7 Chapter 17 Breeding Ground of Insanity
The Fortress passed through the ruined husks of several small towns, all clearly marked on old road maps, all equally desecrated by the army of walking dead. Millville's fall had forced the fortress to push on to the next known community: Shepperd's Ranch located just outside of a small town of Whitmore, previous population 500.
The Fortress had passed through the town itself unmolested and had pulled up where the community should have been only to find nothing but dense woods. Stranger still was that there were treads and tracks of both vehicles and people in the rough dirt road, but with the sun hanging low in the evening sky, they opted to call it a day and start the search the following day, camping in the shade of a stand of dense trees and underbrush that would shield them from all but the most determined dead.
The raid upon Parks Army base had provided more than just weapons and ammunition but also several dozen cases of claymore mines that they set up around the Fortress to cover the very big blind spot to the rear and flanks of their armored home. In contrast to traditional omni-directional mines, the claymore mine was first deployed in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, designed to send 700 steel ball bearings in to a sixty degree arc that extended for at least thirty meters. Such mines were an improvement over traditional omni-directional mines that were equally dangerous to both sides in a conflict. The mines that were strung up were set to detonate if something crossed the strung out trip wires.
When Cameron and Robert returned to the Fortress, Jaira was waiting for Cameron to slice the fresh meat and vegetables. He was interested in learning how to cook, but she was rather possessive of letting anyone get too comfortable in what she dubbed "her kitchen." That left Cameron the subject of extensive good natured ridicule as Jaira finished. The meal was a pleasant affair for everyone, with Natalie bragging about the bottle of whiskey that she'd won during a sharpshooting competition at Redding, tagging the bull's eye at 450 meters.
Cameron bragged that he could have made Natalie's winning shot and that single remark escalated as everyone attempted to outdo each other. When finally out done by Robert, Cameron threatened that outdoing the leader was grounds to be left behind in his boxer shirts. That silenced everyone for a moment until Jaira threw a balled up napkin at Cameron, claiming that she had the ultimate in bragging rights, "I domesticated Cameron Hunter!" Silenced reigned at the sheer audacity of her claim, until Cameron affectionately head slapped her. Laughter engulfed all of them.
After they had cleared away, as Cameron had decreed it during their early days on the road, everyone got an hour or two to do whatever they wanted, to help distress and just relax and hopefully prevent anyone from having a nervous meltdown. Cameron and Robert spent part of the time search for the next available petrol station and once down, Cameron crawled in to Jaira's bunk.
It was somewhere around three in the morning when the flickering of the lights mounted above their bunk woke the sleeping couple who tumbled out of bed. Robert was a little jumpy and it had proved its worth on several different occasions but as the crew moved silently and quickly to their guns, everything outside was quiet and peaceful, only a gentle breeze moving the leaves of the trees. One of the other things that they had managed to get installed in Redding was an internal radio system that they now put to use to avoid screaming to each other.
"Robert!" snapped Cameron.
"Something in the tree line to the North, a flashlight maybe," said Robert, "There! There! You see it?"
Cameron acknowledged. The blinking light was definitely manmade, and so were the corresponding flashes that came from the left and right of the original signal. Snapping on his night vision goggles, Cameron trained the machine gun to the signal on the right, "Right side is covered! Anybody have eyes on the left or center?"
Jaira confirmed that she'd gotten a fix on the center of the line, while Nastia had the left covered. Considering their situation carefully, Cameron decided that they would have no choice but to wait for whoever was out there to make the next move. Besides, their opponents thought that they had successfully caught the fortress and its occupants with their pants down.
They kept quiet, and stayed their positions for a half hour before they stood down, and those who weren't supposed to be on watch crawled back in to bed to get some sleep. But nobody took their boots off, and slept with their guns close at hand. Cameron fell asleep on top of his machine gun and he was the first to wake, stiff, sore and tense. Everyone had fallen asleep and woke up on edge. Breakfast was sugar loaded coffee or tea as they kept a careful watch. Whoever was watching them had a hunter's patience as the sun crested the tree line, accompanied by a trio with their weapons raised, armed with two questions, "Who are you, and what do you want?"
Considering that there were at least three small groups out there, Cameron felt less inclined to come out in to the open and opened a door to shout back an answer, "Traders from Redding! Our only interest is in making a fair trade between your community and us! Redding should have sent word!"
"Redding eh?" said the leader, "Well you folks are rather early. We thought that you all would stop in Millville before coming to us."
That raised Cameron's eyebrow, "Raiders destroyed Millville two days ago. Whoever made it out of there should be in Redding by now."
The man stepped forward, accompanied by two young women with bolt action hunting rifles, "If Redding says you're okay, I suppose we can trust you.... a bit. Name's Clem," he said.
Cameron stepped down from the Fortress, "Cameron," he replied as he carefully stepped over the pair of tripwires to shake the man's hand, who introduced his twin daughters, Jessica and Samantha. Closer inspection revealed that they the threesome also carried .308 revolvers in quick draw holsters "Back in Redding, they told us that there was a community out here? I assume that there are more than three of you?"
"We're a decent number and we do alright. Now what is it that you have to trade?" Clem was relaxed but his daughters had yet to lower their weapons, "We don't have all day to come to a deal."
Cameron met what he supposed passed for a hard stare, "Clearly your outpost is somewhere in or around these woods and if you don't want us to see it or set foot in it that's fine," Cameron cracked his neck and cross his arms behind his back, two lasers lanced through the early morning light, the beams terminating on the chest of each daughter, "My friends back there will kill you," Natalie already had Clem's head bracketed in the crosshairs, and the crackling in Cameron's ear said as much, "Let's just talk. Nobody wants blood spilt out here."
Doubts were written clearly in to the frown on Clem's face, "And consider the firepower I have, if I wanted to do you all harm, why would I have come out to meet you? I could have just sprayed the tree line and killed the three groups amongst the trees," he paused pointing out where the three groups were in hiding.
That particular line of argument tended to make sense to those who were focused upon not just surviving but also upon rebuilding. Clem nodded and weapons were lowered on both sides, the groups stepping out of concealment, "The forest is where we've made our home, and it is safe from those religious fanatics who never come in to the woods. We will be watching every move you make."
Cameron bit his tongue, urging himself to remain calm, "If those religious fanatics you refer to bear a white hand with a red star in the palm, you don't have to worry. We've killed too many of them to ever be mistaken for a friend of theirs." Clem hesitated and Cameron pushed onward, "Motorbikes mostly, some light automatic weapons right? We have food, medicine, and hygiene products." That was all it took for Clem to cave and lead them to road, hidden amongst the undergrowth that lead to their community.
The community in question was Whitmore and they had relocated to the woods, opting to escape and avoid combat with an enemy that they could never hope to defeat. They forty strong community had build their homes, shelters, practically everything amongst the leafy tree tops connected by rope bridges.
The fear was understandable but so was their anger. They had once numbered almost a hundred but had been reduced to their current state at the hand of their fellow man, the bandit cum raiders having nearly exterminated Whitmore through forced "tithes" for protection, "The raiders had been a plague in this part of California for as long as the dead have been around" said Clem, "We held off their first attacks but then they," Clem paused as he took a sip of water, "they just blew our walls apart. We managed to stop them a second time. That's when our leaders foolishly agreed to start paying them for "protection."
"So what happened?" asked Cameron.
"What you'd expect: The payments grew bigger, and when we couldn't meet them, our women and children were taken as payment. Anyone protests were silence with summary executions of our leaders, and of course, we struck back. Some got away." Clem did not have to fill in the gap, "When they came back, it was for genocide. Those of us that made it to trees were safe and we've been rebuilding for the past three months."
Cameron frowned and reached in to a rear pocket on his vest, his fingers twitched among the numerous packets until he found them, sliding sticks of instant coffee, sugar and cream across the table. Somebody began to boil water, "We managed to take a few prisoners and we got a little information from them," Clem's tone made it clear that things had gotten creative and persuasive. Cameron felt grateful that even as he was exposed, the Fortress was close at hand with her guns trained. "They call themselves the Blessed Redeemers, and they claim to represent the purity of faith and power of the holy Mother Church through God's prophet, Cardinal something or other."
"I take it you're a non believer?" asked Cameron.
Clem chuckled, "They seem to believe that everyone who doesn't believe is a heretic who should be put to the sword or purified through fire, unless you can meet "the tithe."" Said Clem as he took a sip of the coffee placed before him. The Whitmore community was not the most welcoming but they had managed to come to a suitable arrangement: The fortress would stay around to provide brute strength and help with some construction for a few days, support an extended raid in to the few stores for supplies and siphon gas.
The raids were met with no raiders and only a small number of undead. In return, the Fortress secured a port of call should they ever require one and secured a loose trading agreement before they parted ways with the community and returned to the road.
The pattern would repeat itself as the Fortress made a tour through Northern California, raiding whatever stores they came across to buildup and maintain extensive stockpiles of almost any perceivable good. What became clear very early on the Fortress's tour was that larger cities and towns were the future ghost filled multi story jungles, the places with high population densities where were ultimately very few would survive as the dead hordes had a near limitless number of bodies to fill out the hordes. But even in smaller towns such as Shingletown, roughly 120 people remained out of a population of 1900. Survival in this world meant a throwback to living in walled and gated communities of the Middle Ages for protection against the darker elements of humanity as well as the walking dead.
After almost eight weeks upon the open road, the Fortress had traveled far clearing roads and salvaging through the ruins of America. They had made contact with numerous communities, and while many were friendly enough. Almost two years on, most of the communities that were willing to trade with the Fortress, did so to their benefit, making at least acquaintances, if not friends in close to a half dozen communities that dotted ruined America. There were also communities that wanted nothing to do with them, and on more than one occasion they had been warned off with gunfire. They had taken the hint and simply moved on to avoid complications, marking their maps accordingly.
But the friendly communities they had encountered showed signs of warfare, and confirmation that it was the Blessed Redeemers. What each and every community cited was a need for heavier firepower to drive back these raids The problem was where to actually acquire the kind of firepower necessary, "The fact is that we don't have enough weapons to outfit every community. Realistically, we can supply one, rebuild up our stockpiles and then go to the next community," said Cameron.
"Yeah, and the guns these Blessed Redeemer people are a match to what we have," replied Natalie, "But we also have a hell of a lot more armor and can bring a hell of a lot more firepower."
"What we need is another military base, another huge cache of weapons like Parks Army Base," said Robert, "It might actually be easier to return to Redding, empty out everything we don't need, and then make a hard push north to recover everything we left behind."
"Especially since every gun store we've visited lately has been picked clean," agreed Jaira as she flipped through their inventory sheets, "We've got forty assault rifles with three clips for each, in packed crates, a mixed bag of shotguns, and mostly single action revolvers that we can trade," she said.
"Fine," said Cameron, "We'll have to also look in to the possibility of making a full out assault against these raiders, especially in Shasta Lake. If we can knock them out of there, maybe we can get the damn working again," Cameron said, "But before that, which way do we go from here?" The Fortress was currently parked on the outskirts of Lassen Volcanic National Park, and they were debating whether to turn back the way they had come, or to follow the road south.
"Head south," suggested Nastia, "and I think we should be trading with whichever community can give us the very best "deal" for whatever they want that we have."
Robert disagreed, "No. We have extensive supplies with us, and piles of stuff in Redding, and in our army base up North. I think that we should just trade whatever we can and if we have it, and can afford it; we give away whatever they need."
"We've risked our lives for every single thing in our inventory!" shot back Nastia, "I don't think give it away does us any favors."
"We can go about this one of two ways: We could be mercenaries for the rest of lives, but that's not the only road we have," countered Robert, "Each community that we can strengthen with supplies," he paused to marshal his arguments, "Consider that within our lifetimes, there could be reestablished communications and trade between different outposts – if enough of them are close enough and more importantly, survive. It's the first step to rebuilding, more than communities, but the country. We're the ones who stand at the crossroads between choosing to survive day by day or to start rebuilding the country," he paused, "Who knows, we could get statues built in our honor in a decade or two."
That idea got a few smiles and but even though Cameron had made it a vote, "We'll trade on fairly even terms with all of the communities, but if they have a particularly dire need for something and we have it a sufficient stockpile, we will spare some. Besides, having more communities that welcome us means more places for us to rest and repair off the road. Besides," he laughed, "I would like to see that statue made."
They paused briefly for lunch before turning south, cutting through Lassen National Park along around that would lead to the town of Red Bluff, then turn North and head back to Redding and then to their weapon stockpile farther North. Lasson National Park a place of beauty and natural wonder was ignored by the crew of the Fortress as they turned and followed the road and their maps, finally coming upon the city of Red Bluff, former population 30,000.
The roads were clogged with the ruins of both vehicles and from the looks of it the remains of hastily erected barricades that were surrounded by skeletons, brittle and yellow, some upon the road, but with many more draped over the barricades. Their progress was slow to nonexistent as Robert edged the Fortress up against their fourth line of wreckage in the past hour and slowly applied power to it. A half minute later and the wreck had been bulldozed on to the pavement. The barricades across the many streets told the story that was no doubt in many ways similar to that of Sparta: The undead had come, they had been killed, but using sheer numbers, they had overrun the barricades and the walls, slaughtering every human encountered. When Robert was able to barrel through most of the barricades using only speed, it was clear that whatever pockets of humanity had tried to setup home never had a chance. They pushed through the city until they rejoined the number 5 highway, turning north.
They were approaching the small town of Cottonwood, about sixteen miles south of Redding, when the first echoes of a full blown fire fight reached them, having been borne on the wind. Several long strings of firecracker like explosions ripped through the silence intermingled with the snap crack of hand guns and the dull throaty booms of shotguns. There were moments in Cameron's life where he had not considered the potential consequences of his actions. Robert pulled them off the highway, barreling through a thin stand of trees and across some long abandoned field until what was clearly as school came in to view, its buildings and walls on their left while the invading army of dead continued their advance across an open field towards the aforementioned walls.
"Positions!" ordered Cameron. Seventy or eighty zombies were simply no match for the destructive firepower that the Fortress could bring to bear, eradicating the dead with waves of machine guns fire and grenades. The small battle in a very long war over within minutes, and the Fortress sat inert, keeping a watch for the odd zombie that could have survived and also on the community as within, they made their usual preparations for contact. The survivors had made no attempts to communicate with them, but it was clear that the community had all off its guns pointed in their direction from the top of the wall, "How many times have we been in this particular predicament?" muttered Robert.
"I've got movement!" hissed Jaira as a drawbridge slammed down, revealing the only way in and out over the dry moat they had built. An armed party of six men advanced on to the field, five men surrounding a sixth who bore a white flag on one shoulder, and another black flag,
"Let's go say hello," said Cameron, "If they want to talk, the least we can do is be polite and civil."
On the ground, Cameron and Nastia stood, weapons drawn but lowered waiting for the party to close distance. Beneath his vest and t-shirt, Cameron wore the heaviest bullet proof vest they had, matched by Nastia, shotgun resting in her hands. When they were ten feet from one another, it was clear that both groups were eyeballing each other, until Nastia broke the silence, "hello!"
Their flag bearer stepped past the destroyed hulk of some vehicle, "I would ask who you are and what your business is in Cottonwood, so close to our Chapel-Barracks."
"Travelers and traders looking for likeminded communities," said Nastia, wondering silently what "Chapel-Barracks" are.
"For traders, you come as well armed," was the reply from the man clearly disinclined to speak to Nastia, directing his comments towards Cameron.
"Considering the dead would have eventually breached your walls, slaughtered all of you, men, women and children and then "recruited" all of you in to their army, you should be thanking us," snapped Nastia.
Several trigger fingers had tightened up at her words, and more than a few of the hunting rifles previously pointed at the ground rose. Cameron stepped in front of Nastia, partly to shield her, partly to placate their potential hosts, "There has been more than enough killing for one day."
"She," the word was spoken with an undertone of venom, "said you were traders, what do you have to trade?"
"Food, a few weapons, some medicines, and perhaps we could even search for certain items that you specifically require: Electronic components and the like," he hesitated, "and if you're not interested, then we'll leave."
From the direction of the wall behind them, another group approached, reinforcing the first group in the field, as the flag bearer considered the offer, "Let's see what you have to offer, but it would also depend upon what you want in return,"
The community's reinforcements arrived and Nastia frowned, all men, twenty dressed all in black. It was... strange. From her vantage point at one Fortress's guns, Jaira tried to get a better look at the flying banner to no avail. Men of the community walked through the battlefield putting a bullet in to every intact skull that they came across when a shout came from a sentry.
"The minions of darkness approach!" caused everyone to pick up the pace as the earpieces crackled in to both their ears. The pair retreated towards the Fortress, as the flag bearer called to them, "Our leader has extended an invitation, to share our sanctuary. Be quick and take advantage or we shall leave you to your fate at the hands of these beasts!"
Clambering aboard, Cameron made the snap decision, and Robert moved them in to the compound. The moat was impressive n both depth and width and Robert noted that there was no way they could cross such a gap. The drawbridge rose on its chains as they surveyed their surroundings. Inside the compound, the main buildings of the school were visible, and as Cameron cast his gaze about the first word that came to his mind was: Dirty. There were no women or children in sight. Jaira voiced the same consideration, and Robert admitted that something just didn't feel right about the whole community. It was Natalie who pointed out the problem, hanging from what was once the school's flag pole: The base coat was a midnight black but in the center of the black fabric, was a large stylized print of hand in white, with a red star in the center of its palm.
"Shit," muttered Robert as his eyes reached the flagpole.
"Shit," muttered Cameron, cursing his snap decision that had put them in this position.
"Shit," was all Jaira could say in agreement.
Somebody banged on the flank of the Fortress, causing them all to jump in fear, "I am the Chaplain, the face of purity and faith, assistant to the Cardinal of Cottonwood Chapter of the Brotherhood of the Blessed Redeemers; I understand that you have goods for trade?"
With little choice, Cameron pulled the door back, helping the man clamber aboard. In an attempt to divert his attention, Cameron asked about the undead that had been clamoring at their walls, "The dead came from the South, and we have engaged them in a running battle over the past week, thinning down their numbers until today they number less than one hundred as we had planned, and as was ordained by heaven, they have been purged from this world, their tormented souls put to rest. We thank you for your assistance in our most holy endeavor."
"Your brothers?" asked a wary Jaira.
For a moment, a flash of anger crossed his face before it returned to its normal, tranquil appearance, "You would do well to teach your woman that she has no place amongst a conversation involving men," it was a mild rebuke that got Cameron's hackles up, but the Chaplain continued, having pointedly ignored Jaira's question, "The place of a woman amongst the brothers is a place of silence. Here in Cottonwood, we number eighty brothers and perhaps a dozen or so women amongst our number."
Jaira opened her mouth to protest but was silenced as Cameron stepped on her foot. Still fuming she glared at him as he shook his head, before addressing their guest, "Perhaps we should reconvene in an hour or two, and so that we may prepare an adequate selection of what goods we have available for trade?"
"Of course," he smiled, "But we can conduct the business of men tomorrow. For tonight, we shall feast and celebrate your coming and your union with our devout and holy brotherhood."
"Perhaps, Chaplain, it would be best if we were to first resolve the matter of the enemy beyond your gates?" suggested Cameron, hoping for a quick exit "Opening your gate will let us bring to bear our weapons."
"The enemies of the righteous, shall be given their judgment in due time. For now, your immediate concerns are to rest, and relax, to enjoy dinner and a comfortable night's rest," while soft spoken, there was a core of steel to the chaplain's words, "Farewell, until later this evening," he said as he dismounted and retreated towards the building, a cordon of men forming a protective guard around him.
"Shit," said Natalie, "Any ideas how to get out of here?"