4 Chapter 14 Foreign Homecoming
The strengthened crew of the fortress made good time down the highways that had been built by a nation that had loved fast cars, and the Fortress arrived on the northern outskirts of Shasta Lake City just before dusk. They had probably another half day of travel ahead of them. That didn't bother them, but it was the raiders that that had Cameron worried.
The newest and most temporary member of the crew had taken what was dubbed a "Cameronesque" approach to dealing with the painful losses he had suffered. He didn't talk to anyone unless they spoke to him first and had kept his answers monosyllabic. Natalie however, seemed to have taken a sharp interest in him and they had passed the long time on the road with long conversations, even if all he did was sort through the filled duffel bags, and steal a glance every so often at the freezer that held the remains of two of his comrades.
Nastia's remark that they had "found themselves another taciturn lone wolf leader thing" had brought the hint of a smile to Cameron's normally taciturn features which promoted further comment from the five foot four inch tall redhead that had them all laughing, except for Cameron who just smiled.
"Outskirts of Shasta Lake," said Robert as he slowed them down, "We've got a couple of hours of daylight left. You want to call it a day or push through?"
"Push through," replied Cameron, "I'll go find out what exactly we can run in to." Sure enough, Peter was in deep discussion with Natalie over some fairly esoteric matter in the real trailer where the two were sorting through the sixth bag of medical supplies. Natalie nodded and Cameron returned the gesture, taking a knee next to them, "Hope I'm not interrupting, but we're coming up on Shasta Lake City," Peter froze for a moment, "What is the apocalyptic worst case scenario?"
"The raiders are based somewhere in the city – never been able to find out really but so long as you stay out of downtown, you shouldn't run in to them or their random patrols."
The Fortress lurched to a halt, throwing Cameron off balance as his knee made hard contact with the metal floor but picked himself up as he half ran and half limped forwards towards the cab. The sight that greeted him could hardly get any more sickening: They swayed gently back and forth in the nonexistent wind, and bullet holes marred the chest and torsos of every single one. They had been dead for maybe a day at most. Robert looked over his shoulder at the small crowd of faces that had come to glimpse at what had made him stop short and the looks ranged for disgust to anger intermingled with grief, "Those bastards," he growled. Shoulders shaking he turned away and Cameorn didn't have to give the order as they melted away to the guns.
Nastia took the other rear gun, and waited for Peter to settle in, he shook silently as a trickle of tears made their way down his cheeks. She reached out to him, putting a hand on his shoulder, "You knew them didn't you?"
"Yeah," he wiped his eyes quickly, "Thomas, Kosta, Vera, Shawn, Tina and Brock... they had two vehicles between them." He smiled, at odds with the tears and rage that warred for supremacy on his face, "I'll mourn them when the time is right, but until then," he turned away as they rolled through the ruined city. Peter worked the bolt on the machine gun and nothing more need be said. Natalie clambered up the ladder to the grenade launcher as Jaira had both flank guns prepped and ready in the first trailer, with Cameron upon the forward gun alongside Robert.
The drive was quiet but Robert could feel something wrong, that they were enjoying the calm of a coming storm. He said as much to Cameron who was in the process of agreeing with him when a dozen rounds splattered against the armored exterior, "Contact right!" Engines roared and vehicles shot in to the open from hiding places amongst the wreckage and shadows of numerous buildings to form a blockade across the road. Several more bullets whipped past the view screen and Robert brought the fortress to a halt.
The center of the roadblock was a civilian humvee and a pickup truck, both sporting crudely mounted .50 caliber machine guns. From the back of the pickup truck, a man rose a bullhorn to his lips, "We represented the power of our, and soon to be your Holy Father, Arch-Cardinal Jordan St. Jamais. You have slaughtered members of our faith and although our fallen brothers call from heaven for vengeance, Know that the Brotherhood does not seek war with the shattered remnants of humanity. I command you to switch off your engine and surrender your arms. We give you one minute to decide: Surrender or the fire of holy and righteous purification will cleanse your souls before your communion with the Lord!"
Cameron had not and would not even consider the possibility of surrendering anything to anyone. At odds with religion and God in general Cameron studied the road block as he pulled the headset in to place. It was a small innovation that served the dual purpose of allowing them to communicate without having to shout over the roar of machine gun fire, "On my signal, give them hell." He ordered before taking the microphone from Robert to address their acquaintances, "We are heavily armed and will defend ourselves to the death! Move aside or we will move you!"
The American Army M-72 LAW or Light Anti-tank Weapon is that it is one of the easiest anti armor weapons to deploy and Peter knew full well how to use one. He flipped up the caps at both ends and extended the tube to its full seventy centimeters length before he unlocked the roof hatch on the second trailer. He was halfway up the short ladder when Nastia hissed at him, "What the hell are you doing?"
"Raising hell," replied Peter as he cautiously pulled himself half out of the massive vehicle. Balanced on the ladder and the edge of the hatch, he heft the opened tube on to his shoulder and set the rear sight before lining up the foresight on the target. Peter saw the bullhorn reappear, and he was halfway through his reiteration of his demands when Cameron's voice crackled in everyone's headset, "Weapons free!" The LAW is an open breach weapon that has almost no recoil but produces a back blast that was fatal to anyone caught within the thrity meter radius behind the weapon as superheated exhaust gasses vented out. There was a heavy whoosh and Cameron blinked as the missile streaked towards and engulfed the two vehicles at the center of the line in hellfire, turning them to scrap metal.
There was a moment of shocked silence, "Oops," mumbled Peter. He rolled the spent weapon tube over the side and dropped back inside, sealing the deadbolts before turning his attention to the machine gun. From the outside may have looked a little strange as five beams of red light stabbed out to find targets before horizontal red rain pierced and punctured everything in their path. Jaira ripped through two on the left before Nastia tore up a matching pair on the right. The grenade launcher gave off a long deep throated cough, Natalie having opted to fire off a brace of fragmentation rounds. The raiders broke without firing a return shot as the fortress unleashed its own brand of hell upon them.
Peter seemed to take a ridiculous delight in downing the fleeing enemy, taking careful aim to send short controlled bursts like piranhas in to anyone stabbed by the red beam. He was avenging friends and excising a few demons at the same time.
The Fortress smashed through the burning wrecks, taking the turn south following the road sign towards Redding leaving the ruins of the ambush to burn behind them. It would be another two hours before they called it a day, Robert parking the massive vehicle across the four lane highway to present half their firepower towards Shasta Lake City, in case the raiders were actually foolish enough to try their luck again.
Anastasia Sokolov toyed with her fork, pushing around another rehydrated MRE. She had nothing against Pasta Bolognaise, but the questions gnawing at her consciousness were like a dog gnawing at a bone, as she wondered about it more and more, wondered who exactly she could turn to for advice. Natalie would be the logical choice, but then again, so was Jaira. Cameron....Cameron was not a man that she knew how to approach – let alone talk to without putting her foot in her mouth. That was the answer to her question: Peter. She called towards the driving cab, asking for someone to cover her while she went to the bathroom and it was Cameron who filled her freshly vacated slot, jerking his head in the appropriate direction, "Take all the time you need."
She nodded and disappeared in to the rear, where Peter sat eating his own pasta, taking his time to chew it unlike Cameron who inhaled whatever food was put in front of him. He was taking his time to savor the texture and flavor of what he was eating and sat down next to him, "You actually like this stuff?"
"Hot food beats whatever comes out of a cold can," he replied as he took another bite and chewed it slowly.
She chuckled, and took a bite of her own pasta. True enough, it was still warm and tasted like pasta but she could not pin down whether the sauce was actually bolognaise or a cream sauce, despite its deep red color, "So how do you rate the cooking tonight?"
"I'd rate it about a seven or an eight. But if I'd done the cooking, I would have gotten a solid nine."
"That low?" she retorted, "Cameron's not going to be happy that you don't like his cooking."
Peter didn't reply to that, as he shifted the topic, "What's up with your leader anyway? He seems to be wound a little bit tight."
"What? Cameron?" Nastia hesitated, wondering how much she could reveal to someone who was in many ways still on the outside, "You don't trust him?"
"I trust him as much as I trusted those who I used to work with in Redding," he paused, obviously trying to pick his words carefully to avoid stepping on toes, "But I've seen him when he sleeps. He tosses, turns and twitches and jerks like sleep is just a long nightmare." The truth was that Cameron had nightmares every night, "and he's a lot calmer when Jaira..." Peter was lost for words.
"Keeps an eye on him?" supplied Nastia as she took another bite, "I don't know everything about him but I do know the causes of some of his nightmares. It has a lot to do with things," Nastia shuddered at the memories, "that happened about three months ago, when our own community in Portland City was destroyed by the dead."
Cameron stepped back in to the shadows that shadowed the narrow corridor that joined the two trailers as the pair continued their conversation. They maintained a careful watch as she continued, "I don't have all of the details – even though I was there, and I fought... it's a long story."
"I've got another couple of hours, so why don't you keep me company and tell me the story." Cameron hesitated in the shadows, considering that Nastia should have been up front manning the gun, but he'd learned to read the people around him and knew that something had been eating away at Nsatia for a while. It seemed that Peter was providing something for her and he quietly slipped away, the rubber soles of his boots making no noise on the metal floor panels as he tiptoed away.
"Cameron was never the friendliest of people, but when he was elected by popular vote to lead the defense of our community, it was a responsibility he did not want, did not have the training to cope with or the knowledge to handle, but he stepped up and shouldered the burden," she gazed in to the distance, seemingly reliving the few hours in hell, surrounding by fire, clattering rifles and the deeper booms of shotguns, "I got separated from my group, who were supposed to be guarding the East wall, the next thing I know is that I'm behind Cameron, helping his push a trolley with homemade flame throwers towards the West wall where the zombies were hitting us hard."
She went on, telling him how they had repelled the assault, using the flamethrowers and hundreds if not thousands of bullets to slaughter the horde that converged upon their walls, only to have the undead climb the mountains of their own dead until they clambered over the walls and in to the compound. She detailed how they had fought and killed with guns and the when the bullets ran out with knife, sword and club until the last sixty or so had pulled back to the parking garage. She detailed their near suicidal breakout and then their arrival at the junkyard. She talked for over an hour, and he listened, only interrupting to ask a question or clarify something in her tale, "So you see.... over a hundred dead and he thinks that their blood is upon his hands, when there isn't. He doesn't get the part where it's not his fault."
Peter nodded, "so that's what he has nightmares about?"
"It's not the only thing," she replied, looking down at her the last few strands of pasta, now cold as she twirled them round her fork, "You'd have to ask Jaira about the rest. But I doubt that she knows."
That was something he had noticed too, "what is the deal with the two of them?" her look was blank, "Cameron and Jaira. Are they together or what?" silence stretched between them, but it was a fairly comfortable silence as Nastia sought to find the right words to explain the situation and realized, she didn't have one, "Tell me what you think and I'll tell you what I think." She offered.
He nodded, "She wants him, he wants her but something is holding him back so they have compromised with their sleeping arrangements. He lets her sleep next to him but nothing else. He won't do anything more unless she explicitly asks."
"And what is "it" exactly?" asked Nastia as she chewed her last mouthful.
"Not a clue," he said as he took a forkful of his own pasta.
"Not much gets past you once you've started thinking about it. But I guess you're right. General opinion seems to think that way," Deftly, she changed the topic, going back on the offensive to hopefully divert Peter's attention away from the love puzzle, "I guess it's my turn to ask you a question."
He shrugged, turning to face her, "Fair enough," he glanced at his watch, "shoot."
"You've dealt with the raiders before... right?" he nodded, "So how do you do it?"
"Kill another human being."
Peter thought about it, "Honestly, I'm not the right person to ask that question," he rolled up the shirtsleeve on one arm to reveal a tattoo, "First Battalion of the Marine Expeditionary Force in to Iraq in 2004 and well... I came home from Fallujah." The tattoo showed clearly the blue diamond, its red trim with the three blue "1"s of varying size. Underneath the tattoo was a second, showing the crosshairs with a sniper rifle resting just below the center point.
"Unit tattoo?" she asked
"Yeah," he replied,
"No "wow" about it, Nastia. I killed a lot of people over there with my sniper rifle. One of the first things I learned from my Drill Instructor was that "your job is to kill the enemy before he kills you" and the second thing I learned was that in combat, you must never hesitate, doubt or second guess yourself. All the skill and training in the world can't save you if you doubt your own ability to make the right decision, especially if that decision involves taking another life."
Nastia opened her mouth to object, "I don't sanction what we did during those firefights, but I stand by the fact that it is kill or be killed. It is war. And we're at war now, against these zombie fucks and against humans," he spat the word like a curse, "that kill and steal instead of trying to rebuild. It's not pretty but it's the way the world is now."
"Kill or be killed? Is it really that simple to you?" she said with disbelief.
"I wish it was so perfect and simple," he laughed, a bitter sound, "but all we can do is the best that we can do and sometimes to do the best, means killing the enemy before..."
"...before he kills you." She finished. "We don't have a choice sometimes, and we kill because we have to, not because we choose to."
"That's pretty much the way it works. It's not perfect, but it gets the job done." He replied as he took her plate and the fork to dump them in the kitchen sink, "Sleep well." She said nothing as he left her to her thoughts on the subject they had discussed. With the sun already beginning to set and they only had about a dozen kilometers between them and Redding. The interior lights faded to their usual night setting.
The carnage they had wrought earlier that afternoon was not an indicator; such was the way of the world as their night proved to be quiet for all concerned as Cameron slid in to the driver's seat, vacated by a now slumbering Robert. He lifted the night vision goggles back to his eyes as he scanned their surroundings every few minutes until Natalie relieved him early in the morning. Once relieved, he found himself unable to get back to sleep, not because of the lack of space, but more because he lacked a duvet or a blanket as he tumbled down in to Jaira's bunk for only a moment as he stared at the sleeping form, snoring gently and he rolled her over like a giant log and made some space for himself, even if she refused to share the blanket.
When he woke the following morning, there was too much space on the narrow bunk bed but the coffee scent made up for that, and breakfast. Hoisting himself out of bed and in to his boots, he laced them up with his eyes closed and stood, stretching as he cracked his neck, back and knuckles.
It was true of them that unless there was some kind of emergency nothing would get this group of men and women to hop out of bed all "bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed." The inhabitants had developed a morning routine that was a choreographed ballet of chaos as they weaved and swerved around one another, somehow everyone getting their morning fix of tea or coffee and the small cramp bathroom before or after breakfast. Cameron had made it clear that he would get his coffee before the bathroom or he would try to shave with his toothbrush.
Soon enough, they were back on the road, and the outskirts of Redding came in to view just before lunch as Peter directed them along those stretches of road that had been cleared and saw regular traffic from Redding. The outskirts of what used to be Redding were a depressing sight, barren of buildings, and of life. But the reason for that was obvious: It gave the guards atop the walls and the multiple guard towers a clear line of sight for almost a kilometer. It was clear that they could expect a welcoming committee.
As they approached the outer wall, Robert brought them to a halt a safe distance from the wall, close to the aforementioned committee that comprised of a dozen armed men supported by dozens more atop the wall, all of whom had a clear field of fire. Cameron could understand why these people were nervous. How often would fifty feet of steel armor and firepower pull up outside the walls of one's home, "Tell your friends to lower their guns before somebody gets hurt?" suggested Cameron.
Peter nodded, and made his way to the hatch, making sure that while clad in body armor, with his sidearm strapped to his hip, the assault rifle slung across his back as he threw back the bolts and slid the door open. He leapt down lightly, landing with his feet spread to absorb the shock as the half dozen eyed him with wide eyed disbelief, as Peter hugged two of the men, and whispered something to a third who immediately looked crestfallen, as the guns upon the wall relaxed Cameron and Robert kept watch from the cab, while the others kept the appropriate guns trained upon the seven men on the ground with the grenade launcher trained upon the wall ready to unleash hell the moment somebody fired a shot in their direction. The questions were short and brief and Peter answered them clearly, but one thing was becoming very clear to the Spartans: Peter was not just someone but an actual somebody with authority as the heavy gates swung outwards, followed by a set of inner gates as well. It was a harsh reminder to Cameron of the ruined gates of Sparta.
Robert parked their vehicle in a parking space as Peter directed and then they gathered in the living room of the Fortress, all of them with the same burning question. "You've not been entirely honest with us have you Peter?" said Cameron, "So just who the heck are you?"
Peter stared Cameron in the eye, meeting the flinty dark gaze for the first time since he had joined them several days ago, "I am Peter Sanchez, leader of Redding." For the first time in a long, long while, they were all lost for words as they starred, Peter continued, "Our hospitality is not what it used to be, but welcome to Redding."
The gate was recessed in to the wall giving the residents clear fields of fire upon the gates. The militaristic mindset was reinforced when they were met by a dozen men and women with their weapons at the ready as they surrounded the building, "Routine vehicle inspection! They'll sweep the flanks and underneath the Fortress to make sure you're not bringing in any of the undead unknown. Then they will carry out a walk through the Fortress to make sure you don't have any undead aboard. After that, they will check and search for a bite, including me." Cameron could find no argument with the logic or slightly paranoid nature of their security. One infected individual could doom a community of hundreds in a matter of hours – Sparta had its share of early close calls.
Peter was the first to the ground, making introductions to those that in his words made up the "democracy part of Redding's government," as he also explained to them the events that had occurred since their botched salvage mission in Shasta Lake City
With great solemnity, they removed the remains of two of the Redding community, still contained within their heavy black plastic body bags. There were tears as Peter explained and confirmed the identities of the deceased as Isabel Bryner, and Joanna Somerset. Others had arrived, eager for news but it was unfair as he delivered the worst kind of news to friends, family, a husband and a pregnant wife that their loved ones were not coming home for the funeral that they deserved.
He repeated everything he said, confirming the identity of the Spartans later that afternoon at what was essentially a town meeting, and no matter what he said, and how he said, he left the five somewhat uncomfortable, "Should have left the other two bodies out there and brought nothing but news," thought Robert as the ocean of faces studied him and for a paranoid moment it seemed as if they could read his thoughts. Cameron had spaced out to everything said as on the inside he hopped from one foot to another wanting to get off stage and away from the spotlight as fast as he can, a sentiment echoed by the others, pulled back to reality with Peter's closing words, "There will be a service for the eight of our fallen later this evening," he shot a sidelong glance, catching the eye of each of the Spartans, "It would be appreciated if you would attend," his words made Cameron bristle as no one ordered any of them around.
Peter turned his back for only a moment before Cameron had grabbed his shoulder and spun him round, eyes burning with rage that burned flesh and reach for his soul, "I'll take your request in to consideration, but my crew, make their own choices about whether or not they attend."
To his credit, Peter met death's gaze head on, "Your people can make whatever decisions they want, but the right thing to do would be to attend, and perhaps you could even say a few words."
"Say a few words? Me? What would I say?" he snapped, "I never knew them. Hell, you should get Natalie to say a few words! She saw one of your friends get gunned down!" Neither of their voices had risen above normal conversational tones but it was clear that they had everyone's attention as first Peter, then Cameron flushed slightly as he too took notice, but stood firm, "My people make their own decisions, and my decision has no influence upon their decision."
He turned and half walked, half stomped as he was accustomed to do when pissed off, the crowd parting before him, with some dark muttering as he made his way to the exit without a backwards glance, his team falling in behind him. Robert and Nastia relaxed, their hands falling limp at their sides from their side arms, unnoticed by the others, and they were all silently grateful for it.
Friendly relations were now on ice as the hours passed. It was just past noon when Peter banged on the door of the Fortress to be greeted by less grumpy but not happy Cameron who jumped to the ground to be able to meet Peter's eye, "What?"
Peter stared back, "I'm not here to or am I ever going to apologize for what I said."
"That's good," replied Cameron. Peter blinked in surprise as Cameron leaned against the side of their vehicle and sipped his warm instant coffee, "If you lead, you can't spend time apologizing for your decisions."
"You're new here, as are the rest of your travelers, but you could make an effort to fit in, and try not to be so conspicuous."
He took another sip, "What is that supposed to mean?"
"It was a town meeting, and instead of five people, I got five soldiers armed for war. People were supposed to get to know your faces and know your names. All you've done is make everyone nervous and question whether any of you can be trusted." Cameron took another sip to as he thought that over. He'd been expecting an attack upon his character and leadership style, not a logical and reasoned argument.
Cameron took another sip and found that he had no choice in the matter, "Fair point," he conceded, "But this does not mean that I will change my mind," he extended his canteen towards Peter, "Everyone makes their own choices. I lead them when we're on the open road because democracy will get you killed out there." He shrugged, "I don't like telling people what to do all the time, especially since Redding is a safe port of call."
"So, we're okay then?" Peter took a swig of the canteen and he grimaced as he swallowed the liquid where his stomach gave off an audible protest, "What is this stuff?" He spat trying to clear the taste.
"What? Something you don't like about my coffee?"
"That's not coffee! Did you forget to add that other ingredient called water?"
"It's instant crap. The less water you have in it, the better it is," he replied as he capped the canteen and clipped it to his belt, "How about we offload your supplies?"
They spent a few hours offloading the supplies on to the back of a pickup truck, working with several of the local residents, helping rebuilt bridges they may have damaged earlier in the day. The loosely sorted medicines ranged from the mundane aspirin to the more exotic antibiotics, pain killers and asthma inhalers, all of which were worth more than their weight in gold – not that gold had any value. As word got around that the new arrivals had returned the medicines without asking for repayment, the community warmed to them as even Cameron defrosted slightly, "I don't suppose we could get a tour?"
Peter nodded, "We'll start with the heart of our community: The Redding Inn." The hotel was the tallest in Redding at seven floors, "I suppose you could say we got lucky. Counting the hotel employees, there were sixty people when the fecal matter hit the rotary air circulation device. We killed the few undead that broke in to the hotel, and locked down the three entrances and secured the building."
The hotel was the housing for most of the community's singles, with families occupying houses and other buildings nearby, not to mention the few new couples that had formed, with more than one expectant mother amongst the community. Logistics, and supply management took up a lot of the former office space in the hotel with their own communications facilities setup in what used to be hotel call center.
The Redding Community had grown slowly as survivors trickled in from around Redding and several of the smaller outlying communities. As their numbers had grown, they had reclaimed - no doubt at great risk - the local hospital, mall, and countless stores and scavenged houses. Medicines came from the numerous pharmacies and clinics they had raided, keeping a careful inventory of everything they had in buildings that now served as warehouses kept under a constant armed guard.
In the two or so years since the undead had risen, walls had become the best weapon against the undead and other threats that had reared their heads, and Redding's walls clearly reflected this: The walls stood fifteen feet high and five feet thick, with raised, watch towers built in to the walls every two hundred meters around the length of the perimeter. The gates, such as the one the Fortress had entered through were recessed in to the wall, giving defenders atop the walls on both sides a kill zone where they could concentrate their firepower. The gates were heavy steel; portcullis styled that weighed close to a ton. When lowered, it was as strong as the walls around it, "The slots in the doorways are for cross bars," explained Peter, as he hefted one such bar, "Once the portcullis comes down, you get one of these and run in from the side slots, resulting in a total lock down meaning you'd have to blow the gate and the wall around it. Obviously, half of our perimeter is the ravine meaning we don't have any real need for walls, but we have watchtowers with an electrified barbed wire fence. There are also a couple of escape routes over that way... just in case."
Peter introduced them to a soft spoken blond who would give them the rest of the tour, citing several community matters that he had to attend to. Kim explained how they had benefited from an environmental initiative when the global warming was of pressing concern: Solar panels were installed on the roof of every building to generate electrical power, and in keeping with reducing their dependency upon fossil fuels, several windmills had also been established, "We're also working on trying to get alcohol fuels and biodiesel and we've gotten it working for vehicles. Not quite for the generators thought. Something in the mix tends to gum up the mechanics after a couple of hundred hours but we'll figure it out."
Determined to stay civilized had also lead to the development of an effective plumbing and water purification systems, "We've managed to get the hotel's plumbing working so you can take a shower and use the toilet. We filter and purify all of our own water so as long as you limit the length of your showers, there should be no problem."
It was mid-afternoon, when the tour concluded and they were back at the Fortress, to find Peter and almost a dozen others, dressed in or wearing armbands that were black in color. Peter held out five of the bands simply sayings "Its time." Cameron nodded and tied one around his upper left arm like Peter. He tossed a glance over his shoulder at the rest, and stepped back to let them make their own decision on the matter.
It only took a moment for Peter to hand out four more, and another moment before the five of them followed Peter to Redding's graveyard.