21st Century Breakdown

I-Day: 0907 hours

“Put the gun down, Mr. President.”

Carrie tried as hard as she could to keep from shouting and upsetting POTUS more than he already was. As if hostage situations weren’t strenuous enough normally, things got a little more complicated when the hostage taker was the fucking Commander-in-Chief.

“If you Deep State goons want me dead, you’ll have to go through your precious leader!” Rolling his eyes with a .45 pointed at his head was the Secretary of State, still dumbfounded as to how his boss could think he was leading a coup. He was set to retire in a month and had absolutely no interest in taking on the most demanding job in the country, plus his husband threatened to divorce him if he kept working like he did. Of course, none of that mattered now. The President of the United States had a gun in his face and not a marble left in his head. A few minutes earlier, Felix had arrived at the West Wing for a one on one with POTUS, just like he did every Wednesday. But eggs benedict was apparently too much to ask for today because as soon as he stepped into the Oval, President Faroe’s eyes lit up like a wild dog’s under a full moon. The next thing he knew his longtime personal assistant Christine was bleeding out on the presidential seal and the White House was on lockdown. His eyes falling on the western window of the Oval Office, SECSTATE noticed smoke billowing from the northwest section of the District. America could be under attack, but the President didn’t seem to give a damn.

Three combat tours and eight years with the Secret Service made Carrie no stranger to violence and mentally unstable fanatics. They just usually weren’t her boss. She was trained to protect the leader of the free world, and now she was standing outside the Oval Office, HK 45 at the ready, praying to God that she wouldn’t have to use it. This was insanity. She dealt with a million possible threats every week against POTUS and now she was the greatest threat to his life. Well, it really was on him but he sure as hell didn’t see it that way. And as if the president taking a cabinet secretary hostage wasn’t enough, MPD Overwatch just reported an explosion at Georgetown University. Wasn’t SECDEF visiting campus today? Shit. Carrie tried reaching out to her colleagues tasked to SECDEF as her teammates set up a sonic breaching charge on the eastern side of the Oval. No luck. What the hell was going on? The President had finally lost his mind and was about to execute the Secretary of State for treason and now the Secretary of Defense was possibly blown to pieces a few blocks away. How the hell did it get to this?

I-Day minus 3: 0935 hours

There was little doubt in President Faroe’s mind that members of his cabinet disliked him. They talked over him in his cabinet meetings and refused to praise him in front of the media like he regularly requested of them when his poll numbers were low. He knew they talked bad about him behind his back, just like the kids in college did. Just like the media did every hour of every day. He knew this because even when he couldn’t see it for himself, his feeds told him everything. He knew the weather in Silicon Valley, the price of a good steak in New York, the details of every juicy rumor in DC. He’d become particularly fond of a group of “life reporters”, as vloggers had come to be called by the new generation, known as the Classy Tigers. The Tigers reported on everything the President was interested in, and somehow, they always knew exactly what he wanted to know. They were telling him the truth, the truth that he knew and everyone else was either too PC or too cowardly to admit. So, when the Tigers started dropping hints of organized dissent within the President’s inner circle, Faroe became locked in to every update like an addict camping out on a street corner for his next fix.

The latest intelligence pointed to Secretary of State Adams. They often disagreed about how vocal to be over China’s human rights abuses, particularly towards the LGBT community and internet censorship. Adams had been an opponent of his during the primaries and refused to praise him on the Sunday talk shows that President Faroe so loved to mock. Adams was a beta male and a terrible diplomat, always wanting to talk and engage with the Europeans and causing trouble for the President’s friends in Beijing and Moscow. America had a reputation to keep, and Faroe couldn’t protect it so long as Adams was around. Last week, Adams publicly announced his intention to retire next month, but the Tigers said he really had other plans. They spoke to their sources within the government and told the President that this announcement was a distraction to keep the Faroe unaware of the daggers being drawn around him. He knew the government elitists were unhappy with his policies. They liked their money and their friends and couldn’t grasp how bad their greed had been for the country. To the government he ran, he was the enemy. Not the terrorists in Africa or the communists in France, but the very man who had been elected by a majority of the minority who voted. These public servants were supposed to serve the people, and he was the people’s representative. Not that that mattered to the DC elitists conspiring against him.

The cabinet meeting was as dull as ever. SECDEF was going off about funds for some stupid weapons program that wouldn’t help kill the terrorists, so Faroe turned his attention to his media feeds. The stocks he wasn’t supposed to have in his portfolio were up again. Overseas, the Chinese market had soared overnight on news that the CCP would leave economic policy to artificial intelligence systems instead of Marxist dogma. Why couldn’t we do that? It would certainly leave a lot more time in the President’s day for golf and drinks. Sure, the press was still up in arms over a few AI-related deaths, but it wasn’t like the market could hurt anybody, right?

There was a new report by the Tigers as well. Masked to hide their faces from the government goons who hunted them, the Tigers announced that despite their best efforts, the Deep State was making moves against Faroe. SECSTATE Adams, with the backing of the banking industry, had bought out the Secret Service and established a detention center on a Caribbean island for the President and his supporters. If Faroe wanted to survive, he’d have to make a move soon.

The President looked as though the Cabinet meeting was putting him to sleep. SECDEF was putting his heart and soul into an argument for increased funding for the Defense Innovation Unit program in the face of Chinese and Russian technological advances. The same programs that for the last 6 years running had put their weapons systems well ahead of anything the US kept in its aging arsenal. Just about everyone in the cabinet agreed with SECDEF, except the president, who didn’t care for anything that wasn’t matte black and used to breach huts in Africa. Knowing how this debate would end, Adams pulled up a live feed of his recently purchased retirement villa in the Caribbean. Construction was moving faster than he expected, the builder bots certainly moved at a steadier pace than the trade unionists he’d hired to construct his ranch in the Valley after he’d left DC the first time. Just a few more weeks and he’d be far away from the President and his insanity, enjoying his golden years with Tom and the pups.

Kelly Vargas was a rising star at Georgetown University. A junior at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, she was remarkably passionate about the oppressed peoples of the world, like every other IR student in DC. She’d spent her past summer in Bolivia working with an indigenous tribe. Together, they fought an American mining company’s attempts to destroy the tribe’s sacred burial grounds and thousands of years of endangered culture with it.

Kelly was incredibly proud of her work and considered the group to be her new family, the one she never had growing up. She loved them, and she couldn’t wait to go back after her junior year. That is, she would have returned if the mining company hadn’t slaughtered the entire village with the help of those goons from JSOC. Her family was gone and not a damn person cared or believed her. The media remained totally quiet while an entire tribe, the last of their kind, was wiped off the map in a single night. If it hadn’t been for a group of independent journalists who had reached out to Kelly after seeing her profile in the Washington Post, she would never have known what had happened to her family.

While she was in country, she had been very successful in organizing a peaceful resistance against the corrupt Bolivian government. Her presence there made the outside world care as only a charming American college student could. But Kelly was the only foreigner in the village, so once she left for DC, the mining company paid off the US Secretary of Defense and hired JSOC to eliminate the “Chinese-backed separatists” that threatened the remnants of the American imperial stranglehold on South America. Distraught from the news, Kelly wanted revenge. But what could she do about it? Kelly Vargas felt powerless against the American empire and its corporate interests. She spent weeks pouring her heart out to the journalists online, they listened and encouraged her discontent, putting her in contact with others like her who had their loved ones ripped from their arms by the brutality of Amerikkka. But what could she do? No matter how much she wept and screamed, nothing would change the fact that the ones she cared about, the ones that made her feel whole, were dead. Then one of her fellow aggrieved pen pals suggested that they trade blood for blood. But how? Kelly inquired. They weren’t exactly soldiers. Her new friends suggested that they make a political statement, one that the media couldn’t hide from the public. They would go after the man responsible for so much suffering, the US Secretary of Defense. Kelly remained skeptical, she’d always believed in nonviolence, but then where had that gotten her in the face of such depravity? Still, what exactly could she do? The bastard was locked up in that fascist five-sided building of blood and steel. Not always, replied one anonymous friend, the warmonger was due to visit Georgetown to speak to those knuckle-dragging, rapist ROTC cadets this week. And another anonymous friend even knew some comrades with just the right materials to get the job done.

SECDEF had ignored the calls of the mining lobbyists for months. He’d never been much for believing in the old left-wing Cold War conspiracy theories but the more these fuckheads in ten-thousand-dollar suits kept showing up to his office asking about JSOC the more he started to wonder if maybe there was something there. Sure, the mining companies provided rare-earth minerals to US tech companies and therefore provided a service to national security, but they just as readily provided materials to the Chinese and SECDEF Robbins wouldn’t stand for that. He owed them nothing, no matter how much they gave to the President. The Department of Defense was not about to do the bidding of multinational corporations under his watch. Besides, a single mine in Bolivia wasn’t about to change the balance of power in the Pacific. If anything, the US needed Bolivia’s people on its side in the battle against Chinese influence in Latin America. Any signs of imperial greed on behalf of the United States would set diplomatic efforts back years. They’d already lost the Chileans to Beijing because of a massacre at a mining site and several other nations were teetering back and forth between two Pacific powers. Now was not the time for banana republic shenanigans.

Ignoring yet another greasy lobbyist at his doorstep and his conscience clear, Robbins continued to work on the final draft of his speech for the Hoya Battalion. He usually hated giving speeches, but he was once a member of the same battalion through American University and therefore he looked forward to providing some wise words on leadership and morality to the Army’s future leaders. Plus, he figured being around some youth would liven his old soul, prematurely aged by too many years of DC politics.

Social media AI had come a long way since the first chat bots of the early naughts. The Ministry of State Security tested their virtual puppeteers for years on their own people, keeping potential dissidents in line and compliant while rooting out those who could not be turned back from their counterrevolutionary activities. The Chinese dream had no room for dissidents, compliance was mandatory, but most of the time the government didn’t even have to lift a finger. Humans could be so easily manipulated. Their emotions made them sin and think too hard about things they had no business worrying about. The AI deployed by the MSS basically drugged the population with words, giving them what they needed before they demanded it from the government. And when they couldn’t get what they needed, the machines manipulated the lives of such social hazards until they either changed their ways or perished. The AI may as well have been playing God. But not the kind of God people pray to, the kind of God that people credit for accidents and lucky fortunes alike. The system worked so well that the CCP leadership felt safe enough to turn their focuses from internal security to external adventures. And before their guns moved across the Pacific, their electronic puppeteers would have to make a few corrections in the West.

The president laid awake and uncomfortable in his own bed. He couldn’t sleep knowing his plotters were so close and he with no plan of action. Without the knowledge of his Secret Service minders, he had kept his personal Glock 21 from his time before the presidency in a secret compartment under his bed. Well, he did. Now he kept it under his pillow or tucked under his arm, his massive frame hiding the slight bulge from his watchers. He knew he couldn’t hold off an onslaught of elitist hitmen, but he also figured they wanted him alive if they were building a black site to hold him. Maybe a firefight would rally his supporters against his enemies. He’d never been in a firefight before, but he’d put in plenty of time in at the range. His informants with the Tigers had been silent for hours, leaving the childless widower of a President to stew in his bedroom as he awaited what might be his last sunrise. Just then, an alert from the Tigers went off and he threw his feed onto the far wall. The masked Tigers appeared before him, announcing their latest discovery. Tomorrow morning, the Secretary of State would arrive to ask for Faroe’s peaceful surrender, after which the Vice-President, Speaker of the House, and President Pro-Tempore of the Senate would refuse the presidency so that Adams could assume power. If the President refused to comply, the Secret Service would take action. The Tigers expressed hope that the President would make a final stand for the people, that he would take the blood of the elitists. For the good of the people, he should not let himself be held hostage by the establishment.

It was just after midnight when Kelly finished her final review of her plan of attack. After the Secretary of Defense made his speech, he was to tour the grounds of the school. As he crossed the chapel courtyard, Kelly would emerge from the chapel and detonate. And then it would be over. She would get her revenge for her adopted family and join them in the afterlife. There was no technological chance for a remote detonation, and Kelly decided that she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if any innocents were killed. Not that any of these fascists were really innocent. Still, her anonymous friends encouraged her not to suffer anymore than she already had, so drag the SECDEF to hell with her she would. In just a few hours, the evil empire would finally begin to suffer.

I-Day: 1000 hours

“Mr President, it’s good to see you as always. Have you been briefed on what we’ll be discussing?” Adams saw the animal-like look in the President’s eye and took a small step forward, hand outstretched. To his surprise, the President flashed a smile and pulled his hand out from behind the Resolute desk. Suddenly, the SECSTATE’s ears were ringing. What the fuck just happened? He looked to his left, Christine lay dead on the ground, her face frozen in an eager smile with a single bullet wound in her forehead. The blood pooled around her and the grey matter on the blue carpet. Before Adams could scream, the White House security alarms sounded as the security systems processed the echo of a .45 on White House grounds. Adams turned to face her assailant, the President of the United States, steely, bloodshot eyes locked on SECSTATE, finger still on the trigger. “If you want this office, you’re gonna have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

I-Day: 1010 hours

The crater was 2 meters deep and about 15 meters wide. Half of the chapel was missing and so were about 120 human bodies. The plastic explosive was a Chinese prototype and now that the war had kicked off, Beijing cared little for subtlety or deception. A reckoning that was centuries in the making had finally arrived, starting right in the heart of the American empire. Ash and black smoke billowed over the old brick townhouses and across the DC skyline. Most of the dead were cadets, reporters, and the Secretary and his entourage. But Kelly also detonated at the height of student transit between classes, killing dozens of her civilian classmates in addition to her main target. She had no idea what she had just done.

I-Day: 1023 hours

“One last chance Mr. President, put your weapon down, turn over Secretary Adams, and we can end this peacefully.” Carrie had no idea what to do, but after the confirmation of the bombing at Georgetown she had to make due on her own. Government resources were stretched thin as every security service in DC locked down their charges. FBI HRT was due to arrive soon, but they were still 15 minutes out and Carrie was pretty sure the notoriously impatient POTUS wasn’t about to wait that long. The sonic device was in place, and her team, once charged with guarding the President, was stacked up and ready to breach as soon as she gave the word. The charge would not only breach the Oval Office wall but also send infrasonic waves throughout the room, incapacitating anyone inside. Of course, that didn’t mean the President wouldn’t pull trigger, they just had to hope it threw off his aim.

“What are you gonna do Alex? Shoot me? Hold me hostage for a ransom? Make public demands for political change? You’re the goddamn President!” SECSTATE still couldn’t believe what was happening. He always knew the President was a little paranoid, but who wasn’t in politics? To think he was leading a coup on behalf of some secret cabal of DC elitists was insane. What about DC made him think anyone could work together AND keep it secret from the public? The President’s hand was shaking and so was the Glock, with his finger still on the trigger. Nothing Adams said seemed to even change Faroe’s demeanor in the slightest. All he could hope for now was that the Secret Service really was on his side like the President alleged and that Tom heard him say “I love you” one last time as he left the house.

The blast hit Adams before he went deaf from it, the infrasonic waves overloading his nervous system as well as the President’s. He felt something hit his shoulder and then everything went black.

I-Day: 1930 hours

When Secretary Adams came to, he found himself in a world quite unfamiliar to the one he had woken up to that morning. The Hawaiian and Aleutian Islands were under Chinese and Russian occupation, respectively. The entirety of Pacific Command had gone silent. The Panama Canal and McCain Naval Base were nothing but rubble. DC was basically a chicken with its head cut off, not just because of the loss of a President but because many of his inept cronies were still in charge. The new President was clueless, and the Pentagon was incredibly unprepared for such a rapid reversal of its strategic fortunes. Things looked incredibly bleak for America.

And this was just day one.

Who's Next?

Her patience grew shorter with each revolution of the light above. The room was hot, humid, and smelled like the rest of urban Pakistan. The last she could remember, the date was July 30, but the blackouts in between beatings had taken their toll on her sense of time. Her face took most of the damage, which wasn’t all bad, she still had total use of her limbs and she could still see out of one eye. But it was Pakistan. Women weren’t exactly well regarded in this part of the world, particularly after the latest coup, the worst would come sooner or later. Her interrogator spoke English, barely. He was typical mid-level ISI, entitled, annoying, and bearing a mustache which his paper-thin frame did not support. Nothing a knife couldn’t fix, she cracked her swollen lips as she grinned. She took another look around the room, there wasn’t much to see wherever the light touched. Blood-spattered concrete walls, blood-spattered floor (some of it hers), nothing that was going to aid her in her escape. She’d have to use whatever toys her hosts brought to the party. At least the ropes were loose.

Another hour passed before the door unlocked, maybe it was two hours. Two guards entered first, sporting Sigs and worn fatigues, followed by someone new. He was stockier than her last interrogator, no Pakistani fatigues either. She couldn’t see the details of his face through her one good eye and the swinging light. For a few minutes, he just stood there. She wasn’t sure what was killing her faster, the light, the dehydration, or the anticipation to see this new asshole. On each revolution, she could see the glimmer of a Captain’s rank, the PLA camouflage was unmistakable. China was popular in Islamabad, as popular as any infidels could be, but she didn’t expect PLA officers working with the ISI, not in front of an American. Before she could speak, he did.

“It’s been too long Sarah, I was beginning to think I’d never see you again.” The posh accent was unmistakable.

“Oh I agree, I haven’t kicked your ass in years.” She threw in a bloodied smirk. How the fuck did HE get here?

“Hmm…I was simply being nice to a chio bu. You could have done so much more with that face. As I recall, beauty pays in the District.” Well, time in uniform certainly hadn’t deterred his confidence.

“Careful now, motherfucker. Keep dropping that Singlish and your ChiCom friends will start to remember that you’re not a real boy.” She was honestly surprised one of Xi’s purges hadn’t cost him his limbs. Roaches survive.

“Oh, don’t you worry your pretty little head. By this time next year, there won’t be much of a difference between Singapore and Shanghai.” It really is amazing who you meet in college, isn’t it?

“Is that because I’ll have dumped parts of you in both cities?” Like with the heat and the light, her patience was growing thin with this conversation. “What do you want, Zhao?”

“Why Sarah, why so intolerant? I’m merely here as a friend, to pay my respects… and to offer you a chance to join the winning team.” His arrogance made her want to puke even more than smell of the rotting grey matter in the corner did.

She laughed, spitting out a tooth in the process. “Now Zhao, you and I both know I’m already on the winning team. Always have been.”

“Sarah, the 21st belongs to China, just as every century before the 19th did. America is on the decline, there’s no point for bloodshed to messy the process of hegemonic transition.” Oh, how she loathed IR theory. “I don’t want you or anyone else to die for something that is inevitable. I want us to be friends again.”

Ugh. “Alright. First off motherfucker, we were never friends. You dated one of my friends, and you beat on her because your daddy didn’t hug you enough. Second, you’re pretty cocky for someone who knows how pissed America gets when you break her shit.

Tsk tsk, Sarah. You should know by now, you’ve seen our successes. And you’ve seen America’s failures. We have a mandate, just like our ancestors. We have restored the Middle Kingdom, and now the world will bow down. That includes America. You’re losing friends left and right and you’re destroying yourselves from the inside out. What exactly makes you think you have any more a right to the world than we do?”

Oh, how she regretted not killing him years ago, this was the worst torture she’d ever endured. His death would’ve been justified, too. “Okay Confucius, where do I begin? Your precious CCP killed millions of its own people because it couldn’t figure out birds were important to the ecosystem. You ran down your own people with tanks because they wanted to be treated like people.You murder and torture dissidents because they challenge your leaders. You’re choking your own people with your factories, condemning millions of children to grow up without clear skies or clear lungs. For decades, you were too stupid to invent your own shit so you stole it from people who actually worked for it. Then again, that’s your whole philosophy, isn’t it? Some animals are more equal than others? Treat everyone below you like shit and just hope no one comes knocking with a bigger gun? Oh yeah, you’ve got a mandate alright, but it sure as shit isn’t from heaven.” Right hook, there goes another molar. She spat it up on the table into a puddle of blood and puss.

“You Americans are so ignorant of your own reality. I’ve seen your country, read your history. You are the only state to ever drop the bomb, twice. You eradicated an entire continent’s worth of people just so you could have a bigger backyard. Your people are murdered in the streets by their fellow citizens and your culture celebrates it. Your politicians are owned by a media run by corporations bent on destroying the working classes. Your children throw orgies in their academic institutions and burden their families with insurmountable debt in exchange for cheap alcohol and cheaper lovers.”

“I don’t recall you complaining about the booze and orgies at Georgetown while you were there.” Left hook.

“You abandoned your friends. You let those drunk bastards in Moscow run over Eastern Europe. The biggest American joke going is ‘Never again.’ It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad to see how you squandered hegemony. Freedom and prosperity. HA. You left your throne with half the world in chaos and the other half begging to burn your country to the ground.” Right hook, again.

“Because Beijing has been so much better to its friends? Tell me what happened to the Vietnamese, or the Soviets, or how about the North Koreans? You know what, since you’re so fond of Pakistan now, why don’t you tell me what you’re planning on doing with your buddies once you’re done here? It’s not exactly like anyone can find out about this meeting.” No punches, just a quiet laugh. The men at the door started to pay attention.

Glancing over his shoulder, he switched to their mutual French, “Well I certainly wasn’t going to let them live.”

She smirked, turning her stare to the guard on the right side of the door. “Funny, I wasn’t going to either.” The hint had the desired effect, the swinging light showed the guard’s hand a bit closer to his holster. Not wanting to die immediately, Zhao dismissed the guards. Self-preservation will get you killed, Zhao.

“So, tell me Zhao, how exactly did you end up in that ridiculous marching band uniform? Was there a signing bonus for guys with experience in losing fights to Americans? Lose too much in Macao and daddy sent you away to learn some responsibility, did he? And how the hell did you end up in this shithole anyway? Just enough danger to get laid back home but far enough from combat that you’d never have to fight someone on a level playing field, huh?”

“I volunteered actually, but you were right, father did help out. They wanted to send me off to the rocket forces, and if there’s one thing that America and China have in common, it’s that no one wants that job.”

“Shit, can’t argue with you there. That’s why I joined the Army.”

“But you’re not with the Army now, are you Sarah?”

“Shit no, pay sucks, and they didn’t let me kill impotent wife beaters like you often enough.” Uppercut, the Agency better pay for the plastic surgery.

“Why would you want to kill me? I can offer you the world, just come to our side.”

Killing him is gonna feel so damn good. “And what? Bow down before the dear leader, betray the country that gave me everything so I can help the shithole that acts like a spoiled child, that thinks the world owes it everything? Go fuck yourself Zhao and fuck the whole Middle Kingdom.”

His face was red with rage, “You little bitch, you never knew respect in college and you don’t know it now. Fuck the deal, I’m gonna enjoy watching you die.” It worked. He pushed the blood-stained table out of the way and went in for the kill. At that moment, Sarah swung herself onto the floor, dislocating her shoulder and wrist but breaking free of the ropes in the process. She rolled over and charged Zhao, slamming him into the blood-stained wall. She unleashed a flurry of hooks and crosses, breaking ribs and knocking out teeth. She threw him on the floor, his shattered body lying in Sarah’s blood. Writhing in agony, Zhao couldn’t get up. The last image he saw was Sarah standing over him, bare foot on his throat. She pressed down on his larynx. Goodnight.

She grabbed the QSZ-92 from his holster, checked the mag, and chambered a round. Stumbling to the door, she grinned, her old friend would be proud. Sarah reached for the doorknob…shit. She almost forgot to relocate her shoulder. Pop…fuck. Right before she left, she took one last look at Zhao.

“You know, it’s a shame we never got to finish our philosophy debate, but then again, me alive and you dead…that kinda speaks for itself, don’t it?”

She turned and opened the door, pistol leading the way. Outside were the two guards from before, shocked at the bloodied and swollen face staring back at them.

“So boys, he lost round one, who’s next?”