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When A Bell Tolls

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"When A Bell Tolls"

Caruthersville, Missouri

1:22 CST

Tom Rathmeson rolled over again, and if it had been possible, he would have thrown a shoe out the window to get the damn dogs from yelping the way they had been for the better part of the last 48 hours. Luckily his next nearest neighbor lived nearly a mile away. He wouldn't have to deal with them. Even the birds had been acting kooky. Slapping the pillow into something that actually seemed inviting to sleep on, he grabbed the afghan off the bed post and tried to drown out the animal antics.

 

Outside Cairo, Illinois

1:23 CST

Robby Hancock adjusted the focus of his telescope. Stamping his feet on the ground to keep his feet from freezing, he couldn't believe he was actually outside in this weather. He couldn't believe anyone would want to be out in this sort of weather, but Heather Monahan did. And because Heather was out here, Robby was out here, freezing his gonads off and loving every minute of it.

Heather was an astronomy buff. She knew all the constellations, all the planets, where they would ascend and when, and the best times of the year to view them. They had met in an introductory science class the previous semester, and every chance they got, they would drive to an open field near the banks of the river where the city and street lights were no longer visible and they weren't in danger of being run over by a herd of cows. It was really beautiful out there; small islands stood out like silent sentries in the calm of the river. No trees to get in the way, not buildings to blur the skyline, just pure, unadulterated night time sky.

It was quiet. He liked it better that way. Small talk seemed to get in the way.

"Would you pass the thermos?" Heather asked, stretching after bending for such a long time. Not that he minded watching her bend over.

Robby reached into the backpack they brought along. As he stood up, he saw flashes of light across the river. Dancing tendrils seemed to flare again and again in the distance. He had heard of things like the Northern Lights, but that sort of thing didn't happen this far south, did it? Pointing with the thermos, he said, "What do you think that was?"

The flashing continued briefly, then disappeared all together. "Beats me. Lightning, maybe?"

"In January?"

"I don't know. I told you that. Pass the thermos, will you? It's butt cold out here."

 

University of Maryland

College Park Campus

2:24 am EST

The campus was quiet in the early morning hours. A lonely campus security car made the rounds of the one-way streets, slowly circulating around all of the buildings and loading docks and parking lots. The dormitories closed their doors at 3 am; the last stragglers from the libraries and bars in town were virtually the only people on the sidewalks. Everyone else was either safely housed in their dorm rooms, or for those unfortunate few, deeply entrenched in research in one of the many academic buildings.

The science building was not well lit. Built in such a manner that, if one room should explode due to a careless experiment, the rest of the building would not go with it; all of the laboratories and offices were built along interior walls. One side of the building was entirely made up of large plate glass windows. Skylights allowed natural light during the day to filter and illuminate the lobby, but left most of the second floor atrium dark during the night time hours. On clear nights, the moon shone brightly on the small quad. However, the gloomy weather following a late January storm left the campus dark and covered in snow.

There was a reasonably sized glass and wooden structure in the second floor atrium. Inside sat a large cylindrical drum, attached to a small motor that rotated the drum in such a way that it made one complete revolution in an hour. Needles attached to multicolored ink wells sat above sheets of paper that had been taped to the drum to record motions of sensors in the basement of the building. When the building shook, the needles would swing from side to side to record the motion picked up by the sensors. The Geology Department would frequently display some of the large earthquakes recorded by their seismograph station.

During the Turkey and Taiwan earthquakes of 1999, gaggles of people were found staring at the seismograph as the needles swung from one side of the paper to the other.

In the quiet of the early morning, no one saw the slight swing of the needles.

 

 

Rick's Bartap

Georgetown

2:24 am EST

Nursing another beer, Danny Concannon leaned back in the booth he had occupied for the better part of four hours. Last call had been announced; the stragglers would be kicked out in the next half hour or so, but Danny knew the owner, and if his business wasn't finished, he wouldn't be rushed. Rick was good that way, and a few well placed Wizard's tickets didn't hurt either.

The bar was fairly quiet, though it always was on a weeknight, especially a late weeknight. This was not unusual, and being a night owl, Danny did some of his best work in the wee hours of the morning. He blamed his father for that particular trait, only his father's hours were closer to sunrise rather than midnight. His father taught science at a local community college outside Dallas, TX. With the current education climate and professionals more inclined to lucrative jobs in industry, smaller community colleges were forced to join departments. Those willing to teach multiple disciplines were given the jobs. Though his father had a PhD in ecology and evolution from Notre Dame, Daddy Concannon had not taught biology in well over 15 years. That suited his father just fine, since the biology courses were early in the morning, and it left him more time with his other passion, fishing.

His father would say his early morning forays to the lake was the time he networked, to keep with the politically correct language of the current generation. His mother would call it a waste of time. He would spend hours hip deep in something nasty with his line in the water, waiting for a nibble that would hardly be something to write home about.

That connotation aptly described exactly how Danny felt right at that moment.

A notebook and pen were lying on the table in front of him, next to an empty plate save for a few french fries. There were ink spots dotting the otherwise clean page in a few places, evidence of a few moments of impatience as he waited for the guy he was supposed to meet. Danny's editor had caught wind of possible fund mismanagement coming out of a regional FEMA office in the southeast. Someone was getting kick-backs from contractors hired in the wake of wild fires in Tennessee and Kentucky this past summer. Hardly Pulitzer Prize winning material, but as Danny had connections, his editor dumped the story on him. It wasn't a priority, but with the federal budget committee up in arms about misappropriations, it might become a story a little ways down the line.

It didn’t make waiting any easier, though.

His contact had showed thirty minutes after they had agreed to meet. They exchanged small talk for a while, asked about their respective jobs and such. When Danny started to ask about the kick-backs, his contact clamped up tighter than a vise. It seemed the engineer was reluctant to spill the beans on anything he knew, despite reassurances of complete anonymity. Danny had switched gears, trying to get the guy to talk about anything related to the FEMA activity related to the wildfires, was able to coax out some decent background information, but other than that, had bubkus to report to his editor.

That was two hours ago.

Despite the lack of forthcoming information, Danny decided he didn't really want to go home just yet. Rick had left the kitchen open for him; after all, Danny was one of his best customers. Rather than wallow in the misfortunes of the evening, he decided to watch some of the west coast feeds of NBA basketball from his corner booth. Rick stopped to chat for a while before another set of regulars came through the door. For being a total waste of time, it wasn't all that an unpleasant evening.

Danny was about to get up to pay his tab when the door opened. His engineer contact quickly spotted him, and made a bee-line for the booth he had recently vacated. There was something different about him, as if he had suddenly had a change of heart. Which, of course, was exactly what Danny was hoping would happen.

Danny took his seat again and pointed to the other side of the booth.

The engineer was slightly winded, cheeks flushed with the January wind that had picked up outside. He closed his eyes, fists jammed in his pockets as if the cold from outside was present in the darkened bar as well.

"You can promise me anonymity?"

"I told you I could. I don't reveal my sources."

"Because I could get into a whole hell of a lot of trouble, you know."

"I realize that."

"I mean, this goes way beyond the Kansas City office. I'm not sure how far up, but there's definitely some uppity-ups involved in this. I'm not saying it’s a conspiracy or anything, but there is definitely something fishy going on, and I'm not saying that substandard work is being done; those houses are in better shape now that they ever were before the fires got started, and with Project Impact those things will hopefully hold up to anything, but I've got a lot of friends in the contracting business, and they are being undercut left and right, and all the orders are coming out of the same office and they are all going to the same guys. It just doesn't smell right, and I'm not the only one who thinks so."

"Okay," Danny said, picking up his pen, "give me some names."

The engineer started to rattle off names, spelling them as he went along. Danny furiously scribbled down as much as he could remember, not wanting to stop the man once he had started. His fingers started to cramp a bit, but he wasn't going to start complaining. At one point he thought his hands had started to shake, but then he noticed it wasn't his hand that was shaking, it was the table. The empty beer bottles clinked together as if jostled. It was awfully late for a big-rig to be driving down the road. He looked up and watched as the engineer placed one hand on the table and held his watch up to look at it. He seemed to be counting.

In the distance, Danny recognized the bells in the tower of the Lutheran church about a block or so south of the bar had started to ring. The beer bottles danced with a little more energy. Not enough to tip them over, but enough to be slightly alarming.

No one else seemed to notice or care, but the engineer sitting across from him was more awake than Danny had seen him all night.

The engineer called to the bartender. "Hey, can you change the channel on those sets there? One to CNN, one to the Weather Channel, and whatever other major news channels you got?"

Rick shrugged and did as he was asked.

Danny's interest was a little more than piqued. "Is there something going on that I should know about?"

"Not unless you think an earthquake in the central United States isn't newsworthy."

Danny shook his head. "Excuse me?"

"I'm guessing 6, maybe 7 magnitude," the engineer said, straining to hear the copy from CNN over the dim of the diminishing crowd. "And I'm guessing it's probably centered within the New Madrid seismic zone."

"And you can tell that--"

"Experience. I work for a firm that gets called in by the US Geological Survey all the time. I studied seismology as an undergrad. Anything big enough to send church bells going is going to be news. There was an earthquake near New Madrid, Missouri, back in the early 1800's that sent church bells ringing in Boston. Screw FEMA, man. There's your story for tomorrow."

With that, the engineer turned around, pointed at the television screen that was showing the Weather Channel. Though Danny could not hear the commentary, the graphics behind the talking heads were more than enough to get the gist of the conversation.

There had just been some sort of explosion, centered near the junction of Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. No estimate of size, no mention of damages done, but from the look on his companion's face, it did not look good.

 

============================================================================

Offices of the West Wing

2:27 am EST

Toby Ziegler slowly walked back into his office, a refreshed cup of tea perched on the stack of papers he carried in his arms. It seemed the only time he ever got any real work done was after everyone else had left for the day. Granted, it meant he had to hunt down his own resources, but that was fine by him. He needed quiet to work on some of the issues that he had had to push aside to work on the State of the Union. The President's speech had introduced a number of economic reforms that needed to be addressed. The Press was already hounding the White House about the details of the reform bills, and while the White House was not ready to show all of its hand, tidbits were needed to keep the Press corps at bay.

His phone was ringing before he sat down. Carefully propping the papers on the corner of the desk and catching the cup of tea before it spilled, he grabbed the phone awkwardly. He noted by the ring that it was an internally transferred call. "What?"

An anonymous voice answered, "Transferring call."

"Toby, don't hang up."

Grimacing, Toby considered doing just that. Press Corps enemy number 1, Danny Concannon, had been a particular thorn in his side.

"Trying to ambush me in the wee hours of the morning? How did you get through?"

"I'm on good speaking terms with the White House Switchboard."

"Maybe I should do something about that."

"Toby--"

"What do you want, Danny?"

"Have you got CNN on right now?"

"Maybe. Why?"

Toby did in fact have CNN on, but the volume had been turned down. Bernard Shaw and the rest of the crew had been polling every conceivable political analyst about their views on the President's State of the Union address. Not only was the commentary dull and uninteresting, parts of the speech had been taken completely out of context, and Toby did not need his blood pressure to increase any more than it had when the President decided to free-base with his speech, starting with the fifth paragraph. In fact, Ginger had replaced his tea stash with some decaffeinated garbage. The audacity of the covert operation would have sent his blood pressure through the roof, except he rather liked the taste of the stuff, but would never give Ginger the satisfaction of knowing that little fact.

"Because there's something that you're going to want to see."

Toby turned up the volume a few notches. "Other than the play by play commentary on the President's speech?"

"Yeah. Toby, this is important. Something's happened near the Kentucky border. CNN is saying it's an explosion, but I've got a guy sitting here with me that says it's an earthquake."

"And this effects me how?"

"Isn’t the First Lady in Memphis?"

"Yes."

"This thing was ringing church bells down the street from me. Memphis is a hell of a lot closer, and according to my new friend here, Memphis is in the damage zone. This is going to be bigger than Northridge in '94 and Oakland in '89."

Toby took a moment to swallow what he had just heard. He was proud of the fact that he could think on his feet, but at that moment, he didn't know what to think or what to say. It was 2:30 in the morning. 11:30 on the West Coast. People were still awake on the West Coast. Danny knew the First Lady was in Memphis; surely there would be others.

"Danny, I have phone calls to make."

"Okay." Danny hung up.

Toby's first call was to the Secret Service. They could confirm the location of the First Lady and her entourage, and if there was any validity to Danny's claims. If so, the Secret Service would notify the President. That was a job Toby was more than willing to pass on to someone else.

His second call would not be any more fun.

 

Apartment of C.J. Cregg

2:31 am EST

Somewhere in her subconscious, C.J. Cregg knew the phone was ringing. There was an inkling somewhere in there that maybe she should answer it.

Her brain told her subconscious to shut up. She wrapped the comforter up over her head and buried her head under the pillows.

The phone continued to ring. Nonstop. She had forgotten to turn on the answering machine.

Her beeper went off.

The cell phone started to ring.

It was an attack on all fronts.

"No no no no no--" C.J. threw the covers off.

"-- no no no no no no no no --" She rolled over towards the night stand, displacing the mound of paperwork that she had had every intention of reading earlier in the evening but had decided getting to bed before midnight was a luxury she could afford that night.

Without her glasses on, she couldn't tell what time it was, but it was dark outside. That meant it was too early to be awake. That meant that whoever had had the audacity to call her that early in the morning had better have a decent excuse or there would be hell to pay.

Reaching for the phone, she only managed to knock it off the table.

"-- no no no no no no no no --" She crawled over the bed to grope for the phone on the other side.

"-- no no no no no no no --" C.J. was draped over the side of the bed when she found the phone.

"C.J.?"

"-- no no no no no no NO!"

"C.J."

"What time is it?"

"Just after 2:30 in the morning."

"Who is this?"

"Toby."

"You're on my list, Toby. You realize that, don't you."

"You need to come in."

Using her free hand to push herself back up on the bed to avoid the rush of blood to her brain, C.J. fumbled for her glasses, not remembering where she had last placed them. "This is cruel and unusual punishment. I've paid my dues for the Notre Dame remarks."

"There's been an earthquake."

That had her attention. Most of her family still lived in California. "Where?"

"Border of Kentucky and Illinois."

"Huh?"

"Somewhere near Paducah."

"In Kentucky."

"That's what I said."

"Kentucky's not in California."

"I realize that."

"Earthquakes occur on the West Coast, not the middle of Kentucky."

"Paducah is not in the middle of Kentucky, and while I would love to argue this with you, I do have other phone calls to make. You need to get in here. The First Lady is in Memphis; we haven't been able to contact her. We need to prepare a statement."

C.J. was up and moving at this point, trying valiantly not to trip over the various furniture in her bedroom and failing miserably. She really needed to find her glasses.

"C.J., turn on a light; you won't fall over so many things."

"Shut up. Has the President been told?"

"As we speak. Ron Butterfield is taking care of it."

"All right, I'll be there as soon as I can. You're going to call the others?"

"As soon as you hang up."

"Okay, I'm hanging up. No no no no wait wait, Toby, wait. Paducah rings a bell." She leaned against the bedroom wall, fumbling for a light switch. "It was something in the Washington Post last year… Dammit, Toby, there's a nuclear plant there. The Post did a story on the DOE's lackluster performance concerning some radioactive spill. This is not going to be good."

She heard Toby sigh on the phone. He clearly had not thought of that. "Get in here, as soon as you can."

"Okay, now I'm really hanging up." She thumbed the OFF button and threw the phone onto the bed. She nearly cried. She had prayed for one night off, and it seemed her lot in life to never have that happen. As she stumbled into the bathroom, she was still mumbling, "--no no no no no no no no no no--"

 

Watergate Hotel

2:33 am

Leo McGarry, for once, did not have three separate televisions blaring in the background. He was seated in the fore-room of his hotel suite, feet propped on the edge of the bed, tie at half mast, and the New York Times crossword puzzles for the last three days spread across his lap. He was working on all three of them at the same time, not an uncommon way to spend a semi-quiet evening. A self-proclaimed workaholic, it was a rare evening when he found time to devote to one of his favorite recreational vices.

When the phone rang at 2:30 in the morning, he knew it couldn't be good.

"Leo, Toby. We've got trouble."

"What kind of trouble?"

"Earthquake. Kentucky. Maybe six minutes ago. Damage as far as Kansas City, St. Louis and Memphis."

Leo tapped three remotes in succession, news flashed on the screens. CNN had it, saying it was an explosion. MSNBC did not yet have anything. Fox News was just breaking in with the news. Details were sketchy at best. Bulleted points said the epicenter was close to the border of Kentucky and Illinois. No word on the size of the earthquake, but early estimates said close to a 7 magnitude. Leo wasn't exactly sure what all that meant. The one that disrupted the World Series in 1989, that was around a 7, wasn't it? This couldn't be good.

"The First Lady's in Memphis."

"We know, and we're trying to contact her."

"The President?"

"Notified and on his way to the Oval Office."

"I'll be there in a few. Who else knows?"

"I called C.J. I've got the switchboard paging Josh and Sam. Danny Concannon's the one who tipped us off."

"How the hell did that happen?"

"Apparently he was sitting with someone with knowledge on the subject when it happened."

"They felt the earthquake here in D.C.? I didn't feel anything."

"Not uncommon, or so I'm told. I didn't know about it until Danny called here. Uh, Leo, C.J. mentioned a story the Post did last year, about some nuclear processing plant in Paducah, Kentucky. I don't know where the earthquake is specifically, but one that close to a refinery cannot be good."

Leo stood up from his chair, dropping the puzzles on the end of the bed. He was vaguely familiar with a General Accounting Office report out of the Department of Energy's Oversight Committee detailing the clean-up efforts at the plant. If any of the buried waste sites on and allegedly-off site were disrupted, it could mean trouble. "Call someone at the USGS, find out what the hell happened. We need information. Get a hold of the National Guard offices in any of the states effected; we need to get people on the ground there asap. We need coordination between state and local authorities. Call the American Red Cross. Call FEMA. Call the DOE and find out exactly how far their clean-up efforts have gone. Wake up the Secretary of Energy and the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and get them in my office yesterday. And find out about the facilities at Oak Ridge. It could be disastrous if the uranium cores from decommissioned war heads we have stored there suddenly found a need to explode on us.

"Do we know if there's been any structural damage in D.C.?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"Okay. Call the governors, and whoever else might be in authority down there. We'll need to call in the Reserves. I want Fitzwallace in my office before I get there. And when you see the President, talk him into halting all trade on the New York Stock Exchange. We don't need a financial disaster on top of this."

"Got it."

"And somebody find the First Lady."

 

Apartment of Josh Lyman

2:34 am EST

A pair of rolled socks bounced off the makeshift backboard, over the arm of the easy chair, and under the end table. Another miss.

Well, Josh Lyman thought, I have plenty of more shots left. He looked at what had been a neatly stacked pile of socks lying next to his knee. Just beyond that was another pile of rolled gym shirts and tank tops. He had not yet started on the jeans and khakis, never mind the underwear. They were stashed in a pile on the couch.

Josh hated laundry. He always sent his suits and shirts to the dry cleaners, but his mother had always told him that grown men washed their own underwear. He didn't know if it was a universal constant, but it was in the Lyman household. At one time, if he ran out of clean socks or clean boxers, he simply went to the store and bought more. He had neither the time nor the inclination to do his laundry. When a past girlfriend told him it was a ridiculous habit, he grudgingly learned to separate his whites from his colors, and how to keep from singing soprano by not using a hot water cycle. As it was, he could go nearly two months without absolutely having to do laundry. And when he had to do it, at least he tried to make it fun.

The laundry basket was in the arm chair. The back of the chair acted as the backboard. He was sitting on the floor, a good fifteen feet away, tossing set shots as if he was still in high school trying to impress the cheerleaders. He lobbed another sock ball at the chair.

He wasn't that successful in high school either.

The CD changer had an obnoxious assortment of music sorting through the speakers. Donna Moss, his assistant, had spent most of her evenings and weekends at his apartment while he was convalescing from a gun shot wound to the chest. While he appreciated the company, and the attention, her choice in music left something to be desired. Linda Rhondstat? Cher? Sarah McLachlan? Dido? Well, he didn't mind the last two so much, but, man, that music was enough to send a manic into a depressive funk. He hadn't bothered to change the CD's, and after a while, he had gotten used to them.

His television was on the fritz; to put it succinctly, the remote control was on the fritz and he was too lazy to determine what the true problem was, and the 'set was the kind that needed a remote in order to run. There was a 13" set somewhere in a closet; he hadn't gotten around to digging it out.

Something near his backside was beeping. Grabbing at the waistband of his boxers, he pulled off his beeper, read the brief message and groaned. It read, CNN now. Call WH ASAP. "Oh, this can't be good."

Clambering to his feet, trying not to slip on the hardwood floors in his stocking feet, Josh rushed to his computer. Even with his TV on the fritz, he could still get a feed off the internet. One good thing to come out of his long home stay after the shooting was he finally figured out how to use his internet account. Once he found there was some use for it, like getting CNN Headline News and NPR, he was an internet junkie. Okay, maybe not a junkie. But he didn't look like a fool using his computer anymore.

The modem connection took little time at all; there were some advantages to using it at 2:30 in the morning. Clicking on the web browser, CNN automatically loaded.

The banner read: Earthquake, magnitude 7.3, hits central US.

"Oh, shit."

 

Apartment of Sam Seaborn

2:37 am EST

Sam Seaborn did not understand why his neck hurt so much. Or why his fingers felt awfully cold. And the room was kind of bright. That didn’t seem right. His face felt funny. No, that wasn't his face, it was the keyboard to his laptop. Why the hell was his face on the keyboard of his laptop? He opened one eye, then the one closest to the keyboard. Groaning, he peeled his face off the computer, looked questioningly at his right hand, and noticed that he had nearly cut off circulation to his fingers with the dental floss still wrapped around them.

"That's the last time I take those things. I don't care how sick I am. Why am I talking to myself?"

At least, he intended to say that. It came out more like:

"Dat's da dast thime I dake dhose tings. I domb care howd sicd I amb. Why amb I dalkin do mydelf?"

For the past three days, Sam had been denying he was sick, despite the fact that a new arrival at the city morgue looked more alive than he did. Only when the rest of the Senior Staff threatened to call in Mrs. Bartlet on him did he concede to see a doctor. The doctor prescribed what Josh laughingly referred to as "the blue horse pills", a decongestant strong enough to drain all the salt from the sea, it seemed. The pills made him so loopy that it was hard to concentrate, let alone stay awake long enough to concentrate.

Toby had sent him home hours ago with an ultimatum: go home and sleep, or else. The threat wasn't eloquent, it wasn't wordy, but the look on Toby's face was enough to drive the point home. So he packed up his laptop, grabbed the speeches he had been trying to work on, and had someone in the motor pool drive him home. He made himself some tea with honey, changed into more comfortable clothes, hit the bathroom to attend to dental needs, popped one of the horse pills, and sat down at his desk to get some work done. He decided that closing his eyes for just a few minutes while his tea cooled would be just fine.

But now his tea had slightly congealed with all the honey he had poured into it, and his face felt like a waffle iron. He hated being sick.

Deciding that work as a lost cause, Sam slowly lifted himself out of his chair and headed for the bedroom. Once there, he heard the bundle on the floor that had been the suit he had been wearing earlier making noise. Knowing that there was a distinct possibility that he was hallucinating, but unwilling to see if his clothes were housing any live animals, he kicked the pile across the floor. His beeper fell out.

Bleary eyed, he tried to read the LED display, but it was a no go. He decided that since the White House would be the only ones to use his beeper number, he would call them. He picked up the phone. There was no dial tone.

"--Sam?"

"Huh?"

"You okay there, buddy?"

"Josh, what are you doing on my phone?"

"I called. It rang. You picked up."

"It did NOT ring. I would have heard it ring. The phone did not ring."

"Whatever. I assume you're not okay to drive."

"What are you talking about?"

"Beeper. White House. Earthquake. Any of this ring a bell?"

"I couldn’t read my beeper. There was an earthquake at the White House?"

"Sam, did you take another one of those pills with no food again?"

"I feel asleep before I could eat. Tell me what's going on."

"Earthquake in Kentucky, somewhere near the Ohio River. Damage everywhere. Our guys are trying to track down the First Lady."

"Well, that's simple. The First Lady's in Memphis."

"And where is Memphis?"

"Tennessee. I'm not am imbecile."

"Which is near--"

"I don't know, Josh. My geography sucks at whatever-time-it-is-right-now in the morning!"

"Hate to break it to you, but your geography sucks any time of day. Kirkwood, Oregon, ring any bells?"

"I'm never living that down, am I?"

"I'm coming to get you. We're needed at the White House. Get some clothes on. I'm in my car, I'll be there shortly."

============================================================================

Oval Office

2:54 am EST

"I don't care if the phone lines are down between here and Mars! You can read a map, can't you? Get in a car, drive to Memphis, find Anna O'Brien's house. It’s big and white and has stable guest house. There will be a million and one secret service agents there. You can't miss it. You get a hold of my wife and make sure she's all right. Understand?"

Jed Bartlet had not intended to slam the receiver back into its cradle, but that was exactly what he did. This was not happening. Natural disasters not withstanding, there was nothing that would keep him from making sure his wife was out of harm's way. He called his daughters; they said their mother was in their prayers. Zoey was on her way in from Georgetown. His staff was already in the West Wing or were on their way in. Mrs. Landingham, God bless her soul, had called in, wanting to assist even at this early hour. Charlie Young had offered to pick her up on his way in. The support staff would filter in eventually. He was proud of his people: God only knew how grateful he was for their support.

He sat down behind his desk, hands massaging his face and temples. This was NOT happening. This was most assuredly not happening. It was a nightmare, and very real, very convincing nightmare, and soon Abbey would wake him up, kiss his forehead and all his fears away.

"Someone tell me this isn't for real."

Toby leaned forward on the candy-striped couch, arms braced against his thighs. He held in his hand a note passed to him by some anonymous staffer that was assigned phone duty. "Sir, Zoey's 15 minutes out. Gina Toscano is going to bring her to the Residence."

Bartlet nodded, closed his eyes. He wasn't surprised that Toby was still in the building. All of his people were dedicated. It was not unusual to find one or more of them in yesterday's clothes, having gone without sleep for 48, 72 hours or more, and still giving all they had to the effort.

"It's surprising that in this day and age of cell and satellite phones, internet, faxes and whatever else that is supposed to make our lives easier, we're still susceptible to simple power failures."

"This isn't a simple power failure, Mr. President. There was an earthquake where no one expected one. You have to remember that no one could have predicted this."

The door to the Oval Office was open. Now was not the time for formality. There was a knock on the doorframe, and an imposing figure -- tall, broad, stately in his naval uniform, -- walked through the entrance way. "Mr. President."

Bartlet opened his eyes. "You can tell me this is all just going to go away, right? This is a dream."

"If this is a dream, then I'm the fairy godmother."

"This must be a dream. Why the hell are you in uniform at 3:00 in the morning?"

"I sleep in it."

"What can you tell me, Fitz?"

"I have Reserve units on call to send in to the damage zone. The National Guard has already mobilized. We've got transport trucks on their way to American Red Cross stations to help with bringing supplies to the areas hit hardest, and buses to areas that need to be evacuated."

"What do the numbers look like?"

"It's still too soon to say much of anything. The US Geological Survey out of Boulder, Colorado, is saying that the earthquake's magnitude was a 6.9, with an epicenter near Paducah, Kentucky. CNN and C-SPAN are saying it's a 7.3 magnitude, but my sources at the Survey tell me the number is likely to jump around a bit. There have already been a number of smaller aftershocks, in the 2-3 magnitude range. The only good thing to come out of this is that the epicenter is in a fairly rural area."

"And this is a good thing? And what about this power plant in Poppycock?"

"Paducah, Mr. President," Toby corrected.

"As I recall, there was a front page article in the Washington Post 16 months ago about alleged unlicensed dumping and black ooze coming out of the ground in the wake of a lawsuit against the former operators of the plant. I remember a certain Press Secretary getting flambayed by a certain reporter from same said newspaper about this administration's position on the decommissioning of nuclear refineries that were in violation of DOE mandates. This same plant is smack dab in the middle of the destructive wake of an earthquake that occurred a mere thirty minutes ago. And you're saying the earthquake being in a fairly rural area is a good thing."

"We should count our blessings, Mr. President."

"There was an earthquake; people were hurt. Do we even have any numbers on that?"

Toby interjected, "Local newsfeeds are starting to come in now. Any station with a helicopter crew is up in the air is sending live pictures…"

"Where are the TV's?" Bartlet asked, standing. "I want to see what's going on."

"Sir, the Press are starting to arrive. If Leo were here, he would agree with me. It would be best if you don’t leave the immediate area. We can have 'sets brought in to the Roosevelt Room. Once C.J. gets here, we'll work on your statements. Until then, it's best if you stay clear of anywhere the Press may find you, regardless if they are where they are not supposed to be."

"Who's here?" Realizing that he would not win this argument, Bartlet paced behind his chair to gain a center of calm. By habit, he reached for the coat that was not hanging on the back of the chair; it was only then he remembered he was in a sweatshirt and the pair of slacks he had worn the day before. He folded his arms over his chest and leaned his hip against the desk.

"We are, sir," Leo said as he walked into the Oval Office, a slightly rumpled C.J. in his wake. "Josh and Sam are only a few minutes out. Who's not where they're supposed to be?"

"We don't want the Press to see the President until we have a prepared statement," Toby explained, "especially considering the circumstances and the rumors already flying around about the First Lady."

C.J. moved to stand behind the candy-striped couch. She didn't look happy to be awake any more than the President did. "I'll make sure to corral the Press," she said. "There's not much we can do about the news of the First Lady being in Memphis; it was announced at a briefing the day she left."

"We don't need the proliferation of unfounded rumors," Leo announced. "Someone's already thinking that the First Lady is injured or -- worse. That's only a smidgeon of what I heard on the radio on the way in. C.J., let's have a press statement ready, that we're using every available resource to discover where the damage is, how many have been hurt, and that we've mobilized the Army Reserves to help in the relief effort. Am I correct in that, right, Admiral?"

"I was just informing the President myself," Fitzwallace replied.

"Who else do we have in terms of support staff?" Bartlet asked.

"Margaret's calling in as many of the staff as possible. We should have a full count within the hour," Leo provided, leaning against the front of the desk next to the President.

"I want to know what we should expect. I've never been in an earthquake. No one I know has ever been in an earthquake this large."

Everyone looked to C.J., who at first did not notice the attention. When she did, there was puzzlement on her face. "What?" She thought about the President's last statement and understanding dawned. "Oh, what, because I'm from California, I'm supposed to be an expert on earthquakes? In '89, I was in New York, trying to find work that would not put 22 years of education to waste. In '94, I was trying to drum up support for EMILY's List in Northern California, and in October, '99, I was here, with you guys. And I bet there are countless more that I should know about, but I could not have been all over the state of California at one time, and it's too early in the morning for any of you to put me in a position to think on my feet with no caffeine in my system. So, no, I've never been in a big earthquake."

Bartlet was quite impressed that she managed to get all that out without stopping to take a breath, and if the situation had been anything but what it was, he would have commented on it to the expense of her ego. It wasn't that he was malicious, but petty tortures were one thing he did live for, and made his life and the lives of all those around him all the more interesting. He wanted that feeling back again.

"Then I want someone here to explain this stuff to me. There has got to be a dozen universities within a 30 mile radius of here, and there has to be at least one geology department in there. Find me someone to tell me what's going on and what I can expect to happen."

"What about the National Science Advisor?" C.J. asked.

"Who, Guy Landle?" Toby looked disgusted. "That guy is a chemist. What does he know about earthquakes?"

"He has a staff and his own advisors," C.J. countered.

"Yea, computer geeks and lab rats."

"Do you have someone in mind, Toby?" The President asked.

"Yes."

"Do you mind telling us who this person is?"

"Yes."

"And why, may I ask?"

"Because I don't know if he will speak to me."

"Well, now you have my interest piqued. You've managed to piss off geologists in your spare time when not pissing off politicians?"

"If you must know, he's my ex-wife's brother. He's a full professor at George Washington University." There was no more joking about the Communication Director's uncanny ability to tick off the wrong person at exactly the right time. Toby's divorce was a touchy subject. The President decided to let sleeping dogs lie.

"Do what you can to convince him, Toby. This is all mumbo-jumbo to me. I want to know what's happening. I want to know what to expect. I want an honest opinion, not some half-assed educated guess that tells me nothing about what really is going on. And I want to know if we are going to recover from this."

"We're going to recover, sir," C.J. said, trying to be the optimist. "It's just a question of how long it will take."

Another staffer knocked on the door to the Oval Office. "Sir, phone call for you, line 2."

Bartlet rubbed his eyes and temples with his right hand. It would be a long night of phone calls, he suspected, and he wasn't in the mood to start with them just yet. "Can it wait?"

"I don't think so, sir. It's your wife."

============================================================================

Memphis, Tennessee

2:20 am CST

Abigail Bartlet was not in the mood for small talk. It was bad enough the direct line to the Oval Office had been disconnected because she wasn't on a secure land line, but the fact that she had to use a radio and microphone and that her conversation with her husband could very well be heard by a million and one listeners on the same frequency, was trying her nerves. She couldn't hear a damn thing, there was so much noise around her. The ground seemed alive everywhere she walked, which wasn't far considering her Secret Service detail put a leash on her every movement.

Another geyser of mud and wet debris shot up out of the ground. Someone had told her to expect this, being so close to the Mississippi River. It was like a volcanic eruption, only instead of lava, steam, sand, and underground debris shot into the air. She had witnessed at least half a dozen of these geysers in the last 30 minutes, and still was not used to the sound. It was like standing on a runway with a 747 revving to take off only a few feet away from her head.

At least it was a little quieter in the passenger seat of the police cruiser.

"Abbey?!? Are you all right?"

The sound of her husband's voice was music to her ears. "Jed, yes, I'm fine. We're all fine here."

"There was an earthquake, dear."

"I know that, I was there."

"Wait, I'm going to put you on speakerphone. I think there are a lot of people here who want to know that you're fine." She heard her husband asking someone in the background how to turn on the speakerphone feature. C.J.'s voice was in the background somewhere. There was another click on the line, and she heard Leo's voice. He must have picked up an extension elsewhere in case her husband lost the connection in his neverending battle with technology. She had yet to see the man touch a computer, let alone operate a telephone that had buttons instead of a rotary dial without a cheat sheet.

"How's Anna?" Leo asked.

"Anna is fine. The house was retrofitted in 1995 after the Kobe earthquake, at her nephew's insistence. The foundation needs a little patching and the chimney fell down; other than that, everything is fine here. The power is out, the phone lines are down. The cell towers are all down and there's too much electrical interference for the satellite phone in the limo to work. You should do something about that, Leo."

"I'll see what I can do… I think the circus is done here, let's see if your husband messed this up."

"I heard that, Leo," Bartlet said. "Abbey, can you hear me?"

"Yes, dear. Loud and clear. You are a very hard man to reach in the middle of the night. As it is, I am patched through I don’t know how many short-wave relay stations to get through to the White House. Someone had the nerve to question whether or not I was really the First Lady."

"I'm sure they got an earful."

"You bet your sweet bippy. Who else is there?"

"All right everyone, sound off."

Abbey could just imagine her husband pointing to each of his staff members as if he was still in the lecture hall. She understood to a certain extent; he needed to feel in control of something. His senior staff, his closest advisors and God forbid if he actually flat out called them his friends in public -- they would walk through fire for him, and if as a part of that they played Mousketeer to his Mickey Mouse Club, more power to them and their patience. God knew they would all need it by the end of this.

"C.J. here, ma'am." She sounded tired. Undoubtedly, C.J. would not get any rest whatsoever until this was over.

"Toby." Well, at least he sounded normal.

"She already knows I'm here, Mr. President. I was just on the phone with her." Abbey had to laugh. Leo always had a knack for adding a touch of humor to any situation, especially when it was needed in bucket loads.

"Josh, Sam, so nice of you to join us. Say hi to the First Lady."

"Hi, Mrs. Bartlet," Josh bellowed. The man was too boisterous for his own good. Less than six months before he was at death's door, and now he sounded like a hamster on steroids. She was happy that she would not be around when he crashed.

"Hi, Mrs. Bardled."

Abbey winced. Poor Sam. "Samuel, you don’t sound good."

"I knowd, Mrs. Bardled. I'm dakingd someding for id."

"That's good. Toby, I want you to make sure Sam takes it easy. And if you don't I will know, and you know I can find these things out." She could picture Toby rolling his eyes at being dumped with Sam's well being, but she knew he would do ask she asked. "Okay, now, everyone, I'm sure my husband wants to talk to me and convince me to come home right away, so if everyone will either leave the room, or someone show my husband how to turn off the speakerphone, we can get this argument over with as quickly and painlessly as possible."

"I'm on it, Mrs. Bartlet," C.J. said.

Abbey waited a few seconds to make sure they were alone. Well, as alone as they possibly could be.

"Abbey."

"Jed."

"Abbey."

"Gumdrop."

"I want you out of there."

"No, Jed, I'm fine. I will not have you ordering people that could potentially help with the relief effort away from their duties just to get me back to Washington. All helicopters, planes and flying brooms will be needed in the relief effort."

"There could be aftershocks. If I don't get you out now, you may not get out for a while."

"I hate to tell you this, sweetheart, but there have been several aftershocks. Nothing near the strength of the first, but it has pretty much halted traffic in and out of the city. There are structural fires everywhere, Jed. Power lines are down. People are hurt. I'm going to do what I can here, now, for the meantime. I can't imagine the damage where the earthquake was centered. How big was it?"

"They're telling me it was a 6.9 on the magnitude scale, near Paducah, Kentucky. Right on the Ohio River. Hold on, C.J. has something for me…Thanks, C.J."

She heard the hitch in his breathing, and knew instinctively whatever he was reading was not pleasant news. "The earthquake was centered about 30 miles southwest of Paducah. There's a dam a little farther to the southwest, I think, on the Tennessee River. There's been structural damage; the dam burst. There's been a lot of flooding of towns along the river. The river was already at flood stages, before the earthquake. They're not holding out for many survivors.

"Somewhere near the town of Cairo, Illinois, a barge went aground. Oil spilled into the Ohio river. The river's now on fire.

"There's been structural damage in a number of cities along the Mississippi Valley. A hospital in St. Louis collapsed. There's no count on the injured or dead.

"The Memphis airport has been shut down. The control tower collapsed in on itself. A number of damaged planes are blocking the runways. Until they are cleared…"

There was silence on the line. She knew she had not lost the connection; she could still hear him breathing. She imagined his eyes were closed, fighting the tears, just as she was currently doing. This was not how she wanted to spend her brief time with a close friend who just happened to be an influential member of the Democrat party in the South.

"I want you to come home."

Abbey sighed. "I know. And I will. But first, I want to do what I can here. Listen to what you've just read to me. They are going to need doctors down here."

"Just make sure you come home in one piece."

"I will, I promise. You've called the girls, I trust."

"And I will call them again the moment I get off the phone with you."

"Everything will be fine. I love you."

"I want everything to be the way it was before."

"That's not going to happen. But I promise, we will try to set things right."

"And you're sure no one was hurt? You're not lying to me, are you?"

"Jed, no one here was hurt. Nothing but a few bruises and sprains. My entire entourage is fit and ready for duty." She didn't mention the blossoming blue and purple addition to her own forehead, courtesy of an air-born book during the early morning shaking and shimmy-ing the house did during those thirty seconds of terror. "We'll be fine. We will stick to the area. They will need field hospitals set up as soon as possible. I'm sure more places have collapsed in the interim. We'll be fine. As soon as the place has calmed down and the relief effort has begun in earnest, then I will be glad to come home."

"I still don't like this."

"I know. But deal with it. I'll be home soon enough."

"Remember, you promised."

"And I won't go back on it. I'll see you soon."

She handed the radio set to the police officer that was kind enough to lend his cruiser to her for the conversation. Her Secret Service agents were surrounding the car and house. She looked at the expanse of the stable and main house that had been the home of a dear friend. Anna O'Brien was leading the effort to take charge of the clean-up and relief in the district, having confiscated a bull horn from one of the local sheriffs. Neighbors were out in droves, afraid to go back into homes that betrayed their feeling of security by rocking and rolling with the ground.

The mansion had survived the quake with little structural damage. The same could not be said for many of the other homes in the area. People with the know-how had already shut off the gas lines to the houses that were still standing to avoid possible fires. Despite the dark of night, there was a distinct haze in the sky, evidence of other areas that were not so lucky in escaping gas main explosions.

Lilly Mays, Abbey's Chief of Staff, looking none the worse for wear, walked up beside her and handed Abbey another coat. "Did you talk with him?"

"Yes."

"And he wants you to come home."

"Yes."

"And you told him no."

"Yes."

"Just so we're straight with this. And it's on the record that I still think this is a bad idea. If any of those earthquakes in California are any indication, there's going to be looting and rioting in any number of areas. This place is going to be unsafe. And you're creating one gigantic headache for the head of your Secret Service detail."

"Isn't life fun?"

"You call this fun?"

"No. I was just channeling my husband there for a few seconds."

"Mrs. O'Brien is set to turn her backyard into a triage center. Those that can carry themselves have already arrived. Word spreads fast when they know a doctor is in the area."

"Then I certainly have my work cut out for me, then don't I?"

"You’re incorrigible. You get it from him."

"I know. You can never say the man was good for nothing, now can you. Let's get going."

 

============================================================================

The West Wing

3:43 am EST

Toby ran his hands through what was left of his hair. It wasn't so much out of frustration as it was the need to do something, anything, to keep from strangling the other occupants in his office. His grandmother had an expression, when roughly translated said something akin to 'too many cooks ruin the soup'. He had no problem with being a team-player, so long as everyone left him to do what he needed to do by himself.

It wasn't even so much that he minded Sam and C.J. trying to help, but at this particular juncture, neither could give constructive contributions to the press release they needed to give in less than 20 minutes. Sam was doped up on decongestant, and Toby wasn't quite sure, C.J. was not far behind Sam in the sick department.

Toby looked at his watch, checked the clock on the wall as well as the one on his computer. Yup, 17 minutes until show time. They had decided that they would break news of the earthquake with as much information as they had. The First Lady was fine; no one close to the White House was seriously injured in the earthquake. If asked when the First Lady was returning to the White House, C.J. would emphasize that relief efforts were a priority and that Abigail Bartlet would return as soon as it was feasible. Her role in the rescue effort would be downplayed.

It would be announced that trading would be suspended indefinitely until the situation in the Mississippi Valley was better under control. Ginger had finally gotten a hold of someone at the Oak Ridge Nuclear facilities in Tennessee; they could safely report that there was no major structural damage to any of the buildings and that there was no threat of a nuclear accident in eastern Tennessee.

Kentucky was another story all together.

All they had to go on was news feeds from a variety of local television stations in the area near the epicenter; those that had the capability of broadcasting anything. An Army helicopter was surveying the Gaseous Diffusion Plant with radiation detectors, using the latest DOE survey as a baseline for comparison, but it was doubtful they would have any of that information before the briefing. Toby was banking on the fact that no one would ask about the nuclear facility there. After all, it was supposedly decommissioned in terms of military uses. There was very little to worry about, if you considered black gunk possibly oozing into wells and in and around the water table as nothing to worry about. But these were questions that had been addressed earlier and hopefully would not come up again.

C.J. argued that Danny Concannon, of all people, would be the first to ask. He had nailed her with very similar questions 16 months prior when the lawsuits filed by workers had been made public. Toby believed that because Danny did not mention the Paducah plant in the first place that he wouldn't mention it now.

"An hour ago, he didn't know where the earthquake was," C.J. argued. "He must by now. He's going to ask."

"Then deflect the question, C.J.! Unless, of course, you like admitting you don't know anything on national television."

"Yeah, I've gotten pretty good at that," she replied vehemently.

Toby leaned forward resting his head in his hands as he slowly counted to ten, twice. Nerves were shot, and tempers were not far behind. He remembered those press briefings after the shooting; the near vacant expression on her face as she tried to answer questions no one had answers to. Every single time she went up to that podium, they were unable to give her any more information to throw out to the jackals. Since hers was the public face, every commentary on how the Administration was dealing with after-effects of the shooting was, unfortunately, overshadowed by those first few briefings. Shell-shock was not easily forgiven in a business where first impressions were the rule, not the exception.

"Ginger!" Toby called.

The woman in question leaned into the doorway, arms braced across the threshold. "Yeah?"

"Get Carol to find Danny Concannon, and have her bring him here."

"Got it."

C.J. sat up a little straighter in the chair she had pulled over to the front of Toby's desk. "What are you doing?"

"We're going to ask him to lay low on the plant thing."

"He's not going to go for it."

"We don't know that until we ask. He didn't go public with the Laurie thing last year."

Sam piped up from his corner of the couch, "You know, Laurie passed her bar exam."

"That's good, Sam. Go back to sleep," Toby implored, shaking his head again. Sam did exactly that.

A few minutes later, Danny appeared at the door with Carol in tow. Stepping around him, she handed C.J. a folder full of papers for her to go over. Danny smiled at Carol as she left the room.

Learing over C.J.'s shoulder, Danny asked, "So, is that the press packet for the thing in 15 minutes? Can I take a peak?"

"Yes, it is, and no, you may not. You'll get yours when everybody else does."

Toby cleared his throat, body facing his couch, but eyes on Danny. "We need you to lay off the Paducah plant thing. I'm actually surprised you didn't mention it earlier when you called."

He expected a press-tantrum, as Toby called them; the calling of the people's right to know what the heck was going on speech. However, Danny surprised him. Though he didn't fight the request, he didn't ad hoc agree to it either. "Others know about that. There will be questions."

"This briefing should be about the earthquake, not about the Paducah plant."

"It should have been decommissioned long ago," Danny said.

Toby nodded. "I agree, but that's not the point."

"So what is the point?"

"We will have more information on the Paducah plant at the 6 am briefing. We don't have that information now. We know that there is a possible problem there. It is being investigated as we speak. But if one question gets asked, others will follow. We need to focus on the relief effort, not on the fact that the DOE has a stick up their ass about a mistake they should have corrected well over a decade ago."

"Fine, you won't get the question from me. I can’t the same from the rest of the gaggle."

"Not unless you lead the questioning elsewhere," Toby supplied.

Both C.J. and Danny stared at the Communications Director. C.J. had a notion about what Toby might say next. They both agreed that would not be a card to punch, ever. Yet Toby was about to do just that. "Toby--" C.J. warned.

"If the question pops up, C.J. deflects it. You ask about the First Lady's role in the relief effort."

"Toby, we agreed we wouldn't do that," C.J. implored.

"What about the First Lady?" Danny asked.

"We were going to downplay that, Toby. We don't want that advertised."

Toby decided to ignore her. "Danny, the First Lady--"

"Toby--"

Toby held a hand up to halt C.J.'s protest. "--the First Lady, in her unique sense of demented wisdom, has decided that her efforts as a medical practitioner are best utilized in the trenches, despite the fact that no one here particularly thinks that it is a good idea, not to mention that is making Ron Butterfield fit to be tied. Choose what you want to do with that information."

"Advertising that will make protecting the First Lady a hell of a lot harder, you realize that, don't you?" C.J. tried one last time, staring down Toby.

"Yes, it will."

"The President won't go for it."

"He will if I can sell it."

"I won't ask the question."

C.J. and Toby stopped their staring-down contest and turned their attention to Danny. "I don't want to put her in any more danger than necessary," Danny continued. "I won't be a party to that. But I will offer this: the First Lady likes me. Let me do an interview after she gets home."

"That's not for us to decide."

"No, but you have more pull with Lilly Mays than I do. She hates my guts because I wouldn't go out with her. I have my eyes set on loftier goals." He waggled his eyebrows at C.J., who ignored the look.

"I am not hearing this," Toby said, turning in his seat.

"Danny, be serious, please." C.J. asked quietly, rubbing her forehead.

"Look, I understand what you all are going through. And I appreciate the heads up on the situation with the First Lady. I'll do what I can."

When nothing else seemed forthcoming from the dynamic duo in front of him, Danny turned towards the lump on the couch. "What's up with Sam?"

"Head cold. He's supposed to meet with the committee running the Paducah investigation at 7 am. We need him rested," Toby offered. "And that's off the record."

"What, that Sam's sick, or he's speaking to the DOE in three hours?" Toby shot him a look at would have frozen the ocean. Danny put his hands up in self-proclaimed defeat. "I'll leave you to your work. C.J., I'll see you in a couple of minutes." Danny left.

C.J. slumped in her chair and closed her eyes. Toby knew she was tired; they all were. Only Josh seemed to be showing any amount of energy, but Toby suspected the hospital must have taken the need-for-sleep organ out when he was in surgery for the bullet to his chest. Shaking his head of that imagery, he decided now was as good a time as any to send a quick note to his ex-brother in law.

At the consistent tapping of keys, C.J. looked up, a wry smile crossing her face. "Toby, what are you doing?"

"Typing."

"To be more precise, I would say that you are using email."

"That would appear to be correct." Toby finished his brief message and clicked 'send'. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited for the inevitable you-are-a-hypocrite speech.

"You hate email. You said, and I quote, 'Email is an evil abomination that serves to stunt our communication skills', end-quote."

"That is not what I said."

"No, but that sounds more Toby-like than what you really said the last time the White House server crashed, and I'm sure the FCC would have something to say about your choice of four letter words in that regard."

Toby checked his watch again. 3:52 am. "Don't you have a press briefing to prep for?"

"Done. Why are you using email?"

"And when the Press asks why it took so long to contact the First Lady, you'll say--"

"Solar flares are currently wreaking havoc with most communications systems, including GPS and satellite phones, just as they did this past summer when you colorfully proclaimed your cell phone was a worthless hunk of junk and proceeded to throw it against a wall. You didn’t answer my question."

"The most efficient way to contact Gary Wyatt is through email. The man lives for it."

"Gary Wyatt is your brother-in-law?"

"Ex-brother-in-law."

"And you honestly expect him to reply to you this early in the morning?"

To answer her question, Toby's laptop chimed to indicate an incoming email message. C.J. stared at him, mouth agape. "You've got to be kidding me?"

Toby wrote a quick acknowledgement and closed his laptop. "I'm meeting him this morning after his class, at 7:30."

"Who in their right mind takes a class that early in the morning?"

"You obviously never attended one of the President's economic lectures at the University of New Hampshire."

C.J. hesitated before leaving her seat. "You shouldn't have told Danny about the First Lady."

"It was bound to come up sooner or later. Better he get something out of this than us look like we're hiding with our tail between our legs. And you heard him, he's not going to use it anyway."

"You couldn't have known that."

"No, but I was hedging on his sense of loyalty. Look, you may have had problems giving Danny access to the President two months ago because of what it might have looked like. Hell, we all heard the rumors. There's even a betting pool, and let me say, whoever wins the pot will be sitting pretty for a while.

"Danny's a good guy, no matter how much of a pain in the ass he is at times. He didn't go ahead with the Laurie thing, and he kept Billy Kentworth from blowing the whistle as well. He dropped the 25th amendment thing and how we dropped the ball on that one when the President went under anesthesia. He was one of the few to paint the White House in a good light in the aftermath of the shooting. I may have been on a personal vendetta at the time, but I did read the newspaper. We needed that publicity, and his feature story last month was picked up by quite a few affiliates. We went up three points in the popularity polls after that."

"Don't remind me. He caught wind that the President wanted me to lead the Press Corps in the Notre Dame fight song. He hasn’t let up yet, the pompous son of a--."

"C.J.--"

"I know, I know, briefing. You gonna watch?"

"Yeah."

"Okay."

 

 

Press Room

4:02 am EST

Standing at the podium, C.J. put her glasses on and waited for the assembly to settle down. Carol, Bonnie and Ginger were handing out the Press packets to everyone assembled. For such an early hour, there were quite a few people filling the seats. All the regulars were in attendance, though that was no surprise. Natural and national disasters seemed to bring all of the rats to the upper deck. Toby settled along a wall near the back, arms crossed over his chest and staring at everything except the podium.

"Everybody, settle down. At approximately 2:25 am Eastern Standard Time, there was an earthquake near the Kentucky and Illinois border, 30 miles southwest of the city of Paducah, Kentucky. That's P-A-D-U-C-A-H. The United States Geological Survey offices in Boulder, Colorado, have said that the earthquake measured 6.9 on the magnitude scale. This is considered a moderate to severe earthquake, and they assure me that as more data comes in, that magnitude is most likely going to change. There have been approximately 20 aftershocks along the same fault plane in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, all with magnitudes within the 2-3 range. You'll find a list of recent earthquakes that have occurred in this Seismic Zone for the last year in your press packets, as well as a brief history of activity on the fault. A member of the New Madrid Seismic Zone Network study will be here at the 6 am briefing to answer any of your questions. The President will be making a brief statement at 8 am."

"C.J.!"

"Hold on, I've got a few more things to say, then you can ask your questions. We only have a limited account of the damage and casualty reports at this time. We will keep you updated as we learn this information ourselves. What we do know is this:

"There was structural damage to a dam separating Kentucky Lake from the Tennessee River. Several towns were flooded as a result. There have been no reports of casualties.

"A barge outside of Cairo, Illinois, on the Ohio River went aground. The barge was carrying oil and coal reserves to St. Louis. Oil spilled into the river, and the Ohio river is now currently on fire. Emergency crews are working to control both the spill and the fire before it can spread. This is only one such fire. Many more have been reported in the last twenty minutes.

"Damage has been reported as far away as St. Louis, Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, just to name a few. A hospital parking garage collapsed in St. Louis. Initial casualty reports indicate that as many as 200 people were injured when the roof fell near the hospital entrance, 45 people are believed to be dead. Had the earthquake occurred later in the day, that number could have been considerably higher. And this is only the beginning."

"C.J.! Three days ago you told us the First Lady was in Memphis. Has there been any contact with her?"

"Yes, the First Lady was able to call in about 45 minutes ago. She's fine. Everyone in her detail is fine. In fact, she was complaining that not enough people recognized her as the First Lady when she did try to reach the White House."

"Has martial law been issued for states effected?"

C.J. paused, not quite expecting that question. "No, it's too soon for such drastic measures, don't you think? The Reserves and the National Guard have been called in to help with the relief effort. The largest problem right now is getting to the places that need the help. Roads are moderately to severely damaged and most land lines are out of commission. Airports that have serviceable runways have cancelled all scheduled flights so that relief teams can be flown in and out without delay."

"What about the Memphis airport?"

"The Memphis airport is currently not in operation."

"What about the First Lady? When is she expected to return to the White House?" That one was from Danny.

"Priorities lie with the relief efforts right now in the city of Memphis. The First Lady will return to the White House as soon as humanly possible," C.J. replied, hoping that it would end the questions about the First Lady.

"Did the earthquake affect any of the Oak Ridge facilities? What does the Tennessee Valley Authority have to say?"

"Not to the same extent that other areas have been effected, no," C.J. replied. "Just the same, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sent teams to check the containment of any fissionable and hazardous materials that are stored in the facilities. Similar house calls will be made to other nuclear power plants in the region, with full cooperation of the TVA."

"The Tennessee River runs past Paducah, Kentucky. Any mention of the effect that either the flooding, or the earthquake itself, has had on the nuclear refinery in that area?"

The question she had been dreading had been asked. Rather than look to her notes to pretend to find an answer there in an obvious stall for time, she looked straight at the reporter and answered as calmly as possible, "We have little to no news from the Paducah area. I can't comment on that at this time."

She waited for the flood of questions to follow that one, and was not disappointed. Nearly everyone's hand went up, and some never bothered to wait to be called on.

"C.J., the Post did a story last year--"

A beeper went off. While facing the reporter that had asked the question, she let one eye roam over the room to figure out whose beeper it was. Danny's head ducked towards his belt, his hand stopping the intrusive noise. If he had planned that to happen, she was going to have to give him more credit than was normally due. The look on his face, however, did not seem to indicate that the page was either planned or intended.

"C.J.!" Interruption time; saved by the beeper.

"Yes, Danny?"

"There's been another earthquake."

 

============================================================================

The halls of The West Wing

4:14 am EST

"What do you mean, there's been another earthquake?"

Danny was pretty much chasing C.J. down the halls of the West Wing, her much longer legs carrying her further with each stride than anyone else beside her. As soon as his proclamation sank into the sleep deprived brains of everyone in attendance, the briefing was ended and everyone stormed out of the room to gather as much information for their morning stop-the-presses deadline.

"The guy that tipped me off about the first one, he said he would page me if he had any further information about a topic we had been discussing earlier." Danny held out the aforementioned pager and let her read the LED display. 4:07 am, 6.4 RM, MO/TN.

"I looked on a map," Danny continued, "one of the ones you so graciously supplied in the press packet. I think he was talking about Caruthersville, Missouri. There have been a number of small earthquakes there over the last 6 months."

"You were talking about earthquakes with this guy earlier? What is he, some sort of reincarnation of Kreskin?"

"First, Kreskin's not dead, and secondly, we were talking about something else entirely. When the beer bottles started to do a jig on the table, he told me it was an earthquake. C'mon, you’re from California--"

C.J. stopped dead in her tracks. "For the last time, I have never been in a big earthquake! Why doesn’t anyone pester Sam about this. He's from California too. CAROL!"

Carol ran toward the front of the assembly of people in the hallway, elbowing past both Toby and Danny on her way. "Yeah?"

"We need a history on Caruthersville, Missouri. How far away is that from Memphis, whatever seismic stuff you can find on that place, and somebody tell Leo and the President about this."

"I think they already know," Toby replied, pointing ahead towards Josh's office. The President, Leo, Josh, Donna and whoever managed to find a space in Josh's doorway looked expectantly in their direction. Everyone's eyes were focused on one of several televisions slung from the ceiling above the bullpen.

"Where was it?" the President asked.

"We're not sure, sir, but we think it may have been on the border of Missouri and Tennessee." C.J. plowed through the throngs of people in Josh's bullpen. Obviously someone had lifted the ban on the President's movements throughout the West Wing, or else he wouldn't be in Josh's office.

"How can we find out?"

"I've got it, sir," Donna said, hovering over her computer keyboard. "I've found a web site of current earthquakes provided by the United States Geological Survey. According to this, the last earthquake recorded was in the New Madrid Seismic Zone seven minutes ago. There's a map."

A simple geographic map showing the state boundaries and a few of the rivers was displayed on the computer screen. A large red box with a cross through it was in the middle of the screen, just north of the border of Missouri and Tennessee. Latitude and longitude coordinates were displayed above the map, as well as depth to the earthquake's rupture point and the magnitude.

Donna pointed to the bottom edge of the map, close to the center. "Memphis is right about here, maybe 120 miles away from the epicenter." She pointed upwards and right of the red box. "Paducah is somewhere in here. I did an internet search for the New Madrid fault system, but a majority of the web links point to the Center for Earthquake Research and Information, which is based out of the University of Memphis, whose server is currently down because of power outages in the area."

"Was it an aftershock of the first 'quake? Or was it something else entirely?" Josh asked. No one seemed to have an answer to that question.

"With all the degrees we have in this room, no one took a geology class?" Leo asked. Shakes of heads and turned down faces answered that question. "Any luck with your brother-in-law, Toby?"

"I'm meeting with him at 7:30."

The President suddenly looked very tired. He sat down on the couch in Josh's office. "Someone get a hold of my wife please."

 

Memphis, Tennessee

3:14 am CST

Abbey Bartlet smiled at the young child sitting on the makeshift bench in front of her. The child had a swollen upper lip and a number of small lacerations across her chin, nothing that a good washing, a clean band-aid and a kiss to make it better wouldn't fix. Only minutes before the same little girl was clinging to Abbey's neck for dear life as the ground once again fought common instinct and started to move. Field tents swayed with the ground motion, which didn’t seem to stop shaking for many minutes, but she knew it could not have been more than thirty or so seconds. The ground may have stopped moving, but the wails and cries of frightened people had yet to die down to a tolerable roar.

The first earthquake had been frightening. With all the aftershocks, walking around the park was more like a jaunt on choppy seas. After a while, the occasional sideways motion of the ground beneath the feet became second nature. Two hours of what seemed non-stop motion was enough to send anyone to the far side of hysterical.

The second earthquake, if that indeed was what it was, had sent even the most stalwart of those assisting in whatever way they could to the ground crying in fear.

Abbey had been told that it was a smaller earthquake than the first. It certainly didn't feel smaller. Her knees were still like jello. This one had been considerably closer than the first one. The ground seemed to literally roll like the waves on an ocean. Some of the tents that had been set up to keep the elements off the injured had collapsed. Able bodies were currently resurrecting those tents and pitching others to accommodate the new waves of people coming in to the area.

The park-turned-hospital was nearly wall to wall with families displaced by the tremors. More and more brightly colored tents, courtesy of one of the retailer outfitting stores nearby, had popped up in the open areas. The National Guard had set up a number of areas away from the triage centers for people to put up their temporary homes. Extra blankets and sleeping bags were a premium. Luckily, no one had decided to cash in on the first come first serve mentality. Everything had remained fairly civilized, for the meantime.

They had been lucky in this district; well water was plentiful due to the high run-off the previous spring and none of the well lines had been ruptured during the earthquake. They had running water, and that was a blessing. Someone had brought in portable butane stoves for warming canned food and water. She had quickly put her security detail to work in the hospital tents. A number of people had volunteered to assist in the hospital tents; she wasn't going to turn anyone away. Even someone with no medical knowledge whatsoever could still hold a frightened child's hand.

She didn't know if it was to her benefit, but few people recognized her, or at least few people acknowledged that they knew she was the First Lady. As non-inconspicuous as having half a dozen Secret Service agents tailing her very move, people in pain rarely put two and two together. Granted, the fact that she was wearing jeans, a gray sweatshirt stolen from her husband's wardrobe and a ball-cap to keep her hair out of her eyes could have helped in that regard: it was definitely not the formal attire of a state dinner most people had seen her in.

Lilly Mays caught up with her again after Abbey had sent her to check on Anna. The second quake had shook a little more than just the foundation this time. A great willow tree from the front yard had been uprooted, crashing into the front foyer of the main house. No one in the immediate area had life threatening injuries, yet.

Abbey handed the young girl off to a woman who looked impossibly young to have a child, receiving a grateful thank you for services rendered. Meeting her Chief of Staff halfway across the tent, Abbey gratefully accepted the cup of coffee in Lilly's hand.

"I suppose it would be selfish to confiscate an IV stand for intravenous caffeine," Abbey commented.

"It would also mean getting someone to follow you around with the stand so you don't trip over it. Completely selfish idea."

"That's what I thought."

"You should try to contact the White House again. They are going to want to know that you're okay after that last one."

"And spend another thirty minutes trying to get through?"

"One of Anna's people are already on it. They'll send word down on this walkie talkie when they get through." Lilly handed her a small yellow Motorola Talk About.

"Where am I supposed to put this?" Abbey asked, and catching the look on Lilly's face, amended, "Don't answer that, I’ll find a place on my own, thank you very much."

Anna O'Brien slowly made her way down towards the medical tent. She was a stately woman, not looking a bit close to her 67 years of age. She was wearing a heavy parka that hid her slender frame well. It wasn't until Abbey saw the coat that she herself felt a chill. She hadn't noticed the drop in temperature at all while she had been working.

"You need to rest, my dear," Anna was saying, steering her away from the medical tent. Anna motioned over someone else to take Abbey's place. "This young man just graduated from Johns Hopkins, and was supposed to start his residency right here in town next week. Now is as good a time as any to start, don't you think? And he's brought friends to help him."

An Army truck, loaded to the gills with injured from some of the surrounding counties, lumbered to a stop near a clear spot in the field. Similar trucks had been appearing every ten minutes or so for the last hour. It was easier to focus on the incoming wounded than the outgoing body bags. That truck was on the other side of the mansion.

"Another truck has just pulled up, I can't go yet," Abbey complained. "There's too much to do here."

"Abbey, dear," Anna continued to push the First Lady away from the medical tent and towards the mansion, "you have been out in the cold with barely a stitch on since this whole thing started. I will not have your husband coming down on me if you should catch your death of cold. Come inside, sit by the fireplace and warm yourself. You will be of no use to anyone if you drop from exhaustion."

"As long as you put it that way." Abbey allowed herself to be led away from the tent. Stiff and cold limbs carried her slowly up the walkway towards the main house. "I have to talk to Jed. He's not going to let anyone rest at the White House until he hears from me."

 

The West Wing

5:33 am EST

Josh leaned as far back in his chair as he possibly could without physically tipping it over. His feet were propped on someone's desk, he wasn't quite sure whose, but it wasn't as if it mattered anyway. He was tilted just so that his eyes were on line with the televisions suspended in the corners of the bullpen. He didn't have to turn his head but a few inches to switch from the closed captioned interviews on C-NBC, MSNBC and CNN.

Toby and Sam were preparing the President's remarks for the 8 am briefing. Leo was talking with the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State and people from the Nuclear Regulatory committee about the Army's survey results across Paducah. C.J. was pow-wow-ing with the scientist from the New Madrid Seismic Network, pulling together a comprehensive press packet and making sure he was prepared for the pirhana tank of reporters he was about to meet. Charlie was with the President, and that pretty much left him with nothing to do but man the phones and watch the televisions for anything new from the Mississippi valley.

"Anything?" Donna called from her post at the computer. She had taken over the news wire watch for Carol, since Carol was valiantly trying to type of the briefing notes with as few spelling mistakes as possible. Every once in a while there would be a call from Carol's desk, asking how to spell any number of geologic terms. At least they sounded geologic to Josh.

"Nothing." He had been watching a number of interviews with eyewitnesses of the earthquake. They had a guy on MSNBC from the epicenter of the second quake. Josh killed the mute function on the television to hear what the guy had to say. Behind him stood a wreck of a house, presumably belonging to man being interviewed. The dichotomy between the clothing worn by the interviewer and the interviewee was not lost on Josh. The reporter was wearing a bright yellow North Face shell parka; Josh knew those things did not come cheap. The man had on an old navy peacoat, with patches on the elbows and a raggedly stitched lapel.

"I've never seen anything so weird in my life. Every single one of the dogs was barking up a storm like you wouldn't believe. These are dogs that couldn't frighten a rabbit out of its hole, know what I mean?"

Josh didn’t think the reporter knew what a rabbit hole looked like, let alone ever see a rabbit that hadn’t been in a petting zoo.

"They'd been acting weird for a couple of days now. I mean we had a couple of shakes a few days back, but nothing big. None of the dogs ever seemed a bit perturbed by that. But then all of the sudden, you'd think that the gates of hell opened up somewhere."

"I'd heard of that," Donna said, out of the blue.

Josh hit the mute button again to silence the diatribe. "Heard of what?"

"Animals acting strange as a precursor to earthquakes. There was an earthquake in China once, I think in the late 1960's. All of the livestock in the village started to behave in some abnormal manner. All of the villagers left their homes, and lo and behold, there was an earthquake a few hours later. Practically all standing structures collapsed. But, because no one was in their homes, there was a very low mortality rate."

Josh shook his head, grabbing his hair just above his ears. "Where do you get this stuff?"

"I read a lot, I told you that, Josh."

"And when, pray tell, do you have time to do that?"

"I have many hidden talents. You'd be amazed at how I find the time to do anything with you taking away most of my free evenings and Saturdays to boot. By the way, is anyone ever going to upgrade the White House internet relays from 10Base-T to 100Base-T? And while we're on the subject, I need a computer with a faster processing speed."

Josh stared at her, eyes scrunched as he changed his perspective. "Okay, Margaret, clever disguise you've got there. What did you do with my Donna?"

"'Your' Donna? Excuse me?"

"You know what I mean. Look, I appreciate the fact that you taught me how to use my email program from home, but everything you just said--" He swung his hand above his head, whistling as his fingers swept across the top of his hair.

"Really, Josh, you have to be up with the times."

Josh let his feet drop to the floor. As a result, his chair sprung forward, forcing him to jump out of it lest be deposited on the floor. "This is so boring! I need to be up, I need to be doing something proactive."

"I'm sorry, would you like me to stir up another disaster for you? How about a few biblical plagues? Or a space satellite falling to the middle of the Rose Garden? What you need is to be sitting down and watching the news shows like a good little boy, just as Leo asked you to do an hour ago."

"Why can't I be a part of Leo's meeting?"

"I think he said something about this meeting needing tact, which you sorely lack."

"I have tact," Josh replied, indignant. "I have bucket loads."

"You certainly have bucket loads, but I don't think its called tact."

"Donnatella."

"Joshua."

"I need something to do." Josh spied Charlie rounding a corner. "Charlie, my man! How's the President?"

Charlie stepped into the bull pen and sat on the edge of one of the desks. He looked tired, as did most of the staff. However, outside of Leo, Charlie had the most contact with the President, and had to deal with the President's mood. That was a task Josh was more than willing to leave to someone else.

"He's talking with Toby and Sam about what he's going to say at the 8 am briefing, though Mrs. Landingham wants them to push it back another hour."

"It took an hour of arguing for us to convince him to speak at 8 am instead of 6 am," Josh replied.

"The President doesn't feel he should have to read from a prepared speech. He wants to speak from his heart about this one."

"I think he should," Donna said, leaving her computer station. "What's wrong with the President speaking his mind?"

Josh and Charlie looked at her with blank expressions. "What?" She asked. "It's not like he's going to give a 60 minute lecture on the history of the New Madrid fault, right?"

"I wouldn't put it past him," Josh mumbled.

"Why does Mrs. Landingham want the briefing pushed back an hour?" Donna asked.

"She says, and I quote, 'He looks like death warmed over'."

"He does, but I'm not going to tell him," Josh said.

"That's all right, Mrs. Landingham already has."

"I can imagine his response to that." Josh started to pace around the desks and chairs in the bull pen. "Has anyone talked to C.J. about this?"

"I believe she's still talking with the guy from the US Geological Survey," Donna supplied. "Though, she probably wouldn’t mind putting off the briefing; she doesn't look so hot. It would give her a chance to take a nap as well."

"I wouldn't couch it in quite those terms. Remember that time a couple of months ago when she wasn't sleeping and wouldn't tell anyone why? Someone suggested to her that she take it easy, and that same someone got his head bitten off for insinuating that she should be treated like a child."

"Josh, just so you know, if you hadn’t said she was behaving like a 6 foot kindergartener in need of a nap, she wouldn’t have pegged you with her sneaker," Donna replied, grabbing her coffee mug.

"That's what I'm saying, I shouldn't be the one to tell her that. Besides, she won't let me within two feet of her office since that turkey incident." Charlie and Donna started to walk away from him. He followed behind, realizing her was losing his audience. "I mean, Toby gets to go in there. Why should I be the only one ostracized? It was his idea to let them loose in there."

============================================================================

George Washington University

7:22 am EST

Toby fiddled with a ball point pen as he waited in the back of the small lecture hall. For such an early hour, he was surprised to find the class of 30 or so students awake and attentive. He had arrived early, just to watch his brother in law in action. Gary Wyatt was older than him by a good five years. They had served in the same unit during a brief tour in Southeast Asia. Gary had been a surveyor/structural engineer. It had been their unit's job to provide better maps and check the structural integrity of any bridges the infantry might want to use. It was also their job to destroy any bridges that would be advantage of the enemy. It certainly wasn't the most exciting thing to do in the war, but it was more than enough for a nineteen year old barely our of high school with nothing more on his mind than to get out of that country with his body intact.

The one good thing to come out of it was that Gary had a younger sister, a spitfire full of piss and vinegar, ready to tackle the world and right the injustices from the inside out. They had been idealistic, in college and in love. Involved in politics on and off campus. Andrea had the charisma to be in the fore-front of the political machine; he had the knowledge and the intuition to get the job done and done right, no matter what the cost.

Though his divorce from Andy had been amicable, Toby was not sure how things would be with her brother. Toby wasn't one to talk to his own brother very often, let alone his ex-wife's family. The last time he had heard anything about Gary was when he had accepted a position in the Geology department at George Washington University. That had been four years ago, before the Bartlet administration and before the divorce.

Gary must have spotted him because he nodded his way and then continued with his lecture. He slapped an overhead on the projector, drew what could have easily been mistaken for some child's drawing of a mountain on the plastic sheet before him so that it was projected for all to see. He drew an arrow to the mess on the screen and labeled it Pocatello. Next to it he drew a cross section of the United States, bumps where there should be mountains and a pathetic looking fish where there should be water in the Atlantic. Looking back up into the gallery, he half-hazardly added a make-shift capital building and the label 'D.C.'.

"So, we've taken the first five feet of bedrock off the continent and piled it on top of Pocatello, Idaho. Considering the size of the contiguous United States, that's just over 14,000 cubic kilometers of rock. Now, Pocatello is only about 88 square kilometers in size. This little fun exercise will bury Pocatello under nearly 167 kilometers of rock.

"Now, what exactly is going to happen to this little 'burg, I bet you're asking yourselves. Remember a little movie called, 'Titanic'? It's a wonderful analogy for what's about to tragically happen to this city in the middle of Idaho.

"You see, what many people fail to realize is that if you see an iceberg out on the ocean, there's a hell of a lot more ice under the water than there is above it. Archimedes' Principal. Ice is less dense then salt water, therefore it floats. However, because the densities of ice and salt water are so close to each other, the ice displaces about four-fifths the volume of water it's in. The amount of material above the surface of the water is proportional to the difference in their respective densities. The closer the densities are to each other, the closer the floating object will come to being completely submerged.

"This, my dear friends, is the idea behind isostasy. We are placing approximately 167 kilometers of material on top of an area that is only 88 square kilometers in size. We will be building an iceberg out of rocks.

"The average density of continental crust is 2.7 grams per cubic centimeter. If we were to figure out the average density of the sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks we'd be sending to Pocatello, we'd come up with about the same number. The average density of the mantle that lies beneath the continental United States as well as most of the world is 3.3 grams per cubic centimeter. Pretend that the mountain we're about to build is the ice and the mantle is the ocean. The densities are close, but not too close, to each other. We will be submerging part of the continental crust in this endeavor. Anyone care to guess how much?

"Four-fifths of 167 kilometers is approximately 135 kilometers. Downtown Pocatello will be well within the middle crustal region. And what did we say the average continental thermal gradient was last week in class? Yes, 20 to 30 degrees Centigrade per kilometer depth. So, we’re pretty much going to melt the bejeezus out of Pocatello, Idaho."

"But, Professor, the thickest continental crust is only about 80 kilometers."

All the while, Gary had been pacing all over the lecture hall, never stopping for a moment to add anything to his animation on the overhead. Gary simply waved his hands in the air, dismissing the question with an air of comical disdain. "Pish-posh, we’re building a mountain in the name of science! Who cares about the laws of physics and the universe? This thing will rival any of those puny Martian mountains that everyone keeps going on about. This thing will but Mt. Everest to shame!"

Stopping his march across the room, he picked up an overhead pen and redrew the cross section of the United States with the new mountain in the middle of Idaho, with the rest of the continent looking much the same as the previous cartoon. He took a blue pen and drew in a water line.

"So, what will be causative effects of our mountain? Well, for one, the topography of the United States will be five feet lower for a period of time; remember, we are stripping 5 feet off the entire US. So, some coastal areas are going to be flooded, including good old Washington, D.C. Great way to wash out all those politicians."

That elicited a laugh from the congregation of students. Toby allowed a small fraction of a smile; he knew Gary added that simply because he was in the audience.

Gary turned to look at the clock mounted on one of the walls of the lecture hall. He checked it with the time that was on his watch. "Okay, look, it's close to closing time, so why don't we call it quits. Make sure to read chapter 14 of your text on gravity and isostasy. We'll talk about various gravity corrections next time. Class dismissed."

The students filed out, climbing the stairs to the back of the small auditorium as they carried books and travel mugs full of coffee, tea or other heavily caffeinated beverage. None paid attention to Toby as he descended the same stairs, hugging the wall as they passed by. Gary gathered his materials together, chatting with one of his students near the overhead projector. Toby waited until the student finished asking her questions before stepping off the last stair.

"Toby, long time no see."

"Gary." He nodded at the student as she passed by. "Do you have issues with someone in Pocatello, Idaho, or was this just for fun?"

"No, nothing like that. Found it in a web page, thought it was amusing, tested some of the calculations myself, and turned it into a homework assignment. Have to find new and innovative ways to reach these kids in this day and age. The prospect of working for the oil industry doesn't do it like it did for our generation during the '70's."

"Having class start at a quarter to seven in the morning must be one hell of an innovation."

Gary shrugged his shoulders. "They're majors. What can I say, they're motivated. And I've been told I'm a lot more understandable at 7 o'clock in the morning. Let them believe what they want. I would teach this class in the middle of the night if they wanted me to. That earthquake last night would have been one interesting classroom project."

"Actually, that's what I'm here to talk with you about. The President wants someone to explain what's going on to him."

"Isn't that what the National Science Advisor is for?"

"That was a political appointment. Landle doesn’t know his knee from a hole in the wall."

"Tell me how you really feel, Toby." Gary grabbed his coat and briefcase and pointed towards the back door. "Walk with me to my office."

It was a short jaunt across campus to one of the science buildings. Two flights of stairs and a couple of turns down non-descript halls later, they were inside Gary's small office space. The room was wall-to-wall stacks: journal articles, books, library materials and classroom related flotsom. Somewhere in the mess was a desk and two chairs. Gary cleared off a clean spot on the lab bench and offered Toby his own seat. "What can I do for you?" he asked.

"As I said before, the President wants someone to explain what's been going on in Kentucky and Tennessee to him. He trusts me to tell him what for, and I trust you to provide the kind of information he wants."

"Consultants are a dime a dozen. What do you need me for?"

Toby leaned forward, staring at the floor. "We've had seismologists from the USGS and from the National Science Advisor's staff already traipsing through the White House. No one will commit one way or the other about what's been happening in the Mississippi Valley. That second earthquake threw everyone for a loop. Half the people we've talked to say it's to be expected, the rest say they have no clue about what's happening."

"I'm not surprised. Earthquake prediction is a touchy subject. What can I do to help? I haven't studied this sort of thing in a really long time. I've been a full time teacher for the better part of the decade; I haven't done any seismic research whatsoever for about 20 years. And even then, most of my experience is with seismic reflection profiles of the ocean basins, not earthquakes in New Madrid."

"But you're a professor. You speak the same language as the President. You get your point across to students that have a genuine interest but not the background for the material. I'll guarantee you'll have a captive audience." Toby paused, deciding that what he wanted to say next required him to look his ex-brother-in-law in the eye. "The First Lady is in Memphis, and we can't get her out. The people we've talked to already, I don't know them. You I know. When you answer the President's questions, I'll know he'll be getting an honest answer."

"When do you need me?"

"How about now?"

"Then it's a good thing that I haven't got another class until 2 pm."

 

The Residence

7:48 am EST

"Look, Leo, people are already awake and on their way to work. They are going to want to know what the hell happened last night!"

Leo watched as his best friend for the better part of 40 years paced around the bedroom, angrily trying to knot his tie in a fashion that did not look like he was choking himself to death with the infernal piece of silk. "Sir, they already know. Anyone who listens to a radio on the way in to work, or watches television while they get their kids ready for breakfast is going to know there was an earthquake. The country doesn't need you to be the bearer of bad news they already know."

"Commercial activity as we know it has been halted in 6 states! People, -- families -- are without homes in the dead of winter. Little less than a week ago I gave a speech about how this year we plan on doing more to combat hunger and inadequate medical care coverage within our own borders, and tens of thousands of people are sleeping in tents. They at least deserve to know that I, -- that we will not sit idly by while their homes shake to ruins."

"I couldn't agree with you more," Leo placated, but he continued before the President could lodge a protest to the next words out of his mouth, "but from a purely political standpoint, we should wait an hour. The West Coast doesn't get up for at least another hour. C.J.'s running ragged getting as much information on damages and casualties from the Mississippi Valley. Toby is meeting with his brother in law. I've got Sam out rattling some chains at the DOE right now to find out how big a deal this Paducah thing is going to be in the coming weeks. Josh is talking with Nancy McNally about our response in the Middle East."

"Why does there have to be anything in the Middle East? The earthquake was here."

"Exactly, and some of our friends in the desert may see this as an opportunity to pour salt on the wound. Don't look at me like that, it is a remote possibility."

"Then why is Josh doing this instead of you?"

"Because someone has to hold your hand through this and I got elected."

 

"I don’t need to be hand-held."

"If you'll pardon my candor, like hell you don't. You almost stormed the 6 am briefing despite the fact that we told you to stay away from the Press Room. You yelled at Mrs. Landingham when she suggested you return to the Residence to change into something more presentable than a sweatshirt. And Charlie was hiding in my office while you were screaming at Landle's people. And how much coffee have you had since you woke up?"

The President's puckered expression said exactly what he thought about that. A knock at the bedroom door kept him from continuing the argument. Charlie stuck his head into the room, stepping in slowly afterwards. "Mr. President, Toby is waiting in the Roosevelt room for you. A Dr. Gary Wyatt is here with him."

"Good, I want to talk with this guy. Charlie, tell C.J. I caved in, I'll do the briefing at 9 instead. No, wait, don't tell her that. Tell her something else. I don't know, make something up. Make it sound presidential."

"Yes, sir."

The President turned towards Leo as he grabbed his suit jacket from the edge of the bed. "You got what you want."

Leo thought it wise not to argue.

The Press Room

7:59 am EST

C.J. scanned the Press Room from the doorway, taking stock of the reporters that had stuck through the night to hear whatever news they could provide. It wasn't as if the White House was an authority on the subject. However, with so many states, families and homes affected, it was natural that it would be on the minds of the people. The President was going to announce that the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas as disaster areas so that they would be eligible for relief funds as quickly as possible. The Press would be expecting the President at this briefing: she had the enjoyable job of telling them that the President would be speaking an hour from now. She would save that particular tid-bit until the end of the briefing so she could escape the moans and groans of an often-pampered press corps.

Carol finished passing out the briefing notes. Before C.J. stepped up to the podium, she grabbed Carol's elbow and asked, "Have you seen Danny?"

"Not since about 7 this morning."

C.J. nodded, not too pleased with the AWOL status of the wayward reporter. At times like these she liked to know where everyone was, especially him. She stepped up to the podium and already the flash bulbs were going wild.

"Good morning, everyone. We have an update on the evacuation of the area near Paducah, Kentucky. Let me remind you that this is a precautionary measure on the part of the National Guard, and in no way has anything to do with the nuclear refinery in the area. As we reported at the 6 am briefing, there has been no evidence of further contamination around the site. However, the site has been shut down indefinitely. Haz-mat officials have cordoned off the areas most susceptible to contamination, and clean-up efforts have been stepped up.

"Structural damage to homes and businesses along the Tennessee and parts of the Ohio river have precluded the immediate and indefinite evacuation of the area. The American Red Cross, in conjunction with a number of college campuses throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois, have set up temporary housing for displaced families. A 1-800 number is being set up for people looking for family members that may have been affected by the earthquake. Buses from local and national carriers are helping with the relief effort…"

 

The Roosevelt Room

8:04 am EST

Leo leaned against the doorframe and watched as the chaos slowly ground to halt. After the initial wake up call that morning and the President's insistence that he see everything that was going on, seven television sets had been brought into the Roosevelt Room. Someone had managed to find a portable shelving unit in some recessive broom closet. Power strips and extension cords criss-crossed every conceivable inch of floor space. Anyone not physically chained to a desk had been assigned a television to watch. Any change in the situation in Kentucky and Missouri was to be filtered through Margaret and Mrs. Landingham.

Three staffers -- Winkin, Blinkin and Nod, as he referred to them, since he had no idea what their real names were, -- jumped to their feet the minute the President stepped in to the room. Toby, who had commandeered a set of chairs on the far side of the room, nudged the man sitting next to him. Both rose, and Toby started the introductions.

"Mr. President, may I introduce Dr. Gary Wyatt, professor of Geology and Geophysics at George Washington University."

Gary Wyatt seemed like an upstanding individual to Leo. He was dressed casually in a tweed sport coat and khakis; granted, University was not nearly as strict now in the dress code as when he was in school. There would not have been time to stop and change, since Toby intimated that he would speak to his brother in law right after his morning class. Leo had watched many people greet the President. It was in those few seconds of the initial contact that Leo judged how the meeting would go. Hesitancy on the part of the visitor usually did not bode well. Depending on the situation, the President would either completely ignore everything that was said to him and have to ask for a recap later, or the meeting would be cut short for some off-the-wall reason.

Gary Wyatt did not seem at all hesitant.

"Mr. President, it's an honor."

Leo nodded at one of the staffers, Winkin he thought, and indicated that they should leave the room. One of them had the forethought to turn down the volume of the many television sets in the room, though all of them stayed on and tuned to their respective stations.

The President took a seat and indicated that everyone else should as well. Toby chose to stand along the wall, not an uncommon occurrence in Leo's experience with the Communications Director. Toby tended to blend into the landscape.

"I want to thank you for coming down here," the President stated. "To put it simply, in less than an hour, I have to give an address. I want to know exactly what happened in Kentucky and Missouri. I want to know why it happened. And I want to know if it's going to happen again."

"What happened: there was an earthquake. Why it happened: there's a fault that runs right up the Mississippi River, nearly 500 million years old, when an ocean basin, for simplicity sake we'll say a very early version of the Atlantic, tried to cut the continent in half and failed. Stresses build along zones of weakness, and when those stresses get to be too much, an earthquake is released. Will it happen again: most assuredly. When: can't tell you that. I know that's not what you want to hear, but it's the truth. Is there likely to be another large aftershock? No, probably not. The likelihood of a magnitude 8 earthquake is 1 every year, maybe. A magnitude 7, maybe 20 a year. A magnitude 6, 120 a year. There can be up to 1000 magnitude 2-3 earthquakes every day. The odds are in our favor. But even a minor earthquake will wreak havoc to an area that has already been hit hard.

"But that's not the least of your worries. Fires will destroy more than the initial earthquake. Gas main breaks will be the cause, but the real threat is the lack of water because the water mains probably broke too. You can't fight fire without water.

"Ground slumping, especially near the rivers: the ground is going to turn to quicksand due to liquifaction. There will be areas that will be unstable for years to come, not because of another earthquake like the one we just had, but because they will be susceptible to landslides. Even a minor tremor could be disastrous."

The President leaned back in his chair. "You certainly don't pull punches."

"From what Toby tells me, that's not what you wanted."

"And Toby would be right."

"Your science advisor could have told you the same things."

"Toby has issues with him."

"So I've gathered."

"Guy Landle is a good man. But he tells me what he thinks I want to hear."

"The man sees the world through rose colored glasses," Toby mumbled from the wall.

"And Toby's not happy unless he brings everyone down with him," Gary added. "If you give me thirty minutes, I can give you an abbreviated history of the New Madrid Fault system. You'll know more useless information than you thought possible."

"That's all we need, the President with more trivia," Toby replied.

The President turned in his chair. "For that comment, you get to hear this too. Leo, go save Nancy from Josh. I don’t want to come out of this crisis with some secret agenda to dispose of all the world's nuclear waste."

"Yes, Mr. President."

============================================================================

U.S. Department of Energy Offices

8:04 am EST

Sam stared hard at his watch for what must have been the twentieth time in the last hour. The speed dial on his cell phone was wearing out its welcome, and he was sure that Bonnie, Ginger and Kathy were tired of hearing updates on the meeting that never was. His coat was wrapped tightly around him, despite the fact that he was indoors and nowhere close to an open door. He had been sitting outside the Office of Environmental Management, waiting for someone to talk with him about the Paducah plant, after the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology refused to talk to him. Their claim was that since the plant had been shut down indefinitely, the landlord responsibilities were no longer within their purview. The next victim on the hit list Leo had given him was the EM office, but no one there would talk to him either. So he decided to stalk the outer offices until he saw someone he could harass.

His perseverance eventually paid off. Two suits he recognized were headed in his direction, and he was not going to let them get away. Hanging around Josh on the Hill was beginning to pay off. Standing, he grabbed his briefcase and headed them off at the pass.

"Hi, you're William Radcliff and Benjamin Sutherland, aren’t you? Hi, I'm--"

Radcliff, the taller of the two, said, "We know who you are, Mr. Seaborn." He tried to push Sam aside, but Sam would not move. He placed his briefcase in front of the man's stomach. Radcliff stared at it, then at Sam. "Excuse us, we do have to get to work."

"And I am not going to move until I get some answers."

"We haven't got any answers for you," Sutherland replied, edging around Sam and grabbing the doorknob to the office.

"You haven’t heard any of my questions."

"We already know what you're questions are going to be. We're not completely oblivious to what's going on around us."

"Well, that's funny, considering you don't know what's going in your own backyard. I want to ask you about the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant."

"Our office doesn't handle that."

"Well, neither does the Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology office now, and since I am under a bit of a deadline, let's just say that now you do." Sam followed them into the office.

Radcliff headed in one direction, Sutherland in another. Sam stood in the middle of the office. Rather than choose who to follow, Sam dropped his briefcase, crammed his hands in his pockets and chose to talk very loudly to the entire office.

"In 1988, detectable limits of technetium-99 and trichloroethylene were found in well water outside the plant. Technetium-99 contamination was the result of the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Trichloroethylene was used for cleaning metal and machinery parts in the plant. Rather than clean up the two comtamination plumes, you redirected community water lines to those people that had their well water affected. Rather than look into the long term rehabilitation of the area, the DOE took the short cuts."

Sutherland emerged from wherever he had disappeared and stood toe to toe with Sam. "Are you done with your little tree-hugger speech yet?"

"Not even close. You guys are the experts in hiding things under the rug until someone takes the time to look under there to do some annual cleaning. Or you guys get pressed with a lawsuit when workers in the plant discover they've been exposed to uranium dust and all kinds of other nasties that no one bothered to warn them about."

"Not our problem." Sutherland headed for the door.

Sam grabbed his briefcase and dogged Sutherland's every move. "Polychlorinated biphenyls, used as a fire retardant and in some electrical equipment, were later found downstream of the plant in sediment and fish. Now, I don’t know exactly what that is, but when I read something that has more than 3 syllables in it, that may be in a food stuff that I may possibly eat, I get a little nervous. Especially when those multi-syllabalic words spell out PCB's."

They were outside the Department of Energy by the time Sutherland slowed down long enough for Sam to catch up to him. Sutherland turned around, flung his arms wide, and proclaimed sarcastically, "You're right. We were so wrong to leave this alone for so long. Let's just all bow down before the almighty and powerful Sam Seaborn so that he can fix this with his magic wand!"

Sam dropped his briefcase on the top of the granite steps. As he walked down each stair, his voice rose in volume. "I'm not the one you should be apologizing to. What about the ten thousand people that have had to leave their homes in the last twelve hours? What about the children that woke up in the middle of the night and saw men with haz-mat suits on routing around in their backyards because there was the remote possibility that something may have spilled during the earthquake."

"We couldn’t have predicted an earthquake would occur there."

Throwing his own arms up into the air, Sam danced up and down the stairs, torn between walking away and stepping up the fight. "No, why should you? The area only has a major earthquake every one hundred years or so. In 1812, there were three extremely destructive earthquakes near New Madrid, Missouri, all within a 3 month period of time. They were three of the largest earthquakes in United States history. One caused the Mississippi River to run backwards. There was a waterfall in the middle of the Mississippi River at one point. Just because they didn't occur in California doesn't mean they should be ignored."

Sutherland stepped into Sam's face and snarled, "Why don’t you get off your high horse and join the real world for a few minutes. I didn't build that plant. There's nothing I can do about it."

"No, but someone did build that plant, and now it's your responsibility. That plant was on the chopping block a decade ago. What have you done since to fix the problem?"

"The Paducah plant is one of hundreds that we have to take care of. Other areas have a higher priority."

"In 1994, that plant was placed on the National Priorities List for immediate remediation. Nearly 2 years ago, radioactive ooze was found leaking from the ground just off site. Last year your group developed a comprehensive plan to step up remediation, that should have started nearly 7 years ago."

"That's the way things are."

"Well, it shouldn't be!"

 

 

Danny had been more than content to watch the show on the steps of the Department of Energy. He didn’t really mean to use the information that Toby had dropped in his lap about Sam's meeting with the DOE. No one would necessarily believe him if he said so, but he was prepared to deal with that. He had left the White House to get a change of clothes and a quick shower, check in with his editor and any messages he had waiting for him at the Post, and then maybe grab a bagel and some coffee and maybe just happen by Independence Avenue to see what was up.

A piss-poor excuse, but one nonetheless, and he was going to stick by it if pressed by Toby.

When Sam started to throw his arms about in a drunken dance up and down the stairs, Danny got a little worried. When Sam stepped into whats-his-name's face, Danny was mildly concerned. When Sam started yelling at the top of his lungs, Danny decided he needed to step in. A Senior Staff member making a scene on the stairs of the Department of Energy was not something the White House would want to deal with, and C.J. would probably thank him for stopping it before things got ugly.

Then again, C.J. might just decide to hang him by his innards from the light fixtures in the Press Room for hounding down a story.

Well, he always was one for living life on the wild side.

Whats-his-face looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel. "That's the way things are."

Sam was nearly on top of the man when he bellowed, "Well, it shouldn't be!"

Danny bounded up the stairs and collared Sam in what he hoped would appear to be a friendly gesture, but would definitely keep Sam from decking the guy standing in front of him. "Sam, buddy, long time no see."

The scarlet flush to Sam's face started to fade. "Danny? What are you doing here?"

Whats-his-name took the opportunity to high tail it out of the area. Danny steered Sam away from the retreating form, back up the stairs to snag the wayward briefcase, and down to the street. He pulled a half-pint of orange juice from one coat pocket and toasted but slightly cooled bagel egg and cream cheese sandwich from the other. "Here, have some breakfast."

Sam took the food willingly. "What are you doing here?" he asked again around a mouthful of bagel and egg.

"I was in the neighborhood."

"I don’t believe that for a minute."

"That's my story and I'm sticking to it. No luck with the DOE, huh?"

"How did you know I was talking with the DOE?"

"Uh, Sam--" Danny pointed at the sign on the sidewalk that said Department of Energy.

"Right." Sam seemed to be concentrating a little too hard on his bagel. "I'm not really at my best right now."

"Yeah, I hear that head cold is a hum-dinger. You taking anything for it?"

"Yeah, these blue things that make me a little loopy."

"Let's get you back to the White House before they send out a search party."

"Okay."

 

The West Wing

8:45 am EST

Autopilot was a wonderful thing. C.J. had decided that if she stopped long enough to start thinking about what she should be doing, she'd drop from exhaustion. Her head felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds alone. She was about up to her eyeballs in statistics and casualty reports and her last nerve had been spent going over the 9 am speech with an equally cranky President. And if another person said she looked awful, she was going to scream.

She literally bounced off of Sam and had almost walked into the wall before she realized he was exactly who she was looking for. "Where the hell have you been?"

"At the DOE offices. Where the hell else would I be?"

"I don’t know." She punched him in the upper arm.

"Ow. What did you do that for?"

"For giving me your cold." She hit him again.

"Now what was that for?"

"Just because."

"I'm going to my office if you want to hit me again," Sam said, swinging his briefcase in that general direction.

C.J. started moving towards her office without turning around and bumped into another warm body. "What is this, Union Station?"

"Nope. Union Station is about 10 blocks that-a-way."

C.J. stepped back and blew her hair out of her eyes. Danny was standing in the middle of the hallway, hands stuffed in his overcoat and an impish smile on his face. "Be nice to me and maybe I'll get you a bagel and orange juice too."

"What?"

"Nothing."

"Did you walk in with Sam? I thought Toby told you that was off the record."

"I did walk in with Sam, and yes, Toby did say it was off the record. I just happened to come along just before Sam pummeled some poor guy on the steps of the DOE. Someone should watch his caffeine intake, or at least beat Josh's influence out of him. One bull dog is enough for this administration."

C.J. chose to ignore Danny's attempt to change the subject. "And what were you doing at the DOE?"

"Looking for breakfast companionship?" C.J. scowled at him. "Well, if I had asked you, you would have turned me down, and no company at breakfast causes indigestion."

"I'm not going to ask you again."

"Good, 'cause I'm running out of excuses."

"Danny--"

"Did it ever occur to you that maybe I was chasing down a lead to another, completely unrelated story?"

C.J. snorted. "Let's try this again. Were you or were you not at the DOE trying to get a story out of Sam?"

"I was not."

"Fine. Get out of my way, I have to get ready for the next briefing."

Danny stepped aside, sweeping his hand out in a grand gesture. "After you."

 

============================================================================

Memphis, Tennessee

7:57 am CST

Abbey tucked her hands under the arms of her coat and slowly walked towards one of the medical tents that had become almost a second home. The three hour nap Anna had forced her to take had done wonders for her temper. Talking with Jed before she fell asleep certainly helped her mood as well. She hadn't been this exhausted since her days as a resident. At least those had been spent inside a building, not outside freezing her fanny off.

The American Red Cross truck had been a welcome sight when she emerged from the main house. There would be more volunteers. The people that had been triaged as non-emergent cases could be seen to properly. Semi-permanent structures had been set up for the more serious cases, the ones that might require surgery to fix. Grinding generators added to general noise, but it welcome to her ears. It wasn't the best of all worlds, but it was definitely better than nothing.

The media had finally joined the zoo as well. Abbey counted at least three major affiliate trucks and a handful of others littered through the park. There was a bank of televisions next to one of the trucks. A crowd of people had gathered them. From the look of the screens, there was going to be a press conference. She recognized the podium with its Presidential seal as the one from the Press Room in the White House.

As Abbey joined the crowd, she recognized some of the people she had worked through the night with. One nodded, and handed her a cup of hot cocoa. "Here, this should warm you up a bit."

"Thank you, Rob. This should hit the spot. What's all the hub-bub about?"

"The President is going to speak."

"This should be interesting."

"I saw him once," Rob said, regaining his position in the crowd and dragging Abbey with him. "It was a campaign speech in Illinois, prior to the election. He was visiting my college campus. I even shook his hand as he left. Did you know his wife is a doctor?"

"You don’t say."

There was a commotion on the television screens. All of them switched from shots of the anchors to various angles of the Press Briefing Room. Abbey watched as C.J. climbed up behind the podium, and winced at the Press Secretary's appearance. Apparently Sam wasn't the only one with a cold.

"Good morning, everyone. Before I introduce the President, I have more details for you concerning the events that have occurred in the Mississippi Valley.

"Approximately seven and a half hours ago, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck near Paducah, Kentucky. Two hours after that, there was a second earthquake near Caruthersville, Missouri. The US Geological Survey has said that the second earthquake was an aftershock of the Paducah earthquake. Seismologists estimate that there could be hundreds of small magnitude aftershocks in the region over the next few months. As of 8:50 am eastern standard time, 156 aftershocks have been recorded by the seismograph station at Texas A&M University.

"Heavy damages were sustained in a southern Illinois, northeast Arkansas, southeastern Missouri, northwest Mississippi and eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Many small towns along the Tennessee and Ohio rivers were destroyed by floods. Many other areas are under 2 to 3 feet of water. Fires have broken out in many industrial and residential areas within the damage zone. National Guard and Reserve units have been recruited to help, but in many cases the only course of action is to let the fires burn themselves out.

"The American Red Cross and other voluntary organizations including Habitat for Humanity are pitching in with the relief effort to help build temporary shelters within the damage zone. Many corporate organizations -- Dole, Anheuser-Busch, General Mills, Ford Motor Company and Dow Chemical to name a few-- have offered donations of time and resources to the relief effort.

"We still do not have a complete accounting of casualties. As of 8:55 am eastern standard time, there have been 256 reported deaths; 3,214 reported injuries. These numbers will undoubtedly change as the day continues, as rescue teams can reach the areas most severely effected by the earthquake.

"In just a few minutes, the President of the United States will speak. I want to remind you that there will be no questions after his speech."

Abbey watched as C.J. turned to the side of the room. A camera panned to catch Jed's entrance. She caught a glimpse of Josh, Sam, Toby and Leo standing along the wall. C.J. stepped back as Jed took the podium. He did not look as if he had been up since 2:30 in the morning, but then again, he could always hide his fatigue well. At least physically he could hide it. But she knew he would not be able to keep the exhaustion out of his voice.

"This morning, I had a rude awakening. I was shaken from a sound sleep, disturbed to find that the world as I know it was not the same as it was when I had gone to bed. However, I was safe and sound here in the Residence. Some of our friends and neighbors, family members and distant relatives, were not so lucky.

"I am New England born and bred. I have survived record snowfalls and debilitating ice storms, fuel shortages and two girls with the chicken pox at the same time. I do not pretend to know what is must be like to have your home shake from under your very feet, to feel the ground roll and rumble like waves on an ocean. I do not pretend to understand the misery you must be going through, but I will say that you are in our prayers. I ask the rest of the country to join with me as we pray for those affected by the earthquake."

There was a moment of silence. Jed bowed his head. Flashbulbs went off in a flurry. Even the crowd around her was quiet. It was a surreal sensation to be in a sea of calm for just a few brief moments.

"I am declaring those states most affected federal disaster areas. We will be sending aid to these areas until aid is no longer required. I want to thank everyone who has already come forward to assist in the time of great need. To the all the volunteers, you have the heartfelt gratitude of a grateful nation. It takes courage to come out of anonymity to help someone less fortunate. Your efforts are acknowledged here.

"There was no way we could have stopped this. I have talked with experts in the field, and they can make no assurances that it will never happen again. However, we can be better prepared. The lion's share of appropriations for earthquake preparedness goes to states like California, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, where earthquakes are expected and common. It is not ignorance on our part for neglecting the rest of the United States, but naivete. Many have thought that because they do not live on the West Coast, they are not susceptible to earth shattering forces. This morning should be a warning to all of us that we should never underestimate Mother Nature.

"Let this be a wake up call, and pray that it will be the only one we need."

The flashbulbs started flashing again as Jed looked over to C.J. as his signal he was finished. Despite the fact that C.J. had said there would be no questions, the Press Corps still shouted to get his attention. Jed was never one to turn down a proffered hand, an asked question. Never had, never will. Jed was a Press Secretary's nightmare when it came to keeping his mouth shut.

"Mr. President! Mr. President!"

"Mr. President, if your wife is listening, what would you say to her?"

Abbey recognized Danny Concannon's voice. The entire room stopped shouting the minute Jed paused on the stand. She watched C.J. scowl ever so slightly. Whenever Jed was asked a question about the welfare of his family, nothing sort of a bolt of lightning shorting out all power to the White House would keep him from answering, and C.J. would be powerless to keep him moving along to Oval Office. Abbey had a feeling that a certain reporter was going to be in the doghouse again.

Jed stepped back to the podium, found the television camera focused on him, and said very plainly, "Abbey, I'm coming to get you. It's time to come home."

If the camera flashes had been subdued before, now the television screen was a blinding array of lightning. C.J. touched his shoulder and pointed him towards the Press Room door. Abbey watched as the camera followed him and the rest of the Senior Staff out of the room.

It wasn't until Rob touched her elbow that she realized that her hand was tightly clenched near her chin. A few tears fell from her eyes before she could stop them. She smiled at her companion. The look of astonishment on his face was just too precious to let go unnoticed.

"You're that Abbey, aren't you?" he asked. She nodded, laughing. She caught sight of the head of her secret service detail. He was beckoning her back towards the house. "I'm so sorry, I didn't recognize you."

"Pfff, we were never properly introduced. I can forgive you that little indiscretion. If you'll excuse, my monkey squad is looking for me."

"Monkey squad?"

Abbey leaned over in a conspiratorial whisper, pointing at the growing number of secret service and staff entourage that had gathered behind the crowd. "Don’t tell them I call them that. I'd never hear the end of it." The horrified look on his face made her laugh even harder.

Lilly met her along the way towards the house. She took Abbey's arm as they walked. "You called us your monkey squad again, didn't you?"

"Now, why would you say something like that?"

"Because that young man has the same look Sam Seaborn gets whenever you start telling nun jokes. I've never seen the man so mortified as when you referred to the principal of your high school as Attilla the Nun."

"Oh, come on, that was funny."

"You're Catholic."

"So."

"Your husband was going to be a priest."

"Until I stole Mother Bartlet's little boy from the Church. What's your point?"

"Isn't it… irreverent, or something?"

"Nah. Only Catholics can tell those jokes well. I am assuming we're going for a little trip?"

Lilly pointed at the fleet of black cars and SUV's near the house. "Most of the roads have been cleared. The Memphis airport is still a mess, Air Force One will never be able to land there. Marine One will meet us one of the auxiliary run ways. We'll be making a few stops for refueling, but we should be home before dinner."

"Well, then, let's pay our respects to Anna and get this show on the road. Must not keep my husband waiting too much longer."

 

 

The White House

9:30 am EST

Jed Bartlet was tired of arguing, tired of debating, tired of being told he could not do this, that and every other thing he wanted to do. It had been a hard, but won, fight to get Ron Butterfield to let him leave the White House to pick up his wife. Despite the dangers of the quake zone, despite the conditions of the runways and airports and roads and everything else separating him from his wife, Bartlet was determined to be there when she got on the plane, or in this case, the helicopter. He wanted to leave within the half hour.

His staff was standing in front of his desk, and he could have sworn they were all standing at attention. "Will you all sit down before you fall down, please." One by one they found places on the couches and in the chairs. He knew they were exhausted; he wasn't going to rest until Abbey was in the Residence. His staff would not leave until they had to, or were ordered to. He intended to do just that.

"Leo, do we have anything else we have to do?"

"Nothing pressing, Mr. President. Go get Abbey. We can handle things here."

"You will all call it an early day. Sam, get someone to drive you home. I don't want to see you until you stop sneezing. The same goes for you too, C.J. You both look like hell. Leo, I know you'll never leave so I won't bother telling you what to do. Toby, -- hell, I don't care, Toby, be you. Josh, why don't you come with me. I want to bounce some ideas off you about how we will deal with the aftermath of this."

There was a chorus of "Yes, sirs" before he dismissed them. Leo stayed behind.

"Anything I should worry about?" Bartlet asked.

"Nah, we've got it covered. I'll get that new guy to cover for C.J. at the press briefings."

"What guy?"

"The guy. The guy she promoted to Deputy Press Secretary."

"C.J. promoted somebody?"

"Yeah, a couple of months ago."

"Why didn't I know about it?"

"You knew about it. We had a meeting."

"We had a meeting?"

"Mr. President--"

"We can't just keep calling him 'that guy.' Someone's going to notice that we don't know his name."

"I know his name."

"You do not."

"Mr. President--"

"Leo--"

"I see you're in a better mood."

"I'm about to sweep in and rescue my wife. Why wouldn't I be in a good mood?"

"We're going to have a lot of work to do when you get back."

"And we'll save it for when I get back. Don't let the country fall to pieces while I'm gone."

"I'll try not to, sir."

 

============================================================================

The White House

10:15 am EST

If it would have been possible, C.J. was sure that steam would have been pouring from her ears at that point. If she had been in a better mood, she would feel sorry for the poor parking lot attendant: he didn't deserve to be in the path of her neverending battle with her so-called car, but he was the nearest body in firing range, and she was sure her image was tarnished after the string of obscenities that she threw at no one in particular. She was still mumbling them as she walked back into the West Wing, only to be caught by Mrs. Landingham in the hallway. C.J. was still mumbling, only network censors would not have to bleep every other word.

Toby was standing in the doorway to his bullpen watching with an amused face. C.J. sneered at him as she passed him on the way to her office. He looked as if he was going to say something. She stopped, holding her hand as if she wanted to tell him off and it was taking all of her control not to say something she might regret later.

"C.J."

"Shut up." She stalked towards her office. Toby chose to follow her.

"I predict you won’t be getting any cookies from Mrs. Landingham for a long time."

"Shut up." C.J. nearly managed to get into her office without running into anything.

"Let me guess," Toby said, leaning against Carol's desk, "you're having problems with your car. Again."

C.J. turned in the threshold, took one step back, and slammed the door in response.

Toby turned to Carol. "I suspect you will be asked to find a mechanic."

"What do you think went wrong this time?"

"Well, it was the radiator last spring, the alternator in June and the brakes last September. There isn't much else that can go wrong."

"Battery, fuel pump, fan belt--"

"Thank you, Car Talk."

"CAROL!" they heard C.J. yell from her office, "get me the number of that guy on the street near-- near… oh, hell, nevermind. I'll just let it rust where it is."

There was a minor crash in C.J.'s office. Neither Toby nor Carol seemed too concerned. "Chair or C.J.?" Toby asked, peering at the door.

"C.J. tripped over her bag and onto the couch."

"And you know this how?"

"See for yourself."

Toby stood up and opened the door. Sure enough, the contents of C.J.'s bag were spilled on the floor in front of her desk. C.J. was sprawled on the couch. She had managed to wrap a throw around her shoulders and head. The upper half of her body was draped over the arm of the couch. Her legs were twisted around each other and spilled over the side.

"Don't you think that you'll be more comfortable in a more… I don't know, human position, instead of looking like a rejected Barbie doll."

The jumble on the couch replied, "I'm going to ignore the Barbie doll remark and let you leave with your head intact, but only if you leave right now. CAROL! You are so fired for letting him in here."

"Promises, promises," Carol replied from her desk.

"I told you that car was a piece of crap," Toby said.

"I told you to leave."

"C.J., can you at least sit up and take the blanket off your head."

Reluctantly, she pulled herself into a seated position and let the blanket fall into her lap. Static had caused some strands of hair to defy gravity. "I just want to go home, and my stupid car won't start. It's a conspiracy, I swear to god."

"It could be worse."

"How?"

"You could have been asked to accompany the President to Memphis."

"That would be just mean."

"Get someone from the motor pool drive you home."

"I hate the motor pool. I always get stuck in some car where my knees are stuffed up under my chin, or the door doesn’t work, or the heat is on the fritz. I would rather stay here and whine, thank you very much."

"What did you do, or not do, to your car that it won't start?"

"Why do you assume that this is my fault?"

"Just because. That's what I do. I assign blame."

"You're a riot, you know that. I think my car requires a sacrifice. Know any small children?"

"Does Sam count?"

"He'll have to do. He's the one that gave me this cold."

There was a knock on the door. C.J. rolled her head along the back of the couch to look at the door and groaned quietly when she saw Danny stick his head in. His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his coat, much the same as when she had seen him before the press briefing 90 minutes ago. "It's not that cold in the White House, Poindexter. Why do you still have your coat on?"

"You call me names like Nimrod and Poindexter and you expect me to feel welcome enough to take my jacket off and stay awhile?"

"What do you want, Danny?"

"Leave Sam alone. He got the cold from a group of fourth graders."

"Mallory's fourth graders?" C.J. asked.

Danny shrugged as if he didn't know.

"This is where I exit, stage left. I don’t want to know anything more of Sam and Mallory than I have to, since then I may feel obliged to listen to Sam when he starts to wax poetic. If you will excuse me," Toby said, slipping past Danny. "If you still need a ride home, stop by my office later."

Danny took another step into the room, slowly meandering his way to the goldfish bowl on her desk. He tapped the side of the bowl and the fish swam over to his fingers. "Taking care of my fish?"

C.J. closed her eyes and drew the throw up over her shoulders again. "My fish," she mumbled into the covers. "I feed her, I change her water, I take her for walks."

"You take her for walks?"

"Between here and the ladies' room. Where else am I going to change the water?"

"And if Gail were a guy?" Danny sat down on the couch next to her.

"Why am I having this conversation with you? And who gave you permission to sit on my couch?"

"Gail did. You're looking rather peaked."

"Your expert opinion means so much to me," she replied sarcastically.

"I also hear you’re having problems with your car."

C.J. giggled drowsily. "CAROL! You are SO really fired."

"Give up, C.J.," Carol called from her desk again. "I called one of the White House garage guys. He'll look at your car."

"Okay, you’re not fired."

"Go home with Danny," Carol called.

"Carol?!?"

"I meant, have him drive you home."

Danny sat forward and faced C.J. "Yeah, get your mind out of the gutter."

C.J. opened one eye, looked evilly at the man sitting next to her, and hissed at him.

"My, my, such language, and in front of the fish. That's it, to bed with no supper."

"I really don’t like where any of these conversations are going, or implying for that matter," C.J. said.

"Get your stuff. The Concannon Caravan is on the move. I offered Sam a ride already. I can make two stops as easily as one."

"C.J., go home!" Carol yelled.

"This is a conspiracy. The world is out to get me," C.J. muttered, rolling off the couch.

"Stop being paranoid."

"It's not paranoia when they really are out to get you," she replied. She knelt down to pick up the spilled contents of her bag.

Danny grabbed her shoulders and stood her up on her feet. "Leave everything but your keys. No work for you. You know you're not going to do it anyway, so why bother kidding yourself by bringing it home."

"I am not paranoid," she said, shrugging Danny away and closing the front of her coat.

"C'mon, let's go." Danny steered her through the door. "Carol, I'll make sure she gets in her jammies."

"You most certainly will not! You will drop me a block away from my apartment."

"And that she gets into bed."

"What did I just say? Stop ignoring me. No, wait, I didn't just say that. I didn't say anything. Oh, dear god, help me." C.J. sneezed.

"Goodbye, C.J.," Carol called.

 

 

Memphis Airport

12:23 pm CST

The most enjoyable thing next to riding in Air Force One was riding in Marine One, Bartlet had decided long ago. The helicopter was by no means as quiet as riding in the plane, but it was a hell of a lot more convenient in situations like this.

From the air he could see the row of black vehicles on the disrupted tarmac. While they circled, he was able to catch a glimpse of the damage in the wake of the earthquakes that had struck the area. Smoke lay heavy on the horizon. Fires still raged in many parts of the city. Many buildings had been destroyed. Until he saw it up close and personal, the earthquake had not yet affected him. The thought of his wife being here in the midst of this sort of destruction frightened him to the core.

One of the flight crew opened the door from the inside. Ron Butterfield stepped out first to converse with the members of the First Lady's detail. There was a lot of arm waving and talk on the radios. It was an agonizing wait for the all-clear to be called. Bartlet looked at the man sleeping in the chair across from him. Josh had fallen asleep soon after take-off, just as he had hoped Josh would. He could never order Josh to go home and rest; however, like each of his daughters, a little trip was the fastest way to get them to sleep.

Finally, Ron motioned that he could leave the helicopter. Stampeding herds of buffalo could not have kept him in the helicopter. He stepped down the stairs and spotted Abbey across the tarmac. He refrained from running; that wouldn't look at all presidential.

Abbey looked calm, cool and collected as she walked towards the helicopter. As she neared, she pulled off the ball cap that had kept her hair out of her eyes for most of the night and handed it to Lilly Mays. She was wearing one of his sweatshirts, and the knees of her jeans were muddied, but she never looked more lovely to him.

He held her hands tightly when they finally met, touched his forehead to hers.

"It’s about time you got here," she said softly.

"Well, you know, they wouldn't let me break any of the speed limits."

"There are speed limits in the air?"

"Yeah, the speed of sound, speed of light."

"What good is being President if you can't flaunt a few of the rules, right? Who really cares if they are natural laws of the universe."

"Are you ready to come home?"

"You betcha."

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