This shorty story has been contributed by Brandom Smith of Alt Market, an organization that facilitates networking, local community action, and the exchange of knowledge and ideas and promotes decentralization, localism, and the de-globalization of human economic systems. To contribute to the growth of the Safe Haven Project, and to help us help others in relocating, visit Alt Market’s donate page here: http://www.alt-market.com/donate.
Special Note: In this latest Alt-Market piece we try something a little different; short fiction based on fact. Make no mistake; while the characters and events in this story are products of imagination, the issues presented and their probable consequences are anything but fantasy. The message? What will you choose to be in the face of hardship and crisis; a mountain? An impassable obstacle to tyranny? Or, a silent and beaten passenger of the Redline?
Adam awoke to a distant murky warbling in the back of his mind, just beyond the sound of the wind and the gentle clap of cold rain against the vinyl tarp overhead. His fresh morning eyes stung as they met the chilled air within the tent. The thin fabric membrane rippled with the rush of the dreary weather outside and he curled into a ball, burying his head under the folds of his rather inadequate sleeping bag, attempting to stay warm. He wished he could remain there, just lay there within his cotton and nylon shelter forever, and never again step outside into the harsh world. If it weren’t for the love of his wife, Sarah, six months pregnant and hungry, he probably would have given up a long time ago.
She lay next to him blissfully still, her swollen belly rising and falling with her breath, the kind of rhythm that comes with deep and all encompassing dream. He loved her. Unbearably so. The thought of anything terrible happening to her frightened and enraged him. He had never felt so useless in his life, or so lost. Only a year ago he had everything; his prosperity was acquired, his destiny assured. He was in control of his future, or at least he thought he was.Homelessness and destitution was something that you heard about in passing, a fact of life for “other” people. Fifteen minutes of cable news a day had somehow convinced Adam of the otherworldly nature of catastrophe. The theater of disaster was meant to be observed from a distance, not actually experienced first hand. That was absurd! Who ever heard of affluent upper-middle-class people actually losing everything and being cast to the roaring tides of fate?It was something out of a movie. It wasn’t reality.
Of course, here he was, bankrupt, without a home, and unemployed. Unemployable, in fact. His banking background and mutual fund middle-management experience was virtually useless in a country that was in the midst of losing its entire financial structure, not to mention lacking any investment class to speak of. Such paper coated industry was truly an illusion, utterly dependent on the existence of easy capital often derived not from savings, but from debt. If only he had realized that months ago.
Adam pulled on his socks and leather boots, unzipped the tent, and stepped onto the moist grass and weeds at the doorway. Rows of cars, tents, and motor homes stretched across the open field before him. The patch of land near the edge of Highway 5 cutting through the Central Valley of California used to hold only a few dozen migrants. Now, it was a veritable tent city occupied by hundreds of people traveling the corridor north looking for work, or looking to stay with relatives still above water. The area was relatively peaceful, but with the growth of the camp, and the ever increasing poverty of its residents, problems were beginning to arise.
He once made the mistake of leaving his shoes outside the tent in order to avoid tracking in mud, which seemed to quickly spread over every surface until he and his wife found themselves sleeping in it. The concept of a sterile living environment was difficult to let go. A certain level of cleanliness was always possible, but never near what they used to expect in their long gone suburban castle.
The next day his shoes were gone. Such quiet pilfering was not commonplace yet, but the frequency of these kinds of crimes was more blatant now. People were becoming more desperate and taking greater risks. They were starting to abandon their principles more often, and trust was beginning to bleed out of the makeshift town. The ultimate dysfunction of the whole situation was rooted in the fact that most of these wayward travelers (some would call them refugees) sat around waiting for help instead of helping themselves. Rarely did anyone try to build anything of value. There was no neighborhood watch, no community garden, and very little organized trade, primarily because most of the tent city dwellers were still deluded enough to think the system would soon correct itself, and that there was no need to take such measures. Adam knew enough not to fall into that mental trap, but his inability to conceive of alternative ways of living, his 38 years of neo-American pro-collectivist conditioning, was sabotaging him at every turn. He simply had no experience in self reliance, and certainly not self sustainability. He saw the many troubles that lay ahead for the migrants, but practical solutions were beyond him.
Adam searched the surrounding grounds for kindling of any kind for a morning campfire, but the place had been picked clean. Newer residents, some of them either unintelligent or unconcerned, had started burning trash in their open fires. The noxious rubber and plastic fumes poured over the surrounding camps and people became sick. A group of original migrants, including himself, confronted the newcomers over the practice and an argument ensued, almost coming to blows. Luckily, the older migrants outnumbered the trash burners, and they finally relented, some leaving to start their own tent city a mile away. He chuckled at the thought. Many of the people in the large camp were there because they had not had much foresight, including himself, and now the most ignorant of them had separated to launch their own little tribe of super-imbeciles. How far can an amoeba self divide, he wondered…
On returning to his tent, he came again upon the sound that had woken him earlier. A middle-aged man, beginning to grey, and physically worn by a lack of proper nutrition, sat hunched over the steps of his RV in expensive loafers sobbing like a child. In the beginning, Adam felt disturbed by similar sights. Now, all he could think was “What the hell does that guy have to cry about!? He has a god damned RV! All I have is a useless tent and a car with almost no gas…”Adam hated that he was becoming callus. He hated that he was allowing the darkness of the world to corrode away his heart the way it did.
Later that week, he learned that the man had been robbed at knifepoint in the middle of the night. Two drifters made off with what little food he had left. One advantage of living out of a run down car and a patched up tent was the overt poverty of it. No one had ever pulled a knife on Adam. What could he possibly have to steal? Just the same, he was carefully arranging a deal with a gruff man named Samuel who lived out of a beastly truck at the far end of the tent city to trade an extra car battery for a small pistol. He was a former light aircraft mechanic on the way to Oregon to live on his brother’s farm. His battery’s lead oxide plates had corroded beyond resurrection, and his enormous hulking steam roller of a vehicle simply refused to turn over one day. He pushed the car a mile and a half by himself down I-5 until he came upon the migrant camp. That was 6 months ago and he had been there ever since.
One of Adam’s few preparations before leaving the Monterey Bay area for the north was to collect as many extra vital car parts as he could. He hadn’t counted on gas prices exploding to $16 a gallon from $8 a gallon in the span of only a few months. Looking back, more than one emergency gas-can would have been prudent. All the car parts in the world couldn’t save a man whose hopes rested on a quarter of a tank. Almost no one had extra fuel for trade, and few even had as much left as Adam did. He was constantly on guard for thieves with siphons. The pistol would hopefully act as a deterrent in the event that someone decided to get bold.
“I’ve never touched one of these things, Samuel. What do I do if I have to use it?” He asked begrudgingly, almost embarrassed to admit such a thing to the old man. Samuel didn’t blink.He knew Adam was a semi-reformed lemming.
“Don’t get fancy with it. Aim it right at the bastard’s guts and squeeze the trigger straight back.Don’t yank it. And don’t aim for his head. You’ll miss…”
Adam fumbled with a box of ammo trying to load the worn .38 revolver. His discomfort with the process of loading a gun was readily visible. Samuel mumbled with concern.
“Oh, and don’t bother with the safety. It’ll get you killed. You don’t have kids to worry about. Not yet anyway.”
The ripple of a small jet engine echoed overhead, and both men instinctively veered their eyes skyward. A menacing missile like craft with wings hovered, circled the encampment, and then flew away after a few short minutes. The sight was becoming more and more common. The use of predator drones within U.S. borders had been ongoing for a few years now. It started as a measure to secure the southwest, at least, that was what the government claimed. It didn’t take long for people to realize that the roving weapons were in no way being utilized to solidify the porous border. Instead, their use escalated to city and highway surveillance, supposedly in the name of quelling “terrorism”.
The world was, indeed, ready to burst. At first, Adam had rationalized aggressive federal actions as necessary in the face of expanding crisis. BRIC nations in a surprise joint statement a year ago had announced a widespread trade agreement similar to that which was implemented bilaterally by China and Russia in 2010. The U.S. dollar was no longer the primary mechanism for the exporting and importing of goods between developing economies. China and the ASEAN trading bloc moved quickly to distance themselves from all U.S. debt instruments, especially after the U.S. executed trade embargoes on Chinese goods in a bid to force a valuation of the Yuan. What Congress didn’t seem to understand (or pretended not to understand) was that the Chinese had planned all along to speed up Yuan appreciation. Inflation was ravaging their economy. Increasing bank reserves on several occasions did absolutely nothing to stem rising prices. Their only other option was to trigger a massive spike in the Yuan’s purchasing power before Chinese citizens began to revolt in response.
Chinese holdings of American dollars and treasuries were quickly dumped to ignite an expedient devaluation of the greenback, and a subsequent rush of investment into the Yuan.OPEC nations soon followed, spurred on by very unpopular U.S. and NATO incursions into Yemen and Syria. At first, they took the diplomatic route, accepting Euros and gold in tandem with dollars for oil purchases. Soon, the dollar was overwhelmed by a basket of currencies represented by the IMF’s burgeoning trade security; the SDR. The greenback’s world reserve status was lost, and it all happened so discreetly, that few people noticed before it was too late.Energy prices rocketed to historic heights, and pump prices changed almost daily along with the violently erratic swings of the commodities markets.
Food prices doubled, then tripled. The government quickly moved to divert blame for $8 bread and $75-a-bag rice on “crop shortages”, and a “dry growing season in Russia”. A thorough examination of global crop production numbers revealed this excuse to be fraudulent. Numbers were down, but barely below record crop yields the year before. The truth was, supply had nothing to do with extreme price spikes. It was all due to the devaluation of the dollar, pure and simple. The privately owned and operated Federal Reserve Bank, in the name of saving the economy, extended fiat printing beyond all reason. Eventually, they became the only buyers of U.S. debt. All foreign investors had abandoned treasuries after ratings agencies S&P and Moodys downgraded American credit twice in a single month. Resulting monetization led to an inflationary groundswell.
A catastrophic combination of scenarios came together in what the mainstream constantly referred to as a “perfect storm”; as if it was all some kind if accident, or an act of nature. A percentage of the American populace, ever growing, began to see it as deliberate; an engineered breakdown of the dollar meant to usher in a new era of global IMF control. Adam didn’t know what to think of these accusations of conspiracy, but his background in financials told him that far too many pieces of the debt puzzle had to come together in a very particular manner to create the disaster the country now faced. First, the Federal Reserve had to artificially lower interest rates to spur the cheap flow of money into banks, all without any oversight from government. The banks would then have to fashion the debt instruments created by these easy loans into toxic assets. The ratings agencies would then have to rate those toxic assets as AAA despite all common sense. The SEC then had to completely ignore these shady practices and let the banks run wild. The government then had to respond by allowing the Fed to print mass amounts of fiat as a stop gap despite 80% opposition from the general public. All leading to the exact conditions needed to ignite simultaneous deflation in employment, wages, housing, and stocks, and inflation in goods and services. Stagflation like this was not the result of “coincidence”.
Federal reaction was swift, and all wrong. Austerity measures and higher taxes were launched simultaneously, but the cuts seemed to target the middle class, and so did the taxes, despite posturing against the “super rich” on the part of the White House. A public works program similar to that which permeated FDR’s New Deal during the Great Depression was set in motion. There were rumors of a high speed train system called the “Redline” which supposedly ferried work groups across the Midwest from Denver to the Mississippi. Almost every man at the migrant camp talked about the Redline with quiet awe. It was the answer to their prayers. To join the Redline was the ticket to prosperity and the means to save their families. It was a return to the old life.
Food stamp programs were continued until the dollar tanked. The government knew that when the welfare and entitlement handouts ceased, civic anger would be unleashed. Riots in major cities soon became a daily activity amongst forlorn urbanites.
Other citizens decided to decouple from the system altogether in a process of unspoken secession, building their own local economies, using their own currencies, and organizing into mutual defense groups. Adam had only heard bad things about these people. Though they had no specific leadership or top down organization, the media always labeled them domestic terrorists who were destabilizing the U.S. economy by debasing the use of the dollar, refusing to pay income taxes, and defying DHS oversight authority over states rights in times of danger.He partly blamed them for the prolonged nature of the collapse, as well as the insertion of armed troops into California. The government was a mess, and obviously influenced by outside interests, but that could all be sorted out after the crisis had abated, Adam thought.
A state of national emergency was declared, but only small portions of the country were locked down at any particular time. Military personnel were too limited in number to be dispersed to every city that had issues of civil unrest. China also pushed further and further into disputed South Sea territories, leading some Congressmen to suggest the initiation of a new draft for what they felt would become the next world war. National Guardsmen and Northcom units were strategically placed around eastern population centers, as well as LA, San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver. Privately contracted security forces (corporate military) roamed the interstates, setting up random checkpoints. They answered to no one, and were accused of taking advantage of their position. Horror stories of robbery, rape, and murder spread through migrant cities like Adam’s. He believed they were probably overblown. Panic generated rumors and tall tales, a plague of unverifiable perceptions and assumptions. But all of this was irrelevant to a man who can barely feed his wife and unborn child. Adam had better things to worry about than the sway of socio-political ties.
About a week had passed when Adam found Sarah staring off at the western horizon one early morning with a look of dread. The camp had grown by 70 families in that short time alone, and they had discussed the idea of leaving permanently the night before. There were too many hungry mouths packed too tightly together for the tent city to be safe any longer. He thought at first that the thought of leaving without an exact destination was what was causing her tension.They certainly couldn’t go back to Monterey, so close to the riots of LA and San Diego. Then he followed her eyes to a hill only three miles off. Two humvees rumbled along the ridgeline and then cut down across a field towards them.
“What are they? National Guard?” She said, trembling slightly.
He squinted, straining to see any identifying marks. He could find none.
“I don’t think so. They have to be private.”
“You have to hide your gun, Adam. If they find it…!” She was beginning to turn frantic. The pregnancy was straining her beyond the ability to cope. He wrapped the weapon in a piece of cloth and shoved the barrel into his right boot. She was right. Gun ownership was strictly prohibited after the national emergency was declared. They used to merely confiscate them when discovered, but that policy had evolved into often violent and brutal arrests.
“We have to go, honey. We have to leave.” She stepped towards the car, but he knew it was too late. The military style vehicles lurched the last few yards to the edge of the encampment. A surprisingly unassuming and unthreatening looking man popped out of the top of one of the humvees with a bullhorn. His skinny frame looked hilarious in his full body combat gear. The bullhorn crackled.
“Attention. This has been deemed an unlawful settlement by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. You have been asked to disperse and have refused to comply…”
Adam wondered what the hell they were talking about. As far as he knew they had never been asked to “disperse” by anyone.
“I repeat. This is Federal land. Permission has not been given for any settlement or public residency…”
That was news to him as well. He thought they had been careful to position the camp on state land, not federal.
“We will be transferring you to a FEMA designated facility via the Redline. You may bring only items that you can carry. Please form a line towards the west of this camp in an orderly fashion and await inspection…”
Some in the crowd actually cheered when they heard mention of the Redline, rushing to grab armloads of their vital possessions (mostly food), and clambering to be the first transported. A river of personnel trucks flowed from the western hills and straddled up to the tent city. Adam’s wife gripped his arm and the shock began to set in. They were being forced to move, without warning, and they didn’t even have a choice in where they went. The settlement was far out of the way of any public activities. It was not an obstacle or a hindrance to anyone. Yet, they were being shipped off to some unnamed location like criminals. Memories of FEMA actions during Katrina came back to Adam in a rush, and his mind raced with thoughts of veritable imprisonment in a sweltering unsanitary makeshift hellhole.
During the Great Depression, millions of Americans survived by the migrant life. Certainly, it was not a crime to be poor, was it? Apparently, attitudes had changed.
Over half the camp lined up voluntarily for transport, including Adam and his wife, but some stayed, staunchly refusing to leave their makeshift homes behind. The man with the bullhorn repeated his previous warnings and made further offers of food and shelter. A string of mercenaries began patdowns of those in line. Adam cringed as a man in a black Kevlar vest ran his hands across his pant legs. Somehow, the guard missed the .38 packed into the side of his boot. He suddenly heard furious shouts from the tent city as troops began enclosing the resistors. Rocks and glass bottles rained down, launched by hundreds of the holdouts. Adam was led to the cramped corner of a truck, and as it sped away, brimming with tired and frightened migrants, he could see the streak of tear gas grenades rip through the air, and hear the screams of men and women in the distance.
The trucks sped on, tearing down I-5. There seemed to be an expediency to this operation that eluded Adam. He couldn’t understand what the rush was all about. The line of vehicles braked abruptly, and more men with weapons sprinted back and forth slapping down tail gates and barking orders at the passengers. Adam’s truck was unloaded at gunpoint even though they had all come on board willingly. The guards roared, dragging people out of the trucks and snatching away the possessions they had originally been allowed to bring. The goods were tossed to the side of the railroad like garbage, a simple act that instilled so much pure terror in the migrants that they did everything they were told without question. Their eyes had become saucers, their minds operating in an adrenaline saturated tunnel.
Finally, Adam stood before the Redline, Sarah still clutching him. It was so far beyond what he expected the sight of it turned his insides to ice. His stomach curdled. This was no Amtrak passenger train. It looked more like an armored gulag on wheels. The windows were barred, there was only one entrance in or out of each car, and there were no seats. Migrants were forced on board in groups. The old and disabled were filtered from the ranks and pulled away towards a separate section of the train. As Adam and his wife reached the entrance, a guard wrapped his gloved hand around the nape of her neck and jolted her away from him. He instinctively reached for her, only to be met with a solid backfist to the bridge of his nose. He wheeled, stunned, and found himself kicked into the train before he could compose himself.
The doors slammed shut and the dull drop of a dead bolt could be heard falling into place.Through the window Adam could see Sarah shaking, loudly protesting as she pulled back towards the train car. The guard wailed obscenities at her, then struck her fiercely in the eye.Adam thought about the gun in his boot. He thought about killing. But his fear overtook him, and he instead begged quietly for Sarah to shut up, to just shut up and do what she was told. He cursed her pregnancy and her hormone driven acts of insanity and her inability to understand the inevitable cost of her stupid quarreling and blind panic. The guard struck her again, and she pressed her hand to her nose as a trickle of red dripped through her fingers. Finally, he dug his fist into her scalp, snatching up a ball of hair and dragging her away. Adam could not see her anymore, and there was quiet.
Tremors ran through the train as its engines rumbled to life, and the machine rolled forward.The overpacked belly of the monster was silent. No one cried. No one even moved. The migrants looked like pale facsimiles of life; statues, remnants of humanity long passed the waters of some wretched otherworld. They might as well have been in the ground. They left their souls behind on the boarding platform of the Redline.
The railway crossed into a placid valley between the jutting towers and dark recesses of a vast mountain range. These rocky edifices were ancient, unchanged by millennia of human accomplishment, sacrifice, and atrocity. The sight of them drove Adam to question what little he had ever done with the life that was given him. He was certain he was soon to die, but the knowledge of this troubled him far less than the knowledge that he had squandered every opportunity he ever had to leave something behind. He couldn’t even protect his own child. Like the primeval citadel before him, Adam realized that some men are mountains, and others are shadows. Adam was a shadow. A specter. A spectator. A nothing. Tossed about by the tides of fate, leaving an empty space in time behind him. His refusal to think and act beyond his own immediate world had consequences that spanned into the very future of all things. Only now, when he had lost it all, did this become clear.
A ringing struck his ears. At first, he thought it was a psychological snap; a break in his mind that cut to his core. He overlooked the leaping and screaming of the men and women around him. It didn’t matter anymore. Only when the crack and the ping of another bullet burst through the metal wall of the train car did he take a breath and look at what was in front of him. A peeled mushroomed hole only inches from his right ear lit up the inside of the car as sunlight streamed in. The migrants dropped to the floor, gasping in a huddled mass as the Redline was enveloped in small arms fire. Without warning, a shockwave throttled the train and it derailed, flipping several cars and bashing the prisoners about. Shrapnel peppered the exterior and several migrants were struck. The floor of the wheeled cage became slippery with blood. The fighting was fast. Ten minutes, maybe less. The shooting stopped immediately. There were no voices. Only the sounds of the coursing wind. A twisting metal bolt signaled that the door was being unlocked. Adam peered out the window but could find no one.
He reached cautiously and quietly for the door latch and pushed. It swung open to the smoking wreckage of the train. Slowly, the migrants who survived crawled through the carnage and sat stunned in the scorched earth. Adam wandered for several hundred yards towards the back of the Redline. In a small patch of trees, at the gentle bend of a beautiful crystalline stream on the far side of all that death, sat Sarah, looking up at the snowcapped mountain tops, bruised, but breathing. He knelt down and softly pressed his lips to her swollen eye. She watched the hills intently and smiled, her belly full and alive.
Bootprints were scattered all around, congregating at the mouth of the forest and marching off into the wilderness. The attack had saved them. Whether that was the ultimate purpose or not, it had saved them. Adam saw the absence of the emancipating army as a stark message: “This is your last chance”. In the foundations of that old and unforgiving place, the choices were not immediate, but they existed, and that was enough. Whatever he chose to do with this new beginning, he knew one thing without doubt; never again would he do nothing. Destiny, responsibility, freedom, life. They were his, and no one, would take them.
You can contact Brandon Smith at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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