“Be not afraid for the terror by night…” In part 2 of the Indivisible series, the nation boils in economic collapse and sectarian violence. The president withdraws into his flying bunker to implement his Amero Plan to restore order. Maiden Lane finds herself in peril beyond the government’s zone of control. Marzan is separated from his company during a firefight and rescues an orphaned boy. Jess Clayton defends her home and young daughter from repossession and armed looters.
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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Jessica stood in a clearing on the crest of a high foothill and looked to the west. Clouds surged, boiling up over the mountains along the horizon. Mount Evans, normally a dome of glistening white, was obscured by haze. It was late afternoon. The approaching night was going to be completely dark as the front rolled east over the foothills and obscured the moon and stars. She had to make sure the candles were ready—just another thing to add to her endless list of to-dos. Precious few of the power transformers had been replaced since the radio flash had crippled the electrical grid. Jessica’s house had been without power for fifteen months.
She had hiked up the hill, just beyond the edge of her lot and across the road, to collect a bushel of the first of the spring dandelions. She would take them home, wash them in cool well water, dress the greens and flowers with vinegar and salt, and serve them as salad. Foraging was essential for stretching meals. In the coming month, the high meadows would turn gold and green with fields of dandelions. And soon after, the marsh cattails would shoot up. Their roots were a tolerable, starchy substitute for potatoes if they were cooked right.
She turned and looked east, across the meadow and marsh below, surrounded by the dormant pines and groves of still leafless aspens that stood in gray clusters along the hillsides. Farther east, beyond the layers of rolling, forested ridges, the high plains opened up as flat as glass, all the way to the eastern horizon. Denver sprawled out over it, a cobble of black and gray geometry. A blanket of brown haze hung over the city, a blended cloud of smoke and ash, generator exhaust, and dust kicked up by the warm spring winds. Columns of black billowed up from scattered, unresolved fires. Distant helicopters silently patrolled the heavy air, looking like little black wasps coming and going from their hive at Denver International Airport, which Jess could just make out as a cluster of white spires sitting at the very edge of the eastern horizon.
Jess would sometimes climb that same hill at night and look east across the city. The patchwork of sporadic city lights shimmered like the reflection of ten thousand amber stars on the surface of a placid lake. There were so few lights even then, despite the frantic Department of Homeland Security Americorps reconstruction effort. She had heard on the radio that fifty thousand men and women were employed in the government program to reconstruct Denver, but there was little to show for their hundred million man hours of toil except for the ubiquitous billboards heralding their glorious arrival. At night, the brightest beacon of all was the airport. Though the blackouts rolled in patches through the quilt of the city every night, the airport never stopped shining bright.
Jessica Vaughn’s neighborhood was not officially outside what was known as the zone of control—or ZOC—but being wooded, hilly, less-populous, and fertile territory for ambush, it was deemed lowest priority for Americorps reconstruction. The MRAPs of the Domestic Security Force didn’t roll up into the foothills unless absolutely necessary, and then only by massive mechanized convoy preceded by drones and covered above by the thump-thump-thumping of Black Hawk helicopters. The thumping of helicopter rotors was ever present. Jess heard them seven or eight times each day and almost as often at night.
Other than the occasional civilian car or sheriff’s patrol, the days and nights were otherwise bereft of the sounds of civilization; just the whine of wind or the mew of cow elk or screech of a fox…or the occasional rat-tat-tat-tat of distant small arms fire. No one drove much because gas was too costly and many of the automobiles, damaged by the radio flash, still required extensive repairs. Ration cards were required to purchase gasoline, but the gasoline was rarely available at the licensed stations permitted to sell it. To obtain gasoline or diesel, one needed to engage the black market with hard currency or something to barter. Plastic debit cards with federal imprints and green pieces of paper with dead presidents bought little or nothing, and even less than that outside the ZOC. When fiat money was obtained, it was spent as rapidly as possible as it was not known if or when the next round of devaluation would reduce its purchasing power. Because no one wanted it, those spending it were forced to pay premiums in order to get rid of it. The pernicious rise in prices continued at rates that outpaced the Federal Reserve’s printing press. The public loss of faith in the dollar compounded the difficulty the government faced in restoring price stability. As the dollar fell and fell, the Treasury Department was forced to officially devalue again and again in order to meet the trillions in debt requiring a roll over each quarter. Any attempt to restore confidence in the currency by decree, such as controlling the price of toilet paper, merely resulted in the shelves being cleaned out. The people who were supposed to be aided by the regulations found that while they once objected to the high price of squeezing the Charmin, now they couldn’t squeeze it at any price. But at least the government was “doing something.”
Foreign currency, coins, scrip, bullets, copper wire, and other commodities of value were hoarded by civilians whenever possible. The bad money had chased the good right out of the market and into personal vaults. This meant that the burden of securing one’s wealth now fell solely upon each household. Guns, although highly illegal, were widely owned. They were not brandished carelessly, but it was universally understood that everyone who was off the government reservation was capable of defending themselves.
Americans, so careless and apathetic before the collapse, had learned self-sufficiency and unlearned their trust in the State. The infinite reams of laws, controls, regulations, edicts, schedules, codes, taxes, fines, and levies went mostly unheeded. Unless a federal agent was offering them a meal or a bed or demanding something from behind the barrel of a gun, the government was simply ignored.
Jessica came down the hill towards her house with her basket of weeds. Her mother-in-law, Sharon, spotted her as she approached and shouted out the window. “Looks like it’s going to be cold, tonight,” she yelled.
“Probably windy, too.” Jess answered.
“Can we run the generator?”
“We’ve only got five gallons of gas left,” Jess answered.
“I guess we should try to save it, then.”
“Yes. For the water pump at least.”
“Maybe I can ask if I can ride with Mr. Croukamp down to the post office and see if I can get some more fuel, tomorrow. How much is it, now?”
“Ten NATO per gallon or fifteen feet of copper,” Jess answered. “But we’ve nearly spent all ours.”
“I’ve got a hundred dollars. How about that?”
“I thought you spent that,” Jess answered as she came down the driveway.
“My sister sent it.”
“That should get us a gallon,” Jess answered as she lifted the garage and pulled the starter cord on the generator. “We need to bring some wood in for tonight, and some water, too. Can you send Brooke out with the tote?” The generator turned over and sputtered to life, blue exhaust puffing out; its roar drowned out the sound of the well pump’s pressure switch which clicked on soon after. The exhaust flooded the garage, then wafted out the door to be carried away by the breeze and comingle with the brown cloud hanging just a few miles east. It would only be run for five minutes, just long enough to pressurize the water lines and enable them to fill their jugs and flush three toilets times. The crude setup would not have even been possible had Mr. Croukamp not done the electrical work for them.
The door opened and Brooke appeared, all three feet of her, cheeks tanned, her brown hair braided into two taut pigtails. She was dressed in a pink and kelly green fleece and worn Winnie-the-Pooh sneakers. Her used clothes were purchased for the bargain price of three hundred dollars at the bazaar held at the post office parking lot. Almost anything could be bought or bartered for at the bazaar. In addition to clothes and gasoline, sundries and produce, firewood, ammunition, tools, hardware, luxuries like chocolate and alcohol and cannabis, and even labor could be obtained. If it wasn’t available on a particular day, then one could write it on the big board and someone would bring it the next.
Jess wasn’t thinking about the bazaar, though. She was looking at Brooke’s tiny, shining face. Little Brooke had known no other life than the one scratched out in the foothills: frigid dark winters, hunger, helicopters, chores that demanded too much from the small hands of such a young child. She had learned how to dress herself and how to recognize letters and stack wood. She watched her mother shoot a pistol and split a log with a maul and clean and dress a chicken and a deer. But the little lady revealed no memory of her father which pained Jess, greatly. What Brooke learned of him would be a myth—the legend of a man constructed from the spoken memories of others with the spaces in between those words filled in with her imagination. Perhaps, Jess hoped, that would make her father larger than life, which is the only reward the dead can hope for.
Brooke trotted out towards her, dragging the tote behind. Jess turned to the woodpile by the side of the house, scanning the diminished mound of splits for the driest, choicest pieces to lug into the house for the cold, cloudy night ahead. The pile was hidden from the road on the side of the house as opportunistic thieves, trolling neighborhoods for easy loot, might otherwise see it and return to raid it in the night. With the pile by the side of the house, away from the road, Jess had a chance to hear them carrying it off and intervene before they took too much.
She had never been forced to decide if it was necessary to shoot someone over wood, and she was grateful for that. Should a man be killed for stealing? If the thieves ever came, she would be confronted with that dilemma. She knew she would have to decide before she ever drew her pistol. This and other matters of survival tormented her through many nights as she laid awake in bed with her daughter and mother-in-law at her side. One should not draw a gun unless one has accepted the consequences of firing it. Without that conviction, a gun may fire at you before you resolve your indecision. She wondered what Vaughn would think of it all. He would say he would draw and shoot the thieves, but she knew her husband, and she knew his male bluster masked a thoughtful, cautious man who wouldn’t be cavalier about taking a life. A woman’s mind is not afflicted by the perceived utility of bluster like a man’s is.
Rumors had been circulating of armed bandits, but despite the Firearms and Neighborhood Security Act—which survived a constitutional legal challenge and resulted in a nationwide program for the confiscation of civilian firearms—most of the populace was armed. It took only one thief getting his kneecap blown off by shot from a twelve-gauge to dampen the firewood thievery racket. The Constitution may theoretically mean whatever the court says it means, but the rulings of the State’s high priests, festooned in their flowing black robes, are vaporized in an instant by the thunderbolts of reality. Governments legislate within their own, insular perception of reality. The people, however, were now existing entirely in another. When the choice is whether to either abide by some subjective concept like the law versus freezing to death, the law, as it is ascribed by the lawmakers, becomes irrelevant.
Jess had Brooke bring the tote with her to the pile. Together, they filled it with pine and lugged it back to the garage and up the outside stairs. They dumped the wood there and went back down. It was going to take three trips to gather enough for the cold April night if they wanted to be cozy. Oh, to be cozy! Cozy was impossible in the winter. It required too much wood for the fire to achieve it when the insulation of clouds had blown off and it was three degrees outside and the wind was howling. On those nights, they would endure a fifty-degree house, sharing their bed and body heat under layers of blankets. The house cooled in the wee hours when the fire burned down, so much so that when they woke, they could see their frozen breath as they lay in their bed. But the winter was over. This was April and the nights barely dipped below freezing. They would snuggle into bed while the silent, flickering firelight in the portal glass of the stove radiated its comforting warmth. Being able to throw off the covers and sweat herself to sleep was a much longed-for indulgence for Jess, signaling triumph over winter. The three of them had earned it.
Jess reached down to lift the tote. Straining to pull it up, she turned and then walked towards the garage to shut off the generator. Brooke followed. Her neighbor, Mr. Croukamp, had wired it in exchange for a thousand NATOs—.556 rounds. That arrangement was their first meaningful interaction and they had grown close ever since. It was a costly investment for Jess, double her annual firewood purchase, but buying a cistern and having water of dubious potable quality delivered by truck would have been much more expensive over time.
There were so many things to do without on-demand electricity. Every chore was done manually. Water required a pump powered by a gasoline generator. The wood stove had to be constantly fed. Clothes had to be hand washed and line-dried and mended with needle and thread. Lights had to be hand-lit. Words had to be handwritten. To make money to buy food and other essentials the three of them would stack neighbors’ firewood, tend their animals, shovel snow and horse shit, pull weeds from gardens, and make mail deliveries—which was illegal even though postmen stopped making rounds months earlier.
Mr. Croukamp fared somewhat better. He remained in his home, defiant, a stubborn, grizzled, tested old man. He had a working truck, a mid-1970s pickup with rusted out wheel wells and a cracked windshield. It rattled and rumbled along, smoking, misfiring, evoking the same traits as its owner. Croukamp used it to make deliveries and drive to jobs and to taxi neighbors about. For a fee, of course. He earned a good amount with it, enough to keep the truck fueled, his pantry stocked, and his property maintained. When he wasn’t driving, he was hanging barbed wire, mending his network of fences, canning vegetables that he grew in his green house, and tending his chickens and securing their coops against the foxes and cougars and two-legged thieves. Croukamp lived alone and he preferred life that way, but he performed many services for Jessica. Originally he did so out of pity, then out of his sense of duty, and then finally out of a feeling of fellowship with the struggling women. His socializing consisted of giving advice on everything from how to make dandelion salad to how to clean and dress a deer.
As Jess piled more wood, she noticed Croukamp poking around in the matted prairie grass in the draw dividing their properties. She waved but he didn’t see her. Brooke followed quietly behind as Jess stacked another bundle of splits and lifted the tote over her shoulder. She lumbered up the steps with it and unloaded it at the door, then went back to the pile for another. There weren’t enough decent pieces left for the third load so she would have to split more.
She looked around for her maul. Finding it, she picked it up and stood it on its iron head. She righted a bucked log on a wide stump, then took hold of the axe with two hands. She let the heavy head hang down, allowing it to build momentum using its weight, then she arced it back and up overhead, letting the heavy maul and momentum do most of the work. The blade hit dead center on the end of the pine and it cracked half way down sending out shards of bark. She noticed Brooke was standing too close. Thinking of the damage an airborne splinter could do to an eye, she cautioned her to stand back. Brooke backed away. “Further.” Brooke retreated. Jess gripped the handle and with her foot braced on the bucked log, she gave the maul a yank which released the head.
She paused and examined the deep fracture she had made and imagined, for an instant, that it was the skull of a DSF trooper. Just like the ones who murdered her husband. She gripped the maul and swung again, sending a third of the log tumbling off to the side—a jawbone or skull fragment set loose in her imagination. She took a breath. She swung again, breaking apart the remaining piece. She stacked another upright on the stump and cleaved it with one blow, imagining bone fragments and dislodged teeth flying out, blowing back and grazing her exposed skin. Jess had split five cords of wood that year. It had a profound effect on her body, a tautness and hardness that she felt and noticed when she looked in her reflection in the windows. Her shoulders had broadened and her posture had firmed. Triceps had formed where there was once just delicate flesh. The burn from swinging the axe that initially came after only three or four swings, didn’t come until after several dozen blows now.
She heard a car came up the road. She recognized the sound of it. The next log she would split would be that of a bankster’s head. There might not be any mail delivery due to the lawlessness and transportation costs, but the banks still sent their debt collectors. They came by her house every month. There were usually three of them, two in charcoal slacks, white dress shirts and ties, looking like Jehovah’s Witnesses. The third was a security detail, typically an off-duty sheriff’s deputy.
In the winter, Jess had swapped some NATO for one ounce of silver which was, remarkably, enough to cover three mortgage payments. But she was behind by twelve. Her original intent was to pay off the house with Vaughn’s life insurance proceeds but it had already been fifteen months since Vaughn’s murder. She was convinced the insurance company was intentionally stalling before they would pay up. With the mass inflation, every day that passed diminished the real value of the payout. The insurance companies and banks took advantage of the circumstances and stalled payments to reap the financial benefit of paying their debts with less valuable money. Originally furious and feeling helpless, Jess eventually cooled. Her solution came to her and she decided that she could play their game, too. She bought the silver rounds on the advice of Croukamp and hid them in a coffee can in the wall of her kitchen. With the rate of price increases—prices doubling every three months or so—her silver would be worth as much as six mortgage payments by the end of summer, and twelve by winter.
Jess was beginning to think like a banker. But unbeknownst to her, Congress had passed a bill called the CPA—the Creditor Protection Act—which was going to double the remaining principle balance of mortgages on December 31st, in order to make things fair for the banks. Congress was convinced it was good policy that banks be guaranteed they would be paid something for their outstanding loans, in inflation-adjusted terms. The homeowner lobby howled in outrage at having their principle balances doubled by congressional fiat, but Congress passed it anyway, citing economic necessity. “If inflation destroys the value of loans, then no one will lend anymore! Credit is the lifeblood of the economy. Without credit, the economy will die! Our national security is at risk! We must pass the bill!” they screeched while they quietly counted their re-election campaign contributions. Clearly, the half dozen remaining mortgage lenders had more Washington influence than the hundred million outraged homeowners. But that’s democracy. When asked about the CPA at his presser, the president said, “No one should be allowed to benefit unfairly from the inflation. We all have to make shared sacrifices for future generations.” After two days had passed, the public outrage cooled and Americans moved on to the next distraction in the news cycle: Chinese hackers.
The approaching car slowed at Jess’s driveway. She filled her tote with the fresh splits. She curled the load up to her chest, feeling the strain in her tendons, the hardening of her forearms, and the new power in her back as she pulled herself upright. She searched around for Brooke. She looked towards the wellhead, then to the house and then towards the drive. The banker’s pickup was coming down her driveway and tiny Brooke stood directly its path. Jess shouted as she dropped the tote and ran towards her. Brooke was transfixed on the approaching car. Cars were so rare that she did not understand the danger of being run over by one. Jess sprinted towards Brooke, shouting her name. Brooke didn’t move. The car careened towards her. Jess ran yelling and flailing. The car continued. Brooke remained in its path. Twenty feet. Ten feet. Five feet. Finally, the driver saw the child and braked, stopping only a foot from catastrophe. Jess reached Brooke, took her arm and dragged her from the pavement.
The door opened and the driver, a thin, pale fellow, hopped out. He was dressed in charcoal slacks and a white dress shirt and tie, just as Jess had expected. Two others remained inside the vehicle.
“What do you want?” Jess shouted, heart pounding, thinking at that instant that she should have grabbed the maul before chasing after her daughter. The visitor looked at Jess and grinned. “Can I help you?” Jess asked again.
“I certainly hope so,” he responded.
“What’s your name?” Jess asked as she pulled Brooke close into her side. The agent approached and extended his hand but Jess refused to shake it. “Please identify yourself.”
“I’ve been here before. I am Officer Hiserman.”
“Officer? Officer of what?”
“I’m with the FDFR, the Federal Department of Forbearance Recapture.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Jess replied.
“I’m here about your mortgage.” Hiserman took out his wallet, removed his card, and offered it to Jess. She took it. It read: “Officer of Collections.”
“Oh, I remember you. I thought you worked for the bank.”
“This card says you work for the feds.”
“I work for them, too. I’ve been deputized by the U.S. Treasury Department.”
“I don’t have your payment, yet. I’m still waiting on my husband’s life insurance payout.”
“I guessed as much. Still, I have to make my rounds.”
“So is that all?” Jess asked, attempting to slide off back to her wood pile with Brooke.
“I need to serve you this,” Hiserman said as he produced an envelope and presented Jess with it.
“What is it?”
“It is your sixty day notice to vacate the premises.”
“I do apologize,” Hiserman continued. “The bank has decided to take possession of the property.”
Jess laughed again. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You know I’m about to receive a payment large enough to pay this place off, with interest. Why would you want this house when you could get your money?”
“I only work in forbearance recapture, ma’am. I don’t get to see the repossession metrics.”
“Let me guess, then,” Jess said. “You plan to hold on to it because you’ve made a deal to sell it back to the government for a profit.”
“I’m just the messenger, ma’am. You’ve been served. You’ve got sixty days.”
“Well I’m not going anywhere.”
“If you’re still here, I’m afraid we’ll be forced to evict you under the supervision of DSF.”
“What about the sheriff’s department? They’re supposed to handle evictions.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not leaving. You’ll get your money.”
“Look,” Hiserman said in a patronizing tone, “it’s not realistic to take a stand against your lender. You have a small daughter and all. This place is just not worth it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means this is no place to raise a small child. You should be in the city, closer to the aid centers. Look around. It’s Road Warrior out here.”
“It’s not dangerous here. It just takes hard work.”
“I’m not so sure Child Protective Services would agree.”
“Now what the hell does that mean?” Jess asked.
“Calm down, ma’am. Calm down. I’m not the enemy. I’m just doing my job.”
“You people always say that. ‘I’m just doing my job.’ If you’re not responsible for your actions then who is?”
“What does he want from us?” shouted Sharon from the house.
“Nothing,” Jess answered. “It’s under control.” She turned back to Hiserman. “So will that be all, then?”
“Yes. But can I ask you a question?”
“No,” Jess answered as she started away.
“Why are you out here?”
Jess stormed off without answering.
“This is no place to raise a child, ma’am,” Hiserman shouted.
Jess went around the back of the house to calm herself, out of view.
“I think we can be professional about all this,” Hiserman shouted.
Jess muttered to herself under her breath.
“That’s how adults would behave,” Hiserman continued.
Jessica’s rage built.
“Have a nice day, ma’am.”