Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Des Moines International Airport
Doug stood in the security line, a few spare moments after leaving Julie in tears at the curb. They’d been up nearly all night, talking about his return home; the new life they’d soon be starting; their baby, due in February. The drive in to Des Moines was a family affair, with Peter driving the big crew cab farm truck, Arie in riding shotgun (literally) and Doug and Julie in the back. They’d head over Mount Pleasant from Des Moines after dropping him off.
Dressed in pressed slacks, black Oxford shirt and a dark sportcoat, Doug also carried a black, combat style backpack as his carry-on, and a small matching bag containing his essentials. The remaining bags he’d brought on the trip East stayed at the Farm.
Security at the airport was far tighter than anything Doug had seen in any of his travels, including the Federal Zone in Denver. Black-clad helmeted men carried short, stubby guns Doug recognized as the Heckler & Koch MP-5. He’d trained on one briefly with Kevin Martinez. All of the men had helmet visors down, but were scanning the dozen or so passengers in the departure area.
Screening was a complete search of all of his bags; a strip search down to his underwear; and an interrogation worthy of a clandestine agency that really didn’t care if you were alive at the end of the day…while remaining in his underwear in a chilly room.
While being searched, Doug’s ID was logged into the Federal database and quickly compared to his known and expected travel patterns, his biometric signature, and three-dimensional photograph. While in the interrogation area (he couldn’t continue to think of it as a ‘screening’ area any longer), his voice was compared to known voice prints of Douglas Michael Peterson, USFDA number 31668471SADREZ.
Once through the interrogation process, Doug re-dressed and found himself in a now-windowless terminal area. All of the large glass windows were now covered with black plywood, and half of the lights were shut off. It was not possible to know night from day in the terminal area.
The terminal staff were no longer the typical tired-looking flight attendants and ticket agents, but more black-clad security personnel; these were still wearing body armor, but had shed the visored Kevlar helmets and machine pistols. Most of the seating had been removed from the terminal, with the remaining seating limited to two straight rows of chairs, facing each other. The rest of the chairs were piled up against the shuttered coffee stand. His fellow passengers—he assumed were all heading for Denver—universally were looking down at the floor or pretending to be comfortable with the situation. Of the now thirty or so people, Doug seemed to be the most at ease and relaxed. With only five minutes to boarding time, he activated his Palm V and played chess, finishing the winning effort on the third level. The Palm was now in ‘ping mode’.
The climb-out was extraordinarily bumpy, but the mostly empty Boeing 737 soon settled into cruising altitude at thirty-thousand feet…according to the flight deck; the window shades were sealed shut. As far as Doug knew, they could be flying anywhere. Two hours would tell the tale—the flight should only take a hour and forty-five minutes. There was no in-flight service of any kind; indeed, there were no stewards whatsoever. Doug put his Palm away, after briefly playing an unnecessary game of chess, and soon drifted off to sleep.
Doug was roughly awakened as the plane entered a steep descent. He’d first thought that the aircraft was in trouble, but one of the other passengers across the aisle told him that they were probably in a quick descent due to severe thunderstorms in the area. The plane was also circling tightly to the left; spiraling down to Denver International. Ten minutes or so of this, and the plane quickly leveled and almost immediately touched down, braking hard moments later.
“Good God,” Doug said. “What the Hell was that?”
“What’s the matter, buddy? Never visited Baghdad back in the day?” a thuggish-looking man in the row behind Doug said, with a grin. “Standard procedure where you don’t want to get shot down.”
“Why would anyone want to shoot down an airliner?” Doug asked before he could consider his own question.
“Why indeed,” the man said, leaning his head back and smiling as if at an inside joke. The plane slowed further, apparently approaching the gate. Exiting the plane, Doug could see there were no threats of thunderstorms. Looking to the east, the sky was a brilliant blue, cloudless, perfect.
Denver International’s best days were clearly in the past. The passenger areas were dim at best, again with only a fraction of the lights turned on. Like Des Moines, all the windows to the outside had been covered, and the black-clad ‘security’ people were evenly spaced throughout the entire terminal. The main concourse had been heavily modified since Doug was there last…only ten days before. Black plywood walls had been thrown up, cattle-chute style, greatly limiting the flow of passengers through the large, once-grand space. More armed security peered down at the chute from elevated platforms as the arrivals made their way to the exit doors.
Instead of the limousine or upfitted Cadillac that Doug expected for Federal arrivals, a single bus sat at the curb, with five armed men watching the empty ramps and the distant horizon.
“Federal Zone, sir?” the driver asked, standing at the front of the bus.
“Yes. Regent Plaza,” Doug said casually. The driver raised his eyebrows, just enough for Doug to notice, and then hid his apparent surprise.
“Right away, sir,” he said to Doug, who’d been near the front of the queue for the bus. He sat in the row behind the driver.
Within a few minutes, the rest of the arriving passengers had boarded, and the bus eased away from the curb. Doug noticed that the glass appeared distorted…just as it had on his armored company SUV.
“Excuse me, driver? Is this bus armored?” Doug asked quietly.
“Yes, sir. After last week, well, we had to take steps,” the driver replied. Doug noticed at that moment the two Army Humvees pulling out to escort the bus.
“I’m sorry. Last week? I’ve been, well, incommunicado.”
“Sir, I’m really not supposed to discuss it. I’m sure you understand,” the driver replied, looking at Doug for a moment in the rear view mirror.
“Sure. No problem,” Doug said, leaning back in his seat. Within another mile, he could see the obvious burn marks on an overpass and on the pavement, where vehicles had probably been attacked. A large rental car complex north of Pena Boulevard was a burned-out wreck. It had been intact ten days before. Doug noticed smoke rising from several points in the suburbs on the clear, windless day.
Arriving at the Zone forty-five minutes later, the passengers were asked to disembark and proceed through screening. This too was new to Doug, and all of his bags were searched again.
No civilian-type vehicles were present in the Zone—and anyone entering had to get to their destinations on foot, Doug was an exception. As soon as he presented his ID and stated his destination, he was escorted to an electric shuttle, and immediately driven to Regent Plaza, without a word.
Security at Regent Plaza was by comparison, normal. Doug swiped in with his Federal I.D. card, and a voice greeted him through the automated reader on the security panel, directing him to his ‘new office location’ on the forty-sixth floor. He rode alone in the elevator to his new office, three floors above his former location.
He didn’t recognize anyone on his new floor, but was escorted to his office by a very uptight, buttoned down young man.
“Mister Peterson, there is a morning briefing on your desktop computer, and Deputy Director Hollander would like a word with you late this afternoon. Dena, your administrative executive, will confirm available times with the Deputy Directors’ office.”
“Many thanks. Things have really changed around here,” Doug said.
The young man nodded, in a bow, and made his exit silently.
Doug’s new office was larger, with a view to the north rather than the west. The furnishings were of a far better quality than his former office, which weren’t anything to sneeze at. Putting down his bags, he noticed that he had a private bath and a wet bar, fully stocked. He settled into his desk and logged into the network to retrieve his messages and read the current daily brief, and catch up on the past ten days. A moment later, a soft knock on the door interrupted him.
“Mister Peterson? I’m Dena Sampson, your administrative executive. Is there anything you need to settle in?” Doug stood as she entered.
“Good to meet you, Dena. Call me Doug if you would,” he said, slipping back into the FDA persona.
“Certainly,” she replied. Doug could tell this one was all business. “The Deputy Director would like to meet with you at four-fifteen.”
“I see that we have today’s briefing, but I was hoping to be able to catch up on the past ten days. There don’t appear to be any prior editions available. Can you pull them up and forward them to me?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but they’ve been purged. They’re purged daily now,” she said coolly. Doug hid his surprise, going all ‘corporate’.
“OK. I’ve been in the wilds of Iowa for the past ten days. Tell me what the Hell has been going on here, if you would. Starting with the upgraded security protocols from here to yon; why I can’t get a private car to pick me up at the airport; and what happened at DIA. There’s a few million dollars in burned buildings out there.”
“Let me get you a cup of coffee,” Dena said, seemingly preparing herself as well, closing the door to the office. She poured Doug a mug, added cream and two sugars, which is how Doug built his coffee at the FDA, but not in ‘real life.’
“You know how I take my coffee?”
“It is part of my responsibilities,” she replied. “Now, about the last ten days. You’ve heard about the New Republic of course?”
“Certainly,” Doug said, “Pesky problem.”
“It’s worse than pesky. Undersecretary Sather was assassinated while returning from Denver International when a car bomb went off. That might be some of the damage you saw. Director Davis, who I don’t believe you met—he was appointed on the day you left—was left permanently incapacitated after an incident at a country club.”
“Incident?” Doug asked with raised eyebrows.
“It appears that he was attacked, with a foreign substance injected directly into his neck. He has permanent brain damage. He will likely not survive the month.”
“What happened to Director Simonson? He’d only been on the job since the first of July.”
“He was asked to resign by the President. He did so immediately, and left Denver. The last I heard he was in Austin.”
“OK, so that’s a shake up in our department. That hardly seems…”
“There were other incidents. Four members of the Presidents’ Cabinet have disappeared in the past seven days. Off the map, off the grid, families and all. The Security Service personnel guarding them disappeared as well. Significant amounts of blood were found in three of the four residences, and matched family members and Security personnel.”
“There has not been a word of this…”
“Of course not. If America knew that the New Republic was assassinating Cabinet level leaders, the government would collapse. The President needs to keep control of the situation.”
‘Control? Someone’s delusional,’ he thought to himself. “The briefs? Why are they purged?”
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Dena replied.
“How much do you know about me? Do you know that I’ve already sent in my letter of resignation?” Doug asked.
“I had heard. I didn’t know that was confirmed until just now,” she answered.
“My wife is expecting. This is our first,” Doug said. “I don’t want to miss anything, naturally, and there have been complications.”
“I understand. When is your last day?”
“I sent it to the Director on September sixth, effective September thirty,” Doug replied.
“Well, I will do my best for you while you’re here. Do you have any questions?”
“Just one. Why was my office moved up here? And where are my things—sorry, two questions.”
“There was a minor fire on that floor. Quite a bit of smoke damage, which is being cleaned up, but a lot of personal items were damaged due to water. No one was hurt though. They figured an electrical circuit to a computer was overloaded.”
“Oh. OK. Fair enough,” Doug said, immediately suspecting more than an electrical fire. “I’ll get caught up and let you know if I need anything.”
“I’ll set up a late lunch for you if you like. The daily menu should be in your inbox.”
“That’d be great, thanks. It’s been a long time since breakfast.”
Doug dove deeply into the FDA correspondence right after ordering a simple lunch. The digital ‘paper trail’ was a treasure trove of information on the events of the past week and a half. While specific tasks, especially with regards to food distribution, were high-priority, almost universally they were falling behind on quotas due to ‘delivery problems’ and ‘increasing issues within the distribution infrastructure’.
He was pleased to see that without much exception, the resistance in the West to accept RNEW products was holding fast, but alarmed at the projection that by the end of the calendar year, commercial food production and distribution would be a fraction of the previous calendar years’ product. Dena brought lunch in, as he was studying the already-understood failures that were looming in the immediate future. The pastrami on rye sandwich sat untouched.
At least ninety-five percent of the population depended on commercial farms—and they had failed, despite Federal intervention in providing fuel, seeds, petrochemicals. Nothing would stop it now. People in the United States of America were going to starve, starting in the Northeast, then the Great Lakes cities, progressing into the south and then moving west. The impact of the New Republic would be felt almost immediately, as most shipping to the Northeast had already been drastically curtailed. By the end of September, the dominoes would begin to fall.
Depressed, he looked next at the department organization matrix, compared to a stored version that he had within his own desktop folder. Doug knew that nearly ninety percent of the department heads were ‘new’ in the past year; but more alarmingly, almost half of those had been replaced within the past week. This had to be more than a ‘policy change’, he thought, leaning back in his chair.
Further study of the org chart showed that eight of the ten liaisons—Doug’s level—had also been replaced. Doug didn’t know any of the names, either from Regent or from any prior assignments with the FDA. None of the current occupants of the organization chart had any bios, and he found his own had been removed. He had no idea if the people in his division were ‘enemies’, ‘friends’ or ‘non-combatants.’
The only option therefore, was to treat all as ‘friends’…but regard them as ‘enemies.’ He finally ate his sandwich, staring blankly at the computer screen.
“Mister Peterson?” Dena asked via intercom. “Deputy Director Hollander is here, sir.”
“Here?” Doug asked, checking the time. It was just four-fifteen. “I’ll be right out.”
“Doug? Good to meet you,” the Deputy Director said as Doug left his office. “Call me Terry. Grab your jacket. Let’s take a walk.”
“Sure- Good to meet you,” he said. “I’ll grab my coat.” Doug was caught completely off-guard. Terry Hollander looked to be in his early forties, with salt-and-pepper hair and piercing blue eyes. Doug’s immediate impression was that Hollander was too young to be in a Deputy Director position, but these were strange days.
“Miss Sampson, I’ll have Doug back in an hour or so,” Hollander said.
“Very well, Director. Thank you,” Dena replied with a smile.
Within a few minutes, they’d left Regent Plaza and were walking south toward the classically designed Civic Center Park, making small-talk along the way. The park, once a showpiece of green grass and ornamental plantings, was now a bitter brown, with a handful of patches of garden space, a Federal effort to recreate a ‘Victory Garden’ atmosphere. The gardens were filled with weeds, untended, barely watered, and a perfect reflection of the unfolding failures.
“Thanks for meeting, Doug. I wanted to get out of the office for this conversation,” the Deputy Director began.
“Glad to oblige. It’s a beautiful afternoon.”
“I’ve reviewed your letter of resignation, and it’s accepted. Your work for the Department has been exemplary, and it’s been noticed. Years working in the industry, solid, with one company, and then a major change to a much smaller, much more aggressive company. Are you planning on returning to Regent?”
“No, I don’t think so, sir,” Doug replied. “My wife is expecting, and I’d like a change of pace to a quieter life.”
“I understand. I’m originally from a quiet corner of Ohio. Probably no going back now though,” Hollander said, sitting on a bench facing the City-County building, with the Capital building behind them. “You’ve read the projections for the coming year?”
“Yes,” Doug replied.
“It’s coming apart. There isn’t any denying it, although the President is doing his best at just that. It’s all sweetness and glory and the best days are still ahead, and it’s all bullshit. I’m giving everyone the option to leave Federal service at their request; I’m sure you’ve seen the extraordinary numbers of new appointees in the past ten days?”
Doug was surprised at the frank conversation. “Of course. I thought it might be house cleaning…new Director and all.”
“It’s being marketed that way, and there is no shortage of eager ladder-climbers to take the place of those that have elected to leave the FDA, regardless of the dim future,” Hollander said, stretching his legs out in front of him, looking as relaxed as he could possibly be.
“Where did you come from—prior to the FDA?” Doug asked.
“Oh, let’s not go there. Let’s just say that I’ve been in governmental service for quite awhile,” Hollander replied. “Doug, what’s your plan for the next year? Are you ready?”
Doug was stunned. No one in Federal service, in Doug’s experience at least, had ever said aloud anything except optimism and the mantra that restoration of ‘before’ was the only possible outcome.
“I, uh, I’ve made plans. Given what I’ve experienced already, it seemed prudent,” Doug answered.
“Good for you. Count yourself in a very small minority.”
“Terry, given what you know, why are you still here?” Doug asked frankly.
“Mrs. Hollander works for the First Lady. My wife is a ladder-climber extraordinaire. Three administrations so far, moving up the social strata on the remains of anyone who gets in her way. So, in this particular role, in the past ten days, I’ve taken it upon myself to undertake some damage control in the hopes that competent people who are not complete political ass-hats make a smart choice and get the Hell out of the way of the coming hurricane,” Terry Hollander said, still leaning back on the bench, arms stretched out along the back, legs crossed at the ankle. “Question remains, are you one of them?”
“Yeah, I’m one of them.”
“Then you should make haste, Doug. Do you have a way to get out of Denver?”
“I have some resources,” he replied, counting on his Regent income and savings.
“Steer clear of the big cities, be where you need to be by the end of the month. How long do you need to wrap up your position?”
“Couple days,” Doug replied, realizing that he’d just been given his walking papers. “Do you have a replacement?”
“Oh yeah. Nephew of some White House staffer. Worked for the same company you did. Leinhardt? Is that right? Karl Shearson.”
“Yeah, that’s my old outfit. They went down for the final count I heard in July. Never heard of this Shearson.”
“Not surprised. He was in shipping, from what I gather from his resume.”
“He’ll then have absolutely no idea what he’s doing,” Doug said, with a warning tone.
“Correct. Which is why Dena Sampson will be doing most of the actual work. Her husband is on the staff of the White House chief of counsel. She’s trapped as well.”
“What happens when it comes apart? What happens to people like you and Dena?”
“The handful of us that can, will get out somehow.”
“How exactly? No gas. No cars. Picture it,” Doug said, leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees, looking at the dried out grass and withered trees.
“I know. Might be afoot. Might be on a helicopter. We’ll make it or we won’t. Point is, you have options that others do not. Exercise them while they’re still available to you,” Hollander said with a wry smile. “Hopefully you’ll be around on the other side of this shitpile.”