Thursday, February 23, 2012
Near Crandon, Wisconsin
Doug woke before dawn, and once again packed his things for the trip south. A stirring inside him urged to get moving early, despite having talked with Matt, Brenda and Nate until almost ten the night before.
The ‘raiders’ as Matt called them, had arrived in a mix of vans, trucks, trailers and a converted RV. Their first contacts in Crandon had been the grocery store and a machine shop across the street. One group had attempted to buy food and prescription medicine with ‘cash’…meaning devalued Federal Reserve Notes. After an argument that the ‘money’ still had ‘value’, an argument broke out. A second group had tried to find a replacement wheel bearing for one of the trailers. The ‘raiders’ money wasn’t accepted in Crandon, however.
With little food, and their vehicles beginning to fail and fuel low, the raiders apparently decided they had little choice but to take what they were unable to buy.
The survivors included four women and five children under the age of ten. The ‘enemy’ dead included sixteen men, ages ranging from fifteen to sixty-one; and ten women between the ages of twenty-two to forty-one. The dead would be buried in the Crandon cemetery in a common grave. The survivors would not be welcomed to remain. Matt and his fellow officers allowed them to keep shotguns and shells, but rifles, pistols, and heavy weapons were kept by the victors. Matt told Doug that at least a third of the weapons, including several heavy machine guns had been stolen from the Michigan National Guard.
Nate Delacroix summed up the evening in a few simple sentences: “They looked like us. They could’ve been from here. God help us all.”
Matt made fried-egg sandwiches for the three of them, after collecting a dozen from their layers. Brenda made new sandwiches for Doug, and added a bag of dried apples for lunch on the road. The morning news was almost all universally bad, and all from Europe or the Middle East. America’s problems were spreading, and the power vacuum would be filled.
“I checked the route south this morning—don’t head straight south. Go west through Rheinlander to Fifty-One. Then skirt Wausau,” Matt said. “You want to avoid the larger cities from everything that I’m hearing. Madison, anything in Illinois. I’d recommend taking a route like this one.” Matt handed a map with a highlighted route through rural Wisconsin, heading southwest to La Crosse and into Iowa. “If you’re lucky, you can get there with the fuel you have in your tank.”
“You didn’t happen to hear anything about cell phone coverage down south, did you?” Doug asked.
“No. I listen—I don’t talk. Broadcasts are made by folks that are moving around—trucks and such.”
“You aren’t planning on making any business stops are you?” Brenda asked.
“I think Des Moines, depending on how things look. I’ll bag the rest of it,” Doug replied, thinking of the things on Julie’s list that he’d likely be unable to provide. “Depends if corporate has other ideas.”
“You should get moving,” Brenda said. “You might have a long day.”
“Yeah, I should,” Doug said as he looked outside. The Wisconsin sky was clear and calm, quite different than the day before. “I want to thank you both for everything.”
“We want to thank you for what you brought us. Those things will be good as gold soon enough,” Matt replied. “And quite good for bribing the kids.”
Doug laughed a little at that. “Sorry I wasn’t able to say goodbye to them. They look to be growing up to be great kids,” he said, not saying that he thought Matt was doing a better job as a father than he would’ve.
“Come on back if you’re in the area,” Matt said.
Brenda and Matt walked Doug to his SUV, and within a few minutes he was headed home, following Matt’s map, tossed on the center console.
East of Rhinelander, he headed south on a two-lane county road, and turned east and south as he could to avoid most of the small towns along the way. The roads were quite obviously not being maintained as they had been in years past, and he had to pay attention to potholes and the occasional downed tree.
On the long drive, Doug continued his mental exploration for an exit strategy from Regent. The shock of what RNEW was all about still hadn’t really jelled in his mind. That a group of people could create such a thing and put it into use was as foreign to Doug as breathing liquid metal.
Regent had him… hooks in deep. They knew Doug’s history, probably all of his friends and acquaintances going back years. They essentially had control of his finances, his house, everything tangible that he needed to live. As long as he was viewed with favor—meaning, he did the job they wanted him to do—he would continue to have all of those things. If…no, when he decided to leave Regent’s employ, certainly at the end of his nine-month contract, all of that would end. The confidentiality agreement that he’d signed --and broken by telling Matt and Brenda all about RNEW--would remain in effect for twenty-four months after his contract ended. If Regent found out that he’d broken his agreement, the consequences might at one point have been just financial. He was certain now though, that they’d be quite a bit more unpleasant and certainly more permanent than just being sued. He’d need to start fresh, come late September.
Doug’s departure wouldn’t end the--Doug struggled to find the right word--evil that was RNEW. He’d have to find a way to work for Regent while also finding a way to expose the reality of RNEW…and not get himself or anyone he cared for killed in the process. He’d have to get back to Des Moines and back home; get fully integrated into his new role, and go from there. He’d need to find a way to let Julie know about everything as well. His head hurt, but not from the wound.
Doug found virtually nothing on the FM band on the car radio, and only three stations on AM, all talking about the crisis in the Middle East. One was harping on the ‘appropriate American response to unreasonable Israeli demands.’ He didn’t quite know what to think about that.
Crossing Interstate Ninety-Four at Black River Falls, Doug came across his first manned roadblock—keeping anyone from exiting Ninety-Four and entering the town. Two men with AR-15’s waved him through, apparently not thinking anything of his Iowa license plates. For a brief moment, his cell phone came to life, signaling that he had voice mail. By the time he pulled over to retrieve it, the signal had faded again.
Originally heading for La Crosse, Doug saw smoke plumes rising from several locations to the south, and he quickly decided to head west, making the crossing of the Mississippi at Winona, Minnesota. The radio was useless for information locally.
He finally remembered the citizens band radio, built into the center console. It had been obscured by Matt’s map. Doug felt the familiar wave of idiocy rush across him. ‘Dammit!’
Doug pulled to a stop after passing through Winona and familiarized himself with the CB. Following Matt’s advice, Doug placed the radio on ‘scan’ to listen in to local conditions. The radio had a headset as well as a hand-held microphone, stashed in a small pocket in the console. He put the headset on, ensuring that the ‘transmit on voice’ button was disabled. He then adjusted the reception to pull in the strongest broadcasts, several of which were seemingly within a few miles.
“…closed at French Island, east and westbound. State Police have it blocked,” said a gravelly male voice. “Some bad stuff goin’ on east o’here.”
“We’re clear to Sioux Falls westbound anyway…for the lucky few that made it out,” replied a woman.
Doug figured that they were talking about Interstate Ninety, the common thread of the two reference points in the conversation. He hit ‘scan’ again to change to another strong frequency, finding someone reading from the Bible in a droning monotone. He punched the button again, and picked up someone reading a series of numbers with occasional pauses. He returned to the original frequency, until it faded. The broadcasts were mostly from long-distance truck drivers, all exchanging notes on their most recent travels.
The states bordering Mexico seemed to be filled with checkpoints, with drivers and loads searched by the military for illegal weapons and ‘contraband’. Doug gathered from the broadcasts that many of the large trucking companies were near collapse, as clients were unable to pay rates demanded by the companies for shipping. Most of the truckers, Doug figured, were independents. One stated that ‘this was it. I’m done.’ Another replied in some sort of trucker slang, ‘I’m taking the Cornbinder and bobtailin’ home. Screw the freight.’
Doug pulled over to the side of the road a few miles south of the state line to relieve himself. The April sunshine should have been shining down on green fields all around him. All were brown and fallow, as far as he could see in every direction.
Fifty miles north of Waterloo and a little east, Doug turned south, keeping to narrow county roads. His cell phone finally received a reliable signal, and he pulled over again, just south of the small town of Osage. Seven voice-mails, all from Regent Des Moines, the last just fifteen minutes old.
The first three were simple ‘call me back’ messages from Pete Bollard. The fourth was a status update from Mitch Grayson in Regent R&D, which was several days old. Five was an anxious call from Pete Bollard, asking Doug to call immediately regarding an ‘emergency meeting of senior staff.’ Six was a hang-up; seven was from someone at Corporate, requesting him to call in as soon as possible.
‘Here goes,’ Doug said to himself, calling Regent. The phone was answered on the first ring.
“Mister Peterson. Thank you for returning the call. We’ve been concerned,” the voice said.
“I’ve been out of touch for a few days. I’m about an hour or so out of Des Moines.”
“Yes, we see that. Please hold for a moment. I’ll transfer you to E Branch.”
“Sure,” Doug said casually, as if he knew what ‘E Branch’ was.
“This Doug Peterson?” a gruff male voice asked.
“Yes it is,” he replied calmly.
“Doug, I realize you’re brand new to E Branch and have been out of touch for the past few days. We need you in Des Moines immediately. We have board members from Columbus and Denver inbound at this time for meetings tomorrow.”
“OK, I can be there….Would you mind introducing yourself?” Doug asked, feeling a little sheepish.
“Sorry, yeah. This is Rob Dowling. Remember me? I was on your team from the L.A. office when it hit the fan.”
Doug remembered. The last he’d heard of Dowling, he’d relocated to one of the Columbus subsidiaries. “Oh. Sure, Rob! Good to hear from you,” he said. “Now, do me a favor. What in the Hell is E-Branch?”
“Exec Branch,” Dowling replied. “They run the show….You’re serious? You didn’t know that you got a promotion?”
“I’d heard in a roundabout way. I didn’t hear anything about a transfer.”
“Don’t worry. You won’t have to move or anything. Probably a fair amount of travel, but they’re completely decentralized. We’ll talk more when you get in,” Dowling said, before giving Doug instructions on where to meet him within the expanded Regent campus.
Once again, Doug’s mind was in overdrive as he drove toward Des Moines. He wasn’t paying as much attention to the road as he should have.
He’d just passed an abandoned mini-van, and he prepared to pass several derelict vehicles ahead on the right, and another to the left. Doug was driving at just under fifty miles per hour when two of the ‘derelicts’ moved in front of him. The minivan pulled onto the road from behind. He slammed on the brakes for just a moment and accelerated hard, thinking ‘you dirty sonofabitch!’ The impact with the Toyota pickup tore up the drivers’ side of the Explorer, but spun the Toyota and rolled it on the passenger side. Doug recovered in the grassy median, still accelerating as the Ford came under fire from behind and to the tree line on the right. The firing ended as he hit eighty-five miles per hour. The minivan was at least two miles behind him when it gave up the chase. The Explorer’s dashboard was alight with warnings, and the engine was starting to ‘miss’. Doug limped into the city on Interstate Thirty-Five.
The Regent Des Moines campus had expanded by thirty percent, just with the expansion of a highly secured perimeter. The original secured compound access point was now a hundred yards inside the new non-climbable fencing. Doug thought the place looked like a prison. He wove through the concrete barriers, and noticed a dozen armed men patrolling between the inner and outer fences. Two men and a heavy gate were ahead of him.
“Mister Peterson?” The man to the left asked. Doug noticed that no one was wearing any type of breathing mask. “I.D. please.”
“Here you go,” Doug said. “No masks?”
“No sir. We’re all internal here—no outside contact. I assume that you haven’t had contact with any infected?” the man asked as he swiped Doug’s card in a belt-mounted reader. The reader immediately approved Doug for entry.
“Nope. I’ve been out in the sticks.”
“So, what in the Hell did you hit with the company car, if you don’t mind asking.” The second man was looking at the right side and rear of the car.
“Jesus, Robbie. You oughta see this side. You have someone decide to use you for target practice?”
“A little trouble north of here. Someone decided to pop up a roadblock.”
“You better pull this over to maintenance. Down and to the right,” the guard said, pointing the way. “You’re leaking something,” he said, looking at the ground.
“No surprise. Screwed up something in the engine, too,” Doug replied, pulling ahead as the gate opened.
He dropped the Ford at maintenance, retrieving his day pack from the back seat, and took his rifle, the case containing the shotgun and his M9. The staff mechanics immediately put the Ford on a lift for an inspection. He headed over to Administration to meet with Dowling, a little awkwardly carrying his weapons. The doors opened ahead of him, with people moving out of his way as he headed to the conference room. People looked…intimidated.
Rob Dowling was already in the conference room, part of a video meeting with three other Regent staff. He nodded at Doug, and wrapped up the meeting. “Boss is here. Gotta go. Be available at five-fifteen for a follow on. Got it?” The other attendees agreed, and their screens faded to the stylized company logo.
“Doug, nice to meet you in person,” Dowling said as he shook Doug’s hand. Rob Dowling was a solid six inches taller than Doug had imagined him, only having ‘met’ him through video previously. Thirty or forty pounds heavier, too.
“You, too,” Doug said, closing the conference room door and tossing his bag in one of the big, leather chairs. “What’s the emergency?”
“To be honest, we’re not entirely sure. We’re getting a lot of pressure from the board. They’re trying to get us to be creative with the Fed regulators.”
“’Creative?’ In what way?”
“Apply pressure. Personal, professional, legal and otherwise?” Dowling replied.
“And how do you feel about that?”
“Not particularly good. It’s not right.”
“No, it’s not. So we find a way around the parts that aren’t right, or a better way entirely. The illegal stuff, pressure, whatever, is asinine. No one will work with us again if we pull that kind of crap. People that don’t understand long-term working relationships come up with those kinds of ‘suggestions’. Food and Drug Admin was about twenty percent effective before things started coming apart. Toss in the events of the past three months and they’re even more useless,” Doug said. ‘This isn’t that hard to work around. Are these people idiots?’
“What do you suggest? I got off the phone an hour ago with some asshole in Columbus by the name of Slocum who wanted my nuts nailed to a wall because this problem hasn’t been fixed yet—a problem that I didn’t know about until ten o’clock this morning,” Dowling said.
“Never heard of him. Sounds like a prick,” Doug said, probably gaining some points with Dowling. “It’s counter to our purposes go attack an agency that can shut you down and throw you in prison. You just don’t attack the regulatory process or the regulators, ever. You want them on our side. You insert yourself into their system and work it from there. They’re wildly understaffed and unable to complete their basic mission. The solution isn’t to attack them and rile them up against us. The solution is to help them get the tools they need to do their job…but help them do it in a way that doesn’t hurt us.”
“So you co-opt the regulators,” Dowling stated.
“Well, in a manner of speaking, yeah,” Doug replied. “But if we, as creators of food products, cannot convince regulators that our products are needed during a time of starvation, we’re piss-poor salesmen.” Doug looked at Dowling. “How much do you know about RNEW?”
“Flavor enhancements. Expansion of building block materials in basic products that will allow existing foods to have lower price-points market wide. Expansion into new offerings not previously possible without the product,” Dowling replied.
Doug was not surprised by the clinical accuracy of the marketing blurb Dowling just provided. He didn’t know that RNEW had additional capabilities. “Anything else?”
“That’s what I know about the product. My career has been focused on integrating new products, upgrades, and processes into existing markets. I never really get into the minutiae. Why?”
“Just curious,” Doug said. “Ponder what I just said. Dig into Regent--and other competing companies while you’re at it--for people that might’ve worked for the FDA in the past. Get a list together. Maybe we can create a mechanism to ‘loan’ them to the FDA….”
“There’s no way they could stay on the payroll, and the Federal Government is broke,” Dowling criticized.
“In a time of national emergency, I’m sure there is some bureaucrat that could be shown a creative solution,” Doug said. “Where am I staying tonight? Are there quarters here?”
“Sure. Let me have Francine show you,” he replied, punching in a number on the conference room phone.
“What else is on the docket before tomorrow?” Doug asked.
“Production problems. Quotas. Distribution problems. Staffing…we’re falling behind on all fronts…because they keep raising the numbers. Some big deadline this Friday, and we’re going to miss it by a mile.”
“OK. Get help if you need it to get that list of people generated. I’ll be back in a half-hour or so. I’ve got some other calls to return,” Doug said as a shapely young woman knocked and entered the conference room, assessing him as some women do, with one sweep of her eyes.