Sunday, February 23, 2014

Distance, Chapter 58


Sunday, December Third
10:14 a.m.
Ferris, Illinois

Church services provided convenient opportunities to travel outside of the normal radius of work activity, especially during the Christmas season.  The S.A., at least in rural Iowa and Illinois, didn’t hinder Sunday travel, especially a surge that happened to be around the time of regular services in the area.  Doug and Julie, Peter, Molly and baby Ian took the opportunity to visit second cousins in Illinois as their cover, as well as delivering early Christmas presents and a few ‘replacement parts for farm machinery.’

Two days a week, one could expect to see some amount of traffic on the roads, even with scarce fuel: Sunday, for church services and perhaps a trip into ‘town’, and Wednesdays, which the S.A. nationally had designated a ‘Market Day’. They expected the nation to be able to complete all necessary shopping and business that involved private automobiles to be completed within a single day--with penalties likely given should one be caught on the road on any other day.  The new decree, given just before Thanksgiving, didn’t affect most of the farmers, who had thinned out their reasons for visiting towns, but did radically affect those who shopped for entertainment, sport, or subsistence. Of course, the lack of fuel dropped most traffic from the roads more quickly than a decree. Transportation devolved from gasoline and diesel to bicycles and horseback within weeks.

This particular day, a bio-diesel fueled Suburban from the farm was cleaned and made presentable for the trip, in order to appear that it was a commuter vehicle and not a workhorse. The cargo area held wrapped ‘presents’, which if opened, would be sweaters, quilts, and other homemade crafts; and several rough boxes, containing what appeared to be useable parts for farm engines and a hydraulic pump and manifold.

S.A. checkpoints were non-existent on the route that Peter had chosen, which took County roads to the east toward the Mississippi, then south toward Keokuk, across the river, and then taking rarely used County roads into the little village of Ferris, which pre-War, had less than two hundred residents.

The trip of course had the primary purpose of exchanging intelligence with Resistance cells in Illinois.  This particular corner of the state had little in the way of interest for typical State of America operations—mostly farming and dispersed agricultural businesses, and no major freeways, no military bases…but it was a good place for being ‘out of the way.’
They met Jack Classen and his mother Olga, Arie’s second cousin and the matriarch of the Weerstand in the region on the steps of the small church in the village. Typical Christmas carols played to the sparse congregation in the barely heated sanctuary as the pastor spoke from Luke of Jesus’ birth. No one was prepared for the two vreemden --outsiders-- standing just inside the door, looking at the congregants.  The pastor’s invitation to sit was ignored, if not in hostility, in indifference.  Doug held Julie’s hand during the sermon, as he contemplated a ‘play’, should the S.A. ‘ambassadors’ do something.  His handgun rested in a holster under his left arm; he knew that Peter Forsythe had at least one handgun, including a small Kahr forty-five caliber concealed carry, on his ankle.  Julie had a three-eighty semi automatic; Molly carried a twin to Julie’s.  Ian slept soundly in his car seat, bundled up against the cold.

The handful of ceiling lights failed just as the pastor began the benediction.   A church elder efficiently lit several ancient Coleman lanterns, hanging on hooks on the sides of the sanctuary. Doug thought this must be a regular occurrence, and the church just dealt with it. Within a few more minutes, they filed out of the building, into a light snow. Peter waited until they were far away from the S.A. troops before he spoke.

“Is the power as spotty here as it is on our side of the river?” Peter asked, holding little Ian in his blanket sleeper.

“Every few days. Cannot predict it,” Olga said. “It doesn’t really affect us much. Let us get to the farm and we will talk further, Ja?”

“Certainly,” Peter replied as Molly put Ian back in the car seat.

Doug noted how much Olga sounded like Arie—like a sister, not a cousin.

Six miles outside of town, Jack Classen turned off of the County road into a long farm road, his well-worn Suzuki Samurai easily handling the rutted, icy roads.  The farmhouse was nothing like the Segher’s—this home was rancher-style, dating from the fifties or sixties, complete with a swimming pool in the front yard, now covered with ice and snow.  An oversized metal clad pole barn stood to the southwest, with an old camp trailer parked nearby.  Someone was inside the home, and opened the front door as they hurried inside. Doug helped Julie along the icy pathway.

“Thanks, Paul,” Jack said. 

“It’s hitting the fan,” the younger man said quietly to his older brother.  Doug thought that the younger Classen looked about twenty, with Jack a few years older.

“What is this?” their mother replied.

“The S.A., Mom,” he answered. “They’ve fired ballistic missiles at the U.S.”

“Nuclear?” Doug asked.

“Is there any other kind?” he replied.  “I’m Paul, by the way.”

“Doug Peterson, and my wife Julie,” he said, shaking hands.

“Good to see you again, Paul,” Julie’s brother said, shaking his hand as well.

“How do you know this?” Olga pressed. “How to be certain?”

“Shortwave network. Spotter saw some sort of portable launcher setup, right in downtown Detroit.  Two missiles went up from there.  Big, not surface to air,” the young man said. “Another guy confirmed the vapor trail with three other locations, headed southwest. Not long after that, the radios died.”

“Died? The radios are on batteries,” Olga. “You mean they quit broadcasting?”

“No, I mean there was nothing to receive—anywhere, on any frequency. Even the nonsense chatter—that scrambled stuff—is gone.”

“Where did they go? The missiles, that is,” Doug asked.

“The power’s out for a reason, I think,” Jack replied. “I think they were electromagnetic weapons, and they nuked the grid.”

“Is there any way to know?” Peter asked.

“The gibberish signals and tones that we heard were from satellite broadcasts.  If they used an EMP, the satellites would probably be dead,” Paul answered. “Our guests think so, too,” he said cryptically.

“Paul, did you try another radio? One that had been in the cage when the first one died?” Jack asked.

“Yeah. It powers up fine, so does that other little scanner. Tests OK with local broadcasts—picks up my own CB radio—, which was probably dangerous to do. But there’s nothing out there for it to pick up.”

No one spoke for a few seconds as they considered what might have happened.

“Would the S.A. really use a nuclear weapon on the U.S.?” Julie asked.

“I shouldn’t say this,” Doug answered, “But not much would surprise me when it comes to what they might do, especially if they are desperate. Or acting deliberately.”

“Are they desperate?” Olga asked. “We have news for you, before you answer that. Come with me to the basement and meet our guests. Paul, how is the fire?”

“It’s fine.  Lunch is heating and should be ready soon.”

“Peter, Ian needs to be changed and to eat. Would you help out with lunch?” Molly asked.

“I’ll be right back,” Olga replied to Molly.  “Peter needs to meet our friends.”

Jack took a small battery powered lantern and lit it for the trip to the basement, which already had some light emanating from the bottom of the stairs. Doug thought he heard someone downstairs.

“We have guests, my friends. Do not be alarmed,” Olga said to the basement.  Doug heard a number of people move below him. Julie followed, holding his hand.  He thought, ‘What the heck is going on?’

He wasn’t long to wait for an answer.  As he followed Olga downstairs, he saw eight men stand.

“Ma’am,” a rather stocky man said, “May I ask who these folks is?”

“They are your contacts on my cousin’s farm in Iowa,” Olga replied.  “Douglas here, worked for the S.A. in Denver. I think you will want to hear what he has to say.”

“Now, wait a sec,” Doug said. “I didn’t know they were the S.A. They were the Federal Government at that point. I worked for the Food and Drug Administration.”

“Yes, that is true. But you have been ‘inside,’ so to speak, Ja?”

“Fair enough,” Doug answered.

“Please be seated, everyone,” Olga directed, and the men sat rather uncomfortably in the large family room.  “Sergeant, you might want to talk with Douglas about his work outside of the Federals, as well.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Classen. I’d appreciate any information that can be provided.”  Doug could tell that the man probably didn’t trust the newcomers, and he couldn’t blame him one bit.  They were hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, and while not dressed in military digital camouflage, their attire was certainly not entirely civilian.

“Very good. Now, I will go see to luncheon. Jack, perhaps you should keep a lookout from the barn? Julie, you sit now. Do not tire yourself,” Olga ordered. “Mister Case? Perhaps after lunch, one of your men should join Jack out in the barn?”  One of the men moved a chair closer for Julie, Case nodded at him and the man headed upstairs, to join Jack on lookout without taking lunch.  Julie took off her coat and covered her lap, watching the young men around her.

“Introductions are in order, I believe. I’m Sergeant Gunner Case, U.S. Army. We’re from the Second Battalion, Seventy Fifth Rangers, formerly of Fort Lewis, Washington.” Doug shook his hand.

“Doug Peterson. My wife Julie,” he said, before introducing Peter as well.

“I understand you’re a member of the Weerstand as well?”

“Adopted, not born into it,” Doug said, sitting at a well-worn mahogany poker table, where Peter had already taken a seat. “I hope this means that the U.S. is on the move?”

“Tides will turn, sir.”

“What can we help you with?” he asked.

“Anything you can tell us about the S.A. in the region would be appreciated.”

“Are you guys…on foot?” Peter asked.

“Mobility doesn’t always mean wheels, sir.”

For fifteen minutes, the men spoke about the S.A. presence in the smaller towns, tactics, patrol schedules, and the means and methods of S.A. control over the farm country. While Doug and Peter talked to Sergeant Case, the six other men listened intently, several leaning forward and using their M-16’s as one might lean on a cane. Doug noted that Julie had fallen asleep, head resting gently on the side pillow of her chair.  As they were getting into the heart of things, Olga called them upstairs for lunch.  Doug roused Julie, who was a bit embarrassed to have fallen asleep so quickly.

Olga had Paul say a blessing before lunch, in Dutch and English, for the crowd. After the ladies had been served, Peter and Doug were shooed into the line, followed by the Sergeant. 

Lunch was a thick vegetable beef stew, served from an enormous stockpot.  A huge basket of rounded sourdough loaves, butter, tea and milk was resting on the sideboard in the dining room.  Olga gave the men permission to eat wherever they liked, which drew raised eyebrows from Paul.  He took his lunch and went back to the bank of radio equipment, put his headphones on, and again scanned the frequencies.    

“Did you get any information from your superiors about S.A. weapons stockpiles?” Peter asked of Sergeant Case, once they were gathered again in the basement. Case’s involuntary body language told them ‘no.’

“We had a…well, a sort of primitive way to detect S.A. weapons and supplies,” Doug said, explaining briefly the Palm PDA’s capabilities to ‘ping’ RFID chips, and the numerous locations of apparently huge weapons caches. “The report was sent to San Antonio. The response was less than complimentary.”

Case just nodded, looking down at the table for a minute.  “Do you still have this information?”

“Not with us, but we have it back at the farm.”

“What about this PDA? Can your guy make more of these? Might be handy for squads like mine to see what’s out there.”

“I’m sure that could be arranged,” Doug said.  “Are you headed our way?”

“We’re tasked with recon.  There are supposed to be some other units in your vicinity, but obviously no one’s been on touch with you.  We were scheduled to contact Command this evening. Schmitz over there confirmed Paul’s thoughts on radio comms—we’re not able to raise anyone, but our own short-range gear is fine. The world got a lot bigger as a result—no comms, no support, no resupply, no extraction.”  One of Case’s men headed upstairs as they continued to talk.

“Where were you…” Peter began.

“Can’t say, because I don’t know,” Case replied.

Doug explained how to get to the Farm, knowing that traveling by stealth would require night travel, crossing the Mississippi by boat or by guarded bridge, or by vehicle. All but the last option would take days.   Another option came to mind, but he’d need more time to think about it before bringing it up.

He next delved into his time with Regent Performance, including every detail of the RNEW products and the effects of combining the various altered food and beverage products; the observed behavior of those who used the food and Doug’s educated opinion on how the altered human behavior might be used by the S.A. in the prosecution of the War.  Sergeant Case’s brow furrowed at Doug’s narrative, probably holding back some emotion about Doug’s personal involvement. It was not the first time that Doug had seen that look in the eyes of someone who heard what RNEW could do, by someone who helped it along.

Peter then discussed how the Segher Farm was operating, along with adjacent farms, towns and villages; and how each dealt with increasingly intrusive S.A. lackeys in the region.  The Weerstand had been successful in persuading all but the most persistent of the patrols.  That particular incident had taken far to the west of the Seghers, and the three ‘ambassadors’ met their end at a pig farm.  Reports immediately surfaced about the men and their official vehicle heading toward Kansas City, where the vehicle was later found abandoned and out of fuel.  The replacement S.A. patrol was wise enough to not repeat the intrusiveness of their predecessors. They were a half-hour into the discussion when Paul interrupted them.

“Guys, we’ve got something going on,” he said. 

“Schmiddty? That true?” Case asked of his communications man who’d rejoined them.

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Spill,” Case replied.

“Major S.A. troop movements heading west.  Rail, road, air.  Civilian traffic on the roads is being commandeered and people tossed out of their cars.  Wholesale house-to-house searches of anyone who’d ever filled out ATF Form Four Four Seven Three. Rumors of arrests and disappearances. Unconfirmed information about U.S. units being hunted down by S.A. regulars.  Anyone fighting back’s killed, sir.”

“Source?” Case asked.

“Multiple sources, some obviously ex-military. Police, civilians, multiple locations. Freqs included Ham, CB, and a pirated AM station,” Schmitz answered.

“And you know, I think,” Paul added, “that it’s a death sentence to get caught using transmitters of any kind.”

“Reliability of intel?”

“Fifty-fifty, Sarge,” Schmitz said.

“They could be sending false intel to flush, but I don’t think that’s likely,” Doug said. “That’s not really the way they work.”

“And you know this, how, exactly, Mister Peterson?” Case asked skeptically.

“In my experience they are much more about subtle intimidation, then followed by overt intimidation and then by overwhelming force; not scaring people into action and then hunting them down. It’s just not their style,” Doug answered.  “Guns in private hands in the S.A. are illegal already. The ATF forty-four seventy-three forms that every one filled out to buy a firearm through a dealer is a menu for them to round up any weapons and anyone who didn’t turn them in. They probably have a large enough army, in uniform or not, to go house to house and find anyone they damned well please.  If they used the ATF forms for guns, how long will it be before they use the FCC database for amateur radio owners too? It’s just a matter of time.”

Peter added to Doug’s thoughts. “Either way. Game changed today. If we were near a major interstate or rail line, we could probably see troop movements. And, that’d probably get us killed along the way.”

“Sergeant, if you have a couple minutes, there are a few other things I picked up,” Schmitz stated.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, and rose to join his men, talking quietly.

“Did you give Olga the one-time pads?” Doug asked Peter.  The Weerstand used the ‘old-school’ encryption technique when possible, including until recently, coded radio broadcasts using the plain-text lettering.  They would now, if possible rely on physical transfers of the encrypted paper messages. The pads and their encryption keys were the products of Jake Segher’s spare time.

“Twenty sets and keys. I need to take that hydraulic manifold apart and give Paul the reloading dies and put the press together, and get the primers from the air cleaner,” he replied.  The Seghers had disassembled an ammunition reloading press to the smallest denominator, and packed the components inside the ‘spare parts’ that upon inspection, would bolt right up to a John Deere combine. Under the hood of the Suburban, one of the large ‘batteries’ for the diesel actually held bulk lead for casting bullets and several molds. The two ‘spare tires’ strapped to the roof of the Chevy held enough cleaned brass to create five thousand rounds of thirty-ought six ammunition. A few other hidden packages included the remaining components of a reloading setup, the possession of which was a crime in the S.A.

“I’m wondering if there’s a better way to get these guys over to the Farm and back west. Or maybe find a way to get them back in touch with the U.S. Army,” Doug said.

“I’m not sure I’m going to like what you’re coming up with, Doug,” Peter said. “What exactly are you proposing?”

“If the S.A. is on the move, and I have to believe that this would come sooner or later, trips like this one will be impossible,” Doug said. “What if, for instance, we were to take that old travel trailer out there, load up these men, and sweet-as-you-please, drive them back to the Farm?”

“Did it look road worthy to you?” Peter asked. “Because it sure didn’t to me.”

“Not particularly, but it might be worth a look.  We’ve got to unload the Chevy anyway.  We could check with Olga, see what she thinks at least.”

“You realize that if we get caught we’re all dead, right?” Peter said very quietly.

“And it would be different than this mornings’ trip in which way, exactly?” Doug replied.

Peter looked Doug in the eye and said, “If Olga gives us the OK, how do you plan to break this to our wives?”

“You’ll be the first to know when I come up with that,” Doug answered. “Either way, if there is some sort of major offensive going on, we don’t have much time.”

“Then we better move quickly,” Peter replied.