When I get ideas, they usually start with a picture in my head. If the picture is clear enough, it grows into a story.
So picture an urban park filled with stately trees on a cool fall morning, a nice path for walking or jogging winding through it. And there are people in the park, standing under those trees…or are there?
Every morning when he was home, he went for a run through the park. Sometimes when he was traveling he could find another similar place to run through, but sometimes not – sometimes there wasn’t one available, or sometimes the available one simply wasn’t safe to run through for any of a number of reasons. He always tried to find a way, though. He felt grounded after his run, more level-headed and less bogged down by petty concerns.
His staff, of course, hated the running habit. They hated the potential security problem it represented – he was in the same place at the same time almost every day, and mostly alone because his guards wouldn’t run with him. They hated that he refused to be flexible about the timing when they wanted to schedule early-morning meetings or iCalls. And they really hated that he wouldn’t run in a different location, wouldn’t let them have an indoor track put in the building or a safe, private one carved out of the grounds. They usually kept the complaining low-key, but if it got too loud he made the complainers take a walk or run of their own through the park while he was having his run and that usually shut them down. It had made a few of them quit, but he considered that an acceptable loss. If you couldn’t deal with the potential aftermath of your job you shouldn’t have the job, in his opinion.
Part of that aftermath was accepting the presence of the ghosts. He knew most of them by name and he greeted them as he jogged past. Most didn’t respond; a few were looking at him, but mainly just because they were already looking in his direction. One waved every day, and he always waved back. The waver, Jorge Anderson, probably wasn’t actually responding to him either, but since he couldn’t be sure he responded in kind anyway.
Jorge was near the end of his run, near the end of the trees, and after their daily greeting he dropped to the brisk walk that was his cool-down. The walk took him all the way back to his private ‘runner’s entrance’, where he was buzzed in and walked through the scanner and then the chemical shower before shedding his protective clothing and coming out the other side. One of his guards was waiting for him with a ready towel, as usual. “Good run, sir? It’s a nice cool morning.”
“Almost too cool, but yes, it was a good run – thanks for asking.” He wiped his face and draped the towel around his neck. The guard would take it if he handed it back, but he’d been very open in his opinion that highly-trained agents weren’t locker-room attendants so they didn’t reach for it anymore. “Some of the trees are already starting to turn, I think we might have an early winter this year.”
“Probably, sir.” The guard smiled, just slightly. “Your secretary called down to say Mr. Percy is pacing in your outer office. She asked if I had a taser she could borrow.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I said only you could authorize that, Mr. President.”
The president laughed. “Nice save, Sam. I’ll swing by there before I go change and banish him back to his own office. What door are you on today?”
“This one, sir. We’re still on orange.”
“Sadly, yes. Have an uneventful shift, Sam.”
“Thank you sir, I hope so.”
The president was hoping so too. He took the elevator upstairs the way he usually did – he’d had his exercise for the day, thank you very much – and made a beeline for his office. Frank Percy was indeed pacing in the inner office and Nancy, his secretary, was wearing an expression that would have made anyone else get out of her sights. Percy, however, was ignoring her; the single-minded man tended to do that to the other members of the staff unless he wanted something from them. “Leaves are starting to turn, Nancy,” he announced as he walked in. “Do I have any messages?”
“They all know better than to call during your run, Mr. President.”
“Everyone should by now, yes,” he agreed. “And no, you can’t have a taser in the office because you might use it on me.” He heard Percy huff behind him. “This afternoon I’ll show you how to use your stapler as a rubber-band gun, though.”
“I doubt anything less than ten-thousand volts would be effective, sir, but thank you for offering.”
“I understand. Go ahead and take your break now, I’ll clean up the mess in the office.” Normally she would have demurred, but this time she nodded, thanked him with her eyes and was out the door so fast she left a breeze behind. He went into his office, his Secretary of State following and shutting the door behind them. “Did you have to antagonize her like that?”
Percy huffed again. “I wasn’t doing a thing except waiting.”
“You were pacing. Next time do it in your own office. So, the same issue or a different one?”
“You know I’m right, Mr. President.”
“No, I don’t.” He got a cup of water and ice from the dispenser, then sat down behind his desk to drink it. “I know you’re beating a dead horse, Percy. I don’t care what that idiot is saying, I don’t care what the news people have been making out of it: We’re not using those bombs again. And it’s not like he’s got anything that would reach over here anyway.”
“The Premiere walks instead of running, Percy – his wife and daughter were playing in their private garden when the bomb fell on the Kremlin. He already told the idiot he won’t get involved if they keep threatening to play the bomb card.”
The Secretary of State dropped into a chair of his own; it was technically a breach of protocol, since he hadn’t been invited to sit, but this president didn’t usually stand on ceremony unless someone from outside the cabinet was there. “You believe him?”
“I walked in the garden with him the last time I was there.” The president took a drink, not quite making a face at the flat, chemical taste of the treated water. “She was six. Laughing at something, he thinks it was probably a butterfly.”
Percy made a face. “Mr. President…”
“You really feel like going for a run tomorrow morning?”
“Do you really feel like making decisions about international relations based on maudlin sentiment?” the other man shot back. “The Speaker thinks that’s what you’re doing, and that’s what the press is saying too.” Percy leaned forward. “Mr. President…yes, the radiation images the anti-personnel bombs leave behind are disturbing. But it’s much kinder than what the old bombs did to people – no melted flesh, no shrapnel or severed limbs, no piles of burnt corpses. The people in the area die instantly, they never even know what hit them.”
“And that’s what makes it worse.” He took another drink, held the cold water in his mouth for a few seconds to cool off his response. “You – and the Speaker, and those rabid fear-mongering excuses for journalists – like to point out that now we can kill large numbers of people without hurting them. Victims become numbers, statistics, names on a list. You talk about how clean it all is…but war isn’t supposed to be clean, Percy. War is supposed to be nasty and messy and terrible so we’ll think twice about doing it.” He raised an eyebrow. “You really want a world where war is neat and clean and bloodless, really?”
Percy sat back again, shrugging. “I’d rather die quickly than slowly, if I had the option. I think most people would say the same.”
“Probably, yes. But if we normalize that option, more of them are going to die just because it’s the easiest and least messy option. I know you remember the incident at the U.N.”
“It is – it’s where we’re headed if the top powers don’t make it very clear that using so-called ‘clean’ bombs is not acceptable under any circumstances.” He saw the stubborn frown, rammed the point home. “They wanted to bomb fifty thousand people out of existence because there was a famine, Percy. No requesting humanitarian aid, no asking for help to bring the region back – the fat bastard actually stood up and said the best thing to do was to ‘clean up’ the area and start over. He only took it to the U.N. first because he didn’t want anyone to think he was starting something…and he wanted help eradicating the radiation afterward so the land could be used again as quickly as possible.”
The other man refused to meet his eyes; Congress had pushed for that in their own remaining affected areas, multiple times. Every attempt had been vetoed. “This isn’t the same thing and you know it, Mr. President. This is about us using the best, most modern means available to protect ourselves and our allies.”
The president was about to respond to that without the benefit of a cooling mouthful of water when the sound started, a sharp murmur that quickly scaled up into a hair-raising howl. He jumped up from his chair and ran to the window. The trees in the park he’d just been running through less than an hour before were shaking under the onslaught of an invisible wind, the blue glow they usually emitted considerably brighter than it normally was during daylight hours. “That moron,” he breathed. “That absolute fucking moron.” The phone on his desk started to ring just as he stalked back over to pick it up. “Where and how bad?” he barked at the person on the other end. “Okay, okay…all right, find out if they want or need our help with the contamination – or if any of their neighbors do. Yes…yes, that will be fine, as long as someone keeps me posted. Tell the press secretary I’m going up to shower and change and then I’ll be down and we’ll address the nation – nobody but me makes a statement before then, am I clear? Yes, of course you wouldn’t, but some people have agendas of their own. Of course. Thank you.”
He hung up the phone, went back to the window to stare out at the glowing blue trees in the park. The unearthly howl was winding back down now, and he shook his head. They still didn’t know why the irradiated spots reacted that way, like live things crying out in anguish, whenever another ‘clean’ bomb was detonated anywhere on the planet. “It wasn’t him,” he told his tense Secretary of State. “It was his neighbor to the north. They got sick of his antics and decided to end it themselves since the diplomatic route hasn’t been working.” He glanced over. “The bomb detonated in the city center, he was there giving a speech to all of his forcibly-assembled citizens about how great and glorious war is.”
Percy swallowed. “And now?”
The president shrugged, thinking about the man he waved to every morning, Jorge Anderson, endlessly waving back the way he had been at the moment he’d died, his final moment engraved on the spot by clean, modern radiation that wouldn’t fade on its own for a hundred years or more. Was there any awareness there? God, he hoped not. “He keeps on giving it. Forever.”
And then he turned away from the window and left the office to go take his shower. He had a press conference to give. And maybe some more people to include on his next morning’s run, too. He really wanted to introduce them to Jorge.