Chapter 15

Copyright© 2000 by Al Steiner

Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story: Chapter 15 - 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

Brett was finding that he was having a major time-management problem as the frantic, pre-battle preparations were being undertaken in and around the town. There were many things that required his attention and his attention alone and only twenty-four hours in each day to do them all. The bulk of his daytime hours were being spent behind the controls of the helicopter. In the three days since the deal had been struck with El Dorado Hills he had logged more than thirty flight hours. In a marathon two-day operation, all of the promised grain and canned food (except the chili, the peanut butter, and the baby food) had been delivered to El Dorado Hills either in water heaters or upon pallets. And El Dorado Hills, keeping with their end of the bargain, had supplied Garden Hill with more than eighteen thousand rounds of ammunition, six automatic weapons, and, as a gesture of good faith, four hundred pounds of dried fish. When not flying recovery missions for El Dorado Hills, Brett was flying them for his own town. Just this day he and his crew of four had recovered four hundred boxes of Tide laundry detergent and five hundred gallons of gasoline from the tanker car on the railroad tracks. Brett had special plans for these two substances.

The bulk of his early evening hours was being taken up by basic infantry tactic lectures that he gave to the entire town. He had had Chrissie and Michelle - both of whom were considerably more artistic than he - make a large, scale model map of the surrounding terrain. This map was very detailed, showing the location and name of every hill large enough to hide a squad of troops on. Brett would stand with a pointer and explain to his audience the best way to go about defending their town while hopefully keeping casualties to a bare minimum.

"We'll be fighting a purely defensive battle here," he would tell them, "and, once the enemy gets into our playing field, we're going to be using a fighting retreat tactic. These outer layers of hills to the north and the west, the ones out beyond our main guard positions, that is where we're going to meet them first. Now many of you know exactly what I'm talking about since you've been out all day digging foxholes in those hills. What we're going to do is move our forces to whatever hills are between the town and their avenue of advance. More than likely, they'll have more than one such avenue and they might have as many as three. You'll engage them with your weapons as soon as they come into range. We're not going to be doing any of that until-you-see-the-whites-of-their-eyes shit. Our goal is to keep these fuckers as far away from us as we can. We have plenty of ammo now so don't fret too much about wasting it. We're going to make them pay heavily for each advance they make and then we're going to pull back as soon as they start to get close. Remember that you'll be in well-protected positions while they will be forced to move across open ground. The advantage goes to the defender.

"Once they close with our first positions, we'll retreat to our next set of prepared defenses. Once again, we should have foxholes already dug there and the whole process will start over. We'll bloody them some more and then we'll retreat again when they start to get close. Layer by layer that's how we're going to fight them. Eventually, if necessary, we'll fall back inside the wall itself and make our final stand in the park outside of this community center. We're already in the process of setting up bunkers in the grass and we're working on setting up some minefields to channel them into killing boxes."

He went over this plan with everyone again and again, explaining it and pointing at the map every evening after dinner. He encouraged questions and there were many. He answered each one to the best of his abilities and with complete, sometimes brutal honesty. "Yes," he told those who asked about casualties, "we will more than likely have some of our people get wounded or even killed. I don't like it and I wish I could tell you that it won't happen, but this is a war and that is the nature of war. What I can promise you is that we will make every attempt to care for those who are wounded. Paul and Janet will serve as our battalion aid station and El Dorado Hills has agreed to take in our wounded and allow their doctor to treat them if we can get them there. Unless the fate of the entire town is resting upon using the chopper for something else at the moment, I will fly our wounded immediately there."

After the evening's lecture was wrapped up it would be time for the recon flight to check the vicinity of Auburn for the invasion force. So far, there was still no sign of them. Brett was grateful each night that he and Jason flew out there and saw nothing on the FLIR but empty woods and abandoned interstate. He was not so optimistic as to think that they might have called off the attack but he was grateful for each additional day of preparation that they were given.

After returning from the recon missions he would then typically spend an hour or two going over the status of the day's work with the people that had been placed in charge of each task. Chrissie was in charge of the digging crews while Matt was in charge of the weapons and ammunition crews. There were also several other special projects that were underway that Steve Kensington was working on.

If he got to bed before midnight, Brett considered himself lucky. In the morning, he would wake up to the blaring of his wind-up alarm clock at 4:30 AM so he could spend a few hours training the eight people that had been chosen for the task of harassing the advancing Auburnites. Chrissie and Michelle, his original guard force members, were his squad leaders for this force. They were each in charge of a four-person team who were going to be dropped in the woods very near the advancing enemy. Though everyone who was in this task force had been through either Brett or Chrissie's advanced training class, this type of warfare was something that he felt they needed additional instruction on. Most of the training consisted of lectures.

"There's no reason why any of you should get hit out there," he told them. "You actually have one of the safest jobs in this whole conflict if you do it right. You pick your ambush site carefully and you make damn sure you have good cover and a good path of retreat. When they come into view, you hit them fast and then you get the hell out of there before they have a chance to engage you. Chrissie and Michelle, you assign targets to your riflemen and make sure they know who they're going to be aiming at. If two people shoot the same person, it's a waste of ammo. Riflemen, you all fire at the same time at your assigned target and just like that, three enemies are dead or wounded. Once the riflemen fire, the squad leader opens up for a quick burst with the automatic weapon. And I mean a quick burst. Don't get greedy. That's how you get killed. As soon as they start to return fire, get the hell out and back to the helicopter."

As exhausted as he was all of the time, Brett was still quite pleased with the pace that the war preparations were moving forward. The townspeople had pulled together like they never had before. Previous enemies had managed to set aside their petty differences in the interest of efficiency. Most of the workforce marched out after breakfast each morning and dug trenches in the hills, filling their best pillowcases with the mud that they dug out of the ground to make sandbags. Others ripped the gas tanks out of cars so that Steve could use his welder to convert them into bomb casings. Others still helped load ammunition clips and clean weapons or assembled combat packs out of children's backpacks. And because all of this war-related labor did not allow for such routine tasks as wood gathering and drying, they were forced to go without their once-demanded luxury: hot baths in the evenings. They did not complain about this, not even the most vocal of them. They simply bathed in cold water or went without. Similarly the food that they were served was now usually served cold for the same reason. Although Stacy and Tina managed to put fresh bread on the table every night, they did this only with the wood that they gathered themselves and everything else was served directly out of the can. Again, no one complained, apparently realizing that survival took precedence over luxury. Brett sometimes found it hard to believe that these were the same yuppie women that had followed Jessica's teachings and tried to oust him from town.

He began to have hope that his crazy scheme just might work.

"Brett," said Steve Kensington on the morning of January 11, just as he was heading from his early training session with the harassment force to the cafeteria to pick up his ration of cold food. "You got a minute?"

"Sure," Brett said, stifling a yawn. "What's up?" He noted that Steve, who had been working like mad for the last three days, looked even more tired than he himself felt. There were dark circles under his bloodshot eyes and his skin had an unhealthy pallor to it.

"I think I managed to make an operational mine," he said. "Come outside and have a look."

"Yeah?" Brett asked, pleased. Part of his defensive plan called for some sort of landmine to help protect certain parts of their perimeter. Steve, as their resident mechanical genius, had been tasked to come up with a design if he could. "Let's go check it out."

"I got the idea from what those assholes that killed Mitsy and Dale did with the Raid cans," he said, leading Brett down a hall and out through one of the side doors. "They key to the whole thing are the mousetraps."

"Mousetraps?" Brett asked. "Where did you get mousetraps? There weren't any of them in the supply room."

"But there were in the grocery store," Steve said. "We never brought them over here because we didn't have a use for them. None of the stragglers that picked through the store in the early days had a use for them either. They were still sitting in the storage room yesterday, four boxes of fifty."

They walked through the rain to the maintenance shed, a room that had become Steve's workshop. He had a variety of tools and equipment stacked on the floor of the shed, including an air compressor, a welder, and various power tools, all of which he powered with the inverter on the fire engine. Several of his gas tank creations were sitting on a shelf, waiting their turn to be turned into bomb casings, and several completed ones were stacked outside. Brett saw that he had been using a power saw and a drill recently. The former was sitting on the edge of the bench, it's blade dusty with sawdust. The latter was sitting on the floor next to a vise. It was still plugged into the power cord that ran from the fire engine and it had a one-inch drill bit installed in it.

"It's very simple actually," Steve explained as he picked up a three-foot length of lumber that looked like it had been cut from a two by four. "All I need is scrap wood from the collapsed houses, a shotgun shell, a mousetrap, and some fishing line. Here," he handed it over, "check it out. This one is safe, it doesn't have the shotgun shell in it yet."

Brett took the offered piece of wood. He saw that three holes, one large and two small, had been drilled in the center of it. On either side of these holes was a seesaw type of assembly made out of 3/8-inch dowels and a twelve-inch wooden ruler. Fishing line had been tied to the ends of the rulers and run through the smaller holes where it was attached by means of a fishing hook to the spring of a mousetrap. "How does it work?" he asked.

"You put the shotgun shell in the big hole with the primer side facing the trap," Steve explained. "The hole is just the right size so the shell will fit snugly. If you look at the mousetrap you'll see that I cut a small hole in the base of it and cut the trap part in two and bent it upward. The bent-up piece will strike the primer of the shell when it's tripped. The wood will act like a small shotgun barrel and channel the blast upward."

"And these rulers set it off?" Brett asked, running his finger over them.

"Right," Steve said. "Go ahead and arm the trap."

Brett did so, forcing the powerful spring backwards and setting it.

"Now you see," Steve explained, "that fishing line is connected to the rulers on one end and the trip mechanism on the other. If anyone steps on this thing on either side, they'll push the far end of the ruler down which will force the near end up which will then pull on the string and spring the trap. Go ahead and try it."

Brett pushed on the ruler. Nothing happened at first except the ruler bent a little. Steve told him to push a little harder and he did. This time there was a snap and the trap slammed home.

"Boom," Steve said with a grin. "They step on that thing and the pellets will blast upward right into them. It'll either take them in the crotch if they happen to be straddling it or it'll take out the side of their leg if they're off to the side."

"Ouch," Brett said, wincing a little at the thought.

"It probably won't kill them," Steve said apologetically. "Especially if we use the birdshot shells that we have."

"It doesn't have to kill them," Brett assured him. "In fact, it demoralizes the other soldiers even more if it doesn't. Especially considering the lack of field hospitals and medical care. Trust me, you blow a guys balls off with that thing and leave him writhing in agony on the ground, it has a detrimental effect on morale."

"I guess it would at that," Steve said. "Anyway, that's the ground version of the mine. I've also come up with one that you can mount on a tree or in a bush or on any other solid surface."


Steve picked up a smaller piece of two by four, this one only about four inches square. It had the same hole for the shotgun shell drilled in the center of it but only one smaller hole to string fishing line through. The bottom of it was different as well. Small strips of plywood had been screwed into all four sides of it. These strips extended about four inches past the bottom of the thing so that there was a hollow area under it to give the trap room to swing shut.

"It fires with the same principal," Steve told him. "A fish hook connected to the trap mechanism. Only this time you put the thing on the tree or whatever, camouflage it with some branches or some mud, and then run a length of wire down to the ground. I figure that we put a small pulley on a stake and then string the wire about two inches or so off the ground. When someone trips over the wire, boom, that's their ass."

"Fucking brilliant," Brett said.

Steve gave an embarrassed shrug. "Just doing my part," he said.

"Well you just keep doing your part," Brett said. "How many of these things can you make us?"

"I can make two hundred of them," he said. "That's how many mousetraps I have. Can you use that many?"

"I can use them," Brett said. "Trust me on that. Make a hundred and fifty of the ground mines and fifty of the tree-mounts."

"I'll get right on it. I'm almost done with these gas tanks so I'll have the crew that's been stripping them out for me start working on these."

"Coming up on the mudfall," Jason, looking through the FLIR scope, reported that night at 9:30. They were on the nightly recon flight to the vicinity of Auburn and the mudfall in question was the first one east of the town - the same one that Anna and Jean had walked to in the darkness on their first night of freedom.

"Copy," Brett said. "Slowing up."

"You're about two miles and closing," Jason reported. As they got closer he continued to read off distances every fifteen seconds or so. "Okay," he finally said. "About a mile out. No sign of activity."

"Right," Brett told him, exhaling a breath of air. "Banking left to check the south." He turned to the left, keeping a careful eye on his compass and his altimeter. As often as he had done night flights over the past few weeks, he was still not comfortable with him, he couldn't afford to be comfortable with them, although he had learned to trust Jason, his navigator and remote eyes, implicitly.

"Still looking good," Jason reported as they neared the edge of the impassable zone. "And still no signs of soldiers. Go ahead and come around to 270 now, we're past the edge."

"Banking right," Brett said, watching the compass swing around to 270 degrees.

They flew in this direction for nearly five minutes and then banked right again, heading back to the north to pick up the interstate again. It was in this area that Brett figured they were most likely to find the soldiers they were looking for.

"Nothing," Jason reported as they ambled along at thirty knots. "Coming up on the interstate again. It's about two miles in front of you." Once again he started announcing the distance as they closed. Brett's goal was to stay about a mile away from the actual roadway - close enough to see if the troops were camping on it but too far away for them to hear the helicopter if they were there. "One mile," he announced when they reached that point. "And still nothing visible."

"Turning left to 270 again," Brett said.

They flew parallel to the roadway for another five miles, Jason constantly scanning back and forth, searching for the telltale glow of body heat. He saw nothing. Once inside that five-mile zone Brett turned back to the north, not going any closer to Auburn. They were only about four miles east of the eastern guard positions and they figured that the Auburn force, had it left that day, would already be well past this point no matter how slowly they'd marched. They crossed the freeway and made a check around the base of the large hill that had collapsed over the freeway, causing the mudfall. This check was just in case the Auburnites had elected to bypass to the north instead of the easier route to the south. They hadn't. This route was just as empty as the southern route.

"No armies out there tonight," Jason said gratefully once they'd come back to their original position.

"I guess Anna and Jean's escape really did throw their schedule off," Brett said, picking up his airspeed a little. "They're now three days behind."

"Maybe they won't come at all," Jason said with a shrug.

"They'll come," Brett said. "That's the thing about people like that. Once they decide to do something like that, they follow through."

"I can always hope, can't I?"

"That's true. You can always do that. Why don't we do a little more target practice on the way back?"

"You bet," Jason replied with a grin. He liked playing with his new toy that Steve had installed for him.

"Let me know when you find a target and we'll do some runs on it."

It took less than five minutes before Jason spotted an abandoned car on the side of the interstate below. "Okay," he said, "I've got a car about a mile ahead. Let's set up."

"You're the boss," Brett told him, pulling into a hover.

While they held in place, Jason opened up a compartment and pulled out a banana clip. Inside of this clip were thirty rounds of 5.56 millimeter bullets, every third one of which was a tracer. Between their two seats, sticking half in and half out of a hole that Steve had cut in the chassis of the helicopter, was an automatic M-16 rifle, mounted upside down on the telescope tripod mount so it could spin back and forth, up and down. Using the scant ambient light from the cockpit instruments, Jason put the magazine into the weapon and jacked the first round into the chamber. He flipped off the safety and made sure that the weapon was set on full automatic fire.

"Locked and loaded," he reported, swinging the weapon back and forth and then making a small adjustment to the mounting tension. He kept his finger well clear of the trigger for the time being.

"Okay," Brett said, taking another deep breath. "Bring me in."

What they were practicing was a very dangerous tactic but one they needed to perfect. Jason, as the gunner and as the eyes of the helicopter, was basically in charge of the machine. Brett's hands and feet controlled the motions but, since he was effectively blind, Jason's voice controlled Brett's hands and feet.

"Drop down," Jason said, "and we'll circle around to the left to get into position. There's a ridge just to the north of the target that rises about sixty feet over the roadway. Stay above 500 AGL and you'll be well clear of it and the higher ridge to the northwest of it."

"Copy," Brett said, reducing altitude much faster than he really felt comfortable with but doing it anyway. He watched the radar altimeter - which gave a readout of his altitude above the ground as opposed to above sea level - as he dropped. He pulled up and back into a hover when it reached 550 feet.

"Okay," Jason told him, watching his target with one eye and the ridgeline with the other. Using short, concise commands he guided Brett around in a large circle and back towards the highway until they were about half a mile away from the car and heading right at it.

"How we doing?" Brett asked after a long silence.

"Right on track," Jason said. "Target area is at twelve o'clock, half a mile away. We're ready to make the firing run. After the run, come off target ninety degrees to the left and you'll be clear of obstacles."

"Got it," Brett told him, putting on the speed.

Jason let his finger inch onto the trigger of the weapon as his eyes remained glued to the FLIR. He made a few adjustments to the rifle's attitude until he thought it was pointed approximately at the car, which was growing bigger and bigger on the display. "Looking good," he said almost absently. "Looking good. Almost in range. Slow up a bit."

"Slowing to twenty knots," Brett told him.

"In range," Jason said. "Opening fire." He squeezed the trigger and the gun began to buck as it sprayed a stream of bullets from the barrel. The sound of the gunshots were muted, both because of the headsets they wore and because the barrel was outside of the vehicle. On the display Jason saw the white streaks of the tracers arcing outward. They were impacting in front of and to the left of the car. Without releasing the trigger, he adjusted the angle of the rifle, turning the tracers to where he wanted them. He raked back and forth and was able to see the windows of the car explode, the tires flatten, and neat rows of holes appear in the body. "On target," he said excitedly. He continued to hold the trigger down until the last shell was ejected below them and the action locked open on an empty chamber.

"Banking hard left," Brett said once the last round was fired. He came off target and immediately began to climb and put on speed.

"I got it on target in less than a second that time," Jason said once they were back up to cruising altitude. "Probably didn't waste more than ten rounds or so."

"You're getting a lot better," Brett said. Although he would take a look at the videotape back in Garden Hill, he had no doubt that his young friend was telling the truth. Jason was not prone to exaggeration. "How many more clips do we have loaded?"

"Three more."

"Let's make another run," Brett suggested. "A simulated follow-up attack. We'll spin around to the south this time and hit the same target."

It took them another ten minutes to set up and get back around to a firing position from the south. This time Jason blasted apart the other side of the car without wasting more than six or seven rounds. That was a far cry from when they first started practicing and it would take him two entire magazines of ammunition before he could hit a target the size of a tractor-trailer rig.

"Those Auburn fucks are gonna hate your ass," Brett told him after hearing the results of the last run.

"Good," Jason told him.

Early the next morning, just after first light, the Placer County Militia of Auburn was once more assembled on the lawn of the football field. They were divided into three different companies of four platoons apiece, all of them loaded with heavy packs of food and extra ammunition, all of them with rifles on their backs. They stood at attention in neat, military rows, listening as Colonel Barnes, their commander, gave his traditional departure speech.

Barnes outdid himself with patriotic and militaristic fervor, ranting on for nearly fifteen minutes about God and conquest and unification and the need to secure air superiority for further conquest. He told his troops that he was proud of them - as proud as a father was of his sons. He told them that they would prevail on this most important mission and that the rewards would be great. He seemed almost near tears at several points as his voice went up and down with his emotional outpouring.

So wrapped up in his speech was he that he didn't notice several disturbing things that had never happened before. Instead of listening with rapt and even hypnotic attention as they usually did, a good many of his troops were making sour faces, or snickering, or whispering comments to each other just below the auditory level. A few made obscene gestures for the benefit of their friends. Sergeant Stinson actually went so far as to make a jerking off motion with his hand during the God and conquest sequence.

The cheer that went up at the end of the speech was unenthusiastic at best.

"Lieutenant Covington," Bracken barked to his newest platoon commander.

"Yes, sir," Covington said, straightening up and looking sharp.

"Your platoon has the point. Lead us out."

"Yes, sir," he replied. "Sergeant Markwell!"

"Yes, sir," Turbo, a newly promoted sergeant replied.

"Your squad is on point."

"Yes, sir," he said.

The attack force assembled smartly into marching formation and the order was given. As one, four hundred feet began to march, heading east. Within thirty minutes, they had all passed through the sandbag maze that Jean and Anna had once navigated through and were on their way.

Jessica did not see them go. She was in the middle of hanging a huge load of wet towels up on the improvised clothesline deep in the bowels of the high school. No more than ten minutes after their departure however, the word was brought to her by two of her closest associates.

Alice and Susan were two young women that had recently been added to the cleaning staff of the high school to replace the two escapees, Jean and Anna. In addition to the change in job assignment, they had also both changed husbands. Since Bracken had been left wifeless by the escape and murder of his previous harem, Barnes had pressured two of the lower-ranking militia members to each "donate" a wife to the field commander. Nor had Bracken and Barnes been satisfied with the simple donation in and of itself. Alice and Susan both had been the pick of the litter of each man's three women. In this case the resentment towards Barnes and his underling had gone in both directions. The two young corporals had both been angry at having their best bitches stolen from them and the two young women had been angry at this further proof that they were nothing but property. Jessica didn't give a damn what the two corporals thought or felt, but the insult to Alice and Susan had helped her recruit them into her inner circle of cohorts.

"They're on their way," Alice, a redhead who had once been a hair stylist in Auburn's most fashionable salon, told Jessica.

"Good," Jessica said, allowing a little smile to touch her face. "And did all four hundred march out?"

"We counted every last one," confirmed Susan, a longhaired brunette. She had once been a bureaucrat in the county administration building. "They made it easy to do that in those neat lines they were in."

"And the weapons?" Jessica asked.

"Just like they said," Alice told her. "Most of them had regular hunting rifles. We can't tell the difference in the assault rifles, but it looks like they really did leave all of the automatic weapons here."

"Just waiting for someone to take possession of them," Jessica said. "I've got close to two hundred women in on this now."

"Two hundred?" Susan asked, wondering if she was exaggerating.

She wasn't. The uprising that she was trying to ignite would not have been possible two weeks before. But since the group punishment of everyone and the murder of three women because of Jean and Anna's escape, resentment of the men in town that had been only simmering before had boiled over. The realization that anyone, no matter how loyal or obedient to her husband, could be killed or beaten independent of her own actions had had a powerful effect on the Auburn women. Suddenly much of the petty fighting for favoritism and special treatment seemed a joke. The women, instead of competing against each other, began to see themselves as a group, as an oppressed entity, as an us against a powerful them. Jessica had fanned these flames to the very best of her abilities by doing what she was absolutely best at: talking and gossiping. Whenever a group of women gathered somewhere, she was there, whispering things to them, riling them up. Whenever someone expressed doubt about what she was saying, she quickly turned the fury of the group against them, shaming them or even threatening them back into line. "Two hundred," she confirmed. "And that's not all. I've got at least one of my girls in the household of every man that is remaining behind. This will insure our success. Those bastards will never know what hit them. I only wish Stinson was one of the men staying here so I could have the pleasure of cutting his fucking throat myself."

"You've been a busy little bee, haven't you?" Alice asked.

"It's what I do," Jessica told her. "We'll let the attack force get two days out of town, just to make sure they don't come back unexpectedly, and then, on the third night, while everyone but the guards on post are asleep..." she gave a predatory grin, "We strike."

Alice and Susan both shuddered a little, a mixture of excitement and fear. "Are you sure everyone will follow through with it?" Alice asked.

"I think so," Jessica said. "After the hangings, I really think that they'll do it."

"What about Barnes' women?" Alice wanted to know. "Have you made contact with any of them? How do they feel about this?"

"I haven't approached any of them," Jessica said. "They're probably with us but I just couldn't be sure. We'll see what they do when the time comes."

"And you're sure that they won't be able to just take the town back from us when they get back?" Susan asked almost timidly. "I mean, I know we'll have the automatic weapons and all, but there'll still be four hundred of them."

"Four hundred minus whoever gets killed in Garden Hill," Jessica corrected. "And they'll be tired and low on ammunition from being out there for a month. They'll also have supplies and prisoners from Garden Hill with them. We'll be able to keep them out if we do it right. And when they surrender to us, they'll come back in under our rules."

"And the shoe will be on the other foot for once," Alice said, smiling at the very thought.

"Exactly," Jessica confirmed. "Our day is coming soon."

"Slow up, Brett! Slow up!" Jason barked from the observer seat of the helicopter that night. "Slow way up!"

"What is it?" Brett asked, pulling instantly into a near-hover, slowing the aircraft so quickly that both of them were pushed against their safety harnesses. "Do you have something?"

"Affirm," Jason said fearfully, seeing the glow of hundreds of people on his scope. "Multiple warm bodies on the roadway, right before the mudfall."

They were just outside the one-mile range of the interstate on the west side of the first mudfall. Almost exactly where Brett had predicted the attacking force would stop the first night of their march. It was 9:26 PM.

"How many?" Brett wanted to know.

"Hundreds," Jason said. "I can't even see them all yet, they stretch from the mudfall to the end of my panning range."

"Are they stationary?"

"Yes, most of them seem to be lying down. Their signatures are dimmed, like they're in sleeping bags."

"Can we move in a little closer?"

"A little bit," Jason told him. "It looks like they have a couple of people standing watch just to the south of them but they're only a few hundred feet off the roadway."

"Guide me," Brett said.

Jason directed him forward and to the west at twenty knots, halting his forward motion at about three-quarters of a mile out. He then told him to hover.

"Hovering," Brett reported, wishing he could see, just for an instant, what Jason was looking at. "Be sure to get some film."

"Doing it now," Jason said, panning slowly from east to west. "Too many of them to count right now. We'll have to do it back in town. They have two-man guard teams posted north and south of the roadway. Three sets in each direction; one in the middle and one at each end. The rest of them are clumped pretty tight together right on the asphalt. No tents or lean-to's or anything like that, they're just sleeping in the road."

"Like they don't have a care in the world," Brett said.

"Should we make a firing run on them?" Jason asked hopefully. "I could take out ten or fifteen of them."

"Not tonight," Brett told him.

"Why not? We have three clips of ammo and they're lying in a nice even row. Maybe they'll turn back in the morning."

"They won't," Brett said. "And it's too soon to tip our hand. We need to hit them first in the daylight. If we spend all day harassing them, the realization that we have night capabilities as well will have a much greater effect on their morale. Trust me, that's the way to do it."

Jason wasn't entirely convinced of this but he made no further protests. He spent another ten minutes directing Brett from point to point and filming the enemy in infrared. "I'm pretty sure I've got them all on tape," he said at last.

"Then let's get ourselves home. We're gonna have a long day tomorrow."

Traditionally, the average adult bedtime in Garden Hill had been around nine o'clock or even earlier. In a town with no electricity and with nothing but black darkness outside after sunset, the residents had reverted to the ways their ancestors had used before electrical wires and streetlights and television sets. But since the news that an attack force would be leaving Auburn soon, almost everyone in town had adjusted this early-to-bed credo in favor of awaiting the return of the recon flight around 10:00 PM. Groups of them would gather inside the community center waiting for the radio call to Chrissie from Jason. Even before landing he would give the all-clear signal and the word would quickly be passed. For some reason the townspeople just slept better knowing that they'd been granted an extra day.

On this night, however, no one went to bed after the check-in radio report. The all-clear signal wasn't given. Instead, Jason passed on Brett's request for an immediate community meeting. By the time the helicopter was refueled and secured for the night, every adult in town was sitting anxiously in the cafeteria.

Brett did not mince words with them. "The attack force has left Auburn," he announced through the microphone. "They are currently camped out approximately eight miles east of their starting point."

The uproar was immediate. Though it had a fearful vibe to it, it was not the terror that had come with the initial announcement that an attack was in the works. Now, they were only receiving confirmation of facts that had already been told.

"I haven't had a chance to go over the video images that Jason made of the flight yet," Brett said when the voices died down to a manageable level. "But from what he described to me as he was making the video, it certainly appears that our friends Anna and Jean from Auburn were correct in their assessment of the threat against us. There are literally hundreds of troops camped out on the lanes of the interstate, quite probably the four hundred that we've been told about. We have no reason to believe that they are not heading this way and that they do not have evil intentions towards us."

Some more uproar came at this revelation. A few questions were shouted to Brett about irrelevant things and he pretended not to hear them.

"Now listen up, people," Brett said, gesturing for them to hold it down. Eventually, they did. "We've been through all of this already. We knew they were coming and we have been preparing for them ever since finding this out. This announcement tonight is nothing more than the confirmation of what we already knew. In a way, I'm glad they finally showed themselves to us. Now we know exactly what we're dealing with and we can begin to put our plans into operation. Remember, if they want to fight, we're going to give them a Goddamn fight they'll never forget!"

This statement served to boost the morale up a little bit.

"All right," Brett said, once it was relatively quiet again. "Now tomorrow is just another day for most of you. We still have at least ten days until they get here, probably a lot more. So trench and sandbag crews, we're still going to need you out there in the morning. Those of you on Steve's detail, we're especially going to need you out there. All township defense teams need to report to your normal duty station at the normal hour, just like always, okay?"

The murmurs of assent came babbling upward to him.

"However, those of you on the hit and run teams," Brett said with a rather wicked smile. "Report to me at 0600 sharp. We will be starting full operations first thing in the morning."

Stacy and Tina had provided them with a large thermos of strong black coffee for their first official briefing. They were in a small conference room that had been decorated with large maps of the terrain between Auburn and Garden Hill. Again, Chrissie and Michelle had been the artisans for this cartographic masterpiece and, using videotape of previous recon missions, had truly outdone themselves. Though the maps were not exactly to scale, they were very close, closer even than their drawers knew.

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