Patty was taken down the hallway to another set of elevators during which she passed a window and saw it was night, but judging by the smattering of lights below, they were on the third or fourth floor of the building she was held in.
The guard pushed the top button once inside the car and the elevator rose to the top. "Must be the boss." thought Patty making the connection that the top dog always ends up the highest.
When the car stopped and they exited, Patty saw the walls were dark mahagony and there immediately across the elevator was the logo and name Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway. Patty knew the railway had their headquarters in north Fort Worth
Patty was led through the dark hallways of the upper floors of the building. While the building had power and the air conditioning still pumped out cool air, many of the office light fixtures were either non-functioning or removed as most of the offices they passed were dark and empty. Perhaps the boss did not trust his own employees so close to him.
At the end of the wide hallway, the guard stopped, pulled a white key card from his pocket and swiped it on a keypad slot next to the door. A green light was illuminated on the keypad and the door lock clicked to the open position. The guard pushed open the door and Patty was shoved forward through the open entry way.
Inside was a large board room lit only by two computer screens on a table, an overhead projector screen showing a map of the area and the LED lights from a control panel mounted on the far wall. A tall man in dark clothing stood in front of the window with his back to Patty and his hands clasped behind his back.
"Sir?" said the first guard.
"Company is here, wonderful. Put in her in the chair, Simmons, bind her wrists and then you can go." the man said without turning around.
After Patty was seated and secured, the guard left wordlessly and closed the door behind them.
"So, Ms. Valdez. is it? Quite an interesting little adventure we have been having, huh?" the tall man said as he turned to face her.
He was about fifty and his dark hair was streaked with gray. He wore the same uniform as the others had; black long sleeve shirt with epaulets, black pants tucked into black military boots. On his collar was a single silver star. Other than that, his uniform had no other distinguishing markings or insignia.
He stared at her for a second with a smile on his face before walking across the room and took a seat on the edge of the table.
"Can I get you anything? Water, coffee, soda or maybe you prefer tea?" he said.
"Water, water would be great." said Patty, her dry throat betraying her.
"Water it is then." the man said. He went to a credenza, picked up a white stryrofoam cup, filled it with ice from a covered bucket, added water from a metal pitcher and placed a white straw in the cup.
"Sorry for touching the straw, but you are not in a position to open it yourself." he said crossing the room.
"Here," he said as he held the straw to Patty's lips. She drank deeply.
"More?" he said holding the cup.
"No, that was fine, thank you." said Patty.
"Great, let's get started then. My name is Merrick, deputy director, Department of Homeland Security, North Texas Sector." he said.
"Why am I here?" asked Patty.
"Well, Ms Valdez, you had a number of items which belonged the DHS in your possession when we detained you west of Fort Worth. As I am sure you can guess, that caused some concern with our department and we just want to get to the bottom of the whole matter." said Merrick with a big smile on his face.
Merrick turned and went back to his perch on the boardroom table.
"You see Ms. Valdez, we have had our hands full lately and our resources are spread pretty thin for the time being. Taking the time to talk one on one like this comes at a great inconvenience for me and the department, but I have a feeling it will be time well spent."
"Why is that," asked Patty.
"Well, I found it amazing that someone would have their hands on anything which belongs to our people, but even more so, when I found out it was a woman. I mean, I'm not that outdated, but don't you find it hard to believe also?" asked Merrick with the same smile, but held his hands out palms up.
"I don't know what kind of women you think run around these days, but the world out there is not for the faint of heart. I'd love to hear what your wife, if you have one, would have to say about your attitude." remarked Patty.
"Alas, my wife died on The Day. She was traveling by airplane from Seattle and perished. Regardless, don't bring her up again, Ms. Valdez." said Merrick, his face changing.
"I am sorry, I had no idea." said Patty.
Merrick waved his hand and his disposition returned,
"No matter, you had no idea. Let me ask you something, Ms. Valdez. What did you do before the Day? I mean what was your occupation?" asked Merrick.
"I was an accountant." said Patty.
"Worked for a private firm, you know private sector?" he asked.
"Sure, a small company, based here in Fort Worth." replied Patty.
"Great, and were you in Fort Worth when the Day occurred?" probed Merrick.
"No, I was in Shreveport on a business trip." said Patty.
"And how was that the first couple of days?" said Merrick, now leaning forward on the table.
"Difficult, confusing. We did not know that this was a worldwide phenomena yet, didn't know how we would get home, food and water were an issue. Then it got scary pretty fast." she replied.
"You want to hear something interesting?" asked Merrick, who continued without waiting for Patty to answer,
"Three hours after the lights went out, I was being picked up in front of my home by a DHS vehicle. Six hours later, I had completed a debriefing and was en route, by air, to Pueblo, Colorado. Twenty four hours later, our forward contingent of one hundred and fifty agents had arrived and secured the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport."
"Within forty eight hours, while you were stuck in the dark and watching the situation deteriorate by the hour, we had power restored at the airport and were in the process of taking charge of the three other area airports of significance, had obtained necessary fuel supplies and were making assessments of other critical infrastructure."
He paused for a moment, then slapped the table with his open hand.
"Is that efficiency or what!" he exclaimed with a big grin.
"Yes, that is impressive." replied Patty, more than slightly startled.
"Miraculous is what I would say. And how is the private sector fairing? Or at the local level? Same results. Failure, confusion, and finally, complete breakdown." said Merrick shaking his head.
"So you see Ms. Valdez, we, the DHS and our fellow federal agencies, are the only hope to get this great country back on it's feet and pointed in the right direction again. So it hurts me deeply when one of the citizens we strive to serve, does something which makes me wonder if I am really doing the right thing." he finished, a look of pity on his face.
"Where did you get the rifle and radio, Ms. Valdez?" Merrick asked quietly.
"We were traveling west on a state highway..." said Patty.
"We?" interrupted Merrick.
"A group of people I was traveling with. I didn't know them very well, we were all traveling in the same direction and figured it would be best if we stuck together." she replied.
"We'll get back to that after I hear the rest, go on." said Merrick.
"Okay, um, oh yeah, we were somewhere outside of Terrell, I think. We came to wide spot in the road and found the bodies of several people. There were also bullet casings on the ground and it looked like there had been a fight or something, you know."
"There was stuff scattered all over, you know, clothing, gear, junk, things people dropped or left behind, I don't know. And there, on the side of the road, was the rifle and little further down, the radio. We poked around and found a few magazines for the rifle as well."
"We knew if we left the rifle, somebody might get it and use it against us, so we took it. We had not seen a working radio, so we took it too, but we couldn't understand anything the people were saying." she finished.
"So you took the rifle and the radio. Take anything else?" said Merrick with his eyebrows raised.
"Some of the others might have grabbed something. I think someone found one of those military food pouch things, I don't remember. After that, things went downhill." said Patty looking down.
"Tell me about the other people you were with. Who were they and what happened to them?" he asked.
"We were ambushed when we arrived in Dallas, just over the city line. There were five of us, a middle aged guy, two college kids, myself and another woman. One of the kids was shot, but was only wounded. The woman was shot.. but she.. didn't make it."
"The middle aged guy, Larry, he took off for cover but went the wrong way than the rest of us. I don't know what happened to him. I went with the two kids until we had to separate. They wanted to go on to Denton and I was headed west to Fort Worth." said Patty quietly.
"And you kept the rifle and radio? Why didn't one of the others take it?" asked Merrick.
"First, I didn't trust any of them. They could have used it, the rifle, on me. The radio, well none of them wanted to carry it, so I guess I got stuck with it." said Patty.
"Ms. Valdez, I really want to believe you, but that rifle and radio were issued to two DHS employees who were in the east Texas area, around the area you say you came from. They are both missing and right now, you are our only suspect. I am sure you understand that I can't simply take your word and let you go, right?" said Merrick standing and walking around to the other side of the desk.
"Mr. Merrick, I did not kill or hurt anyone, you have to believe me. I am only trying to get back home like a lot of other people." said Patty.
Patty thought to herself, "They aren't going to let me out of this place. I've got to turn things around."
"Mr. Merrick, you and the DHS seem to have a handle on things. Is there a nationwide effort like this going on? What's the plan for the country?" asked Patty as nicely as possible.
Merrick turned and his eyes lit up,
"I'm glad you asked. I don't have to hide it, I am quite proud of what we have accomplished and what we plan to do, Ms. Valdez."
"For years, this country has labored under some sort of delusion," said Merrick, putting an emphasis on the word, "this concept that the rugged individual is some sort of master of his own fate in life. This selfishness has permeated every level of our country and up until the advent of this disaster, was destroying the very fabric of our nation."
"Look at all the great monuments to accomplishment in this country. The Hoover Dam, Mount Rushmore, the Interstate Highway system and many more. All done with the collective, yes that is the key word, collective will and effort of the citizenry. By marshaling the people, our resources and the national treasure, we were able to do great things as a great people. Our infrastructure was once the envy of the world, but now look at what's become." said Merrick sadly.
"We have split ourselves into selfish little islands of self interest and self absorption. There is no common purpose, no organization, nothing driving the masses towards big goals and common ideas."
"But that is about to change. Permanently." said Merrick turning to Patty with fire in his eyes.
"We have a country in utter chaos. Now is the time for those of us with the foresight to prepare for this catastrophe to take charge and put things right. To put people and resources where they are needed. A time for hard work and shared sacrifice." he said firmly.
"So the president, the government, is this part of their plan or something. I'm confused." said Patty.
"The president? Government? Hardly. Those small minded politicians, one minute expanding our good work, the next gutting it. Can you imagine what would have happened after the next election? Thousands of hard working public servants put out on the street after years of service and for what? To save a few dollars? So some fat cat CEO can live high on the hog while using the things we built? No, thankfully we are done with those people and good riddance." said Merrick with distaste in his voice.
"You mean the president, the congress... what happened to them?" asked Patty.
"Oh, that's right, news gets around slowly these days, doesn't it? Let's just say, they won't be worried about running for reelection any longer. We made sure of it." said Merrick.
"No Ms. Valdez, things are different now and for the better, you'll see. There's plenty to do, no doubt, but fortunately, we have plenty of bodies available. First, we need to continue our efforts of securing the nation's infrastructure, you know, the airports, key highways, rail lines and so on."
"Next, the agricultural sector needs to get in line. That's part of our Rural Initiative, I don't know if you saw any of that during your journey. Getting farm towns on their feet, removing the misinformed and violent and putting people back in the fields to feed a hungry nation."
"Ultimately, a new order for this nation, directed by those who know best for all. People will be put back to work cleaning up the mess from the lawlessness and confusion, then all will be directed to projects of rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, and finally, we will devise new projects to keep the masses busy and directed, free from distraction."
"How nice," said Patty. "But will people do this for free? I mean, I want to get back to work just like the next person, but how is that going to work?"
"Paid? Of course, with food and a place to live. The cities have been neglected for far too long. All will be relocated and housed in the major and midsize cities for the protection and utility. Manufactured goods will be sent to the farmers who will repay with food. The food will be paid to the masses for rebuilding. All will benefit and our nation will return to greatness."
"What about people with children? What about schools?" asked Patty, growing more and more uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation.
"Well, naturally, we can't have the little ones underfoot, so we have a number of plans in mind. Relocation to central facilities for children only. There, they will be cared for, fed, educated and brought up to be more useful to the nation. That's just one of the ideas we have, the Department of Education is spearheading that discussion, mine is more focused on security and infrastructure." he said with a broad smile.
"Do you have any children, Ms. Valdez?"
"Oh no, too busy at work all these years. Someday, maybe, but now is not a good time." said Patty with a big nervous smile.
"Good thinking. Do you see now what we are doing? Do you see the grand vision we have for this nation? Do you see the damage caused by the greedy, the selfish and the useless whose only contribution was pushing paper around and ignoring the real needs of the masses? I know it seems hopeless out there, but out of hopelessness and chaos comes order. And with order, we will have discipline for the good of all." he said and then smiled.
"Now what to do with you? You know, there is a need for someone who is good with numbers. We have so many people to count and so many places to put them. No, that does it. I am going to overlook this transgression with the rifle and file it away and find somewhere useful for you."
"Simmons? Come up and collect Ms. Valdez, please." said Merrick to a speaker on his desk.
"Mr. Merrick? What about the military? You haven't mentioned them." asked Patty.
"No reason to. They are as disorganized as the civilian population. No working communication, most of their vehicles are out. We have more aircraft than they do!" said Merrick giggling at the thought.
"Well I saw a big train load of military equipment heading north just outside of Dallas. A train miles long loaded down with trucks, jeeps, armored vehicles.." said Patty.
"Impossible! You must have been mistaken. Those lunk heads are trying to find their backsides with two hands and a map right now. Simmons!" replied Merrick.
The guard entered the room from the same door as before. He cut the ties from Patty's hands and brought them around her front and retied them with a fresh zip tie.
"Simmons, see that she is on the next flight to Silver Spring for retraining." Merrick said.
"Yes, sir." said Simmons.
"Silver Spring? As in Maryland?" asked Patty.
"The very same. Good bye, Ms. Valdez. Oh, and welcome to the fight. Some day, we'll all be heroes." said Merrick returning to his desk.
Patty felt like she swallowed a rock. Silver Spring was across the country and here she was, only miles from Elena, but about to be taken away.
"Oh, and Ms. Valdez, remember, great things don't just happen, great people make them happen." Merrick stated.
Patty nodded and walked out with Simmons. He led Patty out the door and down the hallway presumably back to her cell where she would await her flight.
"What time does the plane leave?" she asked Simmons.
"Usually around two in the morning. We have a cargo plane which drops off supplies and personnel. We can send it back with prisoners if we have them." he replied.
"I see. Is there a chance I can get something to eat and use the restroom before I go. It's been awhile since I've had a good meal and bathrooms, well they are even harder to find the days." Patty said in a flirty voice.
"We'll see. The mess hall is off limits to civilians, but I can figure something out, as long as you play nice." Simmons added.
"Oh, you'll find I can be sweet when I want to be. Simmons." said Patty.
At that moment, there was a muffled thump followed by the signature rattling of small arms fire. There were no windows in the hallway, but it was clear the noise came from outside.
"Code 8." blared a voice from Simmons radio.
"Oh, cr*p. I gotta get you to holding and get to my post. Come on!" yelled Simmons dragging Patty by her zip tied hands.
Simmons dragged Patty down a flight of stairs, through a stairwell door and down a long hallway lit by only one emergency light. Outside, the sound of gunfire and small explosions were getting louder. Simmons stopped and opened a set of double doors with a key rather than with his card.
Inside was a board room dominated by a large table and illuminated by two emergency lights. There were no chairs and standing against the wall or sitting on the floor were about two dozen people looking as disheveled as Patty. Civilian and dirty.
"Wait here and no funny business. And that goes for all of you!" Simmons barked at the group in the room. Then he slammed the door and locked it behind him.
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