This is the tenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator catches a train for the agricultural hinterlands of the Lakeland Republic, and learns some of the reasons why the Republic is so hard to invade.
The phone rang at eight a.m. sharp the next morning. I was in the bathroom, trying to get my electric shaver to give me a shave half as good as the one I got at the barbershop, and failing; I turned the thing off, put it down, and got to the phone on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Mr. Carr? Melanie Berger. We’ve got everything lined up for your trip today. Can you be at the train station by nine o’clock?”
“Sure thing,” I said.
“Good. Your tickets will be waiting for you, and Colonel Tom Pappas will meet you there. You can’t miss him; look for a wheelchair and a handlebar mustache.”
The wheelchair didn’t sound too promising—I had no idea what kind of accommodations counties in the Lakeland Republic’s lower tiers made for people with disabilities—but I figured Meeker’s people knew what they were doing. “I’ll do that.”
“You’ll be back Saturday evening,” Berger said then. “The president would like to see you again Monday afternoon, if you’re free.”
“I’ll put it on the schedule,” I assured her; we said the usual, and I hung up.
It took me only a few minutes to pack for the trip, and then it was out the door, down the stairs, and through the lobby to the street to wave down a taxi. As I got out onto the sidewalk, a kid with a bag of rolled newspapers hanging from one shoulder turned toward me expectantly and said, “Morning Blade? ‘Nother satellite got hit.”
That sounded worth the price of a paper; I handed over a bill and a couple of coins, got the paper in return, thanked the kid, and went to the street’s edge. A couple of minutes later I was sitting in a two-wheel cab headed for the train station, listening to the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves ahead and reading the top story on the newspaper’s front page.
The kid who’d sold me the paper hadn’t been exaggerating. A chunk of the Progresso IV satellite that got taken out by space junk a week before had plowed into a big Russian telecommunications satellite during the night, spraying fragments at twenty thousand miles an hour across any number of midrange orbits. Nothing else had been hit yet, but the odds of a full-blown Kessler syndrome had just gone up by a factor I didn’t want to think about.
Aside from the fact itself, only one thing caught my attention in the article: a comment from a professor of astronomy at the University of Toledo, mentioning that his department was calculating the orbits of as many fragments as they’d been able to track. I didn’t know a lot about astronomy, but I’d learned just enough that the thought of trying to work out an orbit using pen and paper made my head hurt. I wondered if they’d scraped together the money to buy a bootleg computer from a Chicago smuggling ring or something like that.
I’d just about finished the first section of the paper when the taxi pulled up to the sidewalk in front of the train station. I paid the cabbie, stuffed the newspaper into my coat pocket, and headed inside. The big clock above the ticket counters said eight-thirty; there wasn’t much of a line, so by eight-forty I had my round trip ticket in an inner pocket and was heading through the doors marked Platform Four.
I’d just about gotten my bearings when I spotted a burly man in a wheelchair halfway down the platform. He turned around and saw me a moment later, made a little casual half-salute with one hand, and wheeled over to meet me. Berger hadn’t been kidding about the handlebar mustache; it was big, black, and curled at the tips. That and bushy eyebrows made up for the lack of a single visible hair anywhere else on his head. He was wearing the first hip-length jacket I’d seen anywhere in the Lakeland Republic, over an olive-drab military uniform.
“Peter Carr?” he said. “I’m Tom Pappas. Call me Tom; everyone else does.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand. The guy had hands the size of hams and a grip that would put a gorilla to shame.
“Melanie tells me you rattled the boss good and proper yesterday,” he said with a chuckle. “You probably know we’ve been getting a lot of semi-official visitors from outside governments since the borders opened. Of course they all want to know about our military. Care to guess how many of them asked about that right up front, to the President’s face?”
“I can’t be the only one,” I protested.
“Not quite. Ever met T. Bayard Batchley?”
I burst out laughing. “Yes, I’ve met him. Don’t tell me he’s the only other.”
“Got it in one. Of course he blustered about it in the grand Texan style, and more or less implied that the entire army of the Republic of Texas was drooling over the prospect of invading us.”
I shook my head, still laughing. “I bet. I was on a trade mission to Austin a while back, and we got a Batchley lecture to the effect that everyone in Philadelphia was going to starve to death if they didn’t get shipments of Texas beef that week.”
“Sounds about right.”
The train came up to the platform just then, and the roar of the locomotive erased any possibility of further conversation for the moment. The conductor took our tickets and waved us toward one of the cars. I wondered how Pappas was going to climb the foot or so from the platform to the door, but about the time I’d finished formulating the thought, one of the car attendants popped out, grabbed a handle I hadn’t noticed under the step, and slid out a steel ramp. Pappas rolled up into the car, the attendant pushed the ramp back into its place, they said a few words to each other, and then Pappas wheeled his way over to a place at the back of the car, flipped one of the two seats up, and got a couple of tiedown straps fastened onto his chair by the time I’d followed him.
I took the seat next to him. “Do they have this sort of thing in all the trains here?”
“Wheelchair spots? You bet. We had a lot of disabled vets after the Second Civil War, of course, and got a bunch more in ‘49. That’s how I ended up in this thing—got stupid during the siege of Paducah, and took some shrapnel down low in my back.”
The train filled up around us. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Oh, it doesn’t slow me down that much. The only complaint I’ve got is that I’m stuck in a desk job in Toledo now, instead of out there in the field.” He shook his head. “How much did they tell you about our military?”
“Here, or back home?”
“Here, nothing. Back home—” I considered the briefings I’d been given, edited out the classified parts. “They’re pretty much baffled. We know you’ve got universal military service on the Swiss model, but no modern military tech at all—plenty of light infantry and field artillery, but no armor, no drones, no air force worth mentioning, and a glorified coast guard on the Great Lakes.”
He nodded as the train lurched into motion. “That’s about right. And you’re wondering how we can get away with that.”
“It’s a concern,” I said. “As I told President Meeker, we don’t want a failed state or a war zone on our western border.”
Pappas laughed, as though I’d made a joke. “I bet. What if I told you that we’re less likely to end up that way than any other country on this continent?”
I gave him a wry look. “You’d have to to some very fast talking to convince me of that. With that kind of armament, I don’t see how you could expect to defeat a country with a modern military.”
“We don’t have to defeat them,” he said at once. “All we have to do is bankrupt them.”
I stared at him.
“War’s not cheap,” he went on. “Modern high-tech warfare, square and cube that. Half the reason the old United States collapsed was the amount of money it poured into trying to stay ahead of everybody else’s military technology. I’m not going to ask you how much the Atlantic Republic has to pay each year for drones, robot tanks, helicopter gunships, cruise missiles, and the information systems you need to run all of it; you know as well as I do that it’s a big chunk of the national budget, and I’d be willing to make a bet that you have to skimp on the rest of your military budget to make up for it—meaning that your ordinary grunts don’t have the training or the morale they might have.”
I didn’t answer. Outside the window, commercial buildings gave way to a residential neighborhood dotted with gardens and parks.
“So you’ve got a lot of money sunk in military hardware. Let’s say you guys decided to invade us.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I told him.
“Just for example.” He waved the objection away with one massive hand. “You send in your drones and robot tanks and helicopter gunships, seize Toledo and wherever else your general staff thinks is strategic enough to merit it, and dump a bunch of infantry to hold onto those places. You’ve won, right? Except that that’s when the fun begins.
“All that light infantry and field artillery you mentioned—it’s still there, distributed all over the country, and it’s not dependent on any kind of central command. It’s got first-rate training, and most of the training is oriented to one thing and one thing only: insurgent operations. So thirty minutes after your drones cross the border, you’re dealing with a full-on, heavily armed insurgency with prepared positions and ample firepower, in every single county of the Lakeland Republic. However long you want to hold on, we can hold on longer, and every day of it costs you a lot more than it costs us. Oh, and a lot of the training our troops get focuses on taking out your high-tech assets with inexpensive munitions. So it’s the same kind of black hole the old United States kept getting itself into—no way to win, and the bills just keep piling up until you go home.”
“I’m a little surprised you’re telling me all this,” I said after a moment.
“Don’t be. We want people outside to know exactly what they’re up against if they invade.” He gestured out the window. “Check that out.”
We were still in the residential part of Toledo, the same patchwork of houses, gardens, and little business districts I’d seen on the way from Pittsburgh, but something new cut across the landscape: a canal. It didn’t have water in it yet, and so I could see that the sides were lined with big slabs of concrete that must have been salvaged from a prewar freeway.
“We’re putting those in everywhere that the landscape permits,” Pappas said. “Partly that’s economic—canals are cheaper to run than any other transport—but it’s also military. You want to try to cross one of those in a tank, be my guest. There’s a lot of that sort of thing. Every county is its own military unit and builds bunkers, prepared positions, tank traps, you name it. Since we’re not interested in invading anybody else, we can put a lot of resources into that.”
I decided to take a risk. “If you’re not interested in invading anybody else, why did your people put so much work into getting detailed topo maps of our territory back before the border opened?”
The bushy eyebrows went up. “You know about that.”
I nodded. “We got lucky.”
“Gotcha,” Pappas said. “Did you hear much about the other side of our dust-up with the Confederacy in ‘49?” I motioned for him to go on, and he grinned. “We sent teams across the border into their territory to mess with their infrastructure. Bridges, power lines, levees, you name it—anything that would raise the price tag. We even got a couple of teams onto Brazilian territory to do the same thing; we would have done more of that if the war hadn’t ended when it did.”
“So it’s all about economics,” I said.
“Of course. You know how Clausewitz said that war’s a continuation of politics by other means? He got that half right. It’s also a continuation of economics—and the last guy standing is the one who can afford to keep fighting longest.”
I nodded. Outside the window, the first of the farms and fields were coming into view, brown with stubble or green with cover crops for overwintering.
“All across this country,” Pappas said then, “we’ve got young men and women doing their two year stints in the army, and showing up for two weeks a year afterwards as long as they can still shoulder a gun—and there’s a good reason for that. This country got the short end of the stick for decades back before the Second Civil War, then got the crap pounded out of it during the fighting, and then—well, I could go on. We found out the hard way what happens when you let some jerk in a fancy white house a thousand miles away decide for you how you’re going to run your life. That’s why President Meeker’s not much more than a referee to ride herd on the parties in the legislature; that’s why each county makes so many of its own decisions by vote—and it’s why all the people you’re going to see tomorrow are putting a nice fall weekend into shooting at drones.”
“Is that what’s on the schedule for tomorrow?”