Reformed United States of America
His name for the past eight years had been Conrad Loughlin.
Before he became Conrad Loughlin, the old man had many names. George LaDuca. Sean Manning. Melvin Franks. Anthony Romero. Leroy Tarantino. Timothy Nickelsen. Donald Scuito. James Dalton. And a bunch he'd used for mere days that he'd all but forgotten about.
And before that, when there was one United States, he was someone else. Within the span of his first half-century, the old man had lived an incredible life.
Then everything went to hell.
The past 20 years for him had been, at best, an extended purgatory, living for years on the inheritance from his father and then on the kindness of others, always looking over his shoulder.
More than anything else, the old man was simply tired, of the paranoia that the government will come for him and the ache from the absence of the family and friends he'd come to care deeply about. Of the daughter taken from him nearly two decades ago, and of her mother who he'd lost long before that.
There was no movie quote he could pull out of his brain to speak to his current situation, nothing to give him comfort or hope, or even a laugh. Just the ever-present threat of Them, and the bleak, depressing walls of his economy apartment in the Golden Years Centre at Middlebrook.
The apartment had three rooms: a bedroom, a bath and a combination living room/kitchenette, which had several windows overlooking a large fountain in the middle of a nearby lake. The blinds were still closed as not to allow in the sun. The thermostat was at 79 degrees Fahrenheit, but he had been under a blanket; even if the heat rose upwards from the lower two floors, he still got the chills now and then, a little more often each year.
Loughlin tossed his comforter to the floor and got up from his recliner, fixed himself a cup of coffee, and sat back down in the recliner. He took the monitor's remote control and began to flip through the free- and basic-tier channels.
"If all you did was watch TV, you'd think things hadn't changed a bit in 25 years," he muttered. "Suppose that happens when you fight the Second Civil War and everybody loses."
The old man continued going through the list of video and audio channels, pausing at each one to see if the programming piqued his interest. Each time, he groaned.
--This is AT 2. It's 10 o'clock in the East, 9 o'clock in the West. This program is being rebroadcast from the previous evening. For the latest news and commentary, turn now to AT News on channel nine.
Tonight on Line of Fire:
On the Left: Kentucky Senator David Brashear. On the Right: South Carolina Representative Jed Jones IV. The Issue: Border patrols from Roanoke to the Ozarks. Next--
"Do they ever get tired of yelling over each other?" Loughlin grumbled.
--CASH! NOW! DOT! C! O! DOT! R! U! S! A!
"I thought usury was a sin!" Loughlin half-shouted at the screen. He didn't have to worry about going to one of those loan sharks, not with a deceased friend's estate taking care of his room and board and basic senior income covering his other needs and wants -- as long as Nashville didn't catch on to him.
Looking for something to watch, he stopped on Novosti America, the top-rated news channel in the ten Reformed American states. It favored a straight-forward approach to the news over AT, Regent and GNN's debate-style programming. Reading between the lines, he thought he'd get a decent idea of what was going on in the world.
--Ahead of Russian Premier Ustinov's visit to the Log House, Army units are assisting Nashville police in clearing city streets of protestors and malcontents. While Premier Ustinov and President Woods discuss expansion of the International Space Station, in the Capitol Building, Congressmen from all three sides of the political spectrum will debate proposed changes to the healthcare bill now in the Senate.
Overnight, River Guard patrolmen caught 14 citizens attempting to illegally cross the Ohio River from Newport, Kentucky into the Philadelphia state of Ohio. Downriver, Kentucky State Police shot three criminals near the town of Cloverport before they could swim to Canadian Indiana.
Less than three hours ago, an earthquake registering 5.1 on the Richter scale occurred in the California Republic, the epicenter in the city of San Bernardino in the nation's southern region.
Nine Colombian soldiers were killed in an attack by Islamist terrorists within the past hour in the South Sudanese capital of Juba. This brings the total number of Allied military personnel killed in the Sudanese War this year to 59.
On a brighter note, a Gallup poll indicates an increase of 3.5 percent in regular church attendance within the past 12 months. In sports, the Tampa Bay Rays play the Atlanta Crackers for first place in baseball's Eastern Division, both teams having the best records in all of major league baseball.
Sources tell American Press that federal government issues with the teaching of evolution at Vanderbilt University will not keep the school out of the Southeastern Conference this coming season.
Amish Romance was the highest-rated video program of the summer season's most recent week, drawing over four million live viewers and 3.7 million in the plus-seven period. Pastor's Wives of Atlanta was second, the NASCAR race in Caracas was third, Army CID: Fort Knox fourth and Repairing Lives fifth.
And now to Nashville, where the Russian Command Plane One carrying Premier Anatoly Ustinov is scheduled to land within the hour at Joint Base Hermitage--
Game shows. Cartoons. Chinese and Russian language lessons. Reruns of baseball and soccer matches. Screaming sessions that posed as news. Preachers and theologians. Soccer moms and grandmas. Actors and athletes. Astronauts, because of the joint Russian-Indian-RUSA mission to the moon, never mind the Chinese put somebody on Mars four years ago.
There was nothing to watch, even on the movie channels. That forced him to think about going outside his apartment. Right now, according to the daily schedule, he could learn about botany, or go to his assigned seat in the dining area and wait for lunch.
Loughlin wanted to go back to bed, despite knowing that shuffling around would be much better for his health. His doctor had told him five times that sitting was bad for his artificial hip; each time it ached, he sat back down, convinced he who knew his own body and had to live with the pain and aggravation knew best.
If he could get the aides on board, he'd have it made.
He heard a knock on his door, and groaned. Where was his cane again? Five beeps later, a heavy-set, fifty-year-old African-American woman walked in. "Mister Loughlin, look at you! You sit in that chair waaay too much, and you know it!", she exclaimed with a grin.
Her name was Loretta, and she was the aide who checked in on Loughlin during the week. The wide grin on her face reflected her always upbeat and positive attitude, contrasting with his general irritation and it's-not-pessimism-Loretta-it's-being-realistic demeanor. A lifetime ago he wasn't that way; he cracked jokes, flirted shamelessly with countless women, and often acted immaturely.
And he was always a gentleman to the ladies, until he found himself having lost everything and having to do anything to survive. The gentleman died long ago, but he still knew enough to do his best to be polite.
"Come on, Loretta. I need my rest. My hip's hurting me," he said non-convincingly.
She walked over to the bookshelf next to the monitor and took the cane resting against its side, and walked over to his recliner. She put the cane at his foot, put her hands on her hips, and gave him The Look.
It wasn't a glare that ever intimidated him, rather it was a signal to him that it was time to concede. "You're right, Loretta," he said, making sure to exaggerate his groan as he got up from the recliner. "There's nothing on TV right now anyway. Where are we going?"
She stepped back to give him room, watching him to make sure he grabbed the cane. "Out for a walk, Mr. Loughlin, what else?" she replied, unperturbed by the older man's demeanor.
He mentally rebuked himself for his crankiness; he was a better man than that, regardless of whatever had happened to him. Loughlin apologized, and she told him it was alright. He then took his cane and followed her out the door, listening to her tell a story as they walked down the hallway to the elevator, then to the nurse's station for a quick application of sunscreen, and finally through the lobby outside to one of the adjacent front porches.
That was the first part of a routine they had shared for the past couple of years, either before or after lunch. After sitting for a bit, they'd walk along the sidewalk that began and ended at the front entrance and crossed both sides of the parking lot and the facility's vast lawn that ran parallel to one of the city's busiest highways, Shelbyville Road.
Sometimes, if Loughlin's hip was up to it, he and Loretta would walk to the convenience store near the facility. They'd split a submarine sandwich and eat there. Usually, they settled for watching the store's customers drive in and out.
"Price of hydrogen fuel went up," he said, squinting into the smartbifocals he had taken out of his shirt pocket. The glasses were near-ancient by Russian technological standards, but were sturdy and reliable and did the one thing that Loughlin mainly wanted them to: allow him to see clearly.
The glasses' telescopic software often came in useful, however, and allowed him to watch the goings-on at the nearby BystryyMart without moving from his rocking chair.
"$24 for a single charge. Nice to see our Russian friends helping keep America great."
"Speak for yourself, sugar," Loretta replied. "I'm still driving on gas. '30 Cowboy."
"One of the first cars built in the...built here, after everything settled down. Again, thanks to our Russian 'friends'."
"Guess how much I paid this morning."
"Seventy-four even," she said. "Ten gallons exactly. Honey, gas ain't been five dollars a gallon since the last election."
"Haven't been for a drive in a long time," he said as he watched the Russian- and Indian-made SUVs and sports cars and trucks enter and leave the fuel station. "Sign over there always shows the price of hydrogen."
"Most people nowadays who can afford a decent car buy hydrogen or electric. Folks like me? If we drive something we own or payin' on, it runs on gas. I only make 45,000 a year."
"You're doing alright, though...aren't you?"
"Yes," she said. "I'm gettin' by. I'd love to retire, live on the beach. Gotta have money to do that. Good job, lots of savings, know the right folks. My two daughters help me out, though they got kids to feed and clothe themselves. I'm blessed, though. God keeps meeting all my needs."
Yeah, he thought. God. God must be doing a lot for a lot of people, because the government keeps taking things away from them. Me? God forgot me long ago...that, or I should've sided with the Baptists. Hell. Maybe I'd be in my own house by now.
They bantered some more, Loughlin loosing up a little more by the minute. Walking with Loretta on his left side, and using his cane with his right hand, he realized that he felt better moving around and being outside. Neither of them were bothered by the 85-degree Fahrenheit, 72 percent humid, hazy morning. Nowadays, that was as nice as it got for a sunny late morning in July.
"I don't even feel the sunscreen melting down my cheeks," Loughlin said as he and Loretta walked along the sidewalk towards the Shelbyville Road entrance/exit. "I guess this is as good as it's gonna get for me."
"I like your attitude," Loretta said with a grin. "Now I know how to keep you from getting grouchy. Make sure it's a nice day."
"And how are you gonna do that when the weather people can't even get it right?" he said with a chuckle. "Ah, Loretta. I got the basics: food, clothing, shelter, a couple of good classic movie channels the government has the sense not to screw around with. Those Jack London novels in the library. Sometimes they get the coffee right, too. That's all you can ask for, right?"
"Well," she said, "there is something more than that--"
Loretta stopped, stepping instinctively in front of Loughlin, her past career as a jail guard kicking in.
"What--" Loughlin said, before being cut off by Loretta's shush. She nodded towards a strange looking WeHaul van that had slowed down greatly about 30 feet from the facility's entrance, going 25 miles below the speed limit on Shelbyville.
She reached in her pants pocket, didn't find the phone she was looking for, and cursed. "I don't like the looks of that van," she told him, grabbing a bottle of pepper spray from her other pocket. "We're going back."
He didn't argue her point. His gut screamed at him that after all these years he had finally been made.
Ignoring the sudden pain in his hip and knee, Loughlin took off in a slow jog. Loretta kept herself between him and the grey/orange van that had turned into the facility and, 80 yards from the security of the lobby, was now parallel to them.
The van sped up, stopping 15 yards ahead; the back door suddenly opened, and three men dressed head-to-toe in black jumped out and ran straight towards them.
Loretta pressed the button on the canister, hoping to catch two of the attackers in a cloud of pepper spray so she could delay the third long enough for the older man to get to safety. Her hopes were shattered when nothing came out of the canister; before she could push the button a second time, she was tased by an attacker.
The other two attackers were on Loughlin within seconds. He turned his head to his right and saw one attacker jam a syringe into his arm. Within moments he felt himself fall forward and being grabbed by his armpits.
Then, everything went to black.