Mae was rescued from the Chinese megalopolis by a driver from the U.S. embassy. She spent two days at the U.S. compound trying to stay out of the way of the manic document shredding and frenzied packing. The morning of the third day, she was hustled onto a helicopter, fall-of-Saigon-style, and choppered to the airport with a number of other diplomats. They loaded everything onto a 747 which whisked them away into the Pacific night.
The jumbo jet made one stop at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage where they sat on the tarmac for four hours. A Greyhound bus pulled alongside the plane and another two dozen Treasury officials and diplomats, who had flown in from other Asian capitals, boarded the 747. Several dozen pallets of shrink-wrapped documents were offloaded by forklifts, stacked onto pallets, and reloaded into a semi-trailer bearing a logo for corn chips. The tractor-trailer drove off the tarmac. It had no final destination. The driver’s orders were to drive to random locations so that if anyone was asked, under oath, if they had ordered the destruction of, or knew the location of the documents, they could answer “no” without perjuring themselves.
By nine a.m., the 747 was wheels up, again. Five hours later, they landed at Denver International under a cloudless blue sky. The diplomats and officials deplaned onto the tarmac. A fleet of black, tinted SUVs pulled up. One security agent, dressed in a black suit, grabbed Mae’s elbow and walked her over and into one vehicle. T was waiting inside.
“Mae! We’re so glad you made it back in one piece!”
“Thank you. It’s good to be back on U.S. soil.”
“I imagine you’re exhausted.”
Mae sighed, wearily. “Why did you send me there? It was a complete waste of time.”
T stammered for a moment as their SUV pulled away. “We thought that…well, that perhaps your relationship with Tsang would engender their cooperation.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that before you sent me? They weren’t having any of it.”
“Um… let’s just say we wanted you to be—how should I say this—as authentic as possible. Do you follow?”
“It was terrible, T. Please don’t ever do that to me again. They sent out these two punks…”
“I fail to find any humor in it. They were rude and insulting. A couple of low ranking clowns. I couldn’t believe it when they said Tsang sent them. He’s totally lost my trust.”
“Don’t be too hard on him. Tsang has his bosses, too.”
“Then they dumped me out in the middle of some Shanghai ghetto. I was absolutely terrified, T. I could have been assaulted or something.”
“Let’s not get carried away, Mae. I apologize for everything that’s happened to you. We had no idea they would behave that rudely. The Chinese have been behaving very undiplomatic, recently. All the channels are shutting down since we scaled back the embassy. You should have seen how difficult it was to get our documents out of there.”
“Why’d they even bother to meet me?”
“Tsang sounded amenable so we expected a good-faith negotiation. But in the final assessment, I think all his bosses really wanted to do was to insult us. You know, give us the finger. I’m so sorry it all came down on you.”
Mae believed T was sincere. “So what happens now?”
T pondered Mae’s question as their SUV roared across the sea of concrete and into a shaded parking garage at the farthest edge of the tarmac. Their lane descended underground, away from the bright blue sky and into the shadows of a catacomb. T didn’t answer her until the SUV stopped at a checkpoint.
“Things are very shaky right now, Mae. We are truly on the razor’s edge.”
“It sounded to me like they want to stick it to us.”
“Probably. But the problem for us really isn’t China, so much. We know what they’ve been up to with their recent liquidations. The real issue is Japan. They’ll be out of cash in a matter of weeks and we don’t know if they’ll monetize their debt or start selling off assets to make their interest payments. If they start selling, they’ll start with U.S. Treasuries because they know China is getting out. China knows we’ll try to buy them up so they’ll try to unload theirs at the same time. They’ll want to get something for them before it’s too late. We’ll have to take steps to ensure the whole market doesn’t get whored up too fast.”
“What’s ‘too fast’?”
“We’re hoping for…well…we’ve been calling for an orderly crash. We have to manage things, slow things down so the banks can get out. If the banks get caught hanging in too long then it could be a scary correction. We’re talking the mother of all bank runs, 1929 times ten. Money markets’ll break the buck. Mutual funds will dissolve. Pensions, government payrolls, AR factoring, inventories, everything is at risk if the panic spreads. The Fed will have to take over the entire financial sector and guarantee everything—monetize everything. It’ll be a titanic mess.”
“When would this start happening? Are we talking about months?”
T shook his head. Mae knew that to mean weeks or days.
“It’ll be a selloff of unprecedented magnitude.”
The checkpoint guard raised the arm and their SUV passed out of the last of the ambient natural light and fully into the depths of the underground complex.
“The Fed can slow it down with the Plunge Protection Team working through their Wall Street partners. They can buy up whatever the Japanese and Chinese sell with digital cash, but the huge volumes will trigger manual overrides and a ‘get out while you can’ mentality. With living, breathing, animal spirits at the controls, it all becomes an unpredictable confidence game.”
“So are the insiders moving into cash?”
“I’m afraid no. They know that once it goes, it’ll take the dollar down with it.”
“How far down?”
“We’re looking at a fifty to sixty percent devaluation over maybe two weeks or so. If the Fed can’t contain it, it’ll be a full scale currency collapse.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Our job is to make sure it looks more like Argentina and less like the Zimbabwe.”
Mae shook her head in disbelief. “What about the stock market?”
“When the Treasuries go, corporate paper will follow. Rates will explode. We expect the selloff to trigger circuit breakers and limit downs. The containment plan is fluid, but if it happens three straight days, then we’ll shut the whole thing down—call it a ‘Market Holiday’. Banks will be closed, accounts will be frozen, capital controls implemented while we sort things out.”
“What are all the sheeple going to do, T?”
“Sheeple?” T chuckled. “I guess you didn’t get the memo. The new codeword for the public is ‘The Herd’. As you can imagine, they’re going be pretty pissed off when their 401ks disappear and their debit cards stop working. The Joint Chiefs expect riots, but we can leverage that by coming to the rescue; never let a crisis go to waste. The Cabinet’s got ideas. First, blame the Chinese. The Herd always falls for a scapegoat. Then, nationalize the retirement accounts and guarantee returns. They call that the Ghialarducci Plan. They’ll take all the 401k accounts and reinvest them into Treasuries. That’ll soften the blow a little and buy some time for a return to normalcy.”
“It’s going to be scary, Mae. Did I say that already? How should I describe idea number three? Hmmm. Let’s just call it ‘law and order maintenance.’”
“The President just initiated ‘Operation Pre-emptive Order’. He’s recalling and reassigning troops from III Corps. Fourth Infantry actually arrives tomorrow so that confirms that he’s taking the hard line. He’s not going to let a civil war happen on his watch. Can you imagine a legacy like that?”
“I don’t suppose I’ll be allowed to get my money out?”
“I’m afraid not, Mae. That would create an audit trail. It’s too risky to let government insiders sell right now. We can’t risk any questions about integrity. But don’t worry, you’ll be made whole, inflation-adjusted of course”
The black SUV parked. The driver whispered something into his collar. The door locks clicked open. The chamber was poorly lit, cast in an orange glow. Mae sensed a faint electrical buzzing emanating from all directions. The SUV’s cooling exhaust ticked and pinged. An over-sized steel door, painted bright, blood red, stood before them.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
A mechanical noise, like an engagement of industrial gears, rolled and rumbled beneath them. Mae was unsettled by it.
The gears rolled beneath them.
The red door stood before Mae, framed by the windshield of the SUV, partly obstructed by the silhouette of the driver’s motionless head.
“So what now?” Mae asked T whose silence was adding to her growing sense of dread.
“The President wants us to stay away from Washington for now,” he answered. “So we’ve set up operations here. Have you been down here? This is a terrific facility. It’s like a Hilton. There’s a gym, even tennis courts, fine dining. You could move all the essential functions of Washington here. It’s quite safe, totally impenetrable, even nuke proof.”
“It’s a bunker?”
“There’s not a lot for you to do right now but we’ve made arrangements for you to stay.”
“Here, in this complex, right through that red door.”
This was the first Mae didn’t feel comfortable with T. The thought of holing up in a security complex in the bowels of an airport in a flyover state did not appeal to her. She had an urge to dart out of the SUV and sprint up the ramp to the surface, into the fresh air, under the powder blue sky. She would, of course, never indulge such a compulsion.
“Would you mind if I stayed downtown, perhaps the Brown Palace?”
T seemed disappointed. “Not downtown, Mae. It might not be safe. We can make arrangements at a hotel nearby for a few days, I suppose. Then you’ll either need to come in here or make your own arrangements. We cannot guarantee your safety if you stay outside the airport complex.”
“What do you mean by ‘guarantee my safety’?”
“We haven’t ruled out TMD.”
“Total Melt Down.”
“What do you mean?”
“The president is quite confident we can maintain law and order but there is still a risk.”
“How much risk?”
“NSA simulations estimate a one in six chance.”
“Of complete economic and institutional collapse: banking, government, police, fire, hospitals, transportation.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I only said a one in six chance. Like I said, the president is committed to take any action necessary to maintain law and order. Don’t forget, his legacy is at stake.”
“So you suggest I stay here?”
“I personally wouldn’t play Russian Roulette, so yes, at least until things settle down a bit.”
Mae gazed again at the red door. The silhouette of the driver’s head leaned forward as he whispered something inaudible into his collar.
The grinding gear noise rolled beneath them again.
Mae felt that the shadows had somehow crept in around their SUV. The lights had been gradually dimming. Her queasiness grew.
“I don’t want to stay here in this crypt, T. Can you have aq driver take me to one of those nearby hotels for now? I think I might have a safe place to go from there but I have to make a call.”