Sunday, June 16, 2013

Distance, Chapter 52


Saturday afternoon,
September Ninth
2:40 p.m.

Hospital time, it is well known, is some of the slowest time that can pass.

Arriving at the hospital at half-past twelve, Molly was received and immediately assigned to an isolation unit.  Most hospitals had created some sort of physical separation between ‘routine’ emergencies and respiratory patients—Mount Pleasant had done this as well, with a complete separation between the conventional emergency room and respiratory emergencies treated within a separate building.   Doctor Jameson had met them within minutes of their arrival, and Doug found it odd that preferential treatment seemed to be given to the Seghers so easily. Doug waited until he and Julie could be alone to discuss it.  Peter, Arie and Maria spoke with the doctor and his staff in a private room off of the waiting area, and Julie and Doug gave them some privacy.

“Jules, there’s one thing that bothered me here,” Doug said quietly.

“What’s that?”

“How is it that Molly is getting this….well, extraordinary treatment?”

“I’m not sure,” Julie replied. “I didn’t really think about it.”

“It’s just that…there were several people that appeared to be waiting, and Molly was ushered right in,” Doug said.

“Now that you mention it, there were other people,” Julie said. They had by now though, been taken through the glassed vestibule into the treatment area, Doug noted.  A few new patients had taken their places in the waiting area.  He’d activated the tracking program on the PDA, while they killed time.

By two o’clock, Doug was famished, and he knew that Julie’s ever-present pregnancy snacks wouldn’t hold out for long. With Peter, Arie and Maria now meeting with another doctor, Doug headed over to the main building to find a cafeteria.   Within a few minutes, he found the long-closed cafeteria, but one of the staff gave him a photocopied menu for a local restaurant that was still in business and able to provide take out.

“Any luck?” Julie asked.

“No. But I’m happy to take orders,” Doug replied, handing her the menu.

“Take out? I haven’t had restaurant food in months,” Julie said, diving into the menu. A few minutes later, she’d marked several items, all of Asian theme.

Doug took orders from the Seghers as well, and drove the few blocks to the restaurant, noticing a sign for a National Guard center not far away.  He took a little detour to get closer, in case the program in the Palm picked up anything, and then realized he could go inside to check email from Denver…that would have to wait until later of course. Doug found the restaurant and parked on the side, a little surprised to see a horse hitching post and a watering trough in a parking space.

Eddies had adapted from pre-War operations to the new reality of a collapsed economy, little in the way of recognizable money with actual value, and customers who could actually afford to pay.  There were ten or twelve people in the half-lit restaurant, most appearing to have a thin soup and a sketchy-looking sourdough. All of them quietly sized up Doug as he entered.

Doug had been given the heads up by Roeland that no one possessed a volume of the old Federal Reserve Notes that would actually buy anything in most any business—he’d have to either use trade goods, silver, or in the case of something very expensive, a gold coin.  His own Regent salary, adjusted for the collapse and with his most recent raise, had changed from over two hundred and eighty thousand dollars a year in FRN’s to just under fourteen thousand dollars a year, payable in gold or silver coin or Regent’s internal Silver Trust Account…which was effectively paper that could in theory be exchanged for physical metal. In theory.

“Ready to order?” a middle-aged waitress asked. Her faded nametag read ‘Meg’.

“Yes, thanks.  This is to go, order for some folks at the hospital,” Doug said, handing the waitress the order. She scanned it quickly.

“You got money for all this?” she asked quietly, eyebrows raised a little.

“Uh, yeah. What’s the total?”

“Three dollars, silver,” Meg replied quietly, after adding it up quickly.

“Yeah,” Doug said, fishing out several silver dollars. “Here,” he said, handing them over. She looked at them and weighed them in her hand, assessing that they were real.

“Anything else?” the waitress asked, hoping it appeared, for Doug to spend more money. 

“Not right now, thanks. How long?”

“Oh, ten, fifteen minutes or so. You can wait at the counter if you like. Coffee? It’s real. Two bits for sixteen ounces,” Meg asked expectantly, with a raised eyebrow. “Cream included.”

“OK—set me up,” Doug replied, sliding her a silver quarter dollar as he took out the PDA, made some notes, and reviewed his travel list for the trip back to Denver.  Meg smiled a little as she slid him a travel cup of coffee.

Good to her word, Doug’s take out meals were bagged up in two grocery sacks, within fifteen minutes of his order.

“Thanks, Meg,” Doug said. “One more thing before I go,” he said quietly. 

“Sure. Whatcha need?”

“After I leave, buy everyone in here a cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake. This’ll cover it,” Doug said, sliding over a short stack of silver dollars. “OK?”

“Absolutely. You some kind of rich guy or what?” Meg asked.

“No. I’ve been lucky is all. Don’t tell them whom it’s from, OK? And this one’s for you,” Doug said, sliding another silver dollar to her on the worn linoleum counter.

“You got it, hon,” Meg said softly patting Doug’s hand. “Thanks.”

Julie and the Seghers were seated in a smaller waiting room off of the main entry. Doug arrived to find them in mid prayer, and waited until they’d finished before entering.

“How’s she doing?” he asked.

“She’s got the flu. The next mutation,” Peter said. “They’ve got her on IV’s and they’re doing what they can.”

“Did she have it in the winter?” Doug asked as he opened up the sacks.

“Yes, mild case. That’s in her favor,” Peter said, passing the boxed meals around. “Still, she was down for almost a week.”

“Bong Bong chicken, fried rice, vegetables and sweet and sour sauce,” Doug said, handing Julie her container. “And green tea,” he said, before handing Peter and Arie their bacon cheeseburgers and fries, milkshakes, and finally getting Maria’s sweet and sour pork, noodles, and tea.  “That place has quite the menu.”

“What did you order?” Julie asked, between bites.

“Almond chicken,” Doug replied. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything like this.” He didn’t mention spending some of his money to buy a few hamburgers.

“This had to be spendy,” Julie said.

“Worth it,” Doug said, taking his first bite of fried rice. ‘Worth every bit,’ he thought. “After I finish, I’d like to go over to the Army Guard installation—it’s over by the restaurant. I figure I should see how my letter of resignation has been received.”

“OK, but don’t dawdle,” Julie said. “We’ll need to be home and by curfew.”

“Curfew?” Doug asked.

“Six p.m.,” Arie said. “Governor’s orders, effective today. They announced it on television while you were out. There seemed to be much the man was not saying through the few words he spoke.”

Twenty-five minutes later, Doug arrived at the Army Guard center, where a black-clad security policeman, inside an anti-ram barrier, greeted him.

“Sir, step out of your car please,” another man, asked. Doug hadn’t seen him approach.

“Sure. I work for the…” He was cut off.

“Please step out of your car,” the man repeated.

“OK,” Doug replied before complying. He was directed about fifteen feet away from the vehicle with an M-16 leveled at him.

“Any weapons in the vehicle, sir?” a third man asked.

“Yes. There’s a .45 in a range bag in the back, and an AR-15 in a padded case. They’re kind of required for us in the field,” Doug said, lying. “I’m with the Food and Drug Administration. Based in Denver.”

“You carrying?” the third man asked.

“Not right now,” Doug stated.

“We need to search your vehicle, sir,” the first man stated. “Richards, get his I.D. and get it scanned.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sir, did this have a Government designation on the doors?” the first officer asked.

“Yes. That designation was not viewed favorably among several populations,” Doug said. “I removed it in an effort to not get myself shot,” Doug replied, embellishing his story.

“Federal I.D. number, Sir?”

“Three one six six eight four seven one,” Doug replied without hesitation. That number was the prefix to his FDA security log in on the computer network.

“Last two of your alpha?”

“Echo Zulu,” Doug answered.

“Checks out, Connors,” ‘Richards’ replied.

“OK. Stand down then.  Mr. Peterson, your vehicle isn’t allowed to enter the facility.  You can enter the facility through that door over there, escorted by Mr. Davis. You’ll have about a half hour of secure communications before this facility locks down. Understood?”

“Yep. Just checking in with Denver. Shouldn’t take long,” Doug said, playing along with the ‘we’re all on one side’ vibe.

Doug entered the foyer, and then was directed into a windowless room with a half-dozen cubicles with abnormally high enclosures. The door clicked shut behind him, reminding him of the sound of a prison door in all too many television shows and movies.

Logging into the network, Doug was immediately faced with a half-dozen URGENT emails, directing him to return to Denver ASAP.  Each email listed departure times and flight numbers from Des Moines to Denver, dating from two days ago. He’d also miss today’s flight, departing in a little more than an hour.

He was immediately faced with the requirement from the FDA to ‘extract’ immediately in the face of ‘looming travel restrictions on 9/11’ making return on that date and for several following days ‘impossible’. By logging in and downloading his messages and files to his flash drive, the Department knew that he’d received the orders.

He would now need to tell Julie that he had to leave in the morning.

Fifteen minutes later, Doug was back in the parking lot, and was met by Julie, Arie and Peter. Maria volunteered to spend the night at the hospital, and had brought an overnight bag in preparation.  Peter would need to get home to little Ian; and the Farm needed Arie.  Julie and Doug’s labors would also be needed in Maria’s absence, Arie explained.

“I’ve got some news,” Doug said. “I’ve been ordered back to Denver, first thing in the morning.”

“What’s happened?”

“I have no idea,” Doug said, starting up the Jeep. “I’ve got quite a number of emails to review. There’s…desperation, or panic, or something going on. I don’t understand it. They’re saying that there will be travel restrictions by 9/11 that will continue for quite some time. I don’t know what that’s about.”

“Another attack?” Peter asked.

“If there were one, they know in advance and won’t stop it?” Doug asked.

“Or perhaps they cannot stop it,” Arie answered.  

The Farm hadn’t taken care of itself during the emergency…but the network of friends and extended family responded immediately. When Doug drove his Jeep up to the equipment shed, he noticed a half-dozen horses grazing in one of the pastures nearby—none of them belonged to Arie.

“This is really something,” Doug said as he pulled up to the door. Twenty men and women met them, coming from the house, barn and sheds.

“Friends,” Arie said. “We have many friends.”

Dinner for the many Seghers and their friends was served from a row of large stewpots and a handmade willow basket containing miniature loaves of sourdough. The crowd stood, sat, and milled around the main floor of the home, while listening to the report on Molly.  Several of the older women shared knowing looks as Doug looked on.

None of those looks appeared to be optimistic.

Julie was showing the strain of the day, and while Doug could see that she wanted to stay up, she was fading. 

“You should get some rest, hon,” Doug told her quietly.

“I know,” she said. “But I’d like to visit more. We never get the chance.”

“You need to stay healthy. That means you eat right, you sleep when you need to, you stay hydrated,” Doug replied, quite seriously. “Now off to bed!”

“Julie’s off to bed everyone,” Doug told the assemblage. “She’d love to stay up and visit of course.”  With that, several of the motherly influences in the room quickly rose and escorted Julie to her room, giving her a little more time for talking.  Most of the men by this time were assembled in the dining room, looking over a map of the region.  The conversation ceased when he entered the room.  Jake excused himself from the group, and took Doug to the equipment shed.

“Got that PDA?” Jake asked.

“Sure,” Doug said, fishing it out of his pocket. “You think I picked up something today?”

“No time like the present to find out. Did you happen to keep track of where you were, and when? I mean, with some specifics?”

“More or less. Give me that map,” Doug said as Jake hooked up the PDA to a laptop.

Doug penciled in the route, approximate times of arrival at the hospital; the restaurant; back to the hospital; and to the Guard center.  Jake brought up his decryption program and it immediately listed the elapsed time since activation. “That Palm has a GPS in it doesn’t it? Isn’t this redundant?”

“It’s not quite a GPS. It’s more of a three-dimensional track recorder that can ping off of commercial geographic information systems transmitters and perhaps a commercial GPS satellite. I need to overlay the track with your known coordinates to better understand what the device has learned. That helps locate, within reason, a large cache of tags or groupings of tags. It could locate individual tags of course, but those are of less value,” Jake said. “Holy crap,” he said as the screen filled with hits.  “Where were you at ten after four this afternoon?”

“National Guard Readiness Center in Mount Pleasant. I was checking email.”

“You were virtually on top of thousands of RFID tags. You were within a hundred feet of them,” Jake said.

“What?” Doug exclaimed.

“Don’t say another word. I want the others to hear this,” Jake said, hurrying out of the shed.

“The guards acted military. They wore dark grey and black digital camo. That new stuff that they’ve been using in the cities…the stuff with the bigger pattern. Black Kevlar helmets. Goggles.  They looked Army to me. I didn’t question them on the matter,” Doug said to the gathering of a dozen men, beyond the Segher family gathered in the equipment shed.

“Jake, what is the breakdown of the tags? Have you analyzed it?” One of the men asked. He was unfamiliar to Doug.

“Forty soldiers per unit; complement including one long gun, one sidearm, one load-carrying vest or sling-pouch, one three day pack or equivalent, six magazines per man per long gun, two mags per handgun or the equivalent in speed loaders. There are enough for nearly thirteen hundred units within range of Doug’s position. Equipment for around fifty-thousand men.”

“Fifty-thousand!” Doug exclaimed.

“Fifty thousand,” Jake confirmed. “Obviously your guards weren’t Army. That facility has been co-opted by whichever civilian contracting force was hired by the National Guard and is being used for secure weapons storage for someone who’s building a private army.”

“We’ll have eyes on it from now on,” another man stated.

“You need more than that. The contents of that building need to never see the light of day,” Jake said. “Or, more correctly, they need to not fall into the wrong hands.”  No one had a quick reply.

“What do we know about that building?” Jake asked.

“Ten foot fences with razor wire on all sides. Ten inch thick concrete walls containing the weapons storage area; hardened steel doors. Outer shell is a reinforced concrete masonry wall. Roof structure is concrete span deck. Air handlers are ground mounted. Glazing is ballistic grade throughout with anti-blast provisions in all frames. Grilles in front of all windows too, similar to RPG protection on vehicles. Oh, and motion-sensing memory cameras everywhere, most of which you can’t see,” a balding man replied. He was sitting atop a workbench, and looked a little bored. “Those remember what things looked like over time. A shadow passing through their field of view triggers an alert, assuming they’ve got the system tuned up that high. Tough nut to crack.”

“Power?” Jake asked.

“Aside from mains power, there is a very large diesel generator for primary power, and a secondary powered by propane. Uninterruptible power supplies within the building run security and life-safety systems for seventy-two hours, minimum. Those backup generators are exercised monthly. Communications are hot-linked to their regional command center, with flash traffic linked from D.C. Hardwire and satellite.”

“Guess on staffing?” someone asked.

“Not more than six. But if you don’t take them all at once, that building gets locked down and it’ll be a noisy proposition getting inside.”

“Night staffing? Watches?”

“If we’re lucky, they’re complacent and are depending on the technology to wake them up. If we’re not, they have at least two people up and about. Recon will tell you that.  If I were a betting man, which I am not, I’d guess they button it up and stay inside all night, rather than send someone out in the dark.”

“You’re making too much out of this,” a tall, thin man wearing a very worn denim jacket said.

“How so?” Jake said.

“They won’t call D.C. if they’re attacked, because if they’re discovered, it’s game over. They’re probably not Feds. They’ll call their handlers, whoever that might be, who will have to come in to rescue them, or abandon them to the wolves. All you have to do is make sure they don’t get out. And we can do that. Weld the doors shut and let ‘em rot in there. Cut the utilities. Disconnect the generators. If no one’s shooting at you, you’ve got plenty of time. You can even do it at night, assuming you’ve got the local gendarmes on your side. This is not a difficult problem to solve.”

“We should move on this within the next few days, and have a contingency in case they try to move that equipment.”

“Doug, what else do you have for us?” Jake asked.

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning. Ordered back to Denver. They’re saying that commercial flights on 9/11 won’t be possible,” he said. Many of the men looked around at each other at that comment. “I haven’t had a chance to go through all of the correspondence yet, but what I did read,” he paused for a moment before continuing, pondering the words on the computer screen, “it sounded like things are coming apart at the seams.”

"Maybe we better step up surveillance," one of the men said. 

"Perhaps more than that," Arie added from the back. "Perhaps much more."