Sunday, February 28, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 30


Tuesday morning
November Twenty-first
08:00 hours

I’d stopped at the first car with lights on, figuring it was the command car. I was wrong, of course, but only missed it by one car.  Below the car number, One Oh One, was the cardboard label ‘primary command car’, taped on with duct tape. Good to know that someone else needed a map….

I shook off the snow and stomped my new boots free of the snow and ice, and stepped inside, tossing my gear bag in the first available chair.

“Good morning, Colonel,” our logistics officer, Major Gary Ryder said in greeting, rising from his desk and saluting smartly. I returned his salute. An un-natural thing, saluting. At least for me anyway.

“Major, good morning.  Managed to find my way through the maze after all.” Gary was a former Reservist, now gone full-time.   In ‘real life’, he’d been a lawyer, and ‘sharp’ didn’t begin to describe him.

“They’re making good time getting us put together. Our first train’s maybe half assembled, should be fueling tonight by twenty-two thirty.  Heat in the occupied units kicks on tomorrow at oh five-thirty, departure at seven hundred.”

“Thought we were at six?”

“Government railroad.”

“Yeah, gotta remember to factor that in. Major Morrissey in yet?”

“I think he’s in the secondary command car, sir. Car number Two Oh One.”

“Thanks. I’ll be back in a few.”

I headed to the rear of the train, walking along a plowed path, passing the dozens of cars that composed our train, looking for the right car.
Each command car would eventually be closer to the middle of the train, separated by eight or ten cars from the locomotives. I’d seen the floor plans for each type of car, along with its’ capacity and equipment compliment, along with the train’s defensive capability. Six cars in each train held the defensive capability unlike anything I’d ever heard of, let alone seen. Outwardly each was similar to the observation cars of years past, but these had ballistic glass in a few key places and a most impressive selection of weapons. Ports for individual battle rifles which were the lightest weapons available. Four M242 “Bushmaster” Chain Guns, pride of the old McDonnell Douglas, per car. Anti-tank guided missiles. Anti-aircraft missiles. It was a wonder there was any room for the weapons crews in the cars. The plans also included low-boy rail cars set up to handle tank transporting. Tanks would be manned during transit, and ready to fight should the need arise.
The command cars were set up with incredible communication and data suites, complete with encrypted land and satellite links, fully integrated links to armored units and individual ground commanders from squad-size on up. My ‘office’ was housed in the first of the two identical cars. The second unit was at the opposite end of the train for protective reasons. My second in command would be in that car, with command staff split between each.  When we arrived at our destination, both cars would be linked together, and remain at whatever ‘post’ we landed at, until we were told to advance.
Morrissey was the Brigade’s personnel officer, who owed me the rest of the staffing plan for Third Washington.  We were going out minus a deputy commanding officer, although Jim Schafer would serve there as well as in the XO position; no legal officer; a fair amount of third-tier command structure was in place, but ragged organization throughout the rest of the Brigade, at least according to the file I was provided the day before.
Four cars from the end of the assembled train, the secondary command car sat with a portable staircase running up to the middle of the unit.  I saluted a Private guarding the unit. He looked younger than Carl. 
Inside, I heard Morrissey rattling around the far end of the car. It was almost five degrees warmer inside the car, which would make it about forty.

“Major, good morning.”

“Morning, Colonel. Report’s on the desk there, to your left, sir.”

“Mind reading your specialty?”

“No, sir. Just knew this’d be the priority of the day.”

“You knew correctly. How’s it look?”

“Opinion, sir?”

“Yes, an honest one.”

“Patchwork quilt would be generous.  A full third of the men are under twenty years old, half of those just out of Accelerated Basic. All the sergeants though, have battle experience, most recent, down south. Junior officers, well, green as grass.”

“I can relate to that,” I said. “Numbers?”

“Total ready to deploy tomorrow should be twenty-nine fifty-five.”

“Better than I thought,” I said.  “You’re regular Army, aren’t you, Major?”  I couldn’t remember. I’d been reading too many files.

“Yes, sir. Served in Tenth Mountain Division, Fort Drum, deployed to Wardak Province Afghanistan. Eight months there before they pulled the plug. Two months in Mexico. Dinged up twice down there.”

“How’d you end up here, in Personnel of all places?”

“General Anderson figured you’d need somebody who knew what they were doing, to be a little blunt, sir.”

“Blunt is appreciated. And he’s right on,” I said. “Now let me be direct myself.”

“Yes, sir. No problem.”

“Can this Brigade defend itself? If called upon, can these men fight?”

“Accelerated Basic covers everything we used to do in Standard, but in six weeks. If anything, if they’ve made it this far, they’re maybe a little too focused. It’s been all they’ve been able to do for a month and change.  After the initial shock of actual combat wears off, they’d do fine, sir. Everyone’s been trained in the new rifles, and the old ‘16’s will go to local armories or be used in reserve.”

“Our Guard Armory was stripped out long before we had a chance to really mobilize. We received the California’s right off.”

“Now that there are enough coming out of the factories, consider the unit lucky, sir. By One January, all front line units will have Californias, all older M-16’s will be reserve weapons only, Colonel. Probably, when this all ends, they’ll de-militarize them and sell them off.”

“Coming out of the civilian universe, what do you really think of our capability? Again, be direct.”

“Given the losses that the fighting forces of the United States have suffered in the past ten years, let alone the last ten months, I’d say in last year’s terms, it’s almost up to a three of five possible. Almost.”

“Fair enough. Now, if I remember correctly, your last assignment was opposing force analysis work.”

“Yes, sir,” he said as a courier entered, left some files, and left us. “Extensive experience. They’re meaner, more ruthless, more brutal than I could believe possible out of Americans. That’s the first thing that’ll surprise a newbie. They aren’t your brothers or cousins or whatever. Half a chance and they’ll slit your throat. They’re not badly armed, they’re not great tacticians. We bungle this we can lose. No recovery once you’ve got a boot on the neck and a barrel in your ear, sir.”

“That’s all I needed to hear,” I said as I stood, getting ready to get after the day’s work. 

“And sir?” Major Morrissey asked, “Glad to have you. I hear you’re one tough nut.”

“Nut, maybe. Not exactly what I had planned for the year, but none of us is living the life we had planned. And who’s talking about me?” I said with no small amount of curiosity.

“A Ranger. A Lieutenant Colonel Amberson, sir.”

“The Colonel and I go back a ways,” I said. “Thanks, though. Oh nine hundred over at the assembly hall. See you there.”

“Yes, sir. See you then.”

Back outside, the snow had picked up, from flurries to downright heavy snow. One thing I had to give the military credit for, and was quite pleasantly surprised, was in the new grey/black/white digital camo winter gear. Warm, dry, and visually effective.  I noted they’d changed the camo pattern to a ‘larger’ scale, based on some comments about the ‘green’ and ‘tan’ versions blending together at distance, eliminating the effect of the camouflage. 
I was walking next to the train when I heard a horn behind me, sound twice. I turned to see a patched together crew cab truck slow, and the passenger window glide down.  It looked like the pickup was composed of at least a half-dozen donors.

“Need a ride, Mac?” the driver asked.

“Much appreciated, thanks,” I said. “Just up to the other end,” I said as I got into the warm cab. I hadn’t realized how cold it was outside until the blast from multiple heaters hit me.

“No prob. Just going to pick up another crew for the outbound.  This’n yours?”

“That’ll be our home for the foreseeable future, yeah.”

“You get back there and kick some ass. I got family down in Nebraska. What I heard from down there ain’t good.”

“Yeah.  That’s a fact.”

“Name’s Bender. Frank Bender,” he said. He looked about sixty, maybe older. Deep lines in his face, close-cropped hair under a heavy cap.

“Rick Drummond. Nice to meet you, Mr. Bender.”

“Ain’t you the County guy? The one runnin’ Metro?”

“Not anymore,” I said.

“Well, you did a helluva job while you were. Put together a pretty good outfit. My day job is maintenance on the Lines,” he said, referring to the local train system that was cobbled together from scrap.  “Be nice to have rail service permanent-like.”

“You guys did a pretty good job with what little you had to work with. Never ceases to amaze me when I see those trains running, and on time.”

“Lotta good people. Makes all the difference.”

“Yes, it does,” I said. “Thanks for the ride, Frank.”

“Watch your ass back there, Colonel,” he said as I closed the door and nodded.

Inside the command car, I’d barely opened the door when I noticed the car was nearly full of workers. A team of communications workers was running diagnostics on the multiple flat panel multi-function displays.

“Ten-hut!” someone said from the rear of the car.

“At ease,” I said, thinking that I’d never get used to the protocol.

“Colonel, good morning. I’m Captain Greg Shand. Communications.”

“Nice to meet you, Captain. Just back from Walla Walla?”

“Yes sir, as of about ten minutes ago. The inbound train.”

“Welcome to the primary command car. I understand that you’re in charge of all this gear?”

“Yes, sir. It’s a beauty.”

“Run me through what I’m looking at. My briefing packet was conspicuously missing this section.”

“Code-word classified, sir, and the files weren’t to be distributed until everyone’s been briefed.  All these techs are cleared, as is the rest of the command staff. First suite over there on the left is dedicated uplink to central command. Second suite is assignable, but both it and third suite are set up at the moment to link real time with our own field units. Every unit commander will have direct real time link back to us, as well as links to each other, air assets, whatever they want that we can give them. Every squad sergeant has a helmet cam. We can see what he can see, maybe more depending on how we enhance the uplink.”

“Impressive doesn’t begin to cover it,” I said, pondering the network, the technology, the problems that could crop up.

“That stuff’s all pretty standard, sir. The really impressive breakthroughs are in suites five and six.”

“Suite four?” I asked, noting he’d skipped it.

“Redundant, but really serves as the master coordinator between all others, as well as links to the second command car, for increased capability.”

“All right, so, suites five and six.”

“Suite five will be set up to track friendly and enemy forces, including location, speed, real time. Suite six tracks disposition of friendly equipment including equipment that may have been captured, sir. I forgot your suite, sir, down on the end. The Command Suite can monitor all of the battleground information real time, and you can direct assets and adjust tactics either from there or direct the communications officers to execute your orders.”

“How do you track the individuals, and separate between friendlies and enemy?”

“Friendlies have RFID chips in their dog tags, MRE containers, weapons, uniforms, boots, you name it.  The RFID’s are trackable and programmable on the fly, and each chip links to each other as well as to the assigned soldier, unit, group, or command. There are common ‘calls’ between friendlies as well, so if gear gets swapped, that doesn’t necessarily trigger an alert. RFID’s update once every hour in standard deployment. In battle once a minute. The ‘California’ model of the M16 reports rates of fire and ammunition levels as well, although without more capability on this end, some of the more detailed data are only useful for after-action tactical analysis. Thank God we’re changing out all the front line units to the California’s, and retiring the old rifles. If gear is captured, we can track it based on proximity to enemy.  If we get confirmation from a field commander that he’s lost troops or gear, we can track that gear, find out it it’s been captured, track it, and assign an enemy tag to it, and then track it, sir.”

“What if the enemy has no RFID equipped gear, Captain?”

“Even easier, sir,” McGowan said. “We track their heartbeats, if we’re close enough, or close enough for a transmitter and bounce unit to pick them up. Five mile range, narrow frequency that picks up on heart rate and the electrical frequency of the human heart.  Can also be adjusted to discriminate between animals and humans of course. If a bird is in range, we can uplink to satellite for a broad view of the battlefield and adapt accordingly. Combined with RFID protocols, we can also determine if friendlies have been captured and are among enemy, sir,” he explained. “Questions sir?”

“No, that’s about enough mind-blowing information for one day, thanks,” I said. “Although, I’m curious to know if this has been tested in battle.”

“Yes, sir. Black ops for the past five years at least, all over the globe. They used it in taking back the lower Mississippi Valley. And secured the Mexican Frontier with it.”

“Cross it and die,” I said aloud, not really meaning to.

“Absolutely, Colonel.”

“Incredible,” I said, thinking of adding, ‘frickin’ video game.” “Thanks, Captain. Although I don’t really look forward to seeing it in action.”

“Way of the future, sir. “

I spent the remaining time before our oh-nine-hundred assembly by reading and studying. Far too much material to cover and too little time to take it all in.  Too much info too much detail.   That weighed on me as I was driven over to the Assembly Hall.   I decided to improvise my portion of the morning.
The ‘Assembly Hall’ was a converted warehouse that had held a pole building manufacturing center, before the War. The enormous, unheated volume was large enough to hold the Brigade, many of them spending the time in heated tents, within the building shell.  Hundreds of non-matching folding chairs, mismatched light fixtures, and a makeshift presentation screen and podium spoke to the state of our infrastructure.  I knew that our gear at least matched, more or less.
The brigade was brought to attention. I was introduced by a senior staff sergeant and took the podium, along with the rest of the brigade staff.

“Please join me in the Pledge of Allegiance,” I said, before leading them through the pledge.  Our ‘new’ flag hung from the steel rafters above us, as well as on the plywood stage on an unfinished pine pole.

“At ease,” I said to the ranks, before beginning.  “Thank you all for your service to our nation. Be seated,” I said, scanning the collection of men, young and old, all in grey camouflage fatigues and outerwear. All, I noted, armed.

“If you’ve had the opportunity to see the morning news, you men are all over it. In less than twenty-four hours, this Brigade departs for eastern Colorado. You have all been briefed to the nature of what Third Washington’s operational mission is supposed to be. I’m here to tell you that there is more to it than that. Our first mission will be less than conventional.”

“It is now becoming common knowledge that Sixth Army has been wiped off the map. More than fifty-three thousand dead remain in the field. More than were lost at Gettysburg. Total losses in the past few days surpass the American casualties in Vietnam by a sizeable percentage.  Attacks on Air Force facilities nationwide have crippled our air capabilities. A new draft, quite widespread, will be starting within days.  Many units across the country are moving in to fill the void caused by this massacre, including units from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and two brigades from the Fighting Forty First. Third Washington will be first tasked with the recovery of the remains of Sixth Army, and transporting our dead from the battlefield. Our follow up task will be support of line units and recovery of civilian infrastructure, utilities, and transport.”

“You are obviously now aware that there are no women in the ranks within Third Washington. All women line soldiers have been reassigned after events in Colorado, across the entire United States military, effective twenty-two hundred yesterday. These women are now running training units and responsible for a large amount of basic and advanced training.  It should be known by all, and you will be briefed on this in more detail today, that numerous patrol units and more soldiers in forward observation posts were captured prior to the attacks on Sixth Army. The male soldiers were executed. The female soldiers were tortured beyond any recognition over a two hundred mile long front. This was not an isolated incident, nor the result of a lone group. It is systemic. Every soldier in this room will review the recon reports. That is an order.”

“Most, if not all of you, know that I’m not a regular soldier. Most of you until a few days or weeks ago weren’t either. In this part of the country, for most of a year now, we’ve been living in what could best be described as primitive conditions, and yet we’ve prevailed. Despite fears to the contrary, we didn’t tear ourselves apart. We adapted. We’ve survived. There is though, a real danger that we could lose this war, that the Statists will prevail, that we will be at best enslaved, doomed to live under the heel of a fascist dictatorship. That more women and children and the helpless would be burned alive as the residents of Siler, Colorado were. That places like Sunrise Springs, Colorado not have the mutilated bodies of that farm community piled in front of their City Hall. Our troops have searched across entire counties, where farms ought to be, where people ought to be and have found burned out buildings and bodies. This is what your enemy does, how they operate, and what they believe in. We’re assuming that they’ve captured at least a portion of the civilian population and transported them East. That assumption might be optimistic. They may have just killed everyone instead.” I paused for ten or fifteen seconds, to let all of that sink in. The things that I’d read in the recon reports and scouting reports from Colorado made me sick to my stomach.  

“We, all of us here, we citizen soldiers, all of our families, all of our futures, are at risk. Everything is on the table. I say this not to strike fear, not to be a pessimist, but to show you that I believe that, and that knowing that failure is possible, to do everything you can do to ensure that we do not fail. There is too much at stake.”

“This Brigade is labeled a support unit that was four months in the planning and assembly. Don’t bet on staying a support unit. Plan on using your weapon. Plan on working in fire teams. From squad to platoon on up the brigade chain of command, including the command company,” I said, looking over at the Brigade command unit, “plan on doing your job and learning the job of the guy next to you, above you, and below you.  This train ride we have will take a couple of days if we’re lucky. Use that time wisely. We just might find a hot zone on the other end.”

“You will spend the rest of today, until seventeen-hundred hours, with your battalions, reviewing your assignments, and training. You will also read the same after action reports that I’ve been reading for many hours. You will not like what you read. If there remains any question as to the nature of the enemy, there will not be after you read those reports.  Tomorrow, we hit the rails. The next portion of this briefing will be presented by Major Gary Ryder, covering load out of the Brigade. Major?” I said, giving the podium over. 

“Thank you, Colonel.  All right, First Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Shawn Miller….” 

Each battalion was trained with more or less identical skills in terms of supporting the needs of the overall Brigade, rather than assigning a single battalion to specialize.  The Army apparently decided that specialized battalions and brigades weren’t the way of our future, and tapped the ways of the past in this reconstituted military force. Perhaps the reality of doing what really worked, rather than what merely sounded good, was finally starting to permeate.   So, we had, at least on paper, the ability to generate power, clean water, work to restore damaged civilian infrastructure, supply medical care, and many other capabilities.  In addition, we’d defend ourselves, feed the front line troops or civilians….an endless list.
Our battalion commanders all had ‘line’ experience, and recent at that.  Many were junior officers who’d been promoted one or two grades within the year, all up to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Most had been decorated in the Mexican War.   First Battalion, with Shawn Miller in command, a newly minted light colonel, had also served in Afghanistan.  The Second had the six foot-four Trayvon Chappel, a tank of a man, ramrod straight but with an absolutely disarming smile.  Chappel had played on the defensive line for Grambling State before going into the Army right after graduation.  Six years in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, with specialty schooling on top of that, and messy work in Tucson.   Third Battalion was headed up by Hugh Epstein, who’d served in Germany, Iraq, and Korea, along with major action in the Yucatan. Jesse Casselis, a proud product of South Philly, was Fourth Battalion’s top dog. Casselis served at Fort Bragg, in Kosovo, and Kuwait before numerous battles in Los Angeles and on south.  Bryce Atwood was Fifth Battalion’s commander the lone command officer with Pentagon experience, although he’d redeemed himself of that unpleasantness with cave searches in Afghanistan, roadside bombs, and urban and rural warfare.    Atwood was from Ocean Shores, on the Washington coast.  He’d only been in Spokane for two days, after visiting his remaining family at home, his first trip home in three years. 
The briefing for each battalion covered final loading of equipment and men, duty schedules, training schedules, and final assignments of unit commanders down to squad level. By the end of the hour, each battalion was ready to get moving and get some work done. I had my own list of tasks ahead of me, and precious little time to get through it.  
Back in the command car, I found myself in the way and the place too busy to get anything meaningful done. Right behind that car though, was the car that I’d be billeted in, along with one of the command staff. Peace and quiet at last…until my cell phone rang.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Hiya, lover. How’s your day?” Karen asked.

“Uneventful so far, which is a pretty good thing. What’s going on at the homestead?”

“Alan and Ron have the house next door powered up.  There’re about twelve people working over there. Heat will be in this afternoon.”

“Wow!” I said. “I’m more than a little shocked.”

“Me too. Things are coming together.”

“Your Mom know she’s moving tomorrow?”

“Not yet.  We’ll tell her this afternoon,” she said before pausing.

“Everything OK?” I asked.

“Yes. I had to sneak upstairs and into the bedroom. I need to know if you’re going to be on time tonight.”

“Yeah, barring the unexpected crisis. Got something planned?”

“Keep it a secret and act surprised, OK?”

“Sure. I’m good at that. Had to be with your family,” I said. The Bauer’s were always trying to keep little secrets about birthdays, parties, and presents. Most with little success. “Now, what’s up?”

“Thanksgiving dinner a couple days early. Ashley and the twins are here, along with a houseful of help.”

“That sounds perfect,” I said. “Hon, I’m missing you already.”

“Don’t get me started, or I’ll be bawling.”

“Sorry. We going to be able to fit everyone in the house?”

“It’ll be a tight fit. We’ll make do.”  

“Nice. I don’t know what to say.”

“Then don’t say anything. I’ll see you tonight,” she said quietly. “I love you.”

“You most,” I said in reply, hearing her click the phone off just after.

I’d already forgotten that it was Thanksgiving week, caught up in my new future.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 29


Tuesday morning
November Twenty-first
05:30 hours

“Coffee’s on the table, Daddy,” Kelly said as I came downstairs. Karen was working in the kitchen, making something with a wonderful aroma.

“Thanks, Babe. And what are you doing up so early?” I asked, as she looked over my digital camo uniform, with mixed approval.

“Figured I better so I can see you before you take off tomorrow.”

“Saving up then,” I said.

“Sort of, yeah. Carl’s downstairs—he’s getting some stuff put together for you before you go—don’t let him know that I told you that though.”

“Surprise for me, huh?”

“Care package in advance, Mom said.”

“Nice. I’ll appreciate that I’m sure.”

“Is it true what they’re saying on TV about the soldiers?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen it,” I said, being technically correct, as Carl came into the room.

“They said that fifty thousand died in Colorado,” Karen said, interrupting, before I gave her another good morning kiss. “That was on the national news.”

There wasn’t much point in denying it. “True. The number is fifty-three thousand two hundred and six, or so I was told. More than were lost in Gettysburg on both sides.”

“And you’re going into that?” Kelly said.

“Actually, and I’m breaking rules here, Third Washington is going to bring those men and women home. We’re tasked with setting up and recovery.”

“How close to the fighting?” Kelly asked.

“Honest answer, no idea. It’ll be farther east of us, I’m certain. Not sure how far,” I replied. “We are not a front line unit. We’re support.”

“Sure, and we live in a safe suburb,” Karen said.

“Honey, I will try to be as safe as I can within reason. I will also keep my men as safe as I can within reason,” I said. “You know what it’s like out there now, all three of you.  Nothing is sure, nothing is secure. We’re on permanent Condition Yellow all the time, and half the time on Condition Red. Maybe someday we’ll go back to Green. I know that if we don’t win this war though, if attacks like this continue, things will go downhill from where we are now to someplace just this side of Hell on Earth. Stuff I’ve read about the Statists would turn your stomach.”

I picked up my coffee, and Karen went into the kitchen, returning with a platter of pancakes. Carl brought out a pitcher of milk.

“Raspberry pancakes. Thought you might like these,” Karen said. “Sorry for the tone,” she said quietly.

“I think you’re justified. And I’m a little surprised you’re holding up so well with all this, and your Mom on top of it all.”

“Resignation. I can’t make you stay. I can’t do that much for Mom.”

“Getting her close by, and into a situation where she has the right amount of care is much more than you might think,” I said. “C’mon, you all sit down here and have breakfast. There’s no way I’m eating all of this,” I said. “And Mike’ll be here any time.”

“OK,” the kids said in response.

“Now listen up, and listen good,” I said, putting some butter on the hot pancakes. “I’m going to do what I need to do. I’m doing it because they asked me to, and given what we know today, I’d be more than half-tempted to volunteer anyway. I do this to try to keep that evil from coming here. Stop it now. Ron and Alan feel the same way, but they’re probably more important here than in a uniform just to keep things running.   A whole lot more men and women are going to get drafted. Service is going to be compulsory. People are in this for good versus evil now, and I think they’re finally starting to realize the stakes involved.”

None of them said anything. “I can’t remember who said this, or something to this effect: ‘Let the troubles come in my time, rather than in the time of my children.’  Well, the troubles are here. You’ll see them for quite some time. Maybe your children will be free of them.”

They finally dug into breakfast, the radio broadcast and interviews droning on in the background. Yet another curfew notice repeated, as the dogs stirred and went to the door, knowing it was someone friendly on the other side.   I finished my last bite of pancake as Carl got up to unlock the door, finding Alan on the other side.

“Well, good morning!” I said as both dogs sniffed him up and down, and Karen gave him a hug.

“Back atchya.  Big day today, huh?” he said as I shook his hand, noticing the fresh snow on his coat sleeve.

“Meet the troops, check out the gear, put on a show.”

“You know your guys are all over TV today, right?” Alan asked.

“Uh, no,” I said. “I haven’t had it on.”

“Crew’s over at Yardley with some PR flack from the Army.”

“Nice operational security we have going,” I said.

“Well, things change,” he said, turning on the television.  The big former Burlington Northern locomotives were in the background, behind the talking head. 

“This looks like a repeat from a few minutes ago,” Alan said.

Sure enough, the reporter said that this was Third Washington’s outbound train, heading east for ‘the War Zone,’ they were calling it.

“Now, let me ask, what are you doing up so early?” I said to Alan. “Curfew’s still on, right?”

“Your Army boys down the street asked the Metro stores to be open at six, closed by noon.”

“All of the stores?”

“Yep. The corporal said that by having the stores open early, and closing early, they’d probably throw off the troublemakers.”

“Sure, they’re probably still in bed. That’ll work until they get used to a new schedule.”

“Right, unless the Army…or Guard, or whoever is running the show, constantly changes the schedule,” Alan said.

“Sounds like something you’d find in Russia. ‘Trains are always on time’ and all.”

“Well they were, since the schedules were never set,” he said with a little grin.

“My point.”

“And I need one more thing, before you head out,” Alan said.

“What’s that?”

“I need you to read this through sometime today. It’s a proposal to set up a private bank,” he said as he handed me a thick envelope.

“Whose idea is this?” I asked. “And why me?”

“You’d be the primary investor for one thing. As in supplier of physical capital. Ron and I’ve looked at it, it seems to make sense. And, it came from Dan O’Malley.”

“I won’t find the words, ‘fractional reserve banking’ in here, will I? Or ‘fiat currency?”

“You won’t find anything in there that resembles any bank that has operated in the last fifty years, that I know of anyway. As a stockholder you’d get a portion of crops, product, whatever, is being produced with invested capital.”

“When did you have the time to look this over? Why didn’t you bring this up last night?”

“Got it yesterday at lunch. Honestly, we both forgot about it. Too much on our plates. Same thing today, with the store and work next door.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. “Breakfast?”

“Already had some. Just wanted to drop that off.”

“One more thing. This curfew and getting the Woolsley’s house done. How’re you going to manage that? How’re you going to get the labor here?”

“Bribes. Works just fine, not too expensive.”

“Careful with that.”

“They’re just the post down the street—and all the labor’s within walking distance anyway. Tools are plenty, materials are a problem, but not enough to keep us from making do.”

“Right man for the job,” I said. “Just be careful.”

Mike showed up just after Alan left in the old, ethanol powered Ford pickup.  We’d picked up another couple inches of snow overnight. It was still coming down, now like light feathers in the still morning.

“Spring in your step today, Colonel,” I said as I invited him inside.

“It is a lovely morning,” Mike said, sharing the inside joke. “Good morning, Karen.”

“Morning, Mike. Everything OK?” she asked, a little suspicious of his broad smile, as the kids said their good mornings.

“Just fine, thanks. Ashley said that she’d take you up on your offer for the baby clothes when you get a chance.”

“Thanks. Figured she could use them,” Karen said. “Here’s a couple travel mugs of tea. Sorry, coffee’s all but gone.”

“Much appreciated, thank you.”

“When did you talk with Ashley?” I asked.

“Yesterday. Phone, remember?” she said, holding up the cell phone.

“Yeah. Right. I remember phones….they used to interrupt me at all hours.”

“And shrink the world,” Mike said.

“That too,” I said.

“You ready?”

“As much as ever,” I said before turning to Karen and the kids. “See you this afternoon. Should be home around five.”

“We’ll be ready for you,” Karen said as she gave me a fairly intense kiss. There was something she wasn’t telling me, but I didn’t want to pry. 

“You two,” I said to Carl and Kelly, who were expecting orders, “Go easy on your Mom.” With a hug, I grabbed my day bag and hit the door.

“See you tonight.”

On the way out to Yardley, we were stuck, oddly enough, waiting for a train to pass moving all of a mile an hour, and it was probably a mile long.  

“Good thing we’re early,” Mike said.

“That ‘drop in and surprise the troops’ tactic isn’t exactly going to work at this rate.”

We had a good chance to talk about how we landed where we were now, covering a wide swath of the past decade.

“….no, I didn’t vote for him. I voted my conscience,” I said. “Thought you knew that.”

“Figured you voted the party line.”

“I haven’t really believed that there were differences between the two in almost ten years. I mean look at what we’ve had in the last few years.  The worst of Chicago politics. One termer booted out along with all his minions, but not before the damage had been done. Pendulum swung too far the other way, with that joke of a Texas cowboy, trying to resurrect the glory of Imperial America, a lot of patriotism and spending more money we don’t have, obviously didn’t learn a damned thing from his predecessor’s mistakes. We lose him to the flu, end up with a phony conservative who’s actually a fascist.”

“Can’t really argue with any of that,” Mike said, with a bit of a chuckle.

“The facts are self evident, unfortunately,” I said. “You know, I hope one day when we’re on the other end of this, we can sit on the front porch as old men, with grandkids on our knees, and tell them how screwed up things really were before the War.”

“You think this can be taken care of in a generation? I mean, undoing the brainwashing?”

“At least there are still some of us that realize that we’ve had that for the two generations ahead of us, and that there actually can be something better,” I said, not saying, ‘if we win.’

“Rick, the depth of belief in what is not real, or what wasn’t real, looking back on it now that it’s gone, is just astounding,” he said.

“No argument. There were just damned few of us before the War that knew it and we were all looked on like we were Grade A chrome plated nut jobs. I felt like one more than once, too, bringing home a case or two of ammunition, storing it, building lists of things, for the ‘just in case.’”

“You weren’t a conspiracy theorist, though, or at least I don’t think you were,” Mike said.

“No, Sheriff, I was not. Maybe I ought of have been.  You look back at the way that debt went from evil to being marketed as something that you had to have to be one of the successful people, you know, ‘take that vacation, you deserve it!   That home equity, it’s just sitting there! Put it to work for you! That new boat! It can be yours! The cancer spread of course across anything financial with insurance companies getting into banking, mortgage companies buying off underwriters and selling class C junk as AAA bonds. Banks getting into everything, convincing the public that they deserved that new house that they couldn’t afford, that new boat, convincing us that our home equity was just a wasted bank account, and since everything was intertwined, put at risk and collapsed when the fat lady sang.’”

“Pack of lies.”

“Sure it was.  But it was an exceptionally well marketed pack of lies, that’s what made it successful. And the financiers loved every minute of it. Think, a population too stupid to figure out what the meanings of ‘assets,’ ‘liabilities’ and ‘equity’ really mean.  They voted for bread and circuses and bankrupted us all.”

“You’re doing OK,” he said, looking at me with a bit of envy.

“Through little fault of my own. I mean, I had some money in the markets, sure. My brother saved our asses. Not just mine, but all of our brothers—through bailing us from equities into physical commodities, silver and gold, as things came unspooled. If I’d put enough thought into things, I would have done that myself at far earlier and better prices than he ended up paying, and had way more than I do now,” I said. “Now let me ask you something, you don’t have to answer.  How are you and Ash doing financially? You doing OK?”

“We’re doing all right. Things get tight from time to time. We have a load of credits at the Metro commissary, but that doesn’t cover everything. It’s not like they have anything anyway.”

“You know if you need anything, you just ask. Or, if you don’t ask, I’ll make sure that an anonymous donation ends up in your lap.”

“Rick, we’re doing fine.”

“Mike, I have, well, the Drummond-Martin-Bauer group has accumulated a fair amount of working capital. We loan out some, start businesses…”

“I know,” he said before I cut him off.

“Mike, we’re really not in any of this to make out like bandits. Fact is, we just break even. Money we earn over and above what we need to keep up the place and try to keep stocks up gets plowed back into something else. It’s an unorthodox way to invest, but it’s investing in the people and the enterprise, rather than in the machine of making money for money’s sake.”

Mike was quiet for a moment. “Let me ask a stupid question.”

“Perfectly all right. I’ve heard you ask plenty in your time,” I said with a laugh, “Like, your bachelor party. You asked that dancer, ‘Are those real?’ and she answered,”

“’Real expensive,’ I remember that part of the night.” Mike said, a little smile on his face. “Rick, you could’ve ended up owning this city with the money you have. Why haven’t you gone down that road, even a little bit?”

“Simple, although it sounds simple minded. I’m not wired that way. I have more than I need now. There’s a whole lotta folks that would think that I’m an idiot for doing what we’re doing,” I said. “Mike, I’ve seen what twenty dollars can do in places where two hundred dollars is a years wage. Miracles. Changes peoples’ lives. They have reason to work, employ others, grow, change economies, make their villages and towns better. Gives them hope. Money’s just a tool, a store of labor. We’re just using the toolbox.”

“Helluva philosophy.”

“In the old days, we had an abandonment of reason, from what was good and honest and wise, to latch onto whatever passing financial fad came through. Remember the price to earnings ratios that were double or triple digits to one? How many people really realized that you paid two hundred dollars, in the case of the triple digit P/E, to earn ONE dollar of earnings? How stupid were we?”

“Your words, ‘self evident.’ We’re sitting on the edge of a civil war, caused by the financiers.”

“Yep, and their greed for more,” I said, seeing the trailing car of the train approach. “Last car, finally.”

“Good thing, this tea’s starting to freeze up.”

“I thought this had a heater?”

“Occasionally, it does. I’m not sure what it takes to get the magic back to run the fan.”

We pulled ahead, getting into the queue for the Yardley train yard, where dozens of light towers lit up the yard like a circus. It had to be the brightest place in town.

“So what’re you ordered over here for?”

“Same as you, more or less. Except we’re on the next train behind you. We’ll leapfrog you at some point.  You have a chance to read the operational plan for deployment?”

“That which wasn’t Greek. Why in God’s name does the Army insist acronyms when words suffice?”

“Question for the ages,” he said, finally getting the move-ahead to the vehicle search and storage lot. We’d be afoot from there on in.

“Any idea where I’m supposed to go?”  I asked.

“Building Twenty-one sixty. Over there,” he pointed as we parked the Humvee, under the watchful eye of a body-armored soldier.

The deployment plan was to stage a series of trains, like our own, which were being constructed and assembled by the small army of yard workers, running twenty-four seven.  Hundreds of transport containers had been converted already, more transport railcars than I’d ever seen collected in Yardley, being loaded by the yard cranes and the self-loaders. We would advance along the cleared lines east, and we’d determine on the fly where the Brigade would stage for ‘recovery’ of the civilian areas.
That plan of course would be after the initial push to Sixth Army.  My late-night reading showed that our first train would have about half the brigade aboard, followed immediately by the remaining men and gear. Both trains would carry thousands of body bags and remains transport cases. A third train would carry still more cases.  It would take all three trains to provide enough transport ability to return Sixth Army to a to-be-determined final resting place.

“Don’t forget your gear bag,” Mike said. “Hate to have a newly minted Colonel have to beg for a pad and pencil.”

“That’s what supply sergeants are for. See you for lunch?”

“Sure. Warning though stay away from the stew. I hear it’s mixed meats.”

“Good to know.” Mixed meats could mean almost anything.