A sound like footsteps on wet leaves fills his ears.
He opens his eyes. It’s a blur.
After a few blinks, a stately hallway comes into focus. It moves through him and around him. The off-white walls seem to shimmer. Large portraits stream past. His head is heavy. He can’t see his own feet moving. The hall floor is lined with black boots, dozens of them, standing still. He’s moving past them. He manages to lift his head enough to see that the boots belong to a phalanx of soldiers. Either soldiers or a toxic-spill cleanup crew. They all look the same: wearing black, each face hidden behind the sheen of a gas mask, riot helmet or hazmat suit.
He realizes he’s not walking, which doesn’t make sense to him. He also realizes the hallway’s not moving, he is.
Where are the others?
The thought strikes him with a jolt of panic, which, in his weakened state, feels like a slow advance of cold wind through his body.
He crocks his head slightly to one side to get a closer look at his peripheral vision and sees more black—more soldiers keeping pace with him.
“Sabine?” he says, but it doesn’t come out like he intends. It sounds more like an inarticulate moan.
“He’s coming to,” he hears a voice say.
“Another twenty milligrams of the midazolam,” another voice says from further away.
He stops. His head falls back as if his neck doesn’t work. Someone repositions him clumsily.
Plastic gloves holding a long needle move toward his upper arm.
He wants to recoil, but his body doesn’t respond. He has no control in this place, over of his body, or anything around him. As the gloved hands close in, he sees they belong to someone whose whole body is encased in plastic.
He tries to reach into the person’s mind. He finds inklings of fear, distrust, and an unthinking adherence to orders, to protocol. But he’s unable to delve much deeper. He doesn’t have the strength.
He feels the needle pierce the skin on his arm. It feels like nothing. Then his arm bone turns white hot.
He begins moving again.
Focusing for a moment, he sees that the walls and floor are covered with the same milky plastic as the person with the needle.
The voices around him sound muffled, metallic.
“Sabine. Maya,” he tries again. He doesn’t hear his own voice and isn’t sure if he’s making any sound. A loud hum begins to drown him out. As he moves, it gets louder.
A burst of white light forms in the distance and quickly obliterates his field of vision. He closes his eyes with great force and it’s still too bright. He’s hesitant to open his eyes, yet curious to see where he is.
He can see only the blast of white, and then some fuzzy details on the periphery: some bushes, a tall column.
He remembers the White House.
He squints and tries to rattle his head, but it doesn’t obey his command. Too much stimuli is beating down on him from his eyes and his ears. It’s swimming in his head. He can’t make sense of it. His mind is as blurred as his vision.
He blinks repeatedly. He makes out what look like the boots of more solders. Something drags underfoot. He opens his eyes long enough to see his feet flapping loosely down a small white staircase. His head falls back. His eyes begin adjusting to the light. In the sky, helicopters hover. Their blades turn slowly, humming and vibrating in his ears.
He continues to be lifted past soldiers in riot gear brandishing assault rifles. There are too many to count. Soldiers walk past him moving in the direction he came from. They haul strange-looking equipment: what looks like breathing apparatus, Geiger counters wired to computers, wheeled carts carrying large humming machines.
To the side of him, on the lawn, several armored security vehicles, trucks, and what look like a thousand troops seem focused on him. The thought strikes him how out of place they are at the White House.
More memories come back to him. They were here for the president. Kasym corrupted his mind. Jack had to set it right. Did he succeed?
He makes out a few more details ahead. Someone is ushered into a black, armored personnel carrier. As officers lift the person, he sees that the body is limp.
The sun feels warm on his skin. The air comes into his nose brisk and clean. He can feel it on his face. He can feel it blowing through his hair. This place is real. The sun, the sky, and the cool air—they all mean one thing: the missile didn’t hit.
Somehow, they stopped it.
A rush of warm emotion, like a raging river, fills him. It brings a smile to his face. A laugh wells up from his chest. He lets out a celebratory scream to the sky.
“We stopped it!” The sound comes out of him more like an ill-defined wheezing.
His eyelids become too heavy to hold up.
The lights flutter. The voices thin. Doors slam and lock. An engine roars, drowning out all but his happiest thoughts.