Copyright© 2000 by Al Steiner
Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story: Chapter 14 - 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
Guard position 1 sat atop Hill 1514 outside the northwest perimeter of Garden Hill. The hill itself was sparsely populated with pine and redwood trees and rose five hundred feet above the rooftops of the town. The guard bunker was a four-foot trench that stretched thirty feet north to south at the summit of the hill. Sandbags lined the front and back of the trench and a camouflaged cover had been placed over the top of it and covered with tree branches and mud. Openings in the sandbag walls allowed for visualization of the post's area of responsibility - the Interstate stretching off to the west and the low hills to the north and immediate south of it - and served as firing ports if a battle ever became necessary.
Brett had designed the bunker so that a complete ten-person squad could occupy it during a battle and pour fire down upon any invaders approaching from the Interstate. Now, however, at 2:30 on the afternoon of January 5 (or March 26 under Matt's calendar), it was staffed only by Maria Sanchez and Leanette Benton who were two and a half hours into a standard six-hour guard shift. They were armed with one of the automatic M-16 rifles and a long-range, scoped hunting rifle in addition to their sidearms. They also had a fully charged portable radio and a set of expensive binoculars.
The inside of the trench was damp and muddy on the floor of it but relatively free of dripping water or direct rainfall. The two women were dressed warmly in jeans and flannel shirts covered by black rain jackets and hoods. They sat side by side upon small stools near one of the sandbag openings playing a game of cribbage that was set up on a small end table between them. Every few minutes one of them would stand up and make a complete scan of the area with the binoculars and then, after seeing nothing, they would go back to their game.
Maria and Leanette had once been bitter enemies. It had been they that Chrissie had had to actually separate at post because of physical fighting not too long before. Those days were tentatively over, replaced by a cautious friendship born out of their recent polygamous marriage to Hector. After Paul's legitimization of the concept by participation in it, Hector had been one of the first to jump on the bandwagon by suggesting that his semi-permanent mistress Leanette officially join the union. Maria had not been too terribly wild about the idea but she had accepted it, knowing, as most of the other women were learning, that her husband was going to sleep with Leanette with or without official sanction anyway. Since then the two had become cautious friends with each other, well on their way to developing the camaraderie with each other that marked most of the other triples. Together they were attempting to keep their man in line and so far their combined efforts seemed to be doing the trick.
"Fifteen-two, fifteen-four," Maria counted, laying down her latest hand, "fifteen-six, a pair is eight, and a three-card run is eleven." She picked up her peg and advanced it well past the last hole on the board. "And that," she said with a small smile, "puts me out. That's two in a row I've whipped your ass."
"Yeah yeah," Leanette said with a good-natured grunt as she threw down her uncounted cards. "This is a stupid game."
"It sure is," Maria agreed. "You wanna play again?"
"Screw that. What else we got in here?"
"We have Monopoly," Maria, the veteran of this particular post told her. "Chrissie actually replaced the Monopoly money inside of it with real money from the grocery store."
"You mean there's real hundreds and fifties and twenties in there?" Leanette asked.
"Everything except the five hundreds," she answered. "It's kind of fun to play that way until you remember that the real money is just as worthless as the Monopoly money was."
"Okay," Leanette said, "let's do it."
"I'll kick your ass at that too," Maria warned. "I'm the Monopoly master."
"Bring it on, girl," Leanette told her with a smile. "Why don't you start setting it up and I'll make another check outside?"
"It's a plan," she said, reaching under the end table and into a plastic garbage bag where the entertainment items were kept.
Leanette picked up the binoculars and stood up, taking two steps through the mud to the opening. Sometimes she wondered why they even bothered looking out every five minutes. Nothing was ever out there anymore, not even isolated stragglers. The last of them had apparently died out more than six weeks ago, or at least they never showed themselves anymore. But then, when her boredom at guard duty would reach a peak, she would remind herself of that terrifying day when armed invaders had come right in the wall, bent on capturing the community center and kidnapping the women. She had been one of Brett's hastily assembled squad on that day and she always remembered the horror she had felt when bullets had started whizzing in over her head, when Dale and then Rick and then Sherrie had been felled right in front of her. Those thoughts always compelled her to perform as she was told on guard duty and make her checks religiously. Never again did she want to feel the way she had at that moment.
She put the binoculars to her face and began her slow scan of the area, starting from the far south of the zone of responsibility. She looked at a magnified view of the rolling hills, of the mud flats, of the trees and shrubs. She looked over the abandoned grocery store and the abandoned gas station. At the gas station a work crew of two women was using a siphon hose to draw gasoline from the underground tank and fill up the Dodge truck that served as the town's wood gathering and general hauling vehicle. She held her gaze on them for a moment, not because she thought they were invaders - she and Maria had been informed by radio a few minutes before that a work-crew would be leaving the town - but only because they were actual people in an otherwise sterile environment. When she got her fill of looking at them, she turned her head slowly to the right, spinning her view to the north. Soon she was looking at the abandoned lanes of Interstate 80, the most likely avenue of any outsider advance. She started at the signpost that marked the official border of Garden Hill and then worked her way west, towards the small rise some three miles distant where the lanes disappeared from view. So accustomed to seeing nothing was she that she actually looked right over the two figures coming over this rise and kept scanning before her brain finally gave her a little kick in the ass and told her to pan back.
She did this quickly, the view jumping and bouncing for a moment before she was able to steady it on the two people she had seen. They were still several miles out and therefore very difficult to catch any fine details of, but they were unmistakably human beings. They were walking sedately right down the middle of the eastbound lanes, shoulder to shoulder, occasionally leaning on each other for a moment.
"Maria," Leanette said, her voice excited. "I've got two people out there on the Interstate!"
"What?" Maria said, looking at her co-wife to see if she was joking or not. She did not seem to be.
"Two people," she repeated. "They just came over the rise to the west. They're walking right down the freeway!"
Maria stood up quickly, pushing her face through the nearest opening. Her eyes were sharp and even without artificial magnification she was able to spot two tiny specks making their way forward. "Let me see those glasses," she said, holding out her hands for them.
Leanette handed them over to her and she put them to her face, getting the close-in view. "They don't look like they're carrying rifles," she said doubtfully. "They might be over their shoulders though. Who do you think they are? Where are they coming from?"
"I don't know," Leanette said, picking up the scoped rifle. She aimed it out through the opening and peered through the scope. The magnification wasn't as much as the binoculars but it was considerably more than the naked eye. "They don't look like they're very heavily loaded. You see anyone else behind them or to the sides?"
"No one," Maria said, shaking her head. "Goddammit, and Brett and Jason are gone with the helicopter right now too. They could've used the infra-red to check behind them."
Leanette nodded as she remembered this. Brett, Jason, Matt, and Paul had flown off about an hour before to continue their recon mission of the abandoned trucks on the Interstate. They also planned to do some recon to the north of the Interstate, on the secondary roads, as well. "We'd better tell Chrissie about this," she said, backing away from the rifle a little and picking up the radio. "Position one to base," she said into it. "Are you there, Chrissie?"
Chrissie was upstairs in the community center's main office, going over the schedule for the 6:00 PM crew change when the call came in. She was currently the only one in the office since Brett and Paul were both away on the recon mission. She wheeled her chair over to the shelf where the main radio set rested and picked up the microphone.
"This is Chrissie," she said, already sensing - based on the tone of Leanette's voice - that something out of the ordinary was in the works. "What's happening, Leanette?"
"Chrissie," Leanette said, "we have two people walking up the Interstate towards us. They're approximately two miles to the west at this time walking in the eastbound lanes."
She felt a jolt of adrenaline surge through her as she heard this. People approaching the town? Who were they? What could they want? Where had they come from? And Brett was out of radio range in the helicopter! What if they were hostile?
"Chrissie?" Leanette's voice said from the radio. She sounded a little worried. "Did you copy my transmission?"
"I copy," Chrissie said slowly, her mind spinning up to overdrive. "Where uh... I mean, can you tell if they're armed or not?"
"Unsure at this point," Leanette replied. "They're still too far away for us to make anything out. They're not trying to hide from us or anything, they're just walking down the roadway."
"No sign of others?" she asked next.
"Not so far," was the answer. "We're keeping our eyes peeled."
She took a few breaths, trying to think through what she should do next. Was this an emergency? Well, not really, not at this point anyway. But it was unusual and there were certain things that should probably be done. "Leanette," she said into the microphone, "keep watching them for the moment. Don't do anything until they get up to our sign. At that point, if they cross over, treat them like any other straggler."
"I copy that," Leanette replied.
"Positions 2, 3, and 4," Chrissie said next, "answer up in order please."
One by one the other guard posts all checked in with her. None of them reported anything unusual outside of their posts. She told all of them to increase their alertness until told to stand-down. This meant that they all dropped their games and conversations and picked up their guns and binoculars.
"Are they still advancing?" she asked Leanette and Maria once that was taking care of.
"That's affirmative," Leanette told her. "We have a better view of them now. It looks like two women. Still no weapons visible on them. They have packs on their backs that look like they're made out of garbage bags."
"How close to the border are they?"
"Still over a mile and a half out, but moving at a good pace."
"Copy, keep me updated."
The minutes dragged onward maddeningly. Chrissie chewed her fingernails nervously while she waited for updates, all sorts of evil possibilities running through her head. She envisioned the two women on the freeway as some sort of diversionary tactic for a main group of invaders. Maybe they were even now creeping in on one of the other guard posts. She wondered if she should activate the fast action teams. A quick blast of the fire engine siren outside would bring them running from all directions to assemble in the parking lot. Should she call them up just so they were available? Or should she wait and see for a few more minutes first? Finally, after agonizing over this, she elected not to call them up unless she had some concrete reason to think there were more than two people out there.
"They're still heading in," Leanette said after about fifteen minutes. "Under a mile away now. We can say for certain that they are two females now. They have no weapons that we can see on them."
"How do they look health-wise?" Chrissie asked.
"Not great," Leanette said, "but not bad either. They don't seem to be starving."
Another fifteen minutes crawled by, again with no new developments. None of the other guard posts reported seeing anyone or anything. Nor did post 1 report seeing anything but the rapidly approaching women.
"They're coming up on the border sign now," Leanette said. "They should be able to read it at any time."
"Copy," Chrissie said. "Let's see if they obey the sign." The sign in question read: THIS IS A SECURED AREA. APPROACH NO CLOSER TO GARDEN HILL OR YOU WILL BE FIRED UPON. IF YOU ARE PASSING THROUGH, GO TO THE WESTBOUND LANES AND WALK QUICKLY ALONG THE NORTH SHOULDER. DO NOT STOP OR DEVIATE UNTIL YOU HAVE PASSED THE CLIFFS 3 MILES TO THE EAST. WE WILL HAVE YOU IN SIGHT THE ENTIRE TIME. IF YOU ATTEMPT TO LEAVE THE INTERSTATE AFTER CROSSING OUR BORDER, YOU WILL BE FIRED UPON.
"They're slowing down," Leanette reported a minute later. "It looks like they've spotted the sign. They're approaching it now." A pause. "Okay, they're reading the sign now."
"I copy," Chrissie said. "Remember, if they do what the sign says, let them go peacefully."
"Understood," Leanette answered. "They're still reading the sign. Now they seem to be talking to each other about something." Another long pause. "Chrissie, they're uh..." A click of the transmission closing.
"They're what Leanette?" she demanded. "What are they doing?"
"They're waving at us," Leanette said slowly.
"Waving at you?"
"Affirm. They're standing just on the other side of the border and both of them are waving their hands back and forth at us. It looks like they're yelling something too but we can't hear them."
Waving? Chrissie thought. What the hell was going on? "I copy that, Leanette," she said.
"What should we do now?"
"Nothing," she said. "Don't do anything for the moment unless they step over the line."
Leanette and Maria watched the women wave at them for almost five minutes. Leanette reported every minute or so that they were still there and Chrissie told them just to follow protocol for the time being.
"It sounds like they're trying to make contact with us for whatever reason," Chrissie told them. "It could be a trap of some sort so keep your eyes out for anything else to the flanks. I'm going to gather a couple of people together in case we have to go out there."
"Copy," Leanette replied. "We'll keep watching."
Before Chrissie was able to gather her small force together, the women became impatient with the lack of response and tried a new tactic. They stopped waving their arms and instead held them high above their heads, as in surrender. They then slowly walked forward, crossing over the invisible line that marked the Garden Hill border. Leanette, still holding the rifle, contacted Chrissie and reported this development to her before acting.
"Drive them back," Chrissie said. "Be careful not to hit them unless they insist on continuing in, but don't let them come any further."
"Copy," Leanette said. "Driving them back."
She put the radio down and flipped the safety off on the hunting rifle. She peered through the scope, aiming at a spot about twenty feet in front of the advancing females. The angle insured that the ricocheting bullet would more than likely not pose a danger to them. As she had been taught by Brett himself in the first training class after the attack on the town, she took a deep breath, held it, and then squeezed the trigger softly. The sound of the rifle shot rolled across the landscape and she was able to clearly see the chip of pavement flying into the air when the bullet impacted half a second later.
"That got their attention," Maria, still watching through the binoculars, noted.
Indeed it had. The two women stopped instantly in their tracks and quickly backed up until they were once again on the other side of the border.
"They backed off," Leanette reported to Chrissie.
"Copy," she replied. "Good work. What are they doing now?"
"They're still standing on the other side of the sign. They've gone back to waving their hands in the air."
There was a pause. "All right," she said. "It sounds like they're kind of persistent. Keep watching them. I'm gonna take a small squad out there to see what they want."
She gathered up Maggie, Michelle, and Mike Monahan, all of whom were off duty and easily accessible at the time. She armed them all up with semi-automatic rifles and then commandeered the Dodge Ram truck that had just come back from its fueling mission.
"Maggie, you drive," Chrissie instructed. "Mike, Michelle, I want you in the back of the truck with me."
"Chrissie," Michelle said a little doubtfully. "Are you sure we should be doing this? Brett never told us to go out and talk to stragglers. He just told us to drive them away."
"That was when we had stragglers coming five times a day," she said. "We haven't had any in six weeks and now all of a sudden two women show up and start signaling us. Obviously they have something to say. I think that Brett would have probably done the same thing, don't you?"
"Well..." she said, knowing of course, that Chrissie was right.
"Well that's what I'm going to do," Chrissie told her. "I've given my orders. Now let's mount up."
No one else questioned her. Maggie climbed in the cab of the truck and Michelle and Mike climbed in the back. Chrissie jumped up as well and stood up, her weapon resting on the roof of the cab. "Get on either side of me," she told her companions. "Keep your weapons trained outward. Are we all locked and loaded?"
Everyone confirmed that they were.
"All right," she said. "Let's do it." She craned her head down a little and spoke through the opened sliding rear window into the cab. "Move out, Mags," she said. "Keep it slow. We're standing up back here. Drive out and approach them at about twenty miles an hour. Stop when you get into voice range of them."
"Right," Maggie replied. She dropped the truck into gear and started driving.
They exited the gate of the subdivision a few minutes later and started heading along Route 63 towards Interstate 80. Chrissie checked with Leanette via her portable radio several times during the trip to make sure that the women were still there, that they were still waving their arms, and that no one else had appeared on the scene. Leanette reported each time that everything remained as it had been.
"I'll get out and make contact with them," Chrissie said as they pulled up the offramp in the wrong direction to access the eastbound lanes. "You two keep me covered. I'll try to stay out of your line of fire as much as I can. If there's trouble, I'll dive to the ground. If there's a lot of trouble, like troops hiding in the flanks, then forget about me and get the hell out."
"Chrissie," Michelle said, "we're not gonna leave you out there."
"If this is a large-scale attack, you're gonna have to and I expect you to do it," she said. "Is that clear?"
Michelle looked at her, the woman she loved as a sister, as a co-wife, as an occasional lover. "Yes," she said softly. "It's clear."
They came around a small bend in the freeway surface and suddenly they were able to see the two figures before them. They were about a half of a mile in front of them, standing just as Leanette had described. They were still waving their hands slowly back and forth in a gesture indicating they wanted to communicate. As soon as they saw the truck they stopped and put their hands up as high as they could physically make them go.
"Nice and slow, Mags," Chrissie said loud enough for the driver to hear. "As long as there's no trouble, stop just inside of voice range."
"Right," Maggie yelled back a little nervously.
"Stick to the right shoulder of the road," Chrissie said. "Keep the gearshift in drive and your foot on the brake. If you have to get away quick, you'll have room to make a fast U-turn."
Everyone tightened their grips on their weapons and took aim at the two females as they approached. Maggie slowly rolled forward, the powerful V-8 engine nearly at an idle, and came to a gentle stop about forty feet away from the two women. This close they were able to see that they were filthy with mud - the mark of being outside for long periods. It was hard to tell hair color or even race so dirty were they. They looked at the truck and its occupants a little fearfully.
"Are you armed?" Chrissie yelled at them.
"No," shouted the woman on the left. "We only have a few cans of food and a video camera."
"A video camera?" Mike said softly.
Chrissie ignored him. "Is there anyone else out there?"
"No," said the same woman. "We're alone. We came from Auburn."
"Auburn," Michelle said. "Jesus."
Chrissie took a deep breath, her adrenaline pumping, her mind whizzing along like mad as she considered what to do next. "What is it that you want?" she asked them. "Are you just passing through?"
"We escaped from there a little more than a week ago," the woman said. "We wish sanctuary with your town. We will trade information about Auburn and their intentions towards you for safety."
"Escaped?" Michelle said loud enough for only Chrissie and Mike to hear.
"Intentions towards us?" Mike echoed.
"Please," said the other woman, her voice seemingly near tears. "We don't have anywhere else to go. We're almost out of food. Men from Auburn are planning to attack you! We can tell you about it but you have to take us in! If you don't take us in, we'll die and you'll die!"
"Attack us?" Mike and Michelle said in unison.
"Cover me," Chrissie said, coming to decision in her mind. "I'm gonna go out and talk them from a little closer."
"Right," Michelle and Mike said.
"Stay right where you are," Chrissie told the two women. "I'm gonna approach you. Keep your hands up like you have them and don't make any sudden moves."
The two women promised that they wouldn't and Chrissie jumped down out of the truck. She trotted over to the left shoulder of the Interstate and, keeping her AR-15 trained on them, slowly walked forward. She made sure that her body did not cross between the truck and the women. She stopped about ten feet in front of them.
"What're your names?" she asked.
"I'm Anna," said the woman on the left, the first to have spoken.
"I'm Jean," said the second.
"What's this about an attack on our town?" Chrissie asked.
"There is one planned," Anna said. "That's all I'll tell you unless you give us sanctuary in your town."
"Uh huh," Chrissie said. "And how do I know that you really have any information? How do I know that you're even from Auburn?"
"You recently exiled a woman named Jessica Blakely," Anna said. "She showed up in Auburn not too long before. She was picked up by an attack force that had been planning to attack your town but that pulled back when they heard what Jessica had to tell them about your upgraded defenses. Before Jessica was exiled you were attacked by a group of men and you managed to repel them. In some strange way that I wasn't able to follow, this attack is what led to the exile of Jessica."
Chrissie relaxed her grip on her weapon the slightest bit. She knew that these women were speaking the truth - she simply knew it. "You have Jessica huh?" she asked. "Too bad for your town. What do you mean you escaped from Auburn? Are you not allowed to come and go as you please?"
"No," said Anna. "Women are slaves there. The men control all of the guns and they pass us around like joints. Escape attempts are punished by hanging. We managed to get out by using a trick we learned from you - the night vision video camera."
Any doubts about the authenticity of their tale disappeared at that moment. "I don't have the authority to grant you sanctuary," Chrissie told them. "Our town leaders are uh... well... out of town at the moment. I will take you in and keep you under guard until they get back however. You can discuss this with them."
"Thank you," Anna said, sighing a little. Jean repeated this sentiment.
"I want you two to slowly drop your packs to the ground and then lay down on the pavement," Chrissie told them. "Put your arms out in front of you and spread your legs. I'm gonna pat you down for weapons and then take you back to town in the back of the truck."
"You did what?" Brett asked upon hearing the news two hours later. He, Jason, Matt, and Paul were weary after their day of mapping the terrain and poking through abandoned trucks on the highways and byways in the area. Though they had found two more food sources - an abandoned big rig up near the snowline that had been hauling Dennison's chili and another, deeper in the backcountry, that had been hauling Skippy peanut butter - they had checked more than twenty trucks in all. And now, as they were approaching Garden Hill at last, their fuel supply dwindling, their bodies grimy and sweaty, Chrissie was telling them on the routine radio check-in that she had brought two stragglers from Auburn into the town. Brett's reaction to this revelation was more instinctive than anything else.
"I brought them inside," Chrissie repeated, her tone daring him to challenge this decision. "Isn't that what you would have done, given the same circumstances?"
Like Michelle earlier, these words had a sobering effect on him. Yes, that was what he would've done in the same circumstances. These two women were potentially valuable information sources and the very rarity of their presence in the first place would have compelled him to bring them in - as it had Chrissie apparently. It was the thought of his young wife deliberately putting herself into harm's way that caused the knee-jerk reaction. "Yes," he told her after a considerable delay. "I suppose you're right."
"So don't yell at me then, Brett Adams," she said quite huffily. "I was just doing what I knew you wanted done anyway."
"I think she put you in your place quite nicely there," Paul, who was listening in along with everyone else in the helicopter (as well as probably half the town), noted with a smile.
"It would seem so," Brett said, reluctantly smiling. He keyed back up his microphone. "My sincere apologies, Chrissie," he told her. "You did the right thing and I'm letting my emotions get in the way. So where are our guests now?"
"I have them under guard in one of the storage rooms in the community center," she replied. "I let them take baths and I've given them fresh clothes. Right now they're eating some of our leftovers from lunch. They've been living on canned food for the past eight days now."
"We know what that feels like, don't we?" Brett replied. "Good job. Have the guard posts reported anything unusual since you picked them up?"
"Negative," she said. "I've had them on high-alert ever since the first sighting and everything seems to be as it should be. However, I would suggest you make a pass around the perimeter and check everything on visual and with the FLIR, just to make sure that there's not an attack force out there."
"I concur," Brett said, taking a quick glance at his fuel gauge. It was getting pretty low but there was still enough for a quick run around the area. "We have just enough fuel to do that. It should take about ten, fifteen minutes or so. We'll report anything to you as it comes up."
"Copy that, Brett," she said. "See you on the ground."
The aerial check of the area revealed nothing but hills and trees and mud. There was no sign of a hidden attack force hiding anywhere within ten miles of Garden Hill's borders. With less than ten gallons of fuel in the tank, Brett landed the helicopter its accustomed place. He then allowed Jason, his apprentice, to go through the power-down procedure as part of his training.
"Good job," he told him after he had flipped all of the switches and turned all of the dials. "Do you think you can handle refueling by yourself? I wanna go meet our new friends as soon as I can."
"No problem," Jason assured him.
"You the man," Brett told him, opening his door and stepping out onto the wet parking lot. Behind him Matt and Paul had already gotten out. They carried their rifles, which were now safed and unloaded, over their shoulders and their packs upon their backs. Together, they all walked to the side entrance of the community center, said hello to the guard stationed there, and went inside.
First and foremost, Brett and Paul gave Chrissie a thorough debriefing on her contact with the two women so far. She only had a few details to share that she hadn't already told them over the radio. Basically the women were offering to trade everything they knew about Auburn and its inhabitants for sanctuary and citizenship in Garden Hill. As proof of their identity they had dropped Jessica's name and revealed the fact that she was now living in Auburn. As an enticement to take the deal, they had made vague assertions regarding both an upcoming attack by Auburnites and an aborted earlier attack.
"What do you think?" Paul asked Brett after hearing all this.
"I say we should go talk to them," he replied without hesitation. "It sounds like they might be a wealth of valuable intelligence."
"Should we agree to their deal?" Chrissie asked.
Paul shrugged. "Why shouldn't we? Truth be known, there's no real reason to exclude people with the... uh... vigor that we used to. Now that we have access to enough food to carry us through, a few more mouths to feed is no longer potentially the difference between survival and death. I would probably be inclined to offer them citizenship even if they didn't have information for us. As long as they don't pose a danger of any kind, why not?"
"Jessica wouldn't be very happy with that attitude," Brett told him.
"No," said Chrissie, who still had more than a little lingering hatred for Jessica. "I wouldn't think she would. And she was president of the homeowner's association you know."
"Yes," Paul said. "And we all saw what that got her in life, didn't we?" He silently dismissed the subject of Jessica and turned back to Brett. "So how do you want to handle this? You're the expert at questioning people."
"I wouldn't say expert," Brett said, "but I did do my fair share of it back in my patrol days. If this were a criminal investigation, I would have them separated from each other so they couldn't collaborate on stories, but in this case, we might as well leave them together. They've already had a couple of weeks to get their details straight if they're planning on scamming us in some way. I'll do most of the questioning of them and hopefully I'll be able to pick up if they're feeding us a bunch of bullshit. If I start to feel that that is the case, then we'll separate them at that time."
"Sounds like a plan," Paul said.
"Chrissie," Brett continued, "you should be in the room during the questioning, just so they see a familiar face. And you Paul, you should be in there as well since you're the one that has the authority to grant sanctuary or not. But I'll ask both of you to keep your questions and comments as minimal as you can."
"Okay," they both agreed.
"And we should videotape the interview," Brett added. "That way we can go over it slowly and in detail later if we need to. We can also use it against them if it turns out they're lying or misleading us in some way. A real good technique in interrogation is to confront your subject with contradictory information that they gave earlier."
"It'll take a few minutes to rig up a power supply and the equipment," Paul said.
"We have all night," Brett told him.
"True. Chrissie, why don't you dig out the camera and I'll start running a power supply?"
Brett started off very low key with the two women. He introduced himself and Paul and then reintroduced Chrissie to them as well. Hands were shaken all around. He then explained to them that - if they had no objections - the interview would be recorded for the town archives. He strongly hinted that this was a routine matter - as if every conversation that took place in the community center was videotaped. They both agreed to this stipulation without debate.
As he went through these initial steps he looked the two of them up and down, his sharp, observant eyes not missing a single detail of their appearance. Though they were now bathed and fed and dressed in designer jeans and sweaters that had come from Garden Hill's abundant clothing stock, it was quite obvious that they had been through quite an ordeal to get where they now sat. Their faces were somewhat gaunt, with a few premature lines and crow's feet - factors which bespoke of both a considerable amount of recent stress and near-starvation. Their hands were callused and worn, the surface marred by multiple cuts, scrapes, and abrasions. Their fingers had ground-in mud beneath the nails. Most telling of all were the eyes - one set brown, the other set blue - which were haunted and filled with desperate hope. Without even broaching the meat of the matter, Brett was able to develop a pretty good idea that they were on the up and up.
"You say you came from Auburn," he asked them. "Is that correct?"
"Yes," Anna, the apparent spokeswoman for the duo, replied. "I lived in Auburn before the comet. Jean is from Meadow Vista."
"Meadow Vista huh?" Brett said, turning to the younger woman. "We flew over that in the helicopter once. We saw bodies down on the ground everywhere."
"The militia attacked it," Jean said in a quiet voice.
Jean opened her mouth to say more but was interrupted by Anna. "Don't tell them anything, Jean," she said. "Not until they agree to give us sanctuary."
"We've already agreed to do that," Brett said, unoffended by the interruption. "Even without your information, we more than likely would have allowed you to stay. As long as you don't prove to be dangerous or spies or anything like that, you're in."
"Really?" Jean said, beaming.
Anna was a little more cynical however. "How do we know that you're telling us the truth?" she asked shrewdly. "How do we know that you're not just telling us what we want to hear to get our information from us?"
Brett smiled a little. "Well," he said thoughtfully, "the truth of the matter is, that you don't. I have no way to prove to you that I'm sincere. No way at all. I could put it in writing for you if you want, but what good would that do? We seem to be a little short on courts and lawyers to enforce verbal or written contracts now, don't we?"
"Yeah," Anna said. "I guess we are, aren't we?"
"All we have is our word," Brett said. "It might not mean much, but it's all we got. I promise you that as long as we don't discover some fact that indicates you are a danger to us, we will let you stay. We have enough food to feed two additional mouths. We have enough houses to house two more. We have enough clothing to keep you dressed warmly. And we most certainly have enough work that needs to be done to appreciate two more sets of hands to do it with. So what do you say? Shall we talk or what?"
Anna still seemed a little doubtful.
"Look," Brett told her, leaning forward and softening his voice a bit. "I was in your shoes not too terribly long before. I led Chrissie and her brother through the woods after the comet fell just trying to get us all to some place resembling safety. I found this town and they were keeping out all outsiders at that point. I snuck across the bridge one night just to prove to them that I had something valuable to offer them - namely, my knowledge of security and military tactics. I've sat in that same position that you are now sitting and I've wondered and obsessed about the same things. I don't know how I can assure you that you're all right, but you are."
Anna sighed, uncertain about how to feel but pressing on anyway. "All right," she said. "I guess we'll have to take you at your word, won't we? What other choice do we have?"
"I don't know," Brett said, leaning back a little once again. "What choice do you have?"
"None at all," she told him. "None at all. Let's talk."
"Right," Brett said with a smile. "Let's talk."
They talked. For more than two hours they talked. Jean and Anna told their story in semi-chronological order, starting with the comet fall and their pre-comet lives and working through their eventual escape from the town that had become a fascist prison camp. They told about the militia and its early missions to conquer and loot the surrounding towns. They told of how the men in these towns were then incorporated into the militia and the women were then utilized as slaves, both for sexual and work purposes. Brett moved them along from point to point, place to place with his questions. Occasionally, very occasionally, Paul or Chrissie would toss in a question as well, unable to help but ask for some point to be clarified in the horrible tale they were being told. Brett was simply amazed at the quality of the information that Jean and Anna possessed. Had these men that ran Auburn really been so dumb as to talk freely of these things in front of the women and assume that they weren't absorbing any of it? Did it never occur to them what a potentially catastrophic information drain that represented? Apparently not.
"So let me get this straight," Brett said after the descriptions of women's rights in Auburn, such as they were. "You're not allowed to carry a weapon or participate in any sort of military training?"
"That's right," Anna confirmed. "And the men are not allowed to do any sort of cooking or cleaning chores - except for their weapons of course."
"They love to play with their weapons," Jean said with a hateful smirk.
"What an incredible waste of manpower," Brett said as he pondered this. "The population of Auburn is around three thousand, right?"
"Right," she replied, reiterating the answer to one of the first questions asked in the interview.
"And of that number, more than 2200 are women?"