Chapter 5

Copyright© 2000 by Al Steiner

Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story: Chapter 5 - When Comet Fenwell crashes into the Pacific Ocean one October day, it spells the end for most of humanity. Those that survive find themselves in a greatly changed world filled with different morals and the same old urges.

Caution: This Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa   Ma/ft   Fa/ft   Consensual   Reluctant   BiSexual   Science Fiction   Post Apocalypse   Group Sex   Sex Toys   Violent   comet crashes into earth story, end of civilization story

"Right here is perfect," Brett told Paul as they stood atop of the hill. "I could not have placed this high ground in a better place. Just look at the view!"

"It is very impressive," Paul agreed, looking out towards town.

The hill was on the northeast side of the town, about a half mile from the corner of the concrete wall and about a quarter mile from the eastbound lanes of Interstate 80 to the north. The summit of the rocky, sparsely vegetated rise stood approximately 400 feet above the surrounding terrain. This offered a panoramic view of the entire wall as it stretched away to the south, and most of it as it stretched away to the west. The roofs of Garden Hill, clumped together in geometric patterns, a few of the chimneys spouting smoke, could nearly all be seen from this vantage point.

It was four days after the town vote that had accepted the trio into Garden Hill and made Brett the new head of security. As had been predicted in advance, the only nays that had been shouted out had come from Jessica and Dale. Now, on his third day at his new job, Brett was scouting out new guard post locations. The hill they were on was one that he had pegged as a likely candidate on his first trip around the area.

"It's more than impressive," Brett said excitedly. "It's perfect. It slopes gently on our side, making it easy to get guards up and down, but it is very steep on the I-80 side, making it hard for outsiders to climb from that angle. To the west we can see the most likely avenue of approach from this side - namely, crossing the freeway and moving over those low hills. To the east," he pointed that way, "we can see the only chokepoint people can move through to approach us from that side."

"You mean the freeway surface?" Paul asked.

"Right," Brett said. "The interstate starts to climb up this mountain towards Donner Summit right there. They blasted a cut right between those steep cliffs." He pointed to that spot, which was just over a mile away. "There is no way in hell that anyone could come at us from the east without either rappelling down those cliffs or coming through that sixty-foot gap where the roadway goes through. From this vantage point, we can keep a constant lookout on that chokepoint, at least during the daylight hours. This will not only secure us from the north but from the east as well since it won't be possible for anyone to slip along the east side of the wall without being seen. Since our southern flank is secured by the canyon, there is no need to keep a guard post on the east anymore as long as this hill and the bridge approach is covered."

Paul nodded slowly, starting to see what he was talking about. As strange of an idea as it was to leave an entire side of the subdivision unguarded, it made sense. Nobody would be able to get over to that side unless they first passed in view of this post or came across the bridge. "It's kind of rocky up here," he said. "What would it take to build a bunker?"

"About ten people with shovels," he answered. "It would take maybe two days worth of work. Dig down about four feet and put up some sandbags over here behind these rocks. Cover it up with some kind of canvas or plastic material and put mud and dirt on top of that for camouflage. I'd have two guards in here during the day, both with scoped rifles and one of the M-16s. They'd have at least a hundred rounds of .30-caliber ammo and four hundred of 5.56 mm. That way, if we're attacked in force from this side or if someone tries to take their hill, they'll be able to fight them off either until they surrender or we can get reinforcements up to them. Maybe we can even rig some sort of rope and bucket system to get more ammo up to them if they need it."

"Very ambitious," Paul said, reaching under his rain slicker and pulling out a cigarette. He spent a moment fiddling with a lighter beneath his hood before he finally got it going. "I wish I could tell you that you have a chance of getting Jessica and Dale to approve a work detail like that, or a major change in the deployment plan."

Brett sighed, knowing his companion was right. In only three days he had had nearly every change, nearly every improvement, nearly every policy he wished implemented, voted down by the alliance of Jessica and Dale. It had been stipulated that any changes he wished to make would need to be discussed with the committee first and then voted on. This, in effect, made him almost useless at his job. No matter how carefully he explained the need for something, no matter how concisely he presented his case, they both voted no on whatever his proposal was. Dismantling the catwalk on the bridge had been shot down. Moving the guard positions backwards to at least cover the catwalk exit better had been shitcanned as well. Putting up signs on likely approaches to the wall that warned outsiders not to approach or they would be shot; that had been voted down too, despite his conservative estimate that it would cut their ammunition usage by more than two-thirds.

It had been that vote that had really infuriated him. "Why?" he had demanded of them as they sat smirking in their chairs. "What possible reason do you have for not allowing warning signs along the wall?"

"It puts us in a position where we appear weak," Jessica had said. "I think the cost of a few extra rounds fired is more than worth the image we portray to those scavengers out there."

"That make absolutely no sense," he'd cried. "Where in the hell did you come up with that?"

"I am not required to discuss my rationale with you, Mr. Adams," she'd replied. "The matter has been voted upon. Do you have anything else you'd like to discuss?"

The only exception to this blackballing was his proposal that coed guard teams would no longer be allowed. That one had been approved only because Jessica knew it would be an unpopular rule which would serve to diminish his popularity which, in those first two days, had been very much like celebrity status. That measure was passed unanimously the first day and implemented the next. It had had very much the effect that Jessica had guessed it would. The first thing to happen was that volunteers for guard duty almost completely dried up, forcing Paul to take the drastic step of assigning people to the job against their will. Several of these recruits had to be threatened with kitchen duty or house arrest before they agreed to the task. In less than twenty-four hours Brett went from most popular citizen to unpleasant, slave-driving boss. He was considered a spoilsport by the many couples that were using guard duty to carry out their affairs. Though he was still the object of intense flirtation by the unattached females of town, the males now regarded him with open hostility. One, Jeff the Mormon, the kid he had smoked a joint with the first night, actually told him to his face: "I wish I wouldn't of voted for you now, dude. You're such a Bogart!"

"I'm not here to be liked," he had replied. "I'm here to keep you alive."

"Well you're doin' a good job of not being liked," was the sour response.

His slave driver reputation was made even worse by the fact that he insisted upon visiting each guard position several times a day, always at random, unpredictable times. Always he found two grumpy men keeping a listless watch or two grumpy women doing the same. The women would at least perk up a bit at his presence, assuming that they were unattached, which most of them were, and the flirtations would begin. He had been offered every conceivable sex act, up to and including a threesome, at the female-manned posts. But at the male-manned posts he sometimes felt himself in danger of being assaulted or even shot. The resentment at his presence would radiate off of them in waves.

"How long you gonna keep coming out here?" he was asked once by Hector, the man who had slipped away that first night, leaving him alone with Mitsy.

"Until I don't feel I have to anymore," he'd answered simply. "And the way that's looking, it's gonna be a long time."

Fortunately, Brett's experience as a cop had long-since made him accustomed to being the authority figure that no one wanted to see or deal with. The efforts of the Garden Hill men to get under his skin with snide comments, the silent treatment, or glaring looks, were strictly small-time compared to the way the residents of Stockton had tried it. With everyone he kept his voice even and monotone, his commands clear and concise, his criticisms constructive and non-insulting. If he responded to a jibe at all it was with gentle sarcasm. If open hostility was displayed for him, as it had been a few times, locking eyes with the person and maintaining the contact always defused it rather quickly. Brett, like most cops, had long since learned how to project a strong vibe towards such people that warned them that attempting a physical confrontation would be a bad mistake. Though this vibe had not always worked in Stockton (sometimes it was taken as a challenge) it never failed to work its magic in Garden Hill. Brett was feared, that was easy enough for him to see. He did not mind being feared as long as he was feared and respected. As of yet, that second factor had not come into play and he knew of no easy way that he would be able to earn it.

"Look on the bright side," Paul told him now as he smoked his cigarette atop the hill.

"What's the bright side?" he asked, shifting the AK-47 that he'd lugged up the hill to a more comfortable position.

"At least the women still like you. I heard earlier today that Cindy Groton is going to be your squeeze. They seem to be really sure about that one."

Brett smiled a little. Among the women, whether they feared him or not, the main topic of conversation was who he was going to pick as his "official" companion, as if doing so was a town ordinance or something. He had so far shunned all of the advances that had been thrown at him. Chrissie was keeping him well satisfied in the bedroom department and, at least at this point in his relationship with the townspeople, he felt it important to keep himself out of the games that were played, to seem as aloof as possible to those he was trying to teach to protect themselves. This did not stop the rumors from flying however. On the contrary, it only seemed to encourage them. Whenever he was seen talking to a woman for more than a minute or so the word was passed around that he was "interested" in someone. Before an hour would go by the word would be inflated to "she's the one."

"Which one is she?" he asked Paul.

"She's the brunette with the big bolt-on titties that you were talking to this morning at breakfast."

"The one that asked me to show her how I used to pat women down?"

"That's the one," he agreed, taking a deep drag. "She used to be a part-time massage therapist." He grinned. "Word has it that she has a real special massage she'll show you if you play your cards right."

"I'm sure she does," he said sourly. "But my experience with Mitsy was eye-opening enough. I'll just let it ride at that for now."

"You must have the willpower of a priest," Paul said. "How do you turn down as much sex as you've been offered these last four days? Even I, who is getting it regularly, find it hard to say no to a lot of them."

"It is hard," he said honestly. "I mean, I have the same urges everyone else does. But it is my belief that sex is going to be the undoing of this place if it is not brought under some kind of control. These people are obsessed with it. They will happily keep screwing each other until the hoards out there come walking through the gates and then they'll ask themselves how it happened. If I'm going to help prevent that from occurring, then I cannot allow myself to become a part of it. If I start going on the same sort of sex binge that everyone else seems to be wrapped up in, pretty soon I'll convince myself that we really don't need to post guards up on the hills or keep them alert. I don't want that to happen."

"I'm with you there," he sighed. "When we first started to organize things here, nobody wanted to do guard duty at all. They convinced themselves that it wasn't necessary. It was only when the first groupings of males and females started to fall apart, when the men started to realize that they could have virtually all the sex they wanted, that it began to be a popular thing to do."

"So they could screw each other," Brett said bitterly.


He shook his head. "The problem we have here is that nobody has been out there. Nobody has seen how desperate things really are. I mean, they can intellectually grasp that most of the world is dead and there isn't any more food to feed anyone and that there are starving people out there, but they can't mentally grasp it. Until you've seen two men with guns stalking you, trying to kill you so that they could have the backpacks you're carrying, you just can't appreciate how real the danger is."

"Especially not these people," Paul added. "None of our women have even been on the wrong side of the tracks before. And our men, they're too locked up in the glory of the sex game. They're like kids at a candy store. Remember that I've been in charge of them longer than you have. I've gone through this same shit."

"I know," he sighed. "And you've done a good job of it too, don't let me give you the idea that you haven't. It's just that this town is going to get a rude awakening at some point if things don't change. It's as inevitable as the tides."

"Now let me get this straight," Jessica said later that afternoon, back in the main office. She was sitting behind her desk, Dale next to her, chewing a wad of gum and looking at Brett and Paul with her patented smirk upon her face. "You want to move the northern and eastern guard positions from their current location and place them on a hill more than a half a mile from town?"

"That is correct," Brett said, keeping his voice as monotone as possible, allowing no emotion to show upon his face.

"And you would like a work detail of ten people to work on this project for the next two days?"

"Or until such time as it is completed," he put in.

She shook her head in bewilderment. "That is the most ridiculous thing that I've heard you suggest so far," she said. "Move the guard posts outside of the wall? Leave the eastern side of town completely undefended? Have you been dipping into the marijuana supply or something?"

"Yeah," Dale said, giving his own version of the smirk. "Some military expert you are." He looked at Paul. "Didn't I tell you from the start he was scamming us? Isn't that the most idiotic thing you've ever heard?"

Paul, taking Brett's lead, kept his face neutral and his voice even as well. "If you went and stood on that hill," he said, "I think you would see where Brett is coming from. From the top of it you can guard the entire north side and prevent anyone from accessing the east side since there's only one way in there. He's convinced me. His plan is sound and I think we should do it."

"Yes," Jessica said, "you seem to agree with most of what he says, don't you? Well, I don't know how Dale feels on this matter, but I certainly cannot vote to approve such a gross downgrade in our defenses. Our guards belong inside of the wall, where they can do us some good, not a half a mile away on top of a hill."

"Your bridge guard position is almost a mile away," Brett said. "It is well outside of the wall and yet it prevents anybody from entering from the south, doesn't it?"

"That's different," Dale said. "That's a bridge. If people can't get across the bridge, they can't get in from the south."

"And if people can't get through the gap in the cliffs to the east of town, a gap that that hill I'm talking about has a view of, then they can't get in from the east. And they can't approach us from the north because that hill can see them before they even cross the interstate. The most basic military tactic is to occupy high ground surrounding your position. That is common sense."

"I don't think that tactic applies here," Jessica said. "My vote is no."

"My vote is no as well," Dale added. "The guards need to stay inside of the wall."

Brett took a few deep breaths, wanting to give a seething lecture on how their stupidity and pettiness was going to get everyone killed but knowing that such a thing was just what Jessica wanted. Instead, he calmed himself and went on to his next proposal. "I'd like to ask for volunteers to be permanently assigned to the guard force," he said.

"Volunteers?" Jessica said. "Permanently assigned? What for?"

"With a permanent group I can concentrate on training them for specific duties and actions. In a way, they will be professionals at the job. That will increase the overall effectiveness of the force."

"I see," she said thoughtfully. "And just how many of these volunteers do you think you're going to get?"

"Probably not very many at this point in time," he admitted. "But that will change in the future I think. I'd like authorization for thirty such volunteers."

"Thirty?" Jessica barked, laughing.

"As I said, I know I'm not going to get that many at first. But that is how many I would eventually like to have. With thirty I can keep all of the posts manned twenty-four hours a day using the same people all of the time. This would keep Paul from having to assign people the job every day and night. To get these volunteers I will place sign-up sheets on the bulletin board in the gym."

Jessica and Dale looked at each other, clearly amused by his suggestion. "I'll vote yes on this one," Jessica said, shaking her head a little. "You go ahead and ask for your volunteers. Of course..." she snickered, "you'll have to come to us for approval if you want more than thirty."

Dale was snickering as well. "You can have a yes from me too. Hope you don't get overwhelmed with volunteers now."

While they laughed about this Paul added his yes vote to the tally and it became official. Brett Adams, security leader, was now authorized to raise a group of volunteers to help guard the town of Garden Hill. Though Jessica and Dale thought it quite a funny joke - Brett thinking people were going to sign up to be permanently assigned to guard detail - they had no idea that they had just impulsively voted to establish a professional armed forces for their town. In other words, Garden Hill had just added the ability to create an army to its constitution.

One small victory that Brett had managed to win over the last four days had been the inclusion of Jason and Chrissie on guard details. As he had predicted, Paul had been able to convince Jessica in a private meeting that packing guns and watching over the safety of the town were where the two kids' talents were best utilized. As such, both of them were Brett's prime volunteers. Each post was manned with two guards that worked six-hour watches, which meant that there were four crew changes each day. Chrissie and Jason typically worked double shifts in order to keep themselves busy and to reduce the number of people that Paul had to actually assign. Jason preferred the night watches since it allowed him to sleep most of the daylight hours away. Chrissie, on the other hand, preferred the day watches since it allowed her to sleep with Brett every night.

At dinner that night, when Brett gave a short, impassioned plea for volunteers (a plea that was received somewhat listlessly by the audience) Chrissie was working her second straight shift on the east side, awaiting her relief. By the time she made it to the dining hall and ate the plate of stroganoff that had been set aside for her, Brett had already gone off to take care of other duties. When she made her way to the small house that they shared, well after darkness had covered the land, he was still out. She lit the two oil lamps that they had been provided (Paul had rigged them so they could burn gasoline by adding a small amount of motor oil to the fuel) and waited for him alone.

He came in about an hour later, stomping mud out of his boots and shaking excess water from his rain slicker before removing them in the entryway. He had had a long day that had involved much tromping around from one part of town to another and his muscles ached dully.

"Hi, Chris," he said, leaning down to give her a kiss on the lips. She allowed the contact but did not contribute to the display of affection in any way. She had a determined expression on her face. He looked at her, puzzled. "What's the matter?"

"Where have you been?" she asked, a clear note of accusation in her voice.

He looked at her carefully, already sensing that something was in the air. "I was out at the bridge," he told her, quite honestly. "I rigged up some trip-wires on the catwalk exit so that if someone comes up that way like I did, it'll at least make some noise. I also checked on the western position on my way back."

"You weren't out visiting someone?" she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Visiting someone?"

"One of the women maybe?" she said. "One of those sluts who are trying to get you into bed with them?"

He sighed a little. He had known that at some point this conversation was going to occur. This was, after all, a small town with a small town mentality. "No, Chris," he said, sitting next to her on the couch. "I wasn't out visiting anyone. I was out trying to take care of a few things. I wouldn't lie to you."

"Who was at the guard posts?" she asked, her voice on the verge of hysteria. "Was Cindy Groton out there? I heard that you and she are fucking each other!"

"Jesus," he said, turning towards her. "Chris, I don't even know Cindy Groton other than the fact that I talked to her for a few minutes at breakfast this morning. She's not even on the guard detail."

"Everyone says you're fucking her," she said. "They say that she's going to be the one you pick to be your woman."

"They're just rumors," he said. "I've already got my woman."

"A woman that you won't tell anyone about!"

"We've been over this, Chris," he said, trying to calm her. "We need to give it a little more time before we let people know about us. They're still locked up in pre-comet morality here. You know that as well as I do."

"Pre-comet morality?" she nearly shrieked. "Every time I leave this house I get women coming up to me and asking questions about you. Is it true he's doing this girl? Is it true he's thinking about hooking up with that girl? Out on watch it's all my partner will talk about! I've been asked a hundred times to put in a good word to you about someone. I've been told a hundred times how good of a big sister someone would make for me! I've seen them get into fights over you, Brett! They hit each other and pull each other's hair while they're arguing about who has a chance with you and who doesn't! And it's not just you; they do that over every man in town, even that dweeb Jeff. These women fight over a nineteen-year-old! Does that sound like pre-comet morality to you? Did they used to do shit like that before?"

"No," he said. "I'm sure they didn't. Their morality does tend to be ruled by self-interest and abandoned for the same thing."

"So if they can give up the morality when it comes to keeping their hands off of other people's men, why can't they give it up about you sleeping with me?"

"Because it's not in their self-interest to do that," he told her. "Chrissie, I am not sleeping with any of these women, okay? I'm not meeting up with them in secret and I'm not looking for someone to replace you with."

"What about Mitsy?" she said, glaring at him. "I heard you fucked her your first night here. Everyone seems to be real sure about that rumor."

His hesitation gave him away.

"You did, didn't you?" she said.

"Yes," he said slowly. "She caught me off guard that first night. It just kind of happened."

The look of pain on her face was almost more than he could bear. Her lips started to quiver and a tear rolled down her face.

"Chrissie," he said, sliding closer to her, intending to put his arms around her.

"Get away from me," she told him. "Don't touch me. Don't ever touch me again!"

"Chris, listen..."

"I said stay away from me!"

He stayed away from her. She refused to talk to him any more that evening. That night, at bedtime, she slept in the bed that had been placed in her bedroom for the first time.

Twenty-three miles to the south, in Foresthill, the convicts were still in occupation of the church building they had taken from the townspeople there. The food supply they had captured was rapidly dwindling to nothing thanks to the fact that they had made no real effort to ration it in any way. All of the booze and most of the cigarettes were gone as well, again due to the lack of a rationing plan. The fact that they had had a drunken, weeklong party after they took the town did not help much.

Even the women they had captured and amused themselves with, they were all gone as well, every last one of them dead. Most had found ways to commit suicide. The most common method of this had been by goading the men that were raping them into beating or shooting them to death (the first woman to try this began laughing and making fun of Harley's admittedly small penis until, humiliated, he had bashed in her skull). Two of them had tried an escape attempt that had not had a prayer of allowing them to get away but that did succeed in getting them shot to death with M-16s. One had actually chewed a hole through the skin of her inner elbow, ripping open the vein that runs there and bleeding to death while everyone slept. Yet another managed to strangle herself by wrapping the sleeve of her shirt around her neck and pulling it tight. The non-suicidal deaths had all been caused by injuries sustained during the party itself. After becoming bored with the more conventional methods of rape, some of the bikers had experimented with the insertion of foreign objects into vaginas or rectums, namely rifle barrels or booze bottles. Two of the women subjected to this had died of internal bleeding from perforated uteruses. Another had died of a particularly nasty case of peritonitis after her colon was torn to shreds by the raised sight of an M-16.

Even the women that they had had before taking Foresthill, some of them prisoners captured from other raids, a few of them pre-comet wives and girlfriends, they were all gone as well. These women, appalled by what they saw going on around them, had fled into the woods. Their fate was unknown but it was thought that they wouldn't last long. They had taken no weapons or food with them when they'd gone.

Now that all of the booze and women were gone and the food and cigarettes were in short supply, order among the convicts had broken down a little. Though Stu and Mark were still firmly in command of them the grumbling and the fights were becoming more vocal and more frequent. Stu knew it was about time to move on and find another place to crash for a while.

On this morning, while most of the crew were still sleeping on the floor wrapped in their filthy sleeping bags, Stu and Mark were sitting in what had once been the pastor's office going over some gas station maps of the area.

"Foresthill is the only sizable town on this side of the canyon," Stu was saying, tapping the features with a pencil. "At least until you work your way back to Placerville. And we know there ain't much left there. We're gonna have to cross the canyon somehow if we're gonna find more supplies."

"Right," Mark said. "But how do we get across? Do you think that either of these bridges are still there?"

"Maybe," Stu said thoughtfully. "The only way to find out is to go there. The question is, which one should we try first?"

They discussed the matter for a few minutes, each tossing ideas back and forth. On the one hand the Auburn bridge was located in an area that was more populated, which meant that there would be more targets to scope out and possibly attack. On that same note however, the Auburn bridge was also much more likely to be guarded by a force that they would not be able to overwhelm. The Garden Hill bridge, on the other hand, led to a very small town where there may or may not be anyone left.

"I think that bridge is a lot less likely to be guarded," Stu said. "And if it is, whoever is guarding it would probably not be anything we couldn't overcome. And if the bridge is out or is too heavily guarded to cross, we can always come back down and try Auburn."

"That make sense, Stu," Mark said. "But what about..."

His thought was interrupted by the sound of two pistol shots from outside. Two seconds later, there was a third. It was the pre-arranged danger signal from their guard post.

"Shit," Stu said, standing up so fast his chair fell over. He picked up his rifle and ran out into the main room. "Everyone up, right now!" he yelled. "We got a danger signal from the guards!"

They moved impressively fast, shooting out of their sleeping bags and picking up their firearms. Stu and Mark went to the front door and opened it up, looking out over the rainy parking lot to the bait shop, where the perimeter guard that had fired the shot was stationed. They saw nothing out of the ordinary.

"Battle stations everybody," Stu told his men. "Look sharp!" With that he ran outside, crossing the parking lot and the street at a sprint, Mark right behind him. The other convicts all went to pre-planned firing positions that Stu had worked out their first day in town and had made them practice moving to several times. Within thirty seconds a deadly ring of rifles encircled the church, capable of engaging any target no matter what angle it attacked from.

Stu and Mark entered the bait shop, guns ready for anything, and saw Harley looking out the rear window, his rifle trained out over the hilly ground behind it. He looked very tense.

"What do you got, Harley?" Stu asked.

"A dude out there about two hundred yards away. He's waving a white flag back and forth."

"What?" Stu said, walking to the window and looking out. Sure enough, in the distance, was a single man standing atop one of the rises. He was dressed in rain gear and an army helmet and had no weapons in evidence upon him. He had a stick that was about six feet in length and had a scrap of white cloth, probably an old T-shirt, tied to the end of it. He slowly moved it back in forth above his head.

"Somebody's surrendering to us?" Mark, who had come up behind Stu to observe as well, asked in confusion. "What kind of idiot would do that?"

"That's not just a surrender flag," Stu said thoughtfully. "It also means that someone wants to approach for negotiations."

"Negotiations?" Harley asked. "What the fuck for?"

Stu chewed his lip for a moment, trying to think. "I guess we should find out, shouldn't we? Harley, don't fire at him unless you see a weapon and he looks like he's going to use it."

"All right."

Stu walked back over to the door and stuck his head out, looking towards the upper floor of the church where several of his men were aiming their rifles outward at the flag waver. "Don't fire at him unless he shows a weapon," he yelled at them. "I repeat: Hold your fire unless you see danger! Pass it on!"

He waited a minute for the word to spread to everyone and then he stuck his head out the window of the bait shop. "Approach us slowly!" he yelled to the man. "Keep your hands in sight at all times!"

The man nodded his understanding and dropped the flag to the ground. He put his hands up and began to walk, his pace steady but slow. When he got close Stu sent Harley and Mark out to him while he stayed inside and covered them with his rifle. "Check him for weapons," he ordered. "And then bring him in here."

They searched the man thoroughly, patting him down much the same way that they had been patted down numerous times by cops in their previous lives. He kept his hands in the air and his bearded face expressionless as they performed this task.

"He's clean," Mark yelled when the frisking was complete. "We're coming in."

The first thing that Stu noticed was the man was young, only about twenty years old or so. The second thing was that he was not starving. There was no hollow look to his cheekbones, no sinking of the eye sockets. In fact, he looked like he was in very good shape. "Who are you?" Stu asked him, keeping the barrel of his rifle trained downward. Mark and Harley were back at the window, keeping an eye out for any further intruders.

"I am Private Stinson with the Placer County Militia Group," he said.

"The what?"

"Placer County Militia," he repeated. "We have a force surrounding this town right now, hidden from view. Lieutenant Bracken, the commanding officer of this force, has sent me here to request a meeting between your leader and himself."

"How big of a force?" Stu asked, raising his rifle a tad.

"I am not at liberty to say, sir."

Stu raised it higher, so it was pointing at his abdomen. "You fuckin' well better say!" he said. "How many goddamn people you got out there?"

"Will all due respect, sir," Stinson said, his voice even, "I am just a messenger. Lieutenant Bracken can provide you with the information you request and more. I am an expendable member of the force out front but do be warned that if any harm comes to me it will taken as an act of war and will be dealt with severely. I am authorized to say that we do have enough people out there to defeat your group in battle and we have the advantage of knowing where all of your men are."

Stu bit back on the urge to strike the young punk that stood before him. "What does he want to talk about?" he asked instead.

"I am not at liberty to say," Stinson replied. "He will explain everything when you agree to the meeting."

"And if I don't agree?"

"Then that too will be taken as an act of war, sir."

Stu fought to maintain control of his temper. He was not a man accustomed to being threatened in any way, especially not by young punks like this one. Though it was a struggle, he kept himself from striking or otherwise harming the man. "All right," he said. "I'll meet with him. What now?"

"I will walk outside and give the go-ahead signal," Stinson replied. "Lieutenant Bracken and Sergeant Johnson will approach your encampment unarmed and meet you beneath the overhang in front of the church. You will provide chairs for them to sit in and they will discuss the matter at hand with you. They will not enter the building with you or walk anywhere besides to the meeting place. Any attempt to harm them or force them to go somewhere else will result in attack by the rest of the force. Taking them hostage will do nothing but force an attack as well. Lieutenant Bracken and Sergeant Johnson realize that they too are expendable. Do you agree to these terms?"

Stu stared at him for a moment, feeling a pit of fear in his stomach. "Yeah," he said. "You give the signal. I'll tell my men and get us some chairs."

Stu did not bother searching Bracken or Johnson for weapons when they entered the town. He knew that their goal would not be a close assassination attempt. Instead, after the introductions were made, he led them to the overhang in front of the church where four chairs had been placed in a small circle. Mark and Stu sat down in two of them while Bracken and his sidekick took the other two. Harley had been placed back in his guard post and the other members of the convict team were still on heightened alert in their battle positions.

"So what is it that you want?" Stu asked, lighting up one of the last of the cigarettes and taking a drag.

"Before I tell you that," Bracken said, lighting a cigarette of his own, "let me first explain a little bit about who we are."

"Sure," Stu said.

"We are the third platoon of the Placer County Militia Group based in Auburn," he said. "We are well armed and well trained and we are dug in around your town and have been so for the last two days."

"Impossible," Mark said. "We would've spotted you."

"Really?" Bracken said, dipping his ash on the ground. "You seem a bit overconfident in your abilities. Perhaps I can convince you that I speak the truth."

"Please do," Stu said.

"There are twenty-one of you here," Bracken said. "You had some women a few days ago but they are all dead now. You are armed with M-16 rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles as well as pistols and you have some rudimentary knowledge of military tactics and fairly good discipline. Your guard positions are the bait shop, the upper floors of the church, and the storage shed behind the burned out gas station. You routinely send out two-man patrols that circle the town and probe into the hills a little bit. Your battle plan is to reinforce these guard positions with your remaining personnel and to keep a small reserve force inside the church itself, ready to move to wherever it is needed. You seem to be getting short on food and you drank up the last of your alcohol yesterday. When one of the women dies you carry the body over to the gas station and put it with the other bodies that were burned up in there."

Stu and Mark both looked at him slack-jawed as he recited this to them. Bracken simply smiled. "Not a bad defensive plan if I do say so myself," he told them. "It would have been sufficient to keep just about everyone except us away from you. However, as you can probably see, we know where to hit you if need be. Our positions are set up specifically to counter yours. If we go to battle with each other, we will kill you. If you try to flee, you will find that we've covered all escape corridors with overlapping fields of fire. In short, you are trapped here and you only continue to draw air because we have chosen not to attack you."

"You're lying," Stu said, feeling that pit of fear getting bigger.

Bracken shrugged. "I don't need to prove myself," he said. "If you think I'm lying then you are free to try us. I would prefer that you do not since I am currently sitting in a very bad spot if the bullets start to fly. So how about we try to come to some sort of arrangement instead?"

Stu swallowed with a mouth that was very dry. "What kind of arrangement?" he asked.

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