Sunday, May 30, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 51


December Twenty-Sixth
Aboard Charlie Six

A thousand men had worked all night to clear the tracks, strip the damaged cars of anything useful, and monitor overnight action in Omaha.
We were too far away from a highway to mount up an effort to move men and supplies to Omaha, and the weather was working against us in any regard. It was frustrating and heartbreaking, to hear of the fighting in Omaha and the pleas for relief, and to be unable to respond.
The Air Force made a substantial effort to resupply the ground troops with steady flights of C-17’s delivering supplies by air, cargo parachutes landing west of the city, where there was little danger of S.A. retrieving the equipment. There was however, danger of surface to air attack.
By oh eight-hundred, Third Washington’s ‘graveyard’ shift was rotating through the breakfast line, and the ‘day shift’ was in the field helping the rail crews stage the repair operation. I was stuck, with Doc Willitson checking on me, in the Command Car or my quarters—and not liking it one bit.  I still had the deep cough, and the pain in my side.
Captain Fillmore had conducted funeral services for the dead rail crewmen, who could not be quickly returned to their homes in the Pacific Northwest.  I had watched the brief service, via the helmet camera of one of the men. They were buried with full military honors, despite their civilian status. One day, their remains would be returned to their home cities. One day…

0840 Hours

“Sir, we’re getting a skip broadcast from back east. Civilian radio broadcast—our side,” Captain Shand told me, distracting me in a welcome way from my letters of condolence to the families of the crewmen.   I’d already read the weather report, which would turn from wet and sloppy overnight to a Canadian cold front. Lows overnight would be in the teens, with subzero wind chills.

“Freq?” I asked.

“Shortwave, sir. Five point niner three five, sir. Haven’t located a city yet, sir.”

“We don’t have a cross reference? Try for Nashville. This sounds like WWCR,” I said, listening in to the news. “We listened to them a lot when things were coming unspooled,” I said.

“…..that Baltimore and Washington D.C. have been formally retaken by the United States of America, despite claims by the Statists that they remain in S.A. control.  Our correspondents in the area report that in fact, the Capitol was never within S.A. control, with the heart of Washington in firm control of the United States Navy since the evacuation of the city last April Fourteenth. The current Flag of the United States of America now files in the Capitol, a city with a current population that is a fraction of Pre-War levels.  Field commanders estimate that there are less than a hundred thousand residents in the city, although it is impossible at this time to confirm this, as most residents scurry for cover when patrols or vehicles are sighted.
Radiation levels throughout the Chesapeake Bay area, from the bombed cities of Norfolk and Newport News to the location of the dirty bomb in Silver Spring, remain significantly higher than safe levels.  Correspondent Larry Malone, west of Bethesda, Maryland, reports.
“Dan, it’s been only two weeks since we even learned of the half-dozen dirty bombs intended for detonation around the Capitol, only one of which was actually detonated.  Crews from the Nuclear Emergency Search Team are credited with eliminating the threat of five of the terrorist teams.  The sixth, that was apparently moving to it’s target in Washington, it is believed to have originated in Pittsburgh. The enemy managed to detonate their device when a roadblock was set up for an unrelated highway accident.  We have no information available on exactly who is responsible for the dirty bomb operation.  We do not know if it was domestic or international, although we certainly believe that the United States government fully understands who the responsible parties are.
Cleanup efforts within the Silver Spring area include wholesale demolition of areas within the contamination radius, and the removal of radioactive soil, structures and other material to a landfill. It is estimated that five square miles are contaminated with highly radioactive material believed to include reactor fuel material, materials formerly used in the medical field, and other un-named sources.”

“Dirty bomb?” I asked no one in particular.

“Makes me wonder what else we’ll learn after the war, Colonel,” Shand said.

“History’s written by the victors,” I said, turning my attention again to the broadcast, ‘who may or may not tell the whole story,’ I said to myself.

“…Chicago, with the S.A. President and his Cabinet rumored to be moving from city to city.  Propaganda broadcasts still boast of the strength of the State of America, despite common knowledge that their military forces are in retreat on three sides,” the broadcaster said as the signal began to seriously fade. There were only a few more words before it disappeared into static.

The Burlington Northern and Union Pacific crews did all the heavy lifting, figuratively and literally.  They’d sent for a massive bridge crane designed to lift railcars and engines, just enough to get them off the active tracks and conduct rail repairs.  The damaged or destroyed engines could then be retrieved by other rail-mounted equipment after normal service was restored.  The crew boss stated in our first meeting though, that the damaged cars would probably remain in place for ‘a long-ass time’.
Our forward Defensive Car was too badly damaged to either put back on the rails or ever put back into service.  All weaponry, useable or not, was stripped out after bulk ammunition, heating and cooling equipment and communications links were stripped.  There wasn’t much left after the torches were finished with the car.  ‘Black Betty’ was unceremoniously shoved out of the way with a D-9 Caterpillar, after the crane had moved it as far as it could.  The Defensive Car crewmen had named the all of the defensive cars and painted on artwork akin to the Second War’s aircraft ‘nose art’. ‘Betty’, ‘Rockin’ Jenny’, ‘Smokin’ Sarah’ and ‘Roxy’ made up the quartet of defensive cars. We would not have a forward Defensive Car on ‘Charlie’ moving in to Omaha, which put us at a significantly higher risk than we would have liked.
Once the dozer cleared ‘Betty’, it made quick work….meaning, three hours…of filling in the bomb crater. With the BN/UP crews serving as foremen, Third Washington lay new railroad ties and rails.

“Three hours, max, Colonel Drummond, and you boys’ll be back in the fight. We’re buttoning up the last of the rails now, we backtrack to the first siding, which is about five miles up the line or so.  You get two patched up engines hooked up, and you’re good to go.  We’ll follow you and that second train back into Omaha,” the crew boss, a largish Puerto Rican named simply, ‘Mario’ told me.

“Thanks, Mario. It’ll be good to get back in the fight,” I said.

“Plenty o’that where you boys’re headed. Smoke’s thick over Omaha. Not much left I’m thinkin’.”

“Maybe not. We still have work to do though,” I said.

“Yeah you do.  Best letcha get to it, Colonel,” he said, shaking my hand and heading out the door.

“That was one big dude,” Kittrick said to no one in particular.

“Yeah. Damned near crushed my hand,” I said, making a fist to get the blood flowing again.

1240 Hours
Five miles southwest of Omaha, Nebraska

Another deployment, this time with small arms fire on three sides of the train as we disembarked, and artillery and tank fire due west of us. Smoke was everywhere, veiling the massive fires to the northeast.  From the maps, it appeared that there was an industrial strip south of Interstate Eighty, which appeared to be ablaze.  Downtown Omaha was further east, shrouded in smoke. Offutt Air Force Base was south of that, and also covered.
Third Washington deployed on two rail sidings south of the Interstate, due south of the small Millard Airport, and some brainchild had assigned us the place name of ‘Infield Double.’  To the south, the small Papillon Creek, not visible to us from the train. We were ‘parked’ in what appeared to be a failed business park, with a burning ‘call center’ building not far away.  Further north, bedroom communities. We’d proceeded as far as the rails allowed—the tracks were blocked not more than six hundred yards to the west of us.  I thought as I reviewed the deployment zone, that we looked like a good target for a hit-and-run mortar attack.  There were dozens of  abandoned, burned out cars in the parking lots not far away.  Most looked as if they’d been shot up and burned many months before.
A third of the Brigade was tasked with establishing a defensive perimeter and observation posts around the trains and the access roads to our location.  The remaining men quickly went to work setting up large scale staging operations for the supply trains now stacked up behind us, and setting up a mile long string of tents and shelters between the trains. There wouldn’t be rest for a long while, now that we were back in the game.  I was doing my best to do my job and attempt to follow doctors’ orders, which seemed mutually exclusive ninety percent of the time.

“Raptor Lead, we’ve got numbers that impact Infield Double operations,” Fourth Brigade commander Jesse Casselis—‘Hollow-Point One’--told me over secure radio.  “Think five large, Raptor Lead.”  Five thousand of our men, wounded.

“Majors Ryder and Morrissey, my office three minutes ago,” I said after punching their radios into the internal comm link separate from my conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Casselis.

“Hollow-Point One, you’re south of location Castle?”

“Affirm, Raptor. Steady stream of dismount friendlies met along the way, ETA staged location two units.”    ‘Castle’ was Interstate Eighty; a ‘unit’ was thirty minutes.  Casselis and a fair number of his men were traveling in a convoy of our Humvees, looking to meet up with Army units deployed along the Interstate. Major Morrissey appeared in my doorway, followed a moment later by Ryder.

“Understood, Hollow-Point One. Proceed to designated objective. Raptor Lead out.”

“Boys, we’ve got a problem,” I said. “Casselis says we’ve got five thousand wounded and walking wounded headed here, starting in an hour, probably less. We’re not ready for them.”

Both looked at each other for a half a second before responding. I was looking for answers, not excuses.

“Colonel, we can pull most of the men assigned to the perimeter.  Small arms fire is quite a bit farther away than we anticipated on arrival. Cut the deployment to five hundred men. If it stays quiet, cut that again by a third for the next watch. That frees up half of the men in the territory around Infield Double,” Major Ryder responded.

“Still short-staffed of course, Colonel, but every man in the Brigade has had trauma care training to Advanced level, Morrissey added.”

“Task some of your men on where we’re going to house them until they can evac. We have a cold front moving in tonight. Expect every square inch of both trains, every tent and shelter, everything we can muster to be dedicated to the wounded and getting everyone fed. If we have five thousand now, you can bet we’ll have more soon enough.  Expect Third Washington to be outside tonight, or caring for these wounded men. Anyone’s that not doing that will be assigned to Supply Fifty-Seven. We’re going to need the gear on that train ASAP, and need the train to send back with wounded.  Not to mention the food.”  

1550 Hours

We had nowhere near enough medical expertise to go around, nor enough shelter.  The five thousand men rapidly turned into six, and then seven thousand plus. Despite the ‘heads up’, there was just not enough time to prepare for this kind of influx.   Every available man from Third Washington was involved and over tasked almost immediately.  My quarters were ‘doubled up’ with other command officers. I had about five minutes to secure my personal belongings before Captains McGowan and Shand hauled in their gear. A second bunk could pull down from the ceiling.  Irregular watch schedules meant that a couple of the command staff would probably be trying to get some sleep at any given time.   
The medical cars were all handling surgeries, tents outside of each were trauma and critical care areas, and triage was going on  everywhere.  The trained medical staff—including our surgeons, corpsmen, and medical staff from other units, worked relentlessly on the wounded. The small airport north of our location was unusable, but the parking lot of the business park made an acceptable landing zone for the string of evac helicopters. Once the seriously wounded were stabilized, they were to be shipped out to points west by air. I had no idea where they’d end up.
In the command cars, Third Washington’s communications suites were providing additional capacity to the overall ability to analyze communications throughout the Omaha theater of operations. ‘Dog Six’ was working on decrypting enemy transmissions, which kept two of the suites busy. The rest of the S.A. communications were ‘in the clear’ with no codes, phrases, or attempts to disguise locations or place names.  All of that information was then fed to the Theater Commander, General Robert Anderson, formerly of Pacific Northwest Command, now located twenty miles northwest from Omaha.  General Angela Garcia reported to Anderson.  Bob had almost certainly had a hand in getting me ‘drafted’. I’d have to think of a way to repay him someday.
At my desk, real-time inventories of supplies from ‘Charlie’ and ‘Dog’ were ratcheting down, and back up again, as new material was logged in from the supply train, parked just behind us.  Three more trains were waiting to move in, parked miles back on the only available sidings.  Once Supply Fifty-Seven moved out, we’d need to task the correct train to move in.  We were going through cold weather gear, shelters, food, and medical supplies as quickly as it could be resupplied by Fifty-Seven.  Fifty Nine and Sixty were carrying ammunition, weapons, food and limited medical supplies. Fifty-Eight was geared toward civilian needs: Food, clothing, medical, with a small percentage of the freight being weapons and ammunition.  
I took a two-mile long walk along and through both trains, reviewing the overall operation, and thoroughly breaking doctors’ orders for my pneumonia.  The mess cars were running full steam, with fresh supplies coming in one end of each car and going out with to the men through the other.  On the far end of ‘Dog’, an area had been set aside for those who had not survived long enough to receive medical care, or had not survived surgery.  There were dozens of dead. Four men stood guard over the body bags, set in rows. Our Brigade flag and the new American flag were at half-staff on two makeshift poles. I spotted one of our chaplains as he rose from prayer near the dead.

“Chaplain Rodriguez. Thank you for your time with these men,” I said.

“It’s my honor, Colonel. I’m afraid we’ll have many more soon,” he said.

“I am afraid you are right. Where are these men from?”

“Most are from Tennessee and Alabama, Colonel. Their captain—I think he’s in recovery right now—said they moved up from the south, straight through Topeka. The rest of their men are tied up in the Kansas City fight.”

“How many strong?”

“Company level, sir.”

“Thanks, Chaplain. Where’s that Captain?”

“Forty three oh-two, sir.  Captain Mayfield.”

“Thanks. Take care of yourself, Chaplain.”

“God’s hands always, Colonel.”


Medical tent forty three oh-two held more than a hundred men in various stages of recovery.  The tents housing the wounded or those needing shelter, were double-walled affairs, an inner tent that was heated, an outer weather-shell, staked and weighted against the winds.  Heat for the tents—inadequate, but better than nothing—was basically waste heat from engine coolant from the generators, circulating through double-walled insulated hoses. Rows of cots filled the tents, with four rows of small but bright LED lights illuminating the general sleeping areas.
I noticed some of our intelligence gatherers  were conducting interviews, a couple of them carrying laptops, pointing to map locations and I guessed, trying to determine opposing force capabilities and tactics. 

“Sir, may I help you?” a bespectacled medic asked.

“Captain Mayfield is here, I believe?”

“Seventh Alabama? Yes, he is Colonel, but I’m afraid he’s sedated at this time. Might be better in the morning, sir.”

“Badly injured?”

“Well, no actually sir. Some second degree burns, but the worst news he got today is regarding his heart. He has severe cardiomyopathy. Without a transplant, he’s, well, gone. The surgical medics found it first, consulted with a heart doc, and there it is.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-eight, Colonel. There’s a fair chance, the cardio doc said, that it was an infection that did the damage—it could be a side effect of the G-Flu,” he said, referring to the engineered Chinese influenza.

“Damn.  All right, I’ll try to get by tomorrow. I was just curious on how his unit managed to get through.”

“Understood, sir. The intel guys have been having a field day.”

“Thanks, anyway,” I said, not shaking the medics’ hand…he was gloved up.

“No problem, sir.”

For twelve more hours, the rumble of artillery and aerial bombardment continued as wounded kept arriving.  There was little sleep for anyone that night. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 50


Christmas Day
13:00 Hours
Aboard Charlie Six

Third Washington had done the near impossible, in my mind, demobilizing and getting both trains holding the balance of the Brigade in four hours and fifty-five minutes.  Part of the time savings was due to abandoning many of the tents and equipment in the field, instead loading up fresh equipment from the replacement stockpile. 
United States ground forces were on the verge of taking the remains of Omaha, pounded into submission by nearly ninety thousand troops, hundreds of pieces of field artillery, seven hundred main battle tanks and hundreds of Air Force sorties. The few poor-quality images we’d seen of Offutt Air Force Base reminded me of photographs of a concrete recycling operation. There wasn’t a single recognizable structure or piece of pavement that hadn’t been blasted.
Third Washington, soon to be followed by other support units, would help feed, house, and resupply the tens of thousands of troops that had passed through Lincoln while we were there.  Leapfrogging across the Midwest, we’d eventually either wear down the S.A. and defeat them through attrition, or we’d find our own supply chain tighten around our neck, and find ourselves in a stalemate.
Unlike other destinations for Third, we had no pre-designated staging area to review before we arrived. The largest rail yard in the area was actually in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River…and still effectively in S.A. control…and bombed to ruin. We weren’t able to pre-plan distribution of our assets, have any educated guesses on deployment, nothing. We were going in cold.  
Most of the command staff was crowded into our conference car with Second Battalion’s commander, Trayvon Chappel, and Third Battalion’s Hugh Epstein.  We were having a heated discussion on our deployment, not liking any of the potential locations and deployment scenarios.  We’d almost certainly be deployed in lowland areas, overlooked by neighborhoods on the higher surrounding terrain, exposed, and without escape. 
“Sirs?” Kittrick interrupted, his image appearing on the video screen on the back wall. “Just got this message from command: General Howard is proposing that Third Washington stage near a suburb called Chalco, about ten miles west of Offutt. All lines east into the city are blocked. There’s also a small civilian airport about a mile north of the staging area. Fifth Marines control that area, including substantial air cover,” he said, punching up the proposed staging location for our brigade on the monitor.

“Thanks, Mister Kittrick,” I said, turning my attention back to the men around the table.

“All right, we’ve got a spot to park and a semblance of security. We just don’t quite know what we’re getting into yet.”

“Safe bet, Colonel, on the following,” Doc Willitson added. “Frostbite, dehydration, and all of the other afflictions of battle of course.”

“We have no idea what we have for a civilian presence in Omaha, Jeff. Anybody want to hazard and educated guess?” I said as I felt and then heard, something go horribly wrong.

The shock seemed to ripple through the conference car as the train derailed, threatening to roll the train onto her side. We were all tossed out of our chairs, coffee and water and papers thrown to the downhill side, lit by the red emergency lighting.

“Well, sheeeit,” Lieutenant Colonel Chappel said a moment after we came to rest.

“We’re under attack or we’ve derailed accidentally, and I don’t believe in coincidences,” I said, getting to my feet on the sloping floor.

“No small arms fire,” one of the men said. “That can’t be a bad thing, Colonel.”

The men in the back of the converted shipping container managed to push the door open, which was now swinging uphill. Daylight streamed into the darkened car, along with the cold. Other than voices outside, there was no other sound.  I was last out of the car. It took me a minute to find my Kevlar helmet and get my parka on. I realized my rifle was in the Command Car. ‘Damn’, I said to myself, realizing that I was armed with a .45, period.  I made my way out, moving to the ‘uphill’ toward the track, and landed on my stomach next to Lieutenant Colonel Epstein, who had his rifle trained on the empty gray horizon. No threat was visible.
I looked toward the front of the train and saw the entire side of one of the lead defensive cars, which was straddling the tracks, but upright.  Two supply cars ahead of it were on their side, smoke was rising from where the lead engines should be. Unlike prior trips, this train was assembled with ‘pullers’ and ‘pushers,’ meaning, engines on both ends of the assembled train.
The men under my command rapidly barked orders to the Command Car staff, some of who had left their posts, although the Command Car was still on the rails.  A dozen of the radio headsets were found, passed around, and Charlie Six was again able to act tactically with acceptable response times within two minutes.
The derailment had severed electrical power and communications to most of the train. With the sudden stop, almost all the men aboard Charlie had grabbed their gear and deployed in rehearsed defensive posture until we could figure out what had happened.  Both flanks of Charlie’s position were protected against the unknown threat.

“Colonel, you hurt?” Doc Willitson asked as he tracked me down.

“Not so far as I know, Doc,” I said. “Pissed off maybe, not hurt.”

A few minutes later, Able and Baker Companies, Third Battalion had deployed and secured the real estate forward of the conference car. While they were slowly progressing northeast to the wrecked cars, the men in the defensive car radioed an ‘all clear’ and a request for corpsmen due to serious injuries. Two of the four men in the lead engines were dead. Doc Willitson and his medics quickly moved forward to the wrecked engines.  To the northeast, I could see thin smoke rising from what was left of the small town of Greenwood.
Chappel and I walked up to the lead end of the train as more men were taken from the defensive posture and into their assigned roles, helping the corpsmen with the wounded.  The lead engine was on its side, burning; it’s back broken from an explosion directly under it. The second power unit was upright, but smoking. Behind the second power unit, a fifteen-foot wide crater, and fifty feet of rails peeled up and away like a pretzel. Parts of railroad ties were everywhere.

“That was one Hell of an IED,” I said, looking over the damage to the lead engine. The massive frame of the locomotive was bowed upward and out, and a three-foot diameter hole through the lower part of the engine.  The blast pattern seemed to suggest a culvert under the tracks.

“Shaped penetrator. Big ass shaped penetrator, sir.”

“You’ll have to school me on that, Colonel Chappel,” I said.

“Simple, sir.  The bomb is built with an explosive charge beneath a concave form of metal. Bomb goes off, the concave form goes convex with the force of the blast. Think, thin piece of metal instantly formed into a missile, propelled at the speed of the explosion,” Chappel said. “But I’ve never seen one this big.”

Dog Six pulled up behind our trailing engines, and radioed ahead to Command that Charlie was disabled and the track blocked until we could clear the rails. We walked around the end of the wreck, a platoon in front of us, as one of our Humvee’s ran further a field, dismounted troops following.

“Sirs, you might want to look at this,” one of the platoon sergeants said, pointing out an object a hundred yards out.

We walked over the scarred ground, where something had blown out of the explosion, carving out snow, slush and mud along the path.

“That’s a human torso,” Chappel said, looking over the blasted remains, partially cast into what appeared to be a large concrete block. 

“They used the culvert for an IED location. Plugged it with concrete on this end to direct the blast upward. Probably one on the other side that we missed,” I said, looking at the concrete that reflected the corrugations of a metal culvert. “And they used a body for fill in the concrete.”

“I’m not sure I know what to say to that, Colonel,” Lieutenant Colonel Chappel said. “Honest to God, I don’t.”

“I don’t know either,” I said.

December Twenty-Fifth
19:00 Hours

A rag tag crew of rail workers and Army transport specialists came from ravaged Omaha to clear and repair the tracks, using all available hands—many—from Third where we could help. I was not allowed to do much. 
Observation posts had been set up a mile out in all directions, as we were a stationary target with idling engines.  It’s not possible to hide a train, or two, along with the lights and noise of a wreckage-clearing operation.
In addition to the loss of a third of our train engineering crew, we had seventeen other significant injuries, including concussions, broken arms and collarbones, and crush injuries from inside the lead Defensive Car. One of the chain-gun ammunition lockers had torn loose and broken the legs of the gunner.  Jeff Willitson and his men had been in surgery most of the day.
The train had damage throughout, from electrical surges that cooked the one leg of the power system in our communications car to broken water and waste piping, torqued frames of several rail cars, leaving several cars with doors that wouldn’t close properly.
The Omaha crewmen could move the damaged and destroyed cars out of our way and fix the tracks. They could not do so within a timeframe that was viewed as ‘acceptable’ by my superiors.  I received an ass chewing that I viewed as unwarranted, but I could understand the frustration on the part of General Garcia. None of the U.S. ground forces in Omaha could pursue the S.A. without supplies and equipment, which was mostly assigned, to rail traffic on this line, and there weren’t enough operable semi-trucks and trailers within five hundred miles to make a dent in the demand.  The pursuit and destruction of the S.A. would slow because of this, perhaps dramatically.   A supply train coming toward Omaha from the north had been blown apart as well, blocking the northern route.

“Colonel Drummond, we’ve got contact, back end of Dog Six, sir, estimated range two thousand yards,” Private Ayers said.

“Whose patrol quarter?” I asked.

“A Company, First, sir.”

“Punch me up Colonel Miller,” I said. Shawn Miller was usually out with one of the companies, especially at dusk.

“Tactical channel thirty-one Able, sir. Call sign Victory One, yours is Raptor Lead.”

“Thanks, Mister Ayers,” I said as punched in the communications codes.

“Victory One, what’ve you got out there?”

“Two on horseback, approaching cautiously. Bolt-action rifles in scabbards, Raptor Lead,” was the hushed response.

“Vic Two and Vic Five will make first contact and will challenge at one hundred meters. Video feed should be on Vic Two’s channel, Raptor.”

“Understood. Raptor out.”

Ayers punched up Victory Two’s night vision equipment feeds, clearly showing the riders, approaching cautiously but deliberately. I found myself wishing I were out there.

“Ayers, alert all posts that Victory has imminent contact,” Greg Shand ordered, looking over at me. I nodded, continuing to watch the greenish images on the screen.

“Yes, sir, Captain,” he said, immediately contacting the hundreds of men in the field. 

A few more minutes passed as the riders grew closer, and the camera went to a wider field of vision, and the horses wheeled as the challenge was made. Both riders raised their hands as ordered, and dismounted as they were surrounded, and surrendered their weapons.

“Victory, transmit there given identification and bring them to Raptor Lead.”

“Affirm,” came the response.

Ten minutes later, I met the two riders, escorted by a platoon of security, in the rear conference car. The man was in his mid-fifties, joined by a much younger woman. Both looked fit, clean and in good health. A welcome look.

“Colonel Richard Drummond, Third Washington,” I said, introducing myself. 

“Pleased to meet you, sir. Dave Barkley. My daughter Amy.”

“Have a seat, please.  This is Captain Gerry McGowan, our intelligence officer, Sergeant Major Chet Travis and Captain Adam Fillmore, our chaplain,” I said, introducing the senior men. “Coffee?” I asked, getting a quizzical look.

“Real coffee?” Amy asked. She looked to be twenty-five or so, and was a ‘looker.’

“Yes, ma’am,” Sergeant Travis replied.

“That would be wonderful. Thank you,” she said as Chet poured two mugs.

“Mister Barkley are you from around here?” I asked.

“Grew up here, Colonel. Call me Dave, please. The rail lines run through our land. We heard the explosion, and debated for quite a while on whether we should make contact. We were scouting when your forward observers identified themselves. We didn’t know we were that close.”

“Fair enough. Now, if I can ask, where do your allegiances lie?” I asked, surprising him I’m sure. 

“Solely with God and the Constitution of the United States of America, sir.”

I chuckled a little bit. “Good to know. Thank you.”

“You’re really from Washington? The state?” Amy asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. After a fashion. We’ve been heading east for some weeks now.”

“Chasing the S.A. back to their hole, I hope.”

“Well, that and to fill the hole in after we put them there, yes. Then pave it over.”

“Are either of you two hungry, or is there anything we can get you?” Chaplain Fillmore added, another ‘good cop’.

“We’re OK, but thank you.”

“If you wouldn’t mind, Mister and Miss Barkley, could you tell us how you, well, are in such good condition, after being behind the S.A. lines for so long? As an intelligence officer I’m naturally skeptical,” McGowan said, arms crossed across his chest, leaning back in his chair, body language shouting, ‘liars’.

“My wife and I were from Dallas, before the War that is,” Dave Barkley said. “And my daughter’s last name is Fournier. She lost her husband on USS Augusta. She was in Corpus Christi looking for a job, staying with friends.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” I said, Amy Fournier lowering her eyes to her coffee cup.  I remembered the thousands of sailors listed in those early days of the Third War.

“When things started to come apart,” Dave Barkley said, exhaling, “I suppose not long after the earthquakes up your way, my brothers and sisters and their families decided to get back to home to ride it out. Three of us made it, two didn’t. My younger brother was in Florence, on some damned Renaissance tour, never made it back. My wife and younger sister boarded a flight from Hawaii that never arrived in L.A.  We thought that EMP took out the plane. We don’t know,” he said, taking a sip of the coffee. “My sister had multiple sclerosis, and couldn’t travel well. My wife flew out to help her. Never made it back,” he said, and paused for a few seconds. It could not have been easy, reliving this.

“The farm has been here for a hundred and fifty years, most of that time in the family. We left Dallas with our Suburban hauling a trailer and a Class C motorhome. Didn’t have a lick of trouble on that trip.”

Amy took over the conversation, as I noticed the ‘thousand yard stare’ on her father’s face. ‘Perhaps no trouble on that trip, but there had certainly been enough trouble in this man’s life,’ I thought.

“The farm is far enough off the beaten path not to have been bothered by any of the S.A. that mattered, and thank God we’re far enough away from a highway that they went around us. Anyone that was a threat was killed,” she said, quite matter-of-factly. “There were S.A. patrols that just never went back to wherever they came from.”

“My husband always knew something was coming, and we were ready for it, or so we thought at the time. The Suburban and the motorhome are both diesels. Danny—my husband—installed radio gear for long-range communications in everything, including the farm. The trailer had quite a lot of our emergency equipment and food, and the motorhome was always ready to go. We’d planned to move back to the farm at the end of his tour,” she said. “Plans changed though.”

“Again, my condolences,” I said.

“Thanks. We knew it could happen…”

“Not really something anyone wants to plan for,” I said, hopefully ending the journey down emotionally draining paths.

“Life on the farm has been OK though. There are twenty-six of us, just waiting to get on with life,” Dave Barkley said. “Life off the farm, that is. Hasn’t been exactly prudent to go too far a field.”

“I’d like to tell you that it’s all right to do so now, but I can’t, yet,” I said, looking down at the computer monitor in front of me, shielded from our guests.  On the screen were pre-War drivers licenses of both Dave Barkley and his daughter.  Their identification at least checked out.  “Although we’re making progress.”

McGowan continued to question them about their life on the farm, their tactical and defensive measures, which received understandably cryptic answers. I thought they both showed remarkable composure over fifteen or twenty minutes of thinly veiled interrogation.

Dave Barkley worked as a civilian aviation mechanic at DFW Airport before the war, while Amy had a degree in elementary education, and was working at a private school, before it closed as the economy soured.  They had been talking about ‘getting back to the farm’ when dollar started its’ collapse, but held out just a little longer, wondering if it was ‘time.’  Amy was in Corpus Christi looking for work when news of the Augusta came through. Dave quickly went to bring her home, hoping to meet his wife back in Dallas after returning from Hawaii, and then head north to the ‘farm.’   Of course, she never arrived. 

On the farm, it sounded like they had about as good a setup as I could ever imagine, down to geothermal heat coils that helped mitigate the heating and cooling needs; a full machine shop; nearly four hundred acres of farmland; substantial water storage and filtration, all updated over time by Dave and his siblings and their children.

“OK, Gerry. Let’s have these folks get on their way. No reason to detain them any longer,” I said.

“Can’t argue with that, Colonel,” McGowan said. “To you both, apologies if I was a little direct.  It’s my job to find chinks in the armor.”

“I understand,” Dave said. “It’ll be nice to see a friendly flag again.”

“You haven’t seen the new flag. You might not agree,” I said, chuckling a little, which then ran down the description of, and need for, our new flag.

“I’d like to escort you home, but I’m afraid I’ll have to have one of the officers serve,” I said. “The men will make sure you’ll get home safe and sound. A little dark to be making the trip on horseback without lights, I’d think. I suspect we’ll be here for at least another day or five, if you need any assistance.”

“Thank you, Colonel. We appreciate your service to the nation,” Dave said.

“Mister Barkley, you might be serving the country soon yourself.  Air Force is in pretty serious need of skilled aviation mechanics,” I said. “You might consider that. And, Merry Christmas.”