Small pangs of dread began arcing through Geddes's intestines halfway down the seemingly endlessly spiraling concrete stairs. His first thought was that he might be experiencing a wave of vertigo or maybe a flashback from his own experience with Vulcana. He took several deep breaths, but the clammy feeling persisted. Probably the greater sense of depth into the Earth from the stairs. His only other visit to the bunker – that he knew of – had been by elevator with Ruth on her introduction to Camp David after the Inauguration.
Morowitz explained that he'd had the stairs installed because of his claustrophobic fear of elevators.
“I've gotten it under control pretty much,” he told the others in the lodge's tool shed, where the staircase entrance was hidden, “but I don't want to come unglued in a crisis, and heading down there would mean we were in a pretty stressful situation, I figure...and, well, I guess you could call this a fairly stressful situation, too.”
He grinned sheepishly and turned his palms to his guests. “You can take an elevator if you like. There's one in here...that door there, looks like a closet.”
Ruth looked at others, shrugged. “I've never felt all that comfortable in elevators, either. Besides, I can use the exercise.”
And so the procession started, speechless at first, cautiously down the steep, narrow staircase, footwear scuffs on concrete steps. A pervasive alien mustiness pricked the nostrils with growing disfavor. Blue lights, strategically recessed along the descent in the rock-walled silo, glistened off the steel handrail creating an eerie surreality that seemed to mock the intruders with a discomfiting urgency. Morowitz explained that blue light was easier on his eyes at night. “Doesn't affect the pupils like white light does.
“We keep it blue in the bunker, too, but can switch it up gradually to white if we're gonna be down there awhile. Sort of an artificial dawn...heh heh.”
Whether the blue light was what bothered Geddes it was definitely the light that replaced his anxiety with something new and truly frightful. He saw it in the way the light treated Ruth's eyes when he heard the shoe scuffing falter directly behind him. Leaning against the rail, he turned and braced himself in case Ruth had lost her balance. He found that she, too, was leaning and that her grip on the rail was so fierce her arm trembled. He took a step toward her and put his fingertips on her wrist.
He saw that her eyes were glazed in the way he'd learned to view with alarm. He saw them from an angle in which the light, refracting oddly within the unfocused lenses, magnified them to create the illusion of shimmering discs, electric versions of the empty ovals Orphan Annie and her dog Sandy presented as eyes in the comics.
“Ruth,” he said softly.
No response. Catatonic, already?
“Ruth,” he repeated, with more volume. He tapped his fingers on her wrist. Joan Stonebraker had stepped down behind her. Geddes caught Joan's eye and mouthed the word “Ibiza”. Joan nodded quickly. She gently embraced Ruth and whispered something in her ear. Ruth, staring ahead blankly, gave no indication she was aware of Joan's presence.
Rotten time for an Ibiza breakdown, as if any of the previous times Geddes had witnessed were any less problematic. The first had imperiled her first run for president. It had started with the same glazed eyes and then the rambling monotonic recitation of youthful adventure in Europe after receiving her undergraduate degree. The adventure ends with her arrest, along with a group of companions on the Balearic island, their deportation to the Spanish mainland, and her separation then from a mysterious fellow she'd met in an island cave. She speaks his name, Anthony, in a sort of half-whisper, half-moan.
The first two times this happened, during campaigns, there was never an identifiable trigger her handlers could parse out from the general accumulation of stresses. Each time they were able to keep her away from public appearances, including the media, until she emerged from the near-comatose state, which came after the rambling reminiscence and lasted several days. Unthinkable, Geddes thought, to happen now. Live to the world, the president babbling baby talk next her while she's droning on about Ibiza and...Anthony. Already too likely, Vice President Quentin Kudlow would organize a coup despite Morowitz's plan to explain in advance publicly what was happening.
Geddes had been hoping to talk Ruth out of taking Vulcana with the president. He felt confident he could persuade her to wait until it was clear Morowitz was coming through his experience as hoped. Too traumatic to give the world a sitting president with his predecessor undergoing what was essentially simultaneous psychotic breakdowns, especially with no guarantee how Morowitz would hold up. The president's professed phobic reaction to a suppressed childhood memory bothered Geddes. The appearance now of an Ibiza breakdown preempted that worry.
As he'd come to expect during a career fraught with unimagined dire implications, desperation now pushed Geddes to the impulse his intuition told him was his best chance to stem disaster. He thrust his free hand between her denim-sheathed thighs and knifed it quickly up to her crotch, pressing his fingers against her pudendum. At the same time he squeezed her hand, which had not relaxed its grip on the rail.
Joan saw what was happening, as did Dr. Knoe, who'd reached the others in time to read Geddes's lips when he alerted Joan to his suspicion of Ruth's condition. Both recalled how her third Ibiza episode had dissipated in a tryst with Geddes on a White House couch when he'd tried to talk her out of proceeding with a plan to lure potential assassins to a Rose Garden sting. Geddes failed in that endeavor, but his gambit succeeded now as Ruth let go of the rail and wrapped both arms around him, murmuring incoherently but apparently easing back from her emotional exile. That she hadn't mentioned Anthony was a good sign. Geddes appreciated, too, that her murmurings now included no names, merely speaking to relief and comfort.
A curiously distorted voice barreled up from further down the staircase. “You guys OK up there?”
“We're good, Geoff. We're coming!” Ruth hollered back. At the sound of Morowitz's voice she'd pulled away from Geddes and dropped her arms. Geddes had done likewise. Their reaction had the appearance of teenagers caught cuddling by the principal. When Ruth answered Morowitz, Geddes turned and started back down the stairs. Ruth's hand shot out and smacked his butt as she joined him in the descent.