Saturday, December 19, 2009

Remnant, Chapter 1

rem·nant n
1. a small part of something that remains after the rest has gone
2. a small amount or trace of something such as a feeling or emotion
3. a small isolated group of people surviving from a particular culture or group




The snowflakes outside the window, in a previous year, might have been beautiful. This year, the snows were early--three months early.  Snow had been sticking, in increasing quantities, since October first.   The first snows began right after Labor Day.  Now, eleven days shy of Hallowe’en, the ground was white, with two or three inches of fresh snow. The ground was now frozen six inches down, as well.

I’d never seen any weather like this, so early, so severe. I remembered many years, digging potatoes this late. They’d been in storage for weeks now, thank God. Tons of them this year.

My hot tea, flavored with a little honey, waited for me on my desk as I moved back to the reports waiting for me. While most of my duties had been reassigned, there were some things that I wanted to keep track of, as if there were something that I could do to affect their outcome.  I heard the barn door open in the next room.

“Dad? You OK?” Carl asked as I gingerly took my seat.

“Yeah, still hurts.”

“Mom said that you were due for your meds. Here,” he said as he handed me the pill bottle, filled with a locally produced pain medication. The bottle was recycled. New ones were impossible to come by.

“Thanks, bud. How’re the studies going?”

“Good. Learned how to run the deep hole drill today. We bored a piece of that four sixteen stainless.”

“For the next round of BAR’s?”

“Who gets the first one off the line?”

“I think Anja’s got dibs on that one.”

“I’m sure Randy won’t mind,” I said. Randy and Annika Thompson lived down the road a ways, with a fully equipped gunsmith shop.   Kevin Miller, manager of the community center, had partnered up with the Thompsons to manufacture new Browning Automatic Rifles, improved over the originals due only to advances in materials and machine tolerances. Carl and a number of other high-school age students were assisting them as part of their studies. I was a minority--and silent--partner in the business. 

“Whatchya reading?”

“After action report. One of our trains was attacked.”


“Southern Oregon. Had a load of equipment heading south. We were supposed to get food in return.”

“They didn’t make it?”

“Nope. Killed all of the security. Crew’s missing.”

“Oh. Anybody we know?”

“Don’t think so, haven’t read the crew manifest yet.”

“I’ll let you get back to it. We’ve got more classes this afternoon.”

“What subject?”

“Food preservation. My favorite,” he said with no small amount of sarcasm.

“You teaching or learning?”

“Mandatory, remember? Learning.”

“Well, you might still pick up a thing or two.”

“Right. Like three months of canning and dehydrating didn’t teach me this stuff.”

“Still things to learn, buddy.”

“Yeah, I know. I better run. Mom says lunch’ll be ready in about twenty minutes.”

“K. Thanks. See you at three.”

“Yep,” he said as he left the ‘office’ I’d carved out of the former woodshop. I absentmindedly ran my hand over my still-sore ribcage. Six weeks out of the hospital, eight weeks after young Bob Henson and I crashed.  Seven weeks after Henson’s memorial service.

My desk, formerly an old drafting table, was stacked with reports that Pete Wolfson had provided me to keep me up to speed. I’d made an effort to do so, but I was slow in healing, and anything approaching real work wore me down quickly. It was frustrating to tire so quickly and to be unable to do what I knew that I could do…once.   Pete had taken over nearly all of my ‘administrator’ duties since the crash. He’d told me on several occasions since then that it was a job that he’d be very happy to turn back over to me. And that from a guy who served in logistics, as a professional.

“Inland Empire No. 4 (former BNSF 7786, General Electric ES44DC), crew missing. Six Army Guardsmen KIA,” the words said.

“Attack made with thermite reaction on rails in multiple locations to derail locomotive on low-speed grade. Armed attack made by multiple attackers using small arms and scoped rifles from fixed positions. Four troops killed before first magazines exhausted (Spec. Reynolds, Riverston, McKee, Lt. Wilson). Two remaining troops (1st Sgt. Calispel, Spec.Waddell) exhausted all ammunition and were captured. They both sustained GSW to the head at close range. Hands and feet bound with wire rope as evidenced by abrasions.  Evidence on site indicated that up to fifteen enemy attacked the train, with at least six wounded or killed. No enemy bodies were present, although blood trails were found and a pursuit was begun, with mechanized reinforcements expected to arrive within six hours.”

The writer—a former reporter for the Chronicle (the old evening newspaper) and now working for the Army, painted the battle all too clearly. The entire report was fifteen pages, double-spaced.  I next read the section on the cargo…

“Eleven generating units were destroyed, stripped of copper, switchgear, and recyclable components. Appliance units (salvaged for trade) were similarly stripped. Notably, no weapons were taken, nor were personal effects of troops disturbed. Enemy apparently made no effort to collect used brass, and appeared to have substantial assistance to strip the cargo within the two hour time window before No. 4 was noted overdue.”

“Crap,” I said to Buck, curled up near the woodstove.  He thumped his tail twice and closed his eyes again, happy for the warmth.  I pulled out a map of the route, trying to glean any information that I could on where the attackers could have come from. I came away with no new insight.

The ‘generating units’ were irreplaceable and critical to the trade for citrus fruit and nuts from California. They weren’t generators in the conventional sense; they were locally built producer gas generators designed by a local retired Department of Agriculture engineer. At their destination, they would have been hooked up to conventional diesel engines for stationary power generation. Some modifications to the engine would be needed of course, but the ability to run a diesel-type engine without diesel fuel far outweighed the modifications.  And now, they’d been stripped for their copper piping and shiny parts. What was left wasn’t worth bringing back north.  The military guards rode along, in shipping containers that had been converted to mobile barracks. The Burlington shops in Yardley a few miles from downtown Spokane, was quite busy converting containers to multiple uses, all military.  Day or night, the welders were running.

“Hey,” the CB crackled. “Lunch is ready,” Karen stated.  I clicked to respond.

Our barn, including the one time craft room and a big portion of my woodshop, had been converted back into storage—much of it food storage on a relatively large scale. Each occupied home on the block—and in many areas of Spokane—had at least a minimum amount of food stored on site, ours exceeded the minimum by a multiple of five. Larger, commercial-sized food storage warehouses were distributed in the populated areas, and were under guard. Some large commercial warehouses, those that survived the Domino and the ensuing collapse, had been adapted for new uses.
I wondered pessimistically as I walked through the blowing snow if we’d stored enough. If winter would end when expected, or be longer on the other end as well. How long, or even if we’d make it.
Between our family, the Bauer’s and the Martin’s, we’d met and exceeded many of my goals to store as much food as we could. In most cases, more than a year of grains, fruits and vegetables, and we’d done fairly well on the steep learning curve of livestock on a limited basis. Besides ‘the girls’, our hens (not forgetting the roosters of course), we now had meat rabbits, and some hogs. I had along the way had to learn the difference between ‘pigs’ (under about a hundred-twenty pounds) and ‘hogs’, which were mature (or over two hundred-fifty pounds or so).
All of our food production however, depended on ways to harvest, preserve and store it for our coming winter. Karen and I had some limited experience with our garden produce, tree fruit and berries, but nothing on the scale that we were working with now.  Karen’s brother Alan’s family, and our friends the Martins were learning everything from our library and from working with us.
Time was working against us.   A verse from Ephesians was called to mind as I reached the porch.

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is.”

“About time!” Karen said as I gave her a quick kiss and shucked off my coat.  “You can’t be late when there’s soup on. Our son will take advantage.”

“Couldn’t blame him one little bit,” I said. “Didn’t he go back to classes?”

“Cancelled. Just came in on the radio. So he’ll work on his assignment here. He’s updating the inventory in the garage. Kelly’s doing the same in the fruit room.”

“Why?” I asked. “I mean why are classes cancelled?”

“Power’s out at the school. Non-essential.”

“One of my own rules,” I said.

“Yes it is. I thought you’d remember that.”

“Nope, that’s why I write stuff down. Can’t handle all the little stuff.”

“Here’s your first sandwich. Want a second?”

“I’m thinkin’,” I said. “The first one’s for dipping anyway.”

“You plan on wearing that watch cap all the time now?” she asked.

“Forgot about it. Keeps my noggin’ warm since I’m now sporting this new aerodynamic hairdo.”

“Well take it off. You look silly.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied as I dutifully took off the cap. My hair was coming back in, but slowly, looking like a crew cut from my childhood. I thought I looked a little too much like my late father with this hairstyle. Of course, he didn’t sport a twenty-nine-stitch racetrack on his head…
My lunch consisted of Karen’s nearly famous tomato soup and a toasted cheese sandwich. In former days, that would’ve been a nice Tillamook cheddar and white bread. Now local cheese and homemade wheat bread.  There was no question that this was better. One of the little things that made life these days ‘better.’ There were precious few of those.
The power situation was one example of the many hurdles we faced as residents of what was once a good-sized city now in a post War world. All of our electricity came from hydroelectric sources these days, our own dams on the Spokane River. All of the natural gas generating turbines were offline with the loss of the natural gas supply, of course taking with it all natural gas heat. The local dams produced only about thirty-five megawatts, only twenty percent of what the dam system had produced before. We’d lost the Nine Mile dam completely and the surge of water from Nine Mile compromised both the Long Lake and Little Falls dams.  Grand Coulee, and all of the other dams on the Columbia, had been offline since the Domino. Coulee alone put out…well, used to, more than six thousand megawatts all by itself. The Columbia River dams that remained were being repaired, the distribution lines repaired, and most importantly, the SCADA controls replaced. (I also learned what ‘SCADA’ stood for: Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, without which, power generation and regulation were impossible).
Three weeks after the misadventure that landed me in the hospital and killed my young pilot friend, I’d learned that the precious cargo he was returning to Spokane included new computer hardware and software to replace controls in the power distribution system for each dam and the Pacific Northwest ‘grid.’
The surprise of learning of our cargo didn’t fully hit me until a Bonneville Power Administration representative told me that a subcontracted firm in China supplied the original control system and software. The SCADA software and hardware were designed to be disabled upon a specific series of commands, and had succeeded completely. Four months of work went into building new boards and re-writing the software down in California. With the repairs, the Pacific Northwest hydroelectric system would operate again. Without it, probably never. Our little system was apparently too small to be of strategic value to the Chinese. Perhaps they’d forgotten about Fairchild Air Force Base, or perhaps they didn’t care. I doubted that any of the decision makers in China were alive any longer to question.
At maximum operating capacity, the remaining dams could provide enough power for twenty-five thousand pre-War homes. However, the remaining dams either depended on managed lake levels at Lake Coeur d’ Alene, or through free-flow of the river. In low-flow times (like this October), there was little water flowing through the river freely, reducing our available electricity to a little more than a quarter of ‘theoretical’ capacity. So, these days we were making do on nine megawatts, or sixty-five hundred homes worth.
The problem being of course, that we were closer to thirty thousand in number, and a fair percentage of people depended on electricity for heat.

“You aren’t overdoing, are you?” Karen asked. “You’ve only been up and about for a week now.”

“Ten days.”

“Fine, if you count two hours a day sitting in front of your computer.”

“I do.”

“So? Are you feeling OK?”

“Ribs still hurt. As expected.”

“Just don’t fall. You’ve still got a couple weeks before you’re out of the woods.”

“Yes, Doctor Karen,” I said with a smirk. She was not amused.

“Don’t forget your meds. Here’s your second sandwich.”

“Had them already.”

“OK. Alan and Ron will be here in a little while.  Do you have time to meet with them?”

“Always. I’m done with my reading for the day. Pete’s keeping me buried in paper. He should just put it on a thumb drive.”

Karen sat down with her own lunch. “So are things going like you hoped?”

“No. They’re worse. But you probably knew that.”

“The weather?”

“Yep, but the overall recovery—I mean nationally—isn’t happening at all like I’d hoped it would.”

“Well, with the flu…you can’t exactly set plans.”

“No we can’t,” I said. “Yet we have to anyway. Doing something is better than nothing.” To myself I said ‘I hope.’

Karen and I had had many late night talks, when she knew that I was worried about something that I couldn’t do a danged thing about. She’d heard my fears of the increasing shortages, of the stories of malnutrition in other parts of the region, of starvation.  With the population crash caused by the flu, we had seemingly passed the threshold of being able to ‘do things’ that we used to do routinely. Manufacturing of many things we’d come to depend on, being one of the keys. Medical care being another. There were a half dozen other ‘keys’ that any one of which, when lost, would injure a society. When most of them were lost, we were in danger of losing a civilization.  Or perhaps more correctly civilization as we knew it.

“Carl said you were reading about the attack on the train. Can you enlighten me any?”

“Yeah, I don’t see why not. The train was deliberately derailed, the crew’s missing, and the Army guards killed after a firefight.”

“What was on the train?”

“Some of the producer gas generating sets that Chris Bellamy designed. We were trading them for fruit and nuts for this year and next.”

“Were they stolen?”

“No, worse. They were stripped for parts. Copper. Stainless. Just parts.”

“Anyone catch who did it?”

“Nope. Don’t know if there’s enough manpower down there.”

“Where was it?”

“Southern Oregon.”

 Buck and Ada stirred, hearing the front gate rattle. “We have guests,” I said. The dogs were at the front window, tails going like mad.

“The guys are here,” Karen said.

I saw both shake the snow off of their coats as they stepped onto the porch, where I met them.

“C’mon in, boys. Just in time for dessert.”

“Hey, Rick. How you doing today?” Ron said.

“Fair to ‘middlin.’”

“Save up your energy. We have a long backlog of Rick-only work for you.”

“Thanks. You two ought to go into stand-up.”

“Comedy’s scarce these days. Get it where you can.”


“Pie’s on the table guys,” Karen said. “I’ve got laundry to do with Mary. Rick? You OK without me?”

“Never, but you’re good to go.”

“Trying to butter me up as always.”

“Yes I am. Trying to stock up.”

“I should be back by four,” she said as she pulled on a hooded parka. It was a hike across the backfield to Alan and Mary’s.

“Sounds fine. Take a radio.”

“Remember to check in with Arlene by two.”

“Thanks, I forgot.”

“She doesn’t. See you after while,” Karen said as she gave me a quick kiss and headed out the back door. Arlene Lomax was the day-shift radio dispatcher for the County. I was asked to check in three times a day, and if someone needed to get hold of me, it would be at my convenience, not theirs. With my recuperation taking so long, naps were an often welcome and unscheduled part of my day.

“Let me take care of this first guys,” I said.

“Don’t mind us, we’ll just polish off this apple pie,” Alan said; only half-kidding.

“Right. I’ll be sure to tell Carl that you ate his piece, too.”

“Careful, Alan. That boy could probably take you.”

“Yep, I know he can. Just don’t tell him that.”

I moved onto the still-unfinished back porch, where my county radio resided. “One thirty-seven to Spokane,” I called.

“One thirty-seven. Please confirm availability for meeting your location at fifteen hundred hours,” Arlene asked.  This certainly piqued my interest. Alan and Ron were listening in as well.


“Spokane out, one thirty-seven.”

“One thirty-seven.” I was puzzled to say the least. I had had few ‘official’ visitors since my return home, and no ‘meetings’.

“Wonder what’s up with that?” Ron asked.  He knew my schedule as well as I did.

“No idea,” I said, and meaning it. “Hang around a while and you’ll know as well as me. Meanwhile, let’s talk.”

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