3076

Advertisements
Standard

3076

Commander Magnusson stared out the window at the wide river and the city beyond. The National Mall was flooded. Water surrounded the Washington Monument on its little island, and spread toward the White House. The Capitol stood high and dry, but reports said that its great dome was crumbling inside. And no telling what gangs ruled the Hill.

And the water was still slowly spreading toward the Pentagon Fortress. He could tell by the row of poles going out into the river. The nearest pole, planted a few years ago, was now several inches into the water. Looking south, the flood wall seemed to be holding.

He turned back to the city, peering through a telescope at the skyline, at the rooftops east of the Capitol where strange new flags flew in the breeze.

A quiet tap on the door and Major Mervin entered. “Everyone’s here,” he said.

 *

     The Pentagon Fortress was more than a thousand years old. Once it was the headquarters of the United States’ military machine, the most powerful in the world, During the Second Civil War the Pentagon took in refugees and saved their lives. All around the disintegrating nation the military bases opened their lands and put people to work. As soldiers returned from distant wars the Pentagon gave them the mission of keeping the nation alive.

     Pentagon archives told of Washington burning and citizens fleeing to safety across the Potomac River. Among them were the President and members of Congress and the Supreme Court. In the years that followed, the Pentagon kept a federal government running. Three times the presidential line of succession was interrupted by wars and rebellion. Then it resumed back in Washington, but now the United States had broken into a dozen pieces.

     When Charles Magnusson became the Pentagon commander the ancient building was crumbling along with the nation itself, and he vowed to restore both.

*

     In the outer office four men sat waiting at a battered conference table — the commanders of Langley and Belvoir, and the mayors of Arlington and Alexandria. Then Commander Magnusson strode to the head of the table and took the empty chair. He was a tall man with a large round head. On the wall behind him stretched an American flag with fifty stars.

     “Time is getting short,” he told the others. “If we’re going to do the centennial in Washington we need to get moving. This will be number thirteen, just like the original United States. We’ll be coming in peace. Question is, will the people there allow it?”

     The Langley commander said, “It depends on who we’re dealing with, and that keeps changing. Right now the Hill is under the domain of the Anacostia network. And we really don’t know who’s in charge. Maybe no one is.”

     “Have they been causing any trouble?”

     “No. But no one’s been pushing them. We could get a message to the most amenable and let them know we’re coming in peace.”

     “I think we should also tell the less amenable,” said Magnusson. “Let them know we’re not going behind anyone’s back. And it helps us decide how many troops we’ll need.”

     The Arlington mayor said, “Better too many than too few. We’re prepared to provide some men. And they’ll be well-trained. They are well-trained.”

     “We still need troops here. Not just for military duty I’m sorry to say.”

     “A few days in July. There’s less work then.”

     The Belvoir commander said, “We have the troops and we’ve been getting more refugees. We need to move them inland if there’s a place for them to go.”

     “We have the place,” said Magnusson. “Can they do the work?”

     “That hasn’t been a problem. At Belvoir we take our quota first. Then they can satisfy themselves.”

     Commander Magnusson pointed to rows of pictures on the wall. “Those men fought for their country. Some of them a thousand years ago. If they could see things now, they’d be ashamed. Heroes digging manure like common criminals. I want to see more of the criminals doing honest work. And more of our soldiers doing what they’re called to do.”

     Magnusson and his guests walked down the stairs to the ground floor. There was an elevator to his offices, but a month ago the car came loose and plunged to the bottom, killing three officers. It had been repaired, so they said, but the Commander wasn’t sure. And he preferred to walk. He was still strong, and he prided himself on climbing five flights of stairs ahead of younger men.

     At the mall entrance he saw his guests into their vehicles, and he continued with the day’s business. Three men from his palace guard joined him, and they walked down dim corridors past workmen scraping the crumbling walls, past the sentry posts at every corner. They came out into the bright sun at the central courtyard where school children were lined up doing their calisthenics. So many children and only one teacher, but it was the best the Commander could provide. He crossed the courtyard and went back into the dark building.

     The south side of the fortress had become the Pentagon’s factory. Office walls were gone and the space turned into carpentry shops and metal works. The outside wall, once destroyed by rebel bombs, was no a long row of solar stills dripping precious fuel. The air smelled of ripe fermentation. Beyond was the plantation where laborers (not enough of them, the Commander noted) toiled in the long rows of crops. Cattle grazed in a distant field behind a wall of growing bamboo. Here the air smelled of manure from the digester tanks.

     The Commander stopped at the motor pool. He was pleased to see three shiny cars all in a row as if waiting for some one to get in and drive away. Inside the shop a few more cars and three-wheelers waited to be repaired. Another big room was full of broken vehicles and piles of scrap metal. He found the motor pool sergeant and a mechanic bent over the engine of a military car.

     “How many of these have you got ready?” the Commander asked.

     “Depends how far you want to go,” said Sergeant Rowland.

     “Into the city and back. All in a few days.”

     “Two.”

     “That’s all? What about those three in front?”

     “Those are electric. I got a room full of half-dead batteries and capacitors, but maybe I could find a few good ones.”

     “What about fuel vehicles?”

     “Just those two. They’d maybe get you there, but not get you back.”

     The Commander stared at a row of motors along the back wall. “None of these working?”

     The sergeant looked wary. “You want to know the truth?”

     “Of course I do. You ought to know me by now. Our fathers fought together.”

     “It’s mostly junk. We keep it for spare  parts. Stuff you might be able to use for something. Same thing over in electronics. Little components that nobody knows what they were used for. Millions of them…”

     “What about R and D? Are they coming up with anything?”

     “They stay upstairs looking busy, but they don’t tell me much. City’s not that far. Why not march? It’s more reliable and you can take as many men as you want. Take a few horses…”

*

     One sunny morning Commander Magnusson led a platoon of troops from the Pentagon Fortress, followed by a car with the mayors of Arlington and Alexandria. Already the hot sun was itching his skin. They marched north through the national cemetery on a road that was passable. Looking down the slope, Magnusson saw brambles and weeds and shattered trees. He saw soldiers’ graves in broken rows, and the spaces in between where the headstones were gone, no doubt stolen to build huts and walls. If he had the soldiers, he told himself, he’d search every building within ten miles. If he found a stolen headstone he’d tear it out and bring it home. Maybe take a few prisoners and put them to work restoring the resting place of heroes. Looking further, he could see that distant graves were under water. Nature’s desecration angered him, but he knew there was little he could do about it, and that gave him a sick feeling.

     They marched along the traces of old highways. Ancient ruins had been taken down and fields of crops spread between the buildings that remained. Laborers dressed in orange moved along the rows, guarded by men with shotguns.

     The Commander of Langley and a squad of his men were waiting at the bridge to Georgetown. The arches rode high over the water and the approaches had been rebuilt. They marched through quiet streets to the university campus, and there they were greeted by the mayor of Georgetown and the rector of the university. One of the dormitory buildings was now an army barracks, and the soldiers settled in.

     That night the rector hosted a small banquet at his mansion. There Commander Magnusson and his party dined with the Georgetown mayor and other important people. They ate roasted Easter lamb from the university farm and drank wine from somebody’s plantation. Magnusson was impressed and envious. He watched the smiling Georgetown mayor and wondered where their wealth came from, as he outlined his plan to celebrate the centennial on Capitol Hill.

     The men listened while they ate. They drank what seemed to Magnusson like real coffee. Then the waiters cleared the table and left the room and the talking began.

     The Langley Commander said, “We sent messages to the Anacostia people. Told them our intentions, and that we’re coming in peace. They agreed to a first meeting on the Hill and we can proceed from that. Or maybe we can’t. They’ll decide that later.” He poured a shot of bourbon into his coffee cup and dropped in an ice cube from the fridge bucket. “Two questions. How many troops can we have on standby? And are there any factions we don’t know about?”

     “There’s a lot of contested territory,” said a Georgetown man. “Enemy areas across Chesapeake Bay. Invaders encroaching on Baltimore. And some of them seem to be heading this way. The Anacostia people are somewhat hemmed in. The question is, do they join with us or the rebels?”

     “Good time to make them an offer.” said Magnusson.

     “Who do we make it to? And what would the offer be? Some kind of alliance and protection. And that gets us back to how many troops we can spare.”

     “How many troops can Anacostia spare? That’s what an alliance is all about.”

     The Georgetown man poured himself some bourbon. “They don’t have troops. Not the way we have.”

     “Maybe we can help them with that,” said Magnusson. “But that’s for later. What kind of backup do we have tomorrow?”

     “We have forward posts downtown. And we have secured the White House.”

     “Really?” said the Langley commander.

     “A caretaker crew is living there. They report that flood damage is all underground.”

*

           Next morning the convoy moved downtown. This time Commander Magnusson rode in the car with the mayors. Behind them came another car with the Langley commander and the mayor of Georgetown. Troops marched alongside in a single file.

     The buildings downtown appeared empty, and the windows were gaping holes. Magnusson spotted a few men inside, the Georgetown snipers he’d been told about. The streets were broken, with rubble piled up into barriers. It was a bumpy ride as the convoy moved slowly past detours.

     After a few miles they saw men on motorbikes, an escort from Anacostia. The convoy followed them past the old train station with gardens in front, and up the hill past more gardens.

     The Capitol dome loomed above a spread of farmland and trees. In the square a crowd of people waited as the motorbike escort circled to a stop.

     Commander Magnusson got out of his car and stood staring. The people looked like civilians, and he tried to spot a leader. Then two men and a woman stepped out of the crowd. They waited as Magnusson approached. Then the man in the middle extended his hand.

     “I’m John Jack,” he said.

     “I’m Charles Magnusson, commander of the Pentagon.”

     John Jack was a slim dark-skinned man. He didn’t look like a leader, but how could you tell? He looked more like a leader’s shrewd advisor.

     Magnusson asked, “Are you able to make a commitment for your people?”

     The other man and the woman took a step back, and John Jack said, “Depends what it is. Depends how soon you’re asking.”

     “It’s a July Fourth celebration. The thirteenth centennial of our nation’s birth. The people of Arlington would like to hold it here on Capitol Hill. We’re asking for your approval. And you’re all invited to attend it with us.”

     “A centennial,” John Jack grinned. “Looks like you missed a few. Why you want to do it now?”

     “We didn’t want to wait another hundred years. We thought this would be a good time.”

     John Jack pointed to the Capitol Building. “You may be right about that. Another hundred years that dome won’t be standing there.”

     They were in a ramshackle street market. The sweet smell of meat on the fire drifted in the warm air. John Jack led Magnusson and his party to a long table and they sat down. A woman brought a tray of grilled meat and vegetables, and another woman set down two pitchers of some kind of brew.

     While they ate, Magnusson ignored the hot sun itching his skin and talked about the centennial celebration. “We’d like to have it at the Capitol. So far about a hundred people have said they’d come. Mostly folks from northern Virginia. I haven’t been in contact with people from Maryland, but anyone who can come is invited. Are any trains running?”

     “About halfway to Baltimore,” said John Jack. “Then the tracks are broken. We don’t use it much.”

     “What kind of trains do you have?” asked Magnusson.

     “Old passenger cars. We strip them down, make them light as we can. Then we put in some kind of motor. We could use horses if we wanted to. Tell me more about the celebration.”

     The brew was like a fruit cider. As Magnusson sipped away, more ideas came to mind. “We’d start with the Declaration of Independence. Have people read it aloud. Proclaim it to the nation. They did that a thousand years ago with fourteen living presidents. All of them dressed in the style of 1776…”

     The mayors listened and nodded their heads. The Commander hadn’t seen them this interested before. Maybe it was the sight of the nation’s Capitol looming above the — the wide steps leading up to the building and the great white dome against the blue sky.

     They climbed the step and as they neared the top Magnusson noticed the broken windows and ragged drapes. Next to the main entrance was a guard post, a rambling wood cabin behind the tall columns.

     John Jack went ahead and talked to a guard, and then they all stepped through the broken doorway. There was a moldy smell in the tick air. They walked through s dim corridor and came out in the rotunda.

     Now they were standing in a vast space with light coming through the windows high above. On the floor were chunks of fallen debris and dark stains. Along the circular wall were toppled statues like fallen heroes of the past.

     “We shouldn’t go any further,” said John Jack. “It’s too dangerous.”

     “I hate to see it looking like this,” said Magnusson. “I’ve seen pictures of how it used to be. People came from all over the country to be here.”

     “A few years ago some people from Philadelphia came to see the place.”

     “Who were they?”

     John Jack shrugged. “I didn’t meet them. They said they traveled down from Philadelphia. Had to go around Baltimore.”

     The Langley commander spoke up. “Did they say where they were going?”

     “Back to Philadelphia. They didn’t like what they see.”

     “Too bad they couldn’t stay to help clean it up,” said Magnusson. “If people could come here from around the country. Help restore the building and all working together…”

     John Jack said, “They all die together if the dome falls down.”

     “What about the rest of the building?”

     “We don’t know who all’s inside. A big building with plenty of places to hide.”

     “It used to be that way at the Pentagon,” said Magnusson. “Now we have people living in it, filling up the place. It’s like a city unto itself.”

     “Our city’s out there,” said John Jack. “The people in your building, who gets their food? What work do they do?”

     “Everyone has work to do. We have factories. Teachers. A church. The motor shop…” Magnusson remembered that it had lots of junk and piles of parts, but only a few vehicles that ran. “What if we helped you fix this building?”

     “Can you spare the men?”

     “We can if they’re needed.”

     “Not my decision,” said John Jack. “If time is short maybe you should do your celebration outside the building. On the other side where you can see the Mall.”

     He took them for a long walk around the Capitol. As they came to the other side of the building Magnusson looked out over the flooded National Mall.

     It was worse than he’d thought. A long lake stretched all the way to the Lincoln Memorial with an island in the middle where the Washington Monument stood leaning. And out in the water he saw rowboats where people sat fishing.

     “These buildings are useless,” John Jack was saying. “Too hard to tear them down. My grandfather, when he was a young man right after the last battle, he helped to clean up some of the buildings. They were full of filth and dead bodies. No place to bury them. We buried what we could in the spaces between the buildings, to let the earth sweeten them.”

     “What about the White House?” Magnusson asked.

     “What about it?”

     “What kind of shape is it in?”

     “Still standing. Flooded in the basement. That’s where they used to plan their wars. Now some people are there, maybe trying to fix it up.”

     “It’s worth fixing,” said Magnusson. “It’s part of our history,”

     John Jack smiled. “My grandfather, when he was a boy an old man told him that people fought a war over the White House. They were superstitious. They believed that whoever captured the building became ruler over a country that no longer existed. So here in this city gangs went around killing each other to put a man in the White House.”

     “It should be a place for everyone. That’s what it was in the beginning.”

     “That was a long time ago. Maybe you should go look. See if anyone is living there now.”

     They walked around the building and back to the market. The lane between the farm stands was filled with people. Some of Magnusson’s soldiers sat at a table eating and drinking with the local women. The other soldiers guarded their two cars, with children crowding around.

     John Jack’s two friends were back at his side, the people he’d never introduced. The woman looked at Commander Magnusson in his uniform and seemed silently amused. “I’ll talk to the others,” said John Jack. “We’ll put it to the people. Then we will let you know.”

     The squad of men on motorbikes assembled, and Magnusson’s convoy followed them from the market place. They passed gardens and fields of crops. Two men went by wheeling a cart with the carcass of a pig on a roasting spit.

     The commander was pleased. He sat in the car’s front passenger seat and turned to the two mayors in back. “That John Jack fellow seemed agreeable. I don’t know if he runs things, but he must know what they want. He said we’ll get an answer soon.”

     “How many men will we need?” asked the Arlington mayor. “Knowing that they outnumber us.”

     “It will be a peaceful mission,” said Magnusson. “If it isn’t we won’t attempt it. And too many men might get people upset. The main thing is to keep our route open. We’ll need reserves on standby all along the way.”

     The motorbike escort turned around and the convoy proceeded slowly down a long avenue past blasted buildings with gaping windows. The Georgetown mayor’s car led the way to the White House and stopped at the gate. Two soldiers stepped out of a bunker and waved them inside.

     They drove up a curving lane past a fenced farm yard and stopped in front of the columns where more soldiers guarded the entrance. Georgetown had a caretaker crew, Magnusson recalled, but this looked more like a military operation. The portico roof was supported on three sides by columns, and they looked sturdy, but a row of heavy tree trunks leaned against the front wall — a shelter against falling debris.

     The Georgetown mayor led the way through a gap between the tree trunks into a large hall with a dusty marble floor. The walls had lost their plaster, with wood lath exposed.

     “Looks clean,” said Magnusson. “Are you planning to rebuild?”

     “Probably not. There’s water down below. Coming up the south lawn and into the basement. And there’s a basement below that. They even had a bowling alley down there.”

     The Langley commander said, “I understand they had a fortified operations center.”

     “It’s under the east wing. But not fortified enough to keep the water out.”

     The Georgetown mayor led them down a corridor, through empty rooms with stripped walls and smashed fireplaces. Magnusson tried to imagine these rooms as they were a few hundred years ago. The nation had preserved the White House for centuries, and then it all went to hell.”

     They stopped at a guard post and the Georgetown mayor greeted his soldiers.

     “We have the building secured,” he said to his guests. “All the rooms are secured. Not as many as in the Capitol, of course. I can see why those people don’t want to go in there.”

     “Do you think they’d welcome some help?” asked Magnusson.

     “Welcome’s not the word. They might accept it eventually.”

     It was getting dark, and they decided to spend the night at the White House. A room next to

the kitchen had been cleaned up and turned into a dining room, with an ancient painting on the wall. The men sat down at the end of a long table, and two soldiers came in, one wheeling a cart while the other lit the table lamps. The soldiers set down bottles of whiskey and cider and baskets of salty bread sticks, and went back to the kitchen.

     Commander Magnusson sipped his whiskey and wondered how many troops were encamped here, but he decided to ask about it later. It brought to mind stories he’d heard of a large plantation somewhere beyond the city, a farm that fed not only the owners but all the people who worked on the land.

     The soldiers brought in platters of ham and roasted vegetables, served on china plates with ancient decorations. “We found the plates in an old cupboard,” said the Georgetown mayor. “Not everything got looted. This building went through several battles and a succession of occupiers. After a while they stopped trying to preserve it. They took what they wanted and moved on.”

     “There’s no way to restore it?” Magnusson asked.

     “It’s sinking. Maybe parts of it…”

     The mayor of Alexandria said, “We had a building near the water, we put it on a barge. Not a very large building, but now we can float it where we want.”

     They talked of moving the White House to higher ground. It would be a shame to lose such a historic treasure, they said. Perhaps move a section at a time. Or take it apart and put it back together. But where would they rebuild it? On higher ground, of course. But it would have to be in a friendly area. And not just friendly now, but far into the future…

     Then a voice from the hallway said, “Hello in there.”

     The Georgetown mayor looked up and smiled. “Hello Mister President. Come on in.”

     A man in a dark suit walked in. “Who are these people? Have I met them before?”

     “I don’t think so, sir. They’re from across the river. Here to pay their respects.”

     The Georgetown mayor introduced the President to each of his guests. He was a tall man with dark hair going gray. He had piercing eyes and carried himself like a military man, although he now wore a deep blue suit. Beside him stood an officer in dress uniform.

     To Commander Magnusson the President said, “I’m glad the Pentagon’s in good hands.”

     “Thank you,” said Magnusson and wondered how long this man had been in office, and why he didn’t know until now.

     The President turned to the Georgetown mayor. “Is there anyone else to meet?”

     “Not today, sir.”

     “I believe that tomorrow it’s the lady envoy from Quebec.”

     “That’s right, sir.”

     “Very good,” said the President. He strode out of the room, followed by his attending officer.

     The Georgetown mayor and his guests sat silently around the table. Finally the Arlington mayor asked, “Who is he?”

     The Georgetown mayor sipped his whiskey. “He says he’s the President.”

     “Even if he is he must have a name. Where’s he from?”

     “He was here all by himself when we showed up, but he must have had companions. Hard to see how he could stay without friends. Of course he didn’t look so spruced up when we found him.”

     “Think he’s crazy?”

     “The question is, does he have any supporters? A crazy man with an army, you take him seriously.”

     “Do you?” asked the Langley commander.

     “I haven’t seen his army yet,” said the Georgetown mayor. “We feed him and take care of his needs. We listen to what he says, but he’s pretty cagey. So we keep the conversation going.”

     The Alexandria mayor asked, “Who’s that lady envoy from Quebec? I didn’t know there still is a Quebec.”

     “Probably not. Our friend is a local lady. She has a little business, and knows a lot of people. And knows a lot about those people.”

     Magnusson frowned. “This President, is he in with the Anacostia gang? I believe that John Jack fellow said something about him.”

    “I don’t think he’d last long with Anacostia,” said the Georgetown mayor. “They’d throw him out. Maybe that’s why he’s here.” He poured more whiskey all around. “There’s a lot we don’t know about Anacostia/ Is anyone in charge? How far does it extend? Halfway to Baltimore apparently.”

     The Langley commander said, “We get reports of Anacostia arming the refugees. Working communities are getting invaded. It’s because they’re isolated. The bandits surround them and they’re done for. That’s why we need to consolidate. Or else the bandits will pick them off one by one.”

     “This is the place to start,” said Magnusson. “It’s where America started and we can do it again.”

     “Any plan in mind?” asked the Georgetown mayor.

     “John Jack said they can’t control the Capitol. Maybe we can. We did it with the Pentagon back in 2970. Took us four years…fighting floor by floor…room by room. The siege is what did it. No food, no water. That’s how we can help Anacostia secure the building. The big question is can we deploy enough troops. We’ll need to supply them. Maybe Anacostia will help with provisions, but I don’t think it’s wise to depend on them.”

     The Georgetown mayor said, “I think we can help with that. We have a few river boats. A low-draft vessel could navigate the Mall right up to the Capitol steps. We could bring in provisions and more troops…”

     “Not too many all at once. The main thing is to establish a bridgehead. Call it a bridgehead of trust. We wouldn’t interfere with their activities. In fact we’d be their protector.”

     “Protection has to be paid for,” said the Langley commander.

     “We’ll make it worth the price,” said Commander Magnusson.

     The table top became a map. The Capitol was an upside-down bread basket at the end of the Mall. The Washington Monument was a candle. Off to the side a tobacco box became the White House.

     The Georgetown mayor said, “We’re building a dock where the South Lawn used to be. It’s better than trying to navigate the city streets. Our boats can bring supplies here and on to the Capitol.

     He placed an empty glass for the Smithsonian Castle where gunners could protect the Mall’s water traffic. Bottles and cups became downtown buildings as the map spread across the table.

     “Once a shoreline gets established we can bring supplies to downtown. We can start building a new city.

     “What goods can you bring?” asked Magnusson.

     “Enough for a decent life. We do business with people up river, and it’s been a good arrangement so far. Some very productive farms up there. They grow everything you could need.”

     “What do they get in return?”

     The Georgetown mayor gave him a quizzical look. “Protection of course. And help in getting people resettled. And some civic improvements from our university…I’d love to go on, but it’s been a busy day.”

     That night the men slept in a room across the hall. The others were snoring in their bunks, but Commander Magnusson couldn’t keep his thoughts from racing into the future. He envisioned an esplanade along the river…people out strolling…soldiers on parade…a band playing…himself as a boy marching along to the never-ending music.

Standard