In the dimly lit and smoke-filled basement of a Baltimore dive bar, three brooding men sit huddled around a plastic card table chaining drinks and talking in hushed whispers.
“Do you think it’s safe to discuss this here?” wonders the first man, Brigadier General Hugo Manning of the United States Army. He is an older man, his face riddled with deep lines and faint burn marks from the hot shell casings ejected by his M16 during Vietnam. His grey hair is fixed up in a desperate combover that does a laughable job of covering up his long-receded hairline. He is dressed in civilian clothes, a simple coat and slacks, but his posture and aura are distinctly military.
Senator Douglas Smith nods his head. “Not even those bastards in the CIA are crazy enough to wander this deep into Baltimore. They’d sooner follow us into Mogadishu.” He ashes his cigarette on the floor, ignoring the glass tray seven inches away from him. Senator Douglas Smith, Republican, North Carolina, has held his seat in the upper chamber for 18 years now, a glowing testament to the power of gerrymandering in a state that turns more blue by the hour. He is wearing the same clothes he wore to Capitol Hill earlier today: a nice suit, dress pants, and the striped red silk tie that his wife Darleen got him for his 52nd birthday last year.
Upton Anderson is not so sure. “I wouldn’t be so cocky,” he whispers, glancing over his shoulder at the basement stairs behind them. “Who knows what they’ve got bugged? They could’ve rammed a goddamned microphone up our own asses and we’d never know.” A successful businessman turned even more successful hedge fund manager, Upton Anderson is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on Wall Street. He made his first million at 25 by shorting anything related to the internet before the Dotcom implosion, and celebrated his first billion less than five years later.
Smith rolls his eyes. “Quit being so goddamned paranoid. I think I’d know if my ass was bugged.”
“You’d almost certainly wake up during the insertion process,” adds Manning. “I don’t think that particular fear is grounded in any sort of realistic threat.”
Anderson slams his fists on the table. “Oh, for God’s sake, I was just using an ass microphone as an example! I don’t actually think that we’ve got wiretaps crammed up there. I’m just making a point about how we need to not let our guard down. This is treason, after all.”
Smith pulls another cigarette out of his breast pocket and lights it with an American flag Zippo. “Treason? I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re on about. I’m simply exercising my God-given right to free assembly.”
“Last I checked there was no law that makes it illegal to talk about things,” says Manning. “That’s all we’re doing; talking.”
“I can’t tell if you two are being serious or not right now. Are you suggesting that if the NSA overheard three men of our positions discussing a coup d’etat that they wouldn’t immediately sound any alarms?”
Smith scoffs. “Have you ever been to DC? Treasonous talk is about as common in Congress as hookers and AIPAC lobbyists.”
“It’s even worse in the Pentagon,” says Manning. “At any given moment, there are at least five or six coups being plotted throughout the military. Hell, just last week we had to talk Westwood out of taking his carrier group rogue.”
“Westwood as in Admiral Westwood?”
“The same. The loony bat has been talking about going Red October for years now. He was planning to launch a ground invasion of Florida and then use it as a base of operations to conquer the rest of the Southeast.”
“Good God,” gasps Smith. “Of all the places he could attack, he picked Florida? Such a miserable state, hell I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington just let him have it. You think that was his reasoning?”
“It could have been, though I suppose the peninsula has some strategic value as well, given that he’d only have to worry about land-based attacks coming out of the North…”
“But what about an amphibious counterattack? Not even a stark-raving lunatic like Westwood could defend all that coastline. No, no, if I was going to try and conquer a state I think I’d pick something like Montana or New Mexico.”
“Montana? New Mexico?”
“Yeah, that way if my forces got overwhelmed we could retreat into Canada or actual Mexico. I’m planning ahead here.”
Manning laughs. “No, you’re planning for defeat. See Smith, this is why you’re a Senator and not a General like me.”
“I suppose. Still though, Florida. What a bizarre choice.”
“I don’t know, maybe he has family there or something.”
“What the fuck are you two on about?” demands Anderson. “Are we doing this or not?”
Manning waves him off. “Calm your goddamned horses, Upton, everything is going according to the plan.”
“So the device is functional then?”
“Mostly? What does that mean, mostly?”
“It means that it mostly works.”
“Jesus Christ Hugo, this thing was supposed to be operational months ago. You realize that I’ve been hemorrhaging money funding this goddamned project. The shareholders…”
Smith stops him. “Oh here we go, always with the goddamn shareholders. Fuck the shareholders. Once we’re running the show, you’ll have more money than you know what to do with. I can promise you that much.”
“I just don’t understand. Six months ago the technology was ninety-eight percent ready. Now you’re telling me that we still don’t have a green light? What gives?”
“How the hell should I know? I’m not a goddamned quantum physicist. Go ask the DARPA boys, they’re the ones who can’t seem to iron out those last few bugs.”
“What kind of bugs?”
“I don’t know… Apparently, the process is still very unstable. From what I can gather, right now the device works about eighty-five percent of the time.”
“And the other fifteen percent?”
“Not so much. You hear about how that Harvard lab got swallowed by a sinkhole last week?”
“Well let’s just say it wasn’t a sinkhole that it disappeared into.”
Smith pats Anderson on the shoulder. “Not to worry though, we didn’t lose anyone important during that run, just a couple of doctoral students. Our main brainpower is still hard at work getting this thing up and running. The DARPA boys will sort this all out.”
Manning nods. “Besides, you have to be impressed at the progress we’ve made so far. They made a whole goddamned physics labs vanish for God’s sake.”
“Do we know where it went?”
“Who cares? It’s gone now.”
Anderson sits back in his chair and motions Smith for a smoke. “I suppose that is true, even if it’s not technically what the Tunneler is supposed to do.”
“Jesus, there’s just no pleasing you is there? We’re here using your money to open up other dimensions and God-knows fuck all else and and you’re bitching about technicalities? This is uncharted territory Upton. We are pushing the goddamned limits of human knowledge here.”
“Alright, alright, calm down, fuck. I just don’t want to be kept out of the loop is all, okay? I feel out of the loop.”
“You’re not out of the loop. Manning, is he out of the loop?”
Manning stares at his empty bar glass, not listening. “I need another drink.”
“Is Upton out of the loop?”
“Out of the loop? I mean he’s here, isn’t he? If he was out of the loop he wouldn’t be here, now would he?”
“I suppose that is also true,” says Anderson.
“See?” says Smith. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”
“Okay, fine. Now can we please move onto more pressing matters?”
“You mean more drinks?”
“No! Well, yes, more drinks, but more pressing than that.”
“I fail to see what could be more pressing than more drinks.”
“Goddammit Manning, go get your fucking refill then and we’ll wait.”
Manning grins and stands up out of his seat. “Do you two want anything?”
“I want to get onto more pressing matters!” yells Anderson.
“I’ll take another another martini,” says Smith.
“You were uh, you were drinking Grey Goose, right? Dirty?”
“Oh, you whore.”
“Can we please?”
“Right, okay, be right back.” Manning turns and climbs up the steps to the bar.
“I don’t understand,” says Anderson, turning back towards Smith, who is lighting up another cigarette, his fifth.
“You don’t understand what?”
“I don’t understand how you two are so… Lackadaisical about this whole thing.”
“We’re not lackadaisical, Manning and I are just trying to keep things aloof is all. All this stress is bad for your health, Upton.”
“Well excuse me for not having your aloof approach to the plan. You do realize we are plotting to suck the President of the United States and his entire cabinet into a black hole, right?”
“That sounds like a gross oversimplification. Besides, the DARPA boys have assured me that the device isn’t capable of creating a black hole.”
“Really? Because it doesn’t sound like the DARPA boys really know what the device does at all.”
“Well that’s the genius of the device. Nobody actually knows what it does.”
“And that doesn’t alarm you?”
“Not really, no. Science is supposed to be an imperfect process.”
“Yeah, but like Manning said, this is uncharted territory. We really don’t know what we’re dealing with here.”
“Oh, quit being such a baby, Upton. Do you think Alexander Graham Bell had any goddamned idea what he was dealing with when he first heard Watson’s voice on the other end of the phone?”
“I feel like the invention of the telephone and the invention of the Dark Matter Tunneler might carry slightly different ramifications.”
“So you’re getting cold feet then, is that it?”
“No, I’m just saying…”
“Upton, remember, aloof.”
Anderson sighs. “Right, aloof.”
“Got the drinks!” says Manning as he walks back down the stairs. “Upton I know you said you didn’t want anything but I got you a Stella anyway. You like Stella, right?”
“Well I got you one anyway.”
“Whatever, fine. Can we please move forward with this meeting?”
“Yeah, sure, jeez.”
“Up next on the agenda…”
“Right, the transition. Smith, what are we doing for that again?”
Senator Smith shrugs. “I dunno. Manning, I thought you were handling that.”
“No, I’m handling the device, you were supposed to handle the transition.”
“Shit, I was supposed to be in charge of that, wasn’t I?”
Anderson runs his fingers through his $500 haircut. The product in his hair is starting to wane. “You’re telling me that neither of you have a plan for after we get rid of the President?”
Smith and Manning look at each other and then back at Anderson. “Not really,” says Smith. “I figured we would just think of something on the fly.”
“To be fair, how hard could it be?” adds Manning. “I mean shit, they just pulled off a coup in Turkey, and if the Turks can do it…”
“What are you talking about? That coup failed.”
Manning raises an eyebrow. “Did it though?”
“Look, who gives a shit about Turkey anyway? I’m not moving forward until we can agree on some sort of contingency plan for after we get rid of the President.”
“So dramatic,” says Smith.“Worst case scenario is we resort to using a junta until the situation calms down. Manning, you can get us a junta right?”
“I’ll have to ask around the Pentagon, but I’m sure I can rustle one up.”
Anderson buries his fading cigarette into the ashtray and shakes his head in disbelief. “A junta? You want a goddamned junta running the free world?”
“Well, it would only be temporary.”
“They said the same thing about Lenin. No, absolutely not.” Anderson takes a sip of his Stella and grimaces at the taste. “Here’s a thought, why don’t one of you two assume the oval office? This was all your idea anyway.”
“Don’t look at me,” says Smith. “I sure as hell don’t want to be President.”
“Well I don’t want to be the President either,” says Manning. “In fact I don’t know why anyone would want to be President. What if someone plots a coup against you?”
“Yeah, and then sucks you into a black hole,” adds Smith. “No thanks. We should find a lackey.”
“What about Admiral Westwood? I’m sure he’d be up for it.”
“He’s a bit unhinged though, isn’t he? He’d probably start another world war if given an opportunity like that.”
“What the fuck?” groans Anderson. “This whole thing is turning out to be a total fucking wash. Maybe I am getting cold feet after all.”
“Easy there, Upton. Remember, we’ve still got the Tunneler.”
“Yeah if any major problems arise we can just disappear them with the Tunneler.”
“That’s your on-the-fly plan? Disappear any problems with the Tunneler?”
“Well I don’t hear you coming up with any better ideas.”
“This is absurd. Fuck this whole aloof bit. I’m not going to rot in a federal prison or get executed for treason because you two bumbling idiots haven’t thought any of this through.”
“Whoa now,” says Manning. “We have thought lots of things through.” He pauses as his pants vibrate. “One sec, someone is texting me.” He pulls out his phone and starts scrolling. “Oh shit, it’s Hans.”
“Hans?” wonders Anderson.
“The lead scientist working on the device,” says Smith. “Real smart guy, beautiful wife, nice kids, lives in a stunning house out in Arlington, white picket fence, all that shit. Great chess player too.”
“Hans says they turned the Tunneler back on and it opened a wormhole to another dimension or something like that, they aren’t sure.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, he says they’ve made contact with some sort of alien civilization.”
“An alien civilization?” Anderson throws his hands into the air. “Jesus Christ, what do we do? The implications of this could spell the end of humanity as we know it.”
Manning tosses his phone onto the table and fiddles with his cocktail straw. “Nah, I’m sure it’s not that big of a deal. If it was serious he would have called instead of texted.”
“Upton, why don’t you take on the role of President?” asks Smith, uninterested in the developments with the Dark Matter Tunneler.
“What? Who gives a shit about the Presidency right now? They just made contact with an alien civilization! This is incredible yet terrifying at the same time.”
“I guess,” shrugs Manning, tossing his phone onto the plastic card table. “I mean it was bound to happen eventually. Contact, I mean.”
“Maybe they can help us with the coup,” says Smith.
“Hold on, Hans is calling me now,” says Manning. He picks his phone back up off the table and answers it. “Hans, what’s going on? Talk to me bud… You went into the portal? No shit… Wait what? Sorry, the reception is terrible… The aliens want to take us to a ball? Hans I can’t understand a goddamned word that you’re saying. How many times have I told you to switch to another cell carrier, AT&T just doesn’t have good coverage… Look, I get that you’re in an alien dimension right now but still… All I’m saying is that Verizon would have a stronger signal…” He pauses, pulls the phone away from his ear, and looks over at Smith and Anderson. “Damn, the call got dropped.”
“What’s going on?” demands Anderson. “Is he alright?”
“Yeah, the aliens are bringing him to a ball or something, I’m guessing it’s how they greet interdimensional travelers. Are we getting close to being done here? The game comes on at eight-thirty and I’ve got money on the Packers.”
“You think the Packers are gonna beat the Panthers?” asks Smith. “You’re crazier than Admiral Westwood.”
“The game is in Green Bay! I don’t care how good Cam is, Rodgers doesn’t lose in the cold.”
Anderson buries his face in his hands. “Madness… Utter madness.”
“Damnit Upton, you just don’t get it, do you?” laughs Smith. “We put the President in office and that leaves us with the sole power to remove him.”
“Shit, I even voted for him,” says Manning.
“So did I,” says Smith.
“Wait,” says Anderson. “You both voted for him, and now you both want to get rid of him?”
“Pretty much,” says Manning. “After all, we didn’t have the device during the election.”
“The device really changes everything.”
“The device just opened a portal to an alien world! How can you still be thinking in terms of third-dimensional politics?”
“Easily,” says Smith. “At least until those aliens fund my reelection campaign.”
“Or my next Middle East conflict,” says Manning. “Until that happens, I’m not concerned.”
The sound of footsteps pounding on the floor above them breaks the conversation. “Do you hear that?” whispers Anderson. “Something is going on up there.”
“So paranoid,” says Manning. “You need to relax.”
“Stress will kill you,” says Smith.
“Relax?” cries Anderson, but he is cut short by the sound of someone kicking the basement door open. A flashbang rolls into the center of the room and the resulting pang is deafening. All three men drop under the table and by the time their sound and vision returns the basement is filled with more than a dozen heavily-armed men in tactical gear marked “FBI.” A fourth man dressed sharply in a suit and bulletproof vest struts down the stairs and laughs at the sight of Anderson, Smith, and Manning all huddled under the table.
“I can’t believe it,” he laughs. “And here they told me the ass microphones would never lead us anywhere.”
“Son of a bitch,” groans Smith, still groggy from the flashbang. “Foiled again by the surveillance state. Just tell me the bug isn’t up my ass.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” says the FBI man. “We’ve had all three of you good and probed for a while now. You are all surprisingly heavy sleepers. No sedatives needed. And now you’re under arrest for treason against the office of the President of the United States. I know that you know your rights, so I’m not going to bother with all the pleasantries. Cuff em, boys.”
The armed men move to restrain the three plotters with zip-ties and proceed to drag them out to a convoy of blacked-out Escalades surrounding the bar. Manning struggles and Anderson silently weeps. Smith says and does nothing..
“You’re making a huge mistake,” warns Manning. “You don’t have any idea what the device is capable of.”
“What device? The entire DARPA facility is gone. Shit, half of Arlington has just vanished into thin air. You’ve got nothing.”
“Goddamnit Hans,” grumbles Manning as he is tossed into one of the SUVs.
Smith goes quietly while Anderson begs for mercy. “Please, I had nothing to do with this, those two conned me, they told me this was all part of a senate reelection bid!”
“Tell that to the microphone in your ass,” laughs one of the soldiers as he tosses Anderson into the backseat of the one of the Escalades. Anderson presses his face against the back window as the vehicle begins to drive away, and the last thing he sees is a flying saucer vaporize the Washington Monument.