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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
Mae arranged to ride along with Dieter past Bismarck and through Rapid City where he met with some business associates. From there, they went through the Black Hills and westward. They stopped outside of Gillette, Wyoming. Dieter made some phone calls and they waited for four hours at a diner at the base of a highway exit. They sat across from each other, hardly speaking, Dieter getting up and going outside to smoke every twenty minutes. After his tenth trip, Mae, overcome with boredom, decided to break the ice.
“So what sort of business are you in?” she asked as she stirred her ice cubes with her straw.
Dieter didn’t answer.
“You can tell me. What am I gonna do, turn you in? What would I say? That some old guy named Dieter I met in Minot told me he’s breaking the law?”
Dieter wheezed out another laugh and looked at her with a joyful look in his St. Bernard eyes.
“Come on. I’m bored to tears. Give me something.”
Mae looked at him furtively. “Okay.”
“What are you waiting for?” Dieter asked.
“You know the vice president?”
“Not personally, no.”
“Well I do. As a matter of fact, I know him intimately. Do you believe me?”
“It doesn’t sound like something someone would make up. If it was bullshit, I imagine you’d say that you blew the president.”
Mae laughed. “Want to know something else?”
Mae lifted the straw out of the glass and clasped it between her thumb and index finger, not four inches from the end. She pulled it out of the glass and held it up until Dieter’s eyes sparkled, indicating he understood what she was insinuating. Then she fellated the tip of the straw.
“That figures.” Dieter said in his phlegmy baritone. He started laughing and didn’t stop until it trailed off into another coughing fit.
“Now your turn,” Mae said, turning deadly serious.
Dieter stared at her for what seemed like a minute. Then he grinned. “I’m a broker. I bring together parties who want to buy and sell.”
“Too vague,” Mae retorted.
Dieter looked out the window, watching a car pull into the parking lot of the motel across the road.
“Tell me something interesting,” Mae demanded.
Dieter turned back to her and leaned towards her across the table. “I can tell you this: I’ve seen the soldiers on both sides, up close.”
“And what did you see?” Mae asked in an almost dismissive tone.
Dieter stared at her, unblinking, unflinching, the smell of tobacco wafting off his clothes. His thick, weathered fingers interlocked. His voice darkened. “You’re going to lose.”
Mae released the straw into her tumbler and leaned back into her seat, giving no response.
Dieter turned to the window. “My associates have finally arrived,” he observed. “I need to go meet them.”
They left the diner and crossed the road to the motel parking lot. Dieter opened the door to his car and let Mae in. He instructed her to wait there while he met with his ‘associates’ in the motel room.
It was hot and after thirty minutes the smell of gasoline wafting in from the cans stored in the trunk became unbearable. She got out to get some air. She leaned on the fender and smoked a cigarette, listening to the muffled voices coming from the room. One voice bore the hint of a Slavic accent, maybe Russian. That would just be my luck, she pondered, busted traveling with an arms dealer. Knowing she had no alternative transportation, she stepped out of earshot of the motel room in order to preserve plausible denial in the event they were detained and interrogated. She pondered dialing the secret service phone, but thought better of it.
It was windy and bright and the sky was a white haze of contrails. Squads of helicopters moved east to west. She looked up to the highway overpass. A fleet of semis, painted tawny camouflage, rolled past on their way west. Then she saw trailers hauling three 155mm artillery pieces each, with their barrels corked like champagne bottles. Then trailer after trailer of drones, folded up and shrink-wrapped like mammoth insects morphing in their cocoons. Then came refrigerated trailers with potato chip and grocery store logos emblazoned on their sides, grills and windshields louvered in steel as protection from projectiles. The caravan continued: flatbed after flatbed, each with at least fifty camouflaged portable toilets strapped in tightly, every plastic shithouse adorned with the face of a smiling koala bear—the logo of Sherman’s Toilet Tissue. Then a motorcade of officers driving matte brown Lincolns with gold stars on the hood, sparkling chrome spinner wheels and tinted windows. Then caterers and sporting goods vans hauling workout equipment. Then embedded AmericaOne media trucks with satellite dishes fixed to their roofs. Then an army recruiter’s van with the picture of a teenaged Latino and an Asian girl and a Caucasian transgender, each dressed in combat fatigues, M4s slung on their shoulders, locked in one another’s embrace as if they were posing for a selfie at an amusement park. “Be All That You Can Be!” Then mobile fast food restaurants—Pizza King, Tacodobe, Burger Hut. Then a Humvee with its turret manned by a bloated, forty-something man, too fat for his Kevlar which rode up to his double chin. The parade rolled past Mae as she smoked a cigarette, watching in curious disbelief. A truck hauling camouflaged golf carts. Another with communications arrays. And another with plastic coffins, featuring Sepulcorp logos, stacked upright. A tiny sliver of cognitive dissonance crept into Mae’s brain as she exhaled and the hot wind dissolved the blue smoke. Then the civilian busses, filled with teenaged faces peering out, conscripts dressed in brown hues, some wearing their helmets, others just wearing looks of fear. One catcalled Mae as his bus blew past. She took another long drag and sensed the nicotine cooling her nervous system. So many young faces in the busses stared back, most grim, expressionless. Boys and girls sent by old men off to war. Boys concerned about their acne and trying to lose their virginity and girls that looked as if they were inducted the morning after prom. All the materiel that rolled past before those busses, the corporate-sponsored hardware and supplies, the military technology, the officers in their air conditioned luxury…Mae laughed at it. The parade of DC’s toys and tech had rolled into theaters of war before, like Shariastan, only to be rendered useless once the enemy had dug in. The foreign wars were sanitized into a reality television show for Dumfukistan to watch on their 100-inch televisions made in China. The real war, however, was not for public consumption. Despite all the technological advances, the soldiers still had to do the real fighting. And if it came to that, Mae thought, then by the looks of those kids in those busses, maybe Dieter was right.
She also saw the civilian vehicles that were streaming the other direction, a bumper to bumper caravan from the west, loaded to the hilt with possessions stuffed into plastic totes and garbage bags. Pickup trucks crawled along with wind-rippling, bungee-corded tarps covering household things. Sport utility vehicles towed laden trailers. A Subaru passed with a grandfather clock sticking half way out the back window. Another car towed a washing machine and a refrigerator on a trailer. Car windows framed confused children’s faces. A panting family dog sat on a driver’s lap. A Toyota went by with a leather sofa strapped precariously on the hood. Grandmother napped in her wheelchair in the back of another pickup, arm resting on a big screen TV. Cars passed with bumper stickers professing their faith in this republican or that democrat or Jesus or “coexist” or some football team or alumni or veteran status. None of those ideas mattered anymore. The only thing that mattered was getting away from the civil war that was closing in on their hometown like a forest fire, feeding on the fuel of Americana, turning it into ash. The motel door finally opened and only Dieter emerged, his rotund body waddling out of the darkened room. He went straight to his car without so much as a glance in Mae’s direction.
“All done?” Mae shouted from near the road.
“Yes,” he answered, without making eye contact and opening his door. Mae dropped her cigarette, walked back and got in on the passenger side.
“Where to now?” she asked.
“We’ll drop you off next. It’s seven hours away if we don’t run into any traffic jams.” He gestured to the stream of traffic on the road.
“Where are all those people going?” Mae asked.
“Away from where?”
“Away from Bozeman would be my guess.”
“Feds are committed to clearing Doc out of there. But it’s not going too well for them. Doc is dug in with numbers…local militia, Continentals. I hear even some guard units. It’s street to street fighting, a real messy, bloody operation. Civilians are getting the hell out of there.”
“Refugees,” Mae observed.
Dieter pulled out of the lot and they drove under the highway and south on 59. Crossing the windswept steppe of Wyoming and through the Thunder Basin National Grassland, approaching Cheyenne four hours later as the gray thunderheads boiled on the western horizon. The connected back onto I25 but, just as Dieter had feared, their progress was halted by a traffic jam just a couple miles from the I-80 interchange. Dieter pulled off onto the shoulder and shut down the engine to save gas. To their left, across the highway, stood clusters of residential streets lined with mid-century houses and white church steeples poking through clusters of cottonwoods and spruce. To their right lay the Cheyenne Country Club nestled securely within the sprawling Francis E. Warren Air Force Base. Crowding the edges of the fairways was an ocean of white tents and FEMA trailers hemmed off from the course by a six-foot chain link fence capped with razor wire.
They sat in the car, in the heat, breathing in the fumes of the gasoline cans stored in the trunk, now half gone.
“Mind if I smoke?” Mae asked.
“It’s probably a good idea if you did that away from the car a bit.”
Mae got out and walked twenty steps away. She managed to light her cigarette in the wind with some difficulty, then studied the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of civilians packed into the camp. And then people on foot began to pass her on the shoulder. First one, then two more, then more and more after that. She stepped back to make way for the silent horde, the undead, marching because their cars had run out of gas, burdened with what remained of their things that they could carry, going willingly into the concentration camp ahead because it was preferable to dying of thirst or starvation on the road. The first of the walkers were men, sweating in the sun, hunched over by their overloaded packs. Then came the families with children and babies. She saw whimpering toddlers, forced to walk as they were too heavy to be carried the entire way. Then crying infants, one with a diaper soiled through, clinging to her exhausted mother who had yellow shit running down her shirt. Few were dressed for traveling any distance on foot, adorned in their worn sneakers, t-shirts with football team and beer logos, sweatpants and spandex, baseball caps and designer sunglasses to thwart the searing sun. “Do you have any water?” one asked Mae. Even if she had wanted to help him, if she were to give him water, the horde would see it and mob her like a pack of zombies. She replied to his request with a silent exhale of cigarette smoke.