The secretary confirms Jack’s worse fears: in approximately five minutes, the United States will launch a nuclear weapon. Against whom, Jack doesn’t know. What he does know is that launching one nuclear missile is no different than launching a thousand. Each will have the same result: the destruction of nearly all life on Earth. It’s not a matter of whether he and his friends will die, but when, and how. Would they suffer an instant death, vaporized by a direct strike? Or will they face the best-case scenario, which isn’t a very good scenario in any case, where Washington D.C. is somehow spared, and they must survive a world devastated by a series of attacks and counterattacks elsewhere, a world pockmarked by the dark blot of atomic and hydrogen death over most of its population centers. People would live for, at most, a few desperate years in a post-nuclear winter under a blackened sky, every creature eventually succumbing to slow, painful radiation poisoning, with the possible exception of the cockroaches.
This is the dark conventional wisdom Jack received from the doctor. She was a fighter, and a positive thinker. With her there was always another way, another angle to approach, another strategy to try. If conventional wisdom failed her, she thought outside the box. She prided herself on that kind of thinking. It’s this part of her that chose to gamble with life on Earth. She alerted the proper authorities to leave the perfect paper trial. But she knew her warnings would be dismissed. She believed, counter to conventional wisdom, that world leaders would be sobered by one or two nuclear blasts. In the aftermath, in their state of humbled shock, they would halt the dominos. In her ruthless calculation, political climates would change. Her warnings would prove prescient. Her program would thrive.
The defense secretary imagines a single nuclear strike on a country far away. He considers it a necessary evil, a cleansing.
Jack wants none of it. He staked everything on stopping even one nuclear missile launch, and he came up short.
He crawls to Chris and Maya, who sit with their backs against the door, Maya leaning on Chris. Her hair drapes in front of her face. He can’t see her expression but doesn’t need to. She’s crying, taking shallow breaths. Drops of blood dot the front of her shirt. Chris has a cut across his cheek and chin, each a small line of blood.
“I’m sorry,” Jack says softly. “I’m so sorry.”
They worked so hard, and he let them down. He wants to disappear. He doesn’t feel worthy to be their friend. Yet here they are, bruised and bloodied, exhausted beyond measure, having given themselves fully to his vision. His single-minded quest to do what had to be done only brought them failure.
With his phone to his ear, the defense secretary gives a full account of the situation in the room: how many are there, their exact positions, their descriptions. Maya lifts a tired arm in what looks like an effort to push the secretary against the wall again, but her arm drops.
Battered and slumped over, Chris makes a similar look at the phone and then smiles sadly. It’s a look of acceptance in the face of defeat only he can pull off—a look of cool confidence no matter how dire the situation.
The double doors snap and rip. Chris’s ramparts won’t hold them forever. Jack and his friends are trapped in this office, with no way out but through a fourth-story window. Soon, a swarm of agents and police will swoop in and take them like they took Sabine.
Through the window, Jack hears a helicopter approaching; from the hallway and out the window, voices shouting commands.
Their fate is certain.
Jack rolls over on the floor and brings his hand to his head.
Chris looks up. “We can’t give up, guys.”
“What can we possibly do?” Jack asks.
Maya moves a handful of hair out of her face and reveals a colorless, broken stare.
“Sabine’s trick,” Chris says faintly. “Her recovery trick.”
“We know it,” Maya says. “But I was using so much of my power, I couldn’t keep up with it. I got drained. I might pass out.”
“We need to relax,” Chris says. “Breathe into it. Do what she taught us.”
“What’s the point, Chris?” Jack says. “We’ve lost. The only way to stop this now is for me to pull the command out of the president’s mind. There’s no way we can get to him in the next five minutes. Look at us.”
Through sweat and blood, Chris’s dimples are still in evidence. “Don’t sell yourself short, Jack. That’s what you’ve been doing your whole life. You’re better than that. Let her help you.”
Jack doesn’t want to believe Chris’s words. But something inside him accepts them. He slows his breathing, letting the pain melt away. The breath circles it, concealing it like Sabine taught him. In a sandstorm of defeat, he finds a momentary oasis.
Sabine may have been in custody, but she was with them now.
Chris pulls himself up with great difficulty. Jack sees a cut on his leg, just above his knee. He puts his weight on the other leg. “Guys, this is important. Maybe the most important moment in our lives.”
“But Jack’s right. There’s no way, Chris,” Maya says.
She moves from the door as the hurried boot steps of a hundred men rumbles into the office and waiting room on the other side. Commands to give up and come out peacefully issue from a loud, muffled voice, like it’s covered by a gas mask.
The sound of the helicopter drowns out Jack’s thoughts. A black figure zips down past the window outside. A thin black line darts side to side against the blue sky.
The secretary hangs up the phone and sits calmly. He speaks in a loud, commanding voice to ring out against the helicopter. “Do the right thing here, my friends. It will affect the rest of your lives, regardless whether they may last decades, or thirty seconds.”
Jack takes a split second to read Chris’s eyes. They’re penetrating, fixed on the window. Moved by Chris’s energy, Jack stands, feeling his own strength returning. He puts out his hand for Maya. She takes it and stands.
“There’s a way,” Chris says, looking skyward.
Jack looks out the window and then back at Chris. Before he has a chance to register an opinion, the window crashes open. At first, Jack thinks a SWAT team is smashing through, but then notices the glass is flying outward.
Behind him, a battering ram sends the door several feet from the frame. Splinters whiz past his face.
Chris goes from zero to full sprint toward the window and jumps out of it like an Olympic diver.