Finally! After banging my head against the six-month rock that was the discrepancy at the beginning of “Crosses & Doublecrosses” I had an idea as I stumbled, drunk, to bed last night. Deciphering my scrawl of a note this morning, I got it: Dunning-Kruger.
Dunning-Kruger is a two-sided coin of fail: on the obverse is the stupid thinking they are not: “anybody can do that!” said the idiot about to shoot an apple off of his son’s head. The converse is just as deadly: “since I’m a smart [profession], I’m smart at everything!” You’ve read before about my comments when Doctors of Pharmacy try to hang a picture. It’s a mess.
So in this case, two things happened: the DK is that Sylvia, having been the best and brightest in the room her whole life, figured that that what she had heard about the Breakup of the US just couldn’t be that bad for someone like her. The other, much more subtle thing – right at the end of this rewritten opening – is an allusion to one of the Machines we have never met, Ninon.
With this in mind I can FIX THE NOVELLA! With the help of a miracle I might have it done by Thanksgiving. If you like these updates and stories, please keep praying for my liver.
Sylvia stifled yet another sigh as she stood in line at the car rental office. Being unexpectedly stranded in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport was one thing. Finding out there were precisely zero flights from there to anywhere else in the United States was another. And it got better: even for car rental, all companies wanted either specie or the new Sino-Indo-Russian currency, the ria. The line moved again. They were now second.
“Big Sis, how much longer?”
Sylvia turned her head left to look down a bit at her younger sister, Roberta. Unlike Sylvia, Roberta looked like a throwback to their mother’s ethnic Chinese mother: dark hair and almond eyes. Only her skin was lighter, from their almost pure-blood Spanish father. In contrast to her big sister’s gray suit, Roberta was dressed for what she was: a college student going back to school from an overseas trip; an overseas trip that lasted six months longer than anyone anticipated. Roberta glanced around furtively then whispered into Sylvia’s ear.
“<Are you really going to use the silver that Grandmother gave you?>” Roberta whispered in Tagalog. “<That’s supposed to be for emergencies!>”
“We’ve little choice if we’re going to try to get home,” Sylvia replied in a conversational tone in English. “The news we heard on the flight from Manila to Vancouver, B.C., didn’t make a lot of sense, but I can’t imagine things are as bad as some of the talking heads on the news programs make it out to be… about deaths in the millions…”
“Excuse me, please, ma’am?” They turned to regard the man behind them in line. About an inch taller than Sylvia, he wore those ubiquitous denim jeans that everyone in Texas seemed to. His shirt was an unusual light green, and the closed collar different from any traditional fashion Sylvia was familiar. Even in the late afternoon heat, he wore a thin black leather jacket as well.
“Yes?” she asked politely.
“Sorry about listen’ in, but I didn’t want to see any harm coming to you ladies,” he said with a polite smile. “But, truth be told, things is actually much worse than what you may have seen on TV. I’m just back from Atlanta, on my way from… points north, but that city is a complete battleground. Mobs were storming the airport just as our little plane cleared the ground.”
He shook his head and pointed at the counter ahead of them.
“If y’all are planning on any interstate driving… well, I hope y’all are heavily armed,” he said with a pointed glance at their luggage.
Sylvia wondered just how much of that she should believe. A two-year tour of the criminal justice system right after getting her law degree had honed her sixth sense for when someone was lying, and this guy did not give her that vibe…
“Next!” The woman from behind the counter called.
“Thank you for the information,” she told the man. “We’ll take that under consideration.”
Sylvia and Roberta took their place at the counter. The woman on the opposite side was huge: at least six feet tall and built as if she could break a man in half. Her hair was a fascinating copper color, falling over her face to occlude her left eye.
“Welcome to Aris Rent-A-Car. To save time, are you paying in gold, silver, or rias?” she asked curtly, but in a rich, resonating voice.
So those rumors were true.
“Silver,” Sylvia replied. She heard her sister mutter something with the word “…grandmother…” in it.
“Very good,” the woman replied. “Are you planning on taking the vehicle out of state?”
Sylvia thought for a moment about what the stranger behind them said. They had to get home, dammit!
The large woman pushed a piece of paper toward them. “We have these models at these rates.”
Sylvia was appalled.
“My company assumes that all vehicles taken out of state will not return. Therefore, this is considered a sale, not a rental.”
*pop* *pop!* *pop!*
From just outside came some odd sounds. Sylvia was turning as the plate glass window shattered under more gunfire. Having survived two islamist terror attacks back on Luzon and Leyte, she dropped by instinct.
Roberta just stood there.
“Get d—!” she started to yell, but her voice was drowned out by more shooting. “Ooof!”
She was suddenly crushed. Sylvia twisted her head to see that the stranger behind them had tackled Roberta, with his body atop both of them as a shield.
She heard an odd sound; like the charging of an old-style flashbulb… that was followed by the tall woman leaping over her counter. With an AK-47 in her hand. She took three quick steps then fired several short bursts out, through where the glass used to be. Following her aim, Sylvia noted a car and a van had pulled up just to the building’s door. Robbery attempt, I bet. There, just outside the door, she saw the body of the man who’d been in line ahead of them.
In a short lull in the firing, the man who was over them yelled, “Stay down!” He rolled off of them, coming to his knees holding a huge semiautomatic pistol.
Does everyone here carry guns? Sylvia wondered.
“How many?” The man yelled.
“Six confirmed,” the copper-haired woman yelled back. “Four are down; two behind the van. Please stay where you are; I will – ”
The grenade sailed into the room and rolled to just a foot from Sylvia’s face.
God! Not like this! Even as she thought that, with a heave she pushed Roberta fully behind her against the lower part of the counter, shielding her little sister with her body.
There was a blur. She thought it was the counter lady again… but who can move that fast? She stood where the grenade had been, her posture that of someone who just tossed a ball. There was a huge explosion just outside.
“Advancing!” The man cried.
For only the tiniest moment, the woman glanced back at Sylvia, a ghost of a smile in her eye. Then she was carefully following the man outside. There was more shooting, but no more explosions. She felt Roberta shift behind her. Sylvia moved slightly.
“Squished!” Roberta cried.
“I don’t care!” her big sister yelled back. “Don’t move, dammit!”
Glass crunching under his shoes, she saw the man with the pistol walk back in.
“You two ladies all right?” he asked.
Sylvia moved off of her sister, who was trying to catch her breath.
“I think… think so.” She gestured outside. “Armed robbery? Because this place only takes hard currency?”
He nodded. “Likely. No idea why they don’t have more guards posted…”
“Because I am more than enough,” the tall woman said as she walked back into her business, slinging her rifle over her shoulder. The man laughed.
“Really? Your place is wrecked. If you’d more of an obvious deterrent, then they might have left you alone.”
That was a little rude, Sylvia thought.
But the woman smiled at him.
“You are under the misimpression that renting cars is my business.” Her smile didn’t reach her eye. “We both serve harsh masters.”
The man nodded once. Taking out his phone, he sighed and put it away. “No service. May I use your landline?”
While he talked quietly into the phone, the woman walked over to where the window had been. “Guess I will let Jun fix this later,” she muttered.
“Sis! Sis!” Her sister was still panicked. “What the heck happened?”
“As I said earlier,” Sylvia said to her, “robbery attempt, but with a lot of firepower.”
“What are we going to do now?”
From that sheet that shocked her so badly before the altercation, she knew they could not afford to ‘buy’ a car; and after, maybe things were as bad as that man had said… He hung up the phone and turned toward them.
“Right! We’ll have a crew here in a bit to clean up. I’ll need a statement from you two, but after all this,” he gestured about with a smile, “how about we do that over dinner? Ma’am?”
This last directed at the copper-haired woman.
“I’ll be needing a sedan; in-state only.”
“Of course. The price will be…”
He removed something that looked like a badge to Sylvia and placed in on the counter amidst the tiny pieces of glass.
“Law enforcement discount?”
The woman broke into an odd smile.
“For ExComm? Of course!”
What was ‘ExComm?’ Sylvia wondered.
While the woman busied herself with some papers, he turned toward Sylvia and Roberta.
“By the way, ‘name’s Alan Rupert.” He smiled again. “I’m an officer of the Extraordinary Commission for the Protection of the Republic!”
He glanced out the shattered window and back at them.
“Welcome to Texas!”
Dinner, Sylvia thought wryly, turned out to be pulled pork barbeque sandwiches at a roadside stall about ten miles north of the airport. When Officer Rupert asked they’d any dietary restrictions, Roberta had laughed at him.
“We spent the last eight months in the Philippines! We can eat anything!”
Halfway through her sandwich and beer, Sylvia thought it time for some answers.
“Thank you for this. I guess the finer restaurants in Dallas were booked up?” she said with a slight smile to take out the sting. This time, the man’s smile did not reach his eyes.
“Something like that!” He replied, taking a drink from his bottle. “What with the city center mostly burned to the ground and gangs of – what rumor says – cannibals working their way out.”
Roberta’s jaw hung open; a bit of pork fell out of her mouth.
“C…can…cannibals!?” she exclaimed. Rupert nodded while he finished chewing.
“After the burning of the city center, the government thought things safe enough to send in some food relief units. They vanished. They sent a Ranger unit in after them…” Another drink. “It was them that reported cannibals. Then they vanished. So, now some of our guys are fixing the problem.”
“’Some of our guys,’” Sylvia carefully reflected. “That would be ExComm?”
“Exactly!” he said, his real smile returning. “The Field Forces have their hands full on the borders, so when the police or Rangers get stretched a bit, we lend ‘em a hand.”
“Isn’t being eaten just a bit beyond ‘stretched a bit?!’” Roberta was still a little hysterical over the news that there was a city full of cannibals just a few miles from them.
“I was just being polite,” Rupert said simply. Sylvia had other interests.
“And how, exactly, is your organization ‘lending a hand?’” she asked. He put his sandwich down and leaned back in his chair.
“Ma’am,” he said carefully, “these are peculiar and dangerous times. Our Director, Mister Barrett, has seen with his own eyes just how bad parts of the rest of the US is. We…”
He paused for a moment, shrugged.
“This is our home. Our families live here.” He stared at the sun without blinking. “And we won’t surrender our home to barbarians; domestic or foreign.”
A silence fell about the outdoor table. Sylvia broke it.
“At any cost?”
As they walked back toward his rented car, the sun was low in the west.
“Given y’all’s luck here recently with planes and cars,” Rupert asked with a playful tone in his voice, “it’s be my guess you’ve no place to stay the night?”
Roberta started to speak, but Sylvia cut her off.
“If you could take us back to the airport, that’d be fine,” she said. “We’ve already imposed upon your time enough.”
He paused a moment and tapped the top of the sedan with his key.
“Well, now… about that,” he said slowly. “Word is only charted flights – expensive chartered flights – are taking off to places like Mexico and maybe even San Diego. And, as I mentioned, I will be needing a statement from the both of you about that unpleasantness earlier…”
Sylvia did not think they were under arrest nor did he seem to be kidnapping them. It was just…
“Mister Rupert,” she began. “You’ll have to forgive me. Everything you’ve said, and what’s happened to us personally in just the last few hours… well, it’s all rather sudden.”
Quite unexpectedly, Rupert doubled over in laughter. It was almost half a minute before he could compose himself to speak.
“S… sorry about that, ma’am!” he cried, wiping at the tears of laughter from his eyes. “If there’s one thing that Director Barrett has taught us, that would be the value of ‘sudden!’”
“ExComm’s got a CP off a small lake just a few miles from here… it may only be a bedroll or a cot, but you’ve my personal word,” his tone dropped; his boyish looks dissolved into something not so pleasant, “that no harm shall come to you.”
Sylvia sighed slightly as she heard her little sister let out a little ‘eee!’ God help me, she thought, that girl would fall in love with a rock if it was cute and nice to her. She gave a very slight nod of her head.
“It would seem we’re in your care, Agent Rupert,” she said, deliberately calling attention to his official capacity. His face slipped back to normal at that.
“Of course, ma’am.”
“There is one thing, though.”
“’Ma’am’ makes me feel a hundred years old. I’m Sylvia Fernandez, and this is my sister, Roberta.” He returned her slight nod.
“My pleasure, Miss Sylvia, Miss Roberta!” he agreed while gesturing at the car with his left hand. “Shall we?”
“Shotgun!” Roberta called. “Agent Rupert, you’re not married, are you?”
Sylvia slowly shook her head as she got into the back seat. They set off.
“If y’all don’t mind me askin’, just where were y’all headed? Home?” His tone was conversational, but Sylvia noted his eyes never stopped moving. There was more to this man than he let on.
“NYC!” Roberta replied happily. “We were visiting some family in Manila – and big sis had some boring thing to do on Leyte – but I’m going back to school at Fordham and she’s going back to work! Then all of a sudden things seemed to fall apart here! I had to kick around Manila with my fam while big sis – ”
“Roberta? Please.” Sylvia rebuked her.
“Your work?” Rupert asked with a look tossed over his shoulder.
Thanks for running your mouth, little sis.
“I’m an attorney with a private firm in Manhattan,” she replied simply. “What I had to do in the Philippines was part of a war crimes tribunal.”
“A lawyer in New York City. How’s about that!” He mused quietly as he drove. “Um. When was the last time y’all talked to your family?”
It was lost to Roberta, but Sylvia heard the tiniest edge to his voice.
“What do you mean by that?” Sylvia asked curtly.
“Skyped them about a week ago; they said they were at the country house way out on Long Island,” Roberta began, quieter. “Dad seemed tense and we saw Mom crying in the background.
For just a moment, he ignored both of them. He rummaged in a pocket of his coat and produced a smartphone.
“Raise my rent!” he exclaimed. “Signal! That’s something of a miracle…”
He eased the car over to the side of the road and stopped. After a few stabs at the surface, he held it to his ear.
“Hey, Deke! It’s me, Alan – oh, it’s you.”
Sylvia was surprised: his entire countenance fell. He even stopped looking about. I wonder who surprised him?
“Yes… yes… no, not – what?” He turned slightly, again flicking his eyes to the rearview mirror and Sylvia. “Really? Right. Goodbye.”
His hand with the phone dropped a bit from his head, then she heard someone calling from it. “Alan? Alan, is that you?” His hand came back up.
“Deke! I’ll be there in about twenty minutes, with two guests… VIPs, got it?” Sylvia could no longer hear the other, but Rupert was nodding.
“Yep. Also, see if you can get a telecom link of any kind to New York City; no, I’m not kidding. And, CB’s ghost has an interest in one of them… right… good. See you!” His phone put away, the tires spit gravel as he sped back onto the road.
“VIPs? Us?” Roberta giggled. “Really?”
Yes, Sylvia wondered. Just what makes us that special?
“What was that you said about a link to New York?” she asked.
He didn’t answer as he took a few sharp turns. He sighed.
“I’ll not lie to you, Miss Sylvia,” he said, eyes on the road, “but word from the Northeast is… not good.”
“’Not good,’” Sylvia reflected. “You imply you nearly didn’t make it out of Atlanta and that one of your own cities is on fire and overrun by extras in a bad sci-fi movie! While our blood is Filipino, we were born in Manhattan and are tougher than you Southerns – ”
“Miss Sylvia?” he rudely interrupted, turning off the main road and headed for a forest around a small lake, “what happens if every piece of plastic money in your hometown stops working overnight? Not just the EBT cards for your underclass but the platinum cards for well-heeled folks like you?”
Sylvia was silent slowly realizing with horror that he was not talking hypothetically.
“Any city is three meals from a riot, Agent Rupert,” she allowed, slowly. “Are you implying what I think you are? Even six months on?”
“Just supposition, ma’am, sorry, Miss Sylvia,” he said as they drew up to some laager. “Let’s stop guessing until we can see to that satellite-comm link!”
He slowed and stopped. Sylvia looked around: about ten larger tents, a scattering of cars, jeeps, and Hummers with machine guns atop, all with a decal on the side: an X overlaid on a C. Two dozen people she could see – all men; all White. Rupert got out and made for a tent to his left. Sylvia and Roberta followed.
“Deke!” he hailed the man at a radio set who stood, taking the earphones off of his head. “These are the Fernandez women, Sylvia and Roberta. Ladies? This is our communications specialist, Deke Martin.”
Everyone took a moment to shake hands.
“Um,” Martin began with a look to the sisters, “nothing, of course, specific to your family, ladies. There were a couple of private vids posted…”
“Problem?” Sylvia demanded in her prosecutor’s voice.
Martin’s eyes went to Rupert’s and back to hers.
“Not a problem, Miss,” he tried, “just something women shouldn’t – ”
“I’ve seen men and women flayed alive by MS-13 and other gangs,” she countered. “Islamists have killed some of my family in Leyte and I just came from an armed robbery attempt. Show me.”
The three videos consisted of a statico series of images; when it came to the webs, text took less bandwidth than voice than video. What little sound accompanied the attempted videos were mostly the screams of women and men, trying to evacuate to the roof of a high-rise apartment –
Stupid, she thought. Haven’t even the Jews in New York heard of Masada?
– or of those dumb enough on the street to record that they were about to be killed…
Roberta turned away when a presumed Puerto Rican brought his machete across the face of the cameraman of the last vid.
“You said,” Agent Rupert began slowly, “y’all’s family have land upstate from the city? Somewheres to retreat to? Plant crops for next year?”
“Long Island is not upstate. For what you have just shown us it’s not good for anything but a temporary retreat.” Roberta started to cry; Sylvia carried on. “Except for me, we are city people. My family wouldn’t know how to plant a weed and make it grow.”
She watched the two men exchange a look.
“Are things really that bad? Really?” she demanded again.
“That’s what I’ve heard, Miss Silvia,” Rupert said. “I, really, am sorry for what you’s had come back to. It’s one of those things that everyone thought of but no one expected…”
He trailed off.
“I did neither,” she retorted. “I thought…”
“Nothing. It seems I was stupid.”
“Let me try again: if you try to get to New York City, y’all will die. If by some miracle you make it there, y’all will die,” he concluded.
Roberta’s crying was worse. Rupert fished a handkerchief out of a pocket and handed it to her.
“You are telling us to abandon our parents!” she accused. “Based upon… based…”
“The US is done for, Miss,” Martin said. “Trust me. I’ve been listening for months. My family is in what I thought was a safe place: Knoxville, Tennessee. All signal in or out of that place is gone. They’re dead.”
Roberta doubled over.
Sylvia considered her time in law school. As an intern. Seconded to her father’s practice. Re-seconded to NYC’s DA’s office. Her most recent assignment as a Special Prosecutor for War Crimes in Leyte.
I stand for the law.
“It would appear,” she said, taking a great breath and tossing her dark hair back and left, “that we shall be marooned here for some time.”
Three pairs of eyes looked up to hers.
“Tell me, gentlemen,” she gave her courtroom smile, “how may I help you?”
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. Agent 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, surprisingly, two bars of 4G signal. Taking to heart what she’s heard about bandwidth she tried text-only news sites.
So it started seven months 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.
One 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.
All while Roberta was shopping in Binondo and I was sweating in an un-airconditioned building in Tacloban, totally clueless about all this.
“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.
“You and your stupid dream!” her little cried, accusing her.
Just days ago, that dream that seemed so real: a phoenix carrying me across the sea. To home. She shook her head a little. I thought I could do it: I’m smart enough to handle anything!
I was wrong.
“I’m so sorry, Roberta,” she whispered.
“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!”