Chapter 13

Copyright© 2000 by Al Steiner

Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story: Chapter 13 - 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

It was thirty minutes before dark when Bracken reentered Barnes' office. The discovery of the death of Kelly and the apparent escape by Jean and Anna had taken place twelve hours before and Bracken had spent the day with a full platoon of soldiers trying to track his traitorous wives down so they could be hanged.

"No sign at all huh?" Barnes asked as he looked at his wet and muddy and now wifeless subordinate. He had been following the results of the search on a radio set on his desk.

"Nothing," Bracken confirmed. "We went all the way to the first mudfall to the east and saw nothing at all. Fourth platoon went all the way to the edge of the valley on the west and they saw nothing either. First and second platoons checked to the north and south, even though those are the least likely directions they might have gone, and again, nothing."

"There's no way they could have made it more than a mile outside of town in the dark," Barnes said confidently. "Even if they did manage to get out somehow, they would have been forced to camp just outside the range of the guards' visual zone until sunrise. It would've been impossible for them to navigate or move in the darkness."

"I agree, sir," Bracken said. "If they were out there, we would have seen them or picked up some sign of them. We have no evidence whatsoever that they even made it outside the perimeter. How could they even have made their way through any of our defenses in the dark? It's impossible."

"So that leaves us with the conclusion that they are still in town somewhere," Barnes said.

"That's right," Bracken told him. "They're probably hiding in one of the abandoned houses or in the industrial area. With your permission, I'll start a building to building search of the entire town at first light."

"Permission granted. We'll probably find them by noon tomorrow at the latest. We'll hang them before dinner if that's the case."

"Yes, sir."

"Don't blame yourself for this, Bracken," Barnes told him reassuringly. "No one can tell when their bitches are going to do something stupid like this. They're secretive little cunts, the bitches, and they plot against us without our even knowing about it."

"There must be some way to prevent that," Bracken said. "After all, we've got to maintain order in town."

"We'll have to come down a little harder on them it would seem. I think that, starting with this escape, we should punish all of them for the offense."

"Punish all of them?"

"Yes," Barnes said, nodding as the thought grew more detailed in his mind. "We'll punish them all and try to make them realize that their actions affect more than just themselves. I will order tonight that every woman in town be beaten by their husbands for the offense committed by your wives. In addition to that, I will pull three names of women at random and order that they be hanged."

Bracken raised his eyebrows a bit. "Hang three other bitches at random because of what my bitches did? I don't think the guys will like that too much if it's their bitch that gets picked."

"I'm sorry the guys won't like it, but they'll just have to put up with it. We'll set the precedent right here and right now to all of the bitches just what the consequences are for trying to escape. It's harsh, but I think it's the only way we'll get these bitches to see that they are affecting more than themselves."

"I understand, sir," Bracken said.

Contrary to Barnes and Bracken's assumptions, Jean and Anna had made it well past the mudfall by the time the light returned to the sky. Well aware of the dragnet that would be pursuing them, they had recovered as much food as they could find from the landfill - more than twenty-seven cans - and had then moved at as quick of a pace down the Interstate as they could physically maintain. Of course both of these operations - food recovery and escape run - were aided greatly by the use of the night vision on the camera. With three long-life batteries to burn, there had been more than enough power to last them until morning. They had reached the mudfall by 5:00 AM that morning and, continuing on without pausing, had been nearly two miles into the woods on the trek around it when their escape was finally discovered.

They had not stopped for anything but bathroom breaks and a simple breakfast at sunrise (such as it was with the sun still hidden behind thick clouds). They had simply stashed the video camera and its one remaining battery back in their packs and continued on, their pace somewhat faster as they trudged over logs and up hills and through gullies. By the time the pursuing troops made it to the mudfall at around 1:30 that afternoon, Anna and Jean were back on the Interstate on the other side of it starting to feel, for the first time, that they had safely gotten away.

"I don't think we left any tracks that they could follow or any other sign that we were even out here," Anna said as they began walking east on the paved surface once again. "Chances are that they'll conclude we never left town in the first place. They'll probably waste at least two days searching for us there before it occurs to them to look this way again. By then we'll be far too far in front of them for there to be any hope of catching up with us."

"So you think we're safe?" Jean, who had been obsessively looking over her shoulder the entire time, asked hopefully.

"Safe from the Auburn men," Anna corrected. "However, there's still the great unknown out here to deal with; and we still only have twenty-six cans of food to last us all the way to Garden Hill."

"We'll make it," Jean said. "I just know we will. The hard part is over now."

All afternoon they had marched onward, coming to the second of the major mudfalls at about 4:30, just as the light started to fade towards darkness. They pushed another quarter mile into the woods and then, at long last, decided to make camp for the night. Here Anna gave up her unspoken leadership and passed it on to Jean, who had done a fair share of camping and hunting with her father and brothers before the comet. Jean was able to quickly build a lean-to against the side of a group of fallen trees. It was a lean-to that was both larger and better constructed than those that Brett and company had made on their initial trips through the woods.

"Let's get some sleep," Jean told her fellow conspirator once the makeshift structure was complete.

"I'm up for that," Anna agreed. "I can't believe you were able to build something that's dry inside."

"Mostly dry anyway," Jean said. She opened up the plastic bag that she had been using as her pack, pulling out the dry blankets inside. "Put the plastic bags down first," she said, demonstrating what she meant. "That will keep the water on the ground from getting us. Then, if we take off our clothes, our blankets will stay somewhat dry for tomorrow."

"Pretty smart, Jean," Anna said, repeating her motions with her own bag. "Are you sure you haven't been to college?"

Within minutes their wet clothes were stripped off and stored and their naked bodies were cuddled up together under the thick blankets.

"We're free," Jean whispered, pulling Anna closer to her.

"Yes," Anna said, soaking up the warmth of her friend's body. "We're free at last."

Exhausted, both were sound asleep in less than five minutes.

January 1 dawned just like any other day. The coming of the new year marked the 80th day since the impact of Comet Fenwell. Though there was still no sign of the sun through the thick cloud cover and though the moderate but depressingly steady rainfall continued to drop without let-up from those clouds, the spirits in Garden Hill were at perhaps an all-time high since that fateful day. They were now quite safe from the specter of starvation. More than six tons of rice and wheat, as well as more than six thousand cans of chicken noodle soup and more than four thousand cans of spinach, had been recovered from the abandoned train and stored. Mealtimes were starting to get a bit boring despite the best efforts of Tina, Stacy, and the other kitchen staff to dress up the new staples of their diet, but at least there were mealtimes every day.

In addition, the social climate of Garden Hill was undergoing a rapid metamorphosis. Though Brett and Jason and their various wives had been the ones to pioneer the concept of polygamous marriage, the concept had not received widespread acceptance in town until Paul, Janet, and Sherrie took the plunge. Though Brett was respected greatly in town for all that he had done, his reputation would always be associated with rebellion and radicalism. And though Jason was rapidly gaining the respect due him as an adult, many of the townspeople associated him with the burnings of youth. Paul, on the other hand, was considered about as straight-laced and normal as a person could get. Since Paul made it publicly known that he was participating in such a marriage, it was concluded almost unanimously that such a thing must be the wave of the future. As of the morning of January 1, four more polygamous marriages had been declared and two more seemed inevitable.

"So I was thinking," said Matt that afternoon as he sat in the cramped cargo area of the helicopter next to Paul.

"A dangerous thing," said Brett from the pilot's seat, producing a dutiful laugh from all on board.

They were two hours into a recon mission to examine the contents of all of the trucks that had been abandoned on the Interstate between Garden Hill and the snowline. So far they had dropped Matt and Paul down five times next to vehicles and five times they had drawn blanks as far as anything useful being in the trucks. The first one had been empty. The second had contained sixteen thousand heads of lettuce that had long since spoiled. The third had been full of bags of steer manure - which might be somewhat useful once the sun came back out. The fourth had been empty. The fifth had contained two thousand cases of Sprite soda.

"What were you thinking, Matt?" asked Jason, the designated lookout and student pilot.

"Well, we're going around calling today January 1, right?"

"Are you saying that it isn't January 1?" Paul asked him. "We've kept pretty good track of all the days since impact and I'm pretty sure that our date is correct."

"Also," Brett said, "I've got the same watch I was wearing before the comet." He held up his hand to show it to them. "It takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. I never did set it back an hour when we went back to standard time in October, but it says that it's the 1st of January too. We haven't forgot to count any days, I'm quite sure of it."

"No," Matt said, "that's not exactly what I'm saying. I still have the same watch as well and I have been marking off days on the calendar in my house in addition to that. It is in fact January 1 under the old calendar."

"The old calendar?" Jason asked.

"Correct," Matt said. "It is my thought that we should not be using that calendar any longer. It is outdated, counting down days and years from the alleged birth of Jesus Christ more than two thousand years ago. A significant event for those who believe in Him, I will agree, but it does not have a lot of bearing on mankind's current situation."

"I'm sure there are a lot of religious people out there who will disagree with you," Paul said.

"I'm sure you're right," Matt said. "But fanatics not withstanding, I believe that the new significant event we should be concerned with is the impact of the comet that nearly destroyed us all. It is that event that marks the major change in mankind and it is that event that those in the future generations should be able to mark as the new beginning of society - whatever it turns out to be."

"That does make a certain amount of sense," Brett said, banking slightly to the right as the Interstate two thousand feet below curved. "So what date would it be on your new calendar?"

"Today would be March 21, year 0," Matt replied. "Exactly eighty days, or two and two-thirds months from the day of impact. On January 1, year 1, we'll be exactly one year from the day of impact."

"March 21?" Jason asked. "But that's the first day of spring. Right now we're in the middle of winter, or at least we would be if these clouds weren't screwing everything up. You can't just go changing around the months and the seasons, can you?"

"Why not?" Matt wanted to know. "It will probably be a long time before we go back to any sort of normal weather patterns anyway. I mean, once the rain stops and the clouds break up a little, we're still going to have vastly different weather than we're used to. All of the snow in the mountains will make new glaciers, which is going to affect winds and temperatures globally. According to Maggie - who's the closest thing to a scientist that we have - we're probably going to be starting a new ice age that will last for a few thousand years. What possible difference will it make to our descendants is the winter solstice is in February instead of December? What difference will it make if the summer solstice is in September instead of June?"

"But what about Christmas and Easter and all of the religious holidays?" Paul asked. "What will you do about those?"

Matt shrugged. "If Christianity somehow manages to survive all of this intact, its followers can just continue to worship on the previous dates if they want. December 25 can still represent the birth of Jesus under this new calendar. That date was pretty much picked at random at some point in history anyway. Nobody really knows what day or even what year Jesus was actually born. And as for Easter, which represents The Resurrection, they can still use the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, just like they always did. Only now, that will be in June or July instead of March or April."

"Wow," Brett said after everyone had a moment to consider all of that. "And they call me a radical."

The timekeeping discussion was put on hold for the moment when Jason spotted more trucks down on the highway below. There were two of them this time, sitting next to each other near the edge of a massive washout of the roadway. It appeared that the two drivers had stopped there and never moved since.

Brett circled around over the top of them for several minutes, visually checking the area for any signs of humanity while Jason utilized the FLIR to check for the telltale signs of body heat glowing from beneath bushes or near trees. Neither method of search turned up any likely humans so Matt and Paul picked up their weapons, flipped off the safeties, and prepared to exit the aircraft. At least this time there was sufficient room to land on the freeway and they wouldn't have to rappel downward and then be carried along underneath to get back up.

Brett touched down lightly about a hundred yards from the two trailers. Matt and Paul, in a well-practiced maneuver, went out either side and lay on the ground, weapons trained outward. Brett lifted back into the air and flew off to the south, where he circled around awaiting a radio call to pick them back up. The two outside team members then got up and carefully approached their targets.

They spent about ten minutes checking the area just to be absolutely sure that they were all alone. They saw no signs of anyone or anything in the woods to the side of the freeway so they finally approached the cab of the first truck. While Matt covered him with the rifle, Paul tried the handle on passenger side door, finding it unlocked. The inside was empty so he climbed up and dug around inside, looking for the shipment papers that every big-rig was supposed to carry. He found them in the usual place and took a moment to look them over.

"What do we got?" Matt asked from behind him, his weapon now pointed at the ground.

"Laundry soap," Paul replied. "He's carrying six thousand boxes of Tide from Gary, Indiana to Oakland."

"Christ," Matt said, somewhat dejected. "I guess we can haul some of it back later on. We are getting rather short on it."

"Yeah," Paul agreed, tossing the papers back down. "It is a rather low-priority item though."

Utilizing their breaking and entering gear - in this case a pair of bolt cutters - they opened up the trailer just to make sure that the manifest matched the cargo. You could never tell. Maybe the truck driver had been a smuggler of some sort and had been transporting automatic weapons and ammunition for some radical anti-government group. It was possible wasn't it?

Perhaps, but it was not the case in this instance. In the back were the orange and white boxes so familiar to housewives the world over.

"Okay, let's check the other one," Matt said.

Again, they approached carefully and checked the cab first. This time the manifest papers were missing, as were most of the loose contents of the cab. Where had they gone? Had the driver taken them with him - wherever it was that he went - for some bizarre reason? They didn't know, nor did they waste time speculating about it. Instead they simply walked to the back of the rig and prepared to open the door.

In this case they didn't have to force entry. Someone had already done it for them. The lock was lying opened on the bumper of the trailer and the latching handle was in the up position. They both looked at this for a moment, both having the thought that there must be something useful inside or the driver of the truck would not have bothered taking some of it out. Paul grabbed the handle and, with a grunt of effort, pulled open the door.

"Well now," Matt said, seeing the contents.

"Well, well," said Paul.

Inside of the trailer were hundreds of boxes stacked on pallets. Each box, according to the labeling on the side, contained sixty jars of Gerber baby food.

"It's food," Matt said, reading the sides of the boxes to see what kind it was. All of the boxes that he could see proclaimed they contained broccoli and cheese variety. "It should come in handy in another month or so when Stacy has her baby."

"And it'll come in real handy in about seven months when everyone else starts to pop," Paul added, referring to the recent epidemic of pregnancy that had struck the women of Garden Hill. As of that morning, and not including Stacy and the other women who were carrying pre-comet children in their wombs, there were nineteen confirmed pregnancies, including Chrissie's, and more than twenty suspected ones. Janet, who had run out of birth control pills at impact+20 days, was among them, her period now more than a week late.

"Amen to that," Matt agreed. His wife Maureen was one of the confirmed ones. He pulled the portable radio from his pocket and keyed it up. "Brett, Jason, you there?"

"We're here, Matt," Jason's voice replied. "Got anything in that bunch?"

"Laundry soap and a shitload of baby food," he replied. "We're gonna close it up now. We're ready for pickup."

"Copy that, we're coming back in."

Since the fuel in the chopper's tank had dwindled to less than three hundred pounds, Brett elected to call an end to that day's mission and head back to town. He pointed the chopper's nose to the west and brought them up to 2500 feet, accelerating to ninety knots. Jason, at the controls of the FLIR, watched the landscape in front of them hoping to spot a deer as he had on one of the return flights from the grain detail. Then, there had been no scoped rifle or time to pursue the animal. Now, Brett's own pre-comet rifle was stashed under the passenger seat, just waiting for the opportunity to take down some fresh meat. Alas, nothing was seen but trees and ground. In the back, Matt and Paul were leaning against the sides of the cabin on opposite sides, their headsets on their heads, their legs stretched out as far as was possible (which wasn't very far at all). They had both long-since gotten over the worst of their fears of flying, so often had then done it in the past two weeks. Especially since Brett had put the helicopter through a complete maintenance routine with the supplies taken from the airport and the thing still flew.

"You given any more thought to the El Dorado Hills mission?" Matt asked Paul. Ever since the discovery of the neighboring town's occupied status, Matt and several others had been quietly pushing for an attempt to make contact with them. Paul, still the only remaining member of the ruling committee, was very much in favor of attempting contact but had so far been reluctant to bring the matter to a community vote, mostly because of pressure by Brett and a few others who thought such a thing was a bad idea.

"I've been giving it a lot of thought," he said with a sigh. "Like I told you before, I think it's something that should be done, but I have to listen to the other points of view about it. It's my responsibility as leader."

"This isolationism school of thought," Matt said. "No offense Brett, I know how you feel about all of this, but I think that you're reasoning is flawed."

"Yeah, yeah," Brett said, unoffended. "Call me paranoid if you will. It's just that we know nothing about the people there except for what we saw on a few blurry infrared pictures. Just because they allow women to carry guns there, doesn't mean that they are like us. So far, they have no idea we even exist. Why should we alert them to a potential target for attack?"

"I'm not saying that we land there and reveal everything about ourselves to them," Matt said. "And I agree with your reasoning in regard to Auburn - those people give me the creeps as much as they do you. But we know there was a gun store in El Dorado Hills. Maybe they have ammunition that they'll be willing to trade for food."

"The initiation of trade is the first step in rebuilding society," Paul felt compelled to point out.

"And the initiation of war to take what you need is also one of the staples of the beginnings of society as well," Brett countered. "Why invite trouble?"

"Sooner or later, we're going to have contact with them," Matt said. "If we survive here, which we certainly hope to do, it's inevitable that us, Auburn, El Dorado Hills, and any other groups of people are going to meet up, for better or for worse. I think it would be in our best interests to control the manner in which it is done. Right now, they are pretty much isolated there and we have an aircraft. Even if they did decide to attack us, we're talking about a fifteen to twenty day march even assuming that they can somehow get across one of the canyon bridges."

"I think that that is the most compelling argument in favor of making contact," Paul added helpfully. "Right now it is we that are in the position of strength. We have food and we have control of the sky. Negotiating from the position of strength is always the best way to do it, isn't it?"

"I suppose," Brett said reluctantly.

"I've hesitated bringing the issue to a vote at a community meeting so far because of all the fervor," Paul said. "I thought I'd give it a chance to die down so that people would make their decisions rationally instead of emotionally."

"I understand," Brett said, knowing what was coming next.

"I think we've reached that point," Paul said next. "Unless there are any stern objections," he gave Brett a sharp look, "then I'm going to bring it up tonight and call a vote."

Brett sighed a little. "You'll get no objections from me," he said at last. "I don't agree that this is the time to do this but I will agree that its time to decide one way or the other."

Dinner that night was of course very heavy on rice, chicken noodles, and fresh baked bread made from flour that had been ground from the wheat. The mechanics of eating were over and done with fairly quickly. The community meeting that followed went on for quite some time.

Paul, to give him credit, explained fairly dispassionately and in a non-partisan matter, just what it was that was being proposed. He explained the potential risks as well as the potential benefits of attempting to establish contact, covering every single point that had been brought up to him since the idea was first suggested.

For the first time since the initiation of the decision by community vote concept, opinion was sharply divided on a subject. This division followed no clear lines and was almost completely even - with half the townspeople being strongly in favor of making the attempt and about half strongly opposed. The first hour of the discussion did not even touch the subject of whether or not they should do it but as to how the votes were going to counted. Representatives of both points of view pushed for a two-thirds majority being required - in opposition to their respective choices of course. Some of the arguments became quite inflamed and, for the first time since Jessica's ouster as chairwoman of the meeting, Paul found himself wishing that he had a gavel to bang.

Finally Paul declared that, for the purposes of the decision-making, majority would rule. This then brought another extensive round of discussion as person after person asked to be recognized so they could speak their piece. Most of the statements made were impassioned cries to try to convert others to their side and the same points on both sides of the issue were brought up over and over again.

"It's too dangerous to expose ourselves," cried the opposed group in thirty or forty different ways.

"The benefits of establishing trade from a position of strength make the risk worthwhile," cried those in favor in just as many different manners.

Eventually, at nearly 8:00 that night, everyone had had his or her say and Paul called the vote. It was very close, requiring that those people manning the guard positions (they had listened to the entire debate through a radio-link that Paul had set up) needed to be polled in order to make the final determination. The decision was made - by a margin of only two votes - to make the attempt to establish contact.

Jessica was having a little trouble getting a deep breath. As she sat in the bleachers of the high school's football stadium that afternoon along with every last one of the other 2200 some-odd women in town, her nose was swollen shut and caked with blood and there was sharp pain in her right side whenever she inhaled or exhaled. Nor was she the only one. Every woman around her was sporting similar beating injuries of varying color and severity. Some, the women of Stu's clan, had had to be carried to the mandatory meeting by their companion wives.

The beatings had occurred immediately after breakfast that morning. Colonel Barnes had ordered that every person return immediately to their assigned homes and that every man soundly beat his wives as punishment for the "AWOL status" of Anna and Jean Bracken. "This is your responsibility to do this correctly," Barnes told the men of the town just before dismissing them to take care of this. "If I see a bitch walking around in this town without bruises on her, I swear by God that I'm going have her husband hanged. You will beat them and beat them well for this! Every last one of them!"

And the men of town had taken his words to heart. The rumor mill among the women was a weak one - there was too much fear and mistrust, too many informers trying to gain favor for there to be a truly free exchange of information and stories - but there was a rumor mill nonetheless. Jessica, who had been perhaps one of the all-time best at ferreting out gossip in her previous circles, was starting to become tuned in to this network. The word was that three women had actually been beaten to death. And now, with less than a half-hour until dinner, Barnes had ordered again that every person in town assemble. The women had been put on the bleachers and in front of it while the men were formed up at attention on the muddy field. Most of the women were tittering nervously as they waited to find out what this was all about. The only time the women were forced to gather like this was when one of them was to be hanged. Had they caught Jean and Anna? Was that what this was all about? The hanging scaffold was standing in its accustomed spot in the center of the field - a large wooden structure that had been constructed from scrap wood only days after the comet impact.

Somehow Jessica didn't seem to think that the two fugitives had been captured. Though she had never witnessed one of the town's hangings before, she had heard that in every other case the women in question had been chained to the outside of the scaffold when the meeting convened.

"I have a bad feeling about this," said Cathy, her co-wife, who was sitting next to her.

"There's nothing to worry about," Linda, who was on the other side of Cathy, replied nervously. "He probably just wants to warn us again about trying to get away. Imagine the nerve of those two sluts, running away and subjecting us to all this."

Jessica said nothing to them. Their relationship was still not the best, especially the relationship with Linda, who seemed to delight in reporting every word, every action that Jessica said or did to Stinson. As much as she hated to admit it to herself, there was no denying that Linda's personality was very much like her own. Would she - Jessica - have been like this if she had been in Auburn since the start, if she had not known how different things could be? She tried to tell herself that she wouldn't have been but she had had much time to do some soul searching since that shocking day she had first been beaten and raped, and she had a hard time convincing herself of the truth of this notion.

"There's Barnes," Cathy said softly, a tinge of fear in her voice as he walked to the covered podium that had been set up for him.

"Yes," Linda agreed, her eyes looking at him with adoration. "Isn't he just the most?"

Nobody answered her. As one, the entire congregation of women stood up - as Auburn law demanded they do when their leader was addressing them. Barnes mounted the podium and clicked on a loudspeaker system. He tapped the microphone a few times and then began to speak.

"This gathering," he said, "is for the bitches of town. By now, your husbands have beaten all of you as part of a group punishment for the elopement of Anna and Jean Bracken. These beatings were not something I ordered lightly - as I've told you time and time again, I am firmly opposed to needless violence against the fairer sex - but they are something that I thought necessary to prevent further elopements by others. I want you all to know that you are all going to be responsible for the actions of each other and that your actions will impact what happens to everyone. The beatings are only the first step in this punishment process. Now, we will address part two of this punishment."

There was a low murmur from the women, almost inaudible over the sound of the rain and the hissing of the public address system. Part two of the punishment? A bad feeling began to infect everyone, becoming almost palatable.

"I have put the names of every bitch in town into a box," Barnes told them next, holding up a small, wooden container about the size of a toaster. "This includes even my own bitches, as they are no better than any of you others. I will now draw three names from this box and those women will come up and stand before the town where they will then be hanged for the offense committed by Anna and Jean Bracken."

This time the gasp was clearly heard as his words sank into everyone.

"Silence!" Barnes barked angrily. "If I hear another peep out of anyone, if I have any sort of problems with this group, I will order another round of beatings tonight and add one more woman to the hanging list! Now if you're name is called, you will proceed immediately down here! If I have to send someone up to get you, I will change the punishment from a simple, painless hanging to being burned at a fucking stake!"

He began to draw the names a moment later. Jessica watched and listened numbly as three women, none of whom she knew or had heard of, wordlessly marched from their places in the bleachers and down to the scaffold. Members of Bracken's company, assisted by Bracken himself, handcuffed their arms behind their backs and then led them, one by one, up the rickety steps to the platform. A noose was put around their necks and a lever was pulled, dropping them five feet downward. The snapping of their necks could be heard plainly each time.

"Now remember what you've seen here today," Barnes told the remaining women after the last one fell. "Remember that your actions affect more than just yourself. For this elopement I ordered one beating and three hangings. For the next one, I will order two days of beatings and six hangings. Remember and learn. You are now dismissed."

Slowly, most expressions shocked and haunted, the women stood and began filing down the nearest set of steps. Jessica maintained her position next to her two co-bitches. "He's mad," she said softly to them, unable to help herself, unable to keep from articulating that any longer. "We're being ruled by a madman."

"You'd better watch what you say about our leader," Linda warned her, though her words seemed to be reflexive instead of having any real menace to them.

"He's absolutely insane," Jessica repeated. "How can you not see that?"

Linda opened her mouth to say further but Cathy beat her to the punch. "She's right," she said. "He's not just harsh, he's not just a sadist, he's insane."

At 10:00 the next morning, Brett, Paul, Matt, and Jason climbed into the helicopter. With them, in addition to the usual assortment of weapons and packs that they carried, was a very special package that had been constructed the night before. Brett went through the pre-flight check and then got the rotor turning. He applied power and the machine left the ground.

Twenty minutes of flight time brought them to the familiar landmark of Cameron Park, the former home of the helicopter. Using Highway 50 as a reference, Brett turned to a heading that was nearly due west. As the land became lower in altitude below him, Brett did not drop down with it. Instead, he kept his altimeter at a steady 5500 feet, which would put them a little more than 4200 feet above ground level when they finally reached their destination.

"You're sure that this is out of gun range?" Paul asked nervously from his spot in the cargo compartment.

"Unless they have heavy caliber weapons," Brett told him, "they won't be able to scratch us even if they do somehow manage to get a shot on target. Four thousand feet straight up will eat up all the velocity."

"And if they do have heavy caliber weapons?"

"Then that would be one on us, wouldn't it?"

It was only a five-minute flight time from Cameron Park before the roofs and streets of El Dorado Hills came into sight ahead of them.

"Two minutes," Brett said, his eyes straining to spot any sort of movement in the town. How fast would their lookouts spot the helicopter? How fast could the people get under cover after that?

Apparently it was pretty fast. When they flew over the hills that guarded the east side of town, Jason was able to spot a faint hint of the guards on duty with the FLIR. In the township itself, there was nothing visible, either with the naked eye or in infrared. Just as it had the first time they'd spotted it, El Dorado Hills looked just like an abandoned, dead town.

Brett slowed up and brought the helicopter into a high hover directly over the center of the town. "We're ready for the drop," he said. "Jason, Matt, keep your eyes peeled for any ground fire."

Paul picked up the package he had and removed a large rubber band from around it. The package was a shoebox wrapped tightly in a heavy-duty plastic garbage bag. Attached to it was an improvised parachute that had been made out of another garbage bag and some string. "Let's hope this parachute works," he said, opening the door. "It would seem kind of strange to them if we just hovered and dropped a shoebox to shatter on the ground, wouldn't it?"

"It worked in the test from the community center," Matt said. "It'll work now. Drop it out."

"Right," Paul replied, pushing the door open a little further. "Here goes nothing."

He pushed the package out the door and watched as it fell. The chute had been deliberately twisted up into a tight ball to keep it from opening too soon and being torn to shreds by the downdraft from the rotor. It was a plan that worked well. Nearly five seconds passed, during which the package dropped more than three hundred feet, before it popped open in a flash of industrial green and began to drift slowly downward.

"We have a deployment," Paul announced.

"Confirm that," Matt said.

"Very good," Brett said, using the anti-torque pedals to spin the nose back to the east. "Now let's get the hell out of here."

"My thoughts exactly," Paul said. "I hope we haven't stirred up too much shit down there."

It took more than a minute for the package to drift down to earth. It swung gently back and forth on the end of its tether, the arcs growing smaller and smaller with each cycle, until finally it was hanging almost motionless in the air. Thanks to the absence of wind, it came almost straight down, landing in the middle of the elementary school soccer field, almost exactly where its droppers had intended. By the time it touched down in a puddle of standing water, the helicopter that had dropped it had disappeared into the distance.

Nothing moved in the town for more than five minutes after the landing - the package simply sat there amid the raindrops. Finally, from the row of classroom buildings two hundred feet away, a door opened. Three people - two women and one man - stepped out. All three were dressed in rain jackets and carrying assault weapons in their hands. Two of them had portable radios on their person. The male raised the radio to his lips and keyed it. "East perimeter, this is Rowley," he said into. "Still no sign of the chopper?"

"It flew straight off to the east along the highway and disappeared," came the reply. "We're keeping a sharp eye out for it."

"Okay," he said into the radio. "Good job spotting it back there. I don't think they saw anyone." He put the radio away.

"If they didn't see anyone," the woman closest to him asked, "why did they drop a package on the ground? What the hell is going on here?"

"I don't know," he told her. "I guess there's only one way to find out."

"What if it's a bomb?" the other woman said. "You're not just going to go open it up, are you?"

"Why would someone go to all the trouble of dropping a package bomb on us from a helicopter?" he asked her.

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