Monday, August 22, 2011
A week had passed and the strain on the relationship with Julie hadn’t decreased. Their conversation had illustrated that Julie’s beliefs and convictions weren’t even on Doug’s radar screen….not that she didn’t have valid points….they just didn’t matter as much to Doug as they did to Julie. They’d both called each other after the Sunday dinner, both to apologize and patch things up, but things had changed between them and there wasn’t a way to turn back time. Complicating things further, the phone lines at the farm were down most of the time. His cell phone coverage was intermittent as well.
Early in the week, Doug had buried himself in work as his primary means of compensating, as he had most of his adult life. Regent helped facilitate his immersion by prompting Doug and his remaining team members to get moving on a new marketing effort for RNEW. Their next primary target would be implementation of the product line into emergency ration suppliers and suppliers of ‘meals, ready to eat’ for the military, which were really just the same products in different packaging. A secondary target would be to institutional end users, which effectively meant, ‘prison food.’ Regent had very little penetration in either of the market areas, and both appeared to be promising areas of projected growth within the business development pro forma. Doug didn’t think for a moment about the implications of the market segments, they were just potential clients.
In normal times, Doug would be getting ready for the last meaningful football game of the year, laying bets with his friends and co-workers, maybe even trying to attend the game. This year, Detroit had been picked to be the host city, but a truck bomb had been detonated not long after the teams arrived for practice a week before. The game was now being played in Minnesota, the game video running in a window on Doug’s laptop. He was watching out of habit--he really didn’t care that the Patriots were being demolished by the Niners. Doug’s pick, the Packers, had been defeated handily in the playoffs, not that he’d seen the game. He’d actually forgotten that it was even being played. One thing Doug had noticed was that the video didn’t show much in the way of ‘crowd shots’. One ‘panoramic’ view of Vikings stadium showed only handfuls of people in attendance…but the soundtrack sounded like a full stadium.
Radio reports, followed much later by mainstream television news filled the days with rumors of the spread of the pandemic when the War wasn’t filling the time. Morbid predictions of the rates of infection, the mortality rate, mortality rate by age, mortality by race…were punctuated by the too frequent news of the death of a celebrity, sports star or elected official. It was obvious that no one was being spared. Rich or poor, healthy or ill…all were being taken. Mainstream sources weren’t—at first—reporting actual numbers of the dead. As the days went by though, it was obvious that it was futile to try to hide the numbers. It took until Thursday for the CDC to publicly to start to disclose official mortality rates.
Some rumors were proven through a leaked CDC report, which triggered even more speculation. Many people in poor health initially had been infected and were not recovering. Some races seemed to be hit harder than others, although it was difficult to prove statistically “this early in Stage 5 of the Alert Protocol.” Once a tipping point was reached within the infection timeline, there appeared to be no treatment that would make a marked difference in the outcome. The infection would either kill or not. Hospitals became places of palliative care. Within days, ‘Social distancing’ became the common theme of infection prevention: Stay away from others.
The Pentagon finally confirmed that dozens of foreign bases were in fact being closed and decommissioned to prevent other powers from simply moving in when the United States left. Decommissioning wasn’t defined, but amateur cell phone video showed that buildings were being imploded; fuel tanks emptied and then filled with dirt or sand; some heavy stationary equipment looked like it had been melted somehow. No one on the networks commented or even speculated on the reason for the evacuation. They were simply reporting on it. The amateur bands—Doug picked up several streaming broadcasts on the internet—told very different stories.
Some broadcasts were speculative, wildly so. Others sounded much more professional, contacting experts in finance, the military, the contracting community, and retired reporters. It was a near universal observation that the U.S. was being forced to contract the decades of force-projection due to simple economics…not as a result of the Mexicans and Chinese. A speech by the new Vice President, McAllen, was the focus of a full afternoon on one broadcast. The VP had the spotlight on him as he announced that the U.S. had suspended all foreign aid. Doug thought the speech was masterful, but the mainstream media shredded it. The ‘independents’ as Doug began to think of them, thought the speech was good, but studied McAllen in more detail than the speech or the content. They all seemed to know in advance that the foreign aid would be cut.
Domestic reports weren’t any more cheerful. The major cities were almost all in trouble, with military and police stretched thin. Food supplies were thinner. Doug’s ears perked up naturally at that, immediately he began to strategize a Regent solution. He’d spent several hours on that opportunity, creating a tactical outline for his team members to flesh out. He then emailed it to his boss, Pete Bollard, to clear it before distribution to the team. The next email, sent a few minutes later, was a similar tactical plan for all three major suppliers of MRE’s to the military and their dozen or so surviving civilian counterparts.
Less than an hour later, Doug received a response from Bollard, giving him the go-ahead. Bollard augmented Doug’s team with fifty-three additional staff…all reporting to him. Their dossiers would be provided by the end of the day….almost all of them would be senior to him in terms of time with Regent. By Friday afternoon, Doug had reviewed all the dossiers, sent out assignments to the core leaders in the group, with the outline of the plan approved by Bollard. Within a week, Doug wanted the final plans in his inbox.
Saturday was spent mostly in bed. Doug had picked up a cold and wanted to stay ahead of it. A giant crock pot of chili simmered most of the day. He’d planned on having that evolve into other dishes over the coming days. His sleep during the day was interrupted by the flashing ‘ALERT’ image on his browser window. The inner-city violence was all but out of control. The story of the day was framed around images of urban riots in Cincinnati…a ‘normal riot’ of thousands of ‘urban youth’, punctuated by a truck bomb that detonated right in the middle of the rioters. The buildings around the explosion, already damaged by the rioters, were left as smoking rubble. Body parts were everywhere, unfiltered by the surviving reporters. A network video camera was shown on the ground, with the dismembered forearm of the cameraman still strapped on.
Now, mid-Sunday afternoon, the gloom and cold of the early morning held steady. Doug watched the Niners score again, just as his phone came to life. The number on the screen was blocked.
“This is Doug,” he answered professionally.
“Doug this is Matt Bowman,” was the response. His ex-wife’s new husband.
“Matt, how’s everyone doing? Everything OK?” Doug asked with concern.
“It’s been interesting up here,” he said. “I wanted to let you know that we’re off-line most of the time up here. Cell service is only working about ten percent of the time. Mail is a joke of course. Brenda thought you ought to know.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it. Is everyone staying healthy?”
“So far, yeah. Normal stuff. The kids have been trading colds, Ronnie has it now, and she’s not happy about it,” Matt said, referring to Veronica, who never went by ‘Ronnie’ when he was the step-Dad, Doug thought. The three kids, Veronica, Michael and James, always went by their formal names…back then anyway.
“What are you hearing?” Matt continued. “We have no television up here, most of the radio stations are just repeating the same thing over again, which is flat out not true or based in reality.”
“Do you have internet? Email?” Doug asked.
“Not anymore. Cable is dead, phone lines can’t handle the bandwidth, phone data transfer has been disabled.”
“An information tech officer I work with said the government shut it off.” Doug filed that away for further consideration, before giving Matt as much information as he could, recapping the past few days and filling him in on the CDC report and the dangers of contact with those that might have been exposed. Doug finally remembered the shortwave frequencies.
“Shortwave,” he blurted out. “Do you have access to a shortwave radio?”
“I’m trying to round one up. I have a hand-held but the range is crap. No one’s selling them, and information is hard to come by, especially for me.” Matt was a deputy sheriff and a constable for several small towns. “Everyone thinks that we’re out to get them.”
“What about your department? Don’t they have…”
“Either looted or in the hands of people looking out for their own. Command isn’t completely gone, but unless there’s a reason for law enforcement to band together, it’s just about every man for himself.”
“How far are you away from a major population center?” Doug asked, realizing he didn’t have any idea exactly where his ex-wife and her family lived. Their infrequent correspondence had always been via email.
“We’re a fair piece. Not far enough, probably,” Matt said.
“Can you tell me where?”
“How well do you know the state?”
“I’m from Duluth originally. Fairly well, I suppose.”
“We’re on the edge of the Nicolet National Forest. Nearest little town is Crandon, population twelve-hundred. Nearest big town is Wausau, which is around thirty-thousand.”
“Are you getting traffic from Milwaukee? Chicago? Minneapolis?”
“Some. There’s not a whole lot of attraction to northern Wisconsin in the winter.”
“Food and fuel….”
“…are well defended. People up here like their privacy and know how their weapons. Most of the trouble we’ve had has been locals going after each other.”
“That sounds worse than it is down here,” Doug said, not meaning to say it aloud.
“However bad it is there, it’s better than a big city or anywhere near a big city…”
“Yeah, but that’s where the business is,” Doug replied.
“You aren’t seriously still doing over the road sales, are you?”
“No, that’s been suspended due to the flu. I’m focusing on other markets that we can work with electronically. This won’t last forever though. Eventually we’ll have to get back into pounding the pavement,” Doug said.
“You’re assuming that there is a legitimate government on the other side of this. I’m not so sure that will be the case,” Matt said.
“We’ll get through it,” Doug said, remembering the conversations with Julie. His reply to Matt was almost identical to the reply he gave her.
“The parasite-looter class will not….and they are the easy ones to be ready for because they’ll feed on each other first. Diminishing threat.”
“So who’s hard to get ready for?”
“Simple. Those in power. They want to stay there at all costs. Anyone gets in their way, they’re dead.”
Doug was shocked by that and took a moment to respond. He was in mid sentence a few moments later when the phone line went dead. He sat there a moment, tried to call Matt back, and received an ‘all circuits busy’ message. He went back to the football game, eyes on the screen, not really watching it or taking it in. After the Forty-Niners’ victory, he ate a solitary dinner of evolutionary chili over cornbread, with a tall glass of Bourbon and ice.
Doug awoke to a cold, dark house, utterly silent. After dinner, he’d parked himself on the couch, under a thick, very old quilt, intending to just listen to the news. He didn’t remember hearing any of it.
Fumbling for his watch, he punched the nightlight button, seeing that it was nearly one-thirty in the morning. The house was cold, and he wrapped himself up in the quilt as he went to put some shoes on and another layer. With the power out, the gas furnace was out as well. Again, he’d have to fire up the wood furnace and decide to either get the generator going or just feed the furnace. He spent five minutes trying to find the butane lighter for the white-gas lantern. He’d have to plan better.
By lantern light, the digital thermometer on the hallway read fifty-one degrees on the main floor; a sensor upstairs which read forty-three; and the exterior temperature on the north garage wall, now reading eleven. Doug dressed quickly, found his small flashlight, and headed into the basement.
It took an hour to get a decent amount of heat out of the furnace, and once again Doug made a trip through the house, shutting off all the light switches, before readying the generator. This time however, the generator didn’t fire up when he flipped the switch. An alert displayed on LCD indicator panel, stating ‘insufficient gas pressure.’ Doug thought that it could be a local problem…but it also occurred to him that he might have seen the last of natural gas at his home.
The rest of the night had been broken, Doug sleeping either minutes or an hour at a time when he wasn’t up feeding the wood furnace. He alternated between sleep and fear that the pipes in the house might freeze if he didn’t keep the place warm enough. At six forty-five though, the power came back on and woke him. There was an alert chime on one of the power supplies in the video cabinet that woke him. Power meant water, but it didn’t mean hot water. He’d have to use the electric stove for that….
He’d thrown on some clothes and made the trip back into the basement for another load into the furnace, checking the LCD panel again, which still warned of low gas pressure. When he returned upstairs, someone was knocking on the front door. Doug remembered that his shotgun was in the other room, quickly grabbed it, and flipped the porch light on before carefully looking out the window. It never occurred to him that a thief would have just kicked in the door. Mr. Kliest, the realtor and neighbor, was at the door.
“Good morning, Mister Kliest,” Doug said, opening the door. It was bitterly cold.
“Remember, call me Augie…and good morning. Have a minute?” Kliest said, coming inside.
“Sure. Just got up and fed the furnace.”
“That’s right, you’re gas over here. Wood backup.”
“Right. What do you have?”
“Electric with propane backup. Little gas generator too. How’s the place working out for you?”
“Pretty well,” Doug said. “That might be an understatement. Let me get some coffee on,” he said, moving into the kitchen and setting up the coffee maker.
“You have enough wood? I can set you up with a source if you’re short,” the older man said.
“I’ll take you up on that. Gas pressure’s dropped and I’m not sure it’s coming back. I seriously doubt I have enough wood for very long,” Doug said in a grateful tone.
“No problem. Glad to be of service,” Kliest said, writing a name and phone number on a slip of paper. “Call this outfit. They’ll take care of you. Have you been up to Des Moines lately?”
“Week or so ago,” Doug said, remembering that his neighbor was also a Regent employee. “You?”
“Not for a while now,” he said. “I haven’t seen your pickup lately,” Kliest asked.
“Loaned it to a friend,” Doug replied, an uneasy feeling in the back of his mind.
“Miss Forsythe,” Kliest replied.
“Oh, you know her?” Doug asked with obvious surprise. “I wasn’t aware that…”
“Oh, we’ve not been introduced,” Kliest said before pausing. “Doug, your employer has a fairly significant interest in preserving security of the RNEW line. That includes people who associate with our employees; information that might be made available to our competition; associations with fringe elements who might influence corporate resources.”
Shock didn’t begin to describe Doug’s emotions. “Now wait one damned minute here. You’re obviously not who you said you were when we first met. I thought you were a real estate agent!”
“I work for Bluestone, that is correct,” he said calmly. “There are several other business groups aside from real estate and mortgage service, all working quietly in service to the corporation.”
“Poking into my personal life is one of them? This is utter bullshit.”
“You are a Regent resource. You allow the corporation the ability and the right to review every aspect of your personal life, Mister Peterson,” he said formally. “It’s in your employment agreement.”
“And it’s your job to keep an eye on me? To spy?”
“It is my job to ensure that Regent resources are not compromised in any way and to ensure that the corporation is protected.”
Doug was fuming. This wasn’t at all what he expected, ever. Kliest went on.
“Regent has a substantial investment in the RNEW project as you are aware. Other elements within the market place are acting to restrict or kill the launch and expansion. Some of these elements appear to be quite innocent at first.”
“Julie Forsythe is no such threat. It’s ludicrous to suggest it.”
“Review your associations carefully,” Kliest said in a fatherly tone. “And then decide if they are what you think they are.”
Doug didn’t have a reply.
“You will have a busy few weeks, starting today. Once this flu problem passes, you’ll be visiting a number of clients within the Midwest. Then making a swing into the Northeast, looping down to Atlanta, and then back. You’ll hit a number of corporate offices along the way. The details are in an email that you will be receiving at eight a.m. You have little time for distractions,” Kliest said.
“Just how long do you think this ‘flu problem’ as you call it will go on? From what I know this is going on for months. A road trip—or worse yet, air travel—is a horrible idea. Suicide.”
“By the end of March it will be post-peak. You will be traveling for Regent shortly thereafter. It would hardly be suicide. The risks to most are quite within acceptable limits.”
Doug stood, looking at the man in his kitchen as if he were seeing him for the first time. Kliest wore farmer overalls, a well-worn coat and feed-store hat, insulated work gloves under his arm. He might as well have been from Mars, Doug thought.
“You are exceptionally well paid for your service to the corporation…especially these days. I would suggest that you remember that when you are selected for your assignments. And remember just who your friends are.”
“I believe I know who my friends are,” Doug said.
“Do you in fact? The Segher family for example? Very private family. Unusual records of transactions and business operations in general. Strange interpretations of the role of governance. Unpredictable.”
“I don’t know anything about the way they run their farm. Julie Forsythe’s brother….”
“….Is married into their family. We know.”
Doug forced himself to get into a mode of negotiating with a hostile client, to keep himself from saying something regrettable. He should have made the transition far earlier.
“Where do you fit into the hierarchy of Regent? Am I expected to report to you, or continue working with my team?"
“I am part of Bluestone,” Kliest said with smiling--almost sneering--confidence. “That’s all you need to know. Continue to work within your established team framework, of course. Watch your associations,” he said in closing, in effect stating, ‘We are watching you.’ Kliest nodded with a self-satisfied expression, and let himself out.
With Kliest’s departure, nothing in Doug’s life would be the same.