“Jack, go!” Chris yells as he limps up the stairs with Maya, turning around another marble balustrade as angry shouts and panicked screams echo through the halls of the Pentagon.
As Chris pulls her up the stairs, Maya cries for Sabine. Jack pushes past the image of Sabine’s capture and the crater in his stomach imagining what she must be feeling now, and his legs somehow press like pistons against each step as he bounds up.
After reaching his floor, he races left toward the office. Two marines in blue-dress uniform try to block his way and ask for his authorization. He runs to the left of them, and then cuts quickly to the right. His sneakers provide much better traction against the marble floor than the marines’ polished shoes.
He turns into the office and finds a large wooden double door locked from the inside. They must have gotten word of a potential threat. He slams his fists against the doors and yells. He pushes against them in vain, his hair falling over his eyes. Sweat trickles down his face, tickling his nose. He tries not to think about Sabine. The sound of his heaving breathing is like crashing surf in his head. His lungs are raw from the hard running.
He feels someone behind him and ducks, fearing it’s another uniformed do-gooder trying to stop him. It’s Chris and Maya. He limps. She leans on him.
“Losing strength here,” she says.
“We’re both pretty spent,” Chris says. “Holding everyone off best we can.”
Jack steps aside. Chris fires his eyes at the doors and the wood splinters apart. Jack swings them open and runs through.
A receptionist ducks under her desk. An officer draws a gun. Jack hears Maya yell a guttural, desperate cry from behind him, and the man flies backwards, toppling over a waiting-room table with a thud. Jack rounds the sharp corner into the secretary’s office. Believing Chris unlocked it, Jack slams into the door and it flies open.
The three of them work with such unity of purpose now, Jack can scarcely tell where one of their minds ends and the other begins. But he knows they’re all stretched, operating on the fumes of their mental energy. He doesn’t know how much longer they can go.
But he consoles himself. There’s only one more thing to do.
The secretary stands at his desk with a look of befuddlement, a phone in his hand. Jack slaps the phone out of his hand.
“Do you have any idea—” the secretary begins. He’s interrupted by Maya lifting him and pinning him against the back wall. His flailing limbs knock into a golden flag stand. It rocks, and then falls over with a muffled clang.
Chris and Maya stumble into the secretary’s office, close the door, and rest their backs against it. Blood dripping from her nose, Maya eyes Jack with a far-off look, like she’s spent herself. Jack wonders how she’s summoning the strength to restrain the defense secretary.
Chris breathes like someone who’s just run the 400-meter, but he’s still working. Jack hears the first set of double doors slam closed. He watches as the furniture, the receptionist’s desk, a waiting-room couch, and a bust on a pedestal all fly toward the doors in a makeshift barricade. The people in the front office cower in a corner.
“Take it away, Jack,” Chris says weakly.
Jack turns to look at the secretary. The man looks back at him with a face of granite.
“I don’t know who you people are, but—” he mutters.
“Quiet,” Jack demands. “I need to concentrate.”
Jack falls to his knees, which can’t hold him up anymore. He puts his hands on the desk and looks up to the secretary, probing his mind.
There’s something unnatural to it, something that feels familiar. It’s a hunger to approve a nuclear strike. He had the phone in his hand, ready to do it. He’ll approve whatever his Commander in Chief asks. It’s a thought that’s been imposed on him.
Jack recognizes Kasym’s signature. He’s been here. That’s why he was outside the Pentagon. He’s one step ahead of them, locking in the defense secretary’s approval. Jack knows this means the president has ordered a launch. It means they got here in time.
Without warning, a sharp pain shoots through Jack’s eyes like a lightning bolt.
“Jack!” Maya cries out pitifully.
Jack opens his eyes to see that he’s fallen on the floor. He brings his hands to his head and digs deeper for more strength, fighting past the pain.
Inside the secretary’s mind, he girds the intruding thoughts Kasym placed. They’re different from the rest. They’re out of place, like a wrong note in a piece of music. Jack pushes through them, envelops them. They’re rooted strongly.
He’s in awe of Kasym’s power. The thoughts are implanted with such a thoroughness and tenacity that Jack will have to summon all his remaining strength to lift them. The work is masterful.
He finds the command in total, encircles it, drives deep beneath it, and then yanks it out with a wrenching cry.
Another lightning bolt strikes, ripping through his spine and leaving him twisting on the floor.
Sounds of demolition come from the outer office.
Maya releases the secretary. He tumbles from the wall and catches himself with his hands on the desk.
“I demand to know the meaning of this. I am the secretary of defense of the United States of America.” He speaks with a growling intensity.
Jack notices drops of blood on the carpet under his nose. He doesn’t know if he has the strength, or if he can withstand the pain, but he peers into the secretary’s mind again. He needs to be sure he’s wiped out every foreign thought, to ensure there’s no vestige.
But he gains a new insight that chills him. He finds a mind steeled against him, an authoritarian mind, a mind that will approve the president’s orders under any circumstances. He’s loyal to him to the end.
He didn’t even ask what the target was.
Jack sinks. Kasym needn’t have bothered with the secretary. He would have approved a launch anyway. What he planted in his mind was merely insurance, to guarantee his dark vision would come to life.
Jack will have to take everything from this man’s mind to wipe out his unconditional support of the president. And if he can, the man will be reduced to a vegetable.
He decides it’s worth it to save the world.
He burrows in again. Digging deeper to find the strength, enduring what feels like a shiv driving into the base of his skull.
“Just what do you think you’re trying to do?” the secretary says.
“Stop a nuclear war.”
In the secretary’s mind, Jack reads pure enmity. The idea of stopping nuclear war is ridiculous to him. He believes it’s inevitable, even necessary. He plays out the logic, revealing its truth to Jack. If the secretary refuses to second the command, the president will fire him, and ask the new secretary to second the command. And if the new secretary fails to do it, the president will simply continue firing secretaries until he finds one who will.
There’s no way to stop it.
Jack’s head drops to the carpet, severing the link. He barely has the strength to pound his fist on the blood-splattered floor.