Chapter 1-4 can be found HERE.
Chapters 5-8 can be found HERE.
Chapters 9-12 can be found HERE.
By E. J. D’Alise (Disperser)
Copyright 2004 – 2013
A man slowly walked into the clearing. He carried no gear, and the hand not carrying the white flag was held palm up, showing it to be empty.
He walked half-way down one of the well-marked paths, stopped, sat on the ground cross-legged, and planted the stick with the flag to his side. He then rested his arms on his knees and waited.
I thumbed the talk button to ask if anyone could see others out there. There were some ‘maybes’ but no definite answer. I watched the man for a few minutes. He just sat, staring out toward the building. I sighed.
“I’m heading out.” I said into the intercom, “Jim will be in charge if I don’t make it.”
“No! We can’t risk . . .” I missed the rest as Jim cut the intercom and spoke, almost whispering his own objections.
“You can’t go! Why don’t we just call him in? Why should we take the risk of leaving the compound?” Jim was angry.
“If he had wanted to come in, he would have kept walking.” I answered as I unbuckled my gun belts. “His own men probably argued they didn’t want to lose visual. They want to make sure they can see if anything happens. I would handle it the same way.”
“Anyway,” I continued, “I want to get the measure of the situation first hand. Hearing it from someone else would limit my ability to gauge what’s going on.” I finished stripping my weapons. “And they have nothing to gain by trading a life for a life.”
“We lose our leader!” answered Jim angrily.
“They don’t know that. Besides, look at that guy; he’s not a flunky, and taking this risk means he knows something about us.” I paused and looked at Jim. “Still, if there is any trouble, blow the field.”
If there were men hidden in the fields, they would get a nasty surprise. Home-made gasoline bombs were buried at regular intervals all around the compound. We could blow them remotely, launching them about four feet in the air before they ignited; a nasty surprise indeed.
Of course, I may be dead by then. While I was no idiot, I was not that concerned about this meeting. I was more concerned about what I would learn.
And I while I was not completely sure, the initial objection sounded like it had come from Toni. That alone was scrambling my thoughts, but for now I had to force and put that out of my mind . . . not an easy thing to do.
I thumbed the intercom. “Unless I am dead, no one shoots. Follow Jim’s orders. No arguments.”
I thumbed off, and headed to the gate. It was a short walk, and I did not see anyone. Good thing as everyone should be at their posts. But I did see two figures standing by the gate. Stupidly, I almost reached for the guns I no longer carried. Someone had to lock the gate behind me, and open it when I got back . . . if I got back. As I got near, one of the figures was recognizable as Dr. Carlin. I hesitated as I reached the gate; Toni was the other.
“You left your post!” I said, more sternly than I felt. Damn! I needed to think clearly, and right now she was a major distraction. “Two men teams are there for a reason. You are supposed to take care of the other person if they get hurt. I want you back up there before I go out that door!”
“I . . .” Toni looked lost for a moment, and then I could see her demeanor change. She straightened a bit more, and although I could not see her well in the darkness, I could swear her vacant look had returned. She turned and walked away without a word.
“The girl is taken with you. And if I’m not mistaken, it’s mutual.” Dr. Carlin spoke as he unlocked the crossbar holding the doors shut.
I whipped around to face him, ready to take his head off too, but he was not even looking at me. I mulled my own feelings in silence as he set the steel rods against the wall. He opened the doors a crack, and stood aside looking at me. I hesitated a moment.
“I can’t do it.” I said as I slipped into the opening. I hesitated, and looked back at him. He held my gaze. I broke it off and slipped out while adding one more “I can’t,” to the conversation.
I stood a few moments outside the door. “Lock it now.” I looked at the man squatting about 200 yards away. “I’ll wait.”
As the Doctor locked the doors, I kept looking out at the man. Not that I could see anything more than a slightly more defined shadow than most.
There was a quarter moon out, and my eyes were adjusting, but without the scope I could make out no details. When I heard the crossbar drop in place I headed out keeping a slow pace, hands swinging slightly at my side.
I stopped about ten feet from the sitting figure, and sat down facing him. We must have looked like two Indians about to parley, stiffly sitting cross-legged, looking at each other in silence. I was content to wait, letting him take the lead.
~ ~ ~ o o o ~ ~ ~
“They call me Ed,” he said, “and you are?”
His voice was strong and clear. It almost sounded like that of a newscaster. I had a sudden desire to imitate his timbre instead of using my natural voice, but I just answered normally.
“DC.” I said. My eyes were really adjusting to the available light, and I could see a small smile form and disappear. He seemed to relax a bit.
“I guess I heard right about you.” Ed’s voice was more casual.
“Oh, and what have you heard?” I asked just as casually.
“Enough to chance that it would be you who would walk out here. Although, I also heard I had a 50-50 chance of being shot as I walked up”
“No point to it.” My reply brought his smile back. “I gather you’re in charge of your group back there?” I continued, nodding toward the field.
His smile broadened. “You have no clue if there anyone else back there, do you? But it’s smart of you to try and find out.” He scratched his head and continued. “However, you are correct; I am in charge of my group, which by the way has retreated outside your blast zone.”
I said nothing as he continued, smiling. “We came across a funny smelling clump of dirt. One of your bombs has a leak. We assumed there were more. There are only a few individuals left in there, charged with my protection.” He cleared his throat and continued.
“Although I imagine they could do little more than serve retribution if I should meet with an untimely end.” He stopped and sat there staring at me, as if he was trying to read my mind.
“Are you here just to let me know you guys are pros, or is there a point to this parley?” I was beginning to lose patience with his smugness and self-assured grin. “If you have something to discuss, get on with it.”
His expression turned serious, he leaned forward a bit, and launched into his reason for meeting.
“We have a mutual enemy. My scouts witnessed your confrontation with the representatives of the Cardinal. I then asked around about your compound, and decided it was worth risking contact. I believe we can help each other.”
I sat there listening, and got worried. Our little skirmish was observed by someone we did not see. These guys reached our compound undetected. My guess was that the troops in town had no idea these guys were even around.
Who, or better yet, what where they? And what agenda did they have? And finally, could I trust these guys or risk making them into formidable enemies?
“You’re probably wondering about us. I can’t say much right now, but I promise you have nothing to worry from us. If you would consider joining forces, we could help each other, but if not we’ll stay out of your way.” He looked at me a few more moments and continued.
“My people and I are used to risking our lives. How many lives are you willing to risk with an attack on the town?”
I snapped to focus and stared at his face.
“It’s what I would do.” He said softly. “No matter how risky, I would not wait for the fight to come to me. I would want to choose the field of battle, and I would want it as far away from here as possible.”
Ed paused to scratch his chin. It was clean shaven, so he must be traveling with some supplies.
“I’m surprised you have not moved already. You got to be worried the troops in town will be out here in short order.”
I hesitated about how much to reveal. I took in the easy confidence of the man, his tone, and his demeanor. He was either a very accomplished liar or a potential ally in the upcoming fight. My gut told me the later, but the risk was high.
“Nowhere to go.” I answered.
“Right. Don’t worry.” He continued, “They are weighing their options. They never act hastily, and always want to make sure the odds on in their favor before they take action. You are an unknown to them, and stories in town are not helping them make haste.” He smiled broadly as he shifted slightly to get more comfortable.
“You have quite the reputation.” His smile left his face as he continued more somberly. “But that will just serve to ratchet up their response.” He stopped speaking and we sat there in silence.
Too many things were going through my head. And prominent amongst them were Toni and Lindsey. Could I make a rational decision while worrying about them? Not to mention all the other people I had come to know and care about. They sat back there behind those walls trusting me to keep them safe.
I sat here across from an unknown force, trying to make the correct decision, the one that would pose the least risk for my people. My people . . .
Why had I assumed this responsibility? Was I trying to atone for what happened to my sister? Was keeping eighty plus people safe for all these years an effort to make up for my prior failure?
But, what about now? How many would die if I lead them to war?
“Ed, I have no clue what you are offering. I don’t know you or what you are fighting for. I am fighting for the people behind that wall. I can judge the risk, and know the rewards. I can stand side by side any one of those people and know they have the same goals, same dreams, and same loyalty.”
I looked up at the moon, back to Ed, and continued. “Tell me what you stand for. Tell me what you are fighting for. Tell me who you are fighting for. Make me believe I can rest easy with you or one of your men watching my back, or the back of one of my people.”
Ed looked back at me for at least a minute. “I’m going to bring someone up here. Can I trust they will not be shot?”
“We won’t shoot first.” I replied.
Ed looked at me intently.
He sighed, and softly added, “That’s not how I hear it. But I’ve not heard of you shooting unarmed people.”
With that, he raised his hand, holding up two fingers, then one. A figure appeared at the edge of the clearing. Ed did not turn around. He just pointed next to where he was sitting. I could not see clearly, but got the impression the figure was discarding a rifle and other gear. They then began walking toward us. I really hoped Jim held off shooting the new arrival.
I watched the person walk toward us, and from the gait and general demeanor I guessed it was a woman that was approaching us. When she reached Ed’s side, she stopped and sat beside him. She wore a cap, and it was dark, but I placed her in her early twenties.
“DC, meet Elly. If you decide to join forces, she will remain in your compound as insurance.”
“Dad! No!” Elly turned toward Ed and continued in a voice barely constrained with a mixture of anger and worry. “I’m not leaving you. Send someone else.”
Ed ignored her and continued. “She is all I have left of my family. She fancies herself my bodyguard, but frankly, I will feel better if she’s in your compound during any action.”
Elly looked at her father, then me, then back to her father.
“I won’t do it.” Her voice was stern, but calm. There was no pleading in it. I just sat and waited for the resolution to this little drama. If this was a prearranged act, it was a very good one.
“Elly,” Ed said without looking at her daughter, “you will do this because we don’t have time for a prolonged get-to-trust-one-another period. And you will do this because our chances, and therefore my chances, are better if we join with these people. End of argument.”
As Elly looked down in defeat, Ed addressed me. “This is the greatest risk I can take to show you we are not enemies. What do you say?”
I sat there looking at this man. Of course, I knew I was a good guy. But he had only rumors to go on. Gutsy . . . and noble, and stupid, and a host of other things. Would I have offered up such valuable insurance? Would I be capable of this kind of trust if the situations were reversed? Probably not.
Once deliberated, my decisions were always quick.
“Do your men and women need shelter?”
Ed let out a breath he was holding, and his whole frame relaxed.
“No, thanks. We’re already settled for the night; maybe some other time.” I looked at Elly, who had been watching me intently.
Looking back at Ed I asked “What now?”
~ ~ ~ o o o ~ ~ ~
Ed stood. Elly and I did the same.
“Tonight we rest. Elly goes with you. Tomorrow a few of my men and I will come in for some planning sessions.”
I spoke up as he turned to leave.
“One more thing; we are all either clear or immune from the virus. If we are to fight together, I have to know of the risk to my people.”
“We’re clean. I suggest you check Elly since she’ll be with you. And in case you are wondering, the Cardinal’s men are clean as well. The people still alive today are either immune or have never had the virus. We don’t know of any outbreak anywhere for the past two years.”
Ed turned and walked away from us along the path. Elly and I watched him go, and then she turned to look at me. She was not happy, and I was the only one left to be unhappy with. Yes, my life was a bed of roses.
“Come on,” I said, turning away from her and heading back. I listened for her footsteps, but had to look back to make sure she was following. Stiffly, but she was walking a few steps behind me. The shadow hid her expression.
As we walked, I mulled the information over. The lack of any outbreaks was what gave the Cardinal the confidence to make a move. No one in their right mind would go out a-conquering people who had the potential of wiping you out just by mere contact.
The information corroborated what we heard from Michigan and Arizona. This was good news and bad news.
During our group meetings we often discussed what would happen once the virus went dormant. The consensus was more frequent and larger turf wars. The emergence of strong leader wanting to consolidate large territories was easy to predict. The difficult part was predicting if that figure would be a democratic leader, a benevolent dictator, or an outright tyrant. The Cardinal certainly leaned toward the later.
The doors opened as we approached, but now there were four people there to meet us; the Doctor, Jim, Walter, and John. Walter and John immediately went to Elly’s sides, a couple of feet away from reach. Obviously Jim had assigned guards for our guest.
It took them a few seconds to realize she was a woman, and then both Walter and John relaxed their stance. I looked at the trio. Elly had glanced to her sides, and was now looking back at me, but her stance had changed.
She seemed relaxed, almost languid. “Elly, meet John and Walter, who as we speak are probably underestimating you,” I pointed in turn to John and Walter and continued, “Just imagine how careful you would be if you had to guard Toni.”
With that, they both stiffened and took up more alert poses as they backed up another foot. “This is Jim, and that’s Dr. Carlin.” The Doctor gave a slight bow, while Jim kept looking intently at Elly’s face.
“Uh . . . pleased to meet you.” Jim hesitated a moment, but then walked forward and offered his hand. Elly looked down in surprise, and I’m sure offering her hand back was pure reflex. But once out there, she went through with it, and shook Jim’s hand.
“Jim, arrange for a couple of the women to escort Elly to the infirmary.”
Elly looked back at me, and slightly concerned she replied, “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“That may be so” I replied, “but I want to make sure there are no surprises hidden in your uniform.” Elly looked at a point behind me, then back at me.
A quick look back and I saw Toni standing a few feet behind me. Damn, these women needed to make more noise when they walked around. Perhaps I should issue little bells for their shoes.
“Is that how you people get your kicks? I told my father not to trust you!” Elly’s response had quite the edge on it.
This time I did hear Toni move, but I caught her before she reached the young girl.
“I’ll talk to you in a moment.” I was looking straight into Toni’s eyes, just a few inches from her face. She relaxed and stepped back.
Turning to Elly, I replied, “Your father did trust me, and perhaps you should learn to do the same. While our guest, you’ll have your own room, but it will be locked and there will be a guard posted. As far as your clothes, you can either choose to have the Doctor take them from you, or one of the women. We’ll give you suitable clothes to replace these. They will be returned when you leave. In addition, Dr. Carlin will take a sample of your blood for analysis. It’s our standard operating procedure when we are entertaining petulant guests.”
I heard a few of our guys stifle a laugh. Elly looked around, obviously not liking the implication of immaturity in her behavior. I motioned for them to leave, and Dr. Carlin led the group toward the infirmary.
Turning back to Jim and Toni I continued, “We apparently have some allies. A few will drop by tomorrow morning for a planning session. Pass the word. Our guest is here to assure us of their good intentions. Personally, I trusted the guy, Ed, but since he offered, I saw no harm into accepting a hostage. Perhaps we’ll learn a little more from her. Jim, after she’s changed, have a little talk with her. She probably won’t tell us anything about her group, but maybe you can learn some personal history, and at this point, any information may be of help.”
From Jim’s expression, I got the feeling he was more than happy to go speak with Elly. I guess there wasn’t anything going on between him and Andrea after all, at least as far as he was concerned.
As he left, I turned my attention to Toni. She looked back at me with eyes devoid of emotion, but she held a defiant posture.
“Come with me.” I said, turning.
“Why?” she answered without moving.
“Because I don’t want to have a discussion in the middle of the courtyard, and if you want to hear what I have to say, you’ll follow me to my room.”
I just walked away, hoping she would follow. After a second, I heard her move. I let out my breath.
Once in my room, I turned, and we looked at each other. I looked away first, and sank into my chair. Toni put her rifle down, and sat on the chair across the room. I looked at her again, and mulled over what I wanted to say. Well, no; not what I wanted to say. What I had to say.
“Toni, I like you more than I like admit to myself. I’m guessing you have similar feelings. If I’m wrong, stop me now, and walk out that door.”
Her expression did not change, and she did not move, so I continued, “Given another time and place, we might have even explored where this would lead, but here that is not going to happen.”
Again, her expression did not change, and she said nothing. “We have nothing in common, we have hardly spoken to each other, and most important, we are damaged goods; damaged by events that will continue to shape us for the rest of our lives.”
I waited for a response, but when none came, I continued, “Finally, I took on a responsibility to help protect the people in this compound. I cannot afford to place more importance to one individual over another. I cannot be distracted with personal issues, especially now.”
I watched for any reaction, but Toni just sat there, looking at me. I waited. For a few minutes that seemed an eternity, we just looked at each other. I cherished the opportunity to look at her feature, her hair, and even the seemingly vacant eyes.
She broke it off by raising, grabbing her rifle, and turning to the open door. She stopped at the door sill, and turned to speak.
“We can no more change the way we feel than we could stop rain from falling. Your little speech here certainly won’t do it.” She looked down, took a deep breath, and continued.
“And you have it wrong; we are damaged, but in these last few months we were beginning to heal; I began to heal. You believe ignoring all this makes you stronger, but all it will do is add to your hurt . . . and mine.”
She let the words hang for a moment, and then finished, “Still, if that is what you want, it will be so.”
With that she turned and walked out. I got up to walk out after her, but stopped. Pride? Ego? Stupidity? Whatever the reason, I just stood there, and then sank back down in my chair.
I had lied. There were already people that I cared about more than others, even before Toni and Lindsey joined us.
Jim was the first one that came to mind, but there were others. But it a way, it was not a lie; different kind of love . . . love?
Did I love Toni? Did I even remember how? Was one of the symptoms sitting in an empty room brooding? I turned in and tried to get some sleep. It was not a restful night.
~ ~ ~ o o o ~ ~ ~
Jim knocked and came in as I was doing my stretching exercises. The sun was just cresting the horizon.
“Good morning.” He said while placing one of the two cups of coffee he was carrying onto the small table by the bed. He then pulled up a chair and waited for me to finish my set.
“Good morning.” I replied as I got up to grab the coffee. “How is our guest doing? Did you learn anything from her?” Jim avoided looking at me.
“No, it was all I could do to keep from telling her too much about us.”
I looked at him for a moment, and then headed to my closet.
“Not a good idea to fall for our ‘insurance’. She may not be here too long.”
Jim sighed. “I know,” he said in a low voice. “What’s the deal with you and Toni?” he continued, perhaps wanting to deflect further questions or comments.
“There is no deal. I had a conversation with Toni, and told her I cannot get involved with her.” My jaw set as I finished speaking. Saying it out loud gave it an air of finality. It was not pleasant.
“DC,” Jim spoke as he got up and headed for the door, “for being as smart as you are, sometimes you can be pretty dense.” He walked out without waiting for a response.
For most of the morning Jim and I studied the maps we had of the town and the surrounding countryside. We threw together a few ideas on how to approach the town, and what action would result in the least risk to our people, but without knowing how many people Ed could bring to the fight, all we could do is speculate.
Near noon I received a call from the tower. Ed and two other people were at the edge of the clearing. They waited for a signal, and then proceeded down the path. Ed and one of the other men carried rifles and wore side arms. The third man carried a side arm and wore a short sword strapped to his back. There were also two knives strapped to his thigh. He was big. I judged him to be 6’6” and all muscle. I could see no flab on the guy.
Jim and I were waiting at by the door as they stepped through.
“Good morning Ed.”
“Good morning DC.” Ed turned to his companions. “This is Greg, our tactical expert, and that is Guy, our reconnaissance team leader.”
Jim and I both nodded at each man in turn. Guy, the big man, bowed slightly.
“This is Jim.” I said. None of us made any motions to shake hands.
We stood there for an awkward moment, and then Ed nodded to his companions. All three started to un-strap their weapons.
“You can keep your gear.” Jim’s words surprised the trio, but they recovered quickly. Ed looked around. I’m not sure how many of the snipers he saw, but he smiled.
“Trust, but only to a certain point. How is my daughter?”
“She is fine.” Jim answered, and a little color came to his cheeks. I was sure Ed noticed, but he showed no reaction.
“May I see her?” Ed asked casually, but there was a slight hesitation in his voice; paternal concern showing through. Perhaps he regretted having offered her up as hostage.
Neither Jim nor I spoke since Elly was already entering the courtyard, escorted by Toni. I briefly wandered why Toni would have replaced Walter, but then remembered he had been up all night.
Elly rushed ahead, and gave her dad a hug. He held her a moment, and the broke it off to ask where we should meet. Toni stopped about seven feet from the group. She seemed tense, and her rifle was almost level. I noticed her finger was in the trigger guard.
“I know you.” She spoke while looking at Guy.
Suddenly, the whole group was on edge. Small shifts in people’s stances told me everyone was getting ready for trouble. If anything happened right now, these three, and maybe Elly, would be dead in a fraction of a second.
“Where do you know him from?” I focused on Guy, and rotated slightly to take in the other two. A few seconds passed.
“Toni?” I asked again. Ed stepped forward, partially covering Guy from Toni’s rifle, and turned to face him.
“Guy, do you know this woman?” Guy had a puzzled look on his face as he stared at Toni, and then he smiled.
“Tuscola! I stopped those two men from . . .” his voiced trailed off, and his smile went away as Toni’s gun was swinging towards him.
“Hold it!” I held my hand out toward Toni, as I continued to focus on the three men. Ed was still calm, but the other two were tensing. We were a hair’s breath from some nasty stuff.
Just then Elly spoke up. “Guy joined the Tuscola gang to get intel on the Cardinal. He spent six weeks with them.”
“Toni, did this man do anything to you or your sister?” I was still holding out my arm toward Toni, and my other hand was positioned for a fast draw.
All I needed to do is give a signal, and they would be dead. But if Guy had done anything to Toni or Lindsay I would take care of the matter myself.