Monday, June 16, 2008

Touched With Fire

DAY ONE

Desperation came first.


The first disturbing indication was a large motorized convoy of grim-faced troops in full battle gear. They rolled to a stop at the exit from I-75 and unloaded a specialized crane with a lifting grapple from a low-boy carrier. It proceeded to lift concrete barriers and place them across the on-ramp from state road 200 to the interstate.

It was not a check point. It was a full barrier.

No traffic would be allowed through.

It started at 04:00. By daybreak it was in place.

This small Florida town was effectively isolated. Checkpoints were established for the exits. People were allowed in, but if they wanted to leave, they had to take back roads.

It was Thursday morning, November 6th, 2012. The elections went badly, some precincts had huge discrepancies between the vote tally and the exit polls. The election had clearly been hacked and then stolen outright. By Wednesday there were violent demonstrations. Riots followed that evening. New York was burning along with Chicago , Indianapolis, and Detroit. Los Angeles was next. No news came out of Philadelphia, but smoke could be seen from as far away as New Jersey. The interstate highways from Atlanta were gridlocked with evacuees. For the first time since the Civil War, Atlanta was in flames.

Those areas were declared under martial law. The riots became low-intensity street warfare.

Later, on the morning of the 7th, the entire United States was declared to be under a state of martial law. Network news programs were replaced by FEMA 'instructions' for dealing with the crisis which the messages promised would be 'of a short duration' and 'expedient measures will be taken' to remedy the crisis.

In the outlying areas and small towns it was hard to tell martial law had been declared. But signs appeared rapidly. Friday morning traffic was no more than on an early Sunday morning. Gas stations pulled down the price numbers from their signs. Pay-at-the-pump services were disabled forcing the few motorists to go to the window or inside the convenience store to buy what amounted to a gas ration coupon. Only so many were issued to each store. Customers had to use a credit card to buy coupons. Once that credit card identity was established, the customer could only buy so many coupons per month. Cash customers were turned away.

When people realized what was happening, super markets were inundated with frantic shoppers who emptied the shelves of everything, especially canned food and staples. Buyers maxed out their credit cards, some to tens of thousands of dollars in one day. Credit card companies gave up trying to accept the flood of verification calls. Some shopping sprees turned into robberies.
Desperation came first. Panic followed close behind.

Day one had ended with a country short of breath from fear and smoking horizons.


Day TWO: The Death of Atlas


Iraqis were stunned to see huge American troop movements and skies filled with transports. Rumor had it the Americans were leaving Iraq. A similar scenario played out in Afghanistan, then in Germany, South Korea and Africa. It was happening much more quickly than anyone had imagined. The troops were highly motivated to go home. Their country was in trouble.

For the next 18 months as troops mounted up and departed for home, massive fires lit the skyline. What the Americans didn't take with them, they burned.

North Korea wasted no time in attacking South Korea on the morning of day two. The North was instantly immolated in a nuclear counterattack. China had no time to muster a response, settling instead for a horrified letter of condemnation.
Russia turned its attention to Germany. A shaky eye-to-eye truce held.
Iran mobilized its forces.
Within hours, Israel dropped 24 low-yield nukes and 4 enhanced neutron devices on Iran.
That threat was neutralized. The horrors that followed halted any retaliation. The Strait of Hormuz would remain open. Ironically, The oil-producing nations stepped up production in an effort to appease an obviously angry west.
At the end of day two a large portion of habitable earth lay in smoking radioactive ruin.

U.N. Diplomats had no choice but to leave New York when it became apparent electrical power to the U.N. complex would not be restored in the near future. A political pundit was to have said days later "Oh. You mean they're gone? Am I the only one who didn't notice?"

Phone lines were overloaded with frantic calls to family and loved ones. Cell phone calls were 'delayed' while a filtering program listened for unusual traffic. Lights at the NSA burned all night. Fort Meade was closed off to all but a few.

The incumbent president was moved to Camp David. Prerecorded messages were played regularly on radio and television. Meant to be reassuring, they rang hollow in the hiss of static. The president-elect was in hiding. A White House press conference scheduled for that afternoon never materialized.

Members of Congress arrived at their offices to find them locked. Entrances to the chambers were barred by armed guards.

Back in Florida, banks normally open on Saturday morning displayed hastily-made magic-marker signs declaring a 'bank holiday'. Conspicuously absent was any hint of a re-opening date. The ATM's were dark.
Residents wondered what was next. The answer wasn't long in following.
At 17:00 the power went out and didn't resume until 09:00 the next morning. The fires had destroyed a major portion of the grid in the northeast. Part of the remaining grid's utility had to be diverted to the north. Another FEMA announcement followed, detailing the emergency and emphasizing the temporary nature of the problem.

People who hadn't died in the fires of the cities were freezing to death for lack of electricity and fuel oil.

FEMA opened its camps.Day Three

The Sunday paper was late. Only later did people realize it wasn't coming.

General aviation was grounded for the first time since 2001. The FAA explained it was to reduce the workload on the few controllers still at working facilities. Pilots looked on it as another way to control the movements of the population.

They were right. Only a few had packed their families aboard rented aircraft and made it to the Canadian border before it was closed. For the first time in history, Canadian troops manned the border with the U.S. and faced south.

The local airport, barely used by a few local private pilots, suddenly became a nest of activity. C-130's and an occasional c-5 lumbered in disgorging equipment and troops. Jaw-dropping C-17's unloaded Marines still wearing 'digital' desert camouflage. By the haggard looks and dust, it was clear they had been recently in the mid-east. These were not raw troops. They were 'old salts'.

The U.S. was bringing its troops home. People were at once relieved.
At the same time, they looked into the eyes of these men and thought to themselves "Be careful what you wish for".

Police patrol cars were few and far between. At first it was thought the lack of fuel would cut back on patrols. Later it was learned that most of the first responders were staying at home with their families. No one could blame them. The local firehouse became headquarters for the battalion of Marines assigned to secure the region. The police station became a provost marshal's office. Heavily armored Humvees rattled through town.

Citizens were advised to travel only locally and only when necessary. When approaching a patrol, keep hands out of pockets and where they could be seen. The fear was almost palpable.

Smoke was everywhere. The smoke of far-away blazing cities, the smoke of diesel engines pushing and pulling military machines through the streets. Later there would be more ominous smoky smells.

The overhead rush and whine of helicopters was nearly constant.

Local truck farms set up produce stands at what used to be well-traveled intersections. 26 USD bought a pound of tomatoes. Rumor had it the same could be had for 25 cents face value in pre-1965 silver coins.

Rumor also had it a band of looters roving outside of Tampa met up with an angry squad of Marines with predictable results. Citizens posted hastily painted signs such as "The only thing looters will get here is a Christian burial!".

Predator UAV's were said to be patrolling the back roads.

Truck stops were choked with abandoned 40-foot trailers. The rumor spread over the CB that drivers would be conscripted into government service. They weren't far wrong. The drivers now aware of their predicament unhooked their loads and went home before anyone could stop them. Those hauling food wisely took it with them.

A few optimistic souls put out the garbage for Monday pick-up. Later, no-burn ordinances were ignored as the trash piled up. That would eventually slow down as people ran out of things to burn.

In a surprise move, the Post Office announced it would resume delivery on an alternating odd-even address basis.
Junk mail was being burned as fuel at the electrical generating facility in Yankeetown.

Day Four



The first residents of the FEMA camps were those unable to fend for themselves. They voluntarily left burned and ravaged cities to the perceived security of the camps. They were told they would be fed, housed and secure under the protection of FEMA. To those who experienced three days of fear and uncertainty it sounded pretty good. Some were already hungry. It was a compelling reason to trust their government.

Inside Camp Hearne, the ugly reality set in. D.P.'s (displaced persons) were walked through metal detectors and filled out forms. Anything that could be used as a weapon was confiscated. Those who could not fill out the form in English were put aboard buses guarded by troops armed with automatic weapons.
Able-bodied men were put to work erecting tents and open-sided shelters. Women assembled cots and distributed blankets. The unmistakable smell of issue wool and mothballs filled the air along with the sour smell of bodies too long in the same clothes.
Later, the smell of cooking wafted through the camp. Camp 'custodians' guided D.P.'s to the entrance of a small tent that acted as a foyer to the massive mess tent. Inside technicians had prepared vaccinations for the entire camp population. Before they could eat, they were given an injection. The 'vaccine' was actually a concoction of a flu vaccine with a sister drug to haloperidol, a neuroleptic derivative.

In four lines, one every fifteen seconds for three days. Over 90,000 people were drugged.


The meals were institutional but hot. The D.P.'s were guided from the mess tent to the gym, where the custodians segregated the men and women and sent them to the showers. They could leave their dirty clothes and exchange them for clean issue warm-up suits. By this time the Haldol-like drug had taken effect. No one argued or resisted.

In the rail marshaling yard, things were very different. As they stepped off the buses, non-English-speaking detainees were each given one 32-ounce plastic bottle of flavored water. They were then herded aboard white unmarked rail cars and closed in. Inside the boxcar, they found two skylights and one portable toilet bolted to the floor. Pad eyes welded to the floor were like an unsubtle threat.

DP's became DC's for desaparecidos.


Day FIVE

Cocaine, Blood, and Fire


Residents of Corpus Christi blinked awake early on the morning of November 10th. Some 60 miles away, an F-111 pulled a high-g turn approaching the target and pitched the 'enhanced' BLU-96 in a perfect 'bomb-toss' trajectory. The 2600-pound fuel-air bomb dispensed its high-explosive vapor and ignited it. From ground zero to a radius of two miles, buildings were first swept flat by the incredible sphere of the shock wave and then ignited by the fireball. Nothing remained.

There would be no search for survivors.

From the U.S. side of the border, Air Force spotters watched as Nuevo Laredo blazed like a torch. The F-111 that had delivered the package had already turned north for Amarillo.



The Predator drone had also tuned north. Its job was done. It had 'laser-painted' the house verified to be the local drug cartel headquarters. The martial government of the United States had made an example of the the Amezcua-Contreras brothers. No drug cartel would dare another raid across the U.S.- Mexico border. The Mexican government would protest, but was powerless to do anything. For all practical purposes, drug cartels were the Mexican government.

Farther to the west, an aging but updated A-10c Thunderbolt whistled through its twin GE engines and banked over the border. The pilot listened for a tone. When the target designator sang in her headset, she released the bomb. It was to have been automatic, but she pickled it as a human back-up system.

The dispenser sprayed 72 anti-armor mines and 22 anti-personnel mines across a wide swath of ground at a favorite border crossing point. The mines armed immediately upon impact. In all, the A-10 delivered six CBU-89's to the target area. More were to follow. "Pickle, paddle, pull" the pilot chanted silently to herself. After four such missions, her aircraft was known as the 'Pepper Mill'. Her squadron was 'the Grind House'. It was only the beginning.

Over the next several days, a random delay function detonated some of the mines, serving as a warning to anyone who would try to cross into the United States. It was an effective area-denial tactic, funneling the illegal crossings through much more easily controlled areas.

It was all a matter of control.

More buses arrived at the choke points. The 'border custodians' handed out more flavored water.

Day Six:

A Great Heaviness


Two men armed with pistols and a bolt cutter approached the small house in an upscale neighborhood near the river. They had parked their beat-up Ford F-150 on an adjacent street and quietly avoided the circle of light under the street lamp. Next to the small house, a gasoline-powered generator sat idle chained to a concrete expansion anchor. The owner used the generator during the now-regular power interruptions only to keep the refrigerator running. It was that generator the two thieves wanted.
The bolt cutters opened to chew through the chain when the brilliant flash and incredibly loud explosion knocked the thief over. The second thief thought for an instant that they had cut an electrical line instead. It was the last thing he thought. A small but very bright green laser dot appeared on his forehead.

Carl didn't think of himself as a mercenary. He was merely filling a need. Because it had been so quiet before the collapse, the neighborhood where he lived had no regular MP patrols. Twenty-four of his neighbors knew Carl was a Marine combat veteran and trusted him. It was only logical, they said. It made sense to pay someone you trust to keep the bad guys away. They had paid him with food and twenty silver coins of various denominations for the week.
Twenty pieces of silver, he thought. Its come to this.
He dragged the bodies to the pickup and drove it to the river.

The young Marine captain informally briefed his CO over breakfast. The town was surprisingly quiet with the exception of two gunshots last night. The neighbors claimed to know nothing of the incident. All that would stop today the battalion commander said. He held up a CD in a translucent case with a grease penciled label that read "4473". On this, he explained were the form 4473's for his entire area of responsibility. It was this form that recorded the names and addresses of every gun owner registered in United States.

The young captain checked his reaction, trying not to choke on his breakfast. He was sitting with the battalion commander for a reason. He was the bright star in this command, assigned as the S-2, so it wasn't surprising that he caught on instantly. The implications were no less than mind-boggling.

Carl noticed the Williams street MP patrol was conspicuous by its absence. In fact, it appeared the whole battalion had been pulled back for some reason. Something big was happening or about to happen. He hurried back to his house.

The screech and squeal of air brakes woke up DP number 61023. He had nodded off as did many of the passengers in the boxcar. Some were still snoring loudly. Those still awake nodded tiredly to the swaying and rocking of the rail car. 61023 noticed absently those still awake had not finished drinking the flavored water handed out by the soldiers. Those asleep had finished or nearly finished theirs. About one-third of his bottle remained.

He felt a great heaviness on his eyelids.

Day SEVEN:

While some felt they 'had nothing to hide' and therefore felt safe in revealing everything to the 'federals', they soon found there was nothing they could hide. The fourth amendment to the Constitution melted away like a light frost in mid-March. Doors were kicked in without warning, searches were conducted without warrants and men, women and children were frisked ruthlessly and thoroughly for no reason. Pedestrians were stopped randomly. If they couldn't read a simple test card in English, they were whisked away, another desaparecido.

Carl sat on the old couch in his living room, sipping a warm beer and looking back over the last six days. This declaration of martial law wasn't a last-minute decision. It was planned long ago. It had to have been the Continuity Of Operations plan that surfaced during the Iran-Contra hearings so long ago. An abusive executive order, it allowed the suspension of the Constitution during a national crisis.
He consoled himself for taking money to protect his neighbors. Unlike the Federal government, he didn't sell them out. Unlike the government, his neighbors wouldn't blame him for weeping at a time like this. He sniffed up a tear and cursed, taking another swig of warm beer.

The local police came back to duty (after being threatened with a place in the FEMA camps). They were at once unhappy and more surly than usual. Confrontations with the Marine patrols were a near-daily occurrence. A pair of Stop Sticks were 'accidentally' dropped under a military staff car. A squad car was peppered end-to-end with M855 penetrator 5.56mm fire when it came close to brushing a Marine foot patrol. Incredibly, the patrolman survived without serious injury.

DP 61023 made an effort to stand up in the rocking rail car, however unsteadily. His mission was to make it to the bolted-down chemical toilet in order to pour out the last of the flavored water. He was awake now and aware. The water had been drugged. Behind the gaily-colored label, promising a natural strawberry flavor, there was something evil. As thirsty as he was, he knew he could drink no more of it. The car was unheated. He pulled the thin jacket around himself.

The young Marine S-2 chief sat in the Humvee parked at the intersection of Cally and Penn streets. It was almost dawn. He waited for the company to deploy and then stepped out. Fire teams silently moved behind the houses and the rest of the teams alternated covering the street and banging on the door. It was the home of a gun-owner. They had to be cautious.

Carl answered the door in his robe and bare feet. The Marine corporal had noticed the Eagle, Globe and Anchor on the spare tire cover of Carl's truck. He apologized for the intrusion, but he had come for Carl's guns. Carl explained that had sold them in the last few days, times being what they were. He reached into a pocket and by way of demonstration, showed the young corporal a wad of cash. The corporal looked up and down the street, licked his lips and stepped over the threshold. Carl was still holding out the cash. It was a wad of twenties amounting to about $2000. It quickly disappeared in to the corporal's body armor.

The corporal thanked Carl for his cooperation and scratched a pencil across his list.

Carl grimly congratulated himself for getting off so cheaply. In another week, that $2000 would be so much confetti. He would wait to retrieve his weapons from their hiding place.


STATE OF SIEGE: CARL'S MARCH

By his own reckoning, Carl had made nearly eighteen clicks that night. Not bad considering he was carrying a pack bigger than he humped in Viet Nam forty years ago. He ached all over and the blisters on both swollen feet were massive. The pain was bearable, but the thought of infection scared him. That would immobilize him in ‘bad guy territory’.

He was about sixty clicks from Lake City, a tiny village in the San Juan range of the Colorado Rockies. It was nearing daylight and time for him to find a place to lay up. In the crease of a small canyon he dragged the pack under an overhanging rock. The little stream below was close enough to soak his swollen feet and provide water for his bottles. The stream made a little noise, just enough to cover a stealthy approach. He would have to be watchful.

He thought back over the last two grueling weeks.

He waited in Florida for nearly four months after the revolt. After saying goodbye to the only two neighbors left in his neighborhood, Carl drove the back roads and blue highways all the way to Wichita Falls before he had to show a forged pass at a roadblock. He was waved through but he was sure it wouldn't be long before they were on to him.

Aside from the escape from Florida and the roadblock, the trip had been one exhausting trudge after another.

A rancher in Boise City, Oklahoma showed Carl a handbill listing Carl and about fifty others wanted by the Department of Homeland Security. He had to ditch his beloved SUV, trading it and two hundred rounds of 5.56 ammo for a swayback horse and saddle. The owner threw in a pannier and as much food as he could stuff in to Carl's The North Face pack. After they shared a stiff Jack Daniel's , he wished Carl good luck. Only later did Carl realize how precious that bourbon was. It may have been among the last.

The old nag got him as far as Pagosa Springs, Colorado where he was ambushed by a shaking young man with a pistol. Carl recognized it as a Ruger Blackhawk and it wasn't cocked. He didn't think the young man knew the Ruger was a single-action pistol that had to be cocked to fire. Still he had no choice but to dismount when the young man demanded. Only Carl stepped off the opposite side of the horse. In one smooth motion he threw open his long coat, raised the Kel-tec PLR-16 and taking deliberate aim fired two deafening shots. The man went backward in an awkward half loop and died instantly. Carl ran to rein in the spooked horse and slowed his breathing. After he stopped shaking, he realized he might take advantage of the unfortunate situation. He pulled out everything from his wallet, his pack and his pockets that could identify him. He then emptied the bandit’s pockets and replaced his kit with Carl’s. He picked up the spent 5.56 brass. The last detail was leaving the horse. The brand could be traced back to the owner in Boise City and that would add to Carl's legend. If the Federal’s were trailing him, they would find ‘Carl’ dead from two gunshot wounds to the chest. With a little diligent detective work, such as fingerprinting, the legend would unwind but Carl hoped the Federals had bigger fish to fry.


That was four days back, Wednesday, he thought aimlessly. Somehow it was important to know what day it was. Four days of humping through the high Rockies with an enormous pack. He was cold, hungry and truly exhausted.
Michael R Florey 2008

the San Juans in the fall of 2005

After soaking his feet in the icy stream, the swelling went down a little and he taped over the blisters with clean bandages. It would be late morning before the sun would be high enough to warm the little canyon. He recognized this place. He had photographed it in the fall 4 years ago. Had it been that long? While it was June, the nights could still be freezing at this altitude. When it was light enough, he drew the Springfield Armory long-slide .45 from its holster and laid it nearby on his pack. He then cleaned the PLR-16. That finished, he pulled up into the space under the overhang and chewed on beef jerky. After sipping some water he said a short, silent prayer and finally slept fitfully.

STATE OF SIEGE: The Meeting

His nose was cold.
He woke to that sensation with just his lower face exposed, the rest of his aching body in the sleeping bag. Carl struggled a bit with the zipper and slowly sat upright. It was the pale blue light of dawn, cold and clear. Looking at his watch, he cursed himself for sleeping all day and all night. Had he awakened at all? Yes, he remembered getting up to answer the call of nature and listening to night sounds. It might have been exhaustion. It might have been the hiss of the stream below and the whisper through the spruce trees behind him. It might have been all three.
He felt embarrassed at his lack of field discipline. Still, he admitted to himself, it wasn't too risky. He had made it to Hinsdale County. It had the fewest miles of roads per person than any other, plus the most land located far from roads, making it the most remote county in the lower forty-eight states. He was probably in more danger from bears than meeting with another human. With that thought he strapped on the .45 before he answered nature's call again.
What was he dreaming last night? About some Revolutionary War soldier? It seemed important to remember the soldier's name. Carl shook his head and promised himself he would recall it in a minute or two. He washed his hands and face in the achingly cold stream and yawned.

Carl grimaced as he pulled boots on. His feet were still sore but at least the swelling had gone down. This was the first good night's sleep he had since leaving Oklahoma. He was rested and in relatively good shape for the push to Lake City. He policed up his camp and shouldered the pack, now lighter by several day's food. Out of habit he checked the magazines in both weapons and headed upstream backtracking along his original route.

About one hundred yards from his camp he crossed the stream at a place where he could step in and out on a rocky surface. His wet footprint on rock would dry rapidly, a boot print in the mud would be easier to track. Carl then set off on his original bearing passing the little campsite on the opposite side of the stream.
He stayed in the shadows of the spruce as much as possible. Deer trails were everywhere and he paralleled them along the canyon walls. It made the going much easier.

Gene Kearney stood behind the counter of his store and watched the men outside as they got back in to the black Suburban. He didn't recognize them and the big SUV wasn't from anywhere around here. It had Colorado plates, but it didn't have off-road tires, 4-wheel drive or a winch.
The men in the Suburban had been cruising all over Lake City, never approaching anyone, never in one place for long. They wore sunglasses, new barn coats and expensive gloves. They were too well-dressed for vacationers and since martial law was declared visitors were scarce. Kearney knew his business and he knew his customers. The Kearney family had been outfitters and chandlers since the west opened.
He took another sip of coffee and looked over the brim of his mug at the men.


Carl waited at the edge of the road for the lone truck to rumble by before he stepped out. He had stopped just out of town to brush down his gear and hide the PLR-16 in his pack. He kept the .45 holstered under his long coat. He hoped he would not stand out. He was just another resident coming in to town.
He strode up to Kearney's store and rolled the pack off his shoulders with a practiced motion. Leaving the pack resting just inside the door, he strode in to the store as if he knew just what he was doing.
Kearney eyed the stranger with a quick glance and knew at once this was no vacationer. He was serious about traveling on foot. Most vacationers give up hiking when it starts to hurt. The hiker looked around the store and barely glanced at the men sitting in the black Suburban. It was Kearney's belief the hiker had already sized them up.
"Can I help you, sir?" Kearney was still watching the men and their Suburban.
"I believe you can, Mister Kearney. You're holding some parcels for me."
Carl pulled off the battered Dobbs felt hat and reached in to the crown. He produced the upper half of a playing card. An ace of spades. Kearney opened the cash register and lifted the drawer insert. He pulled out the lower half of the ace and matched the two.
"Marcy!" he called out, "Watch the counter. I have a customer in the back."
He indicated the employee hallway to the back rooms. Carl followed.



STATE OF SIEGE: Hideaway

In the back rooms of Kearney's store, Carl was lead to a large warehouse-like room. Up a few steps from the level of the storefront, it had a double sliding-door opening on the back lot at the same level as a forty-foot trailer. Fiberglass skylights let in light sufficient to see even in the corners of the cavernous room. Two walls were stacked with what looked like pallets of animal feed. A loft-like structure was stacked neatly with hay bales. Five-gallon plastic buckets were stacked in the center aisle. In the corner nearest the door, Kearney stopped near a tarp-covered mound and looked at Carl.
"These yours?" he swept the tarp to the floor.
Carl looked at the two pallets. The clear plastic sheathing was intact. It had been so long since he sent them to Kearney for storage that he hardly remembered what they looked like. Kearney received them in November the year before, just as everything started to collapse. Carl knew he wouldn't likely be allowed to haul this across a country ruled by martial law, but one of the last operating freight companies just might.
"Yes, they're mine." Carl now had the problem of where to take them next.
"C'mon up here". Kearney motioned Carl to the stairs leading to the loft. Carl thought he could trust the old chandler, after all, he kept Carl's gear this long. In the loft, Kearney opened a door to an office-like space lit by a single lamp over a small desk and chair. On a shelf above the desk was a neat stack of ham radio equipment. A tiny window looked out over the road outside the store and lit an army cot laying next to the opposing wall. The whole place smelled pleasantly of hay.
"I knew I'd remember where I saw you" Kearney rubbed his chin "On the FEMA news. You're wanted back in Florida for murdering two looters and bribing a Federal official."
Carl swallowed and knew this was one of those times when honesty was the best policy.
"Yes, that's true. The Federal official was a Marine corporal after my weapons. The looters were armed."
"Hmph" Kearney studied Carl "You can stay here 'til you can find a hidey-hole. I'll help you as much as I can, but I won't involve my family."
Carl nodded and offered his hand. Kearney 's grip was firm and his eyes never left Carl's.
Kearney left him sitting on the cot breathing in the warm hay smells. Only minutes passed when he heard a light knock on the door. Carl reached under his coat and snapped the safety off the long-slide .45. "Yes?" he ventured.
The door clicked open on a young woman's face. Most of her was hidden behind Carl's pack but what he could see of her was very attractive. She struggled through the door with it.
"Here, I'll take that." he was immediately on his feet. She was grinning through long raven-black hair.
"I hope you didn't have to carry this too far." She laughed.
"Thanks."
"Dad says you're his friend from Florida. He hasn't mentioned you before. I'm Marcy."
"Hello, Marcy. Call me Carl."
She took a firm grip on Carl's proffered hand and gazed at him steadily.
"Looks like you'll be our guest for a while." She smiled evenly. "I'll show you where everything is."
Marcy guided Carl around the store. It was a lot more than just a feed store and grocery. Out front stood an island of gas pumps (now padlocked). On on side of the lot, a colorful row of rental ATV's stood next to a separate tack room.
Carl noticed the black Suburban was gone. That was almost as troubling as having it parked in the lot.

The shower in the tack room had plenty of water heated by a solar array on the tack shed roof. It smelled slightly of sulfur but being well water, it was expected. To Carl, it was a chance to let steamy water run over his aching body and wash miles of trail off his skin. He reached for his shaving kit and hesitated. All his ID photos were clean-shaven. He'd keep the beard for now. He shrugged on clean clothes and policed up after himself, hanging the towels on the curtain rod.

Marcy stepped behind the counter and gazed up at the small television without really paying attention to the talking heads blandly reciting news of "more progress toward normalization".
It had become the mantra of the Federals and she hated it. Some refugees from Denver told her the truth. Things were anything but normal in the cities. FEMA camps were full to overflowing and some Displaced Persons were sent away to build more camps. Just then, Gene Kearney came in and looked up at the TV.
"Turn that damned thing off, Marcy."
"I was just thinking the same thing, Dad."
"Sorry, honey," he apologized "It just gets on my nerves."
"So how long have you known Carl?" She shifted the subject as smoothly as she shifted gears in her Jeep Wrangler.
"Ehh, Ah." He turned away from the calendar and looked at her. "To tell you the truth, honey, today is the first day I ever laid eyes on the man."
"Is he in trouble? I mean, with the law?"
"Yes, but then he hasn't done anything worse than I have. At least, to their way of thinkin'."
"Is he dangerous?"
"Well," Kearney rubbed his chin, "He's armed to the teeth."
"I don't mean that, Dad. Is he dangerous to have around?"
"He's wanted by the Federals. Had some trouble down in Florida. Don't worry, Marcy. He won't be here long."
He hesitated then lowered his voice. "You remember that little pistol I gave you? Keep it handy."

Carl was slowly absorbing the sun coming in from the little window in the loft hideaway. It was his third day at Kearney's place. Hot meals and a roof were real luxuries, but he knew he would have to head out soon. He watched the road in front of the store. There was little traffic now. A couple on horseback followed by a tractor pulling a wagon-load of kids. Smart, Carl thought. Rural mass transit and the kids looked like they loved it. It was a real shock then to see the black Suburban round the corner east of the lot and stop across the street. Carl reached behind him and grabbed the PLR-16, lifting it to the window. He stood back a little from the window frame to keep himself in the shadow.
The Suburban's passenger door opened and a younger stocky man lifted a camera to his eyes without removing his sunglasses. 'Rookie' thought Carl as he sighted in on the man's chest.
***
Transmission
Carl took a breath, let half of it out slowly and stopped. Something else moved behind the windshield of the big Suburban. He lowered the muzzle and pulled the polarized sunglasses over his eyes. The driver had something pointed at Kearney's store. Carl's heart went to his throat. The damn thing looked like a grenade launcher!
No, wait. He can't fire it from there.
He took a long hard look at the driver. Lifting his field glasses and pushing up the polarized glasses, Carl saw a tube like device on a shoulder stock. Finally, it came to him. A coronal discharge detector. It was old technology, once used to find poor connections on power lines. It could also be used to find a radio source.
So the 'rookie' was a decoy, a distraction.

Carl looked behind his perch at the wall and the single shelf. The neat stack of HAM radio equipment sat cold and quiet. HAM radio operators usually post contacts proudly on the wall behind their rigs as bragging rights for distant contacts. There were none here. The wall was clean. It finally dawned on him, this was an unlicensed transmitter. So, it would seem Kearney was more than a sutler and chandler. It also looked like someone else had drawn the same conclusion.
A light tapping on the door opened Carl's eye's and he found the .45 already in his grip. Marcy quietly opened the door.
"Dad wants to see you downstairs." She was solemn now. Something had disturbed her.
"I'll be right down." Carl stood, stretched, looked out the window and pulled on his jacket. It wasn't particularly cold, but the long-slide .45 was hard to conceal.
Kearney was at the little formica dinette looking at Carl over a mug of coffee. He didn't mince words.
"I have to move you out, Carl. Things around here are gettin' pretty tense."
Carl didn't hesitate. "I think they're looking for that radio upstairs. I'll take what I can carry, the rest you can divide up with the right people." Carl could not blame him. He had family to protect.
"Sit down, Carl. I didn't say I was throwin' you out. I said I had to move you. Load up your gear in the wagon behind Marcy's Jeep. She'll take you to some people I know. Better eat somethin' and rest until dark. Its a long haul." Kearney stood.

Carl didn't quite know what to say and he said so.
"Doesn't matter now. We best be gettin' busy."
Carl used the Leatherman Wave tool to cut away the plastic wrap from the pallets. Marcy backed the Jeep and trailer to the ramp with practiced skill. He started by loading the eight thousand rounds of 5.56mm M855 ammo over the trailer's rear axle, or as close as he could. Next came the cases of long-term-storage food. He wedged in the Berkey water filter, 12x12 tent and cot, followed by the pioneer tools, wood stove and saw. Marcy grinned when she saw the load.

"How did you expect to haul this stuff when you got here?" she asked.
"I had to ditch my SUV in Oklahoma. I thought I might barter for something when I got here." Carl was as truthful as circumstances permitted.
"Oh?" Marcy was smiling now "What do you have to trade?"
"Um, do you have a vehicle to trade?"

"No, just curious."
"Can I rent this one?" Carl was a little puzzled.
"Sure," Marcy was grinning at his puzzlement now "You can owe me."
***
The early evening air was already cooling off when Carl entered the back door of the warehouse. He closed it halfway then checked behind himself out of habit. The cooking smells coming from the back office/quarters were promising. He pulled off his gloves and looked in. Marcy was red-cheeked from the heat and steam. She had pulled her long dark hair up on her head. It looked good on her, Carl thought.
"It'll be ready in a minute" she grinned "Nothin' fancy."
Kearney was locking the front doors.
"Its all loaded up. I broke up the pallets." Carl told him.
"What did you do with them?" Marcy shot him a look.
"You're cooking dinner over them." Carl said quietly. He had loaded the broken pallets in the wood box next to the ancient cook stove in the back quarters. Kearney tried his best to contain a laugh but it escaped like a cartoon soundtrack and Carl grinned. Then Marcy broke into a laugh and Carl couldn't help himself. It was the first time in months he had found humor in anything.
The dinner was venison stew and biscuits. Carl ate more than he needed but not as much as he wanted. It was the best he had ever eaten.
"When do I leave?" Carl started.
"You mean when do we leave?" Marcy corrected him.
"Um, I thought I was renting your Jeep?" Carl reminded her.
"You are, but I'm driving." She smiled.
Kearney just smirked and kept quiet. She'll make a fine outfitter he thought.
***
Carl could hear an engine start in back of the warehouse. He checked his watch, 02:00. He had slept nearly four hours but still felt groggy. He shook it off and stepped out of the little loft. From the landing he could see the open back door of the warehouse and the little Jeep Wrangler warming up. He pulled on his parka and stepped down to the warehouse floor. Gene Kearney was waiting at the door.
Kearney's breath steamed in the faint moonlight as quiet as his words.
"These people know you're coming. I told them to expect you and Marcy. If Marcy isn't with you, they will probably kill you." He locked his gaze on Carl's "I saw how you two steal a look at each other" he whispered "don't hurt her." He offered his hand and Carl shook it. Marcy was waiting in the Jeep.
Carl slid into the passenger seat. He reasoned that Marcy would drive because she knew the roads and she knew exactly where to go. She looked over as Carl rested the little PLR-16 on the floor and checked the magazine in the long-slide .45.
"Ready?" she smiled.
"I guess so." Carl leaned back as Marcy put the Jeep in gear. It mumbled forward and out of the lot. Carl noticed she had not turned on the headlights. In fact, the instrument lights, running lights, tail lights and brake lights didn't work. Marcy turned off the main drag of the little town and on to the side streets. Two more turns and they were headed up a steep-walled canyon. Carl's eyes were adjusting and he understood why Marcy was waiting in the Jeep when he came downstairs. She was protecting her night vision.
The little Jeep didn't make a lot of noise. It seemed to Carl the transmission made more sound than the engine. Of course, he had to admit his hearing wasn't what it was. He kept looking behind them. Marcy steered through the canyon with confidence born of practice. She has done this before Carl thought maybe many times .
Marcy's shifting gears took on a rhythm that matched the side-to-side sway as she steered along the dusty dirt road. She was nearly daydreaming when Carl grabbed her arm.
"Slow down when you get around this next bend" he said quietly "then go ahead another half-mile and wait. If you don't see me in fifteen minutes, keep going." Marcy nodded her head in agreement. As she slowed the Jeep, Carl stepped out and walked carefully to the upper side of the road and eased behind a rock outcropping. He watched the Jeep disappear around the next bend. He listened as well as he could to the night sounds. The low growl was faint but unmistakable. A big v-8 engine was making its way up the canyon behind his perch. Carl lowered himself into the ditch beside the road and sneaked his head up to look. His heart went to his throat. The huge black shape was nearly on top of him. It was the black Suburban, its headlights off.
He didn't hesitate. Stepping out of the ditch, he raised the .45 and fired six rounds at the driver's side windshield. The passenger side door opened as the big vehicle slowed to a stop. Carl fired two more rounds at he passenger side door and changed magazines just as the whole area exploded in a blinding series of flashes and roaring detonations. He dropped back into the ditch. The 'rookie' was shooting back with an automatic weapon of some kind. Carl was nearly flash-blind but he knew the rookie had to be nearly blind as well. Carl picked up a fist-sized rock at tossed it at the back ot the vehicle. The rookie squatted down and edged to the rear fender. Carl fired two carefully aimed shots and the rookie snapped backward, slumping to the road. The Suburban's engine was still running and it alternately stopped and crept forward by inches. Carl approached the driver's side with his pistol raised and opened the door. The driver was slumped over the wheel, unmoving. His head looked odd until Carl realized the driver was wearing night vision goggles. He reached in and slapped the shifter into 'park'. His gloved hand came back slick with blood. Stepping briskly back to the other side he dragged the rookie to the passenger seat. He slammed the door he the retraced his steps, pulling the steering wheel hard over left and slipping the shifter into 'drive'. The big vehicle edged forward through a tight arc and over the shoulder of the road to the canyon below. The noise was tremendous. Unlike Hollywood special effects, it didn't explode. It snapped trees, crunched sapling and made metal-rending sounds. He ran from the scene, heading up the road.
The Jeep was waiting. The engine was off.
Marcy was gone!
"DON'T MOVE!" Carl froze.
"Its me, Marcy. Its Carl." Carl could barely speak above a whisper. He was out of breath and seriously frightened.
"What did we have for dinner last night?" she was hiding somewhere behind him.
"Venison stew. And it wasn't half bad." he was impressed. He wouldn't underestimate this woman. Ever.
"Jesus, Carl, what happened!" she pocketed a small pistol and clambered over the shoulder of the road. She ran to where he stood, shaking. Marcy wrapped her arms around him . Carl flinched then stepped back.
"Are you hurt?" she looked at his face.
"No, I'm okay. Are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine." She ran her hands through her disheveled hair.
"Let's get out of here." Carl was already running for the Jeep.
***
Low Wattage

The little jeep seemed to make as much noise as a freight train when they pulled away from the bend. Marcy glanced over at Carl.
“What did you mean ‘not half-bad’?”
Carl looked over at her with a glazed expression. He felt weak.
”Huh?”
“You said my stew was not half-bad” she pretended a mock hurt “Back at supper you said it was the best you ever tasted!”
Carl was still under the influence of massive amounts of adrenaline. The adrenal glands go into overdrive during a firefight and the mind responds from a very primitive part of the brain. His higher functions were still on the back burner.
Marcy grinned at his confusion. She had a damnable habit of doing that, Carl thought.
Carl’s ears popped as they climbed farther towards the high peaks. They drove on for what seemed like hours but in fact it was less than an hour after the fight. Marcy slowed down, easing the Jeep and trailer to the oncoming lane dangerously close to the canyon side. She slipped it into reverse and backed into a drive carved out of the local landscape. It seemed to go back about fifty feet and stopped. Marcy got out and before Carl could follow, she signaled him to stay put. There was practically no light now. The sky had clouded over. Carl strained to see where she was going but that was impossible. Instead he could hear more than one mumbled voice. Marcy came back to the Jeep and things started happening very quickly.
The silence was torn by metallic creaking and a rumble like a large door. Marcy started the rig and backed in to a gaping hole in the darkness with a vague light far inside. When the huge opening rang shut two men turned on small lights mounted on their headgear. Behind Marcy and Carl someone shouted “Make a hole!” and a light nearly blinded him. He realized the light was probably no brighter than a forty-watt bulb, but he had been hours in the dark. His night vision was fairly acute.
Carl looked around him in interest. The walls were shored in the honeycomb fashion developed by the silver mining industry. There were small rails on the floor. Ore carts?
This was a mine.
***
A man walked toward the front of the Jeep as Marcy eased back into the narrow space. The area behind them widened into a larger opening. Possibly side shafts, Carl thought. A female voice called ‘Whoa!” and Marcy stopped at the juncture. Why here, Carl wondered.
Then it dawned on him.
He was trapped in the area between the Jeep and the tunnel wall. If he meant mischief, he would be easier to control. The man in front of the Jeep signaled Carl to dismount and come to him. He was tall and gaunt with a pony tail and bib overalls. Carl saw he was hefting a combat-style shotgun.
“I’ll have to ask you to clear your smoke pole there, Cap’n” he drawled. He wasn’t unpleasant, but he meant business. Carl pulled the magazine from the PLR-16 shucking the remaining round from the chamber.
“Oh, and the pistola too, Cap’n.” the gaunt man smiled.
How the Hell did he see that, Carl wondered. He drew the big .45 and dropped the magazine, pulling the slide back with an exaggerated motion so the man would see it all. The man looked over the .45 and raised an eyebrow.
“Thankee, Cap’n.” he grinned “You can hang on to ‘em. We’re not as suspicious as we are safety-minded.”
Carl thought he could smell bullshit, but it wasn’t unkindly. In fact it was safety-minded. It kept Carl, an unknown factor, from bringing loaded weapons into what was obviously an enclave of some sort.
The gaunt man turned back to Carl as he led him past the Jeep and trailer toward the larger area.
“I’m Jimmy Walther” he stuck out his hand.
“Carl” he returned as he grasped the man’s hand in a firm grip. An honest handshake with years of hard work behind it, thought Carl.
The walls here were lit by a number of small wattage lights covered with red plastic lenses. Dim by any standard on the surface but in a mine, it was sufficient. They walked to another juncture much brighter than the last. This one had stacked boxes and crates on pallets with a small space to squeeze through. This is harder than it should be, thought Carl. Several people were rolling an ore cart toward the entrance and the Jeep.
Jimmy stopped at a picnic table wedged in a pocket dug out of one of the openings.
“Wait here” he said softly.
Carl wondered what had happened to Marcy. The table was lit by a small battery-powered lantern. He grinned at the Forest Service logo branded in the table. It had been stolen and brought here. Footsteps padded into the opening and Carl was relieved to see Marcy plop down on the bench next to him.
“Are you okay?” he ventured.
“Yes, is it alright if I panic now?” She smiled as tears rolled down to her chin and dropped on her parka.
“I was being kind you know” he whispered.
“About what?” Marcy was wide-eyed now.
“About the venison stew. It was just edible”
Marcy mock-slapped his shoulder as she grinned.
She rested her head on Carl’s shoulder for only a second and screamed. She looked at the blood on her hand and at Carl’s shoulder.
“OH MY GOD! YOU’RE HURT!” she shrieked.
She stripped the parka back from Carl’s shoulder then helped him out of it. The lining of the left sleeve was heavy, completely soaked with blood, lots of it. He looked at the gaping wound through his tricep and shuddered twice. Then he passed out.


***