By Francis Marion – First Published January 25th, 2017
UN Permanent Executive Authority, California Territory August 17th, 2049
City of Sacramento, UNNA West Coast Command & Control Complex
General Chen opened the door to his office and walked towards his desk.
“Open blinds,” he said and the giant window that filled the outside wall of his thirtieth-floor office changed tint, letting the California sun into illuminate and warm the room.
He plunked himself into his black leather chair and placed his holo-phone face down in its dock on his desk. A holographic control panel about three feet by three feet appeared a few inches above its glass surface. He pressed the intercom button on the holo desktop and a voice responded, “Good morning General Chen. How may I assist you?”
“Tea, please. Black.”
“Yes sir, right away,” responded the voice, “And sir, congratulations on your promotion.”
“Thank you, corporal.”
Chen leaned back in his chair and stared at the desktop for a moment then pointed at an icon labeled “Media”.
A menu opened up with a list of options. At the top was “News Overview”. Chen pointed at it and moved his finger to the left of the holo-screen. The icon moved left and another menu dropped down with a list of news items on it.
“HSBC Acquires Global Response Security & Contracting Inc.”
“Nova Nanotech Industries Ltd. Acquires Tangerine Tech & Communications Inc.”
“UN and Islamic Defense Forces Clash with Swiss Militia Along German Border”
“Twelve-year-old Nepalese Transgender Non-binary Individual Wins UN “Unite the Planet!” contest. New UN Flag to Be Revealed in Singapore this December!”
“Silicon Valley Outraged! Dakotan Terrorists Sabotage Development of New Web-Based Gaming Interface. “Box” Development Delayed for Up to Two Years as a Result”
“Have Dakotan Spies Infiltrated the Russian Government? Russia Threatens to Withdraw from UN Security Council and Abandon UNNA Peace Keeping Mission”
Chen pointed at the “News Overview” icon and moved it right, collapsing the menu. A second later a shapely young Hispanic woman about five foot six inches tall and twenty-five years of age dressed in a UN uniform and black heels entered the room and set a cup of steaming tea on the corner of Chen’s desk.
“Thank you, corporal, that will be all,” the young woman smiled, nodded and left the office, closing the door behind her.
Chen picked up his tea and let the steam hit his nostrils. He looked at the projection in front of him, took a drink, pointed at the confidential file and dragged it left. As he did a pale blue ray of light shot out from the screen and scanned Chen’s face.
“Password please,” said a voice from the surface of his desk.
“Alfa, Whiskey, Foxtrot, Uniform, Lima access Chen 08172049,” replied the general.
“Thank you General, you may proceed,” said the voice from the desk. As the blue beam switched itself off a drop down menu appeared beneath the file displaying items of interest to the head of UN intelligence for the west coast.
Most of the information was regional in nature. A lot of it was standard, routine shit. Reports on protests and acts of vandalism against UN buildings and equipment. Every once in a while, someone tried to slap together the ‘resistance’. The general smiled at the thought. This usually lead to terrorist attacks on public places at which point the perpetrators were rounded up and marched in front of the media and into court on their way to prison. Sometimes they were shot in the process. It depended on the needs of the narrative. The best propaganda was the stuff that happened organically. Little to nothing happened that Chen did not know about. Things only went as far as were required to keep the story line running and the natives docile.
“The usual shit,” he thought to himself as he scrolled through the dozens of communications from the various agencies reporting to him.
As he was coming to the end of the file he noticed a “missing persons” report from UN Border Services. Chen always read them even though most of the time they were people going to see family who simply never returned. This, of course, was getting less and less common as time went on.
UN policy was to let people cross the border to visit family. The one sure way to turn the occupation on its head would be to forbid family members from visiting one another. For this purpose, exits were tightly controlled and EVERYTHING coming and going was inspected visually and electronically for contraband. No residents of the Dakotas were allowed to cross the line into UN-controlled territory. The Dakotas were considered a non-state, a rogue nation by international law and its occupants were forbidden to cross. The same applied for most goods going either direction. Not that they could stop everything, of course. Texas, which had signed onto the “Sandiego Accord”, had agreed to the sanctions placed on the Dakotas but realistically the General knew their border was a sieve for contraband.
The purpose of the border was less to stop goods and more to plant the seeds of fear in people’s minds. A tiny bit of hope tempered with a healthy dose of fear was a potent control mechanism. He found that most people living on the UN side of the border did not want to give up the comfort of their day to day lives. If they had just enough property to enjoy, just enough freedom to appreciate and just enough hope that things would improve then they wouldn’t upset the apple cart politically. The fear of losing what they had was too much to bear for most.
The MIP list was pretty standard. Grandchildren with little to nothing returning to see grandparents, some likely to inherit farms or homes, never came back. Some looking for work, who were tired of the watered down existence of living under UN authority, stayed in the Dakotas permanently. The list went on. Until something odd appeared.
Chen reached out and touched the intercom button on his screen, “Corporal, page Captain Stevens and have him come to my office immediately.”
“Yes General Chen, paging Captain Stevens now.”
Chen relaxed in his chair, took another drink of his tea and opened the missing person’s file that had caught his attention.
Overdue – two weeks. Dr. Myron Little Jr. and Dr. Arthur Roman, Couple
Crossed July 17th, 2049. Duration of trip: Two weeks.
Purpose of trip: Visit Aunt in Great Falls/Camping
Equipment Manifest: Personal effects, rudimentary camping equipment. No weapons, pharmaceuticals or electronics including phones, laptops or tablets.
Complete Scan: Yes
Prior Absenses – Individual travel breakdown:
Dr. Myron Little Jr. Professor of Anthropology UC Berkeley Accompanied by Dr. Arthur Roman
Deaprture from California Territory: May 17th, 2048
Destination: Lima, Peru
Purpose: Vacation, three weeks, returned on schedule.
Prior Absenses – Individual travel breakdown:
Dr. Arthur Roman Professor of Biochemistry UC Berkeley Accompanied by Dr. Myron Little
Departure from California Territory: May 17th, 2048
Destination: Lima, Peru
Purpose: Vacation, three weeks, returned on schedule.
Chen finished reading the report and opened the personal files of both men. As he did a voice came over the intercom, “General, Captain Stevens is here.”
“Thank you, corporal, please send him in,” Chen took a quick look at the new files open on his holo-screen and raised an eyebrow. As the door to his office opened he motioned downward with his hand and the display disappeared into his desk.
“Come in Captain, please have a seat.”
Captain Stevens entered the General’s office and pulled up a chair in front of Chen’s desk, “General Chen, congratulations on your promotion sir. It’s most deserved I must say,” Stevens accent was unmistakably English, southeast, and upper middle class. Likey Kentish thought Chen.
“Thankyou Captain, I know we met briefly when you arrived a few weeks ago but we haven’t had an opportunity to acquaint ourselves properly. I thought we should chat a little bit. Curious, though. What part of Kent are you from?”
Stevens looked mildly surprised, “Maidstone originally sir. Now I go wherever the Queen, the UN and the SRR send me.”
“And how are you finding California, Captain?”
“Frankly sir, it is sunny, dry and boring.”
General Chen smiled, “Well Captain, it is about to get much more interesting for you. That I can guarantee….”
Dakota Free State August 27th, 2049
1st Dakota Militia, Scout/Recon unit somewhere along the Cascade/Dakota Border
The Blackhawk coasted in along the valley bottom not more than a hundred feet over the tree tops. Private Nathaniel Carson sat back in his seat facing the open door and gunner that were kitty corner across from and in front of him. He watched as mountain after ravine after mountain slipped by at high-speed outside. Sergeant Aaron Anderson sat next to him holding the leash of private Casey, a three-year-old German Shepherd that laid patiently in some rigging at their feet. Directly across the aisle in the seats in front of him was his childhood friend, Reg Blackfoot and the newbie, Private Ronald Hudson. He’d only known Hudson for a few months. He was only nineteen and from the area. Technically he was the lead on their mission but not in command. Units in the Dakotas never left their borders and no matter where the mission was SOP was that there was always a local on point.
Reg was busy talking like he always did so Carson’s mind did what it always did and began to wander. It had been two years since his mandatory service had begun. Soon he’d have to decide whether he would make a career out of soldiering or if he’d go back to the ranch to work with his dad. He looked across the aisle at Reg who was still yapping and thought, “Either way I won’t have to listen to this dumbass anymore.”
Reg could sense Carson was looking at him and yelled, “What?!”
“Nothing,” Carson yelled back, “I was just thinking about how much I am going to miss you when we are finished with our term,” he shook his head up and down and gave Reg a “thumbs up”.
“You lie like a cheap rug Carson.”
Nate grinned and went in for the kill, “Say Reg, I always meant to ask you, what kind of name is Blackfoot anyways? I thought you were Crow? Your ancestors get lost or something? Seems strange you know, I always thought Indians had such a good sense of direction.”
“You’re a white trash piece of shit Nate, do you know that?”
“Maybe, but for an Indian, you sure talk a lot.”
Hudson started to laugh and nod his head in agreement. Reg gave him a shot in the rib cage with the butt of his M4, “What are you laughing at farm boy?”
Hudson was about six foot four and two hundred thirty pounds. He stopped laughing and looked at Reg who immediately changed the subject, “So how is Melissa doing? Has she popped yet?”
“Not yet. Soon, though. It’ll probably happen while I’m running around out here with you fucktards. That’s the way my luck seems to run lately. It’s ok, though, she’s at home on the ranch with mom and dad and she has my sister for company. She’ll be fine. How’s Tanya?”
“She’s the same as always. Not pregnant yet. But every leave we work at it.”
Hudson face palmed himself and shook his head then interrupted, “Jesus Christ man, seriously? You’re not even going to make me work for it are you?”
Carson laughed, “Reg, maybe you better stop talking.”
“Good idea,” it was the first thing sergeant Anderson had said since they got on board. Aaron was a lifer who came from a line of similar men. First during the days of the old republic and now under the banner of the Free State, his family had served continuously for over a century. His old man, who was in his late fifties, was still serving along the eastern border near the Red. Aaron had transferred to the other side of the Free State to avoid the possibility of falling under his father’s direct or indirect command.
Anderson continued, “Gentlemen, listen up. We’re here for a reason, this is not a routine patrol. We have had two people go missing in this region in the past week. One rancher, a Mr. Bryan Smith and one of his hands a Mr. Brent Allen. The hand went missing first and according to his wife, Mr. Smith went looking for him and never returned. That was three days ago. Aerial reconnaissance has been unable to locate them. This close to the border makes this particular incident suspicious. Our job is to do what we do best. Move into the area quietly, observe, analyze and either report or engage based on my assessment. Gentlemen, in my humble opinion, it is unlikely we will find our ranchers alive. In fact, I’d put money on it. As per standard operating procedure, Mr. Hudson is on point. This is his backyard. We will follow his lead but I am in command. Are we clear?”
The other three replied, “Yes sergeant,” in unison as the Blackhawk began its slow advance into a clearing about one hundred meters in length and fifty meters wide.
The four men and private Casey piled out of the chopper along with rifles and packs and headed for the treeline as the Blackhawk lifted up and took off in the direction it had come.
Anderson continued with his directions, “The cattle and horse trail we just piled out on top of follows this valley bottom for another ten miles south before it branches out. That’s where we are headed. Before we hit the branch we are going to take a drainage to the east, gain some elevation and sit and glass that fork for a while. There’s a lot of empty country here boys, but those ranchers, dead or alive, are back here somewhere. And so is whatever got to them. Hudson, you’re on point. Carson and Blackfoot, you dingbats can take up the rear,” Carson pulled his pack on and checked the chamber of his dad’s Remington 700 one last time before starting the long march into the hills.
A lot had changed since the old days before the collapse. Conscription was now law in the Dakotas. It had been that way since shortly after Browning nuked Sandiego harbor. Every man at the age of eighteen was required to give the Free State three years of service starting on his eighteenth birthday. Thereafter, he was required to give two weeks a year until his fifty-fifth birthday. People could opt out without fear of prison but you paid an annual tax for the privilege. And since there was no welfare and no way to avoid working for a living, very few men were willing to give up future income for the comfort of avoiding military service.
The regular core, the lifers, were responsible for organizing and training the militia. They were good at their jobs and could muster a reserve force of well over two hundred thousand men and their equipment all across the Free State in less than thirty-six hours.
Nate and his friends were militia. They made up the bulk of the Free State defense forces. As such the militia was less specialized than the regular corps. All militia were essentially infantry. The air force, what there was of it, and other specialized units were reserved for lifers because of the technical nature of their positions. However, the militia had certain advantages beyond ‘high tech’ equipment. They were versatile and trained to do everything for themselves that affected their sphere of operations. They could service a truck, an M4 or an artillery piece, blow up a bridge, track, shoot, administer first aid, you name it. The thing Nate loved the most was he could use his own gear if it fell within certain parameters. He’d been shooting his dad’s Remington 700, 300 ultra mag on deer, wolves, bears and coyotes since he was a kid and was confident with it out to about one thousand yards or so. So in the backcountry, when acting in a surveillance capacity, he carried it with him. It was the ultimate medium range sniper rifle. As long as he didn’t run out of ammo it was a great cartridge for reaching out and touching someone.
As Anderson checked the chamber of his M4 he shot the others a glance and motioned for Hudson to take the lead. The boys nodded and picked up their packs while Andrews unleased Casey. The dog began its familiar zig-zag trot back and forth across the trail in front of the men, looking for scent related to their quarry as the entire party quietly made its way south.
Nate was pulling up the rear with Reg in front of him. They were walking a steady and deliberate pace, scanning the mountain sides for movement as they followed the cattle trail up the center of the valley. He thought about how he’d argued with his dad about compulsory service when he was about fifteen. He didn’t want to serve because he didn’t want to leave the ranch. The ranch was home. As he clipped along fifteen feet off Reg’s heels he remembered the conversation he’d had with his dad about five or six years prior:
“I don’t understand dad. You keep telling me this is the last free country on earth. Well, if that’s true then why the hell do I have to join the damn militia?!”
“Lack of perfection,” said Joseph as he pitched a square bale of hay out of the bed of the pick up, “Son, the world is far from being a perfect place. It’s always been that way. The way things are and the way they ought to be are two very different things. Is and ought,” Joseph paused and stood up to stretch his aging, aching muscles, “they’re the two words in the English language that will drive you mad if not properly understood.”
Nate smiled to himself as he followed the others up the valley. A few miles down the trail Hudson banked east up an old game trail that followed a drainage between two hills. He spoke quietly as they paused to hydrate, “We’ll gain some elevation here and follow a path that hugs the inside of the tree line along the top of that ridge. It swings back around and goes a few more miles along the main valley. It gives us some concealment and will position us so we can set up and get a good view of the three valleys that converge at the forks. We can split up once we are there and sit in a few different spots to glass more ground,” the crew nodded and continued on with Hudson and Casey in front.
As they popped out through the treeline where the valleys converged Reg and Nate split off from Sergeant Anderson, Hudson, and private Casey. The hill they were on formed a convex-shaped face like a bow. Sitting on either side of the hump would allow the two groups to have eyes on all points in each valley.
As Nate and Reg pulled up a piece of the hill with a bit of brush for cover, Nate noticed some movement across the valley in a drainage between two mountains. He pulled his binos to look but couldn’t see anything but brush and rock.
“Hmph,” he said in a puzzled tone.
“What did you see,” Reg whispered back?
“Coulda swore I saw something move in that drainage over there,” Nate pointed at where he’d seen the movement.
Reg set up his spotting scope and started glassing the drainage as well. Nothing moved.
“Could have been a deer,” Reg said with his eye stuck to the spotter.
“Nope. Looked more like Bigfoot,” Nate replied with a chuckle.
“Ya, well I hear….. what the fuck?”
“Did you just see that,” Nate asked with a tremor in his voice?
“I don’t know what I just saw but I think it was a guy in UN fatigues. He just kind of appeared then disappeared in less than a second or two.”
“Ok good,” replied Nate “I’m not losing my mind then,” they both looked at each other, their eyes wide as Nate pulled his radio from his pack.
Over the course of an hour, they watched approximately four distinct individuals in what looked like UN uniforms appear from nothing and return to nothing in the drainage across from them. As darkness fell Nate and Reg made their way to a rallying point back in the heavier cover where they met with Anderson and Hudson.
“I think they’re using some sort of camo or cloaking device,” Reg told Anderson, “Near as I can tell they are camped in that drainage and whenever they move outside of the perimeter of whatever the thing is they are using to conceal themselves they appear for a second or two before they move back into its cover.”
Anderson was silent. UN troops didn’t cross the border often but when they did they were usually up to no good. They were an easy hundred clicks into Dakota territory. That meant they were here intentionally. That also meant they were fair game as far as he was concerned.
“We’re going to get closer and see what the hell is really going on. We’ll move into position tonight, keep an eye on what we figure their position is then figure out what the hell we are going to do from there. Shit. A cloaking device. That is right the fuck out of Star Trek.”
The boys all chuckled. They knew they were always at a disadvantage tech wise when it came to dealing with UN troops. Keeping up with the Joneses was difficult when your manufacturing capabilities were limited. Sometimes it felt like some of their stuff was bronze age equipment in comparison but ‘it was what it was’. In a world where no one was your friend and you had to do almost everything for yourself you made do with what you had.
Besides, thought Nate, like dad, had taught him, “What we lack in technology we make up for in other departments. Like tenacity and balls.”
As the sun began to rise over the mountains to the east of them the boys moved into position on either side of the drainage and watched. Three hundred yards below Nate and Reg observed as one by one the UN soldiers began to appear seemingly out of nowhere. Six in total that they could see. Across the gully Anderson, Hudson and Casey were in position in slightly separate spots, about 100 yards from the UN camp. Nate waited. Another soldier appeared, looked at his watch and started directing the others. There were now seven in all.
Anderson opened fire.
One of the UN soldiers dropped and the remaining six paused for a moment then busted their humps and grabbed some cover in a circle formation. Nate waited as two of the UN scouts returned fire on Anderson’s position. Anderson kept laying down bursts of fire almost randomly when from out of the trees on their flank Private Casey raced into the middle of the UN circle at high speed and grabbed one of the soldiers by the throat. Chaos ensued in the enemy ranks as the dog latched onto the guy’s neck with a death grip he couldn’t break.
From his vantage point, Nate had a clear shot at every target on the ground. He waited and as the soldier nearest private Casey drew a knife to dispatch the dog and remove him from his comrade’s carcass Nate put 165 grains of bonded lead and copper through his chest.
The high-velocity hunting round cut through his light body armor like a hot knife through butter, nearly cutting the guy in half, then exited and took out the hip of the shooter standing behind him. As he went down a high pitch whistle came from the woods where Hudson had taken cover and private Casey beat a hasty retreat.
A final round from Nate’s 300 put Casey’s victim, now bleeding profusely from his neck wounds, down for the count as the remaining three, unable to locate their adversaries, dropped their rifles and screamed out their surrender in English accents.
As Anderson, Hudson, and Casey emerged from the tree line Reg and Nate began a slow and deliberate stalk towards the group while watching the rest of the camp area for movement.
As they approached the downed soldier with the shattered hip drew a pistol and fired at Anderson, hitting him in the neck. Hudson returned fire, dispatching the wounded soldier, as the others called for everyone to stop shooting. Nate and Reg picked up the pace and raced the last one hundred yards to the group’s position.
With Hudson, Casey, and Reg covering the remaining three UN scouts Nate tried to apply pressure to the bleeding on Anderson’s throat. But it was too late. The carotid artery had been severed. He was dead before Carson could pull his first aid kit.
Nate stood up, set his rifle down and pulled his Glock. He surveyed the area visually then began the task of searching the perimeter for whatever it was that had hidden the soldiers and their camp from view. As he walked about he bumped into something in front of him that felt metallic. It sounded like it wobbled on the rocky ground. As he reached out his hand disappeared into the background and he could feel a metal post. He grabbed it and pulled.
As the holo projector came tumbling down the UN camp was revealed. Three other posts stood at its perimeter along with tents, equipment, and a small kitchen area. Nate checked the tents to make sure they were clear then turned his attention to the three soldiers under Reg’s supervision.
Nate lined the three survivors up in front of him on their knees with their hands zap strapped behind their backs. A private, a sergeant and a lieutenant all sporting English accents sat amongst their fallen compatriots, looking up at the small Dakotan squad with a mixture of resentment, anger, and fear on their faces.
“I want to know what you’re doing here. And I want to know right now. Who’d like to go first,” Nate asked plainly and coldly?
The three men were silent so Nate nodded at Reg who quickly and swiftly planted his boot in the face of the lieutenant.
“Let’s try this again,” Nate continued in the same dry tone, “What are you doing here?”
The lieutenant was busy composing himself and spitting out a tooth when his private spouted, “Fuck you, you red neck bunch of fucking backward wankers, fuck all of you!”
Without hesitating, Nate pulled his G17 from his drop leg holster and put 124 grains of lead between the eyes of the mouthy private.
“Jesus Christ,” yelled the sergeant from his knees, “Jesus,”
“One more time gentlemen. Why are you here?”
The lieutenant, who’d finally composed himself spit a mouth full of blood on Nate’s boots. Nate and Reg looked at one another. Reg shrugged his shoulders and Nate put another 124Gr’s of hot lead into the belly of the lieutenant.
“Fuck,” was all the sergeant could say.
“And,” Nate asked?
“We’re looking for some men,” but the sergeant was interrupted by his lieutenant who was lying on the ground, moaning in pain.
“Nooo,” groaned the lieutenant as Reg put his boot to his kidney. The lieutenant wheezed and gasped for breath as his belly bled into the dirt of the ravine floor.
The sergeant began to panic, “Just don’t kill me. I’ll tell you whatever you want. We’re looking for two university professors from California. They crossed over to visit family here a few weeks ago and never came back. We’re here to bring them in. We think they are somewhere in these mountains.”
“Shuuut uup,” breathed the lieutenant as Nate put another round into his chest.
“No sergeant, don’t shut up,” Nate said as the lieutenant took his last breath.
“Jesus, mate haven’t you ever heard of the Geneva Conventions,” cried the sergeant with a deep Welsch accent?
Nate and Reg looked at one another with puzzled expressions, “What the fuck is the Geneva Convention,” Reg said with a tone of confusion in his voice?
“Never heard of it,” replied Nate in his matter of fact way.
“Christ,” replied the sergeant, “what the hell are you people? We surrendered, you didn’t have to do this, we surrendered!”
The intercom icon on Captain Stevens’ holo-screen lit up and a female voice came from his desktop, “Captain Stevens, General Chen has requested your immediate presence in examination room 101 of sub-basement two.”
“Thankyou, corporal,” Stevens said as he stood up from behind his desk and made his way to the elevator door outside his office. He hit the button for sub-basement two and a female voice prompted him for a password, “Echo, X-Ray, India, Lima, Echo Stevens,” replied the Captain and the elevator lurched downwards from the fifteenth floor.
As Stevens came to a nice smooth stop at the bottom the light on the elevator wall lit up for sub two. The Captain moved briskly out the door and marched quickly to his right a short distance down the hall to examination room 101. The door was unlocked. Inside General Chen and a woman in a white lab coat, latex gloves and a white mask were standing over a stainless steel table with a single wooden box positioned in the center of it.
Chen turned to acknowledge Stevens as he approached, “Thankyou for coming so quickly Captain, I have something here I think will be of interest to you. It arrived last night from one of our border stations near the Dakotas.”
As Stevens leaned over the table to have a look the general turned the box to face him. In red paint on its lid was written:
“Liber vive aut morere”
Stevens raised an eyebrow. As Chen opened the lid to the box the captain’s eyes widened, “Strange,” he said in a disconcerted and elongated manner.
“How so,” replied Chen?
“I could have sworn lieutenant William’s eyes were blue.”