The same people who may well end up destroying the world will likely do so secure in the knowldge that they have somewhere safe to go, somewhere to wait out the apocalypse and emerge again as masters of a ruined civilisation. But what if all they manage to do is seal the rot inside where it can only fester and spread?
(25 minute read)
Everyone in the room held their breath as the President leaned into Beverley. He drew close enough for the warm, damp scent of the soup he had just been eating to layer itself over her face. The piston beat of his breathing rushed in her ears. The flat blade of his voice signalled a brooding rage preparing itself to erupt.
“What did you just say to me?” he asked.
Making sure to keep her tone neutral, Beverley repeated what she had just said: “I think Bob was murdered.”
The President stared at her for a moment longer through his low-lidded eyes then pulled away. He picked up his napkin, dabbed the corners of his mouth, and carefully refolded the cloth before placing it back down on the table. He cleared his throat. Wasted a few more seconds fussing with his shirt cuffs. Ignored the twelve pairs of eyes watching him from around the table.
Finally, staring at a fixed point on the opposite side of the room, he clasped his hands together and spoke again. His voice remained low and dangerous. “Why would you think that, Beverley?”
One of the men seated at the far end of the table tried to wring favour from the icy air. “Yes, why do you think that, Beverley?” he repeated.
Beverley ignored the man. She spoke evenly, taking care not to look the President in the eye while taking being equally careful to ensure that he knew he was receiving her full attention.
“Sir, it was designed to look like a suicide. We were supposed to think Bob had hanged himself, but, you see, his hands had been bound. The—”
“Nonsense. His hands weren’t tied. I saw them.”
Beverley knew the the way every conversation with the President could turn on a knife-edge. Even so, she only barely managed to stop the ‘no’ from coming out. “That’s exactly correct, sir. His hands weren’t tied when we found the body, but there were rope burns on his wrists, which suggests he was tied up and—”
“Which suggests he was tied up and still gave some good fight when he died?” the President finished for her. “What do you think this is, Beverley? Fucking … fuck—Gabe, what’s that show?”
“Er, NCIS, sir?” a high-pitched voice from the left of the table answered.
“You think this is fucking NCIS, Beverley?”
Beverley suspect it was probably CSI, but knew better than to correct him. “No, sir.”
He stared at her through dull and clouded eyes, his face unreadable. White knuckles circled the table. Beverley focused on the blunt, reddened bridge of the President’s nose. Returning his stare directly would be suicidally careless, but looking away would be seen as an equally terrible act of disrespect in the President’s eyes. For now, she was trapped in his gaze. So she remained still as he lifted his right arm from the table and pulled it back: tense, ready to lash out. Beverley stood her ground, locking her gaze on that flat plane of his nose, telling herself she couldn’t see the arm raising higher and higher. No one breathed.
The President swung his arm down and to the right, deliberately missing Beverley in favour of striking his plate and glass from the table—both of which barely avoided the Vice President seated at his right side. Crockery flew into the wood-panelled wall and shattered, jagged shards tinkled to the floor. The sound, huge and coarse, rang out in the confined silence of the conference room. Nobody moved—the staff would clean it all up later. For now, no one else wanted to put themselves in the President’s line of fire.
Then, abruptly, the President laughed. A deep, hollow chuckle that sucked away any final warmth that might have lingered in the room. “It’s a damned murder mystery, men. We get to play Sherlock … Sherlock—”
Holmes, Beverley thought to herself, almost whispering the word aloud. Holmes, dammit …
“We get to play Columbo,” the President finally finished. “I love that show. Great show. Terrific.”
Beverley looked around the table. The President was demanding that they all laugh it off, but she could see the same fearful realisation written across the men’s greying faces. The point that the President had either missed or had deliberately ignored.
One of us is a murderer.
Beverley walked along the corridor of the dormitory level, her bare feet silent on the polished concrete. She trod lightly to avoid breaking the fragile peace. This was the treasured time; her brief opportunity each day to be alone without being shut behind her door.
The nightly ritual was about to start: soon the Chief of Staff would conclude his meeting with the President and commence his rounds with the members of the cabinet, each sitting in their own cubicle awaiting whatever instructions were to be delivered for the next day. Once that got underway, Beverley would sit with the President and listen to whatever he wished to tell her.
It was one of the things that helped to keep them mostly sane: the pretence that regular duty persisted, the illusion that normality was still wrapped around their lives. It offered the dream that everyday routine would, one day, return. But it was all a lie. Everything was ready to crumble and fall. Beverley could feel it.
Sometimes she heard crying at night. Other times, she heard screams. Never anything from the President’s room. The quantity of tranquillisers he took each night stopped the dreams from creeping through. He had requisitioned the bunker’s entire supply of sedatives and guarded it jealously, leaving the other members of his cabinet to face their consciences alone in the dark.
Beverley’s duty was to look after the President, and the President alone.
So, she walked. And she listened to the men screaming and crying in the night. And she did nothing.
The corridor hung with a heavier silence than usual; the President having decreed that general staff were forbidden to enter the executive areas until ‘further notice’. If the murderer was among the general staff, he would now be forced to pick his victims from the meagre gathering of ordinary men and women that had made it into the bunker. The cabinet—and the President—would be safe, and that was all that mattered.
But what did safety mean, anyway? Preserving life at any cost? Beverley’s mind drifted back to her fading memories: the heft of her favourite dressing gown across her shoulders; the coarseness of her old hallway carpet scratching against the balls of her feet; the soft chirruping of crickets coming from her back yard. All those things were gone now. She wondered what, if anything, the others remembered when the night drew in.
She stopped walking.
Ahead of her hung an open door. Nobody ever left their door open. Each person’s room was their sanctuary. They might choose to share that space with other members of the cabinet from time to time, but their doors always remained closed. Everyone needed privacy so they could descend into their own private hell at the end of each day.
The open door belonged to Ryan’s room. Once upon a time he had been Secretary of Agriculture, before the President had decided to strip almost everyone of their titles. Now he was just Ryan.
“The chain of command begins and ends with me,” the President had declared to his stunned cabinet one day. Naturally they were all expected to continue sitting at the table—to each be one of The Twelve—but they would now serve purely to salve the President’s ego.
In the final days Ryan had been one of those who had remained staunchly loyal to the President. As the end they always denied would ever happen drew increasingly near, he had supported the President and carried out his orders, even when they conflicted with his own beliefs. Through at all, Beverley had been there to see what it had cost him—what it had cost them all. When the President took away Ryan’s title he had taken away the final scaffolding that propped up a hollowed man. After all that had happened, after everything they had done, there had been nothing left of him but his title and his authority. Then, at last, even those were gone.
What need was there, anyway, for a Secretary of Agriculture when there was no longer any agriculture?
Beverley approached the door and tapped lightly on it—quietly enough that no one else would hear. There was no answer. She leaned closer and peered through the gap into the room inside.
And what she saw told her that Ryan wouldn’t be worrying about his lost title ever again.
“How long has he been dead?” the Chief of Staff asked.
Mike Brennan was one of only two people to have retained his title after the purge, having successfully convinced the President that he would need someone to do the daily work so that he could focus on being Leader Of The Free World. Mike’s powers of persuasion were feared by colleagues and opponents alike. It was said that entering a room alone with Mike meant leaving your free will behind when you walked out.
Beverley glanced at the door to Ryan’s room, now closed firmly behind them both, and ignored the dozen alarm bells that shrilled in her head. She reminded herself that she had never once heard crying coming from Mike’s room, nor had she ever picked up the slightest tinge of regret in his voice. Success, in his world-view, was the only valid outcome, and the steps required to achieve it, whatever the price, were nothing more than variables.
And, because of this, he was the only person she knew who would be able to deal with Ryan.
“I found him twenty minutes ago,” Beverley said.
Mike dipped a finger into the deluge of blood that coated Ryan’s shirt. He lifted the finger away and pressed it against his thumb, rubbing the two together as if to confirm that the substance was, indeed, blood. After a moment he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped away the stain. Through the whole process he simply stared without expression at the corpse lying on the bed. It could as easily have been a pile of discarded clothing.
Ryan’s throat had been cut, his body left sprawled across the mattress, his legs drawn into a strange, tortured angle. Blood had sprayed freely across the white concrete walls, coating the caged lamp set into the bricks and casting the room with a crimson hue. A straight razor sat in the corpse’s right hand, though neither Mike nor Beverley were fooled by it.
“Not dry yet,” Mike said.
“The blood,” he said without looking at her. For perhaps the first time, Beverley recognised the fatigue in his voice; the dwindling ability to react to anything in a normal, ‘human’ fashion.
But wasn’t Mike always like this? she asked herself. Always barely human. But always tired? She found she couldn’t remember. The old days remained a rapidly crumbling memory.
“Have you spoken to John tonight?” she asked.
“The Vice President.”
A look of irritation crossed Mike’s face. Perhaps it was her impertinent response but Beverley had long suspected that Mike bore a silent grievance over the Vice President retaining his title. With a title came power, and Mike had never struck Beverley as the sort of person who enjoyed sharing his authority. Not for the first time she wondered what the summit of his ambition might be.
“Do you not wish to discuss your next steps with the Vice President?” Beverley asked.
“That won’t be necessary.”
“So, what do we do now?” she asked.
Mike turned his deadened eyes to stare at Beverley. “What do you think?”
The President’s rage howled and tore through the Oval Office like a tsunami without substance. Mike and Beverley stood and waited until it passed, careful to stay out of the firing line.
“How you could let this happen?!“ the President said, his voice thin with fury. “What do I pay you for?!”
Beverley reflected that no one was paid for anything any more. If Mike had the same thought, he said nothing.
The President stood over his desk, knuckles pressed against the unyielding antique wood. The same desk had sat in the Oval Office a lifetime ago and had been brought here to serve as a reminder of the past that they were expected to restore, but the President had quickly decided that the new Oval Office would be put to better use as his private quarters. No one had tried to stop him.
“I saved you all, and this is how you repay me?” the President said, his voice filled with anguish. Ryan’s death didn’t matter; it was the fact that someone had killed him without the President’s permission that was so unforgivable.
“How do you want to handle this, sir?” Mike asked.
“Handle it?” The President laughed. “This is your mess, Mike. I want you to clean it up. Or maybe I need a new Chief of Staff, how about that?”
Beverley concealed a smirk. The President held the balance of power in any room, except when Mike was present: he just didn’t realise it. Mike had been able to keep his title because he knew exactly how to play the President: appeal to the man’s authority, knowing it would be exchanged for responsibility along with license to take any action he needed to. Any threat that signed off the transaction was merely Mike indulging the President’s ego.
“Sir,” Mike rubbed his chin. “Have you met with the Vice President tonight?”
“I have not. Have you? Why do you ask?”
“I haven’t seen him, sir. I thought … perhaps he might have wanted to discuss the … situation.”
“He’s a pussy. Runs from his responsibility faster than nun from a frat house. I should have fired him too.”
Now Beverley saw the corners of Mike’s mouth curl into what, on any other face, would be a smile. But the balance of his expression was unreadable. Blank. She wondered again if he was as burnt out behind those eyes as the rest of them, working on autopilot and the memory of a world that was once almost sane. Or was his conscience as empty as it had ever been?
Mike cleared his throat to say something, but Beverley got there first. “Sir, better to keep the Vice President close, don’t you think? We wouldn’t want him causing any further disruption, especially at a time like this.”
The President stared at his Chief of Staff, then looked over to Beverley.
“Beverley,” he said, slithering towards her, his face calm and magnanimous. “We’ll get him, you know,”
The President reached out and brushed her cheek, then took her hand. He caressed the back as he might caress a child’s naked hand. “You see, Beverley, we’re survivors. Nothing can touch us. Nothing can touch me. As long as you’re with me, Beverley, you’ll be perfectly safe.”
Beverley nodded and smiled, hoping she was capable of displaying the correct degree of gratitude. When the President released her hand, she made sure to withdraw it slowly, resisting the urge to wipe it against her dress.
Then the President walked away from them both. “Thank you, gentlemen. That will be all,” he said, without looking back.
Beverley and Mike left the room together. After the door closed behind them, Mike paused. “We have a murderer in the house,” he said.
“You’d better catch him, then,” Beverley replied, and walked away.
“Gentlemen, as we rebuild our fine nation, we find our first duty has to be towards order and stability. If we can’t maintain the rule of law in this place, then how can we impose it elsewhere?”
People began to look up, sensing that the President was, at last, nearing the point of his speech. The room was on edge—more so than usual. The daily meeting had been called two hours early, throwing out everyone’s carefully nurtured routine with a casual decree. Once the Twelve were assembled, the President had begun to deliver a rambling stew of a monologue—at times belligerent, at other times strangely ebullient—as if everything were completely under his control. No one knew what to expect any more.
“You all know that we have lost two fine members of our cabinet in recent days. Two very fine men,” he said, without naming either of them. Several of the former cabinet members had already noticed that Ryan was missing from the table and acknowledged the meaning of the President’s words with worn down horror.
Recent days, Beverley wondered. Only days? Or had it been more? She couldn’t remember. Time lost its meaning when days were performed by rote, and the sunlight was stripped away.
“Gentlemen,” the President said, sitting back in his chair and running his hands across the edge of the table as if it were a freshly sharpened knife. “We have a … a plague in our midst, a disease who wants to bring down everything we have survived for, everything that we want to—everything that we will build again. Stronger and better.”
He stared balefully at his men. “We are dealing with the most appalling crime against our nation, the darkest times. Gentlemen, we have a traitor among us.”
The President stood up and pointed directly at the Vice President.
The Vice President was slow to register the accusation, having been focused on the rest of the table so he could study the others’ reactions to the speech. As eyes turned towards him, he looked up at the President, raw shock on his face.
The President continued to address the table without looking at the Vice President. “This man—this traitor—killed Bob. Then, when we refused to shake with fear, he murdered Ryan in the most terrible fashion. He’ll take all of you if you let him, but you are safe because I am here to protect you—all of you!”
The President stared around the table, skewering the men with his narrow eyes and daring anyone to question him.
The Vice President attempted to speak. “This is … it’s ridiculous. It’s not me! Why would—”
“IN!” The President shouted, cutting the Vice President off.
The door opened and two soldiers marched into the room. There was a gasp. A small military detachment was part of the staff that kept the bunker functioning, but no soldier had ever been brought into a cabinet meeting before. The pair marched around the table and stopped behind the Vice President’s chair, their faces expressionless.
“Do you think you could intimidate us? Did you think you would replace me?” The President said, finally facing the accused. “I will lead us to salvation. I will save us all and you will be executed for your crimes.”
“Take him away!” He shouted at the soldiers.
“Wait,” the Vice President said, his eyes pleading with the others sitting around the table. “It’s a lie, you can’t let him do this. You have to stop him. He’ll kill us all!”
The President pointed at the man, the fire burning behind his eyes now. “You see! You see how he turns you against me! Take him, now!”
The Vice President continued to protest, until one of the soldiers took the butt of his rifle and drove it into the back of his head, slamming his face into the surface of the table. A flower of red spread below the Vice President’s nose. His eyes drooped. He continued trying to speak, but now the words came out slurred and unintelligible.
A soft murmur spread through the room as the soldiers lifted the Vice President from his chair and dragged him through the door. The sound hushed instantly as the President sat down at the table and smiled.
“You see? You’ll always be safe with me.”
Beverley stared at the whitewashed walls of her quarters. They had been her view of the world for longer than she could remember now. Trying to recall what had come before only brought pain.
She reviewed the notes she had written down, wondering if anyone would ever read them. History, in the end, was irrelevant if there was no future. She considered writing that down too. Then didn’t.
The blank whiteness stared back at her. Empty. Inviting. It was all that was left: nothing. Soon there wouldn’t even be that.
The President had scheduled the Vice President’s execution for the evening. At her suggestion he had declared it should take place in the Oval Office. He had liked that, of course: a show of his absolute power.
She swung her legs over the side of the bed and prepared to leave her quarters.
There was work to do.
The surviving members of the administration, ill at ease, gathered in the President’s quarters. Despite the import of the occasion, only a single chair had been provided: a heavy wooden antique into which the Vice President had been handcuffed. The chair was positioned before the Oval Office desk and had turned to face the audience. No one could bring themselves to look directly at the Vice President. His eyes hung down and stared at some low and distant horizon, as if he had been drugged or had simply given up.
Beverley entered the room, carrying a polished wooden box inlaid with a motif of the US flag. She placed the box down and whispered to the two soldiers standing guard that it was time for them to wait outside. Once they had left the room, she used the security panel to lock the door and ensure that nothing would interrupt the proceedings.
She took a moment to survey the room. The President stood with his back to everyone, staring out of an imaginary window. The Vice President looked up hopefully, as if expecting her to bring him salvation. The other men, shoulders slumped, kept their backs to her, terrified of being caught looking anywhere but at their leader. There was a sense of weariness so deep pervading the room that Beverley felt she could almost reach out and touch it.
Everyone was tired and confused, wary of how the execution was going to proceed. Beverley tried not to think about what was going to happen. It was impossible, but essential. The only way to keep going forward was to focus on the moment immediately ahead.
She walked over the President, the box back in her hands, and told him everything was prepared, hoping he would be too absorbed to pick up the slight tremor in her voice. Weakness was succour to the President: he would grasp it, use it, build on it until there was nothing else left of you. Everything was prepared, Beverley told herself, but nothing could be predicted or relied upon. The future was a dark highway in the black of night, speeding them towards oblivion with an endless precipice falling away on each side.
“Gentlemen,” the President said, before turning to face his silent audience. “We have reached a desperate moment in our democracy, where all that we have fought for is under threat by demonic forces. Today we have a choice. We can give up and succumb to the destruction of our precious way of life, or we can go on and fight for the future and restore our world and our values.”
There was some nodding from the gathered men. Beverley saw Mike studying the others, while being careful to maintain a rhythmic nodding of his own head.
“We have a traitor among us,” the President continued. “A man we all trusted—no, not a man: a mongrel we all trusted, but who now wants to kill us and tear down all that we have fought and survived for. It is time to purge this disease. We need to purge this weakness, and when we have done that we will all be stronger because of it.”
There was a murmur of assent throughout the room. Nothing more. No one shared the energy and the passion that the President was manifesting. They were all tired and they were all … dead. Beverley realised that now. None of them had truly survived. They had merely inherited a slower death over the weeks and months they had spent in the bunker.
The President walked around the desk. There was an audible exhalation of breath as he placed his hand on the shoulder of the Vice President.
“I’m pleased to see we are all in agreement,” he said. “Now … which of you men is prepared to secure our future? Which one of you is ready to step up and deliver justice?”
The gathered crowd shared confused glances. Could he really mean …?
“There is a single bullet in the gun that Beverley has brought us. Only one bullet—we only need one to get rid this problem forever and save ourselves. Who among you is loyal to the future? Who among you is loyal to me? Who among you will remove this malignancy in my name?”
The President faced down the men before him. There was a shuffling of feet. The room remained deathly quiet. The Vice President was silent, his head lolling to the side, eyes back down to the floor. No one stepped forward.
This is my time, Beverley thought.
She stepped forward.
A ripple of mute shock passed through the room. The President beamed as he held up the gun and passed it to Beverley.
“Why, Beverley! Ready to become one of the men!” he said, massaging her shoulder.
“I’m ready … to join you, sir, if that’s what you mean,” she said.
The President shrugged, finding no words to match her own.
Beverley tested the weight of the gun and took a step away from the President, preparing to address the crowd. She had planned for this moment but, now that she stood there, the rest of her words had abandoned her.
“The Vice President is guilty,” she began. “But so are we all. The Vice President didn’t kill those men.”
A whisper grew inside the room. The President laughed, dismissing the notion. “Of course he did, Beverley.”
“No,” Beverley repeated calmly.
“But—” the President broke off and coughed. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “But you said—”
Mike finally spoke up. “You seem remarkably confident, Beverley. Let’s hear your thesis. If it wasn’t the Vice President who killed those men, who was it?”
“It was me,” Beverley replied.
Silence fell over the room. The President’s mouth went slack with shock. Someone took a step forward, perhaps thinking they might apprehend her. Beverley raised the gun and the man backed away.
She waited for someone to speak, knowing it would be Mike—it was always Mike. However, for the first time since she had known him he seemed lost for words. “Explain,” was all he could manage.
“Because it was necessary,” she said.
Mike’s expression betrayed his continuing confusion.
“Oh, I see: what you really meant is how could I kill a man? Because you think you’ve never killed anyone?“ Beverley scanned the room, looking each man in the eye. “You killed everyone. We did it. We all stood by while it happened, pretending that it wasn’t us who made it happen. Our hands look clean, but they’re drenched in blood. And no one here has the courage to take the responsibility for it. Not one of you even had the guts to take this gun.”
Beverley felt a stinging at the back of her throat. Everything was working to plan, except for the speech. She hadn’t planned to talk for so long, but now that she was here she wanted to make them understand. She only hoped there would be enough time for her to finish.
“To tell you the truth, I thought this would be harder, but it turns out it’s easy once I realised … you see, we’re already dead, all of us—we’re just hiding down here trying to pretend that we’re still alive. But we’re not. We’re all guilty. We’re all dead. And … and I can kill men who are guilty; I can kill men who are already dead.”
“Beverley,” the President said from somewhere close by. His face was crimson with barely contained rage. His voice came out as a low growl, cracking at the edges. “What the … hell do you think you’re doing?”
He stood tall, his righteous anger making him tower over her and the other men. He had moved around to the other side of the desk, and Beverley realised a little too slowly what he was trying to do. Before she could stop him, he reached down to the control panel embedded underneath the desk’s surface and pressed a button. “Get in here! Now!”
Beverley heard the muffled, metallic reply of affirmation from the soldiers outside. The clock was ticking. Her time was running out. But so was everyone else’s.
She looked up at the President. “They won’t be able to get in, sir. One of the … very few advantages of being your PA is that I … need to know how everything works, even down here. I’ve put this room into lockdown and changed the code. I’m … I’m the only person here who knows the override.”
The President spat, as if his fury was trying to physically escape from his body, his words barely able to emerge. “We’ll … b-be out of here … soon—soon enough! Then, by God, I’ll see you … nailed to that—that chair!”
“I don’t think so, sir,” Beverley said, keeping her voice low so it wouldn’t betray her. “Do you feel … that burning at the back of your throat? I never thought I’d find a use for that … chemistry degree, but here we are. It’s in the ventilation system. Give it … ten minutes … well, five or so now—and everyone in this room will be dead.”
Mike took a step towards her. She raised the gun again. “Or sooner.”
Mike stopped but stood his ground. “There’s only one bullet in that gun, Beverley. You can only shoot one of us. And once you’ve wasted that, I’m certain the rest of us can find a way of making you talk.” The coughing in the room grew as the gathered men struggled against breathing in the noxious air.
“We only need the code,” Mike said, his voice perfectly flat.
Beverley smiled. She realised, at last, what went on behind those dead eyes that Mike watched the world through: it was survival, at any cost. The only value that life had for him was the sheer fact of surviving. As long as he was the one left standing, no matter whose bones were left crumbling beneath his feet, he had won. It was why he couldn’t comprehend the plan that she had crafted. It was why he failed to realise that this time there really was no way out for him.
“And I only need one bullet,” she replied.
Beverley raised the gun to her head and fired.
* * *
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