Wednesday, August 14, 2013

11 -- The Probe . . . .


August 2093

“Damnit Bill, we need to know what the fuck is going on!! Bring up the MDR comm net – see if we can pick up some chatter on what’s going on to our south!” E was frustrated with being in the dark. They’d been attacked . . . . were still under attack . . . and had no idea who was behind it. She needed answers.

Bill fired up the HF gear and a crypto comm link to make sure they weren’t intercepted. “What’s the Julian date today E?” E scanned the calendar while Bill punched in the “all-call” frequency and waited for the crypto computer to boot. “227” E replied.

Buried in the weapons vault were a couple dozen state of the art laptops. Well, state of the art for 60 years ago. Links to manufacturers had long since disintegrated. It would be decades before the US regained the ability to actually build a computer. And, as time passed and knowledge was lost – it became a very real possibility that the computers sitting in their shipping containers may well be the last ever made. Regardless of the future – in the here-and-now – the notebook attached to HF gear would help to insure that their communications with the MDR net would remain secure.

The process was simple really – geeks called it a “scratch pad” encryption unit. There was no algorithm to hack; just a simple substitution code was used. The keys were contained in a library of “books” in electronic form. Each day represented a different “book”. Today’s Julian date was 227 – meaning the 227th “book” would be used. It was also August – meaning the 8th group of “books” would be used. It sounded bulky but all of this was compressed to twelve individual folders – each folder holding 365 unique books and contained on a single miniature USB drive – these too a technology of the past. The notebook did all the work. Simply come up on frequency, plug in the miniature USB drive, press the mike and talk. The crypto unit digitized and compressed the individual’s voice, combined each and every “byte” of data representing an individual component of the spoken word with a “byte” from the “scratch pad” and then transmitted the resulting “byte” in the clear. The process was reversed on the receiving end – restoring the digitized voice to its original form. Simple, clean and effective.

The MDR – Midwestern Defense Region – had been created in April of ’52. It consisted of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. It had been formed after the “’51 Summer of Swarms” that saw a mass migration of enraged, starving, desperate people from virtually all large urban areas. Honestly, migration is too peaceful a term – they exploded into the country side – desperate for food, water, shelter and anxious to take their revenge on any in their path. The farm had nearly been lost. It was estimated that as its momentum built nearly 300,000 Americans died at the hands of fellow Americans. The only thing that really brought the entire process to an end in the Midwest and northern tier states was a devastating winter that started the very beginning of October and buried much of the US under a blanket of snow and ice well into April of ’52. The one advantage those living in Minnesota and Iowa were offered by the extreme cold was that for the first time in a number of generations – the Mississippi river froze solid. Those looking to defend themselves against the raging “swarms” from the east managed to blow every bridge from the southern border of Missouri to the northern regions of the Minnesota. While drastic – the truth was that “flyover country”, as the region was once called, had all the natural resources they needed to support themselves. Such was not so in the more heavily populated area of our country.

Prior to the expected “fighting season” in the summer of ’52 – the MDR, the Midwest Defense Region was formed. Its purpose was to share intel, offer aid to adjacent states and to work together to survive what everyone was beginning to call “the slide”. Each state had an individual communications network – primarily HF stations since much of the infrastructure was rapidly decaying. Forty odd years down the road, this comm network had grown into an efficient and highly effective tool in the defense of the member states of the MDR. It was this network that Bill was “punching into”.

Computer and crypto unit both indicated they were “on-line” – Bill pressed the mike button;

“MDR Control, MDR Control, MDR Control this is India 37, India 37, India 37. Do you copy? - over” Bill released his mike and listened. Their call sign was a simple combination of the phonetic letter representing the first letter of their state and the number of their county – Iowa had 99 counties.

“MDR Control, MDR Control, MDR Control this is India 37, India 37, India 37. Do you copy? - over” Bill repeated his call to the MDR operations center located it Bismarck, North Dakota.

“India 37 – MDR Control. Have you 5 by 5. Authenticate Bravo Bravo Gulf”

Authentication was a last security step. Control used the phonetic alphabet to confirm the Julian date – thus 227 became Bravo Bravo Gulf. The response from the calling station was the same Julian date, but using the phonetic alphabet in reverse order, thus 227 in response became Yankee, Yankee, Tango.

“MDR Control – India 37 . . . . response Yankee, Yankee, Tango”

The authentication was the last step to insure the parties were authorized participants. The formalities out of the way, Bill got down to business.

“Control, we are being probed from the south. We have sustained a casualty with a minor wound and have two raider KIA - We also have an OP that is non-responsive. A response team in headed their way as we speak. We have been loosely following this scouting party since their discovery a few weeks back about 100 miles WNW of St. Louis. They have taken significant casualties yet they keep coming. Have your received any updates on this scouting party or what the hell is goin’ on down there? Over.”

“India 37 – affirmative, we have been getting the same reports you seem to be getting. The estimated strength of their main party is around 50. Their scouting units seem to run around 3 to 5 raiders. They are aggressive and dangerous. We suspect that they are affiliated with the “Sons of Missouri”. “No Mercy” is what they’re known for. If they are indeed headed your way, you folks better get your shit together! Over.”

“Roger that – we’ve dealt with one of their scouting parties a few years back. That particular group will not give anyone a problem again. Over.”

“Understand India 37. Give me a couple hours to contact Mike Oscar counties and update my intel, I’ll come up on net at 14:00.” The call signs changed slightly for Missouri and Minnesota to MO and MN respectively.

“Roger that MDR Control, 14:00. India 37 out”

“MDR Control out.”

“Well Fuck!!!” Bill spit out the curse and turned to E.

“That’s doesn’t sound good – what’d MDR Control have to say?” E could see the rage cross Bill’s face.

“Sons of Missouri E, it’s the fucking Sons of Missouri. “No Mercy” Bill’s voice tense, controlled.

“Well shit! When Brad and Marion check in you make damn sure to get me Brad on-line. NOT Marion – Brad. You Clear?” E gave him a “don’t screw with me look that he had seen from her his whole life.

“Yes Ma’am – I’m clear!” Bill busied himself filling out the comm log and trying to see how this new bit of news would affect the ultimate outcome of Brad and Marion’s trip to the OP.

E turned her attention back to the situation to their south. OP 18 was still off line. Where the hell were her people!

“Jo – bring up OP19 again.” E was looking over Jo’s shoulder.

“OP 19, Command. Do you copy?”

“Command – 19, have you 5x5. There’s a running gunfight headed our way, estimate 50 yards or less . . . . wait one command . . . . COMMAND – 19, WE ARE UNDER FIRE! SAY AGAIN, WE ARE UNDER FIRE!” E and Jo could hear the firefight as 19 pressed the “talk” switch.

“19 – Command, roger that – you are under attack. Response Team 3-2 is headed your way. Hold and defend, they should be on-site any moment. Be advised Brad and Marion are headed your way as well!” E’s adrenaline was definitely kicking in. She’d be much happier headed to OP 19 rather than commanding the county’s response to this incursion but everyone had their job to do.

“Command – 19, roger that. Out.”

And that was all E could do. She had people in harm’s way, under attack and here she sat on her ass, waiting for whatever the outcome would be.

“Jo – conference the southern OPs and the Response Teams. Fill them in on what’s going on – make sure their head’s in the game!” And while Jo brought the Ops and Response Teams up to date – E turned to her maps.

“Hey E – what exactly is going on?” E turned to see Willie walking through the comm room’s door. She wore full gear – vest/plate carrier fully kitted out, her weapon was slung and she carried herself as the professional soldier that she was turning in to.

“Hey kiddo – good to see you! By the way – Happy Birthday! The big 16! Hear you claimed a beau last night!” E set aside the past few minutes and focused on her granddaughter, just the touch of a smirk on her lips.

“Thanks gram. Yep, I let Fred know it’s official between us – not sure he’s recovered from that yet!“ The smile faded and Willie’s face hardened – What’s going on E.” And it was back to business.

“Brad and your mom are headed to OP 18, the 3-2 response team should be nearly on-site, we’ve checked into the MDR net for an update – I suspect we have a true “shit storm” headed this way!” Had you just walked in on the conversation it would probably have looked strange to see a 60ish woman carrying on a tactical summary with a newly minted 16 year old. Yet, in 2093 and in a fractured and broken America, talents were developed early, people worked hard and they defended their property, their family and their friends . . . . with their lives if necessary. Age played little in the discussion and gender was simply not a factor on this day or in this age. Willie was E's best shooter, she was learning the tactical side and she would one day replace E in the command center. That die had been firmly cast.

“There’s an added twist to this probe Willie . . . it appears to be a “Sons of Missouri” scouting party. Their mission is unclear, but they have been kicking up shit since they were first picked up Northwest of St. Louis!” E watched how this news would affect Willie.

Willie’s ears turned red first – a sure sign her blood pressure was spiking. Her eyes followed – narrowing, as she drew a ragged breath. “They’re from the Son’s???” Willie was as focused on E and E was on her.

“Yes child, it appears they are part of the “Sons of Missouri”. Their remaining size is about what we were hearing – around 50. The scouting party seems to be typically 2-5 raiders. Since you and Doug took out two of them, I suspect there are three or so that are dickin’ with us at OP 18.” E noted Willie’s control – one of the traits she liked about her.

“I’m going to kill them you know . . .” Looking E straight in the eye, the words came out easily – with the simple tone of truth. Willie was going to kill these raiders.

“I understand child – but your mom’s nearly there. They won’t live long enough for you to reach them. Let it go, I have other things for you to do.” And in that simple conversation the fate of the raiders was decided, E saw her granddaughter step into the shoes of a fighter and the next step in Willie’s training began.

Hank Jackson could hear the firefight while his response team was still about five minutes out. Hank was one of the members of Brad’s rifle platoon in Africa – “back in the day” as folks say. He’d answered Brad’s call back in the spring of ’50. He’s fought side by side with E and Brad through swarm and raider attacks. “One more time” he thought. As they responded to the request to find out why OP 18 had gone dark, the sound of a running firefight drew their attention. Now, within a quarter mile of OP 19, he gave the sign to dismount.

He had two “heavy guns” – real, honest to God ArmaLite AR-10s each with 300 rounds of ammo. The remaining six team members had the standard kit and were ready to “get some” as they said in his day.

It was pretty clear the raiders were advancing on OP 19 from the east. There seemed to be three or four distinct weapon types, one “heavy” , one either a bolt action or lever action and the remaining two semiautomatic “light weapons”. Hank split his team into two squads – three light weapons and a heavy with each squad. He had one close directly on OP 19 from the north. The second would travel east a bit and then close to the SSW. Hank wanted at least one raider alive just for the intel – he’d take more if possible and kill them all if it was necessary. A sharp hand signal started their advance – Hank with the squad coming closing to the SSW.

They were easy to spot actually, their use of cover was poor, their manner was arrogant, reckless. Nearly simultaneously the three visible attackers were down and wounded. When faced with his eight man response team, all three decided they’d “live to fight another day” and placed their weapons flat on the ground and their hands behind their head – fingers interlaced.

One of Hank’s team stripped the raiders of gear and weapons while another applied a tourniquet to one raider and compresses to the other two. All would more than likely live. They were bound, separated around the small compound that held the OP and gagged. All that was left was to wait for Brad and Marion.

Hank sent a two man team to check out OP 18 while he went in and checked in with E at command.

Hank picked up the handset and pressed the “call” button. It was answered with a sharp “Command – status!”

“Hey E, it’s Hank. OP 19 secure, three raiders are in hand. I have a team on the way to 18 but I’m expecting the worst.”

“Understand Hank. I want you to check the right wrist of any of the raiders – tell me what you see.” E knew what he would find, she just wanted confirmation.

“Roger that – stand by.” Hank went to the nearest raider outside the OP. There, on his right wrist was a broad, black tat . . . “No Mercy”.

“Command – there seems to be a tat – “No Mercy”. We’ve seen that before. Are these guys “Sons of Missouri?” Fuck!! If true, a shit storm was screaming at them.

“Seems to be Hank, seems to be. We punched into the MDR net and they confirmed what we have been hearing about a heavy probe coming up from the south. There’s another 50 or so of these assholes out there!” E’d hoped for the best – and had the worst confirmed.

“E – Marion is coming?? Shit . . . she’ll kill them! “ Not that Hank minded . . . but it wouldn’t be pretty.

“I suspect so Hank, I suspect so. I’m relying on you and Brad to keep her focused – intel FIRST, then I could give a shit what she does with them. You DO NOT need to bring them “home”. You clear Hank.”

“Roger E, I understand you – no need to bring them home. I’ll call you when my assessment team returns from 18.” Hank out.

“Thanks Hank, we’ll be here.” And E went back to her maps with Willie.

Hank looked around the OP. “These guys are “Sons of Missouri” . . . and Marion will be here in a bit. We’re going to have a chat with these guys and then let “nature take its course. Anyone got a problem with that?” Hank looked hard at his team – they had all been with him a long time, and had encountered these assholes before. He was met with a chorus of “No Sir”s.

“Fair enough. Let’s get the OP’s weapons reloaded and then set up four teams about 50 yards out across the southern border. If you take fire, retreat here, we’ll hold our fire until you’re behind the line. Questions?” His team’s response was simply getting to work – topping off mags, reloading the OP’s weapons and heading out to their scrimmage line.

The pair he’d sent to 18 trotted into the compound at a light jog. “Not good Hank – all four are dead. Looks like they were hit during shift change. Frags and a handful of rounds in each sealed the deal.” It had been awhile since there had been such a blatant attack. Again, not a good sign.

“Understood. I’ve sent the rest to set up a perimeter about 50 yards south, head that way and join the party. I need to go and fill E in.” His guys headed south and he picked up the receiver – pressing the “Call” button.

“Command!” E had answered in an instant.

“E – not good. Four KIA. I’ve set a temporary perimeter about 50 yards south. We’ll have a chat with our guests and let you know what they say and get back to you.” Hank shook his head – it would be a rough couple of hours ahead.

“Understood – Command out.” E was crisp, deep into her own planning.

Brad and Marion cantered up about 45 minutes later.

“Hank – what do we have here. What’s the status of 18?” Brad took in the small compound. There were three raiders, each wounded in some way. Their gear had been taken away, their hands were tied behind their back, their feet tied and each had a gag in place. They were placed around the compound – obviously to make sure they couldn’t talk to each other.

“We have 4 KIA in 18. I’ve got a temporary perimeter set about 50 yards to the south. I’ve brought E up to date.” Hank noticed Marion was walking towards their prisoners. “Brad” he said in a quiet voice, “They’re “Sons of Missouri”!

“Fuck me!! Tats and all?” Brad asked. Hank simply nodded. “This won’t end well Hank, you fill everyone in on that?”

“Yes sir. E’s only concern is that we get the intel. She said we didn’t need to bring our guests home for dinner.”

“No worries about that – Marion would never allow it.” Shaking his head he walked towards his daughter-in-law. He saw the tears in her eyes and the steel behind them. “He was my grandson too you know . . .” Brad had no idea what to say – but he wouldn’t stand in her way.

“I know, I know. Does E know?” She had seen the Tats – “No Mercy.”

“Yep . . . . we need intel Marion.” Brad looked her in the eye. “We need to know what’s coming. Past that . . . . well, the tats seem to say it all, don’t they.”

Marion’s face cleared, her tears stopped and her features hardened. “Understood. You OK to stay?” Brad looked at her again . . . “He was my grandson too, like I said.”

Marion collected herself and hardened her heart. The phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold” passed through her mind. Her heart was ice . . . .

“Gentlemen – my name is Marion, Marion Rowley. I’m a deputy sheriff for this county. I’m also a mother – to a fine daughter who had the pleasure of killing one of your party last evening – drove a nice clean hole through his head, just below his nose. Today’s her sixteenth birthday as a matter of fact. I also had a son – Kyle. He’s gone now, would have been nineteen in a few weeks. . . . except for one thing, he met one of your scouting parties about two years back. It was his last day on earth . . . your friends took it upon themselves to kill him. I might have gotten over that – three years in the past, the times being what they are. But your fellow “Sons” had to take it a bit farther . . . . they skinned parts of his arms and legs . . . well before they killed him. We do, indeed live in different times. Years ago you would have been taken into our custody, afforded certain “rights” and then probably hanged. Today . . . . I’m going to kill you.”

Marion struggled for control. She felt her rage at seeing her baby laid out, pealed open and shot to death. She slowed her ragged breathing and allowed the ice to return.

“But, even in death – there are choices. See your wounded friend there? That shoulder and chest wound look pretty bad. You can even hear the beginnings of his lung rattling – it’s filling with blood. The civilized thing to do would be to just kill him!” In an instant her 1911 was in her hand as she drove a round just below center mass – a dark, angry red welt forming just above his belly-button.

“Of course, my son’s treatment taught me a lot, along the lines of your tats – “No Mercy”. Now, we need intel – why are you here, how many are coming, how far out are they, what kind of arms do they have, why are they headed this way, what’s your command structure, how do you communicate.” Her hand went to her holster and a second red welt began to form just to the right of the first.

“Raiders have taught us all any number of inhumane ways to interrogate you. I intend to use them if need be.” Round three and a third welt just to the left of the first. “I have no interest in chatting with your friend there. Consider him an object lesson.” And a final shot rang out, center mass – the center of his heart. His choked cries stopped and the life drained out of his eyes. “We’ll just leave him there until we’re finished – OK”

“So there are your choices.” E said, holstering her weapon and grabbing her backup knife – flicking it open. “You can tell me what I need to know and be on your way to hell quickly . . . . or we can chat awhile, I’ll still learn what I want to know. You’ll just get to hell slower. Who’s first?”

She looked at the remaining raiders – one looked to be mid to late 20s, the other – younger. Each had the defiant look of youth. She’d seen that look before – hell, she’d had it. The swarms and the raiders had taken that look off her face. She decided on the oldest . . .

She removed his gag . . . “Anything you’d care to share raider?” The defiance in his eye remained – his jaw set. “Fuck you bitch!” Her right hand slammed into his chest, slipping the four inch blade just above his left rib. He’d bleed slowly. His lung would eventually fill, but it’d take time.

His eyes went wild – he screamed at her “Fuck you, you crazy bitch – you stabbed me!!” There was a genuine sound surprise in his voice.

“Perhaps you misunderstood. I’m going to kill you today. There are no options, no outs, no reprieves. You are going to die. Your choice is between me sticking you over and over and over with my little knife here . . . . or a bullet in the head. Your willingness to share with me the information I need will determine which it will be.” Just to make sure he understood – she removed her knife from his chest and plunged it to the hilt in the meat of his left thigh. She gave it a firm twist and left it in place . . . and the raider screamed until his voice became a gurgling whisper.

“Brad, give me your knife.” Marion held out her hand and Brad placed his folding backup in her hand. She turned toward the remaining raider – his eyes wild, a wet spot forming in his crotch. Marion removed his gag and in a voice as cold as a January winter she asked “Anything you willing to share with me?” She thumbed the blade and moved the blade tip up and down his rib cage – a small red line left behind.

“Anything, anything, anything . . . . what do you want to know!! Just please – don’t hurt me.” The raider was wild with fear . . . . at this point he’d tell her anything and that was NOT what she needed.

“You seem to not be understanding this whole process son. I’m going to kill you. Quick – or slow . . . . you’ll die here today. Do you understand? What I need from you is truth . . . your honest answer to each and every question. If you do that, your death will be as painless as I can make it. If not . . . “ and she let the sentence hang . . . .

“Don’t tell this bitch anything!! I’ll kill you myself if you tell them a single thing!” Marion took a deep breath, got up and moved back to the first raider. She quickly yanked her knife out of his leg and jammed it into his right side – just above his last rib. She simply left it in place and the raider let out another scream followed by a throaty gurgle. “You seem to not understand either – perhaps your partner here will learn from your mistake.” She returned to the youngest raider.

“Now . . . do you have something you would like to tell me?” Marion looked at the raider, willing him to understand that she was deadly serious.

He took a deep, ragged breath. “Yes Ma’am, I understand . . . . what would you like to know?”

“Brad . . . grab your notebook and pull up a chunk of ground, I think this fellow has some answers for us.” Marion settled it – ignoring the wounded raider – keeping him there as a constant reminder of the options available to the young raider in front of her . . . .

Three hours later, she and Brad were satisfied. They’d asked each question in numerous ways. Verified locations by asking specific questions about areas they were familiar with. With a bit of prompting – once the wounded raider realized his partner was going to answer all their questions he saw little reason to hold out when they asked him to verify various answers. By the end they knew what was coming . . . . it was not good, not good at all. Marion and Brad looked at each other and realized that they may well not survive the weeks and months ahead. They’d been lucky to capture these three raiders. Very lucky indeed.

Brad and Marion both stood and looked at their captives. The one Marion had wounded earlier was in real distress – the other, simply resigned.

“Thank you gentlemen – I appreciate your honesty. Now go to hell!!” And with two rounds for each . . . she sent them on their way.