6 Chapter 16 Roads, Refugees and Raiders
The walking dead had made firearm proficiency a requirement to live and in Redding, new arrivals were required to demonstrate their proficiency and if found lacking to train with their weapon of choice. The fortress crew were exempted as they had demonstrated their proficiencies with firearms of all make and caliber and participated in Redding's shooting competitions simply for bragging rights along with some friendly gambling.
The firearms policy in Redding meant that children were given their first weapon at the age of seven with semi-automatic .22 caliber loaded with hollow point bullets. Birthdays in Redding were new milestones as specific birthday "unlocked" new classes of firearms, large caliber hand guns at the age of ten, shotguns at thirteen and submachine guns and assault rifles at fifteen. Some opted for sharpshooting and started their training at fifteen. Firearms were for survival and protection against the dead and in Redding and there was no crime in Redding. Everyone had been involved or at the very least seen a zombie attack and that was incentive enough to follow the rules. Stupidity could result in extra guard duty or time in the crop fields but the only punishment for a major crime was banishment, with a gun, three clips of ammunition and whatever they could carry.
Redding had thrived from its humble beginnings at the Redding Inn, and after almost two years survivors still showed up on Redding's doorstep, sometimes solo, but more often in small mounted or motorized groups. All had been made welcome, and some, according to Peter had been turned away after they had made it clear that Redding's laws were not agreeable to them. The fortress crew had split up generally helping out where they could. Under the supervision of several of the more experienced instructors, Natalie was holding class for the three children that had just turned seven years old. She wore the pistol in a thigh holster and when she had their attention, she faced the target and executed a blinding fast draw and fired. The entire clip tore a large ragged hole in the center of the paper target some twenty feet down range. She smiled and ejected the spent clip and slapped home a fresh one, "Beretta 21 Bobcat, blowback semi-automatic pistol with a double action trigger and seven round magazine chambered for .22 caliber," she gestured to the collection of gun belts hanging on the wall. "Each of you gets one gun, three clips and you will learn how to shoot. But first," she smiled evilly, "How many of you know how to clean and maintain one of these?" That question brought a round of shrugs and then groans, "Exactly. First you learn how to clean one."
Robert and Nastia were both working closely with the rest of Redding's mechanics to straighten out the mess of crisscrossed wires that made up the electrical wiring of the fortress from the solar panels to the batteries mounted under the floor to the various electrical systems. Robert stuck his head out from the fortress, "Hydro-spanner!"
Nastia leaned over the edge of the roof, "What?" her red hair caught the sunlight as she wiped her hands on a rag, "What the hell is a hydrospanner?"
The two were only a few inches apart from one another, "I just made it up," he joked, "I need the engineering screwdriver to test a connection."
She pulled herself up top, rummaging in the toolbox for a moment as she grasped the handle of the screwdriver before leaning back over the edge, waving it, "I got it!"
His hand reached out, flailing blindly in search for the screwdriver until his hand made contact with hers. He didn't pull back immediately as she blinked in surprise. She leaned back over the edge until she was half in and half out, as her eyes met his. He let go almost as if he'd been burned in those few seconds and snatched the screwdriver with a mumbled, "thanks." Nastia chuckled as she pulled herself back on to the roof to continue hardwire the solar panels in to place.
Cameron was nowhere to be found, but then again, neither was Jaira as they just walked, wandering through the more deserted sections of Redding. They had wound up along the boundary of the community that bordered on deep ravine that encircled them from the south east to the western side of the community. Apart from the few sentries in the guard towers, they were alone and Cameron wasn't talking, just listening as Jaira talked. They had spent much of the past few days alone, keeping to themselves but those who had known Cameron the longest could see the change in him, as he had thawed out, actually revealing the presence of a sense of humor, and the couple had joined several of the community's hunting expeditions.
Zombies, for some unknown reason never went after animals and as a result the population of smaller mammals such as rabbits and squirrels had exploded. But there were few complaints as the creatures provided both fresh meat and suitable moving target practice. Peter had figured that it would be a few more years before larger animals such as deer would get out of control.
Jaira and Cameron were part of a hunting party, and were crouched twenty feet from the closest person. They had been tracking the small herd of deer for the better part of half an hour but had yet to actually spot any of the herd. They had taken cover when voices reached them from a clearing not more than ten meters ahead.
The hunters were some of the most skilled shooters at Redding's disposal, most capable of plucking the eye out of a zombie's head at over four hundred meters with their bolt action hunting rifles, and for the moment, the group of ten had spread out amongst the tree line that skirted the edge of the encampment, composed of six people with four vehicles setup up in a semi circle to offer some protection. With the hunting party in possession of clear lines of sight, Cameron and Jaira had sat back and watched as the leader of the party stepped from the brush and introduced him. While too far away to hear more than the occasional word brought to them by the wind, a few things were immediately clear: This ragged group were looking for a place to call home.
The small group was granted access to Redding, their vehicles and persons all checked as was the norm when he was patted down. Peter was waiting for them and he nodded in Cameron's direction, "I'm going to give them the big speech. Care to join us?" asked Peter. Cameron looked across at Jaira, who gave him a soft smile before he pulled her in to a brief kiss.
All Peter could do was shake his head.... he had no idea what had happened to Cameron, or between Cameron and Jaira that night, but Cameron was happier, more normal person for it, "Get a room or follow me. You can't do both." He teased playfully.
Jaira blushed as they broke it up and she turned mumbling something about a shower and him not taking too long. He playfully slapped her on behind and all she could do was glare at him for an instant as she laughed. Cameron had to hurry to catch up to Peter, and give him the news, "We're going to be hitting the road in two days," he said.
Peter nodded, "I figured it if wasn't tomorrow, it would be by the end of the week," Peter slapped him on the back, "I guess that gives us a chance to throw you a farewell party."
Cameron laughed, "So long as there is welcome back party."
The two men walked over to the single building with the vehicles of the new arrivals parked alongside it, where Peter sized up the vehicles and reminded Cameron of the standing policy when it came to new arrivals in Redding, "If you work and contribute, you will have a place to call home. If you don't, you go." It was a far cry over what other communities existed out there. While mostly rumor, there were confirmed cases of communities that exposed hatreds ranging from racism to supposedly one community in Carson City that was a fascist state with all of the evils that such a moniker implied.
Peter lead the way to a room, outside which a dozen armed members of the community were clearly waiting for something. Amongst those waiting were a couple of teenagers, armed with shotguns, handguns riding on their hip. Most of the new arrivals were shocked to see children, albeit teenagers armed but it was a fact of life. The room they entered was, to Cameron's eye, dedicated to the specific purpose of "the big speech." The walls were washed white, with nothing but four rows of chairs occupying most of the space. They split up, Cameron heading to the back of the room as Peter began the speech, not bothering with introductions.
"Welcome to Redding. There are a few rules that come with living in this community, the first few are the most important as they apply to you as of this moment: Rule number one: If you stay, then you have to work and contribute. Rule number two: If you don't know how to shoot, you will learn how. If you can shoot, we'll see if we need to make you a better shot than you are now." He held everyone's attention as he panned his eyes across the room, "Rule number three: A full physical examination to make sure that you're in good health." Peter paused as he handed out round a stack of clipboards and pens, "These are questionnaires that I'd like you to fill out. It's just so that we can figure out where you'd do the most good."
A man, middle aged, wearing jeans and red checked shirt raised his hand, and unnoticed by anyone else, Cameron hand slid down to his thigh holster where he undid the catch, his paranoid nature getting the better of him. The man stood and wiped his palms on his hands, "Afraid that I can't read or write,"
Peter didn't make an issue out of it, as it had happened several times in Redding's past, "Alright. What you name?"
"William but everyone just calls me Will."
"Nice to meet you," he shook the man's hand and Peter assessed the handshake as being strong and firm meaning, "So tell me, what kind of skills do you have?"
"I never went to school but my dad did show me how to use tools ... general construction and some maintenance type work, mostly plumbing though. I have some experience with livestock... cows, chickens, goats that kind of thing and I even know a thing or two about horses and animal doctoring."
"General construction type work we don't have much use for at the moment, but what you know about animals will definitely be useful – we've got plans to try and bring in animals in the next couple of months thought. I suppose you know how to shoot?"
Will smiled, as he realized that he was welcome in Redding, "I've been hunting with a shotgun since I was about fourteen...broke my nose the first time I used the one too," he said, with a hint of a nervous smile.
Peter laughed, "Excellent! I've got a pretty good idea about where to place you. You'll still have to go through firearms training with everyone else," Peter called one of those waiting outside, "Take Will here to the vehicles so that he can get his stuff and then on to the hospital," Peter turned, "Sorry Will but that's how we do things."
Will just shook his head and smiled, not too concerned so long as he was accepted and had a place to call home. The others were in the middle of their questionnaires when the well dressed man in half a suit stood, "You would allow such an uneducated person to stay and participate in your community?" Cameron realized that his instincts had been wrong about Will, but were right on the money when he'd realized that there was a trouble maker in this bunch. He was educated, intelligent, the kind that would have been called a "nerd" in high school. He may have been unclear as to the alternatives, but it seemed the gentleman had the overwhelming need to speak up and alienate himself.
"Who, are you?" asked a nonchalant Peter.
"Dr. Thomas Chase Sebastian House PhD. I have traveled with my five companions, none of whom are qualified to deal with this situation, and neither are any of you. As such, I refuse to be a party to your ignorance and stupidity and demand that you put me in touch with the closest government or military official sir!" Thomas clearly had a pole up shoved so far up his ass that it should have caused some degree of paralysis.
"There is no government official left alive to be contacted, and the military has shattered and no longer exists as a unified whole." Peter's tone had gone dangerously quiet, "I suggest that you complete the questionnaire, and we find a place where you can fit in, here in Redding." Peter was calm, but Cameron had seen the flash of anger that Thomas had either ignored or had not seen. Thomas's refusal was calmly accepted as Peter snapped his fingers, bringing two armed men in to the room, "If you do not wish to be a party of us, then you are not welcome here," said Peter as two armed men appeared from outside the room, "You have worn out your welcome in Redding. These gentlemen will escort you to the front gate. Do not come back."
Two years in to the nightmare and some still refused to accept, refused to see and understand that survival not only meant adaptation but also working together. The other survivors dutifully filled out the questionnaire placed before them before being escorted to Redding's Hospital. Peter had made the same decision on several occasions and it brought him no guilt: It was necessary that unhealthy dissent was quashed before it could take root and fester like a plague filled pustule. He would not compromise when it came to Redding's safety and security.
"Party starts at about eight," said Peter. Cameron promised that he and the rest would be present and on their best behavior as they parted to go their separate ways. Cameron retreated to the warehouse that housed whatever additional goods and items they had salvaged but could not use or need in the immediate future.
Since the end, the building's interior layout had been altered, reinforced to keep the undead out with flapped firing slots cut in to the walls every half dozen meters or so. A close inspection of every standing structure in Redding would have revealed the same reinforcements and modifications, each building a miniature stronghold in the event the walls were breached. Cameron rummaged amongst the boxes until he found the ones he was searching for before calling his team together via the radios that never left their persons. They came together in the warehouse, wondering what the emergency was when Cameron pointed to a large box, "Choose something nice."
The party was a success in more ways than one, but it was in full swing when the crew arrived, slightly late but just late enough to be fashionably late. It turned out that the five of them were quite a sight, especially the ladies, voted unanimously by the men, including the married ones as the belles of the ball. The two men were dressed in near identical but well fitting suits with Cameron was obviously escorting Jaira, and as far as he was concerned, no other woman in the room was more beautiful in the midnight black dress that sported a deep plunging V neck and back with shirred shoulders.
Where Cameron was preoccupied with Jaira, Robert was finding it very difficult to keep his eyes of his date. Anastasia had found a deep burgundy red halter dress with an equally plunging neckline and thigh length splits that jut oozed with sex appeal. She smiled and Robert blinked, as he realized that he was staring in to the chasm of her cleavage and that she knew full well that he was staring in to the chasm. She laughed and twirled in front of him before allowing him to take her arm, "Maybe later," she teased and laughed again as he blushed.
Natalie arrived solo but it was clear from that Peter would ensure that she had an excellent evening as he practically swept her off her feet. Her dress was a ravishing dramatic V-neck halter that gathered midriff with a bias-cut hemline that revealed the jaw dropping physique normally hidden beneath combat fatigues and body armor, "Sure it's a little bit... revealing but how often does any girl get to dress like this?" she said when Jaira had commented on her choice.
They hit the dance floor early, and often throughout the night, the music loud and boisterous a mix of styles and genres catering to everyone's taste. As the night wore on, the ladies shed their high heeled shoes as they swayed to the rhythm. Cameron saw his crew relaxed and having fun as they laughed, joked and danced the night away but he was amongst the first to leave, not needing much persuasion when Jaira had made it clear she wanted a more private party.
The door slammed behind them as he pulled her close and kissed her hungrily. She returned the kiss with as much hunger and passion. He reached behind for the zip to undo the dress when she slapped his hands away, and repeated it every time he reached to undress her. Her dress, the smooth softness of her skin and just, her had him completely fired up. She pushed him back on to the bed as she slowly, began to sway, dancing to that music that women have danced to since the dawn of time. The dress fell to the floor, leaving her standing there in a lingerie ensemble that made his heart race. The night wore on, turning to early morning and Jaira proved again and again that Cameron's heart could take a lot, using her hands, mouth, and body to arouse and delight until they found release together.
The next day dawned bright and he slipped out of bed, and found his clothes among the heap on the floor, Jaira rolled over with a muttering that sounded suspiciously like "nimble-wimble," and went back to sleep. Cameron was in the midst of breakfast, when Peter sat down opposite him, "Hell of a dance last night," said Peter, "But then again, that was one hell of a dress."
Cameron sipped his coffee, "Whose?" he deadpanned.
"You would say Jairas'.... I would say Natalie's'" Both of them shared a chuckle as their conversation steered towards the more serious, detailing their departure plans for the early afternoon and he hesitated for a moment, taking a sip of coffee, "Listen, we've left a fair amount of stuff in the warehouse you assigned us. If you need to use anything, use it and we'll worry about repayment later."
"That is a very generous offer... almost too generous," said a surprised Peter, "Why?"
"I'm not going to bullshit you. Redding is the first community we've come across since ours in Portland fell," Peter nodded. Nastia had told him the entire sordid tale, "From what I've seen, Redding is the best hope for at least, Northern California, and the world would be a worse place without it."
A few hours on, and the Fortress was waiting by the gate, ready as they took turns, saying farewells. Cameron clasped Peter's hand, "Be safe out there, all of you."
"We've got your radio frequency and we'll keep in touch," said Cameron as he turned his attention to their driver, "Robert move us out!" The gates swung back and the Fortress surged forward, Robert sounding a blast from the horn as they pulled through the gates and back in the wilds of America, "Head east: Destination Millville," ordered Cameron.
A few hours out of Redding, Robert caught a glance in the rear view mirror of a single motorbike coming up fast behind them. Robert called Cameron up who took one look at the vehicle, "Contact!" A string of bullets whipped past the Fortress and Robert reacted smoothly, slamming the level that dropped the steel plate shutters over the exposed glass, leaving only a narrow two by four inch view slit. Robert didn't take his eyes off the road, "How the hell did you know?"
"What? You didn't recognize the damned emblem on his helmet and the motorbike? It's the same fuckers that hit us in Portland, and at Parks base!"
Robert didn't reply as he spun the wheel over, causing the Fortress to sway, and like a giant hammer it struck their attacker off his two wheeled machine and in to the asphalt before Robert brought them to a halt. A string of gunfire erupted from their right and Natalie responded with the grenade launcher, sending high explosive, fragmentation and incendiary rounds directly in to the heart of the ambush line and as the right side guns sang a chorus of death. The ambush was over as quickly as it had started, and they left the scene without looking back. Driving past the wreckage of the pair of light vehicles, Robert saw for the first time the emblem that Cameron had referred to: A single white hand with a red star located in the palm, "Least now I know who to shoot," he muttered darkly. Their direction of travel had no major highways and many of the roads they used would have been easy enough to navigate if it were not for several roadblocks and desecrated checkpoints that hampered their progress. It was the following day when they came across a sight that none of them had ever seen on the outskirts of Palo Cedro. The deep booming signified shotguns inter spaced with the crack of handgun fire as a group of survivors fought off the dead that had them outnumbered almost three to one. It looked like they had stopped to raid a small store for supplies and had been caught flatfooted and cut off from their vehicles.
Robert drove right between the trapped survivors and the dead, and the survivors stopped and stared as nearly fifty feet of armor and firepower pulled alongside them. The guns opened up, and those outside dropped to the ground as the Fortress annihilated the undead in a single concentrated volley of fire. Cameron yanked open the side door and leapt down to meet the survivors, "Hello!" it was a good bet that if you were talking, you weren't one of the undead. His fear for his safety was minimal as he still had the guns of the Fortress trained.
"Who are you and what do you want from us?" The voice came from the group that had taken cover behind whatever they could find it and had their motley assortment of firearms trained as well.
"Travelers and traders who move between communities. We've just come from Redding." Cameron figured that if this group had been on the radio, then they may have heard of Redding.
A middle-aged man stood up from behind the barrels he'd been using for cover, "Heard of Redding. Never been there," he eyed the fortress and then Cameron suspiciously, "You could be bandits, so how do I know I can trust you?"
Cameron actually chuckled, "Peter's still in charge at Redding," he said, letting the assault rifle stay slung across his back, "And If I was a bandit, don't you think you'd be dead by now?"
The man lowered his rifle, "Good point." With things fairly smoothed out, the man introduced himself as Roy and then the rest of his group, all of whom were family, immediate and extended. Cameron took a moment to relay a few orders to his comrades. Jaira came out bearing food and water as Cameron studied the group while they devoured the food like they had not eaten in days. Roy explained that they were survivors, what was left of their home in Millville, "If you'll want more details, you're going to have to talk to James, our leader." Roy was guarded and understandably so.
Cameron was in agreement with that idea and they followed them to the far edge of town where they pulled in to a parking lot of what was once a large store of some kind, perhaps a K-Mart. In the middle of the empty parking lot, six vehicles were parked together to create a solid defense and firing line that covered the entry and exits of the parking lot. They pulled to a stop some distance from the rest of the refugee convoy and came to a stop. Cameron took only his body armor and the quartet of Beretta pistols, preferring to let the heavy artillery cover him, as well as Natalie with her .50 Caliber Barrett AMS rifle.
Roy, the old man who was in charge of the group they had rescued made the introductions between James and Cameron, and it became clear that James was not about to trust Cameron or his intentions just out of hand. But the feeling was mutual as Cameron studied the way the women and children were treated, noting that they were all dressed in comfortable and practical street clothes with the children appearing to be well fed, even as they worked together on the chores. Jaira provided a stream of commentary, as well as a mock scolding to Cameron through his earpiece when he seemed to be checking out the local ladies.
As their host sat down by a fire they had built, James offered a cup of coffee to his guest who took a tentative sip. It was hot, black and incredibly potent. Cameron nodded, "That's good coffee," that brought laughter from James and an equally old woman who turned out to be James's wife as she handed a second cup to her husband. It took almost thirty minutes of unrelated small talk before James decided he could trust Cameron with the truth.
"Those of us that survived the beginning, rallied together in the only solid building in our small town: The new high school. It was new, with heavy walls and fences, meaning that it was better than almost any other building available," he paused to take a sip of his coffee, "Everything was going well as we killed the undead as they came at us and we had survivors trickling in for the first couple of weeks, singles, pairs and sometimes whole families. And then we did what we had to do ... start a garden to grow food, got the plumbing in the school working, and raided whatever stores we could for supplies and things. Then about a week ago, a group of men on motorbikes came up to our gates and demanded a "tithe" for "protection" against the dead."
He shook his head, "We told them to bugger off. Couple of days later, they attacked and blew our walls apart with explosives. We couldn't match them in firepower so they overran us quickly." he spat in to the small cooking fire in disgust, "They swarmed in to the school, started killing every man and child they encountered, but taking the woman prisoner." he stopped for a second, but the pain and hatred was strong enough for Cameron to almost taste it, "Maybe they made too much noise, or it was the smell of fresh blood, but the dead showed up and started ripping them apart. About a third of us made it out. The rest...." they were either dead, prisoners or worse.
James drained the last of his coffee, "We sent scouts back the next day and found that they'd missed a few of our people who'd barricaded themselves in classrooms to escape both the bandits and the dead. We figure that the dead must have followed the bandits when they retreated so we doubled back and picked up most of our belongings, and harvested whatever crops we could… most of the harvest is useless though… it wasn't ripe and will never germinate." He coughed, "We buried our dead, and as a group voted and decided to head out, find somewhere else to live. I think you can figure out the rest."
Cameron nodded, "You're heading in the right direction. Redding is about two days out. Just follow the road and you'll come to it. We'll radio Redding so that they can expect your arrival. The roads are fairly clear – we broke an ambush about a day's travel back," he paused, as he made the call on his radio. The Fortress relocated, coming closer to the encampment before the others joined Cameron and introductions were made.
Robert and James sat down with a road map to detail the fastest route to Redding. Considering the situation, Cameron went looking for and found Roy sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck, counting ammunition and distributing them to his comrades. Fourteen people, eight guns between them and Cameron retreated to the Fortress, searching for and finding the medium sized suitcase they had packed.
He dropped it on to the tailgate next to Roy, "What's that?"
He didn't answer, just threw back the lid, the sight bringing "oohs" and "aahs" from the assembled crowd. The suitcase held ten M16A4 Assault Rifles and almost a thousand rounds of ammunition in thirty round clips, "If the raiders bother you again, this should help you give them a swift kick in the teeth." He said by way of explanation, waving off the thanks being heaped upon him, "Get to Redding and you can thank me then." Almost as an afterthought, Cameron asked some discreet questions about the raiders; only to have it confirmed that they bore the same white hand and red star emblem.
That night, there was a feast of sorts as the women of the convoy took a brace of rabbits from the Fortress's freezer and worked some magic with. Even as they ate and celebrated, the survivors kept sentries posted and Cameron felt confident that these people would survive. The night grew late as they finished their meal and Cameron's crew returned to the Fortress to keep watch. The morning dawned clear and bright and by mid morning, the survivors were packed and ready. Both groups waved good bye and Cameron wished them luck as they parted ways.