Rexburg Burning, Part One

A dispatch from post-America, 2041

Post-America, 2041, from Bringing Ragnarok

Author Note: This is the first of three sections of a chapter from Bringing Ragnarok: Book Two, describing three time-travelers’ experience on the front lines of America’s long second civil war.

There are growing concerns about such a nightmare happening in the near future— a trajectory I derived in 2016 and that five years later looks even more plausible. One of the three plot threads in Bringing Ragnarok is set in a near-future where America has disintegrated into warring successors to give readers a taste of what that conflict could look like, if not averted.

Enjoy. Or don’t — this isn’t light reading. Apologies to the town of Rexburg, Idaho. But a friend of mine once said you deserved it, so…

Timur watched the dim cloud of dust to the southwest that marked the last of the Deseret units pulling back across the plains south of Rexburg, making for the highway that led back to their base at Idaho Falls. It was almost dawn, and the sky was now light enough to see out across the eastern edges of the Snake River Valley from their current position at the northern edge of the Big Hole mountains, not far from the place where, weeks before, he and his friends had driven out to extract the Deseret leader known as Lehi. He glanced to his left, where a few hundred meters away four burnt-out hulks — formerly Deseret Paladin mobile artillery systems — offered an oddly appropriate backdrop for Chavez and Jackson as they negotiated with a Deseret envoy regarding the terms of the impending prisoner exchange.

“I still can’t believe we only lost, what, nineteen people? Timur, you know more about all this — how is that even possible?”

Timur looked at Kim, glad that things were presently calm enough that they could keep their visors up and masks off. No chance of accidentally broadcasting over the local net or radio, and even though the breeze was dry, warm, and dusty, it still felt better than having plastic clamped over his mouth all the time.

“I guess all these tanks and bugsuits count for something.” Patrick mused.

Timur shook his head. “I have a hard time believing it myself, Kim. Granted, my last war adventure wasn’t quite the same, but I don’t remember ever being in a real fight that didn’t end with us losing at least ten percent of our people, and two or three times that many usually ended up injured.”

“How did you beat the odds?” Kim asked. “You were stuck fighting in Kashmir for what, two or three years?”

He nodded slowly. “Yeah, but my group wasn’t always fighting. Most of the time I just did odd jobs for the more experienced fighters, went on minor patrols, stuff like that. At least for the first year or so. It got worse after. Dunno how I didn’t get hit more often.”

“I didn’t know you ever did.” Patrick said, turning to look at Timur with a puzzled expression on his face. “I guess you didn’t want to talk about it? At least you never had any crippling injuries, unless you are a much better actor than I think you are.”

“Oh thanks for that, you big dumb artist, you.” Timur shot back, feigning offense.

“My pleasure.” Patrick replied.

“You jerk!” Timur laughed, then sighed and looked at Kim. “Anyway, yeah, I got lucky. For the most part. I have a couple scars in places you’ll never get to see. Shrapnel wounds, mostly. Caught a ricochet, once, tore a nice chunk out of my thigh. Can’t complain too much, though — missed my femoral and all the other… important parts… down there.”

“Ooooh, nearly got castrated, huh?” Chavez said, surprising Timur. He hadn’t noticed her walk over to them. Jackson followed in her wake, moving much more slowly, as if lost in thought.

“Oh, hey Chavez.” Timur replied, ignoring her provocation. She had been in a better mood than usual the past couple days — buoyant, even. Which meant that she was only serious about half the time, at most.

“Hay is for horses, you know” Chavez added, flashing Timur a strange grin.

“You been hitting the cough medicine too hard or something?” Timur shot back.

Chavez and Jackson shared a look, then both laughed. Chavez’ laugh went on a bit too long — Timur realized that she was acting loopy as much out of fatigue as post-victory giddiness. He quickly thought back over the hours that had passed since the battle had finally wound down, and couldn’t remember having ever seen her actually sleep.

“Oh, man,” Chavez chuckled, visibly struggling to contain her laughter, “sometimes, man, you say stuff that really takes me back to the good old days.”

“When were those?” Kim asked, snarkily.

Chavez thought for a long moment. “Oh, the early years of the century, I suppose. Y’know, when I was still a dumb kid, didn’t know a thing about the world. Those were decent times.”

“I was kidding.” Kim replied, her voice suddenly hesitant. Timur looked more closely at her, wondering what was happening in that often inscrutable mind of hers. Kim was probably the most loyal person Timur had ever met. And despite their frequent spats, and her all-too-frequent outbursts of insisting that there was a right way to do something when Timur knew with absolute certainty that there were in fact many possible ‘right’ ways, he had come to learn that you ignored Kim at your peril. Which is why any hint of indecisiveness or hesitation on her part worried him.

“Oh sure, sure,” Chavez chuckled, “anyhoo, how y’all doin’ over here? Better be resting up, ’cause we got a job to do to close out this op.”

“What, more work?” Patrick said, in a terrible mock English accent.

“Zug zug.” Timur added, laughing.

“Yes, peasants and peons!” Chavez laughed even louder. “While you may have spent the last quarter-century asleep, so that I have to explain the simplest things to you, at least you pay me back by reminding me of my misbegotten youth!”

“You done jawing at ‘em?” Jackson asked, stalking up to the four of them. “We need to get moving.”

Jackson lowered his visor and latched his mask. Timur looked back out over the horizon, where the dust had now settled, and the dry fields of the Snake River Valley were again quiet. Or would be, if the distant dull roar of jet engines and the nearer grumbling of vehicle engines would cease.

“All three teams are ready to go.” Jackson said, then raised his visor and detached his mask.

“What’s happening?” Kim asked, her voice back to normal.

“Clean-up on aisle five.” Chavez replied. “Otherwise known as, we gotta go occupy Rexburg to make sure the Deserets don’t try to play any games, sneak units beyond the halt line we’ve agreed on just outside Idaho Falls.”

“Rexburg?” Patrick asked. “That dump of a town where we extracted Lehi a couple months back? What’s there that we care about? I flew over it with Mika a few days back, place looked deserted.”

“Exactly the point.” Chavez answered. “It is deserted. Deserets apparently evac’ed anyone willing to go, saying they can’t defend LDS folks further out than Idaho Falls anymore.”

“So that means we’ve won, right?” Kim asked.

“Yes and no.” Jackson replied, his deep voice containing even more bass than usual. “Yes, we’ve beaten their attack, and inflicted substantial casualties. There’s no chance of their pushing us out of Idaho now. It will take years for them to recover — and that’s assuming that the Texans are still willing to fund them after this debacle.”

“So where’s the ‘no’?” Timur asked.

“Well,” Chavez said, “we still have to make sure they keep to their end of the deal. I’ve warned ’em that any force larger than a brigade trying to push east again is gonna induce a Nagasaki strike against their forward base at Idaho Falls, and if that doesn’t get our point across, Pocatello burns next. They might think that we won’t dare go for their major bases in Utah, given that we’d have to strike through the heart of their air defense network. But right about now, with the losses they’ve just sustained, we know and more importantly they know that we can blip what’s left of their army in Idaho right out of existence, any time we choose.”

“So then why are we bothering to take Rexburg?” Kim asked. “Can’t we just head back over the mountains and call this a win?”

“No rest for the wicked, as Jackson likes to say.” Chavez replied, shrugging.

“I do indeed.” Jackson said. “But to answer Kim’s question — this new Deseret militia unit has both of us concerned. Militias by nature are unstable, difficult to control.”

“And full of idiots, in my experience.” Chavez added.

“Many times, yes.” Jackson replied. “Regardless, a large unit of their militia attempted to push south along the western edge of the Big Hole mountains during the battle. They must have run into trouble finding the right roads out, though, because they never managed to enter the fight. The past day or so we’ve spotted them filtering back southwest — but we can’t account for them all. There’s a decent chance that some of them will try to control territory in front of the regular Deseret forces, possibly launch hit-and-run attacks on our supply convoys. Less of a threat than before, but if we can nip this annoyance in the bud now, it’ll pay off in the long run. I don’t want to have to worry about the western front when the Texans attack us in the east. And Rexburg, dingy a place as it might be, is both a crossroads and a river crossing. Good place to set up a raiding camp, and an ambush line at the river’s edge. Good real estate to hold on to for both sides.”

“Yep.” Chavez agreed. “So we’re gonna take a little trip with two mixed combat teams, one support team. Two Strykers, Pumas, and Leos in each combat team, a pair of Warlocks, Schukas, and Dragons in the support team. Half a dozen Havocs will provide helo support, and we’ll keep a couple Gryphons and Mjolnirs on-station in case we need close air support.”

“Boy, you meant it when you said ad-hoc teams, didn’t you?”

Chavez nodded. “Yes, Timur, we did. A bit more difficult to coordinate, but as I told you before — everybody knows their job. I’ll take you three in a Rista Stryker and lead one combat team, under callsign ‘Ghurkha.’ Jackson will take the other combat team under callsign ‘Mustang,’ and Niana and Xiaoshan will flip a coin or whatever they want to do to decide who coordinates the support team, which will go by callsign ‘Queen’ or ‘Dazzle’ — depending on who wins the flip.”

Jackson tapped his forehead three times, a sign they had all come to realize meant he wanted them to ‘button up’ — masks fixed and visors down, ready to receive briefing data.

“Right, you all plugged in? Good.” Jackson began. Timur watched a map of Eastern Idaho expand across his visor, and icons popped into existence as Jackson walked them through the outline of their next mission.

“So, you’ve all been to Rexburg, or at least, the suburban edge of it. Town maxed out at just under thirty thousand residents back in the ’20s, but population was already down by more than half before the Deserets evacuated the place. Typical layout: an older downtown core with commercial businesses, surrounded by residential suburbs. If there are militia types in the town, we expect that they’ll be camping out along the northern fringe, where the vegetation around the river offers some cover. Also, along the northern edge of town there’s one end of an airport, a gravel quarry, a water park, and a hospital. Anybody hoping to control the town against us, and our most likely avenue of approach down highways 33 or 20 from the north, will use those features to anchor their defense. The whole town is on an old volcanic dome, several meters higher than the terrain to the north, west, and south, so that elevation advantage plus a smattering of taller buildings offers a defender good visibility and some clear lines of fire.”

“Now,” Jackson continued, and a set of blue icons appeared to the east of the town, “we’ll approach from the east, just like you did a couple months back, taking advantage of the fact that the land is higher and rougher out that way. Should screen our approach until we reach the ‘burbs. Should also let us push into town behind their main defense line, and in the first rush we’ll secure the hospital at the eastern edge of town. From there we’ll strike as the situation allows, but my bet is that we’ll need to push all the way to highway 33, south of the airport, to cut off anybody dumb enough to stick around that long from retreating down the highway. Then, either they surrender, or we bring in Stalin’s Guards to take their positions by force.”

“Stalin’s whatsits?” Timur asked.

“The Guards battle group,” Chavez said, “run by a strange Russian dude by the name of Yevgeni Kozlov. Everybody calls him ‘Stalin’ because he’s a bit of a mad dictator, but will also crush you in a drawn out fight, if you give him half a chance. You ever hear someone call out ‘urrah’ over the radio — get your head down, fast! About a minute later all hell will break loose wherever he’s decided to unleash his people.”

“Great, more characters.” Kim groaned. “Are any of you people, like, sane and normal?”

“Nope.” Chavez shook her head firmly. “No, most of us crossed the threshold of insanity long ago. Otherwise why would anyone keep doing this job? Anyway, this kind of op relies on speed. If the Deserets have occupied the place with militia, we don’t want to give them time to set up more than a hasty defense. Give even a bunch of idiots enough time and a stock of anti-tank missiles, and they can turn a town into a fortress, even if you reduce it to rubble. Actually, that often makes it easier to defend.”

“Exactly.” Jackson agreed. “It’ll be a solid two hours’ drive. We should arrive just after dawn. You can review whatever you’d like as we drive, but we had better get moving. The Deseret armor should be far enough away now that we won’t have to worry about them pulling a one-eighty and coming down on us, but I’d rather not chance it.”

Vamos!” Chavez cried, and with a wave of her arm she led the way to the Stryker. Timur, despite suddenly feeling a bit — he wasn’t sure what, but apprehensive seemed to work best — was pleased to see that at least they’d be taking a Stryker that hadn’t suffered any battle damage, unlike the one they’d ridden in on the insane attack into the rear of the Deseret advance. He listened to Chavez and Jackson idly discuss minutiae of the mission, how many militia members might be in the town, whether they would have had time to rig up houses and cars with improvised explosives, and that sort of thing. Timur trailed behind his friends a bit, the voices all blurring into a vague buzz as he walked on, mind wrapped in apprehensive thoughts.

Timur climbed up the ramp and onto the familiar hard seat, and half-consciously strapped himself once again to a few dozen tons of steel on wheels, external camera feeds streaming to his visor and the sound of engines roaring to life thrumming in his ears.

The eighteen vehicles moved out in a long line, winding down ridges and then along the protective cover of a dry stream bed, making their way west. Timur didn’t bother looking out using thermal or night vision, and let the sameness of the landscape lull him into a false sense of security as he worked to fight against growing anxiety. Soon there was enough light for him to make out a line of structures several kilometers out across the brown horizon, dawn’s light reflecting off roofs and walls.

Mustang Six, Dazzle Six, this is Ghurkha Six. We’ll lead the way up Rexburg road, then turn down 2nd Avenue to take up position at Point Brick. Mustang Six, suggest you move straight on up to Point Nightingale. If you take fire, we’ll support as needed. Anybody sees any twit with a rifle, make a contact report and engage! I want to get out of this with zero friendly casualties!”

Timur stared out as they passed a church, white steeple twinkling in the morning light. They passed by a line of houses on the left, all sporting bright green, well-clipped lawns and garage doors, their essential sameness marking them as classic examples of American suburbia. An old song jumped into his mind from a TV show popular around the time he had first arrived in Vancouver, that referred to this style of neighborhood — appropriately, he decided — looking out, as “little boxes made of ticky-tacky, little boxes that all look just the same.”

He coughed into his mask as he struggled to hold back laughter. Of all the memories, and of all the times… but then, to his delight, reality decided to imitate art. The Stryker passed by a green house, a pink one, three blue ones, and then a bright yellow one. Timur shook his head at the oddness of the universe, and the random stuff brains brought up, usually at the wrong time. He felt the Stryker slow, and braced himself just in time to prevent his helmet from crashing into the side of the vehicle as they rounded a corner, then accelerated down a street leading towards the center of town. A muffled bang and cry told him that one of his friends hadn’t braced properly.

It was at the intersection of East 2nd South Street and Birch Avenue that it began.

Continued in Part Two