PROLOGUE: A NEW BEGINNING
It looked good.
Yes, Ben Raines thought as he drove the area of the nation known to a few as the new Tri-States, it did look good. As he drove he gazed out at the fertile land that would soon bring forth beans and cotton and corn and the many hundreds of small gardens that would feed the people.
For the first time since the arrival of Ben and his Rebels in portions of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, Ben felt some degree of optimism for the future of those who chose to follow his dream.
The spring of 2001 was, Ben felt, a long way from what most science fiction writers of his generation had envisioned. Those writers envisioned robots doing much of the tasks formally relegated to the unskilled. They imagined numerous space shuttles to faraway worlds, an easing of the world's hunger, great strides and breakthroughs in the field of medicine â and so very much more.
Instead, the world now hung by a slender thread: on one side a chance for civilization to flourish; on the other, anarchy, barbarism, a return to the caves.
We've got to make it, Ben mused as he drove. Some group of people must show the rest of the world that civilization and order can once more prevail over chaos.
We've got to make it.
It's up to us, and I know it. But I don't have to like the heavy yoke of responsibility that hangs like that stinking albatross about my neck.
But, he sighed, we almost made it. We came so close, so very close to crawling out of the ashes of nuclear war. 1988 was not the end. It could have been a glorious new beginning. But 1988 blew up in our faces and very nearly destroyed the entire world.
His thoughts drifted back to the beginning of his dream: Tri-States, a section of America in the west, after the horror of germ and nuclear war; a society of free men and women of like mind, like dreams, like hopes. A society where people of all races could live and work and be content. And live free of crime. And Ben Raines and his Rebels did it. Social scientists and social anthropologists and assorted liberals and bleeding hearts had always maintained it could not be done, but Ben and his people had proved them incorrect. Grossly incorrect. Those men and women who were the founders and the foundation of Tri-States had succeeded against all odds. They had made their dream work.
And for almost a decade they had lived in peace and harmony and contentment, in a land where good schools â free of nit-picking and government interference and unions and leniency â had done what schools were meant to do: educate the young, mold their minds, teach them reading and writing and math and science and discipline and respect.
Tri-States had shown the world â that world which remained â that a government does not need to be top-heavy with bureaucracy and dead weight and hundreds of unfair and unworkable laws and pork-barrel projects and scheming politicians and massive overspending and dead-heads.
But the Central Government â then located in Richmond, Virginia because D. C. had taken a nuke dead-on back in '88 â with a lunatic at the helm of state, could not bear the success of Ben Raines and his people. President Hilton Logan had ordered the destruction of Tri-States â and all its inhabitants.
Only three years ago, Ben thought, waving to a Rebel standing by a fence, talking with a neighbor. The men returned the wave.
“Hi, General!” they called. Both men wore side arms belted around their waists. And they would have automatic weapons close by, not just because they were citizen soldiers, regulars in the Rebel army, but because the world was still tumbling about in fear and chaos and violence and near-anarchy.
Citizen soldiers, Ben thought, driving past the talking men. That is why we survived and so many others did not. I insisted that
my people be a part of the armed forces, with all the training and discipline contained therein. And we survived the holocaust, came through it, due in no small part to the fact the people were armed and trained and disciplined.
That should tell the world something.
But what world is left to hear it?
So much has happened in only three years.
Ben wondered, if history were ever written abut this tragic period of the world, if anyone would believe that one man, Ben Raines, could go from novelist to guerrilla leader to the founder of a separate nation within a nation back to guerrilla leader, and from there move on to the office of the president of the United States, and once more back to guerrilla leader â all in the short span of only twelve years?
Ben smiled. It would have made a hell of a book, he thought, the writer in him once more surfacing. He missed writing, missed the long hours of solitude, missed the exercising of his mind as he grappled with plot and dialogue, missed the deadlines he used to curse.
Reading, he thought, the smile still on his lips. That's the key. That is what we have to stress with the young people. The nation, Ben knew, had begun slipping in the reading department â really took a beating from 1960 to the big blow-up of '88. Can't let that happen again. Got to stress reading and math and science. For those will be the keys to picking up the pieces of civilization and putting them back together once more.
Thank God the mindless inanity of much of prime-time TV was gone. His smile turned grim. The only good thing to come out of being nuked.
Ben lost his smile as his eyes picked up the reflection of his constant shadow in the rear-view mirror of his pickup: his bodyguards.
Sgt. Buck Osgood would be at the wheel of the rear vehicle. With another Rebel riding shotgun, armed with an automatic weapon, and a third Rebel in the rear of the vehicle, ready to grab the big .50-caliber machine gun.
By nature a loner, Ben could never become accustomed to the idea of having a babysitter wherever he went â not even after all these years.
And ranging a half mile ahead of him, always trying to stay out of his sight, for his bodyguards knew how Ben felt, would be another Jeep or APC, with more Rebels in it, all heavily armed.
What price fame? Ben silently mused, the mental question laced with sarcasm.
But Ben knew the precautions were necessary, for there had been sightings of mutants. However, the mutants for the most part left humans alone as long as they were not provoked. In addition, there was the need to guard against roaming gangs of thugs and paramilitary groups. At least several times a month they would attempt to slip into the new Tri-States, to steal or rape or burn or kill, or all of those things.
They would be put down hard; if not killed on the spot, they would be hanged the next day.
For that was the order of day now â around the battered globe. Nowhere else that the Rebels knew of was there social order â only the new Tri-States, which set rules and behavior and morals.
In this late spring of 2001, worldwide, it had come down to the survival of the fittest. Humankind had reverted very nearly back to the caves. And in some cases, had indeed returned to the caves, although Ben and his people would not learn of that for months to come.
For now, in the new Tri-States, Ben Raines and his six thousand survivors, men, women, and children, were attempting to rebuild some sort of workable society out of the ruins of war and anarchy and a worldwide plague. Hopefully, they could fan a spark from the ashes.
Ben thought that just maybe they could pull it off. Maybe.
God knew they had to try.
Ben didn't think humankind would have another chance.
The men and women of the IPF, International Peace Force, had landed quietly on Canadian soil, on their way to the United States. Their route had been long and often tedious. They had waited and trained and studied for ten years before making their move. They had planned well.
They had sailed from home port in March â not the easiest month to leave â and skirted south of Cape Farewell, into the Labrador Sea. They sailed into the Hudson Strait, passed around Mansel Island, keeping to the east, then angled south by southwest until the mouth of the River was in sight. There, they offloaded boats and equipment for the river trip.
They followed the Nelson into Lake Winnipeg, then began a tortuous trek overland. But most were young and strong and the trip was nothing compared to the training they had been undergoing for the past decade. All came through. Anything for the Motherland and for the development of a
The IPF picked up Highway 10 in Canada and procured vehicles from the abandoned cars and trucks. They headed for the United States border, dropping off small contingents of IPF personnel along the way. They saw very few people alive in Canada. Those they saw seemed more curious than hostile.
Had the people in Canada known what type of monster mentality they were facing, they would have turned hostile in a hurry.
But by the time they discovered the truth, it was too late for the few Canadians left alive in the areas where the IPF landed.
In the United States â the late, great United States â the IPF set up base camp in Minnesota and radioed back to home port they were at their objective. They were told two more ships had set sail and had steamed near the mouth of the Nelson. There, they were awaiting orders to offload men and equipment.
In Minnesota, the IPF broke off into teams and fanned out into the countryside, testing the mood of the people. In a great many cases they found men and women â entire families â who were just barely hanging on to life, victims of the many roving gangs of thugs in the land.
The men and women of the IPF spoke grammatically correct English, with only a very slight accent. They were very polite: the men were often courtly in their dealings with American women, straightforward and open with the American men. At first. But conditions and deportment among the IPF were subject to sudden and drastic changes â very soon.
An American man asked where the people had come from.
“Originally, Eastern Europe,” came the reply, always with a smile.
“That would account for the accent.”
“And you want?”
“To be your friend, and for you to be our friends. To live in peace in this troubled world. To try and find the cause for the terrible tragedy that has befallen us all, and to correct it.”
“Isn't that what we all want?”
“Yes,” Gen. Georgi Striganov said with a smile. He was a strikingly handsome man, tall and well-built, with pale blue eyes, fair skin, and blond-gray hair. “Indeed it is.”
The American stuck out his hand. “I'll tell you what the problem was. The goddamn niggers wanted everything given to them and the goddamn Jews went along with it. Every time you looked at the TV there was about a million greasers comin' across the border, grabbing up jobs that should have gone to Americans.”
General Striganov listened with a sympathetic smile on his lips.
“Taxes kept goin' up and up and up; it never seemed to stop. Everything for the minorities and to hell with the taxpayers. I said it, and by God that's the way I feel about it.”
Striganov shook the man's hand. “My name is Georgi. I think we're going to get along very well. Now tell me: How can we help you?”
Ben watched Ike pull into his driveway and get out of the pickup. Ike walked up to Ben, resting on his hoe handle in his garden.
“El Presidente,” Ike said with a grin, “it is time, I believe, for me to speak.”
“Quote the Walrus, âOf shoes â and ships â and sealing wax.' Maybe I don't want to hear it, Ike.”
The grin never left Ike's face. “Hell, Ben, that never stopped me before.”
The two men had met down in Florida, back in late '88, the ex-SEAL and the ex-Hell-Hound. They had been close friends, like brothers, ever since.
“That certainly is true, Ike.”
“You need a woman, Ben.”
“Hear me out, ol' buddy. Things are lookin' pretty good around here, thanks to you. You somehow put some steel in the backbones of those who follow you. I personally didn't believe you could do it â but you did. With any kind of luck, pal, we'll make it here.”
The usage of the informal noun brought memories rushing to both men of Pal Elliot, a black man who had been instrumental in shaping the original Tri-States. Pal, his wife Valerie and their children had been killed in the governmental assault on Tri-States.
Ben shook away the memories of people dead and events past. “I am perfectly content with my life as a bachelor, Ike.”
“That's bull and you know it, Ben. You got too much he-goat in you for that.” He grinned. “Have you seen the twins?”
“Which set?” Ben asked sourly.
Ike laughed and punched the man playfully on the shoulder. “Rosita's set.”
“They got their momma's good looks and your eyes. You know what she named them?”
Ben had to smile at the memories of Rosita. “Ben and Salina. Not very subtle of her, I'd say.”
“Have you seen Dawn?”
“Get to the point, Ike,” Ben said wearily. “If there is a point.” He knew very well what the point was.
“That's your baby, Ben.” It was not phrased as a question.
“Yes,” he admitted. “She said she was going to have it and nothing I could say would change her mind.”
“And now you're alone and have been for some months.”
“What are you going to do: put a rubber band around it and become celibate?”
Ben laughed at just the thought. “That would be painful, buddy.”
“The rubber band or celibacy?”
Ben tried his best glare on Ike. It didn't work, bouncing off the stocky man. “Ben, you've been rattlin' 'round in that big ol' house like a pea in a dry pod. For all you've been through, you still look like a man forty years old. I know â a lot of us know â you're restless. Would like to take off and ramble. But you can't do that, Ben. You're the glue that holds us together. You was to take off, Tri-States would collapse.”
Ben did not like to think of himself as being that important to the society. It bothered him. “And you think a woman would help settle me down, is that right, Ike?”
“It's been known to happen.”
“I read Roanna's newspaper every week. Maybe I should advertise?”
“It isn't funny, Ben.” Ike was serious.
“And I'm not treating it as a joke, Ike. Damn it, Ike, I don't want a harem. And I'm not liking the feeling I get when I leave the farm. That's why I've been keeping a low profile, and why Cecil is being groomed â not that he needs any grooming â to take my place, and the sooner the better.”
“Cecil's a good man,” Ike said guardedly.
“Drop the other shoe, Ike.”
“Nobody can take your place.”
Ben felt temper building in him. He fought it back. “And I don't like that crap either, Ike. Damn, buddy, nobody is indispensable â you should know that. Nobody!”
Ike stood quietly, waiting by the fence. Finally he waved his hand and sighed. “All right, Ben, let's don't fuss about it. Too much to do without putting that into it. Two reasons I came out here. You won't discuss number one, so here's number two: Intelligence keeps picking up some strange radio transmissions. They came to me with it 'cause, well . . .”
“They're afraid to come to me with them,” Ben finished it. There was a flat tone to his voice.
“I reckon that's about the size of it,” the Mississippi-born-and-reared Ike admitted.
“That really makes me feel swell, Ike.”
Ike spread his hands in a gesture of “what can I say?” When he spoke his voice was soft. “You know you're bigger than life to a lot of people, Ben.”
“And I get the feeling it's getting out of hand.”
“Maybe. Anyway, we pinpointed latitude and longitude. Coming from just south of the Arctic Circle. Twenty degrees west longitude, sixty-five degrees north latitude. They're coming from Iceland, Ben.”
“Iceland! But Iceland was supposed to be destroyed, Ike.”
“You got it. And the transmissions are in a funny language. It's almost Russian â but it isn't. It is a Russian dialect, though.”
Ben nodded his head thoughtfully. “Could be one of a dozen or so. Latvian, Croatian, Georgian. What do you make of it?”
Ike shook his head. “Strange, Ben â weird. You remember that we got reports back in '89 that Iceland was hot, took several nukes nose-on.”
“Yes,” Ben's reply was thoughtful. “We damn sure did. And as I recall, I wondered why they would â or should. OK, they've got to be broadcasting to somebody, Ike.”
“Right. To a base in northern Minnesota.”
“Now that is interesting.”
“I did a little checking âfore I drove up to see you, since you never seem to leave this raggedly ol' place,” Ike added dryly. Ben ignored that dig. “Doctor Chase says it would have been highly unlikely the plague would have hit that far north. Extreme temperatures, hot or cold, seem to at first stall it, then kill it.”
“Wonder why he never told me that?”
“'Cause you don't never leave this goddamn place!”
“Uh-huh. You have someone attempting to translate the language?”
“Right. Ben, what are you thinking? Man, I don't like the look in your eyes.”
Ben slapped his friend on the back, his mood suddenly lifting. “Ike, I want you to personally get me a full platoon together.”
“Now, damn it, Ben!”
“I want supplies for a sustained operation. Full combat gear. Mortars and light howitzers.”
“At least two APCs and rig .50s on all the Jeeps, no telling what we'll run into.”
“If I had known you were gonna pull this kind of crap I'd have never come out here!”
“And have one of Doctor Chase's doctors accompany us. No telling what we'll find. Get on that right away, will you, Ike?”
Ike stood for a moment, glaring at his friend. Ben returned his gaze sweetly, blandly, the picture of all innocence. Ike finally turned away, muttering under his breath.
Ben rubbed his hands together, a grin moving his mouth. Ben Raines did not like inactivity. He liked to be on the move, liked action.
This was just what the doctor ordered.
Sam Hartline looked like the stereotyped Hollywood mercenary â when Hollywood existed, that is. Six feet, two inches, heavily muscled, a deep tan, dark brown hair graying at the temples, cold green eyes, and a scar on his right cheek.
Cecil had summed up Hartline several years back. “Sam Hartline is a goddamned psychopath. And one hard-line nigger hater. He was with Jeb Fargo outside Chicago back in '88 and '89.”
“Mr. Hartline,” General Striganov greeted the mercenary warmly, with a smile and a firm handshake. “How good to meet with you at last. Did you have a pleasant trip up?”
“Very nice,” Hartline replied, his eyes taking in and silently appraising the Russian. The man looked to be about the same age as Ben Raines, and in just as good physical condition. Hartline wondered if the Russian was as tough as Ben Raines. He'd damn well better be, he concluded, if he's thinking of tangling with Raines.
“You have laid claim to the entire state of Wisconsin,” General Striganov said, not losing his smile. “Don't you find that a rather ambitious undertaking, Mr. Hartline?”
Hartline's smile was as cold as the one greeting him. “Not at all, General. The people seem to be coming along splendidly.”
Striganov leaned back in his chair. “You know, of course, who I am and what I represent?”
Hartline shrugged his heavy shoulders. “You're a former member of the KGB.” He smiled. “The Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Brozopasnosti.”
Striganov's eyebrows lifted slightly. Then the rumors concerning Hartline's linguistic abilities were not exaggerated.
“A general in the Russian Army. Or what is left of that army.”