|Click on the picture to enlarge.|
Saturday, March 17, 2018
One of the few advantages I had growing up in a semi-rural area of coastal South Carolina was the relative darkness of the night sky. Up until the early 1980's it was possible to step into my grandparents' backyard at night and be able to see the wispy Milky Way stretching across the vault of heaven. For a science/science fiction nerd like me the sight of all those stars made any human-made art, both religious and secular, pale into utter insignificance. Adding to that sense of wonder, with just a pair of WW2 surplus binoculars, I was able to see Jupiter as a tiny disc with its four major moons as pinpricks of light dancing around it.
It was during those quiet nights of observation, I would wonder about what planets might circle those nearby, but impossibly distant stars. Better yet, fed from a growing number of science fiction novels and movies I imagined all manner of strange intelligent species that just might have individuals looking up into their own night skies and ponder about who they might share the galaxy with. This during a time long before the actual discovery of exoplanets and with some astronomers still speculating that planetary formation might be quite rare in the greater universe.
Literal decades have passed since I have been able to satisfy my innate desire to stargaze. The culprit being light pollution caused by massive urban and suburban sprawl. In fact in the mid-1990's my wife bought me a fairly decent telescope with hopes that I would use it in our own backyard. But after a couple of tries it became apparent that light pollution from homes, street lamps, and even the nearby city made any acceptable viewing impossible. Yes, I looked into joining the local astronomy club but I couldn't juggle the demands of a newborn baby, required overtime at my civilian job, and National Guard duties with the nights that group got together.
So that telescope ended up being stored in the attic and more or less forgotten about until it wound up being sold at one of my wife's yard sales. She never could understand the concept of how light pollution screwed with nighttime viewing. Then there was the nasty fact that suburban inhabitants start to get nervous when they see someone in their backyard with a telescope. Most people are so disengaged from the natural world they find it exceedingly difficult to understand that looking at the stars is an actual pastime.
At least my wondering about other intelligent species on planets circling nearby stars has been answered to a certain degree. Decades worth of SETI scanning of nearby stars strongly suggests that there isn't a technical civilization in our immediate area. Carl Sagan pretty much quashed the idea that there could be two intelligent species with a similar level of technological achievement existing “close” to each other. That a whole host of factors would assure that one species would be far more advanced than the other. That means that while there could be an intelligent species existing on a planet orbiting any number of Sun-like stars in our stellar neighborhood, they're probably still figuring out how to make fire, at best.
Yes, there is a remote, non-zero, possibility an incredibly advanced alien civilization might live nearby but there isn't any evidence of their existence. No Dyson Swarms of solar collectors orbiting the home star soaking up free photons, no laser beacons flashing out “here we are” in an attempt to get noticed, and no simple radio or embarrassing television broadcasts leaking out to the galaxy. You can endlessly speculate about hyper-advanced technologies like the fictional subspace for communications or that they are hiding from us using cloaking devices to avoiding upsetting the primitive and irrational hairless primates. But along those same lines you might as well hypothesize about a real Santa, Toothfairy, or Easter Bunny.
Don't get me wrong, while UFO's are a total nonstarter with me, I fully believe that alien civilizations do exist somewhere in our galaxy right now. The last reasonable article I read suggest that after crunching the numbers the nearest one is probably under two-thousand lightyears away. I don't have any idea how many stars exist within that distance of Earth, but within just fifty lightyears there are 133 of various magnitudes.
But even with suburban stargazing ruined for me, there is a way I can get my dose of awe and wonder about the universe. Occasionally amongst my aimless drifting on the internet, I will find a picture that metaphorically blows me away. One of the best is below and it's a panoramic view of the Andromeda galaxy. It's a spiral galaxy like our own and is “only” two-million lighyears away.
I can look at this picture and once again wonder about intelligent creatures two-million lightyears away sitting in their home looking at photographs of our galaxy wondering if anyone lives there. Before anyone flips out, yes, the light we see from the Andromeda galaxy took two-millions years to reach our eyes and electronic detectors. So we're essentially looking that far back into the past. But with that much real estate you got to wonder that at least one of those stars hosted the evolution of an intelligent species.
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Despite my political beliefs being securely in the middle to hard left, it might surprise some that I am not popular with that crowd on the blogosphere. There was a time back during the worst of the Iraqi War and the Bush/Cheney years that I was part of the progressive “in crowd.” We all agreed that the Iraq War was strictly a neoconservative ploy to gain access to that country's oil as well as making it a secure geopolitical chess piece to counter Iran and China. I based my opinions not on propagandic rhetoric but some actual knowledge.
See for decades we've spent billions on orbiting spy satellites with high precision instruments such as cameras that can take a clear, readable picture of a car license plate from space. Those same satellites are also equipped with detection equipment not far removed from the stuff NASA uses to remotely detect the composition of planets, moons, asteroids, and all the other neat stuff out there. So on one hand you got super cameras that lets us see what people are doing on the ground. Like loading and moving really dangerous substances like chemical weapons. And on the other hand, those gadgets that lets us get an idea what a highly secure factory might be trying to brew up because making weapons grade nuclear material ain't like churning up homemade ice cream. So long story short, the massive goose egg that became the promised Iraqi hidden stockpile of WMD's is highly problematic for anyone except those who watch Fox News.
Where progressives and I quickly parted ways is when they began crowing about the “end of the American Empire.” Oh there were times you could feel their absolute giddiness when they proclaimed about how the evil United States was about to be chased out of all the countries both the government and American corporations oppressed. It only took me asking a couple of times just what was supposed to take the place of the American Empire before I became personae non gratae to those I otherwise agreed with.
Yes, I fully understand that the United States played holy hell with its principles in the ninetieth century as it jockeyed for position with the established European colonial powers. And during the Cold War the United States almost bathed in blood by paling up with dictators, death squads, and soulless corporations in an effort to blunt the Soviet Union which was engaged in the same game. My problem came from how progressives seemed to believe that there was some nascent global brother and sisterhood just off the geopolitical stage who would take over once the American Empire collapsed.
I fully agree empires are a huge pain in the ass since they are oppressive, in that the dominate culture tends to wipe out those they control. This can be accomplished by forced assimilation or actual genocide and while the former isn't as openly criminal as the latter, it still doesn't say much about our species ability to get along. Empires also present another problem in that they all become decadent over time and eventually collapse. All anyone has to do is read about how everything went to shit in western Europe after Rome fell and how once a ruling Chinese dynasty lost its heavenly mandate all that advanced culture and civilization was quickly trashed. Yes, people eventually picked up the pieces and moved on, but I've actually wondered what such a system says about human intelligence.
Despite the imperial system system being dangerously flawed, its been the most common form of political organization for the last 2500 years. On average, empires are quite stable with most lasting several centuries, more than enough time for the cultures of conquered peoples to fizzle out. In general, empires are toppled either by external invasion or when the ruling elite get stupid with them splitting up into factions and pissing it all away in civil wars.
This dovetails into the why empires turn out to be rather useful. Empires provide something very crucial for the development of civilization and that is stability. Contrary to many who believe primitive humans lived in some sort of agrarian utopia, there is ample evidence that we've been killing each other since our ancestors decided to climb down from the trees. Admittedly, while we were just small bands of hunter-gatherers roaming the wide open planet, the killing was small scale. That changed once we started farming and settled down into permanent villages.
Being as simple as possible, farming and villages meant larger populations that had to eat. When the spring rains either failed or flooded everything destroying the crops, well you either starved or formed a raiding party to steal from the next village. Generally speaking the village still able to feed its people didn't take kindly to raiders, so they resisted. Sure, some villages traded peacefully but if you believe all was goodness and agrarian harmony, I have a used bridge in Brooklyn I'll sell you real cheap. We're talking basic human nature folks, it's ugly and brutal with a disturbing tendency for monstrous behavior even in the good times.
After the initial slaughter, the elites of new empires like to settle down and enjoy the finer things in life. Happy elites like good food and expensive trinkets that might have been grown or made hundreds if not thousands of kilometers away. So they do things like provide armed garrisons all through their territory that keeps a lid on bandits so goods can be bought with currency they back and transported on roads they built. This allows commerce to expand lifting everyone up over time. We're talking centuries here folks, not some ancient version of the Marshall Plan.
An imperial population that feels safe and is well fed has time to create art, write books, establish schools, explore the planet, and try to expand human knowledge. Are there losers, injustice, and oppression in this equation? Yes on all counts, but this is the system that has been handed down to us from decisions made thousands of years ago. You can debate whether civilization was a good idea or not, but truthfully it's a mote point.
As far as the American Empire is concerned, yes there is considerable blood on our hands. The trouble though that the world today is built on the foundations of the Pax Americana, which took over after Pax Britannica couldn't handle the responsibility anymore. Here's where I really get trouble because I believe that for better or worse we and our British cousins have been pushing the world millimeter by millimeter towards something outside the usual imperial system. Never strictly out of some idea to help all humanity and with more than a strong dose self-righteous advancement. Nevertheless I feel that since the end of World War Two there is some vague inkling in wiser circles of thought that we have to abandon the idea of empire.
Even with its deep imperfections, the global system that's been built in the years since WW2 had done more to raise up all people than any other time in history. Other than slowly pushing reforms, you would think the men and women in government would be wise enough not to screw with its basic foundations. That, of course, is where things start to go sideways.
The Iraq War was nothing less than the neoconservatives sticking a match to a powder keg. You'd have to be a moron not to understand that the entire Middle East is a political Frankenstein's Monster built from the corpse of the Ottoman Empire after WW1. Once the fighting was over France and Britain divvy up the territory forcing bitter enemies into artificially created countries.
Going into Iraq on a shoestring crusade to either find nonexistent WMD's or spread democracy to countries with no relevant political institutions to support such governments will be something future historians wonder about for centuries. Throw in progressives believing the fall of the existing international system would bring on some delayed Age of Aquarius and you begin to wonder whether or not fantasies like Santa Claus and the Toothfairy need to be actively discouraged to get kids to understand the truth about the world sooner.
Now we have an idiot in the White House who has a hair up his butt to trash the entire global trading system by instituting tariffs on industries that truly aren't significant in the twenty-first century. If this escalates, which both the Chinese and Europeans say it will, we could be looking at history replaying itself leading up to another Great Depression made worse by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930.
The last thing humanity needs is another round of empire building. The stakes are way too high now with human population pushing eight billion and with emerging nations like China and India wanting their own places on the global scene. With the United States now lead by a man with a penchant for porn stars and not reading the daily intelligence briefing, navigating the difficult years ahead, even when that bastard is out of office, will be a monumental task.
Long story folks, we've totally screwed the international and domestic pooch both by reckless crusades and unrealistic and unworkable idealism. The Twenty-First century is going to be another long and dirty slog like the previous one. And despite the ugly flaws of the the current international system, what might replace it will more than likely be much worse.
Sunday, March 4, 2018
One of the things adults usually tell their offspring as they do an imitation of a nuclear reactor melting down into radioactive slag is that they will see things more calmly and rational when they're older. I freely admit my that during my early childhood days there were several instances when I showed my ass in public over something stupid like wanting a toy. Now I was raised in the American South, which meant the reward for throwing a tantrum in public was several sharp and stinging smacks on the butt.
No, it wasn't child abuse but the one requirement my parent/grandparent had to fulfill was that my punishment had to be equally public. Southerners being more hivemind-like than ants or bees, word around town could spread faster than light that someone wasn't raising their children right if the retribution for errant juvenile behavior wasn't seen by enough witnesses. After being set back on the straight and narrow, my grandfather would take time to calmly and rationally explain what I did wrong. That last segment is probably why I have a near Pavlovian response when I hear someone calmly explaining their position or idea.
Sadly, calm and rational are not synonymous with our society or culture these days. If anything, the country seems to be in a state of permanent tantrum with everyone from full-fledged adults to elected leaders acting like psychopathic five year-olds. During the times I begin to feel overwhelmed by such depressing examples of lowest common denominator human behavior I grab one of my books written by Carl Sagan.
It was during the early 1980's when I became aware of the now late Dr. Sagan when he appeared in his version of the Cosmos science series on my local Public Broadcasting Service channel. His explanation of the science of evolution, the efforts of scientists to expand human knowledge, and the wonders of the universe did more to shape my mind than any other person or idea. Needless to say, when the book version of the Cosmos series was published, I rushed out to purchase it at the local book store. Even now decades later that worn hardcover book is one of my prized possessions.
For me, Dr. Sagan's prose can take on the cadence of poetry with its easy rhythms that allow an open mind to look at the universe in a scientific fashion. While never being condescending to the layman, he nonetheless spells out that the universe and human beings can be understood without resorting to supernatural beings or grand conspiracies.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: No, that last statement is not a jab in the eye of anyone religious. It's just that illnesses are caused by actual physical reasons like viruses, bacteria, exposure to toxic substances, or genetic mutations. Not because an evil spirit or demon invaded Aunt Agatha's body and gave her cancer. And that while Lee Harvey Oswald was a delusional A-hole, there is no evidence that he was part of a conspiracy involving Vice President Johnson, the Russians, the Mafia, or even time traveling humans who wanted Kennedy dead for some cosmic reason. Yes, that last one was a headline on a now defunct tabloid several years ago.
In an effort to ground myself and ignore the unrelenting rage that seems to dominate life these days, I picked up Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a book that Carl Sagan wrote with his wife, Ann Druyan, back in 1993. In that book Sagan and Druyan trace the development of life from the beginning of the Earth and onward to the arrival of Homo sapiens.
They argue that our species worst traits like territoriality, fear of the stranger, greed, racial and ethnic hate, and all the rest are elements of a survival strategy used by many other lifeforms. In fact, they delve deeply into levels of consciousness exhibited by other animals making a convincing case that it is a “difference of degrees rather than kind.” The problem though is that while these traits helped the small bands of human hunter-gatherers struggling to survive, we have now crossed a line that requires our species to supersede our baser behaviors.
Like Sagan's other works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a journey that delves into history and philosophy, and even biographical segments. Some have criticized it as meandering but for me it's food for a weary soul who thought by the twenty-first century humans would be further along than the news suggests.
Not to be pollyannaish, but it does end on an upbeat note. Humans have made great strides in the last couple of centuries. Sagan points out that chattel slavery, once justified as natural by both secular intellectuals and religious types has largely been wiped off the face of the planet. He also explains that our species is in the process of shedding other darker aspects of our nature. Almost seeming as if Sagan foresaw our current predicament after 2016, he explains these efforts to rise above our darker traits are tentative and need to be carefully cultivated. Needless to say, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a testament to the better angels of human nature that I highly recommend.
Sunday, February 25, 2018
Hours later as Amanda and I enter the Charleston Jezebels, the Gilead government run brothel, my mind still couldn't quite come to terms with what I learned about my spy partner's ex-husband. That Andrew Maddox was bisexual and had been while Amanda and he were married. I couldn't help but figure that explained our affair back before America fell. She asked me what I thought of Andrew after meeting him the first time and my response was less than positive. I thought the guy was a major dick and that his only real talent was being born into a well established and wealthy family with huge connections in D.C.
But the real icing on the lets-screw-with-Andrew cake is that his current boyfriend was an aide to none other than the Reverend President of Gilead. One of the absolute worst crimes in Gilead was something called “Gender Treachery.” The penalty being the convicted having their skulls impaled with a meat hook mounted to a wall. Having information that a senior official had hidden sexual life was information any respectable spy agency milked until that cow was a crusty corpse. Amanda didn't need to tell me that pressure on Andrew was how the scientist we were sent to rescue, Jennifer Burgess, ended up in the now Potemkin village of Charleston.
The building itself was a new construction situated on the grounds of what was once the South Carolina Aquarium. The place essentially looked like a six story rectangular warehouse with the main entrance located at the southwest corner. Needless to say, in a country that was supposedly established to be God's kingdom on earth there wasn't any signage proclaiming what was going on in the place. While less than six years had passed since Gilead was proclaimed, good citizens had long learned that asking any questions was a quick way to earn a ticket to the toxic wastelands of the Colonies.
Once inside the building, the decor seemed intent on making up for the outside anonymity. It was a mashup of 20th century New Orleans and 19th century Antebellum south. Red velvet wallpaper covered the walls on which hung portrait paintings of ancient plantation owners. Their expressions a curious combination of approval or amusement, which given that the dead bastards all thought nothing of keeping fellow humans in bondage seemed appropriate. The worst thing though were the huge stuffed hunting trophies, elephant tusks, and rhino horns on display. All clearly recent kills given their condition. Lighting came from wrought iron fixtures hanging from the ceiling which gave the place a subdued atmosphere. Scattered about the lobby floor were numerous overstuffed chairs and ornate couches where the upper tier of Gilead society and foreign tourists could be found relaxing while waiting their turn with the talent upstairs.
One of the concierges approached Amanda and myself as we stood at the threshold of the lobby. After we gave him our German cover names he checked a notebook sitting on a small podium and then guided us to the bar in back of the lobby. As we made our way through, the concierge did a nearly imperceptible hand gesture as he brushed some imaginary lint off his right sleeve. A sign that he was part of the Mayday Resistance.
While Amanda was the senior of our team and made operational decisions, my general task was to imagine creative ways to escape. Especially if our best laid plans went sideways and we ended up being hunted like rats. Standing at the bar while Amanda ordered us some drinks my best guess at the moment was to kill as many of the clientele and in the confusion slip back outside and jump into the harbor which was just a short distance away. From there we would simply swim for our lives hoping the scores of small gunboats the authorities use to keep people from escaping by sea were taking the night off.
If everything went as planned, Amanda and I would be escorted up to the room Dr. Burgess was waiting. From there things got weird, I had to get us all back down to the first floor quietly as possible, through several storage rooms and out a rear door. If that was successful, Andrew Maddox would be outside with his vehicle and driver who would take us out of the city. Once over the bridge connecting Charleston with Mount Pleasant, we would be dropped off near the abandoned village of Awendaw. After ditching Maddox, we would make our way through the forest and link up with a Marine Recon Unit who would get us out of the country.
Twenty minutes later Amanda and I enter the bedroom suite where Dr, Burgess had been placed. Jezebel management had one of their security thugs guide us to the suite, probably to make sure Amanda and I didn't do anything stupid and to remind people like Burgess to behave.
Walking directly behind the thug with Amanda bringing up the rear, I was able to get the guy to talk a little with me learning his name was Hank and that he loved his job. As Hank used a card key to open the door to the bedroom suite, I caught sight of Dr. Burgess standing inside. Dressed in slinky, low cut dress it took less than a second for me to realize that Hank and Dr. Burgess were about the same height.
“Hank my man,” I said in clear American English, “this isn't your day.”
Hank shrugged in surprise from my change in accent but before he had a chance to turn around I quickly grabbed his head and shoulders and snapped his neck. He fell to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
“Dr. Jennifer Burgess,” I said looking her straight in the eyes and taking her hands in mine. “I don't have time to explain but you're going to have to trust us. We're here to get you out of the country.” As inspiring opening speeches went it didn't have the effect I wanted. Burgess was in shock and my worry was that the Gilead regime and her Jezebel masters had broken her. As the intelligence reports suggested, the women who end up in Jezebel facilities were the ones who refused to go along with the regime but were too good looking just to send to the colonies or kill. That didn't mean women like Burgess weren't mentally tortured to the point they couldn't be sure if it was raining even if they saw their persecutors come into a building soaked.
Just to make things more difficult, Amanda chose that moment to get picky on how I handled our escape. “Really Ryan, you couldn't wait for us to see if Dr. Burgess was going to be difficult. You had to kill the guard, they're expecting him back in a few minutes.” She said after making sure no one was behind us and closing the door.
“I improvised, Burgess can wear his uniform.” I said beginning to strip Hank of his equipment belt and boots.” How about less nagging and more getting Burgess ready to move.”
Amanda was able to get the female-to-female connection going with Burgess and in less than ten minutes we had her wearing Hank's uniform after making some adaptations. It was more than a little loose, but with the dim lighting of the hallways and us moving extremely quickly it would work. Better yet, as we left the room I discovered Hank's card key opened every door we passed.
Hank's card key allowed us access to the stairwell, which thankfully was empty as we made our way down to the first floor. Our luck ran out just as soon as I opened the stairwell door, two women sentenced to the “Martha” underclass pushing room service carts spotted me and made too much noise for another security thug to ignore.
“Hi,” I said to the guard as he approached abandoning the German accent. “I'm a bit lost, can you help me find the bathroom.”
It was either the easy duty in Jezebel facilities or the fact that the guy wasn't that smart to begin with, but my statement caused the thug a moment of confusion allowing me to remove him from the escape equation. It wasn't a clean solution, there was enough noise to attract attention and I was sure the Marthas were spilling the beans to the first person in authority they saw. At least this guy had a pistol, three extra magazines of ammo, and a radio which I gladly took. After hesitating for a second, I pulled the man's knife out of the back of his skull wiping the blade on his shirt.
“Dammit Ryan,” Amanda said stepping out of the stairwell as I dumped the body inside, “you were never this messy.”
That comment irritated me to my core. “Well you know Ms. Carter, less than two weeks ago I was a happy retired spy living a quiet peaceful life. Then you appeared and crapped all over everything.”
“We don't have time for you guys to get a room.” Dr. Burgess said looking around the corner down another hallway. “This way leads to the storage room you mentioned, Amanda.”
Amanda and I glanced at each other not because of our bickering but because Dr. Burgess was shaking off her captivity. The way towards the storage rooms looked clear and that was the moment I decided to once again improvise. “Here,” I said to Amanda giving her the pistol and the extra magazines. “Get Burgess outside and in Andrew's vehicle, I'll head towards the kitchen hopefully drawing the security with me.”
Amanda didn't argue and the two were running before the sound of my words faded. I in turn readied the knife I had taken from the second security thug and headed towards the kitchen. One of the things a spy has to learn to stay mentally healthy that he or she may be forced to kill people in the line of duty, they must never think of themselves as killers. It's a small distinction that only works for a short time but as I plowed through the kitchen there was no time for me to decide who might be a friend or who was more than likely a foe.
I made it outside just as Amanda and Dr. Burgess were getting in Andrew's vehicle. By that time all hell appeared to be breaking loose with sirens going off all over. It didn't take a rocket scientists to figure out the Charleston Jezebels was about to be ground zero. That pretty much left me one choice.
“Amanda,” I yelled out, “get Burgess out of here. I'll run interference for you two. And don't wait for me, I won't make it to the site in time.”
Got to give Amanda points on being consistent, she wasn't sentimental in the least. She must have told Andrew's driver to hit it because they were out of sight in seconds. That left me to run towards the nearest Guardians of the Faith checkpoint playing the scared German tourist.
The German tourist thing worked and soon after that I had a slightly bloody Guardian uniform to wear and an armored Humvee with one of those nifty automatic grenade launchers mounted to the roof. I played absolute hell that night shooting up anything that would cause increased confusion. What also helped was the total lack of training on the part of the Guardians who at one point were broadcasting in the clear on their radio net. They thought the Remnant U.S. had launched an amphibious invasion on Charleston like the overland one they pulled on Chicago.
I dumped the Humvee around Goose Creek and went into the shadows living off the land and moving at night. It was a total pain in the ass and I cursed Amanda more times that I could count for dragging me back to this shit hole. One aspect of my guerrilla campaign was getting an idea of the mindset of the people trapped in Gilead. I didn't have much time to dwell on it though since survival was my chief concern.
Months ticked by and I eventually made it to the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee and into rebel territory. The Gilead regime had overall control of the country but they had pissed off many of the religious evangelicals that initially supported them. Their relationship went to shit after the regime declared their brand of Christianity the one true faith. Those who didn't convert to the new state-approved religion pretty much ended up on the same shit list as the intellectuals before them. Some obeyed the conversion order while others hauled ass to the mountains eventually forming alliances with those already fighting the regime.
Word of my exploits had long since reached the rebels who sent word to the Remnant U.S. leadership in Anchorage. So when a rebel patrol discovered me in the ruins of Cherokee, North Carolina I was fast tracked for extraction back to civilization. That itself took about a month but I eventually crossed over into Canada. I did provoke a bit of an international incident when the I made the Canadian Army lieutenant escorting me to the nearest U.S. military post stop at the first McDonalds we passed. After a Big Mac and Coke, my tired butt was on a military transport for Anchorage.
The debriefing by numerous military intelligence types was almost as painful as my solitary guerrilla campaign through South Carolina. But at least I learned that Amanda and Dr, Burgess made it out of Gilead safely. Adding to the intelligence coup, the Marine Recon Unit that got the ladies to the stealth submarine waiting for them didn't feel obliged to honor the deal with Andrew. As soon as Amanda identified him to the Marine captain in charge of the group, they hog tied his ass and stuffed him in the second stealth sub that carried them out. Maddox has apparently answered a lot of questions concerning the nature of the Gilead leadership.
General Okamoto showed up a week later for what he said would be a personal chat. By that time I was rested and finally getting sick of fast food. All I wanted by that point was safe passage back to my cabin in New Zealand, something that Okamoto promised me back at Johnston Atoll.
“What we'd like to know Ryan is the attitude of the American population trapped inside the country.” Okamoto asked as we relaxed in his office.
I'd had already spent the last hours recounting my exploits while he had gone on about how they were going to liberate the country and restore the Republic. It was actually a little sad that I was going to have to burst the man's bubble.
“General, I truly hate to be the one telling you this but there isn't any America any more. I won't get into a sociopolitical debate about when the country fell but for shits and giggles I'd say it was already dead by the time of the 9/11 attacks. Apathy and ignorance had long since infected the population and when you threw in the climate of fear and paranoia those attacks created it was probably game over by then. The fear fed on itself and when you have a population already wondering why their share of the American Dream hadn't materialized as promised, well human nature takes over. Since they didn't have an outside enemy, they turned on themselves and the most insane faction came out the winner of the bloodbath.
“The people who I encountered are fully wrapped into the same fears they've been nursing since the 1990's. The Remnant U.S. leadership can't liberate these people and restore democracy. They wouldn't know how to manage a rational, civil debate on issues if their sorry lives depended on it. It's probably different in some areas, like the west coast, but that's where the Gilead regime has most of its effective forces on brutal occupation duty. Gilead will fall, but that's going to happen because it bases its existence on terror. The best the Remnant U.S. can do is figure out ways to nudge it along to its eventual doom. I don't envy the people that will have to pick up the pieces.”
My talk with Okamoto didn't go over well, they had me on a flight to New Zealand a couple of days later. Much to my surprise the Kiwi government didn't hassle me on arrival. Even more surprising was that my cabin was in excellent shape when I finally returned home. The answer to how such things were possible became apparent as I stepped inside.
“Hello Ryan,” Amanda Carter said sitting at my kitchen table again.
Sunday, February 18, 2018
After the briefing Amanda and I were rushed off to another building where the details of the rescue operation were being planned. The person we were being sent to retrieve was Dr. Jennifer Burgess, probably the top mind in the world on human reproduction. Before everything went sideways she had been picked by the United States government to lead the team researching the causes of the fertility crash and to come up with a way to counteract it.
But things did go sideways starting with the Mayday Attacks, which lead to martial law being declared, that in turn became the “Transition” and finally the five-month civil war between loyalists and the new regime. During the chaos, Dr. Burgess fell off the map with everyone figuring she was just another intellectual the new regime murdered and then cremated with the ashes being dumped in a landfill. Once I was settled in New Zealand ignoring the outside world, especially what was happening in North America, became a bit of an obsession for me. But I still couldn't avoid the pictures that were somehow smuggled out of Gilead showing the bodies of intellectuals ranging from college professors to scientists stacked on rolling pallets heading to a crematorium. In a fit of gallows humor, one of the Hawaiian shirt wearing CIA spooks organizing the mission called the elimination of all the smart people the first instance of a brain flush instead of a drain.
Elements of the resistance inside the country had turned up intel that Burgess was being kept in a glorified whorehouse run by the Gilead government and called Jezebels. Despite the founders of Gilead claiming they had the inside track on God's idea for righteous living on earth, for various reasons they had established numerous Jezebels all over the former-U.S. These establishments catered to the sinful carnal needs of the Gilead elites and people they wanted to impress. If the information was correct, Dr. Burgess had been sentenced to work the sheets of whomever her overseers wanted to impress. Which for the Charleston Jezebel facility meant international tourists that the Gilead regime eagerly milked for foreign currency. Having Dr. Burgess in Charleston was fortuitous for Amanda and myself since it actually made entering what was now an extremely totalitarian country somewhat easy.
Eight days after arriving on Johnston Atoll, Amanda and I are on a Lufthansa Airlines flight from Berlin heading to the exotic destination of Charleston. To everyone on the plane we were an adventurous German couple with a penchant for vacationing in bizarre locations. Being out of the spycraft trade for five years, I tried not to the think about the twenty-something American kid a few decades back that decided a vacation in North Korea was a good idea. He stole a poster off the wall of the motel, was arrested, sentenced to hard labor, and was beat to death a few months later by prison guards.
What was really strange on a personal level was the blue dye job done on Amanda's hair and the cosmetic device used to hide the scar running down the right side of her face. It was more than enough to change her overall appearance, which meant unless someone was looking directed for her she would be just another European on the tour group. For me, all I could do was shave my head and wear contact lenses that changed the color of my eyes. The one high tech disguise we left Johnston Atoll with were the synthetic skin gloves glued on our hands. They completely changed our fingerprints and even left DNA samples that were linked to a German database should the Eyes of God, the Gilead secret police, decide to check us out.
Luckily, after the flight landed we received only the most minimal of hassle from customs. That came from the basic fact that Gilead wanted foreign currency and to annoy the rich tourists was counterproductive. Both Amanda and I did a lot of smiling at the skinny kid looking over our passports and asked a lot of questions about his life. It's always good to try and connect with the locals but what really sealed the deal was the low cut of Amanda's blouse and her touching his hand several times. He quickly cleared us for entry with only the extreme blush on his face confirming that the guy had never gotten laid. While leaving the airport was easy, the drive to the hotel in downtown Charleston was a different matter.
The armed muscle of the Gilead regime was called the Guardians of the Faith. It was the result of a merger of the old United States Army National Guard and numerous right-wing militias. Their presence was everywhere with roadblocks and watch stations located every couple of miles. Heavily armed squads of six appeared to be the usual that often included armored Humvees with .50 caliber machine guns mounted to the roof and I even saw a couple with automatic grenade launchers. The icing on the totalitarian cake though were the billboards and sides of buildings displaying propaganda messages.
Most were images of happy, white, families either going to church or sitting at a formal dining room table overflowing with food. These messages declared that Gilead had the favor of God and that prosperity was around the corner for the truly faithful. Others showed dark-skinned monsters wearing the uniforms of American Armed Forces, which meant the Remnant U.S., threatening young, white, babies but who were being protected by a glowing Jesus welding a massive sword.
Both the armed thugs and propaganda disappeared when we entered the lower peninsula of Charleston around the Battery. There a surreal normalcy dominated with the stately mansions looking excellently kept with residents strolling along the sidewalks. Hell, even the horse drawn carriages were still prowling the streets and old black women could be found in Battery Park weaving sweet grass baskets.
Our hosts stopped the bus at Battery Park several blocks away from our hotel and let us disembark. Our guide, a guy in his thirties who seemed stiffer than a telephone pole, worked hard to keep us organized and on a particular track. It was obvious he wanted us to interact with as many of the basket weavers, casual artists painting pleasant scenes, and food vendors as possible. The intention was clear, happy and entertained tourists go home to tell friends and family that nasty Gilead wasn't the nightmare it seemed.
While munching on a hot dog, I admired an old man sitting by himself painting a scene of a sailboat on the ocean. Our conversation was cordial with me saying in my best German accented English how much I liked his work. His response was exceedingly polite but his eyes darted around like he was expecting a rabid bear to come charging out of nowhere. His fear was so palatable I wanted to say something reassuring, but the danger that he was just a well trained Eye agent looking for foreign troublemakers was real.
The same held for the old black women weaving sweet grass baskets. The Gilead regime was inherently racist, but since it desperately wanted to discredit the Remnant U.S. and be accepted by the rest of the world, it made a minimum effort at playing nice. The sweet grass weavers placidly sat under small shade shelters and did their craft. While no Antebellum task master stood over the ladies with a whip, I noticed that they paid special attention to all the people around them. I couldn't help but feel it was a talent that was connected to America's original sin.
Our hotel was what was once the Calhoun Mansion Museum, appropriated by the Gilead government it was now simply called the Palmetto. The 24,000 square foot structure still looked the same inside from what I remember of a school field trip a lifetime ago. Except for the staff which, like the artist and the sweet grass weavers outside, all clearly understood they were living in a nightmarish Potemkin village. A bellboy, another skinny kid that should have been worrying over college exams instead of being tied down by a mutant society, escorted us to our room while carrying our luggage.
“If there's anything I can do for you sir, just ask.” The boy said standing at the doorway. A wave of pity washed over me seeing him stand there wearing what had to be the most ridiculous uniform ever conceived. Making matters worse, the uniform was about three sizes too big giving it a comic appearance.
“Here's the deal, young man,” I said being careful to keep my fake German accent. “My wife and I have particular tastes in entertainment and we've heard there are activities here in Gilead we can partake.” I said while slipping him a ten euro note.
The boy immediately lost his comic tinted look of innocence. “Yes sir, I know exactly what you mean and that can easily be arranged. What time would you like for someone to pick you and your wife up?”
“You can arrange this for tomorrow evening after dinner.” Amanda answered for us both before disappearing in an adjoining room. I found something in her certainty a little unsettling.
The next morning I woke up on the couch, Amanda's orders, while I heard her in the bathroom. Being summer in the northern hemisphere, I was quickly reminded of Charleston's humidity as I stepped out onto the long second floor porch that looked down upon the gardens. People were already walking around enjoying the statues, fountains, and flowers. For a moment I found myself imagining that Gilead was just some nightmare that I would soon shake off. All that ended when down on the street a large SUV came into view flying a tiny flag of Gilead on the hood with several body guard type Guardians jumping out as soon as it stopped. I almost jumped back inside the room until I remembered I was just a harmless German tourist taking advantage of the morning air.
“We've got to move quickly,” Amanda said coming out onto the patio. “Our contact has arrived early.” She said after turning and reentering our room.
“What's the play, Amanda?” I ask grabbing a fresh shirt then changing into a pair of pants that would be presentable to the public.
“The Jezebels meeting is up in the air. But our contact will be strolling in Battery Park seemingly out to meet and greet the tourists.”
“Can I assume the VIP vehicle that pulled up a minute ago is our contact?” I assume that was a given. What I didn't ask was how Amanda was communicating with this person. She was carrying several electronic devices like a camera and a cheap computer tablet. Tech wizards back on Johnston Atoll could have easily integrated hidden text functions into the circuitry of either device.
Amanda paused giving me a stern look clearly debating on how much I needed to know.
“Listen, I've played the good junior spy.” I said getting upset. “Tell me what this means Amanda because I could easily slip out of this city and disappear leaving you here alone.”
Several second later the expression on her face softens. “Just be prepared for a surprise Ryan, our contact is not helping us out of his desire to overthrow the Gilead regime. I've got the bastard by the balls and your appearance and reaction to seeing him will undermine his already damaged psyche.”
Leaving the Palmetto, Amanda was playing the affectionate wife as we made our way to Battery Park. She even made a point of stopping our stroll several times to give me a passionate kiss. To the local onlookers it was a display of affection that was forbidden in any other place in Gilead. When your a spy, you automatically know such behavior is for the benefit of people watching. She wanted to shock someone, but I didn't have a clue who that person might be.
Oh, I eagerly played along, since she had been nothing but cold to me from the day I found her in my New Zealand cabin. From the corner of my eye, I saw the VIP approaching us and saw that he was wearing the suit of one of the Commanders of the Faithful, it looked like a regular business attire except for a series of patches on the sleeves and other trinkets attached to the lapels. I never was into fashion, especially since formal attire for me consisted of my navy dress whites uniform, so the outfit to me looked ridiculous. But what the guy was wearing was the clothes of Gilead's ruling class.
I'll give the guy credit, when Amanda and I finally got within handshaking distance we recognized each other. The shock that registered across his face was extreme but also brief. Instinctively, his eyes began darting around like the old man the day before looking for that metaphorical rabid bear.
I on the other hand went cold, the man standing before me should have been dead. He was the senior aid to the late Senator Laura Claiborne of California, who while not in the Capitol at the time of the first Mayday Attack was one of several assassinated in their offices. He was also Amanda's husband, Andrew Maddox, the man who upon learning of the affair I had with his wife tried to end my career.
Killing him wouldn't have been an issue. His two bodyguards standing a few feet behind him looked like overweight thugs. My mind played out several scenarios where I killed them, took their handguns, and murdered Andrew before anyone had a clear idea what had happened. But being the good spy I stuck with what I thought was Amanda's script.
“Hello Andrew,” I said pulling his ex-wife close to me. “Good to see you somehow made it through the attacks.”
Andrew was silent, frozen in place, it was Amanda playing the master manipulator that defused the situation. “Now boys, we're here to do business. Andrew, you provide the assistance we need and nothing will bother you again. How about we step over to one of the nice benches, have a seat, and talk.”
End of Part Two
Saturday, February 10, 2018
(See author's note at the end.)
My days are simple now. They are a set routine of mundane events that vary only slightly over the course of a year. What doesn't change though is that after waking up I take a quick shower before eating my breakfast while listening to the news on the radio. It is during those few minutes that I feel some solace in the fact that the world has finally calmed down, somewhat, after having nearly everyone's preconceived notions radically overturned. Its been five years since the events that historians are saying marked the end of Western Civilization and even now I can tell no one still believes it actually happened.
Except for me, I saw the juggernaut speeding down the tracks bearing down on the distracted and self-adsorbed nation oblivious to the danger it faced both from forces outside the government and the cancer inside. I tried to warn my superiors, men and women with real authority but who were so part of the institutional mentality that they could neither see the mutating landscape nor the corruptive forces lurking in plain sight. The darkly funny thing that still needles my soul is that while the winners and losers of the life and prosperity columns switched hundreds of millions of innocent souls since the end of everything, above it all a tiny minority sailed through the chaos unscathed as usual.
That's all in the past now. With breakfast finished, I turn off the radio and begin to prowl the small portion of the Earth I can call my own. During the summer months I keep occupied working in my garden and doing repairs on the small cabin I call home. But it is now during the harsh winter months here on the South Island of New Zealand that I am forced to accept the fall of the United States of America and the establishment of the Republic of Gilead.
The day is misty with heavy gray clouds sealing up the sky from the sun. With no real chores, I go for a short hike through the hills. There is comfort in the forest, a solitude that allows me to imagine a much different world, one far wiser and more adaptable. That morning however, I feel old instincts stirring. Someone is watching me, probably several people off in the distance.
In the early days of Gilead it would have been their secret police, curiously called the “Eyes of God.” A combination of former CIA or former military types who were either Christian extremists or well disciplined and trained serial killers that didn't have any guiding philosophy. They made a point of hunting down people around the world the Gilead government had declared were “unredeemables”, American dissidents who refused accept the new regime or quietly fade into the society of whatever nation they were taking refuge.
With the world dissolving into chaos the Eyes had free reign for months. That is until the Remnant United States, a government in exile consisting of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico launched six nonnuclear cruise missiles at the Texas compound where the “Leader” of Gilead resided when he wasn't in Washington. The Remnant U.S. had possession of all the workable nuclear weapons and long range delivery systems once held by American Armed Forces.
The missiles killed hundreds of the most fanatical participants of the new government, which the propaganda arm instantly turned into martyrs. The attack missed the Leader by a couple of hours, but he got the message and ended all overt assassinations.
If my not so well hidden observers wanted me dead, I'd already be laying on the ground in a growing puddle of my own blood. So, with nothing left to do I begin walking back figuring they wanted to talk with me. The only questions remaining being who are they, and what do they want. As I approach my cabin I notice the front door is wide open. I can't help but feel a growing curiosity combined with a great deal of worry as I stepped threw.
When it became apparent no one in the doomed U. S. Government was listening to my warnings, I skipped the country with money and a new identity. For several months, I jumped around the world looking to avoid the hundreds of assassins the Gilead regime had dispatched to short circuit anyone forming an organized and effective resistance.
But once the Eyes were called back home, I settled on the South Island of New Zealand. In normal times unless you were a legitimate refugee or very rich, the Kiwis were always stingy about allowing outsiders into their beautiful country. As far as the Kiwi immigration ministry was concerned, I was a rich entrepreneur who just happen to become a permanent resident right before the Mayday Attacks that overthrew the United States government. When the world was thrown into chaos because of that event, New Zealand along with every other stable nation was forced to take in tens of thousands of displaced former Americans.
For that reason, New Zealand didn't put up with any shit from alien residents. Even a minor crime committed by a stupid teenager could result in the entire family being deported on the first available tramp freighter. At best the family would end up in the Remnant U.S., probably Alaska where they would end up working the mines or oil fields. At worst, Gilead itself in one of the toxic interment camps they called “colonies” where life expectancy is usually less than two years.
I liked New Zealand, I felt at peace here and the last thing I wanted was to cause any trouble or be noticed by the local constabulary. For that reason, I had my hands up as I entered the cabin curious about who had finally found me.
“Hello Ryan, its been too long.” The beautiful redhead sitting at my kitchen table said. “I'm reforming Section Thirty-One, and you're one of the band members I just can't do without.”
While the roar of the cargo plane's massive jet engines were canceled out by the headphones I wore, escaping the clamber of my thoughts was something far more difficult. Seeing Amanda was one of the absolute last things I thought would ever happen again in my life. Thinking back on it, having an affair with her while she was married to a high-ranking aid to a powerful United States Senator as well as being my boss was a really bad idea.
On the face of it Amanda Carter was the poster woman for dynamic feminism. After graduating West Point she became a member of the Criminal Investigation Command working in intelligence gathering. Her exploits in Afghanistan and several other dangerous locations around the world cleared her a pathway to joining the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team and eventually commanding it. From there she fell in love and married Andrew Maddox, senior aid to the now deceased Senator Laura Claiborne.
I met Amanda when we were both recruited for Section Thirty-One, a semi-secret agency created in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. When America's commie foe went belly up in the 1990's, a whole host James Bond-like villains were the result. With access to thousands of loose Soviet tactical nukes, deadly biological agents, and other pieces of inconvenient technology the United States intelligence community created Section Thirty-One in an effort to contain and eliminate their dangers. By the time Amanda and I were on the team, its purview had expanded to other threats to the nation. All things considered, Section Thirty-One did a damn good job up until it was sidelined by what was called at the time the “War on Terror.”
They pulled her from the FBI and me from the Navy Seals in 2015 and made us partners after graduating 31's training academy. Several dangerous missions later one thing lead to the other and we became lovers in Vienna while holding up in a safe house. A couple of months later her husband, Maddox finds out with Amanda getting a new partner while I was assigned to a desk in Washington. All told the desk job analyzing domestic terrorist groups was probably a good thing. It gave me a heads up on the Son of Jacob, the radical group planning the overthrow of the U.S. government allowing me to cleanly skip the country when I realized no one in authority was listening to my warnings. Most of Section Thirty-One was assassinated in the months after the Mayday Attacks.
Amanda sat on the other side of plane from me, asleep but in the middle of a very bad dream. She was trying to curl up in one of the seats mounted in a long row next the fuselage. From the moment I saw her in my cabin it was obvious the years since Mayday had been nightmarish. Her face was still beautiful but her eyes were empty, the person she was when we were partners and lovers long dead. Emphasizing that point, was the scar running down the side of her face visible to to me.
After leaving my cabin, she wouldn't reveal the mission she had come all the way down to New Zealand to get me to join until we reached our destination. She did tell me that I had experience critcal to its successful completion. The cold expression on her face all but confirming the idea floating around in my head that I would probably end up wishing I hid from the world a lot better. Later on sitting next Amanda in the vehicle one of her teammates drove, I tried to ask about the scar and her reaction was even worse.
Our destination turned out to be Johnston Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A long time naval refueling station later turned into a testing facility for chemical and nuclear weapons. After the fall of the government, the Remnant U.S. increased the island's size many times by sinking scores of unneeded vessels in the shallow waters and then piling hundreds of tons of material on top from coral dredging. The purpose to provide a highly secure site to plan operations against the Gilead regime. The official capital of the Remnant U.S. was Anchorage, Alaska but brutal experience had taught what was left of the American government was infiltrated with Gilead sympathizers.
One of the few things Amanda did tell me before we departed New Zealand was that being admitted to Johnston Atoll meant that the Resistance leadership was sure you were not the enemy. Something I told her I appreciated since I was the goddamn person who tried to warn them in the first place.
The building we were taken to after landing while prefab had obviously been hardened to the point of absurdity. My guess was to withstand tropical storms and the disturbing possibility that Gilead, or its Russian ally, might try to attack the place. That is if anything they threw at it could get by the several cruisers out in the nearby waters or land-based missile batteries scattered about the island.
Amanda and I were quickly ushered inside and to a conference room filled with a collection of military types from all the military services. Mixed in where a few intelligence spooks wearing actual Hawaiian shirts and khaki pants. They looked like irate insurance salesmen who had missed the flight to Vegas for the annual convention and were about to lose the reservation deposit at their favorite whore house.
After taking our seats in the far corner of the room, a four-star army general entered the room and took up position behind the podium.
“Good day ladies and gentlemen,” he said while organizing his papers. “For those who don't know me I'm General Robert Okamoto director of continental insurgence. We are here today to begin plans to extract a high value prisoner trapped in Gilead. The president himself has approved this operation not just for how it will hurt the Gilead regime but the target is also a highly trained scientist who was researching the fertility crisis before the Fall.”
To say I was nervous about how I was supposed to be critical to this mission was an understatement. I had been part of at least a dozen hostage rescue missions in my career, but never one to what was supposed to be my home country. That it had become a totalitarian state dominated by a freakish religion only made the situation more bizarre. Nonetheless, I stayed quiet and waited for the other shoe to drop.
General Okamoto continued on for a several minutes before revealing the location of this vital individual. I began to understand why Amanda had come for me the second I saw the map. It was a map of Charleston, South Carolina, my hometown, a place that as a kid I thought I would never leave. But now one I wouldn't have bet money the day before I would ever dare to return.
I turned my head towards Amanda and found her looking intensely at me. The person next me was not my Amanda, she was long dead. But the expression on her face was one I was familiar with after being her partner and then lover.
“What piece of information are you not telling me, Amanda? I whispered to her.
She ignored me and just turned her head back towards General Okamoto.
End of Part One
(Author's note: For reasons that should be obvious I'm in a really dark mood right now. I honestly feel our country is just a few small steps away from a true nightmare. What history I've read seems to suggest any people that come this close to giving away their freedoms and rule of law have only a few fleeting opportunities to make them safe again. That the elements seeking to institute authoritarian restrictions have the advantage in pursuing their goals while the good guys are often at odds with themselves. Those of us in the “Resistance” can only do our best and hope.
This story is crap, but I have based it on the Hulu series, not the book or movie, and have done my best to expand the landscape of that excellent production.)
Monday, February 5, 2018
|Per my usual habit I went to the resort's beach house to watch the sunrise last Saturday morning. Located a little over a mile away from the main resort, which is on the marsh, the beach house has its own pool and activities.|
|Last picture before my wife and I headed home. The pier stretching out into the march on the main resort property. Not all is lost, we're heading back to DHHIR sometime in July.|