It was her silent affirmations that kept her from going completely insane. They gurgled like a mantra, 'It will be okay. I didn't do anything wrong.'
JJ rose from the breakfast table. "Are you going to be okay?" He looked concerned but dour. He didn't understand. Nobody that wasn't there could understand. "I can take time off…if you want …."
She felt fragile but Abbie shook her head. "I'll be all right."
She walked him to the door. He pecked her good-bye. "Call if you need anything."
"Okay." If she kept her eyes at a certain angle, trees blocked the sky. Abbie couldn't see anything flying up there. Waving good-bye, she gingerly, tightly closed the door.
She still felt numb. The black SUV pulled to a stop. One of the men opened the door for her. Getting out, Abbie looked up. White cranes filled the sky. The SUV drove off with an increasing rumble of power.
Were the cranes real? They must have followed her here, if they were real. Watching them, Abbie tried careful steps up her walk. Were they coming after her? Darting quick glances toward them, she tried to see if they were after her and almost tripped and fell. This wasn't fair. 'I didn't do anything wrong.' The cranes dove toward her. Arms over her head, she ran. "Help. Help."
"White cranes," the man on the left said. "They're white cranes."
Everyone looked at him. He smiled. "My sister is a peace activist. She went to Hiroshima to observe the anniversary of the bombing. They gave her a lei made of folded paper cranes. It's their symbol."
"We know all about the cranes," the President snapped.
General Clough looked startled. "Thank you, everyone. Your country owes you a debt of gratitude. You'll now be returned to your homes. As mentioned at the beginning – "
"Wait a minute," Jeff snapped. "There wasn't any war, was there? We were an experiment." He looked at the rest. "See? They wanted to see – "
"Thank you," Clough said very firmly.
Eyes wide, Jeff looked around. "What the hell was that?"
"What was what?" another said. "Something happen to you? Did you see something?"
Abbie's eyes widened. That sounded like the President.
"This is the President," the voice said. "Tell us what happened to you."
Fist spasming closed, Jeff flicked his tongue over his lips. "I pressed the 'Go' button, sir. Then it was like…."
"A bird," the black woman said.
"Yes, a white bird." Abbie nodded through a daze. "A white bird flew into me. Then…." She swallowed.
"Go on," Clough said.
Abbie shook her head.
"Anyone," Clough said. "Did anyone – "
"You all saw it, didn't you?" the President said. "She said it. A white bird flew into you."
"It was a crane," another man said. "I think it was a white crane."
"Yes," an anonymous person whispered. "Yes."
"And then…I was, like…I was there." Squeezing an index finger with his other hand, Jeff looked around with the wild eyed shock of someone trying to deny and understand what was going on. "I was in…Hiroshima."
"Yes," someone said. "Me, too."
Others brokenly murmured agreement.
"So was I," Abbie said, keeping her voice to a whisper, not trusting it for anything louder.
Jeff loudly gulped. "So…did we...did we launch?"
Clough stared at him.
"No," the President said. "You didn't." Strained edged his tone. "It's the same when we try to – to launch. White birds…fly into people's heads…their…minds…and they – and then they – think – they're in Japan, and the nukes – the wea – weapons – won't launch."
"Cranes," a man on the far left end said.
Abbie pushed Go.
A white bird flew at her. Screaming and falling back, she flailed at it. White light filled her.
She was standing in an arena of destruction. She realized she'd been passed out. The smell…. She covered her nose and mouth but it insinuated itself into her pores. What happened? Where was everyone? Everything…made of wood…was gone. Her school lacked windows and leaned to the left. Half its roof was gone. All the trees were gone. Debris littered the ground. Her friends were gone. Her sister was gone.
She stumbled over broken cement and roof tiles. Twisted and black…like thick bent wires…were everywhere. Slowing, she gazed at several. They were people.
They were people.
Holding her abdomen, she breathed through her mouth and then clamped her hand over it. Where was her mother? She ran along the river looking for her house. It was gone except for a stone stoop. A blackened person laid on it on their back, hands clawing the sky.
She could not tell. The person's clothing and skin were blackened. She couldn't tell where they ended and began. The person's lips and lower jaw were gone. A gold tooth was visible. Her mother had a gold tooth. "Mama?"
Grimacing against the smell, she crept closer. "Mama?" She was sure it was her. There was garbage on her mother's cheek. Going to wipe it away, she realized it was her mother's eye.
Her mother was shaking. Words came out. Abbie bent to hear –
But she wasn't Abbie. Shuddering with insight, she was a young Japanese girl in Hiroshima. This wasn't right, it couldn't be real.
"I didn't do anything wrong," her mother said.
Abbie jerked upright.
"Everyone has voted," Clough said. "Thank you for your time."
"What a minute," Jeff said. "What the hell was that?"
"Jesus." Sitting back, Jeff wiped his brow. "It's the old doomsday scenario." Grinning a madman's glint, he looked at his fellow participants. "See what I'm saying?"
Stillness reigned. Licking his lips, he laughed into a dry cough. "Christ. Is it me or is it suddenly hot in here?"
"It's definitely hot in here," the black woman said. "I know I'm sweating like a pig."
Abbie shook her head. "I can't do this."
"I'm sorry but you must," Clough said. "All terminals must register a vote or no vote will be registered for the group. But don't worry. You might have a blank vote."
Jeff laughed. "That's reassuring. I feel better now. So who is it we're thinking about nuking? Do we get to know? Is it Russia?"
"It's Pakistan." A map of the Middle East came up alongside Clough. "The United Nations Security Council issued an ultimatum to Iran to disarm their nuclear weapons. If they do not, a multi-national coalition led by the United States will enter and disarm it by whatever means are necessary."
"Damn right." Staring at the map, Jeff gave a curt nod. "Damn right."
"Our intelligence shows that the Pakistani government has decided to support Iran," Clough said. "They are preparing to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against coalition forces."
Jeff shook his head. "I knew we couldn't trust them. We can't trust any of them."
"Our military has proposed to the President that we act first," Clough said. "The President, after consultation with our allies, has agreed to the recommendation. We now put the decision to you."
"Pakistan? No problem." Smirking, Jeff pushed the Go button.
"What kind of nukes are we launching?" someone asked. "Shouldn't we know that?"
"You must use your right thumb and hold it in until you hear a beep," General Clough said.
"But who is Pakistan nuking?" the Hispanic asked. "Their weapons don't have the range to reach us, do they?"
"I don't think so," another said.
"No," Clough said. Symbols blossomed on the display beside her. "They're planning to strike against our forward operating locations in the Middle East. Our intelligence indicates they will also strike Israel."
So it was the Jews against the Muslims, Abbie thought, with soldiers like her nephews dying. It just wasn't right.
But she could stop it.
Abbie pushed Go.
Silence fell. The computer screens at each position lit up with a red button on the left and a green button on the right. Above the red button said, 'Go' while it said, 'No Go' above the green button.
"Aren't these backwards?" Jeff asked.
Abbie nodded. "That's what I thought. They're backwards. It's confusing. Green should be go. Like a stoplight. Does go mean we're using nuclear weapons?"
"Yes," General Clough said. "We're going to present the current geopolitical military situation to you. You will then each decide whether to deploy and use nuclear weapons – or not. However, three of you have a blank button. That is, your vote will not register, no matter what you choose."
"Like blanks in a firing squad," someone said. "They give one person blanks so they won't feel guilty about executing someone."
Clough nodded. "Exactly."
"So eleven votes count?" Jeff asked.
"Yes," Clough said.
"And the majority rules," the black woman said.
Clough nodded. "Correct."
"When do we have to decide?" the old woman asked.
Clough pointed to A Hour. "This is when you must decide. After that, it's too late."
"Why?" the Hispanic asked.
"I'm guessing it's probably because someone else will…nuke us by then," Jeff said.
"Yes," Clough said.
"Jesus." Jeff wiped his brow. "It's the old doomsday scenario."
The display up front bloomed small print. Thin screens emerged from the table before the participants.
"I can't read that," an older white woman with brown wavy hair said. "I'm sorry. I don't have my glasses. I wasn't given a chance to bring them."
Clough glanced at her. "In front of you is a computer screen. In the upper right hand corner is an icon resembling an eye. Please find that eye on your screen and look into it with your right eye until you see three green letters aligned."
"What if you don't have a right eye?" Jeff asked with guttural chuckle.
Deciding she didn't like him, Abbie refused to show an expression. Her annoyance growing, Abbie peered into her screen's eye and found green 'D E R'. Her screen pinged.
"Look at it until you hear a ping," General Clough said. "This confirms your identity."
Jeff chortled. "You don't already know? What kind of chickenshit organization is this?"
Just shut up, Abbie thought. Her display filled with sentences.
"The same non-disclosure agreement that's on the screen beside me is now appearing on your individual computer screens," Clough said. "Please take a minute to read it at this time. You can scroll up and down by pressing your finger to the corresponding up and down arrows on your screen."
"Jesus, talk about legalese," Jeff said.
"I'm sorry, but I can't read this," far left man said.
"Nor me," wavy brown hair woman said. "As I said, I don't have my glasses."
The uniformed blonde hurried to her as Clough watched with approval.
"You can change your font size by pressing the capital 'A' on your screen," Clough said.
"The what?" the black woman said.
Clough looked at her. "Excuse me?"
"What can I change?"
"Your font size," Jeff said. "You can change your font size. Your letters."
"Oh, font." Black woman laughed. "I thought she said something else." She laughed more.
Abbie began reading. She hated documents like this. It was very sectioned, stiffly written in a bureaucratic style, like they use in insurance documents. They made her brain tired. JJ always took care of things like this.
"Once you read and understand the agreement, find the blank square on the lower right corner of your display and pass your right thumb against it until you hear a beep," Clough instructed. "That signifies you accept the agreement."
"What if we don't accept?" Jeff asked. "I mean, did you read this thing? It's a blank damn check. What if I don't want to agree?"
Clough smiled at him. "We'll incarcerate you."
Jeff stared. "You mean, you'll put us in jail."
Clough nodded once. "Yes."
"Why didn't you say that?"
Clough stared at him.
Sniffing, Jeff looked around and then asked, "For how long?"
"Until you sign," Clough replied.
"That's bullshit." Jeff looked around at the others for support. Abbie looked away when his head turned toward her. She agreed with him but she didn't want to encourage him to think he sided with her.
"It's the law," Clough said.
Abbie felt surprised. Jeff looked incredulous. "So if I don't sign this, you'll put me in jail until I do. On what charge?"
"Treason." Jeff shook his head. "Bullshit."
Black woman clapped her hands and laughed. As Abbie looked at her in alarm, the woman went on, "This is great."
Jeff glared at Clough. "This is America. I'm not a lawyer." His blunt finger puncuated statements on the desk. "But I know I have rights, basic rights. I studied them in high school and college. We all did. You can't just throw me in jail for no reason."
"He's right," the far left man said. "This is outrageous. Our government cannot simply lock us up for not agreeing to not say anything about what we don't know about."
"Amen," Jeff said. "Thank you, sir."
"Yes, how can they do that?" wavy dark haired woman asked. "I don't understand."
"Congress wrote it into the law," Clough said. "I can provide copies on your computer screen if you want to read it."
A hubbub rose. Clough turned her head. Abbie realized she was listening to an earpiece. She gazed around the room. Someone was probably watching and recording all of this.
The general nodded once. Abbie's computer screen blanked.
"We're going to dispense with the agreement for now," Clough said. "And get right into why you're here."
"Right on," Jeff said. "It's about damn time," but the black woman said drily, "So it doesn't matter if we agree," and the wavy dark haired woman said plaintively, "I don't understand."
Clough drew herself up as a document populated the individual computer screens. Not more, Abbie said, closing her eyes against burnt weariness.
"If you'll permit me to explain," Clough said. "Several years ago, Congress passed and the President signed into law the Warfare Conscience Act."
"Never heard of it," several said. Abbie hadn't heard of it but she didn't follow much politics. As JJ said, they were all a bunch of crooks. There wasn't anyone in Washington DC that they could trust.
"The what?" far left man asked. Everyone leaned forward in concentration to hear Clough.
"Warfare Conscience Act," Clough said. "The act recognized that the burden to use nuclear weapons should be decided by the people."
"Wait a minute." Jeff looked aggrieved. "Are you telling me we're here to decide if we're going to use nukes?"
"Yes," General Clough said. "That's what I'm telling you."
"Excuse me for being stupid," Jeff said. "Isn't that what we elect the President and Congress to do?" He looked around with a quick guffaw. "I mean, isn't that we pay those people for, to make laws and decisions like this?"
"Yes, and this is the mechanism they created to make such decisions," Clough answered. "The morality involved with using nuclear weapons is too great a responsibility to levy on one person or group."
"But that's what you're doing with us," the black woman said.
"I will repeat myself." Jeff looked around. "This is bullshit."
"I agree," wavy dark hair woman said.
"Me, too," black woman and far left man said.
"This is the law," Clough said over the chorus. "There are fourteen of you." She waited for silence. "There are fourteen of you. You were randomly chosen from the voter registration rolls."
Abbie blinked into awareness. She was walking. She'd been walking. Marines escorted her. Six, she counted, including a major beside her. All carried black, sinister appearing weapons. Abbie knew it was a major because the woman had introduced herself before, a distant voice at a distant time. Abbie didn't think she'd been in her body when it happened. That's how it seemed. As she strung together impressions and recollections, she realized she'd been kidnapped. Wrong word to use, she wasn't a child. She'd been abducted. "Where are you taking me?" she asked. How had she come to be here, walking. They must have drugged her. "Why am I here? What's going on?"
Her escorts said nothing. Abbie seethed at herself. If she was a stronger person, she would stop now and demand to know what was going on. Her anger grew with every step. Their synchronized footfalls on the polished tile floor impelled her forward.
They stopped as the long and frigidly silent corridors ended at an elevator. Three red signs were arrayed across the green wall. The first said, 'All personnel in this facility are subject to search.' Another said, 'Warning: deadly force authorized.' The third noted, 'This facility is under twenty-four hour surveillance.' All cited laws underneath them.
The elevator buttons were numbered to twenty-two but the highest numbers were on the bottom. Beside them were three and four letter labels. The major pressed twenty. They group entered the elevator. It was quite large, easily fitting them. The elevator rushed down with an express hiss….
Its doors opened to a mezzanine. 'Global Warfare Operations Center' white block letters on black proclaimed. 'DEFCON 2' said another sign while a companion said, 'THREATCON DELTA'.
Below were glassed enclosed rooms. Uniformed people behind long consoles faced large displays. Nations and continents were outlined in vibrant colors. Secret, Top Secret, and Confidential were emblazoned everywhere. Marching clocks clogged walls.
Five of Abbie's escort moved off, coordinated in frightening martial silence. "This way, Missus Pilgrim," the major said, turning another way.
"Where are we going?" Abbie asked. She had a small voice. She hated it now. It sounded so weak. "Where are we?" Deciding not to go further, she stopped.
The major looked at her. "If you come this way, we'll explain why you're here." She had a softly persuasive and confident voice, like JJ, but female. "You're not going to be harmed. We'll take you home soon."
Abbie thought back to what had been going on. "I was going to pick up my children."
"Yes, your children have been taken care of."
There must have been a war, Abbie thought. She had not seen so many military people outside of movies. "Are my children okay?"
"They are. I can't tell you anything more. Your children are okay, your husband is fine, we just need your help, if you'll follow me. Please."
It was the please that convinced Abbie. She followed the major left. People at consoles watched her passage.
The major stopped at a door. "In here."
Abbie stepped past her. Left a gleaming table fronted high back black executive chairs. Right, two podiums flanked a wall display. 'Top Secret' blazed in gold lit letters across the center above 'Silence Please' in red. Four clocks, labeled, 'GMT', 'A Hour', 'E Hour' and 'Time to next briefing' were aligned on the left. All but 'A Hour' ticked in synchronized red digits. A gold-fringed American flag on a staff saluted the corner.
The door closed. A young man in a black suit offered his hand. "Missus Pilgrim. Steven Bolt. This way, please."
He led her to the table. Others watched with disturbed, grim expressions. Individual features registered like ghosts on Abbie's periphery. A nameplate before an empty chair said, 'Abigal Pilgrim'.
"Here's your seat," Bolt said. "We start in a few minutes. Can I get you anything to drink? We have coffees, teas, soda, and of course, milk…there's a StarBucks if you care for a frap."
"No frap." Abbie sat. The cold cushion grumbled under her weight. "I want to leave."
Bolt smiled. "Don't worry. It's almost over. Just press this button – " He indicated a speaker unit with a clear button labeled, 'Talk' – "If you change your mind."
He pivoted away. Questions and protests died in Abbie. A woman beside her – older, black, disdainful and sporting lavender fingernails and a gazillion rings – watched from the left. Right was a white man with short black hair and a golfer's tan tucked into a white shirt, stripped tie and navy suit.
"Jeff Nicholson." He offered a hand. A large gold watch encircled his wrist. "Texas." He didn't sound Texan.
"Abbie Pilgrim." His hand was wetly soft when they shook. "Do you know why we're here?"
A blond uniformed woman glared from the front. "No talking, please."
Jeff shook his head. "No idea. I was getting in my car to go to work when these cars pulled up. Two guys in suits pointed guns at me and…." He shrugged with a dark, angry look. "Here I am."
Abbie nodded. "That's exactly what happened to me. I was going to pick up my children at school – "
"No talking," came from the front.
"What are you going to do to us?" Looking at Jeff and Abbie, the black woman laughed. "Haul us off? You've already scared the shit out of me. Nothing's left but bone."
The door opened. Everyone looked that way. A young Hispanic man entered. Bolt played usher again.
"And the table's set," Jeff said. As Abbie wondered what he meant, she realized that all the chairs were now occupied and he finished, "Let's deal these cards."
"Ladies and gentlemen, General Clough," the uniformed blond woman said.
Jeff laughed. "So?"
A tall uniformed person helmeted with short black hair strode in and up to the podium. "Hello, everyone. I'm General Clough." She had a doughy white face and no cosmetics. "First, thank you for your time and service."
"You're not welcome," Jeff said. "May we go now?"
"I know you have questions but bear with me until I finish this briefing," Clough continued. "This briefing is classified Top Secret. You may not discuss its contents with anyone. I need to have you affirm you understand this."
The display up front bloomed small print.
It was her silent affirmations that kept her from going completely insane. Everything was so hectic – and her mother and sisters weren't speaking with her that day. Thinking about it, Abbie wanted to scream.
She reached in to her silent affirmations. 'It will be okay. I didn't do anything wrong.' Just get through the day. It was just that there was so much pressure – picking up kids, buying groceries, paying bills, making dinner – the lists never ended. And she was late.
Glancing at her cell, she rushed to her car. It beeped unlocked as two black SUVs jerked to a halt at the end of the driveway. Men in sunglasses and suits leaped out and rushed toward her. "What – "
She wasn't really afraid – there wasn't anything to fear. 'I didn't do anything wrong.' A man raised a gun. A small pop followed. She grabbed her neck as people grabbed her shoulders. 'It will be….'
Her silent affirmations faded away.
Causes Michael Seidel Supports
Kiva, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Propublica.org, Doctors Without Borders, GreaterGood.com