Friday, July 4, 2014

Distance, Chapter 60


Monday, January Fifteenth
7:40 a.m.
Southwest of Montrose, Iowa

“You make one move and we’ll blow you in half,” the soldier growled as Doug tried to remain hidden.  “Garcia, Benson, zip him up and search him.”

Doug’s hands were pulled behind his back and a heavy zip tie slipped over his wrists and pulled tightly. Hands roughly grabbed his filthy jacket collar and belt, ripped him off the ground and to his feet.

“Got any weapons on you, asshole?”

“No sir,” Doug replied, exhausted.

“Sir! He fuckin’ called me sir!” the soldier in charge said with no small amount of glee. “Get the Ell Tee up here. We got us a brain here.”

“Brain?” Doug asked.

“Yeah, asshole. You can apparently think.  That in the S.A. makes you pretty fuckin’ rare.”

“I’m not S.A.,” Doug said.

“Right. You’re wearing what passes for an S.A. uniform, you’ve got S.A. piece-of-crap gear and a God-damned Russian helmet! You’re way behind the front lines, and a bunch of your S.A. buddies are roasting on a spit in the bowels of Hell from action about a mile from here.  You probably tossed your weapons when you ran out of ammo, took off and hid. The Intel boys will have some fun with you. Now, get your ass moving,” the soldier said as the men behind him jabbed him in the back with their battle rifles.

Doug was marched out of the ineffective brush-covered hiding place, across what had once been a farm field. Snow pelted him in the face. He couldn’t feel his feet as he stumbled forward. The men behind him made comments about what would happen to him, once the interrogators were done with him.  He didn’t know what to think as he moved ahead numbly, eyes not really seeing the ground in front of him. He hadn’t eaten real food in five days. 
The road appeared suddenly, a snow-filled depression between farm fields; a handful of U.S. Army vehicles nestled between the hills. Doug noticed the dents; the roughly patched bodywork and bullet holes as he was loaded on the floor of a ‘truck’ version.  Six men piled in around him, all placed their boots on him as they drove away.

He’d been almost a month in what he regarded as captivity, taken by the S.A. while heading to one of the observation posts on the northeast edge of the Farm.  That December Twenty-second, everything changed.

The S.A. patrol caught him flat-footed, moving across open terrain just after dusk, only fifty feet from the unmanned observation post, which apparently remained undetected. He’d been thinking about the report that the Weerstand had just received of the S.A. nuclear missiles shot down by the U.S. earlier in the month, and the impact of the detonations in Arkansas. Fifteen thousand Arkansans died in the blasts instead of millions of dead or injured citizens of San Antonio and Houston.

A Weerstand linked cell had been exposed to the plume only hours after the attack, losing three of five to severe radiation poisoning within a week, the remaining two lingering a few days longer.  A rainstorm they’d passed through contained the fallout that killed them.
One warhead ground-detonated on the banks of the Arkansas River, just west of Clarksville, obliterating the town and its remaining residents and creating a huge radioactive plume that spread to the southeast, catching the Weerstand contacts.  The second, an airburst, detonated ten miles east of Fayetteville over the small town of Huntsville, vaporizing it as well, and sending radiation thousands of feet into the atmosphere and thousands of miles downwind. Doug was thinking about the impacts of the radioactivity on farming when five rifles were pointed at him from less than twenty feet away.  

The men quickly forced him to the ground, where he was stripped of his winter clothing and boots, and left him to re-dress in discarded filthy clothing and torn, worn out boots.  His rifle, handgun and pack were of course taken by their leader, and the remaining men were unquestioningly following all orders that their ‘Sergeant’ gave them.  ‘Perfect RNEW subjects,’ Doug thought.  He was thrown into the back of an old truck, blindfolded, and spent what he guessed was an hour driving through the Iowa countryside.  At that point, he knew that he’d never see Julie again.

Eventually, they arrived at the town of New London, only seven or eight miles from Mt. Pleasant. Doug was thrown into a motel room, void of furnishings except for a single cot.  The room did have marginal heat and electricity, along with a bathroom and running water. 

He spent the night there, alone, without food, sleepless and utterly despondent.  The windows of the room were barred and the door locked from the outside. The first morning, the door was opened, a bag of RNEW products thrown into his room, and the door closed immediately.

“So this is how they do it,” Doug said to himself, wondering if he should just eat it and put his former humanity behind him.

The packaging was from his own plant in Des Moines, all familiar products, all with the known combination codes molded or printed right on the packaging, if one knew what the icons meant.  He selected non-reactive items from the packages, dumping the rest into the toilet, which obviously hadn’t been cleaned in quite some time.  

Doug spent four days in the room without contact, but with regular supplies of RNEW-laced food. On the fifth day, he was ordered to patrol, handed an AK-47 with a duct-taped stock and three magazines.  The ‘Sergeant’ who had captured him didn’t refer to Doug or any of the other men by name or number, just expletive-laced labels. He got in line with the rest of the men and headed out, feigning obedient compliance, and adopting the shuffling manner of the RNEW consumer.  None spoke as they headed down the street on that first day; few words were ever exchanged on orders of a ‘Sergeant’.  Doug noted that any ‘Sergeant’ giving orders received unquestioning obedience.

New London might’ve had as many as two thousand citizens Pre-War, that number was now less than five hundred, and decreasing every day through deaths and other ‘disappearances’, which Doug knew about through overheard conversations between ‘Sergeants’ and ‘officers’.

Their assigned patrol route ‘protected’ the rail line through New London, and their ‘HQ’ was the tiny police station not far from a series of grain elevators. The grain elevators had long since been emptied Doug learned, and any remaining equipment stripped and sent ‘East’ for ‘use by the State’.

For sixteen hours a day, Doug and the other ‘fellowmen’ on his shift walked the mile of tracks in a predictable loop: Railroad tracks to Pine Street, then to Main, then back to the police station.  Anyone on the street was immediately challenged and harassed, and within a few days Doug could see people hiding until the S.A. patrols passed, crossing behind them a block or two, going about their lives, such as they were. The ‘downtown’ buildings, old but once well-kept brick buildings dated to the mid-eighteen hundreds, and showed no signs of business activity or life at all.  Snow on the streets showed a few paths that the remaining residents used, no vehicle traffic had been seen since the S.A. occupied the town. One old tavern building had apparently been the scene of a fire-fight; hundreds of bullet holes adorned the burned out shell.  Another burned out shell had once been the City office building, probably once home to the mayor’s offices or administration. The fire had spread to other structures on the block, leaving only the facades intact after the roofs collapsed.

Doug’s heart ached for Julie, their baby due in early February; his despair washing over him each night without fail. He knew that she’d be grieving his loss, with him ‘going missing’ probably worse than knowing that he’d been taken by death.  The small farmhouse would not be manageable by Julie alone in advanced pregnancy, and so he presumed she’d moved in with Peter and Molly, or perhaps with Arie and Maria.  There could be no escape from the S.A. until the weather enabled him to slip away and not be tracked in the snow, but he’d do so without a food supply to take with him—the S.A. only gave their troops enough food to consume at that meal and no more; he had no idea where supplies were stored…so effectively there was none to steal without risking immediate execution, and none of the fully affected RNEW consumers would generate enough initiative to even dream of getting more food without orders from a ‘Sergeant’.

Rail traffic was sparse and unpredictable, with large trains filled with loads of looted equipment, vehicles and bulk goods moving east; and the occasional fifteen- or twenty-car train moving military equipment west.  Days could pass without a single train, and then five or six might be running through New London in a matter of hours.  

Doug knew that military equipment from France, Germany and Russia had been identified by the Weerstand, in addition to some American and Canadian vehicles.  Aircraft, only seen above New London a few times in December, all seemed to be smaller fighter aircraft. After the coming of the New Year, he’d not seen any aircraft whatsoever.

On January twelfth or thirteenth (he’d lost track of the days), troop trains moved through New London, headed east, and as the last train moved out, Doug and the rest of the New London contingent were unceremoniously loaded aboard.

The men around Doug of course were all RNEW-controlled, but their ‘look’ was more than just the addled state of the combination of the drugs; there was something more: defeat, dejection, fatigue. There were no ‘Sergeants’ in the cold, worn out passenger car.  No one spoke, no questions were asked, no chatter.

Within a few miles, the train slowed to a crawl.  Doug was seated on the south side of the train, and noted that five other trains of the six took a siding at some sort of Army installation.   Doug’s train, the last in the line, passed by the others, continuing east through the town of Burlington.  The train then turned south along the Mississippi, crawling along for another forty-five minutes, and then slowed further in the small town of Sandusky.  Their ‘Sergeants’ from New London appeared from the car in front of them, and ordered the men from New London off the train.

“You’re being reassigned,” the least pleasant of the ‘Sergeant’s’ said to the twenty men. “Now move!”

The men quickly grabbed their rifles and left the train car, stumbling on the icy steps at the bottom.  Doug glanced around at the terrain and nearby homes as the ‘fellowmen’ assembled in formation. The train pulled out and left them in the cold afternoon sun.

“You will be guarding an airport of vital importance to the State! You will be based there! If you see any civilian at any time, you are to shoot them on sight! You will raid every single building we come to on the way to that airport! Anything deemed of value to the State will be returned to me immediately.  Any theft for the gain of an individual will result in your immediate execution! You will kill anyone and everyone you come across! You will then burn every building to the ground. MOVE!”

In New London, Doug had never heard any orders remotely like those just given.   Something had changed.

There was little left in the little hamlet of scattered homes worth seizing on behalf of the State of America; none were occupied, and all were afire within a half hour of the arrival of the S.A. 

With a few bundles of loot, the S.A. marched the mile or so to the Keokuk Municipal Airport, less than twenty miles away from the Segher Farm.   Doug’s one surreptitious looted item was a cheap digital watch.

The small airport had been abandoned when the S.A. ruled private aircraft illegal and had seized all aircraft—commercial and private—for the good of the State.  Within an hour of their arrival, they’d broken into every building, established their quarters in the old aircraft rental office, and Doug heard one of the ‘Sergeant’s’ radio S.A. Command that the airport was ready for use.  Not long afterward, four attack helicopters landed and a convoy that included two former ‘AmeriMart’ semi-trucks arrived--loaded with ammunition, spare parts, ground crews and fuel.

The helicopters gave Doug an evil chill. He and Roeland had nearly been blown to pieces by an S.A. chopper just after guiding the U.S. Army troops across the Missouri border in early December, the day after the S.A. had launched their nuclear missiles at the U.S. leadership.
Roeland led the U.S. troops south after Weerstand operatives contacted friendly forces to the south.  They’d crossed into Missouri, ironically ordered to rendezvous at Rebel’s Cove Conservation Area. 

The twenty-mile trip on snow covered farm roads during daylight hours was extremely risky and everyone knew it. Word had come through though that the S.A. was aggressively searching for U.S. troops west of Des Moines, and working east as one of the Weerstand cells had been compromised, giving up word that U.S. units were operating in several Iowa locations.   The rendezvous was completed quickly and efficiently, with Doug and Roeland heading north and east immediately. 

Their luck had turned though and they were spotted by a low-flying S.A. drone that immediately circled their position. An incoming round hit the trees just above the truck, spattering the cab with shrapnel, moments before an unseen helicopter passed over them from the rear and wheeled around for a shot.  Roeland slowed the truck under the heavy trees, they dumped their gear and then set the truck on cruise control and they jumped, Roeland meeting up with Doug a moment later, and moved into the deep brush and snow.  The second pass from the helo came from directly in front of the truck. The detonation was surprisingly large, far bigger than that of the first missile.  The drone made lazy circles over the burning wreck and the helicopter for the moment disappeared.

“We’ve gotta move.  My bet is inside of ten minutes, this place will be crawling,” Roeland said.

“If that drone is up there and has infra-red, we’re dead. It might just be hunting for us, even now.”

“I know…and our tracks lead us here.  If they are serious about finding us, they will. Let’s move.”

“What kind of helo was that? I’ve never seen anything like it,” Doug asked.

“Russian-built. It’s called the Black Shark,” Roeland said as he hurried into the brush. “A number of countries operated them, Pre-War. Jake warned me about them.”

Neither was dressed in snow camouflage but their winter gear wasn’t a complete failure in the heavy grey brush and understory.  They headed east to another large conservation area which had the benefit of even thicker cover, allowing them to be well concealed beneath the snow-covered trees and brush.  Before heading into what was essentially a snow cave, they could see two S.A. helicopters circling the location of their burning truck, working out from that site in a circular search spiral.

“How far to the Farm?” Doug asked as he moved further under the brush, expecting to find some wildlife hibernating within.

“Ten or twelve miles. And, across the river,” Roeland said. “We might be really screwed here, Doug.”


“Those things are probably second only to the Apache. Pure hunter-killer.”

They stayed deep under cover overnight, breaking cover at first light on a crystal clear, subfreezing morning.  Their ‘patrol packs’ included the minimum equipment for a few days in the field and a winter sleeping bag, which was barely adequate to the task.

Aircraft south of them slowed their progress well into the second day.  After the helicopters left the area, they moved north through the brush and trees, crossing back into Iowa and hoping to scout potential routes across the Des Moines River. 

Heading nearly due north, they arrived at the Des Moines just upstream of Keosauqua through a heavily wooded state park, about five miles from the Farm.  Roeland spotted dozens of S.A. through his binoculars, covering both sides of the Main Street bridge. 

“No-go this way,” Roeland said, stowing the binoculars.  “Let’s move back a few hundred yards. Once we’re a little deeper into dusk, we’ll move across the road, head east and parallel J40,” Roeland said, showing the route on a waterproof map. “We’ll almost certainly be crossing through a bunch of drainages, so we’ll need to take our time and stay dry…getting wet in this weather will kill us.  With any luck, we can cross at Bentonsport.  There’s no airport there, not much of anything actually.  Two bridges, one for vehicles, the other foot traffic and bikes back in the day.  We could ford the river there, but we’ll freeze to death if we have to do that.”

“Figure what, a mile per hour?” Doug asked.

“If we’re lucky. Let’s go. It’s getting darker than I thought it would this early.”

Five and a half hours and one MRE later, they approached the J40 bridge over the Des Moines.  Approaching slowly from the west, they could both hear the S.A. guards complaining about their duty, while warming themselves around a fifty-five gallon burn-can, which had the advantage of night-blinding the guards to anything outside of the meager light from the warming fire. Six guards were present, but the north end of the bridge was shrouded in darkness. Roeland and Doug move under starlight.

“Two thousand feet that-a-way, and we should find the old bridge,” Roeland said. “Six miles or so more, and we’re home.”

The old, truss-style bridge was well over a hundred years old and was apparently deemed unimportant militarily to the S.A. Doug and Roeland leap-frogged across the first two spans, and then quickly traversed the remaining sections, finding no obstacles. They moved quickly through the hamlet unchallenged.  The scattered homes in the area were all dark, only a few vehicle tracks were present in the snow, none of them recent.  They approached the main road, again Road J40, carefully studying it before crossing into the woods on the far side.  They were just starting to stand up and begin their crossing when lights appeared from the east, coming from the town of Bonaparte.

“Well, shit,” Roeland said. “Back to cover.”

They both moved into the deep vegetation quickly, sprawling flat under the snow-covered branches. 
The convoy was enormous, far larger than anything either had seen previously.  Flatbeds with tanks, flatbeds with armored personnel carriers, artillery, semi-trucks and passenger buses moved non-stop for nearly an hour. No trailing ‘guard’ vehicle or convoy escorts trailed it.  When it passed, the night was again perfectly silent.

“I guess we’ve now seen what the S.A. has for an army,” Roeland said.

“The question is, why in God’s name are they in rural Iowa?” Doug replied.

“You can bet they aren’t only in rural Iowa. This road isn’t a quick way to get anywhere. Maybe that’s why they’re on it—maybe the U.S. can’t watch everything all the time since the satellites were taken out.”

“Lot of ‘maybes’ there,” Doug said.

“Let’s move.  I’d like to find some shelter for a few hours.  I’m about done for. We gotta get warm.”

Quite by accident, they found a long-abandoned cabin within the next large swath of woodland, a mile and a half north of Bentonsport. The cabin was boarded up save for the cellar entry, and weeds and brush had grown up around it, illustrating it’s disuse.  The cellar doors opened easily, rotted wood pulling away from the heavy iron hinges.

“This just saved our asses,” Roeland said, tiny LED flashlight illuminating the rough cellar. 

“Ship’s ladder to the main floor,” Doug said, shining his own flashlight around.  There should be a fireplace up there.”

The cabin apparently hadn’t been used in more than fifty years, ancient magazines and newspapers piled near the fieldstone fireplace, the four rooms clear of useable furniture. What remained made decent firewood for a small warming fire, allowing both men to sleep for a few precious hours.

The morning dawned clear and cold, but by the time they’d checked their equipment and packed up, winds picked up from the west, driving the fallen snow into the air and obscuring their views across the fields and into the woods, much as a ground fog might.
Reaching the farm adjacent to the Segher property, none of the customary watch positions were manned, raising an enormous red flag to both Doug and Roeland.   No signs of activity were present whatsoever, no foot traffic, trails or any vehicle tracks.

“This doesn’t look right. None of it looks right,” Roeland said.  “Mike and Jerrald should be out here,” referring to fellow Weerstand members.   “Let’s double time it.”

Another half-hour, and they approached the first Segher checkpoint. 

It was also unmanned.

“That, is not what I wanted to see,” Roeland said.    Within a few minutes, they’d leapfrogged across half of the field in front of the main house.  A blast of snow popped up to their right, just as the report of the rifle sounded in their ears.  They both raised their rifles above their heads, and stood still.

“What in the Hell happened?” Doug asked.

“I have no idea.  There were never any plans to abandon the observation posts,” Roeland answered.

The familiar form of Jake appeared in front of them, recognizing them at a hundred yards.  He quickly waved at them and beckoned them back to the house.

“C’mon, boys. Not safe out here!”  Jake yelled.  Doug and Roeland moved as quickly as they could, finally reaching the porch and being pulled inside.  Julie stood with a shotgun in the darkened house. 

“You two are late for dinner,” Maria said.  Julie rapidly stowed an old over-and-under shotgun and threw herself at Doug.

“We will endeavor to never do that again, Mother,” Roeland said, hugging her as he peeled off his parka.   

“Don’t you ever leave me again,” Julie said, sobbing and whispering in Doug’s ear. “Ever!”

As they warmed up and ate, Arie pulled himself from his sickbed and told Doug and Arie the reasons for the pullback—The S.A. aircraft were targeting individuals in the field, seemingly wiping out observation posts systemically, from west to east, larger cities to small.  The Segher’s had abandoned their observation posts ahead of the aerial patrols, which flooded the skies above the family farms with small drones and an occasional gunship.    Properties held by corporate farms were generally uninhabited, and therefore didn’t merit the attention of the old-fashioned, diverse farms like the Segher’s.

They learned the details of the compromise of the Weerstand cell far to the west, resulting in the capture of another U.S. expeditionary unit.  From that point in Guthrie County, west of Des Moines, the attacks had spread along with brutal S.A. rule in most of the smaller towns like Fairfield, the larger cities of Des Moines, Iowa City, Davenport and Cedar Rapids had been hit. Mercenaries—unaffected by RNEW—seemed to be in charge of lightning-fast search and destroy missions. Rumors had the mercenaries gaining experience from service in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a dozen other locations around the world where the U.S. had decided to become involved in affairs that probably didn’t concern them.

Within the timeframe of two days, the face of Iowa had changed forever. 

The United States Army headquarters was a motley collection of tents, shelters and shipping containers, located on a railroad siding in Fort Madison on the Mississippi. Doug had been hoisted up to a sitting position once they arrived in the rail yard, allowing him to look around a little bit and see the ‘Fort Madison’ rail yard sign.  The U.S. position was only about ten miles from his last assigned guard location at Keokuk.  Despite his best efforts, he was still being moved away from the Farm.  

Doug was off-loaded roughly, the zip tie on his ankles cut, and escorted at gunpoint into a chain link fenced enclosure, more of a cattle chute leading to a windowless shipping container.   Before he entered, he noted the odd flag, not what he was used to, flying on an improvised flagpole a few cars down the track. 

“Can you read?” Doug was asked as the door closed behind him.

“Of course,” he replied, as the men behind him cut off the zip ties on his hands.

“Follow those instructions,” a camouflage-clad soldier ordered, pointing to the corrugated metal wall.

The instructions ordered him to strip, shower in the open stall, and dry himself for a physical inspection.  He followed the orders, languishing in the warm water and soap, neither of which he’d had in a couple weeks under his S.A. captors.   His feet felt like they were on fire with the heat of the shower.

“Hurry it up, you worthless piece of shit!” one of the guards ordered. 

“All right,” Doug said, shutting off the water, and taking a worn, once-white towel to dry himself. 

“Put on these utilities and get through that door,” he was ordered. He complied without question, and was followed into the interrogation room by two large armed soldiers.

Behind the second door was a plain white room, a little more than half the width of the shipping container, with a desk and two chairs, one of which he sat in, still in a daze. A door opposite the one he entered immediately opened and a young Army captain entered, carrying a thin legal pad.  Doug stood as he entered. The captain stopped for a moment and looked at him with skepticism and a furrowed brow.

I’m Captain McGowan, United States Army. What is your name and rank?”

“Douglas Michael Peterson. As for rank, I don’t have one.  I was shanghaied from our farm south of Fairfield on December Twenty-second.”

“So you served with the S.A.”, McGowan said flatly.

“I was forced to serve,” Doug replied, before giving the captain the street address of the Segher Farm.

“And yet, you appear to be able to string words together in a coherent manner. Line grunts of the S.A. can’t do that. Which makes you an officer,” the captain countered. “Again, what is your rank?!”

“The S.A. control their troops and probably the general population through the use of altered food products that react with other altered food products.  When the right combination of products are supplied, it affects the mind of the consumer.  The effects build until you have an order-taking, soulless drone that will do whatever they’re told to do. It may physically change the brain, I don’t know.  I know which of these foods will react with others. I avoided those that were catalysts for the reaction to occur,” Doug explained, before adding that he was covertly inserted by Regent into the Food and Drug Administration, under President Lambert, to assist in the distribution of the altered food into the supply chain for the U.S. military and general population.

“Quite the story,” McGowan said, reviewing his notes.

“Not a story. Fact.  Before the war I worked for the company that created the product. The product is called RNEW, which was an acronym for Regent Nutritional Enhancement Workgroup, the department I was in. The parent company is…or was, Regent Performance Group. I’m pretty sure they were affiliated with both that New Republic outfit, the S.A., and President Lambert. I’d heard some of them are with the S.A. government now, but again, I’m not sure of that.”

The captains’ eyes narrowed as he considered the words of the prisoner.

“I supplied the information to our underground network and to U.S. troops from our farm, when they were trying to get back from behind the lines.  The underground network is called the Weerstand. That word means ‘resistance’ in Dutch. One of the men on the farm also had the ability to locate and identify S.A. weapons and supplies through embedded RFID-like chips in their equipment. ”

“Through what technology?” McGowan asked, still obviously highly skeptical.

“A hand held reader camouflaged as an old Palm PDA. Someone ought to have record of it.”

“You said you met with U.S. troops?”

“Yes. Early December. We met them on December third.  Sergeant by the name of Case. He was a Ranger out of Washington State. We got them across the border into Missouri the day after the S.A. fired their nukes toward Texas.”

“You two keep an eye on this one,” the Captain said to the two guards as he stood. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Doug sat for he guessed a half-hour; the men behind him unmoving in their observation of him.  The door opened, and McGowan and another officer entered, this one a bird-colonel. Doug stood as they entered.

“This man claims to be a Douglas Peterson, Colonel. Associated with some underground group called the Weerstand,” Captain McGowan explained.

“And yet you were caught in full S.A. regalia, near a hardened S.A. encampment, less than two miles from the a large part of the S.A. First Defense Force,” the Colonel stated.

“What?” Doug asked.

“You were captured south of Montrose, Iowa. North of the S.A. forward air-support base, formerly Keokuk municipal airport. You, along with several hundred other S.A. prisoners captured within a ten mile radius, appear to be deserters from the former First Defense Force.”

“I didn’t know anything about an army near us.  We were only at that airport for a couple of days,” Doug said.  We were to guard the airport,” he said, omitting the orders to destroy all buildings between the rail line and the airport. “And what do you mean, ‘former?’”

“They were destroyed early this morning. We have a handful of survivors from that immediate area, including their commanding general,” McGowan stated, “Along with a number of their officers. And you.”

“So, you can understand our, ‘curiosity’ at your story,” the Colonel said skeptically, setting a thick folder down on the table, but keeping the contents hidden.  Doug noted his name on the worn uniform, ‘Drummond.’

“I explained to Captain McGowan, Colonel, who I am and where I’m from. There should be some way to verify that with your own people. Check my I.D. file with the Federal information system.  Take me back to the farm that I live on. The data that I told the Captain about is there. It’s fifteen or twenty miles from here,” Doug said.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘Federal system’ any longer. The S.A. saw to that when they pulled out of Denver.  As for ‘taking you home’, we don’t exactly run a shuttle service,” Drummond spat at him.  “Right now, I’m rounding up transport for your commanding general and some of his surviving senior officers to be shipped to San Antonio. I’m inclined to put you on the same transport.”

“I have no idea of any S.A. generals or any other officers.  The S.A. we were with was run by men that called themselves ‘Sergeants’,” Doug said.  “From December until two days ago, I was in New London. I never even fired my rifle except in training.”

“Ship him with Slocum,” Colonel Drummond said, moving to the doorway.

“Slocum?” Doug asked, stunned.  ‘It couldn’t possibly be,’ he thought.  He felt himself involuntarily push back from the table. “A.A. Slocum is their General? Good God,” he said, eyes wide at the revelation.

“Oh, so you do know him then,” McGowan replied.

“He was on the board of directors at Regent….my former employer.  Chrome-plated asshole,” Doug said, still staring off into nothing.  “He’s really a General?”

“General Slocum has been in command of an army that is responsible for the deaths of well more than a hundred thousand Americans. Possibly twice that, we don’t know. The men under his command have done unspeakable acts of savagery,” the Colonel said, opening the file and sliding it toward Doug’s side of the table, spreading several photographs apart for full clarity.

Doug looked at the first photograph and immediately vomited bile from his empty stomach on the wall next to him uncontrollably, and pushed away from the table.

“Those were six year olds attending school in Van Meter, Iowa.  The S.A. raped them,” the Colonel said, spinning one photograph toward Doug, “Before beheading them. This one’s from Nebraska.  School kids and their teachers who were trying to shelter them were locked in a room and then grenades were thrown in,” he said as another picture was tossed at him.  “Here’s one where they used pregnant women for target practice.  This one has a whole church full of people burned alive. This isn’t propaganda. Our unit saw all of this first-hand.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with any of that!” Doug screamed.

“You were captured in an S.A. uniform within running distance of where the S.A. was thrashed this morning. You’ve admitted serving with them…”

“I was captured and forced to serve!” Doug said.

“Yeah, I bet they worked you over real hard, too,” Drummond said.   “Captain, get him into a detent cell like the others,” he ordered. “You, ‘Peterson’ or whatever your real name is, will probably take a drop from a short rope one of these days.”

Wednesday, January Seventeenth
06:00 hours
Third Washington Command Center
Fort Madison, Iowa

“Peterson!” Doug heard through the steel door. “You’ve got two minutes,” the guard said. 

‘Two minutes until what,’ he wondered.  He’d spent two days in solitary confinement, a five gallon bucket serving as his toilet, white steel walls and a single, lighted ceiling panel above him, never darkened.  His meals were delivered through a slot in the bottom of the door, water provided via a spigot on the wall, that only dispensed a gallon of water per day.  He rose from the thin cot, and pulled on thin, industrial-felt slippers, and waited.

Nothing in the room could be torn into anything that could be used as a noose; no belts, straps or metal of any kind.  Had he tried to harm himself, the eye behind the black camera dome above him would’ve likely resulted in an immediate visit from one of the uniformed mountains known as guards.  He’d had nothing but time to consider his circumstance, trying to make sense of the rushed battle around Keokuk before the S.A. troops bolted before artillery shells walked across the entire runway; of the fragments of the conversations he’d heard from the U.S. troops.  There wasn’t enough that he’d heard to make sense of it all.

He heard the lock bars slide, and the door opened.  “Get this gear on. Now,” the guard ordered, tossing in a pile of clothing, including a parka and boots. “Don’t try anything stupid.”

“No sir,” Doug replied as the door closed.  He stripped off the orange coverall and underwear and changed into new clothing, tying boots that fit him perfectly as the door opened again.

“With us,” the guard ordered.  “Get that parka on.”  He knew better than to ask questions.

The temperature outside was well below zero, a bitter wind kicking up the snow again to just above ground level, a freezing fog under the January sun.  Doug was escorted by the two guards across an open compound, into a rail car that obviously served as the base of operations for the camp.

“Inside, to the left.  Fuck up, and we kill you. Got it?” one of the guards said.

“Got it,” Doug replied.

Two more guards met him inside the converted shipping container serving as a mobile office of some sort.  The guards directed him to a small conference room, where his obvious choice was to sit and wait…for something.  He didn’t have to wait long.  His original interrogator, Captain McGowan, entered the room. Doug stood.

“Sit, Mister Peterson,” McGowan said, less of an order and more of a suggestion.

“Thanks,” he replied.

“One of the hats I wear in this command is logistics. The other is intelligence.  We have found some interesting information about you in files recovered from the field.”

“Recovered?” Doug asked.

“The S.A. command center for the First Defense Force. It’s remains are not far from here.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“You remember your interrogation?” McGowan asked.

“Well, yeah.”

“Third Washington—this Brigade—defeated First Defense early Sunday morning. As the Colonel said, several of their leadership were captured alive.  We obtained unlock codes on their surviving data files and found some interesting information about you after a bit of digging.”

“What kind of information?” Doug asked.

“It appears to corroborate statements you made about not being in the S.A.  You are allegedly in North Dakota at this time and an ‘enemy combatant’ as labeled by none other than General Slocum.  Your file is rather remarkable.”

“I left Denver back in September.  Regent wanted me to go to Columbus, I assume to mine me for information about the FDA and Federal operations.  They were tracking me through surveillance cameras along the way. One of their inside men felt he owed me a favor and created the North Dakota rabbit trail. I came back to Iowa instead to be with my wife and family.”

“Do you know a woman named Camille Simpson?” McGowan asked.  Doug’s jaw dropped.

“Yes, I…used to,” he replied, explaining his brief, highly physical relationship with his former girlfriend.  McGowan took notes, pencil on legal pad.  “Now, why do you ask about her? I haven’t seen her in almost a year.”

McGowan didn’t answer for a moment.  “Do you know where she is at this time?”

“I have no idea.  She went off her meds, which I didn’t even know she was on, and the last time I saw her was in Chicago.”

“It appears that she may have been a recipient of your mind-altering cocktail, courtesy of your former employer.  Further, she is now, or was until Sunday morning, sleeping with General Slocum.  She likely died in the attack.”  McGowan said flatly.  “I’m betting you had no idea about any of this.”

“I have nothing to say. I…” Doug paused. “How could this be?”

“Slocum states that they met through some athletic club. Does the ‘Lakeshore Club’ ring any bells?”

“Cammie worked there. So did my wife,” Doug said numbly. “I’m sorry. This is all too much.”

“Coffee?” McGowan asked.

“Please,” Doug answered, still stunned. “You have coffee?”

“Yeah,” McGowan answered, motioning to one of the guards, who opened a door and a carafe and mugs were handed in. “Miss Simpson is a relatively minor wrinkle in the larger scheme of things, but I thought you ought to know,” McGowan said, pouring two cups of coffee.  

“So you’ve got Slocum alive?”  Doug said as the door opened.

“For now,” Colonel Drummond answered.  “He’ll have a date with eternity soon enough.” Doug stood.  Although he didn’t know the man, Doug thought he looked tired and drawn; his close cropped, mostly grey hair barely covering a long scar across his scalp.

“Good morning, Colonel,” Doug said. His voice sounded foreign as he heard himself speak.

“Mister Peterson,” Drummond replied, pouring his own cup of coffee. “Several of my staff have been reviewing S.A. files most of the night to check into your story. Oddly enough, you appear to be telling the truth.”

“It’s easier to remember,” Doug said, taking a sip of the black coffee, and closing his eyes. “I’m just trying to get home.”

“In our first meeting, you mentioned some files that you said you’d passed on to an Army unit in your area,” Drummond asked.

“Yes.  A Sergeant. His name was Gunner Case…from,” Doug struggled to remember, “Fort Lewis I think. We gave him the information on RNEW, and data on S.A. equipment that we’d collected…I’d collected. From Iowa to Denver and back.”

“Sergeant Case was killed in action along with his squad,” Drummond replied.

“We…we got them into Missouri. They were safe,” Doug said, leaning forward on the table. Another blow to his psyche.

“Their Blackhawk was taken out by a Russian-made drone south of Union Ridge, Missouri, probably not long after they made their rendezvous.  The information you had supplied never made it out of their hands,” Drummond said.  “We are pretty interested in what you can tell us, Mister Peterson.”

“They were just kids in that squad,” Doug said with a thousand-yard-stare. “Case’s men. Half of them played video games while they stayed with us. Barely out of school.”

Drummond and McGowan noticed it and didn’t press on for a moment. “Mister Peterson, was the S.A. unit you were with involved in any action?”

“Looted some buildings, burned some others but that was just down by the airport. No one on my shift ever fired a weapon in anger that I know of, certainly not in New London. Other than training…we fired one mag a week, maybe fifty yards range. AK-47’s. No handgun training. Other than a few people in New London, we never even saw anyone other than S.A.”

“So, what can you tell us about this stuff they’re eating?” McGowan asked. Drummond sat on the edge of the table with his arms folded.

“The marketing stated that the RNEW product could be used as an extender, and an enhancement to flavoring, along with adding nutritional value to raw materials that might have had less than sufficient flavor or nutrition.  In reality, the products are catalytic. All of the Regent products—with the exception of what they called ‘Preferred’ products, were adulterated.  The ‘Preferred’ stuff was available to the execs and people that they wanted to use in leadership positions. I was one of them. Lucky, I guess.”

“You said ‘catalytic,’” Drummond stated. “Explain, please.”

“Components of the food line when combined with the enhanced water or vitamin drink line react.  If you have food or drink alone, it won’t react….at least, that’s what was being produced last Fall. You couldn’t combine them at that point without negating the reaction after a few hours. There was no way to preserve a combined product,” Doug explained.  “I worked in the Des Moines plant. Ran it, actually.”

“How widespread is this stuff?” McGowan asked. Drummond was drilling into him with unblinking eyes.

“Last year it had been distributed most heavily east of the Mississippi, but really they were trying for every major population center. Their breakout though came in relief supplies and MRE’s.  My job with Regent was to do what was necessary to get RNEW products into the military supply chain.  Covertly I did the opposite. I provided the formula and the confidential marketing strategy to the U.S. via the Weerstand early last fall. September maybe,” Doug said, trying to remember. “Obviously it didn’t get through.”

“You worked for the FDA as well?” Drummond asked.

“Yeah. A Regent plant to influence the Cabinet level if I could or at least direct things Regent’s way at the agency level. FDA was located inside Regent’s Denver building.  Regent knew everything that the FDA was doing.  They had real time surveillance on everything and everyone of import, which didn’t really include me. In Denver I found it pretty easy to keep RNEW products in the east and keep the West Coast clean,” Doug said, taking a long drink of coffee.

“Does this information still exist? These formulas?”

“Sure. The Des Moines plant had the information of course, but I have no idea if that plant still exists.  I had copies on the farm where my wife and I lived though,” Doug said, giving them the address, barely fifteen miles away.

“Get him some breakfast, Gerry. Regular rations. We’re going for a drive,” Drummond said, standing to leave. Doug rose as well, but couldn’t speak before the Colonel left the room.

“Am I to go along?” Doug asked quietly, thinking the unthinkable. ‘Home.’

“I would suspect so, Mister Peterson,” McGowan said.  “I understand your wife and family may still be on that farm, but…I would not be optimistic.  This Brigade has seen unspeakable destruction and loss of life and the swath that the S.A. cut through the country is huge. There are no guarantees of what might have become of your people.”

“I understand,” Doug said, heartsick but mind still racing ahead. ‘Could she still be there? Is she O.K.?’

Wednesday, January Seventeenth
9:30 hours

Doug was in the left rear seat of a Humvee, the Colonel in the front, being driven by a young Lieutenant.  Captain McGowan was in the back with Doug, reviewing a thick sheaf of papers.  Drummond and McGowan wore radio headsets; Kittrick did not.

Heading south from the railyard command center, the driver headed through a checkpoint, and Doug found himself in the midst of a blackened wrecking yard of military equipment.  Dozens of Army soldiers were working.

“What happened here?” Doug asked. He realized this wasn’t the brightest of questions he could have asked.  The answer was obvious a moment later.  Frozen bodies lined the road—many were in pieces. “Oh my God.”

“This was the last command of General Slocum. The remains of the State of America First Defense Force,” Drummond replied.  “Our men are clearing the field of munitions in addition to retrieving human remains for burial. There are more than eighty thousand dead here, Mister Peterson.  We killed them.”

A scarred Caterpillar bulldozer carved a trench, cutting through the mud and a layer of frozen earth, obviously excavating a mass grave.  

“There are three hundred main battle tanks out here, hundreds of trucks, artillery, and one hundred and five semi-trucks that were loaded with supplies, ammunition, and spoils of war. We’d like you to take a look at some of the food products,” McGowan said.

“Uh, sure.”

“Next left, Mister Kittrick,” Drummond ordered.  They turned into a frozen, rutted road, where a semi-trailer had apparently be cut in half, lengthwise.  The Humvee stopped and they made their way to the wreck.  Regent-made MRE’s littered the ground.

“These are all Regent,” Doug said.  “Here’s their marking,” Doug pointed out to the officers.  “You shouldn’t use any of this. I don’t know what inside of these might be safe.”  It was only at that moment that Doug looked up and saw the field of dead S.A., spreading a thousand feet before him. A frozen arm reached toward the weak January sun, just feet away from him.  “This is…so much to take in,” Doug said.

“Yes, it is.” Drummond said.  “None of us will be the same.”

“Everyone takes a shift in the field, Mister Peterson. Officers included,” McGowan said.  “We’ll be out of body bags by noon today.”

The drive to the farm was like a trip back in time for Doug, familiar landmarks rising to his vision, and his heart beat faster as he recognized roadside trees, bends in the road, and the driveway ultimately came into view.

His heart sank as the remains of the main house came into sight—the driveway obstacles had been shoved out of the way, the high berms had holes plowed through them.

“NO!” Doug cried out.

The home was burned to the foundation and had collapsed on itself.   A Third Washington patrol unit had arrived ahead of them and had fanned out and secured the area.  

Drummond, McGowan and Lieutenant Kittrick were quiet as they pulled up to the remains of the huge equipment shed.  Huge pieces of the sheetmetal skin were blown thirty feet away from the building, the remaining steel frame was twisted and burned.  Doug could see the remains of Arie’s truck in the wreckage.

“Report,” Drummond asked a sergeant in command of the advance unit.

“No signs of activity sir, friendly or otherwise.”

“Did you check the other houses? The cellar? The barn?” Doug said through tears. He was beginning to hyperventilate.

“Our men are at this time, sir,” the sergeant replied.  Drummond didn’t look optimistic.

“Mister Peterson, where might you have hidden those files?” McGowan asked, ignoring Doug’s missing family.

“There was a copy in the equipment shed. And in my own place. It’s over near the treeline,” he said, pointing toward the location of his and Julie’s home.

“Baker, get a couple of men over that way,” the sergeant said to his men.

“Where would your family have hidden from the S.A., Mister Peterson?” Drummond asked quietly.

“There are hidden cellars in a couple of the homes, and one of the old root cellars, up that draw, about two hundred yards that way,” Doug said, pointing to a map of the area, showing the soldiers the locations Peter and Molly’s home and three other Segher houses.

“All right, let’s go have a look up that draw,” Drummond said, taking an old scoped bolt-action rifle with him. “Gerry, with us.”

“Colonel, we’ve got company,” Lieutenant Kittrick said, pointing out a lone civilian, arms raised, currently being searched by one of Drummonds soldiers as another held him at gunpoint.

“Recognize him, Mister Peterson?”  Drummond asked.

“What?” Doug said, still trying to process what he was seeing all around him. “Uh, no. I don’t think so,” he said, finally clearing his vision enough to see the man.  The man was bundled up in an old wool greatcoat, a clerical collar barely visible; a heavy fur cap pulled low over his ears.

“Clear, sir,” the soldier who had searched the man said.

“Advance,” Drummond said.  “Identify yourself, please.”

“Pastor Roger Macklin. I’m from Ottumwa.”

“What are you doing here?” McGowan asked.

“I’m trying to help the survivors. Provide comfort if possible. I heard there was a need over near Fort Madison.”

“You could say that,” Drummond said. “There are north of eighty thousand dead there, and three thousand to bury them.”

“I had heard of a battle,” the pastor replied. “I hope that I may help.”

“Right now, we’re looking for this man’s family. This was his farm.  Do you know what happened here?”

“No.  I don’t think there is anyone alive here though,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry. I’ve been across this area for a couple of days. I have a pickup truck and camper about a mile west of here.”

“Have you…seen any bodies?” Doug asked, heart pounding in his ears.

“Unfortunately yes.  I found them early this morning. They are…up this way,” Pastor Macklin said, point up the draw where Doug had hoped the Seghers had found refuge.

Doug dropped to his knees, unable to go on. The pastor immediately took Doug’s hands and did his best to calm him down and pray with him.  His mouth was open as if to scream, his eyes wide as in terror.

Drummond and McGowan were sympathetic, but there was little they could do.   They proceeded up the shallow draw, and saw the low concrete roof of the old cellar, stained with smoke above where a door should’ve been.  The twisted steel door lay fifteen feet away. It appeared to have been blown off from an explosion within the cellar.

“This looks familiar,” Colonel Drummond said. “Load up the room with civilians and grenade them.  Inside, Kittrick?”

“Yes sir.  There’s gotta be fifteen or twenty dead in there.”

“How long?”

“Can’t say, sir.  I’d guess weeks.  Obvious animal activity after they were killed.”

“Any women? Can you tell?” Drummond asked.

“Not enough left to tell, at least from what I can see, sir. It’s pretty bad inside.”


“Yes, sir.  Looks like a couple of AK receivers and barrels.  Some of the bodies have boots that look S.A., but that doesn’t really mean anything. This was more of a fire than explosion sir. I think the heat blew that door off. Flash fire or something.”

“We’re going to need a detail here to remove those bodies, Lieutenant. Once they’re out of there, Peterson should see them,” Drummond said, looking inside the cellar. “He doesn’t need to see the removal.  I expect that his own house is ash, too.  There’s nothing we’re going to retrieve obviously. The locusts have been through here, stripped it clean and killed everyone they came across. Again,” he said, dropping to a knee, seeing something in the snow a few feet outside the doorway. He picked through the snow cover, and retrieved a tiny, light blue knitted cap, sized for a newborn.

“Is it of more comfort to you to think that your family might yet be alive, or to confirm that they are dead?” Colonel Drummond asked no one in particular, brushing the snow from the tiny knitted cap.

“At this point I think the only comfort to be found would be the hope that his loss will lessen with a great distance of time,” McGowan replied.

“A great distance indeed,” Drummond said, folding the tiny cap and laying it in the snow where he’d found it. “Peterson might recover from this, although God alone knows how. What I’m looking at here will destroy what’s left of him.  Central Command wants him on his way to San Antonio on the next outbound.”

“After that?”  McGowan said, omitting the more formal ‘sir’.

“‘Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.’ I think Robert Louis Stevenson said that,” Drummond said as several soldiers appeared, donning thick rubber gloves before they entered the burned out cellar.  “If everything he said is on the up and up, he had ample chances to get out of harms’ way, and didn’t.  Playing along with the S.A. probably got everyone he cared about killed, and you could make the case that he materially assisted in the S.A. plan to conquer the entire continent.”

“You think San Antonio sees it that way?” McGowan asked.

“I don’t have any reason to believe otherwise. They want him for what he knows about this RNEW product, but the chances of him ever seeing daylight as a free man are I’d suspect, damned near non-existent. Once the politicians get wind of him it’s blood in the water and the water’s full of sharks.”

“He’s not that bastard Slocum,” the captain replied.

“No, he’s not.  Slocum and his surviving minions will pay with their lives, after the interrogators are done with them and some short, sweet war-crimes trials. Peterson’s coin is on the edge.  Heads, he’s an S.A. collaborator and could swing from his neck for it. Tails, he’s a tragic hero who found himself in the middle of something bad and tried to do something about it and paid for it with everything.  Which way it goes will be driven by what is politically advantageous, not what’s factual, and certainly not what might be called ‘true’.”

“I suspect that the S.A. leadership would consider Third Washington a bunch of butchers,” McGowan stated.

“There is no doubt of that,” Drummond replied. “Probably a healthy bounty on all of us.”

 “Colonel, Command is trying to get in touch with you, sir. Is your headset working?” Kittrick asked, holding a hand-held radio.

“Seems my gear works while I’m actually in camp, and not anywhere else, Mister Kittrick. What’s the word?”

“We’re being ordered to stand down, sir. Graves Registration and Munitions Disposal units will be on site by twelve hundred hours, and we’re to be reassigned.”

“Gerry, perhaps our own banquet of consequences awaits us,” Drummond said.  “Let’s give Mister Peterson our condolences, and see if Command wants to put us on trial.”