Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 36


Thanksgiving evening,
November Twenty-third
Sterling, Colorado

We’d made decent time from Denver to Sterling, arriving at our designated siding by twenty-one twenty hours.  Twenty minutes before arrival, I’d given the orders to get have the men prepare for arrival.  In the case of most of Charlie Six, that’d mean stowing personal gear and preparing for overnight duty outside, some further work on malfunctioning equipment, and going into ‘Service Mode.’ 
Charlie Six would have a full complement of overnight guests for meals, showers, laundry, and much needed rest.  The Texas guard had been engaged in fighting the S.A. since the ‘formal’ start of the Second Civil War on October twenty-fourth.  Regular Army units from New Mexico and Arizona had been in the field for just over two weeks; the newcomers to the western fight were the Georgia ‘Dogs, who’d just come west from near Vicksburg, Mississippi. They’d stuffed the S.A. forces north from Baton Rouge north through Natchez to Vicksburg, before heading east to Jackson. Units from Mexico had then freed them up to reinforce the Western front against the S.A.  I imagined that the cold weather was quite a shock to their systems….
Our men would deploy, set up temporary shelters outside, and rotate through the night with the other units, maintaining security throughout the night.  At first light, the real work would begin.
The galley crews and on-board support crews would also rotate out, serving meals, providing medical care and performing any equipment maintenance that was needed before going off-shift and getting some rest themselves.  Most of Charlie Six would start the day with four or less hours of sleep, if they were lucky.  As expected, the Marine Expeditionary Unit had moved out.

Within an hour of arrival, temporary shelters were set up and Third Washington was moving into the field.  Charlie Six was parked on a siding not far from Northeastern Junior College, or what was left of it. I’d read sketchy reports on what we’d find in Sterling, but we’d wait until daylight to size things up. I was getting ready for our first operations meeting, and camped out in the conference room car with a live link to my command-car computer.

“Excuse me, Colonel.  Brigadier General Garcia is here,” one of the lieutenants said.  General Garcia was the commanding officer of the Texas National Guard, and had been in the field since the start of the War.

“Thanks, Lieutenant. Please show the General in,” I said. A moment later, a parka-clad form appeared in the doorway.  I’d only read the name…there was no dossier provided.

“Colonel Drummond, General Angela Garcia. Pleased to meet you,” General Garcia said as I saluted and then shook her hand…of course not knowing what protocol was required…She looked like she was about fifty, about five foot six, with piercing brown eyes and similar demeanor.

“General, it’s a pleasure. I wasn’t aware that Texas had a brigadier in the field until a few minutes ago.”

“Or a woman, no doubt.”

“That is a fact, ma’am. How’re your troops holding up?” I asked as she sat down.

“You cannot train for what this is, Colonel. Sit-rep on Third Washington, please,” she said, all business.   Her outer shell and winter pants were as dirty and stained as I’d expect to see from a line soldier.

“Charlie Six will be fully deployed in about an hour. Temporary shelters in twelve locations; Second Brigade is reviewing clearing operations with the Engineering Company of the One Seventy-second.  The balance of Charlie Six, with the exception of maintenance and galley crews will be relieving the Texas Guard units by twenty-three hundred.  Dog Six should arrive by twenty-two hundred, follow a similar deployment just south, then relieve the New Mexico and Arizona units overnight, Georgia Bulldogs are in good shape overall and will need minimal rehab. We were expecting a pretty good storm to slow Dog Six down…that looks like it’s passing to the south, ma’am,” I said as a corporal brought in a pot of coffee and a second, containing hot chocolate.

“What’s your total Brigade strength, Colonel?” she said as she looked, and chose hot chocolate. I couldn’t quite tell if the expression on her face was surprise, disbelief, or something else entirely.

“Twenty-nine fifty-five, ma’am.”

“How long active? Third Washington, that is.”

“The unit as deployed, about three days, General. The unit has a substantial amount of men with combat experience in multiple theaters, however.”

“Shit. That is not what I wanted to hear,” she said with irritation. I could tell where this was going. “How long have you been in the Army, Colonel Drummond?”

“Since Monday, ma’am. Prior to that time I was the county administrator for Spokane County, Washington.”

“No military experience,” she said, nearly spitting the words. “What the Hell are you even doing here?”

Getting a little hot under the collar, I replied. “With all due respect, General, a year ago I was a private sector consultant. Last January, we were caught up in the middle of the Domino, and then all but ignored by the rest of the nation as what passed for civilized society decided to take a breather.  Over the past eleven months, we’ve put Spokane back together, after a fashion.  During that time, we’ve removed a local government gone rogue; fought a significant number of gang problems…many of which were probably created by the S.A.; negotiated trade agreements; fed and watered ourselves, generated our own power; supported our military units as best we can. I serve as requested by Governor David Hall. You have a problem with my experience or leadership, General,” I said with an increasingly raised voice, “and you can….”

“Enough, Colonel,” she said, waving her hand to stop me from finishing my rant.  She sat back her chair and considered my statement. “My men and women have been in the field for a month. On the run, hit and dodge. Six hundred dead, twenty-six hundred wounded, walking or otherwise. No real shelter. MRE’s for every meal, except what we could scrounge. Gear breaking down daily. Playing by rules when the other team has none. I don’t have time for amateurs.”

“General, how many people have you personally killed in the last eleven months?” I asked.

She didn’t quite know what to say. “None, Colonel.”

“General, I can give you a list of who and how many I’ve killed, and by and large, what they looked like as they died by my hand. Some were kids, high school age. Some were thieves, some were out-and-out murderers. Some in my own neighborhood, some on my own land. Some we went hunting for. That’ll cover the past eleven months. I can go back to a time when I was fresh out of college and give you a similar list for some unpleasantness that I had in the Sudan. I will never forget what any of them looked like as they died, whether they were in uniform or not. Just because I haven’t been in the armed forces of the United States of America doesn’t mean I don’t know how to kill people or help our forces kill them.”  

She paused for a full minute before answering me. “Colonel, I owe you an apology….there are days that I turn into a chrome-plated class ‘A’ bitch.”

“As long as you have a good reason, General, and you do, no apology necessary,” I said. “How good has your intel in the field been?”

“When it works, it’s decent. It works though, about thirty percent of the time. Usually, the thirty percent of the time we really don’t need it.”

“Hardware problem, General?”

“Probably not. Probably active jamming.”

“We haven’t seen any issues with the information coming in…yet.”

“I saw the command unit. Our stuff doesn’t hold a candle to that. If they made it portable, that’d be something, but if we lost one of the data packs, they’d have the keys to the city,” she said. She was losing the battle with fatigue. I noticed for the first time how tired and worn she looked.

“General, how long has it been since you’ve had a decent meal and sleep?”

“Too long,” she said.

“Your troops are being taken care of with hot food, showers, clean uniforms.  Take advantage of that, General.  My quarters are at your disposal.”

“Thanks. And you have real food. I can’t remember the last time I had hot chocolate.”

“My car’s next door, far end. Desk drawer, left side bottom, bottle of bourbon, and one of Scotch. Feel free to partake, ma’am.”

“I don’t drink. Against my faith.”

“Probably smarter long term.  Let me grab a few things and it’s all yours. I’ll have some dinner sent over.  No turkey and dressing unfortunately. Stand down for awhile, General.”

“Turkey?” she asked.

“It’s Thanksgiving Day, General.” I said.

She sat there for a moment before realizing she hadn’t said anything. “Sorry. That….honestly that’s so foreign to me and so far removed from where we’ve been that it never would have occurred to me.”

“I’ve had weeks like that myself, ma’am. Never a full month though.”

I escorted General Garcia and her second-in-command through the command car, and had one of the duty specialists walk through the many layers of information immediately available to Third Washington, and by extension, anyone we were able to communicate with via secure frequency.  I could tell, even through the fatigue, that they saw this level of information as a game-changer in our favor.   While she was focusing on the information at hand, I arranged to have fresh clothing delivered to my car for the General.  The sergeant at hand wouldn’t be held accountable if the sizes were wrong, I assured him.
Once we were done with the six-bit tour, I grabbed my parka and we headed out of the car, down the exit stairs to the snowy ground, and over to my car. 

“This is quite a production, Colonel,” she said, looking at my troops prepare for the arrival of Dog Six, along with the steady stream of Texans heading into the galley cars, showers, and berthing units.  “Again, my apologies for tearing you a new one.”

“General, I’ve been known to go off on occasion, especially after too many days without sleep. I discovered there’s actually a term for it, other than ‘battle fatigue.’ ‘First Responder Fatigue,’ in the civilian world,” I said as I opened the door to my quarters and stepped in.

“Same effect in the end….impaired judgment and decision-making.”

“Sure, that and occasional irritability descending into outright bitchiness, General,” I said with a little grin. She chuckled a little at herself, which I think she needed.

“Nice quarters, Colonel,” she said, looking around.  “Your family?” she asked as she saw the photograph of the Drummonds, Bauers and Martins, from last New Years Eve on what passed for my desk.

“Yes, and some friends. My wife and kids on the right, me with significantly more hair; my brother in law and his family in the center, and our friends the Martin’s on the right. For the past year, we’ve been rebuilding,” I said, and then explained briefly how our year started, as I packed up a few things for the night.

“You’ve had quite a year, Colonel,” she said. “Without getting too personal, did you pick up that scar in the quake?” she asked, referring to my quite noticeable ‘skull zipper,’ as Carl had coined it.

“No, I picked up that along with some broken ribs in an accident back in August. Almost healed up,” I said as one of the galley crew delivered dinner in an olive-drab insulated container.

“Private, just put that over on the table, thank you,” I said.

“Certainly sir.  I’ve also delivered your dinner to your office in Command,” he said, looking nervously between General Garcia and I. “Dinner this evening is ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, and apple sauce, and tea. Anything else, sirs?”

“No, thank you, Private,” I said. “That sounds fine.” 

“Ma’am, sir,” he said as he made a hasty exit, obviously uncomfortable with our ranks.

“Jeez, he’s all of what, eighteen?”  I said.

“If that.  He doesn’t look old enough to serve.”

“Might not be by old regulations. We have a fair number of orphans without records who’ve enlisted. He might be one of them.”

“This smells great,” she said, “But I think I’ll get cleaned up first.”

“We can get your gear cleaned up overnight. That uniform bag on the bed should contain a change of clothing, although we don’t have anything in the way of clothing for female soldiers, General,” I said.

“Damned shame, Colonel. But no one’s getting me off the line, or any of our other women.”

“I can appreciate that, but after what we saw with Sixth Army, Washington has decided otherwise.”

“So has Austin, but I told them to shove it.”

I laughed out loud. “I bet you did just that. General, have a restful evening.  There’s an iPod in that bedside table…should be charged up, and some headphones. Many different genre’s if you are so inclined. And a portable DVD player and a wallet full of movies, forgot about that. Goodnight, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Colonel Drummond. Good night.”

Dog Six was clearly the cursed train of our two. Four more heating failures between Cheyenne and Denver and two additional from Denver to Sterling. Communications problems between the cars were also an issue, including a complete failure between both command cars in that train and both defensive cars. Charlie and Dog Six crews would spend most of the night trying to figure out what was wrong.
Our conference room car had been taken over for the night by three rows of Texas Guardsmen, now showered and fed.   I caught a couple of hours of sleep in the command car, with the lights dimmed.

Black Friday,
November Twenty-Fourth

I’d woken without any cause at about one-thirty a.m., and gathered my winter weather gear for an impromptu early morning inspection.   Sergeant Major Chet Travis was heading up the midnight to oh-four-hundred shift, giving the officers some much needed sleep before things got moving in the morning. I’d learned that Travis was one of those blessed individuals who could function on sleep gained a few hours at a time. I was not so blessed.

“Sar-Major,” I said, entering the main part of the communications bay of the command car.  “Anything newsworthy?”

“If anything, sir, it’s been too quiet,” he said. “There has been absolutely no change since twenty-two hundred. No enemy troop movements, no contact on perimeters anywhere across a five hundred mile front. Austin’s pretty puzzled by this too,” he said, referring to the big brains calling the shots in Texas. The Department of Defense had to be somewhere, I supposed. Texas was as good a place as any.

“Communications intercepts?”

“Literally, nothing, sir, since twenty-three hundred.” one of the communications techs said.

“What’s our baseline case? Is this typical or not?”

“Atypical, sir, but we are talking about the S.A. They’re not exactly conventional. There’s always some chatter of some kind. The S.A. has radio silence in place, and it is highly disciplined at that.”

“Tracking of Sixth Army’s equipment shows no movement, correct?”

“Correct, sir,” said another tech in one of the other suites.

“Riddle me this then,” I said. “Do we have the capability to determine if the S.A. has moved, is moving, covertly, except with the RFID chips in Sixth Armies’ gear?”

“Not at this range sir, and the satellites are tasked elsewhere until oh-eight hundred local. They retasked about twenty-three forty-five.”

“Can we determine if there has been incidental movement in the RFID’s, I mean, what is our tolerance of measurement?”

“With the sensors available via satellite, we can tell within a half a meter, sir. The last airborne sensing mission was called off. The S.A. sent up a blizzard of SAM’s at them. Becoming standard tactics, I’m afraid.”  I’d read a report that said that a single aircraft was targeted by no less than forty shoulder-fired surface to air missiles….French and Russian in origin…and a dozen long-range SAM’s from towed launch trailers.   The best stealth technology available couldn’t beat sheer numbers. Math always wins.

“When did the gear last show movement?” Travis asked.

“I’ll….I’ll pull that up Sergeant Major.”

“You think they’re doing an end-run, sir?” Travis asked.

“Maybe. It’s not like I’m a tactician, Sergeant,” I said. “But if it were me, trying to get out of a tough spot, or if I’d want to go on the offensive, now’d be the time to do it.”

“That’d imply that they know about the RFID chips and our tracking schedules for the satellites.”

“Yep. Which means we have a spy or twenty inside of the command structure, or they’re damned smart, or just lucky,” I said.

“Not really one for luck, sir,” Sergeant Travis said.

“Yeah, me either.”

“Sir, the last trace that we have of United States Army equipment in motion begins at twenty-one thirty-six hours. Time lapse imagery from satellite is on monitor two.”

The loop passed through twice with us looking at the images. “Look at that,” I said. “Normal motion, see that? Then from these three points, motion ceases in a radial pattern. It’s viral. They know. Has this been uplinked to Austin?”

“Yes, sir, data went up real-time as it was being tracked and monitored by Third and uplinked to Austin and from Austin to  Space Command. No response though.”

“Get them on the horn for me. Now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sarge, how long for the S.A. to get here?” I asked as the Private made his way through the security protocols to get through to Command.

“In force, maybe six hours, weather and transport permitting obviously, Colonel. You don’t think…”

“No, I don’t. But there is always the ‘what if.’ And if we don’t have a satellite retasked to tell us otherwise, we might be in for a surprise come dawn. Am I wrong in thinking that?”

“No, sir. Frankly I should have thought of this myself.”

“Sir, Major Stephanie Everett will be with you in a moment. Your headset, sir,” the tech said as he handed me the wireless headset.

“This is Major Everett.  Colonel Drummond, are you on line?”

“I am. Major, I believe we have a situation brewing,” I said, and reviewed the information, sending her the time-lapse view of the S.A’s movement of the Sixth Army equipment, and it’s sudden stop.

“Colonel,” she replied with a concerned tone, “We’ve seen no such data come through to Command. Our data continue to show movement.”

“Then I believe, Major, you have someone who’s parsing your communications links. According to my communications staff, the satellite providing standard imagery of the S.A. location was retasked at twenty-three forty-five per our direct-linked images. Are you certain you are getting current information, Major? This smells damned funny.”

“One moment, sir,” the voice in my ear said. Everyone in the communications suite was listening in.  “Our satellite link shows current time.”

“OK, it shows current time,” I said. “Is it current date?”

Silence on the other end of the transmission. “No way to verify that, Colonel. That’s not on the screen. I need to wake up some people.”

“Do that, Major. Because on my end, I have a time AND a date,” I said, then hearing the link go into a light static.

“Sir, any orders?” Sergeant Major Travis asked.

“Not quite yet, Sergeant. Maybe soon though. Find me all five battalion duty-officers.  Don’t wake up the commanders yet. Time will tell if we need to.”

“Done, sir. Give me ten minutes,” Travis said as he hit the door. “Some of them are scattered to Hell and gone.”

“OK, gentlemen,” I said to the communications staff. Find us some relevant intel, and get it moving right now.”

“Sir, we can probably swing an Air Force recon mission if needed,” Specialist Ayers said.

“Sure, if we want to kill a perfectly good pilot and aircraft,” I said. “Three in six days shot down. Let’s see what Texas has to say first, Ayers.”

“Yes, sir.”

Each of the communications suites was fired up and whatever information available from the past eight hours was now on-line on-demand, and orders were put in for re-tasking of any available satellite to cover the central United States.  The soonest a bird would be in range would be oh four-hundred. Ten more minutes passed before a voice came back on line, just as Sergeant Travis and the five battalion officers came into the communications suite. Things were now pretty crowded.

“Colonel Drummond? This is General Yancey. We have confirmed your data is correct.”

“Find out who’s responsible for keeping you in the dark, sir?”

“Yes, Colonel, and we’re now going hunting for them. More than one. They went off-shift at midnight.”

“Sir, this leak appears to have given the S.A. the heads up on the RFID tracking.”

“At the very least, Colonel. In fifteen minutes we’ll have data on line showing the S.A. position at present.”

“We were under the impression that we weren’t going to be able to get that for a couple hours, sir.”

“These are unconventional times, Colonel.”

“They are at that, sir.”

“Be back in a few. Go get yourself some coffee, Colonel.”

“Way ahead of you, sir,” I said as one of the battalion duty officers, a Captain Brooks, handed me a cup.

“Gentlemen, we may have a problem,” I said to the gathering before me. “Get yourselves some coffee.”

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