A drive from the Dallas area toward Austin. A chance for Roberta to sleep and Sylvia – and the readers – to find out just what the hell is going on…
Their VIP quarters meant that they had a tent with two cots to themselves. Sylvia detailed her sister to draw water from the small lake – doing something was better than letting her cry on – while she stowed their carry-on bags under the cots. Officer Rupert had said he would have Martin radio on her offer and would find her when and if there was a reply.
She took out her smartphone as she sat onto the creaking cot. No wifi but, surprising, two bars of 4G signal. Taking to heart what she’s heard about bandwidth she tried text-only news sites.
So it started three weeks ago, with China, Russia, and India announcing their new currency, the ria. It was backed by the tons of gold they had been furiously buying up since the late 20th century and indexed to the price of crude oil: a deliberate shot across the bow of the US dollar which had been the world’s reserve currency since the 1950s. With the NYSE losing a quarter of its value the next day – trillions gone – the House drew their knives and in two days had brought Articles of Impeachment against the second term President they loathed and convicted him in the Senate a day later.
Roberta staggered back into the tent and set down her two 2-liter bottles of water. Still sniveling. Sylvia returned to her article.
Once week after the announcement of the ria it was formally issued. Trillions of dollars in bonds held by nations all over the world were suddenly returned to US as worthless paper. At a moment where the United States experienced the worst economic crises in its history there was no leadership to be found in its political class. Small banks immediately closed their doors. Larger banks suspended payments. Keenly aware what was happening, every food market in America refused to take credit, either private or government.
This was as we were sitting in the Manila airport’s lounge, blissfully ignoring the muted yelling of the talking head on the flatscreen on the wall. The air conditioning was a welcome relief from Leyte and the ice kept our drinks cold. All seemed well with our world.
“Is that thunder?” Roberta asked. “Is there a storm coming?”
“I don’t know,” her older sister whispered. It would seem the storm is upon us.
The shadows outside the tent grew longer as the signal suddenly ended. Sylvia returned her phone to her pocket as she went to the entrance flap. A wind blew some dust from west Texas about her. Lightning flickered in the clouds to the west. There was no sign of Rupert but a young man in fatigues, no badges of rank or unit but a crude ‘XC’ badge glued onto his collar, came by with what appeared to be the best pickings from several MRE kits. He politely apologized for what he offered and departed into the falling darkness.
Roberta came to first stand next to her before leaning onto her.
“What’s going to happen to us?” she asked in a shaking voice.
“I’ll take care of you, little sister,” Sylvia said, placing her arm about her. “I promise!”
The constant patter of rain had been enough to soothe them to sleep. When the call of “Ladies?” from Officer Rupert just beyond the tent flap came, Sylvia brought her watch up to her face. 0502. What now?
“Enter,” she called.
The man pushed his way in carrying a small flashlight that he pointed at the ceiling. Roberta groaned in protest at the light and rolled away.
“Apologies, ladies,” Rupert said softly. “We need to be on our way in just less than thirty minutes. We actually got word late last night that you are wanted in Austin but didn’t have an extra car or men as escort. We do now!”
“Twenty minutes; right.” Sylvia said, already tossing the light woolen cover off of her. “Can I trouble you to leave the light?”
“Not at all,” he replied, balancing it on the tiny table between their cots. “See y’all in a little bit!”
“Roberta! Wake up!”
Thirty minutes later had Sylvia next to Rupert in his sedan with Roberta stretched out, asleep, in the backseat, behind them. She’s already noted the other car that followed close on.
“What you said,” she commented, waving over her shoulder, “about an escort?”
“Just so ma’ – er, Sylvia,” he replied. “While things are pretty quiet here on I-thirty five south between here and Austin, especially what with Fort Hood about halfway in between, once someone attracts the attention of the Director…”
He paused to look at her.
“Which you have done,” he said with a curious tone before returning his eyes to the road.
“Well, now, that necessitates another layer of security, to make sure y’all get there safe and on time.”
“And you have already intimated that your Director Barrett places a high value on punctuality,” she said with a smile. “Good. I do as well!”
She turned to look at the rolling farmland fly by at over eighty miles per hour.
“If you’re so inclined, Sylvia,” Rupert suggested with a glance, “why not just rest for the two and a half hours to get to Austin?”
“I’d rather,” she said, returning her eyes to his, “have you tell me – what you can, of course – about just what’s going on here in Texas in general and this Extraordinary Commission in particular.”
She watched him nod and pause to think while they passes a convoy of a dozen tractor-trailers, escorted by a hummer with a machine gun atop it.
“How much do you know about Texas, Sylvia?” he finally asked.
“Just what I’ve seen on teevee,” she replied.
“So: nothing,” Rupert said without a smile. “There are two facts you best learn right quick.”
“And those would be?”
“First, we Texans, us whose families go back to the Nineteenth Century, have never really stopped seeing Texas as a separate state, just temporarily aligned with the US.”
“Oh, really? Seems rather arrogant!” she deliberately provoked him.
He managed to not glare.
“We were the only independent country to choose to join the United States,” he said, forcing himself to calm. “We were, er, are, the only State to fly its flag at the same height as the USA flag.”
She could tell he wanted to say more but didn’t. Into his pause she asked.
“And what is the second fact?”
He took his eyes off the road again to make his point.
“Our power grid is independent of the rest of the country’s.”
While she considered the import of that, he added one more detail.
“And we are a-wash in oil.”
After a dozen miles Sylvia spoke up.
“So: you have your own infrastructure, your own resources, and a culture that disposes you to think of yourselves as separate,” she ticked the points off on her left fingers. “Sounds as if you are a ready-made new country!”
“Not quite,” he quickly retorted. She suspected that he’d led her to that conclusion for a reason. “We do have a few problems: our huge southern border and the cores of our biggest cities…”
He changed lanes again around another convoy.
“That’s the general. And, to get to your other question, those problems, in particular, are why ExComm was created.”
Another look to her; this one hard.
“To deal with our enemies; foreign and domestic, Miss Sylvia.”
“You sound,” she lowered her voice at the seriousness of the matters he described, “as if you are already an independent country, Officer Rupert.”
“Why, Miss Fernandez,” he replied to her formality, “no one has said word one about any such thing.”
So they’re close, she heard in his voice. Very close.
They passed a sign declaring ‘Austin: 80 mi.’
“How much more can you tell me about your organization?” she asked in most passive courtroom voice. “It sounds as if you-all, if you forgive my pronunciation, have done quite a bit in what little time there has been since all this started!”
“Well, Miss Sylvia,” she could see him sorting what he could divulge and what he should not, “I guess you could say that the roots of ExComm go back to the last national election: a whole lot of folks were downright displeased with the President’s reelection. We got riots in our big cities that were edging into the kind of no-go zones we’ve seen on the teevee in Europe. The Governor first tried the Ranger Division – ”
“I’m sorry,” she interrupted to keep him just a little off base, “but I don’t know what that is.”
“Of course, what you not being from here and all! I guess you could think of it as something like a State Police force but with broader authority than what you might find anywheres else.”
“I see. Thank you.”
“Anyway… let me see… ah! The Governor declared a state of emergency and called up the National Guard. Trouble was, there was little to no communication channels between them and the Ranger Division. By then parts of El Paso, San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston were burning.”
He gave a small laugh.
“The only reason Austin didn’t is the Governor ordered the university closed and all eighty-thousand students – potential rioters – dispersed!”
He pointed at a brown sign with white lettering they passed saying “Fort Hood” with an arrow to the right.
“Thankfully, so far, the regular army has stayed on their bases and remained quiet,” Rupert said as they continued south. “There’s been rumors about men going AWOL, worried about their families across the ‘states, but that’s just rumors.”
“I see,” she said, looking west out the car window. “It would certainly be problematic if the suddenly took a side… at odds to yours!”
He snorted at that. Sylvia could tell he knew something but could not divulge it.
“Things just kept getting worse: the cities kept burning and to try to protect what we still held we had to pull men from the Rio Grande, that’s our southern border with Mexico,” he explained, just in case.
“That… just made things worse,” she heard the catch in his voice. “The even in those sectors where the new walls had been built, once there was no one behind it the UN Refugee Teams paid the Narcos who paid the Mexican Army to shell it.”
Sylvia turned back to him, shocked.
“But I’ve heard nothing…!”
“Media told to not cover it, Miss Sylvia. That’s just how things are now,” he said ruefully. “There must be close to a half-million crossed over just since then…”
She watched him take drink of bottled water and try to collect himself.
“’Bout this time, the Director, well, just Mister Barrett, then,” he said in an almost reverent voice, “wandered into the office of his cousin, Kyle Stephens of the Rangers. He… he’d been in other parts of the US as things began to fall apart faster and faster. He and mister Stephens cooked up an idea and sold it to the Governor. It was supposed to be called the Amalgamated Regional Militias but Mister Barrett insisted on the ‘Extraordinary Commission.’”
“I wonder why?” Sylvia asked.
“No idea,” he replied truthfully. “At a stroke, nationwi- er, Statewide martial law was declared and all armed forces subordinated to ExComm.”
“And to mister Barrett,” she allowed carefully, having picked up on the allegiance in his voice.
Rupert said nothing.
“What can you tell me about this great man?” she asked with no irony in her voice.
“Honestly, not much,” there were more civilian cars on the road as the drew closer to the capitol and he had to reduce speed. “He’s a native, with deep family roots here, but seems to have live away for most of his life… Perhaps you can ask him yourself!”
“Now why would a busy man like that have any interest in a Yankee such as I?”
Rupert looked at her in surprise.
“Who do think gave the order to have you to Austin soonest?”
“Uhhh… guys?” Roberta mumbled from the backseat, finally sitting up. “I’m hungry. And a gotta pee.”
Her big sister rolled her eyes while their driver just laughed and pointed toward the blue ‘Rest Area 1 mi.’ sign.
“Of course, Miss Roberta! Happy to oblige a pretty girl like you!”
Sylvia could just imagine the shade of crimson her kid sister was right now. I hope she can hold it in!