Sunday, December 27, 2009

Remnant, Chapter 9


October Twenty-Third

Once again, I entered what was ‘my’ office, feeling like a stranger. We’d lost Walt Ackerman, and now Pete. The desk, my desk, was too organized.  I grabbed the stack of department summary folders though, from the center of the desk. Someone was looking out for my schedule.

The large conference room was at the end of the hall, with a view to the north, before the Domino anyway. Now the window frames were filled with insulated panels and unfinished sheetrock. Our department heads, and a few of the Townsmen, were chatting, waiting for me to arrive.

“Good morning, everyone. Thanks for putting up with my tardiness,” I said.

“You’re fine. We don’t usually start until eight-thirty or eight forty-five anyway,” Tonya Lincoln replied. “Nice to see you, again, Rick.”

“Thanks, Tonya. You, too.”  Tonya was the acting head of our Commerce Department. She was hoping to get back to running a restaurant someday, as well.   I made my introductions around the room, shaking hands with each department head and Townsman. ‘Many new faces,’ I thought as I moved back to my chair at the end of the scarred conference table.

Drew Simons, one of my former Recovery Board members, joined us right after I sat down. Drew was the head of the Utility Department, when he wasn’t farming.

“Morning, Drew. Good to see you,” I said as I shook his hand.

“You as well. You finally healed up?”

“Making progress, slowly.”

“You did have about the closest call you could have and walk away from it.”

“Walk was a relative term.”

“Indeed. Ready to get to business?”

“Yes. Quicker we’re done with meetings, the better. For everyone’s information, I hate meetings. The quicker we can get through what we need to, the better. We’ve got more important things to do than sitting here.”

“Good. I’m first up,” Drew said.

“Sure, after the Pledge,” one of the Townsmen reminded us. We all stood, faced the wall-hung flag that had flown over the Courthouse through the Domino, pulled from the wrecked flagpole that had torn lose from the tall central tower. It reminded me as I reaffirmed my loyalty to my country, of the World Trade Center flag hoisted by those three firemen, years before.  

We took our seats, and I shuffled my papers again. “Let’s go then,” I said. “Mike might have to interrupt our agenda, so let’s get moving.”

“Utilities.  Expansion and restoration work in the urban area has been suspended for the winter on main electrical lines, but infill work within boundaries of existing feeds will continue until weather limits those operations as well. The good news is that with current work on the boards, we’ll have just under six thousand more homes on line by New Years, including four thousand with backup wood heat, leaving two thousand, or a few less, solely dependent on electric heat—forced air electric in most cases.”

“Wow,” I said of Drew’s report on electrical restoration work. “I had no idea your crews were able to get that many back on line.”

“Power’s back, but that doesn’t mean the houses are ready. Water service is spotty in many areas within the electric boundary, and at least half of those homes still need some pretty serious work to be close to pre-War condition. Of the total number of homes, there’s probably only ten percent that are ready to move into immediately. Those are almost exclusively in the Garland and Lidgerwood areas.”’

“How about work in commercial areas?” I asked. I noted that one of the Townsmen looked extremely bored, already.

“We’re at ninety percent within the Service Area, which is probably over-served, area-wise. There are more buildings served with electricity than are being used for commerce…unless you count warehouses of salvage as commerce.”

“So the next focus area, I mean when the weather turns, is what?” the Townsman who reminded us to take the Pledge asked. I looked at my notes, not remembering his name. ‘Bruce Weathers—Rockford township.’

Drew had several options available for us to consider. “Next year, I’d recommend restoring arterial power up to Francis on the north, from Assembly on the west to Market on the east; Division all the way up to the Newport Highway; and on the south side, power down the Hangman Valley to Hatch; Fifty-Seventh, all the way to Glenrose. That gives us a framework to work within, should we need to add more commercial and residential fabric back to the area,” Drew said, obviously noting Weathers’ expression of frustration.

“That’s just in the urban area. In the rural districts, I recommend further restoration work to Mica, Valleyford, more work around Rockford,” which I noted gained some satisfaction on the face of Drew’s questioner, “and restoration to other hamlets through the south end of the County, within reason.  There’s darned little in the way of power, or population, within a mile on either side of Highway Two or Three Ninety-Five, all the way to the Pend Oreille and Stevens county lines. We’d like to get more done up there, but probably don’t have the gear.”

“How about water?” I asked.

“Everything north of Francis is off line, unless it’s a private well. Too much damage in the Little Spokane River area to fix without more equipment. We’re short of everything. Pipe, couplings, you name it.”

“Thanks, Drew. You can head out if you need to.”

“I do. Many thanks.”

The Commerce Department was next, headed by one of my former Recovery Board teammates, Tonya Lincoln. Tonya provided us a ten-minute breakdown of the number of business operations in the County, although many were amalgamations of trading and bartering operations (ours included) and hybrid businesses that had many different offerings. Our businesses weren’t unique, nor were they alone. Everyone needed multiple jobs to keep food on the table.

She surprised me by stating that the main problem that Commerce was facing was in keeping businesses in operation, because of the local ‘banking industry.’

“Banking industry?” I asked, knowing there wasn’t a real bank in operation, and hadn’t been, since early spring.

“Sorry. Loan sharks is really what they are. They’re tying up physical dollars, silver and gold, and taking it out of circulation. If people need physical money, they charge rates that would make the Mafia blush.”

“I’m assuming there are negative physical consequences involved for those short on paying back?”

“Well stated in a clinical way, yes. “Unfortunately I really don’t have a recommendation for fixing this though, Rick.”

“Simple. We need a bank with real money.”

“Sure we do. I need a nice tenderloin steak for dinner too. Both of us will be disappointed, however.”

“Maybe. See me later today on this,” I told Tonya, arranging for a later meeting to discuss it in more detail.

The Finance Department provided us a report, a grim report, on the ability of the County to continue operations beyond February, due to a lack of physical money to pay vendors, staff, and contractors. Most of the regular County employees were paid in a little silver and more Spokane County Scrip, which was only redeemable at Central Stores, and a slightly reduced price over ‘retail.’ This had been the brainchild of our former Assessor, who had put it in place and run Central Stores, until leukemia took him early in August.

Again, it came down to money. We simply needed more real dollars, silver and gold, in the economy for ‘normal’ operations. There wasn’t enough in the first place, and with some people hoarding it (couldn’t blame them one bit), what had been in circulation was being held for rainy days.
Transportation at least was a bright spot in the series of gloomy reports, with fully operational freight and commuter service running twice daily, soon to be three times daily, on the Central Lines. Former freight cars had been converted to handle commuter traffic, with the addition of windows and bench seating, in the old Burlington yards. Passenger stations were built along each leg of the Central, reminding many of the old wooden stations of the past. These were framed of dimensional lumber, roofed with plywood and sheet metal, and sounded like the inside of a drum when a train passed.
Snow plowing, also the responsibility of Transportation was limited to emergency routes, roads near hospitals, militia centers, and along the Central Line. Snow removal, clearing, packing, or plowing in residential areas was the responsibility of the neighborhoods. Several areas were building snow rollers, large wood or metal drums towed behind a hitched team, to pack the soft snow down.  We knew that diesel fuel would be tight for using to plow roads, and had warned the neighborhoods early that they needed to make plans to deal with snow. 
It was now approaching ten a.m., and I knew that our two remaining departments, Health and Public Safety, were eager to get on with the rest of their days. Both Rene and at least one of the Public Safety staff sat in through all of the meetings, to hear any discussions that might impact the general public. I appreciated their time.  Two of our Townsmen had had to excuse themselves to tend to other Monday morning business.

“Rene, you’re next,” I said as she shuffled her papers.

“Good thing. I’m heading to Sacred Heart at eleven.”

“Let’s not make you late then.”

“OK. First, you’ve read the status reports, right? No need in covering ground twice.”

“I’ve made it most of the way through,” I said.

“A quick summary then. We’re on the down slope of deaths due to chronic conditions that pre-War were maintainable. Heart congestion, severe diabetes, asthma, some severe kidney ailments. Cancers that were being treated pre-War with chemo are now incurable, essentially, although homeopathic treatments have provided some relief.”

“OK. How about the flu? Any progress on treatments?”

“None. If there is any good news on that front at all, it’s that the CDC believes that by next spring, we will be at a saturation point across North America, with virtually all humans exposed to it by that point.”

“Small comfort,” Mike stated.

“Well, it might be. It will probably mean that survivors are either naturally immune or through some fluke, have survived the initial strain and the eleven identified mutations,” Dr. Sorenson replied, fetching another report from her file.

“What support can we give you?” I asked, guessing what was next.

“This is our needs list. Not wants, needs,” she said, handing a copy to Mike and I, and a couple others for the Townsmen, one who looked increasingly bored and restless. Weathers, seated next to him, looked over at him in some disapproval.

I scanned the list some of which I could actually understand, most of which, I could not. The pharmaceuticals alone were a page and a half on the double-sided single-spaced report.

“I’d like you to see what magic you can conjure to fulfill that list. We’re down to triage levels of medical supplies in every single hospital in the region. Meds are virtually non-existent. I’m hoping you can work a miracle here….” she paused a moment. “If you don’t, we’ll be truly back in the eighteen hundreds as far as medical care goes, and that will take effect by the first of the year.”

“I cannot say that I’m surprised by this. I’m assuming that all salvaged and stored medical supplies have been exhausted?”

“Nearly so, yes. And the Nova Pharma plant on the north side will be out of raw materials for their production, as of November one.”

“I’ll look into it. No promises,” I said, rising out of my chair and shaking her hand.  I didn’t want to tell her that I’d already all but demanded that the County received a ‘Priority Status’ for medicine and consumables with Pacific Northwest Command.   You don’t get if you don’t ask.

“None expected. I just don’t want to see many more sutures done with fishing line.”

“Understood all too well. I have a nice scar on my noggin that was stitched up with nylon monofilament.”

“Right, because on August twentieth, we ran out of the real stuff.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said as she turned to go.

“Thanks. And don’t push yourself too hard too soon.”

“You been talking to my wife?” I asked as one of the Forty-First command officers came in behind Rene.

“Nope, I can see it in your eyes.”

“Sharp as a marble, that’s me.”

That brought a needed laugh. “See you next week, if not sooner.”

“Thanks again, Rene.”

I poured a glass of water as the officer, a Major, took his place at the table.

“Major Kurt George. You are Mr. Drummond?”

“I am the accused,” I said as I shook the Major’s hand.

“I’ve been assigned by General Anderson to serve as one of the new liaison officers to the Eastern Washington region.”  I’d met Bob Anderson only twice, the first time when he visited my hospital room, the second at home, a couple weeks ago.  I’d had Carl fish out a couple bottles of a nice old Cabernet for him, after hearing that he’d be treating Governor Hall to a steak dinner in Walla Walla. I thought the wine might be appreciated by all in attendance. Anderson and the Governor had some history together.

“Welcome. And perfect timing by the way,” I said. “Public safety report is up. Mike Amberson, I hope you’ve met? And our Townsmen representatives?”

“We have, thank you. Sheriff, good to see you again,” he said to Mike. “Gentlemen, you as well,” acknowledging our other county representatives and shaking their hands.

“You as well, Major. We’re normally joined by one of our fire district chiefs, but they’re recruiting today. I have a report for you on that, Rick,” he said as he handed me a ten-page report.

“Lots to say here, apparently,” I said.

“About half of that deals with proposed emergency response times and noted shortcomings in coverage. A few pages on shortcomings and equipment failures. Concerns about low water pressure in the Greenacres area, which affects a good-sized hunk of service area adjacent to the Red Line out there. The rest is…”

I cut him off. “Let me guess. Staff shortages.”

“Yep. Which is why they’re recruiting. They’re approaching critical levels even in the all-volunteer stations.”

“What’s the key issue? Are we losing men and women, or what?’

“Not really, there were three more stations opened up in the Valley, and seven in the north and west areas over the past three months. All located in pretty well populated areas. We’re just spread thin.”

“I’m betting that you have the same issue.”

“Not as bad, because I have these guys covering what I can’t,” Mike said as he pointed at the Major. “But it will be an issue we’ll have to deal with soon.”

“Thanks, Mike. Major? I have some questions for you regarding a certain problem spot over on the east side of Coeur d’Alene Lake.”

“News travels fast,” he said with some surprise.

“My ride today was a Humvee that’d seen some damage apparently from a directed EMP hit.”

“Is that your conclusion?” he asked.

“From what the sergeant-major told to me, yep.”

“That does appear to be the case, yes.”

“I understand that a group over there killed a police officer and his wife in their driveway, and another wounded.”

“That is correct, with the exception of the location of one of the attacks. That one was at a church. The deputy was picking up his wife on the way home. She was the pastor there. The wounded officer was coming on shift, and we think their shooters miss-timed their shot.”

“Response?” I asked flatly, trying not to show how angry the preceding statement made me. 

“No time like the present to brief you on this. One of the reasons I’m here today is to tell you that a large percentage of Army personnel will likely be assigned to this mission.”

“Go on,” I said.

“The subject property is quite large and terrain is pretty challenging. Individual homes are not readily observable from the lake, and recon shows that each subject property has constructed observation posts at key locations. The result is that there is a five hundred acre area that has overlapping fields of fire, with most targets fairly well hidden by terrain. The homes, and community center, from what we’ve been able to determine from scant records in Kootenai County, are pretty well hardened against attack. Cast in place concrete. Ballistic glass. Safe rooms, etc.”

“I assume that Kootenai County had building plans on file for these?”

“Only one. The others managed to ‘disappear,’ along with most of the site plans, infrastructure plans, and accurate topographic surveys. Somebody got bribed to vacuum the files that well.”

“You figure a ground assault?” Mike asked, knowing that the chance of success without casualties was almost nil.

“Almost certainly.”

“What kind of opposition do you have?” I asked.

“Forty to sixty armed men and women, well trained, with top of the line equipment and the home-field advantage.”

“Do they really think that….”

“We gave up trying to figure out what they are thinking,” Major George replied, interrupting me. “At least half of the owners of these hardened homes have significant business connections on a national or international level. There have been several occasions where political pressure has been placed on the armed forces units in the area to pass on action in this case.”

“Bullcrap.” I said, leaning forward, and noting that Townsman Weathers was most attentive.

“Yes, sir.”

“How are they supplied power and water?” I asked, thinking about what I’d do if I were in the Army’s shoes.

“Water is supplied through multiple wells and large storage tanks. Power is provided through Kootenai County Cooperative, although we know there are shielded diesel generators serving each home and common buildings.”

“OK. We know what their response has been to outside authority, or at least some trigger-happy cowboys that might be running rogue.”

“No sir. From what we’ve gathered through recorded radio conversations, these actions were directed by the leadership of Black Pine.”

“That’s the place?” I asked.  “I’ve seen some of it. It was passably impressive. Been five years since I was out there.”

“That’s the place.”

“They broadcast in the clear? You said their radio transmissions…” Bruce Weathers asked, before being cut off by the Major.

“Sorry, no. They’re actually heavily encrypted radio transmissions. We deciphered them with some help from Air Force intelligence, while not raising any flags.”

“Major,” Weathers stated, “This ain’t a ground operation. This is an air op. You’ve said that your civilian authorities were fired upon, some wounded, some killed. If that happened here in Spokane County, and it did, Drummond here would make a quick case of taking those sumbitches out, period. You’ve given them the opportunity to play on their ground. I say you play it on yours.”

“You are, sir?”

“Bruce Weathers. In a previous life, I served on a -52 as a bombardier. If I may make a suggestion, you make a high-speed low level pass at oh-three-hundred hours and scare the sh•t out of the sentries. You then drop one GPS-guided bomb on a water tank or three from a nice, safe altitude, and give them fifteen minutes to surrender before your next pass to flatten the place. End of story, no ground-pounders at appreciable risk from hostile fire.”

“Not to be critical of a really good idea, Bruce, but GPS is dead,” I said. “War took out the satellites.”

“Not entirely, Mr. Drummond. There is still a significant operational capability,” the Major said, obviously intrigued by Weathers’ idea.

“Major, I really don’t want to lose the Army resources here in this county, even on a temporary basis, but of course that’s not my call. I suspect that you don’t really want to put your men and women at risk, any more than I do. If I may, I’d recommend that Mr. Weathers’ suggestion be explored with your counterparts at Fairchild.  Connections or not, political influence or not, we’re not going to put up with this, I don’t really give a crap who knows who.”

“Frankly, gentlemen, it had never occurred to staff to consider this as anything but an Army operation.”

“Where did your commanding General last serve, Major?” Weathers asked.

“Germany, from what I understand. One of the last bases to be evac’d,” Major George replied.

“Ground pounder,” Weathers said with a little friendly contempt. “Y’all have your General think out of the box a little. Give the Air Force a little something to do and keep your men and women outta harms way.”

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