Beneath the Wheel
By Claire Wolfe
In Mordor-on-the-Potomac, ponderous wheels began to grind. At first they churned as slowly as the monster gears controlling the gates of Middle-Earth’s most hellish domain. But instead of Sauron’s reeks and seeps, these wheels churned through the suffocating tar of bureaucracy.
But however slowly they moved, they rolled toward Hardyville, discovered at last.
The Big Man knew there was no way he could send employees of A Nameless Federal Agency (ANFA) to investigate this Hardyville berg on his agency food-chain authority. No, he dare not tip his hand. He had to keep knowledge of these 3600 unplucked square miles as close to his shirt as a handful of aces. Besides, even if he disguised the trip as a fact-finding mission about the condition of Asian-American women in the gaming industry or the growth of wheat-worm (was there such a thing as “wheat-worm”?) at latitudes north of Aurora, Colorado, getting budget approval would take forever. So no, this was not going to be an official mission.
With future returns in view, The Big Man put up his own money (though he did manage to get reimbursed for a thousand dollars of it as per diem for attending a non-existent multi-agency conference on the demographics of the grandchildren of Norwegian immigrants in Bemidji, Minnesota). He sent his brother-in-law, his wife (who was the Big Man’s darling baby sister), and their brood of tax deductions on a paid vacation in the West.
Brother-in-Law was no slouch. He might not be able to hold a job for more than a month. But if there were drugs or any other sort of trouble to be found in this Hardyville place, or anywhere in that giant statistical hole in the country (that hole that was surely filled with things crying out to be regulated, taxed, controlled and banned), Bro-in-Law would find them — and be right in the middle of them.
The investment paid off.
On the vast plain of The Big Man’s desk now lay an empty brown paper sack. It had a little window for viewing the (former) contents. The aroma of cannabis still wafted from its little paper pores. And for the second time The Big Man looked upon his desk and encountered the name, Hardyville.
He should have considered — he really should have — that the kind of place where people are comfortable with putting their logo and location on a half-pound sack of weed is going to be … well, a little unusual to deal with. But if he gave any thought to that at all, he merely snorted, “What a pack of idiots.”
“Idiots” was perhaps true of the naive product distributors in question. But that begs the question. The Big Man did not understand that people in Hardyville, and by tradition its 3600 square-mile surroundings, think just a hair of a tad differently than most of the folks who reside within the governmental tumor metastasizing through the nation around them. And that different thinking is not so much a matter of degree, but of kind.
On the other hand … Hardyville was changing. So maybe The Big Man was right to be cavalier.
Regardless, the wheels of power now began to break loose and turn somewhat faster. The Big Man turned to his ambitious acquaintance, high atop the Drug Enforcement Administration. At a meeting in the DEA man’s office, he showed him the bag — but did not as yet reveal any of his closely-held secrets about Hardyville’s location and importance. He explained broadly what his chemically loquacious in-law had discovered — about an isolated but obviously profitable drug-growing commune in the west, a little town miles away just waking out of a long economic snooze. A whole lot of nothing.
“The place has no government to speak of,” he explained to his DEA counterpart (thinking, Hm. Suppose he might someday be a possibility to share my ticket as VP?) “All they’ve got is a sheriff. Couple of deputies. But their SWAT team was disbanded after some sort of incompetence. They don’t even have a mayor or a county manager. The drug dealers are left-wing anti-corporate types — peace, love, and no guns — and the townies can’t stand them. It’s a pushover. And my confidential informant …” (He liked that term, having heard it on cop shows.) ” … tells me we could be talking another ‘world’s biggest-ever pot bust.'”
The DEA man scrutinized the “confidential informant” sitting across the desk. The man, an acquaintance from dozens of blindingly dull think-tank evenings, might be from some damn-near nameless nothing of an agency. But it was an agency that controlled a lot of data. And the guy was smart. Very smart. Hm, the DEA man thought, Might someday be a possible VP on my ticket.
“Bust of the week,” he shrugged, waving negligently toward the dozens of news photos on his walls of “biggest-ever” busts of the last 30 years. “Useful. But old news. How much do you think there is in asset forfeiture?”
No, thought The Big Man, scrutinizing Mr. DEA anew. Too ambitious. Too dangerous. Assistant secretary of Agriculture. At most.
He began to dole out snippets of information, making sure to share enough to be useful but hold back plenty for the future. Without a word being uttered on the topic, he also made sure he guaranteed himself both public anonymity and plenty of buzz within the DEA about being some unspecified sort of good and useful friend to the Drug War. A political ally to be counted on.
* * *
And once again, the wheels, freed of their burrs and their clogs of chaff, began to speed their turning. Now they spun at the velocity and with the weight of … oh, let’s say a tank’s tread.
From many states and from a variety of lesser agencies, the task force (although darned near big enough to be an invasion force) coalesced. From several directions, it prepared to converge on Hardy County. And on the Emma Goldman Arts Co-op and Biodiverse Living Center.
Grim-faced men arrived at airports in Billings and Salt Lake City, fresh from eastern headquarters. They supervised the offloading of crates of gear. From National Guard armories in Casper and Cheyenne came armored personnel carriers and covered trucks bringing portable security barriers, tents, and communications gear.
On the roads, the HumVees rolled. Helicopters took to the skies to move to bases closer to the target.
Dynamic entry teams adjusted new HellStorm goggles and pondered their selection of riot shields and body armor. Recon teams and snipers packed their Ghillie suits. Men and women of the DEA, the Bureau of Land Management, and yes, even the National Park Service cleaned their MP5 machine guns and zeroed their “deadly, long-range bolt-action sniper rifles” (which were, in this instance, actually deadly, long-range bolt-action sniper rifles).
Around dusk one silent April evening, the first covert-action teams violated the borders of Hardy County, high up in the unpopulated mountains, unobserved. Down toward the red-rock valley they rolled in a convoy of anonymous, and innocuous-looking Jeeps and ORVs, turning off road before reaching The Mysterious Driveway of the commune. Looking for all the world like innocent varmint hunters or plinkers (their serious gear stowed away in lockers in the backs of the vehicles), they deployed in a vast irregular circle for “Operation Firestorm” and began securing a perimeter on the hilltops around the far reaches of the Emma Goldman Arts Co-op and Biodiverse Living Center.
Under cover of darkness, the more identifiable components of the operation began to move into place. By midnight, the rest of the teams and their support personnel were in place, blocking the long driveway that gave the only conventional vehicle access to the cannabis grow. The sleeping communards, their children, and even their dogs, had no idea of the powers that were massing against them, down near the highway.
Everything was in readiness before 1:00 a.m. — Zero Hour. The teams merely awaited the signal that was to come from command headquarters. Command HQ, in turn, awaited a signal from Washington.
The media were in place, too. Blow-dried throngs shivered in the spring cold and cast around in vain for an all-night latte stand, finding only tumbleweed and spiky greasewood bushes. They cracked lame jokes about the 30 mile-per-hour winds whipping sand across the sagebrush. (“No wonder nobody lives out here; they’ve all blown away.”) But secretly many worried that the winds would ruin their polished appearance and therefore their chances for advancement. While ambitious others speculated that the gale might help them appear more adventurous and therefore earn them plum assignments in future wars and picturesque disasters. Most didn’t even know why they were there. But when the DEA hints “biggest ever” … reporters follow, even if that means following into the biggest of Earth’s many stinking armpits.
They all waited, satellite trucks side-by-side with armored personnel carriers.
They waited a few hundred yards from the highway on which, at that hour, a lone car or a lonesome semi-truck passed infrequently. Invisible in the dark, the heavily armored teams and the heavily starched journalists shivered and joked, and awaited word to launch the assault on the compound.
But they were not quite as invisible as they intended.
* * *
Higher up, where the highway wound out of the cover of the pines and plunged into country marked by dark clumps of juniper and silvery clumps of sage, one of those lone cars, a veggie-diesel special, running somewhere close to empty, rounded a rock outcrop and began coasting downhill. Its road-weary driver didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But suddenly one of the passengers in the back cried out:
“Whoa! Stop, man! Go back. Go back!”
The driver glanced toward the back seat, annoyed. Sleepy fellow passengers looked groggily up. They all glared at the speaker, a plump young man with a feeble fuzz of beard and a tee shirt that read “Official Anti-Globalist Slogan.”
“What do you mean, go back?” the driver demanded. We don’t have enough fuel to go back anywhere. Why?”
“Just back to that last turn!” insisted the young man, whose name was, to his eternal horror, Jasper F. (for Feldspar) Clarke. “I saw something.”
“Yeah, well there’s lots of something to see,” muttered one of the others.
“Or lots of nothing.”
“I’m serious. Go back. Just a few yards.” As an afterthought (whose reasons even he didn’t quite understand at the time) he added: “And douse the headlights.”
The driver rolled his eyes at Jasper in the mirror. But he slowed, put the car in reverse, and slapped the lever, reducing the headlamps to parking lights. Car, road, and high desert disappeared into darkness. Through memory, feel, and the feeble glow remaining, the driver guided the car to a stop in a miniscule view turnout at the curve Jasper indicated.
All was darkness. Or was it?
“Over there,” Jasper pointed.
For a moment, the other three saw nothing. Just the usual waning moon rising over the usual windblown desert bleakness. Then their eyes adjusted. Below, down where they knew the road to their very own home turned off from the highway, the four members of the Emma Goldman Arts Co-op and Biodiverse Living Center, returning from a round of travels that included a planning session for the Black Hills Hemp Hoe Down and a rousing riot against free trade in Chicago, caught the glint of moonlight — outlining dozens of vehicles and half a dozen trailers and temporary structures in silver.
The young men might have looked down their noses at modern communications technologies and disdained all the products of corporate globalism. But they were products of the TV age, nevertheless. They knew exactly what they were witnessing.
“Oh crap,” said the driver.
* * *
At 1:54 a.m., precisely 54 minutes after the signal to launch Operation Firestorm was scheduled to arrive from Washington, an unlikely band of brothers staggered into Hardyville. Their feet were numbed from the cold. They were beat from walking several miles after the corn and peanuts powering their engine gave out.
They didn’t look quite like themselves. Cowboy hats or baseball caps anchored their windblown hair (most of which had been hurriedly tucked up under the hats to disguise its length and in one case disguise its distinctly violet color). Their tee shirts were turned inside out, but if you looked closely you could still read, backwards, a couple of the slogans: “Meat is dead” and “Think globally. Act anti-globally.” They shivered in the cold as they stumbled through the door of the Hell-in-a-Handbasket Saloon, one of the few businesses in town open at that dark hour.
“You’ve got to help us!” one of them cried to the handful of weary drunks and the one alert bartender behind the counter. “Our friends are in terrible trouble!”
The drunks barely raised bleary eyes. What little attention they gave the young men was less than friendly.
The barkeep — Carty, subbing for his friend, who owned the joint but was off for a few days attending an advanced defensive shotgun course — finished swabbing a wet ring on the counter, wadded up a cocktail napkin and shot it into a wastebasket 10 feet away. He sized the newcomers up, quickly seeing past the native headgear and inside-out shirts. Then he leaned forward.
Resting his fists on the counter, muscles bulging, he loomed his big bald self over the scared-witless boys and drawled, “Okaaaay. So why is it now, exactly, that you think we should help you?”
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB — saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.