Saturday, April 19, 2014

Distance, Chapter 59


Sunday, December Third
3:20 p.m.
Hamilton, Illinois

The backed up single-file traffic on Second Street, which led to the bridge over the Mississippi probably meant that the S.A. was searching vehicles or at least had some sort of checkpoint in place.
Doug was behind the wheel for the return trip, Peter in the passenger seat, and their wives in the back rows of the Suburban with Sergeant Case and two of his men joining him in the remaining seats—dressed in civilian clothing, but ready with their weapons if needed.  The rest of the U.S. recon unit had positioned themselves in the twenty-four foot trailer, making the hasty trip west before the S.A. could react…or so they thought.  Case communicated with the rest of his men via a small, short-range headset radio.

“Can’t see anything ahead, Sergeant.  Too many trees until we’re nearly to the bridge approach,” Peter told Case. “Snow’s not helping things, either.”

“Smoke up ahead. Look over to the side there,” Doug said, pointing over the grey trees.

The row of vehicles moved slowly, no more than a few miles per hour, creeping ahead to the southwest. As they crept ahead, they stopped briefly on railroad tracks, which also passed over the Mississippi.  Case was the first to notice the source of the smoke.

“Look to your right—down track.  There’s your smoke,” he said.

Doug looked left briefly, seeing the glow of numerous rail cars burning and derailed, as the traffic urged him on. No emergency lights or response crews were visible.

“You think they derailed, or is the bridge gone?” Peter asked.

“Traffic wouldn’t be moving if our bridge was out, but no telling on the rail bridge…for a couple more minutes anyway,” Doug replied. 

They gradually made their way to the bridge approach, seeing another reason for the traffic slowdown: A tractor-trailer had wrecked, partly rolling over on side, crushing the bed of a pickup. Again, no emergency vehicles had responded, but several other vehicles had stopped to help.

“What happened to that truck? The road is straight here,” Molly asked innocently.

“Look at the trailers. Look at those holes!” Peter said as they drew closer. The cargo trailers were peppered with large-diameter holes…running the length of both trailers and exiting out the exposed side, now facing the sky.  Case didn’t say anything as they passed the truck. A wall of windblown smoke from the derailed train blocked the view ahead.  Peter wisely shut off the heater and defroster, so as not to bring the smoke inside the Suburban.

“You might want to let the cars ahead clear, and get through that smoke quickly,” Case said. “We don’t know what’s in it.”  

Doug realized the smoke could be toxic, with unknown chemicals from the burning rail cars.

“Gotcha,” he replied, double-checking the air vents on the dash. The traffic ahead continued to move slowly, disappearing through the smoke.  Doug waited a few more seconds, and goosed the accelerator, causing the four-wheel drive to break loose on the icy bridge approach.  They passed through the wall of smoke without incident, seeing the carnage to the right as they cleared the oily smoke on the other side of the bridge.

“Good God,” Peter said, the first to speak.  The derailed train hung from the wreckage of the rail bridge. Large sections of the bridge were missing, and those that remained were heavily damaged by the accordion reaction of the rail cars as they piled up.

“Air Force was busy today, looks as if,” Gunner Case replied.

“We bombed our own bridge?” Molly asked incredulously.

“No, the United States Air Force bombed a railroad bridge being used by the enemy to transport goods, troops and materiel to the front,” Case answered. “And about damned time.”

As they rubbernecked the scene, Doug nearly didn’t notice the cluster of S.A. troops at the far end of the bridge, who were also gawking at the wreckage.  Several were leaning on the bridge rails, AK-47’s slung over their back and hanging behind them. The Suburban and trailer passed unchallenged and unnoticed.

“OK, I can breathe now,” Doug said, flipping on the defroster as the S.A. trucks and men disappeared behind them.

Downtown Keokuk was gloomy with no electric lights showing, snow drifted over the curbs and filling doorways of the closed shops.  Traffic thinned out as the bridge traffic dispersed.  Doug and Peter debated taking the side roads rather than the highways, and the chances of ‘issues’ with the trailer in the snow.  They elected to take U.S. Sixty One north at first, and work west, staying on some of the larger County roads. With luck, they’d be back at the Farm in another hour.  

One hour pushed into two, as the roads grew increasingly icy and the wind picked up, the Suburban and trailer both sliding dangerously. Finally, nearing six p.m., they pulled into the main entry to the Farm.  By then, Case had been filled in on the operations of the Farm, security, and patterns of S.A. movements locally.  Roeland met them at the gate, naturally surprised by the towed trailer.

“What’s going on?” he asked through the drivers’ window.

“We have some guests. United States Army,” Peter replied. Roeland stepped back in shock.

“And welcome they are.  Drive all the way into the equipment shed, trailer and all. I’ll signal ahead.”

“Will do,” Doug replied.

He drove ahead through the heavy snow, steering into the cavernous and dark equipment shed, where Maria met him and guided him all the way into the building.  The huge sliding door closed behind them, and the lights snicked on as they exited the Chevy.

“Maria, we have some guests,” Peter said, introducing Sergeant Case.  The remaining men piled out of the travel trailer, fanning out to cover the room.

“We will need more seats for dinner,” she replied dryly. “Welcome to you all,” she said, nodding her head slightly. “You ladies head into the house. You both look green.”

“Lunch isn’t sitting well,” Molly replied.

“That, and a touch of car-sickness,” Julie said. “And my back hurts.”

“Ian managed to sleep all the way back, so I’m sure that means I’ll be up most of the night,” Molly said, taking Ian, car seat and all, from the Chevy.

“Go have some tea. Dinner is ready and on the stove,” Maria said.  “Quietly, though. Arie is sick.”

“Is it serious?” Peter asked.

“It is a cold at the moment. I pray it does not get worse. He is an uncooperative patient, as he has always been.”

“Maria, we need to meet with the Weerstand. I’m sure you understand why,” Doug said.

“It has been an eventful day. I will have Roeland contact Jakob. Peter, I will need some help in the kitchen. Do you mind? Douglas, see to the comforts of our guests.  It may be best to keep them in the shed for the time being,” Maria said. “There have been a number of small aircraft passing over today. Jakob doesn’t know if they are watching us.”

“Drones, Ma’am?” Case asked, and introduced himself.

“Jakob believes so. Several jet aircraft as well, again.  Jakob did not recognize them, however.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Case replied, turning to his men and speaking to them in a conversation to quiet to hear.  Several went into action immediately, retrieving equipment, and began to set up the gear.   Maria and Peter headed to the house.

“Sergeant, you might not get much of a signal in here. It’s been set up as a pretty large Faraday cage,” Doug stated.

“Our gear should be able to receive signals in here, sir,” one of the men replied quite confidently. 

“Good luck,” Doug said. “The guy who designed it used to work for the NSA. I’m pretty sure that his defense is better than your offense,” he said, looking at the soldier setting up a laptop, connected to a non-descript flat box with a flip up antenna. Doug waited for the expected outcome, and was not disappointed.

“Sarge, uh, we’ve got nothing. Not minimal, nothing,” the soldier stated.

“We used this room to analyze S.A. bugs planted in my old Jeep, as well as in captured S.A. equipment. We couldn’t really do that if there was a snowball’s chance in Hell of a signal getting out,” Doug said.  “Also, if that’s a passive receiver, you’re probably OK to use it. If it’s a transmitter, it puts the Farm at risk.”

“It’s not a transmitter like anything out in the wild, sir,” the soldier said. “There are six of these in the world. No way the S.A. could crack it.”

“Where were the components made?” Doug asked calmly.

“What?” Case and the soldier answered.

“Jake found signals emanating from what appeared to be an average circuit board. A circuit board. Nothing even soldered to it…just a printed circuit. It was light and heat activated.  Where was it made? China,” Doug said, pausing. “So are you sure that you know that thing isn’t a great big flare in the dark?”

Both looked at Doug for a moment, and then at the box and the laptop.

“Maybe let Jake crack that open and take a look before you fire it up out in the field,” Doug said. “Meanwhile, there’s a restroom and shower through that door, and the door to the bunkhouse is over to the right. Probably need to leave the door open to get some heat in there, though. No hot water without heating up the woodstove over there,” he said, pointing to a modern woodstove and boiler.

“Sarge, we’re ready for patrol. Tired of sitting around,” one of the men said from across the shop.

“Rothe, shut the Hell up,” Case barked. “They’ve been running LP/OP’s longer than you’ve been out of Basic,” he said, referring to the numerous observation posts on the Farm and throughout the extended area.  “And that grandmother can probably outshoot your sorry ass.”

Doug held back a smile, knowing that in her younger days, Maria’s hobby had been a local version of biathlon, but used thirty-ought sixes at a minimum distance of five hundred yards, rather than twenty-two caliber rifles at a hundred-sixty.

Several of Case’s men checked out the bunkhouse, laughing that they’d be sleeping in ‘Air Force quarters’ as the beds were so nice.

The men enjoyed and praised the Segher’s hospitality as Maria and Peter had served numerous quarts of hot, home-canned beef stew, and the majority of the freshly baked bread for the week was consumed in a single meal.  Molly took a quick nap as Julie baby-sat Ian.

The restless Army squad wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer regarding night watch and security rotation.  Roeland and Jake briefed the men on the locations of the observation posts, signals procedures, expected weather, and recent events on other allied farms. Several of the men had to be taught on how to use the ancient, hard-wired Army-issue field telephones, unused by the military for decades, but perfectly serviceable for the task at hand on the Farm. Four of the men would take the eight p.m. to midnight shift; the other the midnight to six shift.  Roeland explained that the S.A. activity after two a.m. usually dropped off to undetectable levels—on more than one occasion, the Weerstand had found S.A. asleep on their assigned patrol locations…and occasionally killed them for their inattention.  The farms usually ratcheted down guard duties during that time as well, getting ready for the coming work day, as much as that might be possible.  The pattern was well established, and there was no reason to think that the S.A. would change, especially in ‘farm country.’

Jake carefully cracked open both the laptop and the mysterious black box carried by the communications specialist in Case’s squad, under watchful eyes of numerous soldiers.
As suspected, the raw circuit boards were indeed sourced from China, but Jake could not find any evidence of surreptitious tracking or transmitting ability. He reassembled both units, clearing Specialist Chris Evans to contact U.S. Army command. Despite numerous attempts to make contact, Evans was unsuccessful in raising anyone in other patrols or anyone on the designated satellite frequencies, all the way up the food chain to San Antonio.   

Case’s squad members were armed with suppressed M4 rifles, in addition to their standard-issue side arms.  Roeland opened up two cases of ammunition for the squad to reload their depleted inventories and each of the men took a few magazines, ‘just because’. The night however, passed uneventfully with another five inches of snow falling overnight.  Snow had benefits as well as liabilities: Tracks in the snow easily showed out-of-place foot traffic (this night, there was none); and any surviving game in the area could be tracked for harvest. The liabilities were obvious—no party in force could camouflage their passage on foot without leaving an obvious trail, a fact not lost on the U.S. Army.

Monday, December Fourth
4:00 a.m.
The Segher Farm

Doug had managed five uninterrupted hours of sleep before Julie rose, the baby causing her discomfort.  The remainder of her night was restless, but sleep was impossible for Doug at that point.  He quietly dressed at four a.m., went into the kitchen, where he found Case already up, looking over a map of southern Iowa.

“Any idea on where you’re heading?”

“Not until we’re in touch with upstairs.”

“Still nothing on your radio?”

“Picked up some distant stuff from Nebraska…Grand Island. We’ve apparently got troops there moving east.  Nothing though within our communications tree.”

“I’m sure you can stay here as long as you need,” Doug said, feeding the firebox in the woodstove for tea.

“We appreciate that, but we do have an extraction point established.  We’re just a couple hundred miles behind schedule,” Case said.

“Can’t help much with that, unfortunately. Pretty tough to move at all right now beyond the farm and the local towns. I think were damned lucky yesterday, getting you out of Illinois.”

“Why risk it? You, your wife, family…”

“Had a chance. It worked. Probably….perhaps certainly, wouldn’t work today or tomorrow, depending on how the S.A. is pumping the war today,” Doug said. “We’ve done a few things over the past couple weeks that would’ve gotten us shot in a public square, had we been caught. Yesterday wasn’t much different.”

“Such as?” Case asked.

“The most interesting was probably taking down the surveillance cameras in three towns simultaneously. That was a challenge,” Doug said.

“What cameras?”

“Every Federal building, whether it’s post office, agriculture office, unemployment, HHS, whatever, along with every police station, fire station, hospital, county seat…they all have a nice surveillance camera hanging over the street right in front of the building…and cameras on the buildings and parking lots of course.  The street cameras were the first target, later the others as opportunities came about.  Took all the street cameras out at the same minute, in all three towns.  Surprising how effective a little electricity can be at frying electronics.”

“How did you do it?” Case asked with a little smile.

“Farm trucks with portable welders,” Doug explained.  “The poles they’d installed the cameras on all had a wire path that was in a specific location within the metal pole.  Tagging that one spot for thirty seconds with a decent sized arc welder cooked the cameras and probably the computers they were feeding.”

“Didn’t the S.A. respond?”

“Tough for them to get out of the buildings that were hit.  We had other teams that either blocked the doors with trucks and then left them there—the doors most of the time opened outward—or four guys carried three-quarter inch thick sheets of plywood and portable nail guns and just boarded up the doors,” Doug said. “It was really just a one time opportunity.  After that, they had armed guards standing watch outside every building…until a couple weeks ago. Somehow or other, their guards keep getting shot in the head or chest. Single shots. Long range, no one heard the report. The S.A. apparently hasn’t been all that successful at collecting all the firearms out there,” he chuckled.

“So, what about the other cameras?”

“When electricity became less than reliable, Jake found the weak link in the facilities’ camera installation, too.  The lenses are armored glass.  The coax cables weren’t shielded as well. A few good quality air rifles, and most of them were out of commission. The air rifles are pretty handy for harassing S.A. loyalists wherever they are.”

“Dangerous,” Case said.

“Yeah, but when they force the locals into their service, there comes a point you have to stand up. We reached that point some weeks ago.”

“So what are you doing to, as you say, harass?”

“If the S.A. loyals come ‘shopping’, goods are found that are fitting for them, meaning, rotting.  Service that they might need is delayed due to ‘lack of parts’ or ‘lack of knowledgeable service people’; the heat in their hotel rooms is generally inoperative—you do know that they use the hotels for barracks, right?” Doug asked without waiting for an answer.  “The air rifles are put to use shooting holes in the windows of their rooms.  There isn’t replacement glass, or tape to cover them. So, their rooms get cold. There isn’t plywood to cover them, so the rooms become abandoned. Without dependable electricity, the boilers running the heating systems fail. Pipes freeze. Hotels become uninhabitable.”

“Grinding them down,” Case stated. 

“It’s one way. It won’t be the only way,” Doug said.

“What about this food issue? Is what you say on the up and up?”

“Yes,” Doug said unequivocally. “If your troops were to consume the combinations of food fed to the S.A. troops and their gangs, you’d find that you could order them to do absolutely anything, and they’d likely execute those orders without question, remorse or conscience.  Think about that for a minute.”

Case’s eyes narrowed as he contemplated what Doug had said.

“My former employer had a contract to make MRE’s for the U.S. military.  They did so with the RNEW formula slipped into it, and they distributed it heavily in the Northeast and some other urban areas when things started to come apart. They timed the distribution to coincide with the economic collapse…which I suspect that they helped facilitate. When I learned what the stuff was, I helped get word out on what the RNEW products were and could do, and during a stint in Denver, I worked for the Food and Drug Administration.  I managed to derail numerous attempts to ship those MRE’s to the Western U.S., without my former employer catching on.   I sent information to your superiors in Texas that would’ve resulted in me being shot in the head and dumped in a slit trench. With some help, I disappeared from the Federal Government and from my former employer.  I suspect that if either knew I was here, and certainly if they knew of my current activities, I’d be dead. So would everyone on this farm.”

Case didn’t say anything, but considered Doug’s statement.

“Where are you from, Sergeant?”

“Little town. Ashton, Idaho. Population twelve-hundred and five.”

“Sorry, never heard of it,” Doug replied.

“Not many have…and that’s perfectly okay.”

“You’d take these risks too, if this were Ashton, Idaho,” Doug said.   “How long have you served?” 

“Seven years. Iraq, Afghanistan, several other places that were never official deployments and of course we never officially killed anyone,” Case replied as one of his men entered the kitchen.

“Sarge, got Command in San Antonio. Comms are routed through an AWACS south of here. Entire satellite network is fried, they say. Better hustle, not sure how long our uplink will last.”

“Good luck,” Doug said, filling the old teapot. “Give the United States our regards.” 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Tom, where ya been?

Well, it's not complicated.

Tied up in a building project (relocated our company) which has consumed a vast amount of time since January, aside from "real work" in my day job;  seemingly endless project stuff at the house, a rebuild project at our church (arson fire); and the youngest is graduating from college in a couple of weeks.

That said, I will have the next-to-last chapter of Distance up by the end of the weekend.

Happy Easter, everyone.  He is Risen Indeed.