Monday, December 9, 2013
North Platte, Nebraska
Doug was rudely awakened by a security agent pounding on the cab of the semi. The rain and wind continued through the night, making rest for Doug, crashed out in the passenger seat difficult, although Hempstead slept soundly in the sleeper compartment.
“Thirty-minute warning!” The security agent yelled.
“Bright and early,” Ezra said, pulling back the black curtain. “Best get ready for the road. Breakfast will be first-come, first served. We need to get movin’.”
“This normal?” Doug asked, pulling on his boots.
“No such thin’ as normal anymore.”
The temperatures outside the truck were bitterly cold, more typical of early December in the Great Plains than mid-September.
“This’ll be a real long, shitty day,” Ezra said, pulling his cap low over his eyes. “Bastards want us to drive on ice. Stupidity of the fifth power.”
“The fifth power? I don’t understand.” Doug replied as they walked to the truck stop. Hempstead stopped for a moment, and looked at him with a little smile before answering.
“Baron de Montesquieu. French philosopher, died in seventeen seventy-five. Defined the first three powers: legislative, executive and judic’ry. Ramonet expanded them: the fourth is the mass media. The fifth could be defined as the economy. Allegiance to the god of the fifth power—the economy—puts us at risk. Stupidity.”
Ezra continued towards the diner, leaving Doug stopped in his tracks. “Who are you?”
“I’ve only been a driver for six years,” Hempstead replied with a smile, looking at Doug over his shoulder as he continued to walk.
“What did you do prior to that time, if I may ask?”
“Chief operating officer of Price Pacific Technology. Before that, chief technology officer. Built it from a startup thirty-four years ago,” Ezra said as they reached the door. They got in line for breakfast.
“How…why are you…” Doug asked before Ezra cut him off.
“Ever read ‘Atlas Shrugged?’”
“Well, yeah. In high school, maybe the first year out.”
“Our company was being killed by the Federal Government. We didn’t cooperate with certain agencies that wanted access to our products, pre-release. They wanted us to build in back doors for their security snoops to spy on people. We turned ‘em down. They attacked us on the IRS side. Then they denied us other things…like medical insurance. Then our ‘environmental audits’ came up dirty. Then liens on our intellectual property. Seizure of working capital—in lieu of money claimed owin’ on unemployment accounts. All of that, they said could be wiped clean, if we cooperated. We’d seen it comin’, a long time ahead. In the space of eight hours, we erased all of the data that the Feds wanted to get their filthy mitts on, nuked the backups, hammered the hardware…let the entire staff go with a years’ severance. Then went all Galt on them. Off of their tax rolls, out of their networks. Only five of us knew enough to be useful to the Feds. Two have now passed on, the rest of us are out there in the ether.”
“So you went into trucking?” Doug asked.
“My dad ran a truckin’ business when I was a kid. Honest labor, lets me see the country,” Ezra said, picking up the breakfast tray. “Besides that, I get to meet some interestin’ people.”
Breakfast was served cafeteria style again, and consisted of reconstituted eggs, warmed over pre-cooked bacon, and some sort of canned bread and powdered butter. It was awful on all accounts, and Doug was unconcerned that any of it contained RNEW—it wasn’t up to Regent standards.
The ‘thirty-minute warning’ stretched into five and a half hours before the first truck took the road. The ice on the roads was still present, but temperatures seemed to be warming. The five or six hour trip from North Platte to Des Moines took thirteen hours, with a fueling stop in Omaha thrown in, and a complete search of the convoy for good measure.
Des Moines, Iowa
The Des Moines truck stop—this one on the far west side of the city—was in only slightly better shape than the North Platte location. The convoy arrived a little before midnight, and Doug thanked Ezra for the lift. Doug found it only moderately difficult to fall asleep—his future with Julie was now only hours away.
The truck stop had a separate wing with micro rooms to rent-generally a queen sized bed, a flat-panel television, a half-bath, small refrigerator and microwave. Doug rented one for a twelve-hour period, paying fifty dollars in gold coin, and a five-dollar tip. For five peaceful hours, Doug slept, being roused by a soft alarm he’d set on the alarm clock beside the bed. He rose and quickly showered and dressed, thinking about the day ahead.
He needed to find a way to get to the Farm without means of identification, assuming that Regent would be watching all conventional means of transport, all of which required I.D. and in many cases, governmental clearance. Being ‘afoot’ was an almost certain guarantee to be picked off or picked up, according to the now-departed Ezra Hempstead; bicycle travel—assuming he could even find one--just as risky. He’d need to find someone heading in the general direction of southeast Iowa and would have to go from there.
Dressing in more worn than serviceable clothes and a very old cap, Doug checked out of his room by six a.m. The ridiculously expensive ‘Continental Breakfast’ consisted of an English muffin with some tired peanut butter, reconstituted apple juice, and strong, black tea. He scouted out the restaurant for potential rides to the southeast.
The handful of people in the restaurant weren’t truck drivers, deliverymen or anyone that Doug thought might be a prospect for a ride. To the left, a husband, wife and three children, none of whom looked like they’d had clean clothes in a month; to the right, two solitary women dressed in heavy clothing, each holding their hot tea in both hands, trying to capture the warmth. He’d expected more people at this time of day—truckers, factory workers, farmers, starting the day off.
“You need anything else, pardner?” the cook/waiter asked Doug. The man, in his early forties, was dressed in typical short-order cook fashion, working the entire restaurant solo.
“Just lookin’ for a ride at this point,” Doug replied quietly. “Know of anyone heading out?”
The cook regarded Doug for a moment before answering. “Legit? Nope,” the man said quietly, filling Doug’s mug with more tea. “Bastard trips, yeah, for a price. Where you headin’?”
“Down south of Fairfield.”
“That’s what, damn near a hundred miles from here?” the cook asked with raised eyebrows.
“How’d ya get so far from home?”
“Coming from Denver,” Doug answered.
“Denver? Jesus Christ. You’re comin’ from the pit of evil? You a Fed?” the cook hissed. The other people in the restaurant heard clearly.
“Used to be. Long story.”
“Advice for you, pal. Lose anything that says ‘Fed’. Them’s the enemy. This place looks like it does because they’ve ‘jacked all the food trucks comin’ our way. Anyone finds out you’re a Fed, you might as well run for your life, cause they’ll just as soon kill ya as look at ya.”
“What about you?” Doug asked quietly. “Why the advice?”
“My son’s out there someplace, workin’ for the Department of Recovery. Told him two months ago to get the Hell out, but of course you can’t tell your kid what to do—they gotta figure it out for themselves. He’s thinkin’ he’s gonna be a big-shot.”
“Well, Denver’s a good place to be from. There’s a lot of bad stuff goin’ on there…most probably hasn’t made the news. I think a plane was shot down out there a couple days ago.”
“No shit. Saw the fireball and the smoke. I was supposed to fly out of there. Hitched a ride on a convoy,” Doug said. “So, any ideas on me catching a ride?”
The cook paused again for most of a minute before answering. “Yeah, I know someone. You got money, right? I mean, real money.”
“I’ve got some,” Doug replied.
“Gimme a little while,” the cook said, before heading back to the kitchen area and out of sight.
Doug fished out his Palm device, and again beat the program on the first level, lost the second and was two moves from beating the third level, when the cook came by again.
“Hundred bucks. Can you do that?”
“Yeah, barely,” Doug replied.
“Ten minutes, out that door,” the cook said pointing to the south.
“Seriously,” Doug replied.
“Yeah. A chunk of that money goes to me, by the way. So yeah, dead serious.”
Doug finished the ‘game’ again enabling the RFID tracking program, almost out of boredom, as the minutes passed. He finished his tea, took a few minutes to visit the men’s room, and then headed out the south door. A white box van emblazoned with ‘Iowa Organic’ waited, idling. The cold rain poured down beyond the overhead canopy.
“That’s the one,” the cook said, looking over Doug’s shoulder. “You don’t have the cash when they make the transfer, you’ll get busted up, though. So be damned sure you’re ready to get in that van.”
“Thanks. For everything,” Doug said, getting in the van.
“Don’t sit there, just get in the back,” the driver said, pulling away from the curb as soon as Doug closed the door. He found a seat in the back of the van, on a bench normally used for cargo. “Five minutes we go into a warehouse. You’ll pay the guys inside. You’ll then meet the driver heading wherever the Hell it is you want to go. Got it?”
Several blocks away, Doug couldn’t tell exactly where or how far they’d traveled, they pulled into a darkened door of a warehouse. The driver killed the lights and shut off the truck. Doug heard the overhead door of the warehouse close, and the warehouse lights flickered on. The rear door of the van opened from the outside.
“Good morning, Mister Peterson,” a voice said, startling Doug. Kevin Martinez, in his wheelchair, sat opposite the open door. “Welcome to Iowa.”
Doug’s heart sank, and he slumped back into his seat. ‘Regent,’ he thought. ‘They’re going to kill me.’
“Out of the van, if you would,” Martinez said. “Grab your gear.”
He did as he was told, climbing out of the van as the other men in the room went about their business.
“Come over to the office,” Martinez said. Doug was surprised that there weren’t weapons trained on him. They entered a small ‘manager’s office’ and Martinez closed the door.
“Finally getting the Hell out, huh?” Martinez asked. “Welcome back to the world,” offering his hand. Kevin Martinez was now working on a beard and had a freshly shaved head, with several tattoos on his neck and arms he’d not seen before.
Doug shook it, not quite knowing what was going on.
“You’re the last one that I figured could make it out. I’ve been wondering when you’d bail.”
“I don’t understand,” Doug said.
“Eight of us died in a plane crash two days ago, as far as the Company knows. No survivors. Went down in the storm the other night in Lake Superior, the story goes. Eventually they’ll find some wreckage.”
“I figured you were…” Doug started. “You’re not with Regent? I thought I was a dead man.”
“Regent killed my brother. Saturday morning. Captive bolt-gun to the back of the head. They don’t know I found that out. He was in Chicago at the time.”
Doug didn’t speak for a moment. “Same as Francine and Rob Dowling,” Doug said.
“Yeah. Probably the Kliests as well. Now I know who did it.”
“I’m sorry about…”
“Don’t be. He was an asshole. Still, he died only because he’s related to me. Corporate has a loose cannon and they’re cleaning things up, or so they think. I have enough on them to end it.”
“You’re…Aren’t you just as guilty?” Doug asked quietly.
“I would be in a court of law, yeah. I know too much. But what I know won’t end up in court. Some of my teams have lost family recently, dead, disappeared, whatever. Several of us were on that plane that ‘went down in the lake’. My guys are getting outfitted to hunt and kill. They’ll be starting soon,” Martinez said.
“How did you find me?”
“Damned few people heading east from Denver these days. You weren’t hard to spot on the Regent surveillance network, especially with continuous facial recognition. You disappeared though for awhile in Omaha, or so thinks Regent. You will be spotted headed to Sioux Falls, and then your electronic I.D. will go off line when the truck hits Williston, North Dakota, all according to the Regent intelligence network.”
“What?” Doug asked stupidly.
“Your escape east has been covered--by me. Regent doesn’t know that I have a slew of tunnels into their network, and that it’s pretty damned easy to manipulate their system.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Good. Then shut up and listen. If you have anything Regent, get rid of it immediately. Throw it in the microwave over there, for instance,” Martinez said, pointing to the dirty microwave on the opposite wall. “Once the lid blows from the pressure cooker, that whole company and anyone associated with it is dead. You understand?”
“Yeah,” Doug replied “How did you know…”
“Your family has a pretty nice farm. With borrowed satellite imagery, it’s easy to see who’s there and when,” Kevin said. “Where else were you going to go? Your wife’s pregnant, still there on the farm. Logical that you’d head this way. Once the system spotted you on that truck, I logged into the system, figured out the truck manifest and destination. Coming through Des Moines. Your truck pinged every single receiver on the highway and just confirmed location and arrival time in Des Moines. Three truckstops left in the city, only one on the east side. It wasn’t difficult. The two ladies in the restaurant helped I.D. you for me. Twenty dollar gold piece and you can buy a lot of friendship.”
“Who are these people?” Doug said, pointing to the warehouse workers.
“Normal people, hoping to make a buck. They’re good at getting stuff where it needs to be and getting it there without legal interference.”
Doug sat in one of the worn office chairs, unable to think of what to do next.
“Bit much to take in one big bite, I think,” Kevin Martinez said, passing Doug a worn flask. “Take a shot of that.”
Doug did, without thinking too much about it. The liquor was absurdly smooth and unlike anything he’d ever consumed. Spiced with something. “What is that?” Doug said, passing it back to Martinez.
“Moonshine. From a little town in North Carolina.”
“Yeah. Tough to get unless you’ve got connections,” Martinez said, taking a drink himself.
“You’re in the ‘shine business now?” Doug said.
“Now? You mean ‘still’. We all need a little sideline. Provides me a certain layer of security, otherwise not available to me in my former employ. It’ll also conveniently provide you a ride not far from your farm.”
“I really don’t know what to say,” Doug said. “I have a million questions.”
“You’ve got about five minutes, and you’re on that outbound Freightliner. Make them good questions.”
Doug didn’t know whether he should completely trust Martinez or not. This could all be an elaborate ruse…there was no way to be sure either way.
“Who is your target? The people that killed my friends?” Doug asked, quickly coming to the correct conclusion that this was the most important thing he could ask.
“Class A dickhead in Columbus. Currently a V.P. by the name of Holdren.” The name triggered Doug’s memory.
“I’ve met him. Along with his boss…Slocum, and another V.P. by the name of…Salvatore,” Doug said.
“Orders came from that office. Only that office,” Martinez said.
“You’ve not met him, or the other two?” Doug asked.
“Only Slocum, and from a distance. He seemed to think I was less of a man because I’m in a chair, or that was my impression from a ten-second introduction.”
“No, that’s a perfectly accurate impression actually. I met the three of them here at the Regent plant, back in May. Slocum didn’t talk much, but when he did…he knew things he shouldn’t normally have known, and used words like weapons. Personal attack, I mean,” Doug illustrated. “The other two, well, they seemed afraid of him.”
“He’s my number one target. Problem is, he’s been off-grid for a week. I have no idea where he is….and that’s saying something,” Martinez said. “The other two, well, they’re easy.”
“What about after that?”
“Crawl in a hole and pull a rock over me until it’s over.”
“What is the ‘it’ you’re referring to?”
“Civil war of course. You’re seriously not that dense, Peterson. You know this has been coming.”
“It’s…comforting to hear someone else say it, actually,” Doug replied.
“Coming soon. Weeks, not much longer.”
“How do you know? Why are you so sure?”
“New Republic and the President are on the same side. Think about that for a minute,” Martinez said, looking at a clipboard on his desk. “President’s going to win, unless something dramatic happens fairly soon.”
“I don’t get it. The same side…how can that possibly be the truth?”
“President is talking nothing but central control from the get-go, from top to bottom to get rid of all the ‘problems’ that have been ‘standing in the way of progress’. New Republic is pointing out exactly the same things…just blaming the Federal Government for the problems. Exactly the same things. Same side. All those purges and resignations? He’s not shuffling the deck. He’s stacking it.”
“So you’re saying the Federal Government is going to start the next Civil War?” Doug asked, taking another swig from the flask.
“Not all of the Federal Government. Just maybe the top third of it. Or more correctly, ‘a third’ of it,” Martinez said, taking the flask back and taking a drink himself.
“Why? Why on God’s green earth would they do this?”
“You can only fool the people for so long. Once they start to figure it out, or once the whole thing is about to blow, you need to step in and make sure you stay on top of the heap. That’s all it is—maintaining power. Absolute, unquestioned power. Here and globally,” Martinez said. “You better get moving. That’s your driver,” he said, pointing to the window of the office, where a man was looking in, tapping his watch.
“Good luck, Doug. Hope you have a good life,” he said, shaking Doug’s hand again.
“Thank you, Kevin. I hope you do as well.”