“Why the hell is he coming here?”
When Senator Amy Osterhoff narrowly won her seat against an incumbent in the last election, commentators had been mostly positive, writing and saying things like, “She brings a new charisma and a refreshing lack of guile to the stuffy” Senate chamber or “Her credibility is indisputable and her candor indefatigable.” Now, however, she was a little nonplussed.
She looked down at the draft of the speech she had been reviewing for a luncheon later in the week. The words that were clear a moment ago blurred and meshed together.
“I don’t know,” her aide said.
“Call him back. Tell him I have more important things to do. I’ll have to meet him later.”
“I already said you’re available,” the aide said, grimacing. “Sorry.”
Sometimes Amy wished she was predisposed to violent outbursts. Yelling and throwing things at people looked so cathartic. But she had always been prone to zen-like acceptance. Whist was coming to see her, and the best way to handle it was to welcome him with something like open arms. Not literally, of course, since the thought of actually touching him nauseated her more than a little.
“Alright,” she said eventually. “Do you have any idea what he wants to talk about?”
“His aide didn’t give me much info. I got the sense it was something of a secret. And urgent.”
“Everything’s secret and urgent,” Amy said. “If we spent less time keeping secrets and more time thinking about how to make things less urgent, we might actually be able to pass some meaningful legislation.”
“Should I bring him in when he gets here?”
Amy thought for a moment. Despite being a first-term senator, she had lucked out. Her space in the Hart Senate Office Building was big enough, and her staff small enough, that she had been able to convert a small antechamber into a meeting area. It had a second door to the hallway through which visitors could enter, which helped her preserve her office as a space for self-deliberation.
“Put him in the mudroom and then come get me.”
“He won’t like it.”
“He doesn’t have to.”
The aide turned and left. Amy sat in her desk chair and resumed reviewing the speech. As the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, a constant stream of clubs and groups vied for her time and attention. She chose her engagements carefully, and considered each one an opportunity to embolden minds that agreed with her and perhaps change those that didn’t. Sometimes it all seemed a little arbitrary, even a little silly perhaps. But she had decided at the dawn of her first term that she would wait for at least one reelection before becoming callous.
She noted a few changes, making practiced edit marks and revisions with a thin red pen. She reached the speech’s penultimate paragraph before her aide returned.
“Whist is here,” the aide told her.
“Thank you. Tell him I’ll be right out.”
She took her time with the last two paragraphs. They were, of course, the most important parts of the speech. She also wanted to make Whist wait.
After all the votes had been counted, before Amy even took office, New Hampshire’s senior senator had tried to take her under his wing. He had invited her to meet with him and discuss “our game plan,” as if the two of them shared a sinister plot to dominate the world. Despite representing the same state and being members of the same party, Amy hadn’t really considered Whist as a potential intimate. Also, she was almost half his age. She suspected he thought of himself as a father figure to her; she shuddered to think that he might consider himself something less paternal.
She had met with him a couple times in his offices — once in New Hampshire, another in D.C. — but since then she had managed to contain her interactions with Whist to conference settings. They had one tandem committee assignment, but Whist’s seniority gave him priority seating, allowing Amy to avoid him. Mostly.
Amy looked at a picture on her desk. In it, she was wearing her high school soccer uniform and facing away, one leg planted, the other raised, the ball she had just kicked a fuzzy streak in the distance. She had scored a goal from that kick, sending her team to regionals, and someone (a reporter, perhaps, though she wasn’t sure) just happened to snap a shot of it. On the back of her jersey was the nickname her coach had given her, “WHISK,” a testament to her speed and aggression on the field. They had lost at regionals, but the nickname followed Amy to her college team, where she became captain as a junior. And then she went on to grad school and business endeavors, and nobody called her “Whisk” for many years, although she kept that picture on her desk as a memento of her successes.
During Amy’s campaign, however, the nickname resurfaced among her staffers. (Amy suspected its revival was the fault of her campaign manager, a former college teammate and long-time friend.) They joked about “whipping” her opponent and having the duo of “Whist and Whisk” represent the great State of New Hampshire. She attacked the incumbent like she had attacked the ball, like she would attack anything she wanted badly enough, and this time she came out ahead.
She set the edited speech in her out box and stood. She had let Whist sit long enough to let him know she wasn’t his to call. There was no point in making him stew. She stood and opened the door to her office, then walked into the mudroom.
Whist was sitting at the table. Amy caught him looking annoyed, but when he saw her, he quickly forced a smile. You can’t surprise me, his expression seemed to say, and she wondered how true that was.
“Sorry, Eugene,” she said. “I—had some things to take care of.”
If he had stood, she would have offered her hand. Instead, he leaned forward in the chair, his bushy gray eyebrows crinkled.
“I don’t have much time, but I walked over because I have something important to discuss with you,” Whist said. “It’s somewhat sensitive, and we need to move on it quickly.”
Something about his sense of urgency struck Amy. Since she had come to D.C. — since she first became a politician, even — she had always felt a sort of simultaneous press and protraction in the words of her peers. Somehow, everything had to happen immediately while also allowing time to deliberate the pros and cons of each provision. It was all bullshit, of course, pandering to whims and perceived expectations that nobody clearly understood. Now, however, sitting in her mudroom, Whist’s appeal seemed earnest.
“Okay,” she said as she sat in the chair across the table from him. “What is it?”
“Have you ever heard of Freedom Plot?”
“Thanks for letting me know.”
Pat ended the call and looked at his phone.
“Who was it?” asked a man sitting a few chairs away. Another man and a woman also sat at the conference table.
“It was,” Pat said slowly, “our good friend in the senator’s office.”
The three others watched Pat expectantly.
“Okay,” said the same man when Pat didn’t continue. “What did our ‘friend’ have to say?”
“It’s not so much what our friend had to say as what our senators had to say.” Pat stood from his chair at the head of the table.
“And what did our senators have to say?” the man prompted.
“Apparently, they had a lot to say.” He started pacing. “About us.”
“Pat, come on,” the woman said, “just tell us what’s going on.”
“Sorry,” Pat said. “I don’t mean to be cryptic or evasive. I’m just trying to process it. Please give me a moment.”
The call had come in the middle of Pat’s update to the three other permanent members of Freedom Plot’s board of directors: John Fisher, Megan Larsson, and Ajit Rangan. They were all residents — actual residents, not just residents on paper — and they met regularly in person as a core group. There were very few calls Pat would take during this time, but when he saw the D.C. number pop up, he knew he had to answer.
“Okay,” he said, “here’s what I was told. Less than an hour ago, Senators Whist and Osterhoff met to discuss the future of our little experiment. Senator Whist recently came across some information provided by the DOJ about illicit activities taking place in the Plot — drugs, prostitution, that sort of thing. In the meeting, he gave Osterhoff a heads up about a raid coming down the way. It’s supposed to be a joint effort between the FBI, ATF and maybe one or two other departments.”
“A raid?” Meg asked. “On who?”
“I’m a little unclear,” Pat said, “but from what I understand, they’re raiding us.”
“Us as in the four of us? The company? What?”
“Us as in the entire Plot.”
The room was silent for several moments.
“Can they do that?” John asked. “I mean, has an entire town ever been raided before?”
“I don’t know,” Pat said. “But it gets worse. Whist wants to make it appear like it’s his idea. It seems he saw my interview the other day and took offense to some of the things I said relating to the ability of the government to, well, govern. He wants Osterhoff to join him in bringing us down, reigning us in, yadda, yadda.”
“I knew we’d get a reaction,” Meg said, “but I didn’t think it’d be that quick.”
“Yeah, neither did I,” Pat acknowledged.
“So what do we do?” John asked.
“If I may say something,” Ajit said. “We always knew at some point the government would come at us, and we’ve been preparing for the eventuality. So what, it came sooner rather than later. We are ready for it now, are we not?”
“Not quite,” Pat said.
“The installation has started, has it not?”
“Yes, but it’s only just begun. There’s a lot of fiddling and adjusting that needs to happen. And then they have to test everything.”
“So then we ask them to maybe hurry up a little.”
“I think we need to ask ourselves a different question first,” Pat said, sitting down. “Even if we can get the installation done, even if we can get it tested and working and everything goes according to plan, are we really ready to do this? I don’t mean tactically, but mentally, emotionally, rationally. Are we ready?”
His three colleagues shared looks with him and each other.
“There are a lot of people who live here,” John said haltingly, “that don’t know what we’re doing.”
“Everyone is here of their own free will,” Meg replied. “And they can always leave if they don’t like it.”
“That’s not really the right way to look at it,” John argued. “I mean, some people have families, businesses, property here. If we do this, they’re either stuck here with what they have or they have to leave it all behind.”
“We have funds,” Pat said, “set aside to compensate residents who want to leave. Does that alleviate your concerns, John?”
“And remember the plan,” Pat continued. The idea isn’t to trap anyone. We want people to come and go, to live freely. Any necessary seclusion will be temporary.”
John looked at the table. A few seconds later he looked up and nodded.
“Yeah, okay,” John said.
“Good,” Pat said. “What else? Are there any other issues we need to think about before we execute?”
The three others remained silent. Pat silently counted to twenty.
“Then let’s make it official,” he said after the long pause. “You all know what we’re voting on. I so move.”
“Second,” Ajit said.
“All in favor?”
Pat raised his hand, and Ajit and Meg followed. Pat waited. John slowly raised his hand as well.
“Okay, good. I want it to be unanimous. It has to be unanimous,” Pat continued. “Because we’re not talking about protecting civil rights or waxing philosophical about the abuses and proper use of government. We’re not talking about taking our case to the Supreme Court or lobbying congress or petitioning the president. What we’re talking about is much more than any of those things — more than all of them together. We’re talking about the last choice, the nuclear option. We’re talking about insubordination and treason.”
Pat looked around the table at his colleagues. Or rather, he thought, my conspirators. He took a deep breath.
“We’re talking about secession.”