Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Distance, Chapter 54


Monday morning,
September Eleventh
6:05 a.m.
Regent Plaza, Denver

Doug rose at five-thirty, eager to put his last day behind him and plan his return to Julie.  His FDA routine included visits to the employee gym buried inside the Regent Plaza building, one of the few shared facilities used both by Federal employees and Regent Denver staff.  Doug knew that this was one of the information interchange points within the Regent sphere of influence…a casual conversation while working out could easily turn into a goldmine of information for all parties involved. Through his months of service in Denver, Doug had been approached a number of times, and had remained coolly professional, not betraying any information on any FDA program, nor any of his corporate history with Regent.  His role-playing, if perceived as intended, gave Doug the image of the straight shooter who was above petty influence peddling.

Stepping onto one of the fifteen treadmills, Doug punched in his preferred program, a ten mile run over varying terrain, mapped on the small flat panel display in front of him, and interactive, providing him a ‘view’ of upcoming terrain.  A half-mile into his run, another runner joined him on the next treadmill, a deliberate move, since so many treadmills were open.

“You’re Peterson, aren’t you?” the man next to him asked.

“Yes. Doug Peterson,” Doug replied, not interrupting his breathing pattern.

“Davis Blankenship. We spoke last spring,” the man replied.  Doug stopped his treadmill.  Blankenship was imposing, probably in his mid fifties, around six-four, probably a little over two hundred pounds, and appeared to be ready to run a marathon or go mountain climbing. No paunch, no flab, drill-like eyes.   Doug noted that several people on adjacent machines moved away from them.

“V.P. Operations, right?” Doug asked, knowing that the Regent executive would appreciate the recognition.  He recalled his research on Blankenship, completed months before, along with every other director and executive he could identify. Research was everything in sales, Doug knew. He had to know the players, and long ago, he’d made it a point to know everything he could about both the players and the playing field. 

“Correct. I understand you’re leaving the FDA as part of the latest changing of the guard. Is that true?”

“The new director is making changes, wholesale. I however, had already submitted my letter of resignation. My wife is expecting and has had some complications,” Doug replied.

“I’ve seen your resignation letter,” Blankenship replied, “Along with the earlier letter of course, from your wife.”

Regent had done their research as well.

“Things are well underway, sir.  I think the Regent Performance objectives will be achieved, without my influence at the FDA or within Regent,” Doug said quietly. They were now alone in their quarter of the exercise floor.

“The Company’s objectives are complex and far-reaching. There is still substantial work ahead,” Blankenship said, not quite completely dismissing Doug’s unspoken notice of resignation. “There is a position waiting for you at the distribution center in Columbus. I understand that you’re leaving the FDA today. The Chairman and I expect you to be in Columbus by the end of tomorrow. There’s no possibility of staying in Denver of course. Can’t have you jump from Federal to private employ and stay in the same building, especially if the director wants you out.”

“I understand the offer but I really do have pressing needs to be with my family,” Doug replied.

“You apparently don’t understand,” Blankenship said quietly but forcefully, head lowered as he looked at Doug intently. “This isn’t an offer. You will arrive in Columbus, and you will undergo a thorough debrief on your time with the current administration. At that time, your status with the Company will be reviewed.  Your compensation package of course, is dependent on this,” the older man stated, in a threatening tone. 

Doug heard, ‘Your life depends on this.’  He was fuming.

“As the Company brought you to Denver, the Company will also relocate you.  By nine a.m. tomorrow morning, your belongings will be loaded up for shipment on one of our transports.  You’ll be on that transport. Understood?”

“I’ll go to Columbus, but after that I’m gone,” Doug replied, ice in his voice, leaning toward Blankenship, speaking quietly.  He was about ready to deck the larger man.  “Do you understand? Do you know what I know? Do you know what protections I’ve put in place for my family and myself? Do you know who gets the information, how many copies of it there are, and how many sources I have? How about your family, Davis? Your wife Barbara. Still at the place in the Hamptons, or is she up at Telluride? Your son Patrick. Still at Columbia, right? Molecular neurobiology? Tragic loss of your stepdaughter of course. My condolences.” 

The Blankenship’s had lost twenty-one year-old Anne Marie in Paris in the Muslim takeover; the girl had suffered a very public death. Blankenship looked as if he’d been kicked in the stomach. His jaw muscles were bulging as he clenched his jaw, but he remained silent.

“I didn’t get walk into this job without leaving myself an exit path, Mister Blankenship. Unless I make certain contacts at specific times, the information I have goes viral. So it pays to leave me be,” Doug said with a slight smile, nodding to another FDA employee taking a seat on a spinning machine.  Other Federal employees were moving in as well, hitting up the elliptical trainer, carrying their coffees and vitamin waters.  “I’m sure of course, that you have similar measures in place?” Doug continued, getting back on the treadmill.  “What I know stays with me, and I will protect that information as long as I deem it necessary to do so. It’s not for sale; it’s not for trade. It is solely my insurance policy.”

“You’re on the plane in the morning. You miss it and the consequences will be unfortunate,” Blankenship said.

“Might be unfortunate all around,” Doug replied, pausing for a moment. “Don’t worry. I’ll be on the plane.”

8:10 a.m.

Doug wrapped up his morning briefing with Dena, outlining his final day with the FDA, while his mind was preoccupied with Regent.  The majority of his day would be to summarize the work of the past few months and progress with vendors and commercial plants within Doug’s area of operations.  The last hour or two would be meeting with an untrained, uneducated former transportation coordinator from the late Leinhardt National by the name of Karl Shearson.

Courtesy of Dena, Doug had a full dossier on Shearson, a thirty-one year old former truck driver, who had moved up inside Leinhardt solely it appeared, through ass-kissing his superiors. Eighteen months at Ohio State, one point nine grade point average, apparently majoring in partying, succeeding in getting kicked out of the lowest ranked fraternity on campus. His father Gustav however, served thirty-nine years on the Leinhardt board of directors, ensuring a fallback for young Karl.

Dena would be busy doing actual work. Shearson would likely spend most of his time at The Mile, drinking and losing his Federal wages to hookers.

5:25 p.m.

Shearson showed up at four forty-five, introduced himself, sized up the office, thanked Doug for his service, and was abruptly gone…leaving both Doug and Dena with the same impression: ‘The guy’s a dolt.’

Dena had left a few minutes after five, wishing Doug the best in his new life outside of Denver. Doug thought there was a tinge of wistfulness in Dena’s voice, perhaps wishing she were able to leave as well.

After she’d left, he tried to log into a few of the Federal websites that had been available to him during his time in Denver.  He soon found them either non-responsive or requiring special login names or passwords, which of course were different than his ‘regular’ login. 
Information passing through the Federal computer system was now completely unavailable to anyone without the proper authentication—even including weather forecasts and general departmental information. With pre-War Internet service a distant memory, the only information available on what remained of the Web was thoroughly approved by the Federal Government long before it was released to the public. A few minutes after Dena had left the office, Doug’s desk phone rang.

“Doug Peterson,” he answered.

“Mister Peterson, this is Information Security Services. We’re noticing some unusual activity on your computer,” the male voice asked.

“Well, I was trying to get to a number of pages and I find they’re all requiring new login information. My regular login doesn’t seem to work.”

“Sorry, sir. Your login information and general access has been restricted as of nine a.m. this morning,” the voice said. “As of five thirty p.m. tonight, your connection will be deactivated.”

“Oh. Gotcha. I guess I didn’t put two and two together.”

“Sir, violation of computer network security protocols is a very serious matter.”

“Yes, I understand. I didn’t think that…” Doug started.

“Sir, your building access will be deactivated by six p.m. this evening. If you have not logged out at the security desk by that time, you will be subject to arrest. Do you have any need of assistance?”

“No. I’ll be leaving shortly,” Doug replied, deliberately sounding tired and defeated.  He hung up the phone.

“Well, shit,” Doug said to no one. He packed up the last few things that he wanted to take along, including his leather portfolio, his favorite mug, and a couple of worn novels that he’d used more as props than as reading material, and put them in the file box that Dena had provided him.  “Time to go.”

A few minutes later, Doug stood at the security desk in the lobby, a space enclosed in ballistic glass and staffed by unsmiling, humorless men. Doug was required to sign five separate non-disclosure agreements, after being electronically fingerprinted, photographed, and searched for any Federal materials.

His old Palm PDA was opened, turned on and reviewed briefly, but not docked or checked for any files that might’ve been secreted away. Any attempt to dock the antique would’ve triggered a security breach, as would any flash drive that didn’t include the requisite Federal security software.  There weren’t any files that he’d take with him in any regard—everything he’d learned was still in his head.   Security invalidated Doug’s electronic log in, but let him keep the ID badge, which he didn’t quite understand.

By six p.m., Doug was at his apartment, where he found a notice from ‘Preferred Shipping Service’, confirming that they would arrive by seven a.m. the following day to ‘expedite your move.’

“Not wasting any time, are we?” he said again to no one, plugging in his PDA to charge.  The refrigerator held no useable food, although the freezer had a few edibles remaining.  He drank one of the last three beers while re-packing his travel bags, changed into casual wear, and headed across the street to ‘Mothers’, another of the Federally-dependent restaurants that catered to workers housed in the Zone. 

The shapely hostess seated him in a cozy booth in the noisy bar, where he was almost immediately served complimentary appetizers and bottled water, as his cocktail was crafted without question. He’d ordered a complicated version of a Manhattan, just to see if they could indeed create it.  Within minutes, the drink, called a Fourth Regiment, served straight up, was on his table. He sampled it, having had it only once before in New York years before.

“This is perfect,” he said to the young waitress.

“Glad to hear that, sir. I hadn’t heard of that particular creation. Are you here for dinner this evening?”

“Yes. Last night here, actually,” Doug said, having another sip.

“Well, I thank you for joining us! Our specials this evening are seared veal tenderloin, which is served with a chestnut maple puree, caramelized cauliflower and grilled chanterelles; a dry aged porterhouse steak with baked potato and blue cheese, sautéed mushrooms and broccoli; and finally from New England, a fresh four pound broiled lobster, served with fresh sautéed golden potatoes, green beans in browned butter and shallots. Here’s the regular menu, if those don’t suit,” she said, handing him the thick leather menu.

“Thanks. I’ll take a look,” Doug replied with a smile.  

‘Ninety-nine percent of the population would be rioting if they knew this place existed and was charging ahead as if nothing was wrong,’ he thought to himself. The prices on the menu were all in inflated dollars, but also listed in gold, he noted.  His cocktail alone would likely be over twenty dollars gold, given the prices in the Zone.

The television programs, from what Doug could hear and see, appeared to a continuous series of optimistic—and fictional—tales of the Recovery, of the successes of the Federal relief programs, and bios of those men and women on the ground making it all possible. A zenith of propaganda, there was nary a word of what might pass for ‘news’ in any respect, and certainly nothing of any troubles with the New Republic.

Without being obvious, Doug studied the assemblage at ‘Mothers’.  To the right, several Federal employees were engaged in overly intimate conversations with members of their own gender, which Doug noted without judgment; to the left, another group of overly well-dressed Federal workers were deep in the midst of negotiations with each other, or with persons of negotiable virtue who were overly pretty or overly handsome, and clearly not Federal employees. Unlike The Mile, there was no pole dancing, and the security staff here wore better suits, although they were clearly armed under tailored jackets.

‘Just another meat-market’, Doug thought to himself. ‘At least the food is worth the screwing I’ll get.’

“Have you decided, sir?” the waitress asked, bringing Doug back to reality.

“The lobster, if you would,” Doug said, maintaining his FDA/Regent persona.  He was actually more interested in a four cheese pasta with smoked bacon, but that choice would’ve been seriously out of character. “And, another of these,” he said, raising the remains of his cocktail.

“Absolutely. Right away, sir,” the waitress said with a slight bow. Doug noticed that she’d unbuttoned two buttons on her blouse since she’d been at his table last.

‘Not interested, young lady,’ Doug thought. ‘Tomorrow, Columbus. What the Hell is that going to be like? How do I get out of that snare?’

From the research that Doug had completed prior to joining the company, the Regent distribution center was an cluster of buildings near the Port Columbus Airport, an unimpressive massing of warehouses with a sprinkling of modest offices nearby—he’d seen it from the airport, but never visited it.  The Columbus Data Center was located to their downtown headquarters, both highly secure buildings before things started coming apart. He was sure that they’d be fortresses by now. ‘What do they have in mind for me?’ he thought, his second cocktail arriving, again perfect in its’ creation.

“A rare creation,” a much older man stated, standing near Doug’s table. The man was wearing clothing perhaps too casual for the restaurants in the heart of the Zone, and yet still conveyed a sense of both wealth and…something else. “May I join you?”

“Well, sure, I guess,” Doug said, falling a bit out of character. “I’m Doug…” the man raised his hand, stopping Doug cold.

“No names needed or desired. It is often better not to know,” the man said, taking off the long, brown leather coat and seating himself across the polished mahogany table. The man wore black slacks, a black Oxford shirt, and a black sweater, in contrast with white hair gathered in a ponytail, and piercing blue eyes set in a weathered face.  “You are pondering your next move?”  The man asked, motioning to the waitress to deliver another Fourth Regiment to the table.

Doug sat there, not speaking, for several seconds longer than he realized, wondering who this stranger was, so at ease across from him.

“We are all pondering this. Perhaps your decisions are of the immediate. Many here tonight cannot see beyond the conquest of the next few hours, yes?” the man said, a hint of some European accent coming to light.

“Probably correct,” Doug said. “Yeah, I have some things in front of me.”

“But not within Denver. You aren’t playing the game of the others, so therefore your mind is elsewhere, racing ahead,” the man said, his cocktail arriving, along with a menu. He dispatched the waitress with a simple order of the four-cheese pasta dish. “And so you are alone. I am on a similar path, this may be the last time I am in a great city.”

“What is your work? What do you do?” Doug asked.

“I once ran a business. Banking, venture capital, international finance, leveraged buy-outs, mergers. After thirty years, there was no joy or satisfaction. There was nothing but sameness, and in the end, regret. One day, I woke up. My wife had long since left me, my children estranged, there was no reconciliation…too much had happened. More importantly, there was just emptiness in my life. I changed.”

“Just like that,” Doug asked.

“Certainly not. I embarked on a journey, perhaps as you are about to start, as I continue to be changed by my own days.”

“And where does the journey take you?” Doug asked, intrigued.

“The outskirts of small town in an out of the way place. With the providence of the Creator, my work is there. It has been there for quite some time now. My work is similar to that of a monastery in the Dark Ages,” the man said, leaning back against the thick cushions. 

“Oh, so you’re a religious man,” Doug said.

“Not particularly. My work is more scholarly,” the man said, sipping his cocktail. “This really is a remarkable thing,” he said reflecting. “It is a shame these will not be possible soon.”

“I’m sorry? I don’t understand,” Doug said.

“For twenty five years, or perhaps more, it has been apparent to me that these times are coming,” the man said, waving his hand toward the crowd. “From the days when ‘moral relativism’ was first mentioned, to the covert corruption that soon went overt; the cancer of government programs and entitlements and blowing up the money; to the inevitable connections between my old world of finance and the realm of sponsored terrorism, brush wars and the losses of freedoms…then on to full-scale surveillance of all, everywhere, and always. It is of course natural that the boogeymen have been found everywhere the government looks, but the government never looks hard enough inside itself or its’ closest allies. The people are powerless to stop it…or so they believe within the constant state of fear. This is a society that kills the unborn and warehouses the old, shutting away the life-experiences that could be so very educational. A society that lies to itself about consequences of daily decisions; foregoing the difficult for the convenient, but soon to find them ruinous. So we are all criminals and prisoners, everywhere and always, until everything of the old collapses and the criminals are brought to justice. The convictions are coming.”

“That’s not happening anytime soon,” Doug said quietly.

“It is a cycle that has happened dozens of times over civilized history and probably dozens of times more in pre-recorded history, again lessons lost in time. It is entirely natural, from its’ onset to its’ conclusion,” the man said. “It is the struggle of generations upon generations, and from my studies of history, which without intending to boast are extensive. We are in the closing act of this particular play,” the man said, looking at the crowd as if one were looking at a museum display. “The convictions that I speak of are both natural and those led by mankind. My work seeks to preserve that which should be preserved, document which will be needed, and be a repository for a point when the next Dark Age ends,” he said, looking at Doug with his clear, blue eyes. “There are debts to be paid to the future children in the lessons we have learned. We hope to help see them paid.”

“You think that’s where it goes next?” Doug asked, looking afresh at the room around him. “The Dark Ages?”

“With automatic weapons and a clash of cultures, yes. It is a swing of a pendulum that is decades, or even centuries in coming. The words ‘epic change’ are appropriate. That outcome is one of many that are possible. Some are more dire than others, and so we prepare.”

“We?” Doug asked.

“A group of men and women, who I work with,” the man said, as their dinners arrived simultaneously.  “But your journey takes you elsewhere. An uncertain future, I think.”

“I can’t disagree with that,” Doug said. “I have to ask this, but you seem to be reading me like a book. I hope what is on my mind is not that clearly shown on my face.”

“It is in your eyes, not on your face, and no, it is not particularly clear to the casual observer. I am not, however, a casual observer, which alone is why I am at this table. Another observation, if you don’t mind,” the older man said, taking a spoonful of the pasta dish as Doug took a bite of his own dinner.

“Sure,” Doug said. “In for a dime.”

“Oh, this is much more valuable than the dime or what passes for a dollar these days,” the man said, savoring the simple dinner. “Your presence here at this time tells me a great deal. Perhaps you do not recognize the peril? I am curious as to why you remain in the heart of the darkness that is this place?”

Doug stopped for a moment, taking a drink of the iced water provided. “I have my own work to do, that is more than what it might seem, and I do recognize the peril.”

“And yet you are still here, on the eve of destruction,” the older man said with cool forcefulness in his voice.

“Not for long,” Doug said. “I leave here soon.”

“I’m making my point badly,” the man said, leaning back and looking at the food in front of them. “You are still engaged in a system that you know is failing. You are not in a hidden corner of a state, out of the way of the blast wave. You stand on the sidewalk, waiting for the flash of the explosion. Why?”

“My own journey happens to be about slowing down slavery, to be perfectly honest,” Doug said.

“Ah, our enemies within,” the man said, lowering his chin a little, and taking another bite. “We’ve heard of this. In the food, yes?”

Doug was stunned into silence, and only after realizing he hadn’t moved in nearly a full minute, he took a bite of the lobster, not tasting it.

“Do not be shocked, young man. There are many voices in the storm, but few ears to hear. This has been known to us for several years now, but we didn’t know it had been implemented until several months ago.” 

“I’m not sure I should say anything here,” Doug said, feeling very uneasy.

“A series of food and beverage combinations, when combined in the correct ratio and with the correct component parts, creates alterations in the mind of the consumer, rendering them highly suggestive to authority, capable of performing normally unspeakable acts, able and willing to serve their masters. There are worse elements in play in the current environment, young man.  Perhaps one of the more disturbing characteristics of this alteration, is that there is no research on reversing the effects,” the man said, continuing to eat, now nearly finished, and mopping up the remaining sauce with bread torn from a small loaf, taken from a basket on the table.

“I don’t know anything about that,” Doug said.

“Another danger that lurks in plain sight, are the choices we have. Assuming you are of Federal employ, do you know your President? Do you know your Vice President? I don’t mean personally, but do you know or suspect their intents? Or of this New Republic?” the man asked, eyebrows slightly raised.

“Not really. I mean, we just know what is on the news and of course from their campaigns. Information on the New Republic is at best distorted, but even the distortions are cryptic,” Doug said, nearing the end of his own meal.”

“There is much more at risk for the future within the offices of the elected, both here in Denver and within the New Republic, than meets the eye. The leaders are truly the product of the generations, the ultimate representation of the faults of the culture. You should be very, very cautious,” the man said, rising and taking his coat. “This lovely dinner is on me, young man. I hope that you have a fulfilling life, pursued in happiness,” he said, leaving a small leather satchel of coins on the table.   The man turned to go, looked over his shoulder at Doug for a moment, nodded and left.  The waitress returned to check on dessert for Doug’s table, and saw the weathered satchel.

“My guest has just bought dinner, it appears,” Doug said to the waitress, as she picked up the soft bag and looking inside. 

“This is for the tab? That’s more than I make in a month,” she said, trying to remain composed.

“He left a generous tip,” Doug said to her, gathering his own jacket and taking the last loaf of bread from the table. “A very generous tip.”