Read After America Online

Authors: John Birmingham

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Politics, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Dystopia, #Apocalyptic

After America (6 page)

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Jed turned his attention to the reporters who were going back and forth with Karen as prelude to the main game, Kipper’s appearance in a few minutes. The national networks, for want of a more accurate term, had sent their heavy hitters; the bloggers were a bit of a rabble, as always, and the news sites and daily papers had assigned their national security guys rather than their Seattle correspondents. That told him right away how they were going to play the resettlement story: as a battle for the Wild East.

Kip wasn’t going to like that.

He really did prefer to concentrate on the constructive side of nation building, or rebuilding. The uglier, more violent aspects of reclaiming the frontier were something he considered a grim necessity, best left to the experts.

Jackson Blackstone—Culver refused to refer to the man as “General,” since he had been forcibly retired—was undeniably one of those experts. However, you could hardly count the elected territorial governor of Texas as one of the president’s men.

The White House chief of staff suppressed a rueful grin as someone questioned Milliner about Fort Hood again.

“Ms. Milliner, my sources indicate there are significant efforts to evict and deport families vetted under the Federal Homestead Program. Does the president intend to do anything about the racists and rebels at Fort Hood?”

That had come from a blogger, of course, Krist Novoselic from the
Seattle Weekly.
Culver still didn’t know why Kip had insisted on accrediting any of those assholes. They had zero respect for the conventions of the old press corps. You couldn’t even leak to them without the fact of it appearing in the opening paragraph of any resulting story, as he had discovered to his undying chagrin very early in the administration.

“We are monitoring the situation in the Texas Territory, Krist. The president isn’t pretending to be happy about it. But he’s not about to go hauling out the big stick to beat on Mister Blackstone just to prove that he’s a tough guy. Frankly, President Kipper is a busy man, Krist, and Fort Hood is a tenth-order issue at best. I probably shouldn’t have to remind you, either, that Mr. Blackstone is not a rebel. He was actually elected. So no, we won’t be sending the cavalry. And if that’s what you were hoping for to boost your traffic stats, I’d suggest you prepare for disappointment.”

A ripple of amusement ran through the arena. Milliner was famous for her refusal to coddle the press. It was why Kip had chosen her for the job and kept her on in the face of some frenzied back-channel protests from the surviving old school media.

Culver winked at her as she gave the blogger a taste of her own big stick, but she was professional enough to ignore him, of course. A small flock of starlings zipped overhead, and he watched them disappear out over the water. The birds were one of the first things he’d noticed on getting back. There seemed to be a lot more of them than he remembered. More birds. Fewer rats. He was going to have to ask somebody about that one day.

“Is the president planning on talking to the Commonwealth prime ministers about speeding up the repatriation process, do you know, Ms. Milliner?”

That question came from Ted Koppel at National Public Radio, and Culver winced as soon as he heard it. Two million of the estimated fifteen million surviving Americans had made the choice to stay in the foreign refuges, mostly in the other English-speaking democracies. They were a real point of friction with the country’s surviving allies. Hell, Koppel himself didn’t even live in the United States, preferring to stay at the
field office in London, which made him a bit of a hypocrite in Culver’s book for even asking the question. But Jed couldn’t really blame Koppel or those two million others. Those people were desperately needed back home, but home wasn’t nearly as friendly a place as it had been once upon a time. The hungry time after the Wave was still fresh on everyone’s mind, and many were convinced they had not yet turned the corner on food production and distribution. Food shortages were still a very real problem.

“Freedom of movement is still one of our fundamental rights, Ted,” Karen said, quickly throwing up her hands. “And before anyone gets on my case about the Declared Areas, can I just say, grow up. They’re declared for good reason, and you know it. As to our expatriate community, what can I say? Every American is free to come and go as they please. This stuff I’ve been reading about foreign governments impeding their return, it’s just hogwash. Obviously, we would prefer to have everyone back home again. We need all hands on deck to rebuild this country, but we are not in the business of forcing people to do anything.”

Koppel was on his feet again, waving a pen at Milliner to beg her indulgence for a supplementary question.

“How can you say that, Ms. Milliner, when the administration indentures returnees for five years?”

Karen smiled.

“That’s overstating the case, don’t you think, Ted? People are free to return of their own volition, and if they do it at their own expense, they are free to live and work wherever and however they choose. But I don’t think it’s wrong to ask people to give something back if they rely on the taxpayer to get them here and support them when they arrive. There are no freebies anymore, Ted. Everyone works. Everyone pays. Everyone does their bit. The Congress and the president have made that clear, as have the American people, given their repeated endorsement of the mutual obligation policy at the ballot box. Was it not Captain John Smith at Jamestown who said, ‘He who does not work, shall not eat’? We are not asking anything less than Smith did.”

Culver almost rolled his eyes at Milliner’s chutzpah, but he remained outwardly blank-faced. Very few people had the resources to get themselves home from overseas, which left most returning expatriates with only one option: to hitch a ride with Uncle Sam. And it most definitely was not a free ride. Koppel looked like he was gearing up for a head-butting session with Milliner, but she cut him off with a wave and a disingenuous smile as Kipper suddenly appeared from within the shadows behind her, where he’d been waiting, skimming the notes Culver had prepared for him, they hoped. The boss was notorious for refusing to stick to his talking points and for going off topic at the merest provocation. He did like talking to people, and even reporters were people, as he’d told Jed more than once. Kipper squinted briefly as he passed from shadow into the bright, warm light of high spring. He seemed to sniff the air and took the time to look around as he made his way to the podium.

Karen Milliner formally introduced him, and everyone stood for a moment, which was where the formalities pretty much ended. James Kipper did not enjoy the formal trappings of office and shook them off at every opportunity. He took his place behind a single microphone that was used to record audio for all the assembled media, his hands in the pockets of his jeans. He’d ditched the flak jacket before appearing in front of the press, some of whom were still in their own.

“Thanks for coming, everyone,” he said chattily. “I know it’s a hell of a trip getting out here, and I appreciate the effort involved. It’s important.”

Koppel waved his pen at the president, probably hoping to take up where he’d left off with Milliner, but all he got was a cheeky grin.

“I’m sorry, Ted. I’ll be happy to talk your ears off about the Homesteading Act and the whole mutual obligation thing on the plane going back, but we’re here to talk about one thing this morning, and I have promised Karen and Jed that’s all I’m gonna talk about.” Koppel did a good job of looking chagrined, but he settled back to listen.

“As you know from the precautions we had to take getting you all here today, this city is not the safest place. My security guys had what my granny would’ve called a fit of the vapors when I told them we were coming here.”

Jed watched the audience closely. Only a few of them smiled.

“Right now,” Kip continued, “while we’re sitting here in this old fort, there are probably a minimum of eight thousand looters, scavengers, whatever you want to call them—a horde stripping this city of anything they can carry off. There are tens of thousands more up and down the East Coast and all the way around into Texas. Most of them are just small-time racketeers, crooks, and so on. But there are a couple of big organized criminal groups out of Europe and Africa, too. The navy and coast guard have been doing what they can to interdict them, but we just don’t punch at the same weight we used to. A lot of them get through, and they are stripping the cities bare. Some of them are even pushing into the interior.”

Jed resisted the urge to let his head drop into his hands. There was just no telling Kipper. As much as he tried to teach his boss the dark arts of spin and issue management, the guy was determined to speak his mind, no matter how damaging. Culver could see the headlines already. “President Admits the East Is Lost.” “Raiders Pushing into the Heartland.” Most of the reporters were already madly scribbling away on their notepads. He shared a quick, furtive, and despairing glance with Karen Milliner as the president pushed on.

“Now, while I agree that capturing and killing as many of these thugs as we can is important,” Kip said, “it’s not the only answer. I could order the army to kill every single pirate in New York today, and a month from now the city would be crawling with them again.” More furious scribbling. “President Throws in the Towel.” “President Admits Piracy Problem Is Beyond Him.”

“There is only one way to reclaim the eastern seaboard, and for that matter the interior of our continent. And that is to actually reclaim it.”

Kipper paused to let the moment sink in.
Here it comes
, Jed thought.
The money shot.

“This morning I signed an executive order requiring the armed forces to seize and secure eighteen strategically important sites on the East Coast, including here in New York. We will spread out from those sites, which will become colonies, if you will, where any returnee who is willing to take on the risk can settle freely anytime six months after their repatriation. Those six months will be spent in full-time preparation for resettlement. Additionally, any immigrant willing to take the fast track to U.S. citizenship can settle freely after two years, including eighteen months of mandated service and six months of settlement training. Long story short, that’s it. Any questions?”

It took all of half a second for the press corps to react, but when they did, it reminded Jed of the ringing of the bells at the old stock exchange. In one master stroke the president had outbid the foreign powers for U.S. human capital and most likely performed an end run around Blackstone down in Texas at the same time. The reporters all seemed to explode suddenly out of their seats, flinging questions at Kipper, who smiled and waited for the uproar to die down a little before pointing at Joel Connelly from the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

“So, Mister President, you’re rescinding the requirement for returnees to work in the National Reconstruction Corps for five years?”

Kip smiled and shook his head. “Only if they take on the risk of settling in one of the new colony sites.”

“What about exemptions for veterans?” Novoselic asked. “Will they be obligated—”

“They’ve already given their pound of flesh,” Kipper replied. “We won’t be asking anything more of them.”

More furious questions flew up at the podium, but Connelly won out again.

“Well, just how risky will it be?”

“Very,” said Kip. “It’s a frontier, Joel. And frontiers, as we know from our old history books, are dangerous places. Some of our efforts will fail. Some people will die—”

Kipper never finished the sentence. Two Secret Service men suddenly slammed into him, driving him backward off the stage a second before Jed heard a high keening whistle that quickly became a screech before disappearing inside an abrupt, roaring concatenation of thunder. Time stretched out as though the whole world existed on the skin of a balloon that was quickly inflating around and away from him, slowing everything as it receded. He saw the reporters start from their seats, some sprinting in slo-mo replays of Olympic runners flung from the blocks by a starter’s gun, others half standing, then sitting, bobbing up and down like puppets jerked around by a small child. Everything moved so slowly even as he knew everything had accelerated, and then—
—an agent clad in black coveralls shoulder charged him, lifting his considerable bulk right off the ground, two clear inches of air between the soles of his oxfords and the white, crunchy gravel as he was driven back into the shelter of the colonnade like a water boy T-boned by a linebacker.

The world clock caught up with his fear-quickened senses, and a rush of visions flowed over him. Dirty orange blooms of fire consuming the heavy earthmoving equipment on the muddy, torn-up grass outside the fort. An explosion above him, off to the right, as something detonated on the old roofline, sending dark, wicked fangs of black roofing slate scything away through the air. A deep rumbling in the earth as the volcanic eruption of fire and thunder built to a crescendo. A woman, a reporter, running full tilt, right into a blossoming explosion that roughly quartered her body, flinging the remains to all points of the compass.

Then more men, all clad in black body armor, all over him, slamming his shoulder into something hard and unyielding. A wall? A door frame? It was dark, and he couldn’t see anything beyond the spots of light blooming in front of his eyes. Jed felt himself thrown to the floor, a polished wooden floor he noted just before his cheekbone cracked into the boards. The thunder rolled on outside but became distant, muffled. Black spots spread over his vision, and he fell into them.

Chapter 5

New York

Yusuf Mohammed was unimpressed by his fellow fighters. Although many of them were older than he, some by many years, they behaved like foolish children. He did not imagine that most would survive an encounter with the Americans when they came. Looking out across the river, craning to catch a glimpse of the great broken spires of Manhattan, Yusuf knew the Americans could not be far away now. He crouched in his fighting pit, chosen for him by one of the emir’s very own lieutenants, and wondered where the other men of his
might be.

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