Spiders from the Shadows - By Chris Stewart

ONE

Offutt Air Force Base, Headquarters, U.S. Strategic Command, Eight Miles South of Omaha, Nebraska

The room was silent. They were alone the only surviving member. The eto. The two men stared at each other before one of them whistled quietly, a nervous habit he’d picked up as a kid, then swallowed and forced a smile. The air in the command center was cool but arid as the desert, the underground cooling systems pumping out purified, bone-dry atmosphere. The digital clocks on the wall behind them showed the local times in Moscow, Berlin, Jerusalem, New York, Hawaii, and a handful of others.

It was 3:14 a.m., local time. A little less than four hours until sunrise. Above the underground complex, the night was dark. To conserve energy, but mostly to avoid highlighting their capabilities to the local population, the base commander had ordered all lights extinguished after sunset. There were already hundreds of civilians at the gates. No reason to make it thousands. The time for riots and gunfights along the base security perimeter would come soon enough without publicizing the fact that the military had electricity, water, communications, and pretty much everything else.

Not the kind of things they needed to advertise right now.

But in the end, it wouldn’t matter. If things didn’t change soon, the base would run out of energy and supplies just like the local population.

Brucius Marino, the Secretary of Defense and the actual President of the Republic, was exhausted. He hadn’t slept at all in almost thirty hours, and he’d had little more than a couple of hours of sleep during the two days before that. He knew he had to find some time to rest; his mind was slow as molasses and he found himself sometimes stumbling on his feet and over his words. Worse, he micro-slept for fifteen or thirty seconds at the most awkward times—while talking to a subordinate, shaving, eating or listening to a security brief. He couldn’t read a paragraph without nodding off.

What he needed was a shower, a hot meal, and twenty hours of sleep. But not right now. Not until he said good-bye. This was important. Maybe the most important thing they would do up to this point.

He looked across the table. There wasn’t a man in the world he trusted more than the man sitting opposite him, and this was the last time he would see him. Somehow they both knew.

James Davies, the FBI Director, kept his eyes low. He, too, was exhausted, his black eyes melting into the dark skin above his cheekbones, his curly hair cut to a stubble of black and gray. The portable table, mounted on rubber wheels, moved under the weight of the Secretary of Defense’s heavy arms. The military infirmary was all chrome, tile and white cement walls, causing their voices to echo, which created a stiff environment that magnified the awkwardness of it all.

“How does it feel?” Brucius asked.

James turned his head and swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing at the strain. “Feels like I swallowed a tennis ball.”

Brucius flinched.

“If it hurt like that going down, I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like coming back up again.”

Brucius winced again and subconsciously swallowed. “It’s going to be OK, though?”

James clenched his teeth, then rubbed his tongue across the new cap on his molar and nodded.

They were silent another moment.

“You don’t have to do this,” Brucius said.

“I know that, sir.”

Brucius shook his head. “I’m not sir to you, James. I never will be.”

[email protected]? ing the’re the president, sir.”

“Not right now. Not yet. We’ve been through this.”

“You are the president, sir. That isn’t in dispute. That’s why I’m doing this, you know. As much affection as I might have for you, this isn’t about you or me or friendship. This is something different. More important.” He nodded toward the hallway. “That’s why all of us are doing this. It’s about the presidency. The country. It’s about the Constitution versus chaos. It’s the only thing we can do.”

Brucius didn’t answer.

James broke into a smile. “I love you, Brucius, you know that, but this is much more important than a single man.”

There were footsteps in the hallway, the sound of clicking heels moving past, and they fell silent as they listened, both of them lost in their own thoughts.

“We made a mistake.” Brucius had a far-off look on his face as he spoke, his mind reflecting back. He had a sense of pain about him—a father reflecting on the passing of his child. He appeared to be racked with