Project Reunion, Calm Act book 2
A bold plan to save a dying city
New York City is a lost cause. When Ebola broke out, the Calm Act prescription was to wall off the city with armed borders. Otherwise refugees would flood out and take the whole Northeast down along with it. The survivors outside, struggling to make ends meet in a chaotic climate and collapsed economy, are grateful. But they feel guilty as sin. New York weighs heavily on the regional conscience.
At the conclusion of End Game, Dee Baker and her lover Emmett MacLaren were invited to present proposals at a military conference on the problem. Dee leads the Amenac Internet empire, which bypasses the Calm Act’s censorship to empower survivors to self-organize and help themselves. Emmett is a martial law governor anointed within the Calm Act to lead and rebuild their county. The rule-breaker and the rule-maker could prove a dynamic partnership – or be torn apart.
Now that the crops are harvested from the first year under the Calm Act, can the Northeast afford to save New York? Or is it even safe to try, with another state beyond their borders preparing for war?
Project Reunion is the sequel to End Game, book 2 in the Calm Act series.
New York, October.
Gladys Petrosian lived at the top of a twenty-story apartment block in Brooklyn. She hadn’t lived here before Ebola broke out. She colonized this place after the power died. No one else wanted the twenty-floor walk-up. So many had died in the fires last winter, with no way out. They tried to cook in their apartments, or heat themselves in the bitter cold. The buildings caught fire, and there was no water to put the fires out. Yet another horrible way to die.
But Gladys was more afraid of the people than the flames. No one could give her Ebola, up here, away from them all. No one could kill her for her food. There used to be more people in the lower floors of the building. They’d fallen lower and lower as the food ran out. Too weak to climb.
There used to be more people.
The roof was all hers, up above it all. She had half a block’s worth of apartment homes to draw on for raw materials. And canned goods, once, but those were gone. Shower liners made excellent rain catchers for water. Other shower liners, slashed, created an overhead netting to keep the birds out. Or if they got in, the birds were trapped, easy to catch. Pigeon was her favorite. It was a good day, when she caught a pigeon.
She had a farm up here. Her seed collection was limited. But she’d hoarded a few potatoes until spring, and planted them. Sunflowers. Beans. Basil. Her own home-made manure, she joked. Potting mix from the apartments, odds and ends. It wasn’t much. She was starving, like everyone else. Not that she spoke to anyone else. Not in months.
A child cried on the fifteenth floor. That had been maddening. Why did he have to climb up her building to die? She would escape up to the roof and sing to herself, so she didn’t have to hear him. She didn’t have enough to share. But the crying finally dwindled and stopped last night. Tomorrow she’d climb down to look, from a cautious distance. Armed with kitchen knives. Maybe.
Today she cooked the last of the potato harvest. In a solar pizza-box oven, like the ones she taught the kids at PS 282 to make. Seventh grade science. Soon it would be too cold to cook potatoes. There wasn’t enough. There wasn’t nearly enough to make it to spring.
Maisie Mora waded at the edge of a beach near Port Jefferson, Long Island. She didn’t call herself that anymore, though. Syringe was her new name. She traded sex for food, and had for months. If she got the chance. Usually they just took the sex and gave her nothing in return.
But that one guy was too rough. She’d grabbed a dirty syringe off the ground and stabbed him in the eye with it. Of course he’d beaten her for it, and left her in an alley. Good riddance. The new gang of kids she roamed with wasn’t so bad. But she called herself Syringe to remind them not to mess with her. She wore the syringe on a string around her neck. It wasn’t really the same syringe, just another one she’d found. It made her feel tough, like her father the soldier. Not weak, like Mom, who died of Ebola and left her stranded here, on the wrong shore.
She gazed out across the Sound. Connecticut was over there, barely visible, a hazy grey line on the horizon. Bridgeport. That’s where the ferry was, to Port Jefferson. She’d taken it across the Sound once with her family. She imagined swimming across, home. Daddy would be so proud of her, swimming across the Sound! But the daydream fractured, crumpled. Daddy wouldn’t be proud of a thirteen year old whore, running with a gang. And it was 10 miles across the Sound here. Syringe couldn’t swim that far, even before, when she had enough to eat.
She used to fantasize that Daddy would come find her. Or that she’d find the ferry still running in Port Jefferson. She’d tell them what an important soldier her father was in Connecticut. They’d call him for her, and carry her across the Sound, back home.
That was a long time ago. She didn’t want to be found anymore. She just wanted to eat.
A hermit crab scuttled over her foot. She grabbed for it, slurped the life out of its tiny body. That didn’t satisfy her hunger at all. But it did inspire her. She made for the tide pools, to hunt for the periwinkles that clung to the rocks. That’s why the other kids put up with her, in the gang. They were city kids who didn’t know how to find anything to eat. But she did. Never enough, but some.
Interesting fact: The final President of the United States was the second who had never been elected.
I wonder what the Founding Fathers thought they were doing, when they first set out on the American Revolution. They couldn't have foreseen the globe-spanning American empire that would emerge from their friendly debates over a pint of beer in the colonial pubs of Boston or Philadelphia, or the parlors of Virginia. Personally, I was hoping for a romantic weekend getaway. My boyfriend Emmett and I could have used the break.
It was a rough couple weeks leading up to our summit meeting at the Coast Guard Academy in New London. I was so excited to get the invitation to present, that I convened a meeting of my hacker team the very next day to get started.
The guys – and they were all guys except for me – lounged around Dave’s industrial loft office space in the center of town. He’d done it up beautifully as a hacker haven. Whiteboards, chalkboards, and giant paper pads adorned the exposed brick walls, interspersed with a nerf-ball hoop and dart board. Power outlets and Gigabit Internet cables abounded in the work zone. We were selective about what traveled the airwaves, preferring a hard-wired connection controlled by our firewalls. Desk space was a free choice of picnic table, breakfast counter, stand-up desk, or dual-monitor workstation.
The non-work area was larger, complete with kitchenette, ping-pong, foosball, and the meeting lounge we met in now. That was furnished with a beat-up collection of old couches, folding tray tables, and bright crocheted afghans, all grouped to face a 65-inch monitor that was probably liberated from a sports bar. We had most of the screen set to duplicate my laptop screen, leaving a wide strip along the left to show the two members attending remotely.
It was a far cry from the Fortune 100 corporate cubicle maze down in Stamford that I used to work out of, only a year before. Not all changes in the world that past year were negative. Not that I’d ever commuted down to Stamford if I could avoid it, anyway. I had a telecommuter office at home. But I’d allowed that pasteurized corporate miasma to invade my personal space via my office, so that I could better relate to the suits in Stamford. This hacker lair felt closer to my real world of granite bays, marshes, woods, orchards, and vegetable gardens. Here even Mangal, my coworker and best friend of a dozen years down in Stamford, sat in stocking feet on a floor pillow.
“Time,” Mangal announced. Not all of our corporate manager ways had worn off. Mangal and I were still sticklers for beginning a meeting on time. “Dee Baker called the meeting. What’s up, Dee?”
“Thank you, Mangal,” I began, “and thank you all for coming on such short notice.” I met each of the seven present by eye, and looked directly into the video camera for the off-site attendees. “This is big, guys. Niedermeyer has convened a summit meeting in New London in two weeks, at the Coast Guard Academy. You’ll remember Captain Niedermeyer. He’s the Power in the Coast Guard and Navy around here.
“Now the Calm Act plan says we do nothing about New York, or open any borders, until March at the earliest. But we all know that the Ebola survivors in the city can’t wait another five months for relief. They’re starving, they’re dying, they’re our neighbors.” I paused, and was glad to see that most of the gang nodded solemn agreement. Not all. Our graphic designer Will, also late of UNC in Stamford, frowned and wriggled in discomfort on the couch. Leland, our man in Canadian intelligence who attended remotely today, just pursed his lips.
I pressed on. “As I understand it, Niedermeyer’s concept is to re-unite the Northeast around the grand cause of relieving New York City. The summit meeting is to present proposals for how we can do that – and whether it’s safe.” I tossed that last bone to Will, whose wiggle quotient was building toward an interruption. Will reported to me for years at UNC. I knew all too well when he was about to erupt. He subsided into the couch with a huff.
“Now, I’ve caught two parts of this,” I pressed on. “I’m asking for help with both of them. Two people from the New Haven area have been invited to present at the summit – Emmett, and me. You know Emmett as my boyfriend.” That got a couple of chuckles. But I added an explanation for the benefit of the Amen1 hackers I didn’t know as well. “Major Emmett MacLaren is also the lead community resource coordinator – the Resco – for the greater New Haven area –”
“We’re under martial law. He’s our marshal,” Popeye interrupted with a summary. As with all of the Amen1 hacker half of the Amenac partnership, I didn’t know his real name. I barely knew Popeye at all. The full-body tribal tattoos and piercings, under black biker leathers, didn’t fit my usual social circle. He wore black wraparound sunglasses, even late at night. I found him hard to connect to.
“Close enough,” I agreed, with a sunny smile. He scowled back. I’d never seen him without a scowl, so that was fine. “Anyway, Emmett plans to present an overall proposal for the relief of New York –”
“Overall proposal?” Leland cut in. That surprised me. Our Canadian intelligence representative rarely said a word during our meetings. Judging from his video feed, he was suddenly and intently researching something on his own computer.
“Yeah, it’s pretty ambitious,” I agreed. “Especially with only two weeks to prepare. He calls it a ‘framework.’ So, Emmett’s asked for our help to pull that together, to do the research and present it effectively. I think a couple other, um, ‘military marshals’, have agreed to help, too.
“But second, I’ve also been invited to present. So, I want to showcase what Amenac has done for the world so far, and what we can do to support and coordinate on the civilian side, if we go forward with helping New York. Like the missing persons lost-and-found database you guys threw together after the quakes and tsunami on the west coast last winter. That was an outstanding contribution to the world. Based on that, we can do a lot to support the New York effort. An online clearing house for people to volunteer. We need an inventory of skills, food, housing, Ebola vaccine doses, you name it. There’s just a lot of data and communications to pull together. And we’ve got the framework and track record to do that on the public side. Without getting shut down for violating the Calm Act, like everyone else does.”
Belatedly I clicked up my presentation for today onto the big screen, and flipped forward to a staffing sketch labeled ‘Dream Team.’ “Now obviously, guys, who does what, depends on who wants to do what. But I mean it when I say ‘Dream Team.’ We’ve got the people to perform miracles here, if you’re willing to come on board. If I got all my wishes, this is a suggested division of labor.”
I let them digest the list for a minute. I had four columns – the New York relief plan, the Amenac show and tell, both, and neither. The ‘neither’ column was necessary, because we had to keep our existing operations up and running. On the content end, we had legions of volunteer moderators minding the shop. But keeping the servers up, and thwarting the Federal watchdogs trying to shut us down, kept Popeye busy full-time. He led a remote server team that didn’t attend our steering committee meetings. I didn’t need to know who or where they were, but the Canadian Leland probably represented several of them.
Mangal and I could also pull in about a half dozen more UNC alumni from outside this steering group. How many Amen1 hackers were represented by the six attending this meeting, was something we were not invited to know. So the names on my list were just the principals present at the meeting, not the full number of people who might be deployed.
I considered and discarded several more sales pitches. This wasn’t a group who responded well to cheerleader nonsense. “So that’s the ask, and those are the stakes. Of course, I’m all in. Emmett is loaning me back Shelley from the barricades for a couple weeks. Mangal? Thanks! I knew I could count on you. So – discussion?”
Popeye jumped in first. “I can’t believe this fucking shit, whore!” Actually, that’s a cleaned up version of what he said. There was more in that vein, involving my choice of boyfriends and what I did with them, followed by, “No fucking way you’ll use Amen1 to back the evil empire!”
My mouth was hanging open.
Our host Dave, the Amen1 public spokesman, interjected calmly, “Popeye, I think we’d all feel more comfortable in these meetings if you could dial down the profanity.”
The Amen1 white-hat hackers were a motley crew, but Dave looked and acted like a successful 50-something real estate agent, in a casual but oh-so-very-expensive grey suit and cashmere pullover. Much as I wished he was the leader – and he acted like it – Dave insisted that he wasn’t. My Stamford UNC alumni contingent didn’t know who Amen1’s leader was. What Leland of Canadian intelligence knew, I wouldn’t hazard a guess.
Mangal, Leland, and Will nodded emphatically to the proposal of cutting the profanity. The other Amen1 hackers nodded more in resignation. Like me, I suspect they weren’t sure Popeye knew how to speak politely.
“Fucking whore!” repeated Popeye. “Whore to the evil empire!”
“Excuse me, Popeye,” I attempted, “but what exactly do you mean by the ‘evil empire?’”
“Fucking U.S. of A. Especially the pigs.”
“The ‘pigs’ being...the U.S. Army?” I hazarded faintly. Or Emmett?
“With respect, Popeye, I’d like to re-frame this,” said Dave. Unlike Mangal and I, Dave hadn’t lost his cool in the slightest. “Dee, I think several in Amen1 have a certain, ah, commitment to anarchy. Bypassing the Federal government to liberate information that ought to be free – that’s a natural fit for us. I think what Popeye is saying, is that assisting a military operation is, um, an unnatural fit.”
“Fucking A!” agreed Popeye. He rose, intentionally throwing his folding chair backward to clatter on the floor. He looked to another hacker, Mel, as though expecting Mel to get up and storm out with him. Mel shrugged. Popeye slammed his way out of the loft.
Damn, I didn’t know that about Mel, that he was so ideologically close to Popeye. A few years older than Mangal and me, Mel was another mild-mannered corporate refugee, a computer engineer out of Boston. I wouldn’t have hesitated to invite Mel, and his somewhat intense wife Jeannie, over to my house for dinner with Emmett and my foster-teen Alex.
I must have stared at Mel for a moment. In the quiet pause after Popeye’s slamming door, Mel offered with a smile, “Count me in. That assignment looks good to me.” I had him penciled in on ‘both’ projects.
“Thank you, Mel,” I said faintly. I smiled, but I suspect it came out crooked.
“Excellent re-framing, Dave,” said the middle-aged black guy under Leland on the video display. He went by ‘Genghis.’ I’d never met him except by video. “I think that focuses on a key issue for me. Why does this need to be a military operation. Dee?”
“Thank you, great question,” I replied. “I guess it has to be, because it already is? New York is surrounded by armed borders, just like we are. To allow millions out of New York, or major relief personnel and supplies in, and set up quarantine zones for safety, we need at least the tolerance of the border forces. And Niedermeyer is inviting proposals that go way beyond that. To throw the resources of all the regional armed forces – Army, National Guard, Coast Guard, Navy, and so on – into solving New York. Or at least, that’s what Emmett’s framework proposal will involve. Whether Niedermeyer and the other powers-that-be will go for it, remains to be seen.
“To get back to that ‘evil empire’ thing... Whether or not you agree with what the U.S. military has been used for in the past – they’re damned good at logistics. When we’re talking about controlled movement of millions of people, without letting loose an Ebola epidemic on the rest of the Northeast – we’re talking major logistics here.”
Genghis nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you.” Above him on the screen, the Canadian Leland nodded impatiently, as though all that were obvious. Fair enough. I thought so, too, but many people had a hard time thinking with large numbers.
“Does that require Washington’s...tolerance...as well?” asked Dave.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I would know more after the summit meeting. But, I may not have a need to know. I suspect Niedermeyer’s going out on a limb. For what it’s worth.”
Will couldn’t bottle it up anymore. “I hope Washington flattens the guy. Come on! The Ebola risk isn’t worth it. Yeah, I’m sorry they’re all gonna die in New York. And the Calm Act sucks. And Congress had no fucking right to do that, to pen us all up like cattle inside borders. But they did it. And the stupid plan has advantages. Like, we’re not gonna die of Ebola on this side of the border. No one has the right to risk our survival here by letting them out of New York.”
“That’s the concern,” I agreed quietly. “That’s Emmett’s challenge, to come up with a framework of a plan that allows us to carry out the humanitarian mission, saving lives, without risking lives. Or rather, not risking lives beyond the military ones. Acceptable risks, as he put it.” I swallowed. By that yardstick, Emmett counted his own life as an acceptable risk.
I continued, “New uncontrollable epidemics, are not acceptable risks. But we’ve done a pilot program out on Long Island. And Emmett and Niedermeyer have epidemiologists to draw on. Maybe even the CDC if they can get a little more than Washington’s ‘tolerance.’ If we can’t allay those concerns, the proposal is dead in the water.”
My best friend Mangal chimed in. “But to condemn millions to die – further millions, because millions have already died – without even trying to construct a feasible plan to help them, is...unforgivable. Will, I agree with you that the risk is terrifying. And Dee, I hate to think what Emmett did to deserve this assignment –”
“His choice,” I supplied, with a shrug.
“Well, bless him,” Mangal continued. “It’s only a proposal, Will. Unless and until it proves itself viable, and sells to these military leaders at the summit meeting. Unless the proposal can convince people it’s safe to relieve New York. The lives at stake deserve our best shot at building a proposal that can do that, I say. If it’s really unsafe, or really against the will of the people, then due diligence in our research should make that clear.”
“Well put, Mangal,” said Dave. “Is Emmett’s proposal the only one, Dee?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Emmett wants to propose to clear people through quarantine, and then resettle them throughout the Northeast. Probably not all of them. But there are other possibilities. Like just inserting supplies and medical teams across the border. But that isn’t sustainable. So Emmett wants what Mangal just said. New York deserves at least one earnest attempt to save their lives, and sustainably solve the problem. Not just charity. Charity won’t solve this.”
There was a lot more discussion. But in the end, I got my ‘Dream Team’ for the proposals. Even Popeye. All I’d asked was that he continue what he was already doing – keep the servers running. The rest of us got down to work, brainstorming how to research the proposals as best we could.
Interesting fact: In the stock market crash of 2008, over $10 trillion were lost. When the U.S. defaulted on its national debt, $20 trillion vanished. Soon after, the dollar lost all value, and the U.S. Gross National Product went from $16 trillion a year, to nothing at all, because there was no yardstick with which to measure it.
“Hey! What are you doing in my office?” I asked Emmett. I’d come in from the garden the following afternoon to find him seated at my desk, busy at my computer. Emmett was at my house almost every night for dinner. He was welcome to use my Internet and big display in the living room, and he frequently did. But like everyone else in our four-household extended family, I expected him to stay out of my office unless invited. Even Mangal had to ask permission, and we worked together in there all the time.
“Have a seat, Ms. Baker,” Emmett replied, after a few moments. He continued typing, face set in stony lines. He was wearing his blue dress Army uniform today, not my favorite look on him. His usual civilian button-down jeans and dark jewel-toned shirts showed off his wiry buffed physique, his best feature. His more common workaday combat fatigues at least looked casual. Today’s dress blues looked stuffy and intimidating. The outfit’s beret sat squashed on the desk at his elbow.
“Emmett? What the hell?”
“For this interview, I prefer to be addressed as Major MacLaren. Sit down, Ms. Baker.”
Now he was scaring me. And I don’t like being scared. I dragged Mangal’s usual chair around, and sat back in it, crossing my legs and arms, facing the wrong side of my desk. “Major MacLaren,” I bit out. “What the hell?”
He turned and steepled his fingers before his chin, elbows on the desk, and finally deigned to look at me. Emmett was usually the embodiment of cheerfully amused sarcasm. I’d never seen him furious at me before.
“Ms. Baker, there is an aspect of our relationship I haven’t mentioned, until now. You’ll recall that Homeland Security released you into my custody last winter. As a resource and asset to my command.”
“How could I forget,” I replied, eyes narrowed at him. “My knight in shining armor.”
“Uh-huh. That was not a get-out-of-jail-free card, Ms. Baker. You, and the Amen1 hackers, and the Amenac websites, are not free. You were made my responsibility. In effect, I am your parole officer.” He unbent slightly to add, “Among other things.”
Oh, shit. “I see,” I replied.
“I just spent several hours with HomeSec. Not what I hoped to do today.”
“They’re back?” We’d blown up the local HomeSec offices. “Where?”
Emmett scowled at me. “They showed me a recording of your meeting yesterday with the Amen1 hackers. The discussion that included bringing down the ‘evil empire.’” Yes, no doubt about it – Emmett was furious at me.
I was aghast. It took me a few moments to sift through all the levels on which I was aghast. First off, that HomeSec had a recording of that meeting at all, and how they managed that. Secondly, what exactly I’d said about the ‘evil empire.’ “Um – did anyone actually suggest ‘bringing down’ the ‘evil empire?’ I thought, um, some elements, were just expressing discomfort at helping the, um, armed forces. And just for the record, Emmett – Major MacLaren – I didn’t express those views. I just...handled the objections.” In fact, I thought my conscience was clear. Fairly clear.
“Uh-huh,” said Emmett. “Ms. Baker, I need you to tell me where I can find Popeye.”
“I need to talk to him.”
“Look, that was a private meeting,” I objected. “No one in that meeting incited anyone to do anything. We were organizing, to act as your resources! I don’t care for how Popeye expresses himself, either, but –”
“I have a time limit, Ms. Baker. HomeSec gave me a head start, to deal with the problem before they do.”
“Deal with it how?”
Emmett didn’t deign to respond to that one. He just held my eye.
I broke eye contact first, and gazed down at my lap in defeat. Who did I trust more – Emmett or Popeye? I didn’t really know or like Popeye. I suspected I was in love with Emmett. But he’d turned into this alien army officer, working in cahoots with HomeSec.
“This will destroy Amenac,” I whispered bitterly. “And I’ll be out. They’ll never trust me again.”
“I’m trying to avoid that, Dee,” he said gently. “We need Amenac. And you.”
I looked up hopefully. But his face was still angry, and he silently demanded an answer.
I sighed. “Alright. Late afternoon now, so Popeye’s probably working at his place. He’s squatting in an upscale townhouse in the marina. Umbrella Reef condos, unit 318. Around 8, he normally knocks off for a couple hours for dinner and drinks at the Brewery on Hemlock. He’s usually back online from home before 11. Works until 3 a.m. or so.” I didn’t know any of that as Popeye’s friend, just gossip and observation.
Emmett jotted notes. “Thank you. Grab a jacket. Leave your purse.”
“I’m going with you?” I asked in horror.
He didn’t answer, until we parked his car at Delilah’s house. Delilah was co-coordinator for my neighborhood, under Emmett. She was also the sister of my late boyfriend, Zack Harkonnen.
Zack had been our original community coordinator until he died four months ago, in June. Emmett was his best friend. He’d sat with Zack while he died. The operation succeeded. The nasty survivalist camp that terrorized Broomfield was gone. But they’d killed one last man, my lover Zack.
“Hey, Delilah,” Emmett greeted her when she answered the door. “I need Dee held incommunicado for a few hours.”
Delilah blinked, but rallied quickly enough. “Sure, Emmett, no problem. Hey, Dee, come on in. We haven’t sat down over a cup of tea in ages.”
Emmett snorted. “Delilah, I need Dee squelched, no outgoing communications,” he clarified.
“Ah,” Delilah said thoughtfully. Then she turned her manic grin on me. “What fun!” She drew me by the arm into her kitchen. “So we haven’t really talked since you started sleeping with the major. When was that, in August, two months now? It looks good on you, Dee! You looked like the walking dead there for a while after Zack died...”
Emmett left to hunt down Popeye.
Delilah wouldn’t even call Alex, my foster teenager, to tell him I wouldn’t be home for supper. Weirdly, she grilled me on my sex life, but not on why Emmett had incarcerated me with her. He’d left me there to tell her, or not tell her, as I saw fit. And I wasn’t in the mood to share. In fact, my nerves felt raw. Not that I really felt like talking about my sex life with Delilah, either.
Delilah grows excellent vegetables, and prepares them perfectly. Especially when an extra pair of hands is available to play scullery maid. It’s a shame she has some political or medical objection to salt, though. She didn’t have any in the house.
Around 9 p.m., Emmett called and told her I was free to go. She offered to drive me home, but it was pleasantly cool and clear, with a harvest moon up to light my way along the empty dark wooded streets. I walked the mile and a half alone, thinking.
I woke disoriented, to Emmett’s hand brushing hair away from my face. He loomed over me in the dark. I started to jerk up to a seat, but he quietly pressed me back down.
“Shh. You fell asleep on my couch,” he murmured, by way of orientation. “It’s 2 a.m. I asked you to give me space for 24 hours, Dee. Give me a chance to cool off.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose, trying to focus. “You said you wouldn’t be back till after 10, so you’d see me tomorrow. But I didn’t want to wait that long, so I came over to wait for you. But I fell asleep. Hasn’t it been more like 36 hours by now?”
He snorted softly. “More like 10 since I asked for 24. But yeah, a day and a half since I asked you about Popeye.”
“So I need to go, because you’re still mad?”
He considered that, still petting me gently in the dark. He was going to put me straight back to sleep if he kept this petting so platonic. “It’s not so much that I’m mad at you. My temper’s still too close to the surface. Doesn’t matter. I’m exhausted. Come to bed.”
“If you don’t want me here, I should walk home.”
He drew me up into a hug. “Come to bed,” he repeated, in my ear. “Don’t make me carry you.” He stood up and yanked me to my feet, by the arm. He left me standing there, to go brush his teeth and change for bed.
At that mixed message, I thought maybe I should leave after all. But that thought made me tune in to the weather. Keening wind. Ozone and ions in the air, and a wet smell of burnt dust, overlaid with fish. A sudden spit of drumming rain on the roof, then none. I glanced out a window to pitch black. Emmett had lit two candles, one in the kitchen, and one in his bedroom. They seemed to provide the only light in the universe, and the candle flames were guttering like mad. No, it wasn’t a good night to walk home. I blew out the kitchen candle and took my turn brushing my teeth.
I tried to give him space by lying as far to my edge of the bed as possible. He climbed in and dragged me onto his shoulder. “So. What couldn’t wait?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, Emmett. This was a bad idea. I invaded your space, right after you asked for space.”
“Uh-huh. Dee, the rooster out there is gonna crow in an hour. Out with it.”
“I didn’t call America the ‘evil empire.’ Popeye is a pig. I defended you at that meeting. I explained why we needed the Army for New York. Maybe not as hard and glowing as you would’ve liked. But it was a hostile audience. And I wanted them to do something for us.”
Emmett was silent, stroking my side with the hand attached to his arm beneath me.
“What did you say to Popeye, anyway?” I went on.
Emmett clamped his other hand over my mouth. “Stop. Dee, we’ve never had a good fight before. Some ground rules. Don’t change the subject before I respond to the first subject. You damned Yankees talk too damn fast. I listened to you. Now I’m thinking. You wait.” He unclamped my mouth and resumed his silence.
A clock ticked in the kitchen. A buffet of wind struck the southwest corner of the house. I puzzled over why the air smelled so fishy tonight. Dead sponges smelled especially rank. Was the Sound really rough yesterday? That often tossed sponge fragments up onto the beaches to die. I waited at least 15 seconds. Southerners talk too damned slow. Did Missouri even count as the South? Emmett’s Ozark accent sure sounded southern when he laid it on thick. The Ozarks extended into Arkansas, didn’t they? Arkansas was definitely South.
“What do you really think of the U.S. Army?” he asked, jolting me back to the present.
“Umm...” I thought giving my honest opinion would not help here.
“Uh-huh,” he responded. And he waited, damn him.
“Look, Emmett, I didn’t support any war we’ve been in for... I don’t remember the last war I did support. I think we usually did more harm than good, and mixed into fights that were none of our business. We invaded countries, on insufficient grounds. And yeah, I think you could call that ‘imperial’ behavior. Possibly one could even make a case for ‘evil.’ I think the U.S. government and the military-industrial complex have spiraled out of control for a long time.
“But that’s not the same as being against the people in the Army. I respect our soldiers. I don’t blame them for the orders they carry out. As an American, I owe them for their service. And you personally – Emmett, you know I respect you! I don’t always agree with you. I imagine you believed in what you were doing in those wars –”
“Please stop talking,” he cut in.
I got to practice waiting for at least another 15 seconds. I tried to stay with him this time by stroking his lower belly. He arrested my hand in a vice grip.
“That’s what I thought you thought,” he eventually said. “Two things. I believed in what I was doing, in those wars. No regrets, no apologies. I won’t argue with you about it. I will suggest that you never get to know what would have happened on the road not taken. We can agree to disagree on that.
“The second thing bothers me more. I wonder if you have me confused with Zack. Dee, I loved Zack like a brother. But I am not Zack. Zack was a reluctant, apologetic warrior. Not me. Zack was a Yankee liberal arts ROTC officer. I went to West Point. So here I slipped into his life, his house, into a relationship with his girl and her foster kid, even his damned livestock. So I gotta wonder – are we both dating Zack?”
“Ow,” I said, eyes suddenly tearing up. He released my hand and hugged me tighter. “Ow, Emmett! I’m sorry if I said anything that made you feel that –”
He shut me up with a fierce kiss. We didn’t talk anymore until we’d made love and lay spent, with me draped half over him.
I considered waiting for Emmett to talk first. Nah. I poked him. “I’m not Zack, either.”
“I don’t believe you ever slept with Zack, Major MacLaren.”
“Slept? We roomed together for a year in Estonia. Truth. Vacationed together in his ancestral Finland. That was epic.” He chuckled at a stray memory.
I’d heard snatches of that adventure in Finland before, from both of them.
“I don’t believe you ever had sex with Zack, Major MacLaren,” I clarified.
“Not without a woman in the room, certainly.”
“I don’t believe you.” He just shrugged. “Can I respond to what you said yet?”
He hesitated, and sighed, but said, “Shoot.”
“I think part of what makes a relationship is shared experience,” I said, groping for words. “Especially deep emotional experience. Shared drunken debauchery in Helsinki. Lost comrades. Working together on shared goals. Grieving and celebrating and getting the work done. We’re both still doing work that we started with Zack. He’ll always be a part of that. But we all believed in it. Dee and Emmett still do.”
“Yeah,” Emmett murmured.
“I think you were right to call me on it, Emmett. I’ll watch out for confusing you with Zack. But I’m pretty sure I’m dating Emmett now. And that damned rooster crowing is mine now. And I’m very grateful that I have a man who can wring its neck for me. I have an idea. Could we stop referring to this as Zack’s house, or my livestock? You live here. You deal with the dratted birds and the goats and the cow. So they’re Emmett’s. Not Zack’s, not Dee’s.”
“And if we break up?”
“How about we worry about that after we’ve slept, taken care of the livestock, saved New York, turned the garden beds for winter, eaten, and dodged today’s weather?”
“Sounds like a plan. Maybe the kid will take care of the livestock for once without me today.” One of Emmett’s hobby goals was to teach animal husbandry to others in West Totoket. The local teenagers proved pretty unreliable on the dawn shift, though.
“Miracles happen,” I quipped. “Emmett... Are we OK now?” I wasn’t sure we were. But he’d fallen fast asleep.
Interesting fact: The most important currency that year was the tax credit, established by the community coordinators, or Cocos. A tax credit was minted when an agricultural producer deposited food as taxes or surplus. Any tax credit balance could be traded for food at a trading post. A ‘full tax credit’ meant enough credits to feed an adult for a year. Few civilians managed to earn that in trade for non-agricultural production.
“Hi. I’m Major Emmett MacLaren, U.S. Army,” Emmett drawled to the assembled Amenac team later that day. This was the same group as three days before, including an eerily well-mannered Popeye. “And I am your sponsor. You know your Canadian sponsor, Leland over there. He protects you in cyberspace. I’m the sponsor who protects your warm pink bodies. Homeland Security shared a video with me of your last meeting.”
That riveted the group’s attention. Apparently Popeye hadn’t told them any more than I had.
“Based on that video,” Emmett continued, “you weren’t aware that I’m the sponsor who pays your tax credits so you can eat. And the one who protects you from HomeSec.
“Because, boys and girl, what you’re doing is illegal. You are in clear violation of the Calm Act. Now I’m good with that. I’m happy to protect you. You’re providing a useful public service. I want you to keep it up. But there is a line. That line was crossed on Tuesday. Happily, no one died. This time.
“Now, I don’t know or care what you pay Leland. But every once in a while, I ask that you earn your keep with me. On Tuesday, Dee expressed this ask, as a favor to Dee. I’d like to correct that. You owe me. Dave, can you confirm what I pay you guys? Aside from keeping you out of HomeSec.”
“Full tax credits for 12, including dependents,” Dave confirmed. “Plus power and Internet. Emmett provides equipment, too, sometimes. He found us that replacement motherboard for the server.”
It was my turn to wriggle uncomfortably. I busted my butt all year gardening. My after-tax balance was not quite three full tax credits for myself and Alex, going into winter. And I got nothing for my work for Amenac or the community association. Granted, we all ate well in pre-tax food. Still, 12 full tax credits represented a lot of hard labor.
“Alright,” said Emmett. “You’re going to justify those princely salaries by giving Dee whatever she wants, to prove you really are a public resource worth feeding. Because that’s what we accomplish with Dee’s presentation at this summit meeting. We prove Amenac is worth our support and protection.
“Also, you’re going to do some civilian-side research and infrastructure to support my proposal for the relief of New York. You’ve already started on that. What Dave’s shown me so far is outstanding. Today I want to review progress with you and do some brainstorming and fine adjustments on that. This may be the only day I can work with you in person. I know what I’m asking from you is Herculean, but it’s still only one part of the plan. I have a lot to do on the rest.”
Our graphics designer Will raised his hand. Emmett nodded for him to go ahead. “With all we’re doing, what are you doing? Are you going to show us the rest of this grand plan?” Leave it to Will to imply that Emmett was lazing around while Will did all the work.
Emmett blinked, taken aback by the question. “I’ve got an epidemiology team proving out quarantine methodology. How to scale that up to millions of people. We need current reconnaissance on conditions inside the New York borders. Leland, if you have any intel you can share on that, I’d be grateful. Troop force levels and readiness training. Supplies and logistics, transportation. This is a major operation.” He gave Will a pained look. “Does that answer your question?”
“So it’s not just a volunteer rescue that Amenac is organizing?”
“I don’t see how it could be,” Emmett replied. “The border forces have to be persuaded not to shoot us. For instance.”
Leland cut in. He was attending in person today. How he managed to move around so freely, when he was known to be Canadian intelligence, I didn’t need to know. “Emmett, we do have some information to share. I’ll get the approvals straightened out, and have it to you by tonight, I hope.”
“Outstanding, Leland. Thank you.” Emmett turned toward the video camera, and said, “I think that’s all I needed for the group meeting. Thank you for your time.” He gestured a neck slice at Popeye.
Popeye confirmed, “Circuit switched.”
“Hello, again,” Emmett said to the video feed, which never stopped running. “Now I hope we are no longer on HomeSec’s feed.”
“Shit,” said Leland.
Emmett shrugged. “They already know you, Leland. Will was skating on thin ice. Will, you’re not entitled to demand operational details from the Army.” Will looked unrepentant, of course.
“In case anyone missed it,” Emmett continued, “Popeye and I found HomeSec’s circuit. We can now switch them in and out of your teleconferences. That’s not 100%. I wouldn’t be too surprised if one of you were a mole for HomeSec. One of my goals coming here today was to increase your security awareness. Yes, you’ve got permission to do what you’re doing, for the public good. But don’t even think about taking down the borders, or martial law, or the Calm Act. Or God help you, because I can’t. Got it?” He looked at each person in turn, getting a nod of assent from each of them.
“Good. Enough said.” With that, Emmett got off his high horse, and waded into what data we needed to support his proposal. The questions we were asking Amenac users online needed some fine tuning. For instance, we started out asking how many Ebola vaccines people had. That wasn’t quite right. The adjusted question was how many doses health authorities were willing to commit to the relief effort, for use by troops and volunteer medical personnel. And Emmett was interested in a frightening list of vaccines beyond Ebola, including cholera, meningitis, Hep A and B, rabies, typhoid, and yellow fever.
Emmett got on the phone twice to confer with his epidemiology team on Long Island. The first time was to inquire who used to have control over the civilian stocks of this stuff. The second was to ask whether there were treatment drugs we should be researching, in addition to the vaccines.
“Anti-inflammatory drugs – I like that,” he murmured after the second conversation. “So that’s a contribution anybody can make, later. We could have collection boxes for aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, acetaminophen, pink bismuth, first aid ointments, bandages – a whole slew of over-the-counter first aid stuff.”
“Why do you like that?” asked Popeye, puzzled.
“One of the goals on the civilian side is to maximize public involvement. Let every household and little kid say they helped save New York.”
“Shit, you’re serious,” Will commented.
“I am,” Emmett agreed. He sighed. “The idea behind the borders was that it was OK with us, for those people over there to die. Because we’re safe. If we do this, relieve New York, it’s because that’s not OK with us. Not OK enough. So are we clear on what we need on drugs? Because if we are, I want to move on to housing. You alright there, Dee?”
“I just... This is overwhelming.”
Emmett nodded thoughtfully. “Anyone else feeling overwhelmed?” There were reluctant nods. The group’s point of view had completely flip-flopped since Will arrogantly suggested that Emmett was making us do all the work.
“Gather round,” Emmett encouraged. We concentrated back toward the meeting lounge. “Look, let’s fall back a minute. Like I was telling Will earlier, you’re not trying to plan the relief of New York. I am. It’s an Army operation. You don’t have the training to plan that. But I do.
“Most of this stuff we’re asking donations for – the Army has all that. They’ve got Ebola vaccines, drugs, food stockpiles, hundreds of thousands of trained soldiers and medics. They want to hoard it. But they’ve got it. No way they’d commit to the operation otherwise. They’d never trust civilians to supply them. And I can get the data on their stockpiles from them. Persuading them to commit, is the purpose of the proposal.
“Now, this information you’re trying to gather civilian-side – there are only two things that civilians absolutely have to provide.” Emmett raised fingers to count. “One – the willingness to take in refugees, and let them resettle outside New York. Two – the food to feed them. Without public support for both, we can’t let refugees out of New York. OK?
“So don’t get too hung up on accurate data. Better data is cool. Just don’t let it paralyze you. What we need most is a real, concrete public conversation about this. Not public opinion poll crap like, ‘Do you believe someone else ought to do something about New York?’ Make it concrete. Make it personal. ‘Would you accept refugees into your home, and feed them?’ ‘Would you go to New York and risk your life to treat refugees?’ Any statistics you collect are going to have huge error bars. That’s fine. That’s my problem.
“But what I really need, to sell this proposal, is concrete evidence of growing public support. Evidence that says, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s do this!’ I want the city council of Buffalo to say, ‘We’ll take every refugee who has a relative in Buffalo, plus another 2,000, and we’ll house them in our high schools.’ I want Little Bunnykill to offer 10 dairy jobs. I want Persnicketyquaug to offer 150 acres of farmland.”
I grinned at his fictitious town names. Little Bunnykill would be a hamlet in the Catskills in upstate New York. He called a Connecticut town Persnicketyquaug when it argued with him too much.
Emmett continued, “I’d also like space for people to sound off that they’re completely opposed to this. So you could open a board where Fearford or Big Roadkill can say, ‘Hell no! We shoot looters and refugees!’ And let ’em say it. And another forum for people trying to debate it, maybe?”
Dave sighed, and started adding a whole new whiteboard to our brainstorming collection, on offering refugees housing. Mangal stepped in to help him on the technical end.
Emmett had to bow out for a phone call. I followed him into the loft kitchen, because I saw the point of impact when he answered the phone and got some news. He swallowed, and looked increasingly grey. I offered my hand, and he gripped it.
“Investigation? ... The home’s locked down? ... No, I’m tied up today... This is not your fault. Not in any way... I wish I could be there for you, man. In the meantime, take of yourself, OK? I’ll call you later.”
“What happened?” I asked softly after he ended the call.
“Mass shooting again,” he said, and folded me into his arms. “Darlin’, tell me I should be doing this proposal, instead of doing my job.”
I squeezed him back. “You should do this proposal. You’ve never stopped doing your job, Emmett. Whose turf?”
“Teague, North Haven.”
“Delegate?” I suggested. “Vito and Andy Teague seem to like each other. And Vito just went through this last month in East Haven. It might help him, to support Andy.”
“You’re a smart lady, you know that?” Emmett didn’t wait for a response. His phone was already back at his ear. “Vito? Need a favor...”
I was used to this. Emmett’s work life consisted mostly of followup phone calls. I gave his hand a parting squeeze and went back to look over the whiteboards. I’d started another whiteboard of my own by the time Emmett rejoined me.
“Did I just make it better or worse, on the last round?” he asked.
“The target is public support?” I confirmed. “I think that helped focus a lot. Took the pressure off the numbers, shifted to provoking conversation and keeping a database. The database design,” I pointed to one of the whiteboards, “just got revised. Aside from pro or con New York, there’s the question of why New York and not Boston-Providence. That’s what’s going on over there. And the drug and vaccine survey is ready to implement. Big movement on all boards. You did good.” I grinned at him.
“What’s your new board? ‘Sales funnels’?”
“Yeah, people don’t happen along online by accident. We funnel them in with ads. We’re not selling anything, but it’s the same concept. I didn’t have a good picture of how to funnel before. Now I do.”
“Anything I can do?”
“Not just now. Maybe you could hang around another hour and go where people have questions. I need to do some mock-ups.”
I was so deep into developing a graphics mock-up with Will, that I missed Emmett’s all-hands invitation to an apple gleaning the next day. But he kissed the crown of my head before he left for bed.
Interesting fact: Connecticut’s main agricultural products were milk, poultry and eggs, hay, apples, sweet corn, peaches, and maple syrup. Only about 350 farms in the state earned over $100,000 a year – in sales, not profit. Average apple yields were 11,000 pounds per acre, and 20 million pounds for the state.
Every once in a while, a day struck me as infinitely better than life before the borders. The weather turned out heart-stoppingly beautiful for the apple gleaning. Bright dry mid-morning sun left sharp shadows on every leaf, making the candy box colors pop in the autumn woods. The trees still wore mostly summer green, but yellows, scarlets, and oranges were on the rise, as stressed trees turned early. The fiery maples would peak in another week or so.
There was barely any traffic on Route 1. Gone were the summer and autumn weekend traffic jams, as tourists flooded through Connecticut on the way to the Cape or the islands. Gasoline and diesel were tightly rationed. Only electric cars were on the road. Without exhaust fumes, I could smell the salt air and mown hay even from the highway.
I pulled into the orchard to park on the grass, and breathed deep of fermenting apples. For a moment, after I turned off the car, there was no underlying machine growl anywhere, just a breeze rattling the leaves, distant seagulls, and insects. A hawk soared lazily above, sailing the air currents. A few orchard personnel lazed around a barn-red sales shack a hundred yards up the gravel road.
“This the right place, isn’t it?” my foster teen Alex prompted from beside me in the front seat. Now 15, he’d shot up lately. He was only my height when I fostered him, a year ago at Thanksgiving. He was already a couple inches taller. His soft boy features were disappearing as firmer lines showed through a perfectly clear ruddy Hispanic complexion. That kid was a looker, for sure. Girls were already vying for his attention. I wasn’t sure any of them had broken through his gentle shyness yet. But if not, that would change soon.
I smiled at him. “Yup. Guess we’re early.” I’d allowed extra time to pick up three Amenoids on the way, but found them standing on the street corner, ready to roll. Will, Dave, and Mel piled out of the back seat and gazed around, looking as entranced as I did.
We didn’t wait long before the city hybrid bio buses started rolling in, three of them in a line from New Haven. Advertising slots on their blue sides held bright murals to promote local festivals and New Haven market town days. Watching these low-slung articulated urban behemoths see-saw their way into the sloped humpy gravel orchard drive was entertaining. Emmett leapt out of the middle bus to spot and direct for the lead driver. They worked it out, and eventually bounced and grated their way uphill, to park by the red shack. About a dozen cars had piled up behind them, and pulled in beside us. The quiet was nicely shattered as a hundred or so inner city kids and their keepers laughed and bounced their way out of the buses.
“So what are the ground rules here?” Will inquired, as we drifted into line to be issued our picking bags.
“We’re only picking windfall apples,” I explained. “There should be plenty, after the storm yesterday morning. You can eat some, if you want. But the proceeds go to support the elderly. Emmett promised this to the kids. It's their way to help Grandma or Grandpa pay their taxes. This group is from the Hill in New Haven.” I pointed to a 30-ish black guy in the ubiquitous militia camouflage pants, and a bright white T-shirt. “DJ's their Coco. This is really his party. He’s Emmett’s number two now for greater New Haven.”
That role used to be Zack’s. On such a glorious day, the thought didn’t twinge much. DJ was incredible at his job. He could have been Emmett’s right hand in the first place. But Zack had an easier community in West Totoket, and was an experienced officer. DJ retired as a sergeant to work with New Haven Parks&Rec, to keep kids busy and out of trouble outside of school. His brilliant white grin was infectious. When that man smiled at you, you knew you were loved.
“So they bus black kids out to work the fields, on threat of starving their grandmothers.” Will said it. Dave and Mel grinned and patted his back.
If I’d wanted to enjoy this glorious harvest festival, I shouldn’t have brought my hacker cronies. I frowned at them. “Everybody works to eat,” I said. “The kids don’t have a chance to grow food at home.” A couple other volunteers in line glared at us. Alex shot the guys an uneasy look. He found some teenagers to join near the back of the line.
Dave was ever the peacemaker. “It's lovely for the children to get out of New Haven on a field trip. Treats included.”
“We’re all slaves to the Cocos anyway,” Mel said. “Might as well train the kids young at hard labor. What?” he demanded, as a middle-aged woman turned to glare at him, fists on hips.