Wednesday, March 31, 2010
“Here’s one of the worst sections, sir. Pretty sure this won’t see network time,” Lieutenant Susan Kirchener said. The lieutenant and her platoon were trapped in North Platte when the S.A. front line troops arrived en masse. Our senior staff along with all five battalion commanders were watching the digital video, taken over several days of occupation. The bulk of the data was being uploaded to the communications centers’ computers, and then compressed and sent to Austin, unedited and without comment.
“Colonel, these were taken from one of our remote cameras, we had six. We were in the basement of a warehouse a half a click from their headquarters. Good thing we were underground, or the Air Force would’ve cooked us for sure. We deployed the cameras around our position just before the S.A. moved in—too late to get out safely. The cameras kept us aware of what was going on around us.”
“They didn’t search, Lieutenant?” Captain McGowan asked.
“Spotty, Captain. Our warehouse had a big ‘foreclosure’ sign on it, so they probably figured, correctly, that there wasn’t anything in it.”
“You did well getting your crew this, Lieutenant,” Gerry said as we watched a dozen S.A. troops change magazines. They then opened up on around fifty civilians backed into a corner. None appeared to be a particular threat. Something bothered me about it, more than what I knew must be coming. I couldn’t put my finger on it though. It reminded me of that Russian school…in Beslan.
The camera, although small, picked up every detail, and the muffled screams of the massacre.
“This is what we’re fighting, sir. There are piles of dead up there, or were when we left. We have three massacres like this, within two hundred meters of our location. We were outnumbered a thousand to one,” she said, starting to break down. “Everyone…the civilians knew we were there. They didn’t tell the enemy. They died ……not telling them.”
“Lieutenant, that’s enough for now. Let’s get you out of here for a while,” I said. “Captain Fillmore will see that you get set up. Adam’s also our brigade chaplain, Lieutenant. Go get some hot food and some rest.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” I said, shaking her hand before Fillmore led her out of Command as the video continued, then switched scenes, shocking everyone.
“Christ Almighty,” one of the specialists said without thinking. “That guy just shot a kid. Just walked up and shot him!”
“Briggs, rewind that…no, get me the first massacre.”
He found the scene, coded on the hard drive, and played it. There it was again.
“Get the next one,” I said.
“Do it, Briggs,” I said. “Anybody else see something about these that doesn’t add up? Briggs, get me Austin. I want to talk to my boss about this.”
“Holy shit. Look at that,” Epstein, Third Battalion’s commander said.
“Yeah. You figured it out, Colonel Epstein. Good for you,” I said.
It was all of five minutes before Briggs was able to connect me to Austin, where their staff was just starting the review of the images.
“Major, I assume you’ve seen some of this video from North Platte?”
“About three minutes of it, Colonel Drummond. Intel is going through it all. It’ll take some time even with two dozen staff working it.”
“You plan on putting this out, Major?”
“For the public? That’s a call for the General Yancey, the Joint Chiefs, and the President, Colonel Drummond.”
“Major, you can bet money that this isn’t the only imagery of a five year old being executed. Have you seen that?”
“No, I haven’t, Colonel,” he said, sounding as disgusted as any human ought to.
“You better, Major, and damned quick. The soldier carrying that out was carrying an M-16, and was dressed in Sixth Army gear and insignia. They all were. There’s a videographer filming the whole damned thing. He’s ten feet behind the guy that shot the kid.”
“Damned right. They’re setting this up to make us look we did this. Seems to me the sooner we get out with the facts, the better.”
“Sir, I’ll get this up the chain of command as soon as I can.”
“Much appreciated. Third Washington out.”
The command car was quiet as my transmission ended. I didn’t know what to say next, and I doubted that anyone else did either.
“Damn it all to Hell,” I said. “Ayers, Briggs, get an honest, condensed version of Lieutenant Kirchener’s video put together. Third Washington is going to see a version of this. Have it ready by reveille. Everyone sees this tomorrow, everyone. Everyone gets a briefing. Whole Brigade. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Ayers said.
“Battalion commanders, fifteen minutes after reveille, every man in Brigade watches this, then back to assigned duties. Spread the word. Dismissed,” I said. Minutes later, the command car was empty, but for duty staff and two additional computer techs, who’d take over the duties of Ayers and Briggs. I sat alone in my command cube, thinking about what I’d seen.
“Sir? Communication from Colorado Guard. Joint Force HQ rep’s been delayed. Says they’re coming on the resupply train, sir.”
“Very well. Thanks,” I said. “Kennedy, grab me a phone.”
“Yes, sir. One moment.”
It’d been only two days since I spoke with Karen. It felt much, much longer. Private Kennedy came back in with the phone.
“Comm protocol same as last time, sir,” he said, reminding me that he’d be listening, and that there’d be a slight delay on the call. I dialed Karen’s number.
“Hello?” Carl answered.
“Well, my son, how’re you doing?”
“Hey, Dad! Where are you?”
“At work. Can’t tell you where. Everything OK?”
“Yeah, things are pretty good. Everyone misses you. Me included.”
“You, too, bud. You shouldering my load?”
“As much as Mom and Uncle Alan and Ron will let me. Which isn’t all that much.”
“They’ll lighten up a little. Give them time. Just don’t push too much. How’s Kelly?”
“She’s over with Grandma and the ladies. She’s helping with the home-care. Doesn’t like it, but she’s helping.”
“Perfectly understandable,” I said. “Is your Mom home?”
“She’s just coming back in from the barn…evening egg round-up. Here she is—take care, Dad. Love you.”
“Love you too, Carl,” I said before Karen took the phone.
“Hey! This is a surprise!”
“Had a spare minute,” I said.
“You don’t sound good. Are you OK?”
“Not a great day. Everything up there going all right? Grace doing OK?”
“She has her moments, that’s for sure. Couple more days, I hope she’ll settle in a little bit better.”
“Curfew still in place?” I asked.
“Yep. Until Monday at least, the news says. Ron had the store open today for a couple of hours. All of the stores were open at some point, but not at the same time. Staffing and supply nightmare for the guys.”
“I’m sure the buyers don’t care for it a whole lot either.”
She was quiet on the other end of the line for a moment. “Can’t talk about it, can you?” knowing that I wanted to, and couldn’t.
“Nope. I’d like to though. Some day.”
We spent a few more minutes on the line, and said our ‘I love yous’ and ‘goodnights’, and I promised I’d call again when I could.
I think in the end, I felt worse after the call than before.
Saturday was filled with recovery and body removal, done in shifts as the cold winds took their tolls on the field crews.
I’d risen before reveille, shaved and showered, and spent the first couple of hours of daylight in the field with Fifth Battalion, working recovery. Jess Armstrong’s civilian volunteers were spread throughout the days’ three field operations. When the Volunteers weren’t in the field, they were assisting Sterling residents to get back to their homes and try to settle in. I’d assigned Fourth Battalion a sweep operation, along with the Combat Engineers, once they’d completed the sweep of the battlefield.
By eleven hundred hours, I was chilled to the bone and ready to spend some time studying the attack on Sterling. Army tacticians assigned to the Colorado Guard were piecing together the events on the battlefield, but I didn’t understand and didn’t know of any one looking into, why the S.A. didn’t burn Sterling to the ground like every other small town in their path. Things were different here, and I wanted to know why.
There were key differences here. Only some of the commercial zone was looted, some not even broken into or damaged in any way. Civilians were alive when the first recovery units arrived, although in hiding. It was a break in the S.A. pattern. I didn’t understand it, and wouldn’t understand it any time soon, it seemed.
“Colonel, there’s a Major Conrad Long here to see you, from the CNG Joint Force HQ.”
I thought, ‘and about damned time,’ but said, “Send him in, Private.”
“Good afternoon, Colonel. Sorry for the delay. I’m Major Long,” he said with a swift salute.
“Major. How was the trip out?”
“First time I’ve made a train trip next to the engineer. Interesting, sir.”
“Major, what brings you out here?”
“CNG will re-occupy the Sterling facilities within the next forty-eight hours, sir. We expect to have several hundred troops arrive with the return train from Colorado Springs.” The train to Colorado Springs held the remains of Sixth Army’s soldiers.
“Major, are you supplied well enough to do that? We have a fair number of civilians just arrived from North Platte last night, electricity is dependent on Third Washington’s rail-mounted generating plant, and everything out here depends on that. No power, no water, no heat.”
“Arrangements are being made to ship several temporary generators in from Arizona, sir. I’d like to know though sir, how long you anticipate being in Sterling.”
“By the end of the day, we should have sixty percent of the body recovery complete and those recovered will be on their way to Colorado Springs. Anticipate a quick turnaround of that train, and expect completion of body recovery by the end of the day tomorrow. Recovery and refit of equipment, probably another twenty-four hours. I’m expecting orders from Austin tomorrow on our next destination. So, by Sunday, we should be out of here and on the rails.”
“I’ve noticed that the New Mexico and Arizona units are packing up, sir. Anything you can share on their schedules, Colonel? I’ve been in and out of touch with Command since last night. Actually, the State Command Center is pretty much in the Stone Age, sir. Nothing like the capabilities you have here.”
“End of the day they’re supposed to be on the road. We shut down recovery operations at dusk, by and large. Not enough portable lighting to go around. Their forces will move east to the US Eighty Three corridor in Kansas, using their own vehicles and quite a bit of gear from Sixth Army. Texas has the north end; Georgia’s Bulldogs will follow Texas tonight on the empty supply train that you came in on. Some of the flatbeds will be used for Bradleys and Humvee’s from Sixth. Texas and Georgia will split those up. Georgia will depart as soon as that train’s ready. You gonna have power units up here by the time we move out?”
“We should have something by Monday, sir. Our new Governor said that we should do anything possible to assist our fellow states in the prosecution of the War. We don’t have much left though, sir. The S.A. cleaned us out.”
“And I see they paid your former Governor back by putting a bullet in his head.”
“Yes, sir. Whole family. Wife and five kids.”
“Standard S.A. tactic, it appears. Nice people.”
“Major, I think the CNG can help us out by getting the citizens of Sterling back in their homes and instill a sense of peace in them, that they’re safe. Get power and utilities back up, get the community back to a productive town. It looks like most of the economy here was farming. That right?”
“That and the prison, sir. I understand that the prison was burned.”
“Along with several hundred prisoners, and probably all of the guards, yes. The Marine units first on scene reported that. When Colorado is back on its’ feet, then send some fighting men. Meanwhile, it seems to me that the other states will take this fight home,” I said. “Anything else, Major?”
“No, sir. Thank you for your time, sir,” he said as he stood.
“Not a problem, Major,” I said, standing and returning his salute. “Let us know if there’s anything CNG needs that we can provide. Dismissed.”
For three more days, far longer than we’d estimated, we removed Sixth Army from the battlefield, two days of the work done in blinding snow. One of the least pleasant parts of that experience, for me at least, was the documentation process. Lieutenant Kirchener and her video team filmed the recovery process, interviewed the removal teams, interviewed the chaplain, and interviewed me as the commanding officer. I suppose there was a need for the process, I just didn’t see it at the time.
As with any project that I’ve ever experienced, clean up and de-mobilization always took longer than the initial setup. That applied as well to getting three thousand men and their equipment stowed, only on a much larger scale. I was discovering that with command, the best place to be was out of the way of my men.
The Colorado Guard made good on their schedule to re-occupy Sterling, and Third Washington crews assisted the CNG in getting their temporary power system up and running. They had a massive amount of work ahead of them.
The returning residents of Sterling were shocked to find so much of their town intact, but of course devastated to learn as we did that most of those that stayed behind were rounded up and forced into the high-security prison just west of town, and then burned alive. Lieutenant Kirchener’s crew again documented the finding. The body retrieval for Sterling would be done by the Colorado Guard and the civilians. The recovery process for the towns wrecked by the S.A. would be long in coming, but this town at least was now far from the battle lines.
We learned through one of the survivors who’d stayed that the destruction of Sterling was only interrupted by the rapid approach from the west of Sixth Army. Sixth though, didn’t press hard enough or fast enough to put the S.A. troops immediately to flight. They had good reason—Sixth was outnumbered at least two to one. The delay let the S.A. plant their weapons and stage their departure so that the Sixth would stay in Sterling until morning, when the pursuit would resume.
The fatal decisions were made by Major General Michael Wright, his mutilated remains found by the advance Marine unit. If anything was to be re-learned, it was to fight the war of your choosing, not the war that your enemy has chosen for you. I’d hoped that all products of West Point would know that. The well-equipped Sixth Army delayed the approach to Sterling to assess enemy troop strength that was already well-established and then didn’t elect to pursue the S.A. until the assessment was complete. By the time they mobilized, it would have been too late to save most of the remaining citizens of Sterling, although we didn’t piece that together until much later. Sixth then camped in exactly the same place that the S.A. had camped in during their occupation, hours after the S.A. evacuated east, taking most of the prison population with them. When the S.A. was far enough east to avoid the nerve agent, they detonated the devices, resulting in a kill-rate of more than ninety-eight percent. The terrain was in their favor; the troop concentrations ideal; the weather perfect. After the nerve agent attack, a small percentage of the S.A. force then moved back into Sterling. Survivors were tortured and killed, equipment, ammunition and uniforms taken. Had the Marines not had a rapid-deployment force available, much more equipment would have been taken, and Sterling would have been burned to the ground anyway. The S.A. might have then moved back toward Denver, or with their new gear perhaps gone on a major offensive south. With a hundred thousand men, and Sixth Army’s equipment, a possible attack south to Texas might have the United States government on the run again. The many might-have-beens in any war, I also pondered.
Army Command required us to return approximately half of Sixth Army’s rifles, handguns and ammunition to Fort Carson; oversee the shipment of the remaining heavy weapons, ammunition and armor east; and refit line units east of us with the remaining recovered equipment. These orders in turn, drove other issues: Our two initial trains were designed to transport and support the Brigade and the basic equipment load, not spares for thousands of others down the line; and our trains were completely unsuitable for the transport of the Abrams tanks, Bradleys, and dozens of Humvees in various configurations. We’d need another train, crews, and railcars designed for the purpose. Third Washington did have a handful of men checked out to operate the tanks and Bradley’s, as well as a few former gunners, and loaders. No tank commanders however, and no surprise.
The Colorado Guard was exceptionally helpful in helping round up transport cars for the heavy equipment, six more locomotives and Army rail crews who would now be assigned to our Brigade. The engineers and rail mechanics who kept the locomotives running numbered less than fifty men, without them we were stuck.
Before we departed Sterling, I had one more visit to make, after our long morning meeting with the CNG command and keeping tabs on the load-up.
I borrowed one of the Colorado Guard’s Humvees and made a quick trip over to Jess and Gabrielle’s camper, where I knew they’d be packing up for their trip back to Denver. Jess met me as I got out of the truck.
“Chief, I just wanted to stop by and give you my thanks for all your help,” I said.
“Rick, this was a terrible job for anyone to do. None of us will ever be the same by it, I think. All the same though, it was a singular honor for everyone.”
“I believe you are correct, Chief. Please pass along the thanks of Third Washington to your Volunteers. You have a good group, there.”
“You have a fine command. I pray that it stays intact until this mess is over. And look us up when you get a chance. You and your brigade members are guests anytime.”
“Thanks, Chief. Much appreciated,” I said before saluting him, as a junior officer might a senior, when in fact the roles were reversed. He returned it smartly, and we shook hands before I left.
Friday, March 26, 2010
Chief Armstrong was helping others finish setting up their temporary homes, and saw us pull in. We met not far from his camper set up, where he was helping another volunteer with their trailer jacks.
“Good evening, Chief. Getting settled in?”
“Doing fine, Colonel. Thanks,” he said. “Nice having shore power, such as it is.”
“We’ve got a lot of capacity, Chief,” Chet Travis said. “Not much in town worth powering up without a population.”
“How many civilians left here?” Jess asked.
“Not many,” I responded. “Virtually all of them will be housed over in one of the dormitories tonight. Williams Hall, I think it is. Engineers will have power back up over there any time, Chief.”
“We’ve seen a lot of that in this state,” I said as I noticed Chet getting a call in his ear. He stepped away for some privacy.
“Chief, I’d like to invite you to dinner this evening. I’d like to hear about your time in Denver, if you’d care to tell.”
“I’d be most happy too, Colonel. Mind if my wife joins us?”
“Not at all! I didn’t know your wife came along,” I said.
“She was traveling a few trucks back with some friends. If you don’t mind, let me catch her before she gets our dinner on,” he said as he headed for his camper.
“No problem, Chief,” I said as Chet came back to the conversation. “What’s going on, Chet?”
“Texans are safe and sound in North Platte, Colonel. Train’s on the way back, with three hundred and sixty-one civilians. All from Sterling, sir.”
That surprised me, perhaps it ought not to have.
“All right, we’ve got a couple of hours at best to get them a place to stay. Not real fond of the idea of turning them loose to their own homes until daylight. What’s the status of the refit on that dorm? Can we get the other dorms up and running?” I asked.
“We’ll have most of the campus up within the next couple of hours, sir. I think the dorms are all part of one, big complex.”
“Let’s get some men working on cleanup. I’m also betting they’re going to need a hot meal.”
“Mess is already on it, sir.”
“Chet, remind me again why I’m here?” I said.
“To take all the flack from above, sir,” he said with a smile. “Actually, the comms guys passed on info to the duty staff, and they started getting ready almost immediately. We should have about two hundred men making a sweep through the dorms to double check them, and a hundred or so on cleanup. Security will be there overnight, and will also have to check our men to make sure no looting’s going on.”
“Assuming anything’s left worth stealing,” I said. Looting and theft weren’t just limited to the S.A., unfortunately.
“One more thing, sir. That train’s carrying an Army media crew, been on the ground since before the Sixth went down. They apparently have a fair amount of video of the S.A.’s operations up in North Platte, the Air Force hit, and their evacuation. There are orders back in the command car for both Third Washington and this crew.”
“Media crew. Swell,” I said. About the last thing I thought we needed was a bunch of photographers.
“Yes, sir,” Chet said as Chief Armstrong approached, his wife on his arm.
“Colonel Drummond, my wife Gabrielle,” Jess Armstrong said, presenting his bundled-up wife.
“Ma’am, pleased to meet you,” I said. “This is Sergeant Major Chet Travis.”
“Sergeant Major, Colonel. Thank you for the dinner invitation. I wasn’t looking forward to another can of stew for dinner,” she said as she shook our gloved hands.
“I hope we can do better, but honestly Mrs. Armstrong, no promises.” I noted that she had a slight accent, perhaps German.
“That’s fine, Colonel. We’re happy just to be here.”
“Let’s get out of this snow. Looks like our weather predictions are as accurate as ever,” I said, directing them over to the Humvee, and radioed ahead, making provisions for my dinner guests.
We made the short trip back to the group of command cars quickly, despite the clogged wipers on the Humvee. There was too much noise to carry on a conversation between the back seat and front, unless we wanted to shout. Once we disembarked, it was more civilized to converse.
“Colonel, I have some business to attend to over in Command. I’ll have a report on your desk by nineteen hundred on your desk regarding the incoming train and accommodations for that incoming crew.”
“Thanks, Sergeant-Major. Remember to get some dinner yourself.”
“One of the benefits of being in the command car, sir. Delivery service.”
“True. Cold food, but it is delivered,” I said, drawing a smile. We did have a microwave though, so it could be warmed over, instead of merely ice cold.
We headed down the train a couple of cars to our conference room, which had been restored to its planned use, with the departure of the Texas unit.
I’d asked for Captain Gerry McGowan to join us. As our intel officer, he might be able to get some info out of our dinner conversation that I’d miss, or ask a question that I would not.
“Are you entirely based on this train?” Gabrielle asked.
“Of sorts, yes. Primarily for travel, and then we setup and expand. We’re not a front line unit—meaning, we’re not really geared for combat, ma’am.”
“Please, call me Gabby. Everyone else does.”
“It’s quite civilized,” Jess said. “I didn’t quite know what to expect, Colonel.”
“Call me Rick, if you please. I’ve been ‘Rick’ far longer than ‘Colonel,’” I said. “I’ve asked one of our officers to join us for dinner, if you don’t mind. He’s our intelligence officer. I thought he might learn a thing or two.”
“That’s fine. It’s been a helluva place, Denver. Never thought we’d see anything like that happen here,” Jess said.
Over dinner, we compared notes on our experiences in dealing with the collapse. Jess and Gabrielle lived in Littleton, rather than Denver proper, in a retirement subdivision. Their home backed up to a small lake though, and Gabby quietly turned their back yard into a farmyard as homes around them were foreclosed and vacated. They raised chickens, goats and sheep, and had discovered ‘permaculture’ through a website created by an Oklahoma City resident, called ‘Better Times Almanac of Useful Information.’ The lake proved valuable over the summer, as the ‘Federal Government’ cut off water to most of the urban area at varying times of day, for no apparent reason. It demoralized the civilians, probably encouraging them to relocate out of the Denver area.
Fewer people to complain, which is what the ‘Federal Government’ wanted, I thought. The Armstrongs and their small group buckled down, stayed off the radar, and waited.
“It was apparent right quick after they relocated from D.C. that things weren’t what they should’ve been,” Jess said. “Even with the dirty bombs going off, the war and all that, it just didn’t feel right. They locked everything down within their ‘Federal District’. Took whatever they wanted from the stores, the shops and groceries. Accountable to no one.”
Gabby added in her beautiful accent, “It was understandable at first, but it just grew and grew. We welcomed them at first, encouraged everyone to make their transition easy, and that seemed to just fuel their sense of entitlement.” I noted that Gerry was thinking hard on that statement.
“What’d the local government do? Or the state government for that matter?” I asked.
“State couldn’t bend over backwards fast enough, which compromised any attempt at resistance from the get-go. They were neck-deep in it all. Probably half of the state government left with the S.A. when they pulled out. Some of the state workers up and left. Anyone that showed any backbone was ‘reassigned to benefit the recovery,’ which meant they disappeared. A bunch…no one knows,” Jess said.
“Our local police department was ordered about by the Feds, right and left,” Gabby said. “One of the officers said that they’d seized all of the police rifles and shotguns, and left them with only their handguns.”
“What about your own weapons?” Gerry asked. “Were they seized?”
“They would’ve been, had they not been stashed away. I did have a couple of sacrificial weapons for them, to make it look good. Old Savage deer rifle with a cracked stock and a rusty .32. Oh, and a crumbling box of ammo each, just to make it look good,” Jess said. “A few days after the seizures were wrapped up—which was found out word of mouth—they jammed all the normal broadcast frequencies, and burglaries and home invasion robberies started. Too organized, knew what they wanted and tore the places up trying to find it. Silver. Gold. Diamonds. Jewelry. Food. Took whatever they could load up and left. And they had the guns.”
“Were you robbed as well?” Gerry asked, taking notes as he did so.
“Let them in, saw them coming,” Gabby said. “We just stayed out of the way.”
“Knew it was coming though,” Jess said, pouring another cup of coffee. “Most of our stored food actually ended up in the walls of the house well in advance of it all.”
“What’d you do with your livestock?”
“They had no idea what to do with it. Left it untouched. If it didn’t come in a can, box or bag, they left it,” Jess said.
“So, I’ve got to ask, you don’t have to tell of course, where did you stash your weapons?”
“Buried PVC sewer pipes, dummy drain pipes in the house, dummy ductwork and a fake air conditioner. With the exception of the buried pipe, all of it was in plain sight,” Chief Armstrong said with some pleasure.
“Don’t forget my little .38 and some of the ammunition was hidden in the entertainment center,” Gabby said.
“Not exactly, hon,” Jess said, explaining further. “We had a twenty-seven inch TV set that died a few years ago. I gutted it and put an LCD in the case. Left lots of room behind it for contraband.”
“What about fuel for your vehicles, and restrictions on travel? Can you tell us how that went?” Gerry asked.
“Once the guns were gone, you only got enough gas to get to your ‘imperative employment location.’ If you didn’t have a job that ‘FedGov’ deemed ‘imperative,’ you were screwed,” Jess said. “No job, no food vouchers. That said, I had about a hundred gallons of diesel stored for the GMC. They walked right over it when they came into the house. It was in a little area I remodeled, right under the front porch. Coupla nice big metal tanks.”
“Did you have ‘imperative employment?’” I asked.
“Gabby did. Critical care nurse. I’ve been a kept man since retirement,” Jess said.
“Don’t let this Yank pull the wool over your eyes, Richard,” Gabby said…she never did call me ‘Rick.’ “While I was tending the sniffles of the Statists running the place, he was working against them every step of the way.”
“Do tell,” Gerry asked. “If you don’t mind. I’m interested in learning about your resistance methods, if you don’t mind.”
“Not a problem, Captain,” Jess said.
“Call me Gerry if you like.”
“Will do,” Jess replied. “The area has a substantial population of retirees from all branches. Anyone who’s served more than a tour and has some life experience behind them could smell that something wasn’t right. Most everyone, with a little fair warning, dropped down low years back. Cash purchases of firearms, ammunition, supplies, and bought at various locations. Nothing bought in one lot, at one time, nothing on credit. Multiple locations of stored product.”
“You knew this was coming?” Gerry asked.
“Sure, kid. You’re what, about thirty?”
“Thirty-two,” McGowan replied. He seemed older to me, I thought.
“Son, I’m thirty-four years older than you are, saw action on three continents, heard and saw stuff I wasn’t ever intended to see. This country’s been in a downward spiral for the better part of forty years, my opinion. Probably longer than that, it’s just that I’ve been paying attention that long. One thing I learned way the Hell back was that government eats to survive. It destroys. It does not create. When the U.S. government forgot how to fight wars, but got really good at prolonging them, I knew it was a matter of time. A whole lot of us did. By the end of my first six years in, I could see the writing on the wall. General Eisenhower said it back in the Fifties. Military-Industrial complex. He forgot the Financial side of the triangle, though. Started developing a network back then. Lost some members, gained others.”
“Network?” I asked.
“Consider it, Colonel, a mutual-aid network. Cell based, small enough to not draw a lot of attention.”
“Leaderless resistance,” I said, all too familiar with the concept.
“Yes, of course with the common goal at mind at all times: The preservation and defense of the Constitution of the United States of America.”
“How big is your typical cell? Gerry asked.
“Three. No more or less,” Jess replied. “Recruiting happens rarely, generally from people who’ve sworn to uphold the Constitution, and then proven their willingness to do so.”
“Usually military then,” I said.
“Almost universally. Maybe three percent are law enforcement, non-military recruits, damned few politicians,” he said. I noticed Gabby was keeping very quiet.
“I won’t ask about your operations, unless you’d care to tell.”
“Sure, I don’t mind. Operations are done around here anyway,” Jess said. “Our cell and our sister cells are going inactive again, and no one could find ‘em if they tried.”
“We don’t want you to compromise anything, Jess,” I said. “Honestly, this is probably more for my own curious nature. It’s fascinating.”
“I’m immune from prosecution, I assume,” Jess said.
“Anything you care to say stays in this room,” I replied.
“There were a number of operations carried out, once the S.A. exposed themselves. Before that, generally information gathering and generation of contingencies, some of which was fed to the legitimate military. Whole lot of intel happens that way. The operations that I know of decapitated the S.A.’s Court of Equal Justice, and the removal of a dozen or so other officials from this mortal plane within a matter of hours. That didn’t happen until after we’d heard they’d decided to pull back to Chicago, so the natural chaos of an evac was an opportunity to exploit.”
“I’ll bet,” I said. “I’m very impressed, Chief, to put it mildly.” The ‘Court of Equal Justice’ was the S.A.’s version of the Supreme Court, and dispensed anything but ‘equal justice’ from what I’d read of their ‘Judgments for the People,’ which included sixty summary rulings handing all power to the State, along with most property that wasn’t already controlled by the State Board of Industry.
“Colonel, they made it absurdly easy. Within an hour or so of the operation starting, word got out of course, they got all panicky and bailed on most of the more sensible security protocols. Making it even easier and lower risk, of course.”
“How many men did you lose?” Gerry asked, assuming that in any operation of this nature, some would be captured or caught.
“None. Two close calls. The work was all done, shall we say, at a distance. After that operation, everyone faded right back into the fog.”
“Formidable opponents,” I said.
“Those willing to give their lives for their beliefs always are, sir.”
“Chief, did you see that kind of dedication in the faces of the S.A? Are we fighting against ‘true believers’ or opportunists here?”
“The opportunists cut and run, they’re the balance of the leadership of course. Bunch of self-serving bastards. The true believers stand and fight, with the exception of their high command. Here, in Sterling, this was an action of true believers. Well-planned, well-executed, minimal casualties of friendlies from what I hear. The opportunists are in Chicago by now. Those in the field—those that did this—they’ll go to the mat. Doesn’t matter the cost, they’ll pay it with their men’s lives. They’ve shown time and again no sense of mercy, and they should be shown none in return. Do you disagree, Colonel?” Jess said, leaning forward on the table.
“Not remotely, Chief. I’ve dealt with both types you’ve described over the past year.”
“‘They’re everywhere,’ we used to say, ‘and they vote,’” Gabby said. “Colonel Drummond, I saw Europe, I watched citizens rights get whittled down year over year; I watched the nations dissolve and the E.U. emerge, always taking more than it gave. I watched as ‘movements’ became ‘religion.’ I watched what happens when mediocrity rules and when compromise reigns. Those that are true believers take over, fractionally at first, too small to really notice as the people are distracted with famous people having scandals. When the changes approached a singularity—and the rate of change reached a round number—say the number hit one—and the changes then doubled, and doubled again, the cascade happened too quickly to stop and too quickly to influence. And, of course, too quickly to ever understand. Soon enough, Europe could not recover,” she said with passion. “I may have been born in Schweinfurt, Colonel, but I am an American first. I will do what is necessary to protect my country.”
“Very well spoken, Gabrielle, thank you. I’m assuming you had a role in the resistance as well?” I asked.
“I did. I will not speak of it, however. You simply do not need to know, Richard,” she said with both words and piercing green eyes.
“Understood. But I thank you, nonetheless,” I said, which gained unspoken approval on her part.
“Colonel, I think it’s time we headed back to our chateau on wheels,” Jess said as he stood up. “It has been a pleasure though breaking bread with you and Gerry here, though.”
“You as well, Chief. We’ll do what we can to help you out while we’re here. We should be seeing that train arrive with our returnees any time now. I’ll have you taken back over,” I said, shaking their hands. “I have to say, I don’t really have words to tell you how proud I am that there are people like you both out there.”
“One day, Colonel, they’ll say, ‘they’re everywhere, and they vote.’”
“I hope so, Chief.”