Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 25


November Nineteenth

“You think the phones will work today?” Karen asked as we lay in bed, lounging before the alarm told us to get moving.

“I’m betting it’s hit and miss. You just got the ‘all circuits busy’ last night, right?”

“When I got anything at all. You didn’t find numbers for Alex and Jack, did you?”

“They didn’t give them in their letters, and even if we had them, they’re behind the lines. No idea what’s working back there, if anything. I don’t see a single reason why there should be a working phone line that crosses battle lines.”

“Sure, be logical about it,” she said, just as Buck decided it was time to steal one of my boots and announce his importance to us.

“Who’s preaching this morning?” I asked. We had a rotation of pastors around the Valley, among the many small venues.

“That young kid right out of Bible college. He was over at Faith Christian last week.”

“Hmmm,” I mumbled as I got out of bed.   Back in the old days, our church would progress through books of the Bible, in a sense of order. We could study upcoming verses, context, and prepare a little bit.  In the current situation, we were flying blind each Sunday.  I liked the variety. I didn’t care for the lack of structure. Maybe that was a lesson that Someone was teaching me. 

After a hot shower and finding some church-worthy clothes, I got the woodstove going for heat, and cooked up some steaming oatmeal with cinnamon and sugar. It was just about ready when Carl and Kelly made their sleepy way to the table.

“Seconds are up!” I said as I dished them up.

“Seconds?” Carl asked.

“Kidding. You’re up. Mom’s drying her hair and getting her makeup on.”

“What’s the order of the day?” Kelly asked.

“Breakfast. Church. After that, I’ll think about the rest of the day.”

Kelly looked at Carl with a furrowed brow. “You always have your day planned. Especially on the weekend. And that means you have our days planned, too.”

“In a few days I’m in the Army. They plan the days for me. I’m trying to adapt.”

“Right,” Carl said. “Let’s see how long this lasts.”

“There’ll be plenty for you to do around here without me shepherding you around. There’s a list on that clipboard.  Don’t worry, it’s only ten pages, double sided.”

Carl picked up the ancient clipboard that had belonged to my Dad. It’d been stashed away in one of his old footlockers, found when we cleaned out the house. “Good night….” He said.

“Don’t bother counting,” I said. “There’s two hundred and fifty-five items on that list. Some repeat though,” I said.

Carl took a bite and flipped through the pages.

“How to run the house, property, equipment, garden and animals in one easy afternoon of reading. Remember, that’s just the summary. The real how-tos are what you need to learn in various binders, shop manuals, and inside your Mom’s pretty head.”

“What’s this?” Karen said.  “My ears were burning.”

“I gave the kids The List.”

“Hardly a fair way to start the day.  We’ll be lucky if they don’t enlist.”

“It’d be less work,” Carl said, flipping another page.

“No argument there,” I said. “Anyone up for some dried apples?”

The List was admittedly, pretty brutal in length. Most of it I’d kept in my head before the Domino, and it was as natural as the seasons for me.  Since things Got Complicated, there was much more to juggle, even if supplies and parts and seeds and dependable power and water were available.  I’d basically sat down with a calendar and did a brain dump into the computer, trying to arrange first the equipment maintenance, house maintenance and gardening and farming items, then putting them in some sort of calendar order. I was sure that I’d missed things, but at least the important stuff was there.   Between The List, and the help of Ron and Alan, Carl would do OK.  I hoped that I would come back some day to relieve him of that big fat burden.

As we had been doing for months, the Drummonds and Bauers caravanned over in our SUV and today in Alan’s diesel Ford pickup, making our way through the unplowed streets.  Ron and Libby both stayed home with sore throats and mild temperatures.  Sarah had a shift at the hospital, so Marie stayed home to tend them both.  The church service was standing room only for the first service, and looked to be again for the second service. We checked our long guns with a soldier posted at the door of the community center, and picked them up again after the service.  My sidearm and two spare magazines remained on my belt.

The sermon theme, and probably most of the hymns reached back to the first official Thanksgiving, created during our First Civil War by Abraham Lincoln.  The young pastor, who was perhaps twenty-three years old, recited Lincoln’s proclamation, and then spoke on Psalm 65, where the psalmist gives thanks for the freedom and providence with which God has blessed Israel; 2 Corinthians, where Paul asked the Corinthians to give to a collection to benefit starving Christians in Jerusalem; and the gratitude given Jesus by the lone Samaritan leper, in Luke 17.  
The sermon and its’ supporting verses had seemingly little to do with our current situation, with the War, with our losses and the things that we were really thankful for.

Maybe that was the point. It bugged me at the time perhaps that’s why I still remember the verses covered.

After a visit with Grace at Valley General, and finding her more heavily medicated than we expected, we headed back home.   She’d had a very bad night, and the staff had upped her painkillers to keep her more comfortable. I said a prayer for her as we passed a horse-drawn snowplow, keeping two lanes of Pines Road clear. I noticed that one of the buildings that had collapsed in the Domino was stripped even more than it had been a week before. For firewood, it appeared.

“You OK?” I asked Karen, who’d been silent since we left Valley.

“I’ll be all right. It’s just hard seeing Mom like that,” she said, looking at the abandoned shops and offices on the west side of the street.

“I know,” I said.  I didn’t have much more to say.  Carl and Kelly were silent in the back seat.

“Dad, can you turn on the radio? News should be on,” Kelly said.

“Sure,” I said as I reached over and punched the power button.

“…...and Florida are rumors only, while the Department of Defense confirms that the Colorado attack was in fact a chemical or neurotoxin attack.  While casualty numbers were not provided by the spokesman other sources requesting anonymity confirmed that the losses were heavy.  Communications blackouts currently are in place in Phoenix, the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area, Miami and Tallahassee, Florida. These blackouts are at present, unexplained by the Federal government in Austin.”

“Dammit,” I said to myself.

“They’re using chemical weapons?” Karen asked. “Those are illegal,” she said, before remembering whom she was talking about. “How could they?”

“Poor man’s nuke,” I said, listening further to the news.  Both kids were leaning forward, listening.

“…reported that civilian populations were also targeted in the scorched-earth retreat by S.A. forces.  Early relief efforts in Colorado were called off in the wake of discoveries by Golden State Army units, where it appears that civilians in every city and town between Interstate Seventy and Interstate Seventy-Six in northeast Colorado are missing and presumed dead. Cities and towns within this corridor, and potentially additional cities and towns in western Nebraska and south toward Guymon, Oklahoma, may also have been attacked and destroyed by State of America forces in retreat. Reporting from Colorado, Jim Paulson reports for Radio Free America. Jim?”

“Thank you, Charlie. For security reasons, I will not identify where we are reporting from, and indeed, this is a tape-recorded report that has been cleared by the Defense Department. The reports just don’t do justice to what we’re seeing, following both Lone Star and Golden State units in the slow advance across Colorado.  There is not a single building left in the towns that we’ve passed through that has not been burned or destroyed in some other manner. No homes. No outbuildings. Anything burnable has been burned. Anything that might be used by United States forces has been stripped or destroyed. There are no livestock. There are no pets. There are literally no civilians in any of the areas that we have seen. Units from Arizona—the Third Cardinals—and from New Mexico, who we met up with as they were heading back to rear areas, report that the devastation we see here stretches for at least a hundred miles east, likely much farther.” 

A lengthy pause present in the broadcast indicated something the Army censors didn’t want released. This made us all the more curious. Carl was about to say something when the reporter picked up again.

“Reporting from eastern Colorado, this is Jim Paulson.”

“Chemical weapons consultant Doctor Stanley Laufer is joining us from a remote location. Doctor, from what we’re hearing from Colorado, some of which has not been publicly reported, does this sound like a chemical attack?”

“Charlie, I cannot answer that based on what I know right now. It could be either chemical or neurological.  Until the agent is identified, it isn’t possible to know.”

“How long might that take?”

“I’m sure that Army chemical weapons teams are on location at this time, and will begin analysis.”

“From what National Radio initially reported before they went dark, this sounded like it came upon them without any warning. Thoughts on this, Doctor Laufer?”

“It is an arguable point, for many reasons best of either type of weapon—chemical agent or neurotoxin—is delivered without warning. No scent, no appreciable physical reaction until a concentration high enough to disable the victim is achieved. This type of weapon leaves the victim no time to don protective gear, may immobilize him within moments, and kill in minutes.”

“No time to react.  And the attackers are already in protective gear by that time, or out of harms’ way.”


“And the S.A. denies any knowledge of this attack,” the host said, with barely concealed contempt.

“Of course….”

The radio station cut to the Emergency Broadcast Signal, ending the report.

“Now what?”  Kelly asked, saying it before I could.

“Please stand by for an Emergency Broadcast Message from San Antonio, Texas,” an unfamiliar, almost mechanical voice said.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,  President McAllen will be addressing the nation in a few moments. Please stand by.”

“This can’t be good,” Carl said.

“Nope, it can’t,” I replied.  Former Senator Ryan Robert McAllen served briefly as Vice President under David Lambert, before Lambert’s administration went rogue.  McAllen was one of a handful of patriots in the truest sense of the word. He and a few others had escaped Denver as the true plans of Lambert and his handlers were revealed.  With McAllen in the now-mythic escape, came the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, carried by Secret Service agents and four members of the Supreme Court.  The President’s address began.

“My fellow Americans, upon the recommendation of the Department of Defense, I am imposing a curfew, effective immediately, nationwide.  This is not done lightly, but in the wake of a series of devastating nerve gas attacks by enemy forces within our borders.”

“These attacks fall on us less than a month into the Second Civil War, both on the front lines of battle and deep into states formerly untouched. Civilian populations have been targeted in seven cities in the United States, including Atlanta, Miami and Tallahassee, Phoenix, Dallas and Fort Worth, and Los Angeles. It is unknown at this time if additional population centers have been targeted.  The method of delivery for these attacks is being investigated but is unknown at this time.  For this reason, I am requiring you to return home or to a place of shelter immediately, and remain there until we can determine if this attack is over, or is the first wave of a larger offensive.”

“From what I am being told, there is no warning to these attacks. The evil that is the leadership of the State of America has proven that there is no limit to what they will do to eliminate freedom in this nation and enslave the population to serve their twisted ideal.  Many soldiers have died today in the service of this country, fighting for our freedom. Civilians have been murdered in their homes, their stores, their places of worship. These losses are heavy. The payback will be equally heavy. We will defeat this evil. The United States of America and the ideals of this nation, set forth upon this continent by men who cast long shadows, whose greatness cannot be underestimated, will prevail.”

“Please know that I pray for you. Know that the peace of God is with you, and that His strength follows you. Good night and may God bless the United States of America.”

During the address, we had turned toward home, but hadn’t quite made it yet. I instead turned toward the Metro store.  I noted that Alan followed me.   Within a minute, we were both parked.  I noted that the Army guards were coming toward us, all business.

“Sir, I’m afraid we’re under curfew effective immediately,” a corporal said from forty feet away, moving toward me, hands on his battle rifle.  “You’ll need to return home or to shelter immediately.”

“Understood, corporal. Wanted to grab a few things before we’re sequestered,” I replied.

“Sorry, sir. I didn’t recognize you. Thought you were a customer.”

“No problem. Thanks for bending the rules. You guys need anything before we lock her up?” I asked.

“We’re good sir. Thanks though. The real eggs are much appreciated.”

“Should have some smoked bacon one of these days, too,” Alan added.

“Don’t tease, sir. That’s not kind,” Corporal Cannon said with a wave.   “Don’t be long in there. Don’t want a run on the place.”

“Neither do we,” I said.

I waved Karen and the kids to come inside the store. Depending on how long the curfew lasted this might be an important trip. If not, some stock would be shifted back to the store when it was over.

“Order of the day?” Alan said.

“You heard the address, what do you think?”

“I think not here, but what the heck do I know?”

“Then anything perishable goes now. Anything that there’s even a hint of being short on, or high demand later, get it.”

“You have a feeling about this, Rick?” Mary asked as she herded the kids inside.

“I dunno. Maybe.”

Ten minutes later, we were done. We’d cleaned the store out of perishables and a few dozen other items of high value, all of which we’d completely taken for granted a year before.

As a culture, we now understood the complexities of creating, packaging, and shipping items that we once saw as ‘common.’ We used to think nothing of picking up any sort of item at any convenient store, paying next to nothing for it, and going on about our pre-occupied existence. Along the way of course, we were being transported in vehicles made of thousands of parts manufactured on multiple continents, fueled by gasoline or diesel from the other side of the planet, because ‘their’ fuel was ‘cheaper’ than ‘ours.’

Within a month or so of the earthquake, the highest demand non-firearm, non-food item in Spokane County, Washington, was toilet paper. After initial on-hand supplies were exhausted, newspapers, catalogs, and then any available paper-like material was treated as powerful barter material.   After T.P. and feminine supplies and soap and cleansers of all kinds. Surgical and N95 masks, with the Guangdong Flu. Anti-virals and antibiotics of course. Then elderberry extracts. Cigarettes, then any kind of tobacco. Deodorant, and when that was gone, perfume and cologne. Waterproof matches. Batteries. Winter boots, parkas, gloves and mittens. Salt. Sugar. Flour. Yeast. Liquor. Beer was gone almost immediately. Anti-bacterial hand gels. Nuts, jerky, trail mix, peanut butter. Anything that looked like ‘factory food’: Crackers, chips, cookies, canned goods. Popcorn. Plastic zip-lock bags. Canning jars, lids, rings, pectin, paraffin, pressure canners. Cooking oil…and of course, chocolate.  Summer items, discarded in those first few weeks, grew dramatically in trade value when the summer hit, some things unexpectedly.   Dust masks, sun block, ‘farmer hats’ that shaded the head and neck, leather gloves, cargo shorts, garden tools. I’m sure the lists of scarcities varied from city to city. In the depths of our first full winter, post-Domino, some things seemed to have disproportionate value. 
The perishables included a hundred pounds of potatoes, some squash, as well as twenty pounds of beef jerky, a dozen paper-wrapped hard sausages, a case of local hardtack, and a few pounds of dried apricots and apples. Other good stuff included home-made soap, similar to but not as good as that we used to buy from a vendor down in Portland, before the quake; some locally made pear brandy; and a dozen pairs beautifully made leather gloves from Casey Wallace. He’d made me a couple pair early in the year—the first pair wore like iron but were the softest work gloves I’d ever worn. I’d ordered up a mess of them for the whole family for Christmas this year, as well as new boots for the bunch of us, with the quality of White’s, again, before the Domino.

“Got everything checked off the manifest?” I asked Alan. We had three copies of the stores’ manifest: One on a clipboard in a counter near the register; one electronic version on a thumb drive, that was then copied over to an off-site computer; one with the store manager when they left the store. Anything sold during the day was updated on the multiple copies and verified for inventory.  It cut down on losses due to poor inventory control—meaning, theft on the part of shoppers and employees. Our ‘main’ store never had a problem with that, probably due to the Army presence. A couple of other stores did though, but with co-location of stores and Army Guardsmen, that was winnowing out, too.

“Done,” Alan said, hanging up the clipboard.

“Anything you wanna toss to the Guard?” he asked as he locked up the door, and slid a lever on the side of the door, dropping a heavy cross-bar across the inside—an invention of one of our customers to keep the place more secure.

“Got anything in mind?” I asked. “Hadn’t thought of it.”

“There’s a dozen young men over there who’ll be eating MREs or whatever the military calls ‘food’ for Thanksgiving, and they’re a long way from wherever ‘home’ is.”

“No locals?”

“Not a one.”

“We’ll take care of that. I’ll dig out a gallon of that pear brandy.  We’ll see what we can do about Thanksgiving when we get home.”

“Meet at the house in an hour?” he said as he reached the driver’s door.

“Works for me. You need any help with that stuff?” I asked. He had at least as much stuff in the covered back of the F-350 as we did in the little Escape.

“Nope—I’ll just back the truck up to the garage and offload there. We’ve got just about this much room left in there.”

“All right—see you soon,” I said, opening Carl’s door. “Carl—hand me one of those shoe-boxes.”

“The brandy?” Karen asked.

“Little off-duty wind-down for the Guard.”

“As long as they all share,” she said.

“That’ll be up to them,” I said.

“Well, there are two of them out there now, so you have witnesses,” Carl said as I closed the door, box under my arm.

“Sergeant, Corporal, a little something for your down time. Share with the rest of your squad, if you would,” I said, handing the box over.  

“Thank you very much, sir,” the Sergeant replied as he opened the box, a surprised look on his face. Maybe twenty-two years old. Maybe.

“Command got anything coming your way for Thanksgiving?”

“Not unless they can find a way to resurrect the NFL, sir,” the corporal said.

“Well, no chance of Detroit playing in any regard.  I have heard a rumor that Dallas will play San Diego.”

“Packers fan, sir.”

“Maybe someday,” I said. “We’ll see what we can do about rounding up some better chow.  What’s your headcount?”

“Baker’s dozen, sir.  Four on duty at all times.”

“Done.  You guys have a TV, in case there is a football game?”

“Secure data-link, sir, and a twenty four inch monitor.”

“That’ll do then I guess,” I said. “Anything you can share about Colorado?”

“Saw the attack, near-real time.  Infantry dropped like flies. Free America cameraman and reporter started running like Hell, then it got them. Camera stayed on after they went into convulsions. Wasn’t pretty. They’d a danged near puked out their lungs. Whole lotta blood.  Lotta red snow out there.”

That didn’t sound line a nerve agent, but I wasn’t exactly up on either chemical or neurological agents.  “I’m thinking that wasn’t on regular TV,” I said.

“We kinda hacked into a direct feed from the satellite, before it went through editing. Happens a lot when you’re bored and you have a quarter-million dollars in communications equipment to play with,” the corporal replied.

“Thanks—I better get going.  Few more days of civilian life and I’m under orders myself.”

“Our condolences, sir,” the sergeant replied with a smile.

“Not at all. I may end up being your C.O.”

“Nobody’s that lucky, sir. We’re a long way from the real shootin’ war.”

“Hope it stays that way. We’ve seen our share of action here, though. Things change fast,” I said as I reached the driver’s door of the SUV. “Pays to be awake and suspicious.  You don’t want to be a target for some antsy civilian. They’re better armed than you guys are.”

“Might be, but we own the night.” 

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