Flip of the COIN

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by sharkman6, Nov 24, 2018.


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  1. sharkman6

    sharkman6 Monkey++

    This is another story I wrote a long time ago on another forum. Posting it up here. Tell me what you think.
    Thanks. I hope you enjoy it.

    Note: The use of bold with italic is to denote dialogue taking place on some electronic medium such as radio, TV, etc.



    Prologue

    Jim Reegan eased his SUV up to the steel gate blocking his path. A gentle drizzle, the type so common to this part of western Washington State, beat down on the vehicle windows and pattered on the roof. On either side of the gate were piles of rock and dirt that completed the barrier preventing access to his final destination. An overwhelming sense of frustration and despair filled Jim to the point of paralysis. He could only sit behind the wheel and stare out through the window and gray drizzle at the gate. There had been so much despair, so much bad news over the course of the last year that he could barely stand it. He had fled from his home in Chicago to this small town just north of Seattle, only to find that with less than a mile to go, his path was blocked. He looked at his wife and children who rode in the vehicle with him. Their faces showed the same concern. They had come so far and come so close to the end to encounter another barrier. Now, here they were, a mile from their destination and staring at an immobile steel object that represented just another disappointment in lives that had been nothing but disappointment for too long.

    It all started a year ago. The U.S. economy went from 1st world to 3rd world, to almost medieval in some places in a matter of weeks. Social services, transportation networks, utilities and so many other things he once took for granted were all either non-existent, or reduced to the level you'd expect in some failed nation, but not the United States. Crime rose, inflation rose, employment dropped, store shelves sat empty, riots flared up, and for Jim and his family, things got to the point where they were unbearable. Jim and his wife both lost their jobs. That hadn't really mattered though because their paychecks didn't buy much and few stores were open anyway. With no other options, Jim packed up his family and headed out west to his uncle's home in Washington State. The drive from Chicago took them over a month. They started out with two SUV's each pulling a trailer. Now they had no trailers and just one SUV which held his wife, two children, and everything they still owned. Maybe everything they ever would own. There was no going back now. They crossed the point of no return long ago. They had a quarter tank of gas, and enough food to feed their kids for another day, two days if he and his wife didn't eat. And they had a gate in front of them.

    Through the rain, Jim could make out a man on the other side of the gate. Lean and rough looking, the man carried a rifle with the ease of somebody who felt confident using it. He didn’t make any threatening moves, he just watched without emotion. Jim wondered if he should get out and try to talk to the man when there was a knock on his window. Jim and his whole family jumped out of their seats in surprise. While they were watching the man with the rifle, a second man had moved to their car from the side, unseen. This new man wore a wild beard and carried a shotgun, which he used to tap lightly on the window. He made a motion for Jim to roll down his window.

    “Why are you here,” the bearded man asked.

    “I’m here to see my Aunt and Uncle. They live down this street.”

    "Who are your Aunt and Uncle," the shotgun man asked. His face didn't betray even the slightest hint of compassion. Jim immediately got the impression his was not the first family to seek refuge in whatever lay on the other side of the gate.

    “The Reegans.”

    “And who are you?”

    “I’m Jim Reegan, this is my wife, Andrea.”

    "You got ID?" the man asked. It seemed like a strange question, but Jim got his identification out for the man who clearly wasn't a police officer. The man looked it over, then looked Jim over, and then looked back at the ID card.

    "We'll open this gate. You'll see a second gate ahead. Pull up to it and turn off your engine." The man said it quickly and firmly and then went to open the gate before Jim could answer. Jim didn't like it, but he didn't see any other choice. But if they wanted to kill them, they could have done it already.

    The gate swung open, and Jim pulled through it. As soon as he was through the first gate, it was shut and locked behind him. He shut off his truck once he got to the second gate and waited.

    After a few minutes, the shotgun man came back with another lean man with a blonde beard. It seemed nobody shaved anymore. Maybe it was because there were never any razor blades in the stores. This new man wore a pistol in an old black leather military shoulder holster and carried a carbine in his hand. He wore a worn leather flight jacket patched in places with duct tape.

    “Step out of the truck please,” this new man said.

    Jim wearily exited his truck. His family stayed inside. “I’m Chris,” the man said, not offering his hand. “The Boss will be here in a few minutes. Tell me, what is it you do?”

    “I’m in public relations. Well, that’s what I was before I lost my job.”

    The man who had guarded the gate and the man named Chris looked at each other, and they both rolled their eyes. Jim felt stupid for saying it. It was like saying you were a typewriter repairman. He had a skill for which no demand existed.

    “You got any tools in your truck? Welding stuff or chainsaws? Things like that?”

    "No, no tools, just the jack and the tire iron."

    “Any food?”

    "No." When Jim answered the questions, Chris scribbled the answers on the clipboard. It was an interview, and Jim could tell he was doing poorly.

    "Two-way radios, CBs, HAM radio, things like that?"

    “No.”

    “Any weapons or ammo?”

    “No.”

    “No?” The man asked it again, seeking confirmation.” Jim shook his head. The man looked at Jim as if he were insane.

    “No Guns?”

    “No,” Jim replied, a little ashamed of his answer. “No guns.”

    "You and your family healthy, any medical problems," the man asked. Jim answered that they were all fine. They were hungry but fine.

    The man with the clipboard and the man with the shotgun both turned and looked down the street. Jim followed their gaze and saw the man who must have been, "The Boss," walking towards him. Like the others, The Boss had a beard. He wore a faded brown work jacket and a baseball hat. Also, like the other men, he was armed. He wore a pistol on his belt and carried a pump shotgun in the crook of his arm. One of his coat pockets bulged with extra shotgun shells. He carried extra pistol magazines on his belt as well. When The Boss got closer, Jim could make out some scars he bore. An ugly twisted line ran down the back side of one of his hands. On his face, just above the line of the beard but beneath his eye, was a rough and ugly round mark the size of a quarter. Jim thought the scar resembled a beautiful antique china plate, if somebody had taken that plate and smashed it with a hammer and then crudely glued all the pieces together. Jim knew instantly it was the kind of scar that you only got one way; when another man tried to kill you.

    The Boss walked up to where Jim and the others stood. He didn't smile, didn't offer any greetings, just took the clipboard that the man named Chris had. Then he looked at the man's ID and handed it back to him.

    “Your Aunt and Uncle are dead. They passed last week. The flu.” Jim didn’t know what to say. He stood in shock. Then the man asked, “What did you do before you left Chicago?”

    “I worked at a public relations firm.”

    The man nodded, but Jim could tell he didn’t have much need for public relations expertise. “What did your wife do?”

    “She was an editor for a magazine.”

    “What kind of magazine?”

    “Fashion.”

    “Are those your kids, or somebody else’s?”

    “No, they are my kids.”

    The Boss nodded. "I ask because sometimes people take others in even though they can't take care of them. Things aren't what they used to be. You take in people you can't feed, and you end up starving your own. Good intentions can get you killed. You two got any other hobbies or skills? Fix engines, gardening, hunt, fish, things like that.”

    Jim shook his head. He really didn't have anything he'd consider useful skills now. He could type. For hobbies he'd either watch sports or play video games, but what good was that now? He'd barely been able to change his tires when they went flat on the way out here. In the past he'd always used the motor-club. Now there was no motor club, just your wits and skills. As the interview progressed, Jim felt his were lacking.

    The Boss looked over Jim’s truck.

    “You got any weapons in there. Any guns?”

    Jim answered sheepishly. “We don’t believe in guns. Well, we didn’t believe in guns till recently.” The man tapped the barrel of his shotgun on the back of Jim truck. One of the quarter panels of the SUV was riddled with buckshot. There were duct tape patches on the back window that covered up more bullet holes.

    “I guess that seems a little silly now,” Jim added. “To say you don’t believe in guns.”

    The man nodded. “I think it was always a silly thing to say.” Then the man asked, “You got any proof that you’re related to the Reegans?”

    It seemed like an odd thing to ask, Jim thought. "I don't have any documents or anything. I do have a picture."

    “Let’s see it.”

    Jim handed the picture over. The man looked it over then handed it back. Then the men and The Boss looked at each other. It was decision time. The Boss took his time, weighing his decision before speaking.

    "We've turned you Aunt and Uncles place into a warehouse for our winter stores. That being the case, there are some empty houses on the street. We'll let you and your family stay there until we can get our stuff moved out."

    "What," the man guarding the gate said. "We're gonna let him stay? It's almost winter, and they don't bring anything to the table. We can't take them in!"

    "We have enough," the Boss snapped back. He turned and faced the guard and gave him a look so intense, the man stepped back and dropped his head like a whipped dog. "This house belongs to him as far as I can tell, and I don't feel like denying a man his right to property. Not today." Clearly, The Boss was not a man who tolerated much dissent, nor enjoyed having to explain his decisions.

    Feelings of relief washed over Jim. The fact that he now had a home of his own filled him with joy. He could get his family off the road and out of all the dangers that entailed. They had a chance to be safe. Such relief was overwhelming. The Boss maintained his calm demeanor but moved closer to Jim. "We have a particular way of doing things around here, so that we all help each other out. I'll let you stay, but that means you need to pull your own weight. You may not have a whole lot of skills, but we'll give you all the tools you need to take care of yourself and your family. But remember one thing, if you become a burden to the others here, you put the other families here at risk, I'll throw you out, and I won't think twice about it."

    The Boss stared hard into Jim's eyes, making sure Jim understood and it all sunk in.

    “Thank you,” Jim said.

    “Don’t make me regret my decision,” The Boss said. Then he turned and walked away with his dogs trailing behind.

    "I won't," Jim said. He said it so softly that nobody else heard it.



    Chapter 1

    Sheriff Ryan Maltby drove alone down the winding suburban streets. The radios in his vehicle were all turned down low and made just a slight static buzz over the whine of the engine. He enjoyed the solitude. He rarely drove alone because it just wasn’t safe these days, especially for the county Sheriff. But today he could make an exception. He was traveling into the territory of Sean Bastle, and nothing would happen to him there.

    As he drove, Sheriff Maltby reflected on why it normally wasn't safe for a man in his position to travel alone. It had all started two years ago. The economy went from bad to worse and then to disaster in the blink of an eye. The triggering event to this was called either, the Readjustment, or the Seizure, depending on who you talked to. After sequestering themselves for weeks, the President and his cabinet presented themselves before the American people and announced that the government had to take drastic but necessary steps to preserve the U.S. economy. The federal government had to institute a sweeping nationalization program. Certain assets would be seized and centrally controlled. Production and consumption would be managed based on a variety of economic, social, and political concerns that could only be understood by government experts. The President talked about things like fairness, equality, the need for shared sacrifice, and how as long as everybody supported the process things would get better. But things did not get better. Business owners liquidated their assets or in some cases destroyed them rather than see them seized by the government. Investors made a run on the stock market, so the government instituted stock-market holidays. Then there was a run on the banks, so the government declared a series of bank holidays. In the cases where companies were successfully turned over to the government, production in almost all cases came to a halt, as the new government administrators, appointed for their ideological loyalties rather than their abilities, often had no idea how to run what they were appointed to oversee. Some states refused to help enforce the government sanctions and continued with business as usual. From what the Sheriff heard about a dozen states were talking about leaving the union. Alaska had all but left already, tapping into oil resources it had never been allowed to exploit and severing most communications with the federal government. The federal government, short on resources necessary to enforce its laws, concentrated on the states that were complying with "the Readjustment," while damning the other states in what soon became entirely government-controlled media outlets.

    Now the United States suffered from problems normally seen in third world nations. The effects were felt even here in a once-sleepy county tucked away in the northwest corner of Washington State. The lack of security and stability resulted in levels of crime that went beyond the Sheriff's limited means to control. With the economy in shambles, many men were unemployed. Compounding this was the fact that even simple services such as power, water and garbage had either been reduced or were nonexistent. Without these services available, people provided them for themselves. In most cases that was good, but the Sheriff was smart enough to know that it could be bad as well.

    One of the things that really bothered the Sheriff was that no matter how bad things got, the federal government was quick to come up with another solution to a problem it had created in the first place. When that solution didn’t work, additional non-working solutions were put in place creating a vicious cycle that kept feeding into itself. And as the government grew in scope, those essential services it needed to provide went unfilled. This weighed heavily on his mind, but it wasn’t what worried him the most.

    The last two years were tough, but Sheriff Maltby had made it through and brought his community through as well as he'd been able. When that second winter ended the spring had been unusually kind to them, and by summer the county's farmers were growing food again. Things were not back to normal. They would never be back to normal if normal was defined as the time before the Readjustment, but people had figured out how to make things work. Boosted by their proximity to the porous border with Canada, a gray-market and black-market economy existed that was both robust and vital enough that the Sheriff overlooked it. Despite some fuel issues, transportation networks were back open to a degree, and ordinary citizens found some solutions to the crime problems which the Sheriff also overlooked. His community had made it through. But it looked like the coming winter was going to be another tough one, and it would be here soon. The evergreens still held their crisp green colors, but in the lowlands, the leaves on the alder trees and blackberry vines were changing, their shades of green giving way to brown. Fall would lead into winter soon.

    A sign that at one time announced the entrance to a suburban subdivision marked the entrance to Sean Bastle's kingdom. The sign, which read, "Cascadian Meadows," was made out of a giant concrete slab. Sean's men had built a berm out of dirt and broken chunks of concrete which tied the concrete slab sign to a series of swinging steel gates that barred access to the subdivision. Sheriff Maltby nosed his vehicle up to the first gate and waited. It wasn't long before a young man with a rifle walked up to the Sheriff's car. The Sheriff recognized him from his tall, gangly frame. It was Tommy Stevens, the local high school basketball star who won a scholarship to Gonzaga just before the economy fell apart. There would be no college education for him now. They could barely keep the K-12 schools operating.

    The Sheriff rolled down his window. “Sheriff Maltby, here to see Mr. Bastle,” he said.

    The young man nodded and said, "Wait here a minute Sheriff," before disappearing to pass on the message. After only a few minutes the skinny kid returned and opened the gates one at a time to let the Sheriff through. Between the two gates were a set of obstacles designed to slow down any vehicles passing through. The Sheriff had to swing his vehicle hard to the left, then hard to the right, and then nose up to a second gate that was opened only after the first gate was shut and locked. As he drove through the gates, Sheriff Maltby saw more men with rifles and determined eyes watching his every move. He might have been Sheriff, but here in Cascadian Meadows, Sean Bastle was the law, and despite the safety of traveling in Bastle's domain, Sheriff Maltby had several concerns about the man. The armed men at the gate manifested just one of these. Having armed men around could be a good thing, especially in today's trying times. But having groups of armed men who could outmatch the local law enforcement entities was another thing altogether.

    Cascadian Meadows looked more like a medieval village than the suburban subdivision it once was. The Sheriff drove past gardens that had once been front lawns. In some places, entire houses had been torn down to make room for planting or converted for other functions. One single-family home had been converted into a schoolhouse. Others functioned as warehouses, or in a few cases, greenhouses. The people really made a go of it here. This area had once been home to several hundred families, but now there were much less. Many had either been killed or left to find work or relatives, or to live in one of the government-run camps in the cities. The remainder were a self-sufficient lot, linked by a common ideology and unified under one leader. If Cascadian Meadows was now a medieval village, Sean Bastle was undoubtedly the lord.

    And since no lord would be complete without his knights, Sean Bastle had those too. Soon after the Seizure occurred, and Sean went about getting things organized, ex-military people started showing up at Cascadian Meadows. There weren't many of them, but they were well armed, well trained and well-organized men who had probably spent the better part of their adult lives fighting in one war or another across the globe. In this county, they were a force not to be taken lightly, especially under Sean Bastle's leadership. Sheriff Maltby knew what they were capable of. Not long after the seizure, a criminal gang moved into the county with plans on taking over. Many people were found murdered, including several Sheriff's Deputies. Powerless to stop it, The Sheriff went to Sean for help. In just a week he got rid of the gang with what could best be described as a "brutal efficiency." That got rid of the gang, but it also established Sean as the local Warlord. As a man who had sworn to uphold the law, that did not always sit well with the Sheriff.

    But if Sean was a lord, he was a modest one. His house certainly did not look like any royal manner. He and his family lived in just another split-level home located at the end of the street, no different from any of the others. He even had the same victory gardens planted in his yard. Having been inside several times before, Sheriff Maltby found the home rather Spartan. This could have been a function of the economic situation, or it could have been by choice. Sean and his family might have willingly reduced themselves to the simplicity and efficiency of a life uncluttered by distractions. If Ryan Maltby had to, he’d bet on the latter.

    When the Sheriff pulled up to Sean’s house, two men already stood in the driveway waiting for him. The first was Chris Lindsey, a tall blonde headed man who had once been a military pilot but now functioned as Sean’s second in command.

    “Morning Sheriff,” Chris said. “Sean’s taking care of something right now. We can wait inside till he’s done.” Next to him stood Jim Reegan, a gangly out of towner who served as Sean’s personal driver. Next to his wife, they were probably the two closest people to Sean. Both were armed. Sean and those who traveled with him were always armed.

    Chris and Jim escorted the Sheriff into Sean's home. On the way, they passed Sean's wife. The men greeted her with a good morning. She normally spoke with a twang that exposed her southern heritage. But she didn't speak this morning or offer anything that could be considered southern hospitality. She only gave the Sheriff a hateful stare that he could feel pressing on him until he was out of her sight.

    Jim and Chris led the Sheriff down some stairs and into Sean’s library which also served as his meeting room. If Sean allowed himself one luxury, it was his library. Bookshelves lined the walls; each stacked two deep and still overflowing. Sheriff Maltby had no doubt that Sean had read most if not all of them. There were auto repair manuals, books on gardening, books on welding, guides to reloading shotgun and rifles shells, chemistry textbooks, and a wide range of medical reference books. They contained all the knowledge one would need with the current economic crisis and the accompanying reduction in services. But the bulk of books in the room were history books and books covering the military arts. Given the circumstances, it was much more impressive than any big TV or home entertainment system. The books represented information, which like the armed men outside, represented power.

    Chris and the Sheriff sat down. Jim disappeared and came back with a couple mugs of tea. Coffee was saved for special occasions, and this was not special enough. The Sheriff thought about that. Not that long ago you could get coffee for free, now it was difficult to come by. Instead, there was tea made out of pine needles, and that had to do.

    “You got anybody here still working paying jobs,” the Sheriff asked.

    “We’ve got a few still folks working at the aircraft plant. They aren’t doing much work though, not too many airplanes being built. A lot of people headed to Alaska for work,” Chris answered. This wasn’t idle banter. The issue of jobs was very important, and not just for the economic reasons. People with jobs were less likely to cause trouble.

    The Sheriff and Chris enjoyed the tea, and it wasn't long before Sean walked in. Sean was a middle-aged man, tall and in good shape. He wore a black beard with some signs of gray. He still had a full head of hair which he kept short. Even though he was in his own house, he wore a pistol and extra magazines on his belt. Greetings and handshakes were exchanged, and then the men sat down to get to business. Sean's grip was firm, and his face hard. Sean rarely smiled, but when he did, his smile was genuine.

    “What brings you by Sheriff?”

    “There’ll be a big meeting at the end of the week. Some experts are coming in to talk to us. All us government folks will be there, and most of the private citizens of this county who hold weight will be there too. They think this year’s winter will be especially bad. It seems the nukes that India and Pakistan were using on each other have messed up global weather patterns.”

    When the U.S. collapsed, the stabilizing effect it had on the rest of the world went away as well. Soon after the collapse, radical elements overran the Pakistani government, and after consolidating their power, they quickly turned on India. The war began with a limited nuclear exchange between the two nations before transitioning into something more conventional. As India and Pakistan fought, the rest of the world slowly gravitated to one side or the other. Like most people, Sheriff Maltby didn't really know what was going on in the war. The media had reduced any reporting on it to simplistic sound bites that consisted mostly of condemnations of India's actions and celebrated the heroism of the Pakistanis.

    The Sheriff continued. "The nukes are supposed to exacerbate the worst weather systems throughout the country; hurricanes on the east coast, heavy snowfall in the northeast, drought in the southwest. Up here in our neck of the woods, we may have as much as twice as much rain this year as we normally do. That means a lot of flooding."

    “Great. How will that affect the farmers in the valley,” Chris asked.

    “Good question. With things the way they are, I’d hate to see a bad growing season. Food is just too valuable.”

    “So, who are these experts exactly," Sean asked pointedly. His face betrayed nothing, but the Sheriff could tell the wheels were turning in his head.

    "There will be a man from FEMA, Paul Linggi. He was a firefighter in New York and then went to work for FEMA. He's a logistics expert and a good man. He's there to talk about the flooding. Our friends at Grass Roots will be there too.” Chris and Sean both looked at each other at that statement. A self-described political action organization, Grass Roots was in favor with the ruling political elites. Originally started to mobilize voters for select causes and candidates, now they help administer government services that had suffered from the seizure. Many were skeptical, if not outright hostile towards the organization. The Sheriff continued.

    “The Grass Roots are there to provide information on some new federal benefits program. Apparently, because of this environmental crisis, we’re all entitled to some federal entitlements package.

    “There will also be some military folks showing up. I don’t think they have anything to do with the potential floods.”

    “Are they National Guard,” Chris asked.

    “No, they are regular military. Marines I think.”

    “Anybody else,” Sean asked.

    “Well,” the Sheriff started the paused to sip his tea. “James Pritchard will be there, so if he’s coming there’ll probably be any number of strap-hangers showing up.” James Pritchard was a former Congressman and a big deal in the county.

    The three men went over some more details of the upcoming meeting. As the Sheriff went about discussing these details, he reflected on his major concern with Sean Bastle. At the local level, he possessed power to rival the local institutions. Sean was a man who realized that power can come from many other places than just guns. While he did have his own private army, he wielded power and influences in other ways as well. And while it was nice to have a citizen who could provide security and stability at a time when his own resources were stretched thin, Sheriff Maltby was not so naive as to think this was all good.

    When he finished, the Sheriff finished his tea and excused himself. Chris and Sean walked him out to his car. Before he left, Sean's wife handed him a basket of food and gave him another cup of tea for the road. She handed it to him coldly, without a single word. Like her husband, she also carried a pistol. Sean, his wife, and Chris stood in the driveway and watched the Sheriff disappear down the street. When he was gone, Chris was the first to speak.

    “I’ll get the team ready for the meeting. It looks like our government is coming to our rescue. Again.”

    Sean didn’t speak, but his wife did, her tone cold and icy.

    “I wish they’d just leave us the hell alone.”

    #

    As he drove off, the Sheriff caught a glimpse of Sean's wife in the rearview mirror. Her hard and icy glare followed his cruiser as it pulled away. That look of disdain represented what worried Sheriff Maltby the most. Sean's people all shared a common ideology which included a healthy distrust of the government. In their mind, the government had failed them due to either incompetence or outright corruption. This line of thinking wasn't limited to just Bastle's people. Even the Sheriff felt some empathy for this line of thought. But now the government, that is, the federal government was coming back into the county to reassert itself. The Sheriff recognized that these two groups were directly at odds with one another with very little room for compromise.





    Chapter 2

    Congressman James Pritchard rode to the meeting in an armored SUV with a police escort. The police escorting him were not Sheriff Maltby's deputies, but the city police of Maysville, the biggest city in the county and home of the county seat. The big, black, ominous, behemoth of a vehicle was originally supposed to go to the Department of State for assignment at some embassy overseas. Congressman Pritchard had managed to use his influence to get the SUV sent to the Maysville Police Department instead, where it was used exclusively to transport him around. He did many favors for the Maysville Police Department over the years, and they, in turn, did many favors for him. It was a relationship he enjoyed.

    James Pritchard actually wasn’t a Congressman anymore, but he kept the title. Not too long after "The Readjustment," Representative James Pritchard stepped down and turned his seat over to an up and coming party member who would easily make Senator or more. His choice was both personal and political. Personal in that he wanted to spend more time with his family and more time in his hometown. The professional reason was that his political career had more or less reached its ceiling. He would never make Senator and had no real desire for any other toothless political offices. No cabinet positions or ambassadorships for him. So he turned his seat over to a man whose political star was rising (and who would now owe the congressman a favor), and went back to his home in Washington State to spend more time with his family and perhaps take his career path in a different direction.

    Naturally, his thoughts drifted to the Readjustment. It was the one event that his life and the life of every other American revolved around for the last two years. He was not opposed to the Readjustment. The Government had grown to such a point that the only way to keep it going was to either make major changes to the economy or cut down its size. But being a politician, he certainly wasn't going to propose cutting Government, especially since his political base embraced the idea of more government, not less. Besides, as a member in good standing with the ruling political party, he had only to gain from a government-run economy, no matter how poorly run it might be. The economy may not be generating as much wealth as it had before, but more of that wealth was making it into the pockets of men like the James Pritchard, and that mattered most. After all, he had himself to think about.

    The one problem he did have with the Readjustment was that it had been so poorly executed. Word of the nationalization process had leaked out over a month before the target date. This was enough time for those who were going to lose their assets to hide them, move them to a place where they couldn't be seized, liquidate them, or in some cases, destroy them all together. In California, somebody set fire to all the locomotives in a rail yard before they could be taken. In West Virginia, somebody collapsed a coal mine rather than see it get confiscated. There was a firearms plant in this county that had just vanished. On the day of the readjustment, State Police and ATF agents showed up at the plant to find it completely empty; not a single lathe or press, no metal stock, no computers or drafting equipment. Even the light bulbs and paper towels were gone.

    The other problem with the Readjustment was that many states simply decided that they weren't going to enforce the new policies. South Carolina and Texas lead that bandwagon, with about a dozen other states following suit. Alaska had pretty much excommunicated itself from the union. There was a rumor that the FBI had tried to arrest the governor of Alaska, only to be thwarted by the Alaska State Troopers. What was not a rumor was that Alaska had tapped into dozens of other previously off-limits oil wells and now sold the oil abroad and on the black market. One oil company was building what would be the world's largest and most efficient refinery near Prudhoe Bay, and without the interference of various political interests, the refinery would be done by next summer. James Pritchard could care less about the environmental impact. What he did care about was that a great deal of wealth was being generated and neither he nor the government would get their cut.

    This was what concerned James Pritchard the most; not getting the fair share he was entitled to. Texas and the others could talk about succession all day long; it was just rabble-rousing as far as he was concerned. He didn't believe for a second that anybody would actually try and leave the union. The Union had been preserved in the past and would be preserved in the future. What did concern him was the wealth out there that wasn’t being collected. The federal government, despite all its powers only had so many resources available, so rather than use them in states that were out of compliance, they focused those resources on states who were willing participants in the readjustment. Fortunately for James Pritchard, Washington State was part of that community.

    But one good thing about the rabble-rouser states was that they provided convenient scapegoats. If the federal government had to seize somebody's business, it was because greedy old Texas wasn't participating in the plan. No food on the grocery store shelves? Well if South Dakota would do its fair share you'd have food. Living in a government-run emergency camp? Blame those greedy racists in South Carolina. With a media that was almost entirely state-controlled, it was pretty easy to get the appropriate message out. If there was one thing James learned in his years in politics, it was you had to have somebody to blame. Having somebody to blame for a problem was far more important than having a solution.

    Despite all the problems with the Readjustment thus far, Congressman James Pritchard didn't think it wasn't over yet. Of that, he was confident, just as he was sure that when the next steps took place, he'd be in a position to benefit from the resulting crisis.

    The meeting took place in the city's best hotel, located along the coast with a commanding view of Puget Sound. The hotel chain had been seized by the government and was now used by several government and non-government organizations. There were a variety of vehicles in the parking lot; government vehicles, police cars, a row of military vehicles that must have belonged to the newly -arrived Marines, a variety of civilian vehicles, many of which were in states of disrepair but kept running because there weren't any new cars being made that ordinary people could buy. But what struck the congressman as his motorcade pulled in was a string of pickup trucks parked off in a corner of the lot. Six trucks, all four-door 4-wheel drive pickups of the same make and model, sat parked in a neat little row. They'd most likely been looted from some dealership before the government takeover. Their uniformity and the way they were arranged demonstrated a level of efficiency and organization. Each truck had been modified. They all sported big front bumpers that could be used to smash their way through whatever needed to be smashed. They all had a variety of antenna rising up off them, and extra lights mounted at all points. Spare tires, towing equipment, and high lift jacks were all attached to the outside of the trucks where they would be easily accessible. Men stood around the vehicles, guarding them. They were men with guns who appeared very confident in their ability to use them. They were Sean Bastle’s men.

    James Pritchard recognized Sean's ability. He would be a man that might prove difficult to the congressman. Then again, he could also prove useful. Having men with such skills was important for a man like James Pritchard. "I'll have to meet with him one of these days," James said to himself. Everybody needed something these days, Sean would be no different. He'd have to figure out what Sean desired and then use that to get his support. James heard the rumors about how he'd solved the Sheriff's gang problem. Maybe he could solve some problems for me, James Pritchard thought.

    Several people waited for James at the door to the hotel, and James liked that. The Maysville Chief of Police was there, as was the county executive and some members of the county's board of commissioners. Standing off to the side was a group of younger people, mostly college-aged or just out of college. Those must have been the Grass Roots folks. Standing alone near the doorway was another man. He was short and round and unpleasant looking, with slicked back hair that was dyed black to the point that it couldn't possibly be mistaken for a natural color. He wore a blue and black windbreaker with a gold union logo on the back. He wore a gaudy gold chain with a medallion bearing the same logo around his neck.

    "Morning Chief," Pritchard said. Chief Kim was a smallish woman, just over five feet tall and looked like she might blow away in a strong gust of wind. She used to be an officer in a few small police departments back east before taking the position of Maysville's Chief of Police. Her law enforcement record had been uneventful, but she'd held many of the right positions like internal affairs investigator and public affairs officer, and she had the right political connections, so her assignment to the position of police chief had been a lock.

    The Congressman shook the appropriate hands and made the proper greetings, and then they all headed into the hotel conference room where the meeting would take place. It was a large room, able to accommodate about a hundred people and already at capacity with several people standing along the walls. He made a note of all the important faces that were present. Some people he took particular note of. In the front of the room sat Gerald Sheely, the unofficial leader of the county's large group of farmers. Gerry came from a family of farmers, and he looked and dressed every bit the part. Sitting off towards the back of the room was Tien Nguyen. Tien was a local businessman and like Gerry held an unofficial leadership position. Tien ran a trucking community and was also a major player in the black market. Before the Readjustment, Tien had several successful businesses with ties to Asia and Canada. Even though most international trade had sharply declined for small players like Tien, he still maintained those business relationships. Word on the street was that Tien and Gerry also had a relationship with Sean of some sort. Sean's trucks were often seen entering and leaving Tien's businesses late at night or patrolling the farmland.

    In the back of the room stood the man he who really interested him; Sean Bastle. He was accompanied by a few of his men, all were well armed and obviously ex-military. Sean Bastle with his Praetorian guard, James Pritchard thought. Also in the back of the room was a man in uniform who also had a security detail with him. Major Polatanski, or Major Ski, headed a unit of Marines who had just shown up in the county. Pritchard met the Marine major the other day, and he seemed like a good enough fellow, although he really wasn't of a high enough rank to do much for James. After years in politics, James Pritchard did not really see people as individuals anymore. He saw them in terms of what he could get from them and what they wanted that he could provide.

    These Marines had just been assigned to beef up the guard force at a naval facility in the county. The congressman made a mental note to call somebody and find out more about the major.

    The Congressman shook more hands and greeted more people and eventually made his way to the front row of chairs and a seat reserved for him. The meeting started out the way most meetings like that do. The county executive introduced all the important people in the room and paid deference to everybody it was appropriate to. Then he went into some talk about the challenges the county had just overcome and the challenges ahead and all the typical non-specific things that politicians talk about when they really have nothing to say. Pritchard quickly tuned him out. After what seemed like forever, the county executive finally introduced the county FEMA representative who would address the potential floods. An older man got up and moved to center stage. He sported a long walrus mustache and a bit of a belly. He walked to center stage with a slight limp and addressed the crowd.

    "Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is Paul Linggi, and I'll be the FEMA representative for your county. Just so you know a little bit about me, I was a firefighter in New York City for 25 years. After that, I went to work for the U.S. Forest Service as a logistics expert for the big wildfires. After that, I went to work for FEMA and have been here for a few years now, so I've had a pretty long career in emergency management. First off, I'd like to repeat what the County Executive said, and that is that you people have done a tremendous job in the last two years of weathering the many storms that this county has had to deal with. Believe me, a lot of counties both in this state and in the rest of the country didn't fare anywhere near as good as you have it. You really came together to deal with your problems, and that is what this is all about. Unfortunately, we're going to have to face some new problems soon.

    "As you all know, India and Pakistan went to war earlier this year, and their conflict quickly went nuclear. We aren't expecting fallout, but what we are expecting storms and disastrous weather across the United States this winter. This means heavy rains starting in November throughout the entire Pacific Northwest. This could cause flooding, especially with the potential for flooding in the agricultural lowlands here. With the current economic situation, we are very concerned that your crops may be affected.

    "As your FEMA representative, I want to do everything I can to help you protect the agriculture and the people of this region. The agricultural output of the Pacific coast is vital to the country, especially given the precarious state of affairs we’re in right now. Now I have access to plenty of resources such as heavy equipment, pumps, barrier materials, but you are going to be the one on the point end of this crisis. I need to know what you need from me so we can not just make it through the floods, but be set up to produce food once the winter is over. If you need something, let me know what it is, and I'll find a way to get it for you."

    "But," Interrupted a shout from a young man seated in the front row, who stood and turned back to shout at the assembled citizens.

    "But we must do this in an appropriate manner. We cannot let our response worsen this ecological crisis."

    From his podium, Paul introduced the young man. When he did, his confident and professional manner gave way. He spoke as if his words called him physical pain.

    "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Taylor Justin of Grass Roots. He is a specialist in both agriculture and environmental impact."

    Taylor Justin walked haughtily to the podium where Paul stood. Taylor was young and looked it. He wore a necklace of thick glass beads around his neck, and brown leather bracelets on each wrist. His hair was twisted into thick reddish dreadlocks, and he wore a beard composed of scraggy patches. He wore the standard uniform of the Grass Roots members, a white hooded sweatshirt with light green blades of grass with dark brown roots emblazoned across the front.

    Taylor’s voice came out unsteadily. "We need to make sure that we respond to this crisis in a manner that is both sustainable and has a less than zero ecological impact. Just because we face potential flooding doesn’t mean we are going to abandon our responsibilities to the environment."

    This caused grumbles from the farmers. Gerry stood up to speak. He’d been a farmer most of his life, except for a few years when he went to college and got a degree in agriculture. Environmental issues were something he dealt with his entire life, so it was nothing that got him upset. To him, environmental issues were just one more thing that had to be dealt with to run a successful farm. He spoke confidently. "When you talk about managing our responsibilities to the environment, what are you looking for? Specifically, what do you mean?"

    Taylor Justin looked annoyed. "It means we can’t be doing whatever we want to the environment. We can’t be greedy and abandon our social and ecological responsibilities for profits. We need to leave this planet better than it was when we found it,"

    Gerry looked confused and a little annoyed, but not too annoyed. This was a game he played before. "Right. I understand the generalities about environmentalism, but what are the specifics. We need specific details so we can make our plans and give them to Mr. Linggi there. So when you say our environmental responsibilities, what does that mean?"

    Taylor almost shouted with a shaking and quivering voice that came across as ridiculous. "It means we can’t be killing our mother earth!"

    "If these floods take place, it will be mother earth that will be killing us," somebody from the crowd said. He meant it as a joke, but Taylor didn’t find any humor in it.

    "Don’t you blame this on the planet," The Grass Roots man screamed. He fumed and pointing his finger at the farmers sitting in the front of the audience. "This event was man-made. It was India’s racist and uncalled for use of nuclear weapons that caused this. Not the planet. And we need to take a sustainable approach to this. I don’t want our children to grow up in a world of poison." Taylor didn’t have any children, but that was beside the point.

    "Didn’t Pakistan nuke India first?" Somebody in the crowd asked loudly.

    "Only because they had too!" Taylor spat when he talked, and his face turned a shade of almost purple. "India hates Pakistan because they're a bunch of imperialist racists! They hate Muslims, and they want to exploit Pakistan for the benefit of greedy corporate elitists and hyper-capitalists! I'm glad Pakistan had the courage to stand up against India's hate! I wish they killed every capitalist in India a hundred times over." Now the young man's whole body shook visibly.

    Before the meeting degenerated any further, James Pritchard stepped in. "Perhaps we could table the issues with the war for another time. I’m sure we all agree that the focus at this point needs to be on the flooding and our shared responsibility to find a solution. Gerald? If you and Mr. Linggi could arrange a time to discuss the needs of the farmers during one of the breaks I would appreciate it. Thank you, Mr. Justin." Pritchard’s delivered his words in a manner that put the crowd at ease. "Now I believe we were also going to discuss the federal benefits package associated with this looming environmental crisis?"

    Next up came another Grass Roots activist. Like Taylor Justin, he was young and wore the same hooded sweatshirt, but no beard, probably because he couldn’t grow one. As he climbed up to the podium, Taylor Justin sat down. His face still flushed and his body still shaking.

    I hope this one is better than the last one, James Pritchard thought.

    "Yes, I’m Raymond Lynn. I’m also with Grass Roots. As a Health and Human Services advocate for Grass Roots, I am very excited to announce we will be setting a program to get you all registered for the federal entitlements you. The President has graciously set aside a wide array of benefits each of you will be entitled to in light of this environmental crisis.

    "We will be establishing registration centers at all the still functioning schools starting next week. What we need from the community is to get the word and start raising awareness about the benefits. For those that cannot make it to a registration center, Grass Roots teams will travel to the person's home and register them there. We've posted all this information on the county Grass Roots website, and for those of you who have government-issued cell phones, you can access the information from those as well. We understand that from time to time both the power or the internet goes out unexpectedly, so we've printed out flyers and handouts in the back of the room. Feel free to take as many as you need and hand them out, please. We need your help getting this message out, so everybody is aware. We need everybody to get the benefits they deserve."

    "Just what are these benefits?" Gerry asked.

    Raymond coughed a few times and then nervously shuffled through his papers as he stalled to find an answer. He then gave a stumbling, rambling explanation that circled around itself several times, but never came close to addressing the question. The only things Raymond could state with certainty were that the benefits were something they were all entitled to, and that if flooding or any other disturbance took place, it was India’s fault.

    Somebody in the crowd asked a question, "Every time I try to get information off your website I get prompted to register and fill out about ten screens of questions about myself. Is there a way we can get info off the website without filling out all those profile questions? Some of that information is rather personal."

    Raymond smiled. "I understand your frustration, but we have people fill out those profile questions so we can build databases to better support the community. One of the goals of Grass Roots is to gather community information so we can help you get all the government services you deserve. These are your rights, and nobody in this nation should have to live a life worrying about not getting the services they are entitled too."

    He concluded his ramblings with this statement. "Every one of us is a victim of India’s baseless aggression against its peaceful neighbor. As victims, we are all entitled to compensation for our suffering." Despite his previous ramblings, this was one statement that Raymond said with certainty and confidence, as he’d been fed the line earlier, and rehearsed it many times.

    When the last speaker came to the podium, Sean tensed up, and his face went red. Sitting next to him, Chris could feel rage bubbling up from somewhere deep inside the Boss. This last speaker was the same short round man who waited for James Pritchard at the front door. He looked even more unpleasant now than he before. As unpleasant as he looked, he was even more unpleasant when he started speaking. He spoke to the crowd as if they were idiot children who needed to be dressed down by an older and wiser adult.

    "My name is Hugh Bowden, and I'm the local leader for the Progressive Union. This is entirely unrelated to the floods. As you know the Dignity of Labor Act was recently signed into law. This new law mandates that everybody of working age who is not currently part of another union must join the Progressive Union in the next 30 days. This is regardless of whether you are employed or not. This is for your own good.

    "We’ll have registration stations for you alongside all of the Grass Roots benefits stations. For those of you who are already union members, we need to see your union membership card so we can cross you off our list. You will also have to pay the convenience fee of having us remove you from our union employee database. Like Raymond said, if you know people who cannot make it to a station cuz they are old or disabled or whatever, let us know, and I'll get a local chairman out to their house to register them. In order to receive any benefits from the government, you need to be registered with the union and in good standing. So I want to get you all on the roster and paying your dues as soon as possible. Remember, this is for you. We are doing this so you can’t be exploited by corporate interests or other greedy profiteers who just want to live off of your hard work."

    Chris watched as Sean’s face twisted and he shook his head indicating that joining the Progressive Union wasn’t something he or his men were doing.

    Finished, Hugh walked back to the sidelines. Nobody said anything, but James Pritchard noticed most of the people in the room seemed uneasy after his presentation, especially the farmers. James Pritchard felt a little uneasy too. Flooding and storms were on the way, and these commoners were getting dressed down by union reps and some political appointees, one of whom almost went berserk after just a few questions. James thought that that might not be a good thing for the county, but it might be a good thing for him.

    #

    Outside the hotel, Jim Reegan stood watch over the vehicles and chewed on a blade of grass when the meeting finally ended, and Sean and the rest of the men came out of the hotel. He'd rather be smoking a cigarette than chewing grass, but of course, there weren't many cigarettes around. Getting cigarettes, real cigarettes meant knowing somebody who was tied into the black market or making the run to Canada.

    Sean walked side by side with Chris, but neither talked. That wasn’t uncommon. Sean was very particular about when and where he discussed things. In fact, most of his detailed conversations took place in his truck. As his driver, that put Jim in a position of particular privilege. Strangely, Jim felt proud to be chosen as Sean’s personal driver. It was a pretty big change from public relations, but there wasn’t much need for that particular expertise right now. There was a need for men who were dependable and capable. Jim felt proud that Sean considered him such a man.

    Before they made it to the trucks, the military man approached Sean and Chris. From what Jim could tell, it looked like they knew each other. They shook hands in a way that showed they had known each other long ago.

    "Good to see you, Sean."

    "Good to see you too Ski," Sean replied. That greeting had a whole new meeting these days, since anybody you had not seen recently could very likely be dead. "What’s with the gold oak leaves? I figured you’d be a Lieutenant Colonel by now?"

    Major Ski shrugged. "Congress has pretty much put a halt to officer promotions these days. No money they say. Unless you’re working in the Pentagon and have some political connections, you aren’t getting promoted these days."

    "That’s too bad. You should be running a battalion right now."

    "Well, I guess I am, but a small one. Two rifle companies, and a robust H&S company. They cobbled us together just a few weeks ago and sent us up here from Camp Pendleton."

    "What have they got you doing?"

    "We’re getting back to our naval traditions. We’re beefing up security at the naval communications facility. There is a lot of sensitive stuff there that we wouldn’t want to get looted or sabotaged."

    Sean’s face drew into an easy grin. "So, are they worried about us poor folks storming the naval base with torches and pitchforks?"

    "From what I’ve heard, you ain’t exactly poor. And no, the official word is that we are worried about Indian infiltrators, domestic terrorists, or the Canadian threat." That got a puzzled look from Sean and Chris. Major Ski continued. "It seems there was a conservative backlash in Canada this last election. All the conservative leaning people in Britain and France and the rest of Western Europe moved to Canada, along with a few folks here who didn’t like what was going on. They’ve withdrawn from NATO. They’ve even closed their borders to keep the riffraff out. Too much crime spilling over into their border towns so they said the hell with it. But they ain’t looking to invade us. They just want us to stay the hell out. It’s not your Granddad’s Canada anymore."

    "Thanks," Sean said, adding, "We don’t get much real news." Sean then asked, "What’s going on with the war between India and Pakistan?"

    "A lot," The Major said. "Might be the best thing if you stopped by our command post next week and we can talk about it. The world is changing. The war is what the whole world is watching right now. Nobody cares about our economic collapse anymore. That’s yesterday’s news."

    They talked a little while longer, then they all shook hands and parted. Chris and Sean climbed into Jim's truck. Major Ski watched Sean's men as they ran back and forth, passing last-minute instructions and making minor adjustments to gear. When it finally came time to go and, all six drivers of all six trucks turned the keys in their ignitions simultaneously. The trucks all started as one and pulled out of the parking lot aggressively, other traffic giving them a wide berth.

    Old habits die hard, the Major thought as he watched the column go.

    #

    The trucks cruised down the road at breakneck speed. It wasn't reckless driving, but the vehicles didn't exactly share the road either. To avoid being attacked on the road, it was better to drive aggressive. The six trucks, all looking and moving uniformly, projected what many call a "hard target," meaning it would be hard to attack them successfully. Projecting strength was an essential skill these days.

    Sean and Chris, driven by Jim, rode in the center of the column of trucks. Inside they recapped the meeting and discussed their future moves.

    "So, what did you think about our agricultural and environmental specialist?"

    Sean let out a deep sigh before he answered. "I think if they are really worried about farms being productive, they could find somebody who knows something about agriculture instead of some flunkies from Grass Roots. I also don’t like what that union organizer had to say."

    "I’ll see what I can find out about him."

    "No need. I knew Hugh before the recent… unpleasantness," Sean said. "At least I know his reputation. He was a union organizer down in the Port of Long Beach. He tried to get all the local owner-operator truck drivers to join his union. His most convincing argument was to burn their trucks if they didn’t join. He’s an opportunist thug. He’ll use this Dignity of Labor act to start causing trouble. We’ll need to keep an eye on him.

    "We also need to set up a meeting with Gerry this week. If what the FEMA man said about the floods this winter is true, we’ll have a lot to talk about. Food is always tight. We also still need to visit Tien tonight and Major Ski sometime soon. We’re lucky he’s up here."

    "Yes, we are," Chris answered. "It was good to see him. It's been a long time. I'm glad there was somebody at that meeting we can trust because I don't trust anybody else there."

    They rode on in silence for a little while and then Sean turned on the radio. The news came on, leading with a quick opinion piece titled How We Think, a staple of the state-run media. Jim saw how the commentator’s smooth deep voice came across as convincing.

    "The economic disaster caused by too much individualism in the markets has officially ended thanks to the wise and selfless actions of the senior leaders of our great nation. But now we find ourselves in a new crisis, an environmental crisis, caused by the racist aggression of an intolerant India against not only its neighbor, but the entire peace loving world.

    "As with any crisis, our national leadership is putting together a plan to save our nation from this warrantless aggression. During these trying times, it is crucial that patriotic citizens of all walks of life sacrifice for the collective good. But even more important is for all citizens to show nothing short of exuberant support for whatever policies come forward.

    "It is not enough to work towards the government goals. We must speak out in support of them. We must trust in our hearts to the leadership of our elected officials. To do otherwise is to work against the common good of society. Failure to speak in favor of our nation is no different than speaking against it.

    "In times like these we cannot allow vocal and hateful dissent with our government policies. The 1st amendment notwithstanding, this dissent must be stopped before innocent people, innocent children get hurt. It must be stopped before our planet is further destroyed. It must be stopped so that we can move forward down the path of progress we deserve.

    "I'm John Willis, and this is How We Think."

    Sean leaned forward and turned off the radio with an angry stab of his fingers on the buttons. From the corner of his eye, Jim watched his boss glare angrily out the window for the rest of the ride home.





    Chapter 3

    It was well after midnight when Sean Bastle and his team left their compound to see Tien Nguyen. No streetlights lit the way. Electricity was too valuable to waste out in this part of the county. Only the cities received enough power to run street lights. It didn't matter though. The trucks that made up the column had enough additional off-road lights on them to fully illuminate the twisting roads. The bright lights had the additional advantages of almost blinding any potential attackers and making the convoy look almost like one solid block of light rather than a series of individual vehicles. As well set up as they were, Sean and his men didn't have night vision. They had a few odd devices, but not enough that they could run a convoy blacked-out. Even if they could, Sean wouldn't have allowed it. Driving on night vision even under routine circumstances was dangerous. It was better to just go with the bright lights and present a hard target.

    The convoy cruised easily through the roads and streets of the county. They were the only traffic on the road. These days, people didn’t drive unless they had somewhere to go, and most people had nowhere to go at such a late hour.

    Mixed into the convoy of pickup trucks were some other vehicles. A large panel van and a mini-van cruised along in the center of the convoy. In their vehicle near the front of the convoy, Jim and Sean drove in silence. A static hiss emanated from the truck's four CB radios that allowed Sean to talk on and listen to several channels at once. There was also a scanner that picked up police, fire and EMS traffic. The scanner was quiet, and the CB radios only gave out their hiss. They used the CB channels to control the convoy, but since they made the run to Tien's place so often there wasn't much to discuss.

    Tien’s compound was a strip mall that housed some of Tien’s many businesses. After The Seizure, Tien had the whole thing fortified with a cinderblock wall and a heavy steel gate that blocked the only way in or out. At the gate sat two lions that were carved from stone. The lions were huge, each one as big as the mini-van in Sean's convoy. Tien had them shipped over from Vietnam decades ago. The city of Maysville made a stink when he initially put them in front of his house. Tien had given in to the city's demands and threw them in a warehouse somewhere, but when things fell apart, the Lion's came back out. Now they stood guard at the compound, each illuminated by the flames from a wrought iron basket full of burning wood that hung on the wall above the lions. As he drove his vehicle through the gate, Jim wondered how they moved those lions. Each one must have weighed a couple of tons.

    When the convoy was safely inside the compound, armed men shut the gate behind them. As Jim and Sean climbed out of their truck, a young lady walked towards them. She wasn't armed, but there was a man on either side of her carrying a submachine gun. She was short, about 5' 3" tall, but possessed an air of confidence. She was Tien's niece, Judy, a smart girl who worked hand in hand with Tien to make all the family businesses run efficiently. A few years ago, Judy was at Stanford, working away at an MBA degree. Then some school administrator decided there were too many Asian women in attendance and that just wasn't fair to other ethnic groups. Judy was told to leave. Using bureaucratic logic, the school system explained that because Judy's grades were so high, she made an ideal candidate to be invited to leave because it would be easier for her to enroll in another school than some other student who got worse grades. She was told it was all in the name of fairness. Judy went back to Washington and not too long after that the economy tanked.

    "Tien’s inside. He’s got some stuff for you." She nodded to two vans which had been parked in a neat row separate from the trucks. "Those for us?"

    "They are all for you, them and everything inside."

    "Good, I'll get with Chris and take inventory. Tien's anxious to see you." With that statement, Judy walked off to find Chris with her bodyguards in tow.

    "She’s all business," Jim said.

    "She is. Tien's lucky to have her. Why don't you go see if you can get yourself some cigarettes, Jim?" Jim liked that idea. Both he and his wife smoked, and cigarettes were one of many rare commodities these days. Around the vehicles, the men were making individual trades with some of Tien's men. Chris and Judy stood in the back of the panel van taking inventory. Each van was packed full of goods that Tien could turn on the black market. Rumors circulated that Sean and his men made a nice profit by aquiriing goods and equipment from the businesses that had been seized by the government and then shut down. These goods were then taken to Tien who used his various connections to sell them, sometimes overseas, but mostly across the border in Canada. In return, Sean got foreign goods which were more challenging to come across now that the economy had failed. Already some of his men were loading 50lb sacks of rice into the pickup trucks.

    Inside his conference room, Tien Nguyen sipped a whiskey and cola with Sean and two of his men; Hooker and Davis. Davis was a slim man who looked ten years younger than he actually was. A former Marine scout-sniper, Davis was one of the first veterans to join Sean's private army. Hooker, on the other hand, was big and bald with tattoos running the length of each arm and the look of a bouncer. He also served in the Marines, but as a machine-gunner. Now they served as bodyguards and hired guns. While Sean and Tien were on good terms, Sean wasn’t going to meet him alone.

    "Looks like you brought us quite a haul," Tien said. He lit a cigarette and then nodded to a pile in the corner covered by a tarp. "We've got something for you as well."

    Sean sipped his own drink. The cola was foreign, and you could taste the difference, but it still tasted good. "We saw Judy outside. It seems like she's really on top of things."

    "She is," Tien said as he slid a packet of bills wrapped in paper across the table to Sean. "She has a real head for business. It was too bad about UCLA. I have a plan though. I’ll get her into a school across the border in Vancouver. She can still get an education there."

    Sean took a sip of his own and asked, "What’s the money for?"

    "For keeping my competition in Leddersville away. They have had an eye on my business for a while now. If it wasn't for you, I'm sure they'd have taken me out of the picture by now." A small town north of them near the Canadian border, Leddersville was home to another smuggling outfit which competed directly with Tien.

    "What’s under the tarp?" Sean asked, gesturing with his glass.

    One of Tien's guards pulled up the tarp revealing a small stack of wooden crates, metal ammo cans, and a few old canvas duffle bags. The guard opened two of the duffle bags and pulled out five assault rifles; Chinese copies of the AK-47. Each rifle looked old and battered, with the spike type bayonets that folded back into the forestock. Next came a set of metal ammo cans that made a loud thud on the conference table. Inside were half-dozen old foreign fragmentation grenades with bodies made out of a green tinted plastic that allowed you to see the shrapnel inside.

    "I think you'll like this last one most of all," Tien said. He opened the last duffels and revealed a pair of light machine guns; An RPK and its older cousin, an RPD. Each looked unused, like it spent most of its life in an armory resting in a rifle rack. Hooker picked up each weapon one at a time checked them for functionality. A weapons expert, Hooker made sure they were in operating conditions and then nodded to Sean. "They all work. They aren't new, but they'll do the job."

    Just then Judy walked into the room with Chris. She didn’t miss a beat. "We’ve got plenty of magazines for those rifles and belts for the RPD. Each of those wood crates holds a thousand rounds of ammo

    Tien jumped back into the conversation. "I can get more weapons like these. Lots of weapons are coming in from China now. It’s easy for me to get my hands on them."

    "What kind of weapons?" Hooker asked.

    "Small arms. Assault rifles mostly, maybe some heavier stuff. The U.S. government is buying them up." When Tien said this, Sean and all his men thought the same thing; why would the U.S. government import old Chinese small-arms.

    "What are they gonna do when they find out you're getting your share of their shipments?" Sean asked.

    "Who, the Feds?"

    "No, the Chinese."

    "They don't care where the weapons go, as long as they get their money. Besides, they know Americans love guns, and they know some will make it to the black market. As long as the bosses get their cut, which they will, they couldn't care less whose hands the guns end up in."

    "Well, keep ‘em coming, Tien," Sean said. "We can always use more weapons. Ammo is better than guns though."

    Tien nodded and then killed his drink. He leaned forward in his seat to be closer to Sean. "Sean, let me ask you something. What do you think about that union man today? I don’t like him. I think he’s going to cause trouble. I don’t want him coming around here stirring up my people. This is my business, a family business. I don’t need a union shop here, and I really don’t need him."

    "I think your right, Tien. I'm sure you know about what he did in LA."

    "I do. Some of those trucks Hugh burned belonged to members of my family. I don't want any of my trucks here getting burned. He's a thug and a thief, who will cause problems for me. Problems I don't need." Tien looked at his family members, carefully considering his words and his audience before continuing. "Sean, how much would it cost for you to make him, disappear?"

    Chris looked shocked at such a proposal, but Hooker and Davis didn’t seem the least bit disturbed. Sean leaned forward in his seat towards Tien.

    "Tien, I’m not assassinating anybody."

    "You killed all those gang members for the Sheriff."

    "That was different."

    "How was it different?"

    "It just was, and I'm not going to argue about that. We won't do murder for hire."

    "You know he’s going to cause us all problems. It would save us a lot of trouble to kill him now."

    Sean leaned back in his chair again. "Tien, you are probably right about that. But for now, we aren’t killing him. And I don’t want you killing him either. If he starts burning stuff or roughing people up, then we’ll take another look at it. But for now, no murders."

    Tien shrugged. "Okay, Sean. I'll leave him alone. For now."

    #

    When the meeting ended and everything was loaded up, the convoy headed back. Sean and Jim rode with Chris in the back seat. Chris sat almost sideways so he could get a better view out the side window. He held a military-style carbine which he kept up with the barrel pointed out so he could employ it with ease should the need arise.

    "What do you want to do with the weapons, Boss?" Chris asked.

    "Hide them. Let's keep the grenades hidden too. Things may be chaotic, but it is still against the law to have those types of weapons. The last thing I want is some weapons charges."

    Sean looked over at Jim. He had a legal, civilian version of the same assault rifles they got from Tien wedged between his seat and the door, one of many weapons Sean handed out from his personal supply once things got bad. A folding stock and a 20 round magazine made the rifle easier to the handle from the inside of the car. Jim also wore a pistol in a holster on his chest to make it easier to draw while seated behind the wheel. Two more pistols were secreted about the vehicle so that either Sean or Jim could draw and employ them with minimal effort.

    "How did it go tonight?" Jim asked.

    "Went well, except for the parts about where we started talking about assassinations."

    That startled Jim, and it showed on his face. Sean grinned.

    "Tien asked if we could take care of this union organizer who showed up at the meeting." Jim looked at Sean like he was joking. "I’m serious," Sean added.

    "What did you say?"

    "Well," Sean said. "I’ve got no problem killing somebody who needs to be killed, but this ain’t a murder for hire ring. I’m not going to just go out and assassinate this union guy, just because he may cause us all problems in the future."

    "But you think you may have to kill him at some point?"

    "Well, I'd prefer not to kill anybody. Things being what they are, that may not be realistic. If I have to kill somebody to protect my family, my friends, and this little community we got going on, I’ll kill them."

    "Even if they aren’t threatening us directly?" Jim asked.

    Sean shrugged. "A man doesn’t have to be coming at you with a gun to be a threat, certainly not the really dangerous ones. This union guy for example. He can cause all kinds of problems for us without ever pulling a gun. He can mandate that we all join his union and start paying him union dues. He can make Tien, or maybe even us, hire people we don’t want to hire because they have seniority on some list of his. He can generally come in here and use a bunch of laws and union bylaws to take away our wealth for his benefit. So yes, if he starts doing things like that, I might see to it that he stops it, one way or another."

    "I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate here, Boss, but does that really give you the right to kill him?"

    "Well," Sean said, thinking a few seconds before he spoke. "I can't take him to the courts, because the courts are all corrupt and want to rule by empathy rather than by law. I can't go to the media, because they are now run by the state, the same state that mandated we all join his union in fact. I can't go to my local politicians, because most of them are too busy worrying about staying in the good graces of the fed or the party so they can get re-elected that they don't have the time to worry about the people they were supposed to support. So since I have no other civilized recourse, what am I to do? Am I to bow down to this bully? What if he starts burning our property like he did down in LA? If people have no civilized options to resolve their problems, they will resort to less than civilized means."

    "But what if you had to do that? What if you had to assassinate somebody? How would you know you made the right choice? Or better yet, how would we know you were making the right choice?"

    "Well Jim, I’d say that I’d hope that you’d all have at least a little faith that as your leader I was making the right decisions when the difference between the right decision and the wrong decision weren’t so clear."

    "Okay Boss," Jim said, "But just playing Devil’s Advocate again, but if that is the case, what is the difference between you and some of these idiots that got us into this mess."

    "Easy Jim. They sought out power so they could personally benefit from it. They chose power so they can serve themselves. I’m doing this to serve our community."

    "Yes, but isn’t that what all those politicians always say? So how do we know you’re different?"

    Sean smiled. "I guess you’ll have to have a little faith.

    #

    While Sean and his companions drove back from Tien's, James Pritchard sat at his desk reading through a classified report. He'd read it three times already this week, and tonight he would reread it again. The report listed various metrics and indicators of the state of the U.S. economy, none of them remotely good. One number in particular kept coming up; 90 days.

    Commissioned by the administration and conducted by a select group of experts in government and academia, the first part of the study detailed the current economic, social and political situation of the U.S. and concluded that in the next 90 days drastic measures had to be taken. What was once the most powerful nation in the world would soon collapse under its own weight. As incompetent as most of the federal leadership was, James Pritchard knew that they weren’t going to let the government just collapse. That’s what The Readjustment had been about two years ago. But The Readjustment resulted in less productivity, which meant less tax revenue, which meant less money for the government and now something else had to be done. There was still plenty of wealth out there; they just had to come up with a plan to get it, and it appeared that they had. That was the second part of the study.

    Unlike other government publications, which ran with thousands of pages of legalese, the second part of the study provided a short, concise document that outlines how a fundamental transformation of the United States would take place, putting it on a new track not only economically, but socially and politically as well.

    As James thumbed through the creased and coffee stained pages, the phone rang. Seized with a little paranoia, he shut the report and quickly hid it under a pile of inconsequential papers. Only then did he answer the phone.

    "Congressman Pritchard."

    "James, this is General Tanner."

    Relieved, James’s face brightened. "Bill, how are you? Is the title still General or is it Under Secretary now?"

    There came a short burst of feigned laughter on the other end of the line. "Either one will do. I got your call. What can I do for you?"

    "I need some information on current and ex-members of the military, all Marines I think. Can you do that for me?"

    "Well James, that is my specialty now. Who are they?"

    "The first is Major Karl Polakatanski, he's a Marine, active duty and in charge of security at the Naval Center here. The second is Chris Lindsey, I think he was a Marine, but now he's a civilian. The last one maybe was a Marine too, but I don't know. His name is Sean Bastle." When the conversation ended James hung up and dug the report back out of its hiding place. He moved his hand across the now worn cover, tracing the words of the title with his fingers.

    The Great American Leap Project

    An Enlightened Approach to Our Nation’s Future.

    He took the report and locked it away in a desk drawer. Tomorrow he needed to make another important phone call. When the powers that be made their move, he was going to ensure he’d be in a position to take full advantage of it.





    Chapter 4

    The morning broke, cold, gray and wet. A misty drizzle came down, making everything seem depressing. Sheriff Maltby certainly felt depressed, but it wasn't due to the weather. He had meetings and conferences with various government officials all afternoon and into the evening. When you attend one meeting after another, it is hard to get real work done. Last year, when crime was rampant and tough decisions had to be made, half these officials couldn't be found, much less available for meetings. Now it seemed he was in four or five meetings a day, most of which resolved little but wasted valuable time.

    The issue that had his attention this morning, however, involved real police work. Sprawled out on the ground in front of him were the bodies of three dead raiders. The man who killed them was sprawled out not too far away in the doorway of the home he tried to defend. It was another home invasion. The Sheriff looked at the bodies of the raiders. They had not been alone. Whoever came with them and survived had stripped them of any identification as well as their arms and anything else of value. The Sheriff suspected they also took their colors. He had heard through law enforcement networks that an outlaw biker gang had moved north from parts of Southern Washington and Oregon. This outlaw motorcycle gang called themselves The Mutants. The Mutants were into a variety of illegal activities before the Seizure, and it was unlikely they had changed for the better now that everything had gone to hell. They modeled their operation along the same lines as the most ruthless of the Mexican drug syndicates. They actively recruited from people who had backgrounds in the military and law enforcement. That made for a criminal gang that was organized, technically and tactically proficient and had insights into all aspects of law enforcement and criminal justice. There had been two home invasions just like this in the last two weeks. If the Mutants were expanding into his county, the Sheriff would need more men and more resources to stop them.

    As Sheriff, his job was often more administrative in nature than operational. He didn't kick in doors anymore. Instead, he lobbied with politicians to get his department the resources they needed. Unlike some, he never worked to get the "cool-to-haves" but only what was absolutely required. He had always tried to be frugal and responsible with the taxpayers' money, and he prided himself on that. But what he needed now more than anything was more deputies. His county spanned a broad and diverse area. The eastern edge extended up into the Cascade Mountains. The Western edge of the county ended at the shores of Puget Sound. To the South, just at the county line was the last of the urban sprawl stretching out from the City of Seattle. To the North of the county were more farmlands, with the farms getting bigger and the population getting smaller the further north you went until you finally got to Canada, only a few hours away. The county had a colossal aircraft manufacturing facility, which was now just hanging on and only producing at subsistence levels. The county also hosted the naval facility equipped with special gear to talk to the Pacific submarine fleet. Throughout the county were several railroad lines which connected Seattle with Canada to the north and the mountain passes through the Cascades. But the primary money maker for the county was the farmland. Running north to south through the center of the county was prime agricultural land which was now valuable not just for the economic welfare of the county, but to the very survival of the people that lived there. From the mountains to the coastal shores, and from rural farmlands to suburban sprawl, it all made for a very diverse community which required a lot of manpower to police, even before the economic collapse, and even without the possibility of the Mutants.

    But getting more deputies meant political maneuverings. In a world of scarce resources, nobody was going to just give him more deputies, outlaw bikers or not. He could always go back to Sean, but he had reservations about that. Sean was capable, but he was a private citizen, not a cop. Sean’s warlord status worried the Sheriff too much as it was, he really didn’t want to be adding further legitimacy to it. Sean meant well, and the Sheriff trusted him, to a degree, but once you go down some roads, it is hard to turn back around.

    #

    The day started with a trip to visit Major Ski and his Marines who were in the process of getting moved in. It was the same day that environmental crisis benefits registration was supposed to kickoff, so Jim knew he and Sean had a long day ahead of him. While the rest of the team and vehicles parked a safe distance away, Sean and Chris went to the base in one truck with Jim driving. Everybody thought it was a good idea not to approach the Marine encampment in a convoy of vehicles loaded for bear and bristling with weapons.

    The Navy built this communications station into the base of Cascade Mountains. Nestled in the middle of a lush evergreen forest, the station housed a complex array of equipment which facilitated communications with the submarine fleet throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans.

    At the main gate, the Marine guards confirmed everybody's credentials, then directed them up to the main facility with an escort and strict orders not to deviate off the main road. This compound was designed to be secluded, a trait necessary for its Cold War functions. Because of this, most of the station was wet, evergreen forest. The road wound back and forth through the greenery until it came to the main complex. A few rows of functional concrete buildings sat next to two huge blast doors set into a sheer face of solid granite. The communications gear the Marines protected sat somewhere past those blast doors, and down somewhere in the depths of the mountains

    Sean and the others pulled into a staging area near the buildings. It appeared to be sheer anarchy. Waves of Marines and Sailors moved back and forth, all in various stages of unloading, moving, and setting up all their gear, supplies, weapons, vehicles and communications equipment. It was chaos, but a controlled chaos that could only be understood and appreciated by somebody who had experienced it first-hand. Trucks were being unloaded and reloaded. Packing containers of every shape and size were being emptied. From somewhere came the smell of food being cooked and from somewhere else the smell of garbage being burned. The sound of heavy metal music echoed out of the back of an armored vehicle. There was an unbelievable amount of shouting and angry yells. Noisy generators pumped out thick smoke with a dull roar. Forklifts beeped and whirred loudly as they moved pallets of gear.

    All this chaos was being orchestrated by a single conductor. In the center of it all was a thick Master Sergeant who barked out orders mixed with a liberal amount of profanity. He was armed only with a clipboard and a clerk that stood by his side.

    "What," the Master Sergeant demanded when Sean and his entourage walked up.

    Chris answered. "We had an appointment to see Major Polakatanski."

    The Master Sergeant gave them a look of contempt for a few seconds. Then his expression changed to one of curiosity. "You a pilot?" He asked Chris.

    "I was."

    "Did you fly Skids?"

    "Yup. Flew snakes out of the East Coast."

    The Master Sergeant nodded. "You ever do a FAC tour?"

    Chris smiled. "I was a Forward Air Controlled for America’s battalion for a tour overseas. Then I got bumped up to the Battalion Air Officer for their next tour overseas."

    The Master Sergeant nodded approval. "Yes Sir, I remember you. I got plenty to do unscrewing this mess, Lance Corporal James will take you to see the Six." He turned to his clerk. "James, take these gentlemen to the Battalion Commander. Don’t get them lost and don’t screw it up."

    The Lance Corporal answered with a quick, "Yes Top," then led the men into one of the buildings. Inside it was just as loud and chaotic as it was outside; shouting and yelling, the crashing sounds of equipment moving back and forth. As they walked down a hallway, they passed a group of Marines pounding on pipes with sledgehammers for no discernable reason.

    Moving along a corridor, they finally made it to an office where Major Ski was camped out. The Lance Corporal and Jim left the room so the others could talk alone. The Major actually had some coffee. It was instant, but it was a nice break from tea.

    "I was wondering when you were going to show up," the Major said. "I would have given you both a call, but I don’t have a number for either of you. I don’t suppose either of you have a cell phone?" As bad as the economy was, phone service, even cell phone service was still available. But landlines were unreliable. The wires were usually torn down and stolen. People still had cell phones though, almost all of them now government issued. The government had determined that a cellular network was too vital to fail. All the telecommunications companies had been taken over and consolidated into one government subsidized company.

    "We don’t have cell phones, I’m sure you can imagine why," Sean said, then asked, "What do they have you doing out here?"

    The Major pointed out the window to the blast doors. "That is the mission. There are transmitters underneath that mountain, and we don't want anybody messing with them. This ad hoc battalion of mine was put together specifically for that purpose. They cobbled us together at Camp Pendleton two months ago and sent us up here."

    "A battalion is a lot of people for a security mission," Chris said.

    "Personnel are no object anymore," the Major answered. He took a bottle of whiskey out of his desk and offered everybody some flavor to the coffee. "The Joint Chiefs got Congress to lift the total force limits on personnel. Some say they are using that as a way to fight unemployment. In fact, one of James Pritchard’s last acts was to co-sponsor the bill to lift the force caps. He said the U.S. military is the nation’s greatest make-work program and we need to use it as such." Major Ski swished the coffee around a few times in his cup then added, "Others say they want as many men in uniform as possible in case we have another civil war on our hands."

    "People taking that talk seriously?" Sean asked.

    "The official answer is no. The media makes light of all the succession talk, ridiculing the notion of it. Of course, the media is controlled by the Fed now so they’d announce the sky is yellow if that was the party line. But unofficially, yeah the talk is serious. Before we left Camp Pendleton, the Commanding General of the MEF was flying out to meet with the governor of Texas or Wyoming or some other state every month. There’s been talk about secession for a long time but with the way things are… the unemployment and inflation and maybe a lot of hungry people, who knows? When governments are bankrupt and people are hungry, things happen. You know that."

    "What’s going on with India and Pakistan, Ski?"

    "Almost all the Muslim world has joined with Pakistan, at least in spirit. The Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz just got shut down. They are trying to stop the flow of oil into India, but with Canada and Alaska pumping oil out like water, that isn't going to be the show stopped they hope. The European Union also passed a declaration that labeled India as a "Racist State," whatever that means."

    "Anybody on India’s side?"

    "Australia and New Zealand and Canada are diplomatically, but they haven’t committed any troops. The big question is what will China do? Right now they are making a ton of money, building arms and equipment for both sides. But China can’t like the idea of some modern-day Caliphate so close to its border."

    There was a pause as everybody took it all in. It looked like World War III was about to erupt, without the United States. Sean thought about that. A World War without the United States, and all because the government broke the bank. Then Sean remembered the other night at Tien’s.

    "Ski, any idea why the U.S. would be buying old school small arms from China?"

    Major Ski looked at the door to make sure it was closed. "Ever hear of the P.A.?" Chris and Sean looked at each other, and both shook their heads. "The P.A. stands for Progressive Auxiliary. Remember when there was talk about creating a domestic security force, one on par with the military? The P.A. is it. There is a rumor they are recruiting folks for this P.A. out of the Grass Roots camps all over the country. They are buying up weapons from China to arm them all."

    "Why would they buy Chinese weapons?"

    The Major laughed. "There aren’t many gun factories left. With the Seizure, the Government seized most of the gun factories. Now they’ve either been run into the ground or shut down for political reasons. Congress ratified some anti-gun U.N. treaty a few months ago to try to get back in the good graces of the world. Guess it didn’t work because the U.N. still hates us. So, since we decided we weren’t going to make guns here, we now have to buy them somewhere else, like China. Plus, AK-47 platforms have always been seen as a symbol of the people’s struggle. What better weapon to arm the Progressive Auxiliary with? They see themselves as revolutionaries building a socially just society. I’d be willing to bet they chose that particular weapon largely for what it symbolizes."

    "Power to the people," Chris said. "That’s all we need, a civil defense force named after a political ideology."

    "That’s usually one of the key elements to starting a dictatorship," Sean added, "A quasi-governmental paramilitary force able to operate outside the boundaries of your more conventional institutions." Sean then asked, "Ski, anything we can do for you?"

    "Glad you asked," the Major replied. "What I need are workers. As you saw on the way in, this place is a mess. It was never designed to house this many people. We need to fix this it up, make it defendable and make it livable before we all get sick. I've got fortifications to build, sandbags to fill, razor wire to string, rooms to clean out. Basically, I need to build a new base. I've got Marines, but they need to pull security and perform other tasks. I could use some help."

    Sean and Chris both looked at each other. Sean turned to Ski and said, "If you need workers, we can get them."

    "That would be a help. I can hire civilian laborers, no problem," Major Ski said. "I’d be glad to have them."

    Chris asked, "Do we need to bid on a contract or anything like that?"

    "Nope, we're doing this counter-insurgency style. Cash. Workers show up, and they get cash in their hands at the end of the week. No contracts, no bidding, no going through a sheik or a strongman, nothing like that. You work, you get paid. Easy"

    "What about the Dignity of Labor act," Jim asked timidly from the corner. All eyes turned onto him. Major Ski considered Jim before answering. The man wasn’t military, and thus not part of the group, a fact Jim was well aware of. Finally, the Major answered.

    "The military is exempt from this union business. So nobody will have to join any shop or anything like that."

    Sean and Chris both smiled. "We can give you fifty guys starting this week, good guys, all real workers."

    Ski laughed. "How about twenty guys, and a foreman? I can’t afford more than that."

    "Ok. I'll have them here just as soon as we can figure out transportation. Maybe a day or two. Anything else we can do for you Ski?"

    "Once we get set up, I’ll need you to show me around the area. Let me know who is who around here. Get me oriented. You know. But is there anything I can do for you?"

    "Yes," Sean replied quickly. "Keep the information coming. We don’t get much outside news we trust. It seems like national and world events could have a very direct effect on us."

    "No problem with there," the Major said. "But let’s make sure information flow goes both ways, okay?"

    #

    After the meeting, Sean and the others drove back to the rest of their convoy which was staged in a lot not far from the base. Jim pulled back in with the rest of the vehicles, where team milled about, anxious to get moving. Hooker and Davis walked up to Jim's truck. Jim rolled down the window, and Davis leaned inside to speak. "Boss, Gerry Sheely called for us. He wants us to meet him out at his place in the valley. He says it’s real important."

    #

    "Can you believe this," Gerry yelled. "Because I sure as hell can’t!" Sean and Chris were in Gerry’s house, along with a half dozen other farmers. Like Gerry, the other farmers were agitated. The registration process for the federal benefits did not go as advertised in the county meeting.

    Gerry continued. He was standing and waving his arms wildly as he spoke. "My wife and I went in to sign up for our benefits, but before we could get any, you had to fill out this ten-page form. Well, the first page was typical government form stuff, name address that sort of thing, but the rest of the form was personal questions. Questions those bastards at Grass Roots have no business knowing. There were questions like, how much money do you make a year? Do you have money stored outside the U.S.? Do you own gold or silver? Do you own a firearm? There was even a question on that form that asked which presidential candidates you voted for in previous elections."

    "So what did you do," Sean asked. While the others were agitated, Sean kept a coldly calm demeanor. The business at hand had implications that reached far beyond what was advertised.

    "I told those Grass Roots people they had no right to ask us those questions, and they told me that their policy was if the form wasn’t filled out, then no benefits. I told them that was bullshit. They couldn’t withhold medical treatment because I wouldn’t fill out their forms, and they said that was the policy and we had to adhere to it.

    "Well, I wasn’t going to fill out their forms. So I told them we were leaving. When we tried to leave, they told us we couldn’t! Those little punks said it was against the law to not get signed up for benefits. They told me that my wife and I were under arrest! I pushed my way past them and drove back here." While Gerry spoke, somebody handed Sean a copy of the Grass Roots forms. Sean read over them carefully.

    "And what went on at the registration stations isn’t even the bad part," Gerry continued. "The bad part is what took place at the schools. Those Grass Roots people were asking our kids the same questions; what kind of work do your parents do? Do your parents keep guns in the house? Do you parents have more than a week of food in the house? Do your parents own gold or silver? The list goes on and on. They are using our children to get information on us, and they are using this pretext of this crisis to set it all up! Where the hell are we living? This isn’t America anymore! How can they do this! How can they say, you have to fill out this form to get your benefits, and if you refuse either one you are breaking the law?"

    Sean answered. "They have the power to make the rules, and they are all either greedy or blinded by their belief in the party line." Sean looked at the man with the black eye. "But I don’t think the Grass Roots kids gave you a shiner. What happened there?"

    "The union men," the older man answered, gingerly touching his eye. "The union men did this."

    Sean boiled inside at that statement, but outside he kept his calm demeanor "So what happened?"

    "A little later in the day, men from the Progress Union showed up and set up their registration stations. As people came in to get shots, they first had to go through the union men, just like they had to go through the Grass Roots people. Well, the union men made you show them your union card. If you didn’t have one, you had to join the Progress Union right there on the spot. You had to pay a month’s worth of union dues right there too. Well, who has that kind of money in their wallet? For most people, they just took what they had right there and called it good. Here we are trying to do what we are told, and we get shaken down. It was a total hustle. Highway robbery."

    "So how did you get the shiner?"

    The old man continued. "I didn’t have money for their dues. When they found out I was a farmer, they told me I could pay my union dues for the year by signing over a percentage of my crop. Ten percent! I said no way. No way I was going to give them that much. The shoved a form letter in front of me. It was a blanket form for any farmer to fill out. If you don’t have the cash for your union dues, you just sign over a blanket ten percent of your crop. Let me tell you something, ten percent of my crop is worth a hell’uva lot more than a year of union dues. I refused to sign it, and one of them roughed me up. Then another one took my wife into another room. They told me if I didn't want my wife to get hurt I'd sign the form. My wife is 63! Who are these people? Who do they think they are? After that we all headed over here to Gerry's and got a hold of your boys on the CB."

    Some of the other farmers nodded in agreement and told similar stories. The Grass Roots people wanted their information, and the Progress Union people wanted members and union dues. The flood, which had seemed such a priority at the county meeting, was an afterthought. Sean let the rest of the farmers talk to Chris and pulled Gerry aside into another room so they could talk alone.

    "Gerry, how many of your people signed those forms?"

    Gerry looked upset. "More than a few. It was robbery Sean. These guys can’t give up ten percent of their crops! What are we going to do?"

    "Let’s not worry about that now," Sean said. "Harvest is a long way oanythingff, so we got time to figure this union crap out. I'm more concerned about the floods. Do you think about what the FEMA man said about the rains is right?"

    Gerry walked over to a window and pulled back the curtains. He pointed to east. Gunmetal gray mountains capped with white stretched up to a pale grey sky. "In the winter, lots of runoff comes down from those mountains." He brought his finger down and traced along a river running through the valley. It was easy to pick out the river because its sides had built up with huge mounds of earth. "The runoff hits that river and flows through this valley. That river is likely to flood every winter when we have a long stretch of rain. That is why there are dikes built up alongside it. But if we have double the rainfall this year," Gerry paused and shook his head. "If we have double the rainfall this year, then this whole valley will be flooded. We may not have houses floating away, but I imagine our fields will be underwater for a long time."

    "So what are you going to need to mitigate this?"

    Gerry shrugged his shoulders. "We’ll need earth moving equipment to build dikes and dams to keep the water out. We’ll also need pumping equipment, and fuel to run everything. The FEMA guy seems to know what he’s doing. He’s got dredging equipment out and he’s going to start clearing out the river this week. He’s also going to help us with some flood insurance, for whatever that is worth."

    "He said he can help you get the equipment you need."

    The career farmer nodded. "I think he can. He has access to all the assets and equipment the government seized." Gerry sat down on an old chair. "I hope he can. It would be nice to get some good news every so often. It’s been one struggle after another for the last two years. One more big setback and I think a lot of these farmers will up and quit. Canada ain’t that far."

    "Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that." Sean also sat down. "I’ll see what help I can give you with the equipment, Gerry. I need you to have a good crop as much as you do. So does Tien." Tien’s trucks moved Gerry produce to market. "We’ll give you whatever help we can."

    "I appreciate that Sean."

    "What else is going on? Any good news?"

    "Well," Gerry started. "We got a few new neighbors now. We took some folks in from the city. Good folks, not riff-raff. Since we had plenty of empty houses after the flu pandemic, we decided to let some folks move in vice living on the road. If we didn’t, some of those people would have no other choice than to go to the refugee camps."

    "You gonna get these people farming," Sean asked. The tone of his question was skeptical.

    "Maybe," Gerry said. "We’ll teach them if they are willing to learn. Some of them have paying jobs, so they just live in the houses and we work the acreage."

    "What kind of jobs?"

    "Oh, a few are still working at the aircraft plant and some others here and there. Of course, there isn’t much out there."

    Sean turned towards the window. He heard the sound of an engine and the crunch of tires on gravel. A vehicle was coming down the drive towards the house. It was a big blue monster, the kind the government used. Sean stood up.

    "Gerry, you expecting anybody else to show up?"

    #

    Jim was out in the yard, enjoying a cigarette from a few cartons he'd managed to get at Tien's. The yard was typical of the farmhouses in the area. There were a few barns close by, as well as tractors and other farm equipment. Sean's men had tucked their trucks in amongst the farm equipment and outbuildings as best they could so as not to be seen from the road that ran in front of the house. While traveling, they tried to present as formidable looking convoy as possible. When they got where they were going, however, Sean preferred that they remained as hidden as possible. Sean preferred that people didn't know where he went or who he talked to. Information was a weapon, he said. The less information your enemies had access to, the better, especially when that information is about you.

    A little way off from where Jim was smoking, some of the other men were talking and joking. They were the veterans. Jim had been Sean's driver for quite a while now, but he still didn't always get the unconditional acceptance of the veterans. He knew they shared the common bond of being prior military. Many of them had even served together in combat. Jim suspected that many of them had served with Sean in combat too, although nobody ever spoke on that subject. It troubled Jim a little that he wasn't always part of the group. Of course, his background was much different from the rest of the men. He had never served in the military. In fact, before The Seizure, he had been a strong supporter of the politics and policies of the party that had more or less bankrupt the United States and caused so many of the problems they were faced with today. In fact, when he had first shown up to Cascadian Meadows, many of the veterans wanted Sean to throw him and his family out on their asses. That had changed over time. Now he considered many of them friends. But friends or not, in their eyes Jim was still untested. They had the shared experience of being in the military, and of being in combat. Until Jim had also faced combat, he would be an outsider to some extent.

    It was while he was out in the yard, smoking a cigarette and thinking these deep thoughts that one of the veterans spoke in a calm, but loud and clear voice. "Car coming." Jim turned his head towards a car making its way from the main road down the long gravel driveway. One of the Veterans lifted a scoped rifle up to his cheek to get a better view, a civilian version of the M14 rifle. The name of the man with the rifle was Cody. He was another Marine. "Five military-age men in the car," Cody said. "No weapons that I can see. Looks like they are all dressed the same."

    The men inside must not have seen Jim or any of the others. That or they were too confident to care. When the car pulled up all five of them piled out and carried that air about them like they were invincible. Two of the men reached into the car after they got out and pulled out some baseball bats. A few of the men had pistols tucked into their waistbands. They all wore jackets with ‘Progressive Union' written on the breast and the union's crest emblazoned on the back. Before the men realized what was going on around them, about a half dozen of Sean's men came out from behind the outbuildings and farm equipment. Compared to Sean's men, the union men were pitifully armed. Most of Sean's men carried a civilian version of a military carbine, each rifle customized to its owner's tastes. The few that didn't carry carbines had either tactical shotguns or civilian versions of a battle rifle. Each also carried a pistol, and some type of webbing system loaded with spare magazines and other essentials. Even Jim, who arrived at the compound without a weapon, was fully armed and equipped.

    The man who was the leader of the union men looked around but seemed unimpressed. "We’re here to see that farmer," he said, pointing at the house.

    Nobody said anything.

    "We’re here to see that farmer. He and the other farmers need to register with the union. In fact, all of you need to register with the union."

    Still, none of Sean's men said anything.

    "So you got guns, so what?" The union man seemed a little too smug. "You ain’t going to use them. You aren’t dumb enough to tangle with us. Now I want to talk to that farmer that’s been stirring up all this trouble. We know he’s inside. Organizing labor against union organizing is a violation of the law."

    It was then the door to the farmhouse opened. Sean and Gerry both walked out on to the porch. A few other farmers followed them onto the porch. The rest, perhaps a little timid at the prospect of a gun battle about to erupt in Gerry Sheely’s driveway, watched through the windows.

    "What’s up?" Sean asked. The question was directed at Hooker, not the union thugs.

    One of the other union men pointed at Gerry Sheely with the end of a baseball bat. "This man was supposed to join the union when he went to the hospital. He didn’t, and he’s been telling all these other farmers not to join either. He’s stirring up trouble."

    Sean didn't say anything. He just glared at the leader of the union man. That glare spoke louder than words. Jim and the others didn't speak either. They stood stoically. The break in conversation got uncomfortable. When the lead union man spoke again, his voice carried less confidence.

    "He’s breaking the law," The leader said. "He’s going to register with the union and pay his union dues today. He has to. It’s the law."

    Sean turned to Gerry and casually asked, "You want to join this guy’s union?"

    "No."

    Sean turned back to the union man and said in the same casual tone, "He ain’t joining. Go away."

    "He has to join. He's joining, and according to the law, you are too." The union man's voice broke a little at the end. Jim saw his expression change as well. Fear replaced confidence. The realization that the bully tactics they'd used in the past weren't going to work today was slowly sinking in.

    "Why? Why do I have to join the union? So my labor isn't exploited? I'm self-employed. The only person who can exploit my labor is me. And even if I worked for somebody, if they tried to exploit me, I'd quit. The way I see it, it's the Progressive Union that is doing the exploiting. The way I see it, I can take care of myself. We all can take care of ourselves. We don't need your help. And we don't need any help from all these other thugs that take our money or freedom in the name of helping us."

    "It’s the law," the union man replied. "Everybody has to join a union."

    "It isn’t law, it was an executive order, and it doesn’t matter because it isn’t constitutional."

    "It’s still the law."

    "If it ain’t Constitutional, it ain’t the law."

    "It don’t matter what you think."

    "It does matter," Sean said. "And it especially matters to you. I think right here, right now, amongst all these men with guns, and these wide open fields where I can bury five men without any trouble, I think it does matter what I think. I think you should be very concerned with what I think, since I can kill you right now where you stand."

    The union man didn't say anything. The others shifted their feet nervously. Hooker moved to the side of the union men with a semi-automatic shotgun. He held the weapon casually at his chest, but only a fool couldn't tell he could go from casual to lethal in the blink of an eye. All of Sean's men could. The union man realized that the guns these guys carried weren't just for show. These hardened men would kill them if their boss told them to. The leader of the men took in Sean's entirely too calm demeanor. He took in the ugly scar on Sean's face. The union man had seen a lot in his day. He'd been in more than a few standoffs, and he knew almost all of the time it was all show. People most often didn’t want to fight, they just liked to bluster. It was usually just a case of brinksmanship where the side who could puff out their chest the biggest one. These were tactics that served him well in the past. But looking into Sean’s eyes as he stood on the porch, the union leader realized this wasn’t a case of brinksmanship. This was a case where he could reasonably expect to be shot. He was outmatched, outgunned, outwitted and out of his class. He may have been able to bully, threaten and intimidate to get what he wanted in the past, but not today. Here he might be murdered where he stood.

    "Do you have a cell phone?" Sean asked.

    "What?"

    "A cell phone, do you have one?"

    The man didn’t answer. He wanted to, but he was so perplexed by the question he couldn’t speak. Here were these men with guns who might shoot him down in this country driveway and he was being asked about a cell phone?

    Sean spoke calmly. "Cody," he ordered. "Get his phone."

    Cody walked up to the lead union man, un-slinging his rifle on the way. "Phone," He said. The man didn’t move. In an instant, Cody slammed the butt of his rifle into the man’s thigh. The man dropped like a rock to the ground, screaming. Two of the other men took a step forward but were stopped by raised weapons aimed at their faces. Jim brought his own weapon up just as Hooker and the others had trained him.

    Cody slung his rifle and snatched the pistol from the man's belt as he writhed on the ground holding his thigh. Next, he fished out a cell phone. Cody held it up and then tossed the phone to Sean.

    When the man on the ground composed himself, Sean walked down off the porch and up to him.

    "What’s your name," Sean demanded.

    "Joe, Joe Salazar."

    "Cody, get his ID. Joe, let me tell you how this works. I have your phone, which means I have all the information stored in your phone. If you come back here and stir up trouble, if you continue on your union style intimidation campaign, this is what I do. I use the info in this phone to find the people you care about; your friends and your family members, and then I launch an intimidation campaign of my own. Understand."

    Joe glanced from Sean to the cell phone and back again. He nervously nodded.

    "You want to go around intimidating people? You want to manipulate the law and force people to pay you union dues? Well, guess what? It goes both ways. If you go around living by the force of your threats, don't be surprised if somebody comes around who can make bigger threats than you. I didn't learn the art of thug tactics in some union hall. I learned them in little third world hotspots around the globe. So I can guarantee you this, my friend: in a competition to see who can be more brutal, I will not lose.

    "In a world without the rule of law, might make right. Around here, I have the right. You don’t. You want to live in a world without law? This is what it looks like."

    Nobody said anything. Finally, Sean broke the silence.

    "Chris?"

    "Yes, Boss?"

    "Get the phones and IDs and weapons off the rest of them. Then get them out of here."

    After the union men drove away, Sean walked over to Sheely and handed him the pistols. "Take these as an advance payment."

    "Advance payment for what?"

    "For whatever I might need in the future."

    #

    After the business with the union men was wrapped up, Sean and his guard force mounted up and headed back to their compound. Jim and Sean rode together. The sun was dipping low to the West. When the road bent in the right directions, they could see the tips of the Olympic Mountains across the sound. After they’d traveled what he thought was a suitable distance, Jim spoke.

    "Boss, I have a question."

    "I’m sure you do Jim. What’s the question?"

    "Would you do that? Would you bully and intimidate that guy’s friends and family?"

    Sean shrugged. "It doesn’t matter if I’d do it. What matters is that he believes I do it."

    "But would you do it, Boss? Would you punish innocent people to influence the union men?"

    Sean didn’t answer at first. They drove on for a little while. The sun was quickly setting behind the Olympic Mountains far to the west.

    "What I’m saying is that if there is no more rule of law, if we’ve gone back to a society where those in power are allowed to do whatever they chose, then I’m not going to hesitate to use the power I have to protect the people I am responsible for.

    "For years we've heard things like ‘The Constitution is a living document' and ‘morality is relative,' and ‘Courts need to rule with empathy and sensitivity' and countless other nonsense. People in power say things like this because what they want is to do as they please. They don't want The Constitution to be the supreme law of the land because they want to make the rules as they please. They want the courts to rule by empathy and not by the law because they want the law to be applied as a matter of convenience. Essentially, they want to make up the rules as they go. And while they want to make up the rules as they go, they still want us, the masses, the sheep, to follow their rules. Well if they get to make up the rules as they go, then so do I. If they get to use fear and intimidation to achieve their ends, then so do I. If they get to use violence, then so do I.

    "Fear and intimidation are weapons. If your enemy is using those weapons and you aren’t, then you are putting yourself at a disadvantage. And just like with any weapon, you should be better at wielding it than your enemy.

    "That’s not to say that I’m going to attack people indiscriminately. I’m not going to use violence just for the sake of being violent. But when there are no other reasonable alternatives available, I won’t shy away from using violence or the credible threat of it to protect what must be protected."

    "What about non-violent means?" Jim asked.

    From the passenger seat, Sean shrugged. "If I were a lawyer, I'd litigate. If I were a politician, I'd legislate. If I were a great orator, I'd speak out. But I'm not any of those things. My training and experience have given me particular skill sets. When we reach the point I feel I have to use them, I will. I’ll use them judiciously. But I won’t hesitate to use them against my enemies."

    "So… those progressive union men are our enemies?"

    "They are Jim. They are our enemies. If they were just trying to get everybody a better wage, or better benefits, that would be one thing. But they aren't. They want to increase their numbers to get more money and influence. They want to tell their members how to vote so they can curry favor with politicians. That was what the whole ‘Dignity of Labor' act was about. It's a payoff. They got a lot of politicians elected, and the ‘Dignity of Labor' act was their payoff."

    They rode on in silence for a little while. The hum of the tires on the blacktop and the hiss of the static on the radios were the only sounds.

    After a few miles, Jim spoke. "You never really answered my question Boss."

    Sean grinned. "You’re right Jim. I never did answer that question."





    Chapter 5

    A knock on the door to his house brought Jim out of his sleep. He rubbed his eyes and looked out the window. He saw only dark oily black night. Jim looked around the room. He and his family moved their beds into what was once the living room. It was the only room in the house with a fireplace, and thus the only warm room in the house once the sun went down. The power only ran for about 12 hours a day now, and somebody had decided to run the power only during the day rather than at night when the cold and the darkness would make electricity more valuable. They reasoned people would use less electricity during the day than they would at night, which of course was better for the environment. Jim didn't know if there was any positive impact to mother earth since they had more or less lost power, but he did know that at night his family huddled around the fireplace to stay warm enough to sleep.

    There was another knock. It had been a week since the benefits campaign kicked off, and the complaints had been consistent. There had not been any more violent incidents with the Progress Union, but the Grass Roots people had kept up their policy of registration along with the required questions. The good news was that since the incident with the union men, Sean hadn’t been out and about, which meant Jim hadn’t had to go out. It made for a nice break, and Jim enjoyed a few days with no other responsibilities than to his family. Jim opened the door and saw Davis standing outside with a lantern in one hand and a carbine in the other. Despite the early hour, Davis appeared wide awake and ready to go.

    "Morning Davis. What’s up?"

    "Lot’s to do today," Davis said. "More meetings. The sheriff is coming over. Once they're done, we're heading back out to the valley. We need to talk to the FEMA guy. We'll have a briefing at my place in an hour."

    Jim stretched and yawned. He wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of another day spent driving around. "Okay," Jim said. "You know, I thought when the United States collapsed I’d be spending less time in meetings. Now it seems like that’s all I do."

    Davis shrugged. "There are worse things to be than the personal driver of the local Warlord."

    "Yeah, I’d be a big hit in the Third World."

    Davis smiled. "I think this is the Third World now. We gave up our First World status. See you in an hour."

    "See you then," Jim said. He turned and went into his cold, dark, powerless house to get his gear.

    #

    The Sheriff got an early start himself. He also had a lot to do today with many meetings of his own. He was starting the day with Sean Bastle. He rode in a small convoy of his own, with a Sheriff’s Department vehicle in front of and behind his own truck. The Sheriff had the radio on to keep him company, the volume low so he could still monitor traffic on the emergency channels. It was news radio. The Sheriff didn’t put much faith in the media these days, but it helped to pass the time. The commentator was opening up a panel discussion on the Sons of Liberty, a revolutionary group that appeared after The Seizure.

    "I'm John Willis, and this is How We Think. In Seattle yesterday, the Right-Wing Domestic Terrorist Group ‘Sons of Liberty' burnt several government buildings including the University of Washington's newly constructed Jimmy Carter Hall.

    "Since making their first appearance two years ago, the Sons of Liberty has made numerous attacks of government institutions, the most infamous of these being a bombing at the Grass Roots community center in Charleston South Carolina that killed 87 underprivileged school children while they ate their Grass Roots provided free breakfasts.

    "The Sons of Liberty is a name, the very mention of which unleashes strong opinions. Here to share some opinions this morning is an enlightened panel of experts.

    "Joining us is Professor Omar Stein who chairs the Department of New History at California’s University of Berkeley and is the author of the recently published book, "AMERICAN HATE; How Common Conservative America Produces Domestic Terrorists."

    "We also have Jonathan Grant, longtime political activist and Grass Roots chairman who was recently appointed Washington State’s Peace Czar.

    "And last but not least, Sarah Roberts, award-winning actress, author of an award-winning series of children’s books, and outspoken supporter of the principles of progress.

    "Professor Stein, we’ll start with you. You have argued several times that the modern day Sons of Liberty are misrepresenting their Revolutionary War namesake. Would you care to expand?

    "What I think is Ironic is that these so-called Sons of Liberty is their abhorrent use of fear and violence. If you read the history books, you’ll know that the real Sons of Liberty from the American Revolution was a political action committee who engaged with the British Parliament in dialogues of mutual respect and compassion. They were about conversation and discussion. They never resorted to violence or vandalism. So for these gun-loving rednecks to call themselves the Sons of Liberty is just absurd. It’s a travesty really.

    The State Czar on Atheism spoke next.

    "Well, this is just another example of just how backwards non-progressive people in this country are in terms of their thinking. These are the same people with a history of sexism, racism, homophobia, greed, environmental pillage, you name it. The only things they seem to care about are guns and bibles. In the 1990’s, right-wing groups like the Sons of Liberty killed over a million abortion Doctors. So why should we be surprised that they would burn or blow up some buildings?

    The Professor spoke again.

    "What I find is interesting is that like you said, these are gun loving zealots who only read bibles and maybe the Constitution. What they really need to read is a history book, because if you know anything about the Sons of Liberty from the revolution, is that their primary goal wasn’t leaving Britain’s control, it was about abolition. What the Sons of Liberty truly wanted was to end racism and greed because they knew those stood in the way of building a progressive society…

    The Actress spoke next.

    "Well you know, only a violent crazy person would even own a gun. Those things are dangerous. What if it went off and killed your whole family? This is just another example of how repressed and mentally unstable these people are. People who cannot accept the principles of progress have mental issues. If this fake revolution the Sons of Liberty are fighting doesn’t prove this, then I don’t know what does."

    The Sheriff turned off the radio when he pulled up the driveway to the Bastle house. He got out and told the Deputies to sit tight. He knocked on the door and Sean's wife answered. She wore a pistol on her hip in a high-quality holster, the kind that suggested she knew how to use a weapon. She didn’t look at all happy to have any visitors at this hour, particularly ones who represented "the government." Andrea led him to the library where Sean sat reading a book.

    "This benefits program and the storm has turned out to be one giant mess," The Sheriff said after some initial pleasantries. "Nobody can really explain what these benefits are, other than that people are entitled to them. Lots of people aren’t happy about the information fishing, and they really aren’t happy about the union deal."

    "So," Sean asked, "aside from the Grass Roots people not knowing what they are doing, which I think we all figured out at the county meeting..." Sean looked at the Sheriff, and the Sheriff nodded in agreement, "what does it mean?"

    Anytime the name Grass Roots come up people get edgy. It is like they are some old Soviet Secret Police."

    "I’ve heard that the Grass Roots people and the union guys got a little rough with people who wouldn’t register. Is that true?"

    "Yes, I’ve heard the same things. The union guys were pretty tough. They made people pay their union dues right there on the spot, in cash. People had to do this before they could get their benefits of course. They must have made a ton of money. They did get rough with a few people. I’ve got nothing against unions, but when you are forcing people to join, bullying them into joining…" the Sheriff sighed. "I think it’s gone too far. I think lots of things have gone too far."

    "A lot of things have gone too far."

    "After the first day, the union guys cooled their jets a little bit though," the Sheriff said. He looked at Sean knowingly. "They still registered people, but it sounds like they toned down the threats and the bullying. One thing to keep in mind though, the Progressive Union is no different from Grass Roots. Like you said Sean, they have every confidence of the federal government and are accountable to virtually nobody." The Sheriff leaned forward so Sean would understand the importance of what he was saying. "Going toe-to-toe with the Progressive Union would not be a good idea."

    "I think letting the union do whatever they want unchecked is not a good idea," Sean answered. "And I can handle those union thugs in my sleep."

    Nobody said anything, so Sean asked a question to keep things going. "So what is the other news in the county?"

    "We have another outlaw gang operating in our county." The Sheriff looked directly at Sean. "They are bikers this time, and bad ones too. They committed several home invasion robberies, and last night they broke into some government offices, and some of the government impound lots. They call themselves, ‘The Mutants.' They are organized, and they are smart."

    "Do you need help with that?"

    "What I need are more deputies," The Sheriff answered. "Right now I can’t even reliably pay for the ones I have. The payroll comes in late every time, and since the government now has oversight on all the banks, direct deposit now takes almost two weeks to clear. I’ve got almost no budget to speak of."

    "I’ve noticed the Maysville PD seems to be doing pretty well."

    "Well, the Chief is pretty cozy with James Pritchard. I guess that’s why she gets all the toys she gets. About a year ago, I got approved to hire twelve more deputies. The next day, some Grass Roots hot-shot comes into my office and hands me a list of names. He told me, ‘these are the people you are going to hire as Deputies.’ I told that kid I wasn’t going to make somebody a law enforcement officer just because Grass Roots told me too."

    "Let me guess, your budget got cut and no new hires?"

    "You got that right," the Sheriff said. "Meanwhile, the Maysville PD got approval to hire a few more officers and eight administrative assistants. Hell, their administration department must have one worker for every officer they have in the field."

    "It pays to be connected. Maybe the police will help you out with these bikers."

    "So far, all the crimes have been out in the county, not in the city. The Maysville Police Chief wasn’t very friendly with us before The Readjustment. That relationship didn't get any better after. Besides, she is way too cozy with the current party in power for me. I don't trust her. Once you start taking every handout you're offered, you find yourself in debt to a lot of people. You lose your power to make decisions on your own. Instead, you have to spend all your time paying back everybody who did favors for you before.

    "That might just be the problem with the whole system."

    "So what else do you have going on Sean?" The Sheriff asked.

    "I’m heading out to see the FEMA folks today. Hopefully the flood preparations are being managed better than this benefits program. Our county has had enough disasters lately. Maybe we can head this one off before it causes too much damage."

    "We’ve got a few things to do today ourselves," The Sheriff said. "We’d best be going."

    Sean and his wife escorted the Sheriff back outside. When the Deputies saw them come out, they started their vehicles up.

    "Think me and Sean can talk alone a minute?"

    Andrea didn’t move. The Sheriff looked at Sean and then his wife. Before the Sheriff could say anything, Sean’s wife spoke. "Anything you need to say to him you can say in front of me." The Sheriff didn't like that, but he still spoke, albeit reluctantly.

    "I need you to take it easy on these Union People Sean. I can’t have you running and gunning all over the county." The Sheriff looked Sean hard in the eyes. "I’m supposed to uphold the law. Maybe the Union people weren’t following the law, but I can’t have you taking the law into your own hands."

    "I did with those gang bangers last year," Sean said. "I don’t remember anybody in the county complaining about that. Especially you Sheriff."

    "That was a mistake on my part. I should have never asked for your help with that."

    "Sheriff, if I didn’t get rid of those gangsters, they’d still be here doing the same crap they were doing before I destroyed them, or worse. You may be the top cop in this county, but I have duties and responsibilities too. Maybe they aren’t written into law or the county charter, but they are real, and I intend to uphold my responsibilities."

    "You can't fight the union, Sean."

    "Actually I can. At least locally I can. But you can’t fight the union, not your way. The rule of law is pretty much gone in this country. The Progressive Union walks hand in hand with the federal government and the party in power. They are not going to let a county sheriff stop their operations. There is too much money and too much influence at stake."

    The Sheriff shook his head and left to get in the car. He appreciated his friendship with Sean Bastle. He hoped this wasn’t going to be the end of that.

    #

    As the Sheriff pulled out of the Bastle compound, James Pritchard conducted a meeting of his own. From the window of his house, James watched a trio of dark blue suburban trucks pull up his long driveway. The man coming to visit James Pritchard this morning was Stephen Grant, one of the least known but most powerful men in politics in the Pacific Northwest.

    Stephen Grant held no elected office. In fact, Stephen Grant had never run for any political office ever despite spending over 40 years in politics. He had however held numerous appointed positions throughout his career. Currently, he held positions on over three dozen chairmanships, committees, review boards, panels, think-tanks, non-profits and other offices that paid him a total yearly salary well over a million dollars and more importantly gave him operating budgets into the 100’s of millions of dollars. Stephen Grant worked behind the scenes and made things happen, and he had facilitated the party and principals of progress for his entire career. Many people owed him favors, and if you wanted things done, this was an excellent person to know. Even James Pritchard had to pay the man deference. Congressman or not, Stephen Grant could end James Pritchard's political career with a phone call or two.

    The SUVs pulled up to the front door, and armed men in suits stepped out of the vehicles. The men were bodyguards who wore dark suits and earpieces, and some openly carried submachine guns. Instead of the typical American flag lapel pins, the armed guards wore pins depicting a blue flag with a white star in the center; it was the banner that represented ‘Progress."

    James stepped out of the house and walked up to the motorcade just in time to shake Stephen Grant’s hand as the older man stepped out of his armored vehicle.

    "Good to see you, sir, I’m glad you could make the trip up here."

    Stephen smiled and looked around James's house. Stephen was sixty and a shorter man. Decades spent in offices and conference rooms showed in his girth. His hair was white and thinning. But the older political man's eyes showed that he was intelligent, experienced, and not a man to be dismissed as an ally or an opponent. "Glad to get out here in the country James. The state capitol gets stuffy after a while. Looks like a nice place you have here. I bet you have a great view of Puget Sound from up here."

    "Yes sir, I certainly do."

    "Good," the old man said. "Let’s take a walk around." He then turned to one of the guards. "Mike, give us a little breathing room, will you? Big things to discuss, you know how it is." The guard nodded, and the security detail kept a respectable distance as James and Stephen walked around the large house to the backyard. The former congressman was correct; the view of the sound was breathtaking. It was early, so light grey wisps of mist drifted above the lush green trees on either side of the dark blue water of the sound. The Olympic Mountains reached up to the sky to the east. To the north, a Washington State ferry with its distinct green, white and black paint scheme worked its way across the sound to the Olympic Peninsula. To the south, a gray Navy frigate and a white and orange Coast Guard Cutter were moving south to the port of Seattle. James knew he was fortunate to be able to take in a view like this from his own house. That's what made this meeting so important. He was not about to give up what he had.

    "Nice view," Stephen said. "But as nice a view as it is, I’m a busy man, so let’s get down to it. I’m guessing you’ve seen the new economic plan."

    "I have."

    "And you want to own this little slice of heaven up here? Is that right?"

    "Yes sir, that’s right."

    "Well," the old man said. "I’m sure we can make this happen. You are known in the right circles, always done the right thing for the party, never got too greedy. If things work out right, we can get you this county." The older man started walking. "How has everything been going so far? Grass Roots good with the registration?"

    "They worked at it all week. And FEMA is working on flood preparations."

    "Any trouble? We had some people act out in parts of Eastern Washington and Oregon. Nothing too violent, but nobody was too keen on filling out those forms."

    James nodded. "No riots or anything like that. Somebody got rough with the progressive union men though."

    The old man smiled. "Yes, I heard that too. That idiot Hugh Bowden called about a hundred times screaming for blood." He stopped and turned to face James. "Hugh is a thug and an idiot, but he’s got teeth. If we are going to give you this new office, we’ll expect you to keep the union folks happy to some extent. Who is this guy who messed with ol’ Hughey’s boys?"

    "The guy’s name is Sean Bastle. He is like a local warlord or militia leader or something."

    "What do we know about him?"

    "Not much. I think he used to be military. He took care of some gang members for the sheriff when things got really bad after The Readjustment."

    Stephen Grant nodded, then turned and started walking again. "Lots of those around. Militias and armed compounds and what not. There's even one up north in Leddersville that has been very supportive of us. It’s best not to fight them unless you have to. We’ll take a few of the noncompliant ones down once things get going, you know, to make an example for the rest. But for now it is just better to co-opt these groups, bring them onto the team and make them an ally. Everybody has their price, just figure out what his is."

    James took in the advice. It seemed like the right idea. "What if things heat up between this guy and the union?"

    "Just step aside and let Hugh and his boys do what they do if you can’t prevent it. Don’t get involved, just give the union guys the latitude they need and stay out of it. Hugh’s pulled some dirty tricks in his day. He knows how things work and can make things happen, and happen very quietly. This Bastle guy might have more than he can handle."

    "What about these Sons of Liberty people?" James asked. "It sounds like they are getting active in Seattle."

    "They are criminals," Stephen said. "Let the cops handle them. We want everybody thinking these guys are just regular criminals and vandals. We talk too much about them, and their movement gains credibility. Same like the states that are talking about leaving the union, its best to ignore them, and if somebody asks you about them, just dismiss it as a few crazy racists. The Sons of Liberty are mostly active in the cities, so they shouldn’t affect you too much out here in the sticks. What are your other concerns?"

    "I’m also going to need a staff, a real staff with good people. I need people who know what they are doing. This FEMA guy seems sharp, but the Grass Roots people here are fools. The one who was supposed to be running the benefits mucked that all up and now I have to deal with that mess, and the other one is such an enviro-nazi he can’t see beyond his talking points. You should have seen him at this last county meeting, the guy burst into a tantrum. I need people who can get things done, not just spout party rhetoric."

    "I thought the environmental guy was one of the good ones. He’s got two Master’s degrees right?"

    "His master's degrees are in Environmental Racism and Gender Issues and the Environment. His thesis was on some tripe trying to link global warming with Israel's oppression of the Palestinian State. After three pages I couldn't read anymore. Just because he has a collection of degrees on his wall doesn't mean he's got a brain in his head. This guy is causing more problems than he is solving."

    "No problem. Grass Roots has pretty much done their job and won't be around much longer. They've just about outlived their usefulness, and soon they will be a liability. As far as getting things done, I've got the guy for you. He's been an activist behind the scenes for us for decades. Tough guy, good political soldier and he knows how the game is played. He worked for us in Montana and almost got killed there. The Sons of Liberty folks had him on a target list. Anyway, he can get things done for you and get them done quietly. Once things get rolling, you'll need a military staff too, to train the PA when they start arriving. We'll get you what you need. I've got a Lieutenant Colonel for you. That way you'll have somebody who outranks those Marines that showed up." They walked on. "Watch out for those military people," the man warned. "Not all of them are on board with our plan. You know how they can be. They don’t always buy into our changes."

    "So how do we get this all started?" James asked.

    "The first step is making you the county executive."

    "We already have a county executive."

    "You let me worry about that. We’ll get him out of office and have the governor appoint you in his place."

    "That doesn’t jive with the county charter. I’m sure the county council won’t be happy about that."

    "Who cares what the county council thinks," the man said. "What are they going to do? Take it to the courts? It’ll be two years before the case before they got the case before the court. Even then, we own the state supreme court. Hell, we own the courts too, so no problem there. No, we’ll get you in the position of county executive and then you’ll be set up for things down the road. Besides, a few more months and county councils will be a thing of the past."

    The man paused, stopped walking and turned to James. "Now you know," Steven said. "We aren’t doing this for free. You have to pay to play."

    "I know," James said. "I have money."

    "Good. And once this all goes down, we’ll expect regular payments. You know how this works. This is business."

    "I know."

    "And while you are county executive, we expect you to keep things under control." The man stopped and turned to face James Pritchard. "We won't tolerate any lawlessness or anarchy, none of the crap from two years ago. If you can't keep the masses under control, you are out. Once the new economic plan is in place, if you have to use a heavy hand then don't hesitate to do it. Keep the masses under control. You'll be given plenty of men and resources to do it."

    "Understood," James Pritchard affirmed. They continued walking through the lush, manicured green lawn of James Pritchard’s backyard.

    "Like this thing between the union men and your local Bastle guy. Consider it a test. Keep them quiet and in separate corners."

    "Okay," James said. "What kind of timeline are we operating on?"

    The old man answered. "I’ll have you behind the County Executive desk in a week. We are tight on the timeline. The White House wants to make this happen by New Year’s."

    "New Year," James Pritchard said. "A new year and it will be a new nation."

    "It will be," Stephen said.

    "Many people here won’t be happy with this."

    Stephen Grant shrugged off that statement. "That’s true, but what else can we do? We have to keep the machine going. The party policies have been leading down this road this for decades now. Don’t get cold feet now that we’re right at the doorstep. Besides what are you going to do, fight the government? The plan is the plan. Better to go with the flow and reap the rewards that try to stop the winds of change and lose everything."

    "So when this new plan goes into effect, what will my new title be?"

    "We’re still figuring that out. It was going to be Commissar, but the President said that sounded too Bolshevik."

    James thought about that. "Maybe my new title should be ‘Duke?’" He laughed as he said it.

    Steven Grant smiled. "I guess that would be appropriate."

    #

    Jim walked up for a briefing, to find the pickup trucks parked in front of Davis's house including Sean's command vehicle with its host of antennae. Also parked in front of the house was a big flatbed tow truck, modified to fit their needs. Wire screens covered the windows. On the front of the truck was a massive steel bumper that housed a winch and was reinforced with pieces of railroad track. The doors were protected by thick pieces of steel plate. Just for effect, a row of wrought iron spikes poked out of the hood. The truck looked like something out of a heavy metal music video. Standing next to the tow truck was a man in a dirty leather motorcycle jacket with a huge blonde handlebar mustache. The chain from a trucker wallet ran out of the back pocket of his greasy jeans up to his leather belt. It was JD, the mechanic who maintained the vehicles of Bastle’s army.

    Before The Seizure, JD had been a college student. After working as a mechanic rebuilding transmissions for several years, JD saved up enough money to put himself through school. Since he liked mechanics, he got a degree in mechanical engineering. After one degree, he decided he liked learning enough that he got another degree in electrical engineering. Unfortunately for JD, just as he finished his second degree, the Seizure happened, and the only person hiring mechanics was Sean.

    Although he didn't look like an academic, JD was extremely intelligent and the most mechanically savvy person that Jim ever met. Not only did JD have the degrees, but he also had the practical skills. He serviced and modified all the vehicles around the compound, and took the lead in fixing up Tien’s trucks. JD could weld, wire, fabricate, repair, build and rebuild just about anything around of anything somebody could dream up.

    "You coming out with us today, JD?" Jim asked.

    JD tapped the hood of the monstrous looking tow-truck. "Need to road test this baby."

    "Hope you have some protection. Things can get dangerous out there."

    JD opened his leather jacket to reveal a sizeable nickel-plated revolver and a sawed-off double barrel shotgun.

    "Okay," Jim said. "Let’s head inside."

    Whenever a convoy left the compound, they first held a briefing. Sean's people did this each time, every time, without any exceptions. The briefings were held in a room in Davis's house for set up for that specific purpose. Inside hung a vast map of the county that covered an entire wall. Smaller maps were also posted along the walls that offered detailed depictions of the city of Maysville and the valley where Gerry Sheely and the other farmers were. In the center of the room was a scale model that represented the entire county. It took up a long dining room table. Davis spent the better part of two weeks putting the whole thing together. Building the model was a no small feat, but it proved to be an invaluable tool when briefing the many convoys that they had to go out.

    Jim noticed there were fewer people than usual, maybe half as many people as they normally took out. Besides himself and JD, Hooker and Davis were present, as was Cody. Standing in one corner was a tall skinny man with a bald head and a beard that ran down almost to his stomach. The others called him Ivan because his last name was a jumbled mix of consonants and "y’s" that only a Moscow native could pronounce. Ivan meticulously cleaned an assault rifle that Jim had never seen him without. Davis stood in the center of the room near the model. He had a clipboard in his hand and several notebooks in front of him.

    "Before we get started, I’ve got a surprise for you guys. Well, actually two surprises." Davis brought out a metal coffee pot. Steam curled out of the spout, and the smell of fresh coffee filled the room. There were eager oohs and ahs. Somebody quickly produced a tray of cups, and everybody got a sample and drank it down greedily.

    "Where did you get this?" Jim asked.

    "From Tien's. We finished two of his trucks early, so he paid us a bonus. This was part of the bonus."

    Jim enjoyed the taste of his fresh cup of coffee. How long had it been since he enjoyed a cup of coffee? "You could have told me there would be coffee when you knocked on my door this morning, Davis."

    Davis smiled. "If word got out that we had real coffee here, I’d have the whole neighborhood here."

    Somebody asked, "So if this was part of the bonus, where is the rest?"

    Davis grinned like a little kid. "We’ll save that for after the brief. So pay attention. Alright, everybody is here except for The Boss who is doing his thing, and everybody has a cup, so let's get to it. We're going to be changing things up a little from now on. Fuel is getting to be an issue, so from here on out we're cutting the number of trucks from six down to three to save diesel. Today JD will also be with us. He's just finished building that tactical tow truck you all saw outside, and he's going to take that out for a road test. Sean's got a meeting with the Sheriff this morning. No follow-on meetings today. Check?" People around the room nodded. "Okay, let’s get to it. This is your convoy brief for today. If you have any questions, hold them until the end."

    Jim broke up his brief into five sections. Earlier he wrote out each section of the brief on his clipboard. The first part covered an orientation to the area and recent events, the most notable of which was that since Sean had threatened the union men, and it was very likely that any union men they ran into might be looking for trouble.

    Next, Davis covered the purpose of today’s convoy. This section was the shortest. Davis stated that the convoy would take Sean into the valley to meet with the FEMA people in order to gather information. Once that meeting ended, everybody would return to the compound by a different route than the one they first took. At the end of the day, the goal was to get Sean and everybody else to and from the meeting safely.

    Once he told them what they were going to do, Davis went through all the details of how they were going to get it done. He covered how fast they would travel, where each vehicle would travel in the convoy (one pickup in the front, followed by Sean's truck, the tow truck, then the second pickup in the rear), how long it was expected to take, and most importantly the routes to and from their destination. For each route, Davis went over alternate routes just in case. When he went over the routes, Davis outlined them on the scale model of the county, tracing their line with a pointer. Along each route, Davis covered potentially dangerous areas; places like bridges, stretches of road that were channelized by steep cliffs or drop-offs, and places where there had been violence of some sort in the past.

    After going over their route, Davis went over a variety of contingency plans called immediate action drills. These immediate action drills were a series of steps that would be taken in response to a specific scenario. They covered mundane contingencies, like flat tires, broken down or stalled vehicles, and what they would do if a vehicle got separated. After working through the more mundane contingencies, Davis talked through the more dangerous ones; what to do if they encountered a sniper, what to do if they were stopped by a roadblock, what to do if they were ambushed, what to do if somebody was badly injured. Davis read each contingency plan out of a small booklet of plastic covered sheets with a blue cover, so as not to miss any detail.

    Next, Davis went through all the logistical details. He went over how much extra fuel every truck was supposed to have. He covered where extra medical supplies and stretchers were carried. He went over where all the recovery equipment was, such as high-lift jacks, tow chains, and come-alongs. He went over how much food and water they needed to have, as well what extra clothing everybody should bring along. Then Davis addressed how much ammunition each member should have, the special weapons they carried and the ammunition available for each. Finally, Davis discussed where any passengers they might pick up would ride.

    Davis then moved on to the last part of his brief. Here he went over all the communications aspects of the mission. He covered what CB channels they would use, what visual signals they would use, and what to do if the radios went out in one or all of the vehicles. After covering all the aspects of communication, Davis went over the chain-of-command. While Sean would be riding in the convoy, Davis would have overall command, unless Sean felt it necessary to take over. Otherwise, Sean would just be cargo.

    When Davis was done going over his briefing, he opened it up for any questions. There were a few, but not many since they had done this so many times before. Once all the questions were answered, Davis had them all review the immediate action drills again. They all talked through the drills, using a set of toy vehicles to illustrate each procedure. Since JD was new to all this, Davis made certain that JD was familiar with all their immediate action drills.

    Once they had gone over everything, somebody asked, "So what was the other part of the bonus?"

    "You’re right," Davis said. "hold on." In the corner of the shed was a large cardboard box, the kind that held television sets. Davis reached in the box, pulled out the contents and set them out for everyone to see. The others gathered around the object mumbling their appreciation. It was just then that Sean Bastle came into the room and walked up behind the crowd and got a look at what they all were staring at.

    "What the hell?"

    Somebody started to answer, but Sean cut him short.

    "I know what it is. A Chinese copy of a Russian flamethrower. What I want to know is where did you get a flamethrower, and why?"

    "Tien gave it to us as a bonus for getting his trucks finished early. You never know when you'll need a flamethrower."

    Sean rolled his eyes and shook his head. He looked like a teacher dealing with unruly children. "Just what we need, a flamethrower. Does this thing even work?"

    "It looks like the seals and the fuel lines need to be replaced," JD said. "Its old but it looks like it is in good shape. I’m sure I can fix it."

    Sean tapped one of the three tanks on the backpack. It made the distinct hollow sound that empty metal tanks make. "I’m sure you can too, but let’s leave it alone for now. The last thing I need is one of you burning yourself because you want to play science project. If it looks like we’re going to need a Chinese flamethrower, we’ll know where to find one." Sean took one last look at the flamethrower and shook his head. "We got work to do. Let’s get going."
     
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