Balance of Power
by Enak Nomolos
Copyright 2022 by Enak Nomolos
    This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places  
    and incidents either are products of the author’s  
    imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance  
    to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead,  
    is entirely coincidental.  
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Copyright 2021 by Enak Nomolos
Part 1
....... ...... ......
   You cannot forever escape from the storm;  
   you must learn to stand up to it.  
    Mehmet Murat Ildan  
   The world will not be destroyed by those  
   who do evil, but by those who watch them  
   them without doing anything  
    Albert Einstein  

"You've gone through everything?" Gibson asked.

"There wasn't much to go through." Allison replied. "He was wearing jeans, shirt, underwear and shoes and socks. One sock was some kind of medical thing, I believe. It was on the left leg. And a belt. Pocketknife, a set of keys. And that card in one of the shirt pockets." "And the medallion. Looks like that and the card ar the only clues we have. Let's see what his body can tell us."

"He's not dead, is he?" she asked.

"No. Figure of speech. Aside from being unconscious, he seems quite healthy. Let's have a look."

The guards inspected their badges and they went into the room. On the table a rather ordinary body of an adult male was on display. They stood beside it, looking it over. Allison took the chart down and looked at it.

"Adult male caucasian." she said. "Five eight, hundred sixty six pounds. Age estimate between fifty-five and sixty-five. Good physical condition, suggesting an active life-style and good diet. Aside from hair and eye color, that's about it."

"I told them to just give us the basics." Gibson said. "Get a couple of nurses in here, we'll want to examine the body thoroughly. And get a good picture of that medallion and card, get a search going."

He surveyed the body from head to toe while she tapped and swiped her phone a few times.

"Let's have a look." he said as she finished. "You said a medical sock on his left leg?"

"Yeah, like old people with varicose veins wear, I think."

Gibson leaned over and examined the leg for a few moments, then looked at the chest.

"What is it?"

"Scar on the upper inside thigh." he said. "A faint scar running down the chest, from throat to navel almost. I'd say he's had open-heart surgery. In the past couple of years, most likely. Sometimes they take a vein from the leg, there. Afterwards the impaired circulation causes swelling in the leg. You can see the left leg is a little larger, the ankle doesn't narrow as much."

"Fifty-five to sixty-five." Allison said. "Probably on the high side, if he's old enough to have a heart attack. Statistically anyway."

"I'd guess the higher number." he said. "Maybe even older. He's in good condition physically, and some people look a lot younger than their age."


"My brother-in-law is about nine, almost ten years older than me." he said. "Sometimes I think I look older."

The two nurses stood waiting just inside the door. Gibson moved aside and motioned them over.

"Let's turn him over and and see what the other side looks like. See if he's had any more adventures. Do you know how much longer he'll be out?"

"Dr. Glover could tell you." one of them said. "Want me to check?"

"Give Allison his number." Gibson said. "We'll need to have him available."

One of the nurses gave her the number and she added it to her phone. Then they turned the body over and stood back.

"Nothing to see here." Gibson said. "He looks naturally fair-skinned, Irish maybe. He's apparently spent most of his life in the outdoors, a lot of it shirtless. Fairly dark all over, even in the middle, but lighter there and on the legs. He could be a construction worker for all that tells us. They've completed a thorough search of the area?"

"Out to a hundred yards, except in the direction of the river. He was near the bank. Used metal detectors, nothing. Not a lot of traffic in the area."

"All right. Let's make sure the fingerprints and DNA samples are on the way, along with the photos. Then we'll see what we can dig up on the card and medallion."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Let's see what we have."

Gibson dropped the keys and knife on the desk, then placed the card and medallion beside them. The card was a plain white business card with four lines of text:


He opened the knife and examined it. It was a simple knife with a single locking blade, a common type. The handle scales appeared to have been made from a multi-layered material, he layers being burgundy and what was probably once white. The bolster was something resembling brass, and it didn't look especially expensive. 'Frost Cutlery' was embossed on the blade shoulder.

The keys appeared to be for any number of common locks, either for doors or padlocks. None appeared to be new.

"Check into Frost Cutlery." he said. "This knife looks like something fairly common. We'll have our lock people see what they can learn from the keys. That leaves with the card and this."

He picked up the medallion. It probably wasn't properly called a medallion, as medallions were normally round. This one was in the shape of a shield, the shape of the usual depiction of a medieval knight's shield. It was divided into four sections, with the upper left containing a large letter "M", and the lower right a "C". The upper right contained an oak tree, and the lower left a torch. Although small, about the size of a silver dollar, it was finely detailed.

Allison finished her message to research and looked up.

"What's the card about?" she asked.

"If I had to guess," he said, "and at this point about all we can do is guess, it's a one-time pad message."

"Want me to send it to cryptology?"

"For all the good it will do, yes. Send them a copy, actually. We'll need to have the card itself analyzed.

"You don't think they can do anything with it?"

"You know what a one-time pad is?"


"It's the only known unbreakable code. As long as you follow a couple of simple rules, messages can never be broken."


"Yeah. And given the circumstances, it could be nothing more than random garbage. Meaningless, to waste our time. Or an actual message to be delivered somewhere, but only he can tell us where, I suppose. Unless he was to meet someone. Same with running down the knife and keys. But we'll send it over go crypto and see if they can do anything with it."

"So what do we have?"

"Maybe this." he said, holding up the shield. "Check out the initials MC anyway. You never know. But I suspect someone is playing an elaborate game here. And if so, something big is probably riding on it."

"Any suspects?"

"Again, if I had to guess, I'd say the Northern Alliance. There are some diabolical minds up there. The Republic are a pretty straightforward bunch. They infiltrate, spies and saboteurs, and do a lot of damage. But the Alliance, they have plots within plots. And sometimes when you think you've peeled away all the layers, you still just have an onion. A smaller onion, for all the work."

"So unless fingerprints or DNA give us something..."

"About it." he said. "And if he has a lot of relatives, and they're all on the other side, not much help. I want to think that shield is important, but it may be another red herring."

"So if the whole thing is just an elaborate lure to send us on one or more wild-goose chases..., well, we do have someone in custody. See what he knows when he wakes up."

"Yeah, and maybe he's someone who was abducted, drugged an left there for a distraction."

"We are spending a lot of time and resources on it."

"That we are. Want to get some lunch?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The cafeteria was always full. As were the hotels, the streets, the parking lots. DC was of course the center of activity. And with nearly half the country behind enemy lines, much of the military and federal law enforcement resources from those areas was now concentrated in the remaining area. Except those that hadn't gotten out. Those that had been overrun quickly in the early stages had left many personnel in rebel hands. Codes had to be replaced, resources moved, and personnel reassigned.

Still, it was better being in DC, Allison thought. Safer anyway, and as yet none of the privations being experienced outside. At least not as many. Some things were in short supply everywhere, with the corridor between the coasts blocked with the loss of Kansas. She wondered what was going to happen. Gibson didn't try to hide his pessimism for her. She wondered how he was in the meetings she did not accompany him to.

The food situation certainly was getting worse. There were no shortages here, but there was not much variety. Lunch was usually soup and salad, and the breadsticks seemed smaller each time. She knew there were food riots in some of the cities, and wondered how long this could last. In the Republic and Alliance territory, if the videos they saw were to be believed, people were living a life unchanged from before. And having access to other information she believed them.

"How long do you think it will take for an ID?" she asked. "Assuming one can be made."

"If they make him, it'll be soon." Gibson said. "Either they get a match on DNA or fingerprints, or they don't. If they do we'll have something to work with, maybe. If not..."

"The absence of clues, other than what we have, has to be deliberate." she said. "Without an ID, or possibly even with one, those are all we have."

"During the second World War," he said, "the Allies planted a corpse in military uniform with a briefcase containing misleading information about a military operation, where it would be found and handed over to the Germans. They went to great lengths to make it convincing, placing personal effects and items such as theater ticket stubs and hotel receipts on the body. It was quite an elaborate plan, and it worked."

"And this is the exact opposite. As if the body was carefully sanitized, except for the knife, keys, card and medallion. So we've, apparently, been handed the bait to trap with no way to get to the trap? Unless we get an ID ties him to something, or one of the pieces of evidence leads somewhere..."

"What?" Gibson asked.

"Why did they leave that compression stocking on? Without it, we might have noticed the swollen leg, but not thought anything of it. It led you to look for the surgery scars. I don't know what it might mean, but it seems to have been deliberate."

"I suppose so. We still don't know how he got here. Apparently by way of the river, as the area was not easily accessible by a ground vehicle. And why dump an unconscious person, unless he is supposed to do something once he's awake?"

"Infiltrator?" Allison asked. "He brought nothing with him, no weapons or other equipment."

"That would suggest that he is the weapon. At least in a manner of speaking. If he gets loose he can probably acquire whatever weapons he needs easily enough. The more reason to find out who he is. If that's of any use."

He looked at his watch.

"Hope you don't mind a late night. Let's get back to the office and see what..."

His phone sounded, an incoming message.

"That's the head shed." he said without looking. "Let's get away from eyes and ears."

Gibson's office was on the top floor. They were alone in the elevator but rode in silence. Even in the most secure building in the Capitol every word was guarded. Once in the office with the door closed he looked at his phone.

"Nothing on the fingerprints." he said. "So probably not former military, government employee, criminal - at least not one that ever got caught. DNA is still processing. If there are no fingerprints available, it's unlikely there is DNA. Unless there's a John Doe in the unsolved category. Which is possible."

"How about photos?"

"That will take a while. Depending on where he's been the past ten, fifteen years. If he was underground for that long, he might not have been in public places much, and may have been disguised when he was. That was probably our best chance, unless he has a close relative we have DNA on."

"Anything else?"

"Let's see. The knife is a common brand sold mostly by mail order in the 80s, there is still a Frost Cutlery, in Tennessee. Which fell to the enemy along with Kansas three months ago. Not that they would have records on every knife they sold, especially forty years ago. The keys fit several types of locks typically used in residential and institutional door locks. I do have to wonder why they were there."

"A signal?" she asked

"Possibly. The whole thing, if it has an actual tactical purpose, is quite diabolical. And there are some diabolical minds over there. Both in the Republic and the Alliance."

"I wonder if our man is the owner of one of those minds."

"What do you mean?"

"You mentioned Tennessee and Kansas. There was an operation, Operation MacGyver. I was in the Chicago office before I came here. There was a big fiasco in Tennessee."

"MacGyver. Sounds familiar for some reason."

"Apparently named for a TV show. Ran back in the 80s and again about, I don't know, maybe ten years ago. About a guy who made the impossible easy, knew everything about just about everything. He was always going on secret missions and having to get out of impossible situations. Something like that."

"What was the purpose of Operation MacGyver. There's a guy, we don't know who he is, and even if it's one man. There's a sort of mythos around him, or them. One of his nicknames is MacGyver.

"In the Republic or the Alliance?"

"Both. He supposedly lives in the south, in Arkansas maybe. One of the organizers and leaders of the Insurrection."

"What happened in Tennessee?"

"Tennessee, as you know, was not the primary target. The idea was to take Kansas and cut the country in two, which it did. Tennessee looked like an attainable target, and would also serve to divide the force available to protect Kansas."

"They screwed up pretty good." Gibson said. "Attempting to save Tennessee probably ensured we would lose both. Not that we had much of a chance anyway."

"It was pretty much a lose-lose situation. But the Republic was interested in being sure Tennessee fell, so they put some operatives in to help the partisans. Operation MacGyver was an attempt to neutralize him, if capturing him was not possible. They located him, but not in time. It was only after the attacks went down, they located him as he was attempting to egress through Mississippi. Apparently the way he came in."

"I remember that part." he said. "They almost got him. He crashed the roadblock in a big farm tractor or something. Had a woman with him. Word is they got shot up a little but got away."

"The girl did." Allison said. "We have a couple of ears in there, trying to stay close to him. But ears is all they are. They blend in and listen and get discreet messages back to us, but no operational stuff at all. The information they provide is more useful than any damage they can do."

"As if we can do anything at all. Both the Republic and the Alliance are almost invulnerable to infiltration. While we're so full of holes they barely have to try."

Allison was silent.

"I know." he said. "We're not supposed to say what we all know, lest someone else who already knows hears it. They're about ninety-five percent rebel. The few dissenters fled as their territory fell, and they allowed it. We'd be better off.. sorry. Back to the matter at hand. So you get regular updates on this MacGyver character. Anything useful, regarding the present subject?"

"The last update was that he and the girl - the 'woman' with him was a teenaged girl - were taken to a hospital in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Not far from where he crossed the border. Word is he rescued her from Zulu-6. He was one of the main figures in that operation."

"Just when I was thinking we should find a way to take him out."

"What's that?" she asked.

"If he was involved in taking down Zulu-6 he did the entire world a favor. That was a rogue operation to start with, and only got worse. If they massacred the entire garrison I wouldn't care."

"The almost did. There were only a handful of survivors. They're all at Templeton."

"Good place for them. I saw that report. Over two hundred civilian prisoners, tortured, starved, no medical treatment. What did he want a prisoner for? A take-home project?"

"You might say that." Allison smiled. "Strange as it sounds. He's said to be devoid of emotion. Apparently the prisoners included children, of both sexes. You can guess what they were doing with the kids."

"So he took one home? What for?"

"Apparently, while freeing the prisoners, he found one in especially bad shape. For whatever reason, he took her out and evacuated her in his battle wagon, and they've been inseparable since. Among other things, she can't speak. Or at least doesn't. Whether from mental trauma or physical injury isn't known. Perhaps he isn't so emotionless as reported."

"Perhaps not. Too bad he's on the wrong side. We could use men like him."

She didn't reply.

"We are where we are." he said. "And if we're going to do our jobs we have to get on with it. I'm guessing this MacGyver guy - does he have a name?"

"One of the names we have, it's only a maybe, is Alex Duncan. We don't know if either is a given name."

"So this MacGyver guy, sort of a James Bond type with a slice of Rambo, with some mad scientist and philosopher thrown in, is or may be one or more of any number of operatives who are giving us fits? And is in some way connected to this character?"

"He - or someone believed to be him - has infiltrated several times and done considerable damage, operations big enough they'd send in someone special. And disappeared without a trace."

"Except in Tennessee. And we're sure of that one?"

"It seems so. I'm wondering if he's doing it again."

Gibson was looking at his phone, but though he did not immediately look up his expression showed he understood what she meant.

"You think that's him down there?"

"You said they have some diabolical minds. I wonder if our Alex, or whoever he is, is capable..."

Allison smiled.

"A more important question is, if it is, why. The objective would have to be... something I can't envision extemporaneously. Can you?"

"If it is," Gibson said, "how would we know? If we can't establish his identity, if he tells us that's who he is... as you say, it would have to be something big. I'd rather not think about it, but if you're suspicion is correct, we've got some work to do, fast."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Take a look at this." Gibson said.

Allison walked around the desk and stood beside him. The enormous display of his main computer had a dozen windows open. He clicked the maximize button on one. It showed what looked like a dossier of some type, not in a format she recognized. In the upper left corner of the page they were looking at was a picture of what was almost certainly the man they had examined the previous day.

He was now in a room on the floor below them, a combination prison and hospital. The picture was of a younger man, but almost certainly the one they had. There was a scar above the right eye, now old enough that its cause was not easy to guess. In the photograph it was larger and looked as if it had been caused by something not sharp enough to cut cleanly but rather tore and gouged the skin and flesh away.

"Nasty." Allison said. "Wonder what caused it. Anything in the file?"

"A lot. Including the wound. Fragments from an explosion. He came close to losing an eye."

"So who is he?"

"If our sources are correct, it is indeed one Alex Duncan. Darling of the resistance in the Republic breakaway. As to whether that's his real name, we don't know. Lot of them used aliases still use them. The DNA info should be along soon, but we don't really need it, unless we're interested in his relatives. For now, he's our only interest."

"So this legendary freedom fighter, narrowly escaped our clutches a couple of month ago, has now... " she paused. "I was going to say walked right back into the lion's den, but we don't know how he got here. Did he come on his own? Or did someone deliver him, and if so who?"

"He seems to lead a charmed life." Gibson said. "It's doubtful any of his people delivered him. Our agents are completely passive. The information they provide is more than any service they can render by any activity, such as sabotage or assassination. There are some who are prepared to do it, if and when there is an opportunity with a payoff. So far things aren't going that way. So I would suggest it was a way for him to get deep inside, for something, and we got lucky and found him."

"You think he set it up? Had himself dropped off, nothing to identify him. Where did that dossier come from?"

"Need to know." Gibson said. "But you'd figure out soon enough it came from our agents in the Republic. I know enough to know it's accurate. Or as accurate as they can make it."

"We must have... never mind. I don't need to know. So why does he show up here, nothing to identify him except, apparently, that medallion. I don't know what a common pocket knife would tell us."

"Strange." he said. "I suspect it's part of the bait. I suspect that we will shortly find out what it is, what it means. The question, is our finding out so easily who he is part of the trap?"

"Plans within plans. His reputation seems to be well-earned."

"They do call him MacGyver."

Gibson scrolled through pages, scanning them quickly. Stopped.

"This is interesting." he said. "Early history. Military service."

"Anything interesting?"

"Hmmm.., yeah. Maybe."

He read for a while.

"U.S. Air Force. 1988 to 2000. That's over thirty years ago. This is not official, like someone copied it from the original records. Enlisted in 1988, trained as a translator, Russian, Arabic, Persian - probably for his work - French, German, Spanish. From his duty stations I'd say he was working in listening posts, maybe surveillance flights. They fly around the edges of unfriendly countries - or for that matter friendly ones - recording radio traffic for analysis by intelligence services."

"Must have been pretty sharp." Allison said. "They skim off the top talent for those jobs."

"IQ 256. This is interesting. Diagnosed with Asperger's. Not uncommon in highly intelligent people, sometimes called the 'genius gene'. Apparently his other autistic traits weren't such that they didn't use him in sensitive positions."

"Very high IQ, autistic. No wonder he's so devious."

"Dangerous as well."

"I suspect he's about to be taken off our hands soon in any case." Allison said. "Whatever is done with him is a matter for D section. Our job is to find out who he is. What to do with him out of our hands."

"They'll screw it up, as usual."

"What would you do?"

"Whatever anyone does will probably be wrong." he said. "Unless that medallion gives us some clue. And even then.."

"There is something."

"What's that?"

"If this is the Alex Duncan - and I don't know how to verify he's the one in Tennessee and Zulu-6 - but if he is, there's the girl."

"How's that?"

"According to our sources, they're inseparable. So what's happened to her? They were together in Tennessee, where we lost track of him. But unless she didn't survive - and they were pretty sure they did - would he leave her for whatever he's doing here?"

"It would have to be pretty important."

"From what I understand, he wouldn't leave her."

"You think she came with him? And she's out there. Somewhere."

"Could be. He does sometimes leave her with someone he trusts, and apparently she is comfortable with, for short periods of time. She always knows where he is, and that he'll be back for her. If she's here, I don't know where he could have stashed her."

"If it could possibly make less sense..." Gibson said. "I don't want to know.

"They've been operating as a team for a while now. Almost immediately after he took her out of Zulu-6, as they were egressing in fact, they were located by a patrol while on their way to a safe house. Two locals, highway patrol. From what we were able to piece together, they initiated a traffic stop, intending to take him out in the open, alone. The one who survived -- the girl distracted them enough for Duncan to take him down and disarm him, while she knifed the other one while they were fighting. The report was she put a large knife clean through his neck."

"A teenaged girl?"

"Fourteen, we believe. Named Cassandra. Slight, dark hair. Apparently a holy terror."

"So if they're inseparable, and that's him down there, where is she? She must be near."

"I would think so." Allison said. But he must be close by. So..."

"There anyone here he would trust?"

"It's certainly likely. DC is crawling with spies. As if it ever wasn't."

"I suppose there would have to be." Gibson said. "But how likely it's someone known to us?"

"Not very." Allison admitted. "Anyone deep enough for him to put himself in their hands..."


"What do you think D section will do?"

"Probably the most wrong thing they can. Try to interrogate him. Or they might be smart enough to turn him loose. Keep track of him."

"They'd have to make him think he escaped." Allison said. "Otherwise he'd lead them on a wild-goose chase."

"Or worse, into a trap."

They looked at each other silently for a few moments.

"You thinking of the Blue Springs debacle?" Gibson asked.

"The same."

"He have anything to do with it?"

"There were rumors." Allison said. "Not him specifically, I don't think we even had a name at the time. Just some phantom operator that was credited with all sorts of things, like Zulu-6."

"They captured one of the killers in the Saratoga massacre. One, out of at least twenty by most accounts. He was shot up pretty good, as I remember. Was a couple of weeks before they tried to interrogate him."

"Right. He clammed up, demanded a lawyer. We were trying to do everything by the book then."

"We were?" Gibson asked.

"More or less." Allison said. "At least going through the motions. For the first year or so. Anyway, Zulu-6 was in operation by that time. Naturally they tried the soft touch. Didn't even use drugs at first. They thought they had broken through, made him mistrust his comrades. Since they hadn't made any rescue attempts - their usual practice - they thought he was convinced he had been abandoned. Over a period of two or three weeks, I guess, he seemed to have turned.

"He told them the location of a secret base. At Blue Springs. A remote little place, relatively unpopulated. They confirmed the existence of what looked like an installation of some sort, kept it under surveillance. He told them of the safe routes in and out, warned of traps. It all seemed real. They planned a raid.

"The day before the planned raid, he became violently ill. They thought he had somehow gotten hold of something to harm himself, perhaps a suicide attempt. When the task force rolled out he was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital."

"I seem to have heard something about that." Gibson said. "He wasn't sick at all. When they got him to the hospital he got loose, grabbed a gun from a handy security guard. Disappeared into the hospital grounds, never to be seen again."

"Right. And when the task force rolled into the Blue Springs camp, it was deserted. Or so it seemed. Once they began searching the place, the rebels, hiding in the woods, converged on them and slaughtered them in about ten minutes. And for good measure absconded with the vehicles and weapons. None of which have been seen since."

"The idiots shouldn't have gone with the raid. Didn't even reassess before moving."

"Think it could have been him?"

"Who knows? I wouldn't think so, but it's the kind of thing he would do. He or someone like him."

"I don't like the idea of being more than one of him out there." Gibson said. "I don't like there being only one. If we don't get any more info in twenty- four hours, we'll turn him over to D Section. With a strong warning about what he may be capable of."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Hey Cass, take a look."

Jessica Marshall turned the computer screen slightly so Cassandra could see it. She used the mouse to copy a block of what looked like random text from a box and moved it to a blank box beside it, clicked to paste it in. She clicked a button and a legible message appeared.


"That's our contact in Olympus." she said. "Alex is inside. We'll see what D Section does next. We doubt they'll let him go right away - they'll almost certainly interrogate him for a while, and what they do after that depends. Either way, we should see him soon."

Cassandra was expressionless, but her dark eyes showed worry.

"It'll be all right," Jessica said, gently touching Cassandra's cheek with her fingertips. Cassandra never spoke, but whether her condition was a mental condition that might someday change she did not know. Alex had not known either.

She shut down the computer and removed the USB stick it had been booted from. The stick was on a chain, which she placed around her neck, the stick hidden under her blouse. She booted the computer from its internal drive, which was sterile as far as any forensic examination might show.

"Let's go for a drive." she said. "We need a break."

While Cassandra went to her room to get ready Jessica placed a small tablet and a pair of phones into a briefcase, along with a Beretta 92X and a belt pouch with two spare magazines. A couple of flash-bangs and a pair of custom gas grenades they had brought with them. A Beretta Px4 Storm went in a cross-draw holster on her belt, with a pair of spare magazines on the other side. Cassandra had one like it. The day was cool enough to wear windbreakers to conceal the weapons. Finally a small dagger was strapped to her left leg, upside down above the ankle. Cassandra had one of those too, and was quite good with it.

She returned just as Jessica was finishing. Her long black hair contrasted startlingly with the white satin jacket she was wearing. Jessica thought she became at little more beautiful each day. Since the first time she had seen her, on the floor frantically clasping Alex around his knees when she thought he was leaving her, she had seen Cassandra as much a part of her as if she had been her own child.

She still did not speak, and Jessica could not guess whether she eventually might. The physical injuries she had from the hellish prison camp, where Alex had found her, should not have accounted for it, and Jessica guessed it was mental trauma. But she was willing to leave Alex for a while now, with someone he trusted and had earned her trust, and had accompanied her on the drive from Arkansas.

"Ready?" she asked.

Cassandra nodded. She was dressed for action as always - black twill pants and a light mock-turtleneck long-sleeved t-shirt. Black as well - in the darkness she could shed the jacket and vanish in the shadows.

"Let's go then." She paused at the front door and surveyed the area outside the house. The safe house was a modest dwelling in a quiet Alexandria neighborhood. It had been in use for over a year, but was occupied most of the time by a placeholder agent whose only job was to alert his employers if the place seemed to be under suspicion or surveillance.

The neighborhood was quiet, and Jessica and Cassandra walked out to the car, which was parked outside the garage. The doors were almost always closed, and the objective of leaving the car outside was to have Jessica and Cassandra visible when they walked out. Jessica carried the briefcase and had a medium- sized cross-body bag. Cassandra carried a small clutch purse and looked at her phone as she walked, giving the appearance of a typical teenager with her mother.

Pausing before entering the street, Jessica made a call. She recognized the voice, but that was only half safe. She gave a fake cough.

"Sorry." she said. "Can you hear me?"

"Stonebridge Realty." said the voice. "How can I help you?"

"Stone... oh, sorry. Hit the wrong number. This is Dorothy Harris, I was calling someone else."

That meant their escort was nearby, and would join them. She knew the car, and watched the mirror as she drove towards Route 66, about two miles away. If all went well, he would fall in behind them shortly. Cassandra sat calmly, looking out the window.

Within a couple of blocks Jessica saw a dark grey Lincoln Aviator behind them. It moved to within a couple of hundred feet and she saw that the front license plate was dark blue with a white diagonal stripe across the middle. The plate would have been installed after her call. Its absence would indicate that her confederate had been compromised.

On Route 66 she headed west towards Winchester, about an hour away. She checked for her tail, which stayed back with a few cars between them.

"The grey Lincoln is our friend." she told Cassandra. "Just before Winchester we'll turn off towards Stephens City. A small town where we have a presence."

A 'presence' was a very secure resistance enclave. They were used for missions requiring the utmost secrecy and security, while being close to the objective of the mission. A small rural community over an hour from DC, with the most reliable support, was essential to the mission. The little town of Stephens City was an ideal location, given that a League member of considerable financial means was based nearby. The airport in Winchester, just a few miles away, provided discreet connections to Republic territory.

Traffic was light compared to pre-war times. Shortages of almost every essential resources and the general fear most people had of going out in public unnecessarily made even the area around the nation's capital seem empty. Before long they were entering the small town, their escort closing to follow them into the parking lot of a convenience store with gas pumps. Jessica noticed that several of the pump handles were covered with plastic shopping bags, as if they were out or order or out of gas. These days it was generally the latter.

They parked at the edge of the parking lot with no other vehicles nearby. The driver of the Lincoln parked beside them - Cassandra noticed that there were four people in it, all adult men. Jessica took out her phone and made a call.

"Redhawk here."

"Did you bring any beer?" Jessica asked.

"Negative. They were all out."


She put her phone away and gave a small wave to the occupants of the Lincoln. After a few minutes it left and a four-wheel-drive pickup truck entered the lot and waited for Jessica to follow. After a short drive they arrived at what looked like a small farm, with one large house and two smaller ones, along with several outbuildings scattered around the five acres or enclosed by a fence, surrounded by open land.

Jessica parked her car beside the truck and she and Cassandra got out. The driver of the truck and a passenger came over to meet them.

Both were men who looked to be in their thirties, possibly early forties in the case of one. Both were dressed casually in the denim jeans and khaki shirts common among League people.

"I'm Ethan," the driver, the younger of the two said, "and this is Adam. It's good to meet you at last."

"Good to see you too." Jessica said. "And this is Cassandra."

They had been briefed and were aware of Cassandra's condition, and both nodded a greeting.

"Come on in." Ethan said. "We're about to have lunch."

Inside, a small group was assembled in the dining room. Jessica recognized Matt Corbett and his partner Kate Stuart, who had met them at the airport two weeks earlier and driven them to the safe house in Alexandria.

"This is Bill and Linda," he said, indicating an older couple. "That's Grant over there, and Brian." He indicated the two young men across from each other at one end.

Bill and Linda Portis were in their early forties, Jessica knew. Their 400-acre farm had been in the family for generations, but had not been a working farm for many years. Much of it was covered by forests planted by Bill's grandfather, and a couple of small lakes occupied some more of it. There was about forty or so acres of crops, and a small livestock operation, used for supplying the family and visitors.

Lunch was a local product, a beef brisket and vegetables grown on the farm, even the bread was made as needed from a supply of wheat which was, Linda noted, a declining supply acquired a couple of years before. All agricultural products being produced in the territories still a part of the Union, as the part of the country that had not broken away was called, was the property of the federal government and distributed as it saw fit.

"I don't know how much longer we'll be able to produce food here." she said. "The shortages of just about everything are getting worse, and it won't be long before they find a way to confiscate gardens. We're likely to be a target, as ours is fairly large. And with Kansas gone..."

Kansas had fallen just seven months ago to the combined forces of the Northwest Alliance and the Republic, and all traffic between the eastern and western parts of the Union was cut off.

Alex had been part of that, going in on with an advance team to coordinate the partisan attacks on the transportation infrastructure. Dozens of railroad bridges were destroyed, and with a couple of major overpasses on I-70. Bridges on the highways that could have been used to bypass the broken interstate were also demolished. Already unable to defend the vital corridor between east and west, the Union had no hope of rebuilding it. Kansas was a write-off. And now the combined forces of the Alliance and the Republic were preparing for the death-blow.

"D.C. is now the corner the rat has fled to." Bill said. "In the past, the contingency plans were for a massive disaster, all at once. Like a nuclear war, giant meteor, whatever. They had plans for keeping the President, Congress, and key personnel safe, either in D.C. or at alternate locations if they could move them in time.

"They weren't worried for a long time, and most still aren't. Or weren't until we took out Kansas. Now it's too late. Even if they started moving people now, there's no coherent strategy, no preparations, and not enough brain-power to create one. It's all extemporizing now. And with the usual incompetence. We are in a position to finish them off, or soon will be."

"How does Alex fit in?" Jessica asked.

"We asked him because he's the best. This won't be easy. But Alex, and Sam MacGregor, and the best operators from both the Republic and the Alliance are on our side, and the Union has nothing near their abilities. The federal LE and intel agencies had been wrecked by years of political meddling, and the social engineering and subversion to minions of the despotic state eliminated any quality personnel. That's made our job easier - I'd hate to go up against the FBI, CIA, and other agencies of the '70s, even the '80s. But stupid people who think they're smart are limping out of the gate when there's any resistance."

"As I understand it," Jessica said, "we plan to take and secure the entire nerve center - the White House, Capitol Hill, and everything within a considerable radius."

"Right." Bill said. "The radius depends on resources, but at this point it looks like we'll be able to control - and this will be determined by things like the street layout, where we can set up defensible barriers, and so on - an area up to a couple of miles out."

"We have the resources for that now?" Jessica asked.

"Easily. With considerable reinforcements waiting to come in. Taking Tennessee was important, even though it was something of a side project when they took Kansas. The Union couldn't even hold Kansas, but they had to try. That meant they let Tennessee go without a fight. We can now stage the reinforcements in east Tennessee, over four hundred miles closer."

"I know Alex said they were considerable. We didn't have much time to talk about it."

"They are that." Bill said. "The Republic has managed to put together a considerable air force. Over two dozen helicopters that can carry ten to twenty troops, and around four hundred paratroopers waiting. Given that one of ours is easily worth a dozen or more Union men, it's probably a bit of overkill."

"Alex says there's no such thing as overkill." Jessica said.

"And he's right. In this case anyway, we can't afford to take chances, and the enemy deserves no mercy."

"Do we have any idea what kind of regular military strength they have, in and around the D.C. area?"

"That's the interesting part of the situation," Bill said, "and will be to historians, if they get it right. But considering the direction of society...

"Stop me before I get philosophical." he said. "As you know, when this started the armed forces were already in the worst shape, relative to any likely threat, since before Pearl Harbor. They had the Army down to under a million, guard and reserves included. They only maintained enough force to meddle in foreign affairs they had no business being in, and in that were generally reduced to supplying money and hardware, and inciting the few in the European cabal who were willing to contribute to pitch in. The new order they envisioned was pretty low-budget."

"Given that they had all been bankrupt for decades," Jessica said, "they had little choice."

"Exactly. The one thing they never saw, couldn't see, was an actual insurrection. No matter how far they pushed."

"None of them are very intelligent." Jessica said. "Alex jokes that you'd have trouble finding any of them, the presidency, Congress, any of them, with an IQ above room temperature."

"Not much of an exaggeration. I suspect few are more than a couple of points above average. The opposition had some smart people, but they were already reduced to insignificant numbers before they made their power grab. But personality is a big part. They have all the worst traits - narcissism, egocentrism, vindictiveness - in one nasty package.

"In any case, even with the forces at a reasonable strength it would have been useless against the partisan forces, upwards of thirty million. And when the League of Freeholds crippled the country with their campaign, the best they could was try to hold on to a piece of it. The Republic quickly secured the southeast - that was where their strength was concentrated - and the Northwest Alliance did the same with most of the northwest. What was left was the most undesirable part. The big cities with their massive non-productive population, which quickly became a bigger problem with the shortages and outages."

"I didn't have a lot of time with Alex when he got back from Kansas," Jessica said, "so I'm not clear on what he'll be doing."

She glanced over at Cassandra, who was quietly listening.

"Pretty much what he did in Kansas. Coordinating, advising. The partisans here are of necessity more seasoned than those in the hinterlands, where hiding and evasion are easier. But we need experience in operations, like Alex and Sam. We're pretty good at hiding and evading, but on the technical end we could use some help."

"I see. Makes sense. You know Cassndra insists on going with him?"

"Yeah. Alex gave us the rundown. Seems like you can take care of yourself pretty well," he said to Cassandra.

She smiled shyly. And always a little sadly, Jessica thought. Still, she smiled, and it seemed to indicate genuine happiness. She hoped so, but nothing could change the fact that what this not yet fifteen-year-old girl had endured had not only scarred her emotionally as it had, but had made her a killer. A killer who not only would defend herself with the maximum available force as a first resort, but went looking for enemies to kill.

What hope was there for a normal life when this was all over? For that matter, she thought, what hope is there for me? I have a lot of blood on my hands, even if most of it is from enabling others to kill. She had actually only killed one person - a hapless highway patrolman who didn't manage to get out of the job when it turned him into an accessory to the murders of enemies of the state.

Not so hapless perhaps, she thought. We have choices to make and making the wrong one out of fear does not make it less wrong. 'Integrity without courage is rather useless', Alex had told her. And it was.

"Jessica." Bill said.

How long had she been woolgathering, she wondered.

"Sorry, went thinking somewhere and got lost."

"Easy enough to do these days." Bill said. "Too much to think about and not enough time. Grant and Brian have some things to show you down at the armory. We'll keep an eye on things here."

Grant and Brian got up, as did Matt and Kate.

"We're going to make the rounds," Matt said, as he and Kate got up. "We should be back in an hour or so."

"We've got pretty good camera coverage," Grant said, "and some small low-flying drones keeping an eye on areas not in direct sight of the house. And intrusion alarms where we need them. But we do regular patrols on the ground, as they can miss plenty. This way."

They followed Matt and Kate to where several golf carts were parked. Matt and Kate departed in one while Jessica and Cassandra joined their guides in another.

Just outside the fenced area were several large metal buildings of the type used on farms for storing farm equipment, worksshops and other needs. Grant g parked near the entrance to one of them and they entered through a personnel door. Inside they passed through a maze of stacked crates, barrels, and machinery into a large open area. At one end stood a half dozen silhouette targets, all of which had been shot a number of times.

"Brian, if you want to put up some new targets we'll show our friends some new toys." Grant said.

While Brian took a stack of fresh targets to the stands Grant led them over to a group of tables. Various types of weapons lay there, some of them of unusual design. Grant picked up what looked like a short-barreled shotgun and handed it to Jessica.

The first thing she noticed was that it had four barrels. She had heard Alex speak of something similar but had never seen one.

"We got these from your folks." Grant said. "It opens like a regular break action shotgun. Just has twice as many barrels as an ordinary double barrel."

Jessica broke it open and looked down at the four chambers.

"12 gauge?" she asked.

"Yeah. It's basically a rework of the Winchester Liberator. You've probably seen those four-barrel derringers. The designer made this first. Rotating firing pin, double action. Has the same trigger, makes it easier to work as the pull is a little heavy."

"The ones on the C.O.P. were," Jessica said, referring to the derringer. "The guys who use them had it cleaned up some, so it wasn't so bad. You could actually shoot them fast and hit something, up close."

"That works for some." Grant said. "The four barrels could come in handy, I suppose. But with unconventional weapons there usually aren't really any solutions. Only tradeoffs."

"Alex preferred a compact revolver," Jessica said, "if he needed more shots. He likes those little Charter Arms Undercovers in .38 - he cleans up the action a little, not that it was bad to begin with. Cassandra and I each carry a pair."

"Good little guns." Brian said. He had hung the new targets and rejoined them. "I used to carry a .44 Special version, four inch barrel. Good for cold weather when you wear a heavy coat, you put in in the pocket. I don't know if they make a .44 any more though."

"I believe they do." said Grant. "Or did. They're still based in Connecticut, didn't move like a lot of gunmakers did. I don't know what the situation is these days, and until this situation shakes out no one does."

"Alex has a few custom derringers in .38 as well." Jessica said. "Copies of those double-action High Standards, with longer barrels. He had them made with six-inch barrels so he can put them in some boot holsters. We've shot them a little, with some practice you can do all right at a short distance."

"That sounds interesting." Brian said. "We should get together and talk guns when this over. We're all pretty excited about meeting Alex."

"When this is over I hope we don't have much to do with guns." Jessica said.

"We all hope that someday we can get back to a life of not having to think about them so much." Grant said. "This has made a all of us deal with a lot of unpleasantness."

He couldn't help looking at Cassandra, and she noticed. For her especially, he thought. Maybe someday things can be, if not right, at least not so wrong.

"Ready to give it a try?" Brian asked. "Here you go."

He pushed a .50 caliber ammo can to the edge of the table and opened it. It was full of 12 gauge shells.

"We roll our own," he said. "Red is triple-aught, yellow is double, green is aught. White is number one - there's not much use for the smaller sizes for this purpose. We do make the other sizes though, through number four and point four. Try this."

He handed her four of the white ones. Jessica dropped the shells into the chambers and closed the gun. The targets were about forty feet away. She had practiced shooting from the hip enough to be reasonably good at close range. Forty feet was a little more than she was accustomed to - Alex would have given each target a load in the ten ring in little more than a second per target, using a Mossberg pump with a slug barrel. She had seen him do it more than once.

She assumed a stable stance - Alex had five inches and forty pounds on her. She squeezed the trigger, the gun bucked, but not as hard as she had expected. She quickly swung it to the next target, squeezed again. This time she recovered more quickly and hit the third target, seeing the spray of dots appear in the center of the target, then fired the final shot.

She broke the gun and removed the empty shell cases, handed them to Brian. They walked downrange to examine the targets.

"Not bad." Grant said. "Hit all four, just a little off on the second. First time?"

"With one of these. I've used a regular pump gun, legal barrel. And doubles, coach guns. They're a little heavier. Actually a short double isn't much heavier though."

"Cassandra, you want to try it?" Jessica asked.

Cassandra nodded and Jessica handed it to her. Grant got four more shells and gave them to her. Cassandra had handled double-barrels and loaded and closed it. She moved into position and after a few seconds of assessing the targets, fired four shots almost as quickly as Jessica had, hitting four of the targets.

"Not bad at all." Brian said. Cassandra broke the gun and handed it back.

"I guess we have plans for these." Jessica said.

"We expect them to come in handy in some of our operations." Grant said. "When it goes down, quite a few, probably most, of the targets will be taken down up close. And in almost all cases they'll have heavy security. There probably isn't anyone above the level of a member of Congress or a Cabinet secretary that doesn't have bodyguards 24/7. Usually only two or three at any given time, but we have to get through them to get the job done."

"What are they using?" Jessica asked. "Don't tell me they expanded the Secret Service to cover the entire government."

"They tried. With predictable results." said Brian. "Just as the military is nearly useless due to the low quality of available recruits, the Internal Security Corps, as they call it, has plenty of warm bodies but little in the way of brains or guts. Warm bodies is all they are. Most will probably run from an attack. If we let them."

"I see. But it has to be that way."

"Yeah. Lightning strikes. It succeeds or fails, but it's a one-shot operation."

"Here's another interesting little gadget," Grant said, moving to another table. "This is a shallow steel cylinder, quarter inch thick, six inches deep. Eighteen inches in diameter. A layer of high explosive on the bottom, thermite on top. An igniter is activated by the explosion. Slide one of these under a car and set it off. The explosion alone will practically gut an average sized automobile, and the burning thermite gets plastered on whatever is left."

"Overkill?" Jessica asked.

He grinned. "Ask Alex."

Jessica laughed. "Yeah. Have they been tested, real-world?"

"You heard about the DA in Philly, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I remember. So that's what it was."

"Right. Couple of others. Those were guys who needed to go down now. Simmons was the one who ran the Ahrens operation."

"I can see how he deserved it." Jessica said. "And certainly needed to be removed. People like that are dangerous to leave alive even for a while."

"Yeah. There are lot of people we want to see in the dock with this is all over, but some have done so much damage already it' not right to let them live so long. Or safe. Anyway, with officials of the regime constantly on the move around the city, almost always in automobiles, at any given time we can catch quite a few of them that way. Create a minor traffic jam, guys on motorcycles moving between the cars, slide a pizza box under the car and move on. Before they can react - boom."

"Pizza box? The delivery boys will busy."

"Yeah. We expect to have to go after a few of them while they're on the move. Luckily they haven't had the time or the money to provide armored vehicles for many of them. And if we can't deliver a pizza, we have EFPs."


"Explosively formed penetrator. A shaped charge IED. We can use them the same way as pizza boxes, only we don't have to get so close to the targt. Put it on the side of the road, set it off as the vehicle passes. Has the same effect, only from the side."

"It seems you're well prepared." Jessica said. "Are there any indications they have any idea?"

"None at all." Grant replied. "Aside from not having the resources to do any competent investigation and surveillance, what they're looking at is the decoys. There are quite a few free-lancers - people who were trapped in Union territory and either couldn't, or in most cases, chose not to escape to one of the free areas. And of course we have quite a few ghost operations, existing only in the form of communications intended to be intercepted and leading to dead ends."

"That's encouraging. I hope this will be, if not a conclusion, at least a transition in that direction. Force them to negotiate."

"I suspect it will." Grant said. "If we're successful, there's no way the government can remain in its present form, and it's possible that sanity may prevail."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alex kept his eyes closed and listened. He had awakened in total darkness, and it was a while before he saw light. First from the corridor as the door was opened. Bright light. A presence by the bed. Two of them. Both adults, male. Voices confirmed it.

"He should be awake before long. Once we noticed the implant and removed it, there was only enough of the drug left to keep him out for a few hours."

"How long would he have stayed out if we hadn't removed it?"

"Another day or so."

Four days. If he hadn't been brought in he would have awakened on the riverbank. Not that he wouldn't have been. As soon as he was placed there a message was sent, and a search party was on the way. That they would know he was a plant did not matter. Or that they would soon know who he was. That would increase their interest. Now to run the program.

He hoped his weeks of preparation with the old shaman would pay off. He had little doubt that he could fake memory loss and confusion for a while, but the longer they worked on him the more likely it was he would slip up. And what effect their drugs would have was unknown. Saigwahahu assured him that the uratan transfixion could override any chemicals. There was a lot of test data to indicate it was so, but this was the acid test.

"We know you're awake. Time to get up."

Two men. One in his early to mid forties, the other younger. Thirtyish. Both in suits. Spooks.

He was still naked, covered only by a sheet. A pillow under his head.

"We know who you are, Mr. Duncan. Alex Duncan. In a few minutes clothing will be brought. You can take a shower, shave, brush your teeth, everything you need is in the bathroom there. We would appreciate if if you would do so. If fact we insist. We don't want you smelling like a hospital. We'll be back in a half hour."

Alex looked blankly up at them. No clues as to what they were thinking. Spooks, who knew?

They left and he waited. A few minutes later the door opened again and an orderly in scrubs entered with what looked like a shopping bag. Adam Newman. Must be an upscale store to have paper bags with the name.

When the orderly left he got up and went into the bathroom. Shave. Brush teeth. Better. When possible he would shower twice a day, and brush his teeth as often. Shower. Definitely better. He'd been in a hospital a few times. You get banged up in this business. The heart surgery had been another matter.

He was fifty-two, five-eight and one-sixty-something. Shouldn't have a heart attack, but he did. Wouldn't have been so bad, take a piece of vein out of the leg and fix the heart, few weeks out of action.

Only some idiot stuck a needle in his kidney before he ever got to the hospital to do the surgery. Dye caused kidney failure. Extra days, dialysis, ventilator malfunction. Heart quit too. Twelve minutes.

Not likely to recover, some one told Jessica. Prepare for him to be a vegetable. So off to a rehab facility, see what they can salvage. More stupid doctors. Over a month in what was effectively an induced coma.

Let him wake up and test him dammit. She got to Roger in Amarillo and he rattled some cages. Send a doc. About a week before he could stand, take a few steps in a walker. Another week and he was walking with a cane. Jessica wanted to shoot someone, but even a lousy doctor might be of some use. Sew something up. About all he would be doing now.

He pulled on the new cotton underwear, white athletic socks. They knew so much, they should know he preferred grey. Maybe you can't always get what you want here. Everything in short supply. He debated putting on the t-shirt. There was a long- sleeved cotton shirt, tan. The color he and most of his comrades wore, but a regular dress shirt, just one pocket, no flap. Pants same color. Cotton twill. Not exactly a prison outfit. Wonder how they're going to play this.

He put on the belt and shoes. Brown slip-ons. He was under constant surveillance so no need to worry he would hang himself with the belt. The half hour was about up. There were a couple of chairs, but he preferred not to have contact with anything in the room now that he was clean. He stood and waited. Soon the door opened and his hosts entered.

They had brought a security squad. Six men. Black BDUs, holstered pistols and. Two also carried Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns. Two others had Tasers and two had what he suspected were tranquilizer dart guns. They wanted him alive, but were taking no chances. He waited for them to produce the handcuffs and leg irons. There didn't seem to be any.

"Mr. Duncan," the older one said, "may I call you Alex?"

Alex remained silent, looked at the speaker, did not bother to look at the others.

"We'll go with Alex." he said. "It's more efficient. We need to be efficient. As you can see, you can not escape. Even if you could overpower all of us, the building is full of personnel. You couldn't get off this floor, much less out of the building. And you're in the nation's capital, if you didn't know, which is rather crowded these days. So as we would prefer not to shoot you, tase you, or shoot you with a trank dart, we will not use restraints at this time.

"Is that agreeable?"

Alex remained silent, expressionless.

"We are going to talk now." he said. "My name, by the way, is Albert Perkins. My assistant here is Robert Steele. What we're going to do now is go for a ride. You're on the fifth floor, so we will walk to the elevator. Two men will be in front, you, and we, will follow. So if you're ready.."

Two of the men - one of the tasers and one of the trank guns - took the lead. Albert motioned toward the door and Alex moved, and outside Perkins took a position on his left while Steele walked on his right. It was a short walk to the elevators, and the taser and trank guards got in with them, while the two with the HKs went to another elevator. Downstairs the group reassembled.

"We'll be taking a car from here." Perkins told him. "Through those doors."

The three sets of double doors could have been on any hotel, or a hospital. Alex wondered where he was. Three vehicles waited at the curb. Two Cadillac Escalades, with a Ford Transit between them. The windows of the van were darkly tinted.

Two men guarded the Transit. One of them opened the sliding door.

"Take the back seat, Bob." Perkins said. "Alex, get in the center seat."

Steele drew a Glock G17, a 9mm Alex noticed. If I had to shoot me I'd want a .40, he thought. He suspected many personnel were not comfortable with the .40, preferring the milder recoil of the 9mm. It wasn't as good if you needed a one-shot stop, but they would not have that problem.

Once Steele was in the back, gun in hand, Alex got in and slid over to the left side, guessing that Perkins would ride beside him.

He did, gun in hand. The man in the front passenger seat also held a gun. He keyed the mike on small radio.

"Back door, you ready?" he asked.


"Leader, how about you?"


Alex guessed it was the men in the Escalades. He had seen the men with the Tasers and dart guns get in. The men with the submachine guns would be behind.

They left the city, crossing the Potomac into Alexandria. They were soon headed south on I95, the city thinning as they continued. After about twenty minutes, he guessed - his captors had not supplied a watch - they were on a two-lane road through a wooded area. The motorcade took a side road and finally stopped at a gated estate.

The gate opened as they approached, likely operated by the single occupant of the guard shack. Alex knew there would be other unseen personnel around the grounds. They motorcade traversed the circular drive until the Transit was in front of the entrance and stopped. The men in the escort vehicles got out and assumed positions around the vehicle, one approaching to open the door. They ones with machine guns held them at port arms, the others with hands on their holstered weapons as they waited.

"Security here is at least as good as in town." Perkins said. "May I assume you intend to remain cooperative?"

Alex nodded. He had not yet spoken a word to them, but preferred not to be cuffed and carried.

"Excellent." Perkins got out and waited for Alex, and Steele followed.

"This way." Perkins said, and walked toward the entrance.

Alex followed, Steele behind him. At the entrance a pair of large oak doors opened, two more men in black waited inside. Perkins led the way down a hallway and into a large room, furnished with a large conference table and several chairs.

Four of the handgun-and-taser personnel accompanied them.

'Apparently you think I'm a real dangerous man'. he thought. 'They don't yet know how right they are.'

"Sit down," Perkins said, indicating a chair. It was at the end of the table. Perkins took seats on either side, facing him. Alex maintained his blank stare.

"Alex," he said, "we know who you are. There's no point in denying it. DNA, military records, intel from our people inside the insurrection. Both factions. You've been a busy man. So the question is, why are you here?

"Whatever your people planned, dumping you here in an induced coma - my guess is you're going to play dumb. Amnesia? Don't know how you got here? That's all right. We know how to get what we need. Won't even need to torture you. Not that some of us wouldn't like to. So do you have anything to say before we begin?"

Alex focused on the amphal, the psychic trigger Saigwahahu had implanted. His mind blanked briefly, his native selfness fading like a video transition, and the program began.

"If you're going to begin by telling me where I am and what is happening," Alex replied, "it might help."

"So we do it the hard way." Perkins said. "All right. We expected it, your reputation preceded you. Bob, let's go upstairs. As long as Alex offers no physical resistance, we won't have to introduce any extraneous substances. We don't want any chemical conflicts. Use the tasers first if you have to."

"Let's go." he said. He and Steele got up and waited.

Two of the guards went to the door, and Steele followed. Perkins motioned to Alex and he got up and went with them. Perkins and the other two guards followed.

Alex accompanied the group down the hall to an elevator. Apparently the early twentieth-century house had been remodeled. Exiting the elevator on the second floor he could see the modifications had been extensive. The floor was covered by an plain grey tile, and the walls uniformly grey as well. Institutional LED lights were installed at the usual intervals. The doors had peepholes, but he doubted they were needed. Cameras at each end of the hallway, certainly more inside the rooms.

He noticed that in addition to the keypad for access, the doors had two deadbolt locks. Only after Perkins and Steele had produced a key and unlocked them did Steele enter a code on the keypad.

Alex wondered who else was imprisoned here, with that level of paranoia. He knew of several high-value 'insurrectionists' who might be there. Both the Alliance and the Republic had lost a few agents, and when they disappeared the disappearance was complete. Only occasionally did any information get back.

The room was set up to function as a prison cell with basic medical treatment facilities. A hospital bed, complete with restraints, shared space with a table with cabinets at the back. Likely containing the 'chemicals', he thought, and equipment for application. Two dentist chairs completed the decor. Also with restraints.

"If you'll just have a seat here," Perkins said, indicating one of the chairs, "we'll get started."

Alex seated himself in the chair, placed his hands in the positions for the arm restraints and relaxed. Steele secured his arms and legs.

"The doctor will be with you shortly." Perkins said. He and Steele left the room.

"I don't like any of it." Perkins said. Steele held a tablet displaying a video feed from the inside of the room. "I'm guessing he he's been prepped, somehow, to resist. Is he completely clean?"

"Not a trace of anything since we removed the implant. We've been checking every four hours, last one a couple of hours ago."

"It has to be some kind of mental preparation then." Perkins said. "What could it be? Does Chrysalis have any ideas? That are known to work?"

"Certain drug-hypnosis combinations have been observed to work." Steele said. "But the statistical data is limited, and as for counteracting them - we don't know. And since we don't know what, if anything, was done..."

"There's no way someone - whoever and for whatever reason - abducted him and dumped him there. Apparently what we were meant to believe."

"I would say not. But strange things have happened."

"Strange as this?"

"Not likely." Steele replied. "But they would know that."

"Well, let's get Dr. Manley in there and see if he can get anything."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alex was dreaming again. This time it was old dreams. From the hospital where he had been held captive for over three months. After his heart attack, when the ventilator failed and left him without oxygen for eighteen minutes, and his heart stopped for most of that time. Assuming he was brain-damaged beyond recovery the hospital dumped him in a 'rehabilitation' facility. A long-term acute care hospital. Had its own fancy acronym. LTACH. The medical industry was as fond of acronyms as the military. And the LTACH business, motivated by a carve-out in the federal budget, was busily milking the insurance and Medicare for all they could get.

Having what they thought was a brain-dead body was a rare gift. The only problem was that his brain was completely functional. They had to keep him drugged constantly, and used whatever drugs were handy. Several different anti-psychotics, drugs used for pipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anything to keep him quiescent. He had family then, and his two sisters were there every day. They became suspicious early on, but it took a while for them to get anything done. Finally some serious threats of lawyers motivated them, and a hundred and six days later, the final seven being sufficient physical therapy to enable him to use a walker to get to a car waiting at the entrance, he was free.

The fact that some of the drugs, by design, had effected a chemical lobotomy kept him down for much longer. Perhaps the beginning of the war helped him get moving again, but he believed it was more determination to survive and fight back. By the time Madisonville went down, he was physically and mentally ready. Saigwahahu had told him that a healthy mind, with the proper training, could overcome any man-made obstacle.

This dream he remembered. A hospital bed. Noises from another room. Someone screaming. Someone else shouting. Several someones shouthing. Fear. Anger. There wasn't really another room with people shouting and screaming. It was an alter ego he had created, to offload what was being done to him.

After a while it was quiet darkness. He was trying to determine whether he was awake. In the hospital drug-induced sleep and waking had merged for a time at the transition, whenever the drugs would wear off and have to be refreshed.

He was awake. His last waking memory had been when Dr. Manley and his assistants had entered the room.

"Dr. Mengele, I presume." Alex had said.

Dr. Manley smiled slightly but did not otherwise acknowledge his remark. Alex suspected researchers looked at lab specimens the same way. Even if they happened to be human beings.

An assistant had inserted a needle, and the real world disappeared for...

How long? There was no way to know. Not even a clock to tell the time of day, or night. Much less the date.

There had been a lot of dreaming, but he knew that what seemed like a long dream might occur in a short time.

He wondered what would happen next.

He didn't have to wait long. He was being monitored constantly, and within minutes of waking they would be there. And they were.

"How was your nap?" Dr. Manley asked.

He and his two assistants had entered within minutes of Alex opening his eyes. They were watching closely indeed. He suspected their quest for information using drugs had not gone well.

"Adequate." Alex replied.

"Good. We'd like to discuss a few things, if don't mind. You told us quite a lot, but we would like to see how reliable they are. And since there's no reason not to, we'll apply a little duress, and see how you respond."

Two more assistants were entering the room, pushing a cart with what looked as if it might be medical equipment. He suspected one of them was a TCM device. Transcranial magnetic stimulation. In normal use they could cause pain, he would be unsurprised if this one was modified to serve exactly that purpose.

The cart was moved over to the bed and one of the assistants adjusted the device to the desired position.

"We've made considerable advances with this." Manley said. "I'm sure you know what it is. We can induce pain anywhere in your body we wish, and control the intensity and duration. In your case intensity and duration will be considerable, unless you help us. Understand?"

Alex had no idea what would happen. He was about to experience pain, he was certain. How would he react? He knew he had a high tolerance for pain, and that to a certain degree he could actually, somehow, block it.

Saigwahahu had told him he could, theoretically, withstand any pain through the amphal. He had practiced, and knew it was possible. But practicing was never quite the real world.

Manley made some adjustments, and signaled to the assistant to position the coil. Then he turned to the control panel. Alex could see he was doing something, but....

Suddenly his body was on fire. He felt like he was being cooked in a giant microwave. He focused on the amphal. The pain was there, but he was not reacting. He had been severly burned as a teenager, a burn that literally charred the palm of his hand and the undersides of his fingers. He had not made a sound during the next two hours as his parents drove him to the hospital emergency room, his hand in a bucket of ice cubes which barely reduced the pain, and melted long before they arrived. He lay silently on the gurney as the nurses applied anesthetic and cleaned and bandaged the injury. It still hurt constantly, if at a lower intensity, for the next several weeks. He didn't remember how he had dealt with the pain then, or on other occasions nearly as bad. He simply didn't react in any visible way.

And the amphal concentrated his detachment. He knew the pain was there, but decided not to feel it. Not to react. He felt other sensations. Sharp pains inside, as if he had knives inside him, being moved by an unseen force. He felt as if his internal organs were being cut to pieces, and now being crushed in a vise, now burning again. He didn't know how long it lasted. He was somewhere else, an observer.

His detachment was so complete he was unaware for a while that the pain was gone. He saw the technician place he coil on the table. Manley turned some dials, then turned to look at Alex.

The door opened. Perkins and Steele were there. Both looked grim. Manley walked over, and the three returned to the hallway, closing the door.

"Nothing?" Perkins asked.

"Not a thing. I took it past the point at which he should have passed out. It's like he isn't there, watching himself, and us, somehow isolated from it."

"He knows what's going on, I'm sure." Perkins said. "But could he have been prepared, to this degree? That's some serious conditioning."

"Possibly. We have a handful of anomalies, who don't respond to anything. Even actual physical injury from the... duress. A couple of them died. But there's nothing else to do."

"Except cut him loose." Steele said. "We don't know how much time we have, but if's probably not very much, if he's here. The only way we'll know is to let him get on with whatever the plan is."

"I agree. We'd best get on with it. What's the plan? Do his people have any kind of breakout plan, or are they counting on us doing what we're about to do?"

"I suppose they have some sort of plan, in case we don't let him go. But they know that, if we failed to break him and extract any useful information, we'll have no choice."

"I wonder," Perkins said, "if he knows what the plans are. He's most likely been placed here because of his various abilities, and he could be apprised of the plan after his arrival, once he's free."

"Quite possible. Even likely. In any case, let's get it done. He'll know he's being allowed to escape, no matter how we stage it."

"Of course. Still, it might be a good time to make use of Pelican."

"True." Steele said. "She's about outlived her usefulness in any case, and she might lend a hint of authenticity. Once he knows her status, he may take it as a mistake on our part. And we can track her, at least for a while."

"Depending on how quickly they check. They'll check him immediately, but one of their agents... no, they'll do it immediately. Once they're gone, they're gone. The best we can hope for is that he'll reveal some of their resources before vanishing completely."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jennifer Hardgraves was more nervous than she had ever been, and not only in the past two years as an agent of the Republic. She was certain she had been made some time back, certainly by the time of the 'accident' that had left her in a brief coma, or at least that is what they told her. But the small scar, almost invisible, high on her back below the left shoulder. She found it only because she was looking for it, but it had not been there before.

The problem was that there was no one she could trust to have it checked out. Her control was in McLean, and meetings were infrequent. Knowing it was there, whatever it was, was important. Probably a tracking device, and if she ever had to run for it getting it removed was the first priority. The problem was she was about to have to make that run

She knew she had been made, and when they briefed her she knew she was being set up as well. The question was what for. She had expected to be liquidated at any time, and was preparing for flight. But finding someone to remove the tracker wouldn't be easy. She knew a handful of dissident types, none of whom had been able to help her. And now she had forty-eight hours to prepare for what might be, for her, a suicide mission.

She was going to be under even more scrutiny now, and no way to get it done. She would have to extemporize.

"You'll be escorting a prisoner." Department head Perkins told them. She did not know the other three personnel, which reinforced her suspicion that it was a setup for her, along with the main purpose.

"During the trip a staged escape will occur. Simple enough, a couple of vehicles driven by guerillas will collided with the vehicle carrying our escapee, there will be no fight because the guerillas are our people, so don't shoot anyone, especially the prisoner. It's strictly for public consumption and won't fool anyone, especially the prisoner. But it's the best we can do. They'll drop him at at a certain location and leave him. Then we see where he goes."

It was the stupidest thing Jennifer had ever heard. She wondered who the prisoner was. Whoever it was, they were on the same side. This might be a chance to escape. She wasn't far from disappearing.

"We'll meet here tomorrow, 0800, with the other teams." he said. "Speak to no one about this, now or ever. See you tomorrow."

Jennifer returned to her office, looked at the briefing sheet. Dress in black BDUs, as usual. Taser and issued service weapon. The usual. She didn't think they would do away with her in the middle of an operation, unless...

A staged battle with guerillas. She would be in the van carrying the prisoner. Along with Stinson and Harris, with two people she didn't know - Chism and Middleton - driving and shotgun. OK, the other two vehicles would have, how many? Probably several each, for appearances. So what if there was to be shooting. With her as the target.

She was beginning to feel sick. She had never killed anyone, even shot at anyone. Or been shot at. She couldn't shake the feeling that someone, whether one of the people in the van or in one of the other vehicles, had been assigned to kill her.

And either way, her life expectancy was now down to days. Perhaps a day.

She didn't know Stinson or Harris well, having seen them at briefings only occasionally, never working with them. Both seemed like decent guys, as decent as was possible for a minion of the state. That alone was enough to get them killed, if it was them or her. Men just like them were guarding the thousands of prisoners, most of whom had done no more than make an imprudent remark - especially in the early days - or nothing at all, now that a mere accusation by one person was enough to land one in internment facility. They had made their choice, and she had made hers. If she was going to die she intended to take one or more of them with her.

And she knew something of the fate of those prisoners. Abuse and neglect was standing operating procedure, and for those suspected of possessing useful information there was much worse. Her partners on the morrow would get short shrift.

The best thing to do, she decided, was to hijack the van and escape with the prisoner well before the rendezvous. Which meant almost immediately. She would be spending her last night at her home of the last two years. She looked at the time. Leave early? Everything was risky now, asking to leave early was probably not a good idea.

Mike, her supervisor, saved her the trouble. He came out of his office, holding some folders.

"You've got a busy day tomorrow." he said. "Why don't you take the rest of the day off, be rested and ready."

"Sure, I guess I should. Thanks."

She wondered if he knew what they had planned for her. Like everything, her status was need-to-know, and in her situation even her boss might not know. Or he might know and be feeling guilty, didn't want to see her again.

'The question is, will they make sure I'm disarmed beforehand?' she thought. Her issued 9mm Glock G19, with a pair of spare magazines, had always been with her whenever she was on any kind of business outside the office. She examined it now, unloading the magazines and inspecting the cartridges. All looked normal, and it hadn't been out of her custody in months. She couldn't remember if it had been since her last range session. Probably not, but...

The master bedroom had a private bath. Inside the bathroom she would be nearly in the center of the house, at least three doors between her and the outside. She went into the living area and got a cushion from the couch. It seemed somewhat denser than a bed pillow. Taking her gun and the cushion into the bathroom, she closed the door.

Where? The floor was wood, the bullet would end up in the crawl space. She pressed the muzzle of the Glock into the cushion, folded it back to enclose the gun. Fired.

It was loud, but she could tell that the cushion had muffled it somewhat. Probably it wouldn't be heard outside the house even without the cushion, but best to be safe. She checked the gun. It had ejected the cartridge and chambered another. Good. She went out and composed herself, prepared to appear innocent and ignorant if anyone had heard it and came to check.

No, I didn't hear anything. I had my earbuds in.

She needed a drink, but better not to. Keep an edge on, Enoch had told her.

'OK, the most likely plan is for me to be killed by one of the attackers, all whom will have conveniently escaped. About the best they would be able to come up with, given the limited mental capacity of the entire agency. Just as the military had been reduced to a company of misfits to small to fight a war even with competent troops, the rest of the government had done.

'Knowing of the existence of the trap is the first step in avoiding it.' her control had told her more than once.

'Someone is in for a surprise.'

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"OK," Perkins said, "here is how it goes. Stinson, Harris, and Hardgraves will meet the van on level nine of the garage. Wait by the elevator. When the van stops, one of you open the side door. The driver and shotgun rider will remain in their seats at all times. You will replace the personnel in the van and depart. That's all you need to know. The driver knows where the rendezvous is and will be prepared. Remember, no one will be shooting at you, and don't shoot at them. You're all on the same side. Good luck."

It would have to be in an open with little traffic. Perhaps on a side road selected for that reason. She had to have control of the situation well before, and headed somewhere else fast. She told herself there were no innocents, least of all among the minions of the state. Anyone voluntarily in its service was fair game.

The one other problem was getting the prisoner free. Did his guards have the keys to his restraints? Likely. They might need to free him in the event of an accident. She didn't know what the usual practice, or if this situation qualified as usual. She had a set of keys for various common restraints, and they were in a pocket of her BDU jacket. Another pocket held a small .38 revolver, with a hammer designed to not snag. A couple of speedloaders accompanied it, but she doubted there would be need or opportunity for reloading. It was strictly a last-ditch defense, in case they decided to disarm her.

The van arrived, and the three guards emerged. She noticed that Stinson and Harris took the back seat. That would make her job more difficult. A mesh barrier separated the front seats from the area behind them. Her improvisation ability was about to be tested.

The prisoner sat quietly, almost as if unaware of his situation, or lacking interest in it. She wondered if he was still drugged. That could be a problem, or not.

He looked perhaps fifty, or a little older. Very fit, even in the prison jumpsuit she could it.

'OK, Jen, you're gonna have to do some ugly stuff real soon. You ready?'

She remembered Gordon, the battered old soldier, who had trained her - more like conditioned her - to kill with brutal efficiency. Many times she had jammed the little .38 under the chin of an anatomically correct assailant and rapidly squeezed of three shots in as many seconds, the bullets exiting the styrofoam head inches in front of her.

Or holding it against the back or chest of the dummy and doing the same thing.

Or using a knife, with bladders of fake blood in the garget splashing their contents on her.

'Work fast, kid. Turn and fire, once each, then go back for seconds. Hit the shotgun guy - that would be the easy part. She knew the bullets would go through the mesh - she had seen it done. Tell the driver to keep going. Check the guys behind her, fast, if they're alive they're going for their guns. Two more if needed. It was going to be messy and might not work, but if she went she would take one or two of them with her.

They were on the freeway. It wouldn't be here. At least it wasn't in the plan. For her it was perfect.

She slid the Glock out and hid it under the tail of her BDU shirt in case the guy in front turned to look. There was empty space to her right, between the seat and the door, to allow passenger access to the back. Stinson and Harris were chatting. Might as well be now. Might as well be now.

She shifted in the seat, adjusting the harness, and leaned back as if relaxing.

She had released the harness and allowed it to retrace slightly. Free movement.

Remember, calm and deliberate. Now!

She turned and fire first at Harris, to her left, then Stinson. Dead center both times. Back for seconds. Neither had changed position, only sagged forward in the seatbelts. Good for now. The shotgun rider had already turned, reaching for his gun. She fired once, twice, a third time. One of them put him out of action, probably permanently. It looked like one eye was gone.

"Keep driving!" she shouted at the driver. "Don't take your hands off the wheel."

She turned to check on Harris and Stinson. Neither seemed to be alive. She turned back to the driver. Shotgun was slumped against the door. So far, so good.

The driver was trying to drive and look at her at the same time.

"Eyes on the road." she said, more calmly now. Take the next exit."

She looked over at the prisoner. He had remained completely calm the entire time.

"Tell me when we're a mile from the exit." she said to the driver. "You want to survive this, do exactly what I tell you."

She turned to Alex.

"Jennifer Hardgraves." she said. "Think those things have regular keys?"

"Probably." he said. "Alex Duncan, by the way."

'That's all I need. I'm absconding with the most wanted man on the continent. And I've got a tracker on me.'

"Exit for 236 coming up." the driver announced.

"Take it." she said.

She dug out the keys. Handcuffs first, with his hands free he can help me. She tried the most likely one first and it worked. She handed the others to him, and he bent over to work on the leg manacles. She leaned forward and looked out the front, then to the sides. The area was less populated now, probably such a place as had been selected for the 'ambush'. She wished there had been time to go in the opposite direction.

"Stop here." she said. A golf course ran for a good distance in both directions on one side, dense woods on the other.

The van rolled to a stop. Alex was free and had already reached over the seat to appropriate a weapon.

"Take your gun out and lay it on the dash." she ordered. He complied.

"OK, here's where you get off." she said. "I want you to get out and walk down the embankment, towards the woods. Just keep going and you'll stay alive."

Again he obeyed, and Jennifer got out and took his place. As she drove away she turned to Alex.

"We're going to have to move fast. I've got an embedded tracker, and you may have as well."

"Almost certainly." Alex said. "They had me out for hours, maybe days, and they wouldn't have let me go without one. Depending on how far it was to the rendezvous, we have maybe an hour, if that before a serious search is underway. Is there a portable GPS device on board?"

"Got one."

"Burner phone?"


"You came prepared."

"They were planning to eliminate me as part of the operation."

"Nice. All right, we'll have to ditch this vehicle fast. Find a place to get underground, literally. Block the tracker signals. Look for something like a highway interchange, overpasses, bridges. Lot of earth overhead somewhere."

"There's a big one at Springfield. About ten minutes."

"Go for it."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The place where I-95 came together with 395 and 495 must have looked like pile of concrete spaghetti from the air. It certainly did on a map.

"Get off and find a place where one of the smaller roads goes under the main road." Alex said. "Wait, take that exit."

She had to brake hard and the van leaned alarmingly as she steered it onto the ramp.

"OK, now follow the road, slow down a little. Looks like it's not too busy here. Let's take a look."

To one side the ground sloped gently over a grassy area, toward a set or large concrete culverts. A storm drain. They were large enough to drive a vehicle through, easily.

"Can you negotiate that hill?" Alex asked. "If not let me give it a try."

"I believe so."

Her world was now beyond surreal. She was driving a van with three dead men in it. Three men she had killed. And a living man who would shortly have every available resource of the government looking for him.

She slowed, seemingly to a crawl. The ground was smooth, but the steepness of the incline required her to keep the brake on. She wondered if the brakes would fade before they reached the bottom.

They held, and the ground leveled as they approached the enormous culverts. It was easy to drive into one of them, and she turned on the headlights. The end was a quarter of a milew away.

"Stop here." Alex said. "We're far enough inside to block the signals. Now all we have to do is have someone come and get us. Do you have any contacts?"

"My control is in McLean."

"That's not good. All right, I was to meet up with a cell outside of Winchester, a couple of hours from Alexandria. Actually, my contact is in Alexandria, but the operations center is near Winchester. The best thing to do is contact her, and they'll make arrangements. We'll have to move, they'll track the van to where it went underground, so they'll find it." "What's the plan?" "We have to stay underground, so that sort of limits our options. They're going to figure we're on foot, and staying under cover since they can see our trackers. Let's exit the other end of this tunnel and see where that gets us."

Each of them took a pair of the guns from the guards, and all the magazines. Thanks to the standard weapons they had a decent supply of ammunition. At the end of the tunnel they stopped.

"Got to decide." Alex said. "I need to get a call out ASAP, let them know where we are. Best to do that now. If we get them on the way, they can be here by the time we're located. There's another set of tunnels over there. We're just about in the middle of the interchange, why these tunnels are so long. Let's make a run for those, I'll make a call. They we're underground again. Ready?"

"Lead on."

Alex took off at a brisk jog, across the grassy floor of the valley between the main road and what looked like one of the secondary roads. Either 395 of 495, he had no idea which. As they reached the shelter of the culverts he stopped.

"Give me one of your phones," he said, "and go on in." he said. "I'll be right with you."

He quickly made a call one of the burner phone. An answer came on the second ring.

"Jawbreaker." a woman's voice said. It was Jessica, but he played it safe.

"Hellrider." he replied.

"Do not go gently." she said.

"OK, here's where I am." He pressed a button on the GPS box, read the coordinates. She read them back.

"You got it." he said. "It's hot here, and it'll be hotter by the time you get here. I'm going underground, literally. We've both got embedded trackers."

"We'll handle it."

He ran to the tunnel and joined Jennifer.

"They're on the way." he said. "Let's see if we can get further away from the center."

From the other end of the tunnel, they could see another covered area, this one an ovepass on a road leading away from the interchange.

"It looks like it's over a railroad, maybe." he said. "Well over a quarter mile. You up to it?"

"I can do it."

"All right. Once we're in the open for that long they'll likely pick one or both of our trackers. Probably know where we've gone. Ready?"


They started again, at a modest jog. They would be doing well to average five or six miles per hour for that long. At a quarter mile it would take several minutes, more if it was longer. It looked longer.

Even after his recent experiences Alex could do it. He wondered about her. She looked to be in pretty good shape. A lot of feds these days weren't. Even the military types he had encountered had for the most part been physically substandard. Of course most of the decent ones had deserted, and were now part of the resistance.

After what seemed an eternity they reached the bridge. It was indeed a railroad overpass. Or underpass, from their point of view. A dirt road, just wide enough for a vehicle to pass comfortably, ran out across a grassy field. They were further away than he had expected. He turned to look back at the highway interchange. If they hadn't yet located them they would spend a lot of time there before widening the search. Probably set up checkpoints on the roads, expecting them to have gotten a ride.

He took out the GPS unit and phone. He quickly made a call, exchanged codes, then gave Jessica his new coordinates.

"If a train comes by slowly enough we're on it." he said. Having one with an open boxcar would be handy. He should be so lucky, but so far he had been.

"Can you hop a train?" he asked.

"If it isn't moving." Jennifer said. "Moving, I'm not sure."

"All right, if one comes by we'll see if it will work. Unless we see a boxcar, preferably with the doors open, it may not be much use. The problem is knowing when a train is approaching. We won't hear it until it's on top of us. Let's give it a few minutes, and keep an eye on the highway over there.

"How'd you get into this fix?"

"I was recruited. A friend, several of them really. Talking about things. Eventually one took the plunge, asked me outright. If I was game. He guessed right. Secret meetings in places like this, only in the city. There are few places, not only do the walls have have ears, but so does the dirt under your feet. And eyes everywhere. But at some point, about six, seven months ago I guess, something broke down. My friend disappeared and I was pretty sure I was next

"So I had an accident. Or more accurately, someone pushed me at the bus stop. In front of the bus. I was unconscious for several days. Head injury, I was told. But when I woke up I noticed the scar on my back where they had put in the tracker.

"So I went dark. No contact with anyone, even though I needed to get to my control. At some point I suppose they decided to liquidate me, and were just waiting for an opportunity. Why they didn't just arrest me and interrogate me I'm not sure. They did it with plenty of others."

"So they decided to do it while they were cutting me loose." Alex said. "Not totally stupid. They could track you if you got away. As you did."

"Then didn't count on this, though." she said.

"No. There's no surplus brainpower there."

He looked over at the interchange. It was difficult to see if anything unusual was going on, with the distance and elevation. He wished he had some binoculars.

"They're about two hours away on the ground." he said. "They'll have people here, and they'll have to avoid contact with the searchers. I should have asked Jessica if they had a chopper available. That would be useful."

"They'll probably have a helicopter or two of their own." Jessica said. "Especially since they're after you. And they'll fly some personnel out right away. We'll know then."

"Yeah. We should be safe here until then if they haven't located our trackers."

An hour passed. As Jennifer predicted, a helicopter arrived, landing on one of the areas inside the complex cloverleaf. It was a large one, a Bell two- hundred-something, one of the Huey family. They could carry a few personnel, enough to set up a command group. He wanted to get further away.

"Feel that?" Jennifer asked.

"Yeah. Train." He hadn't known if there would be any warning. He knew that walking on a railroad track that a train could approach unheard very close to an unwary track-walker. A train about now would be convenient. If it was moving slowly.

"Let's take a look."

It was close, and was moving slowly. He moved back far enough to be able to scan the sides and see what type of cars it contained. A mix of tank cars, boxcars, hoppers. Some open doors on the boxcars.

"Go for it." Alex said. "As soon as you're aboard I'll follow you."

Jennifer scrambled up the slope, reaching the tracks just as an open car was about to pass. She jumped, caught the edge of the floor and pulled herself inside. Alex followed.

"Move to the back." he said.

They sat in the darkness at the back of the empty car and waited for their breathing and heartbeat to settle down.

"Not bad for the first time." he said. "You all right?"

"Yeah, just a few scrapes. What now?"

"I'm going to see if I can get a good signal by the doors. If I can get a call out I'll give them our position. They can track the train. Hope it gets moving soon."

Eventually it did, and before long seemed to be moving at around forty to fifty miles per hour.

"We'll give it about a half hour," Alex said, "and I'll make a call and give our position. It looks like you're going to be relocating. We'll get you into Republic territory. Now that we have Tennessee it's a lot closer. Hope you're not going to miss anything."

"No. I have some relatives here. Mom and Dad moved to Texas a few years ago. Not many friends - no one really has friends these days."

"Only child?"


"Why did you stay?" Alex asked. "The border security is to keep us out, as far as I know they're not keeping people in."

"Mom and Dad wanted me to leave. I thought I could help, somehow. I thought we could change something from the inside. I almost got killed."

"It may be you succeeded, more than expected. They won't ever change - they'e in most cases literally insane, evil or both - but you've played a major part in setting up the final assault."


"Part of it. But I'm just one of many."

"You've got something of a reputation."

Alex knew it was true. Which was why the search would be intense. Not only because it was him but because of the reason he was there.

"I'm going try a call." he said after a while. "We're far enough out by now there aren't any, or many, scanners to detect our trackers. We should be good for now."

The implants - his and hers were probably the same - only broadcast their signal at intervals. Long intervals, to prolong battery life. Even in the city a target might move a considerable distance between pings. He got up and went to the doors.

The phone signal was good. He called.

"In the early morning rain..." Jessica answered.

"The peasants are revolting." Alex said.

"When I was a young man..."

"I watched the stars. We hopped a train out of Alexandria near the 95 interchange. We've been rolling about twenty minutes. Here are the coordinates.."

They would have the train located and a team on the way to meet it at an appropriate place.

"Looks like we're good." he told Jennifer. "As long as we're not in a populated area we can sit near the doors. We'll get a callback soon."

"What do we do about the trackers?"

"Removal is quick and easy. I expect they'll take us to the place near Winchester. I know they have a a medical facility there. After they're out they can be used to misdirect the search."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"What went wrong?"

Perkins and Steele were in the ISC command post, looking at an array of video screens, some displaying maps and others data on the ongoing search.

"How hard is it," he asked, "to drive a prisoner to a rendezvous, stage a 'rescue attempt' that lets him escape?"

"Apparently using the same operation to eliminate another problem," Steele replied, "wasn't a good idea."

"She knew she was burned?"

"Obviously. Or suspected. I'd say she was pretty certain."

"We would have done better to leave him where he was and watch him." Perkins said. "Obviously they intended for us to bring him in."

"We discussed it. But the concensus was that we should try to interrogate him."

"We had to try, I suppose. That we got nothing... no one could have expected that."

"Either way we lose." Steele said. "What do we know about his possible plans?"

"Nothing. If we did we'd have an idea where to find him."

"Any idea where he is now?"

"We lost him - them, I'm fairly certain - just after they made their break. It was just as they were approaching the 395-495 interchange. Last contact was as they left the area. About half a mile from the highway."

"That's about as far as we'd have sensors." Steele said. "And with the trackers pinging at ten minute intervals..."

"Which direction?"

Steele used a pointer to indicate a point on the map.

"Zoom in."

He enlarged the image.

"What's that?" Perkins asked. "A railroad?"

"Yeah. CSX."

"We can't track them in the open anyway. But hopping a train would be a quick way out of the area if they didn't have anyone to meet them. And not knowing our plans..."

"Assuming," Steele said, "Hardgraves didn't know more than she was supposed to."

"Could she?"

"Should have been no way. There was less than forty-eight hours from the time the plan was approved until the personnel were notified, and we had her under surveillance the entire time."

"So she couldn't have contacted anyone." Perkins said. "But she knew the jig was up, and either suspected we were going to liquidate her as part of the operation, or decided to make a break. That would make sense. She could go with him and escape. We know she had been trying to contact her control in McLean for several days, and we've kept him inaccessible. We'd better do something with him soon."

"If they caught a train within a short time, and that's a busy railroad, they're long gone. And until they're on the ground in a populated area the trackers are useless."

"They no doubt have the medical resources available to remove the trackers as soon as they reach one." Perkins said. "What do we have on that?"

"Nothing. The most we've been able to do for two years is pick off individual operatives here and there. Like Hardgraves. And the cells are so tight we've gotten next to nothing from the ones we've caught. By the time any of them give up any information it's already useless."

"SOP." Steele said. "No contact for twenty-four hours they assume the asset is compromised.

"Exactly. And as for installations, nothing."

"Wouldn't take much to remove a tracker. And use it for a decoy."

"We'll have to check any pings though," Perkins said, "consuming more resources. Which we can't afford."

"Whatever they're up to with him, has to be big. He's a legend of the rebellion, in both factions. That he's here now, I suspect, means that they're ready for a final push. He was in Kansas, to make sure it was a crushing blow. That they took Tennessee, were we lacked resources to mount more than a token defense..."

Both men were silent. Both were young - Perkins the older at forty-four, Steele six years his junior - and had believed The Insurrection, as it was called, was doomed to fail within a few months, even after the massive damage inflicted in the operations that nearly cut the country in two from the start. Neither wanted to say what had been apparent for some time.

"We need some ideas." Perkins said after a while. "Let's get the rest of the team in here."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The train had slowed considerably in the last few minutes, and was now apparently about to stop. Alex made a call, gave their position.

"OK," he said, "here's where we get off. They're about two miles from here. Let's hope the train stops soon."

It did. They looked out. They were in an open field. The front of the train was much further away - it had been a long one and they got on after a considerable amount of it had passed.

"Let's go."

They got off and headed into the field. The grass wasn't tall enough to hide them, unless they were lying down, but Alex didn't expect to be there long.

He called Jessica again. Jennifer read the position to him.

"We're about a mile away, in the direction you're going." she told him. There's a highway ahead of you. Well send one of the Jeeps out to meet you."

"Almost there." Alex said. "Take it easy, they'll be here in a couple of minutes."

They continued walking, and before long sighted the Jeep. Two of them. They stopped and the driver of one waved them over. They ran to it and got in the back seats.

The driver didn't speak, but turned back the way in the direction they had come from. Back on the highway they joined a convoy of at least a half-dozen other vehicles and were on their way.

The front seat passenger turned to look them over.

"Mr. Duncan, I presume?"

"The same." Alex replied. "And this is Jennifer Hardgraves, my liberator."

"Good to meet you both. I'm Alan McCormick, and our driver is Roger Wilson. We'll make the other introductions at base."

"Good work." Alex said.

"Thanks. We do the best we can."

"Jessica with you?"

"Yeah. In the black Trailblazer watching the back door."

Alex didn't have to ask if Cassandra was with her. Even among friends she had to have him or Jessica near. And she could hold her own in a fight.

"We're about two hours out." Alan told them. "We've got air cover. They'll see any roadblocks long before we get there. And in the worst case..."

Alex knew about the gunships. Only two of them but as far as they knew unknown to the enemy. A pair of Vietnam-era Hueys, complete with the .50-caliber machine guns, were hidden at separate sites in the area. Both were on alert, and at any suggestion of trouble could be over the convoy in minutes.

Not that it was likely, as the activity was all in the area of the escape. Alex called Jessica.

"How's it look?" he asked.

"Good. They're running around like the proverbial chickens. No sign of any attention on us. Another ninety minutes."

Alex suspected they would investigate the trains that had passed at that time, but they were now long gone.

They arrived without incident at Stephens City and after a quick introduction to their hosts Alex and Jennifer were ushered to another house on the estate.

Doctor James Mason was an older man, assisted by a couple of young nurses.

"We have a pretty good setup here." he told them. "We can handle serious injuries, have a good stock of supplies. Minor operations, like removing the trackers, is quick and easy. We've had some practice. Who wants to go first?"

An couple of hours later they were back at the main house. Jessica and Cassandra greeted them as they entered. They both hugged Alex, and he introduced Jennifer. He had not yet briefed her on Cassandra's status, but she didn't try to engage her in conversation.

"We'd better get cleaned up." he said. "Can you arrange something for Jennifer?"

She was still in her dirty and damaged BDUs, and he was in a prison jumpsuit.

"I believe we can." Jessica said. "Let me see what Linda can do for us. They have guests regularly, all sizes. In fact, let's get you a room, and you can get cleaned up while we find you something to wear."

"This isn't urgent," Alex sait, "but can you get me something for my leg?"

"I brought some. Come this way and we'll get you fixed up."

"Of course you did. What would I, we, do without you?"

Jessica and Cassandra had a small suite on the ground floor of the guest wing. They found Jennifer a room upstairs. Jessica rummaged in the closets and produced a robe.

"That should keep you from freezing after your shower." she said. "The bath there should have everything you need - just ask if you need something. You should be able to find some things to fit you - they get a variety of guests here. We'll be back soon."

Leaving Jennifer they went to Jessica's suite.

While Alex was cleaning up Jessica and Cassandra laid out an outfit for him. Dressing was generally easy enough, the jeans and khaki shirts were pretty much a uniform within their domains. Dressing for outside work was dictated by the needs of the mission.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

By the time Alex and Jennifer were ready it was almost time for dinner. They joined their hosts for a drink while they waited. They were all interested in Jennifer but restrained their curiosity - there would be time for questions later. She had found an outfit that fit her reasonably well and Alex noticed that she was quite attractive, if in an unconventional way. There was a slight boyish look, bit it was very slight. Jessica had it too, and he had always found it attractive. She had a similar athletic build, something that he suspected came in handy when boarding a moving train. The fact that she was an inch or so taller would have helped as well.

He watched her chatting with Jessica and Kate, while Cassandra listened. He guessed Jessica had briefed Jennifer on Cassandra's condition. No matter what, he thought, when socializing the women and men tend to segregate. And that was good to see, normal behavior. They could as well have been at a holiday party. But when working it was all business. And Jennifer had proven herself, and was already like a part of the family.

Dinner was no business talk at all. Afterwards Alex joined Matt and Bill for cigars and brandy out on a veranda shaded by large oak trees of considerable age.

"Those trees were here when the house was built." Bill told them. "My grandfather told me they were fairly large then. We take good care of them, thin the canopies to prevent wind damage. So far we've been fortunate not to lose any."

"I suppose arborist availaility isn't great these days." Alex said.

"Like everything else." Bill said. "Of course, being part of the resistance means that shortages don't affect you as much."

They had a meeting at midnight. Although the area was secure both through thorough surveillance countermeasures and being as yet suspected, such activity was at its lowest at night.

"Bureaucrats don't like to work late." Bill said. "Even when they know any plotting against them is more likely at night. Not that they have the resources to do much. They're largely confined to the populated areas, and even if they know we're out here, it's just too much territory to cover, and not even an idea how or where to start."

"Perhaps," Matt said, "before we get on to business, Jennifer might have some useful information for us."

"Not much, I'm afraid." Jennifer said. "I was just a small part of the machine. The handful of resisters I knew are, as far as I know, dead or locked up. I'd say you wouldn't believe the level of paranoia, but you can probably guess."

"You were braver than most." Linda said. "And a big help to us. If you hadn't acted, it would have taken longer for us to have a chance to get Alex out. And we're on a timetable."

"I was terrified." Jennifer said. "They were about to eliminate me."

"Still, you didn't wait like a sheep to be slaughtered." Linda said. "Too many people did."

"I know. I knew a couple of them. They disappeared."

"That's the difference." Alex said. "You handled yourself well. Have you had any combat training?"

"No. Just qualifying with pistols. I was a clerk."

"You did well. And with or without training, you've got what it takes in here."

He tapped his chest.

"Thanks. I don't feel heroic, just scared."

"I understand." Alex said. "I still get scared. But as they say, you don't notice it until afterwards. If you're truly so fearful beforehand that you don't act, even when you know you're about to die, that's actual fear. We're all apprehensive, even knowing that we have the upper hand. And will almost certainly win. Because no matter what it will be ugly. And some of us, make no mistake, will pay a high price. But living in fear means dying in fear, and to no purpose."

"There is a reason," Matt said, "that Jefferson said that the tree of liberty must have the blood of patriots and tyrants. He had just been through the Revolution, and many patriots had died. We know that price we must pay, but the refusal to risk it will mean dying in darkness. Perhaps the final darkness, at least for hundreds or thousands of years."

"We'll know soon enough." Bill said. "You arrived in time for the final assault."

"How do you know," Jennifer asked, "that I'm not a plant? Even to me the whole affair seems, if I were looking from the outside, suspicious."

"We have our sources." Bill said. "Your control in Alexandria contacted us a few minutes after you escaped. He'd lost contact with you, evidently they're onto him as well and he's about to bail if he hasn't already done so. Before you got off the train we knew about you. He'll be all right, by the way.

"In any case, their ability to pull off something like that is practically non-existent. At least without being discovered right off."

"You dropping Alex in the way you did." she said. "Was there a reason, something that risky, that complicated?"

"We could have infiltrated him easily enough," Bill replied, "and hook him up with the cell we wanted him to work with. But it was idea. Ask him."

"As you know," Alex said, "I have something of a reputation.

"That's putting it mildly." she said. "I didn't know who you were until you told me, but I'd certainly heard of you. And you walked right into the lions' den, deliberately."

"I wouldn't call them lions. Jackals, hyenas maybe."

"They had to know you were being planted."

"I would hope so, but you never know. We put out some rumors about me being turned over to them, but some unspecified 'other players', but didn't expect them to buy it. Maybe some of them did, but either way they couldn't resist taking me in for examination and interrogation."

"It worked out as you intended?"

"Pretty much. Among other things - and I don't know how well this part worked, if at all - I had some conditioning beforehand, to make me respond in a predictable way, under drug-assisted interrogation. If they worked as we expected, they got some red herrings that even if suspicious, would be risky to ignore. Diverting more of their already scarce resources on wild-goose chases."

"And if they didn't?"

"In the worst case they learned little. I didn't know about this operation, who your control is, any of that. I didn't even know where Jessica and Cassandra were going, only that they would find me once I got loose. So if the conditioning didn't hold they got nothing. You were a bonus, by the way. Bill says they knew your control, but apparently he didn't know you were burned."

"As he is." Bill said. "Which is why your communications got cut. Not a problem, he's prepared. And if they were to get him, he'll take more than a few of them with him."

"I hope it doesn't come to that." Jennifer said. "Too many of us have died already."

"So do we." Bill said. "But you'd have to know Enoch. He has his reasons. You might say he's one of the factors they never counted on, even if they thought of everything else."

"How is that?"

"Enoch is a dead-ender. He probably wouldn't have told you, it wasn't relevant."

"What's a dead-ender?"

"Enoch has terminal cancer. Pancreatic cancer. He's sixty-two years old and even younger people rarely survive it if it isn't caught early. His wasn't. He knows he has little time left, and perhaps wishes he could go out that way."

"Suicide, but with some of them around?"

"He chooses the way he goes, and makes it count. Of course Enoch is a pretty resourceful guy. Like Alex, he's playing three-dimensional chess with an adversary who doesn't even know basic strategy. He's prepared to do quite a lot of damage when he goes, with preset devices held in check by deadman switches. But I hope he makes it out, we can get him to a hospital over in Republic territory, who knows what may happen."

"You spoke of dead-ender as if there are more than one." Jennifer said.

"Oh, there are." Bill said. "Alex knows a thing or two of course. He's worked with some. They're what you might call a special corps, though they're not officially organized that way. More of a fraternity. They're guys who, like Enoch, have terminal conditions which they either know are incurable and are going to get them before long, or even though they are being treated as much as is possible, believe they aren't likely to make it through the war.

"They take on missions that they are so unlikely to survive that they prefer to sacrifice themselves if necessary, so that others can carry on. Enoch knew his prospects were nearly non-existent, and was just doing what he could before either the cancer of the enemy got him."

"We thought about putting the word out that I was one." Alex said. "But of course they would have done a thorough examination and known it wasn't true. But I've worked with some of them. The Gold City affair was one time."

"What was that?" Jennifer asked.

Linda laughed.

"Don't get these guys started telling war stories or they'll go on all night." she said. "Maybe I should get us some snacks."

"I'll help you." Kate said. "I've heard them all."

"Gold City was an extraction." Alex said. "We didn't have control of Tennessee yet, so it was a pretty a pretty good run through enemy territory. West Tennessee wasn't that bad though, so we weren't too worried. Even there the only serious force is in and around the cities, and only the larger ones. We needed to evacuate a team that had been compromised, and relatively fast.

"They had been based in Lexington, and after they got burned they headed for friendly territory, but at Bowling Green they had to go to ground at a little place called Gold City. We have a cell there. Or did.

"That was before Zulu-6, so I was alone. I took a team of dead-enders over. We figured it might get ugly. And it did. The security team that was after them had zeroed their location about the time we arrived, and they went in for the kill at the same time. There were over a hundred of them combing the area, and the team had gone dark. Their only way of hooking up with us was a completely passive device that would let them see us but on one could locate them.

"So were doing the same thing as the enemy, only we would know where to make contact. Unfortunately there were quite a few of them almost on top of us at the rendezvous. We lost seven of the fifteen that I went in with, they lost everything, an estimated two dozen."

"All seven of them died?" Jennifer asked.

"They were. It was out in the countryside, our partisan contacts got there before the state forces did. They took our dead away. Left the enemy dead where they lay, obviously. We had a couple of wounded who were able to evacuate."

"Have any of them ever been captured?"

"Yeah. Several. We don't have regular updates on them, but we know where all of them are. We've heard that they weren't given any medical treatment, but as all of them are terminal it's probably how they prefer it. We do believe they're being treated humanely, given pain-killers if they need them.

"One interesting story we heard is about a guy, older, as in seventy-two. The doctor estimated he had a couple of months left. He went out on an operation in Ohio. He got shot up, pretty bad. Captured. They dumped in a hospital and pretty much forgot about him. That was over a year ago. We last heard, about two months ago, that not only is he alive but feeling pretty good. The doctors there - and take this for what it's worth - say his cancer is in remission. If that's true I hope he makes it through and I get to meet him. That's quite a story."

Jennifer was silent for a moment, glanced briefly at Cassandra, just as Kate and Linda returned with trays of snacks and beverages. They cleared a space on the conference table for them. After a few minutes of partaking they got down to business.

"Alex, we haven't done a formal briefing," Bill said, "so we'll start here. A half dozen or so team members aren't here, and won't be until a few days before the operation begins, but they're up to date.

"What we intend to do, and you already have a general idea of this, is to take control of the capital - the Capitol, the White House - and the entire environment for at least two miles from those two points, except in the direction of the river. That will be taken care of by combined air and naval forces. We have the ability to deal with anything the federal navy has on hand, and nothing short of bringing in battleships and marines will get them in, and if they succeed they'll find nothing but blood and ashes.

"The second phase will be to remove the majority of the functionality of the government. What remains of it. And at that point..."

He paused.

Alex asked the expected question.

"What is the anticipated result?"

"At that point there effectively is no government. The vice-president, if he has managed to get out to wherever they plan to put him, he's there with no ability to affect the course of events. Those places are nothing more than safe storage. He has no ability to command and control. That remains with the president, here in DC. The few officials who may may have similarly been dispersed are useless. The fate of the government will be decided by us."

"Where does the military figure in?" Kate asked.

"Good question." Bill replied. "Since there will no longer be a functional government - in fact there will effectively be no government - their options are rather limited. Our contacts inside, and there are enough of them to give us a pretty good idea, suggest that the one thing they will resist is any move to create a military government, even temporarily.

"Despite the corrosive effects of the past twenty years, the actual decision- makers, will not want that. If there is any way to have a proper government, an originalist constitutional government, they will support it. We can give them that. And they are well aware that resistance is futile. All the aircraft, tanks, nukes are useless, as they have found. With the official Republic and Alliance forces at over six million, and three to four times that many irregulars, attempts to retake that territory would be futile. They can't even hold what they have.

"So if we offer them a plausible provisional government they will go for it. We'll be in the driver's seat. And they're the least of our worries. The worst thing that happens is that they end up having to manage the ruins, while the Alliance and Republic form a new nation. Sooner or later we'll have the whole thing. But we hope for a quicker solution."

"You said there will no longer be a government." Alex said. "Does that mean what most of us are guessing?"

"If you're guessing it means that the majority of the primary malefactors will be liquidated," Bill said, "it does. There are no longer any innocent bystanders. Congress will, to whatever extent we are able to find all the members, will cease to exist. The same goes for a few hundred high-level apparatchiks, what they literally are now. The Supreme Court is irrelevant, and there is no point in wasting resources on a few people who can be rounded up later and if necessary, punished appropriately. The president and staff, along with the vice-president, will be contained in the White House and its environs. They will do the surrendering and handover."

"The liquidation being most of the action." Alex said.

"Pretty much. The occupation force is organized, all of its command structure either already in place or just outside the borders. They will all be on the ground here when it begins."

"I'm guessing that's my part."

"It is. In the next day or two Solomon Omega and his team will be here. He's on they way now, the team will be arriving one or two at a time. He and Ishmael Sigma will coordinate their part of the operations. Each will control six five-man cells. Their targets have been under surveillance for months, since the plans were completed. We want you to be the primary liaison, along with Samuel, with Solomon and Ishmael. To whatever extent you are involved in actual strikes, we leave to you and them. You all have the experience - we haven't seen action on the scale that you have."

"I've worked with them a few times." Alex said. "And probably with quite a few of the guys on their teams. They're capable enough. The little I can do on the ground wouldn't add much. Communications is the critical element. I suspect we'll be relying on your network for that."

"Right. There's a dedicated sub-network in place for you operations. We're constantly monitoring it for potential compromises. It's completely dark except for regular tests, which if they are detected don't give any clues as to what it is. When it goes active, there'll be about a forty-eight hour window of operation, and at that point the enemy will have bigger fish to fry, assuming it has the ability to do anything at all."

"If we're putting the teams in place," Alex said, "zero hour has to be close."

"Less than two months. Congress goes into recess on 30 August. We hit them the day before. They're all still in the city, and the regular routine is being broken up. It will take them a while to even realize anything out of the ordinary is happening."

"Let's get to it then." Alex looked at Jessica and Cassandra. "Ready?"

"Ready." Jessica said.

She turned to Cassandra, sitting next to her.

"This is it, kid." she said. "Soon the night will end."

Cassandra's shy smile betrayed nothing of her thoughts, Alex and Jessica both knew. Perhaps in the months ahead some of her demons might be put to rest.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"This is Chuck Taylor," Grant said, indicating a moderately grizzled and battered man of somewhere around middle age. "And this is Jerome Miller."

Miller was a younger man who looked as if he had recently left military service. Alex had met quite a few of them, many were deserters who had moved into Republic territory, and he had seen them in Alliance territory as well. The meager U.S. Army of barely a million men, only about twenty percent actual combat personnel, had been reduced to a force capable of no more than police work. And of that they were incapable even had there been sufficient numbers.

Both men were in camouflage BDUs, and wore large holstered handguns. Taylor's was a large-frame auto of Colt 1911 design, with an longer barrel than usual. Miller had a large revolver, also with a long barrel. A .44 or .45 from the look. Taylor had what looked like an old-fashioned Marine Corps bowie on his belt.

Ethan, Adam, Grant and Brian had joined Alex and Jennifer in one of the large buildings behind the house, where Grant and Brian had demonstrated some of the weapons for Jessica and Cassandra several days earlier.

"We showed these to Jessica and Cassandra when they arrived." Grant said, holding up one of the four-barrel shotguns. "Some of the teams will be using these." He handed it to Alex.

"I've seen these." Alex said. "They make them in Texas. Small shop made a few custom jobs for me." He handed it to Jennifer.

"Know how to handle this?"

Jennifer turned it over, examined it. Found the lever that released the barrels, broke it open.

"Pretty good." Alex said. "I guess your former colleagues didn't use much in the way of unconventional weapons. We're the insurgents."

"We had a one day class, they mostly covered bombs, IEDs, a little talk about avoiding ambushes. Not enough time to learn anything. Just a formality really, because someone thought it was a good idea. We going to shoot these?"

Alex liked Jennifer from the beginning, and the more time he was with her the more he liked her. She had an inner strength she probably didn't know she had, but rose to the occasion better than most would have.

Grant picked up a box of 12-gauge shells handed it to Alex, and another to Jennifer.

"Grab a gun," he said to Alex.

Alex picked up one of the weapons.

"Come on," he said to Jennifer, "give it a try."

They walked over to a table, set the shells on it. Several silhouette targets were in place about ten yards away.

He loaded his gun and turning to face the targets, rapidly fired all four shots into one of the targets.

Jennifer loaded hers and assumed the stance.

"It kicks a little." Alex said.

Jennifer fired one shot. The gun bucked but she held on to it. She recovered and fired a second, this time recovering more quickly, then fired the remaining two.

"They only weigh about half what a regular shotgun does," Alex said, "even with four barrels. But you get used to it pretty quick."

"You've used these?" Grant asked.

"I checked them out at the factory." Alex said. "They do some custom work for me."

"We ordered two hundred units." Grant said. "We figure on having a considerable number of hits that involve engaging the target at close range, stalking in close, often indoors. These things hit hard, no guesswork. You can plug someone a half dozen time with a pistol and not knock him down. One shot from one of these does it."

"The general idea is more than one though," Brian said. "Ideally all four. No room for error."

"Right," Grant said, "with a little practice you can squeeze off four shots in as many seconds, like Alex did."

"Two hundred," Alex said, "you must be expecting quite a few situations of that type."

"There will be two to four shooters for each target," Grant said, "on teams of up to ten. The other team members are armed as usual, with .40 handguns and carbines. The main shooters can throw these away if then need to leave in a hurry, although we don't expect many situations like that."

"What are your forties?" Alex asked.

"Glocks for the handguns of course," Grant replied, "and Rogers for the carbines. Same as most of you guys, north and south I guess."

"Yeah. Pretty much eveyone using that combo wants the common magazines. Jennifer, you ever fired a .40?"

"No, I had no experience at all before I joined ISC. And still don't have much."

"You did pretty well when you needed to."

"Desperation." she said. "I don't like thinking about it."

"I understand," Alex said, "but you were able to do what you had to, you're a survivor. That's the difference between us and the sheep. You won't be involved in any operations, it's too close to the time to prepare, if you wanted to. But we could come under attack at any time. Why don't you give one of these a try, it's not much different from the nines."

Brian handed her a pistol, much like the one she had carried.

"You handled a sawed-off 12-gauge pretty well, this should be easy."

Jennifer walked over to face the targets, about 25 yards away. She fired several shots one at a time, getting the feel, then quickly emptied the magazine.

"Not bad," she said, handing the gun back. She felt suddenly nauseous, put a hand to her stomach.

"You all right?" Alex asked.

"Yeah, I'm OK," she said after a moment. "That brought back a bad memory. I thought I was over it."


Here's what it looked like afterwards." Roger said, clicking the mouse. A video filled the large screen.

The scene was a grassy area, perhaps a couple of hundred feet wide, with what appeared to be earthen walls about ten feet or so in height. On the grass lay dozens of bodies, all wearing dark blue jackets. Larger yellow letters on the back were visible on some. Quite a few in fact, as most were face down.

"ATF." Alex said. It wasn't a question.

"And FBI. Plus a handful of unclassified miscreants with no official status. This is from a few years ago. They've since learned to not wear those idiotic windbreakers."

"The shield became a target. Surprising they weren't wearing body armor."

"They learned quickly." Roger said. "Relatively speaking. The stormtroopers aren't recruited for intelligence, even the leaders. In this case they thought it was just another naive religious cult or dissident group, amateurs and with a lot of women and children."

"Lacking basic intel?"

"That was generally the case back then. But in any case, it was a trap. The first of many, which gave us an early advantage."

"If it was a trap," Alex said, "then their intel showed what what the trappers wanted them to see."

"Precisely. They were accustomed to dealing with naive, idealistic amateurs. We used that to our advantage."


"I've been in since the beginning." Roger said. "Since Phoenix in '24."

"The Universal Light, whatever that was?"

"Temple of Undying Light. I went down there with Sam. We were just observing at that point, trying to get some ideas of how to proceed with our own operations. It was so bad our decision was made for us right then and there."

"All I had were the news reports," Alex said, "and the underground accounts of course. I already knew by that time any official word was false, but hadn't yet gotten deep enough to understand completely."

"It was probably as bad as anything you heard. If not worse. But it had been that way since Waco, Ruby Ridge, back in the '90s. What we learned, over time, was that not only was the constant government operation to eliminate dissent but to make examples that would discourage anyone thinking about it. And the bloodier the better. But the bureaucrats recruit people to do their work, and the kind of people who do that work are the worst kind. They enjoyed abusing people, hurting people, and as for women and children - some liked that even more."

"So you, what? Set them up? Create a 'dissident organization engaging in anti-government activities'? Only it isn't.

"That's about it. It was almost too easy. The bureaucrats have no imagination and little intelligence. Most of their minions have no more. They can barely conceptualize dissent, much less resistance. An effective resistance such as they now face..."

"Yeah." Alex said. "Beyond their comprehension, outside their programming. So when did... who are you working with now anyway? If I may ask."

Roger grinned.

"You may always ask. Not a problem. I'm ostensibly in charge of Mantis section in Atlantis Corps. I own up to it only to humor the head shed. They like the idea of a command structure. So when we came on board as Mantis section we gave them a command structure. You know Frank and Thomas already. They're my lieutenants. We keep up on what the various divisions are doing, write up reports, do all the recruiting."

"You here to recruit me? You know I work alone."

"That little operation at Carver's Creek looked like a little more than a one-man job."

Alex grinned, took out a pack of cigarettes.


Roger took one and fished a lighter out of his pants pocket. He lit it while Alex lit one of his own.

"Guess you're doing all right." he said. "It's pretty hard on smokers in the controlled areas. Of course when you can't get food, I suppose tobacco doesn't seem so important."

"Most of us don't smoke." Alex said. "I do, occasionally. Usually more likely to chew on a cigar. But we don't have any problem getting smokes, or food. Or liquor.

"We're beginning to have an immigration problem of our own." Roger said. "The people stuck in the controlled areas know how it is here. Especially in the Alliance territory - they don't have as many people for security."

"What are they doing with them? We have camps, and they're a little on the primitive side but probably better that what most of them left behind."

"Same over there. They have plenty of room for the camps, all right. Supplies are another matter."

"Yeah." Alex said. "I understand the Republic is shipping supplies, as much as they can. But airlifting across Kansas is risky, and the aircraft are small. I guess everything helps though."

"It does. They're getting a lot from Canada as well. The Canadians looked at what's happening here and don't interfere with anything their people are doing to help. Ottawa is pretty much ignoring anything that doesn't look like an imminent threat, so sympathizers flourish in the unpopulated areas. Which is most of the border."

"The word we get is that the Canadian resistance is watching and waiting as well. The pressure is off of them for now, because of what's happening here. I expect that once we're successful they'll see a revolution of their own."

"Won't take much." Roger said. "May be fun to watch."

They finished thir cigarettes in silence, Alex waited. He had an idea of what was coming.

"So what did happen at Carver's Creek?" Roger asked. He dropped the butt of his cigarette and stepped on it.. "We got the usual official and unofficial versions, so which of the unofficial ones was right?"

"It was more than one man, obviously. But not a big deal. From what I'm hearing, it's like something you guys might do. A small group, about twenty guys. Had meetings and talked. Made noises about 'doing something'. Had a lot of guns. Waited for government agents to show up and infiltrate."

"And to try to get something started? To create an excuse for a raid. Show trial, all that?"

"Pretty much. As you say, they aren't very smart. Of course they got away with it for years, so why not keep a good thing going?"

"There was that incident up in the Ozarks. But that was about the only time in recent years they met any resistance. So they were pretty cocky. That settled them down a bit, but not for long."

"I guess you're referring to the Bridger Hill affair."

"Yeah. I don't suppose you could call that a setup. Some folks, back in the seventies, eighties, had a camp up there. Government shut them down, sent some of them to prison. Some of the others hung around, and some of their descendants. At Elohim City in Oklahoma."

"Crazy bunch." Alex said. "Of course, a lot of the free-lancers we come in contact with are at least a little off. In some way or another."

"Yeah. Well, this bunch had gone up to the old CSA camp at Elijah, Missouri. There were rumors that a lot of gold was hidden there somewhere. We know that when the feds raided it they recovered a few hundred Krugerrands, and some said there was a lot more they didn't find. Whatever the case, about a couple dozen guys went in there, built a small compound, as the government like to call them. It was a pretty decent installation, well built and provisioned. They got some prefab buildings, lot of professional equipment and supplies. Had a clearing a short distance away, choppered people and stuff in and out.

"Must have been a lot of gold. Or something."

"Something." Roger agreed. "The government didn't manage to penetrate. They tried for a while to get someone inside, even used acquaintances of some of the members they knew. Nothing. So no agent provocateur for a pretext."

"So they assaulted this... compound?"

"Yeah. Sounds stupid, doesn't it. Went in with warrants, just made stuff up. Drugs, child trafficking, the usual. When they wouldn't let them in they laid siege, as they say. Big mistake."

"Someone attacked the besiegers from behind. Yeah, I remember that. No details though, they seemed a secretive bunch."

"They are that." Roger said.

"They still around?"

"They seem to be survivors. They essentially massacred the fed force. Something like eighty-five, depending on reports. Dozen or so survivors, not enough to keep the occupants from coming out and joining their rescuers when it was over. Vanished into the hills."

"Did they get the gold?"

"Seems so. We've been in contact with them regularly, last few years. They're a professional bunch, somewhat mercenary, but not enough to serve the other side at any price. Well financed. We've done some deals together."

"So what's with that?" Alex asked, nodding towards the screen.

"At Carver's Creek you... they did something similar to the guys at Bridger Hill."

"Pretty much. Failing to find a pretext they just made one up. Like the deal you were talking about. Just showed up with warrants. Which was just what they were waiting for. Their confederates outside - apparently they never knew they were there - surrounded them and hosed them down, it was over in a few minutes."

"You said they."

"Yeah, well, I helped with planning and logistics."

"We could use some help with planning and logistics."

"On a contract basis?"

"I have considerable flexibility. We already deal with a lot of independents. You're more reliable than just about any of them."

"Speaking of being mercenary, but how's the pay? I can't afford to go in the hole, no matter how worthy the cause."

Roger grinned and said nothing.

"All right," Alex said. "So I can. But wasting resources..."

"You won't be wasting anything. Anyway, we'll make sure you at least break even. And probably come out ahead. In any war there are always things getting separated from their owners."

"They certainly do that."

"There should be some opportunities in this. We'll make sure it's profitable."

"So what's the deal?"

"Kansas. And Tennessee."

"I should have known." Alex said. "It's about time. At least in the case of Kansas. Why Tennessee? Gratuitous overkill?

"We believe it's time. Once Kansas falls the state is cut in two. Easier to cut the head off. As for Tennessee, we have the capacity, and North Carolina won't be far behind. Before long only the northeast and the west coast will remain."

"Once Kansas falls it's effectively over anyway." Alex said. "They'll be desperate to keep it open, keep their supply lines open and prevent the Republic and the Alliance from joining. What's your assessment? They've got to be expecting it. The resistance will be..."

"They'll throw everything they have at us, you can be sure. The question is, how much do they have?"

"What do they have?" Alex asked. "They didn't have much when it started, and they've had heavy losses."

"Numbers have been made up through conscription. But they just replaced a marginal force with a worse one. The only reason they have recruits is that they eat regularly."

"So I've heard." Alex said. "Not better, just more often."

"Pretty much it. The elitists still take the best of what is available for themselves. We get enough intel from the inner circles to know they're pretty miserable, compared to what they had before. But they don't want to give it up."

"It'll get worse." Alex said. "Lot of food comes from the west coast."

"That it will. It's why this may be rough."

"It's hard to see them defending Tennessee much. They may let it go, it's no use to them anyway. If it distracts from holding Kansas..."

"You're most likely right." Roger said. "How vigorously they defend Tennessee may give us an idea of what they are still capable of. They may let it go altogether. We just don't know, but either way it works out for us."

"What's the plan for Kansas?"

"Break it in too many places to fix. I-70 is the only interstate running across, connecting east and west. We can break it in at least a dozen places - overpasses and bridges - and fan out on either side, taking out the roads they'll use for detours. Kansas is so sparsely populated there aren't many. We could conceivably prevent traffic across the state. The same goes for railroads. Once it's no longer to transport goods across the state, they'll move their defenses to other areas."

"Most of the population lives in a handful of cities." Alex said. "The countryside must be full of partisans."

Roger grinned.

"Exactly." he said. "They'll do most of the work. We'll coordinate and supply. There's a well organized force in place, targets selected, most of the supplies already in place. They're waiting for us to provide some essential supplies and, when it's all set, give the signal."

"What kind of supplies?"

"Thermite mostly, for the railroads. Some high-velocity stuff. And detonation control gear. And security augmentation."

"What's my contribution?"

"You and I will be busy, coordinating. It's got to go off perfectly. One night of fire..."

"One shot at glory."

"It will be the final blow." Roger said. "The war may go on, for months. Maybe a year or more. But I'd be surprised if it was much more. Even though they know it's coming, when it happens it will signal the end for the realists."

"They have realists?"

"Some. Mostly military men who couldn't bring themselves to turn, even when they knew that loyalty to the regime was treason against the Republic. I suppose there were different reasons. But those that are left, will know. They'll tell their masters, for all the good it will do. Perhaps a few may desert at that point, but by then it won't make any difference."

"Seems easy enough." Alex said. "You've arranged for transport?"

"Supply and transportation is all covered. We're going in to make sure all the pieces are in place. We want it quick and clean. Minimal exposure time for us, and any locals who have to make a quick exit." He grinned. "Like you did in Illinois."

"That wasn't exactly planned." Alex said.

"I suspected as much. What do you say?"

"I'd ask what security augmentation involves."

"Kansas has a lot of enthusiastic partisans." Roger said. "Very little in the way of pros. Especially seasoned pros. There's been almost no action there, the entire war. They see the opportunity, and the necessity, of doing this now. They need us to help see it goes clean and smooth."

"What's the plan? Besides Mantis and whatever I can dig up?"

"The Alliance will handle the north side. They've quietly infiltrated a considerable contingent over the past couple of months. We've done the same from our side. We'd like you to help us provide a little, insurance."

"I've got, if nothing comes up between now and then..."

"You don't need much." he said. "Mainly we need you - what do you have, two or three good squad-leader types? That'll do - the three of four, five if you can manage it, infiltrate with the trigger team. They'll make sure everything is set and give the signal. One quick blow and it's done, and you egress the same way you got in."

"You want fast and mobile. Yeah, Mike and I, we got three, four guys who can do it. I guess you got routes laid out."

"All ready." he said. He turned back to the table, slid the mouse around, clicked a couple of times. A large map filled one of the screens.

"There's a pretty good group of guys going to take care of about a dozen railroad bridges. They're spread out over an area of several hundred square miles. Pretty empty out there."

"Every place a railroad crosses a creek or a road." Alex said. "Yeah, you drive along, looking over, and every few minutes you see a bridge or overpass, or underpass usually out in the sticks."

"Exactly. You take out a bridge, just a few hundred feet long, and the railroad is broken for days at least, maybe weeks. No trains will cross Kansas. They can't afford that. Same with highways - the bridges take a little more work, but they take even longer to repair."

"That will make Kansas useless to them."

"They'll abandon it." Roger said. "Even now they can't maintain order in the few small cities. Outside the KC area there's almost no military activity. They don't have the manpower, and the conscripts are pretty much useless without constant supervision."

"As critical as Kansas is, they should have considerable resources guarding those lifelines."

"Tells you how bad it is. They don't have considerable resources. They've got as many drone patrols as they can manage, but we can detect those. Kansas is a big mostly empty prairie.

"The main thing is, we need your team to cover a lot of ground fast, moving pretty much 24/7 for a week or so before we pull the trigger. We have a comm-net that will be activated just before we start, so they won't have time to find it and monitor it. You guys get around fast on your bikes, better than anyone I've ever seen. Once you have all the cells located, you keep everything in sync. And you have to be there with them to make sure everything gets set up right."

"How about fuel?" Alex asked. "Our machines are fast but there's a price for that speed."

"Not a problem. We've got stashes with more than enough, and you're never far from someone who can bring you a can if you run short. What's the range on... what're you ridin' now anyway? Still the Hammers?"

"Yeah. A new line. Same configuration, V-6 with a two-speed auto tranny, modest power boost. There's no practical limits for road use. I've run them up over one-forty on a track, and I ran out of nerve before it ran out of speed. We'll be using three or four trike versions for this, they have a little less range but come in handy for carrying things."

Roger laughed. "You, runnin' out of nerve?"

"Well, I don't figure on killin' myself, disappoint my enemies."

"They don't want to tangle with you as bad as they say they do. What's the range?"

"Over five hundred. Little less for the trikes of course."

"You shouldn't have to worry much about pursuit." Roger said. "They're spread so thin the only reason you'll see a cop on a country road is if they're sent out there to look for something. Or someone. So if you see them you know something's up."

"If they're looking for us, finding us will be really bad luck."

"They know that. That's why you won't see them. The regular LE types, state and local, in places like Kansas just quit when everything went to hell. A lot of them joined the rebels The replacements are useless, incompetent and mean, like all the minions of the regime."

"Makes'em easier to shoot." Alex said. "Not that it was ever difficult."

"So you're in?"

"Been in since you said Kansas. Like you said, this is the deathblow. Think I'd miss it?"


























Chapter 28 -- DUXUGJTAUWJM














Chapter 42 -- LIFLUOHRJHJC





Chapter 47 -- GOCWGECAMCE







Chapter 54 -- OXKKVKLMEFCL
















Chapter 70 -- BUVKWNMPNUE

Chapter 71 -- NCQTKXSEGX









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