Chapter 11

Copyright© 2000 by Al Steiner

Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story: Chapter 11 - 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

One of the features of the law enforcement package that had been installed in the MD-500 was a programmable VHF radio system that could transmit on nearly any frequency as long as the operator knew what that particular frequency was. As such, with the assistance of a manual from Paul's fire engine, Jason, sitting in the passenger seat of the chopper, was able to talk to Paul and Matt who were two thousand feet below listening to a fire department portable radio. Of course the VHF repeater that the fire department had used for its primary channels was out of action making those frequencies useless, but several direct frequencies, with a range of a mile or so, had been programmed into the portable.

They were fourteen miles east of Garden Hill, just above a CalTrans road maintenance station that Brett had found during a recon flight the day before. Their mission for the day was to get a water truck that had been stored at the facility safely back to Garden Hill where it's large tank could be used to store jet fuel for the helicopter. Getting the water truck started had been the easy part of the operation. It had been a simple matter of installing two fully charged twelve-volt automobile batteries. The hard part was going to be navigation of the vehicle home. Two large slides and three washouts along Interstate 80 between Garden Hill and the station had ruled out the option of simply taking the freeway. Instead, they were using back roads to work their way home.

Brett and Paul - by burning up an entire tank of fuel in the helicopter - had found a wildly circuitous route along two-lane mountain roads. It was a route that stretched miles out of the way and switched back upon its self several times, but that, after a trip of nearly fifty miles, would eventually drop them out on the Interstate just east of the cut that guarded the town. Now, as they were putting the plan into motion, Brett and Jason were flying just ahead of them to scout out the route and watch for unseen dangers.

"Okay," Jason, speaking into his headset informed them, "you're coming up on the first turn now. It's just around the bend you're approaching. You're going to turn right and that will take you up a rise to a smaller road."

"Copy that," said Matt's voice in his ear. "Turn right around the next bend."

Brett pulled them into a hover as the orange truck below them completed the maneuver, watching until they were safely headed up the hill. He then brought them up a little higher and eased over the rise in question so he could take a look at the other side. Once they were there, Jason, who had a map laid out before him, gave them their next set of directions. This brought them to a twisting, turning road leading nearly up to the snowline, which began about 6000 feet.

"I hope they don't trigger an avalanche," Brett said nervously, flying slightly behind them now. "Some of that snow up there is pretty thick."

"They volunteered to chance it," Jason reminded him.

"That wouldn't make me feel any better if they were buried alive," he replied.

It had been three days since the discovery of Auburn and the strange community that existed there. The knowledge of all those guns and men less than forty miles to the west had stirred a near-fanatic burst of activity around Garden Hill. Some of the defensive improvements, which had been on hold in the excitement of acquiring the helicopter, had been placed back on the front burner. Chrissie, taking to her new job with gusto, was spending her every waking hour supervising the reinforcement of the hillside defenses, finishing up the training of those that had yet to go through the firearms class, and drilling the reaction force in how to deploy in the event of an attack. No longer were the Garden Hillians merely anticipating an untrained group of hunters like the last time trying to hit them, they were now being forced to consider that a hundred or more heavily armed men might suddenly come walking into their midst. As of yet it seemed an unlikely possibility at best - they had no evidence that the residents of Auburn even knew they existed - but the first attack had taught them that they had to anticipate unlikely possibilities as well as likely ones.

While Chrissie and Michelle had been busy taking care of home defenses, Brett, Jason, and Matt, with the help of Paul, had been frantically trying to secure a fuel supply for the helicopter so they could begin using it to its full advantage. The problem of fuel storage needed to be solved first - thus the day's mission - before further recon flights of the surrounding area and possible recovery of the freight supplies on the train could be undertaken. There had been a furious debate the previous night on the wisdom of attempting to do what they were now doing. Brett had been firmly opposed to risking two men by driving a loud, clanking machine over those perilous roads just beneath huge accumulations of comet-caused snowfall. But none other than the two men who were volunteering to take the risk had overruled his objections.

"You yourself have told us that we may as well not have the helicopter if we can't get and store fuel for it," Paul had argued. "We've been over every other possibility and this is the only way we're going to be able to store it. It has to be done."

Matt, who was obviously no fan of being smashed to pieces by an avalanche, had been forced to agree with this logic. "This is the only tank we have available to us and we've scouted out a means to get it back here. You've determined that we can't cut it loose from the truck and fly it back here, right?"

"Right," Brett had replied miserably. The tank, while light enough to be carried if empty, was simply too large and bulky. The drag caused by trying to pull it through the air would make the aircraft too unstable.

"Then I guess our decision is made," Matt said. "Both Paul and I have been advised of the risks and have elected to go forth. No more discussion on the matter is necessary."

And so now Brett, very much against his better judgment, was flying above as they entered the area directly below the snowline. "If those assholes get buried," he told Jason, "I'm going to hover right above them and yell, 'I told you so' through the fucking loudspeaker."

"They'll be all right," Jason said, watching anxiously, although he had absolutely no evidence or experience upon which to base this statement.

It was an agonizing twenty minutes as the orange truck crept slowly uphill on the slick, muddy road. Occasionally the back end would slide a little bit on a particularly slippery patch. Occasionally they would have to edge perilously close to a drop off so they could get around a mudfall or a crumbled section.

"How are you doing down there?" Jason asked them from time to time.

"We're hanging in there," Matt's voice, sounding strained, would come right back.

Finally they reached the summit of the pass, where the highest danger of causing an avalanche lie. They did not pause or comment on their achievement. They only started down the other side. Soon they were well below the snowline once again and relatively out of that particular brand of danger.

"You see, Brett," Matt's voice sounded in their headsets, its tone more than a little relieved. "Nothing to it."

"Right," Brett replied, just as relieved. "Nothing to it. I'm scouting ahead."

He flew forward for a few miles, checking on the next section of route as they continued to lumber down to the bottom of the hill. Jason, his rifle safed and resting next to his seat, peered through a pair of binoculars at the road below, looking for anything that might present a danger. He saw nothing but road and mud and the occasional dead body next to a dwelling.

In the past few days Jason had once again become the subject of wild discussion in the town. He had become the second man in Garden Hill to openly live with two women and call both of them his lover. Though there was still no ceremony or official recognition of this fact, and though none of the parties involved had actually admitted what was going on, the simple fact that Tina had moved in with them had not gone unnoticed. Fortunately, with the absence of Jessica and her mindset, no one was trying to vote any of them out of town for the offense. None of them were even calling it an offense. But, no matter what the mindset of the people, Garden Hill remained a small town where everyone knew everyone else and the gossip flew like mad.

But the gossip and the mood of the townspeople were not what were on Jason's mind at the moment. He had experienced much worse before. What was on his mind was something that he had wanted to bring up ever since the first Cameron Park mission. Now the time seemed right.

"Brett?" he said softly, hesitantly, after making sure he wasn't accidentally keying the transmit button on the radio.

"Yeah?" Brett replied, his eyes making a constant track from the instrument panel to the outside. "What's up?"

"You said you were going to teach others to learn to fly this thing," he said.

Brett took a moment to glance over at him, seeing his hopeful face. "I did say that," he said. "And I intend to do so just as soon as there's enough time and fuel to start."

"Well, do you think that maybe... you know that just possibly... uh... well..."

"I think you'll make an excellent pilot," Brett told him with a smile. "I've already decided that you'll be my first student."

Jason's face lit up like a pinball machine. "Really?" he said excitedly. "You're not screwing with me?"

"I'm not screwing with you," he assured him. "You've spent almost as much flight time in this thing as I have since we got it. I've seen you watching my every move whenever we've been up. You got the makings of a pilot my man and you'll be the first one. I promise."

"Thanks, Brett," he said, barely able to contain himself. "When can we start? I mean, can you start showing me things now? While we're..."

"Now," Brett interrupted before he could get too far along, "we each have a job to do. I have to fly and you have to observe. This is not the time for lessons to commence."

"Oh... sure... I mean..."

"It's okay," Brett told him. "Just keep an eye out down there like you're supposed to. I'm going to put you through an extensive ground school before you ever put your hands on these controls. We're gonna take it as slow as possible, all right?"

"All right."

"Now let's get back to work, shall we?"

It took them almost four hours to get the truck safely home. Brett was forced to abandon them at one point so he could fly back to town and refuel (and the town - at first terrified to see the chopper return alone - was very grateful to hear that no avalanche had occurred). But finally they arrived, rumbling and clanking their way onto Interstate 80 and through the gap in the cliffs that served as their eastern chokepoint. They passed the warning signs that Brett had installed and then utilized the offramp that led to the town itself. Soon the truck was making its way through the residential streets inside the wall, belching out great black clouds of diesel exhaust.

Brett continued to circle overhead until they were safely parked and then he settled in for a soft landing in his accustomed spot. By the time he and Jason made it over to the truck, three quarters of the townspeople were gathered around it, hugging and shaking the hands of the two men who had delivered it.

Garden Hill now had a functioning fuel station. All they needed now was the fuel.

They wasted no time. The men and women who were to be involved were hand picked by Brett and Chrissie (who knew the capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses of the newer guards better) at a community meeting that night after dinner and told to be ready to move out the next morning. More than one person stayed up late that night making in town preparations or learning specific tasks.

The operation itself began at first light. Michelle, armed with one of the M-16s and a radio keyed into the chopper's frequency, and four of the guard force, all of them armed with semi-automatic weapons, climbed into the helicopter. Brett lifted off, the empty 250-gallon transport tank slung beneath, and headed southwest for Cameron Park. He utilized the shortest route possible, going out over the canyon and following it to the point that he had familiar navigation references. He made sure that he stayed well clear of the Auburn area.

Once at the Cameron Park Airport, he circled around a few times, keeping a sharp eye out for anything below that hadn't been there before. Beside him Michelle did the same. Everything seemed as it should be so he drifted down and set the tank gently on the ground. He released the rope from the hook and then made one more pass around the area.

"Lock and load, guys," Michelle told her troops as he spun in for final approach. They jacked rounds into their chambers and stood by. Brett touched down near the hanger complexes to allow them to get quickly under cover if they came under fire. Though this seemed unlikely to happen since they had already made two trips here without encountering anyone, Brett insisted that they go into every situation like it was combat.

"Go!" Michelle yelled at her troops the instant the skids touched the ground. They were out the doors in less than ten seconds, lying on their bellies on the wet tarmac, all of them facing in different directions with overlapping fields of fire. No sooner were they down then Brett lifted back off, buffeting them violently with the downdraft from the rotor and soaking them thoroughly with rainwater.

Brett circled around for a few minutes just south of the airport, both to keep an eye on the approaches and to be nearby in case an emergency evacuation was called for. Nothing untoward happened and a few minutes after being dropped off, Michelle radioed up to him. "Area seems secure," she said. "We're going to deploy near the hangers until the next group arrives."

"Copy," Brett said. "I'm heading back now. Remember the plan."

"If we're attacked," Michelle dutifully replied, "we'll make a fighting retreat and head into the hills for pick-up later."

"You got it," he told her. "I'll see you in about forty minutes."

Brett made two more trips before the first drop of fuel was even sucked from the tank. He brought one more group of five troops - Matt was in charge of this bunch - to help augment the protective force that was already there. He then went and picked up the actual work crew, which consisted of Jason and three of the other guards. They had the pump with them and they would be the ones that kept the transport tank filled. Brett had stayed up late with this bunch showing them how to do their jobs.

The operation ran fairly efficiently for something that had been thrown together as quickly as it had.

By the time Brett landed the pump crew, the combat crew had moved through the airport and secured it completely. They were now in defensive positions, watching for approaching intruders. The pump crew set up the pump, attaching it to the same maintenance truck that they had used during the first operation. Once the pump was powered, they refueled the helicopter, topping off its tank.

"Okay," Brett said to them. "Let's get that tank full. We've got a lot of trips to make."

It took just a hair over five minutes for the pump to fill the 250-gallon tank. Once it was full, they shut down the pump and the engine that powered it and reattached the rope to the belly of the chopper. Brett climbed in alone and fired up the engine, setting the rotor blades into motion. After a last check of his area he lifted off, slowly rising into the rainy sky until all of the slack in the carrying rope was gone.

Lifting nearly two thousand pounds into the air by means of a hook and rope assembly was a very delicate piece of flying and something that helicopter pilots did not particularly like to do. It needed to be done slowly and carefully. Rising too fast ran the risk of snapping the rope or rupturing the container, an act that would almost certainly send the helicopter spinning out of control from the slingshot effect. Brett kept a delicate hand on his controls, slowly adding lift until the tank rose inch by inch from the ground. He could feel the tremendous weight beneath him in the sluggishness of the aircraft's reactions. Only when the tank was two hundred feet above the tarmac did he begin to turn to the northeast and move forward.

The trip back to Garden Hill took nearly forty minutes since Brett was not able to fly terribly fast with the additional weight and drag. Once over the town he descended carefully right over the top of the community center. Paul had built a platform on the peak of the roof, right near the edge, that the transport tank could be set on. Without the electric pump to facilitate moving the fuel from one container to another, they were forced to rely on good old gravity. Paul, up on the roof with Maggie to assist him, used a radio to talk to Brett and guide his movements, telling him to "go back" or "go forward" or "bring it down". Though he was being blasted by the downdraft and pelted with small bits of debris and though he could hardly hear his own voice as it came out of his mouth, Paul's voice was transmitted clearly enough to Brett in the cockpit. This first docking took a few minutes to accomplish, requiring three aborts before the tank was finally resting where it was supposed to.

"It's in place," Paul told him.

"Copy in place," Brett replied. Slowly, carefully, he descended a little more, gradually and gently transferring the weight of the tank from the hook on the helicopter to the structure on the ground. Once Paul was able to confirm slack in the carrying rope, he pulled the lever and released it.

"Good set down," Paul said as the rope fell to the roof. As the helicopter rose up and circled around to land, he turned to his two helpers. "Let's get it transferred."

Ted, the plumber, with the help of Steve Kensington, the pool-man/mechanic, had installed a nozzle capable of taking standard two and a half-inch fire hose onto the transport tank. Paul utilized this nozzle now by leaning out and coupling a fifty-foot length of hose to it. The hose ran straight down to the water tanker, which was parked directly below, the other end connected, via a series of coupling rings, to the four-inch supply nozzle on the top of the tank.

"All ready?" Paul yelled down to the two women below who were handling that end of the operation.

"All ready," they yelled back up.

"On its way then," he said, opening the nozzle.

It took almost ten minutes for the fuel to run out of the transport tank and into the storage tank. As soon as it was empty Paul and Maggie used the rope to lower the tank back to the ground. Brett and two helpers took it from there, dragging it back over to the chopper and reattaching it to the hook. Three minutes later the engine was spinning up.

As he lifted into the air, Brett checked his watch. The first emptying cycle had taken twenty-eight minutes to accomplish. He hoped they would be able to cut that down to twenty by the end of the day.

He touched back down in Cameron Park at 10:30, just over two hours from the time the first drop of fuel was pumped. The first task was to refuel the helicopter for the next trip and then the next load of fuel was pumped from the storage tank into the transport tank. By 10:50 he was back in the air.

In all, by working non-stop without lunch and with only minimal bathroom breaks, they were able to transport five loads of fuel - 1250 gallons - from Cameron Park to Garden Hill that day. Brett landed with the empty tank at Cameron Park at 4:30, the cargo compartment of the chopper laden with sleeping bags and cans of food. The security and pumping troops quickly unloaded these and carried them over to the hanger where they would be spending the night.

Brett had wanted to spend the night at the airport with them, arguing that it would save time the next day if he didn't have to make a dry run from Garden Hill to start operations. Paul had utilized the veto power that came with being the only remaining committee member and ordered him to return home with the helicopter at the end of the day's operations. "We simply can't risk you and that machine like that," he'd explained. "I know you want to be with your troops, but the best place for that chopper at night is where it's safest, and where its safest is back here."

Though Brett wasn't happy with this ruling, he nevertheless agreed to abide by it.

"Be careful out here tonight," he told Michelle and Jason, who were in charge of the group.

"We will," Michelle promised. "If there's any trouble we'll just pull back and contact you by radio in the morning. Don't worry about us."

He smiled. "It's my job to worry about you," he told her.

They shared a brief kiss and then Brett climbed into the helicopter. We went through the start-up procedure and three minutes later was lifting off. By the time he made it back to Garden Hill it was nearly dark.

Though he was quite exhausted from a day spent nearly constantly behind the controls of the helicopter, Brett was not too tired to respond to Chrissie that night in bed when she expressed an interest in lovemaking. They enjoyed a long, slow, very heated session that ended with both of them sweating profusely and out of breath.

"I think I'm starting to see a little swelling in your belly," Brett said afterwards, as they lay cuddled together atop the covers, the light from a single candle providing scant illumination. He was running his hand softly over her damp stomach where, just above her pubic hair, the slightest bulging of her uterus was starting to make itself known.

"I'm going to be a fat pig in a few months," she said sourly, her own hand toying with the hair on his chest.

"You're going to be beautiful," Brett told her. "Pregnant women are hot."

"You must be kidding," she said in disbelief.

"Not at all. When does a woman look more feminine after all? Just ask Jason how hot pregnant women are."

"If you don't mind," she said, "I'd just assume leave my brother out of the discussion. The mental image of him having sex is something I'd rather not think about."

He laughed a little, kissing her forehead. "Well I assure you," he told her. "I'll still boff you when you swell up; often and well."

"I'll hold you to that," she said, giving him a kiss of her own.

They lay together in silence for a little bit as the sweat dried from their skin and then, when they started to shiver, they blew out the candle and climbed under the covers. Brett didn't toss or turn, he didn't speak or make any noise, but Chrissie still knew that he was not asleep and she also knew why.

"They'll be okay out there," she told him. "You trained them well."

"I know," he said with a sigh. "I just feel like a father waiting for his kids to get home from a night out."

"Shellie and Jason know what they're doing. They'll keep them safe." She paused. "I only wish I could be out there too."

"Your place is here," Brett said. "Believe me, I would've felt more comfortable with you as part of the airport detail but that same feeling works in reverse. I'm able to relax a little while I'm shuttling between here and Cameron Park knowing that you're here taking care of defense."

"Do you really think I'm doing a good job?" she asked, pleased by his praise.

"I really do," he said. "And I'm sorry that I took all your best people for the airport mission."

"At least I didn't have to staff the guard posts with untrained people," she said. The remaining guards that had been through Brett's training program had all volunteered to pull double duty until the completion of the mission to keep that from happening.

"That's a sign of respect for their leader," Brett said. "I could never get them to do that when I was in your shoes."

"That was before we were attacked," Chrissie reminded him, not about to be complimented that easily. "I think that might have had something to do with it."

"Maybe a little," Brett allowed. "But don't kid yourself. A lot of it is out of loyalty to you and I. Nobody wants to spend twelve hours in one of those wet, muddy bunkers up on the hill if they don't have to."

"That is true," she agreed, accepting the compliment this time. "But when are we going to get more people trained up? We have sixteen firm volunteers just waiting for their chance and ten more that are asking for consideration. I know you're busy securing fuel for the chopper and all, but we can't keep putting it on hold forever. We should pencil in a three day period after the airport mission so that the next time we don't have to double staff."

"An excellent idea," Brett agreed. "In fact, why don't you start running them through it day after tomorrow, after we get everyone home and rested up?"

"Me?" she asked. "What do you mean me?"

"I mean that I'm going to be much too busy trying to do maintenance tasks on the helicopter and trying to figure out a way to run the train mission. You've been through my class and you've assisted on it twice. You also have considerable combat experience. I think the time has come for you to take over that aspect of training."

"I can't do that," she protested, sitting up in the bed. "Brett, I can't teach your class. And they wouldn't listen to me anyway."

"You can teach it and they will listen to you," he assured her. "Chrissie, you know how fanatical I am about this training and this town's security. I wouldn't ask you to do it if I didn't think you'd do a good job. And you've already run more people through the basic firearms class than I have. You can do this. You have to do this or it's going to be a while before it gets done."

They discussed it for a few more minutes and eventually, as he had known she would, she agreed. Soon Brett drifted off to sleep, snoring as he only did when he was exhausted or intoxicated. Chrissie, on the other hand, with something new to worry about, lay awake for a long time.

It was just after first light when the men of Acting Captain Bracken's attack company resumed their march towards Garden Hill. They had been on the road for five days now and most of the men were at peak efficiency for the long march. They were accustomed to the mud, rain, and filth after five days of trudging through it and they were well acclimated to the cold and sleeping outside. Unlike on previous marches, Bracken was allowing them to stick to the Interstate as much as they could. With the numbers that they had for this mission he did not fear being on a predictable route as he once had. It seemed unlikely at best that anyone would try to attack them on their transit and walking on the asphalt cut drastically down on their time and fatigue factors since they weren't constantly slugging through thick mud or brush. Of course the many mudfalls and washouts meant that they were forced to take long detours through the heavy woods to go around such things. In all they spent about half their time on the pavement and half in the mud.

They were on a fairly long stretch of unimpeded Interstate on this morning, just two miles past the conquered town of Colfax. Bracken had high hopes of reaching the pre-attack staging area in three more days.

"Acting Lieutenant Jimms!" Bracken called to the senior sergeant from his own third platoon. Jimms was acting as platoon commander while Bracken acted as company commander.

"Yes, sir!" Jimms said smartly, stepping up to him.

"Third platoon will break trail today," he told him. "Assign a squad to the point and lets move out."

"Yes, sir," Jimms agreed. He turned to the platoon and selected second squad, headed by Stu, for that duty. Stu gathered his team of convicts together and formed them up. Soon, all one hundred and sixty men were heading down the Interstate following them.

It was two hours into that morning's march that Turbo, the private on point, spotted movement ahead of them. A figure was just cresting the hill above them, walking directly down the middle of the eastbound lanes. Turbo held up his hand, halting the squad behind him, and dropped to the pavement, his rifle pointing up at the figure. Stu signaled the rest of his squad to spread out to the flanks and then gave the danger signal to the rest of the company over the radio he carried. Bracken and the rest of the men quickly darted off the roadway and into the surrounding brush, for what they knew not why at this point, but reacting just as training dictated.

Stu scrambled up and slid to the ground next to Turbo, his eyes looking forward and immediately locking onto the lone figure. "Is that the only one?" he asked.

"So far," Turbo said. "You got binocs? It looks like a bitch from here."

"Yeah," Stu said. "I'll look in a minute. Let's get under cover for now and report in."

They scrambled off the road, keeping as low as possible, and into the tree line beside it, their boots sinking into the thick mud. Stu pulled out his portable radio and keyed it up. "This is Covington on point," he said into it. "You there, command?"

"Command here," Bracken's voice returned. "What do you got, Covington?"

"A single person walking down the Interstate about four hundred yards in front of us. Looks like a bitch. No one else in sight at this time. I'm gonna take a look through the binocs and get a closer look."

"Ten-four, Covington," Bracken said. "Keep us informed and report in before you do anything."

"No shit, fuckface," Stu said to the radio - without keying the transmit button of course. "Ten-four," he said with it keyed. He put it back in his belt and then fished in his pack for the binoculars that all of the squad leaders carried.

"What would a bitch be doing out here alone?" Turbo asked. "Maybe it's that cunt Marla trying to crawl back to us."

"Marla's dead and gone," Stu said absently, putting the binoculars to his face. "And if she wasn't, she wouldn't be coming back." He focused until he had a fairly clear view of the approaching figure. It was indeed a woman. She was dressed in a black rain slicker that was splattered with mud and grime. Poking out from around the edges of the hood were filthy strands of long blonde hair. On her back was a tattered and muddy backpack. She was limping along slowly, as if every step was painful, her course not exactly a straight line but meandering back and forth like a drunken sailor. There was no weapon in sight.

Stu relayed all of this information to Bracken using short, businesslike phrases.

"Ten-four, Covington," Bracken replied. "Hold in place until she gets closer and then take her into custody so we can see what she's all about. We'll be standing by in the rear."

"I got something in the rear for you," Stu muttered to the closed microphone. "Ten-four," he said to the open one.

"What's your name?" Bracken asked her fifteen minutes later, after she had been taken neatly into custody and after second platoon had checked out her back trail and pronounced it clear. She was sitting on a fallen log beside the Interstate, Bracken towering above her, Stu's squad standing around to provide security.

"Jessica Blakely," she said, her eyes arrogant. "Who are you people?"

"I'm the one asking the questions here," Bracken said mildly. "I think you'll do well to remember that."

Jessica snorted a little, as if to say "how dare you address me in that manner".

"Where did you come from?" Bracken asked her next.

"Garden Hill," she said. "I was a ruling committee member there."

"A ruling committee member?" Bracken said in disbelief. "And why are you here now?"

"A very bad man managed to discredit me before the town. He turned my people against me and had me thrown out of there." She made no mention of the fact that she had tried to kill him first.

"I see," Bracken said, dismissing this as irrelevant for the moment. "And where exactly were you heading? Were you on your way to Auburn?"

"I hardly think my destination is any of your business," she said snootily.

Bracken's instinct was to give her a sharp backhand across the face. That was what an Auburn man did when a woman talked back to him. He held off for the moment, trying a different tack. "Listen, Jessica," he said. "We are from Auburn and our town is the only inhabited place west of Garden Hill. Now you can continue to not answer my questions and stay out here to die, or you can tell me what I want to know and perhaps we will consider taking you in. The choice is yours."

Jessica's eyes looked up at him, considering his words, her mind ticking along. Could these people really be from Auburn? Could they really be important enough in that town to guarantee her admission? She was running extremely low on the supplies those ungrateful pagans in Garden Hill had sent her out with. If she cooperated with this rather dirty and unsavory man who seemed to be in charge of the others, she might just be able to find a safe haven for herself. And if there was a functioning township in Auburn, she would probably be able to worm her way into its command structure with a little bit of work. Worming her way close to those with power was - after all - what she did best. "What do you want to know?" she asked.

"Tell me about the makeup of Garden Hill," Bracken said, grabbing a seat across from her and lighting a cigarette.

She started to talk, at first interjecting her personal opinions about various people and lifestyles into the discussion but ceasing this when Bracken interrupted to let her know that he only wanted the facts. She gave the number of men, women, and children in town and explained that Paul and Brett were leading them with major decisions being made by community vote in the absence of a full committee.

"Paul and Brett?" Bracken asked. "Who are they?"

"Paul was a fireman at the station outside of town before the comet. I don't know what made us decide to make him a leader, but..."

"Uh, Jessica," Bracken interrupted. "Just the facts please, remember?"

She gave him another sour look but headed his words. "Paul is kind of a nerdy guy but I guess he's pretty smart about mechanical things. He's the one that worked out how to get us hot water and how to install cameras outside of our walls."

"Cameras huh?" Bracken said. "We'll get back to that. What about this Brett you mentioned? What's he all about?"

Her hatred for Brett was plainly evident in the face she made at the mere mention of his name. "He was a cop before the comet," she said. "He also used to fly helicopters in the army, so he says anyway. He snuck into town one night about two weeks after the comet and managed to sweet-talk his way into being allowed to stay. He had two little bratty kids with him. He just kept picking and picking at everyone until..."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Stu cut in from behind Bracken. "Did you say kids? Do you mean teenagers?" He was being insubordinate but Bracken let it slide.

"Yes," Jessica spat. "Chrissie and Jason. He's having relations with the girl and has gotten her pregnant. There has even been rumor of him molesting the boy as well, although when I left, this bitch named Stacy was..."

"Guns," Stu said, "did they have any guns with them when they came to town?"

"Well, yes," she said. "They had those army machine guns. They said they took them from some bikers or something. I'll just bet that they..."

"Like these guns?" Bracken said, holding up the M-16 he carried.

"Well, yeah... kind of I guess."

Bracken and Stu shared a look. Now they had a name attached to the man that had killed four of Stu's men (although Bracken could hardly blame him for that, considering what they were doing). "And is he the one who set up the defenses for the town?"

"Well, not at first," Jessica told them. "Paul came up with the defenses that we had at first. He put the camera on the bridge and put people in houses along the wall to watch for stragglers and drive them off. When Brett came he tried to change all of that. He kept asking us on the committee to let him put guards outside the wall nearly a mile from town in little holes on the hillsides. He kept telling us that we were doing things all wrong. I tried as hard as I could for as long as I could to keep him from changing things, but some people attacked the town one day..."

"We saw that," Bracken said.

"You did?" she asked, surprised.

"We've been watching your town for a while now," he assured her. "So anyway, those people attacked the town. And then... ?"

"Well, I'm convinced that Brett somehow talked those stragglers into attacking the town just so he could get power away from me. It was probably his plan all along. In fact, I wouldn't put it past him to have..."

"Jessica," Bracken interrupted with an impatient sigh. "Just the facts please."

Another sour look. "Well, after that attack was when everything really fell apart. Brett managed to convince everyone in town that it was my fault that the attack happened and Paul managed to get me voted off of the committee. Once I was no longer able to counter him, he started changing everything around. He started wasting our ammunition by having a bunch of people practice shooting. He started taking people off of bath details and laundry details and made them dig bunkers up on the hills. He even made me do that. Me!"

Bracken and Stu shared a look of dread with each other. "Digging bunkers in the hills?" Bracken asked carefully.

"Yes," she said. "And then he put me on kitchen detail working under that slut that's..."

Bracken let her ramble on for a moment this time, hardly hearing her spout about pregnant, child-molesting hussies as he opened up his pack and pulled out a large map of Garden Hill and the surrounding terrain that he had prepared after the last mission. He unfolded it and set it down on her lap. "Show me where these bunkers were dug," he told her, cutting her off in mid-rant.


He tapped the map with a dirty finger. "Show me," he said. "Where are these bunkers?"

It took her a few moments to puzzle out the map - cartography was not one of her skills in life - but eventually she was able to point out where the new defenses were located.

"Son of a bitch," Bracken said, shaking his head in wonder. "What kind of firepower do they put up there?" he asked her.

"What kind of what?"

"Guns!" he yelled, making her jump. "What kind of guns do they have in these bunkers? How much ammo?"

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