He felt tired after walking so far. He could do this anywhere, he decided, and sat by himself on a bench, disregarding the expectant pigeons that came to strut at his feet. He stared at the long stretch of water whose ripples reflected shimmering foliage and inverted passers-by. How absurdly placid and normal it all looks, he thought, for such a day. His gaze returned to the legal pad on his lap whose mostly empty pages he had clipped down to keep the autumn breeze from riffling them. He read what he’d managed to write in his unpracticed hand so far. It wasn’t much. Just a beginning.
My fellow Americans, I come before you today to let you know what the government is doing to repair our situation and restore our way of life.
He frowned and wobbled a line through the government is doing, and over it wrote we the people can do. His stomach growled. He put down his pen, scooped a handful of granola from a paper bag, and took it in small bites as he looked past the trees that lined the reflecting pool. Somewhere back there was the Korean War Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial loomed to his right, studded with visitors wandering aimlessly or sullenly camped on its steps, conversing or reading books. Behind him, just over a rise, the Vietnam War Memorial slithered from the earth to darkly reflect a scattering of doubly distressed onlookers, angled toward Washington’s obelisk, and sloped down into ignominy.
He brushed oat flakes off his pad, setting off a pecking scuffle below, and went back to writing. Restore our way of life wouldn’t do, not under these conditions. He replaced it with help one another survive, and kept his pen poised in thought. We are a strong people, he scrawled next, who will make the most of our remaining resources, then placed a caret after who to insert I have complete confidence. He wasn’t feeling particularly confident, but the President clearly needed to project optimism from the depths of the situation room at the Pentagon, not that a lot of people would receive his address.
He hadn’t written much, but already his overtaxed wrist ached. His carpals were a mess from pounding on his beloved laptop. But it was kaput—crippled, data garbled, and cut off from the world, along with most of the electronic gear and communications networks stretching from Moscow to Chicago and Saint Louis, half the earth satellites put out of business along with them. Only the most hardened devices—computers, phones, servers, switches and power grids had survived the event. Most were either underground or owned by the military. Nobody knew how many auto accidents there had been or how many airplanes fell from the sky from western Siberia to the Midwest, not to mention Africa and South America. Asia and Oceana had been largely spared, thanks to being on the dark side at the time, close to a day ago.
He sucked the end of his pen and squinted at the sun. Close to ten AM he reckoned. Got to keep writing and get it done before his pager urgently beeped, assuming that was possible. He scribbled faster now: I have declared a state of emergency and nationalized the National Guard and state police forces to restore essential services and prevent looting. He inked out the last two words, replacing them with maintain civil order.
Remembering his briefing, he wrote There is no truth, I repeat no truth, to rumors that this disaster was caused by a Russian or Chinese nuclear blast in space over the Atlantic. We are not at war. He decided to not to mention that our nuclear submarines and Pacific fleet remained fully operational. It was different for ships deployed in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, now mostly dead in the water. Same for the cruise and cargo ships, now helplessly drifting in and out of sea lanes like stunned whales.
And so, What happened was nobody’s fault, just a disastrous freak of nature over America and Europe. Our friends on the other side of the world have pledged their support, although we have not yet asked for any help. He paused and continued. But you can and must help your fellow citizens. Check in with your neighbors. While your phones and Internet are out of service, assemble at your nearest school, library, or city hall to build social networks, but in the real world. Eat one less meal a day until food can again be delivered, and share the food you have with those with fewer provisions. Fill bottles and bathtubs with water to drink. Until hospitals can receive patients again, attend to the elderly and infirm. Be kind to one other.
Oh yeah, the guns. A tricky business. If you own a gun, keep it handy to protect your home or place of business, but I ask you not to take it to the street. Enough has already gone wrong—strike that. Let’s say: Let our law enforcement officers maintain the peace. No emergency justifies the law of the jungle—Nope. How about: We must not turn against one another in fear or let frustrations escalate into murderous warfare. That’s better.
It would have to do. Sensing he was out of time, he clicked closed his pen, shoved his pad into his shoulder bag, and strode toward the Lincoln Memorial. The Pentagon was at least a forty-minute walk away. He’d noticed a few older taxicabs and buses moving about, those that could fuel could be found for, and had heard that segments of the Metro were coming up under emergency power, but had a better idea. Troops were stationed at the Arlington Bridge. If he were lucky, he might hitch a ride on a jeep or a troop carrier by flashing his White House ID.
At the steps to the monument, surprised to find the building open for business, he decided to run up for a quick visit before hustling on. In his decade in the District, not once had he stuck his nose in there, not since a middle school field trip. He ascended, feeling dwarfed by the massive columns and the enthroned emancipator. For a moment he contemplated the great man’s gravitas, then slowly circled about, arresting himself in front of the Gettysburg address. He murmured out the inscription, in all its simple, extemporaneous concision:
… And that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.
Easy for you to say, Mister President. Things are different now, oh so different. In your day, half of civilization wouldn’t have ground to a halt after a massive solar flare. It fried most our critical technology but wouldn’t have touched yours. Your railroads would still chuff along and your stagecoaches would still ply their routes; your gas lamps might flicker but would still pierce the darkness; your stock markets would still carry out hoarse trades; your farmers could still plow and harvest; your newspapers and men on horseback could still spread the news. Your telegraphs might fail, but that’s about all you’d need to fix. Now we’re fucked, and nothing any president can command will prevent the chaos, starvation, and suffering about to descend on the Western world. Wish us luck, Abe. Lots of luck.
@image: Seated Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Chester French, courtesy pixbay.com