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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
Jess was riding with Croukamp in his truck, headed for the post office, when the eardrum shattering roar of a low flying F35 startled Croukamp, nearly causing him to steer his truck right off the road. Just on the verge of the sound barrier, it gave no warning of its approach. Croukamp stopped the truck momentarily to gather his wits as the wake of air-shredding rumble trailed off to the west.
It was June. The threat of snow and hard freeze was now weeks behind, except for at the highest altitudes. The meadows of prairie grass were deep green. The aspen and willows and cottonwoods were full of leaves. Gardens were poking up.
They finally arrived at their destination—the open-air market that had built up in the open lot adjacent to the post office. Several dozen awnings shaded stacks of wares and sundries. Others held signs stating their trade: plumbers, carpenters, electricians, laborers. Customers would approach, they would come to an arrangement, or not, and part ways. People dealt and haggled, trading stacks of Reagans and Roosevelts or scrip or .556 or copper wire or junk silver for this or that. There were no queues. A long line at any vendor indicated a shortage. The price would be raised or new vendors and new supplies would appear. Unlike the FEMA station, where people wasted half their day moping through a maze of roped lines to receive a basketful of crude surplus products under the glare of armed storm troopers, the bazaar was vibrant and buzzing with industrious faces darting this way and that, filling their carts and wagons with goods. There was no visible security. It wasn’t necessary. Almost everyone was inconspicuously armed. To attack or assault someone at the bazaar would be suicide. You might as well be trying to rob a gun show.
A sheriff’s deputy cruiser rolled slowly by, but was driven off by the icy glares that seemed to say, “you’re not wanted here.” Other than citing or arresting people for this or that infraction, the police didn’t have any real purpose at the bazaar. An uneasy truce had evolved between the police and the traders who perceived them to be an inhibiting bureaucracy of no benefit. No one was in any mood to accept having their booth raided because their homemade cheese didn’t have the correct government guild stamp of approval. The edict enforcers had originally tried to crack down on the spontaneous market by hauling several people off to jail, but then several deputies awoke in their beds to the crash of Molotov cocktails setting their cruisers ablaze. They stayed away from the market from then on, holed up in their green zones and checkpoints, only occasionally making patrols to remind people they were still there.
Croukamp haggled with a vendor for chicken feed while Jess darted into the post office where the line snaked out the door. She shuffled along in it for forty-five minutes, averting eye contact with the other frustrated citizens. The two postal workers at the counter, overworked and exhausted, sighed and sulked as they accepted and retrieved letters and packages for the exasperated persons in the queue. Jess wasn’t in that line which was probably several hours long. She had to wait just to access her postal box. People walked past her with their letters. Some looked pleased, others angry, tossing them into the waste bin on their way out. The line crept forward. The wait seemed fruitless to Jess. The envelope she was anticipating was never there. Her long, weekly ordeal was always in vain.
Finally, she reached the boxes. She stood before hers and produced her key. She pushed it in and turned the lock. The tiny door opened. The box was jammed with printed spam. She reached in and wrested the wad of envelopes loose. She locked the door and hurried out, not bothering to check if what she had been waiting for had arrived. She found Croukamp waiting in his truck.
“Do you need anything at the market?” he asked.
“No. Not today.”
“Did it come?” he asked.
“I haven’t looked yet.”
Croukamp fired up the old rig and they headed back. There were more cars on the road than she had remembered seeing in a long time. That was a good sign. Normalcy was returning. But then a squad of Black Hawks flew overhead as they drove by the lake. They were heading due west, deep into the red zone.
“What do you think they’re up to?” Jess asked.
“Tough to say. Extraction, maybe.”
Jess watched the choppers until they disappeared over the hilltops. Then she became aware of the bundle of mail she clutched in her lap. Her eyes moved from the window to the letters. Her thumbs began to flip through them, searching for one in particular, hoping against hope that it had finally come.
Croukamp braked. They stopped in a line of cars just beyond the only stoplight in town, at the base of the dam of the lake.
“What is it?” Jess asked, looking up.
“Random checkpoint,” Croukamp grumbled.
The line of cars crept forward. Many were loaded with items purchased at the bazaar: produce, implements and tools, construction materials, fuel. The checkpoints had become a growing nuisance. The sheriff’s department set them up at random to search for items of contraband, but essentially everything was contraband. Transporting flammable liquids was deemed illegal as it might be weaponized and used by insurgents. Due to looting and thievery, the transport of tools without a government approved bill of sale was also against the law. The same went for construction materials and clothing. Food and produce sold without the inspection and all the required approvals of USDA, FDA, NAFTA, USASA, DICT, and or DHS might result in the spread of unsafe products, the transmission of disease or illness or it might economically harm or disadvantage the government licensed producers. Anything transported in a vehicle travelling on the king’s road could be deemed illegal contraband. Since travelling on the king’s road is a privilege and not a right, the mere presence of what could possibly be construed as contraband provided reasonable suspicion and thus authorized the state’s or county’s gendarme to stop and search any vehicle and detain any driver it pleased.
The sheriff department’s ranks of reasonable and conscientious local law enforcers had been depleted, only to be replenished by Americorps conscripts from faraway places with no connections to the community. The new deputies found themselves driven out of the marketplace, but they couldn’t just accept defeat and leave it be. As authoritarians, they were psychologically bound to re-assert their authority. The department didn’t really care about enforcing the Byzantine government code regarding the sale and transport of goods so much as they simply wanted to remind everyone that they were still the only legitimate enforcers of the law, and that just because they were excluded from one public space by a group of anarchists didn’t mean they were impotent. The purpose of the checkpoint was that of all checkpoints–to recapture and compel respect for their authority.
Prior to the crisis, any attempt to challenge the legality of detaining and searching people without a warrant was swept aside by a government and courts emboldened by a servile and naive populace who were spooked by mass media reports of terrorism or drugs or drunk drivers or illegals or the virus du jour. Each compromise seemed reasonable to the serfs. But those fears weren’t based on any statistical reality and the continuous piece by piece surrender of civil liberties for the sake of mitigating imaginary risk set the nation on the irreversible path to the complete subjugation of the fundamental right to movement and to be secure in one’s person and effects. The new paradigm had taken full root and flourished into a thorny, noxious vine that had spread into every nook of society.
Jess scrunched her pile of letters together so as not to see what had come or not. She didn’t want to know good news or bad news while they idled in the creeping queue. They sat silently for forty minutes until her curiosity finally got the best of her. She thumbed through the letters again: bills, spam, coupons, propaganda… and then she saw it. An envelope from her life insurance underwriter. Her heart began to thump. She carefully tore open the end. Then she blew into it to separate the fold. She reached her thumb and forefinger in to extract the contents. It was a letter. She scanned the administrative gibberish and let her eyes flow down to the perforation. It was a check. The life insurance payout for her husband’s murder had finally arrived. Five hundred thousand dollars. It wouldn’t go very far, but it would be enough to pay off her mortgage and perhaps buy a winter’s worth of firewood.
 USASA The United States Agricultural Safety Administration
 DICT The Department of Interstate Commerce and Trade