The ruins of the gigantic Apollo vehicle assembly stood like a lonely sentinel staring out into the calm Atlantic Ocean reminding the world of the grand human achievements once accomplished there. In turn, the surrounding complex of support buildings offered a different impression, shattered and burned smaller structures told of the insanity of human nature making the place look like a twisted graveyard. The only evidence of current habitation came from the collection of tents and portable buildings making up the Third division headquarters which was part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Expeditionary Force in North America.
Colonel Lin of the division's second brigade had the pilot of his helicopter circle the sad assembly building several times just so he could marvel at what the men and women who once worked inside it had achieved. Using primitive technology and shear will they sent humans to the moon along with probes to all the planets of the solar system. Now it lay long abandoned, the roof caved in by years of salt air and hurricanes, its side’s bleached white by the intense sun. If Lin squinted hard enough he could barely make out the American flag that was once painted on one side of the structure but now had almost faded away to a memory. A testament to the nation that at one time dominated the world stage like none before it but whose decline and decent into chaos was like none before it as well.
"Colonel", his chief pilot said over the intercom breaking his revelry, "division HQ wants us to land, they say the general wants you in his tent in twenty minutes."
"Fine lieutenant," he responded, "tell them we will circle one more time and then bring us in for a landing."
Minutes later the dragonfire helicopter landed on the gravel road once used by the huge transport that first carried the Saturn rockets then the American space shuttle from the assembly building to the launch pad. Lin quickly jumped out the helicopter’s open door with the blades still spinning and passed other helicopters that had long since landed and ran toward the tent where General Ling would give his briefing and expect reports from his subordinates. Even though the pandemic had ended years ago and with the beginning of the recovery after that making China was a far different and better place Lin knew it still did not pay to leave a general waiting.
He arrived with a few minutes to spare taking his seat amongst the other brigade commanders as the general's aid prepared the large monitor that showed a map of the North American continent. Different colored symbols arrayed all across the map showed the various nations taking part in the relief expedition. Other symbols on the display, situated on the ocean, represented the national flotillas charged with protecting their people on land.
General Hue promptly marched in and without fanfare began his briefing describing how the Russians, Europeans, Brazilians, and Indians were progressing with the stated international mission of relief to the devastated continent. Special attention was given to how far Canada had recovered with some of their troops now serving in the New England and Midwest regions. The Mexican issue was the final segment and the general spoke of how negotiations were proceeding with their claims on much of the former American southwest. Mexican troops had taken up positions in three states with some tensions developing between them and the Chinese forces occupying much of the former state of California.
After that, Hue received reports from the brigade commanders on the true mission of scouting the former United States for sensitive and strategic items. Hue listened to each colonel quietly with his aid making quick notes on a tablet computer. After Lin gave his report Hue, displaying a rare smile called the group to attention and dismissed the bunch.
“Colonel Lin,” Hue called out loudly, “please do me the honor of walking with me.” Lin froze as the rest of the brigade commanders quickly filed out of the tent not wanting to be part of what they assumed would be bad news.
After the tent cleared, Lin followed Hue out the opposite side and walked beside the general. It was approaching mid-morning and the heat from the sun, combined with the humidity was making it unpleasant for the colonel, who no matter what could not seem to get use to the climate in Florida. Lin was amazed to see the general seemingly unaffected by the uncomfortable weather as he silently followed his commanding officer.
They eventually approached a small gravesite containing about twenty makeshift crosses that had somehow survived the years and harsh conditions intact. Hue stopped in front of them and openly made the sign of the cross and bowed his head in silent prayer. Lin, who was a Gaian and who worshiped the living world entity, quietly looked on giving the general time to practice his faith.
“Tell me colonel,” Hue said after ending his prayer but still standing in front of the graves, “how goes your search for the secret research center?”
“Truthfully colonel I do not believe the place existed.” Lin responded. “My units have thoroughly scouted our assigned areas and even encountered a few Russian units near the Carolinas and nothing even comes close to what the intelligence analysts suggested.”
Hue turned, chuckled slightly and began walking again, “Once the Americans would have called your search a wild goose chase. It is of no concern though; I did not believe the reports anyway. But colonel I want your impressions of the Americans and honesty is key.”
Lin’s thoughts returned to the huge building where dedicated people assembled rockets and sent them into space. “As I have traveled this dark place I have found most of them ignorant and spiteful, ready to backstab each other over the smallest thing and almost always fearful of something lurking in the night or under their beds. Not at all like the people who built the nation that once existed here.”
“Yes,” Hue said sighing, “they entered the 21st century the world’s only superpower but hubris drove them insane. They not only ignored deteriorating conditions at home but continued suicidal military adventures and commitments overseas. Politicians thought more about securing power than the stability of the nation and willfully demonized anyone not in their electoral base. The polarization it fostered festered with media demagogues creating more wounds of fear and distrust. The fact that the country had descended into civil war a few years before the pandemic did much insure that it could not institute measures to control the spread of the infection. The virus devastated the population here far worse than any other country in the Northern hemisphere. Even when the virus had burned itself out the survivors quickly resumed fighting. It has only been fifteen years since they collapsed but they have devolved to tribal and family feuds with little real memory of who they once were, it is a sad existence but the only one they know.”
“They are barbarians,” Lin said sounding frustrated, “ north of Ocala I began interviewing the various warlords in an attempt get some information on the research facility, one particular day I had three disgusting individuals in my tent. One was dressed in a fake looking camouflage uniform, he called himself a “colonel” and suggested we were colleagues. Another was dressed in what looked to be a police officer’s uniform and had decked himself out in elaborate medals looking like old pictures of Herman Goering. The final one wore a suit, carried a Bible, and spoke almost entirely in verses. They all tried to make a deal with me that they would lead me to the facility if I crushed a nearby town.”
Hue looked at the colonel intrigued with his encounter, “Why did they want this town crushed, was it oppressing them in some way?”
“No, I met with the leader of that community a few weeks prior, they were well defended having developed an effective militia and had established a local electrical grid through the use of windmills and salvaged solar arrays. This community had formed local industries and had the most developed lifestyle I have seen here. The other warlords could not defeat the town but wanted what they produced. I found their foolish scheming infuriating, over a million foreign troops on their soil and all they can do is kill each other.”
“How did you rectify the possible conflict?” Hue stopped and asked.
“I shot all three warlords, the lieutenants they brought to the meeting, and warned their towns not to start anything.” Lin said sadly looking back toward the huge assembly building; it was obvious to the general that the punitive action bothered him.
“That brings me to why I brought you out on this walk,” Hue began with his expression deadly serious. “I am looking to appoint you military commander of the administration district of this area. The Russians are taking the Carolinas, Virginia, and as much else they can grab. The Europeans and Canadians are taking the northeast and Midwest. The rest of the country will be divided up and given to the other members of the relief mission. Your job will be to restore some form of order as humanely as possible.”
Much flew through Lin’s mind, the possibilities and questions almost overwhelmed him but he finally was able to ask one, “Why me general?”
“Because as much as you never talk about it I know you spent the first twelve of your life living not far from here. That your father had immigrated to America as a teenager and when the collapse came he loaded you and your mother on a freighter sending you both back to China. Furthermore that deep down you still consider yourself an American even though you are one of the best officers in the Chinese army.”
Colonel Lin ignored the telling of his early life he had thought long buried and the slightly implied question of his true loyalties for the memories that began running through his head. He remembered the happy years and events of his early life one of them watching the final launch of the space shuttle sitting in the public viewing stands with his father and their talk as it flew upwards about what would take its place. But events inside the country soon spun out of control with the economy that had never really recovered from the Great Recession collapsing into the Second Depression. Then came the creeping poverty that affected all his classmates and friends until it finally found his own family. Fear and panic began to spread with groups blaming each other, of course the favorite group to blame by many were those thought to be un-American or foreign.
When violence erupted, it engulfed the rest of the country like a fire spreading through a drought-ridden forest. The final act for Lin came watching his father on the docks as he and his mother slipped away to safety on a freighter. The last time he saw his father was as rioters overwhelmed the fence and guards and stormed the docks killing everyone in their path in a wild panic.
China at first was no better, Lin and his mother struggled to survive with their only advantage being ethnic Chinese. The pandemic and the social upheaval that followed only subsided as the virus burned out and with the birth of the Gaia Church in Europe. It quickly spread across the planet becoming a global religion offering a tired humanity a momentary peace, which it gladly took.
“Colonel," Hue said, "this post pandemic spirit of global goodwill is quickly ending; all the new global powers are licking their lips eager to carve up America in some way. There are even those in Beijing that want us to bring settlers over here so we can strengthen our claim over California. If we are not careful, the world will repeat the mistakes the Europeans did in Africa and China in the 19th century. However, there are those of us in the international relief command that desire to see America in some way stitched back together. I believe you could be an important piece of the puzzle in making that come true. The job will be a damn near impossible burden but I believe in your heart you never left this place, so will you take it?”
It was true Lin had never fully felt at home in China but after seeing the mob tear his father and others apart on the docks his identity as an American had been corrupted. For Lin even with his conflicted feelings of home the decision boiled down to one of faith and hope. The new Gaian faith embraced by much of humanity called for it to abandon what had sowed so much greed, fear, and hate in the world. A creed that the other world religions had rededicated themselves to after the pandemic had laid waste to so many. Seeing the untold fear and hunger that permeate this once prosperous land, he could not stay true to the World Spirit if he did not do his best.
Looking at the forlorn building that once had assembled and housed giant rockets fostering a sense of exploration and purpose for a nation Lin realized that it somehow seemed fitting that his small part in creating the path back for America would begin here. “General, somewhere in your holy book it is said ‘From small beginnings come great things’ and I’ll do my best,” he said smiling.