Sunday, July 22, 2012

Distance, Chapter 43


Thursday morning,
April Twentieth,
Des Moines, Iowa

Site-generated electricity had been restored to parts of the Regent plant after cannibalizing an adjacent factory of circuit breakers, master switches, and generator transfer switches.  One generator refused to fire up, despite everything appearing to be in order.

With power, but without enough workers and raw materials, the plant remained idle. Worse yet, it was now a beacon for people within the area.  Security forces had their hands full maintaining the plant perimeter.  No one had any idea what was happening outside of their immediate neighborhoods most of the time; modern mass communication was non-existent. Ham radios and citizens bands were filled with rumor, little hard news, and endless conspiracies. Doug found it all irritating. Julie tried to decipher what she could, and made little progress. Before the temporary power came on, Doug told Julie that they could talk freely, in private; but when the power came back on, the chance of electronic surveillance monitoring their every word would be quite real.

During his first day and night back, Doug assigned what staff he had to inventory the plant and identify any system that appeared to have been damaged in the panic of the preceding days.  Thankfully, there was disorder, there had been looting, but nothing appeared to be permanently damaged. In the first hours after the generator had fired up, Doug sat in his office, trying to deal with an insurmountable problem: How do you bring workers to the plant when the city…the community, the civilization is crumbling around them? When they see no point or worse, only see danger?  When government was failing?

The answer came from government itself.  After five days back at the plant, and on the second day of having power back, a representative from the Iowa Homeland Security office arrived at the front gate with an Iowa State Police escort, asking to see the plant manager.  Doug fit the bill.

“Mister Peterson?” the short, thick man asked, entering Doug’s office. Doug thought he might have been a wrestler in his younger days.

“Yes. May I help you?”

“Steve Stroud.  I’m with the Iowa Department of Emergency Services, here on behalf of Governor Heinrich.”

“What can we do for you, Mister Stroud? Please, have a seat. Coffee?”

Stroud took a seat. “Real coffee?”

“Yes, of course,” Doug said, fetching a large mug.

“It’s been months since I’ve had real coffee,” Stroud said.

“Costa Rican, that batch. We’ve got connections. We’re in the biz.”

“That’s why I’m here. We have a crisis on our hands.”

“A lot of that going around right now,” Doug said. “We have some serious issues here, too.”

“We are going to have people starving in Des Moines and the larger cities in a matter of days,” Stroud said with necessary gravity.

“Yes, we will,” Doug agreed. “And we can’t do anything about it with what we have on hand and what we’re in the middle of.”   Doug had nearly resigned himself to the fact that the plant would never operate again.

“I’m here to try to help get you what you need. We need this plant back in operation to prevent this disaster,” Stroud said, leaning forward in his chair as if ready to spring.

“Are you talking with Freitag? Martin-West? Any of the other plants?” Doug asked.

“You have lights on and appear to be nearly ready to operate. Freitag is a burned-out shell. Martin-West was looted and the equipment appears to have been destroyed. Agnew Middleton’s offices are deserted, the production plant appears to have been secured, but there are no plant personnel anywhere. State Troopers are on location and are security at that location at the present.”

Doug was surprised by the news about the other plants, even more so about ‘A Middie’.  The Agnew plant was nearly twice the size of the Des Moines Regent facility.

“OK, not good news. The production loss of those plants is serious,” Doug said. “Losses of equipment in particular. People can be trained—if I had them to train, that is.”

“What do you need to get this plant operational?” Stroud said, taking a deep drink of coffee.

Doug paused for a moment. “In a perfect world, I’d have the original employees recalled and back on site. I’d have a trucking system that could bring raw materials to the plant and remove finished goods. I need a dependable water system, which I don’t know if I have because our lab staff is missing. I’d not have people shooting at my security people, throwing fire-bombs three blocks away, and I’d have communications with my corporate network and supply chain,” Doug said, refilling Stroud’s cup of coffee.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have any of that. I have less than thirty trained employees and seventy untrained people that actually might be worth something, most bedded down in our warehouse, which happens to have heat. I’ve assigned my wife to the personnel, scheduling and administration needs. She would be doing the job of a dozen people, if we were in operation.  I don’t have a mechanical engineering division, no machinists, no truckers, and no trucks. No line workers, packers, quality control.  I have two days of diesel left in the tanks, running minimal loads on the one surviving generator.  The generator will also need to be serviced, which means the plant is down because the other generator is dead. I have no communications with any supplier, none with my corporate offices, none with my network. Frankly, I have no idea if Regent even exists as it did last Friday. Do you have any idea?”

Stroud didn’t hesitate in replying. “We’re establishing a new communications system. Rather unorthodox.  We’re using shortwave radio frequencies to transmit data.  I don’t really understand it, but I know that it’s working,” Stroud said. “It will be a while before anything like the Internet we used last week is back up in operation, our information systems staff tells me.”

“What about radio? TV? Normal stuff?” Doug said. “People aren’t going to do anything except cradle a shotgun until they either know that they’re safe in their homes or until they’re out of shells. At that point, they’ll just club the intruders to death. I know, because I’ve tried to get some of the employees out of their homes and no small level of risk for either myself or a dozen security men.”

“AM stations—three of them—will be broadcasting tomorrow. They should have network feeds as well. Television will be back in a week,” Stroud said, taking another drink of coffee.

“What’s the Federal government doing to help?” Doug said. “FEMA should have been here by now.”

“Sure they should’ve been, and they did in fact come. We had six FEMA people arrive on a fifty million dollar Boeing Business Jet, all ready to help us ‘organize.’ We received no supplies.  They have their hands full dealing with radiation, burns, evacuations.  We’re in great shape by comparison.”

“Nothing else?” Doug asked.  He was surprised. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been, he thought.

“No. They did ask for any medical professionals with burn experience to relocate to burn centers to deal with the victims, and they requisitioned supplies towards that end. The Governor of course didn’t resist. Right thing to do,” Stroud said. “We sent the FEMA folks back to where they came from.”

Doug thought for a minute, looking at the plant floor plan on his desk as he spoke. “In order for this plant to operate, I need people, power and raw materials. I can’t get people with the city in turmoil. They need to know that things are settling down. They need to know that the operation of this plant and others like it help keep them alive. We need fuel. We need trucks to move the finished product---even if we’re just moving it to locations in the city for distribution. If we get those things, we can help Des Moines first and other cities as we can.  We can inspect the Agnew plant, try to find some of their staff, and get it in operation the same way.  If we can’t get people, fuel, and raw materials, we’ll never open this plant again. We’ll run out of finished goods that’re keeping people here—security and staff people have to eat, too. We run out of fuel and it’s a matter of hours before this plant gets sacked,” Doug said. “We’re this close,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, “from losing it altogether.”

He and Julie had already discussed what might happen if the plant couldn’t be supplied, and the run back to the Segher Farm was anything but a sure thing.  The CB radio was filled with people calling for help, reports of looters, as well as the looters themselves using the radio to communicate between various gangs.   They’d already made plans to leave the plant before dawn, the day that the fuel tanks in the generators ran dry. Doug had already secured the RNEW line and several of the key components of the additive--‘secured’ in this case being ‘destroyed.’ Non-encrypted files had also been removed from the computer system, and any remaining hardcopies were in Doug’s desk.

“If you’re available, Mister Peterson, I’d like to arrange a meeting with some of our staff at the my office. You available?” Stroud asked.

“Yeah. When?”

“How about now?” 

The meeting with the Iowa Department of Homeland Security led to a systematic calming effort in Des Moines triggered by the Governor’s address to the State explained the situation in a single sentence: Iowa needs your help, or we all fail.

Doug helped get four major plants back in operation, putting to work more than ten thousand plant workers; organizing new supply sources; and negotiating leases for shipping on both ends of production.   Security issues near the plant and working into the downtown area and neighborhoods became much less of a problem, once there was food back in the stores and money, of a sort.   Within a week of the attacks, the State Legislature had put into effect ‘Iowa Scrip’ in lieu of ‘dollars’, which were neither trusted nor accepted by many sellers.  Along with the new currency, the State abolished all state and local taxes of varying rates, and implemented a five percent flat tax on finished retail goods.  For corporations like Regent, this amounted to a windfall---Regent didn’t produce anything for direct retail sale, and as such received a huge break on taxation.

It took until the Fourteenth of May for Regent Corporate to establish regular communications with the Des Moines operation, by which time the plant was in full operation and running three shifts.  Julie had continued on in personnel and she helped train the new staff—none of the previous employees returned. The new staff, coming from across the spectrum of Des Moines business, worked as a finely tuned team nearly from the start. 

Regent brought one of the corporate aircraft into the Des Moines airport, and unloaded radio equipment that was exclusive to the use of the company.  The equipment could broadcast voice and data in encrypted and compressed format, hundreds of individual frequencies at once. Far less capable than the Internet, as communications was limited to the Regent network, but much more secure and fast than other options.

Corporate had a long, probing conversation with Doug regarding the lack of RNEW enhancements in current production in Des Moines.  One of the accountant-types on the other end of the radio transmission seemed unimpressed with Doug’s explanation that the raw materials just weren’t available. The bean counters were impressed though, that production had been increased by sixty-five percent over pre-War levels within a month of plant re-start. With Doug’s obvious organizational skills in dealing with the multiple Des Moines plants, Corporate immediately identified him as a candidate for reassignment in other areas ‘critical to corporate objectives.’

By June Sixth, he’d be reassigned, but still ‘based out of Des Moines.’  Corporate didn’t elaborate on his new duties, but did tell him that the work involved extensive travel and long-term temporary duties outside of his base office…that told them all he needed to know.  Staying in Des Moines alone, Julie would serve as personnel director for the four Regent-run operations…or she could quit, move back to Doug’s company house, or the Farm.  Doug and Julie made a trip down to the Farm for Memorial Day to discuss their options with the Seghers.

Memorial Day
May Twenty-Ninth
The Segher Farm

“Staying is not an option, Douglas,” Arie said.  “Staying in the city…in any city is not a place for a woman alone. But you know this, ya?”  Roeland stayed silent, leaning forward on the welding table that served as an impromptu conference table.

“Yes. I do not…we, do not that is, want to be a burden.”

“Julie is no burden at all. As for your own home, that I believe is even more tenuous, despite any assistance that your neighbor may provide you.  He is the one on the inside? The one spying on you?” Roeland asked.

“August Kliest—yes, or so I thought.  The more I talk with him the more I believe that he doesn’t trust the company, either.  I just doubt that he knows the whole picture.” 

“Is of no matter,” Arie said.  “I see no reason not to tell him that Julie will be staying elsewhere when you are away on business. You have said they know of us already.  Anyone who is paying attention knows not to be alone these days, or even in small groups.”

“I believe August would agree.  I don’t see a problem on his end,” Doug said.

“But your travel concerns, you, ya?” Arie asked as Maria entered the equipment shed carrying travel mugs of tea. Julie was taking a well-deserved nap, having been up most of the previous evening with a stomach bug.

“Yes. I’m decidedly in the dark on what Corporate is expecting of me. No idea where I’m going, what I’ll be doing, how long I’ll be gone—but they told me to expect a minimum of a week. I won’t know anything until I get to Columbus on the Sixth.”

“You’ve said that you see two seats of corporate power—one in Denver, one in Columbus, right?” Roeland asked.


“Safe bet that you’re going to be in both of those, and go from there.  Outside bet though, especially with the needs of the Feds in recovery, that you’ll be ‘helping’ them…don’t you think? I mean, isn’t it still logical for Regent to get their hooks in as deep as they can on the Federal level to push RNEW?”

Doug realized that Roeland was right, and that Doug was going to be the victim of his own strategy, one that he himself presented to Corporate more than a month before.  He could be the lead agent of Regent influencing the Food and Drug Administration regulators either directly or indirectly—just a ‘temporary assignment to help organize,’ he remembered—his own words.   He knew that at least twenty former FDA workers had jumped to Regent in the two years preceding the collapse, and that most of them had been ‘made available’ by Regent to ‘assist’ the FDA in ‘recovery.’ Despite the disclosure agreements, each of the ‘former’ Regent personnel stood to gain considerably during their time ‘away’ from the company.

“Last I heard the FDA was still based in Denver.  They were planning to be back in D.C. by September.”

“Assuming that the military manages to get the radiation cleaned up,” Roeland replied. “Which is quite unlikely.”

Starting almost immediately, Arie rounded up as many hands and vehicles as he could to relocate the majority of Doug and Julie’s things from Doug’s house. Ninety percent of the food supplies and all of the medicines, vitamins and supplements made the move.  Doug fueled up his company pickup from the diesel tank, and then filled or topped off all of the Segher farm trucks.  Augie Kliest dropped in during mid-move.
“Doug, how are you? Been a while,” he said.

“Pretty busy, Augie.  I’ve been reassigned up the food chain,” Doug replied.

“So I’ve heard.  Doubling up?”

“What’s that?” Doug asked.

“Doubling up.  Moving in with the in-laws.  Lot of that going on these days—safer.”

“Pretty much, yes.  Julie will be staying with the Segher’s.  We’ll still keep most of our stuff here, but things she’ll need more often we’ll move out.  Can you keep an eye on the place for us?”

“Sure.  Not much else to do—Corporate has been promising that the network will be back up to full strength any day now, but that day never seems to come.  So we garden, store up, and watch out.”

“Thanks.  Yes, Corporate is a mess.  I caught a ration of crap for going out on my own to get things up in Des Moines going again, apparently not in the Regent manner.”

“Columbus seems to be run by egomaniacs, fair warning,” Augie said.

“I’m probably going to Denver on assignment; back when I can get here.”

“Doesn’t matter.  Same mindset: Empire builders. That is not a compliment.”

Doug didn’t know what struck him about August’s comments, but in that moment he decided that Kliest probably didn’t know about RNEW, and wouldn’t approve of it if he did.

“August, you have no idea,” Doug said, before turning to Roeland.  “Roeland, Augie and I are going to have a talk, if you don’t mind.  You OK here?”

“Ten minutes and we’ll be done.  You can just meet us back at the Farm when you’re done.  I think your bride is working on her letter of resignation.”

“Much appreciated.  Thanks, Roel.”

“So this is what Corporate decided was ‘executive level transport?’” Augie said, patting the dull paint on the half-ton Dodge pickup. 

“There’s a little more to it than meets the eye, Doug replied.  “Diesel for one, which wasn’t stock they tell me.  The big thing is the body armor.”

“No,” Augie said in surprise.

“Yes.  My Explorer had it too—and I made use of it, but I guess diesel fuel is more stable over time.”

“It is at that.  What’s on your mind?”

“You mentioned ‘empire building’ earlier.  You’re right, you just don’t know how right you are.”

For an hour and a half Doug and August Kliest talked about every aspect of RNEW.  Kliest of course new of the RNEW line, but not exactly what it was about, its effects, or an end-goal. He took a step backward when Doug told him of the mental effects on the consumers of the product, eyes narrowing first in anger, then in resolve.

“That explains a lot. Missing pieces in the puzzle are no longer missing,” Kliest said almost to himself.  “So you’re sticking with it? After what you just told me?”

“You ever hear of Kevin Martinez?”

“Yeah. Sadist that runs the Personal Security Division.”

“You’ve met,” Doug replied.

“Once.  He seemed to be on a mission to prove himself better than others with any weapon at hand,” Augie said.  “I had to disappoint him.  I don’t think he had much use for me after that.”

“He has implied several times over the past couple months that he is watching every move I make.”

“I wouldn’t put it past him, but physically it’s not possible.  Your security feeds are dead at the house; most of the Corporate network is hopelessly hobbled by communications bottlenecks.  You aren’t staying on the inside because of that piece of work.”

“No, I’m staying in because I’m trying to mitigate the damage,” Doug said honestly. “And, because I think they’ll kill me if I leave. I know too much.”

“That is almost certainly correct,” Augie replied. “I take it you’ve found a way to get information out about this?”

“Yes, but how do you know that?”

“A) I’m a former military intelligence officer. B), a dramatic change in sales trend occurred the third week of April for Regent. Absolutely hit a wall. Discounts aren’t working; relief supplies have been rejected in favor of other, inferior products—words from the Sales Division, not from me.  They’re not selling anything in the South and Southwest, nor are they selling anything in the far West…and that trend is creeping eastward. You responsible for torpedoing their plans?”

“With any luck, yeah.  I might be.”

“Then you’ve made the right choice and a difference. Probably not much hope for the East.  They’re demanding more every day.”

“So I’ve seen.”

“You know about the sales trends then?”

“No. I have not been privy to that. Nice to hear that, though.”

“You realize of course that if I were fully engaged with the company plans that I’d put a bullet in your head right now, don’t you?” Kliest said, shocking Doug. 

“Yes,” Doug replied. “But I have the feeling that you are not that kind of man.”

“Trust your feelings, young man.  You may live longer that way.”