“I understand.” I could see that this was an amazing chance, and part of me wanted to jump on it right away, but I hesitated. “Can I ask you a question, Sir?”
“You’re the hero of the December 14 attack. How is it Chicago survived while most of the country dissolved into chaos overnight?”
“In all of your reading, you never read about that?”
“I’ve read about it, Sir, I just wanted to hear your story.”
“So has every historian for the past 40 years.” He chuckled and looked at his watch. “Well, I guess we’ve got time.”
“Illinois should have been the hardest hit. We produced more nuclear power at the time than any other state. I was an electrical engineer at Braidwood when the EMP hit. We were lucky to be so close to Will County generating station, and that we had more hardened transformers in our outgoing lines.
“You see, when so many transformers blew across the board, most power plants didn’t have anywhere to send electricity. When power output his zero, a reactor automatically goes into SCRAM mode. It tries to shut itself down.
“When a plant shuts down, the core is submerged, and cooling begins. A diesel generator kicks in, but cooling can take months. Most plants only have enough diesel for a week. The prevailing thought at the time was that power from other plants could be diverted to maintain the cooling process.
“But there were no other plants. There was no way to communicate. Braidwood had a hardened infrastructure as far as Will County, so we didn’t go into SCRAM immediately. But I knew it was only a matter of hours before we had filled up each other’s reserve batteries and would shut down.
“I had feared that all of our vehicles would be down, but amazingly, almost half of them still ran. I don’t know if it was shielding from the garage, from the body of the cars, or both, but our older vehicles were running. I sent teams of engineers to every factory, office, home they could find in the vicinity.
“Whatever you can turn on, turn on!” I said “We have to keep the system running.”
“Within a few hours, I could see where power was flowing, and where it wasn’t. I knew that factories nearby would likely be going into SCRAM by now, and that if we didn’t get power to them in the next few days, what I did at Braidwood wouldn’t matter. There were a few warehouses with transformers nearby, and I sent our biggest trucks to go and collect them.
“It’s amazing how helpful everybody was. My drivers showed the letter I had written, explaining how I wanted to avoid a nuclear meltdown, and companies like Prem handed over their entire inventory, and sent extra vehicles and technicians to help.
“My next step was getting status updates from nearby reactors. Dresden and LaSalle. We were running out of vehicles and drivers, so I told the drivers going out to tell anybody they saw what we were trying to do, and that they could help by coming to Braidwood.
“So many people came, I was amazed. 18 hours after the EMP, I was coordinating over a hundred drivers. We had sent people to the Quad cities reactor, Clinton Station, and Byron. Most reactors had gone into SCRAM, but we were able to get power to them, either by replacing some transformers between us and them, or by sending a crew to restart the Cornbelt reactors like we did for Clinton Station.
“Sounds amazing, Sir.” I could see the look on his face as he remembered. This was a man I could trust.
“We ran out of replacement transformers.” He continued on. “As long as we could use the still active reactors to power cooling at the others we would be ok, but we were running out of options.
“That’s when I looked back at the update reports for the power grid. Every week, as I had filed these reports, I had cursed under my breath, but now they were the Holy Grail. I knew at what tower every hardened transformer was! The routes between might be down, but the new transformers along those lines would still be good.
“I sent crews of engineers and volunteers into the countryside, pulling transformers down, and putting them in areas that would keep power plants running, or at least running safely in shutdown mode.
“By the time I was able to sleep, it had been 3 days. I passed out on the sofa in my office, and awoke a national hero. The President had been irradiated back east and would later die, but the Vice President woke me and congratulated me.
“I later learned that the east coast had almost entirely melted down. Messengers I had sent to various plants in the Midwest had been fairly successful.
“I was appointed Secretary of Energy, and have served my country ever since.”
“An amazing story, Sir.” I was truly impressed with President Rettmann. The story we learned in school had him single-handedly saving the Midwest. While his story hadn’t differed much, he gave credit to the people who helped. That made me think he could be trusted.
“I would be honored to work for you.” I reached my hand out and he shook it. It was a strong grasp.
“Thank you, Richard. I hope we do great things together.”
“So do I, Mr. President.”
“Now, this job isn’t going to pay as well as those cushy corporate jobs, but there’s no reason for you to finish the climb poor.”
“Mr. President?” Suddenly I was confused again.
He swiped the screen back to the main screen that showed how much the top ranked climbers were getting in sponsorship. There I was with $2394, while the average for the top ten was closer to $80,000.
“There’s no reason for you to settle for so little.”
“But, Sir, by the time I return to the hotel, sponsor day will be over.”
“Well, Richard, we can’t ‘officially’ help you here, but we can compensate you for your time.” He pulled out an iPhone the size of a notebook. “While you were here with us, you probably would have gone to these shops.” He showed me a list of services that would have knocked me over had I not been sitting.
“Your wife should have the best medical care possible for your child, right?”
“That starts now.” He flicked through a few more entries. “Your mother is on arthritis medication. That’s been costing you a fifth of your salary each month.” He looked at me. “Are you willing to say in a commercial, ‘The arthritis that plagues my mother’s hands won’t bother me on the climb, because I take Hardroxyn.’, because if you are, she can get free medication for life.”
“But I’m not taking Hardroxyn, Sir.”
“Richard…Nobody cares. And on the off chance that you don’t make the top, at least your mother’s medication is taken care of.”
We looked at few more offers, and he helped me get a lot of good things for Mom and Jen. Then it was time for me to head back to the hotel.
“Thank you very much, Mr. President.”
“Thank you, Richard. Remember that everything said here is confidential.” He looked up. “And Richard…”
“Don’t trust anybody. Until the climb is over, don’t even talk about this with your family.”
The same security guard who had brought me from the hotel escorted me back to the limousine and returned me to the hotel. A much better Guttenberg was waiting for me in the lobby.
“Mr. Haversham, so good to see you back.” His eyes dropped to the floor. “As for this morning…”
“Ah, Yes. Thank you, Jeremy, for running those errands for me. I know it’s not the norm.” One look, and I could see that he agreed we never had to speak of last night again.
“And your meeting? How did it go?”
“Job offer.” I could tell he knew there was more, but there was nothing more I could say. “If I make it to the top.”
“Well, I’ve taken the liberty of setting up your phone, and programming your mother’s number into it.” He fumbled through a series of notes. “Jennifer’s new doctor is meeting with her as we speak, and you have a 7pm appointment with Hardroxyn.”
“Very good. What time is it now?”
“6:15, Mr. Haversham.” He was being so polite. Apparently my covering for him had opened up a whole new level of humanity that I hadn’t thought Guttenberg had.
“Is there time to call my mother?”
“As, I understand it, Mr. Haversham, they are waiting.” He handed me my phone and walked with me to the elevator, showing me how to make the call as we went.
I sat on the bed and pressed the phone button and then the favorites button as Guttenberg had instructed. There was only one line, and it read MOM. I touched the word mom and held the phone to my face.
“Hello, Richard? Is that you?”
“It’s me, Mom. Are you doing ok?”
“We’re ok. We miss you.”
“I miss you too, Mom. I see you got the phone.”
“Honey, we got so much more than that. There’s a specialist with Jennifer right now, and I got a case of steaks, and two months of my meds. Not to mention these gift packages.”
“Gift packages?” I didn’t know anything about this.
“They’re having an Army specialist examine all of them, just in case, but they’ve all been good gifts so far. Ms. Ross said that it was normal when you were a high profile climber.” Sherri had been to my mother’s house!
“Ms. Ross was there?”
“She showed up and was doing an interest piece on you. Such a lovely lady. Anyway, thank god she was here, because I didn’t have the first clue how to use this phone.”
The general poured two cups of coffee and placed one on the table in front of me. Rather than sitting at the head of the table, where he had been when I entered, he sat directly across from me.
“You’ve had a busy day.” He smiled and took a sip of his coffee.
“Yes sir, it has been eventful.” I didn’t know if he was aware of my conversation with the President, but he must know that we’d met. Suddenly I was very afraid.
“So did you take the job?” I must have gone as white as a sheet, because he laughed. “There’s nothing to worry about, Richard. I know all about the job offer. The president told me this morning he was thinking about hiring you. Judging by your reaction, an offer was obviously made. Did you take it?”
I sat there, dumfounded. I didn’t know whether he was telling the truth or not, but even if he hadn’t known about the job offer before, my expression had given it away.
“Good for you.” He smiled again. I could sense something more coming, and it didn’t take long. “I’d be careful though.”
“Careful, Sir?” I hated the fact that I was answering in two word sentences, like I had the vocabulary of a toddler, but I didn’t know what I could say. President Rettman told me not to trust anyone.
“The job he pitched to you will never happen.” The general sat back in his chair. He was the picture of calm and congenial. I didn’t know if that scared me because I sensed something beneath the surface, or if I was just being paranoid after the crazy events of the past few days. “His heart’s in the right place, but building up more cities and suburbs would be a mistake.”
“But the new jobs, the improved infrastructure, these could help improve the economy.” I regurgitated the principles that President Rettman had told me only hours before.
“In theory, maybe. In practice, no. Rettman has some crazy idea that he’s going to restore America back to the old system. But do you know why that won’t work?”
I shook my head.
“Because it never worked.” He breathed a deep exasperated sigh. “You weren’t alive in the old America that everybody seems to remember with disgusting nostalgia. You didn’t see what it had turned us into.”
“Were they worse off than they are now?” I wasn’t sure what point he was trying to make, but I couldn’t imagine it being worse than the system we had now.
“No. They were better off, materially” He conceded, “But they were worse people. Greedy, selfish, and lazy.”
“And how is that any different than now? The people in the city-
“Are greedy, selfish, and lazy, yes. But not like before. There were no checks or balances before. The rich got so rich that they figured out how to not pay their workers or their taxes. The ‘average’ people all wanted to live like the rich, and were soon not only living beyond their means, but they were less willing to work for what they had. We became a country of sloth.”
I didn’t trust the general, but right now what he was telling me about the time before sounded a lot like what mom had described to me. I couldn’t call him a liar without disbelieving her.
“Even if the attack had never happened, we were headed for doom. America was digging its own grave with a silver spoon, and President Rettman would take us back to that system rather than forward to a better one.” He leaned forward. “Let me ask you something, Richard. Was life easy on the farm?”
“Did you have a lot of people in your town who couldn’t find work?”
“No sir, we didn’t have enough hands most of the time.”
“So when the country suddenly offers jobs to people, across Wisconsin for example, where they could make a lot more money than they are now, and could possibly live in a city afterward, do you think many people would go?”
“I think almost anybody would go.” While I couldn’t speak for everybody, I know that I would have jumped at such an offer.
“Then tell me,” he asked, “Who would work the farms?”
I stood there, speechless.
“And with all of these workers, now making more money, now wanting to live better and eat better, how will you increase the food supply to support them with such a diminished labor force?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. At this point, I didn’t think I could trust either the general or the president. Both made sense, but both made the other sound like a maniac.
“You’re a smart guy, Richard. And the people like you. You have a chance here. But Rettman grows tired of his new projects pretty quickly. And when he figures out this new one won’t work, he won’t have any use for you anymore. So keep your head down, do what’s best for the country, don’t make any big waves, and maybe you won’t get tossed to the curb when that happens.
“Do we understand each other?”