The newly-inaugurated President Of The United States was ushered through corridors beneath the White House that few knew existed, trailed by his Secret Service bodyguards. An aide opened a nondescript metal door, accepting the President’s strained thanks with a silent nod. Everyone knew how tense the situation was, yet this building had seen many such events in the past two hundred years, most unknown to the public. This was the place where deals were brokered, secrets made, and world-ending wars averted.
The men and women manning the room fled upon the President’s arrival, leaving as quickly and silently as they could manage. The room was dark, lit only by two monitors. The President took a seat, his Chief Of Staff hovering behind him as the Secret Service agents blended into the shadows.
Displayed on the screen was a man dressed in black, a hood covering all but the tiniest slit for his eyes. The man’s stone cold stare told the President that he was no human being to be reasoned with, but a monster who had relinquished his humanity in aid of a cause. The camera zoomed out, showing the President’s husband tied to a chair, bloody and beaten. His nose was broken, his hair matted with blood from a nasty gash on his forehead. The President closed his eyes, afraid of losing his composure on the two-way connection. He couldn’t afford to show weakness.
“You have a choice to make, American imperialist dog.” The man’s heavily accented voice came loud and clear across the speakers, and the President swallowed the lump of fear in his throat. Now was not the time for emotion. He had to pretend the man sitting in the chair wasn’t Mark— the man he’d built a life and family with, the father of two twin adopted daughters, the man who’d laughed at the idea of being First Gentleman in good humor, the man who’d sat by his side as he’d made the hard choice to run for office.
“I don’t make deals with terrorist scum,” the President said, his voice firm and clear.
“Oh, is that so? Then I suppose I should slit your bedmate’s throat and detonate the C4 in this crowded Manhattan apartment building. It’s your choice.” On the other monitor an image of a steel and glass tower pierced the clouds, the high-rise luxury apartment Tower Heights building looking suddenly precarious. Clouds blotted out the sun, shrouding the tower in darkness. The President was reminded of another dark day in America’s history when terrorists destroyed towers full of human souls. It couldn’t be allowed to happen again.
“You have to save them,” Mark rasped through dry lips. He was rewarded with a punch to the face and slumped in the chair, dazed.
“You can only save one. Which will it be? Your precious ‘husband’—the jihadist spat the word—or your New York socialites?”
“You’ll kill them all no matter what I choose,” the President said. He gripped the edge of his seat, his knuckles turning white. “I won’t play your little game.”
The terrorist raised his machete, drawing it close to Mark’s throat.
“Stop!” The President stood. “What do you want?” The words slipped from his mouth, defeated. He was ready to sign over the world on a platter if he could save Mark, even as he knew it was wrong to think of one person over the whole nation’s safety and morale. He couldn’t choose to save Mark. But he couldn’t bring himself not to save Mark, to let this terrorist take away the only glint of light in a dark and lonely existence, save for their children. The day he’d been kidnapped was still the darkest one in his memory. It had been harder still to sit with his daughters and try to answer their question: “Dad, you’re the most powerful man in the world! Why can’t you bring Papa home?”
“Release all the jihadist fighters you are holding in black sites around the world. Cease your support for Israel and stop funding the civil war in Syria.”
The President wanted to. He wanted nothing more than to let them all go, but his daughters were wrong. He wasn’t the most powerful man in the world. He was only a face for larger powers in the CIA and NSA, a puppet dancing at the end of their strings. If he agreed to this terrorist’s proposal, the CIA would find a way to overrule him, and Mark would die.
Unless it was already too late… He looked at the screen again, at the shining tower block. He felt sick to his stomach to even be considering it, but he was haunted by the image of his daughters’ faces—their smiles, their tears. Mark had always been the better father. Losing him would put a hole in their hearts he could never hope to mend. And he would stop at nothing to protect the family he cherished so dearly.
He tried not to think of the families in the building, the parents, children and siblings that would be impacted by the loss of their loved ones. All that mattered, when it came down to it, was the family he’d fought so hard for all these years.
“I choose to save Mark.” His words came through loud and clear, and it was if all the air had been sucked out of the room. He’d stood as he’d spoken and now his legs buckled beneath him, forcing him back down to the chair. He squeezed his eyes shut, covered his ears as if he could block out the horror he’d caused.
The silence stretched on forever, until he was sure the world had ended. He uncovered his ears and opened his eyes to find himself staring into the barrel of a gun.
“You’ve failed the test, Mr. President. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask for your resignation.” His Chief Of Staff stood resolutely holding the gun to the President’s head as he handed over his clearance cards, caught in a daze. He’d have to move back out of the White House, and he hadn’t even finished unpacking the boxes yet. He let out a cynical bark at the stupidity of his thought, as if belongings meant anything against the enormity of the knowledge that his own government had set up this horrific scenario to screen for human frailties.
But Mark was safe, and somehow, inexplicably, that was all that mattered.
“No President has ever failed the test. You are the first.”
That was when the President realized there would be no scandal, no fall from grace that demanded his resignation. He would die here and the media would sell the official story that he’d suffered a fatal heart attack on the very first day of his presidency. The Vice President would not fail the test as he had, and would take the office meant for him.
A stray tear trickled down his face as he looked behind him to see his husband on the monitor, being escorted away by government agents. The tower stood, unharmed, the C4 nothing more than a ruse. It was hard to regret his choice, and found that he couldn’t. Mark was safe. Their daughters would have a good parent, and the nation would perhaps have a President without divided loyalties.
It was a test he should have passed, and he knew it. A President had to be the ultimate public servant, with no greater loyalty to anything but their country.
He loved his family more than he loved America. And the bullet that discharged into his brain was the punishment for his transgression.