Monday, September 10, 2012
Doug stood before the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out through the haze to the Front Range. From the forty-eighth floor, the layers of smoke stretch out below him as far as he could see. Uncomfortable in the tailored shirt, suit and five hundred dollar shoes, he waited for the Central Region liaison from the Food and Drug Administration. The five hundred square foot office held one desk, an ‘informal’ seating area, a conference table, and coffee bar. Doug thought the place a complete waste of real estate.
Within hours of the attack on the United States, the President implemented a plan for dispersing key governmental functions to various locations around the nation. Regent had conveniently made available six floors of the newly remodeled West Region Headquarters, fully networked and furnished, and just ‘days away from occupancy’. Regent made a point of the concession, stating humbly that corporate staff would be fine in their ‘temporary quarters’ in the lower floors.
Doug knew that it was all a lie—there was nothing ‘temporary’ about the opulent floors below the thirtieth floor, and there were no obvious signs of any pending move (moving boxes, inventory tags, etc.) or subtle signs (overflowing garbage and recycling bins of obsolete files and discards).
He had been asked…or ordered, as the case may be, to ‘volunteer to serve as a coordinator of former private sector food and nutrition professionals, serving as regulatory officers for the Federal Government, reporting to both the Director and Deputy Directors of the department.’ The idea and need for the position had been planted in the minds of the Food and Drug Administration Director and Deputy Director through several Regent covert operatives within the upper levels of the agency.
Three of the Regent senior officers, all below the level of the President but just barely, had met with Doug in a surprise visit to the Des Moines plant on the Tuesday following Memorial Day. Their tone was pleasant, belying the actual words they used. Doug thought the least of one overstuffed chair by the name of A.A. Slocum, who did little of the talking and seemed the stereotype of the blathering, overbearing and small-minded executive. The other two, Dale Salvatore and Tim Holdren, held Vice President titles and feigned admiration for the fat man, but Doug recognized it as bald-faced intimidation. Slocum was plain-spoken, seemed to know much more about Doug than he should have, including personal details that he seemed to enjoy working into a business conversation.
Doug loathed the man within thirty seconds of the onset of the meeting, and it took every ounce of his sales persona to illustrate otherwise. Slocum used information as one would use jagged glass under the fingernails of someone taped to a chair, casually bringing up his relationship with Cammie (‘how in the Hell does he know about her?!’), his former wife and her children, and Julie. He did not mention the Seghers or Julie’s whereabouts, but he might not have known that she’d handed in her resignation earlier that same day.
Corporate had countered Julie’s resignation letter with an opportunity to work from home on personnel and human resources issues, vetting of employees for advancement and things of that nature. She’d ‘regrettably declined’, due to ‘personal needs and the need to care for dear friends in the area,’ but would be ‘happy to be of service in the future when her current obligations were satisfied.’ At that point, Julie dropped off the grid.
The Regent executives left Doug with a scripted outline of his conversation with the FDA Director, and ‘suggested’ that a meeting by June Sixth would be ‘appropriate’.
The executives from Columbus left in a single-engine business plane, the very same one that later delivered Doug to Denver. The type of plane was foreign to him, a Pilatus PC-12, with a crew of two and a stewardess for the lone passenger—Doug.
Arriving through the haze at Denver International, an airport that Doug was intimately familiar with, he immediately noticed the dozens of Air Force and Army aircraft where commercial planes once parked. Concourses B and C were completely dedicated to military operations, and A Concourse only had a handful of commercial aircraft at the gates, and they seemed to have been there for quite some time—orange shields were installed in the engine nacelles, and other areas of the aircraft were covered with white shrink-wrap or some sort of sprayed-on cover. The Regent aircraft stopped on the east side of the A Concourse, where the plane was met by six armed soldiers. Everyone aboard was searched, the aircraft registration verified, and then they were escorted into the main terminal. The crew was escorted into a ‘Crew Rest Area’, and Doug headed on alone. The air was thick with the smell of the largest forest fires in Colorado history, now in their third week.
Doug nearly didn’t recognize the airport. First off, the air conditioning wasn’t working and the open areas under the large tent-like roof were filled with rows of soldiers in full gear--weapons and all. None appeared to be wounded, dirty or fresh from a battlefield, so Doug assumed that they were waiting to ship out to the Mexican Territory. The restaurants that once graced the common areas of the terminals were not only empty, but stripped to the walls. As Doug passed through the terminal, escorted by two soldiers now, he saw pallets of bottled water and MRE’s, shrink wrapped and sitting on pallet jacks. He moved through the terminal too quickly to see if they were Regent products…he hoped not.
The soldiers escorted Doug wordlessly up the escalator (not working) to the departure/pick up level. The upper level of the terminal, once packed with thousands of travelers, held none save Doug.
The East side of the terminal had a single car waiting at the curb, a black Ford Taurus sedan in limousine trim. The driver saw Doug through the windshield and quickly jumped out to help his passenger with his bag.
“Sorry, sir! Didn’t see your plane come in,” the young driver said. Doug noticed that the man was walking with a significant limp.
“No problem. Came straight in and right up to the terminal,” Doug said. “War wound?”
The young man took a moment to answer. “Well, not really. Cross-fire in Chicago. I served in three sand pits for the nation and made it home in one piece. Few years back, election night, Michigan Avenue, some rat-bastard shot me in the knee because I’m black. Army wouldn’t take me back even after we got nuked.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Doug said, knowing that this wasn’t the only one wounded in the aftermath of the last Presidential election.
“We’ll be at Regent Plaza in about twenty minutes, sir.”
“Not much traffic, huh?”
“Uh, no sir. None. With this pass on the mirror here, we can drive up to ninety, no questions….and there’s a transponder in the car in case someone gets nervous.”
“Car-bombs, sir. Anyone approaching any of the Federal facilities without a pass or a transponder, especially at a high rate of speed…well, lets just say it won’t end well for them. Applies to State facilities, too.”
“Hadn’t heard about that,” Doug said.
“Not really something they broadcast,” the driver said as they pulled onto the deserted highway. In moments they were exceeding the posted speed limit. “You haven’t been to a Federal Zone?”
“Uh, no. I work in Des Moines,” Doug said, intentionally playing along. Doug caught the drivers’ eye in the rear view mirror.
“Fed Zone. Heavy security, uniformed and plainclothes. If you think you can spot the undercover, chances are you’re wrong. Everything is subject to search and seizure at any time. TSA in blue shirts or jumpsuits. Federal Police in black. Military in camo. Snipers everywhere. Cameras everywhere. Mikes, too. All access points are heavily controlled. Anti-ram and anti-climb barriers all the way around it. Anyone going over that fence gets shot, no questions asked.”
“I may be working there. Any pointers?”
“If you’re working there, you’re living there. Fed employees billet in the Zone. Hotels, offices converted to dorms, whatever. Your quarters depend on how high you are on the pecking order and how much ass you kiss.”
“Like I said, I’m from Iowa. Kind of a different world I guess,” Doug said, keeping in character. “What about, you know, shopping and that kind of stuff? If I’m in the Zone, where do people shop?”
“Shop? No one shops. Feds get supplied. I’ve seen the trucks. I’ve heard the stuff is…top shelf. Best of the best,” the driver said, obviously angered. “The rest of us get third-rate.”
“That doesn’t seem…right,” he said. “There’s not enough to go around, but that doesn’t mean that…well, that sort of system is bullshit.”
“Good luck trying to make a dent in that system, bud.”
“Do you mind if I ask, uh, what it’s like outside the Zone?”
“Lots of gimmedats,” the driver replied in urban slang, almost too quickly for Doug to hear.
“Huh?” Doug replied honestly.
“That’s what we call them. ‘Give me that.’ Gimmedats. They take what they don’t get handed. Most of the people still living within a few miles of the Zone are ‘gimmedats’, living off the Feds. Outside of that, it’s just…thin. Not enough food. Water rationing. Rotating power outages. And these damned forest fires are brutal.”
Good to his word, the Taurus pulled into the secured parking garage at One Regent Plaza on time, even with the screening at the Federal Zone checkpoint. Doug was disheartened to see the abandoned nature of the Sixteenth Street Mall just outside. The once-vibrant pedestrian mall was empty, dirty, and littered with debris. The Rock Steady, Doug’s favorite classic rock restaurant, was a burned out shell.
“Jesus,” Doug said aloud.
“Yeah,” his driver replied. “Not quite like the old days.”
He tried to tip Eugene, his driver, but the young man told him that it was not allowed…although on a trip back to the airport, ‘a bottle of Southern Comfort would be appreciated.’ Doug’s bags were taken by the corporate concierge, and Doug was escorted through security, and whisked upstairs.
“Mister Peterson, good to meet you. You come highly recommended,” FDA Undersecretary Mark Sather said, shaking Doug’s hand.
“Thank you very much, Undersecretary. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to serve,” Doug began.
For ninety minutes, Doug ran the corporate script, including the sanitized recap of his recent work at Regent and the introduction of the RNEW food enhancer line into the commercial and institutional products. Sather asked about the original intent for the product, and Doug lied right out loud, stating that it had been originally targeted for limited use in ultra high-end product lines, first to be offered to five-star restaurants, the thinking being that the enhancement would generate a huge spike in the restaurant brand during ‘high season’ in the restaurant industry. ‘With RNEW making ‘average’ food taste ‘better’, when added to ‘exceptional’ food, the results were of course even more dramatic,’ Doug told the FDA official, who was nearly salivating at the thought.
The expense of the product drove the limited production…it was only through great corporate sacrifice and capital investment that more efficient means of production were created, allowing Regent to help the nation recover.
Doug could scarcely believe the words from his own mouth. Sather though, bought it hook, line and sinker. After brief introductions to both the Director and Deputy Director of the Food and Drug Administration, he was shown his office.
He was in.
Doug’s duties as ‘liaison’ included instructions to bring order to the disorder of private-sector food production, including the nationalization of ‘underutilized assets’ and ‘strategic elements’ needed for recovery. Once word got out that the Federal Government would just as soon seize a corporation that in their view wasn’t working hard enough, production output soared.
Many of the seizures were effected through the financial industry, ‘calling the notes’ on current or overdue loans, or influencing the various states to enforce payment of overdue taxes. Once the seizures began, even before protests could begin, banks immediately fired all employees below the management level, and then often re-wrote job descriptions and pay scales to suit the interests of the bank. The rights of the corporation or the rightful owners of the business had no play in the agreement between the banks, who’d gladly pay any overdue taxes to the state, with penalty of course, and the thieves dressed in suits. Federal regulators or courts weren’t inclined to investigate, which was politispeak for ‘bought off.’
With little or no alternatives but to put neighbor against neighbor in the job market, most employees took the added burdens pushed upon them for far less in the way of real compensation. Those that didn’t found no other options available.
Many of the plants and factories seized were either run directly by Regent or ordered to operate under Regent direction. RNEW spread covertly, well before planned introductions throughout the Northeast and penetrating deep into the South.
Without adequate raw components however, or more correctly, raw components of a quality traditionally used in the United States, by mid July it was clear that even with dramatic reorganization of the industry, starvation was still a real threat.
The shortages provided the ideal gateway for RNEW to enter in, and Doug encouraged ‘test markets’ for widespread , overt product introduction, all within the Eastern half of the U.S. Urban areas were particularly short of reliable food pathways, so bulk deliveries of plain but nutritionally adequate began to be shipped East to make up for that which could not be produced locally.
Doug was six weeks into his new position before he noticed the push-back of Western U.S. food producers related to introduction of the RNEW component. He immediately suspected that information that he himself had provided had indeed made it out into the wild, and was the reason for not only the suspicion of ‘food modifiers’ but outright hostility toward any government program that would introduce them.
The lines solidified during July and August, clearly a movement of refusal was spreading East. Eastern users demanded more RNEW however, and the effects of the components took hold. Virtually all public servants, relief centers, schools and universities were using the spectrum of RNEW enhanced foods and beverages.
Life in Denver wasn’t Iowa, in any shape, manner, or form. There was no such thing as ‘business casual’, and Doug forced himself to fit in through attire, sometimes puffed-up mannerisms, and an overly expensive diet. Although he preferred to cook many of his own dinner meals, at least five times a week ‘the department’ bought senior staff dinner at one of the dozen or so ultra-high end restaurants that continued to thrive, feeding off the Federal credit card. He craved a basic lasagna or a stroganoff or a hamburger casserole. Federal leadership though, supped on prime rib, wild salmon, Maine lobster, pheasant and quail, and breakfasted on Eggs Hemingway.
Eugene was absolutely correct about the security in the Zone. An army of security officers patrolled building common areas, streets, alleys, restaurants. Going ‘outside the wire’ wasn’t just discouraged, anyone in the Zone was ordered to stay there for ‘their own protection.’
One of the most difficult things Doug faced was staying in ‘character’ at all times, not discussing anything to anyone not in his immediate circle and living the person Regent scripted him to be. Even within his own department, he was certain that at least two of the twenty or so people were Federal Security, and probably another was a covert Regent Intelligence employee. Little was said about any of the men, at least one of whom were always present in the office. The eyes of his staff told him as much as words would have, with regular office workers eyeing them, without being obvious about it. Body language also told Doug that no one trusted any of the three.
Doug’s apartment, a block away from the office like many other Federal employees, was more luxurious than any hotel he’d ever stayed in, arranged quietly by Regent but by all appearances, paid for by Doug directly. Corporate thought it best that Doug appeared to be a man of means, so that when someone from the FDA might be invited over for cocktails and dinner, that the environment was suitable for the impression of a private citizen dedicated to helping the Recovery, even at his own expense. Doug had little to do in the way of shopping or housework, as Regent provided both a service for keeping the kitchen stocked and housekeeping services. Regent also furnished Doug’s business wardrobe, and a secure link to the Regent computer network. He was certain of course, that his apartment was also monitored twenty-four-seven with audio and video.
Doug looked forward to Sunday evenings, which he always kept for himself. He could cook his own meals and try to spend some uninterrupted time writing to Julie when not preparing for the six a.m. start of the office day. Mail service was slow but did get through, sometimes taking more than a week for letters to arrive. The civilian phone system was a shambles, and other infrastructure failures were reported almost daily. Two scheduled return trips ‘home’ were canceled, one due to severe storms moving up from the south; the second due to a visit from the President that shut down all outbound traffic.
While Doug was heavily focused on ‘relief efforts’, he was secretly trying to limit the RNEW impact through whatever subterfuge he could get away with. It was clear that his proximity to the Federal Government’s operations in Denver allowed him a unique viewpoint and listening post. His immediate superiors, all the way up the food chain to the Director, were uniformly convinced that centralizing control was necessary to the recovery effort.
Congress continued to ‘interfere’ in the process, ‘slowing down’ progress toward ‘recovery.’
One late evening, after a lavish eight-course meal and numerous bottles of wine, Doug had to remain in character as conversations steered toward the need for more immediate action to ‘alleviate the logjam.’ The President, presented as patriotic and inspirational and a team player, was rumored to be a brooding, ruthless egomaniac. He wished that he and Julie had devised some sort of code system for their letters, so that he could convey inside information.
President Lambert focused three weeks of speeches in late July and early August to soothing the anger brewing in the Northeastern states, embers that were fanned by an outspoken New Jersey senator by the name of Blackburn. She’d been a thorn in the side of the Federal leadership for sometime now, and was gaining popular traction with continued collapses in public services an easy way to point out the utter failure of the Federal government. In July, she began to use the word secession, and found it receiving growing approval each time. Her Green Party backers, along with those who had been ‘disenfranchised, unemployed by the greedy corporations, lied to by your leaders, and robbed by those bastards in the banks’ demanded ‘social and financial justice’…giving her more and more traction each day. Lambert’s Executive Order on August first forgiving all corporate debt just added fuel to Blackburn’s fire.
The Greens, and soon thousands of others, demanded that a tax and debt Jubilee be declared, forgiving all debts and giving all a ‘fresh start.’ Local law enforcement, without the backup of the National Guard, could do little but watch as banks were systematically mobbed, looted and burned.
The President, in a heavy-handed manner, called up Regular Army units to suppress the uprising.
The worn threads holding the nation together began to tear to the sounds of M-16’s in Philadelphia. Twenty-six Green Party members were wounded, twelve killed, in the first fusillade. By the end of that first day, two hundred and six Americans were dead at the hands of their countrymen, and the seeds of the New Republic sprouted.