"You're lucky, Ben," Doctor Lamar Chase said. "You're the luckiest man I've ever seen."
But some of Ben Raines's Rebels were beginning to think there was something more than luck surrounding their commanding officer.
"You've got a broken collarbone, three cracked ribs, and a small bit of bone gone from your left shoulder. This would have killed a lesser man. Should have killed you."
Jerre knelt by Ben's bed. "Old man," she grinned at him. "I wish you'd quit scaring me like this."
Ben touched her face, ran his fingers through her blond hair. His face was pale from shock and the pain of his wounds. "I keep telling you, babe," he whispered, "I'll go when I'm damn well ready to go."
She kissed his cheek.
"Everybody out!" Chase ordered. "Let the man get some rest. He's not immortal, you know."
The doctor did not notice the strange looks he received at that statement.
Ben's personal contingent of Rebels was camped near Hell Creek, not far from the southern shores of the Fort Peck Recreation Area. Many of these Rebels had been with Ben for years: Judith Sparkman, James Riverson, Ike McGowen, Ben's adopted daughter, Tina, Cecil Jefferys, Doctor Chase, in his early seventies and still spry as a mountain goat--and just as cantankerous.
The tent cleared and Ben closed his eyes, fighting back waves of nausea that alternated with the peaks and valleys of pain coursing through him. The shot Doctor Chase had administered began to take hold, dropping Ben into drug-induced sleep.
But his sleep was troubled, and he called out for friends long dead. Men he had known in Southeast Asia; men he had fought with during his years as a mercenary in Africa--that period of his life when the adrenaline-surging high of combat would not be appeased by civilian life. But he'd finally gotten it out of his system and returned to a normal life, as a writer.
He called out for friends who had stayed with him after the bombings of 1988, men and women who had toiled, giving their sweat and blood, and ultimately, their lives for a dream called Tri-States; a country within a country. It was a dream carved out of three states, an area free of crime and unemployment, where men and women could leave their homes unlocked and the keys in their cars and trucks, knowing they would not be robbed or their vehicles stolen.
Ben Raines and his Rebels had proved their concept of government could work; that people do not have to be bogged down by government bureaucracy and red tape. That schools could function without the Supreme Court and federal judges interfering with the process of education.
Tri-States worked. It had worked. And it would work again.
Ben groaned on his cot.
"You bring back Ben Raines's body," Al Cody told a group of agents. "I don't care if it takes you six months to find the rotting bastard--you bring it back."
"Wild country out there, Mr. Cody," the FBI chief was reminded.
"I am well aware of that."
"And still full of Rebels," another agent said.
"Take as many men as you need. Do it. Find the son of a bitch and bring it back. I want it on public display. The people have to learn that this is a law-and-order society. Anarchy will not be permitted."
The agents left the office and drew weapons. They called their wives and girlfriends and told them they were going on assignment.
No, they did not know when they would be back.
They boarded a plane at Byrd Field and headed westward. The agents were in high spirits. Hunting traitors was the name of the game. They were loyal to the red, white, and blue, Ben Raines and his Rebels were all traitors and anarchists, and that was that.
It was all cut and dried. No gray area between the white and the black.
By tomorrow at this time, all the agents would be dead.
"We hit them here," Colonel Hector Ramos told his Rebels. He thumped a wall map and smiled grimly, a big predatory cat on the trail of a blood scent. Ramos had lost his entire family to government troops back in '98. His wife and daughter had been raped and tortured and then cut open like pigs, left to die in the sands like hunted animals.
Ramos looked at his people. "Our informants in Richmond said the agents left two hours ago. A planeload of them. Fifty agents, all heavily armed. They are to find General Raines's body and return with it to Richmond; put the body on public display..."
A hand shot up.
Ramos said, "Captain Garrett?"
"Let's not kill the pilots, sir," the young captain suggested.
"No, sir. Let's send the agents back in the plane. All sitting up very nicely in the seats. All dead."
"I think General Raines would approve of that, Captain," Ramos said. "Thank you. A very nice touch, indeed. I would like to see Director Cody's face when his men return."
Just as their cousins and uncles and fathers and mothers had done years before, many people of the United States, instead of turning in their handguns and heavy-caliber hunting rifles, had wrapped them carefully and buried them. Then they had formed underground networks of small cells of dedicated men and women, all with one goal in mind: To keep Ben Raines's dream alive. To restore America, not to what she was before the bombings, but something better; something very much like Tri-States. And just as their relatives had done before them, if they had to die to preserve that dream of a government truly "Of and for the people" ... so be it. They were prepared to do so.
"Will you get your ass back into bed!" Chase shouted at Ben. "Good jumping Jesus Christ."
Ben bit back the pain and said, "Hector Ramos on the horn. It's big, the operator said. I'll just talk for a minute then back to bed. That's a promise."
"Hard-headed son of a bitch!" Chase yelled at him.
"You shouldn't talk to the general like that," a young Rebel said, speaking before he thought.
"I'll talk to him any goddamn way I please to talk to him!" Chase roared.
He was still roaring at the young man when Ben slipped on the headset in the communications tent. "Go, Hector."
"How'ya doing, General?"
"I'm alive, Hec--but don't ask me how."
Ramos brought him up to date on the flight of the agents. Ben smiled a toothy tiger's smile as Ramos told him the plans. "I like the captain's plan, Hec. Can you carry it out?"
"No sweat, General. They'll land at the new Air Force base just outside Flagstaff late this afternoon. My people will be in position when they come in. We'll hit them as they deplane, then ship the bodies back the same day."
"What about the personnel at the base?"
"Just a skeleton crew. My people took care of them about two hours ago."
Ben sighed, his pain momentarily forgotten. "All right, Hec. But this commits us past the point of no return; your people aware of that?"
"Yes, sir. To a person."
"Good luck, Hec."
Ben slowly removed the headset and handed it to the operator. The young man looked at him, questions in his eyes. "From now on it's open warfare, isn't it, General?"
"Yes, it is, son. It sure is."
Chase stuck his head in the tent. "Now will you get your ass back to bed?" he shouted.
"I know what you're thinking, Ben," Jerre said, when Ben was once more in bed.
He looked at her. "Oh?"
"You're wondering if you're doing the right thing. You're thinking some of those agents were just kids when the bombings occurred; they might not even remember what it was like before. And some of them might not really go along with Al Cody and President Addison, but they're just doing their jobs."
"You do have a way of getting inside my head," he said dreamily, half asleep.
"I should," she smiled. "After all, you screwed me when I was only nineteen, you dirty old man."
"So am I doing the right thing, Jerre?"
"You know you are, Benj," her words held a hollow, echoing sound as he drifted off into sleep.
He was remembering how they met, ten years back...
He had seen her walking slowly down the road--trudging was more like it--just north of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was just a few weeks after the world had exploded in germ and nuclear warfare. Frightened, she had jumped across a ditch and hurt her ankle. Ben found himself looking down the barrel of a small automatic pistol.
He had finally convinced her he meant her no harm, and she allowed him to look at her ankle, finally convincing her she should soak the ankle in a nearby creek.
She had been in college in Maryland when the bombs hit. She'd been sick for a week. The whole experience had been "Gross, man. The absolute pits."
They had talked the afternoon away, and she came to trust him. That night, she came to his bed, young and coltish and smelling of soap, fresh from her bath.
They had traveled the country, growing fonder of each other. But she had told him she would leave when she felt the time was right, 'cause right now, he thought she was cute; but that cute would get old pretty damn quick, she thought.
He had taught her as much as he could in their time together--teaching her, he hoped, to survive.
"But," he had told her, "it might help improve your shooting if you would open your eyes."
He had left her just south of Chapel Hill.
He still had the letter she had written him.
The agents walked blindly into a murderous ambush at the Air Force base. As they deplaned, they thought nothing of the Air Police sitting around the airport in Jeeps. The M-16s in their hands and the M-60 and .50-caliber machine guns mounted on the Jeeps were nothing out of the ordinary. The agents paid little attention to them.
They also paid little attention to the AF captain and sergeant who boarded the plane when the last agent got off.
The pilot felt the cold steel of a .45 pistol pressing into his neck. He did not turn around. He just listened to the low voice explain how it was his option whether to live or die.
"Just keep your cool, Captain," the Rebel told him. "You're not going to be on the ground very long."
The pilot fought to keep his nerves steady as heavy gunfire ripped the late afternoon. The screaming of the agents churned his guts and tied them into soft knots. Out of the corner of his eye, he looked at his copilot. He, too, had a pistol shoved into his neck.
"Your wife's name is Loraine," the Rebel told him. "Your copilot's wife is Betty. Right now, they're safe; fuck up, and you'll never see them again."
That was a high bluff. The Rebels had no intention of harming any innocent person; but the pilots didn't need to know that.
Outside the plane, the gunfire was still intense.
"Just tell us what you want us to do, mister," the pilot replied. "We're civilian fliers, not military." He watched an agent running across the tarmac. A machine gun barked; a row of bloody dots appeared on the man's back. He fell face-first on the tarmac and lay still.
"While we're loading the bodies on the plane," the Rebel said, "you're going to refuel and take a piss if you need to. Then you're going to fly back to Richmond and you are going to maintain radio silence all the way except for landing instructions. Is that clear?"
"While you're getting your instructions to land, you are going to tell the tower to get hold of Director Cody. Have him meet you at the airport. Tell him this: General Raines is alive and well. He sends his best wishes in the form of this little present. Tell him Tri-States will rise again. Tell him from this point on, it is open, no-holds-barred warfare. I hope, gentlemen, we will not see one another again. Stay in your seats until I give the word."
After what seemed an eternity, the muzzle of the .45 was removed from the pilots' necks. Both men slowly turned their heads and fought to keep from puking as the grisly cargo was loaded onto the plane, placed in seats, and buckled in.
"Refuel now," they were told.
Tanks topped, the Rebel said, "Have a nice, safe journey back home, boys."
Then he was gone.
Taxiing away, the copilot said, "Al Cody is gonna have a fit about this."
"Fuck Al Cody," the pilot said tersely. "Man, if I knew how to go about it, I'd join the Rebels now."
"Well, hell! Why didn't you ask back there?"
"Did you feel like making chit-chat with that .45 in your neck?"
"Then just fly the plane; don't ask stupid questions."
The Air Force personnel were released unharmed; all but four of them who had elected to fight. They lay stretched out in an empty hangar, their bodies covered with blankets.
"If you men are smart," the leader of the Rebel unit told them, "you'll walk off this base the instant we leave and don't look back. 'Cause the word is goin' out: you are either one hundred percent for us, or one hundred percent against us. Just like the government mentality, boys, no gray in the middle. If that's the way they choose to fight, it's okay with us."
"How do we join you?" one asked.
"Just walk out with us."
"That suits me, man."
Nine of the airmen walked out with the Rebels.
Ben Raines's movement was once more rolling, picking up steam with each tick of the clock.
Five hours later, in Richmond, Al Cody stood in silent trembling rage as he viewed what was left of his men. He walked out of the plane and stood in the darkness on the tarmac. His fists were clenched and his voice choked with anger as he spoke.
"I'm going to find you, Ben Raines. I swear it. I'm going to find you and publicly hang you. And I'm going to enjoy it immensely."
Cody walked away from the death-plane. He was a short, stocky man with iron gray hair and the belief that his government could do no wrong. Al believed if his government made a rule, it didn't matter if ninety-nine percent of the people were opposed to it--it was the law, and by God the public would obey it, and if they didn't they could damn well pay the price by being branded a criminal.
Cody stopped on the tarmac and ran blunt fingers through his hair. He turned his cold expressionless blue eyes on a senior agent who waited by his car.
"Get Ben Raines. Break the back of the Rebels. I don't care how you do it or how many men it takes--just do it."
"Some of the men are swearing dire revenge about this," the agent jerked a thumb toward the plane. "They're talking about anything goes, sir. They're saying find the Rebel sympathizers and break them, any way we can."
Cody fought against his inner feelings. He felt revulsion at the thought of torture. It cut against the grain of his Christian upbringing. But ... these were trying times. These Rebels were no better than those damned Irish IRA men and women--terrorists, murderers.
"Do it," Cody spoke through clenched teeth.
"But Senator Carson and the president...?"
"We'll keep silent and maintain a low profile on this for as long as possible. If any reports get out, we deny them--right down the line. President Addison is a weak sister; Senator Carson is getting old. Don't worry about them. I think now we must fight fire with fire. Get Sam Hartline. Have him meet you tomorrow and lay it out for him. Tell him to get his boys rolling."
"Jeb Fargo and his bunch tried their hand against Ben Raines," the senior agent reminded his boss. "You know where that got them. Dead."
"And Kenny Parr," Cody recalled. He sighed. "They are terrorists, Tommy. That's how we have to look at the Rebels. Break them, Tommy. Just do it."
Al Cody got in his car, tapped the driver on the shoulder, and drove away into the still-rainy night.
"Yes, sir," Tommy Levant said softly. "But I don't have to like it."
The FBI of the late 1990s bore no resemblance to the crime-fighting Bureau of old. They were more an anti-guerrilla unit than an anti-crime organization. Organized crime, per se, was practically nonexistent; the bombings of 1988 had seen to that--worldwide.
The Bureau had men and women working on cases involving murder and rape and extortion and government-related criminal cases, but by and large they were pitted against Ben Raines and his Rebels.
And the men and women who made up the new FBI were not the highly educated and dedicated personnel of old. The bombings had not only changed the face of the United States, but had drastically altered the lifestyles of its remaining citizens. Factories and shops were once more rolling and producing, yes, but life was still a struggle for many of the survivors. Just putting bread and meat and potatoes on the table was an effort for many citizens ... not just in the United States but worldwide.
The government, in the eyes of many, was failing the citizens. Ben Raines, on the other hand, had carved a working, workable, enjoyable, and productive society out of nothing and had done it in practically no time.
Why? asked the citizens. Why can't this government do the same?
But government chose not to answer that--not to the satisfaction of the questioners. For if the government were to reply truthfully, that would reveal to the citizens that big government really didn't work--and had not in years. One senator had glumly stated that Ben Raines's form of government was so simple it was complex...
In Tri-States, the people were pulled together for many reasons: to conserve energy, to stabilize government, for easier care, and to afford more land for the production of crops, as well as to afford better protection for the people in health care, police, fire, and social services.
The elderly, for the first time in their lives, were looked after with care and concern and respect. They were not grouped together and forgotten and ignored. Careful planning went into the population centers of Tri-States. People of all age groups were carefully grouped together in housing and apartments. The elderly who wished to work and could work, were encouraged to do so. They could work until they tired, then they went home. Nothing was said whether they worked one hour or eight. No children's games were played among the adults; no needling or pushing. There was nothing to prove. The knowledge of older citizens is vast and valuable; older citizens can teach so many things--if only the younger people would listen. In Tri-States they listened.
In order for this to work the pace must be slowed, the grind eased, the honor system restored; the work ethic, in both labor and management, renewed. It was.
In Tri-States, there was no such thing as the three-martini lunch and an hour's nap. In Tri-States, management worked just as hard as labor, or they got out. Permanently.
Here, for the first time in decades, there was no welfare, no ADC, no WIC, no food stamps, no unemployment; but what took its place was jobs for all, and all adults worked. Those who would not because they felt the job was beneath their dignity, or because of laziness, apathy, and/or indifference, were escorted to the nearest border and given a good boot in the butt. They were told not to come back. If minor children were involved, the kids were taken from their parents and immediately adopted by a family in Tri-States.
Harsh treatment? Yes. Totally unconstitutional by American standards? Yes.
But it worked.