Sunday, October 27, 2013
Doug stood before the window of his soon-to-be-empty apartment, looking out at the Front Range and thirteen columns of black smoke rising from many areas of the city and suburbs.
He’d risen early, unable to sleep, and packed the last of his few belongings in the low-priority baggage to be shipped to Regent Columbus. His highest priority items resided in a very business-like backpack, containing all of the elements an individual would need for three days to a week, including an M9 Beretta and magazines. On the company aircraft that Doug was expecting, the pack would travel with him unchecked. Travel on commercial airlines would see the bag emptied, the weapon secured in a locked enclosure and placed under constant supervision of an armed and uniformed air marshal. Doug would also have to pay a surcharge for the privilege of bringing a firearm aboard.
Doug had noted the fires, appearing to burn unchecked, not long after sunrise. The lone AM radio station did not mention them, only providing innocuous local news and weather forecasts, and some puff pieces on upcoming Federal appointees, followed by meaningless story about a high-end invitation only dinner and reception for several un-named foreign dignitaries, to be held in the Zone at an undisclosed location. He’d turned on the television, finding only black screens on all channels. FM radio stations seemed to be operating normally, until he noted there were no DJ’s announcing songs, filling the transitions with meaningless drivel, or news at the top and bottom of the hour. It seemed fully automated on all stations. Doug also noted that the little LED on the ‘cable box’, most likely the hub of the apartments’ surveillance system, was dark—it had never been ‘off’ in Doug’s memory.
Finally, at nearly seven-thirty, two men from ‘Preferred Shipping’ arrived at Doug’s door, quickly loading up a single hand-truck with Doug’s things. Both were in their late twenties or early thirties, wearing worn and not particularly clean coveralls with a company logo. Doug welcomed them further into the apartment.
“This is it? Seriously?” the larger of the two asked—he reminded Doug of a linebacker. “Thought there’d be more. You not taking any of this?” he said, waving at the furniture.
“Belongs to the company,” Doug said. “This was a temp job.”
“Pretty nice digs,” said the second man, a thin, wiry twenty-something with numerous tattoos. “Jeezus pleezus, lookit them fires,” he said, looking out over the city.
“Yeah. Saw them at sunrise. What’s going on? There’s nothing on the radio,” Doug said. Linebacker stopped his companion from replying.
“We gotta get moving. We got orders to get you to DIA as soon as we can. We gotta non-disclosure against talkin’. Can’t even give ya our names. Sorry.”
“You guys want some coffee before we go? Just going to waste otherwise,” Doug said, taking a different tack. “Or the maid’ll take it. Can’t take it with me.” He noted that the men exchanged quick glances.
“Well, we’re not supposed to,” the larger man said.
“I’m not telling,” Doug said. “Let me get a couple of mugs.”
Doug retrieved two Regent mugs from the kitchen, and filled them both with some of the Kona coffee provided to him.
“Cream and sugar?” Doug asked, getting both out from the kitchen.
“You serious? This is real coffee? And sugar?” Tattoo asked.
“Company provided it. Hard to get,” Doug replied.
“Impossible. Not hard,” Linebacker said, pouring an ample dose of cream into the mug, and two tablespoons of sugar.
“Yeah, I know. It’s getting pretty shitty out there,” Doug said, sitting down at the polished mahogany dining table. “Have a seat if you like.”
“We would so get our asses fired if our boss knew about this,” Tattoo said, pulling up a chair. “I haven’t had a coffee in months.”
Linebacker sat down across from Doug. “Uh, Mister Peterson, do you, uh, have any plans for your leftover stuff? I mean your leftover stuff in the kitchen?”
“No, not a one. Want it? There’s not much in there, but the Company will just toss it before someone new moves in,” Doug replied.
“It’d be a shame to waste it,” Linebacker said. “You mind if we take that along?”
“Not at all. There’s not much in the fridge, just that leftover cream and some stuff that oughta get tossed. I had the concierge send up the cream and the orange juice for breakfast, and that loaf of bread. Freezer’s got some stuff though. Bacon, a few steaks and chops,” Doug said offhandedly, seeing the reaction of the two men. “Split it if you like.”
“Uh, OK. We can take care of that for you,” Tattoo said.
“Now, could you give me a little news from the outside?” Doug asked quietly, having provided them payment in advance. They sat there for a few moments before either answered.
“You didn’t hear this from us, OK? We’d get canned if we tell anyone anything, and canned in this town is as good as being on the street, which is just this side of dead.”
“Didn’t hear a thing from you two,” Doug said, taking a drink of coffee.
“Riots all over the place. Feds tried a house-to-house search for guns or some-such, some kid fresh from that goat-screw down in Mexico took exception and they shot him dead. That was last night about eleven,” Tattoo told Doug. “That was over in Lakewood.”
Linebacker continued. “Word got out quick. Bunch of black-wearin’ thugs started showing up on other people’s doorsteps, just bang in the door with a big ol’ sledge and start looking for God knows what. Someone popped one of those Feds in the face with a twelve-gauge when they busted inta his place, and then the neighbors joined in. Them fires are the Feds’ tanks a-burnin’.”
“Tanks?” Doug asked.
“Might as well be, yeah. Some of them armored things left over from Afghanistan, sorta looks like a semi-tractor. Big ‘n black and a chain gun up in the roof. They burn real good, you get enough fuel on ‘em,” Linebacker said.
“That’s gotta have the Feds shittin’ bricks,” Doug said, in a more casual dialect.
“You got that right. Getting the Hell outta here’s about the smartest move out there.”
“What about you guys? This thing comes apart, you got a plan?”
They exchanged looks before Tatoo answered. “We got plans. We’re gonna be just fine. Question is, where you headin’?”
“Supposed to go to Columbus, finish up with the company, then a nice quiet corner of nowhere.”
“Bad shit comin’, Mister Peterson. Bad shit.”
“Yeah. If this is the way it looks in our temporary Capitol, what does the rest of the country look like?” Doug asked. Neither of the men answered.
They finished up the coffee, and Tattoo made a trip down to their truck to retrieve moving boxes. Within ten minutes, the kitchen was stripped of all remaining foodstuffs, soaps and detergents; everything packed in boxes and secured to a second hand truck. Both men were in considerably better moods as they left the apartment.
Doug rode in the back seat of the double-cab box van, showing his I.D. badge as the van was searched at the roadblock, finally getting the nod from the armed and armored security team. Linebacker radioed in to his dispatcher on the company radio, briefly stating they had ‘the package’ and were heading to DIA. The dispatcher acknowledged the pickup, with orders to report from DIA for their next assignment.
“Surprised they didn’t open up the boxes and search them, too,” Doug said.
“They’ve got our seals on them,” Tattoo replied. “We’re bonded shippers, so they don’t search our stuff once we seal it up. Penalty for not playing by their rules is wicked steep.”
“Good thing that we’re following the rules then,” Doug said with a chuckle.
“Yessir!” Linebacker said as he laughed. “Them porterhouses woulda been wasted in them boys.”
Interstate Seventy, heading east toward the Denver International interchange was virtually deserted. Doug noted numerous additional plumes of smoke on the eastern side of the metro area as well.
“Same thing over here? Feds?” Doug asked.
“Could be. Could be boys just gettin’ off on gettin’ even, too. Lotta that goes on outside the Zone,” Linebacker replied. “But usually only at nighttime. Fires mostly burn out by dawn.”
The van approached the airport, cruising along the empty Pena Boulevard. Doug contemplated the flight to Columbus, and what he’d do once he arrived. Linebacker suddenly slammed on the brakes, jarring Doug in the back seat and forcing him to grab whatever he could as the van slewed to a stop. A rapidly expanding cloud of fire and thick black smoke rose near the Airport.
“Jeezus,” Tattoo said as the van stopped in the middle of the road. “You think sum’n bagged a frickin’ plane?”
“Dunno,” Linebacker replied, “but no way in Hell am I drivin’ up to all that security in a van that looks like a truck bomb.” He turned the van around and headed west in the eastbound lanes, soon crossing over to the other side of the boulevard.
“Sorry, Mister Peterson. You’re not getting to the airport today,” Tattoo said as Linebacker radioed in to dispatch.
“Dispatch, this is Fourteen. Something bad just happened at the airport. We’re not going out there,” Linebacker said. No response from the dispatcher came through.
“We gotta get off this highway,” Tattoo said. “This ain’t a good place to be. Feds gonna come down like a hammer again.”
“Take the next exit,” Doug said. “Bunch of hotels to the south of here. What do you mean by ‘again?’”
“Some government people bit it last week at the airport. Any truck or car moving got shot all to Hell by helos. Friends of ours were running a cargo load. The never knew what hit ‘em.”
Linebacker took the next exit, quickly but legally, driving the posted limit. The flashing lights of a Colorado State Patrol car met them, speeding north toward the airport. It passed them without notice.
“Next one on the left,” Doug said. “Over there. There’s a few vans in the parking lot like this one.”
Tattoo was scanning the horizon toward the city. “Choppers coming. Jeez. Six of ‘em.”
The van slowed, pulled into the parking lot, and casually parked near three other box vans.
“Maybe it’s time for a late breakfast,” Doug said.
“We ain’t really dressed for a place like this,” Tattoo said.
“It’ll be OK. We’ll just tell ‘em the truth,” Doug replied. Linebacker took a smaller radio from the dash of the van.
“This’n links to the main radio,” he said to Doug. “Maybe dispatch’ll have an idea what’s goin’ on.”
The hotel restaurant had a dozen or so people inside, many looking to the northeast as the smoke plume towered into the sky. The waitress greeted Doug at the front desk.
“C…Can I help you?” she asked shakily.
“Well, we were heading to the airport when something happened…we figured we should maybe come here,” Doug said. “Can we stay here? Tom and Larry here are helping me ship some important materials,” he said quietly.
“Uh, sure. No one knows what happened. Take a seat anywhere. I’ll get you some menus and coffee,” she said, and then asking quietly, “Do you have money?”
“Yeah. We’re good,” Doug spoke confidently. “I’ve got this.”
The waitress went to get a carafe of coffee as they took their seats. Tattoo asked, “So which one of us is Larry?”
Two hours passed before ‘Tom’ and ‘Larry’ heard from their dispatcher, who ordered them back to the Metro area for their next assignment. While they were waiting, speculation ran wild in the hotel and the restaurant about what had happened at the airport, but no television coverage of it appeared, other than a simple statement ‘that at the present time, DIA had been closed due to an incident.’ The statement was not repeated.
Both of the men apologized to Doug for leaving him short of his destination, and suggested that he might be able to catch a ride on an Eastbound convoy of semis, which were on regular schedules departing every few hours.
Doug would be left to fend for himself, his two large suitcases, suit bag, a soft-side attaché and backpack in the restaurant of the Front Range Suites. Doug’s essentials were in the backpack and the attaché, which was actually a detached portion of the backpack.
“Hang on a second before you go,” he told ‘Tom’ and ‘Larry.’ He headed over to the desk of the concierge.
“May I be of service?” the well-groomed young man asked.
“Yes. It appears that my flight out today will not be taking off. Do you have rooms available?” Doug asked, fishing out his Regent credit card and sliding it into the hands of the concierge, who looked at it briefly and handed it back without entering into the computer. Months before, Doug had concealed the card in a very thin scan-proof sleeve in his backpack. In theory, the case prevented the embedded chip to be detected ‘on the fly’. In reality, Doug had no idea if the technology really worked.
“We are fully booked at this time, but we should have a large contingent of guests checking out within the next two hours, leaving on ground transport. Would that be of interest?”
“Yes. That would be fine. May I store those bags until that time?”
“But of course. I will reserve a suite for you, Mister Peterson. How many nights?”
“Well, I’m uncertain on that. Have you heard when the airport will reopen?”
“Unfortunately not, sir. I cannot hazard a guess.”
“Let’s call it three nights then, just in case.”
“Excellent, sir. Until your room is available, you are welcome to use our conference center at your convenience.”
“How is your communications service? Still intact? I’ve been working at the FDA downtown for quite a while.”
“Apologies, sir, there are some limited connections to the Federal network, but only with proper login and authorization. Unfortunately, telephones are a bit spotty as well.”
“No problem. I may just take a stroll around. Pretty day for a walk.”
“It is at that, sir,” the concierge said, signaling to a bellhop to retrieve Doug’s bags, tag and store them. Doug paid the bill for ‘brunch’ with his Regent card—deliberately—and then put it back into the metallic sleeve.
“Mind if I catch a ride with you two?” Doug asked ‘Tom’ and ‘Larry’, who both raised their eyebrows at the question. “Just drop me at that truck stop you mentioned.”
“What about your stuff?” ‘Larry’ asked.
“They’ll store it. They think I’m staying here tonight. With luck, I’ll be on a truck headed east by then.”
“Sure. Saddle up. Thanks for brunch, Mister Peterson. Can’t tell my girlfriend about this though. She’d kill me if she found out I had eggs benedic’,” ‘Larry’ replied.
Five miles south of the cluster of hotels, the van pulled into the truck stop, just off of Airport Boulevard. The parking lot was packed, with easily more than a hundred trucks parked.
“Weird to see this many mid-day,” ‘Tom’ said.
“Yeah. Should be on the road this time a-day,” Larry replied. “You might be in luck, Mister Peterson.”
“Maybe so,” Doug said as the van stopped near the far end of the fueling island. He grabbed is pack, thanked the men again, and closed the door. The van quickly turned around and left as Doug made his way up the fueling island, checking out the trucking companies along the way. He knew most of their coverage areas as well as they did, in his former life.
“Anyone heading east?” Doug asked two drivers conversing as their tanks filled.
“Damn near ever’ one. Needin’ a lift?” said a rotund, overall-clad man about Doug’s age.
“Yeah. Doesn’t look like flying’s an option,” Doug said.
“Got that right. Hell’a mess over there,” the second driver said. He looked to be too old to be driving. “Where ya headed?”
“I’m headed to Chicago,” the first man replied. “We leave in twenty minutes. You got some scratch?”
Doug looked the older man in the eye and asked, “What’s the goin’ rate?”
“Whatever the driver can get, a-course,” the younger driver replied with a wink.
“Twelve hour drive, probably a stop or three for security, maybe a few Federal searches along the way, I’d guess?” Doug said.
“Depends,” the older driver replied.
“This a Federal convoy, or private?” Doug asked.
“Depends,” the driver repeated. Doug was getting frustrated.
“OK. Let’s cut the bullshit then,” Doug said, taking out his Federal ID and FDA badge, which caused both men to step back involuntarily. “I have business in Des Moines. These can be used to make things easier, or more difficult. What’s your price?”
“How’s fifty bucks gold?” the man answered quickly.
“I don’t have any ten-coins. Call it good at sixty, and no one will see these for the duration,” Doug said, putting his obsolete Federal ID’s away. The younger driver laughed and shook his head.
“Money’s more than fine. And keep that ID handy. Might smooth things along the way. Ya never know,” the older driver said, shaking Doug’s hand. “Sorry about that.”
“Not to worry,” Doug answered.
They cleared the truck stop exit on schedule, part of a fifty-truck convoy protected by private security ahead, within, and behind the line of trucks. Lead and chase vehicles surrounded the convoy, jumping ahead to block off on-ramps, provide scouting of the highway ahead of the main convoy, and trailing units keeping an eye on any vehicles that might approach from the rear. There was no citizens’ band radio chatter on orders of the convoy commander. Without anything but Government approved radio within radio range of Denver, Doug and the driver, Ezra Hempstead, had little to listen to, other than the commands of the convoy commander to the security team, and some ancient Country Western music dating from the sixties.
Doug told Ezra that the business in Des Moines wasn’t related to official FDA business, which was correct of course—he was no longer employed there. As the miles ticked away, Ezra told Doug to ‘catch some Z’s while you can’. Just outside of Sterling, Colorado he took the advice, made himself comfortable, and dozed off.
Two hours later, the truck lurched to a sudden stop, waking Doug from a particularly nice dream. The weather had turned while he slept—he woke to steady rain and gusting wind from the north.
“You OK?” Ezra asked.
“Yeah. Surprised me that we stopped is all,” he said, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “Where are we?”
“Five miles outta North Platte.”
“Looks like the road’s closed. Expect we’ll be here awhile,” Ezra replied.
“Did the convoy leader say that?” Doug asked.
“They never say that, but no one’s movin’, and there’s no reason to stop here unless there’s trouble up ahead. If there’s any trouble between here and Grand Island, I’d bet we’re here for the night.”
“Weather sure went downhill,” Doug said. “Do you make this run often?”
“Six days a week for three and a half months. Seen enough of this road to last a lifetime.”
“Exiting at Eighty Three South. Stay in queue and park as directed,” the convoy leader directed on the radio.
“And there you are,” Ezra said. “Hope you brought a book or two to read. We’re restricted to the truck stop area, or whatever they designate as a truck park. No one leaves their truck until we get the say-so.”
For twenty minutes, the convoy crawled along Interstate Eighty, barely moving toward the interchange. Finally, the hundred-truck convoy parked in a huge, graveled parking area a half-block from a local truck stop.
“One through twenty, clear to exit. Back in thirty, no exceptions,” the radio stated.
“That’s us. We’re nineteen, in case you didn’t know,” Ezra said.
“But we’re something like thirty-third in line, aren’t we?” Doug asked.
“Yep. Doesn’t matter where we are in line, though. Too much to keep track of in a convoy.”
Doug pulled a rain shell from his pack, along with a baseball cap, and climbed down from the cab, following Ezra in his ‘Hempstead Limited’ jacket. The convoy security teams had deployed and cordoned off the truck park. Doug casually noted five men with rifles, looking out through the grey rain at the small town of North Platte.
“This happen often?” Doug asked. “Sorry I ask so many questions, by the way. Trying to learn what it’s like out of the city.”
“Often enough. Haven’t had a clean run to the east in four weeks, maybe five. South’a here snipers are taking out solo drivers. Gets worse the farther from the big cities you go. So we convoy, those lead trucks usually are armored up. Glass, steel plate, run-flat tires. The security boys run up ahead, see if there are any traps on bridges or overpasses,” Hempstead explained as they crossed the street toward the truck stop restaurant.
“More trouble away from the cities? I don’t get it,” Doug said.
“Seems wrong, doesn’t it?” Ezra explained. “Used to be the other way around. Cities have been, well, I guess you’d call it ‘pacified.’ Anyone gettin’ near a convoy highway is pretty much fair game for security. Gangs and such that used to mob a convoy pretty much been killed off by now. But out here, I figure it’s the loners. They got nothin’ left, so they figure to score a truckload of food or somethin’. Small towns like this’n have some real problems. Can’t hardly feed themselves. You’ll see what I mean, inside,” Ezra said as he opened the door.
The restaurant was nearly deserted except for the truckers and a few security men, who were looking out the windows and manning the doors. Two men, obviously with the security detail, hauled in two locking trunks, popped the latches, and started handing out sandwiches and pouring coffee from a large, insulated container. A man and woman, Doug guessed they were the cook and a waitress, stood and watched from behind the lunch counter. The menu items, displayed above the counter on a backlit plastic panel, were nearly all crossed out with a black line. All of the prices had been removed, he noted.
“You oughta hit the can while you got time,” Ezra said. “One thing you should learn is to take every opportunity. Can’t stop on the road. I’ll get you a sandwich and some coffee.”
“OK,” Doug said.
“One more thing. No talkin’ to the locals,” Hempstead told Doug. “Doesn’t pay to stir the pot.”
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Regent Plaza, Denver
Doug rose at five-thirty, eager to put his last day behind him and plan his return to Julie. His FDA routine included visits to the employee gym buried inside the Regent Plaza building, one of the few shared facilities used both by Federal employees and Regent Denver staff. Doug knew that this was one of the information interchange points within the Regent sphere of influence…a casual conversation while working out could easily turn into a goldmine of information for all parties involved. Through his months of service in Denver, Doug had been approached a number of times, and had remained coolly professional, not betraying any information on any FDA program, nor any of his corporate history with Regent. His role-playing, if perceived as intended, gave Doug the image of the straight shooter who was above petty influence peddling.
Stepping onto one of the fifteen treadmills, Doug punched in his preferred program, a ten mile run over varying terrain, mapped on the small flat panel display in front of him, and interactive, providing him a ‘view’ of upcoming terrain. A half-mile into his run, another runner joined him on the next treadmill, a deliberate move, since so many treadmills were open.
“You’re Peterson, aren’t you?” the man next to him asked.
“Yes. Doug Peterson,” Doug replied, not interrupting his breathing pattern.
“Davis Blankenship. We spoke last spring,” the man replied. Doug stopped his treadmill. Blankenship was imposing, probably in his mid fifties, around six-four, probably a little over two hundred pounds, and appeared to be ready to run a marathon or go mountain climbing. No paunch, no flab, drill-like eyes. Doug noted that several people on adjacent machines moved away from them.
“V.P. Operations, right?” Doug asked, knowing that the Regent executive would appreciate the recognition. He recalled his research on Blankenship, completed months before, along with every other director and executive he could identify. Research was everything in sales, Doug knew. He had to know the players, and long ago, he’d made it a point to know everything he could about both the players and the playing field.
“Correct. I understand you’re leaving the FDA as part of the latest changing of the guard. Is that true?”
“The new director is making changes, wholesale. I however, had already submitted my letter of resignation. My wife is expecting and has had some complications,” Doug replied.
“I’ve seen your resignation letter,” Blankenship replied, “Along with the earlier letter of course, from your wife.”
Regent had done their research as well.
“Things are well underway, sir. I think the Regent Performance objectives will be achieved, without my influence at the FDA or within Regent,” Doug said quietly. They were now alone in their quarter of the exercise floor.
“The Company’s objectives are complex and far-reaching. There is still substantial work ahead,” Blankenship said, not quite completely dismissing Doug’s unspoken notice of resignation. “There is a position waiting for you at the distribution center in Columbus. I understand that you’re leaving the FDA today. The Chairman and I expect you to be in Columbus by the end of tomorrow. There’s no possibility of staying in Denver of course. Can’t have you jump from Federal to private employ and stay in the same building, especially if the director wants you out.”
“I understand the offer but I really do have pressing needs to be with my family,” Doug replied.
“You apparently don’t understand,” Blankenship said quietly but forcefully, head lowered as he looked at Doug intently. “This isn’t an offer. You will arrive in Columbus, and you will undergo a thorough debrief on your time with the current administration. At that time, your status with the Company will be reviewed. Your compensation package of course, is dependent on this,” the older man stated, in a threatening tone.
Doug heard, ‘Your life depends on this.’ He was fuming.
“As the Company brought you to Denver, the Company will also relocate you. By nine a.m. tomorrow morning, your belongings will be loaded up for shipment on one of our transports. You’ll be on that transport. Understood?”
“I’ll go to Columbus, but after that I’m gone,” Doug replied, ice in his voice, leaning toward Blankenship, speaking quietly. He was about ready to deck the larger man. “Do you understand? Do you know what I know? Do you know what protections I’ve put in place for my family and myself? Do you know who gets the information, how many copies of it there are, and how many sources I have? How about your family, Davis? Your wife Barbara. Still at the place in the Hamptons, or is she up at Telluride? Your son Patrick. Still at Columbia, right? Molecular neurobiology? Tragic loss of your stepdaughter of course. My condolences.”
The Blankenship’s had lost twenty-one year-old Anne Marie in Paris in the Muslim takeover; the girl had suffered a very public death. Blankenship looked as if he’d been kicked in the stomach. His jaw muscles were bulging as he clenched his jaw, but he remained silent.
“I didn’t get walk into this job without leaving myself an exit path, Mister Blankenship. Unless I make certain contacts at specific times, the information I have goes viral. So it pays to leave me be,” Doug said with a slight smile, nodding to another FDA employee taking a seat on a spinning machine. Other Federal employees were moving in as well, hitting up the elliptical trainer, carrying their coffees and vitamin waters. “I’m sure of course, that you have similar measures in place?” Doug continued, getting back on the treadmill. “What I know stays with me, and I will protect that information as long as I deem it necessary to do so. It’s not for sale; it’s not for trade. It is solely my insurance policy.”
“You’re on the plane in the morning. You miss it and the consequences will be unfortunate,” Blankenship said.
Doug wrapped up his morning briefing with Dena, outlining his final day with the FDA, while his mind was preoccupied with Regent. The majority of his day would be to summarize the work of the past few months and progress with vendors and commercial plants within Doug’s area of operations. The last hour or two would be meeting with an untrained, uneducated former transportation coordinator from the late Leinhardt National by the name of Karl Shearson.
Courtesy of Dena, Doug had a full dossier on Shearson, a thirty-one year old former truck driver, who had moved up inside Leinhardt solely it appeared, through ass-kissing his superiors. Eighteen months at Ohio State, one point nine grade point average, apparently majoring in partying, succeeding in getting kicked out of the lowest ranked fraternity on campus. His father Gustav however, served thirty-nine years on the Leinhardt board of directors, ensuring a fallback for young Karl.
Dena would be busy doing actual work. Shearson would likely spend most of his time at The Mile, drinking and losing his Federal wages to hookers.
Shearson showed up at four forty-five, introduced himself, sized up the office, thanked Doug for his service, and was abruptly gone…leaving both Doug and Dena with the same impression: ‘The guy’s a dolt.’
Dena had left a few minutes after five, wishing Doug the best in his new life outside of Denver. Doug thought there was a tinge of wistfulness in Dena’s voice, perhaps wishing she were able to leave as well.
After she’d left, he tried to log into a few of the Federal websites that had been available to him during his time in Denver. He soon found them either non-responsive or requiring special login names or passwords, which of course were different than his ‘regular’ login.
Information passing through the Federal computer system was now completely unavailable to anyone without the proper authentication—even including weather forecasts and general departmental information. With pre-War Internet service a distant memory, the only information available on what remained of the Web was thoroughly approved by the Federal Government long before it was released to the public. A few minutes after Dena had left the office, Doug’s desk phone rang.
“Doug Peterson,” he answered.
“Mister Peterson, this is Information Security Services. We’re noticing some unusual activity on your computer,” the male voice asked.
“Well, I was trying to get to a number of pages and I find they’re all requiring new login information. My regular login doesn’t seem to work.”
“Sorry, sir. Your login information and general access has been restricted as of nine a.m. this morning,” the voice said. “As of five thirty p.m. tonight, your connection will be deactivated.”
“Oh. Gotcha. I guess I didn’t put two and two together.”
“Sir, violation of computer network security protocols is a very serious matter.”
“Yes, I understand. I didn’t think that…” Doug started.
“Sir, your building access will be deactivated by six p.m. this evening. If you have not logged out at the security desk by that time, you will be subject to arrest. Do you have any need of assistance?”
“No. I’ll be leaving shortly,” Doug replied, deliberately sounding tired and defeated. He hung up the phone.
“Well, shit,” Doug said to no one. He packed up the last few things that he wanted to take along, including his leather portfolio, his favorite mug, and a couple of worn novels that he’d used more as props than as reading material, and put them in the file box that Dena had provided him. “Time to go.”
A few minutes later, Doug stood at the security desk in the lobby, a space enclosed in ballistic glass and staffed by unsmiling, humorless men. Doug was required to sign five separate non-disclosure agreements, after being electronically fingerprinted, photographed, and searched for any Federal materials.
His old Palm PDA was opened, turned on and reviewed briefly, but not docked or checked for any files that might’ve been secreted away. Any attempt to dock the antique would’ve triggered a security breach, as would any flash drive that didn’t include the requisite Federal security software. There weren’t any files that he’d take with him in any regard—everything he’d learned was still in his head. Security invalidated Doug’s electronic log in, but let him keep the ID badge, which he didn’t quite understand.
By six p.m., Doug was at his apartment, where he found a notice from ‘Preferred Shipping Service’, confirming that they would arrive by seven a.m. the following day to ‘expedite your move.’
“Not wasting any time, are we?” he said again to no one, plugging in his PDA to charge. The refrigerator held no useable food, although the freezer had a few edibles remaining. He drank one of the last three beers while re-packing his travel bags, changed into casual wear, and headed across the street to ‘Mothers’, another of the Federally-dependent restaurants that catered to workers housed in the Zone.
The shapely hostess seated him in a cozy booth in the noisy bar, where he was almost immediately served complimentary appetizers and bottled water, as his cocktail was crafted without question. He’d ordered a complicated version of a Manhattan, just to see if they could indeed create it. Within minutes, the drink, called a Fourth Regiment, served straight up, was on his table. He sampled it, having had it only once before in New York years before.
“This is perfect,” he said to the young waitress.
“Glad to hear that, sir. I hadn’t heard of that particular creation. Are you here for dinner this evening?”
“Yes. Last night here, actually,” Doug said, having another sip.
“Well, I thank you for joining us! Our specials this evening are seared veal tenderloin, which is served with a chestnut maple puree, caramelized cauliflower and grilled chanterelles; a dry aged porterhouse steak with baked potato and blue cheese, sautéed mushrooms and broccoli; and finally from New England, a fresh four pound broiled lobster, served with fresh sautéed golden potatoes, green beans in browned butter and shallots. Here’s the regular menu, if those don’t suit,” she said, handing him the thick leather menu.
“Thanks. I’ll take a look,” Doug replied with a smile.
‘Ninety-nine percent of the population would be rioting if they knew this place existed and was charging ahead as if nothing was wrong,’ he thought to himself. The prices on the menu were all in inflated dollars, but also listed in gold, he noted. His cocktail alone would likely be over twenty dollars gold, given the prices in the Zone.
The television programs, from what Doug could hear and see, appeared to a continuous series of optimistic—and fictional—tales of the Recovery, of the successes of the Federal relief programs, and bios of those men and women on the ground making it all possible. A zenith of propaganda, there was nary a word of what might pass for ‘news’ in any respect, and certainly nothing of any troubles with the New Republic.
Without being obvious, Doug studied the assemblage at ‘Mothers’. To the right, several Federal employees were engaged in overly intimate conversations with members of their own gender, which Doug noted without judgment; to the left, another group of overly well-dressed Federal workers were deep in the midst of negotiations with each other, or with persons of negotiable virtue who were overly pretty or overly handsome, and clearly not Federal employees. Unlike The Mile, there was no pole dancing, and the security staff here wore better suits, although they were clearly armed under tailored jackets.
‘Just another meat-market’, Doug thought to himself. ‘At least the food is worth the screwing I’ll get.’
“Have you decided, sir?” the waitress asked, bringing Doug back to reality.
“The lobster, if you would,” Doug said, maintaining his FDA/Regent persona. He was actually more interested in a four cheese pasta with smoked bacon, but that choice would’ve been seriously out of character. “And, another of these,” he said, raising the remains of his cocktail.
“Absolutely. Right away, sir,” the waitress said with a slight bow. Doug noticed that she’d unbuttoned two buttons on her blouse since she’d been at his table last.
‘Not interested, young lady,’ Doug thought. ‘Tomorrow, Columbus. What the Hell is that going to be like? How do I get out of that snare?’
From the research that Doug had completed prior to joining the company, the Regent distribution center was an cluster of buildings near the Port Columbus Airport, an unimpressive massing of warehouses with a sprinkling of modest offices nearby—he’d seen it from the airport, but never visited it. The Columbus Data Center was located to their downtown headquarters, both highly secure buildings before things started coming apart. He was sure that they’d be fortresses by now. ‘What do they have in mind for me?’ he thought, his second cocktail arriving, again perfect in its’ creation.
“A rare creation,” a much older man stated, standing near Doug’s table. The man was wearing clothing perhaps too casual for the restaurants in the heart of the Zone, and yet still conveyed a sense of both wealth and…something else. “May I join you?”
“Well, sure, I guess,” Doug said, falling a bit out of character. “I’m Doug…” the man raised his hand, stopping Doug cold.
“No names needed or desired. It is often better not to know,” the man said, taking off the long, brown leather coat and seating himself across the polished mahogany table. The man wore black slacks, a black Oxford shirt, and a black sweater, in contrast with white hair gathered in a ponytail, and piercing blue eyes set in a weathered face. “You are pondering your next move?” The man asked, motioning to the waitress to deliver another Fourth Regiment to the table.
Doug sat there, not speaking, for several seconds longer than he realized, wondering who this stranger was, so at ease across from him.
“We are all pondering this. Perhaps your decisions are of the immediate. Many here tonight cannot see beyond the conquest of the next few hours, yes?” the man said, a hint of some European accent coming to light.
“Probably correct,” Doug said. “Yeah, I have some things in front of me.”
“But not within Denver. You aren’t playing the game of the others, so therefore your mind is elsewhere, racing ahead,” the man said, his cocktail arriving, along with a menu. He dispatched the waitress with a simple order of the four-cheese pasta dish. “And so you are alone. I am on a similar path, this may be the last time I am in a great city.”
“What is your work? What do you do?” Doug asked.
“I once ran a business. Banking, venture capital, international finance, leveraged buy-outs, mergers. After thirty years, there was no joy or satisfaction. There was nothing but sameness, and in the end, regret. One day, I woke up. My wife had long since left me, my children estranged, there was no reconciliation…too much had happened. More importantly, there was just emptiness in my life. I changed.”
“Just like that,” Doug asked.
“Certainly not. I embarked on a journey, perhaps as you are about to start, as I continue to be changed by my own days.”
“And where does the journey take you?” Doug asked, intrigued.
“The outskirts of small town in an out of the way place. With the providence of the Creator, my work is there. It has been there for quite some time now. My work is similar to that of a monastery in the Dark Ages,” the man said, leaning back against the thick cushions.
“Oh, so you’re a religious man,” Doug said.
“Not particularly. My work is more scholarly,” the man said, sipping his cocktail. “This really is a remarkable thing,” he said reflecting. “It is a shame these will not be possible soon.”
“I’m sorry? I don’t understand,” Doug said.
“For twenty five years, or perhaps more, it has been apparent to me that these times are coming,” the man said, waving his hand toward the crowd. “From the days when ‘moral relativism’ was first mentioned, to the covert corruption that soon went overt; the cancer of government programs and entitlements and blowing up the money; to the inevitable connections between my old world of finance and the realm of sponsored terrorism, brush wars and the losses of freedoms…then on to full-scale surveillance of all, everywhere, and always. It is of course natural that the boogeymen have been found everywhere the government looks, but the government never looks hard enough inside itself or its’ closest allies. The people are powerless to stop it…or so they believe within the constant state of fear. This is a society that kills the unborn and warehouses the old, shutting away the life-experiences that could be so very educational. A society that lies to itself about consequences of daily decisions; foregoing the difficult for the convenient, but soon to find them ruinous. So we are all criminals and prisoners, everywhere and always, until everything of the old collapses and the criminals are brought to justice. The convictions are coming.”
“That’s not happening anytime soon,” Doug said quietly.
“It is a cycle that has happened dozens of times over civilized history and probably dozens of times more in pre-recorded history, again lessons lost in time. It is entirely natural, from its’ onset to its’ conclusion,” the man said. “It is the struggle of generations upon generations, and from my studies of history, which without intending to boast are extensive. We are in the closing act of this particular play,” the man said, looking at the crowd as if one were looking at a museum display. “The convictions that I speak of are both natural and those led by mankind. My work seeks to preserve that which should be preserved, document which will be needed, and be a repository for a point when the next Dark Age ends,” he said, looking at Doug with his clear, blue eyes. “There are debts to be paid to the future children in the lessons we have learned. We hope to help see them paid.”
“You think that’s where it goes next?” Doug asked, looking afresh at the room around him. “The Dark Ages?”
“With automatic weapons and a clash of cultures, yes. It is a swing of a pendulum that is decades, or even centuries in coming. The words ‘epic change’ are appropriate. That outcome is one of many that are possible. Some are more dire than others, and so we prepare.”
“We?” Doug asked.
“A group of men and women, who I work with,” the man said, as their dinners arrived simultaneously. “But your journey takes you elsewhere. An uncertain future, I think.”
“I can’t disagree with that,” Doug said. “I have to ask this, but you seem to be reading me like a book. I hope what is on my mind is not that clearly shown on my face.”
“It is in your eyes, not on your face, and no, it is not particularly clear to the casual observer. I am not, however, a casual observer, which alone is why I am at this table. Another observation, if you don’t mind,” the older man said, taking a spoonful of the pasta dish as Doug took a bite of his own dinner.
“Sure,” Doug said. “In for a dime.”
“Oh, this is much more valuable than the dime or what passes for a dollar these days,” the man said, savoring the simple dinner. “Your presence here at this time tells me a great deal. Perhaps you do not recognize the peril? I am curious as to why you remain in the heart of the darkness that is this place?”
Doug stopped for a moment, taking a drink of the iced water provided. “I have my own work to do, that is more than what it might seem, and I do recognize the peril.”
“And yet you are still here, on the eve of destruction,” the older man said with cool forcefulness in his voice.
“Not for long,” Doug said. “I leave here soon.”
“I’m making my point badly,” the man said, leaning back and looking at the food in front of them. “You are still engaged in a system that you know is failing. You are not in a hidden corner of a state, out of the way of the blast wave. You stand on the sidewalk, waiting for the flash of the explosion. Why?”
“My own journey happens to be about slowing down slavery, to be perfectly honest,” Doug said.
“Ah, our enemies within,” the man said, lowering his chin a little, and taking another bite. “We’ve heard of this. In the food, yes?”
Doug was stunned into silence, and only after realizing he hadn’t moved in nearly a full minute, he took a bite of the lobster, not tasting it.
“Do not be shocked, young man. There are many voices in the storm, but few ears to hear. This has been known to us for several years now, but we didn’t know it had been implemented until several months ago.”
“I’m not sure I should say anything here,” Doug said, feeling very uneasy.
“A series of food and beverage combinations, when combined in the correct ratio and with the correct component parts, creates alterations in the mind of the consumer, rendering them highly suggestive to authority, capable of performing normally unspeakable acts, able and willing to serve their masters. There are worse elements in play in the current environment, young man. Perhaps one of the more disturbing characteristics of this alteration, is that there is no research on reversing the effects,” the man said, continuing to eat, now nearly finished, and mopping up the remaining sauce with bread torn from a small loaf, taken from a basket on the table.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Doug said.
“Another danger that lurks in plain sight, are the choices we have. Assuming you are of Federal employ, do you know your President? Do you know your Vice President? I don’t mean personally, but do you know or suspect their intents? Or of this New Republic?” the man asked, eyebrows slightly raised.
“Not really. I mean, we just know what is on the news and of course from their campaigns. Information on the New Republic is at best distorted, but even the distortions are cryptic,” Doug said, nearing the end of his own meal.”
“There is much more at risk for the future within the offices of the elected, both here in Denver and within the New Republic, than meets the eye. The leaders are truly the product of the generations, the ultimate representation of the faults of the culture. You should be very, very cautious,” the man said, rising and taking his coat. “This lovely dinner is on me, young man. I hope that you have a fulfilling life, pursued in happiness,” he said, leaving a small leather satchel of coins on the table. The man turned to go, looked over his shoulder at Doug for a moment, nodded and left. The waitress returned to check on dessert for Doug’s table, and saw the weathered satchel.
“My guest has just bought dinner, it appears,” Doug said to the waitress, as she picked up the soft bag and looking inside.
“This is for the tab? That’s more than I make in a month,” she said, trying to remain composed.
“He left a generous tip,” Doug said to her, gathering his own jacket and taking the last loaf of bread from the table. “A very generous tip.”