Executive Orders

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The other part of him looked at the same sight and knew that he had to do something, and though he struggled to be logical, logic wasn't winning, because logic didn't know what to do or where to start.

"Mr. President." It was the voice of Special Agent Andrea Price.

"Yes?" Ryan said without turning away from the window. Behind him—he could see the reflections in the window glass—six other Secret Service agents stood with weapons out to keep the others away. There had to be a score of CNN employees outside the door, gathered together partly from professional interest—they were news-people, after all—but mostly from simple human curiosity at being face-to-face with a moment in history. They were wondering what it looked like to be there, and didn't quite get the fact that such events were the same for everyone. Whether presented with an auto accident or a sudden grave illness, the unprepared human mind just stopped and tried to make sense of the senseless—and the graver the test, the harder the recovery period. But at least people trained in crisis had procedures to fall back upon.

"Sir, we have to get you to—"

"Where? A place of safety? Where's that?" Jack asked, then quietly reproached himself for the cruelty of the question. At least twenty agents were part of the pyre a mile away, all of them friends of the men and women standing in the lunchroom with their new President. He had no right to transfer his discomfort to them. "My family?" he asked after a moment.

"The Marine Barracks, Eighth and I streets, as you ordered, sir."

Yes, it was good for them to be able to report that they'd carried out orders, Ryan thought with a slow nod. It was also good for him to know that his orders had been carried out. He had done one thing right, anyway. Was that something to build on?

"Sir, if this was part of an organized—"

"It wasn't. They never are, Andrea, are they?" President Ryan asked. He was surprised how tired his voice sounded, and reminded himself that shock and stress were more tiring than the most strenuous exercise. He didn't even seem to have the energy to shake his head and clear it.

"They can be," Special Agent Price pointed out.

Yes, I suppose she's right. "So what's the drill for this?"

"Kneecap," Price replied, meaning the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, a converted 747 kept at Andrews Air Force Base. Jack thought about the suggestion for a moment, then frowned.

"No, I can't run away. I think I have to go back there." President Ryan pointed to the glow. Yes, that is where I belong, isn't it?

"No, sir, that's too dangerous."

"That's my place, Andrea."

He's already thinking like a politician, Price thought, disappointed.

Ryan saw the look on her face and knew he'd have to explain. He'd learned something once, perhaps the only thing that applied at this moment, and the thought had appeared in his mind'like a flashing highway sign. "It's a leadership function. They taught me that at Quantico. The troops have to see you doing the job. They have to know you're there for them." And I have to be sure that it's all real, that I actually am the President.

Was he?

The Secret Service thought so. He'd sworn the oath, spoken the words, invoked the name of God to bless his effort, but it had all been too soon and too fast. Hardly for the first time in his life, John Patrick Ryan closed his eyes and willed himself to awaken from this dream that was just too improbable to be real, and yet when he opened his eyes again the orange glow was still there, and the leaping yellow flames. He knew he'd spoken the words—he'd even given a little speech, hadn't he? But he could not remember a single word of it now.

Let's get to work, he'd said a minute earlier. He did remember that. An automatic thing to say. Did it mean anything?

Jack Ryan shook his head—it seemed a major accomplishment to do even that—then turned away from the window to look directly at the agents in the room.

"Okay. What's left?"

"Secretaries of Commerce and Interior," Special Agent Price responded, having been updated by her personal radio. "Commerce is in San Francisco. Interior is in New Mexico. They've already been summoned; the Air Force will bring them in. We've lost all the other Cabinet secretaries: Director Shaw, all nine Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs. We're not sure how many members of Congress were absent when it happened."

"Mrs. Durling?"

Price shook her head. "She didn't get out, sir. The kids are at the White House."

Jack nodded bleakly at the additional tragedy, compressed his lips, and closed his eyes at the thought of one more thing he had to do personally. For the children of Roger and Anne Durling, it wasn't a public event. For them it was immediately and tragically simple: Mom and Dad had died, and they were now orphans. Jack had seen them, spoken with them—really nothing more than the smile and the «Hi» that one gave to another man's kids, but they were real children with faces and names—except their surnames were all that was left, and the faces would be contorted with shock and disbelief. They'd be like Jack, trying to blink away a nightmare that would not depart, but for them it'd be all the harder because of their age and vulnerability. "Do they know?"

"Yes, Mr. President," Andrea said. "They were watching TV, and the agents had to tell them. They have grandparents still alive, other family members. We're bringing them in, too." She didn't add that there was a drill for this, that at the Secret Service's operations center a few blocks west of the White House was a security file cabinet with sealed envelopes in which were contingency plans for all manner of obscene possibilities; this was merely one of them.

However, there were hundreds—no, thousands—of children without parents now, not just two. Jack had to set the Durling children aside for the moment. Hard as it was, it was also a relief to close the door on that task for the moment. He looked down at Agent Price again.

"You're telling me I'm the whole government right now?"

"It would seem that way, Mr. President. That's why we—"

"That's why I have to do the things I have to do." Jack headed to the door, startling the Secret Service agents into action by his impulse. There were cameras in the corridor. Ryan walked right past them, the leading wave of two agents clearing the rows of newspeople too shocked themselves to do much more than operate their cameras. Not a single question. That, Jack thought without a smile, was a singular event. It didn't occur to him to wonder what his face looked like. An elevator was waiting, and thirty seconds later, he emerged into the capacious lobby. It had been cleared of people, except for agents, more than half of whom had submachine guns out, and pointed up at the ceiling. They must have come from elsewhere—there were more than he remembered from twenty minutes earlier. Then he saw that Marines stood outside, most of them improperly uniformed, some shivering in their red T-shirts over camouflaged «utility» trousers.

"We wanted the additional security," Price explained. "I asked for the assistance from the barracks."

"Yeah." Ryan nodded. Nobody would think it unseemly for the President of the United States to be surrounded by U.S. Marines at a time like this. They were kids, most of them, their smooth young faces showing no emotion at all—a dangerous state for people carrying weapons—their eyes surveying the parking lot like watchdogs, while tight hands gripped their rifles. A captain stood just outside the door, talking to an agent. When Ryan walked out, the Marine officer braced stiffly and saluted. So, he thinks it's real, too. Ryan nodded his acknowledgment and gestured to the nearest HMMWV.

"The Hill," President John Patrick Ryan ordered curtly.

The ride was quicker than he'd expected. Police had cordoned off all the main streets, arid the fire trucks were already there, probably a general alarm, for whatever good it might do. The Secret Service Suburban—a cross between a stationwagon and a light truck—led off, its lights flashing and siren screaming, while the protective detail sweated and probably swore under its collective breath at the foolishness of their new "Boss," the in-house term for the President.

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