This is a work of
fiction. All of the characters,
organizations and events in this novel are products of the author’s imagination
or are used fictitiously; any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely
No Part of this book may
be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed in any printed or electronic form
* * *
My wife, for her patience
during this project.
* * *
About this Book:
The events in this book take place immediately after the
conclusion of the events in Kratocracy.
Reading the Western Front and Kratocracy are both necessary prior to reading this book.
* * *
Though the fig tree does not bud and
there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields
produce no food…
…yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful
in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 3:17a, 18
* * *
Guadalupe Mountains; Southwest Texas
smiled as he leaned across the aisle and shouted over the rhythmic, whomp, whomp whomp of the Chinook’s
rotors, “So, you’re the two that were over Padre Island?”
glanced at Holt and then back towards the man, before replying, “Yeah, well,
what’s left of it.”
one they call Barrett?”
pretty well known in these parts. Name’s
Barrett assumed the man meant Jennings. The name rolled lazily off the man’s tongue
with a thick Texas drawl, and sounded more like Jin-nins.
smiled and replied, “Pleasure to meet you.
This is Holt.”
uttering a word, Holt thrust a gloved hand at Jennings and exchanged a firm,
but friendly, shake.
don’t know how much what you done out there has helped us. When you started pushing back against the
Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, it changed everything. There hadn’t been much hope in Fort Bliss for
a long time, to be honest, and you changed that.”
cartels are always looking to take advantage of a situation, and if you blink
your eyes, the board’s done changed. You
must’ve hurt the Alliance something bad in Matamoros, because after that, the
Sinaloas cut a swath deep into the Zeta’s and Gulf’s territory. Everything is hearsay down south, and you
know how drug men like to exaggerate, but the word was that the trees in
Monterrey run out of branches to hang Zetas from.”
help you when you’re five hundred miles from a bunch of dead narcos in
Zetas broken, the Sinaloas turned their full attention to the Juarez Cartel. We’d been getting pounded with rockets every day
for weeks. I felt like I was across the
river from the West Bank. Now, we might
get rocket fire once a week. I’d almost
forgot what the sun looked like I’d been in the ground so long.”
like the Sinaloas might be the new player along the border.”
nodded. “Maybe so, but we’ll deal with
them when the time comes. Until then, I
wouldn’t mind if the torch got passed back and forth a couple more times and a few
more branches got stretched.”
tried to force a smile, but his thoughts wandered into much darker places.
there’s far worse that we have to worry about than the Sinaloa Cartel.”
sighed and began to speak, but the chopper suddenly banked hard to the right,
causing him to nearly tumble from his bench.
He cursed at the pilot as he arose and began to stumble towards the
cockpit. After several moments, he
spoke too soon.”
nodded. “Too dangerous for us to fly in
to Bliss. We’ve being diverted to Dell
City; ‘bout eighty miles east, as the crow flies. We keep a couple of vehicles hidden there for
times like these.”
the ground anyway,” Holt replied.
turning to leave again, Jennings said, “I should get back to the cockpit; stay
up on what’s going on in Bliss.”
watched the man walk away, while Barrett turned his gaze to the others. His eyes caught Isabel’s for a fleeting moment,
before he quickly averted her stare.
They had spoken only when absolutely necessary since their time in Nuevo
He knew he
should not fault her for doing what he could not do. It was not as if they could have released the
Imam. They had known his fate from the
moment they abducted him from the dark alley.
She had only done what the men knew
had to be done, yet refused to do. If he
was honest with himself though, he knew that was not the real reason for his
cared for him enough to bear the unconscionable, to kill a man not out of self-defense, but rather
because her actions saved someone she cared about from shouldering the burden. He had only known one other woman that would
have done the same for him.
that there had been a moment between them on the rooftop in Nuevo Laredo. Even
though he had said they could only be friends, he was afraid that eventually
they would be more. Every time he looked
at Isabel, he saw his wife, and his heart would break anew. Even if he could overcome the pain, he would
always compare her to Olivia. Try as she
might, Isabel could never be
Olivia. Isabel may accept his defections
and distance at first, but eventually she would grow to resent him. Besides, even if he could somehow push
through his grief, the world was different now.
Life was cold, unforgiving and short; he could not find love again, only
to have it taken away by a world that cared not for such things anymore. So he used the Imam as his excuse to push her
away. In time, they would be friends
again, but he had to separate himself from her, at least until the feelings subsided.
Isabel, Rodie and several of his irregulars anxiously waited for their flight
to end. Unable to convince his sister to
stay with him, Rodie had decided at the last minute to join Barrett and the Gray
Riders as they traveled west. With the
cartels’ influence in Laredo waning, the others remained behind to reclaim the
Chinook cleared the rugged peaks of the Guadalupe Mountains, the tiny community
came into view. Barrett reasoned that no
more than three or four hundred people had called the deceptively-named Dell City home. Now, it was nothing more than a mocking
reminder of its former self. Most
likely, the farmers and ranchers in Dell City had only a glimmer of an
opportunity to escape before their quiet enclave was overrun by narco
soldados. Those that did escape would
have abandoned generations of blood and sweat, for the uncertain life of a
refugee. The men and women that braved
landscapes such as these were not known to be the type to back down from a
struggle of any sort. He mourned for the
former residents, knowing all too well that Dell City had most likely been
transformed into a ghost town of the most literal sorts.
the forties after oil prospectors discovered a reservoir in the valley, Dell
City had been a tiny island of green surrounded by an arid, border
wasteland. The limits of the irrigated
crop circles were still apparent from above, but the once-lush vegetation had
been reduced to a parched, desolate brown that faded into the obscurity of the
landed without incident in the field behind Dell City School, on Main Street. As Barrett and the others exited the rear
loading ramp, he paused momentarily to observe the bleak landscape that
surrounded him. Just to the west was a
series of high crags, too stubborn to adjoin and be considered a proper
mountain range. Instead, their
silhouettes rose from the haze on the horizon like borderland pyramids in some
bizarre, West Texas necropolis. Past
them some innumerable distance, the low peaks of an unknown ridge could be
vaguely discerned. Above them, an endless
parade of tiny cloud puffs obscured the sun as they slowly drifted eastward.
motioned for the group to follow him as the distinct sound of the Chinook’s
rotors filled the air. He weaved between
several buildings as he navigated across the small campus. Behind them, the chopper ascended towards the
tufts of cottony clouds, before tipping slightly forward and aiming its nose at
the high peaks they had crossed only minutes earlier.
directed the group to press tightly against the wall of the main building while
he and several other men from Fort Bliss peered through their rifle scopes for
any signs of a threat. After several
long moments of thorough observations, the group dashed across the open space
towards a pair of rusted metal buildings.
building housed a pair of Strykers, while the other contained two Humvees. The group separated into four teams and
quickly loaded into the vehicles. In
less than a minute, the vehicles rolled out of the nondescript structures and
onto Main Street.
blacktop thoroughfare was a mural of tarred cracks and neglected potholes. A thick coat of dust covered everything
around them: the street signs riddled
with bullet holes, the jagged shards of glass that hung in the broken windows
of abandoned stucco buildings and even the once-green leaves of the occasional
shrub or tree that stood as a defiant contrast to the endless collage of sepia
Stryker slowed to allow the Humvees room to slide in between the larger,
armored vehicles. The convoy straddled
the center line of the highway and roared towards the south as fast as the
Strykers would allow. A man in each
vehicle opened the top hatch and vigilantly began to scan their surroundings
from within the shielded ring mounts.
All of the vehicles were equipped with fifty-caliber, M2
machine-guns. As the last of the
warehouses and grain silos disappeared behind them, the only indication of
civilization was the endless stretch of weather pavement before them, and the
occasional, solitary power pole. All
else was the parched domain of a seemingly endless blanket of creosote bushes
with an occasional honey mesquite or huisache.
or fifteen miles the highway terminated at a T-junction. Ahead of them, the charred remains of a truck
stop and several vehicles stood as a solemn reminder of the cruelty of the borderlands. The lead Stryker slowed only enough to safely
maneuver the intersection as the convoy turned west on US 180.
slightly, the landscape began to change around them over the course of the next
hour or so. The silhouettes of the
petrified pyramids slowly began to drift by them to the north. Barrett found their presence to be strangely
foreboding. Like the harbingers in some
strange desert Gothic, they filled him with dread. He scoffed at his own thoughts and tried to
usher them aside, but they refused him.
crossing a series of barren river beds, the unknown ridges from before began to
grow in size, slowly at first, but then with greater urgency. Just as the highway began to cut into the
syenite hills and begin its ascent, the lead Stryker abandoned the pavement and
turned north onto a dusty, narrow ranch road.
turned to Jennings and asked, “What’s this place called?”
the foot of the Hueco Mountains. Just
over those peaks, the outer reaches of El Paso begins. We can’t go through there anymore.”
nodded, “Yeah, they’d lay and wait for us for days, maybe weeks, and then
ambush us as we came through. About ten
miles north of here, past Cerro Alto, are a series of ridges we can follow over
the mountains. There’s about a dozen
trails to choose from, so it’s harder for them to catch us. Plus, it’s pretty well wide open, so we can
see ‘em coming. It’ll take the rest of
the day to get to Bliss, but it’s safer.”
stand the wait.”
smiled and replied, “I thought so.”
they passed a cluster of yuccas amongst a stand of tall mesquites. Behind the concealment, a pair of trucks
languished under the desert sun. Their
tires were flattened and their windshields had been shattered. Rust had begun to creep outward from the
countless bullet holes that riddled the vehicles. Barrett gazed at the wreckage and then turned
to Jennings. The man shrugged innocently
and said in his West Texas drawl, “Can’t say they haven’t tried.”
loomed high overhead as they approached it from the south. It was a solitary peak, not unlike the rugged
pyramids from earlier. The haughty crag
made its rivals, in the range just beyond it, look like mere foothills in
comparison, which in fact they were. Barrett
was once again consumed with the feelings of dread from earlier. If he were on the insurgent side of this war,
he knew where he would station his sentries.
scout this area?”
drones through the mountains daily.”
have four at Fort Bliss. Usually half
are flying over Juarez and the other half are flying everywhere else.”
say half, you mean two. And when you say everywhere else, you mean
everywhere else, including these
mountains, sometimes. You might as well be scouring these hills
through a soda straw.”
do the best with what we have. I thought
you, of all people, would understand that.”
sorry. I don’t mean it that way; I do understand, believe me. It’s just,” Barrett paused and pointed at
Cerro Alto before continuing, “I feel like you’re putting us in danger right
now. I guaranteeyou that we’re
is the only safe place for us to land birds.
This is as safe a route as we have.
New Mexico to the north of us is hotter than you can imagine.”
imagine pretty hot, trust me.”
maybe you can imagine. It’s bad, very
bad, to the north of us.”
scouts on Cerro Alta at all times. This
is the highest point between Dell City and Fort Bliss. Tomorrow, two of your men head back here.”
know if you can make that call.”
“Trust me, I can make that call. And if I
can’t, I know people that can. I think you’re missing the point,
Jennings. You know why we’re here. I personally smashed the feet of the man
that told us that there was a nucleardevice in Juarez. And the girl in the Stryker in front of us,
she put a bullet in his head, because we’d no other choice. He was a Muslim
cleric, do you get me? There’re no Muslims in Mexico; they don’t
exist! Except now, they do. Do you know what that means?”
nodded and looked down, as if he was a child being scolded.
me inform you just in case. They’re here for one reason, to kill you and me. And they plan to accomplish that by
detonating a bomb, and by training
narcos on how to kill Americans. And
you’re operating like this is just some sort of border skirmish! They helped wipe downtown Houston off the map, and they’re not done with
us yet! You need to wake up!”
of the Humvee fell into an awkward silence.
The driver of the vehicle refused to even glance behind him, for fear of
eliciting Barrett’s wrath. Instead, he
focused intently on the road in front of him as the lead Stryker began to
ascend the hills behind Cerra Alto.
Barrett cursed under his breath as he turned and stared out his side
window. The slopes of the surrounding
mountains began to rise up around them as the convoy followed the narrow trail
over the Huecos.
Stryker was random in its selections as it approached forks in the trail. The vehicles meandered to and fro along
various paths. Occasionally, the passages
would turn back down the slope for several hundred feet to avoid an outcrop,
but as soon as the obstacle was behind them, they would resume their
ascent. Time was against them,
however. The sun was beginning to hang
heavy in the sky. In a few short hours,
darkness would be upon them.
corner of his eye, Barrett saw the quick flash of light and puff of smoke on the
top of the hill high above them. He
reached over, grabbed Jennings by the back of his neck and shoved him forward
and down. As Barrett leaned low he
shouted to the driver, but the sound of the explosion behind them was all that
could be heard. Twisted metal and debris
from the Humvee behind them slammed against the back of their vehicle. Thick black smoke swirled around them and
filled the air.
A volley of
rifle fire followed immediately after.
The rounds tore through the remaining Humvee and all around the men.
ahead! Up beside the Stryker!”
coughed and spat blood on his lap as he struggled to turn the wheel.
Stryker turned off the trail and began to climb the steep hill towards the
assailants. At the apex, a second man aimed
his RPG and fired at the approaching vehicle.
The rocket ripped through the air and slammed against the vehicle’s slat
armor. Thick smoke billowed up from the
deafening explosion, but the Stryker continued its advance unhindered. A quick burst from the vehicle’s M2
ventilated the man, his body dropping immediately. The first assailant swung up on his horse and
spurred it feverishly, quickly disappearing behind the ridge.
Stryker crested the hill, an entire team of riders could be seen fleeing in the
distance. Hawkins spun the M2 into
position and unleashed a hail of lead upon the raiders. One by one, the riders all fell. A lone horse galloped away from the scene of
the slaughter. The lifeless body of his
rider dragged behind him, the corpse’s foot still caught in the stirrup. A macabre cloud of dust followed the spooked
animal as he disappeared over a nearby hill.
The vehicle maintained its position atop the hill as it continued to
scan the surrounding area for danger.
threat above them neutralized, Barrett exited the Humvee and raced to the
driver’s door. He glanced back at the
charred remains of the vehicle behind him and was filled with rage. He pushed the feelings aside for the moment;
he could attend to them later. As he
opened the door of the Humvee, the driver slumped out of the opening. The man grasped at the door to prevent
himself from falling out onto the rocky path, but his strength was faltering. Barrett caught the man as he slid from his
seat, eased him down out of the vehicle and laid him flat on the ground. Two crimson stains blossomed on the man’s
left side. Barrett knew from the
locations of the wounds that the internal damage was likely severe.
The man tried
to speak, but a weak gurgle was all that he could utter.
“Shhh,” Barrett whispered as he cradled
the man’s head, “don’t talk.”
forced a smile and nodded as his hand fumbled up from his side. Barrett grasped his hand and held it tightly,
but the man groaned in frustration and pushed him away. He reached under his shirt, clasped a
crucifix and wheezed his final breath.
final moments of the soldier’s life, the rest of the world around Barrett had
faded into the distance. When he finally
looked up, he was surrounded by Isabel, Jennings and several others. Holt and the Gray Riders had emptied from the
back of the lead Stryker and taken up defensive positions around the two
vehicles. Barrett pushed past Jennings
and walked to the remains of the ruined Humvee.
The disgust from the scene caused him to turn and retch on the parched
ground beside his feet. He had not lost
a single man on the border. Now, two of his own were dead, as well as two more
from Fort Bliss.
A surge of repressed
rage burned through his body again, slowly at first, but then with an increased
intensity. Barrett spun and lunged at
Jennings with a fire in his eyes that had not been seen before by anyone but
Isabel and Rodie in Nuevo Laredo. A
surprised Jennings recoiled in defense, but it was too late. Barrett’s fist swung in a wide, sweeping arc
and caught him on his jaw. Jennings
faltered and stumbled backwards, with Barrett close behind him.
each heavy fist, Barrett cursed and growled the names of the fallen Gray
Riders: Dixon and Walker. When Holt and Ballentine finally managed to
pull him off, Jennings’ face was a mutilated remnant of its former self. The man shielded his head and curled up in
the dirt, fearful of a second attack.
All the while, the scorched earth greedily drank the blood that trickled
from his nose and mouth.
wrested himself free from the men, turned back and looked down at Jennings. As their eyes met, Holt stepped between them
and helped Jennings as he struggled to his feet. After several awkward moments, Jennings
averted his eyes. Barrett spun in a slow
circle, eyeing the faces of the others.
Most were as angry as him, but some appeared more shocked or grieved by
the loss. No doubt many of the men had
come to believe that the Gray Riders were immune to the losses that others had
come to expect. After eyeing his team, Barrett
spoke into his radio.
“We need to
move out; it’s not safe here.”
to the others and said, “Let’s get these bodies loaded up. We’re chasing daylight as it is.”
* * *
An hour after sunset, they saw Fort Bliss. Their lights had been switched off and they
drove across the valley by the green hues of their night vision. Jennings sat in the back seat while Ballentine
stood vigil up top. Barrett silently
followed the lead Stryker; no one had spoken since they left the site of the
ambush. A voice on the radio broke the
silence as it crackled to life.
“This is Bliss Gate North, identify yourself, approaching
Jennings shifted in his seat uncomfortably and replied, “This
is Jennings; we’ve got the delivery from Laredo.”
“Excellent! What took
you so long?”
Jennings paused for several moments before replying, “We’ll
“Roger. Well, we’ve got
someone I think our new friends will like to meet.”
“Roger; Jennings out.”
The cabin fell silent for several moments, before Jennings
“I think we need to talk.”
“I’ve said my piece.”
“I’m sorry about your men.”
“Doesn’t change anything.”
“While you’ve been holed up here in bunkers, we’ve been on
horseback out there struggling to survive. You might mean well, but you obviously don’t know what you’re doing. You’ll do things my way, or we’ll leave here
tonight. I don’t care if we have to walk
out on foot. Otherwise, the next time
one of my friends die because of
somebody like you, I might kill ‘em.”
Dyess Air Force Base; Abilene, Texas
Guano circled the U-2 in the Dodge Charger, while Morgan, the
old man from California, carefully scrutinized the plane. The “Dragon Lady”, as it was often referred
to, appeared to Guano as something more like a glider than a jet. With a wingspan of over one hundred feet, it
seemed as if even the most gentle of breezes would lift it up and cause it to
hover elegantly over the tarmac.
“Slow down,” Morgan grumbled to his driver.
Guano silently complied with the old man’s commands with a
meekness that was wholly uncharacteristic of him. He had learned over the past couple weeks
that Morgan usually had a high tolerance for foolishness, except for when they
were around the U-2s. Guano reasoned
that Morgan knew the plane as good as any other man alive. Every conversation that Morgan was involved
in eventually turned to a discussion of the plane. He mindlessly drew them on his notes during
meetings, while his thoughts wandered from the topic at hand. It was as if Morgan‘s subconscious was
programmed to only contemplate this particular
aircraft, and any moment that he was not consciously focused on something else,
he reverted to the plane. Guano was
fairly certain that it was all the old man ever thought or dreamed about.
Morgan leaned his head out of the car’s window and
meticulously performed the final pre-taxi checks that had already been reviewed
twice by ground crews.
Morgan mumbled to himself as he cleared the plane, “…camera
covers, removed; engine access doors, closed; landing gear pins, removed…”
The pages of his checklist rustled as a breeze swirled through
the car and disturbed his concentration.
Morgan turned and scowled at Guano, but he refused to glance over at the
old man. Guano preferred not to illicit
another painful rap of the clipboard against his head.
“…wheel chocks, removed.”
Morgan looked up from his notes and peered down the taxiway, before
announcing, “Taxi route clear; signal the pilot.”
“Clear for taxi.”
The U-2 slowly began to lumber towards the runway. The plane’s turning radius was nearly three
hundred feet on a calm day, and much more with a strong crosswind. Luckily, the day’s forecast of only the
occasional, gentle breeze had held true.
Morgan pointed to the outriggers that were fastened
precariously to the wings and said, “Watch the pogos; make sure they don’t fall
out of their sockets.”
Guano nodded as he followed behind the U-2 in the Charger.
“It looks so clumsy.”
Guano squeezed his eyes tightly shut and cursed himself for the words that had
just leapt from his mouth. Have you no control over your own body? Idiot!
Guano was surprised when, rather than receiving a
chastisement, the old man simply laughed, as if the young man sitting beside
him was a complete and utter rube.
“You ever seen an albatross?”
“I, uh; I don’t know.”
“Well, you’d know if you had.
They’re massive. There’ve been accounts of these birds having
wingspans of seventeen feet. They spend their entire lives out at sea, and only come ashore every couple years to
mate. But if you see one on the ground,
it just looks awkward – like it’s out
of place. An albatross was made to be in the sky. Put it anywhere else, and you might as well
have it on another planet.”
Morgan paused and pointed at the plane in front of them,
before continuing, “That thing is the same way.
Doesn’t it just look like it
would rather be in the air? These planes
aren’t hard to land because the landing gear’s in tandem, or because of the
wingspan. They’re hard to land because
they don’t want to land.”
As Lobo taxied into position, he radioed the control tower and
was given clearance to proceed. Morgan
unmuted his radio and began to communicate a series of pre-takeoff checks with
After several moments, Lobo replied, “Closed and locked.”
“Equipment master switch?”
“Hatch heater switch?”
“Pitot heat switch?”
“Removed.” Lobo held the pin high as a visual
confirmation, as he had done numerous times before in training.
Morgan exited the Charger and ambled over to the pogos that
braced each wing. He removed the locking
pins and showed them to Lobo each in turn, just as they had trained.
After he had eased back into the car, Morgan radioed Lobo
again, “Clearance for takeoff obtained.
Check all instruments.”
After several moments, Lobo replied with an anxious voice, “Instruments checked. Overflow light off.”
“Release your brakes.
As the deafening sound of the jet engine filled the air, Guano
began to furiously force his way through the gears as the Charger roared to
life as well. Try as he might, Lobo was
far too fast for him. In mere moments, at
60 mph, the wings began to rise and the pogos fell away and clattered along the
runway. At 80 mph, Guano and Morgan
watched as the tail of the plane began rise.
Guano floored the accelerator, but he was no match for the plane. With each passing moment, Lobo drifted
further ahead of them. At 120 mph, the
plane was no longer restrained by the jealous ground. The climb was gentle at first, but by the
time Lobo reached the end of the runway, his ascent was impressive.
Morgan flashed a toothy smile, while Guano was simultaneously
filled with pride and jealousy.
An elated voice crackled from the radio, “See you boys tomorrow!”
As Guano turned the car around and raced back to the hangars,
Morgan looked at him and said, “I’ll never
get tired of seeing that.”
Guano smiled and nodded as Morgan keyed the radio and said to
Lobo, “Come home safe, son.”
As they sped away, Guano adjusted the rear view mirror and
watched as his friend disappeared into the wispy clouds of the endless Texas
* * *
Adrenaline coursed through Lobo’s veins as he ascended at the
rapid pace of 270 feet per second.
Within a minute of takeoff, he had climbed 15,000’. The adrenaline filled him with the urge
explode from his seat, but his pressurized suit restricted his movement in an
already confined cabin. Instead, he
radioed Morgan and focused his energy on a series of equipment procedures and
checks. At 30,000’, he engaged the
craft’s autopilot and exhaled in relief.
Three minutes from takeoff, he was nearing an altitude of 50,000’, well
above the cruising limits of a typical airliner. Before he had left sovereign Texas airspace,
he had climbed to a staggering altitude of 70,000’.
Lobo was filled with a dull sense of dread as he checked his
coordinates and realized that he had just left the relative safety of the
Republic. In many areas, he imagined it
was quite dangerous to be a Texan, especially in a stolen spy plane. Texas still had a lot of friends in the surrounding
states, but soon enough he would be in what could only be considered hostile
territory. Lobo knew the mission was
extremely risky, but he hoped that Washington had been crippled to a point that
he could make it back home undetected.
As he looked up from the panel of instruments and digital
devices, his fears were immediately washed away by a wave of awe and
wonderment. It never failed; every time,
it caught him by surprise. Twelve miles
below him, tiny tufts of altocumulus clouds dotted the distant sky. Over a mile below them, their shadows cast a
series of dark splotches on a vast expanse of rolling, green hills.
In the distance, a curved horizon wrapped around him for as
far as he could see. Close to the earth,
the atmosphere was a vibrant blaze of azure.
Slowly, the sky dissolved into the deepest of sapphires, before finally
fading into a black so complete, its very nature was enthralling. Lobo stared off into the blackness of space
as his mind wandered. He mused that at
that very moment, he could quite possibly have been the highest man in the
world. Finally, after what seemed like
an eternity of being lost in his own thoughts, he contacted Morgan for a final
series checks and flight protocol.
* * *
Winston slowly wheeled himself down one of the numerous
underground hallways of the sprawling CIA complex. He paused for a moment to check the time,
before feverishly quickening his pace.
The meeting had lasted much longer than he had expected. He was
late. To most of the agents, another
long and arduous day was coming to a close, but to Winston, the real work of
the day had not yet begun.
He had anxiously waited for a day much like this. He had endured the burden of watching his
nation plunge headlong into darkness, while he sat idly on the sidelines. But what could he do? Paralyzed from the waist down, he was unable
to lead a resistance, much less survive
without the men and women who were destroying the very principles that he so
ardently believed in. So he had waited.
Through patience and perseverance, he had secretly re-cultivated
relationships with his former colleagues in the West. These free men, now enemies of the State, had
come to trust Winston and consider him one of their own. Finally, tonight, he could prove his loyalty
and serve his country – even if his country no longer existed, except as
perhaps an ideal in the minds of a few men.
At the opposite end of the fluorescent-lit hall, a group of
men rounded the corner. Winston smiled
and held his head high as he rolled towards them, but on the inside his stomach
turned. As they met, one of the men
leaned forward, put his hand on Winston’s shoulder and spoke in a voice of
“Winston myboy, how are you?”
Although twice the men’s senior, they always referred to
Winston as ‘my boy’. Winston wanted to grab the agent by his tie
and violently jerk his nose into his forehead, but instead he continued to
simply smile as he replied, “I’m well, gentlemen; how are you all?”
“Oh, you know us –
just living the dream.”
Winston smiled and nodded but said nothing.
“Say, we were just about to go get some drinks; Winston, would you like to join us?”
“No thanks. I’ve a lot
of work left to do.”
“You must be the hardestworker the Agency has. If everyone was half the man you are, this world would be a much better place. See you around, Winston.”
He could hear the men’s scornful whispers as they walked
away. After several jeers, the entire
group burst into a roaring laughter as they slapped the lead agent’s back in
approval. Half the man, Winston allowed the words to echo in his mind. No matter how many times he heard the
thinly-veiled insult, it still hurt.
He was suddenly filled with the urge to spin around and
challenge the cowards, to roll up to the men and take a swing at each of them,
but he thought better of it. Instead, he
hung his head and continued back to his office.
No matter what he accomplished, to his colleagues at Langley,
he would always be Winston Graymin, the crippled spook. But to another group of men, half a nation
away, he could be a hero. He would shine
a light into the darkness for all to see.
He would expose their crimes against their own people to the light of
day, for Winston knew that sunlight was the most powerful disinfectant.
He closed the office door behind him and rolled across the
room to his desk. His workspace was
oriented so that his activities were hidden from the prying eyes of the cameras
that were surreptitiously stationed all around him. Winston had often chuckled at the irony of
having “hidden” cameras in his office, when he knew the location of ever camera
in the entire facility practically by memory, and had access to all of their
records with a series of simple keystrokes.
He removed a tiny device from his shirt pocket and inserted it
into his computer. A small window
appeared on the screen, indicating that the program was now active. Until the device was removed, the software
would block the logging of his actual keystrokes. Instead, a series of pre-recorded keystrokes
would be broadcast to the monitoring devices on his computer, masking his true
He had recorded the false entries the night before in his
apartment, as he had labored for hours on numerous reports and dossiers. He would upload the already completed
submittals to the network throughout the night, further reinforcing the
perception that this was just another one of the all-night, self-sacrifice sessions
offered up to the Company by the hardest-working cripple in Langley. Winston smirked at the thought as he removed
his glasses and wiped the lenses clean with his wrinkled shirt.
He accessed the internet through a secure, anonymous network portal
that was also stored on the tiny device.
After a rapid patter of clicks and strokes, he was deep within a forum
for fans of some obscure television series that had not seen activity in months. He clicked a thread started less than an hour
ago by a new member. The thread
contained a single entry: a garbled
entry of letters, symbols and numbers.
Winston opened his top desk drawer and retrieved a small,
leather-bound tome on astronomy. He
would glance from the screen to the book and shuffle through the pages until he
found the section he was searching for, and finally make a mental note of the
translation. When he had completed the
task, he was left with the following:
| 88o47’55.05”W | 78,000’ |
Winston entered the coordinates into his computer and
whispered to himself, “Just south of St. Louis.
Alright then, let’s turn north.”
After alternating between the tome and the keyboard for
several arduous minutes, He posted a coded reply to the thread:
| Excellent | Right On Track | First Location: 41o52’21.82”N | 87o41’03.85”W |
After several moments of refreshing the page, another, coded
post appeared immediately below his:
| Roger | Confirm Coordinates: 41o52’21.82”N
| 87o41’03.85”W |
| Coordinates Confirmed | Good Luck |
Winston minimized the windows after checking his watch. He turned and uploaded the first of the many
reports that he would be submitting over the course of the night. After doing so, he leaned back in his
wheelchair and yawned deeply as he removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
He could empathize with the unknown pilot in the skies over
southern Illinois: stuck in an
uncomfortable seat for at least the next nine hours; exhausted, but unable to
sleep. At least he could slip away to the restroom, Winston thought to
himself. He also had little to worry
about in the way of surface-to-air missiles.
For the rest of the night, Winston would dutifully submit the coordinates
of the locations in the east that had suffered the most in the last several
months. He would pull the curtain back
on all of the offenses of the new government.
Entire sections of cities that had been completely erased, internment
camps filled with defiant citizens and members of resistance cells, the mass
occupation of farming and agricultural centers by military personnel and much
more – he would reveal it all.
After each location was documented by the U-2, Winston would
pour over the data and images that were gathered to ensure that the full
breadth of the evils committed by the new government had been captured. If not, he would instruct the plane to circle
back and perform a second sweep of the area.
Otherwise, he would direct the pilot, or perhaps the ground team, to
proceed to the next location. In the
meantime, Winston would annotate the data and then embed it in an encrypted
image file. He then would post the
innocuous image, most likely a scene from the television series that was the
focus of the forum.
Winston was unsure who exactly he was communicating with. All he knew for certain was that Reese Byers
had contacted him and promised him that these people could be trusted. Had it been anyone else, he probably would
have balked, but he trusted Reese.
Nevertheless, his life would certainly be forfeit if his true motives
for working late on that night were ever discovered.
A sudden knock at the door startled Winston and caused a
course of adrenaline to rush through his body.
He fought back against the panic to regain his composure, and finally
The soft tones of a woman’s voice filled the stale air as the
door creaked open.
“Winston, is everything alright?”
He smiled in relief. If
radiance had a sound, it was her voice.
“I’m fine; just another long night.”
“I saw your light on. I
just wanted to check on you before I left.”
“Thanks. Do you want me
to follow you out to your car?”
“You don’t have to; there’s security everywhere. I’ll be fine.
Is there anything I can get you before I go?”
He feigned thought for a moment before replying, “No, thanks
She smiled and said, “Okay; well, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
He waited for several minutes after she left, before
retrieving the empty pot from the coffee maker that sat on the credenza behind
him. He emerged from behind the desk
with the pot in his lap and made his way to the deserted break-room. He locked the chair’s wheels, leaned forward
and precariously filled the pot at the sink.
It would have been much easier for her to have simply helped him with the
task, but he abhorred the thought of relying on the assistance of others, even
if they were as enchanting as Rebekah.
Far too often his reliance was later used as a means to ridicule or
coerce him into assume additional work so that others might leave early. Not that she would ever do that of course;
she was different. Even still, he tried
to maintain as much independence as possible around her.
Upon returning to his office, he started brewing the coffee
and resumed his activities, which, much like the pilot, was more waiting and
yawning than anything. As the hours
slowly dragged by, Winston directed the plane to various cities in the Midwest
and along the East Coast. They recorded
the devolution of Chicago into a third-world, tribal landscape. They visited Cleveland’s massive internment
facilities and the killing fields just north of Syracuse.
From there they traveled on to New Hampshire and Vermont – two
states where pockets of resistance had been particularly strong. They were also the two states that had
suffered the most for their strong desire for independence. New Hampshire’s slogan, Live Free or Die, had rung particularly true; sadly, the state was
far from free.
Three pots of coffee later, they were flying south along the
Eastern Seaboard. Halfway home, Winston thought to himself. They had swung wide around Washington because
of the intense security in the area.
Instead, Winston opted for the wreckage that was Richmond and
Charleston. The stretch from Atlanta to Savannah
looked as if it had suffered Sherman’s second coming, and Brunswick looked as
if it had never even existed.
Satisfied with their progress, Winston pushed himself away
from his workstation and checked his watch.
He had been following the plane for over eight hours. He was swiftly approaching 48 hours without
rest. Winston’s eyelids defaulted to a
closed position whenever he was not actively focusing on keeping them
open. Even though the three pots of
coffee he had consumed were wreaking havoc on his body, he yawned deeply and
decided that he would definitely require one more to get him through the
mission. He grabbed the empty pot and
sluggishly rolled out of his office and to the break-room.
He returned with a pot of water and a ten dollar bag of potato
chips from the break-room snack machine.
Ten dollars for a bag of
chips? Who would’ve thought? But then again, who could’ve imagined any of
this? The salty chips tasted
amazing. He savored every bite before
welcoming them into his rumbling stomach.
He would have bought more if he could have afforded it, but he had
scarce little money to spare. He had no
idea how anyone survived without the government rations. Perhaps
they didn’t, he mused. He set the
water-filled pot on his desk and the half-empty bag of chips in his lap as he
continued to dwell on the thought. Maybe
he would just close his eyes for a moment.
Perhaps that would help him think more clearly.
Oh no! The sound of his own snoring awoke him in
a panic. How long had he been asleep? In
the blur that was the first few moments of cognizance, he turned and knocked
the coffee pot over on its side. The
water rushed across his desk, ruining everything in its path. He cursed aloud and lurched forward to save
the disorganized array of documents that were sprawled everywhere. As he lunged forward his chair rolled
backwards, sending him reeling to the ground.
His head collided painfully with the unforgiving, tile floor. The throbbing agony inside his skull
manifested itself as a weak gurgle as he lay in a motionless heap.
He struggled awkwardly to pull himself back up into his chair,
but it continued to roll backwards.
Finally, he locked the wheels and managed to regain his seat. As he rubbed his head and reached for the
empty pot, a flash caught his attention from the corner of his eye.
He watched as a tiny window at the bottom of the computer
monitor began to fill with data. He
maximized the window and rapidly pattered the keyboard for several moments,
before leaning back in his wheelchair and unleashing an incomprehensible slurry
of vulgarities. His heart palpitated and
his stomach turned over on itself as adrenaline pumped through his veins. He bit his lip and fought back the urge to
turn and retch on the floor beside him.
Winston posted one final message:
| Hurlbert Field on High
Alert | Mission Compromised |
Barry Steam Plant; Bucks, Alabama
Freeman was filled with disgust as he paced the platform high
above the remote facility. He snorted as
he leaned over the railing and peered through the darkness at the vast array of
portable light plants below. Legions of
workers scurried about, like ants on an endless mission, to repair the damaged
steam turbines. He glanced over his
shoulder at a pair of snipers standing vigil over the chaos below. Guarding
a power plant? In Alabama? How did he ever fall so far from grace?
He exhaled deeply as he continued to pace the platform and
stare off into the darkened pine hollows that surrounded the plant. He knew exactly how he had fallen from grace,
of course, but it certainly had not
been his fault. Who could have ever imagined Brunswick would have turned into the
disaster that it did?
Perhaps, he would concede, some fault may lay with him. He had wholly underestimated his adversaries,
and had paid dearly for it. But surely
he alone should not be held responsible for the miscalculations of others. He had what – a hundred men against possibly
thousands of insurgents that were willing to die, as long as they took a couple
Feds with them? Besides, the men that
had been allocated to him were not soldiers. They were soft-willed G-men from agencies
like the DDP that did not have the training or fortitude to fight a guerilla
war like it ought to be fought. When
they chased their quarry into the surrounding forests and swamps, their fate
was sealed. Most of the agents never
They completely leveled Brunswick and St. Simons, but that had
only been a frail, Parthian shot. At
least the insurgents would not have homes to return to, but he doubted that
thought would ever cross their minds again – not while there was a reason left
to resist. They had faded into the
surrounding wilds and farmlands, and woe
to anyone who chose to bring the fight to them.
He had stood in silent anger and seethed as men in polished
brass, who had never left their bureaucratic posts, rebuked him for his failures and crimes: abuse of authority, failure to supervise,
dereliction of duty, and failure to obey an order. Yet they had given him another chance.
As if he desired to earn
He knew how to win battles and wars, but this new regime obviously did not. A hundred men and a couple drones? That may have worked in some third world
pothole with the support of the local warlord, but never here. Besides, Freeman snorted, all the real
warriors had defected long ago, and were now training and fighting for the
opposition. Yet, here he was, having graciously
been granted another chance.
As if they had a choice. How many others like him were left to lead
their dwindling forces? Not many.
So there he stood, in the middle of nowhere, cleaning up the
mess left by someone who was either incompetent, or more likely, had been
allotted fewer resources than even he had.
It seemed the last Federal response unit that had been
assigned to the area had made a particularly fatal mistake. The decision was made to destroy the power
grid in areas that were known to be havens for the local insurgents. The local grid was sporadic, to say the
least, but even occasional, unreliable power was vastly preferable to none at
all. The resistance had responded by
completely disabling the only power plant in the area. Next, they destroyed the largest water
treatment facility for a hundred miles.
Finally, they killed the entire, eighty-man team of Federal agents that
had been assigned to the area. Now, the
urban areas to the south stunk of death and filth, and were plagued by anarchy
on a level that was wholly indescribable.
Adding insult to injury, several of the fallen team’s WULVs and drones
had vanished after the deadly assault.
The insurgents’ message was perfectly clear to Freeman; they
had leveled the battlefield. They could
survive without modern comforts, but could the teams of Federal agents? Could they do it while living under the
constant threat of death? Freeman
glanced down at several teams of armed men that were guarding the workers. The strain was already beginning to show in
their faces. He desperately needed a
lucky break; the entire unit did. He had
to prove to Washington that he was still a valuable asset, and he had to do it
quick – there would certainly be no third chance.
Several headlights began to occasionally flash through the
trees in the distance, their intensity slowly growing. The SUVs turned east and began to snake along
the plant’s entrance road. Freeman’s
radio crackled to life as he watched their approach.
“We’ve got something for
“I’ll be down shortly; prep them for my visit.”
* * *
The old conference room was dim and sparsely adorned. The walls were bare, save for the occasional
poster about teamwork or working safely.
The long table and plush, leather seats had been replaced with a single
folding table and a pair of metal chairs.
The only source of illumination was from a dull, flickering, fluorescent
The man leaned forward in the chair with his head held
low. He was barefoot and shirtless. His pants were caked with mud, and his chest
was smeared with crimson. His wrists
were raw from the rope that held them tightly behind his back, and his
shoulders ached from the strain on his aging body.
The sound of the door creaking open caused his eyes to glance
up and meet Freeman’s, but he quickly looked away. Freeman circled the room, like a vulture
carefully examining a wounded animal.
With his hands clasped behind his back, he silently observed the man
from every angle, occasionally craning his neck or pausing momentarily. The man ignored Freeman; instead, he closed
his eyes and continued to hang his head.
The only sounds in the room were the occasional clicking of Freeman’s
boots, and a light wheeze coming from the man.
After what seemed like an eternity, Freeman took a seat
opposite of the prisoner. He removed a
notepad from his coat pocket and placed it on the table, before producing
several documents. He took his time, silently
reading the papers, before clearing his throat and finally speaking. His words echoed through the empty room.
“Donald Greene, deputy; fifty-two years old. Brother of David Greene, Washington County
sheriff; sixty-seven years old.”
Greene looked up at Freeman, but did not speak. Rather he held his gaze with tired, hollow
“It says here you’re a known sympathizer and supporter of the
local resistance movement.”
Greene cringed as he struggled through a deep, raspy cough.
Freeman shook the papers at the man and continued, “It also
says that you were aware of the conspiracy to commit the terrorist attacks
against this facility, yet you did nothing.
That seems like odd behavior for a lawman.”
“There is even reason to believe that you may have been
involved in the planning and execution
of the attack.”
Freeman rocked back in his chair and exhaled deeply, before
simply saying, “Fine.”
He arose and disappeared from the room. Several minutes later, the door swung open
and he reemerged behind a cart. The
creaking wheels protested loudly with every inch that they were pushed
forward. He stopped beside his chair and
began to transfer the contents of a single tray to the table. One by one, he held the sharp, metallic
instruments up into the light, examined them closely, glared at the man, and
finally dropped them from several inches above the table’s surface – allowing
them to clatter loudly.
After several rather gruesome devices were dropped haphazardly
on the table, Greene finally spoke.
“What’s all that for?”
“I think you know quite well what all of this is for,” Freeman
said with a sneer.
“What do you mean, ‘Why’?”
“I mean exactly what I said, son.”
Greene’s voice commanded authority. A surprised Freeman looked up to see eyes
that were no longer hollow and distant, but full of contempt. After a short pause, Freeman attempted to
regain control of the room.
“I realize you’re just a stupid hick, but you’re not that stupid. What we have here is a failure to
communicate, and I don’t have the time to sit here with you and talk to
“You never asked me a question. I’m not about to let you commence to cutting
on me, just because you don’t know how this type of thing works.”
Freeman stared at the man incredulously. A scornful laugh bellowed from deep within
him and echoed off the surrounding walls.
He sat back down at the table and picked up one of the tools. It was scalpel-like in appearance, though the
blade was longer and sharply curved. He
rolled its grip across his palm with his fingers as he stared at Greene. Finally, he spoke.
“You are Deputy Donald Greene?”
“I’m Sheriff Donald
Greene now; my brother is dead.”
“How did he die?”
Sheriff Greene leaned forward and spoke condescendingly, “How do people die these days? Do they die of heart attacks or cancer?” He shook his head slowly from side to side,
while continuing to stare deep into Freeman’s eyes, “No. They die with a gun in
their hands, fighting cowards like you.”
“Was he killed by the Federal unit that was here before me?”
“No. He died long
before them, but he might as well’ve. He
was murdered by criminals just the same.”
The room was filled with a heavy blanket of silence. Freeman allowed it to settle over them for
dramatic effect. Just as he
intentionally avoided questioning the sheriff in the beginning, it all served a
purpose. He had once been told that,
much like baking a cake, the art of extraction required the perfect combination
of timing and ingredients. Different
cakes required different approaches.
“How does it feel?”
“How does what
“To be a lawman on that
side of the table. The side reserved for
“It don’t feel at all.
I s’pose it’s the side I ought to be on, being that the world is
Freeman snorted at the old man’s words and said, “Am I correct
in assuming you are a supporter of the recent rebellious efforts in this area?”
“Rebellious? I took an oath, sir, like my brother before me.
We took our oaths before the people of this community – the people who
chose us to act on their behalf. We have
fought to protect our communities, much like Augustin Washington did nearly
three hundred years ago, a man whose son would go on to lead this nation. But people like you don’t care about history,
or values, or oaths. Your loyalties
change with the wind, to whatever suits your own selfish desires. So tell me, which one of us is the rebel, and
which one of us is merely leaning into the tide?”
“I’m not here to debate you, Mr. Greene. I’m here-”
“You’re here to steal, kill and destroy – our freedom, our
lives, our sacred honor.”
With the sheriff’s words, Freeman slammed his fist violently
against the table. The gruesome tools of
torture flew into the air and landed on the floor all around them. He leaned across the table, their foreheads
nearly touching, and snarled at the old man, “I don’t care about your politics,
sheriff. I’m here for answers. You’re going to give them to me, or believe
me – I
will hurt you.”
“A tortured man’ll tell you whatever he thinks you want to
hear. That’s no way to get the
truth. I know; I’ve sat where you are. But, I’ll give you your answer: yes, I would’ve supported the men you’re
Freeman returned to his seat and rapped the table with his
fingers for several moments as he struggled to reign in his fury.
“Were you privy to the conspiracy against this facility?”
“I thought something like it might happen, but I was never
“So you weren’t involved in the execution of the attack?”
“And you weren’t involved in the deaths of Federal agents
assigned to this jurisdiction?”
“What if I told you there were others who have said that you
did in fact coordinate the terror strike against this facility, and then
orchestrated the assassinations of Federal agents?”
“I’d say you tortured those people until they gave up a
name. And everybody knows my name.”
The sheriff’s response was unblinking and defiant. Freeman reasoned that he was a skillful liar,
or he was speaking the truth.
“I believe you, sheriff, but that gets me nowhere. I need to know who committed these crimes.”
“I have my suspicions, but I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
Sheriff Greene shook his head from side to side.
“Then who is the leader of the insurgents?”
The old man wheezed loudly as he laughed at the question. The sheriff’s response infuriated
Freeman. He reached into the tray on the
cart and retrieved a pair of pliers. As
he leaned across the table, the sheriff reared back in his chair, causing it to
tumble backwards and collide violently against the floor. His bound hands were crushed underneath the
force of the impact. He cried out in
pain and struggled to roll over onto his side, but it was in vain.
Freeman straddled the man and began to pry open his
mouth. Between his cries, he begged
Freeman, “Wait, wait, wait!”
Freeman paused and replied, “Tell me.”
“Please, my hands. Help
Freeman unsheathed his knife and cut the sheriff’s hands free
from the back of the chair. The old man
writhed on the ground as he rubbed his throbbing hands and bleeding wrists.
Freeman stood over him and repeated, “Tell me.”
After several moments, Sheriff Greene replied, “You people
don’t understand. There’s no Resistance in the way you expect
there to be. There sure ain’t no leader.
These are families and communities that are taking care of
their own. And you come in here and try to
take what little they’ve left? You can
defeat an army, but you can’t control a people that’ve drawn a line in the
sand. I can tell you the names of people
I know and places I’ve been, but the fact is, they know you have me. If you go
after these people, they’ll be ready for you.
You can’t win.”
Freeman stood silently over the sheriff as the words echoed in
his head. The hatred that boiled in him slowly
turned to dread. He was not afraid of
the fight that lay ahead, but he was
afraid of the fate that awaited him if he failed again. Washington had already demonstrated that they
would not tolerate those who were of no use to them.
“I want a list of names; everyone you know. I want to know everything about this
God-forsaken place. And if you lie to me
sheriff, I promise I will show you pain that you’ve never imagined.”
Fort Bliss, Texas
Jennings and Holt stared through the one-way, observation
mirror into the interrogation room. They
watched as a frightened narco soldier sat across from Alex, while Barrett towered
over him and roared with fury. Barrett
would snarl at the man and accuse him of lying, while slamming his fist against
the wooden table, causing the legs to jump from the floor. Early in the interrogation, the man had
called what he had thought was a bluff by Barrett. Barrett responded by delivering on his
promise, and commenced to pummeling the man’s face.
Twice Jennings had attempted to end the interrogation, and
twice he had been stopped by Holt. Holt
had tried to reassure Jennings. “He’s a professional,” he would say, but
even Holt was beginning to doubt his own words.
With the ambush just west of Cerro Alto the day before still fresh on
their minds, Holt could not bring himself to blame his friend for his
actions. It was no excuse, but it certainly was a reason.
Barrett turned and stared at the glass with cold eyes, as if
he could see the two men behind it. They
watched as he whispered something to Alex, and then saw as Barrett’s old friend
nodded in agreement. Alex arose from the
table and exited the room, leaving only the guardsman and the soldado.
As Alex shut the door behind him, Jennings said, “That’s
it. He can’t be in there alone; he’s unstable.”
Jennings approached the door, but Alex stood as a solemn guard
at the impasse.
“A moment is all he
Jennings glared at the old man, before finally returning to
the window and continuing his watch. On
the opposite side of the glass, the soldado nodded in comprehension and
mouthed, “Sí; sí,” as
Barrett whispered in his ear.
Finally, the haggard guardsman emerged from the room. Behind him, the soldado leaned forward and
laid his exhausted head on the table.
Holt and Jennings followed Barrett to a small conference room, while
Alex quietly departed in the opposite direction.
With the door closed behind them, Jennings finally spoke.
“That was pretty harsh for a man that voluntarily came to us.”
“That man is a murderer, or did you not watch the
“I watched it all, Barrett; all three excruciating hours of it.”
“Then you watched him admit
that he’s killer, right? He’s killed
woman and children, after probably doing much worse to them while they were still alive. And those, those were his fellow countrymen.
He’s killed his share of Americans too; more than he can count. I bet he’s even killed some of your
boys. Who knows, he might’ve had a part
in yesterday’s disaster, or have you
forgotten about that already too?”
Jennings bolted up from his chair and growled, “How dare you!”
Barrett matched the man’s stance from the opposite side of the
table and chided, “Save your righteous
indignation for someone else. I was
there, remember? I’m the one who did that to your face.”
“I’ve had enough of-”
“My men! You killed my men!”
Holt slammed his fist against the table and roared, “Enough!
Both of you! This is getting us
nowhere!” After several awkward
moments, he turned to Jennings and said, “Can you give us a minute?”
“I’ll not have him-”
Holt raised his palm reassuringly at Jennings and repeated,
“Give us a minute.”
Jennings, red-faced, stormed from the room.
With the two alone, Holt exhaled and turned to Barrett.
“You’re not winning any friends here, you know that, right?”
Barrett took his seat and stared at his brother in arms, but
“Look, I know how much of a nightmare yesterday was. I was there too; we were all there. We all lost friends. I’m not saying to forget those men, but we’ve
got a job to do here.”
“I’m doing my job.”
“I know you are, but you can’t do this alone. These people here, we need ‘em. And you’ve got to cut Jennings some slack, Barrett. He didn’t kill those men yesterday. He took the safest route he knew, one that he’d
taken dozens of times before. It
could’ve just as easily been him.
Barrett sighed and rubbed his temples for several moments,
before finally whispering, “Fine.”
“And another thing: I
know what Isabel did wasn’t exactly right,
but you’re not being fair to her. Her
head is not in the game like it should be, and it’s because of you. Who are you going to blame if she gets
herself killed? We don’t need to bury
Barrett looked away, but said nothing.
“Can you live with the deaths of two women on your conscience?”
Barrett snapped his head back in Holt’s direction. He scowled at his friend with narrow eyes and
began to speak, but thought better of it at the last moment. Instead, he slowly hung his head and closed
his eyes. After several moments, he
finally nodded and said, “You’re right.”
Holt put a hand on Barrett’s shoulder and replied, “Of course
I’m right. Now, I’m ‘a get us some
coffee and go find Jennings. If you can
refrain from stomping his ass again, maybe we can get something done.”
He opened his eyes, turned to his friend and smiled.
Holt laughed, “Thanks.
I’ll be right back.”
After several minutes, the two men returned and took their
seats. Holt pushed a steaming cup
towards Barrett and said, “Well, you’re the expert, tell us what you think.”
Barrett leaned back in his chair in silence for several
moments, as if to gather his thoughts, before beginning.
“Make no mistake, he’s an animal. He’s done a lot of things and there’s no
remorse there. In that respect, he’s a complete
sociopath. But he’s telling the truth,
and he does want to help us find the bomb.”
“Because of hate, and maybe some other selfish reasons, but
mostly hate. He absolutely hates the Islamists; I don’t think I’ve
ever seen a person hate someone as much as he hates them. He hates everything
about them. He also realizes that the
cartels are being used, and that eventually, the Islamists will turn on them
“So he knows where the bomb is?”
“It’s hidden in a network of tunnels underneath Juarez. They’ll be moving it soon, so we need to work
“How do we know it’s not a trap?”
“Other than my instinct?
We don’t. But I told him that
he’ll lead us there, unarmed and on point.
I also made sure he understood that if we’re ambushed, my dying breath will
be spent making sure he comes with me.
I’ll haunt him in hell if I have to.”
“What’d he say to that?”
“He understood; I think he probably expected it.”
“When do we leave?”
“As soon as we can, no more than a couple days. We can’t risk them moving it. We need to have him map out the tunnels on an
aerial, showing all entrance points.
From there, we need to know everything
that he knows about this place.”
Jennings stood and said, “I’ll get with Alex and we’ll handle
Jennings nodded, before turning and leaving.
The two men sat in silence for a while. Finally, Holt spoke.
“You did good.”
Barrett feigned a weak smile.
“Let me handle the planning.
I think you should go talk to Isabel.”
Barrett breathed in the aroma of the coffee before taking a
sip. He stared blankly past Holt for a
time, before finally saying, “Okay.”
* * *
The sound of the door caused her to turn and glance over her
shoulder. Though Isabel wanted to speak,
she instead resumed her watch over the sun as it disappeared behind the rugged,
mountainous horizon. The desert sky was
once again ablaze with the warm colors of dusk.
A few distant clouds obscured what was otherwise a perfect canvas above
the beautiful but unforgiving landscape.
“Your brother told me you’d be up here.”
Without turning around, she said, “Can’t trust anybody.”
“It’s dangerous up here.
They’ve got snipers, and there’s always the rockets.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Barrett walked up beside her and leaned against the parapet
wall at the edge of the flat roof. She
was several feet to his left, and still ignoring him. They stood in silence for what seemed like an
eternity to Barrett, before he finally spoke.
His voice was awkward and measured, like a man accused on the stand,
fighting for his life.
“I don’t know what to say…” His voice trailed off. He wanted to say more, but he did not know
“Your actions have said enough.”
As the final vestiges of the day disappeared behind the jagged
cliffs, darkness and silence engulfed them.
“That night in Nuevo Laredo, I was wrong.”
He waited for a response, but she offered none. Frustrated, he searched for more words, but
none came. Finally, he turned and began
Halfway across the rooftop she spoke into the wind, without
turning around, “Why don’t you just tell me how you feel?”
He paused. “I thought I
She laughed sardonically and quipped, “Hollow words, Barrett.”
Incensed, he replied, “I’m sorry, okay? I used what happened that night as an excuse
to push you away, but I did it because I care. I can’t
give you what you want.”
She turned to face him with narrow eyes. Her words were cold and sharp as she replied,
“How mystical of you to know what I
want, and how noble to deny it
because you know what’s best. Please tell me, what do I want?”
“You want me to be something, to feel something that I can’t
feel – not now, and maybe never.”
She tried to laugh, but the sound was more of a half-sob. He watched as she wiped her cheek before
responding. She was strong, but the pain
was too much to hold back.
“I want my family
back; the family that was taken from
me, the family I’ll never know. I want
a husband and children, without worrying that they’ll be taken from me. I
want freedom, and not this watered-down façade that’s been sold to us
either. Freedom to live and choose and be.
That’s what I want. What I need in this world is someone I can
trust, someone I can rely on and depend on.
I need a friend, and I thought I had that. But you took
that away from me, so that makes you just like everybody else.”
“Wasn’t my intent,” he said meekly.
“I don’t care about
your intent. I need you to be the friend you said you’d be
on that other rooftop not so long ago. I
don’t need you to worry about hurting me because you can’t give me what you think I want.”
“Don’t you want that?”
She crossed the rooftop and pushed against his chest with all
the force she could muster. Barrett
stumbled backwards, surprised at her strength.
“Of course I want that;
isn’t it obvious? Haven’t I made my
feelings known? But didn’t you make
yourself clear that you couldn’t give me all of you? And didn’t I accept that? I know you don’t believe me, but I’ll take
what I can get.
Barrett, what I’ve got right now isn’t enough anymore. I can’t keep living on hate. Maybe your friendship will be enough, but
I’ve got to have something else to hold on to, or else I’ll wind up no
different than them. I realize that now;
I accept what I did in Laredo was wrong and I’ll live have to with it. I need something in this life to anchor me;
that’s what I’m asking for.”
Her last few words were almost unintelligible as her
grief-filled voice cracked and faltered.
The veneer of independence and self-reliance that she had so carefully
constructed was falling away. She stood
before him shaking like an orphan under the vastness of the starry sky. She buried her head in her hands and
wept. In that moment, he saw her for
what she really was. She was not a woman
with a vendetta against the world. She
was Isabel, tired and alone, pushing forward the only way she knew how – too
terrified to stop, for fear of what demons of her own construct might consume
her. She was just like him.
Tears streaked down his dusty cheeks. He had hurt someone that he had promised to
be there for. He had turned his back on
a friend who needed him; a friend who had done nothing other than willingly
shoulder a burden that he could not bear.
He stepped forward without a word and pulled her into his chest. As they both wept, he rested his chin on the
top of her head and whispered softly.
Tombigbee River, Alabama
Big Ted Lawson strained to see through the impenetrable
darkness that was all around him, but it was in vain. The starless sky was thick with storm clouds,
and the heavy canopy of water oaks seemed to swell ever closer as he trespassed
deeper into the river swamp. Teddy
paddled the canoe gingerly along the slough, careful to not disturb the water
more than was absolutely necessary, for fear of alerting anyone that might be
nearby. Though no intruder should have
been near enough to even hear a gunshot, Teddy was still fearful. There were eyes everywhere these days, it
Somewhere in the near darkness, muffled amongst the chorus of
swamp songs, he thought he heard a low, mechanical hum. It was not the first time he had heard the
noise, but it certainly seemed closer this time. He quietly laid the paddle across the canoe’s
gunwales and gripped the large revolver that rested in his lap. He closed his eyes and listened intently, but
the foreign sound was gone again. All
that was left was the various croaks and grunts of the swamp.
Teddy ducked under low-hanging patches of Spanish moss and
recoiled from the wiry strands of the webbing that the massive swamp spiders
were renowned for. As he clawed a
particularly large web from his face, his mind flashed horrific images of one
of the creatures crawling in his hair.
He fought off his fears with humor, imagining using the spider’s steely
strands for an improvised fishing line.
The thought did little to ease his nerves.
Though they still called him Big Teddy, Lawson was in dire
need of a new name. His flannel shirt
hung loosely from his body, like a child playing dress-up in his father’s
clothing. His fat, sausage fingers were
now bony remnants of their former selves.
The lifestyle that had afforded his excess was now gone. Easy food was scarce, the energy to heat or
power small electronics required greater effort and someone always needed
help. The community had pulled together,
however, and had done well despite the realities of the harsh new world. Not all was well, though.
The first harbinger of trouble was the violent drifters and
groups that meant to breach the meager defenses of the small towns and
reclusive fishing villages, and take whatever they pleased. Sheriff David Greene had rallied the men in
the early days and had managed to fight back the tide for a while. The people had mourned his death, the death
of a strong leader. Deputy Greene had
stepped forward and replaced his elder brother in the role of defender and
organizer. Like his brother, he was a
man chosen by the people and he was deeply respected by them.
When the first wave of Federal agents arrived, Big Ted and the
younger Greene soon realized that these men had not come to help, but rather
quite the opposite. Their mission soon
became obvious: confiscate, subjugate,
and if faced with resistance, eliminate.
The self-reliant and independent communities under Sheriff Greene’s ward
were immediately viewed as threats. They
were perceived as hotbeds for insurrectionist thinking, so they were targeted.
Unfortunately for the enforcers of the distant, crumbling
governance, there was a problem. The free
men that claimed their home to be the rich soil along the meandering rivers and
around the hidden, backwater lakes were not the type to bend easily from the
waist. The sheriff had pleaded for more
time to reason with the Federal interlopers, but his intercessions had gone
unheeded. The first door that had been
kicked in and the first man that had been dragged from his family had sealed
the fate of the Kratocrats. Looking
back, Lawson reasoned a Federal force of ten times as many men would have still
met the same fate. He of all men should
know, since Big Ted had led the local partisans against the Federal host.
So they had sent their families to the other side of the
river, mostly by way of Clayton, and they had devised their plans. Vastly outnumbered, the agents fell quickly
to the Minutemen. It was hard for
jackboots to find a neck to snap, when death seemingly lurked behind every
fallen cypress and laid waiting atop every muddy bank. The high-tech automatons that the fallen
agents had left behind had astonished even Big Ted. The other men had marveled at the futuristic
hounds of war for hours when they first discovered them. They had taken to calling the seized WULVs
the “Dogs of Liberty”. Hopefully very
soon, he would be able to field them for use in their defense.
A low whistle from an arm’s length away caused Big Ted to
nearly jump from his precarious perch in the narrow canoe.
“Easy Teddy, it’s me.”
“Dear God, Clayton;
you nearly gave an ole’ boy a heart attack.”
Lawson leaned into the darkness, in the direction of Clay’s
voice and whispered, “What? Was I followed?”
After several moments of silence, Clay replied, “Don’t think
“How long you been following me?”
“Hmm, ‘bout an hour.”
“I figured as much, but I wasn’t sure.”
“How you figure?”
“I thought I heard your trolling motor.”
“You ain’t heard me, Big Ted, ‘cause I ain’t used no
motor. You heard what you expected to
hear. In these waters, I’m an apparition;
I come and go as I please.”
Teddy smirked and replied, “Ghost or not, I’m glad you’re
here. For a while back there, I thought
I was lost.”
“How’s a boy like you, lived on this river his whole life, get
lost in his own back yard?”
Lawson could hear Jake’s faint chuckle a little farther away.
“Easy for y’all to cast judgment, with your fancy goggles and
“Judge not, my friend, lest we get judged.”
“That’s sorta’ why I’m here.
Pull me over to you so I can climb in and talk.”
Clayton silently urged the boat towards Lawson’s drifting
canoe with the long push pole. He and
Jake each thrust a gaff into the darkness, hooked the rim of the narrow craft
and gently pulled it towards them. Metal
scraped noisily against metal as the two boats connected. The father and son each looped a rope to the
front and rear of their shallow-draft vessel, and then to the canoe. Once it was deemed secure, Clay handed the
squinty-eyed Lawson a spare set of night-vision goggles. He fumbled in the darkness for a moment, before
pulling them over his face. With the
goggles in place, Big Ted transferred himself into the Sellers’ boat.
Lawson said with a smile.
“So what’s going on, Teddy?”
Lawson was silent for several moments before he sighed deeply
and simply said, “Feds are back.”
“Knew they would be.”
“Well, this group’s judged it’s worth their while to kidnap
“They’ve got Greene?”
In the green hues of the night vision, Lawson nodded at the
men. The boat was ominously silent, save
for the occasional curse uttered by Clay.
The sounds of bullfrogs, insects and the occasional owl filled the void
left by the men. Finally, Jake spoke.
“Sheriff Greene knows a lot.
He’s even got a good idea of about where our camp is. I hate to sound callous, but will he talk?”
“Son,” Lawson replied, “we all
talk. There ain’t nobody out there that
can hold out when they’re having things done to them like we know these men are capable of.”
“So everyone’s a target now?”
“We’ve discussed this before, me and the others. If any one of us was to be taken, we’d talk
in circles as long as we could, and give up as little as possible. I can’t expect any man to endure what they’re
capable of, on account of me – not that they could anyway.”
“What now?” Clayton interjected.
“There’s probably more of ‘em this time, but I reckon they’re
scared. They know what we can do. We’re a ghost story in their heads right now,
and we need to keep it that a’ way.
Fear’ll make a man hesitate. And
all I need is a moment’s hesitation.”
After several moments, Clay sighed deeply and said, “Teddy, I
want to help – you know I do, but my terms ain’t changed. I’ll run your people and supplies across this
river, but I can’t have me and my boys out there on the front lines. We’re Switzerland, Teddy.”
“I know you are, and I respect that. What y’all do is just as important, maybe
even more so. I wouldn’t ask any more of
“Tell me what we can do.”
“We’ve got some wives that stayed on this side through the
last fight. I expect this time’ll be
worse. We need you to ferry them across
to the other side; get ‘em to safety.”
“Thank you, Clayton.”
Lawson cleared his throat and then continued, “When you get to the other
side, there’ll be some ammo waiting for you.
Jim Levies’ wife’s been gathering supplies and organizing a reloading
effort over there. Couldn’t have come at
a better time.”
“Didn’t you seize a lot of supplies from before?”
“We did, but I don’t know what we’re up against, so I’d rather
have it and not need it.”
“I’d like a little something more for this trip, in case
something happens. Did you seize any big
“We got some rocket launchers; AT4s.”
“I think having one on hand would be good idea.”
“I can arrange that.”
With the terms settled, the men exchanged a few pleasantries,
before Lawson climbed back into his canoe and slowly disappeared into the
grainy-green darkness beyond the limits of their goggles. With the dull silhouette of Lawson vaguely
visible, he spun the canoe sideways and called out to the men.
“Have your Claire pray for us, my friend. She’s a prayer warrior, you know.”
“I know; I will. We all will Teddy.”
The two men watched as the darkness finally engulfed Big
Teddy. They sat in silence for a while,
both afraid that acknowledging the situation might make it more real. Finally, Jake spoke.
“You know we’re going to get dragged into this.”
“Son, we’re already in it.
Helping Lawson don’t make it any more or less so. I reckon probably the first time any man
decided that his life was his own, was the day he got dragged into this. All over this nation, prob’ly the world, men
are making choices about what ought and what ought not. How this turns out, I have no idea. But don’t think for a moment, the sides ain’t
already been chosen.”
* * *
As Clay and Jake neared their hidden enclave, the younger
Sellers flashed an infrared light in the direction of the camp. A quick succession of responding flashes,
visible only by use of night-vision, flickered back at them. Geram had seen and acknowledged their signal.
They quietly drifted alongside the stairway and looped their
bow and stern ropes around the rail posts.
The river was beyond its banks, but quickly falling. The already swift currents in the narrow
sloughs were continuing to increase as the main rivers pulled the floodwaters
out of the swamps and bayous, and carried them south. The muddy water around the camp was likely
little more than a foot in depth. By
tomorrow night, that depth would probably drop by as much as half.
The men were eagerly met by Sasha and Moses as they climbed
over the railing and onto solid footing.
The furry pair whimpered and whined as they jealously sparred for the
attention of their masters. The men
paused for several moments to greet the dogs, before turning and beginning to
climb the stairs.
Geram lit a kerosene lantern and hung it on a nail near the front
door on the deck above them. The light
cast odd shadows in all directions as its dull glow pushed out into the
darkness of the surrounding swamp. He
pulled the night-vision goggles off of his face and called out to the men
below, “How’d it go?”
Clayton replied, “We got another job, and we’re getting a
rocket launcher out of it.”
“What’s the catch?”
“There’s another group of Federal agents out there, and
they’ll probably be scouring this area for ‘dissidents’. They’ve already scooped up Sheriff Greene, so
we don’t know what all they’ve learned from him yet.”
“Are Big Ted and his boys going to go after the sheriff?”
“Not sure. If they are,
he ain’t saying, but I don’t reckon I blame him for playing his cards close to
the chest. Never know when somebody else
might get grabbed.”
Geram nodded, “Well, we can talk later; I’m sure you’re both
tired. Besides, Mom’s got dinner ready.”
As the three men reached the door, it suddenly swung open as
Kate dashed through the threshold. She
wrapped her arms around Jake and squeezed him tight as she planted a loud kiss
on his lips.
“Come on Dad,” Geram quipped, “let’s get inside, before these
two make us sick.”
Clay chuckled but otherwise remained silently neutral as he
and Moses followed Geram inside. The
living arrangements of the camp were cramped, so the others tried to grant Jake
and Kate as much privacy as possible.
Alone with Sasha, they sat at the top of the stairs and listened
to the sounds of the river-swamp night.
Sasha curled up beside them and rested her head on Kate’s lap. Jake draped his arm around his wife and held
her tight. She leaned into his embrace
and said, “I was so worried about you
He kissed her forehead and replied reassuringly, “I’m here
“I know; it’s just, I don’t know – it’s probably nothing. I just had such a bad feeling about tonight.”
“Maybe you just worry more now that – you know.”
“You’re probably right.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Okay I guess. I’m
scared. And I wish the morning sickness
would stick to just the mornings.”
Jake paused for several moments, before replying, “You know,
Mom could probably help out a lot, if she knew.”
“I know she could, hun, but it’s only been about a month. Let’s wait a few more weeks before we say
anything. It’s still early and so much
could happen; we could lose it. I just
don’t want to anyone to worry just yet.”
He kissed her forehead and whispered, “We’ll tell them
whenever you’re ready.”
Their conversation lulled as they sat in the darkness and held
each other tightly. After several minutes,
Kate whispered, “I’m scared Jake.”