to fear and distrust him.”

The boy looked up hopefully. “And his father?”

He shook his head.

“How very sad,” the boy said.

“That’s when I started having a bad feeling about the deal. So I paid the son, now a man getting on in years, a visit. He was not happy to see me. Not for the usual reasons mortals fear my return. He was angry, and he gave me a right chewing-out, blaming me for all the misfortunes in his life.”

Beelzebub sighed. “That’s when I knew. What I should have known years ago. What I now check for in advance of any signature on the dotted line. And what you should too, when it’s time for you to reign by my side.”

“What, Papa?”

“The man, despite all trappings to the contrary, had no soul to give.”

The boy, as his father had imagined, looked thunderstruck. “He cheated you! Did you strike him down on the spot?”

“No.” He set his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No, I figured it would be more of a punishment for him to live out the remainder of his days. But I did exact one price for his deception.”

The boy looked up, his red eyes all questions.

“His children, my boy. His children belong to us now.”

The Council: Quarantine Edition

The Council is back from its hiatus. Warning: satire.

——

The Council, Quarantine Edition

“Forty-Three and a half.” Forty-Four tapped his fingertips against the table.

“I can’t see any of you.” Her voice through the speakers was faint. Then suddenly loud enough to make him flinch. “Why can’t I see any of you?”

“Forty-Three and a half,” he said gently, rubbing his temples with one hand. “Turn your camera on.”

“What?”

Michelle set a cup of coffee next to his laptop, out of his computer’s video range. As she departed, he caught an eyeroll. He turned back to the screen, at the only square without an ex-president in it. Or, in her case, an honorary ex-president.

“The little icon on the bottom that looks like an old-fashioned video cameras. Or…you know what, ask Chelsea to help you.”

“Oh. I got it!”

She smiled from the row of images, but it did little to erase the tension on her face, the shadows and lines that were deepening. They all looked like that these days. Some mornings, in the mirror, he saw not just his father but his grandfather. He returned his focus to the screen, recognizing Forty-Three’s den, heavy with the hunting lodge vibe, one of his own paintings hanging on the wall behind him. Then Thirty-Nine’s modest study, a mason jar of sweet tea beside him. Forty-Two sat in the big chair in his library, a row of biographies about George Washington taking up an entire shelf of his bookcase. It was a nice chair. He remembered the feel of it from his last visit. He missed visiting people. He missed having a beer at Earl’s.

Forty-Three-and-a-half’s image shifted as settled herself into the window. “It’s a comfort, at least, to see you all again.”

“Hope our next time is under better circumstances,” Forty-Three said, a new gravity to his face. “As our first point of order—Forty-Four, I apologize, I was speaking out of turn.”

“No, no,” he said, waving a hand. “I think given the circumstances, we can dispense with Robert’s Rules of Order.”

“Okay, then. I have concerns about using this format. Security concerns. This is not exactly the most secure way—”

“Oh, who gives a fuck about that anymore,” Forty-Three-and-a-half cut in.

Forty-Three’s boyish grin was a welcome sight. “Noted, Madam Almost-President.”

“That wasn’t funny, W.”

“Then why is Laura back here laughing?”

“Can we please return to the task at hand?” Forty-Four said. “Noted that we’re sacrificing a modicum of security for expedience, and that the question on the table is grave enough to warrant the consequences.”

“Noted,” Thirty-Nine said.

“Agreed,” Forty-Three and Forty-Two said together.

“Agreed,” Forty-Four repeated. “Now, ostensibly, the best thing we can do first is take the safe and necessary steps as recommended, and model that behavior and our concerns for the American public. Create some PSAs, not a whiff of politics. Use some humor, if you’re so moved. But there will be an end to this, or at least a pause, and come November, there will be an election.”

Silence.

Forty-Three and a half shifted nervously in her chair.

“We’re…” Forty-Three visibly swallowed. “We’re not gonna try to neutralize the target again, are we?”

“Not the best course of action at this time,” Forty-Four said. “I’m fairly certain the rest of you agree.”

The expression on Forty-Three and a half’s face led him to believe that she might want to do it with her own two hands, or at least had some new ideas on how to make it look like an accident. He shifted his focus away from her window.

“This is why I’m proposing Operation Firewall.”

Forty-Three’s left eyebrow quirked. “We’ll build a wall and make Forty-Five pay for it?”

Forty-Four allowed himself a brief smile. “Essentially, but not exactly. Let politics take care of itself. We have bigger issues at the moment. We combine our estimable resources to create a firewall between humanity and this virus. In essence, we’ll do what he hasn’t—make America safe again. Or at least as safe as humanly possible.”

“Are we gonna make masks?” Forty-Three piped up, reaching for something off to his left side. “Cause I got some great concepts.”

“Interesting, but maybe put a pin in that.” Pouting, Forty-Three pushed an object to the side. “I propose, owing to your winning partnership in helping in other disasters around the world, that you and Forty-Two combine forces to give the people national, rapid testing.”

A smile brightened Forty-Two’s face. “We can do that. I know we can do that. George, buddy. We’ll get the band back together. Call Bill and Melinda, get Bezos and Musk in on it, too.”

Forty-Four nodded. “I know you can do it.”

Forty-Three-and-a-half sighed. “He’ll just take the credit for it.”

“We have no control over that,” Forty-Four said. “But at least it will get done and it will get done quickly and competently. In the meantime, we implement Phase Two.”

All the windows on his screen registered faces in question.

He took a deep breath, index finger poised on his trackball. “I’ve invited a guest speaker.”

Another window appeared. Various mouths opened and eyes blinked.

Forty-Three and a half was the first to fire. “Barry. What are you doing? Do you honestly believe—after what she did to you?”

Forty-Four held up a hand. “I know what you’re thinking. But give me a minute here. Let her speak for herself. Please, continue.”

“Hello, and I thank you to be allowed to help. I stop drinking Kool-Aid, this is what they say? He is bad man. I know that now, and I was very wrong, and I want done with this business.”

“He’ll ruin you,” Forty-Three and a half said. “You get that, right? He’ll paint you as a traitor.”

“I don’t care, do you? I get better offer from billionaire. Real billionaire, this time. Me and Barron, we move to blue state, we will be heroes.” Her smile turned sly. “Now, where do we start?”