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The Vortex

by Gary Clifton

The whine of the incoming bullet reverberated around the walls with a shattering echo. Palacek ducked instinctively. “That clown is finding some range,” he muttered. The high-powered rifle round had passed about a foot over his head, exploding against a concrete pillar behind him. He eased his chair slightly farther behind his makeshift barricade.

Palacek had always been a poster boy for cynicism. Now, cynicism had been swallowed whole by fatalistic realization: hope had been consumed by terror. Behind his heavily fortified desk on the twelfth floor, he cleaned his pistols, staring vacantly out a small peephole at the hot sky to the north. He had initially been issued an AR15, but he’d run out of cartridges. It lay useless on the floor beneath the desk.

The swirling winds outside only pushed in more sweltering heat. The odor of clogged plumbing and human waste inundated the squad room. He personally smelled like a goat, but he no longer noticed. Big and still fit at forty, his strength was yet failing rapidly.

The world was dying. Society had imploded. Initially wounded by rot, self-indulgence, government incompetence, greed, and a concoction of a dozen other poisoned intangibles, society was more than well-softened for extinction. When the final test came, society was clearly flunking.

Virus...something called Corona Virus had initially peeked into a corner of the evening news as another disease devastating an insignificant, far-away corner of the world in China. “Leaders” were too busy tearing at each other’s political hair to notice.

When a few reports of victims within the U.S. appeared, leaders closed U.S. ports of entry to Chinese travelers. As Armageddon advanced, isolation was urged, then ordered. But the vast borders of the U.S. were far too numerous and impossibly porous to block the passage of an invisible enemy. Not surprisingly, government preparation at all levels was woefully inadequate.

The situation was exacerbated when some in charge and many in the media insisted the virus was a passing nuisance, no more serious than the common cold. “Go about your lives as normal,” parroted some. As the wave exploded, federal, state, and local politicians held fast to the “it ain’t our fault” syndrome. Quickly, blind panic eroded any chance for unity. And the pandemic marched on.

Palacek had always considered foreign military invasion or nuclear attack as the greatest threat. Instead, internal decay and inept, petty politicians at war with themselves, had felled the giant with the help of a highly contagious disease.

But the disease proved only to be the catalyst. Science had soon learned the disease could be treated: not eradicated but controlled. Damage from the ailment had been horrendous, but an army of doctors and technicians had prevailed.

However, the medical effort had not evolved sufficiently to head off the human factor. The tower had tipped too far to be set upright again.

As the silent killer slithered across the land, warring factions had together battled the virus, but ignored the economic implications. Unemployment, economic stagnation, loss of productivity had crippled the American system beyond repair. The virus was had been stifled, but so had the economy. The dollar, always only worth a dollar because the U.S. Treasury said so, slid, then became only paper. The worldwide depression that followed was beyond description.

Europe had been overrun with millions of third-world refugees, the economies had collapsed like dominoes in the wind, and religious wars had followed, killing millions. Within the spiral, the U.S. evaporated like a hot west-Texas wind.

Although illegal immigration had already seen years of impact in existing U.S. internal policies, the conflict among Americans had been political, neither religious nor impacted by immigration. The trend had exploded wherein half of the nation hated those who claimed the opposing party more than they feared nuclear-armed, traditional enemy nations.

Intel had filtered in that other refugees from the howling mobs who had hidden a few firearms, had forted up around the city and the nation, but such stories were only rumor. Palacek heard constant, distant sporadic gunfire, mostly at night. Real contact was impossible.

Somebody was shooting somebody out there, but the players stayed out of sight, except the attackers who rushed the door down at street level below him night and day.

They’d captured a wounded intruder the night before. As the man died he’d babbled about cannibalism. Nobody really knew. Had the virus metastasized to a further, more unspeakable result or were people resorting to a long past primitive state? Such wild tales were rampant. Rumor or fact? Perhaps, Palacek had quipped, they could boil and eat hundred-dollar bills.

Could a side effect of the debilitating ailment be what was driving the hordes to be slaughtered at the lobby barricade, especially at night? What the hell else could cause then to seek something — anything — inside a building that housed only terrified, hopeless refugees.? Refugees from what, exactly? His hideout had no encyclopedia.

Most windows in downtown Dallas as high as fifteen or sixteen stories had been broken or shot out. Palacek couldn’t understand why the few survivors who had guns would waste ammunition shooting at windows.

He recalled the “old” days when time allowed, they’d walk across to the cool air conditioning of the Casino Bar for a beer about this time of day. Bowls of peanuts sat on the bar. He doubted peanuts still existed. Or had all that only been a hallucination?

He’d slid a desk into a corner of the room, then manhandled another desk atop the first. Government manuals and other bureaucrat publications had finally found a use. A wall of bound regulations stuffed in and around the stacked desks served as a relatively bulletproof barrier.

It had just nearly failed by a careful shot from a distant assassin.

A sniper had spent most of the day on the roof of the old burned-out hotel, a block north, taking pot shots at anything that moved. He’d managed to blow the heads off two kids and a secretary in squad four. Her name had been Clarice, from Valparaiso, Indiana. Good God, why remember that speck of pointless trivia in the midst of deadly carnage?

Funny, the fool sniper hadn’t learned when an hour earlier, one of the agents, using an AR15 with no scope, blew a chunk out of the parapet of the burned building, inches from the assassin’s head. The sniper showed himself again quickly, sending the bullet that nearly took off Palacek’s head.

The agent remained at his post, the AR15 balanced on the toe of his shoe, his feet plopped atop a battered, government gray desk. To get his chance at Palacek or any target of murderous opportunity, the shooter foolishly appeared at the same spot and showed a little too much forehead. The agent, down to a handful of .223 ammunition, didn’t miss a second time. Palacek kept his book fortress intact anyway. There would be another sniper. As the early evening sun tilted to the west, the noise of human unrest and misery on the street below had begun the normal early evening decline. In an hour or so, those streets would come alive again with fury.

The glow of a hundred fires, large and small would soon illuminate vivid targets of those trying to claw over the barricade downstairs. The odor of the dead in and outside the doors permeated the building like poison gas. Why in Heaven’s name did the stink alone not deter the constant influx of rioters? Early in the pandemic, facemasks had been promised. God, he wished he had one now.

Rioting and civil disorder had escalated into what was now called “disaster strata.” The mobs holding the streets had evolved into two factions. The fools who claimed the daylight knew that, as darkness fell, the night people would emerge. Raping and pillaging in broad daylight was only foreplay to the after-dark bunch. The day-mobs knew when to abandon their ground, hence the heavy increase in activity at dusk. He wondered where the day crowd went.

The government had tweaked the situation, first with so-called stimulus packages, then repeatedly devaluing the dollar by issuing paper script. Q.E. was the faux name: quantitative easing. When the national debt whizzed past forty trillion, politicians simply declared the debt was incidental — that the debt was in the form of bonds owned by citizens. The people owed themselves. What claptrap!

When a bundle of dollars wasn’t worth the bucket that carried it, stark panic, anger, and incoherence spread with level-three tornado speed. Now hunger was the most powerful — in fact the only — motivator.

The truly rich had fled the country to claim their stashes in foreign banks. But now many of those countries had failed. The definition of “rich” now mutated to anyone with a portion of bread. The mobs became bolder, more numerous. Palacek hunkered in the heat, contemplating idly how large a stack of a trillion dollars might make.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, which relied on a series of lakes for water, had seen the massive influx of refugees cause the water supply to fail. The street mobs grew.

Stumbling, the government — the ones who had not yet fled the country — grasped for miracles. Hardened criminals were released from prison simultaneously with a nation-wide freeze on the purchase of firearms. Only those who would never have been a problem heeded such shortsightedness.

People rioted, smashing into gun stores with relative impunity, foolishly hoping for self-protection. But the murder crowd had retained enough firepower to generate the current mayhem on the street below. So-called honest citizens had either joined or were part of the piles of bodies Palacek could see when he chanced a look from his twelfth-floor perch.

The use of firearms had been restricted to “exigent circumstances.” As it turned out, exigent initially meant only a few bureaucrats who were quickly inundated by a simmering ocean of mobs of those who had managed to hold onto their firearms despite the law. Rule by frenzy overran and then co-opted the police and military, and some of them were now active in the mobs outside.

A handful of agents had been rounded up and pressed into service as shock troops for defense. Palacek, like a dangling kite, had gotten caught on the end of the string. Now they were trapped in a small part of a single building.

For the past two weeks, Palacek had survived in Fortress Cabell, a distortion of the original name of the Federal building in downtown Dallas. Cabell was chosen because of the multi-thousand-gallon water tank on the roof. Originally a firefighting tool, it was now a morass of stale drinking water. Mobs had long since destroyed the power grids.

Electricity was a distant memory, but the people caught in the building had plenty of water. Or was it battery acid? Water was probably what the piles of dead in the downstairs entryway were after.

The building now housed, in addition to a dwindling handful of armed agents, over two thousand refugee civilians — hungry, terrified, and unarmed. Those people were forbidden access to the twelfth floor. Three had been shot and killed trying to break in the day before. Odd contradiction, Palacek thought — execute a few to starve many.

He studied the two Sig Sauer pistols and the mound of ammunition boxes on his desk behind the book-fort. One weapon had belonged to his partner, Caroline Ortega.

Incredibly, his superiors had laid in millions of rounds of .40 caliber pistol ammunition just as the bottom fell out. Reserve firepower they called it, one of the few things they had guessed correctly in years. He wished to high hell they’d also stockpiled AR15 rifle ammo.

When his shift would begin, in an hour or so, he’d lock part of the .40 caliber pistol ammo stash in a desk drawer which under normal conditions, could be easily opened as soon as he walked way. But a guard had been assigned lately to shoot anyone trying to steal food or ammunition.

Ironic, with America in final descent, federal officers fought off a distraught society with foreign-made pistols. “Fought off” meant killed. He’d killed a hundred rioters in the past week, maybe more. He only wished he knew why.

He measured his abundance of ammunition against the six or seven MRI’s in the corner of his desk drawer. The conclusion was unavoidable: he’d starve before the ammo ran out. Or perhaps the end would come when the others — terrified, starving refugees below him in the building — hungry and frightened, overcame the twelfth-floor guard. That’s only if he survived another night or two on the barricade on the street level. Cynicism? No, only arithmetic. Some of the agents holed up on the twelfth floor had family with them. They were allowed on the twelfth floor. He’d already given over half his MRI’s to hungry, terrified children. They grabbed them up with the enthusiasm a Happy Meal had generated a few months before. Agents with families worked the barricades only during the daylight hours. Palacek had no family.

Caroline Ortega, his longtime partner, had been killed two nights before. One of the mob who owned the night, probably armed with an old night-scope had blown off her head when she was taking her turn at the lobby barricade. She had been so young, so beautiful, so full of hope.

Rumors drifted in that Congress had been overrun and some members butchered. Some lost their stolen horde before they had a chance to run for it on government aircraft. The last dispatch Palacek had ever seen from Washington ordered agents to “uphold the law, no matter the consequences.” Hence, upholding the law meant shooting people he neither knew nor understood in the lobby doorways.

“Palacek, attention!” barked a male soprano voice behind him. He recognized the voice as that of H. Brooks Chadsey, a 24-year-old bureaucrat sent out by Washington two weeks earlier to take control of the deteriorating situation in Dallas. Chadsey had been inserted via helicopter on the roof of Fortress Cabell. Palacek was curious why the damned fool hadn’t fled to Canada instead. The aircraft probably couldn’t carry that much fuel, he supposed. And for all he knew, Canada had collapsed, too.

Palacek slowly gained his feet. He’d been hobbled for several days by a glancing bullet he taken just above the left knee, now festering with infection. Ortega had warned him, as she dug out the bullet with a letter opener, that he might lose the leg, but now she was history, along with much of everything else.

“Yes?” he turned to face the slender supervisor. “Get your ass down to the barricades. Relieve some of the day people. With that bum leg, it’ll take you a half hour to get down there.”

Palacek pondered the long descent. They’d chained all stairwell doors, heavily guarded at each level, to allow him and others to walk up or down twelve floors. He stuffed both pistols in his belt and filled his pockets with bullets, and spare ammo magazines. Could he make it back up in the morning?

Palacek could hear, as darkness began to envelop the vacant buildings, the usual increase of scattered gunshots and the rising murmur of hysterical voices. The night gangs had fully formed. The noise would soon be deafening. If only a few had stood up to the H. Brooks Chadseys of the world back then. He studied the slender little man strutting away from him. God, where are you? Can you not see this?

Chadsey angled toward his little office; no night on the barricade for management. Palacek jacked a round into the chamber of one of his Sigs. He centered the sights on the back of Chadsey’s head. “Hey, Brooksie, did I ever tell you how much you suck? Is it true you mother mated with a lowland gorilla?”

Chadsey whirled. Palacek had been killing men in numbers for two weeks, probably better men than this fool. Man, how his aim had sharpened.

The explosion of the Sig blended into the din edging in through the glassless windows. Chadsey’s head evaporated like a bursting melon. The small group of dirty, exhausted agents slumped in chairs or dozing on the floor around the squad room struggled to their feet and applauded.

Reopening his desk drawer, he tossed his remaining MRE’s toward the hollow-eyed children watching. Unfazed by the violent death they’d just witnessed, they snatched up the packages like hungry rodents. He limped toward the stairwell. The others could pry open his ammo drawer if he didn’t come back in the morning.

He stepped out into the stairwell. There wasn’t a hell of a lot else he could do.

Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton

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