Friday, March 27, 2015

Ottoman: Empire or That Thing You Put Your Feet On? - Part 3


I’d like to claim some Machiavellian super power for what came next but the most honest answer – whether at the time or viewed through historical perspective – is that human nature is very predictable on the macroscopic view. 

Life on the home place continued to run pretty much as it had been running.  June was boysenberries, broccoli, cherries, peaches, potatoes, rhubarb, and all the greens and herbs that we could harvest.  I missed most of that work but it turned out not to be a disaster though more was dried than was canned.  Some of that was the result of a lack of white sugar or honey as a sweetener but some of that was in the process of being rectified by the surprising turn of Reggie actually pulling things together enough to capture a couple of wild bee colonies and installing them in Dad’s empty hives.  Who would have thought it?  Certainly not I and I had to add a nerve facet to the puzzle that was Reg.   

While the home place may have run the same town life was evolving.  After the destruction of the dam Matt instituted Plan B.  The fruit of this plan was basically a cheap grade of ethanol made from the grains of the vermin infested and abandoned silos on the other side of the county.  Jax and I spent many a moment bemoaning the fact that we hadn’t secured at least some of that grain ourselves before the rats had gotten into it.  It would have gone a long way towards easing some of the problems we faced as our own grain supply dwindled before we could plant and harvest more. 

“I’ve seen that stuff … smelled it,” Reggie said with a grin during one of our family meetings.  “It’s basically just moonshine … rot gut moonshine at that.  Even without us spiking it that stuff is going to foul up machinery with too much use.” 

Jax nodded.  “Most engines aren’t meant to run pure ethanol to begin with.  I wonder if they are thinning regular fuel with ethanol.” 

I shrugged.  “Either or, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is results.” 

And what results they were.  We didn’t even have to sabotage very many batches to get the desired effect.  Of course that’s when we found out that Matt had some serious shade tree mechanics at his disposal.  But that too backfired on Matt because his trademark slyness actually made the farmers suspicious.   

First he’d send the mechanics out to repair machinery but not without a “guard” because of how valuable they were.  Only “guard” turns out to be a serious number of “guards” that wind up never leaving because they’ve been ordered to not just protect the mechanic but to protect the farm.  This disenfranchises the farmer and makes him a subsidiary – or slave depending on how you look at it – to the farm which is considered more important.  This happened twice before the small landowners wised up.  Eventually they didn’t just stop asking for help from town for mechanical issues but stopped trading in the fouled fuel completely … or at least those that were strong enough were allowed to stop. 

The second part of Matt’s Plan B was actually quite ingenious and Reggie and I were a little jealous.  Of the others, only Jax understood but he said it simply wasn’t practical for an operation our size.  I didn’t disagree but that didn’t mean that I was any less impressed.  And yes, I can recognize and be impressed with Matt’s intelligence while still despising most of his methods and ultimate goals.   

Basically what Matt was doing was taking recycled materials and making briquettes that could be burned in open fires and in set ups that would operate steam engines.  Had he used cleaner materials there is no telling where he could have taken his manufacturing where it would have ultimate led him.  Matt’s problem was that he despised the success of the industry he created so did not put his intellect to use enough to make the briquette endeavor even more successful.   

Other people saw where the briquette work could go however and they wanted a piece of it.  His underlings were the ones that really forced the people in town to work on scavenging materials that could be converted.  They started by dismantling damaged structures around town and taking the materials to old town dump where it was separated for recycling.  Wood was the primary material they used to make the briquettes with but reports also came back that they were selling scrap metal to some out of town operation. 

The success of the briquette industry had us feeling like our plans were slipping away but we stuck with patience and didn’t attempt any overt action against the town.  Eventually our subversive attacks began to pay off. 

July was when I began to get my strength back and just in time too as this was the first month of plenty that we’d had since the last of the fall harvest.  The ground was finally dry from all of the flooding and the corn started coming in, at least the sweet corn had.  The field corn would still be another month off at least.  The orchards had also started to produce with the first fruit being apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, and more cherries that we could almost handle.  The grape arbor was full to bursting though we did wind up losing a couple of vines to weaknesses caused by too much rain earlier in the season.  The berry hedges produced hand over fist and it was here that we usually put Gennie to work because with the abundance she could eat as many as she picked without harming our food stores; blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, and raspberries fields the brambles to overflowing.  The garden came back after a very late start and we harvested beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, celery, carrots, peas, peppers, early potatoes, summer squash and enough cucumbers and tomatoes to make even the Houchins farm sit up and take notice. 

In contrast, July is when the stress and poor nutrition really began to show in those living in town and in those that had become dependent on what the town claim to be able to offer.  Of course, we at least partially helped that along.  We live trapped as many rats as we could and re-homed them into warehouses and buildings that we knew were being used as storage for the supplies that Matt rationed out.  The rats themselves did plenty of damage to the supplies, and even the buildings, but there was also an unplanned consequence of this tactic. 

On day in early August Vern hot footed it over to our place and said, “From here on out don’t none of you mess with any rats.” 

Jax noted his palor and asked, “What’s up that you didn’t feel you could put it on the radiofax?” 

“Because I wanted to make sure that you understood that Dad wasn’t just back tracking on his stance.” 

“You mean about the small farms?” 

“Yeah.  Now look Jax, you make sure everyone understand.” 

“I will when you finally spit it out.”  Jax is a forgiving sort but he still held a quiet grudge over how I’d been treated and there simply was no back up in him when it came to some issues. 

“We got word through a third party that they’ve got some kind of plague in town.” 

“Plague?!” 

Vern described the symptoms and Jax said, “That sounds like an intestinal disease, not the plague.” 

“Ok, if it isn’t the plague Mr. I’ve-Never-Been-To-Medical-School, what is it then?” 

I’d heard the noise and quietly entered the room trying not to draw too much attention.  On the other side of the room Reggie gave me a quick look before stepping up to Jax and saying, “Rats carry lots of crap that humans can catch but it is mostly bacterial.” 

Jax and Vern both turned to him.  “Relax.  Geez.  Before I got involved I wanted to know the possible outcomes and whether it was worth spending the time doing it.” 

The two men relaxed and said, “Ok then, you tell us what this is.” 

“I can’t tell you what it is, but I can’t tell you what it might be.  Salmonellosis.  Puking and the runs, cramps, fever … like Jax said that ain’t the plague but if enough people are coming down with it.  Heck, it might not even be the rats transferring it but could be a bad batch of food.” 

I held up the wall and said, “It could be an accidental poisoning … or even a deliberate one.  Why did you automatically assume it was the rats?” 

Vern’s panic began to subside.  “Don’t mind me.  I just saw too much of this crap when I was active duty.  I’ve had it you know.” 

“Had what?” 

“Plague.  Got bit by a rat over in a Somali village.  They caught it in time obviously but it scared the … the crap out of our whole unit.  Several of us were quarantined for over a month.  Hate that ****.” 

“So maybe it isn’t the rats.” 

“No, it’s the rats.  A mechanic came to one of the farms and was cussing about being bitten by a rat earlier in the day.  Twenty-four hours later the guy is on his death bed and dies later that night.” 

Jax asked, “No one else caught it?” 

“No.” 

Jax grabbed a couple of the books out of the library that he’d been studying and gave them a quick scan.  “Could be Salmonellosis like Reggie said although that doesn’t normally cause death except in infants and frail elderly or those with some other health problem.  Could be Rat-Bite Fever which is more serious though that has a rash and you didn’t mention one.” 

“Nope, no rash.  I asked specifically.” 

“Then I’ll stick with the forensics we do have and say that if it isn’t Salmonellosis that it is something very close.” 

“So, not plague?” 

“I don’t think so.  Not a hanta, lassa or hemorrhagic fever either as the symptoms aren’t similar enough.  Either way, from here on out we deal with rodents wearing heavy gloves and some kind of mask and goggles.  We also need to secure the feed and food storage.” 

Vern nodded.  “Mom is already hanging hot peppers every place you can imagine, this is only going to make her even crazier about it.” 

Reggie laughed, “What?  She thinks all the mice and rats are related to Speedy Gonzalez?” 

I threw a dish towel at Reggie and said, “Hot peppers can kill mice and mess up rats.  Or did you think I put cayenne pepper flakes in the chicken feed just to BBQ them on the hoof so to speak?” 

Reggie shook his head.  “I don’t believe you.” 

“Well believe this Einstein, there is a pepper over in India that is so strong that it is used to keep elephants away.” 

Reggie continued to think I was pranking him until he found it doing some research the next day on natural rodent repellents.  We all had a good laugh, even Reggie, who had begun to relax enough that he and Ginger were really starting to explore whatever it was between them. 

Just to be on the safe side though Jax asked that we restrict all of our recons to far-viewing.  And just to be safe he also had a decontamination routine he put anyone that went off the property through once they returned.  Even though it caused some grumbling on occasion everyone suffered through because of Ashley’s baby, Kellie, and while I hated to admit it, me.  It wasn’t just the infants and little kids that could get killed by that kind of illness.  I was on the mend and even looked and acted normal most of the time but it would not have taken much to set me back to square one as I was still slightly anemic and kept catching every little cold that went through the house.  It was frustrating. 

But a couple of weeks later, for one of our weekly meetings, Ashton brought back pictures of huge “burial pits” that they were just dumping bodies into before throwing eco-fuel in and lighting ablaze all grumbling stopped.  Whatever was going through town was definitely in the moderately deadly range. 

“Could it be another terrorist attack?” Ashley asked as she held her son protectively. 

Ashton who’d already asked the question out of her hearing told her, “Don’t think so Hon.  Just some of Matt’s tactics are coming back to haunt him.” 

“How so?” 

Ashton looked at Jax to explain it the way he had earlier.  “Matt, just like Delory and Suicide before him, is keeping all but his top people on short rations.  It still looks like they are trying to eat the way they always have … canned and boxed foods, liquor and drugs, cigarettes even if they are home-rolled.  We’ve all seen that they are getting some stuff from the militia but what is coming in looks like more of the same just with generic labels rather than name brand stuff.  About the only thing that I’ve seen come in that isn’t like that is those big bags of white rice and rice is nothing but carbs with very little nutrition.” 

Alexis added, “We’ve all heard the radio.  Lots of problems occurring that could be prevented with better nutrition.  Most everyone isn’t getting the good stuff we’ve been getting.” 

Gennie snorted.  “The good stuff?  This crap is all just poor food.  Beans and vegetables.  I’d kill for a pizza … a slice of bread … or even them nasty corn bread things.” 

Janice gave Gennie the look and she shut up.  She still pouted but at least she shut up.  All of us were missing bread.  August had been a duplication of July only with the addition of several varieties of pears, but the field crops were still barely producing and that meant that bread wasn’t exactly super available on the menu. 

Jax got the meeting back on track by asking, “Lon and Vern brought some news and we compared it to some things that we’ve been hearing and it looks like Matt might be on the move.”

 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ottoman: Empire or That Thing You Put Your Feet On? Part 2

Gennie walked into the room, stopped and grinned. "Hey, look who has returned from the dead. Oh wait, you were never dead. And neither is Matt. Thought you were going to take him out. Instead all you do is lay around while the rest of us work. Thought you were going to ..."

Alexis grabbed Gennie by the nape of her neck and jerked her out of the study and into the hallway. "Sorry Lydie. Uh ..." She looked around and I gave a tired smile.

"Stop looking to see if I have a keeper. Yes, Jax knows I'm out of bed and downstairs. I actually made it down the stairs myself thank you very much."

Alexis grinned. "Good to see you up Girl."

"Good to be up." Nodding my head towards Gennie who was leaning against the wall and pouting I asked, "How is she?"

"Still living in la-la land but at least she is starting to cooperate with chores. Doesn't mean she is going to suddenly get any alone time. No play time either which means we are heading out to the garden. See you in a bit for the meeting."

"Yeah."

I wanted to be outside so bad it wasn't even funny. I'd never resented all of the work that I'd had to do on the home place but this was the first time in my life that I resented not being able to do any of the work. It was an irritating conundrum to live. Everyone kept telling me not to worry about it, that they had it covered. That only made me more resentful, made me feel more useless. On the other hand it gave me plenty of time to develop devious plans to thwart Matt's plans for this area.

First things first was a long confab with the Houchins farm. It started with Lon and Vern but soon included Mr. Houchins himself.

Getting his first look at me he was shocked and unable to hide it. "Dear Lord child, I ..."

"Don't sweat it Mr. Houchins. What is done is done and I'm on the mend."

Already having seen me Lon shook his head and muttered darkly, "If this is on the mend ..."

"Like I said, what is done is done. But I have do admit for right now I run out of energy faster than I'd like to so maybe we could just get back to it."

It was Vern who nodded his understanding and said, "We relayed what you wanted to do. As you can see Bonanza here decided he wanted to hear it for himself before we take part."

Mr. Houchins gave Vern a stern look. "Lydie I understand what you are wanting but these people have put their faith in my word to keep their locations secret."

"I understand that. And appreciate that you've been doing the same for our location. We aren't asking for you to divulge their whereabouts or who they are. We are merely asking you to relay some of our ... hmmm ... suggestions to those you consider trustworthy. I'm not going to ask outright since we don't need to know right now, but I'm sure there are some of the homesteads in the area that you know of that would take the information and use it to their personal advantage. Possibly even thinking they could sell it to Matt as a way to keep him off their back."

Lon, now beyond the need to constantly test me, said, "And you would have that right. So before we relay anything to anyone I want to know what this plan is and see if I can work it out for myself. And don't bother with the history lesson. Reggie has already been over it, given us all a headache, and I've even done some 'light' reading on the subject myself just to prove this dog isn't too old to learn a new trick. Just tell me how you mean for it to work against Matt."

"Matt is our primary target but he isn't our only target. We need to completely dismantle what the town represents in this area. As a base of operations it needs to cease to exist."

Mr. Houchins shook his head. "That's a tall order child and in all honesty one I'm not sure I can completely get behind. We need a center of trade in these parts." Which proved to me Mr. Houchins was a lot smarter than people gave him credit for being. He wasn't just some old farmer getting lucky in the apocalypse; he was a businessman who had an eye to the future. "If we destroy the town, the cost of doing business is going to skyrocket."

I grinned. "I remember a story that you and Dad used to tell about some drunk pigs."

Mr. Houchins tried not to smile, as the story was a particularly memorable one, but shook his head and asked, "And what the tarnation does drunk pigs have to do with what you're talking about? I'm almost afraid to know."

"Welllll, it isn't the pigs but the location of the story and the history behind it that might be an answer to what we need. At least on this side of the county. Aston and Johnson did a recon of the area in question and said that the river water was going back to its historical level and geographic norm."

Mr. Houchins' smile dimmed, his eyebrows went up, and then he surprised us all when he barked a loud laugh. "Ray's Landing?! Well my Lord, I ..." He nodded his head. "You know, that might well work. Assuming the water level cooperates. The buildings and all are still there too, or at least those that the historical society maintained are."

Vern asked, "What's she talking about?"

It was explained to everyone that while industry had created the town along the area called River Road, way back in the day, before the dams had changed the water level so dramatically, there had been a ferry crossing known as Ray's Landing. Even further back Ray's Landing had been a portage site for goods coming and going on keel boats and flat bottomed wooden barges.

"It wouldn't be like moving stuff by semi and dump truck loads but it would beat being completely dependent on bridges and paying the militia protection money for fuel and safe passage along the highways," I added.

Mr. Houchins nodded. "Well lets worry about moving goods when we have some goods to move. Looks like we've still got options one way or the other. Now what about the other pieces of this plan of yours?"

"It isn't my plan."

Jax insisted on reminding me, "You thought of it."

Not averse to taking some credit I agreed. "I may have come up with the initial idea but everyone has been adding to it. And I expect at the very least Lon and Vern have some ideas of their own or at least a few things they can tweak." Trying to get back on track I continued. "We know the destruction of the dam hurt Matt's plans. However, the pictures and reports coming in prove that he already had a Plan B on the drawing board. From the look of the set up Reggie and I both agree that it looks like there are two parts. First is a straight up liquid bio-fuel set up. It is bigger than what either of us have ..."

"Now just wait a minute," Lon interrupted but I was running out of steam and didn't let it go any further.

"Don't sweat it. No one said anything they weren't supposed to. It is just logical. Even salvaging all the farms in the area you wouldn't have had enough fuel to keep your outfit going this long. Especially not since there are others that were probably doing the same thing on a smaller scale at the same time. All, or at least most, of the fuel in town was taken after the initial terrorist act against the water supply. That leaves buying it from outside the area or creating your own. The federal government controls the fuel supply and it is primarily reserved for military use or the megafarms and major industry to keep the military complex up and running. So, you make your own. We don't need to know what you do with it, including selling it to other farmers."

Mr. Houchins looked momentarily uncomfortable then just brushed it off. "Now you're saying those people in town have a set up as well."

"Yes Sir, but it looks like they also are making charcoal. If I had to guess, based on the noise and the smoke, he is using it in those old steam engines from the Visitor's Museum. He's had them moved to the waterfront and from there I'm betting he is going to try and get some kind of water mill set up. I'm not sure yet whether the fuel is the goal or if he is going to manufacture something, either way the river will be a good way to carry away any undesirable contaminants."

"But you said that boy was a tree hugger type that was going for some kind of all-natural utopia."

"Sorta kinda. It is a technologically-based utopia but even as strung out as Matt is, he realize reaching that goal is a long way off and requires intermittent steps he needs to attain first. He's got ideals certainly, but that doesn't mean he isn't willing to compromise temporarily if it means attaining his goals in the long run. What the preacher would have called situational ethics. He hates the very idea of pollution but he's realistic enough to know that right now he doesn't have the technology at his disposal to attain a negative carbon footprint."

"A negative what?"

Vern said, "Just tree-hugger mumbo jumbo. But I'm beginning to get what Lydie means. The dam is toast. But Matt was smart enough to have secondary plans ready to either run concurrently or instead of the dam in case it broke down."

I nodded. "Exactly. It is a means to an end and potentially a pretty profitable one. I think he is starting with ethanol ... probably salvaging all of those silos on the other side of the county. And before I forget if you see an uptick in rats instead of shooting them or poisoning them, live trap them if you can."

Mr. Houchins nodded. "We've got reports from some of our contacts that disturbing them silos has led to a lot of vermin problems. You planning on turning that back on the town I take it? If we don't do something quick they'll breed and mow down whatever we have in the fields."

Jax smiled, "Believe it or not it was Ginger that added that part."

Lon had a red-headed daughter and smiled before saying, "Oh I believe it. I heard about that time she ran into a rat in the barn."

Reggie smiled, "We were cleaning rat bits up for a while and the rabbits still sit up and salute when she comes in."

We all chuckled but then got back to it. "Still not seeing all of it Lydie."

"Excuse the mixing of metaphors but Matt is going to try the honey route for a while before he brings the stick out. He'll blame all the bad things that were occurring on the dead that are no longer around to defend themselves. He may even try and make it seem, without actually saying it, that the militia is the real enemy. That's been his style thus far and is the same thing he used to do when we were in school. Always have a mutual enemy to fight to keep anyone from realizing he was the real enemy until it was too late. He'll go to the farms he knows of and try and make friends; and make no mistake if he and Delorey didn't find them with the drones then the militia knows their coordinates and have likely shared the information with him. At first the trade will be advantageous to both parties if not a little more so to the farmers, then slowly the advantage will slide more to Matt though he ultimately may use the militia to get what he wants from the farms without paying for it. And as soon as Matt gets enough of the smaller farms in his pocket he'll either come after us or send the militia after us depending on how far his influence has spread at that point. And the smaller farmers will back him up, either because they've been turned against you or they've been taken over completely."

Mr. Houchins looked at Lon and Vern and they both nodded. He turned back to me and said, "Agreed. And that might already be happening to a few of them. Let's just say they ain't as welcoming as they used to be. Couple of 'em have even said outright that they don't need us anymore and not to bother coming around."

Jax asked, "Would you be averse to those that have turned hostile to you reaping some consequences for it?"

While Mr. Houchins looked uncomfortable Lon said, "Absolutely not. The enemy of my enemy might be my friend, but the converse of that is also true. The friend of my enemy is my enemy ... even if they used to be a friend. I wouldn't necessarily be in favor of complete destruction but compromising their ability to do business wouldn't be hard to swallow."

Reggie nodded. "Good. Aston and I are going out tonight and we're going to mess with their fuel delivery."

"Not more explosions?" Vern said like he had a headache coming on.

"Nope. That would tip our hand and make Matt too suspicious too soon. What we plan might make him wonder but there will be no proof that anyone did anything beyond having a bad batch come off the production line. I'm going to doctor the tanks with a couple of handy dandy ideas I picked up listening to our resident chemist ..."

"Knock it off Reggie," I told him, incidentally revealing how tired I was getting.

Vern said, "Reckon it might be time for us to be heading home."

Trying to save face I said, "A couple of more things if you have a moment. If you have the ability ... we suggest you start caching supplies if you haven't already started. I'll be blunt and honest and admit that we are doing that. If it isn't the forces from town it could be the militia coming out and knocking on our doors if not just kicking them in to take what they want."

"Not all of the militias have gone bad Lydie," Lon told me.

"I know. We can tell from the various radio transmissions we are picking up that the rogue militia around here are actually not how most are running; but hungry and desperate men are going to do things they might not under normal circumstances, especially if they believe the ends justifies the means at the time they are doing it. Plus they could get bad intel about us, make us out to be an enemy force, who knows, just anything. And, don't take this the wrong way but if I've thought about bringing down Matt's operation from inside, certainly someone else could think of doing the same to us."

"You think Matt knows?"

I shook my head at the question having already gone over it in my head numerous times. "Even if he has thought about it he won't consider it a real possibility. His ego simply won't allow him to believe it. It is what he does to other people, not what happens to him. That doesn't mean that he won't try and do it to us. Our group is small enough that we know each other's movements, would notice, that kind of attitude change, and we know what our weak link is."

"That little kid."

"Yeah. But with a group your size ... I mean no offense but ..."

Lon nodded as did the other two men. "None taken. You ain't the only ones with some that need more watching than they should. We're on it but the additional warning is warranted. We'll pass the word to be careful to others as well. Anything else?"

I nodded, nearly completely spent and having a hard time not showing it. "To work this plan is going to have to stay flexible. We'll work with you as much as possible, but we may have to take advantage of moments quicker than we can have a committee confab over. I expect it is going to be the same for you with your contacts. All I ask is we keep each other in the loop. Move too fast and put too much pressure and Matt is going to figure the game and change tactics and that will just waste everyone's time. I also don't want to set Matt up for assassination."

"Why not?"

It was Reggie who snickered and answered, "Taking out one queen might just be making room for the next one."

Jax rolled his eyes and explained to the men who had learned to be suspicious when Reggie started snickering. "Has something to do with ant mounds or termites. Basically we don't want to leave a vacuum for the next big bad to fill. Or panic those in town into moving their operation to somewhere less accessible to eradicating. We've got an inside track on Matt's way of thinking. The next guy we might not be so lucky with. The next town might be better protected"

"Understood," Lon said with a nod. "But it really is time for us to go. Clouds are looking a little heavy and I don't like all three of us being away at the same time these days."

Reggie followed them out and down the road as it was his turn to be on guard duty and Jules was already overdue for relief. Jax looked at me and I sighed. "Yeah, I know. Nap time."

"Don't get so frustrated Babe. You did really well today and you're starting to get your energy back faster. But overdoing it could set you back. Maybe not square one but backwards is not the direction you want to go no matter how far."

Despite trying to not show how irritated I was I still sounded petulant. "I get it Jax. It isn't a race it is a marathon."

He gave me his arm to lean on as I maneuvered up the stairs. "I knew you were smart. Just think of it the same way you are thinking of this campaign to bring down Matt's empire. Doing things too fast ... you'll undo every advantage you have."

"Don't start using reason and logic. I'll just get cranky."

Suddenly he lifted me up in his arms and started carrying me up the stairs like Rhett Butler. "Hey! I can walk."

"I know. But soon enough you'll be so strong that you want need me to do this anymore. Besides, the doctor has ordered a special remedy for you today."

Running my fingers through his hair I said, "I might not need you to carry me, but it doesn't mean I won't want you to on occasion. As for the 'special remedy' how long until you have to take your shift on comm?"

Taking the remainder of the stairs two at a time Jax grinned and said, "I've got some time, especially since Ginger and Ash have the kids outside for some fresh air."

I gave him grin for grin and my best Scarlett I said, "Why Jax Remington, you sneaky ol' thang you."

The rest of the remedy my doctor ordered is no one else's business.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Ottoman: Empire or That Thing You Put Your Feet On? - Part 1


Recovery was a long time coming.  It was a while before they were even sure I would survive.  And a little while beyond that before I could stay conscious enough to tell them what had happened.  There was so much to do and I couldn’t participate beyond answering questions that they couldn’t find the answers for any other way.  It wasn’t just the knife wound and subsequent infection.  I was literally unable to get around because I’d lost so much weight and grown so week.  Time and again I would have a set back but slowly I got to be awake more hours than I slept in a day.  They planted the garden, searched the woods for wild forage, tended the biofuel set up, took care of all of the day to day responsibilities of running the farm, keeping us fed, and keeping us safe.  

And when I realized that is when the frustration set in.  I also realized that there were data I was missing but they would only give it to me in bits in pieces.  I don’t blame them now, or then, but that didn’t lower the frustration.  I didn’t start to feel a part of things again until I talked them into letting me have books from the library and a tablet of paper to write on.  I felt guilty for being unable to end Matt’s reign.  I felt guilty for everything they were having to do without me.  I was angry at myself for not being able to finish what I started. 

Then there came a day when a plan started to form.  I demanded more and more books and someone must have tattled to my doctor.
 
Jax startled me when he came in behind me and gently pulled the book from my hand that I was trying read. "Babe you need to put the books away and get some rest."

It wasn't the first time he'd said it and not the first time I responded, "I've got to find some way to turn this."

Jax, having figured out during my weeks-long convalescence, that stubborn didn't even begin to describe me once I had a goal, sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Ok, I'll bite. What are you going to find in all of these all history texts to help us out with the mess coming out of town?"

"I'm not sure yet but ..."

"But?"

"Don't you dare laugh."

He kissed my forehead. "Have I ever laughed at you Lydie?"

"No. Not really. And I'm sorry I said it like that. It makes me sound like Matt."

Briefly angry Jax snapped, "Don't compare yourself to him again. I swear I am going to drop Gennie down a well someplace and cap it off."

I laughed though it used up some of the last of my energy to do it. "Whoa Big Boy. Down. This isn't about the crap Gennie says."

"Then what? You've done the exact opposite of what Matt did, is doing. And you got closer than any of us did at taking him out."

"I told you is wasn't necessarily about killing him though I went in knowing it was a possibility. It was about destroying his power base. Matt would be nothing without ..." I started coughing and felt pulling in my side.

"OK, that's enough. I don't want to ... to ..."

I knew what he was trying not to say, that he was trying not to act like he had congenital testosterone poisoning by ordering me to put the books away and rest. He knew me too well to know that wouldn't work unless I cooperated.  And if I didn’t cooperate we’d wind up in an argument and I’d wind up weaker than I started.  Instead he tried reason which was almost my undoing but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to try and explain my thinking.

"Lydie, let it go for a little while. There's nothing we can do."

"Maybe. Maybe not."

Jax eyed me with reluctant interested. "Ok, spit it out."

I picked the book I'd been holding back up. "You see this? It is full of the stories of empires throughout history, but every single one of those empires fells."

"Yeah? And?"

"One of the greatest empires of recent history was the Ottoman Empire. Not too many people think about it these days though."

"I thought the Ottomans were from like way back, the Middle Ages or close."

"They were. What a lot of people aren't taught is that the Ottoman Empire didn't come to an end until 1922."

"Wait.  No way. Are you serious?"

"Yep. And that's a long time for an empire to exist so that’s what I’m using as my example."

"No freaking kidding."  Then with some suspicion he asked, “Example for what?”

"I think just sitting back and trying to out wait Matt isn't the best choice. Letting him continue to build his power base is a bad idea."

Jax snorted. "Babe, you blew up every bridge you could get your hands on and the dam too, and more than a few other structures. If that wasn't destroying his power base I don't know what would be."

I nodded. "That definitely helps but won't work in and of itself. We have to do this carefully or like with ants, you might be able to destroy one mound but if you don't kill the queen they'll just rebuild the mound someplace else."

Reggie must have been hanging out in the hallway because I heard him laugh and ask, "You telling me that Matt is a queen?"

Jax chuckled as well but said, "Knock it off. If you're going to lurk come in here and help me understand what Lydie is trying to say."

Reggie walked in with a grin but real interest and said, "I will when she explains it so I can understand it."

It once again struck me what good friends I had and how badly I had scared them. I hadn't meant to and for that I was very sorry. They'd all been incredibly kind, to both me and Jax, doing chores and taking on other responsibilities so that he could focus his energy on me while I hovered between life and death and then took longer than expected to recover. It sounds so melodramatic to say it like that but it is the truth. Matt hurt me a lot worse than I had understood.  But he’d also help me realize what a treasure some people can be.

My thoughts must have shown on my face because Reggie said, "Hey, if you're tired ..."

I shook my head and tried to put order to my thoughts. "No, I'm fine. Really. And I need to bounce this off people that won't think I'm crazy."

"Gennie been talking again?"

Jax snarled, "Does that girl ever stop talking?"

I put my hand on his arm. "It is too dangerous to pass her off to someone else right now. The way she is she could say something and bring attention we don't need. With the militia swarming all over town ..."

"Yeah, yeah. And there really isn't any telling what she would say if given the chance."

Reggie agreed but added, "So get to 'splaining Lucy. I'm all ears if you've got a plan. You mentioned the Ottoman Empire."

"The rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire. Just about any empire for that matter but like I told Jax, the Ottomans were so strong and long lived I figured I had my best chance of learning something from their fall. OK you guys, you know your history. So tell me what destroys an empire?"

They listed out all of the usual suspects ... war, famine, drought, yada, yada ... but then Reggie looked at me closely and muttered, "You sneaky, sneaky woman."

Jax looked between the two of us and asked, "Wait.  What did I miss … and please don’t tell me you intend on blowing anything else up."

Reggie grinned. "Everything we mentioned could be a factor in bringing down an empire but it isn't a given. Strong leadership however can overcome all of that, even natural disasters can be used by an empire to solidify their position and control."

"Well Matt seems to be a strong leader so I'm still missing the point. We've already tried to take him out without success. And frankly we don't have enough resources to start a war, especially one that includes fighting the militia."

"Ah so Grasshopper but there is more than one way to skin a cat … or fight a war."

I rolled my eyes. "Knock it off Reg. What I'm suggesting ... well it isn't really war per se." I could see Jax getting irritated and explained further. "Outside factors can cause an empire to decline but what destroys an empire comes from within."

"Within," Jax repeated.

"Yeah. From within. Moral decline, civil war, corrupt politicians, an entitlement population who are more interested in taking resources than they are generating them. This weakens the infrastructure that holds the empire together. Fractures form. If these fractures aren't repaired collapse becomes inevitable and the result is destruction of the empire."

Reggie added, "At least until someone new comes along to pick up the pieces to use for their own purposes and starts a new empire building scheme."

Leaning back against the pillows propping me up I nodded. "Yeah. Which means we need to be very careful that when we do this we make sure that whatever is left over isn't going to be dangerous to us until we are strong enough to deal with it."

Johnson stuck his head around the door. "Still ain't seeing it Lydie."

Jax sighed, "Who all is out there?"

Johnson walked in followed by Aston, Aiden, and Jules. Jax stood up and asked, "Who's guarding ..."

It was Aston who said, "Relax Jax, everything is covered. Ginger is on comm, Ash has the kids, Alexis is on guard duty and Janice is sitting on the holy terror while she mucks out the goat pen."

Jax nodded but still glanced out the bedroom window like he was afraid Gennie was murdering the goats rather than mucking the pen.

Jules hadn’t lost his hate for Matt but he'd learned to control it ... most of the time. "So tell us this plan to kill Matt."

I felt Jax stiffen and then watched the others when I said, "Matt isn't our only problem. If we take Matt out all we are accomplishing is creating a hole that someone can come in and fill and continue doing the exact same thing he is doing now."

Surprisingly Jules gave what I said serious thought. "Okay, say I buy that theory though I'm not convinced anyone could do what Matt has done."

I said, "Sure they could. All it would take is someone willing to use people the way Matt has. In fact it might even be likely that someone could done it better than Matt has. All they would have needed was more attainable goals."

"You've said that before," Aiden said. "You said Matt was pretty crazy last time you saw him."

"No, not crazy, I said the plans he believed in were crazy ... and unattainable no matter how much he believed in them. If Matt is a certifiable anything it is that he has some kind of personality disorder; probably Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I've been reading up on it."

Johnson crossed his arms and complained, "Your father built the weirdest library."

I smiled nostalgically. "Mom used to say the same thing when Dad would bring home more books. He got them from all over ... yard sales, library sales, dumpsters, just all over the place. Now don't get me off track. Like I said I've been reading up on Matt's issues to try and figure them out."

"We already know he has issues Lydie," Jules growled.

"Yeah, of course. It's pretty obvious these days. At least for those of us that have broken free of the charisma he used to exert. And frankly a lot of people in town, at least from what I heard when I was there, aren’t really under his power in the traditional sense.  They don't respect him very much either. They're only willing to follow him because he's given them stuff; that’s how he has them hooked. Which leads me back to what we were originally talking about."

Reggie started bouncing around in excitement. "Aw girl, I'm seeing it. I am sooooo seeing it."

Johnson put his big hand on Reggie's shoulder to keep him still. "Good for you man, how about you lend us your glasses so the rest of us can see it."

Reggie shook his head. "Lydie is right. If you take out the boss dude someone else will only take their place and keep on keeping on doing the same thing. If you can't crush something to destroy it, you have to collapse it to bring it down. Think of it the same way Jax brought down the bridges. He collapsed them by taking out the supports."

"Huh?"

"Collapse of Matt's little empire man. Lydie started it by attacking the dam. First order of business is to find a way to keep it out of commission."

For the first time I saw Jules grin. "Wellllll, one of reasons I came down here was to tell you that from the sound of things I overheard while on comm is that the militia reported the bridge is too washed out to be worth repairing, they've declared it a total loss and said it wasn't worth sending them corps of engineer guys here from Chattanooga after all.  They are going downstream to try and shore up the other dams that were damaged by the surge when our dam gave way."

Aston pantomimed spiking a football and Reggie did a spastic happy dance. Even Jax bumped fists with the rest of the guys. After they'd settled down some I said, "This is going to make our job easier."

Aiden asked, "Didn't you hear? The dam is damned. It went bye-bye."

"I heard, and that's good but it isn't enough. Matt is too invested in control and making his fantasies a reality. All he'll do is switch to a new tactic. Probably bio-fuel. Or some other recycling plan that would give him some kind of return to spend on his overall picture."

It was Reggie who said, "As long as he has a labor force and the resources to support them he'll just keep chugging along."

Nodding I said, "Exactly. And thers's no telling what he squirreled away from Delorey's business or even going back to when you guys were salvaging town after the initial attack. You've admitted that only Matt knew where all the caches were and what was in them."

That gave them something to think about.

Jax did his own nodding and said, "We've discussed all of this before. How do you plan on us using it against Matt?"

"Without a labor force, without a population to manipulate, Matt isn't anything. Remember this isn't high school where the projects were paper-bound theories that he could pull together with minimal physical effort on his part. Matt's talent these days lies in getting other people to do things for him. He plays foreman really well, worker bee not so much. He believes his job, his calling, is to get those theories off the paper but he sees himself as too good to do the manual labor involved.  He’s one of the elite.  Everyone else is just slave labor."

Jax started to get it. "Take away his sphere of influence … his slaves. If he doesn't have enough people around to get his projects off the ground ..."

The other guys finally saw it. Johnson asked, "Are you talking about killing off the people in town? As much as I hate some of them I ... I don't know if I can ..."

Reggie answered for me, "Not killing off the people in town, killing off the town as a viable place to live for the people. If enough of them are only on Matt's side of the playing board because of what he can give to them, and what he could give them was tied to the dam ..."

Jax said, "Question is how do we take advantage of that and bring Matt down?"

"We don't necessarily. At least not yet. What we focus on right now is exacerbating the problem. Make them lose confidence in Matt faster than they inevitably will if he can't get the lights back on.   Make sure they are hungry and that they stay that way.  Give them reason to think the grass is greener someplace else.  This isn't a sprint, this is a marathon and we need to pace ourselves. Moving too fast could be just as dangerous as doing nothing at all. We don't want to tip our hand."

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back - Part 11


Today if you go walking in the town square, in addition to an obnoxious amount of greenery you have to battle along the main path that the blasted eco-teams fawn over, there are pieces of outdoor artwork you have to avoid tripping over.  One of those pieces is on the regional register for historical art.  Great, big, nasty-looking thing that can’t decide what it is supposed to be.  Today the plaque beneath it says it is called “Venustas.” which is Latin for beauty.  Yeah.  Right.  Back when I was a kid the thing sat in a park built overlooking the dam and it had been called “Chimera” which was a mythological creature that breathed fire and was a hybrid made up of several animals and frightening just because of how ugly it was.  The statue had never been that great to look at with but it was solid as solid then as it is today and is what I rolled under after the explosives I set went off. 

I suppose if I am honest it is my fault the ugly thing looks even worse than it used to.  No amount of sanding and wielding ever fully repaired all of the dents and other damage it took as the concrete and debris rained down.  The sound of the explosion was enormous but even after things stopped falling from the sky the sound didn’t abate and it took me a moment to figure out it was because of the increased flow of water through the gap the explosion had created.   

I looked around for Matt to finish what I had started but didn’t see him.  Frustrated I edged my way closer to the overhang to see if he’d fallen over the side.  Honestly, what I expected to see I didn’t know then and still don’t know.  I suspect adrenaline had made me a little stupid.  It was a good thing for me that I had remained cautious because I had just enough time to set myself for attack when I saw something coming at me from the corner of my eye. 

I initially went down as I slid in the mud trying to avoid a piece of rebar being used like a bat to take off my head.  I won’t bother recording for posterity the spittle-laden words that flew from Matt’s lips while he was swinging.  The words don’t really matter, it was the sentiment behind them; he was death and I was his next victim and rubbish like that.  Needless to say I had no intention of cooperating and after getting up I parried every swing he threw at me.  I was strong but I’d been up over twenty-four hours and biked many miles and had been climbing around like a monkey wiring bridges and other things to go boom during that time.  However, while Matt might have been well-versed in hand to hand combat techniques, as far as I’ve ever been able to discover he had never practiced them in the realm of reality, only in gamer land.  Adrenaline kept us both going but I had the greater endurance.   

We were both spent and then hit our corners like old-time boxers did between rounds.  Matt turned his hand next to a verbal brawl.  “You had such potential.” 

“So did you Matt.  Why did you have to choose to be a craptastic jerk?  Why did you have to do that to Marty?!” 

“So this is about a broken heart?  I knew it.  Girls are so predictable.”  He smiled like he’d suspected it all along. 

“Oh my God Matt,” I laughed, unable to stop myself.  “Is your ego seriously that big?!”  Then in anger I snarled, “You had a hand in torturing and killing my best friend.  Our best friend!  How could you do that?!” 

Strangely calm Matt explained, “She was useful.  Not as useful as you would have been but definitely more malleable.  Besides she meant nothing.  If you hadn’t acted like a spoiled child and run off I would have gotten rid of her and we could have been together.  You never were very good at strategic planning Lydie.” 

“Geez.  I can’t believe I never realized what a freaking narcissist you are.” 

Almost ignoring what I’d said, or taking it as a compliment it was hard to say which, he said, “We could still do it you know.” 

“Do what?” 

“Be together.  I’ve set it all up.  These people … they need us.  They have no idea how much they need us.” 

“Yeah right.  King and Queen of the prom, that’s us.”  I nearly spit.  “Who do you think you are?  Machiavelli?” 

“It’s … apropos to a certain extent I must admit.  If these idiots were just slightly more intelligent I could have had this wound up even sooner.” 

A few pieces falling into place I asked, “So it was you who did for Delorey?  How did you set him up?” 

Like he was discussing the weather Matt answered, “Fairly easily if you must know.  I had hoped to keep him around longer.  Delorey was actually one of the more useful idiots I’ve had at my disposal.  But then he started making plans and deals without consulting me, putting my whole operation at risk.  I knew then it was time for him to go.” 

“Your operation.” 

“Yes Lydie.  My operation.  Mine.  I’m developing a technopolis based on green energy, something that will allow us to rise above the retched state this country is in.  With us leading the way, showing how it should be done, there is no telling how far we can go.  Certainly well beyond anything currently available.  This dam is a cornerstone of the first phase.”  Then he screamed at me, “AND LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE!!” 

“Oh.  So sorry.  Did I break your toy?” I asked snidely. 

Regaining control he said, “All you’ve done is make me have to change my timetable.  I was already discussing upgrades to the dam with a local representative of the corps of engineers.  They are practically salivating at the chance to modify the dam to my specifications but were worried about how they would justify on paper deconstructing something that had no damage.” 

I looked in his eyes and could hardly accept how wholeheartedly he believed the nonsense coming out of his mouth.  Matt was brilliant, I never have been afraid to give him that point, but a trained engineer he was not.  My guess after reading some of the depositions presented into court was that his father – who was a trained engineer for the TVA – had filled his head full of unrealistic dreams and agenda points.  I still remember some of the stuff his father used to spew and I knew even before things got as out of control as they did just how unrealistic what he believed in was. 

Hoping to reach him in some way I begged, “Matt, be serious.” 

“I am serious.” 

“Matt, your plan isn’t feasible.  You forget, I’ve heard all this before.  For one thing this is the wrong kind of river for what you would need to …” 

“Lydie, do not tell me my business.  Or are you forgetting just how often I beat you in these sorts of academic debates.” 

“This isn’t academics Matt.  It’s not theory or hypothesis.  This isn’t a design drawn up on the lunchroom napkins.  This is reality.  If your plans were as easy to implement as you claim why didn’t you and your dad turn your house into a mock up of them?” 

“Because my mother and sisters were always in the way.  They had absolutely no vision, no foresight.  How my father and I used to rail against their small mindedness, their lack of real intelligence.  My god they were such an embarrassment.  You had no idea, out on your tiny, subsistence level farm, the kind of work entailed in pulling this together with everyone forever saying can’t, impossible, or so jealous that they intentionally sabotaged every step forward.”
 
“You really believe that?” 

“Believe it?  I lived it!” 

It troubled me to think that Matt was as incompetent as he was acting.  If he was as crazy as he was acting did I have any right to judge him?  Even Jax had called him a rabid animal but I looked at Matt and saw not a rabid animal, not even a man, but a boy that had something seriously wrong with him.  Then I stopped myself.  Mentally ill, mentally incompetent or not, he was still morally accountable.  I also wasn’t convinced he wasn’t trying to play me … like a Maestro. 

I shook my head and then made a mistake, “Matt, you are acting like an idiot.” 

I was unprepared for his response.  He came around with the piece of rebar again and this time I didn’t duck in time and he caught me a hard and painful blow on my bicep.  I fell, slipping in the mud then had to keep rolling as he tried to bring the metal rod down on my head again and again.   

I kicked out at his legs and he skipped backwards, going down as he too lost his footing in the mud; but as he did he kicked out at me and I caught a glancing on my chin from the tip of his shoe.  It rattled me but I didn’t have much time to react because he was on me again and we rolled around on the ground and then from somewhere he pulled a knife and I felt a sharp, burning pain in my side and Lydie went bye-bye. 

The next thing I remember clearly is a terrified Matt looking rather more than a little worse for wear backing away holding his hand muttering, “Valkyrie … Valkyrie …”  Then he turned and ran. 

I roared and started to run after him but real pain took me to my knees.  I’m not sure how long I kneeled there.  Someone could have come along and killed me and I wouldn’t have even noticed but no one did.  The ground rumbling beneath my hands finally brought me back from la-la land and I looked up to see the abutment eroding in my direction.   

Seeing your imminent demise is a great motivator and I got my last shot of adrenaline for the day.  I scrambled to my feet and away from the dam.  I’d hidden my bike with the remainder of my supplies just the side of town before River Road.  It took me an hour to get through the hysterical crowds unseen and I was ready to cry with thankfulness that it hadn’t been discovered and absconded with.  I knew I would have to move quickly to keep someone from pulling me off and taking it away but since I wasn’t up to moving quick I had to wait until it was dark enough that no one would see me. 

While I waited for dark or some other miracle to happen I decided it was time to look at whatever damage Matt had done.  When I pulled my shirt up and away from the wound I nearly puked and did the only thing I could which was tie a binding over it and pray that I could get back to the Home Place and that Jax was there.   

I must have passed out at some point because I had meant to watch the action from my hiding place to keep my mind off my hurts but the next thing I knew was I was trying to blink my eyes open and realizing I was all in a crumpled heap against the door I had leaned against.  And that it was dark … well into the dark of the night.  Everything was silent but smelled strongly of smoke which might have been what had awakened me. 

In all the years since there are times that I have been in pain but I always measure them against how much it hurt to get on my bike and ride home that night.  I had to stop a couple of times to puke only there really wasn’t anything in my stomach to puke because I hadn’t eaten in who knows how many hours and my canteen had long been empty. 

I barely registered passing the gate to the Houchins farm, it was just another landmark.  I honestly wasn’t sure if they would recognize me and didn’t want to get shot on top of the pains I already suffered from.  But they must have seen me and used the radiofax to contact whoever was minding things up in the cupola.   

I was growing weaker and hit a pot hole and fell off the bike.  I tried to get back on but it wasn’t going to happen.  After a hundred feet I realized I wasn’t even going to be able to push the bike so I let it fall and just tried to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Plan A was to get home but if I wasn’t able to make it Plan B was to at least get close enough that I was within the normal patrol area and that someone would find me in the morning.  Another hundred yards and I had to admit even that wasn’t going to happen as I fell for the third time and was struggling to remain conscious. 

He found me trying to crawl towards a fence post that I knew was within visual range of one of our monitoring cameras because we used it as a focus point.  I knew he was talking to me, yelling my name, but all I could do was say, “Tell Gennie I tried.  Tell her I tried but he got away.”  
 
That’s all I remembered for a long time.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back - part 10


I don't want anyone reading this to think that I was out to be a hero. I wasn't. None of us were back then. Let me rephrase that, no one in my sphere was out to be a hero. Your hear stories but they are mostly after the fact.  You might even suspect things after the fact.  But I can say for sure that our sole objective most of the time was survival. We just wanted to get through the bad times we were living in and try and have confidence that there were better times coming down the road. For me that night was no exception, my chosen actions had nothing to do with being a hero. I had simply run out of ways to deal with what kept coming at us from town in general ... and Matt specifically.  It was time for me to attack directly … or semi-directly.  Just keep reading, you’ll grasp the concept.

 

**********


As I peddled along in the dark I wasn't ruminating on how things used to be. I wasn't wishing for things to be the way they used to be, nor wishing for things to be better now. I wasn't pining for the young man that I had once had feelings for because frankly I was wondering if he had really existed or had he just been another avatar for Matt to use to get what he wanted.


In hindsight and with everything that came afterwards I can say with some confidence that Matt and I had been real for each other, at least for a while. When it stopped being real however I am less certain of. Part of me thinks it was me that pulled away first; that it happened after my family was murdered, during the period that I had to grow up and be stronger than I had been. Maybe that is what initially broke whatever ties that we'd had. On the other hand it could have happened before that or it could have been Matt that changed during his own period of growth and change when the terrorists attacked the town's water supply and he lost his father, the one source of authority in his life that he consistently listened to. A romantic historian might even suggest that it was both of us that changed and it was a culmination of our fate to face off. But I was not a romantic then, neither am I one today and I find the idea of fate less than appealing because it makes it seem that no one has a choice.  If I’ve come to understand nothing else over these long years it is that we all makes choices every day, and with them come consequences.


I made a choice that night. Matt was going to be taken out one way or the other. The reasons are numerous and anyone that has followed the story over the years knows what those reasons were. I won't paint myself innocent. I was well aware that what I planned to do included the possibility of murder. It also included the real possibility that because of the actions I was choosing that I wouldn't be going home any time soon, if ever. And if that was the case, if I was going to have to pay for my chosen actions, I wanted to make sure that I accomplished my goal.


My ride into town was a silent one. The fog was back, caused by another temperature inversion. As bad as visibility was I still managed to get to my first stop undetected not too long after the sun set. I spent the rest of the night preparing the execution of my hastily cobbled together plan, only occasionally running into guards and problems.


When those of us living on our side of the county had agreed to bring down the highway bridges to try and stop Delorey’s attacks … or at least slow the down … Jax had taught Reggie the finer points of bringing down large structures. What he likely hadn't expected was for Reggie to turn around and teach me. Bringing down the highway bridges on our side of the county had been our learning ground. Now I was on the other side of the county setting up the same kind of destruction. I had a timetable and couldn't wait around. I was using up all of the toys that Reggie and I had been using our spare time to fabricate.  They were both the large ones and the small ones and could serve multiple purposes; booby traps, timed destruction, and as direct attack weapons. The speed at which I was having to move was nearly my downfall on more than one occasion.


I climbed up the embankment from wiring one of the last bridge expanses out of town and only the heavy fog saved me.  I was barely three yards from two town guards.


"What was that?"


"One of them rocks tumbling in the water. We hear them all the time on this shift."


"You sure?" the man asked still unsure.


"Look, you're new around here and I'm telling you it's just rocks being pushed around by the high water."


There was a few moments of silence as they seemed to be covering a circuitous route and then the first guy asked, "That kid really expect them people to hand over the girl he's been looking for?"


"Yeah. No doubt. I mean listen how he set it up. Even if she is a cold-hearted b**** and refuses to come herself them people out there are gonna capture her and use her to get their own back."

 

Like the guy was thinking over the answer he followed it with another question.  "That Mayor dude ain't really plannin' on letting them guys go is he? That won't go over too well with Hickson and Tyrell. They lost a lot of their soldiers trying to capture them and what little justice they were allowed to piece out ain't gonna be enough."


I heard the other one snort and then chuckle. "Like I said you are knew around here. Give it time, you'll catch on.  One way or the other we are gonna have us a show."


All that conversation did was harden my resolve and as the men walked to the other end of the bridge to take up their position I headed further in town towards my next target. The dam.


**********

Over the winter Reggie and I had perfected a way for those on recon to bring back more intel in physical form. It was unbelievably simply. I felt pretty stupid not having thought of it before. Reggie found them when I was moving some of my dad's personal stuff out of his study to make room for some books and office supplies that needed to come in out of the barn before the weather destroyed them.


"Hey Shrimp, I don't think Lydie will want you to play with these. How about a trade?"


I turned sharply to find Reggie trading a wax pencil and a piece of paper for the binoculars Kelly pulled out of a crate of miscellaneous items I had hauled up to the bedroom.


Envisioning having to wash walls and wood of artwork I said, "I'm not sure I want her to have those either Reggie."


He ignored me as he was too busy looking at what he'd traded for. While I tried to interest Kelly in a trade for something that was less a recipe for disaster Reggie asked, "Lydie are these what I think they are?"


"If you think those are binoculars then you are correct."


"These aren't just binoculars."


"Sure they are. Just one of Dad's toys."


"Lydie these are digital and have a built in camera."


And so it went. The guys started using them to bring back pictures of the areas they were reconning. In particular Reggie and I used the pictures that were brought back to plan for booby placements and places to put caches since I still was pretty much stuck on the home place between one thing and another.


One of the developments we discovered had been the realization that the flooding wasn't just affecting us out in the country but was creating real problems in other areas as well. One was the reservoir. It was already very full because the town had not been pumping it out, the additional water from the melting snow had softened the retaining walls. I had thought to use that but realized there wasn't enough time. My next choice would have greater consequences but was also more dangerous to set up.


As I made my way through town putting boobies here and there in various locations to maximize the chaos I intended to create, I visualized what I'd seen on the pictures brought back. The flood waters were at almost historical highs; higher than the dam had really been built to withstand. The spillways had been opened to try and relieve some pressure but despite that water still lapped at the crest of the dam. What Reggie and I had noticed was the water pouring through the spillway wasn't being monitored and was eroding the abutment seriously enough that even a layman could see had they been paying attention. Reggie suggested that either no one was monitoring the dam except casually, the water all along the river was too high and they had no choice but to leave the spillways open so much, or the spillway gates were stuck for some reason. Based on other pictures the greatest likelihood was that no one was monitoring what was turning into a very dangerous situation.


I doubted Matt even took it into consideration. The dam had been there as a landmark our entire lives as well as the entire lives of our parents.  It had been built back in the early days of the TVA. It was an earthen dam whose only real purpose was flood control and we hadn't had one since before I was born ... because of the dam. But the floods we experienced that spring were hundred year floods, well beyond anything that had been experienced in decades. They weren't something you could simply flip a switch on the dam and walk away from.

 

I realized just how big a mistake Matt was making in ignoring the dam when I walked onto it, never even encountering a single guard. I learned later that they relied very heavily on their own system of security cameras to monitor their territory; however, the fog had completely handicapped that tool.


I didn't have enough explosives left to destroy the whole structure outright; there was too much concrete capping it. My plan was to compromise one side of the dam which would then allow the flood waters to pour through at a rate that the earthen shell and core couldn't withstand. I wasn't sure how much damage would occur but I was certain that it would be enough to put an end to their power generation and take a while to repair at best.

 

One of the things that I found at the dam I wish I could have taken back to the farm.  A truck that was fully loaded with supplies and fuel.  It screamed get-a-way vehicle.  Instead I wired a nasty little surprise to the ignition and finished the rest of the job on the dam.


It was only an hour off dawn when I finished setting the last timer. I needed to find out where they were holding the men and I was pretty sure I knew where that would be.


Our town wasn't large enough to fund and maintain our own prison. The Town Council always complained about how much it cost to fund the holding cells that the cops used when they couldn't transport someone to the county or state correctional facility. My dad used to have a lot to say about the Town Council and their complaints and not much of it good and then he would say that the uppity Council members just didn't like the fact that the holding cells were right next to the Town Hall. Knowing Matt he was using those holding cells, he wouldn't be able to avoid the temptation of thinking of them as some kind of status symbol.


I was partially right.

 

The closer I got to the Town Hall the more guards and security measures I ran into. I avoided the guards and boobied what and where I could. Then I saw it. Too much activity not to see it even with the fog still hanging around. All of the trees that grew on what was once called the town green were gone, chopped down for firewood or some other purpose. In their place was a platform with a dais that looked like it had been built using the old playground equipment that had been at the next door skate park. The large, commercial sized swing set was next to the platform and I saw that it was set up for multiple hangings. I was barely hanging on to my emotions by then and the view of that nearly sent me over the edge into another berserk rage.


The platform with dais itself was hung with red, white, and blue streamers and banners, the kind that looked like they came out of the town's Independence Day decorations. There was also a podium and God help me, equipment for recording what was going to happen. I could see microphones, electrical cables, and a news camera on a rolling pedestal. They were even expending energy on flood lights which I considered foolish from a tactical standpoint as it blinded those putting them on display.


I worked my way closer and found that I blended into the crowd of people forming better than I could have ever hoped. We were all dirty and grungy, all dressed like we'd dug our clothes out of the thrift store clearance bin. Almost everyone had some kind of hat on so mine that I pulled low didn't draw any attention at all. All eyes were focused on the spectacle unfolding before us so no one noticed me staring and strategizing the best points of attack.


Then I saw them being brought out. Jax, Aston, Reggie, Lon, Vern and two men I didn’t recognize.  Part of me wanted them to see me and realize they hadn’t been abandoned.  The better part of me prayed they wouldn’t because of what they might do as a result.  Getting a better look at them I drew a small sigh of relief. They'd been beaten at some point but not obviously tortured. I drew another small sigh of relief when I saw that they weren't all bound together. Then I saw Matt. I nearly spit. I also had to stop myself from being too concerned about him seeing me ... he was just as blind up on the platform as everyone else.


I looked at Matt long and hard, trying to see what I had been attracted to.  Whatever it had been was gone.  So were my feelings one way or the other.  He was just a target.  I refused to let that bother me then and I refuse to let it bother me even now.  I know it is callous but it was war, a war I was determined to win.  Then I smiled as I realized Matt was angry and kept calling someone forward like he was getting reports.  Something wasn’t going his way and I was more than happy to cheer whatever it was on.  I was hoping that it was the fact that I hadn’t shown up.

 

As dawn rose the crowd started getting restless I heard one guy mutter, "If they are waiting on the weather so the little p**** can get a better picture we're going to be standing around here a long time."


Looking at my watch I started counting down. Matt was just putting on what I thought of as his public face and approaching the podium when I heard the first "whump" ... and then the second … then the third. People were looking around and I edged my way even closer to where the men were.


I was pushed roughly out of the way as men dressed up as uniformed guards rushed passed me heading in the direction of the noise. Correction, the noises as some of my other timed surprises went off. Soon people began to smell smoke and then there was a loud scream as someone must have found one of the trip wires in the building behind the square where I had been observing from before joining the milling crowds. Then several windows in the building exploded and panic set it.


I was nearly knocked to the ground several times before I could roll the homemade grenade right beneath the platform. Unfortunately for whatever reason Matt chose that moment to look right at me with instantaneous recognition. His eyes widened as he realized Valkyrie had finally come out to play.  I was smiling as he turned away and started running. The exploding platform was satisfyingly chaotic. I turned to help the men but found they were already helping themselves. Then Reggie saw me and started coming towards me but I shook my head and pointed him away from town in the direction I wanted him to take the others in. He understood. He knew where every booby was placed on the hill overlooking River Road.


I knew they'd all think that the Houchins farm and the Home Place had put together a rescue. I didn't stop to explain. I still had a target to reach and took off running in the same direction Matt had gone before I could lose him. I was finally thankful for how thick the crowd was because it slowed him down as much as it slowed me down.  This was the part that required me to know Maestro so well.  He used the retreat to fight another day a lot to maintain his avatar’s life while allowing other players to die in his place as a distraction.  But I needed him to retreat the direction I wanted him to go.  I counted on Matt thinking that since the other buildings around the green were rigged that the Town Hall was also compromised. I gave him a little encouragement to think that when I lobbed a grenade through a window of the ground floor. More chaos and carnage occurred.


I saw him running towards the dam. I was right in thinking that the loaded truck I'd found there was one of his escape plans.   I kept him running in that direction by triggering some of the nasty surprises I’d left along that path.


Matt had never been into sports. He kept in just good enough shape to keep his mother off his back and to maintain his reputation as Maestro.  He liked to look good and that was his primary motivation, but he only did just enough for looks, not enough to build stamina.  My whole life had been one of physical labor to offset all the sitting I did studying and gaming. After my family's murder that had been even truer. I could have run with a heavily laden pack and still caught up with Matt but I used the cat and mouse game until he was exactly where I wanted him.  In the meantime I picked off the few of his personal guards - who honestly weren't in much better shape than he was – that he’d allowed to follow him. Bad food and bad living had torn a hole in whatever tough guy they'd had.


When I was ready I tackled Matt from behind and brought him down. He kicked out at me and nearly escaped but stopped when I said, "Forget the truck Maestro. It's toast as soon as you turn the ignition."


I was ready and waiting for his first maneuver.  "Lydie? Lydie?! Oh my god I've been searching for you forever! You have no idea what I've ..."


Bluntly I told him, "Forget the stupid act. I'm not buying it. What I didn't figure out for myself a long time ago I heard from Marty and the others."


The mention of Marty gave him a start.  "Don't listen to them. They're ..."


Continuing on I said, "And what I didn't figure out for myself and didn't learn from them I learned from observing you directly. You screwed up Matt. You screwed up bad."


And just like that Matt tried his next maneuver. "I have troops heading ..."


Confidently I told him, "You haven't got squat heading anyplace. The only control you have is within the town limits. If you'd left it like, not tried to branch out and be more important than you are, I wouldn't have come for you. But you didn't. And now it's time for Maestro to pay the piper."


He laughed derisively.  "Oh please. Even with all the hicks at your disposal you can't destroy me."


I had calculated my time and chose my words with purpose.  "It isn't going to take an army to destroy you. It is going to be your own stupidity and carelessness that does it."


"Don't you dare say that!!" he screamed letting me see just how close to crazy he really was.


Instead of reacting to it I looked at my watch and counted, "Five, four, three, two, one ..."


I was a couple of seconds off, a couple of seconds of riding the edge of my own worry that my plan wouldn't work. But just as Matt started to smile the spillway behind Matt blew, throwing us both to the ground.