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Operation SERF, Part I (Chris Sullins, December 1, 2008)
Eduard Morgan sat in his wheelchair looking at a laptop on the kitchen table. A household wireless unit connected to a two-way home satellite system fed his browser with the latest news. He and a handful of other residents in his gated community were among the small minority of people in their city who still had regular access to the internet. Given the city’s frequent power outages and cable thefts outside his secure subdivision, household usage of the internet had dropped from its national peak only a few years ago.
The internet was well on its way to reverting back to its original users within the walls of government, education, and large corporations. Even without the loss of physical infrastructure supporting the hard-wired, few could afford it given the economic situation. The two-way home satellite system was a luxury even in Eduard’s neighborhood, but he still had some personal connections from his past professional career that cut him a good deal.
Eduard was a retired Air Force officer who still took pride in signing his correspondence to his elected representatives and other federal agencies as “Eduard Morgan, Lt Col, USAF, Retired”. His letters regarding his military retirement pay coming in later and later each month had been sent more frequently over the past year. There were plenty of internet rumors that even federal retirement pay would be deposited quarterly and the amounts were going to be “readjusted” lower. He was one of the lucky ones; outside of the federal government and a few multinational corporations, retirement pay and pensions had gone the way of the dinosaurs.
Eduard’s net-surfing was limited to two hours per day within the twelve hours that the power was kept on to his home. This was the internet company’s time restriction. However, he had been using it less than 45 minutes that morning when his last clicks resulted in no pages loading. He tried “refresh” a few times and clicked on some of his reliable bookmarks. Still there was nothing. A minute later the page refreshed on its own and displayed only two simple lines. The first said “Emergency Notification” and the second said “Tune in to local news by Television and Radio”.
“That’s a first,” Eduard said out loud.
Eduard rolled into the next room where Maria, his personal assistant, had been watching TV. She was already advancing through various channels in which each screen looked like a jumbled mosaic of tiny colored squares. Every channel was the same.
“Looks like the local towers are down again,” she said in a heavy accent.
“Leave it on one channel and give it a minute,” Eduard said. “There’s supposed to be an announcement.”
The tiny blocks reorganized into a sky blue background. “Attention: Special Bulletin. Do Not Change Channel.” began slowly scrolling from right to left across the screen. It repeated three more times.
The background changed to red and the next string of text with English above and Spanish below in unified lock-step brought a gasp from Maria. “24 Hour Emergency Curfew Now In Effect. Remain At Home Or Work. Do Not Leave Current Location Until Further Notice. Violation Will Result In Arrest And Detention.” Eduard understood enough Spanish to know the lines said the same thing in both languages. The sentences continued to repeat on the red screen.
“What does this mean?” Maria asked.
“It’s not good,” Eduard replied and look through the picture window and out into the palm-tree lined street of his tight subdivision.
“I know that,” Maria said, “but what’s happening? Did something really bad happen somewhere else?”
“World news was the usual,” Eduard said remembering that the news was always bad, but not any worse than usual today. He got a momentary sinking dizzy feeling. He reflected upon reports, scenarios, hushed conversations from more than two decades ago.
He rolled over to an analog multiband radio on the coffee table in front of the couch near the picture window. He turned it on and advanced through the daytime shortwave bands. Every international station that was normally clear had either a bubbling or electric fizzing sound pulsing over it that was characteristic of active jamming. Eduard noticed the same thing on many of the domestic AM stations. He switched to the FM band and found only one station working. It only took a few seconds of listening before his dizzy feeling turned to slight nausea.
“These are the ones who have done this to us. These parasites. These blood-suckers. They took our jobs. They took our money. They made our children their slaves. They tried to take our future. Now we have to do something to take it back. Now is the time. It’s our time to take back what’s rightfully ours…”
“Who is this?” Maria said. “This was the only channel you could find?”
“I don’t know,” said Eduard followed by “Yes.”
Hate speech had been made illegal and most real political debate outside of the mainstream had faded from even the local media years ago. This local station normally carried music and it was now the only one still on the radio. Even internet forums containing angry speech far below what he was now hearing was often blocked by the service-providers themselves. As the radio rant continued Eduard turned down the volume. The vitriolic verbal stream continued unabated for ten minutes as he looked out the window. It wasn’t clear to Eduard and Maria who the “They” were being mentioned by the anonymous faceless broadcaster.
“Shouldn’t the police stop that?” Maria said. “They should go right to the station and make them stop. It’s right here in the city.”
“They should,” Eduard said. “But, I don’t think they’re going to today.”
A different male with a more somber voice began to talk on the radio. Eduard immediately noticed the more professional tone of the new speaker and turned it back up.
“Ok, everyone, this was just delivered to us. It was brought in by special courier minutes ago. This is the list. I’m breaking the seal on the envelope right now as I speak. Here are the names...”
A non-alphabetical list of first and last names each with a street address was read off. It appeared married couples were read as two first names conjoined with an “and” followed by a last name and their street address. There were also many people with different last names, but with the same addresses who were read off back to back.
Different names and different house numbers, but the same streets were kept together in the reading. Eduard and Maria noticed the street addresses were all in their city. As the streets came closer to areas familiar to them, they noticed the listing went street by street in one neighborhood at a time. There were no names read from Maria’s neighborhood just a mile away over the river.
The announcer continued to calmly read off the names and streets which now entered into Eduard’s gated community. A handful of names and addresses on each street seemed to march from one cul-de-sac to another and Eduard held his breath. Two names with one address on Eduard’s street was read off before two more names from the next street and two more names from the next before the voice moved past his walled boundaries and onto the next subdivision.
Eduard looked at the house directly across the street from him that had just been read on the air only two minutes ago. Maria also looked out the window as a dirty four door sedan pulled up and four men got out. They were wearing t-shirts and jeans. One carried a crowbar, another a sawed-off pump shotgun with a pistol grip, and the other two men had pistols stuck inside their waistbands. One man took a drink out of a large bottle of beer and passed it around to the other three men. It was emptied by the last man and dropped on the road shattering it with only the bottleneck remaining intact.
“Who are those people?” asked Maria. “Have you ever seen them before? Do the Shepherds know them? How did they get here so fast when their names were just read on the radio?”
“They’ve never been here before,” said Eduard who was already discounting the coincidence to himself. “I’m sure the Shepherds don’t know them.”
A black suburban with blue and red flashing lights pulled up behind the sedan and three men in tan clothes overlaid with black tactical vests got out. Black balaclavas were over their heads covering their faces except for the eyes. They were armed with pistols on their sides and machine guns slung over their shoulders. One of the men in t-shirts who had arrived a couple minutes earlier waved at the new arrivals as his and his partners’ demeanor remained altogether casual. The newly arrived men retained nothing less than a quiet military bearing as one of them pulled two long black plastic bags out of the back of the suburban.
“Are they going to be arrested?” Maria whispered.
“This isn’t going to be an arrest,” Eduard said. “You need to get out of here now – go to the Jones home behind us.”
Eduard rolled a few feet across the living room to the closet next to the front door, took out an M1 Garand rifle and pulled the action open. He grabbed a single eight round clip from a coat pocket hanging in the closet and pushed it into the rifle causing the bolt to snap forward and chamber a round. When Eduard ordered the rifle from the Civilian Marksmanship Program many years before it was closed down, he could never have imagined it would be put to use on anything other than shooting holes in paper or marching with the VFW.
“Maria!” Eduard snapped at her. “Go out the back! If I’m not here after things calm down, there’s a coffee can under the sink with some gold coins in it –it’s yours.”
“I know all about the coffee can with the little gold coins,” Maria said quickly. “I want to know what’s going on!”
“Think Sandinistas, Zetas, or KKK, it doesn’t matter, but you need to get out!” Eduard looked Maria in the eyes and he seemed filled with an anger she had never seen in the five years she had assisted him.
Something in Eduard’s eyes and tone sent Maria out the back door and scrambling through the overgrown hedges toward the next house. Eduard rolled back to the picture window and quietly swung open a smaller window in the frame adjacent to it. The first four men were already walking toward the Shepherd’s front door as the other three heavily armed men stayed with the vehicles back at the road. No one noticed Eduard.
‘Fascists, communists,’ Eduard thought, ’one thing they all have in common is going for the devout first. I have seven targets and eight bullets. Guess I’ll have one bullet to spare today.’
Eduard rested the rifle’s fore-end on the open window sill and aimed it at one of the men bearing a machine gun standing closest to his own home. He positioned the sights over the balaclava covered head which was not protected by armor like the man’s torso. Before he could apply pressure to the trigger, the Shepherd’s front door opened.
“I’m not afraid of you!” yelled Mr. Shepherd. Mr. Shepherd crossed his arms and stood in the open doorway. The retired religious man’s wife was pressed up behind him and looked around from his side. The man with the pistol gripped shotgun yelled something and raised the weapon toward the Shepherds.
“Oh, G-d d-mn it,” Eduard said barely above his breath as he craned around in his chair, bumped the rifle against the other side of the window frame and repositioned the sites over the unarmored man holding the shotgun. The angle was such that the armed man was between Mr. Shepherd and Eduard. The flight path and penetrating power of Eduard’s 30-06 bullet would take it not only through the thin-skinned thug, but both Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd as well.
“Gun!” yelled the man in the balaclava closest to Eduard’s house whose attention had been caught by the sound of a dull wood on wood thud and now saw the rifle barrel sticking out of the window.
* * *
“Sir,” said the soldier who had entered the office of First Lieutenant Smith. “The security guards have left the front gates.”
“Are they on patrol?” asked 1LT Smith.
“No, Sir,” said Staff Sergeant Brown. “They’ve left. They got in their POVs [privately owned vehicles] and left. There’s no one at the front gate right now.”
1LT Smith wondered for a moment if the guards’ private company had stopped paying them and they had all walked off the job. “Get Specialists Jones and Miller and put them on the gate.”
SPC Miller came running to the doorway of 1LT Smith’s office and caught his breath. “Sir, SSG Brown, a Colonel Jordan just called on the DSN phone and said we needed to evacuate the armory.”
“Why?” demanded 1LT Smith. “Is he still on the line?”
“Why didn’t you come get me?”
“He hung up,” explained SPC Miller. “Sir, he just said who he was and we –these are his exact words-- need to evacuate immediately due to an imminent threat. That was it.”
1LT Smith silently digested what he was told and reflected upon the lack of information. The unit’s commanding officer, executive officer, and First Sergeant had all been called away to an unscheduled meeting at the state capital yesterday. Now a Colonel he had never heard of was telling a junior enlisted soldier to evacuate the armory.
“This is either the commander testing us or someone from the armory in Adam County messing with us,” said SSG Brown.
“Possibly, but…” Smith trailed off for a moment. “SSG Brown, get someone from battalion on the phone. Find out if they have a problem with the security guards. SPC Miller, go get SPC Jones and come back here.”
The two enlisted men left and the officer rose and stood in the doorway outside his office. Both his soldiers went in opposite directions, Miller to the assembly area and Brown to an office just a couple doors down. There were four other soldiers on duty Smith was aware of in the motor pool area.
“Sir!” yelled SSG Brown from the other office. “All the phone lines are down. Computers are down.”
Smith was checking his government cell-phone as Brown came walking back. There was no service on his phone. SPCs Miller and Jones also came back.
“SPC Miller, go round up everyone from motor pool. I need them here. Go now.” 1LT Smith commanded before turning to the other two soldiers. “SSG Brown, we need to issue weapons and ammunition to everyone here.”
“Sir, is this an exercise?” SSG Brown asked.
“I don’t know, but let’s be ready,” 1LT Smith said. Part of him was concerned about over-reacting to coincidences, but there was another part steadily filling with worry about the unknown. “Now let’s move.”
* * *
Mike Shroud sat in his trailer and watched the same text flow over and over on the red background on his TV as he smoked his last rationed cigarette for the day. He had tried his radio earlier and couldn’t find a single working station. There was nothing to hear across both the AM and FM spectrums.
Through his screen door he heard and then saw a pickup truck coming down his gravel driveway which snaked through the dense forest in which he lived. He recognized the truck owned by his friend from the farm down the road. When it came to a stop, his friend exited from the driver’s side as other men got out of the back. Everyone was armed with rifles or shotguns.
“Have you heard?” said his friend Steve as Mike stepped out of his trailer.
“No, what?” Mike said.
“They’re rioting in the state capital,” Steve stated.
“My TV and radio don’t have much of anything,” Mike said before taking the last drag of his cigarette, dropping it to the ground, and stepping on it. “How do you know this?”
“Ted from the State Police said so,” Steve replied. “He left with the whole post to go shut down the highway. They got orders from the governor.”
“But, you guys are out driving around,” Mike said,”with martial law and all going on.”
Steve smiled and looked at the armed men milling around the truck before saying “That doesn’t apply to us out here. Martial law and all those lists of people are mostly in the city.”
“Lists?” asked Mike.
“Yeah, Ted said there were lists going around. There are people on them and they’re being rounded up. There was someone on a list in the next county, but mostly in the city.”
“Why are they on lists?” questioned Mike. “Are they terrorists or something?”
“Who knows. Who cares. Unless you’re the one on it,” said Steve. “You want to know something, Mike?”
“You’re on the list,” said Steve in a suddenly serious tone.
The men who had been talking around the truck were all silent. Mike didn’t react in any away. Mike and Steve looked at each other for a moment.
“I’m just f-ckin’ with you,” Steve said and some of the other men smirked before they began talking again. “I don’t know why there’s a list or who’s on it. But if we’re on one, we’re not going. Oh, and there’s one more thing Ted said before he left.”
“The private security guys were moved to the power plant and the railway station. All the ones at the armory were reassigned. The armory was left wide open,” Steve said. “We were thinking about going over there and getting our own five finger federal tax rebate. It’s been a few years.”
“Don’t you guys think you have enough guns already?”
* * *
The large room deep in the mountain looked like something out of the final scene from the movie “WarGames”. However, rather than personnel in military uniforms, workers in civilian garb ranging from sweaters and slacks to suits either sat at or stood between rows of terminals stretching from one wall to the other. Various electronic maps of the US were projected on two of the four walls in the room. Doors were in another wall and there were some mirrors set deep in the remaining wall. There was no ceiling lighting and the room was dim except for the digital maps and monitors.
On the two walls some maps of the US had a blue background while other maps were green. Outlines of the nation and each state were in a distinctly contrasting color as well as points representing the state capitals and many other major cities. There was a lot of background noise from typing, mouse clicking, and conversation in the room. As the crescendo of human activity began to rise the US maps began to slowly change. Some of the states began blinking red as well as the cities and capitals within them. Some states did not change color, but some of their cities or capitals were blinking red.
A middle-aged man in a suit stood next to a much younger man hunched over a keyboard. The younger man would stop typing, straighten up for a moment, rub the back of his neck, hunch back over and begin typing again. He would also drag various windows on his screen, highlight and copy text from it before pasting it onto another window and dropping it down to the task bar.
“Mr. Mond,” said the younger man with a raised inflection.
“Yes,” responded the older man.
“We’re getting a lot of outside reports,” said the younger man. “There are also a lot of problems coming in from outside the simulation.”
“What kind of reports?” asked Mond. “What do you mean by problems?”
“We’re getting a lot of requests from outside agencies asking if we’re either running an exercise or requests from inside agencies asking if there’s something different running than what they’ve been briefed on.”
“Request denied,” said Mond.
“Which ones? The outside ones asking if there’s an exercise going on or the inside ones who know there’s an exercise, but asking if it has gone beyond the stated parameters?”
“All of them. Deny all of them,” said Mond.
“Mr. Mond,” said the young man. “The other problems I mentioned. That’s something else entirely.”
“Yes, I asked about those, too. Tell me.”
“Well, Mr. Mond, there are outside –completely outside the system—reports coming in. There are real incidents happening. They’re happening in the red states, in the blinking cities, in…”
“No, no,” interrupted Mond, “that’s all just part of the exercise.”
“I don’t think you understand,” said the young man at first in a louder voice before lowering it back to their compartment of space within the room. “These are not variables in the simulation interacting with our subjects in a controlled setting. These things are happening for real. In real life.”
There was a long moment of silence and the young man glanced behind to see Mr. Mond staring intently at his back. A chill came over the man as he looked back at his screen. Even in that brief glimpse the mouse mover noted Mr. Mond had clenched fists at his side and his lips were narrower than usual.
“I can assure you,” began Mond, “that this is not real. None and I repeat none of what you’re seeing on your screen is real. This is all part of an exercise involving hundreds of teams and tens of thousands of workers nationwide. This exercise is taking place on the inside with the adjustment of fictional factors in real time, but it is a fabrication, and despite some insignificant external leakage of information and resulting inconsequential feedback, there will be no real measurable external outcome when it’s complete. Now continue with the next phase of the simulation.”
The young man high-lighted the last list of names before dropping them into the body of an electronic memo and clicking the send button. He opened a new application on his desktop. He positioned the pointer over the “run” button and looked over his shoulder at Mr. Mond. The older man dipped his chin slightly and there was a single mouse click. In a few weeks a long dormant virus would become fully active.
End of Part 1
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