All Things Being Equal

by: Sheila VR

Character(s): Ensemble
Category(s): Angst
Rating: TEEN
Summary: Take four Bartlets, six staffers, one nuclear submarine - and shake hard.
Written: Jul, 03
Author's Note: Set Apr. 2003, between EOTNS and LOM

THE WEST WING
WASHINGTON, D.C.

The whole world watched it happen.

By the time C.J. Cregg stepped up before the White House Press Corps, the barest facts had already swept around the globe. Of course, to many minds there is no such thing as too much information - especially in a disaster. Still, not knowing is far worse. Those most tenacious minds of all - or at least the ones with the most privileged clearance - crammed into the West Wing Press Room for what promised to be the scoop of the year.

"Will you tone it down a bit?" their hostess shouted over the constant clamor of reporters vying for her attention. "If I can't hear myself, you certainly can't!"

The hubbub did lessen, a bit... but only a bit. This was obviously way too big a story for these news-hounds to show much in the way of patience.

The Press Secretary's demeanor agreed with their assessment. Normally she was unequaled in maintaining her aplomb despite the ugliness of the news she sometimes had to report. Today she looked rather less composed, despite her best efforts to hide it. No one present could accuse her of losing control, even now. However, neither could they deny that for the first time in a long time she'd really been rattled.

The only other time they'd seen her anything like this - was right after the Newseum shooting three years earlier.

"I've watched the video playback more than any of you." Somehow, her voice stayed level and firm. "But I still don't have that much information, because even COMSUBPLANT doesn't have all the information either. For those of you who aren't too big on military acronyms, that's Commander, Submarine Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. They'll make the final decision on the course of action to take. Whatever I get from them, I'll pass on to you. The only details I'm not allowed to share are solely of a detailed technical nature, as I'm sure you can all understand. Defense has to be reticent on certain subjects."

"Including this one?" someone challenged from the back rows.

C.J. glared, her vision aflame, her tone chilly. "That was uncalled-for. This is a national emergency. Of course we'll keep you up to date, as much as humanly possible."

Even though she had hidden news items from this corps before, for political reasons, and even though all of them knew that, nobody doubted her today.

A female reporter standing against the side wall sprang forward. "C.J., please answer one question up front. Can you at least confirm that the President is still alive?"

The entire room went stock-still, every breath held.

It would be a safe bet that all of the viewers watching any of the represented TV stations did the same.

So did the tall woman behind the podium.

Her carefully-regulated poise, already shaken, cracked another inch. She had to pause for a deep inhalation. That told everyone what she was going to say before she said it.

From all appearances, it genuinely hurt to articulate her reply.

"No. I can't."

GROTON SHIPYARDS, "TRIDENT" NUCLEAR SUBMARINE BASE
THAMES RIVER, JUST NORTH OF NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT
ONE HOUR EARLIER

The large black helicopter hovered majestically over its destination before beginning the final approach, its dual rotors a blur of speed and power.

"There it is!" Jed Bartlet leaned closer to his daughter and pointed out the window beside her. He craned for a better view himself, positively beaming with excitement.

Eleanor obligingly glanced at the long dark shape far below, unmistakable, docked alone at center stage, surrounded by water and activity... but her delight was far less than her father's. "The latest in killing machines. Lovely."

"Don't think of it as war technology. Don't even think of it as defense technology. Think of it as an example of humanity's never-ending quest for knowledge and perfection. Our military leads the world in innovation."

Ellie rolled her eyes and did not reply. "Marine One" was quieter inside than almost any other chopper in existence, but the twin sets of blades directly overhead still generated enough noise to penetrate even this specially-shielded cabin, forcing its occupants to speak up. That gave her a convenient excuse not to answer.

The President didn't let her silence deter him. "There's something about submarines that's a lot like being an astronaut. It's a whole other world under the sea."

The First Daughter glanced at him askance, in no small surprise. "You like the idea of being sealed inside a tin can and dunked in the ocean?"

"It'd be worth it to explore like that. The power, the grace..." Latent claustrophobia notwithstanding - and his closest family members knew he suffered from that to some degree, although even his wife might not have been able to say just how much - he sounded quite sold on the concept. A kid in a candy store could scarcely have been more thrilled.

Seated behind them, the three accompanying White House staff members did their best to act oblivious of this personal conversation. Charlie Young had the hardest time being convincing, since he sat closest to his boss and couldn't possibly miss a word. Toby Ziegler stared into space, chin on hand, as dour as ever. Leo McGarry stayed hidden behind his newspaper, with the attitude of being at work even now.

Seated in the tier behind them, the two accompanying Secret Service agents did not move at all. Despite the fact that, until they stepped out of this flying strong box, bodyguards were rather superfluous, Ron Butterfield and his colleague maintained their eternal air of vigilance.

The executive helicopter continued its lofty descent, as graceful as any manmade flying object could hope to be.

Now Bartlet focused directly upon his middle daughter... and some of that eager joy faded, to be replaced by a deeper earnestness. "This is quite an opportunity for you."

Ellie kept her gaze on the impressive view below: the base neatly laid out, a couple of other impressive-looking ships in nearby berths, the blue river sparkling in the sun. It enabled her to avoid his eyes. She sat somewhat stiffly, and not just because of the seat belt. "You don't think it'll be too big a let-down that they're not getting the First Lady after all?"

"Well, they'd better not say so." For a moment her father looked every inch the affronted patriarch, ready and able to defend his family honor. "They're still getting the most gracious lady on the base."

"Not much competition there; I'll be the only female on the base."

"Don't count on it; equal opportunity is on the rise, even on the front lines."

Ellie's attitude remained distinctly lukewarm, not playing into this merry mood.

The President waited another couple of beats. When she showed no further sign of contributing to the discussion, his jocular air subsided. Even so, he was never one to easily admit defeat. "I'm glad you came."

His daughter shrugged. She didn't come across as just a spoiled brat, but unlike her parents or her sisters she had never possessed the gift of pretending to be interested when she simply wasn't. "Mom asked me to stand in, and I agreed."

Bartlet's eyes narrowed slightly. "I'm beginning to wonder if there was an ulterior motive to your mother's invitation. Are you trying to build up a tolerance to me?" A faint breath of amusement colored his words... but there could have been quite a bit more tint.

Ellie sighed, withdrawing just a fraction more. "More like practicing to be more sociable," she admitted quietly. And she didn't outright deny her father's theory, either.

Neither could she deny the subtle tension between them.

Neither could he. "Look, I know you're not militarily inclined..."

"That makes two of us." She was careful to keep any sharpness at bay, and to inject a trace of genuine humor - or at least pleasantness. With mixed success.

"We have a duty to uphold, and there are some loyal seamen here who don't deserve to be disappointed." An edge crept into the President's tone. He was starting to lose patience with this persistent moodiness.

Ellie picked up on that growing frustration, made more pronounced by the enthusiasm he'd displayed earlier, and she worked harder to keep things civil. It shouldn't be so difficult to at least appear to be enjoying oneself. "Don't worry, Dad. I know how things work."

"I know you do." And her father meant that. She had been the daughter of a public figure for most of her life. No matter how rocky her relationship with him might be, Ellie understood how to conduct herself around others.

With scarcely a bump, "Marine One" settled upon the landing pad.

Bartlet had no further time to spare for this taut conversation, no matter how much he might have wished to iron it out. Still, he did take one more moment to add a corollary. "I really am glad you came."

This time Ellie turned, drawn by the simple, sincere, though tentative, note.

The rotors had already begun to decelerate, their noise dropping rapidly. One of the Marines up front exited from the forward crew door, carrying a squat stepping stool. He placed this stool under the central hatch with the precision of long experience, then slid that hatch sideways to reveal a second panel inside - this one emblazoned with the Great Seal.

It wasn't just a panel; it was a reinforced set of steps, hinged at the bottom and recessed into the chopper's thick wall. It lowered like a drawbridge, stopping just inches above that stool. The Marine drew back at once and stood at attention.

The first person to disembark was not, of course, the President. A faceless man in a dark business suit and sunglasses, his name unknown yet his occupation obvious, quickly descended the steps and gave the whole area a competent once-over. He took in the honor guard of sailors, the gathered officers, the military band nearby, the knot of press contained to one side, the other black-suited agents scattered alertly around, the new vessel's tall conning tower beyond, the flags flapping overhead, and probably the number of seagulls in the sky - knowing the thoroughness of the Secret Service. He didn't actually nod in satisfaction, but his subsequent strides away from the executive helicopter signaled the all-clear.

Then Jed Bartlet appeared, to be greeted by the opening measures of "Hail to the Chief." "Marine One" did not have the sheer space of "Air Force One," nor was its doorway as wide or its functional staircase as sturdy, so he stepped down at once, briskly returning the Marine's sharp salute. This was a military display, after all, not a publicity event; he offered only one general wave of acknowledgment, mostly to the ever-present cameras, though his smile was as bright as always. Then he extended a hand back towards the portal, palm up.

Ellie moved into view, rather less confident but not shrinking. She accepted her father's hand with only a little self-consciousness, and he guided her down as a gentleman should. Then he tucked her arm in his, and together they walked along the red carpet. Towards the officers awaiting them, and towards the cameras already clicking away.

All but unnoticed, Ron slipped out next and took his place right behind them. Leo, Toby and Charlie followed, attracting even less attention. Three more agents from the ground force glided in and completed the procession.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs stood tall at the head of the welcome committee, the buttons and braid and decorations of his dress blues gleaming. As official host and representative of all sailors present, only he was to salute; he did so when his Commander-in-Chief was one stride away. Their timing coincided perfectly with the last bar of band music.

"Mr. President."

Bartlet had to release Ellie to salute in turn, mirroring that crisp gesture exactly. "Mr. Chairman. Thanks for inviting us here today. How are you?"

Admiral Percy Fitzwallace didn't quite smile, but the whites of his eyes flashed even brighter. "Well, sir, I was doing just fine... until presented with this unexpected formality, rather than your usual effort to join the common ranks." Even though there was little chance of being overheard by the press from here, he had to know his leader very well to indulge in such a joke at such a moment. "Are you feeling all right yourself?"

The President grinned even wider, not in the least fazed by this dry humor. "I didn't want to embarrass you in front of your own boys. Or me in front of my daughter." He half-turned. "You remember Eleanor?"

"Of course." Fitz extended his hand to Ellie. In fact he literally bowed from his considerable height, as polite as anyone could possibly be - more polite than any protocol could demand, in fact - and now he did smile. "It's good to have you here as well, Miss Bartlet."

Ellie's fixed public mask softened at once. Naturally she enjoyed the sweet gesture of unusual deference from her father today, even if he was the most powerful man in the world; that means more to any daughter than a stranger's regard ever could. But to be shown such esteem by this four-star admiral, the highest ranking officer of the strongest military force in human history... Despite the staggering authority and the enormous respect he commanded, he still went out of his way to treat this young woman with the utmost courtesy.

Now Fitz took a moment to look past both Bartlets. He met the eye of Leo, whom he worked with regularly in the White House Situation Room, Toby, whom he ran across often enough in the West Wing as one of Bartlet's closest advisors, and Charlie, whom he saw all the time as an executive shadow. All three men nodded back; no words were needed. Ron, whom the Admiral had also met more than once for obvious reasons, was looking in every other direction, scanning for trouble no matter how unlikely.

The Chairman started the tour. "If you'll step this way, Mr. President."

"You bet." Bartlet waved Ellie to walk beside him, not trail in his wake as though she ranked beneath him. Which she did, but he refused to showcase it. "You're really looking forward to the commissioning next month, aren't you, Fitz?"

"Whatever gave you that impression, sir?"

"You're as proud of this new ship as any father ever could be. You always are. I'm an authority on that feeling myself."

Glancing idly around and trying not to look bored, Ellie turned back, her attention captured despite herself.

"I think my fleet slightly outnumbers yours, Mr. President." Somehow, the Admiral still kept a straight face.

"Aw, my girls can take your entire fleet any day of the week." Bartlet didn't look right at his middle daughter, but that didn't diminish the strength of his words: a conviction that resonated despite the amusement. Ellie positively blushed.

"No doubt about that whatsoever, sir."

As though the truth of this statement could not possibly be denied or misconstrued as sarcasm, Fitz swung smoothly into business. They had approached the ruler-straight line of assembled crewmen, each in pristine summer white uniforms and stiffly at attention.

"Mr. President, may I present Captain Trudeau, base commander."

Where Fitz was dark, this bedecked officer was pale, even to the silver hair and beard. "It's an honor, sir. Welcome to Trident."

Bartlet couldn't resist. "Uh-oh; is King Neptune going to drop by as well?"

Fitz answered first, saving the base CO from having to scrabble for balance. "We'll send him an invitation right away."

"Can't have him feeling left out," their leader mused, grinning. "Besides, it'll add some blue blood to the party!" Then in an eye-blink he switched back to his official role. "Well, Captain, I can see that you run a tight ship here - on shore and on board."

"Thank you, sir." Trudeau straightened even more with pride. "We've arranged a tour of the facilities for you after you've seen the new boat."

"Sounds great."

Fitz moved a few steps to his left. "Sir, this is the plank crew that will be taking the 'Callanan' on her shakedown cruise." He introduced the three ranking officers. "Commander Hyde, his executive officer Lieutenant Lung, and Master Chief Petty Officer Tolkinski."

Each man saluted in turn. Hyde stood at least three inches shorter than his subordinates; Lung sported elegant Oriental features; Tolkinski, the tallest, was a startling blond.

The President returned these salutes and then offered a handshake to ease the stiffness. "Good to meet you. The Admiral and the Captain must think highly of you all, to place their newest toy in your hands." He hesitated, as though debating whether to indulge his love for obscure information or his private imp - probably the latter - then turned back to the Commander. The indicated spelling on his uniform nametag seemed to settle the matter. "Say, I know a guy named Edward Hyde. Any relation?"

Ellie raised a hand to her mouth, covering her grin. Leo gazed heavenward, Toby glanced sideways, and Charlie looked down - all three in hopeless exasperation. Anyone who knew this Chief Executive as well as they did would have picked up on that jovial note, with or without the literary connection.

The sub's acting captain could not have perceived this boyish playfulness as clearly, but perhaps he didn't need to. "Yes, sir, I think I know whom you mean." His tone was a little resigned. "He and Dr. Jekyll don't get along very well."

Bartlet had the grace to look contrite. "Sorry. Bet you hear that a lot."

"Now and then, sir," Hyde admitted. "You were more subtle than just about anyone else to date, though."

"Oh, well, I guess that's something..."

THE WEST WING

"DONNA!" Josh Lyman sailed into the bullpen area, oozing an almost noxious miasma of self-importance. "What's the next crisis that needs licking? I'm invincible today."

"Well, we'll cure that in a hurry," his assistant retorted from her desk, barely looking up as he passed.

The Deputy Chief of Staff ignored her barb, as usual, and kept going with his head high, as though she were quite beneath him rather than his right arm in truth. However, when he passed the office of the Press Secretary, what he saw made him brake short.

C.J. slouched in her chair, staring at the TV consoles on her office wall. Watching the news coverage of the President in Connecticut... and looking for all the world like a sulky child.

That total aberration from the norm drew Josh inside. "All right, what PR disaster is about to hit us now?" he assumed automatically.

"The next briefing." She didn't honor him with so much as a glance. "I'm going to announce that the White House is discriminating against white female Press Secretaries from California with a Berkeley degree who are over twenty-nine in age and over five-ten in height."

He exhaled, in an effort to sound sympathetic, but it came across as merely tolerant. "You're still mad that you didn't get to go."

"I was so looking forward to this," C.J. fumed, still trying to drill holes in the lucky ones on the TV screen. "The rest of them could have cared less. Leo was Air Force, not Navy; and I happen to know that Toby gets seasick! Now me - I've been fascinated with ships of all kinds for most of my life. I'd have gotten so much out of it."

Josh shook his head, abandoning all attempts to be solicitous. "You've been watching too much 'Star Trek'."

She threw him such a baleful look that he actually stepped back. "Come a little closer, Josh. I dearly want to wring your neck, but you're not worth getting out of my chair even for that pleasure."

"Leo has the military experience, and Toby wrote the speech. They were the logical choices." Now Josh sounded like he wanted to appease a dangerous adversary.

It didn't work. "Plus the minor fact that they know better than to leave you with free rein around here. Which effectively demotes me to the status of baby-sitter."

Now he looked totally insulted. "What - I'm going a great job! Just ask Donna!"

"I did. That's how I know."

Josh aimed his injured pride towards his assistant. "That traitor. I'm gonna have fun planning her punishment. I even have the clout now to do it, too."

C.J. sighed wearily. "Your power trip is most definitely helping my mood here."

"It's a big chair, but somebody's got to sit in it."

"Which might say something for the size of the ass it contains."

"Man, you try to cheer a person up..." Josh sauntered out, as though he had come to perform a significant community service and been thoroughly rebuffed.

Then he stuck his head back in. "By the way, they have height restrictions in submar - "

Instantly C.J. snatched up her desk stapler; large and solid, it would have made a dangerous missile indeed. The only reason she didn't whip it at her intended target was because he ducked out too fast.

On the way past Donna's desk, Josh issued a brief, ominous bulletin. "You are on bread and water for six weeks."

Or it would have been ominous, if she'd acted the least bit concerned. "Fine. The Perrier is getting expensive these days. I could use a fresh supply."

Fortunately for him, he was moving fast enough to pretend to be out of earshot.

From the other direction, Will Bailey stepped into view just in time to catch this exchange. Still a comparative novice to the anarchy of the West Wing and the peculiarities of its denizens, he couldn't hide his wonder.

"Um... your boss makes a habit out of threatening you?" he inquired softly once Josh had disappeared from view.

Donna grinned. "All the time. He also never hesitates to barge in where even politicians fear to tread." At Will's rising eyebrows, she clarified. "C.J.'s still upset that she didn't get to go to Connecticut today."

The newly-minted Deputy Communications Director digested this. "Well, she could have had my ticket, if I'd been given a ticket."

Donna blinked. "You weren't even invited? You've got as much military experience as anyone else here!"

He reddened a bit, in modesty or embarrassment or both. "Not unless you credit me with the total accumulated service of my whole family. I'm just a reservist. Besides, I'm still a bit new here for away missions, family connections notwithstanding."

"Point." Donna studied him in a new light. "You should wear your uniform more often."

Pause. "I don't usually get to decide that... but why?"

Her shoulders rose in a slightly coquettish shrug. "Just because." Then, before he could feel even more uncomfortable, she changed the subject. "Say, can you spare another minute? Even Josh has more military knowledge than I do, although that's still not saying much."

Will allowed a fleeting grin. "Sure. I know how interesting this stuff is, even if you have no desire to enlist."

She sat back. "Well, you pick up a fair bit from the news. I do know that this is the latest in the 'Ohio' class of nuclear attack sub..."

"Not attack sub; missile boat. They're called 'boomers' in sub slang. They aren't as fast as the attack subs, but they have a greater depth range. Besides the usual compliment of torpedoes, their primary arsenal is made up of ship-to-shore ballistic guided missiles." He pulled these details out of the air without even slowing for breath.

"Goes to show you have to ask the expert. I guess even the Air Force learns about ships, huh?" Donna smiled, briefly. "And this is the most advanced submarine yet. As if we don't have a big enough and lethal enough navy already." She sighed. "So, do they still break a bottle of champagne over the bow?"

"No, that's only for launching civilian ships. And this isn't the launching, or even the commissioning. It's a pre-commissioning: after the launch and fitting out, but prior to the plank tour." At her blank look, Will clarified. "Uh, that's the shakedown cruise. A prize crew puts the boat through what they call the 'angles and dangles.' They have to make sure everything works and everything is secured - nothing to roll around. Assuming it passes, the prize crew hands the 'plank' over to the acting captain. Then the sub is loaded with her missiles and commissioned for duty. That's a separate ceremony, anywhere from a month to a year later."

"Oh. So she's not armed right now?"

"Oh, you can bet there are torpedoes on board; no naval vessel sets sail without the means to defend herself. But they don't want the warheads anywhere near the President."

"I was wondering about that! It must be risky for him to tour any of these ships, much less a submarine."

"That's why. Besides, they sure won't allow the press aboard a commissioned sub - not after all that state-of-the-art hardware has been fully installed and operational. The media event has to be in advance." Will leaned back against the doorframe. While on this familiar topic, he displayed an easy confidence that even after some months in the White House rarely came out around his fellow senior staffers. "It's quite a PR opportunity for the President to take a pre-commissioning walk-through like this. Toby and C.J. endorsed it at once."

Donna nodded in growing comprehension. "And when those two agree that fast... Of course, military duties like this are part of the President's official role as Head of State."

"Right on. He's allowed on board the boat if she's still in dock, if she hasn't been on her plank tour, and if she hasn't been commissioned yet. It's what he's here for."

Then Will caught himself, further endorsed by Donna's attempt at a sharp glower. "Well, one of the things he's here for, anyway."

She giggled. "That's better." Pause. "I guess they'd never let him actually ride in one, huh?"

Will didn't hesitate at all. "Not a chance."

"Don't tell him that; he'll want to go all the more." They shared a knowing grin at their Chief Executive's quirky nature. "I doubt I could stand being confined like that myself."

"Seconded," Will said slowly. "If they had asked me to go along today, I'd have declined. I know nuclear vessels well enough to stay away from them."

Donna's intrigue became apprehension. "Are accidents... common?"

"Thankfully, there have been very few." For some reason, his sober attitude did not lighten up at this positive fact. "But when nuclear accidents do happen, they always happen on a grand scale."

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18

| Back | Send Feedback | The National Library |